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Published: September 7th 2010
Sunrise over North Korea
(Photo taken in Dandong, China)
North Korea. A country that regularly appears on the news, but for all the wrong reasons. Nuclear ambitions, famines, natural disasters, lack of human rights, abduction of foreigners, sanctions from other countries... (and also the recent sinking of a South Korean vessel and an embarrassing loss to Portugal during the World Cup)... The list goes on and on.
The country, also known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea or DPRK (The word "Democratic" raises many people's eyebrows), is probably the most interesting travel destination that I have ever visited. What makes the country so interesting is the mystery and secrecy shrouding the country. With the government controlling every single piece of information into and out of the nation, it's kinda difficult to get an idea of what things are really like inside the "Hermit nation". Most of the information we know about North Korea is from external news sources, who always "villianize" the nation and paint a negative picture. The lack of information naturally causes the spread of rumours and curious questions... Will tourists get shot if they walk away from the group? Can citizens travel abroad? Can couples hold hands in public? Is there any form of entertainment?
Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge
(Photo taken in Dandong, China)
That's what I wanted to find out. (But it turned out that many of my questions remained unanswered during the trip. In fact, I had more questions than answers when I leave the country...) 100%!C(MISSING)ommunist
North Korea is also a country that symbolizes the ultimacy of communism. While other communist governments around the world have either collapsed or changed their policies to embrace capitalism, the communist government in North Korea is still standing strong and remains 100%!c(MISSING)ommunist. Indeed, a trip to North Korea is like a trip back to China or USSR in the 1970s - a place where the government controls everything, a place with no advertisments (everything is produced and sold by the state), a place with colossal monuments and bright red slogans at every corner, a place with very little vehicular traffic (cars only belong to government officials and selected "prestigious" citizens)... This place is definitely fascinating to visit, but definitely not very attractive to live in (unless you want everything in your life being "taken care of"). Inspiration and research
As what I have said in my previous post in TravelBlog (A secretive trip to a secretive country - Prelude),
I suddenly had the inspiration to visit North Korea when I was visiting the Shanghai World Expo in May. While in the North Korean Pavillion, I was mesmerized by the scenes of the Arirang Mass Games and I was very impressed with variety and designs of North Korean stamps at the philatelic counter. (Everything on the stamps looks so nice, from the natural scenery to the food, costume, arts, culture...) At the same time, there was a lot of publicity about the nation. 2 months before my trip to Shanghai Expo there was the news about the sinking of a South Korean vessel, which South Korea and USA blamed on North Korea. Then, 2 weeks before my trip to Shanghai Expo, the leader of North Korea paid a surprise visit to China. I was intrigued by the mixture of positive impressions (from the Shanghai Expo) and negative publicity about the "Hermit nation".
Back home (in Singapore), I began my "research" into North Korea, and found out that the Arirang Mass Games would be organized from August to October this year. According to several travel guides I read, the Arirang Mass Games is one of the most spectacular outdoor show
on earth and is strongly recommended. Feeling encouraged, I made up my mind to visit North Korea in August. However, when I saw the price of the tour packages, I felt a bit discouraged. A 4-5 day trip from Beijing would cost more than 1000 Euros! (Even Scandinavia is not that expensive...) The main reason of the high cost is that tourists to North Korea are not allowed to travel themselves. All tourists must be accompanied by 2 guides at all times during the trip, so this means tourists can only visit North Korea by joining a tour group. (Independent tours are available too but they are too expensive. Somemore, independent tourists will be accompanied by 2 guides at all times too...)
After researching and comparing the various tour agencies and tour packages available, I found out that tours (conducted in Mandarin) from Dandong, China were the cheapest. Since Dandong is on the China-North Korea border, starting and ending my tour in Dandong is definitely much cheaper than doing so in Beijing. Also, since China is so much closer to North Korea culturally and geographically than other Western nations, tours conducted in Mandarin are much cheaper than tours conducted
Sinuiju station waiting room
All public rooms in North Korea have portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il
in English. (I'm glad that I'm fluent in Mandarin... Haha.) I contacted one of the tour agencies in Dandong, and I was told that all I needed to do was to send my personal information and a scanned copy of my passport to the agency 10 days before the tour departure date, and the agency would settle everything for me. One day before the tour departure date I needed to go to the agency personally to pay the fees and submit my actual passport and 2 passport-photos. I planned to join the tour on 18 August, so I sent my details to the agency on 8 August and arrived at Dandong on 17 August to pay the fees and submit my passport. Secrecy
I named this post "A secretive trip to a secretive country" because I never told anyone about this trip to North Korea before I set off. Several colleagues knew I would be travelling overseas, but they didn't knew that I would be going to North Korea. When they asked me where I would be going, I told them I would be going to China. I shrouded my trip in secrecy because there was a lot
of negative publicity about North Korea at that time. (Well, there is a lot of negative publicity about North Korea ALL the time... What's new?) Honestly, I didn't want anyone to worry about me. I didn't want anyone to give me words of discouragement or give me warnings, and I hate to hear things like "Are you crazy?" or "Are you kidding me?" even before I set off. I shrouded my trip in so much secrecy that even my family members didn't know about this trip at all. (My father lives in Hong Kong and he often doesn't know what I'm doing. My mother was attending a Buddhist camp in UK at that time. My sister lives with me in Singapore, but at that time she only knew I would be travelling to China.) My plan was to let people know about this trip only after I returned home. The trip began...
After spending an interesting day in Dandong on 17 August (you can read my previous post "A secretive trip to a secretive country - Prelude"), I arrived at the tour agency on the morning of 18 August to deposit my mobile phone, as mobile phones are
forbidden in North Korea. The tour agent then led me to Dandong train station, where several tour groups to North Korea assembled. I was placed in a 16-people group. (I was the only "Non-chinese citizen" in the group. All other 15 members were Chinese citizens.) After taking attendance, we went through immigration and onto the train platform, where the train to North Korea was waiting for us. (From here onwards, the term "we" refers to me and my fellow tour group members.) We put our luggages on the train and then came out again to take photos. Several tourists went to one corner of the platform to take a puff. At 10am, the train whistle blowed and our train finally departed Dandong and made its way across the Yalu River (via the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge) to Sinuiju, a North Korean town facing Dandong on the other side of the river. The train ride from Dandong to Sinuiju felt like a ride on a time machine to 30 years ago. A scenery of skyscrapers, flashy advertisment billboards and roads filled with heavy traffic gave way to a scenery of low-rise Soviet-style buildings, huge communist posters and wide boulevards scattered with peasants,
Sneak photo of Sinuiju (1)
A huge square in front of the train station
factory workers, soldiers, and school-children dressed in the standard North Korean school uniform - white shirt, blue pants/skirt, and a big red scarf.
The train stopped at Sinuiju train station, where custom officers boarded the train to inspect our passports and check our luggages. After the checks, we alighted and crossed the platforms via a dark unlit tunnel to the main station building. While entering the station building, we saw a group of youths (probably railway workers) playing a game of volleyball. Several tourists tried to snap photos of the volleyball game but were quickly apprehended by police officers who demanded the photos to be deleted... (What a speedy introduction to the nation's strict photography rules...) Inside the station building, we were told that our train from Sinuiju to Pyongyang would depart at 1pm. While waiting, we were served lunch and we were allowed to visit the souvenir shop in the station lobby and the duty-free shop (selling mostly Chinese products) in the waiting room. Beside the huge portraits of Kim Il-Sung (the first leader of DPRK) and Kim Jong-Il (the current leader of DPRK), there's nothing much to see in the station. All windows were matted and all
Sneak photo of Sinuiju (2)
Logo of the Workers' Party of Korea, the ruling party of DPRK
doors were guarded by railway officers, so we couldn't see the outside. Some of us sneaked to a small open window along the stairs, where we could see the platforms of Sinuiju train station and several low-rise industrial buildings in the foreground and Dandong's high-rise buildings in the background.
After a simple lunch, we waited in the station building until 1pm, before we dragged our luggage to our Sinuiju-Pyongyang train. We walked along the entire length of the platform to the last 2 cars of the train, which were reserved for foreigners. While walking along the platform, I felt like I was in a Chinese railway station in the 1970s/1980s. We were greeted by hundreds of curious stares from the row of open windows on the dark olive-green carriages; Railway officers dressed in starched uniforms directed passengers on the platform; Peasants boarded the train with huge sacks on their shoulders; Young soldiers queued up in one straight row to board the train; a huge crowd of passengers entered the station through 4 narrow gates and were inspected by a team of railway officers.... It was a fascinating scene, but unfortunately I couldn't take any photos. (We were in a
Sneak photo of Sinuiju (3)
You can see Dandong's high-rise buildings and TV tower in the background
hurry to walk to the end of the train. Even if I had the time, I wouldn't have the permission to take photos anyway.)
The train left Sinuiju around 1:30pm and made its way to Pyongyang. It was a long, slow and hot journey. The weather was a sunny 33ºC, and most of the time the sun was shining on my side of the train. The train windows had no curtains, so passengers on my side of the train had to endure hours of "suntan". There was a ceiling fan in the train but it only worked periodically. When the ceiling fan stopped, I had to fan myself with a piece of paper. We spent the 5-hour journey chatting to one another, sleeping, and staring out of the window at a scenery of farmland, farmland and more farmland... (Only a small amount of land in North Korea is arable due to the country's mountainous terrain. Most of North Korea's agriculture is concentrated on the flatlands on the west coast, where the Sinuiju-Pyongyang railway line travels through. Hence we kept seeing farmlands.) Through conversations with my fellow tour group members, I discovered that we had an interesting mix of people
from various backgrounds. Our tour group included a Chinese veteran who fought in the Korean War (and his wife), a PhD student from Tsinghua University (and his mother), a Xi'an-based tour guide and her funky son who took part in break-dancing competitions, 3 businessmen (old friends) from different corners of China, etc etc. Of course, there was me, a crazy Singaporean who travelled all the way from Singapore to Dandong alone just to join this North Korean tour. Arrival at Pyongyang! (And an interesting fact about North Korean vehicles)
At some point during the train ride, I was so bored that I took out my iPod and listened to K-pop songs. (I found it intriguing to listen to songs by Super Junior, SNSD, Shinee, 4-minute, 2PM, f(x), etc in North Korea... LOL) After a long butt-numbing journey, we finally arrived at Pyongyang at 7pm. We were greeted by 2 North Korean guides - a lady probably in her late 30s or early 40s, and a young lady in her early 20s. (For security reasons I will not say the name of the 2 guides. I will call them Guide 1 and Guide 2.) We were brought to our
tour-bus, a 2nd-hand Japanese bus with right-hand drive. Although North Korea follows right-hand traffic (as in China or USA), many vehicles are from Japan, which follows left-hand traffic. According to our guides, which side the driver sits on doesn't really matter, because the import of vehicles is limited (thanks to trade sanctions) and any vehicles that work (be it left-hand drive or right-hand drive) are valuable. Many 2nd-hand vehicles in North Korea are from Japan because no other countries want Japan's old vehicles. Most countries in Asia-Pacific follow right-hand traffic. And countries that follow left-hand traffic (e.g. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, etc) would rather import new vehicles than to buy old vehicles from Japan. Hence, when Japan wants to export its old vehicles, North Korea seems to be the most convenient "dumping ground". On our way to our hotel, we saw a number of trams, trolley-buses and diesel buses. The trams and trolley-buses looked very "1980s-Eastern European". (Later I found out that most trams were imported from the Czech Republic and some trolley-buses were imported from Hungary. The rest of the fleet was produced domestically when the import of vehicles was blocked by trade sanctions.) The diesel buses, mostly imported
from China, looked slightly newer... and wait... I saw a double-decker bus!!!! (The double-decker bus looked Chinese-made too.) "Deluxe" hotel, North Korean publications, North Korean TV
By the time we arrived at our hotel - Yanggakdo International Hotel, it was already dark. The hotel is situated on an island in the middle of the Taedong River, and is one of the tallest buildings in Pyongyang and North Korea. It is also one of the 3 "deluxe hotels" in North Korea. (Hotels in North Korea are classified as Deluxe, 1st class, 2nd class and 3rd class. There are only 3 deluxe hotels in North Korea, and I was living in one of them. Haha.) We had a sumptuous Sino/Korean style dinner in the hotel's banquet rooms. After dinner, our guides handed out our room keys. There were 16 of us in the tour group, so naturally we were given 8 twin rooms. Since I joined the tour group alone and there was a group of 3 friends (3 men in their 40s/50s) in the tour group, I was expecting to share the room with one of the 3 men. Surprisingly, one of them said that he had a history
Our dinner in Pyongyang
Very sumptuous, in North Korean standard...
of loud snoring and he didn't want to disturb the other roommate (aka me) at night, so he decided to pay an additional surcharge to get a room for himself. In the end, I managed to get a room all to myself with no additional charges!
Our rooms were all on the 25th floor. I entered the room excitedly and opened the window, expecting a wonderful view of Pyongyang. Instead, I was greeted by darkness. (Not surprising, given North Korea's chronic shortage of fuel...) Out of the darkness, I could see a couple of high-rise apartment blocks across the river. Further afield, I could see the Juche Tower (probably the brightest-lit monument in the city). Realising that I couldn't see much, I closed the window and decided to take a walk downstairs around the hotel lobby. While strolling, I saw a bookshop selling numerous North Korean books and publications. I flipped through some of the publications and I quickly became engrossed... The printing technology, design and layout of these publications looked very "1980s". Content-wise, most publications generally reflected the positive things about North Korea (contrary to what the Western world said about the nation). The publications looked so interesting
that I bought a number of them. In addition, I also bought several maps, a cooking recipe book, a picture-book on Pyongyang's sport facilities, a book on Arirang Mass Games, and several children books. (Yes, DPRK publishes children books! But don't expect any revolutionary contents. DPRK's children books are all about traditional Korean fables...)
After returning to my hotel room, I switched on the TV. There were not many channels on the TV, but the selection was enough to entertain most guests (including BBC, China's CCTV, Taiwan's Phoenix Channel, Japan's NHK, etc). The most interesting channel was probably the local North Korean channel. When I switched to the local channel, it was showing a military drama. (Too bad I couldn't understand Korean...) Shortly after, the drama ended and was followed by a choir performance. Although I didn't understand the lyrics, from the tune and the singers' expression I could tell the song was a revolutionary one. After the song, the screen switched to a dance stage, and several male dancers dressed in military uniform performed ballet!!! (Ballet + Military + Communism = a very interesting and intriguing mix!) After the ballet, a female host dressed in a traditional Korean
View of Juche Tower from my hotel room
probably the brightest-lit monument in Pyongyang
dress came to the screen and began a long monotonous speech. At this time I decided to switch off the TV, take a shower and go to bed... Brief Pyongyang tour + a crazy collection of gifts in Mount Myohyang
On the next day (19 August), we woke up at 7am, went down for breakfast at 7:30am and depart at 8am. We were first brought to a fountain plaza between the Grand People Study House, Pyongyang Student Palace and Mansudae Assembly Hall, for some photo-taking. Then we were brought to Mansudae Hill, where Pyongyang's most famous monument - a 20m bronze statue of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung - is located. While on the hill we also saw the statue of Chollima (thousand-mile horse - a fabled winged horse that can travel 1000 Korean miles or 400km a day) and the Workers' Party monument, symbolized by a hand holding a hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush.
After the brief city-tour we had a 2-hour bus ride to Mount Myohyang - a beautiful region with soaring peaks and forested valleys 150km north of Pyongyang. The region is the home of the International Friendship Exhibition, a series of galleries
Night-view of Pyongyang
What do you expect? This is no Las Vegas...
dedicated to the world's gifts for the leaders of DPRK. The exhibition was divided into 2 buildings, one for the Great Leader Kim Il Sung (DPRK's first leader) and one for the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il (Kim Il Sung's son and DPRK's current leader). We first entered the Kim Il Sung building. Upon entering, we had to deposit our belongings including cameras (photography is forbidden inside) and cover our shoes with cloth socks to protect the floor. Then we were led through a number of galleries showcasing gifts to Kim Il Sung from various leaders, celebrities, companies, organisations and individuals around the world.
After seeing a dizzying collection of gifts in Kim Il Sung building, we were led to the 2nd building - Kim Jong Il building - and began another round of "Wow!" and "Gasp!", this time at the vast collection of gifts to Kim Jong Il. The quantity and quality of the gifts were astonishing. Precious metals, precious stones and precious wood are featured regularly among the list of gifts. 2D artworks (e.g. paintings, drawings, photographs, calligraphy, etc) are also very popular. Due to the enormous collection of gifts and limited time that we had, we
were only shown a selected number of galleries. I was expecting to see Mao's and Stalin's railway carriages (as described in my guide book), but my tour group didn't get the chance to see them. Nevertheless, the other galleries that we entered were equally fascinating. Memorable gifts include a limousine given to Kim Jong Il by China (during Kim's visit to China in May 2010), an equally impressive limousine from South Korea, television sets and a theatrical sound system from South Korea, a basketball from USA signed by Michael Jordan, a bear's head from former Romanian leader Nicolae Ceauşescu, etc etc. The gifts were arranged according to the country of origin, and China definitely heads the list of the number of gifts... (We were shown 4 galleries of Chinese gifts in the Kim Il Sung building alone.) Among the galleries we visited were 2 galleries of Japanese gifts, 2 galleries of South Korean gifts, a room of gifts from Central America, a gallery of gifts from several South American nations (mainly Brazil), and a gallery dedicated to Kim Jong Il's visit to China in May 2010. (We also visited a number of other galleries with a mixture of gifts from
various countries.) This exhibition reminded me of the Royal Regalia Museum in Brunei, where the world's gifts to the Brunei royal family are displayed. I was thinking to myself that perhaps Singapore should set up a similar exhibition to display the world's gifts to the leaders of Singapore! After visiting the galleries, we were brought to a viewing terrace on the top floor of the Kim Jong-Il building where we had a splendid view of the forested slopes of Mount Myohyang. We also took the opportunity to take photos with the photogenic guides from the International Friendship Exhibition. Pohyon Temple + A crash course in North Korea's religions
At noon, we made our way to another attraction of Mount Myohyang - the ancient Pohyon Temple (founded in 1042 AD during the Koryo dynasty). The Buddhist temple originally had 24 buildings and pagodas and was one of the major Buddhist centres in Korea. The temple complex suffered substantial damage during the Korean War and after the war several buildings were rebuilt to its former glory. On our way to the temple, our tour guide (Guide 1) gave a brief introduction of North Korea's religion. Traditionally, Shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism
Very tall building - in North Korean standard
There are 46 floors including the revolving restaurant
were the main religions of Korea. Christianity was introduced to Korea at the end of the 18th century and began to spread in the 19th century. However, religious freedom was suppressed during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century. During the Korean War, people began to lose faith in religions as places of worship (e.g. temples, churches) were not spared during the war. (Many people sought sanctuary in places of worship only to be killed later when their shelters were bombed.) People realized that religions could not help them through the hardship of war, so after the war, when the communists came into power in North Korea, the communists quickly filled the spiritual vacuum by promoting the philosophy of Juche (a communist ideology derived by Kim Il Sung, which states that "man is the master of everything and decides everything"). Soon, the government suppressed all kinds of religion, arguing that religions were not productive at all in a communist country. Instead of worshipping, people should work harder in order for the society to prosper. The suppression of religion lasted until the 1990s, when the government slowly opened up under international pressure and allowed a
small number of religious groups to operate. Up to now, only a handful of religious groups were allowed, and all religious activities (organised by these handful of groups) were strictly monitored by the government. (In a communist country, EVERYTHING is monitored... What's new?)
After arriving at Pohyon Temple, we met our temple guide at the entrance and we were brought through the elaborate Haethal Gate (liberation gate), past a 13-storey stone pagoda, into the magnificient Taeung Hall and the shrine of the Goddess of Mercy, and past several beautifully restored buildings. The tour ended at a newly built archive hall and the next-door souvenir shop. A booth in front of the souvenir shop was selling bottles of curious-looking North Korean soft drinks. Since I was thirsty, I bought a bottle of green soft drink (which, according to my guide, was made from green bean). The drink tasted like a mixture of carbonated water, green bean soup and Moroccan mint tea... It was an acquired taste, but after a few sip, I felt that the taste was actually quite nice. (Maybe I was too thirsty at that time.) More sightseeing in Pyongyang + Astonishing student performances
simple lunch in Chongchon Hotel (near the Mount Myohyang region), we took a 2 hour bus ride back to Pyongyang where we were brought to 2 more important landmarks - the Arch of Triumphe, which at 60m tall is taller than the one in Paris (50m tall), and the Sino-Korean Friendship Tower, which commemorates the fallen soldiers from the Chinese and North Korean army during the Korean War. (Many of my fellow tour group members bought flower-bouquets to pay respect to the fallen soldiers.)
In the late afternoon we went to the Mangyongdae Student Palace. (There are numerous "student palaces" in North Korea. A student palace is a place where students participate in extra-curriculum activities such as music, dance, sports, etc after school.) Upon entering the palace we were led through a series of cavernous lobbies and spacious corridors into a huge auditorium. Shortly after we were seated began the electrifying show by the students from Mangyongdae Student Palace. The show featured several traditional musical performances, several dance performances, an enthralling traditional drum performance, several singing performances (one of which were performed by a set of identical triplets!), an impressive acrobatic performance (which served as the grand finale), and
View of Pyongyang
with the unfinished pyramidal Ryugyong Hotel in the background
(surprise, surprise!) a jazz performance! (I didn't know North Koreans can play jazz!) The music performances were delivered with perfect rhythm and perfect pitch, while the dance and acrobatic performances were executed with smart precision and expert synchronisation. I couldn't help but wonder how much time these student spent everyday to achieve such a masterful state at such a young age. I also wondered whether the students mastered the skills by passion or by obligation... (I knew how it feels to learn something by obligation.) Equally impressive was the stage's unexpected "state of the art" technology, with movable side stages that can hold a choir and microphones that shoot up automatically from the stage floor! Anyway, after the show, a number of visitors went onto the stage to present bouquets and gifts to the young performers. Some of my fellow tour group members and I also brought along small gifts for the students. But the situation was a bit chaotic after the show as the students dispersed in different directions. In the end we just approached one of the school-girls and showered her with all our gifts. (Initially the girl looked stunned with the sudden shower of gifts. After she
Sunrise over Taedong River
with the Juche Tower on the right bank
recovered from the "shock", she kept thanking us non-stop.)
After a brief but chaotic session of gift-giving and photo-taking, we left Mangyongdae Student Palace and took a short bus ride to the nearby Mangyongdae Shrine - the birthplace and childhood home of DPRK's Great Leader Kim Il Sung. A handful of traditional thatched huts were preserved to show what the place looked like during Kim Il Sung's childhood. The shrine was formerly a farming village, so there were numerous traditional farming tools and cooking tools on display. The dining room, bedroom and ancestral hall of Kim Il Sung's family were also faithfully portrayed. After looking at the huts one couldn't stop thinking how much the landscape in Pyongyang has changed.
We had a delicious dinner of Korean stone-pot rice (a heated stone-bowl holding warm white rice topped with a mixture of seasoned vegetables, chili paste, fried egg and sliced beef, which would be stirred together thoroughly just before eating). After dinner, it was still early, so our tour guide (the young and pretty Guide 2) and a restaurant waitress sang several Korean songs to entertain us. Arirang Mass Game
After the sky turned dark, we made
View of Pyongyang
with the Grand Theatre in the foreground and Grand People's Study House in the background
our way to the May 1st Stadium to witness the main highlight of this North Korea trip and the greatest outdoor show on Earth - the Arirang Mass Games. I shall leave the details of the mass games for my next post "A secretive trip to a secretive country (Part 2)". I took so much photos and videos during the mass games that I think the mass games deserve a TravelBlog post all by itself...
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