The secretive, isolated country of North Korea has had a turbulent past, to say the least. Its highly protective Communist rule means that any non-natives wanting their own North Korea travel experience will only be allowed in under escort, and are carefully watched. Poverty, censorship, propaganda, starvation and a poor human rights record prevail. Any rare glimpses provide fascinating insights, and in recent times, North Korea has seen renewed nuclear tensions, and a possible new leadership. The country is in a state of constant flux, and its unwillingness to embrace outsiders just might be on the wane. Our writer, James, took a guided tour of this secretive country in September 2010, and here tells all about his North Korea travel experience…
The first thing that struck me about the Hotel in Wonsan was the emptiness of it. As we went from our room to breakfast, we walked along numerous corridors and through countless atria and landings, and not a soul was to be seen. And this was not a small hotel, it had scores of rooms, but I would guess that our party of 20 made up most, if not all, of the clientele that were staying that evening.
And what corridors and atriums they were, red and pinks and greens everywhere, and yet the emptiness rendered it slightly minimal in a way that was certainly not intended. The room was no less remarkable, with bright red bedspreads, fake purple flowers, discoloured bottled water with a broken seal, and sitting on the damp green balcony, like a metaphor waiting to happen, a bright red Chinese notebook, sodden and discarded. This was like no other hotel I’d ever stayed in, and I loved it.
Yes, it’s fair to say that travelling to North Korea is not to everyone’s taste. When it comes to choosing your next holiday destination, a trip there is probably not high on your list. However, a stay in the DPRK (The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is unlike anything else you are likely to do again, and unlike anywhere else you are likely to go. You won’t eat great food, or stay in a great hotel, or visit beautiful attractions. What you will do is get an amazing and unique insight into the most secluded country in the world.
Our seven day tour started in the Pyongyang. We stayed in the surprisingly well equipped (BBC World on the TV) and ornate Yanggakdo Hotel, which was our base for our time in the capital. From here we visited attractions including the Arc of Triumph, which is a slightly larger version of the Arc D’Triomphe in Paris; USS Pueblo, a captured US spy ship; and the War Museum, home to the weapons and intellect that defeated the evil imperialists (or so they say).
It is while staying here that we went to the spectacular Mass Games, one of the most amazing displays on Earth and reason enough to visit the country. This incredible show is difficult to put into words, but suffice to say, it’s like the greatest Olympic opening ceremony you haven’t yet seen. Thousands of dancers and performers put on a show of such awe-inspiring skill and scope that you’ll be left without any doubt as to why this is North Korea’s most popular tourist attraction.
From there we travelled to Wonsan, on the east coast, where we walked out into the sea on a pier dotted with fishermen, visited yet another mighty statue of Kim Il Sun, and witnessed a model farm. After that, we went on to Hamhung, a North Korean beach resort. Yes, that’s right, I said beach resort. While the facilities are not a par with those you would expect to find in the Mediterranean, the bungalows situated right on the sandy beach are surprisingly comfortable given the circumstances. Only forty foreign tourists had been given access to the resort before us, so with some investment (running water would be a start) it could be a beautiful location.
Some of the most enjoyable sights on the trip were the most unexpected. A ride on the stunning Pyongyang subway is a chance to see the DPRK at its most developed, with ceiling high murals and glass chandeliers in the stations. A visit to the Children’s Summer Camp in Wonsan provides you with the chance to mingle with the awe-struck kids, and the fertilser factory also in Wonsan is a photographers dream. Our final day took in a bowling alley, a karaoke session, a circus and a funfair, where you’ll get the chance to go on a genuine North Korean rollercoaster. This was a great North Korea travel experience and definitely something to impress your mates with.
On the trip itself, you’ll find that the other members of your group are a cosmopolitan and eclectic bunch, happy to discuss politics and the absurdity that you often encounter. Everyone has their own reasons for visiting, but the one thing that really unites them is that they are the last people who would normally sign up for a package holiday. Your fellow travellers are one of the best reasons for taking this trip.
The group is tightly chaperoned at all times by your Korean guides, and yet I never felt tense or under the spotlight. Of course you are acutely aware that you have to behave yourself, so you don’t take pictures when you are told not to, or wander off from the group, but that never felt like too much of a burden to me. In truth, there is so much to do and see that you don’t want to be the one who causes disruption and spoils it for everyone else. You’ll also become so fond of your local guides you won’t want to upset them.
While it is true to say that this holiday will give you an insight into the DPRK, you are taken to all of the places that show the best that it has to offer. After all, for them this is a propaganda mission. Inevitably though, they cannot hide everything. Long rides through the countryside will reveal the lack of modern farming equipment and people sitting in the middle of roads, pulling weeds from between the cracks. Small hotels will only have one channel, showing the grainy exploits of war heroes and the triumphs of the Dear Leader. The model farmers home will resemble our impression of the 1950s. And perhaps most tellingly, the faces of the Koreans outside Pyongyang exhibit a rugged and weather beaten expression that reminded me of Depression era photography.
Yes, once you hand in your mobile phone at the airport on entering the country, normal rules do not apply, and this is not a normal holiday. What it is though, is the most unique and remarkable vacation you’ll ever take.
James travelled in September 2010 with Koryo Tours, who he highly recommends. He took a seven day trip which cost £1,320 per person. Koryo has a range of tours all year, but if you want to see the Mass Games, you need to visit between August and October.
All words by James Taylor and photos by Bruna Gagliardi and James Taylor