Today I want to finally write about our experience and feelings about North Korea. This trip was so much different from all the others we went on. There were so many expectations – mainly because we were expecting everything :) We were excited and being completely honest also scared. Our trip was short but we’ve managed to see the capital city of the most controversial country in the world – Pyongyang. Check how it was! :)
Pyongyang – Day First
Very early in the morning we were supposed to meet with the travel agency (Young Pioneer Tours) at the train station in Dandong. At this point I have to mention that we had to pay for the organised trip because it’s not possible to visit North Korea on your own. This was the cheapest trip possible to North Korea. We were students at that time so our budget was very limited.
So we went to the meeting point and also had to wait for about half an hour for other participants of the trip (it was 16 of us altogether). We were still in China so some people were still attracted to our appearance. It got really funny when we were standing together (it was a tour in English, so none of us was from China) and one Chinese lady started counting us with her finger as if she was a tour guide. :) But it’s often normal for Chinese people to become interested when they see other nations.
THE BEGINNING OF OUR TRIP TO NORTH KOREA
As soon as everyone came, we had to go upstairs the train station, had some control and then went on the train to Sinuiju (the city that boarders with Dandong). The train was very crowded because there were many Chinese tourists. Luckily the majority of them was going only to Sinuiju as we found out later. Just after boarding the train a North Korean policeman came and collected our passports and entry card.
The ride over the bridge to Sinuiju was about five minutes but I remember it very well. It’s because I looked through the window of the train at the Broken Bridge and the tourists standing there and I thought that after passing the Broken Bridge we aren’t in China anymore. We’re in North Korea right now. This thought can be heavy. It’s because everything you see and hear about this country in TV or on the Internet. I was scared and the policeman collecting our passports looked scary too at that time.
Now as I’m thinking about it I can say it’s a little bit like with the monster from the closet in your childhood.The imagination is working and you are literally expecting everything to happen.
After 5 minutes of this exciting travel over the brigde we had to get out of the trains. And we had to show our mobile phones, cameras (if someone had) and newspapers and books. They didn’t check what we had in our mobile phones or cameras (certain kinds of cameras aren’t allowed, so if you are planning to go to North Korea check it first). They checked our newspapers page by page. Everything lasted about an hour and nothing actually happened (they were checking our passports and giving us visas to be able to go further). Oh, it was a place that we couldn’t take pictures but some Chinese tourists really coulnd’t resist and after being warned not to do it by the policmen for two or three times, they took their cameras and started deleting some pictures.
So after about an hour we got our passports and could get back to the train to continue our ride to Pyongyang.
ON THE TRAIN
We were very excited and wanted to see as much as possible and took a lot of photos. Paweł was standing with his mobile phone and just took photos of everything we could see from the window. The train was very slow, so the plus was that the photos aren’t blurred now.
We were also lucky because our Korean guides had to come to Sinuiju to pick us. I don’t know why. Normally they wait for the tourists in Pyongyang but this time they had to come. Everyone else from our group went to the dining car and we stayed with our korean guide. It was a girl our age and we talked with her a lot.
It was an amazing experience to talk with someone who lives there but we couldn’t talk about everything. And we didn’t even try. We knew she can’t tell us many things so what’s the point of asking. Instead we tried to find out as much as we could about everyday life. She was surprised for example that we were married being only 23 years old. She told us that it’s not common in North Korea to get married so young.
We took our time to ask her simple questions and later also to observe the views from our train. It was a long ride but we enjoyed it. Paweł was standing with his phone and filming the views while 3 policemen came. We thought that maybe they don’t like that we were recording everything. But they seemed nice and showed us with their hands that they have no problem with that and everything is ok. They smailed and asked our guide (he could speak some Korean) where we are from.
There were different views from the windows. We saw rice fields and some villages:
We were also passing by train stations. All train stations looked the same way and you can see them here:
They always have two pictures of the former leaders.
We also saw some people. They waved to us each time they spotted a train and they seemed friendly. But in most cases they also seemed poor:
Pyongyang – The End Of Day First
PYONGYANG GRAND THEATRE
When we got to the train station, the bus was already waiting for us. It was still bright and we went to see the Pyongyang Grand Theatre. We didn’t go inside but it looked North Korean form the outside. It’s because its typical paintings.
KIM IL SUNG SQUARE – THE CENTRE OF PYONGYANG
After that we took a walk to Kim Il Sung Square. It is one of the most famous places in Pyongyang. Many important events and celebrations take place here. There are government buildings around the square.
We saw a big group of students there and they were practicing for some event but we don’t remember which:
In the evening we went to a restaurant and have tried Korean Food. The restaurant looked good but the surrounding was a real surpise. After everything you see in media you definitely don’t expect to see nice and pretty expensive neighbourhoods in Pyongyang but this place was like this.
And pictures taken in a restaurant:
We had dinner and then it got late so we went to the hotel. Our room was nice but you must admit it looked a little bit like in the 90s:
And the views from the hotel were interesting. It was dark almost everywhere but the paintings of the leaders were illuminated. Even the light in our hotel room was a little bit dim.
Pyongyang – Day Second
We got up in the morning because we had to be ready as our trip started at 8:00 a.m. Before 8:00 we had breakfast and after that we got into the bus and started our big trip.
MANSUDAE FOUNTAIN PARK
Mansudae fountain park was our first stop that day. We knew that the day was special because you can only take a trip to North Korea during some events. And it was a Victory Day. We could even see it just by looking at people’s clothing. It was so different than on the previous day. People were very elegant and they had their national costumes.
However, when it comes to the park there weren’t many people there. It looked rather empty.
There are also portraits of leaders in Mansudae Fountain Park. We learned that they were hand painted. In North Korea there are many portraits like this to see. We must admit that when it comes to the painting skills they really make an impression. You see a lot of such portraits in this coutnry and they really make you know where you are.
BEFORE GETTING TO MANSUDAE GRAND MONUMENT
Our next spot was Mansudae Grand Monument. We were even discussing going there the night before because there are some rules if you want to go there. So we were asked if we are sure we want to and if we accept the rules. Otherwise we would have to stay at the bus and wait for others. First thing was that we were asked to look rather smart (men to wear long trousers, women not to wear too short dresses).
Second thing was that the Korean guides explained us that it’s a very important place for them and they would appreciate it if we could show respect to this place. At this point it might get controversial because they asked us to bow in front of the monuments of the leader. And everyone agreed. I think that most people try to find out information about the rules of countires they are about to visit before taking a trip. And it was like that in our case. Nobody was surprised. We knew they do it. I even remember my feelings while watching a documentary movie about North Korea and seeing it for the first time. I didn’t like it. But then I saw some laid-back French tourists bowing everywhere in North Korea and it didn’t look that serious. I thought that everything depends on attitude.
While being in North Korea the guides and people were very nice, friendly and helpful to us so we rather thought we are doing it to show respect to these people and their culture. And we really wanted to see this place.
MANSUDAE GRAND MONUMENT
Right before getting to Mansudae Grand Monument we had the opportunity to buy flowers to lay them there. And we bought some.
When we got to the Mansudae Grand Monument we noticed that there were already lots of Koreans there. They came in elegant clothes and laid flowers and bowed in front of the statues. Also we could hear the patriotic music. They wanted to make the atmosphere very elevated.
We had to stand in one line together and did the bow after our guide asked us to do so. After that we went closer to leave flowers we’d bought.
Next we could take photos but there are also some rules. We couldn’t do any positions – we had to stay straight to take a photo and we had to capture the whole statues. The Korean guide paid attention if everything is just as they asked us to. They didn’t check all photos we’ve taken on our cameras. They were just watching as we were taking pictures.
LIBRARY AND SHOP WITH SOUVENIRS
So this was our next stop. We went to the library and we could buy some books, posters and postcards there. We decided to buy postcards and a propaganda poster. There aren’t any problems with getting such posters in North Korea. Our cost €30. We also bought a newspaper. And there was something interesting about it. They wrapped our newspaper and asked us to unwrap it at home. There was a photo of the leader in the newspaper so we were asked not to fold it or for example put it on the floor. So basically to take a good care of it :)
We saw a lady on the street that was controlling the traffic – a famous traffic lady. We took a video just like others from our group. She was very close to us and after some time she showed us with her hand not to videotape her anymore. Maybe she didn’t feel comfortable with so many people with cameras?
But there are many ladies working like that in Pyongyang. One time when we were in our bus one lady even waved to us very subtly and smilied – we wish we had that on our camera. There were many people in North Korea waving to us and smiling, but we couldn’t shoot it. It’s hard because it was usually when we were in a train or a bus so we weren’t making a video. It’s a shame because you would see that the reactions when locals see strangers were very positive. I think this is something you won’t see in any documentary movie about North Korea.
PYONGYANG METRO STATION
Our next attration was metro station. There were paintings with the leaders in each metro station. We had a very small paper ticket and after a while we went to the metro. We were standing but one lady in her 30ies saw it and insisted that Agata would take her seat. She was very nice and smiling. The attitude of locals really helps feel more comfortable in this place. Another interesting fact about the metro. Can you guess what can you see in the metro? Yes, in each compartment there are two portraits of leaders.
ARCH OF TRIUMPH IN PYONGYANG
If you have been to Paris, you must have seen the Arch of Triumph. And in Pyongyang it’s also a must-see. This was our next spot. We didn’t spend much time there, but it was enough. Just to take photos and see the attraction. For us it was ok because we have been to Paris before and it looked the same. But the one in Pyongyang is taller! This one is about 10 metres taller and Koreans seem very proud about that :)
It’s a tower that represents a certain ideology – Juche ideology. First we were walking around the tower and saw it from the outside. Later we went inside and then at the top.
We must say that the view from the top was amazing! Pyongyang looks beautiful and very colorful. We had a new guide only for Juche Tower. She was dressed in her national costume and explained us the concept of Juche and told us some important facts about Juche Tower.
MONUMENT TO PARTY FOUNDING
This is the monument that reflects a socialistic ideas. It presents three hands holding hammer, sickle and brush. These three objects symbolise workers, farmers and intellectuals. We couldn’t go close to this monument. We could just stay near the place where we got off the bus and take pictures.
There were plans to go to the theme park. But our Korean guides told us we have to change plans. So we couldn’t go to the theme park and till now we don’t know why. They didn’t explain it to us. Instead they offered to take us to the circus. We had to pay €20 or €30 per person extra to be able to go the circus. But we and 2 other guys decided not to go. So our guides had to split (we had two guides).
Our male guide went to the circus and our female guide stayed with us because they couldn’t leave us on our own. The two guys just wanted to stay in the hotel and have some rest but we asked our guide if she can take us somewhere :) And she decided to have a walk with just the two of us. She bought ice creams for us and they were very tasty.
And we were talking and headed to the supermarket. It was a supermarket in a very small shopping mall. She showed us where to change the money (but later we had to change the rest of our money to € again because it’s illegal to take Korean currency out of the country).
Our guide took trolley for us and we asked her which candies and tea can she recommend us. She showed us some candies – they were some kind of chewy candies. But the tea was something. She told us it’s a very good tea but it was horrible. We took it back home and everyone who tried it just couldn’t drink it. Its taste was a little bit like the water after cooking the rice I think.
Paweł tried to take the trolley and help her with it but she didn’t agree and told us that men never push trolleys in North Korea :) We had fun and liked our time in the supermarket and then she told us we can take a taxi to come back to the hotel. We were glad because although we love walking we know that not many tourists have the opportunity to travel by taxi in North Korea.
Oh, and you won’t see any photos from the supermarket because we weren’t allowed to take any :(
KIM IL SUNG SQUARE
We went to Kim Il Sung square because there were some celebrations on the occassion of the Victory Day. There were many young people dressed in their national costumes and they were dancing together in honour of the leaders. We must admit we enjoyed the songs and really wanted to dance with Koreans. So our guide found us a couple and asked them to dance with us. The routines weren’t difficult and we could learn them after some time. We had so much fun dancing with the locals :) Our Korean guide told us that they are students and they are matched to dance together by the blood group :)
In the evening we went to a restaurant and it was so much fun! We ate dinner and there were some cheerful performances. The atmosphere was amazing!
Then we came back to our hotel and during the ride our Korean guides were singing the songs too! The nation seems to be very musical :)
Pyongyang – Day Third
VICTORIOUS WAR MUSEUM
It was our last stop in Pyongyang. The area is vey big and the museum looks impressive. We had a new guide to show us and talk about the museum. She told us about the history of North Korea and Korean War. There was also an American ship that was captivated and we could even go on its board.
Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the museum.
Pyongyang – Our Final Thoughts
Would we go to North Korea for the second time? Yes and there are many reasons. First of all we would like to see Mount Pektu and some other attractions that aren’t located in Pyongyang. We took the trip while we were still studying so our budget was limited and we took the cheapest option possible. Comparing to other places it was still pretty expensive so we are glad we managed to go there even for these two days.
We’ve heard many opinions from different people about traveling to North Korea. Some don’t want to support the regime. And it’s the sad truth. The money we pay for the trip goes to the country’s budget. But nothing is black and white. We saw that thanks to tourism many people have jobs. North Koreans who work in tourism are very lucky because the job is very good. Meeting foreigners is their only window to the world and they can get some gifts and products of other countries.
And how about you? Would you go there? :)
P.S. One more photo for you :)