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I Went To North Korea: Here’s What Happened

“No, we’re not going to the DMZ. We’re going to Kaesong!”

Lumbering down the deserted highway a hundred kilometers from Pyongyang outnumbered three to one by your minders is perhaps not the best place to start kicking up a fuss, but prudence has never been one of our more notable virtues, and just because we happen to be in the world’s most totalitarian state an’ all, doesn’t seem like any reason to start changing that.

Besides, we’re feeling particularly trollish this morning—that’s our nickname, “The Troll,” it works on so many levels—due to having unfortunately drunken a bit too much soju over the last 24 hours.

North Koreans In Their Own Words!

See, to get to Pyongyang last night, we’d taken the overnight train from Beijing for two reasons:

Firstly, that way you get to see parts of the north of the DPRK that foreigners can’t see any other way—no doubt the parts you can see from the track are better than the parts you can’t, but hey even that much is surreal—there was one particular place where we saw the peasants staggering along with outsized bundles on their shoulders, followed placidly by an oxcart with a high stack of outsized bundles, followed by a higher stacked oxcart that had its tongue hooked up to some possibly-extracted-from-a-washing-machine-type “engine” thingy straight out of the pages of the more fanciful steampunk adventure novels, followed by a swoopily aerodynamic cargo truck looking as ultramodern as anything on the Chinese superhighways.

There are lots of places around the world where you can see modernity juxtaposed with Stone Age technology—but nowhere other than North Korea that you see quite this mixing by degrees of a 2,500-year span of technology in the space of a couple hundred feet. And their cutting-edge technology has this steampunk edge to it as well; when we were there, the papers were full of the exciting news of a breakthrough in electro-refining using pure graphite anodes.

Well, that’s very impressive and all…but it’s a breakthrough of late-1800s technology that’s quaintly archaic in any part of the world where you have access to rare earth metals not found within North Korea’s borders. It’s exactly the kind of thing that you find in the more thoroughly thought out steampunk worlds, (as opposed to the ones that are an excuse for goths to wear brown) which is where we came up with our soundbite to describe North Korea: a steampunk dystopia, and far more surreal than any of the fictional attempts you’ll ever read.

Secondly, by all accounts, the sleeper train from North Korea is the best chance you’re going to get to be in close quarters all day with North Koreans that are not official government minders—and we figured that would be a great story, “North Koreans In Their Own Words”!

But we’d somehow failed to account for the fact that we are not, in fact, capable of conversing with appreciably more fluency than “want eat” and “need bathroom” in either Korean or Chinese, which of course were the only languages collectively spoken by my three compartment mates.

Drinks On Me, Boys

So the all-day trip from the border to Pyongyang featured mainly that at every stop, as I would stroll out to the platform, find the RMB-only seller at this stop who was extracting foreign currency from the Chinese nationals who are the usual passengers on this train, buy a bottle of soju, and our compartment would proceed to finish that bottle before the next stop.

Buying rounds of liquor for the locals is pretty much a pro travel tip for instant acceptance anywhere you go, and for some reason it seems to be associated particularly with Canadians—happy to hold the end up! —But particularly so when you’re buying with your foreign currency for your new friends who couldn’t buy that liquor in their own currency at any price.

So by the time the four of us staggered off the train in Pyongyang, the cause of Korean peninsular peace had been thoroughly achieved as far as we were concerned, we were assuring each other in a haze of soju fumes of our new lifelong friendship with complete disregard for our mutual unintelligibility.

I guess not realizing that we were drinking a bottle of soju every stop from Dandong to Pyongyang does that…everything we say here that might cast shade on the state of North Korean technology should not be taken to apply to their craft of soju brewing, which is, in fact, superb.

Traveling “Independently” In North Korea

So here we were in the car the next morning, and we’re off-a-days-soju-bender cranky, so we’re not being very accommodating with “Miss O,” who along with “Miss Kim” are the two guides that every tourist party in the DPRK must have accompany them, even if your party is, in fact, just you. Plus our driver; a genially hulking fellow. This, in North Korea, is what passes for independent traveling. And we were being very independent:

“I don’t want to go to the DMZ. I have my itinerary here from Tongil Tours, and the DMZ is not on it.”

Everybody has to go to the DMZ!” she responded.

“Well, good thing I’ve already been there from the South Korean side then. Some blue huts on the border, a concrete building on each side, pretty much as totally overrated as places to visit get, especially twice! I can prove it too, want to see pictures on the phone here?” I retorted.

Our Crazy Goal

See, we have this ambitious bucket list to visit every inscribed and tentative World Heritage Site, and Kaesong has twelve separate places listed in its Historic Monuments and Sites in Kaesong inscription, and my plan was to see all of them today, because what’s the chances of ever making it back to Kaesong? Pretty slim, that’s what. So we didn’t figure that the DMZ was a particularly valuable use of our limited time.

So Miss O and I were arguing this, and Miss Kim and the driver were watching us bicker with big smiles on their faces, apparently uncooperative guests are a distinct novelty, when BANG! out goes a tire.

Conveniently, a rest stop was just a couple hundred feet ahead to bump our way to. Only to find that the tire was trashed past patching, and the spare … well, in North Korea the concept of “spare” anything is a decidedly foreign one. There being no such thing as a North Korea Automobile Association either, this would require a significant effort to remedy; stranded halfway between Pyongyang and Kaesong is a pretty darn stranded place indeed.

Not So Stranded

But while they’re frantically phoning around to see what options there are, here comes another vehicle, pulling into our rest stop no less! —A bus full of a Chinese tour group. So my minders flock with theirs, and in short order, it’s established that the girls and I can join their group and our driver will find us whenever he’s mobile again.

OK, that beats hanging out most of the day in the featureless middle of nowhere, yes. And, as if I couldn’t guess, where by chance were we and our new friends going?

“The DMZ.”

“Of course we are. Miss O, you’re smirking. Ni hao, new Chinese friends!”

Mind you, it only heightened the surreality of this whole visit to be escorted into the same blue negotiation huts built exactly half on each side of the border by North Korean troops denouncing invasion by the South, after having been there before but escorted by South Korean troops that time denouncing invasion by the North; all of North Korea strikes you constantly as a Bizarro mirror world inversion of South Korea, but the DMZ in particular produces … well, it’s not déjà vu if you actually have been there before is it? Don’t think language actually has a word to describe that particular experience…

DPRK: A Restricted Secret

Anyways, we met back up with the driver at lunch, and over the course of the afternoon managed to get to most of the places on the inscription, definitely all that most people would consider worth visiting, and a few more besides…particularly the Kaesong Chomsongdae, which even as perhaps the most hardcore World Heritage Site geek on the planet, we do not recommend you bother trying to find.

(More details and pictures over at the Every World Heritage Site blog if you like.)

Managing to drive the better part of an hour because all four of us totally missed that we had driven directly through the old city walls we were looking for is a particularly good one.

Driving issues were a recurring theme on this tour, mind you. See, in case you haven’t picked up on this already, the general run of visits to the DPRK are extremely restricted; you see the very short list of government-approved attractions and monuments to the Party and so forth, and that’s it.

Planning this trip, we had a significant amount of trouble finding an organizer that would put together a custom “visit all the properties we can fit in of North Korea’s two inscribed WHS” tour—pro tip: Tongil Tours is your custom tour arranger of choice—and despite the driver and my minders having just short of two decades collective experience in the North Korean foreigner-minding industry, none of them had ever been to most of the sites we visited…or even heard of them, as was the case for the more justifiably obscure “National Treasure” like the Chomsongdae. And there are no signposts or maps because that would make it far too easy to get around; if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re almost certainly not supposed to be going there.

Even when you are supposed to be going there, that’s not always a sure thing. For instance, on our second trip out of Pyongyang, it was to visit a day’s worth of properties on the Complex of Koguryo Tombs site inscription. Which are somewhat less than monumental from the outside, as you can see in the pictures in our blog write-up of the site, and as far as we can tell, nobody ever visits for all practical purposes; each property has a groundskeeper that looks shocked to actually see a visitor, and a few grassy mounds with locked doors, and … that’s about it.

100 Euros For A Mural

The murals inside are reportedly spectacular, but dashed hard to find pictures of on the net—here’s a few—and at one of them, we were offered to have that door unlocked and see the wondrous insides for the low, low price of only a hundred euros. Usually we’re pretty good at bargaining, but in this particular instance we didn’t manage to get the price down at all—but we did manage to get Miss Kim and Miss O included, as they’d never been to these tombs either, let alone inside, and they were veritably ecstatic to get to see the murals. Rather telling, that.

Usually when we go to obscure World Heritage Sites, from the Sacred City of Caral-Supe to the Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park, the standard way it goes is that we’re the only foreigner in sight and the place has a bus or two full of elementary school age students who are just about completely uninterested in these dumb piles of rocks their teachers are going on about as being their marvelous World Heritage and all.

But what about with a troll? Now he’s fascinating to follow around. Korea has got to be the only place in the world where even the professional tour guides, never mind average citizens, have barely heard of their World Heritage never mind visited.

North Korea Is DIFFICULT!

And the reasons why they don’t visit were brought into sharp relief on our way back to Pyongyang after the tomb-hopping day:

“GET BACK IN THE CAR!”

See, we’d found our way back to the main highway to Pyongyang, and we’d stopped at a checkpoint, who’d told us to pull over, and they’d left me in the car, and now it was some 20 minutes later and I’d figured some leg-stretching was in order. “Just getting some fresh air, not going anyplace…”

“NO! GET IN CAR!”

Right then. If Miss O is shouting and apparently about to cry, probably not a good time to be difficult. So I got in the car.

Eventually they came back, and with a little bit of coaxing, the issue came out; although they had a permit for me to see the Koguryo Tombs, the car did not have a permit to drive on this highway. And this was a disaster of monumental proportion. Not for me, but for the driver. Who, never having had a group like me before, had no idea whatsoever that the guides might not have had everything arranged for him. And they had no idea that they had extra arrangements to make.

Think that’s what was going on, anyways. Point is…getting around this country is difficult.

Back To Tourist Safety In Pyongyang

The rest of the visit was pretty much the standard tourist fare in Pyongyang, you can read that over here as we did manage to see three of the properties on the Historical Relics in Pyongyang Tentative World Heritage Site listing, so we’ll tick that one off our bucket list too; but nothing particularly more amusing than we wrote there.

Until the day of our leaving, when we figured that with all the adventures they’d had minding a troll who was actively trying not to be minded, they deserved a nice tip. But tipping is an issue here—between that it’s illegal for you to possess North Korean currency, and it’s illegal for them to possess foreign currency, that doesn’t leave many financial options.

However, knowing this, and wanting to make friends as always, we’d bought some twenty-odd dollars worth of touristy Bangkok souvenirs, figuring those would be exotic novelties in the DPRK. Which indeed they were…problem was, since everyone we met was completely uninterested in taking anything from foreigners, we still had all of it on the last morning. So alright ladies: here I have a good five pounds of Bangkok’s most gaudy souvenir tat, how would you like to divide it up?

The driver, well that was much easier; he’d been quite enthusiastic about matching me shot for shot with our dinner soju each night, so a bottle of the most ornate looking bottle on display in the hotel shop took care of that—along with a healthy tasting of it to make sure it was quality stuff, as indeed it was, just the thing indeed to produce the right mood for our visit to the Mansudae Grand Monument, seventy-plus feet of bronze Communist deities: Kim Il Sung & Kim Jong Il, the Great and Dear Leaders.

And deities are barely an exaggeration; you must bow, cannot face your back to the statues, and must bring a bouquet of offering. Well, technically you don’t have to buy the bouquet, but Miss Kim got such a hurt look when we mumbled something about worshipping their dead leaders, we decided ok…fine…let’s go buy the biggest bouquet we can then.

And off to the airport for our exit, on Air Koryo—the world’s only one-star airline, according to Skytrax, but personally we feel that’s totally undeserved. Just for starters, they’re always on time—not that hard when your flight network has no connections—and they never overbook. As for the 1960s vintage Soviet airliners, well, far as we’re concerned it’s a renaissance of the Golden Age Of Aviation, with that same strange out-of-time vibe the rest of the country has.

Our Verdict

So that was our visit to North Korea. Before we got there, we thought that Bhutan was the most unusual country on the face of the planet, but we have quite thoroughly changed that opinion now.

Although it costs considerably more to arrange a custom tour, we absolutely recommend you do that—as we’ve mentioned before, Tongil Tours are the people who hooked us up, and we thoroughly recommend you call them too—and ask for Miss O and Miss Kim as your guides, they were far more entertaining than we’d ever expected!

So, what’s next for me? More World Heritage Sites I guess! On that note, here are my top 6 World Heritage Sites you should visit in North America—if you’re interested.

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