Here Be Dragons! A Summer Vacation North of the 38th Parallel

Written and photographed by Fabio Tardim

North Korea is sometimes perceived a little like those unknown lands of legend: with old maps and where all sorts of perils waited for those who ventured there. A sojourn up north wouldn’t typically be in most people’s travel plans for Asia, and it was with a bit of anxiety, curiosity, and excitement that I embarked on a trip of five days to North Korea this August. It certainly involves a little bit of planning (just getting your visa sorted out can be a bit time-consuming), but other than that, getting to North Korea is a rather straight-forward process.

It is important to say that what you are about to read is totally based on my personal experience and I do not intend to write about North Korean politics. I believe that we often receive demonized images of the country that are far from reality. That does not mean, though, that there are not serious problems up there. Maybe all the criticism is justifiable, but as an individual who did not (and still does not) know the whole picture, I am quite pleased to have been able to see part of what makes this hermit country so unique.

Join the Tour
The only way to get your visa and enter North Korea is by signing up for a tour. Several agencies operate these tours, and they are mainly in China, but there are a few in Europe as well. You are told before you join the tour that all tours are heavily organized and preplanned, so everything you will see and do is already defined. After deciding which tour suits you best, you either have to make your way to the border town of Dandong in China and get a train to Pyongyang, or you can fly directly from Beijing via Air Koryo.

Since I am an enthusiast of train traveling, I chose to go to Dandong. It is worth mentioning that Dandong itself is quite a nice place to travel to and one can even visit a beautiful part of the Great Wall that runs on the border with North Korea. The Chinese town is also full of all things Korean, and many North Koreans work there – it is one of the best places to actually have a genuine interaction with the country’s people. I thought it’d be quite an interesting place for Koreans from the South to see since they are not allowed to visit the North itself.

Before boarding the train, I met my tour operator, a Chinese man who happened to have lived in Ireland for seven years. In a frank conversation, I revealed my anxiety to the man, at which he reassured me that there was nothing to worry about. His job was to organize these tours mainly for Chinese citizens, and he sends dozens of tourists across the border every day.

Entering North Korea
As the train crosses Friendship Bridge towards Sinuiju on the other side, the contrasts start to show. The train station in Sinuiju is impeccably clean, though a little bit run-down, without any shops or people for that matter. There are plenty of soldiers on the platform and a massive portrait of their deceased leaders looks down on you from the top of the station as the soldiers go through your luggage and documents.

My train crossed the border rather late, and after a few hours of waiting for customs and immigration, it finally left towards Pyongyang. On the other side of the Yalu River, in China, Dandong’s many skyscrapers gleamed, resembling some sort of Las Vegas, while Sinuiju was in total darkness (very few places in North Korea have streetlights and electricity shortage is part of everyday life).

The train ride takes about four to five hours, and it is a great opportunity to talk with some locals in the dining car while drinking (Japanese) beer. I found that most of the Koreans traveling on the train lived in China and were just visiting relatives back in their country. Apart from a dozen westerners, there were two other big groups of Chinese tourists that I would be bumping into for the rest of my stay in the country.

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First Stop: Pyongyang
Pyongyang is perhaps the definitive totalitarian capital in the world. After being practically obliterated by the U.S. during the Korean War, it was rebuilt from scratch in typical Soviet fashion. Everywhere you look, you see the neat axial symmetry, repeating geometric forms, deeply recessed windows, and the liberal use of concrete and marble. What makes the scenery slightly unusual is the way that the buildings have all different colors, creating a rather contrastingly beautiful picture – those who ever played SimCity would find it slightly familiar.

On the first day, my group got to know our tour guides. They were both women from Pyongyang, and they started by setting the rules straight. Essentially, we could take pictures at any time, but never of military buildings or construction sites. If you took pictures of the leaders, you could not frame it in a way that didn’t show the statue or portrait in full. The country did not encourage religion, and we were not to spread any. We should never disrespect the leaders. Finally, we were not allowed to leave the hotel on our own, and wherever we went outside the hotel, we had to be with our guides.

Sightseeing in one of these tours is basically about the grandiose and achievements of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the Kim family, and the country’s ideology. A tour of the city consists of visiting the Triumphal Arch (proudly taller than the French one), the tower of Juche ideology, the bronze statues of the deceased leaders in the Mansudae Grand Monument, and a short ride in the deepest subway in the world. While these are certainly very impressive monuments, they are all a solid display of the country’s heavy proliferation of all things glorifying unconditional patriotism. After only a day in North Korea, you realize that pictures of the past leaders adorn almost any building worth something, from stadiums to train stations, including public squares and the odd residential block – and they are one of the few things lit at night.

The tour was always on a tight schedule, and we went from place to place relying on one of the few vehicles in the city – our rather old bus. As our vehicle roamed around Pyongyang, it was quite puzzling to see such wide roads almost without any cars. They were not empty though, as there are waves of people walking and cycling. It makes a surreal picture, especially at nighttime, when you can barely see anything and there are flocks of people walking out there. Also, I don’t think I have seen so many people cycling anywhere in the world, not even in Amsterdam.

Strolling Around the Capital
Perhaps the most rewarding experience took place on the following day in Pyongyang. Early in the morning, we left our isolated monolithic 30-floor hotel in the west corner of the city for a walking tour. It was Sunday, so there were not many people walking or cycling around.

It was during this walk through some leafy streets and parks that I got a glimpse of everyday life and leisure in the city: families having picnics, kids swimming in ponds, couples kissing each other, and some people playing music while others danced happily. Not to mention groups of men here or there who were playing some sort of game and drinking soju. It may seem obvious, but it was nice to see that the people there were as normal and ordinary as anyone else, and they were just carrying on with their lives as such.

Later on that same day, I visited the eerie, gigantic, Kumsusan Sun Memorial Place. It was Kim Il-Sung’s home and now houses the embalmed corpses of both father and son. The place is enormous and there are a lot of visitors – mainly locals. It takes ages just to go from the entrance to the building itself, while one patiently has to wait to move from one painfully slow travellator to another to get to the viewing chamber. It is quite surreal and an experience in itself going through huge, empty hallways and plazas until you can finally bow three times in front of the leaders. It is all very serious and ceremonial, and visitors have to be dressed smartly to be allowed in. Absolutely no pictures!

Kaeseong and the DMZ
Finally, by the end of the day, we took the Reunification Highway towards the South. It is a massive highway that goes from Pyongyang’s city center all the way to the DMZ. Needless to say, the highway is totally empty and the journey is only disturbed by the many military checkpoints. That said, it’s a fantastic chance to see a bit of life in the countryside. Poverty and scantiness become a little more obvious as in village after village, you can see the state of the buildings and the lack of infrastructure. Electricity is also in short supply, and little solar panels are a common sight.

Kaeseong itself is a lovely place just off the highway and a few kilometers before the DMZ. The town is more compact and still has a lot of its traditional buildings standing in the old quarter. In spite of that, it is also a modern place built on the image of most Soviet cities and dominated by the now very well-known bronze statues of the omnipresent leaders. All in all, in this short trip it was in Kaeseong that I felt more in contact with the difficult reality of life in the country. There was no electricity during the day, running water was sometimes unavailable, and no cars or vehicles were around whatsoever.

After a short tour around Kaeseong and a few shots of Arak-ju (aka soju), we headed to the DMZ. A soldier presented a one-sided account of the history of the country – nothing unusual. After glancing over at the South and thankfully sending a few text messages (as my phone picked up the signal from the “other side”) we heard our soldier-guide tell us that, and I quote, “If the American imperialists start another war, we will destroy the whole of the U.S.A. and its puppets.” It’s all a show though, followed by smiles and pictures with the tourists.

Final Thoughts
Upon leaving the country on another train journey, I was relieved to arrive at Dandong and felt as if I had reached the bastion of freedom in the world. The feeling was certainly the result of my pre-conceptions of the country mixed with the constant state of surveillance of the paranoid military state I had been under.

Being in North Korea is, in some ways, like going to a magical kingdom, in the sense that everyone is under a spell. As such, the country is full of ordinary folks just existing under this kind of Orwellian enchantment (officially called “Juche”).

In North Korea, you’re always aware that you’re only being given one picture when, out there, a multitude of stories exist in every street and town that you won’t be allowed to see. That said, I genuinely felt that the North Koreans I interacted with were nice, sincere, considerate, very humorous, and often sentimental. We drank many beers together, laughed at jokes (mainly about Russia), and talked about many things – even politics sometimes.

Visiting that place is like taking a time machine to the 1970s, where you won’t have Internet and everyone dresses in a very similar way. North Korea is an obsolete country where Confucianism seems to thrive, and it provides an experience like no other. You won’t see the whole picture, but at least you know that it’s no dragon’s lair.

The Author
Fabio got bit by the travel-bug very early in life and has since set off to travel the world. He has contributed features to many travel magazines out there. Nowadays he lives in Korea and enjoys his free time traveling around Asia as often as possible.

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