Visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was one of the most fascinating travel experiences of my life so far. If you seriously want to learn more about the country I would highly recommend you visit. Sometimes their culture can be seen as a joke to us here in the western world and don’t get me wrong, there were occasions where I had to hold back my laughter, but I think it’s important that you go willing to learn and not just for a laugh. I do not agree with a lot of what is going on in DPRK but I had to see it for myself and gain an understanding from their perspective rather than just believe everything I read in the media. Although on the surface there seems to be some positives to living in DPRK- everyone is given an apartment by the government and education is free. But the bottom line is- the people have NO freedom. Only selected people are allowed to live in Pyongyang and even if you wish to travel to another part of the country you need permission. People can only go abroad for work (and not many get this opportunity). You can’t go abroad for a holiday. It made me feel very lucky to have been born in the UK where I have the simple freedom of being able to leave my own country as and when I please. I also think tourism helps the Korean people form a more positive outlook on other cultures (so long as idiot tourists don’t go getting themselves arrested and spoiling our reputation!).
The tour company I used was Young Pioneer (you MUST book your trip to DPRK with a tour company). Apart from the first day, which was a group tour, we opted for an independent tour for the rest of the days so it was just me, Josh, 2 Korean tour guides and 1 Korean driver. This is more expensive but a great way to get to know your Korean guides better and when we visited places it always felt more intimate and that we had more freedom to look around because we weren’t in a big group. Young Pioneer had the best prices I could find and were a great tour company so do check them out !
Here’s a summary of what I got up to in The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Day 1- 24th Dec 2015- Pyongyang:
We arrive around 17:30 by train. For more on my train journey in see here. As we arrive there’s a power cut at the station (power cuts are pretty common here especially in winter) so it’s really dark and we all use our phones flashlights to see where we are going.
The Yanggakdo Hotel
This is the hotel we stay in for all but one of our nights in Pyongyang, the capital city. As soon as you walk in you spot the TV playing North Korean propaganda. It looks and feels quite grand in the lobby area however the rooms are much more plain. In the rooms there was a TV which had a few channels including the propaganda channel (which we would watch every night) and much to my surprise- BBC News ! Obviously this channel was only for hotel guests and not widely available in DPRK.
Day 2- 25th Dec 2015- Pyongyang:
Our second day is pretty jam packed but it doesn’t feel too rushed as a lot of the things we see you don’t need to spend hours looking at – statues and monuments for example.
Mansu Hill Grand Monument
Before visiting the monument we buy some flowers to lay at the feet of the statues. Before taking photos you stand in a line and bow to the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The statues themselves are really quite impressive. The two leaders are humongous! Our guide explains to us how the Kim Jong Il one was built in only 3 months (unsure whether or not this is true).
Grand People’s Study House
This is Pyongyang’s huge public library. Lectures on a variety of subjects take place here. It was similar to the hotel where the main entrance and hall felt very grand- glitzy chandeliers, marble pillars, floors and a huge mosaic and statue of Kim Il Sung. However, the corridors and lecture rooms felt quite drab and plain. The computers were very dated as well as a lot of the equipment. In my pictures of the music studies room you can see the huge boombox style CD and tape players they use! The building itself is very impressive from the outside as it is built in the traditional Korean style.
Kim Il Sung Square
This is the famous square that you may have seen if you watched the military parade on the news. When we visited it was fairly quiet and instead of soldiers and tanks we saw lots of teenagers roller skating.
This is a pretty impressive tower…as towers go. It was built to commemorate the president Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday and it represents the Juche Idea (google it if you want to know more) which is the North Korean people’s political idealology. Like so many of the buildings and monuments in the country every detail was well thought out. The tower is made up of 25,550 granite blocks – one for every day of Kim’s life until his 70th birthday. You can take a lift to the top for €5 but we were unable to as the lift was broken. I do think that you can get a view just as good from the top of the study house though.
Monument to the Korean Workers Party
By now, I’ve realised that the Korean people LOVE a monument. Once again, this one doesn’t fail to impress. It commemorates the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Worker’s Party in North Korea and it depicts the hammer, sickle and brush that are the symbol of the party.
Although there are many places you can buy books and souvenirs around Pyongyang there is one main bookstore that your tour guide may take you to. There are shelves and shelves of books, almost all of them have plain covers, about the life of the 3 leaders. They are split into sections by leader. Some books are biographies and others are based around their political policies and speeches. All the books were very affordable – about €1 -€15 each depending how big the book is.
The Pyongyang Metro was so much nicer than I expected. The platforms especially were really beautiful with high ceilings, pillars and mosaic on the walls. Not all of the stations are open to tourists so I am assuming they only let you see the nice ones but I still much preferred the platforms here to any London Underground station. The trains were much more bland on the inside and decorated with dark wood so it felt a little gloomy and dark. The trains get packed out much like in London during rush hour so for a few stops we were squished into a corner! After a couple stops there was a power cut (standard North Korea) and the train gradually slowed down to a stop and the lights went off. This would horrify most Londoners if it happened on the Tube but the Koreans on the train didn’t seem too bothered. After about 10 minutes the train was running again. If you are visiting DPRK I would really recommend booking a tour that includes the Metro as it’s a great way to get a glimpse of day to day life of the Korean people.
Arch of Triumph
Built to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan from 1925 to 1945 this Arch is really big (bigger than the one in Paris) and it’s very impressive. Cars can also drive through it which we thought was pretty cool!
Also called the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. It has to be the most grandiose museum I’ve ever been to. Outside there is a huge area is dedicated to memorial statues. To the right hand side is a display of captured American weaponry, tanks, planes etc. and to the left hand side is Korean weapons (interestingly, they only showed us the captured American weapons). They are so proud of everything they captured and alongside some of the planes/helicopters there are awful photographs of the American soldiers surrendering and their dead comrades who refused to surrender.
We also had a look around the USS Pueblo which is an American spy ship that was captured by North Korean forces in 1968. They still have it on display like a trophy. Bullet holes have been circled to prove that they attacked the ship and on board you watch a short documentary film about its capture which makes the American out to be fools.
When you enter the museum itself you feel like you’ve just entered a really fancy 5* hotel. Marble floors and huge pillars everywhere and a massive grand staircase in the middle. At the top of the staircase is a massive wax statue of a young Kim Il Sung in military uniform (which we bow to, of course). It’s such a shame we were not allowed to take photos inside but I am sure if you search Google you can come across a picture.
The museum was so massive it’d take a few days to see it all properly. No captions were in English so we had a museum tour guide who explained things to us. What is very clear is the hatred towards the USA and the blame they place on them for starting the war. Parts of the museum are a little gruesome- one display included a wax model of an American soldier surrendering and he is surrounded by his dead comrades. One of the bodies has guts spilling out and crows are eating his flesh. What made this section even more creepy was that there was a power cut so we were wandering around this huge museum in the dark with only torches to see!
Another disturbing part of the museum was a chart which explained how many US soldiers were killed by various types of weapons e.g. sniper, grenades and so on – almost like a kill breakdown you might get at the end of a computer game! They were just so proud of every ‘enemy’ killed. The War Museum is an absolute must see if visiting Pyongyang.
Obviously, we didn’t get to stay at or go inside this hotel since it’s been unfinished for years. I couldn’t believe just how tall it was! It towers over the rest of Pyongyang and it’s unusual shape really makes it stand out. There’s something quite mysterious about it as nobody has really confirmed why it has not been completed yet. I heard a rumour that there is a problem with one of the lift shafts that is unfixable so it may never open! I could tell our tour guides didn’t want to talk in too much detail about it as they probably didn’t know themselves why it was unfinished.
Day 3- 26th December 2015- Mount Myohyang
Mount Myohyang Area
The area surrounding Mount Myohyang was so stunning that my photos don’t really do it justice!
Pohyonsa Buddhist Temple
We were pretty surprised when we found out that we were visiting a Buddhist Temple considering practicing a religion seems to be banned in DPRK. Our guide told us that there are still Monks there and a few people who still practice Buddhism (we didn’t see any Monks and I am not entirely sure if it is true that people are allowed to practice Buddhism). This temple has been here since the 11th Century (the Koryo Dynasty) however, half of the buildings were destroyed during the Korean War in 1951. Even so, the buildings that remained looked really pretty and the surrounding mountain scenery was beautiful. It was also the first time I’d seen a temple in the snow!
Dinner at Pyongyang Pizza Restaurant
Thought I’d just share this photo of the pizza I had at one of the few places in DPRK that serves western food. Wasn’t the best pizza ever but I wouldn’t expect it to be! It was a very good effort though. It kind of tasted like a frozen pizza you might buy in Tescos.
Day 4- 27th December 2015- Pyongyang:
The most bizarre morning of my life.
This is the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. We spent a couple of hours looking around and we had to bow to the bodies of the leaders in their glass coffins. It is strictly prohibited to take photos inside so I just have this one from the outside. Please see my separate blog for more details on this experience.
Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery
This is a large memorial for soldiers who fought against the Japanese in the struggle for independence. Each grave has a bust with the persons name, date of birth, date they fought in the army and date they died. We bowed in front of the statue of Kim Jong Suk- who was the wife of Kim Il Sung and mother of Kim Jong Il. She is also remembered for her heroic actions during the anti Japanese war. What was most upsetting was seeing that so many died very young- but this is often the case in wars throughout history.
Day 5- 28th December 2015- Wonsan:
Songdowon International Children’s Camp
In the morning we visited a children’s summer camp that had been renovated in 2014. We were informed by our guides that Korean children from all backgrounds were able to visit the camp free of charge. When I questioned this further we were told that it’s not the same children visiting every year and it rotates which schools are invited to make it fair. So I imagine that for most Korean children visiting this camp is a one off. I do think there must be many children that miss out since there are only so many places per year. Children from other countries are also welcome but obviously not free of charge. We were not told how much it costs for foreign children but I found an article online that claims its about $270 (this is partly subsidized by the government) but I don’t know if this is true.
The facilities at the camp were amazing! It included:
- Swimming pool
- Large football pitch + seating
- Athletics track
- Basketball / Badminton / Volleyball Court
- Water park + slides
And that’s not even all of it!
This was possibly my favourite part of the entire trip! So much so that I’ve decided to write a separate blog post in more detail about it. So for more on the orphanage please click the title or see here.
Day 6- 29th December 2015- DMZ/Sariwon:
The Demilitarized Zone is the border area between North and South Korea. It was really fascinating to see it. It’s also the only place you can get a photo with a soldier. (We were convinced that they had chosen the best looking guard for us to get our photo with!) Being there made you realise just how crazy the whole situation is and how ridiculous it is that a country can be quite literally split in two.
Pansangi is a Korean dish that we got to try whilst in Kaesong City (not far from the DMZ). It is served in bronze bowls and traditionally it was a dish served to very rich people or royalty. I enjoyed most of the dishes except the squid and a strange jelly-like noodle dish. Other bowls included, boiled egg, cucumber, kimchi, rice, soup, potatoes, marinated pork, cabbage and some sort of spicy sprout/root dish.
Sariwon Folk Street
Day 7- 30th December 2015- Pyongyang:
3 Revolution Exhibition
In the morning we visit the 3 Revolution Museum which, even now, I am not entirely sure why this museum is necessary. It seems to be just another opportunity to create some elaborate buildings that show off the work and ideas of Kim Il Sung. I did not get any photos so if you are interested in seeing more have a look on the Wikipedia page. There were a few different museum buildings but we only entered one of them- this one was all about farming and agriculture and we were the only people in there when we visited so it felt a little eerie. We walked around with a local guide who talked us through all the different kinds and farming methods in the country.
Mansude Art Studio
Next stop was the Mansude Art Studio. This is where many of the mosaics and bronze statues that you see everywhere in DPRK are made. I was hoping we might get to see the bronze statue room but sadly not. Instead we had a look around a few large rooms full of paintings and some sculptures. Most of which were for sale. I couldn’t afford any of it. I didn’t get any photos here so if you are interested to find out more I discovered that the studio has its own website.
Korean Film Studio
I was really happy to have the chance to look around the Korean film studio. Most of what we saw was the large outdoor sets. They have built various street sets that are used in many of the movies made here. There was a traditional style Korean street, a 1950s Korean street, a Chinese, Japanese and European street. I got the impression that most North Korean movies are about the wars and struggles for independence. Although I never watched one from start to finish, every time I saw one on TV it seemed to be about war.
Day 8- 31st December 2015- Nampo/Pyongyang:
West Sea Barrage
The Korean people are SO proud of the West Sea Barrage (a huge 8 kilometre long dam) that separates the Taedong River from the Yellow Sea. You can actually drive along the dam which we did before visiting the museum. Here, you watch a video about the building of the dam (the narrator in the video is VERY passionate about it). The best photo I could get was this one, taken from just outside the museum which is at the top of hill overlooking the dam:
Mineral Water Factory
Yep, that’s right, we visited a water bottle factory! By mineral they mean sparkling water. They produce it at a factory here in Nampo and they are really proud of how popular it is. The pictures aren’t too exciting but here’s one:
Chongsan Co Operative Farm
Even this farm had a monument and a bronze statue of Kim Il Sung! Chongsan farm near Nampo produces crops, vegetables and fruits including rice, corn and bean. We only got to see a few of the greenhouses where we were there in the winter season.
This was actually one of my favourite parts of the trip! No matter what country I’m in I am the kind of person that enjoys wandering around a supermarket to look at the different kinds of food the locals buy. But this was particularly interesting as it was a chance to see the Korean people going about their everyday lives. This supermarket in Pyongyang was more like a department store as it sold everything – food, clothes, toiletries, furniture and it had a food court.
Pyongyang’s main bowling alley is called Pyongyang Gold Lane- we played a couple of games here with our tour guide, Kang. (I lost). In true DPRK fashion, there was a powercut halfway through our game ! Luckily when the power came back on our scores hadn’t been lost!
New Years Eve in Kim Il Sung Square
It was really interesting to see the locals gathered in Kim Il Sung Square for NYE. Most of them were young adults and teenagers. Our guide told us that New Years Eve is usually spent with family at home. I’m not sure where they got them from but so many people had balloons and we joined in with a few games of ‘keep the balloon from falling’ (or whatever it’s called!). There is usually some fireworks in the square for NYE however it was so foggy that night that the fireworks were cancelled. As you can see from my pictures the visibility was really poor so we wouldn’t have been able to see the fireworks even if they weren’t cancelled.
I also managed to get some footage of people playing in the square on NYE:
Day 9 – 1st January 2016- Pyongyang:
Today we say farewell to our Korean guides and driver and get the train back to China!
Please check out my other blogs on North Korea :