At 14:10 on a nice afternoon in Beijing, I take a leisurely walk towards the Zhong Gu Hotel where I will be meeting with fellow travelers for my trip to the DPRK. With political tensions rising between the United States and North Korea I have had some concerns but those are easily suppressed as the beginning of my trip is actually happening.
At our pre-trip meeting we learn that our group is actually smaller than originally planned as there has been some last minutes cancellations.
It is a about a 14 hour journey that after great conversations with new friends and maybe too many warm beers, passes too quickly.
It's just pass 07:00 when we arrive in Dandong after enjoying an afternoon, a night and watching the sunrise across a Chinese landscape. Did you know that there is only one time zone in all of China?
Outside of Dandong Train Station we hurdle in a group like lost children as we are not met by our tour guide as expected. However, we soon take comfort as others with similar concerns and backpacks start to approach us. Soon enough our guide, Rowan from YPT (Young Pioneers Tour) shows up and gives us our border crossing plan and more importantly our DPRK Tourist Visa.
With hundreds of Chinese nationals crossing the border today by train Rowan has come up with a new plan for us. It involves a little walking but we will cross the border by bus and at a check point that is not normally available to Western tourists.
Crossing the Yalu River we get good views of the Dandong skyline and what a contrast compared to our initial destination just a mile or so away.
Although China has restored their side of it we are told the North Koreans refuse to do the same as they want to keep the destruction as a memento of the war.
After some stop and go from other commercial only traffic on the bridge we begin our so far unofficial entry into North Korea and we are told we cannot take pictures of broader area. However, on our left side are also abandoned buildings which were planned mainly Chinese day visitors but has not lived up to their potential. This area was intended to have Yalu River boat crossing access which apparently the North Koreans did not become to fond of the idea.
On our right side a faded 1950's “Ferris Wheel” and another amusement park ride stands lifeless. In the background kids are having fun at a water park where green seems to be the color of the day for the pool water. In a few minutes we are gathering our belongings and exiting the bus for our official entry into The Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
A bit to my surprise we are greeted by smiling officials while we lined up and pass through an airport type security screening. Our books (no religious material, pornography or tour books allowed) and all of our electronics are screened separately while our passports and visas are reviewed. We patiently wait back on our bus about 30 minutes for this process to be completed. A final part of this process happens when we are required to give more detail information about our cellphones including brand name and color.
Overall, the process is much simpler and easier than I expected and soon enough we are heading on a train for Pyongyang.
This time it is about a 5 hour journey but all in daylight. Our route is mainly along lush green farmland with occasional villages scattered in the distance. Every now and then we pass close enough to one of them to get a glimpse of North Korean life at 60 miles per hour.
The scenery does not change much until the outline of Pyongyang comes into sight with one of it's more prominent if not infamous landmarks comes into view. The 105-story, almost 1000 feet tall unfinished pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel is a cool futuristic skyscraper to behold.
The Pyongyang Train Station soon welcomes us and our almost epic train journey is about to end. Our final destination is just minutes away and another dream of mine is about to be fulfilled.
Leaving the train station we board a comfortable bus and our tour of Pyongyang begins under the relax guidance of Rowan along with two local guides, “Back” and “Mrs. Kim”.
It is a surreal experience to be standing where at certain times thousands of North Koreans and their leaders showcase their “Military Might” to the rest of the world. However, today is just a normal day in the city and I get to take it all in for what it is worth. The area is not busy with the sidewalks and streets being impressively clean.
At a park nearby serious games of volleyball are going on as local music fills the air. Our next stop is at a bookstore that offers a lot of material on North Korea and more importantly lots of reading material about it's Supreme Leader in many languages. Watching a traffic officer outside of the bookstore turns out to be very entertaining and interesting. She is very serious and animated in doing her job almost to the point of being militant about it.
Next we take a drive across town for dinner and see some impressive new apartment buildings that were built just for members of the scientific community. Along the way Mrs. Kim entertains us with some “Tour Bus Karaoke”. Our dinner which is included in the price of our YPT package is at a restaurant owned by the North Korean bus tour company. The service and food which included a lot of variety and a local beer was very good. While eating we did experience a minor power outage which lasted only about 2-3 minutes.
Although it would have been nice to be able to freely walk around I came here knowing that there would be such travel restrictions. However, the hotel does have a couple of bars, a game room and a pool to pass the time. By Western standards the hotel is maybe a “3 Star” at best but the accommodation is adequate and the staff was pleasant.
Around 5am I wake up to the “Sound of Music” but it is not Julie Andrews instead it is a large group of soldiers marching twenty nine stories below me. An interesting site along a major highway that has been practically empty ever since I checked in except for a local bus or tram.
Breakfast then we are off for our “Victory Day” of sightseeing. Unfortunately, the weather forecast calls for rain during most of the day. Our first stop is at the Mansudae Grand Monument where North Koreans come to pay respect to their leaders.
The Supreme Leaders
Here there is a certain protocol to be followed if you want to experience this sight. We are given the option to remain on the bus if we would not be comfortable with the required protocol. I give up the equivalent of a few euros to purchase some flowers then with others we proceed to the “Ten Thousand Times” bigger than life statues of the father and son leaders of North Korea. With others I place my flowers and then we all step back in a line and take the required bow with utterances under our breath. A few “proper” pictures and I have experienced the Mansudae Grand Monument like a North Korean.
What is also interesting about this metro is that many of the stations have murals that tell the history of the nation.
At the Arch of Triumph we learn a little more about North Korea and as the forecast rain begins to fall we get a bird's-eye view of Pyongyang with dark clouds hanging over it. However, the gray skies still provide a nice contrast to the colorful buildings around the city.
From the Arch of Triumph we head over to the new and impressive War Museum which houses United States sovereign property the still commissioned USS Pueblo.
It happened on July 27th, 1953 which the North Korean maybe rightly so celebrate as “Victory Day”.
It soon lunch time but when we arrive at the restaurant to eat I am more interested in ping-pong than I am food. Fortunately, I get to experience both but I do much better handling my food than my gracious ping-pong opponent.
Our afternoon touring starts off with an enjoyable performance at the circus for about 20 Euros. Very cool acts to a full house that have us all amazed and entertained.
However, for me the highlight of the show comes afterwards with the smiles and waves from a young group of North Koreans who interact with us.
A stop at a local department store and we get a chance to exchange our money for local currency which we are prohibited from taking out of the country. A browse around the multi-story store and I get to see the products and goods available to most locals. Not surprisingly the selections are limited to what I am use to and most products seem to be of questionable quality.
I was disappointed in the fruits available and the expensive prices for them which I am told are imported from China. One of our group members tried to make a book purchased and was denied. We are later told this is because of the short supply and the books are needed for locals not tourists.
The weather forecast is being true to itself and it ends up literally “raining on our parade”. One of the highlights of this tour was to witness the large gathering of college students dancing in public areas to celebrate Victory Day.
Unfortunately, they are dispersing as we arrive at one site. The event has been canceled because of rain along with this evenings fireworks.
Feeling good it's time for more Tour Bus Karaoke this time with more than just Mrs. Kim participating.
A different dinner experience then I give up about 35 Euros for the ultimate North Korean souvenirs a pair of Pyongyang T-Shirts. I have never spent that much for two t-shirts but then again I doubt I will have the opportunity to get any souvenirs from North Korea at least not in the near future.
Another breakfast and just like that my 3 Days and 2 Nights Ultra Budget Tour of North Korea is coming to an end. We are accompanied to the train station by “Back” and “Mrs. Kim” where I am given two samples of North Korean sausages by Mrs. Kim as a kind gesture. As we leave Pyongyang Train Station I have a feeling of sadness but a slim hope that maybe someday I would be able to see “Back” and “Mrs. Kim” again.
Five hours or so later we are stopped at the border and the process of crossing back into China begins. Our passports are collected along with DPRK Tourist Visas that are taken back. Some pleasant officials board the train and randomly take a look at our pictures and do selective security wands. About an hour and a half later our train is cleared to proceed on.
As we cross the Yalu River into Dandong I realize that going in and out of North Korea was not as bad as one might be led to believe.
Thanks, Rowan and YPT!