As our cell phone data connections dropped, one of my fellow North Korea tourists reminisced about the last time he had a break from email. It was on a two-week bushwacking trip to the world’s tallest waterfall in Venezuela. He had been to about 100 countries, and was currently planning a motorcycle trip from South Africa to London. But once a year he and his 3 buddies got together and took a truly unique trip, and this year was the DPRK.
Others in our group included a Dutch neuroscientist, a Hong Kongese girl who has been hitch hiking and couch surfing alone through places like Iran and Azerbaijan for the past few years, and a few other diverse and well-worn travelers. Our guide was closing in on her 50th visit to North Korea and was the center of a recent international news story as one of her American tourists was arrested and sentenced to 15 years labour for attempting to steal a poster from his hotel. “No foreigner has ever actually seen the labour camps, so in reality he’s just confined to his hotel room… probably passing the time by learning Korean until his government can get him out” she told us.
No, these were not your ordinary travelers.
Initial impressions were uncertain
Still, nobody other than our guide knew what to expect from this trip. For such seasoned bunch, I found some of the comments upon entering the country to be peculiar. A few hundred meters across the border while we went through inspection, one person wondered allowed if the chirping birds on the station roof were real, or just for show. Another person wondered if the hundreds of kilometers of beautiful grain fields were purposely placed along the rail line for the benefit of tourists. Another wondered if the folks around us were staged for our benefit, like in the Truman show.
The first few interactions inside the border, were surprisingly relaxed. Our border guards joked about having to pick through our underwear, and our guide bought beers from the trolley on the platform while we waited. The inspection turned out to be pretty minimal. I’ve been through much more intense inspections just arriving back in my own country! They wanted to take an inventory of 3 things going into the country: Laptops, cameras, and bibles. The only eyebrows that were raised were when the guard came across the neuroscientist’s old film camera. At first a look of confusion over this bulky contraption, then when he realized what it was he handed it back with a smirk and an eye-roll.
It was just after dark when we finally arrived at the Pyongyang railway station. As we made our way to the bus there was a melody playing over the loud speakers. Long, eerie tones that rang through an otherwise dead silent night. There was a jumbotron outside the station playing a cartoon. Hundreds of people dressed in a variety of about 3 or 4 outfits were gathered around staring up at the screen. They stood there like a pack of gophers, hands dangling by their sides, expressionless, entranced by the giant screen. I hadn’t been expecting the country to actually be the Orwellian dystopia that people talk about. However, in this moment, I felt my eyes widening with cautious anticipation as I took in the very strange atmosphere and wondered if I was in for a shocking few days.
Our guides were very friendly, playful, and open
The moment we got in our bus, our guides began with the energetic introductions. They were dressed in their business best, but it was clear they were well prepared for a group like this. As one of the Korean guides gave her playful commentary through the microphone, a few members of the group started testing the limits. Someone jokingly floated the suggestion that she sing us a song. The next thing we knew, the bus was transformed into a karaoke bar. Our British guide got a hold of the mic and launched into an English version of the Korean national anthem. The Koreans jumped up in their seats and waved us all to follow suit. As the bus bounced down the highway in Pyongyang, it felt more like a pub crawl than a trip through the one of the world’s spookiest countries!
We got the speech about rules, etc. However, they seemed to reassuring us of things we COULD do more than drilling us on the restrictions.
“Take as many pictures as you like of anything you see except the military and unless we specifically ask you put the cameras down.”
“Ask us anything you like.”
“If you want to go somewhere just tell us and one of us come along with you. We can take you pretty much anywhere, just don’t wander away from the group alone.”
That one they probably regretted later that night when the neuroscientist announced he wanted to go for an early morning run. They tried suggesting he run around the hotel lobby, but ended up reluctantly agreeing despite it already being 2am with no signs of the party letting up.
The Tour was PACKED
Our “tour” was just one full day. It was incredible how much they crammed into the day though. We visited several famous monuments and lookouts, rode the metro, celebrated the national “Party Foundation Day” holiday in the park, shopped for books and souvenirs, sent postcards to our parents, ran wild through a local supermarket, ate delicious meals, participated in a mass dance with hundreds of Korean couples, went to a local bar, checked out the Fun Fair, and wound up the night with Karaoke until the wee hours of the morning. The last few people didn’t pack it in until 5am apparently. It was, without a doubt, one the best day tours of my life.
I’d say my favorite part was going to the park where the locals were celebrating the holiday. There were wedding couples in traditional Korean clothing roaming the gardens taking pictures, old ladies dancing freestyle to Korean music, street performers, picnickers, artists painting, families taking portraits, kids buying treats from pushcarts… In fact, it felt just like Canada day back home, except in North Korea, and also except that everyone was quite openly tipsy (something Canadians don’t get away with in public!).
Is it all fake?
The big question that people seem to be asking me since I got back is “Did you get the sense they were only showing you what they wanted to see?” Well, the answer is of course yes, but mainly in the same way that any tour of any city in the world will only show you the best selection of what the city has to offer. If you go on a tour of my home town, Victoria, you’ll be taken to the inner harbour, Butchard Gardens, etc. The areas known for homelessness and drugs probably wont be on the tour. And no, I didn’t get the sense that much of anything was “staged.” Sadly, I don’t think I’m quite important enough, and the Koreans have more interesting things to do with their time than to prepare an elaborate hoax for a few tourists.
One thing I think people should know is that the DPRK is not as inaccessible as you’d think! The visa is easier to get than many other countries, the trips are extremely well organized and safe (as long as you don’t do something stupid like steal a poster), and the cost is very low. You can go for a day like I did, you can go for a week… apparently, you can go for as long as you like. You can go trekking around the whole country, you can go for a St. Patrick’s day pub crawl tour in Pyongyang, you can run in the Pyongyang marathon, or I even heard the guide talking about homestays with Korean families in the countryside. You can explore business opportunities there, you can study in one of their many universities, heck you can even apply for a teaching job (being a teacher is one of the most coveted and respected jobs in the DPRK!).
I think by the end of our trip, most people agreed that our assumptions of what the DPRK was “supposed to be” were somewhat humbled. For a country that is only visited by a few thousand westerners per year, we seem to think we know a lot about what goes on inside the borders. For a country whose leaders not many people have met, we seem to think we know a lot about their motivations and policies. For a country whose problems foreigners are “not allowed” to see, we seem to think we know a lot about the things they are hiding.
After spending a day there I can’t make any proclamations about what’s true or false about their country. Ironically, the one thing I can say with confidence is that I claim to know much LESS about the DPRK now than I did before I visited.