My First Day in North Korea
Visiting North Korea has so far been the one of my greatest travel thrills. Please see my post detailing my rational for visiting. I was a part of a tour group that was suppose to ride a train from Beijing to Pyongyang, unfortunately the North Korean government forbids Americans (and Japanese) from the train and requires them to fly. I suppose they are paranoid about mortal enemies of the state escaping the train and wreaking havoc on the country side. I would have enjoyed the train but instead of the 40+ hour ride I'd have to settle for an easy 2.5 hour flight from Beijing.
On the flight, I was quite giddy and not entirely sure what to really expect. I'd booked the tour (you're required to go on a tour) online with a company I only knew through their website and I was going to a country that considers America a mortal threat. You really just can't help but be paranoid. The lore that surrounds the country was racing through my head as I looked out the window slowly approaching capital.
When we touched down the weirdness was immediate. The airport is nice and modern but it's completely lifeless. This is the only international airport for the entire country and the tarmac is mostly empty. No other planes were taxing and really no other signs of activity except for ourselves. Only a few old Soviet era Tupolev aircraft dot the tarmac.
I happened to sit in one of the front rows and was just about the first person off the aircraft. The terminal was completely empty, an ominous sign. As I was led downstairs to immigration, I could see immigration officials picking their heads off their desks. Immigration is of course usually a bustling hive of people suffering long lines. Not here, there are only on average three international flights a day, and they are generously spaced out during the day. Once I reached the immigration desk I handed over my passport and visa as you would anywhere else. There I was politely directed to man in full military uniform to inspect my bags. The officer opened up my bag and gently looked through all of the contents. He was mostly concerned with any reading material I might have with me and wanted to see my laptop and phone. After he was satisfied I wasn't bringing in any forbidden contents I was allowed to repack my bag. I was allowed to keep my phone and laptop.
After clearing immigration I walked out to the reception hall where I was to meet my handlers. I was still unsure of what to expect, again I'd arranged all of this online and was taking it just in faith I'd be picked up by people for the proper tour. My handlers were two nice women that would be with us for the rest of the tour. While in North Korea you must always be with two state handlers. They keep an eye on you and make sure you're following the rules. There is two of them because they also have to keep an eye on each other. Individually they're not trusted by the government to interact with foreigners.
After a polite introduction we're put into a van off to the center of Pyongyang. It's getting later in the afternoon and we need to get to the Mansu Hill Grand Monument, which are two enormous bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jung-il. It seemed as though this is a necessary first stop so that we may properly pay our respects to the dear leaders. So, in the van are the driver, the two handlers, myself and another american on the tour with me. The drive was one of the more surreal experiences of my life. The road from the airport was clean with utilitarian yet pastel colored buildings and even the flowers on the trees were in bloom. At one point we passed on both sides army personnel running down the road. We were at this point undeniably in North Korea.
We soon arrived at the statues and they were even larger in real life than I was expecting. When we got out of the van we were politely asked/instructed to buy flowers to place at the feet of the statues. Our handlers were experts at asking us in a way that was polite but made it understood this was not optional. The cost was only a few US dollars so neither of us gave any indication of objecting. So we bought the flowers and were led up the steps to face the statues. We had to ceremoniously bow a couple of times as we approached the feet of the statues. Once there, we laid the flowers on top of an existing pile of flowers that had already accumulated during the day. This next part may sound made up but after I laid down the flowers and turned around I saw a man with a professional sized video camera and another holding onto some wires duck behind the army statue that lines the sides of the square. I can't say for sure, it could very well have been my paranoia (which was running very high at this point) but it seemed as though they had been video taping us from behind and were hastily ducking from view as I turned around.
This unfortunately back lit picture is me in front of the statues. Notice the small figures at the feet of the statues to get a proper scale of their size.
After we were good little tourist by the laying of the flowers, we were able to just hang around for a bit. This allowed us to relax and just take it in. We were here in Pyongyang and just wondering how the next week was going to unfold. Daylight was rapidly fading but we hung around until about an hour before sunset. We watched as small groups of North Koreans would come to pay their respects. Considering the small groups, I started to realize coming here was a bit of an honor and a privilege. Ironic since I don't admire the Kims in any way.
Once the boredom overcame our handlers it was time to head to the hotel. Foreigners visiting Pyongyang are placed in one of two hotels. We happened to stay at the Koryo Hotel. The room was nice enough even though it was a charming little time capsule from the 70's (but built in the 80's). The best part about the hotel was the brewery on the first floor. Full mugs of very decent beer were about $1. This we would take advantage of this for the remainder of the trip.
I forget what floor we were on but we were relatively high up. This gave us a nice vantage point to look out over the city. The lack of activity in the city was noticeable, few cars were on the street and the city just looked dim. By dim I mean the city just wasn't lit up like you typically expect, street lights lined the street but they just weren't as bright as you typically find in modern cities. I suppose the empty streets and dim lighting weren't surprising considering the countries economic situation.
Here is a (not that great picture) of what should normally be a bright and busy city street.
After a pleasant dinner in the hotel we were kind of left to our own devices however we were confined to the hotel. Foreigners aren't just allowed to go out for a walk. You really did have to be, with the exception of the hotel, under constant supervision of the two state handlers. So the other american and myself explored what we could of the hotel. On one of the lower levels we happened on a barber shop. It took me a second but I realized that when I got home I really wanted to brag about getting a hair cut in North Korea. So I walked in and pointed to the sign of state approved hair cuts.
With out delay I was in an apron getting the "Kim". Just kidding, I don't know what haircut I got but it was a undeniably a haircut.
After the haircut, the jet lag was catching up to us and the adrenaline was starting to wear off. We decided to head up to the room, they of course paired up the Americans as roommates, easier to keep an eye on us I suppose. Like I said the room was clean and comfortable and I was able to enjoy a good night's sleep in preparation for the next day's adventure. Following week would not disappoint, North Korea was as bizarre as the media portrays it. It wasn't hard to see behind the curtain as get to see the the real North Korea, the real North Korea the state tourism was attempting to gloss over. I hope to detail this more in upcoming posts!