I traveled to North Korea during Christmas 2019. Little did I know, just about 2,5 weeks after my leaving from North Korea, the country strictly closed their border from the outside world including China due to Covid-19. I can not imagined if the Covid-19 outbreak found a couple of weeks earlier when I was there, I might got stuck in the country and no one would know what will happen.
Anyway.. considered that I was lucky, the travel went alright, everything was super normal just like the rest of the world. And I came back safe and sound. To this date I created this article at the end of 2020, North Korea still closed their border until further notice.
As I mention earlier in the last post, I joined a private arranged tour with Koryo Tours. Unlike the group tour, private tour required us to travel from Dandong to Pyongyang without guide companion. In Dandong station, the tour girl just gave us a ticket with a stamped visa to North Korea and a brief direction about the train ride. While our local guide will be meeting us soon after we arrived in Pyongyang Station.
I got a seat in the first class sleeper car which I enjoyed it a lot. The compartment consist of 4 sleeper bed, 2 beds are mine and my friend’s, while 2 others taken by North Korean ladies who traveled from China with pretty big suitcases. Surprisingly, they spoke a little bit of English, hence we could make small conversation on the way. That was my first encounter with North Korean, and I think they just looked pretty normal.
After a slow ride passing the bridge that connects China and North Korea, which also means the point where we had to say goodbye to the outside world since internet connection will no longer function. The train stopped in a city named Sinujiu for 1 hour immigration check. A group of officials got on to the train and checking each of the passenger documents and stuff. Honestly speaking, I was quite nervous, there were so many stories around about how strict they can be. My tour agency already warned me not to bring ‘prohibited’ stuff and not to keep any picture related to North Korea on the phone and better to log out all the social media just to make sure they don’t go deeper to unnecessary things. So the night before I screened all my 6000-ish pictures in my phone to make sure it was clean.
Thankfully, the checking went good. The officials were not scary as I pictured them in my head. There were 3 officials checking in to my compartment. They only asked if I brought phone or camera and asked me to show them. They didn’t even check what’s inside my luggage, let alone inside my phone.
It took 8 hours upon arrival in Pyongyang, long enough to get me a good sleep and some contemplating moments when looking through the window. Most of the soil in North Korea has already blanketed with snow making the view felt so serene and beautiful, sometimes I caught locals walking or cycling on the street.
There were no restriction to take as many pictures along the train trip…except in the restaurant car. I didn’t understand why but the waitress stopped us from taking picture of anything in there – even just for food picture that we had.
Where We Stay
When we finally arrived in Pyongyang train station, there were 2 beautiful guides – Ms Yo & Ms Ri that already waiting on the platform. They dressed pretty stunning, you can easily spot them in the pool of dark-clothed people in the station. We introduced ourselves then they took us to the car, off to Yanggakdo International Hotel where we were going to stay for a couple of days.
Yanggakdo is being said as the best hotel in Pyongyang, it has 50 something floors with a revolving restaurant at the top. First time I entered, nothing was wrong except it looked so empty and cold, only very few people seen inside. I even had a thought that we were the only guest staying in that huge hotel. A friendly bell boy sent us to the room with a big smile made me feel a little bit better. Just like I read on the internet, the room looks old like a hotel in the 80s. But it was spotless and convenient enough. I tried to sweep all the corner in the room checking whether they have hidden camera.. lol. Sorry, a bit paranoid here.
I mean, you must already heard the mysteriously missing 5th floor in Yanggakdo Hotel or the story of American tourist, Otto Warmbier who got detained in North Korea because he tried to steal Propaganda poster from that 5th floor. (Google him now if you don’t know yet!).
There are a lot of stories and assumptions about this hotel, about how they bug your room and everything, I wanted to think that it’s not true but I also wanted to say it’s very possible to happen, because it’s North Korea! they are very protective towards their own country. Having tourist visits certainly will buckled themselves up. So yeah, such situation is expected. Well in my opinion, we are a visitor here, we came because we wanted to come, so all we need to do is just showing them some respect and follow the rule. That’s it.
Here are some highlight during my winter trip in North Korea that might inspire you if you had chance to visit in the future. Visiting in winter is not that bad, the temperature sticked around -2° until 5° C around Christmas time. With a proper clothes it was still convenient to get around.
1. The most scariest place on earth : DMZ
It needs about 2 hours car ride from Pyongyang to get to the DMZ, Korean demilitarized zone that also known as one of the world’s most of dangerous place or scariest place on earth that I truly did not think it was. Everything looked usual, no sign of intimidating place or so, and honestly I felt safe instead!
DMZ indeed took a major part in North Korea and South Korea history, it is where the border lies, as well as the location where many important agreements between North Korea vs their opponent took place. I still remember the guide army telling us with pride on how North Korea succeed to make United States bended on their knee to have Armistice Agreement that oddly, it seems to have different perspective with our side of history.
Nevertheless, from what I conclude from this tour to DMZ, North Korea is still wanting to get reunited with South Korea. It is something that they’ve always been dreaming of and obsessed with but it never gets there yet.
2. Get to know North Korean’s small city life
Everytime I travel somewhere I always want to go to the cities or places outside the capital. Therefore, I insisted to squeeze secondary city or countryside amongst my destinations.
Kaesong is a city once belong to Province in South Korea. After Korean War, it fell under Northern administration. This is the closest city to DMZ, as well the closest city to South Korea – North Korea border. Looking from the spot that I visited while I was there, the city clearly held a rich history of Korean culture. It even sited as World Heritage historic monuments.
We are allowed to walk along the main street of Kaesong Old Town, sightseeing the old Korean housing that reminds me of Bukchon Hanok Village in South Korea. I really wanted to go deeper to the alley but it seems off-limits for the tourist. Anyway, it was still a pleasant walk after all.
Meanwhile Sariwon is another interesting city with its folk customs street, where we can enjoy a garden-like complex that consist of several interesting cultural heritage. Sariwon also known as education city as it is home to 10 universities. I also visited a farmer house in Sariwon and got to see a dead rice paddy landscape due to the heavy snow.
3. Interesting Monuments and Museums
It easy to see that the country has been carefully plan to preserve it’s history by erecting handful of pretentious monuments and museums. Especially when it comes to the Leaders statue, it’s not only one or two monuments that are dedicated for them but quite plentiful. And I am so impressed on how the people pay so much respect to it. For example, in certain statue monument of the Leader we are expected to bow and wear a specific dresscode!
Amongst all the museums and monuments that listed in my itinerary, The Kumsusan Palace of the sun or Kim Il Sung Mauseleum was certainly the highlight of my trip. I already created dedicated post because to me this is where the scariest place actually lies.
4. The Daily Life of North Korean in Pyongyang
I would say this is my most favourite excursion in Pyongyang. We went walking in public road and areas, riding local Metro, visiting park, supermarket and bookstore. I found nothing peculiar, it was just like another ordinary day where the local doing their things. They work, they go to school, they shops and use public transportation. The Metro was packed with people in the rush hour, sometimes I caught them looking bizarrely at us, probably they were asking where we came from on their mind.
The interesting part is their Metro system was among the deepest in the world. It is 110 meters depth which took 3 minutes escalator ride from the ground to the platform. They built it on their own since 1970s with some equipment help from China.
5. Trying Their Delicious Food!
FUNFACT about North Korea that I found out from the trip :
- All housing are provided by the government, someone can apply to have a house only if they got married. If the married couple starting to have kids, they can apply for a bigger house.
- They don’t have internet but they do have intranet, its pretty much the same like internet you can discover any information about anything but only limited to North Korean content, for sure under surveillance of the government.
- Yes, they use smartphone which they manufactured on their own, one of the best brand called Pyongyang (?).
- Bicycle is the main transportation in the country since they don’t have enough gas resources.
- Power cut every night. but not in my hotel – thankfully. But it is easy to notice that the surrounding areas of the hotel was having outage every night since I could not spot anything through the window.
- My travel mate went super skeptical towards this trip, about how it being set up, and every encounters with local was fake. But to be honest I don’t want to see it that way. I am fully aware that the trip was arranged carefully by the tour and the authorities but I just don’t want to block my mind for having a genuine experience along the way by keep suspecting things.
I had a great time despite all the insecurities I had, there’s always a terrifying moment when we went somewhere with the army around or when I questioned something to the guides. Hence, we need to be very mindful of everything we said in front of them or off them, including in our room..hehe. But hey… that what it makes the trip interesting right!
Side note : when we return, we passed through the immigration check peacefully and hassle-free. Although we saw group of other tourist getting asked to get off the train with their belonging to get a thorough check in Sinujiu. But luckily that was not the case for us!