Wednesday, April 11, 2007 China China / Korea (North) North Korea

DPRK final preparations

Koryo Tours office [Enlarge]

Even before our round the world trip began, we were thinking that it would be cool to visit the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), a.k.a. North Korea. But we had no idea whether we would ever actually do it—we knew that getting in is a non-trivial task. However, once we got into the swing of things early in 2007 and it became clear that we were heading towards north east Asia, we decided we had to give it a go.

Our visit has been planned and booked since early February (we booked it from our hotel room in Delhi). But we didn't mention it on the blog because it might not have happened after all and we didn't want to worry people (for 'people' read 'parents'). Oh, and we like springing surprises!

So, why the hell would we want to visit the DPRK? Surely it is just that weird place full of starving people run by a cognac-slurping madman whose dead father is still the president? Well actually we suspect there's a lot more to the place than that and we want to see it for ourselves rather than accept wholesale what we're told about it in the media. We've wanted to visit since Glenn stumbled across this article on the BBC website way back in 2003 (when he should have been working). It sounds like a fascinating place.

Only about 1,500 western tourists go there every year, a figure that has been likened to the number visiting a British seaside resort on a damp, grey winter's day. There are few places on earth as un-touristy as the DPRK. Surely a place as strange as this cannot last forever, and we want to visit before it opens up.

Let's get a few things straight before we go on.

  • We do not support the regime in the DPRK.
  • We are not communists.
  • We don't want the DPRK to have nuclear weapons.
  • We wish that the DPRK people were free.

However, the country is what it is, and we're curious to see it. Yes, our hard currency will be going straight to the government, but let's face it, the price of a week's holiday won't buy many nukes or bottles of vintage cognac. The USA has a turbulent relationship with the DPRK, but our British Government maintains normal diplomatic relations with the country and encourages tourism in the hope that it will show the people that Westerners are not all evil imperialists intent on destroying them, which is the story they are fed every day of their lives.

Right, now we've got that out of the way, let's get on with the story.

The only way to visit the DPRK is on an organised tour, accompanied by tour guides assigned by the Korean International Tourist Company, the only tour company in the country, and naturally, government-run. You can travel to the DPRK on your own, but you will still be assigned two guides and a driver, so you will simply be on an organised tour of one person. Which will be expensive.

We found a company called Koryo Tours, based in Beijing and run by British staff. They have been taking tourists to the DPRK since 1993. They had a selection of tours available for this year, including several in April and May, during the famous Arirang Mass Games, held to celebrate the 95th birthday of the Great Leader and eternal president, the late Kim Il-sung. From what we had read about these amazing games, we desperately wanted to see them. But they are not confirmed until just before they happen (the last ones were in 2005 because they were cancelled last year due to widespread flooding). So we just had to book the tour and hope for the best. We decided that if we were going to go to the DPRK, we might as well pick a time that would see us be there on the actual birthday itself. This is why we have occasionally had to rush a little over the past few months (for example missing out Cambodia), because we knew we had to be in Beijing for the departure on 12th April. Our tour will take in all the highlights of the DPRK over seven action-packed days, culminating in an overnight train ride back from Pyongyang to Beijing.

Our preparations started as soon as we booked. We had to get an employer's letter to prove that we're not journalists or photographers. For unemployed people like us that means a letter from our most recent employers. Then we had to send off passport numbers, photos and scans so that the process of acquiring a visa could begin well in advance. Koryo Tours warned us that they would not know until the day before we were due to leave (i.e. today) whether we had successfully got the visa, so we tried not to get too excited about it.

Around five weeks ago we had an email confirming that the Mass Games are going ahead. Another email followed five days later to say that the tour was now full, and we would be accompanied by 38 other people! Instructions were detailed. We will need a torch, an alarm clock, gifts for our guides (cigarettes, instant coffee, moisturiser cream, chocolate etc.—everyday stuff that's hard or impossible for them to get over there), plenty of spending money in small denominations of Euro, US Dollar or Chinese Yuan (there are of course no ATMs in the DPRK, and anyway it is illegal for foreigners to use the local currency), enough batteries and memory cards for our camera, warm clothes, including a tie for Glenn when visiting Kim Il-sung in his mausoleum, plus anything and everything else necessary for a week in a country where you can't easily buy anything that you've forgotten. So as soon as our tour of China finished, we had to race ahead with sorting ourselves and our bags out.

On the 11th of every month, the Chinese are being encouraged to form orderly queues. This is so that by the time of the Olympics, it will be second nature for them not to push and shove. We kid you not. There was even a film crew filming this queue, at the Dongsishitiao Subway Station. [IMG_2097]
National Queuing Day [Enlarge]

We also had to attend a final briefing at Koryo's Beijing office. We decided to take the subway. Beijing subway is one of the more challenging public transport methods we have used so far because there are no automatic ticket machines with English translations. You have to buy a ticket from a kiosk, which entails being able to say where you want to go using the right tones (which is completely impossible). We eventually managed to get a ticket to the place we wanted, which involved a change at Dongsishitiao station. As we arrived on the platform to wait for the outbound train, we saw a bizarre sight. The morning commuters were queuing up in orderly lines on the platform! Even in London [capital city of the world's number one nation of queuers, where we joke that queuing will be added to the 2012 Olympics as it is our national sport] no one queues for the tube. But in Beijing, the 11th of every month is Queue Practice Day, part of the preparations for the 2008 Olympics. It's causing such a stir that there was even a TV film crew there, filming the queuers. Feeling humbled by such a fantastic demonstration of queuing technique we obligingly joined the back of the line. But it was all for nothing, because as the next train rolled into the station all good manners disintegrated. The carriages were packed and it was every commuter for themselves. Chinese push-and-shove normality was restored.

We were one of the first ones to arrive at Koryo's office and Simon, one of their four members of staff (and the man who would be accompanying us to the DPRK) suggested we wait in the games room where we could play pool or bar billiards. Their bar billiards table is the only one in Beijing! One by one the other members of our tour group began to arrive. They were as varied a group as you could imagine. Young, old, male, female, couples, friends and lone travellers. You have to be pretty keen to visit North Korea to sign up for a trip there. It's not cheap, it's not always going to be comfortable and there are some very strict rules to be followed. We chatted to some of the other travellers before the briefing started and tried to get a feel for why everyone else wanted to visit. Mostly the reasons were similar to ours, but there were also one or two students doing strange degrees for which this would give them an angle; and yes, a few weirdos too.

When 10:00 came Simon got us all into the meeting room and talked through all the things we needed to know. Basically, a trip to the DPRK is serious. When out and about, you cannot stray away from your guides at all, ever. When safely back at the hotel, you can go for a short walk outside for a breath of fresh air (this is only possible because they built the main tourist hotel on an island in the middle of the river to prevent tourists from escaping). You must do what the guides tell you at all times. You must not take photographs unless they say you can, and never from a moving vehicle. You must not photograph anything vaguely military. You must show respect for the country, and particularly the leadership. You will be required to bow to the statue of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang, and to his dead body. No mobile phones, laptops, radios, DVDs, tripods, GPS receivers, clothes with political slogans or books about the DPRK. If you have problems with any of this, do not go. Simon reiterated that the DPRK is a very safe country—possibly the safest place in the world for a tourist to visit, since there is virtually no crime and little traffic to run you over! He added that if we break any of the above rules, we will not get into trouble—our guides will. We (and they) will be watched at all times and misbehaviour on our part will have serious consequences for them and possibly for their families.

This is not going to be a typical package holiday.

After paying our visa fee and handing in a signed form confirming one last time that we are not professional photographers or journalists, and indemnifying Koryo Tours for any loss, injury, death, etc., we headed off to buy a last few things (including a tie). Tomorrow morning we will fly from Beijing to Pyongyang and begin a tour of our second country on Mr Bush's Axis of Evil list.

We are posting details of our trip on this personal blog with permission from Koryo Tours.

1 Comment:

Jake said...

I can’t wait to hear all about your experiences in the DPRK.
- Jake