North Korea!

This is a loooooooooooong post (prepare yourself). I’m sorry if somethings seem out of order, I wrote, then went in and added details.

I went to North Korea last weekend! Fantastic trip!

Strange as it seems there are tours from South Korea to North Korea. They’re run exclusively by the Hyundai Asan company. It costs a pretty penny but the only other way that I know of to do a tour in North Korea is via China to Pyongyang which is much more expensive.

I was surprised that Americans can go, but there aren’t any rules against it on either side, in fact, you have to purchase things with US dollars! I never saw any North Korean currency while I was there.

There were a lot of rules, which were supplied to us before the trip. No phones or any devices that could possibly record voices. No cameras with X16 zoom or higher. No gear with the names or flags of South Korea, Japan, or the US (even though we had to spend US dollars). No attempt to communicate with soldiers was allowed, that included obvious attempts at eye contact. No pictures from the buses at any time. Pictures on the trails were ok, but no pictures of buildings. At the beach we could take pics out towards the ocean, but not towards the land. No pics of NK citizens. No newpapers or magazines can be brought in but novels are ok. They were strict about the rules. I saw peoples cameras get taken away at immigration for having too high a zoom (they are returned when you leave) and all soldiers have a red flag, to stop any bus or group where someone is breaking a rule.

A few weeks ago I made my reservation and sent in pictures and passport info so I can be issued an NK visa. It is not put in your passport, it is made onto a card that is given to you upon entry and taken back upon return. Unfortunately there are no NK stamps in my passport! I got a photo of the NK visa before hading it back. It must be worn around your neck and visible the whole time you’re in the country. If it is damaged you are fined $10, lost, $100.

Our English guided group of 20 left Seoul on Friday at 5 for the border. We spent the night in SK, somewhere close to Hwajinpo on the East Sea (click here for map) I was alone so I was randomly assigned a roommate who turned out to be this really awesome girl, Jade. She’s an American who also studies Chinese, we hit it off well.

We woke up ten minutes before the bus had to leave (at 6:30) because the wakeup call never happened and finally went to a sort of muster-point for all of the tour groups. Even though we all registered with different smaller companies we were really all on the Hyundai Asan tour. We piled onto 40 huge buses and basically had a convoy to the border which was less than 20 minutes away. At this point, we left our cell phones behind.

We were processed through SK immigration and then piled back on the buses, finally we passed through the DMZ, waved at the last South Korean soldiers, and then passed the actual border into North Korean territory, now with non-waving NK soldiers. The weird thing was that as soon as we were within NK we could see a few children hiding behind rocks to look at us. A few minutes later, BOOM!

You won’t believe it but our bus crashed— before reaching NK immigration! Nice first few minutes in NK! We were the last two buses in the convoy, apparently the one in front stopped short and we slammed into it. There were several minor injuries like bloody noses and hurt shoulders. I was fine. The problem was we were on a road where you were not supposed to stop and were not even supposed to make eye contact with the soldiers (there were a lot of rules about that). No one knew what to do. We just had to sit for over an hour while soldiers and tour guides discussed what to do. Meanwhile, there was no first aid kit and the injured received no treatment of any kind. In fact, no one even got ice for their faces until an hour and a half after the accident when were finally processed through immigration. That’s right, people had to go through immigration (which we walked to) holding shirts up against their heads if it was bleeding. Way more excitement than we all planned for!

The immigration building was strange because it was very makeshift, part portable buildings and part tents. There was a huge building behind it that looks like it might be the future immigration building but it was empty and unused and did not appear to have any building going on at the site that day. (Huge picture of Kim Il-Sung though). A man dressed in a bear suit and waving greeted us as we cleared immigration.

We then got back onto our mangled but still working bus and drove to Onjeonggak, a sort-of tourist village which was the start point for all of the hikes and where most of the restaurants and shopping places, and entertainment were located. As we found out, most of the employees we interacted with were not North Korean, they were Chinese. North Korea is serious about not exposing their citizens to foreign influence. They recruit Chinese workers for the tourist villages. The chinese were open about their experience (they hated it there and couldn’t wait until their contract was up) whereas the NK workers were not interested in conversation beyond the minimum required for their job. Jade snagged some great photos of NK citizens and the countryside, totally illegally or course, I’ll post some when I get copies. I bought a pin on the trail and she snapped a photo of the NK girl pinning it onto my shirt.

Anyway, this point we were really off schedule and a lot of changes had to be made to the day (very annoying, lack of communication between tour guide and group, lack of organization, long story) We finally set off on our first hike at noon (others started at 9:30). The good part was, it was not a sea of humanity since we started so late so we got to get some great pics on the trail. Also, since there was no way we would be able to fit in a second trail we could walk leisurely on this one. This was the Guryeongyon Course (click here for website) to the famous Guryeon falls. It was beautiful, especially with the fall colors contrasting on the white rocks. Most of my pictures are from that hike. Afterwards we went to the hot springs. There was an indoor part with things life jade pools (lined entirely with jade rocks) a germanium bath, a mineral sauna, and more. The outdoor part was the neatest. It was cold out but really nice in the tubs with a great view of the mountains. From there, dinner with some other people from the tour, and then the circus performance.

The circus was really wild. We’re so used to going to shows with special effects, pyrotechnics, etc. but this was done the old way. Live orchestra, and incredibly talented performers doing bizarre acts. I’m glad I paid extra to see it.

After that we were brought to our hotel, on a bay. We had to be bussed to it, basically transferring from one isolated tourist village to another. We were on a street with other hotels, restaurants, and a lounge with karaoke. You could walk freely within the area but could not leave the area. Across the bay we could see an NK town. Drab, sparse, and seemingly no activity from out viewpoint. In the morning we can hear loudspeakers with first an announcement and then two songs coming from the town. I don’t know what they were about.

Our hotel was fairly luxurious and new; soft beds, clean water, room service, etc. It was strange to be in such a nice place when just outside the tourist zone you could see that people were living with little. We could quickly see that we were in no way experiencing the real NK. We were in a SK pocket. We even had some SK cable TV channels in our hotel room– there is NO WAY the NK have access to that. We watched CSI before going to bed– surreal.

The next morning while the rest of the group opted for a tough mountain hike Jade and I chose to go on the beach and lake walk. The beach was beautiful and the lake was cool more for the kebab lunch than for the views. After that we did some shopping and it was all already over! Luckily, the trip over the border was nowhere near as eventful as the first time! It was an interesting experience and I’m really glad I got to go.

We didn’t get to see much of what North Korea is really like. The bus rides between spots were our only glimpse. My eyes were glued to the landscape, farmland with a beautiful mountain backdrop. There were no cars that were not tour or military related. The farmers were doing things the old way, ox drawn carts, wheelbarrows, carrying loads on their backs. people got a round on bikes, including many of the soldiers. As expected, there was not much variation in dress or hairstyle. Homes in each village were all exactly the same. They were freshly painted but rather crumbly otherwise. People would look at us and then quickly look away. Soldiers were standing guard periodically along the roads we drove on. It was weird to be looking out at a field and then realize there was a soldier in it staring back at you. They did not give us threatening looks or point weapons or anything like that, but they did not crack a smile, just stood still and stared on.

The memories that stand out in my mind are all the small instances I got to see some of the real North Korean life. I was not interested in hiking, although it was nice, it was just what I had to do to get a glimpse of the last stronghold of Stalinist Communism.