Monday, April 8, 2013

North Korea Day 1 (4/4/2013)

I've decided to wait a few days since being back to make my first post related to my recent trip to Pyongyang, North Korea.  To be honest, there are so many thought's, questions, and new information that I'm having difficulty making sense of it all.  We were told by Koryo Tours at the pre-trip briefing on Wednesday that we would come back with more questions than we left with.  This could not be more true.  This post will highlight Day 1 of the trip.  Posts #2 & #3 can be found at the links below.

2/3: North Korea Day 2 - AM (4/5/2013)

3/3: North Korea Day 2 - PM (4/5/2013)

Me with Pyongyang in the background
Arriving at Tigris Coffee in Beijing on Thursday at 11am to meet up with the group, I was feeling a mixture of excitement and nervousness.  Although Koryo Tours had assured us everything was good to go and there is almost no risk, South Korean workers had been shut off from entering to the Kaesong Factory area the night before, so tension was building.

Mocha at Tigris Coffee in Beijing
After a quick Mocha, we were on our way to the airport in a group bus.  We got checked into our flight quickly and posed for pictures with the Pyongyang departure sign.  At this point, I don't believe it had really sunk in yet, but that was soon to change.  We made it to our gate with an hour to spare, so the group began to meet and greet with each other.  It was cool hearing everyone's travel stories and experiences.  Why many in the group were stopping through North Korea as part of a larger backpacking trip, others were based in either China or South Korea and this was their exclusive vacation.

Things started to become real when I entered the plane.  As I tried to take a picture, I was told by the flight attendant to put my camera away and that no pictures were allowed for the duration of the flight.  Then the television screens dropped down and we were greeted with North Korean war propaganda the entire flight, complete with patriotic music.  With all of this though, I don't think Air Koryo deserves to be ranked 1 star, the lowest of any airline in the world.  Their service and plane quality was actually quite nice, and minus the differences listed above, it was a rather normal flight, complete with in-flight meal.  We were even given reading materials ;)
I managed to sneak this photo
Upon arrival, and after reading of how the DPRK had plans to hit the United States with missiles, we were quickly whistled inside after taking a minute to pose with the aircraft.  The first impression was all soldiers and very strict, with prominent pictures of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il the only decorations in the one room terminal.  Passing through customs was an ease, as I was not asked a single question.  I collected my bag, went through luggage declarations, and boarded our tour bus.  There I met our guides, Ms. Pang and Mr. Lim.

Exiting the plane
Me with Air Koryo plane

The bus ride into town was a 30 minute ride with lots to be seen.  We were allowed to take video and pictures, so I shot some good footage.  There was a lot of tree planting and farming taking place, with the occasional bicycle and propaganda sign.  However, there were almost no cars, other than military trucks hauling army workers.

Our first and only stop of the day was Kim Il-Sung Square, where we were able to pose for pictures with both the square and the Juche Tower.  This was our first experience off of the bus, but it was a memorable one.  There were many kids rollerblading in the square, and it was strange to think that just one week prior, this had been the location of an anti-US rally.  It was a strange feeling, that's for sure!

Our next stop was our last for the evening, which was the Yanggakdo Hotel.  Also called the "Alcatraz of Pyongyang, as it is on an island and foreigners are not allowed to leave, it was a nice hotel, but certainly not the 5-stars it was ranked.  We were given an hour to get settled in before we met for a group dinner at Rainbow Restaurant, which is in the hotel.  It was a nice meal and provided more time to get to know other group members.  

Following dinner, I went with new friends from the tour group to explore the hotel and find out what made it a "pleasure palace", as it had been described earlier in the day.  We quickly found why.  It had billiards, bowling, massage, casino, restaurants, ping pong, and a bar that served great beer.  After gambling for about 30 minutes, I left the casino area down 100 RMB ($16) and went to the bar area.  There, I got to drink with our guides, Mr. Lim and Ms. Pang, as well as other foreigners and Koreans.  Against my plan, I ended up getting rather drunk, along with most people there.  It was here where I got to have a bit of "real" discussion with Ms. Pang about the politics of our country and how it would be great if there could be peace.  It was a cool experience that I did not expect to have.  It also put me at a bit more ease for the rest of the trip.  Looking forward to sharing more about Day 2 later this week.  Will also be doing an AMA (Ask Me Anything) about my trip and posting the report to the blog.

Billiards hall
One of the hotel bars
Empty Slots
Nick, Mr. Lim, Ms. Pang, Rich (Koryo Tours), and I
Night view from my room


  1. I Enjoyed The Read. Can't Wait For The Next Post.

  2. This is great. I have been enthralled with North Korea lately and wondering how the people feel about this. I am actually surprised there isn't an uprising over these threats. Especially with the threats of China threatening to pull relations with the North. Please keep this updated as much as you can and can't wait to read more.

  3. Thanks for this post, as well as any upcoming.