Why I went to North Korea
I’ve always been curious about visiting North Korea. My interest has peaked in the last couple of years while following Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s war of words and fascinating, if brief, bromance. After watching Michael Palin in North Korea, I decided now was the best time to go and see the country for myself.
Here at Progressive Travel Recruitment, we like to reward hard work. So, it was great to enjoy the trip as part of a company reward. Colleague wellbeing and satisfaction are highly valued. Rewards can be anything from a simple spa break to a major trip such as visiting North Korea.
Being in the travel industry, I love researching a new trip. Lupine Travel, who I travelled with, came high up in my Google search results for ‘North Korea tours’. Their UK web domain gave me confidence, as I’m also based in the UK. Like any sensible traveller, I researched the company and followed them on social media. Reviews on Trustpilot, Google and Facebook were excellent and a major factor in choosing them. But I’m always mindful of a bargain, so Lupine Travel’s ‘unique destinations at budget prices’ statement caught my eye, too. They’re great value, and so attract an independent type of traveller.
North Korea tour transport and accommodation
Our group, 11 of us, met for the first time in Beijing, before travelling the 26 hours to Pyongyang (via Dandong, China, where we met another 11 fellow travellers) by comfortable sleeper train. Going somewhere so unique was really bonding and we had great fun together. About 18 of the group were solo travellers, like me, which surprised me. We varied in ages from 19 to around 80. Once in North Korea, all transport was via coaches – two between the group.
Our accommodation was at the Yanggakdo Hotel, on an island in the Taedong River, in central Pyongyang. Because it’s separate from the rest of the city, we could walk around the grounds freely. Parts of the hotel are modern, but the rooms remain pretty dated, although it was all spotlessly clean. There are restaurants, bars, a swimming pool, sauna, massage room, shops and even ten pin bowling.
North Korea dos and don’ts
One of the first things to get used to was the lack of internet access and phone signal. The local telecoms company is for North Koreans only. For us, it was six days cold turkey. But that meant it was much easier to absorb what was going on and engage with our travel companions. I quite enjoyed the technology break.
We were given guidance about what is and isn’t allowed in North Korea. Obviously, we were advised to be respectful. But most of it focused around our devices. We were warned not to display any content that could cause offence, for example religious material or pornography. But taking photos was mostly fine, with the exception of snapping military personnel. This is only allowed in the demilitarized no-man’s land (the DMZ) between North and South Korea. On arrival in North Korea, our phones, tablets and cameras were taken from us, logged, and returned. This happened again on leaving, to ensure we didn’t leave any devices behind. Our passports were also taken and returned to us when we left the country.
North Korea highlights
We ventured out each day with our two local guides, who accompanied us at all times, apart from in the hotel, where we returned each evening. We also had James Finnerty from Lupine Travel with us.
Our tour guides were employed by the government. So, while we were acutely aware that they showed us what they wanted us to see, each day provided us with a fascinating insight into daily life in the country.
My North Korea highlights include the Mass Games, a huge gymnastics and artistic festival held every night for a few months, with over 100,000 performers. Just the sheer coordination and spectacle involving so many people is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
The Pyongyang Metro, one of the deepest in the world, is beautiful and impressive. With its marble mosaics, crystal chandeliers and gilded statues, it feels more like a series of palatial ballrooms than a transport system. Tourists have only been able to visit it since 2010, and it’s now a staple of every tour.
Another highlight was visiting the DMZ demilitarised zone, a 4-mile wide strip of land running 160 miles across the Korean peninsula, separating north from south. The Joint Security Area at Panmunjom is the only place where you can cross from North Korea into South Korea, and where military forces from both sides stand face to face.
Pyongyang is a captivating city. It’s Soviet in style, having been rebuilt after the Korean war. But what struck me most was how it felt at night. It’s home to over three million people, yet when I looked out of my 29th-floor hotel window late at night, it could have been a small village. There are virtually no cars (only government vehicles or taxis, and very few of either) and hardly any street lights, so it’s almost pitch black by 10pm. I found this incredible, and every night I’d hang out of my window in awe at it.
We spent a lot of time outside of Pyongyang, where the countryside is mountainous, green, and there are crops growing in abundance.
North Korean food
We ate well in North Korea. Plenty of kimchi, bibimbap, noodles and rice, herring, chicken, pork, and beef. Bread was rare and North Koreans don’t eat desserts, so it’s all good for the waistline. I’ve already recreated bibimbap back home.
An unusual destination
I’ll admit I was a tiny bit nervous about visiting North Korea, but absolutely loved the experience. It was incredibly stimulating. Lupine Travel runs trips to over 30 unusual destinations, including Iran, Syria, Iraq, Chernobyl and Sierra Leone. Booking is easy; they take care of everything, including the North Korea visa, enabling me to enter the country easily. I had to get a Chinese visa myself, but they supplied a supporting letter. They answered my questions quickly and efficiently and the itinerary was expertly curated. I’d definitely go somewhere unusual with them again.
Thoughts on propaganda
We visited schools, concerts, theme parks, museums, taekwondo demonstrations, supermarkets, bookstores and amazing restaurants, and everything seemed, well, perfectly normal. People are just getting on with their day to day lives, like we do. Of course, their lives are far more strictly controlled than ours are, but I came away with the feeling that Western governments are also guilty of propaganda.
The West’s message that the North Korean population suffers terribly and are starving wasn’t evident on our trip. We were shown a different side, where people, although far from wealthy, are living in a similar way to those in many other countries around the globe, albeit with a lot more restrictions than most of us.
Although we had limited interaction on our North Korea tour, everyone was very pleasant and courteous to us throughout our entire trip, although reserved. When we shopped in a local supermarket among locals, it didn’t feel different to anywhere else in the world.
We all have a one-sided view, which is why it’s good to get out of our comfort zone from time to time, and go and experience things first-hand, as best we can.
To find out more about Tony Macdonald and Progressive Travel Recruitment, connect with Tony on LinkedIn here >