A Day In North Korea

A day in North Korea. I literally spent one day there, maybe even less.  It was golden week in China and almost everyone (except my husband) had the week off. I didn’t want to waste the whole week just sitting at home. Going anywhere in China was out of the question. Every place would be too crowded with Chinese tourists. Around 750 million Chinese tourists took trips that week.

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This was Shanghai on the second day of golden week.

A few weeks before the golden week, I saw a one day special trip to North Korea leaving from Shanghai.  I just couldn’t pass it up. In the beginning, I tried finding someone to go with me but everyone else had plans or just didn’t want to go for some odd reason. I didn’t care, I had my mind set to go even if it was alone. I didn’t care that I was American or that I was 5 months pregnant at the time. What’s the worst that could happen?! Actually, a lot could have happened if I didn’t behave myself or follow the rules……. I assume. I signed up with the tour company Uri Tours. It is actually an American tour company based on the East coast that partners with an official government approved company in North Korea. Surprisingly, many Americans go to North Korea for tourism. We just normally hear about the ones who went when it went wrong. My trip started at 9:00pm when I headed to the Shanghai Pudong Airport. I met the other 14 people (many Canadians, European and Australians) who were going on the tour with me at the check in. We were given our visas (the blue book in the photo) and our plane tickets. The North Korean Visa doesn’t go into your passport. When you leave North Korea they take the visa back. It’s like you never even went. No stamp or anything in the passport. I decided to go on my Brazilian Diplomatic passport, just in case I got into trouble or needed help medically. The USA obviously does not have an Embassy in the DPRK. If an American gets into trouble, the Swedish Embassy is there to help.
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The plane left around 12:00am from Shanghai. It is only a 2 1/2 hour plane ride to Pyongyang, North Korea. I took Air Koryo. It is a North Korean Airline. Rated the worst airline in the world. The airline was banned in Europe for a good amount of years not due to crashes or accidents but most likely because of the fact that they use old outdated soviet-era planes. I think I was more afraid of the plane ride rather than actually just visiting North Korea. We took a Soviet Tupolev Tu-204 airplane for our trip. To my surprise, the plane was very clean and comfortable. To be honest, there is many benefits of taking an older aircraft. You have much more leg room unlike any American or European airline these days where your knees are touching the seat in front of you and also, the seats reclined double the amount of a modern american or European airline. I’m pretty sure these seats would be better than the economy plus seats you pay extra for in USA. Right after we took off, the flight attendants came around with food and drinks. They weren’t that friendly but I feel that is part of the experience. Flying into Pyongyang, EVERYTHING was pitch black. I couldn’t tell if we were still flying over the China Sea or if we were flying over land until I heard the wheels come out. Below is my first view of Pyongyang, North Korea.

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waiting to get off the plane

After getting off the plane, we went through immigration. This was one of the fastest immigration processes I had ever gone through, maybe it was due to the fact that everything was on paper and they didn’t use computers. The soldier basically looked at my visa and my passport, made sure my name and picture matched. Asked me how long I was planning to stay and stamped the visa and I was on my way to customs. Normally in China or USA it takes a good 5 minutes or so. I was surprised at how easy and fast it was to get through. When I went to Customs, I had to give them my phone and my camera to check for GPS capability. They quickly went through all of my stuff and I was done.

After all 14 of us made it through immigration and customs, we were met by our government appointed tour guide. we loaded onto a tour bus and headed to the hotel. We arrived around 3:30am, upon arrival they seized our visas and passports until our departure. Kind of scary to hand over your passport and not have any legal documents on you during your stay.  We were given time to rest before our tour started at 8am. We stayed at the Hotel Pyongyang Koryo. The interior of the hotel was very interesting to say the least. I wish I could find a better word than interesting but I am still processing what my eyes saw. Doesn’t help that my background is in architecture and interior design. It was a mix of very cold soviet design that looks like it hasn’t been updated in 60 years and neon lights with mirrors.

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After getting about 3 1/2 hours of sleep, it was time to get up and start the day. I quickly got dressed and went down to the breakfast hall to eat. The breakfast was interesting. I think you will hear me say interesting many times during this post. I normally love trying new food and eating as much non American stuff as I can. After walking around and seeing the options, I decided on just having two eggs and water. There wasn’t that much food to choose from to begin with. Most of the food had come from cans or had been preserved somehow. The only thing fresh was the eggs.

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The Breakfast Hall

After breakfast, we loaded onto the bus and began our tour by visiting kim Il-Sung’s home where he grew up. It took about 30 minutes to get out there. Many people rode the buses or had bicycles to get around. I noticed that there were barely any cars on the road. This was most likely due to the fact that there is high poverty in North Korea. The cars that you did see were new and very nice. Even though many people live in poverty there, there are a selected few that are rich. The ones that are rich, most likely have a family member high in government. The scenery of the city wasn’t surprising to me. I lived in Armenia (a former soviet country) for a little over two years. Many similarities between the two. All the apartments and buildings had a very Russian soviet feel to them. The city just felt cold. No bright colors or interesting architecture (Besides the “new” and upcoming hotel that they basically have been building for 20+ years). The buildings all had the basic structure and design to look similar or uniformed with the others surrounding it. This is very normal for soviet architecture.

After visiting Kim Il-Sung’s childhood home, we headed back to Pyongyang and took the metro (subway). North Korea has one of the deepest metro in the world. It is 360 ft (110 meters) underground. The reasoning for that is because the metro also doubles as a bomb shelter. They have two metro lines and around 300,000-700,000 people take it daily.

After taking the metro for four or five stations we went to the Grand Monuments on Mansu Hill. This is where the main monuments of the late leaders are. The two statues are of North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. They are supposedly made from bronze and stand around 22 meters tall. Behind the statues is the Korean Revolution Museum. It displays a mosaic mural of Mount Paektu, which is considered to be the sacred mountain of revolution. When going up to the statues you MUST bow to show respect to the leaders. You can say what ever you want in your head to make yourself feel better about being forced to show respect to something you don’t respect at all. You must also bring flowers. If you decide to take a photo, you must have the whole statue in the photo otherwise it is considered disrespectful.

Next to the statues of the late leaders are two monuments showing soldiers, farmers, workers, etc. These two monuments are representing the Anti- Japanese Revolutionary Struggle and the Socialist Revolution.

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After visiting the monuments, we had a very simple lunch. Again, there isn’t much to say about the food. Everything was very plain and simple. Something similar to what you would have on an airplane.

The most interesting thing was the Victorious War museum. Unfortunately, I do not have any photos from the museum due to the fact that cameras nor phones were allowed in. Before entering, everyone was checked and cleared. Outside the museum, they had all the American war planes that they had shot done. They had around 20-30 and were basically displayed as trophies. The government guide talked proudly about the war and how South Korean and the Americans started the war with North Korea to try and take over the land and what not. They made us watch movies showing “what really happened” and how evil the South Koreans and Americans were. Ironically, the footage was considered original footage but it was all in HD. It was really hard to keep a straight face and not burst out into laughter. I did not dare question or ask any questions to the guide. She was a bit scary and very serious. You could tell that she truly believed everything she was saying. The last thing I wanted to do was to be disrespectful and get into trouble. After a good two hours or more, we left and headed to the main square.

Below is the Kim Il-Sung square. It is the largest city square in North Korea. It opened in 1954 and is named after the founder of the country. This square has a great cultural significance. This is where everyone gathers for rallies and military parades. It is often seen in the media.

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The Main Square -this is where the military parades are done

After visiting the main square, we had the opportunity to go to a local k-12 grade school. We were given a tour of the school and tour guide proudly showed off everything that they had. Outside there were boys playing soccer on a muddy dirt field in front of the school. Our group was able to go into one of the classrooms and meet some of the students. We went into an English classroom. All the students were very curious and a bit nervous to try to speak to us. You could hear the girls giggling and being shy every time I would look at them. All the students were very friendly.

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After visiting the classroom, a group of students put on a musical show for us. You could tell that these students practiced everyday for many hours. They were very talented.
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After that was the best part of the trip. We went to the local brewery for a draft beer. When we arrived the door was locked. Our guide tried knocking a few times but no one came. At this point into our trip, I realized everything was closed until we arrived. We were obviously going to places specially designed for the “tour”. After about 5 minutes someone came to open the door. Three flights of stairs and down some random hallways, we were finally in a room with a few enormous beer kegs. The beer was served in chilled beer mugs. A pint of beer was about 0.50 USD. Surprisingly, the beer was delicious and went down almost too smoothly. It could easily be compared to a pilsner craft beer at a brewery in the USA or Europe. It was great to sit, relax and intake everything I saw in that busy day.

After that was the best part of the trip. We went to the local brewery for a draft beer. When we arrived the door was locked. Our guide tried knocking a few times but no one came. At this point into our trip, I realized everything was closed until we arrived. We were obviously going to places specially designed for the “tour”. After about 5 minutes someone came to open the door. Three flights of stairs and down some random hallways, we were finally in a room with a few enormous beer kegs. The beer was served in chilled beer mugs. A pint of beer was about 0.50 USD. Surprisingly, the beer was delicious and went down almost too smoothly. It could easily be compared to a pilsner craft beer at a brewery in the USA or Europe. It was great to sit, relax and intake everything I saw in that busy day.

 

If I could some up my trip into one photo, this would be it!

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