The Northeastern Adventure started on a rainy Monday morning in front of the Ryugyong Hotel. No, not the famous triangle shaped hotel in Pyongyang that was the world’s most famous construction ruin for many, many years – the one in Yanji, China, also known as Liujing Hotel. At first sight just a regular accommodation like most other ones in this emerging city, it is in fact quite unique as it is run by the North Korean state. More about the Ryugyong Hotel in the *Day 8 article*, when I actually stayed there for a night…
I had met some of my fellow travelers the day before on the way from Yanji airport to the city, but since I stayed at a different hotel, mainly for cost reasons (70 EUR VS 17 EUR…), I had to catch up with a couple of names and faces before being put on a bus to the border between China and North Korea. While most tourists to the DPRK enter and leave the country via Pyongyang Airport, we were about to use the border crossing in Tumen, about 40 kilometers east of Yanji. Up till 2013 Tumen attracted both Chinese and western tourists who wanted to take a peek at the Evil Empire and maybe buy some authentic North Korean items from local traders – defectors tend to sell most of their belongings, including the otherwise not-for-sale Kim pins North Koreans wear in public, to finance their new life in China. It was even possible to walk up to the middle of a border bridge for some souvenir photos… where a friend of mine was warned in 2012 that he would be shot if he’d take one more step, passing the yellow line on the ground. This border was opened to western tourists in 2013 – and to the best of my knowledge we were the second western tour group to ever cross this line (without being shot). It also means that we were most likely the second tour group to ever enter North Korea on foot, since you have to take a bus at the bridge in Wonchong to enter / exit North Korea when visiting Rason.
Despite one of my fellow travelers taking the flak from a Chinese immigration officer when taking photos inside the customs building (d’oh!), I quickly took out my small and totally silent video camera when we left, allowing me to shoot a three part video: Chinese customs building to final Chinese passport inspection, Chinese passport inspection to North Korean side of the bridge, North Korean side of the bridge up to North Korean border guard. How risky that move was, I realized at said warning line where my friend Nicolai almost got in trouble a year prior. Another member of my group crossed the border to North Korea and started to take photos – the Chinese border guard at the line told him to stop and delete the photos whereupon my fellow tourist said something like “You can’t tell me anything, I’m in North Korea now!”; he was right and the Chinese guy was slightly pissed. I just kept a low profile, holding my small black camera close to my chest, wearing a black T-shirt and a black coat…
Back In North Korea
While customs on the Chinese side were quick and easy, they dragged for quite a while on the North Korean side. After meeting our local guides we were led into a waiting room where we had to put all electronic devices as well as English and Korean books into a blue plastic bag with our names on it (in Korean). We were told ahead of time that there won’t be an X-ray machine and that everything would have to be checked by hand – luckily the customs office recently got a brand new machine, which cut down the waiting time drastically. The electronics check had to be done manually though, but the customs officers… well, they were not really familiar with modern technology. They knew about certain technical terms, but they didn’t seem to have a clue about how things are connected. IIRC they asked a fellow traveler to show them the hard-drive of her MacBook after booting the machine – and when she said that it doesn’t have one they shut down the computer and moved on with the next person. After about two hours we were finally done and entered our new main home of the following days: our bus. By North Korean standards an engineering marvel, coming from the country of Mercedes-Benz busses I’d consider it a rather uncomfortable Chinese monster with tinted windows. Yes, tinted windows, reducing visibility and shutter speed. Taking pictures from a moving bus on bumpy roads is tough as it is, tinted windows don’t help. But that was something I shouldn’t worry about too much anyway as the three guides officially introduced themselves, laying the law on us – i.e. reminding us that photography is the main problem with tourist groups and strictly limited, especially on the bus. That being said our driver Mr. Kim hit the gas and off we went…
So, what’s the first thing you do upon arrival in North Korea? Wrong, not bowing in front of a statue, at least not in our case – we had lunch first! As you might remember from *my first trip to North Korea*, food is good and plenty in the DPRK… at least as long as you are a government official or a tourist. After a really good meal in Onsong we made our way to the Wangjaesan Grand Monument right outside of town (*don’t miss my tourist map of North Korea if you don’t want to get lost!*) – erected in 1975 to commemorate a speech given by Kim Il-sung, pardon: comrade Kim Il-sung, in 1933. Yes, comrade Kim Il-sung. The countryside guides are clearly a little bit rougher around the edges than the guides in Pyongyang. Their English is worse, their photography rules are stricter (and more inconsistent…) and instead of referring to the Kims just by their names we had to add “comrade” all the friggin time. Leaving it out lead to being corrected by Mr. Li, Mr. So and “the Shadow” Mr. Sin – who was barely seen and hardly heard until the last evening, when he finally relaxed and got drunk on Mr. So’s birthday. The Shadow also provided us each with a huge bag of homemade popcorn on the first day; great stuff BTW – eat that America, North Koreans make the better popcorn! :)
Anyway, Wangjaesan Grand Monument, a beautiful set of sculptures. Kim Il-sung surrounded by his people from all walks of life, people preparing baskets of flowers for the Great Leader and of course some more statues of soldiers moving forward. The real highlight though was the beautiful scenery the monument is located in… and the rather cute local guide in WW2 uniform. The Wangjaesan Revolutionary Museum we left out though – all four guides agreed that we could do without it.
Back on the bus the never ending confusion about photography started. Since we were in the middle of nowhere our fabulous guide Amanda got Mr. Li to allow us to take pictures from the bus… and five minutes later Mr. “No take photos!” came up to me and stopped me taking a video. I guess by pictures he meant photos, not videos… Or maybe I missed some kind of time limit. Lost in translation, that happens, but it continued, which started to frustrate me, especially since a Japanese guy was involved – he was on his 11th (!) trip to the DPRK, fluent in Korean and didn’t give a damn about any of the photography rules; and he always got away with it! It happened more than once that I heard a slowly familiar “No take photos!” (directed at me or somebody else from the group) while the descendant of the evil occupants (of all people!) freewheeled and took photos of anything and everything, including absolute no-gos like trains, stations and people.
From Onsong we took a rather mountainous road back towards the Chinese-Korean border along the Tumen River to our final destination of the day, Hoeryong – and Mr. Li started to repeat over and over the three things the city is famous for: beautiful women, beautiful white peaches and beautiful earthenware. On the way there we made a couple of stops where we finally again got official permission to take photos, which was nice, because this area is hardly seen by any westerners.
Upon arrival in Hoeryong we checked into the Hoeryong Hotel (no need for creative names when the competition is low…) and had dinner – a rather nice hotel and a rather nice dinner, though the singing and dancing hit us with full force. We were told that after dinner the waitresses would like to entertain us with a performance, and of course it didn’t take long until some of us were dragged into it.
At least the waitresses were indeed beautiful, unlike other things going on in the city of Hoeryong. In fact, most Westerners who have heard of Hoeryong have heard of it in a different context: Hoeryong is (or was?) home to Kwan-li-so 22 – a.k.a. Penal Labor Colony 22 a.k.a. Hoeryong Concentration Camp. Founded in 1965 and according to satellite photos either remodeled or closed in 2012 it is one of the biggest and most infamous death camps in North Korea. With a size of 225 square-kilometers (!) it is far more than a prison – there are farms, a mine, a train station, several factories and of course quarters for the guards and up to 50.000 (!) prisoners. The West knows quite a bit about the conditions in the camp thanks to Ahn Myong-chol and Kwon Hyok, two former guards who defected in the 1990s – if you are interested in the sickening reports about people getting tortured, experimented on and worked to death feel free to google the place; you’ll find tons of gut-wrenching information on the internet.
Only few of us were aware of these unmentioned facts while sleeping well-fed in our warm beds at the Hoeryong Hotel – just 5 kilometers south of the death camp’s entrance…
(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. *Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)