My *first trip to North Korea* was a great experience. I went there with a certain amount of ignorance, to “enjoy the show”. And it was a good show, a great show… a fantastic show actually. It was so elaborate, that it was easy to believe most of it. No freedom of movement? Sure, their country, their rules. Regular blackouts outside of Pyongyang? Unfortunate exceptions. Taboo topics? Well, you avoid bringing up politics and religion in most parts of the world. The radio wasn’t working? Who cares, it would have been in Korean anyway – there was barely enough time to watch TV. Not much traffic? Well, it’s a poor country with fuel shortages, but everybody is trying to make the best of the situation. And the guides telling us that walking a lot is healthy anyway? Well, probably just North Korean humor – it’s not like Japanese jokes are much funnier…
North Korea is changing, no doubt about it – opportunities to “enjoy the show” are getting sparse, and now is probably the last chance to get a glimpse at the old regime, the strict, stiff, dictatorial North Korea. If you visit Pyongyang you already get a watered down, rather easy to swallow version. While a couple of years ago visitors had to refer to Kim Il-sung as “Great Leader” and Kim Jong-il as “Dear Leader”, nobody seems to care about the use of honorary titles like that anymore, as it alienates foreign visitors. The guides in Pyongyang speak English quite well and most of them have enough experience with foreigners to know how to handle them and follow the rather strict limitations (forced on them by their bosses) at the same time. It’s easy to get lost in that charade and blame all the evil things happening on America or the people themselves – if they would have followed the rules, they would not have been put in jail. (Which is bullshit, as we all know. In the Early Modern Age countless women were tortured and killed as witches, because their resentful neighbors made a claim and the victim had to proof their innocence. And that’s pretty much how North Korea works today.)
After my return to Japan and the series of articles I wrote about my trip to North Korea, I wanted to see more. I wanted to see a different side. I wanted a rougher version, to see myself whether Pyongyang was just a sample of an aspiring country striving for success – or if it was the exception, a Potemkin village to fool visitors.
In July 2013, while still writing articles for the first series, I decided to go back to North Korea. This time I chose a tour with a completely different itinerary with a route that wouldn’t even get close to any destination I saw on the first tour. The Northeastern Adventure was introduced in spring 2013 and opened the border crossing in Tumen for western tourists. Up till then the few visitors to North Hamgyong province used to fly in from Pyongyang or entered via Rason to visit the famous Mount Chilbo area. With the Northeastern Adventure I had the rare opportunity to see the Wangjaesan Grand Monument and to spend a night in Hoeryong. Next stops were Chonjing, the homestay village near Mount Chilbo and Kyongsong before spending three nights in the Special Economic Zone Rason. (*Click here for a GoogleMap to give you a better idea.*)
Believe it or not – I got what I bargained for. North Hamgyong and Rason were a lot rougher than Pyongyang and the places in the south of North Korea. The guides were rougher (“It’s comrade Kim Il-sung! / “No take photos!”), the conditions were rougher (no running water and no hot water for three consecutive days – which is not unusual in a poor country, but irritating when that poor country always pretends to be on par with the rich ones…), the locals were rougher. The cities were smaller and less colorful, the anti-American propaganda was less subtle, the infrastructure was less developed. While the southern parts were all about the Korean war, the northern parts were all about the Japanese occupation – down to the guide’s countless stories about Japanese atrocities, some of which started with “Sorry Mr. XYZ, but it’s historical fact!” as the Northeastern Adventure was accompanied by two Japanese citizens. (To everybody’s surprise as most Japanese people don’t want to have anything to do with North Korea.)
Speaking of my fellow travelers: This was an extraordinary group to travel with! When signing up for a group tour you never know what you get. While I enjoyed the Pyongyang group for several reasons (hey Jeff!), the Northeastern Adventure group overall was much more relaxed and less stressful – probably because it wasn’t the first trip to North Korea for anybody, with one exception. Everybody knew what to expect, everybody knew how to behave (at least most of the time), there were no “I am so cool because I am traveling to North Korea!” characters, it was just a great group!
Which brings me to related topic: You won’t find a picture of myself on Abandoned Kansai and, like last time, I tried to extent this courtesy to the rest of the group for this article series – which worked with two or three exceptions. If you see yourself on a photo and don’t like it, please drop me a line and I’ll remove the picture right away! As for you, dear reader: This time the group consisted of thirteen people plus one British guide (Amanda) plus three Korean guides during the first leg in Hamgyong province and three different Korean guides during the second leg in Rason, where the group shrunk to twelve people as one of our Japanese group members had been to the Special Economic Zone before and decided to leave early. (A “Special Thanks” goes out to my friend Mayu, who didn’t join me on the trip, but provided valuable translations afterwards. Whenever you see captions to Korean text on photos – those I owe to her.)
For the first trip I decided to write separate articles for each major stop on the tour, which resulted in more than 30 posting over 10 weeks – way too long for a blog that usually is all about urban exploration. So this time it’ll be more like a classic travel report: eight articles, one for each day; plus this introduction and an epilogue with some final thoughts. Some of the articles will be freakishly long (up to 2.500 words…), some of them will contain rants as I won’t stay away from hot topics this time. Nevertheless I hope you’ll enjoy reading what I have to say – my mind was blown several times during the trip and if everything goes according to plan you’ll make a “WTF?” face at least once per article… 🙂
Oh, and for all you hardcore urbex fans out there: The next abandoned place will be posted on February 25th – an amazing original find I explored almost two years ago!
(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…)
P.S.: I almost forgot – welcome, dear readers from North Korea! I know you don’t stop by often and I doubt that you are regular people who surf the internet after a hard day of work in the fields. But, according to the basic statistics WordPress shares with me, I had 12 page views from the DPRK between my first and second trip to North Korea, much to my own surprise. So again – welcome, comrades!