Archive for the ‘Kaesong’ Category

“What kind of place did I just leave that entering China feels like gaining freedom?!”
That’s what I was thinking upon leaving North Korea for the second time – because leaving the second time definitely felt different.

When I crossed the border at Dandong a few months prior I felt a bit wistful. Something was dragging me back instantly, I was mesmerized by my experiences. Dandong felt very surreal, like a completely different world. And although I wasn’t 100% serious that I would visit the DPRK again when I promised to do so to my Pyongyang guides, I somehow had a feeling that it wasn’t totally out of question.
When I was leaving North Korea for the second time I was actually glad to get out of there. The trip had been way too interesting to be considered a bad one, but this time was much more intense, I witnessed and found out things that would take me much longer to process than the lifetime worth of experiences I made in Pyongyang.

After Pyongyang I started writing right away. I went there ignorant on purpose, I wanted to enjoy the show and embrace the deception – which is so not me as I hate being lied to, but I figured it would be easier to go with the flow when visiting North Korea. (It’s definitely tough going against it when living in Japan…)
After the Northeastern Adventure I took a lot more time, hoping that I would be able to use it to process and structure my thoughts – to make sense of what I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, felt. In hindsight probably not a good idea as I don’t think it helped much, but I started to forget details. Details that weren’t essential, but details nonetheless. At least it gave me the confidence to write everything as I remembered it, because after my return to Japan (and seeing how messed up in its own way this country here is) it took me less than a week until the urge to go back rose. I wasn’t lying awake night after night trying to find a way to “go back to the island”, but North Korea is a decent size country that is opening up to tourism more and more, which is great for the half dozen travel agencies offering trips, because they can lure customers back easily. “You’ve been to Pyongyang, Kaesong, North Hamgyong and Rason, but… XYZ is open now – and you can be part of the first tourist group to get there!” And that is one of the selling points of North Korea, to boldly go where hardly any man has gone before.

Do I want to go back to North Korea? Heck yeah! I’m a sucker for remote and unusual places that offer photo opportunities, that’s what this blog is all about! Of course I would love to go back to North Korea, despite the fact that I was really angry (and happy to leave!) last time.
Will I go back to North Korea? Most likely not. Not under the current regime.
Why? Because I have the ability to remember. I remember Robocop and how he treated that boy at the market in Rason, I remember how I felt being ratted out by that old woman in Rason, I remember looking at GoogleMaps, realizing how close we came to some of the death camps – which hopefully will be remembered as a stain on the history of humankind once this ridiculous regime dissolves and all Koreans enjoy (relative) freedom.

There are some voices out there on the internet who are convinced that North Korea can be opened little by little if more and more tourists visit the country – sadly most of those voices are actually either fooled Pyongyang tourists or western tour guides to the DPRK. And I am not sure what to think of the idea. North Korea is so full of contradictions, yet the system survived for so long – can a couple of thousand tourists driven around in busses with tinted windows really make a difference? After thousands of tourists before didn’t make a difference?
When visiting Pyongyang you kind of get the image that the DPRK is a misunderstood country which is struggling to survive and doesn’t want no harm to nobody in the world; but that’s the microcosm Pyongyang, where only the elite is allowed to live and where resources from all over the country get concentrated. In North Hamgyong and even in the comparatively rich Rason I felt transported 20 or 30 years back in time – and I started to wonder why North Korea even allows those tourist tours, because like so many things in the country, the tours don’t really make sense. I don’t think it’s about the money, because there are not nearly enough tourists to the DPRK to justify the effort. In Pyongyang I can see it being about changing foreigners’ minds. The regime will never win over the western media, but they can create positive word of mouth. But why allowing western tourists to North Hamgyong and Rason? Korean is not the most common language in the world, but there are always one or two people in each group who are able to speak it – and if not, people know people who know the language. Sure, while at the clothing factory in Rason I didn’t know that one of the slogans on a pillar said “Ideology First”, but it didn’t matter, because I knew a few days later, so congratulations to the factory management, you fooled me for a couple of days! But that didn’t keep me from telling a couple of thousand readers that, while you seem to treat your workers well, you also bombard them with propaganda music and propaganda slogans – and that you use “Made in China” labels. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as you know, since I mentioned all the little things in the previous eight articles.
So why is North Korea allowing foreign tourists in the country, when it fails to deceive them and continues to indoctrinate its citizens. When things like the electric fence are continuously brought up (or maybe even revealed) by tourists? Why allowing small scale foreign aid that doesn’t get mass media attention, when Juche, Korea’s autarky, is the state’s ideology and most important goal?
The answer is: I don’t know. North Korea is full of contradictions, almost everything there is tied to a contradiction. The more you know about North Korea, the less it makes sense. And I’ve spend a lot of time in 2013 talking about North Korea and actually being there…

That being said I am very glad that I did those two trips. I made a lifetime worth of experiences, good and bad, met some extraordinary people (also good and bad…), saw and did things I wouldn’t have thought of in my wildest dreams. First I went there during the political crisis of 2013 and then again just weeks before Merrill Newman was arrested and Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed – and in-between I could understand very well why some friends and my whole family were worried about my security.
If you are interested in visiting North Korea, I hope my two travel reports were helpful to you. If you are just interesting in North Korea, I hope I was able to show you a different, a neutral side of what it is like to be a tourist there. And if you are mostly interested in urban exploration, I hope you enjoyed both series nonetheless – thanks for sticking with Abandoned Kansai, I promise I will make it up to you on Tuesday with a mind-blowingly amazing deserted hotel! (There will be two or three more articles about North Korea in the future, but none of them will put my urbex articles on hold for weeks…)
Since I came back from my second trip I’ve been asked a lot of times where I will go next, by both friends and strangers. Where can I go next after I went to North Korea? For a while I didn’t have an answer, I was considering Siberia or Alaska, but now I can tell you what the main event this year will be: I will go back home to Germany for almost three weeks (a.k.a. annual leave) to celebrate the wedding of one of my best friends – and I can’t wait to do so!

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When I planned this series of articles about my trip to North Korea I realized quickly that I wouldn’t be able to dedicate each and every location its own article – there were just too many places I’ve visited. So I tried to limit myself to the most important ones, the most entertaining ones, the most impressive ones… and overall I did a decent job, I think. Some places I had to leave out because there was just not enough information about them, at others I wasn’t allowed to take photos or just didn’t have the time to do so. So here are a couple of locations I left out, but are actually worth mentioning…

Mangyongdae is one of the 19 districts of Pyongyang and considered Kim Il-sung’s birthplace by the North Korean authorities. We went there to see what was presented as the house where Kim Il-sung spent the first years of his life, before his family fled to Manchuria to escape the Japanese occupiers. The mini open-air museum was very popular among locals, but none of the foreign tourists seem to be much impressed, even when we heard the story that the family couldn’t afford a proper storage contained and had to buy a misformed cheap one still on display…

Kim Il-sung Square (completed in August 1954, 75000 m2) we saw several times, for example during the *Fun Run* and from the balcony at the *Grand People’s Study House*, but on day 2 we went there on purpose to go to the Foreign Language Book Store (where I didn’t take photos) and to the Ryongwang Coffee Shop. It was raining while we were there, but that didn’t keep locals from practicing for the Arirang Mass Games.

The Ryongwang Coffee Shop was kind of a fill-in since the rain prevented us from going up the *Juche Tower* for about an hour. Since I am not a coffee drinker I had to get a kick otherwise – luckily right next door was an import food store that had sausages and a hazelnut chocolate spread from Germany. I was tempted to buy some since it was actually cheaper than in Japan; where that kind of stuff usually isn’t even available. Two other things I liked were the Chelsea foosball table and the Sacher Kaffee sign at the wall. We also found out how buying stuff in the DPRK works: You go to the counter where you want to buy something (at a store, at a coffee shop, …) and say what you want. Then the clerk writes down the items and their prices. This piece of paper you take to another counter to pay and get the invoice stamped. Having a proof of pay you can go back to the first clerk where you get what you bought. In smaller shops those two counters might be ones, but goods and money are always handled by two different clerks.

The Paradise Department Store was a weird experience, because when we arrived the whole building was completely dark and only a handful of locals were having a look around. The place was stuffed with all kinds of goods, just like a real department store, but to us it seemed more like a show. Even more so since the clerks instantly asked us to stop taking photos once we started. Just as we were about to leave, the whole building came back to life – show or not, the place suffered from a blackout, which explained the lack of customers and the tenseness of the employees. Sadly nobody told us while we were exploring the building on our own, so everybody assumed it was a terrible show put up for us. Jumping to conclusions based on observations, not a good thing… (It was quite an expensive department store, BTW, located somewhere in the area where all the foreign embassies are.)

The National Gifts Exhibition House a.k.a. Pyongyang National Gift Palace was… something special. This building stores all the gifts Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un received from Koreans all over the world. From the most trivial things (I’ve heard a story that a British delegation once brought a souvenir plate they got for a couple of bucks in the streets of London) to the most amazing and original artwork you can imagine. And they really display anything, for example a Power Mac G4 and disks of some really old versions of Adobe Photoshop (5.0 IIRC). My absolutely favorite item though was a piece of art, probably the most amazing painting I have ever seen in my life. Do you know about *Larry Elmore*? Larry Elmore is one of the most famous fantasy artists, immortal thanks to his legendary artwork that is forever connected with the Dungeons & Dragons pen and paper role-playing games and the Dragonlance novels. Kim Jong-il on the other hand is famous and legendary for hand-taming tigers. (And holes-in-one when playing golf!) Now imagine Kim Jong-il sitting in the saddle of a pony sized tamed tiger wearing an ancient Korean armor on top of a snow covered Mount Baekdu – painted in Larry Elmore’s style! Mind-blowing, absolutely mind-blowing! I would pay good money for a print. Or a T-shirt. Or the opportunity to see it again. Sadly photography is strictly prohibited in the National Gift Palace and of course there is no way to get a look at it otherwise, like in a brochure or something like that.

The Museum of Metro Construction was one of those museums in Pyongyang that had quite a misleading name. Of course it was kind of about the construction of the *Pyongyang Metro*, but mainly it was about Kim Il-sung and his contributions to the metro construction. What he decided, when he visited the construction site, which ways he went in and out… Of course we saw some of the used machinery, too, but in the end it was mainly about the Dear Leader. Sadly photography was only permitted in one or two rooms, so there is not much I can show you – hence the place’s appearance in this article…

At the Mansudae Grand Monument Memorial on the other hand I took quite a few photos, but just not enough to justify a separate article. The memorial consists of several elements, the most important ones are bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, both 20 meters tall. They stand in front of a mural depicting Mount Baekdu, 13 meters high and 70 meters wide, and are flanked by two memorials – “Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Struggle” and “Socialist Revolution and Socialist Construction”, both up to 22.5 meters tall and 50 meters long, with statues being 5 meters tall. Quite impressive!

A lot less impressive was the Kangso Mineral Water Factory we visited after the *Chongsan-ri Cooperative Farm* on the way to *Kaesong* via Pyongyang. I actually forgot my photo camera in the bus, so I only took a few snapshots with my video camera, but there was not much to see anyway. The water factory was a ROK/DPRK joint venture, but when the relationship between both countries went south during Lee Myung-bak’s presidency (2008-2013) the South Korean market was closed and the water factory… well, it wasn’t bottling water while we were there. Coincidence or not: I didn’t miss much, you didn’t miss much – but the water drinking bears were cute, so please check out the photo I took of those statues…

Next on the itinerary that day was the Arch of Reunification, a memorial at the beginning of the Reunification Highway a couple of kilometers outside of Pyongyang. The arch was built in 2001 to commemorate past Korean reunification proposals by Kim Il-sung and consists of two Korean women in traditional dresses, both leaning forward to hold up a sphere depicting the map of a reunited Korea. During the Sunshine Policy (1998-2008) the reunification was planned to happen in three steps: increased cooperation, nation unification with two autonomous governments, creation of a central national government – sadly those plans fell through, despite the fact that the increased cooperation part worked quite well for a while…

The final stop before reaching Kaesong was at the Pakyon Falls, one of three famous waterfalls in the DPRK. Located in the middle of nowhere about 25 kilometers north of Kaesong the falls connect the 8-meter-wide Pakyon Pool with the 37 meters lower Komo Pond. Sadly we arrived at dusk, so there were no local tourists around and we didn’t have time to climb up to have a look at the pool. Nevertheless a beautiful place indeed, with lots of characters carved into the rock forming the 8-meter-wide pool – sadly nobody asked about their meaning…

And with that you’ve seen pretty much all the places I have seen while in the DPRK. There were a handful of locations where I didn’t take photos at all (for example at the Paradise Microbrewery in Pyongyang), but those places weren’t spectacular anyway.

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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Everybody knows the Berlin Wall – but have you heard of the Korean Wall before?
According to North Korea the wall is 240 kilometers long, 5 to 8 meters high and packed with soil form the southern side (so it can be accessed by vehicles / military personnel) and it is completely invisible from South Korea. The United States and South Korea claim that the wall does not exist… but the DPRK is more than happy to show it to tourists.

We left the *JSA via the DMZ* and headed to the countryside; most likely northeast, probably for an hour. I tried to pin down the exact location of where we went to, but I failed. There are military posts on both sides of the DMZ every couple of hundred meters and it’s close to impossible to figure out with one we visited, so please consider the mark on the map a more or less wild guess.
Our driver parked the bus directly next to a small manned outpost and from there we went up a hill through a narrow trench like passage. Up there we found a rather flat building, partly hidden into the mountain, although the southern side very well knows what’s going on there…

What was going on? Well, a retired Colonel of the Korean People’s Army asked us to take a seat in surprisingly comfy chairs and told us all about the Korean Wall. How big it is, when it was built (between 1977 and 1979) and that it is slightly shorter than the DMZ, since there are openings at border crossings and at the Joint Security Area.
Afterwards we went outside to have a look ourselves. Sadly it was an overcast day and the visibility was everything but good, although the South Korean fortifications were less than 4 kilometers away. Even with the help of the ready to use binoculars and rather big zoom lenses it was impossible to clearly recognize the wall. The visible South Korean outposts were all on top of a mountain range and it looked like there was a wall or two below – whether it was a 240 kilometer long wall to separate the country or just a small construction to support the slope is hard to tell…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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There is no frozen banana stand in the DMZ, dear Arrested Development fans! Which isn’t really a surprise, given that it’s not exactly easy to get bananas in the DPRK. Or chocolate. Or nuts. Or a freezer. Or a reliable source of electricity…
Nevertheless I kept my eyes peeled after watching the show’s final episode (of season 3…) for the gazillionth time – at the *Minsok Hotel* on a media player the night before going to the North Korean side of the DMZ / JSA.

I decided to not bore you with too many facts about the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), especially after I dropped way too many numbers and Korean terms in the previous article – there are plenty of ways to educated yourself about the Korean war and its end, and you probably know the basics anyway. Instead I would like to talk about how it is to visit the DMZ when in the DPRK.

First of all: People who say that they’ve visited the DMZ most of the time actually visited a very tiny part called Joint Security Area (JSA), the only portion of the Demilitarized Zone where soldiers from both Koreas get close to each other and don’t stand 4 kilometers apart – to the best of my knowledge tourists can only visit one other part of the DMZ: A lookout where you are supposed to see the Korean Wall. “The Korean Wall?” you ask? Yes, the Korean Wall. More about that topic next time!
I’ve never been to the southern side of the JSA, but I’ve heard it’s not exactly a relaxed trip. You have to sign a waiver (since there is a theoretical chance that you might be injured or killed…), groups are split by languages (sometimes prohibiting couples of different nationalities to go together), you have to apply several days in advance (some nationalities have to go through a background check), there is a dress code, you are not allowed to do certain things (like pointing at DPRK soldiers) and overall it seems to be quite a rushed experience.
Going to the northern side of the DMZ / JSA is actually quite laid-back. We went through a background check before entering the DPRK, none of us brought offensive clothes, no matter what nationality all of us spoke English, 80% of the previous locations were a rushed experience anyway and our guides knew we would behave properly without reminding us – and signing a waiver was not necessary. It felt like just another place to see, to my surprise without any photography limitations. Even usually off-limit motives like military personnel were no problem at all. Heck, our local guide in the rank of daewi, Captain, patiently posed for photos with everybody who was interested in having one.

Visiting the JSA from the northern side started a couple of kilometers northwest, pretty much at a distance where the DMZ technically begins. There everybody had to leave the bus at a military checkpoint for checks unspecified to us. The procedure took about 20 minutes – and to keep people busy there was a decent gift shop and a separate restroom building. When the buses were ready to continue the waiting groups got a little lecture about the history of the DMZ in front of a huge painted map. Meanwhile the buses actually drove about one hundred meters past a checkpoint and everybody had to pass through an opening in a wall next to the road (rows of two, like in school!) before boarding the bus again. (No metal detectors or being padded down involved…)
About 1.5 kilometers down the road was the first of two stops, a neatly gardened area with a building where the armistice was negotiated and the building where it was signed, now housing the North Korea Peace Museum. Located in the former village of Panmunjom, the buildings were specifically constructed to house the negotiations and the signing of the Korean War Armistice Agreement.
The second stop was the actual Joint Security Area, which most people visit from the southern side. First we visited a monument dedicated to Kim Il-sung reading and signing a document about Korea’s reunification on 1994-7-7, the day before his death. The signature plate is 7.7 meters wide, the whole monument 9.4 meters; and of course it is richly ornamented with Kimilsungias, an orchid named after guess who. From there we went to the Panmungak, the building for visitors on the northern side of the JSA, to take some photos and… that was it. There was barely any activity on the southern side and since it was a quiet sunny morning, the whole visit felt quite peaceful and slightly surreal.

People always seem to be so excited about visiting the JSA, especially those who step into North Korea for half a minute in one of the blue conference buildings on the border between North and South Korea, but after having spent six and a half days in the DPRK the experience was rather underwhelming; nothing in comparison to standing in front of *Chernobyl’s Reactor #4* or *having lunch with North Korean locals*. No disrespect to the incredible importance this place has in history, but to me the first stop was much more interesting than the second one…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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The Koryo Museum in Kaesong was without the shadow of a doubt the historical and cultural highlight of my trip to North Korea.
As I mentioned before, Koryo was a kingdom on the Korean peninsula from 918 to 1392; the modern term Korea derives from that name. With modern day Kaesong (then Songdo, later Gaegyeong) being the capital for most of its existence (919-1232 and 1270-1392), it’s not really a surprise that a museum about Koryo is located in Kaesong.
The current day Koryo Museum is located at the Songgyungwan Academy since 1987 and houses more than 1000 artifacts from the Koryo period – and of course the academy itself has a very long history that dates back… to the Koryo kingdom. It started as the Taemyon Palace in the early 11th century and later became first an imperial guesthouse and then the Bureau for Confucian Doctrines. In 1089 it started to house the highest educational institution of the kingdom (for the children of state officials), the Gukjagam. In the early 14th century it was renamed Songgyungwan Academy and burned to the ground during the Imjin War in 1592, when Japanese troops failed to conquer Korea. The Songgyungwan Academy was rebuilt in 1602, so going to the Koryo Museum is impressive for the fact alone that you usually don’t have the opportunity to visit museums in buildings more than 400 years old…
Except for the missing English labeling (compensated for by a local and one of our regular guides) the Koryo Museum totally lived up to international standards, not only exhibiting countless artifacts, but also presenting plenty of photos, models and recreated places like a tomb. I’ve been to quite a few museums in my lifetime and this was definitely one of the better ones!

Even better than the museum itself was the gift shop in front / outside of the museum. Gift shops in the DPRK are more or less the same, but this one was amazing! It offered a huge selection of stamps (to collect and for use to send postcards to all countries but South Korea), a decent selection of art, quite a few different T-shirts, local ginseng products as well as… propaganda postcards and mini-posters! Most gift shops only sell photo postcards, but this one had about 40 different painted propaganda motives – anti-American, anti-Japanese, pro-education, pro-industry, pro-reunification; about a dozen of them available as mini-posters, slightly larger than DINA4. Luckily Sarah told us ahead of time, so I bought all the postcards I’ve sent to family and friends there, plus a few spare ones; but not nearly enough.
I actually regret only one thing about my trip to North Korea – not buying more stuff at that gift shop!

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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Dog meat soup was the most unusual dish I ate in North Korea – yes, dear canine lovers, soup with dog meat, locally known as boshintang or gaejangguk… But I guarantee you: nobody harmed your Chihuahua or Golden Retriever, so please get you blood pressure down again and don’t take it personal.
Eating dog meat (gaegogi) is one of the last few taboos in Western societies and honestly: I am a bit annoyed by it. I totally understand that a lot of people have a close, personal relationship with their dogs and nobody expects them to have their pets for dinner – but don’t look at people who eat dog meat as if they just butchered your first born child! Fact is: we eat smarter animals, we eat cuter animals, and we eat more endangered animals – leaving dogs out is animal racism! (Or rather “speciesm”? Hello, dear vegans, BTW… :))
Having said that let me tell you about my dog soup experience and why I won’t repeat it.

The second to last night of the *trip to North Korea* we spent in Kaesong. Dinner at the *Minsok Hotel* was good as always, but unlike the previous hotels this one offered dog meat soup as an additional optional course – for 5 Euros, which is a more than fair price by international standards (you can eat dog meat in most Asian countries, including Japan, prepared in all kinds of ways). Dog meat soup being a local delicacy and me not being an animal racist I gave it a try. My friends’ dogs always hated me and after them nibbling on my legs for 35 years I finally got the opportunity to get revenge and nibble on one of theirs… (Again, dogs eaten in Korea usually are Nureongi / Hwangu, specifically bred as livestock and not kept as pets!)
The soup came towards the end of the meal and in addition to dog meat had scallions, sesame seeds and some spices in it – a regular, rather thin grayish soup with some meat. On a small plate we received a spicy paste, most likely gochujang.
Before I even had the chance to try the soup its smell hit me – or rather its stench. Dog soup smells so bad! Basically like wet dog, I kid you not. Realizing that I’ve made a huge mistake I put the spicy paste into the soup and luckily the gochujang covered the smell and therefore most likely part of the taste, too – especially since the gochujang was quite hot in addition to smelling nicely. So in the end the soup tasted not nearly as bad as it smelled. The texture of the meat was a bit like chicken, the taste closer to beef. The broth was quite unspectacular and overall the taste was dominated by the gochujang; which was a good thing I might add, because I can only imagine what kind of taste adventure the soup must have been without the spicy paste! (There was another order of dog soup shared by two members of the group – their verdict was pretty much the same and they neither tasted the soup without the gochujang AFAIK.)

So will I ever order dog meat soup again? Highly unlikely, because I just didn’t like it – overall by far the worst dish I ate in North Korea. But I’ve heard that grilled dog tastes a lot better…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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The Minsok Hotel in Kaesong (a.k.a. the Folk Hotel) is the standard accommodation for foreign visitors to Korea’s ancient capital. It’s located in the old part of Kaesong, one of the few places in the DPRK not destroyed during the Korean War, since it was part of South Korea for the first part of the conflict and the allied forced had hoped to get it under control again (the other half of Kaesong was destroyed nonetheless). The Kaesong Folk Hotel was opened in 1989 and consists of about 20 hanok style courtyard houses along a small river – many date back to the Joson Dynasty (1392-1897) and offer their guests a traditional Korean experience, which means that people sleep on padded mats on the floor, heated by the traditional ondol system. By far the most beautiful of the three hotels I stayed at in North Korea (the other two being the *Yanggakdo Hotel* and the *Ryonggang Hot Spring House*), it was also the one where it was most evident that our freedom of movement was strictly limited. Although (or rather: because) the Minsok Hotel is located in a rather busy residential area, none of us was allowed to leave the premises. Years ago it was possible to go on a stroll when accompanied by the Korean guides, but that tiny little bit of freedom was taken away when an American tourist decided it was a good idea to sneak out alone at night…
In the morning we were allowed to step outside the hotel’s massive wooden gate to take a couple of photos of the street, but that was it. We tried everything to convince our guides to go on a walk with us, but they shut us down completely; politely, but firmly.

The most surreal moment of my stay in North Korea, way weirder than visiting the *Kumsusan Palace Of The Sun*, also happened at the Minsok Hotel: I was approaching the hotel’s gift shop, a small building near the gate, when I heard music from a big speaker on the ground. Western music. English text, written, produced and partly sung by a German. Imagine the trashiest europop possible, created in the 80s, stuff that still haunts you after more than 25 years and almost overshadowed a whole decade of legendary pop and rock songs. Only one band can come to mind, at least when you are from a German speaking or a Scandinavian country – Modern Talking! The song playing: Brother Louie. At first I thought it was Cheri, Cheri Lady since all Modern Talking songs kind of sound the same, but no, here I was… in Kaesong, North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom, the most secluded country in the world, where you never hear a single western tune except for half a Beatles song at the *Grand People’s Study House* in Pyongyang – and I had to listen to Brother Louie by Modern Talking…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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Korea’s former capital Kaesong was the next major destination on my itinerary, but before reaching the DPRK’s last city with lots of historical buildings surviving the Korean War we had a busy yet unspectacular day; most of the locations visited during that time I will talk about in the other locations article at the end of the series. (I already mentioned the lamb BBQ in the *Food For Tourists* entry the other day.) Since there is no direct highway between Nampo and Kaesong we had to go back to Pyongyang via the Youth Hero Motorway and then take the Reunification Highway (a.k.a. Pyongyang-Kaesong Motorway) south, making a stop at the “tea shop” mentioned in the Vice documentary. Just in case you saw it – the (unspectacular) building is a very basic highway rest, not a tea shop. And the “tea shop girl” has company now as there were two sales stands outside of the building both times we stopped there, although I can’t say for sure if Pun-Yun-Chi a.k.a. the original “tea shop girl” (pitied by countless Youtube comments) is still working there; heck the place was so unspectacular I didn’t even take photos or a video… And unlike claimed in the generally quite outdated documentary they are not waiting for six or ten months for customers! Even during both of our short stops (about 15 minutes each on May 2nd and May 3rd) we saw other tourist groups and local cars stopping there. Sure, only a fraction of customers a highway rest in North America or Europe has – but nothing like the out of thin air assumption made by Shane Smith, who IMHO tended to interpret everything he saw and experienced in the most negative way anyway. While it’s always a bad thing to jump to conclusions based on observations (especially when travelling alone and wondering why you are always alone…), it gets a bitter taste when it’s done to sell a product; in this case his documentary. I feel sorry that he and his cameraman had a bad time, but I think it was at least partly their own fault. Anyway.
Although built ten years earlier than the road to Nampo, the Reunification Highway is in much better condition, probably due its strategic importance, which was made clear by several military checkpoints (none of which we were allowed to take photos of) and countless tank traps – huge concrete blocks at the side of the road, some disguised as monuments, that can collapse onto the motorway in case of a foreign invasion. (I’m sure most of the bridges were rigged, too.)

By the time we arrived in Kaesong it was almost dark. What really struck me was the fact that the city didn’t have many lights. Maybe one in five apartments were lit, the rest was dark. The only construction lit up like a Christmas tree – the statue of Kim Il-sung on top of Mount Janam… (Interestingly enough some buildings had what looked like solar panels on their balconies. Not many, but still… Who would have thought that?)
The statue actually was our first destination the next morning after a night at the Minsok Hotel, but to the disappointment of all foreign visitors (…) it was closed since some people were cleaning the square in front of it – so we had a look at the city from a nearby viewing point; beautiful! When we came back to the statue we still weren’t allowed to see it, so to everybody’s surprise we were asked to board the bus to head out to the Koryo Museum since it was still too early to hit our time slot at the DMZ. And so that’s what we did…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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The food during my trip to North Korea is a topic I didn’t want to touch with a 10 foot pole, because as we all know the DPRK is a terribly poor country and it was struck by famine for several years in the 1990s. But I know that a lot of you are very much interested in what visitors to North Korea eat… and where… and when…

Since trips to North Korea are group tours pretty much everything is included in a total price. We always had breakfast at the respective hotels we stayed at – buffet at the *Yanggakdo Hotel*, set menu at the Dragon River Hot Spa Hotel in Nampo and the Minsok Hotel in Kaesong. Lunch usually was at restaurants run by KITC (which means that usually we didn’t eat with locals), dinner was either at the hotels or at restaurants. Lunch and dinner included water and one beer per person, additional alcohol was available at a ridiculously low price – I think 50 cents per bottle.
The Korean guides usually had their own table, not because they got different food, but because it was a chance for them to get away from the group and be amongst themselves. Tour guides work long hours, so they definitely deserved it!

Breakfast at the Yanggakdo Hotel was pretty good – usually some bread / buns, sweet doughy things (like donuts), pickles, kimchi, fried eggs, stewed meat (chicken, pork), battered fried fish, fried potatoes and veggies. Simple, but delicious. (Breakfast at the other two hotels was a lot more simple, which is understandable since they had a lot less customers…)

Lunch was always amazing! Usually we sat on a long table were groups of four people shared about 8 to 10 dishes. Kimchi, fried eggs, stewed meat, broiled / fried fish, sweet and sour tofu – similar to the breakfast, but way better quality. Again: simple, but extremely delicious. Since there are a lot of Koreans living in Japan I had all kinds of kimchi before, hot and cold, and I never was a big fan of it – but the kimchi we had at the KITC restaurant in Pyongyang was amazing, the best kimchi I ever had!
One day we were able to choose one of the main dishes, either bibimbap or naengmyeon. Bibimbap is one of the most famous Korean dishes (mixed rice, including vegetables, meats, eggs and several spices) and since I had it before I went with naengmyeon, cold noodles in a broth Pyongyang is famous for. Living in Japan I am very familiar with soba and udon (two Japanese kinds of noodles than can be eaten hot or cold) and so I was very curious about naengmyeon – and the guides were quite interested in my opinion. To be honest with you, if prefer udon over soba over naengmyeon at any day, but for the sake of understanding among nations I called it a draw – actually making our guide more interested in Japanese food. (I brought some sweets and shared them during the trip with fellow travelers, guides and locals.)
Another lunch highlight was the lamb BBQ in a Pyongyang park. Of course we had our own tables, but local groups were having picnics at identical tables, too, so it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary what we did there. Sunny day, great food, locals – a nice break from “foreigners looking at things”…
The lunch our guides were most proud of was pansanggi we had in Kaesong. Pansanggi consists of about a dozen small brass bowls filled with… well… vegetables, fried fish, pickles, tofu, meat, … It originated among Korean royalty, who realized that variety is the spice of life and rather had small portions of many dishes than big portions of a single dish. And since they had the resources to afford it… The preparation was amazing, for example this was some of the best tofu I ever ate – and of course the presentation added to the experience, too.

Dinner usually was kimchi, fried eggs, stewed meat, pickles, broiled / fried fish, tofu… lots of variations, so hardly any of us got sick of it over the course of the eight days we spent in the DPRK; but it was all Korean food, so people used to not only eating a different dish, but a different cuisine every day might have a tough time in North Korea. One evening we had the opportunity to visit Pyongyang’s only pizza restaurant with authentic Italian equipment and staff trained on location, but I bowed out and had dinner at the Yanggakdo Hotel. When in Rome, do as the Romans do… and eat pizza – but when in Pyongyang I prefer to have Korean food!
In Nampo we had a local specialty before the dinner – the petrol clam BBQ. And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. You arrange dozens of claims on a flat stone, soak them with two 500ml plastic bottles of petrol and light them on fire! Since the Nampo clams don’t open up when cooked that way, most of the gasoline actually burns into thin air. Nevertheless about 1 in 4 clams taste of petrol according to our guide Sarah. (I’ve tried only one since I had a weak stomach that day – more about that later…) But since “better safe than sorry” is valid all over the world our guides treated us with two bottles of soju (sweetened rice liquor) and two bottles of Pyongyang Vodka (beyond 50% alcoholic content…). I was tempted to ask for a bottle of Victory Gin, but I bit my tongue last second. 🙂
By the way – the standard farewell meal on the last night is at a duck restaurant in Pyongyang. When we went there the place was packed (with foreigners…) and the food was amazing! Four plates of meat, two plates of veggies and a grill in the middle. Heaven!

What else is there to say?
Oh, pretty much every meal came with a soup and rice – and the rice was usually one of the last dishes. Why? Because our hosts didn’t want us to give the impression that they would fill us with rice so they wouldn’t have to give us much meat, eggs and vegetables. A sweet gesture, but I don’t think anybody would have complained to get the rice along with the meats and vegetables; but I’ve heard it’s custom in other countries, too, for example at Chinese weddings.
If you want to visit North Korea, but you can’t stand the idea of eating fish, meat and shellfish with every meal there is good news: a vegetarian option is available, but no kosher or halal one.

And that’s it for food in North Korea… for now. (*But don’t miss the article about Korean Dog Soup!*)

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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