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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…

Onsong

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.

Hoeryong

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…)

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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!

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I am a bit in a pickle here…

Do I write and publish the article I have been thinking about for several weeks now – or do I keep my mouth shut? In October I went back to the DPRK for a second time, an experience even more intense than *the first trip in spring*, way more disturbing, way more conflicting. On the one hand I enjoyed both trips tremendously, on the other hand I saw and experienced things I would like to share with all of you. But if I do it in an honest way, I probably shouldn’t show my face again in North Korea for a third time…

When I first visited the “Hermit Kingdom” in spring of 2013 I did it with a slightly ignorant attitude, willing to enjoy the experience, knowingly accepting that I will be fooled and restricted. And I actually enjoyed the tour. A lot! So much that I visited the DPRK again in October of 2013, this time the northern parts; North Hamgyong province and Rason.
The guides in Pyongyang were nice and surprisingly open-minded, the food was fantastic, Pyongyang with its high-rise buildings and solar-powered streetlights was a lot more modern than expected, the photography and video limitations were a lot more loose than (almost) everybody claims… and the bowing in front of statues, the bumpy countryside roads, the regular power-cuts outside of Pyongyang, the restrictions of free movement – all of that was commonly accepted as North Korean quirkiness in a combination of group effort and voluntary Stockholm Syndrome; it became natural within hours, everybody always gave the home team the benefit of the doubt. And I was intrigued, I wanted to see and experience more… despite my friends and family universally thought that it wasn’t a good idea, some of them being worried about the articles I wrote about my first trip, about remarks I made in the comments.
Of course I went anyway, fueled by what appeared to be authentic moments – and I still think that some of them actually were honest and unstaged, like the *picnic at the Taesongsan Park & Fun Fair*. I also believe that life in Pyongyang is decent, but I had to come back with a clear mind and travel to the countryside to get a look at the costs of it, because Pyongyang isn’t a typical example of North Korean progress – it’s an exception, a severely subsidized prestige project that only exists because the almighty political elite doesn’t care much about, and in some regards even sucks dry, the rest of the country. The power-cuts in Nampo and Kaesong weren’t the exceptions, they were just small glimpses at reality in the DPRK outside of Pyongyang – and the southern parts of North Korea are quite blessed. The temperatures are rather mild in comparison to North Hamgyong, the economy is comparatively successful thanks to the train and ship connections to China, and the much larger amount of Western tourists doesn’t hurt either…

Group Photo With North Koreans

Fool me once…

I really enjoyed my first trip to the DPRK, but after going there a second time, I have to admit that I’ve been fooled a lot more than I thought while writing about my experiences. The strange thing is: I liked my second trip to North Korea even more than the first one! Despite (or maybe because?) it dawned on me that this trip was a lot more real – a much better look at the current state of the DPRK, yet still just a scratch on the surface. On the first trip pretty much everybody ate up what the guides / guards / guardguides / guideguards had to say, but this time the vibe was different. People behaved even better, but for different reasons. Some were hardcore North Korea fans, others just wanted to allay all the worries our constant companions might have had about us to get a little bit more freedom and insight than previous visitors. I don’t think the minders were blatantly lying to us, but they were controlling all information – what we heard, what we saw, what we smelled, what we tasted. And when you are in almost total control and nobody questions that power, it is actually quite easy to shape impressions just by leaving things out. Some of it became very apparent during this second tour, some of it only while I was reconstructing the experience with the help of my photos, the adjusted itinerary, GoogleMaps and Wikimapia. (I added lots of new locations to my original GoogleMap about North Korea. *Please click here to have a look.*)

The fact that shocked me the most after my return was that we passed three of the biggest concentration camps in North Korea by less than 10 km! When we visited the city Hoeryong right at the beginning of the tour, our guide kept repeating that the city is famous for its three beauties: Beautiful women, beautiful white peaches and beautiful earthenware. I knew that he was bullshitting us just by looking at photos of Hoeryong’s most famous daughter, Kim Jong-suk, the wife of Kim Il-sung and mother of Kim Jong-il – no offense, but when I talk about the beauty of German women I don’t get Angela Merkel associated! (And after this comment I guess I better not return to North Korea…) Luckily Germans are more forgiving and Mrs. Merkel won’t throw me and my family into jail for the rest of our lives. Speaking of which: Hoeryong is famous for another thing, though it’s everything but beautiful – Kwan-li-so 22, Labor Camp 22; one of North Korea’s biggest and harshest concentration camps, where (according to two defected eyewitnesses) 1500 to 2000 people per year get worked or tortured to death, up to 4% of its total population. Maybe got, as the camp might have been closed in 2012 – which means that those prisoners were either killed or continue their sufferings in other camps. All of that I didn’t know at the time when I was spending a night at a hotel in Hoeryong, just about 5 kilometers away from the camp’s gate… (BTW: Prisoners only receive(d) a small amount of the food per day, despite a food factory in the camp’s labor colony Haengyong-ri. Like everywhere else in the country most of it was delivered to the capital Pyongyang, even if the locals and prisoners were starving, like during the Arduous March between 1994 and 1998.)

Kim Jong-suk With Husband And Son Food Factory In North Korea

Get them while they are young!

Other examples for leaving out information we experienced at two kindergartens, where we were about to watch typical performances by local children; singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. At the first kindergarten we walked through long hallways on the first floor with Hello Kitty and other colorful child-oriented images painted to the walls, then we were rushed through a staircase directly to the third floor, where the children were waiting to perform for us. I was able to sneak five meters down a hallway on the second floor and took quick photos of a painting depicting two snowmen being attacked by armed children, a subject that didn’t go along well with the stuff I saw on the first floor. Back home I asked friends what was written on the snowmen: American Bastard and a derogatory play on words about a former president of South Korea…
At the other kindergarten (with a different layout) we weren’t shown much of the second floor neither – and this time it was a fellow traveler who found a room she later described as “a war museum”. Sadly I wasn’t able to see it myself, but it goes without saying that our Korean guides didn’t mention it. They also didn’t mention the huge chariot sculpture in front of the kindergarten. At first sight it looked a lot like a simplified version of the one in front of the *Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace* in Pyongyang, which is all about the future and having fun. The one in Rason? Well, the first child is holding an automatic rifle in his hand, the second one a missile. Nobody pointed out those details…
Chariot of Joy Chariot Of Destruction
Instead we went through yet another musical performance, because North Koreans like to sing and dance – I don’t. Malicious gossip has it that it’s because they don’t have anything else, but hey, they love it, so if it helps the understanding among nations I suffer through 20 minutes of creepily smiling kids at a kindergarten… or a guide singing the national anthem / their favorite NK pop song. Usually both the kids and the adults (guides, waitresses…) are pretty good at what they are doing, which eases the suffering. What really started to irritate me is that you never know when you get dragged into the whole thing. You are never safe… not at kindergartens, not at schools, not at restaurants, not at BBQs, not even on the bus. What is announced and starts as a more or less harmless performance can end with you starring it – and I HATE that kind of attention. At the same time you don’t want to be impolite, so you basically have to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. One time on the first trip all the guides, one after another, were singing the national anthem of North Korea on the bus – and then kept nagging all tourists into singing theirs. My only way out was to claim that Germany is so anti-nationalistic now, that it is actually punishable to sing the national anthem without written permission by the government; interestingly enough not only the Korean guides but also some of my fellow travelers from all over the world believed that story… (And yes, the singing and dancing was even more intense on the second trip!)

Hunger Games, The Musical

While I visited North Korea for a second time in October I felt like being part of “Hunger Games – The Musical”: A totalitarian system concentrating all the power and wealth in the capital… and everybody was singing and dancing all the time! This wasn’t the rather cozy Pyongyang bubble anymore, this was a glimpse at a system that is plain and simple batshit crazy. Back in spring I actually thought that the DPRK was a little bit misunderstood and just needs some good PR, that Pyongyang was just a sample of what’s going on in all of North Korea, but obviously I was wrong. North Korea needs massive change from the inside, the mindset of the population has to change drastically. And I don’t blame individual average people, most of them are just doing what they are told to do (look at the communism loving Russians that now hump capitalism like a pet bunny does its favorite plush toy…), they are simply trying to survive without getting into trouble themselves, probably being traumatized by decades of subjugation from psychotic despots! I’m sure it’s not all bad in North Korea, but it definitely isn’t as good as tourists are made believe when visiting Pyongyang…

It will take me a couple of months to write about my second trip, especially since this time I want to have the whole set written before I start publishing it. Like last time I have no political or financial agenda, and I will write about my vacation as I experienced it. I just wanted to give all of you a heads up that this time it won’t be as positive and naïve – it will be full of love for the coast and the mountains, for fearless toddlers and curious language students. But you will also read some completely messed-up stories about extreme poverty and regular power-outs, about electric fences along the coastline and despicable acts towards children, about denunciation, double standards and deception – and about how I will rather never go back to North Korea again than deliberately ignoring or even sugar-coating the things that I’ve experienced…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about both tours at GoogleMaps*.
If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* or subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube*…)

Border guards don’t like to be filmed, yet I managed to tape me walking from China into North Korea. (As far as I know we were the second Western tourist group ever to enter North Korea on foot from Tumen, China!)

At the end of the video you can hear a guideguard approaching me after he caught me taking this video, despite him announcing that it’s okay to take pictures from the bus just 5 minutes earlier…

One of the most beautiful hours I had in North Korea – sunrise at the beach of the homestay village while most of my fellow travelers were still sleeping.

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My trip to North Korea was an absolutely fantastic experience – and so was writing about it!
If you are a long-time reader of Abandoned Kansai I would like to thank you for sticking with me while I went off-topic! The last urban exploration article I wrote was about the *Abandoned Japanese Sex Museum* – just in case you want to jump back there without going through all the DPRK postings…
If you started reading this blog because of my postings about North Korea I hope you will keep on reading. I think I was able to show you a different side of the DPRK – I sure as heck will show you a different side of Japan, too!
From tomorrow on I will go back to one article per week, every Tuesday evening JST (= Tuesday afternoon in Europe and Tuesday morning in the States).
Forsaken hospitals, deserted amusement parks, forlorn mines, desolated resorts, rotting military bases, dilapidated factories, abandoned hotels, derelict train stations – you’ll see them all, and much more, on Abandoned Kansai!

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Most of these questions I already answered in the previous articles, but not everybody reads everything… and some friends of mine obviously didn’t read anything, so here are a couple of questions I answered several times since I came back from the DPRK.

# Is it possible to visit North Korea?
Yes, it is. I just wrote 30 articles about it… 🙂

# Is it possible for Americans to travel to the DPRK?
Yes, it is. There are certain limitations though, for example Americans are not allowed to enter or leave the country by train – they have to fly in and out.

# Why are American not allowed to ride trains?
Trains in North Korea are considered of military importance and therefore American are not allowed to ride trains. *Subway* is no problem though…

# Did you go all by yourself?
Yes and no. I went without people I knew, but of course you can’t go to North Korea all by yourself. I joined a group tour – 10 other travelers from all over the world plus a British guide plus 3 Korean guides and a bus driver. (Yes, 11 tourists and 5 guides… It’s the first time I do the math, and I have to admit it looks strange. It didn’t feel strange though when being there.)

# Is it safe to travel to North Korea?
Yes, it is. Your contact to locals is limited anyway and none of them would dare to harm you – especially when the guides are present. I’ve never heard of any tourist being attacked or having things stolen. The few occasions we had unsupervised contact with locals was even better as Koreans are very hospitable and friendly people.
As for the political situation in general: I was more worried that the American would level the country than that the DPRK leadership would start a war…

# So you weren’t worried about taken hostage and used as a human shield?
(I actually got that question several times!) No, I wasn’t. I actually booked my trip during the rather big crisis in early 2013 and nevertheless wasn’t worried.

# How long in advance do you have to plan trips to North Korea?
Most tours stop accepting applications about 4 or 5 weeks before they begin as it takes a couple of weeks to organize the visa for the DPRK – and you have to organize the roundtrip including visa to Beijing, too…

# How long in advance did you book your tour?
I booked a couple of days before the application deadline in late March, so it was about 4 weeks before I had to be in Beijing.

# How long did you stay in North Korea?
I stayed for 8 days, 7 nights in late April / early May of 2013.

# How much does a trip to North Korea cost?
It depends on how long you stay, when you travel and which agency you use.
I paid 1690 Euros plus 50 for the North Korean visa plus 50 for the train to Beijing. The elevator up the *Juche Tower* was 5 Euros, so was the dog soup. As tips for the guides you have to calculate 5 Euros per day; some individual gifts (cigarettes, chocolates, …) for each guide and the bus driver are greatly appreciated. One beer per meal is included, if you want to have some extra it costs 50 Cents or a Euro. (How much you want to spend on souvenirs is totally up to you, I spent about 300 Euros, probably less.) In addition to that you have to organize a flight to, a visa for and an accommodation in Beijing, where the trip begins.
Overall I paid a little bit more than 3000 Euros for the whole trip including my time in China (12 days altogether) – this can be less for tours in early spring / later autumn, but quite a bit more during the Arirang Mass Games in summer. (The basic fare is higher and the mass games tickets are extra, starting at 80 Euros for the cheapest tickets.)

# Did you see the Arirang Mass Games?
No, only the May Day stadium from quite a distance…

# How much do souvenirs in North Korea cost?
North Korea isn’t exactly a shopping paradise, so there is a limited selection of things to buy. Nothing like Japan, where buying souvenirs (especially food items!) is a basic element of even day trips.
T-shirts were 10 or 15 Euros, sets of stamps between 3 Euros and about 40 Euros. Postcards were between 20 Cents and a Euro, cigarettes started at 5 Euros (per carton, not per pack!), hand-painted posters started at 40 Euros, paintings and lithographs at about 100 Euros (open end…) – ceramics, books and pins started at a Euro or two.
Most food you can buy in the so-called gift shops is actually imported – rare exceptions were the *Taegonggang Combined Fruit Farm*, the highway stop on the way to *Kaesong* and the Kumgangsan Store in Pyongyang – the latter being more of a regular shop, so I was able to buy some North Korean candy.

# Can I buy Coca Cola in North Korea?
Believe it or not – yes, you can buy Coca Cola in North Korea. So if you are a funny guy who wants to take some “’Merica, fuck yeah!” photos you won’t have to bring the high-fructose corn syrup / acid mix yourself… it’s already waiting for you.

# You can buy postcards in North Korea? Why didn’t you send me one?
Most likely because I didn’t have your address…

# Can I send postcards to (country of your choice)?
You can send postcards everywhere except South Korea – but be aware that the content might be read. (The stamps on the postcards I’ve sent were dated a week after I handed them in…)

# How long does a postcard take to get to (country of your choice)?
About 3 weeks to Asian countries, about 4 weeks to Europe, New Zealand and the States.

# Can I send letters and parcels, too?
I didn’t try to send letters or packages from North Korea, but I think you can. I saw a DHL car in the streets of Pyongyang and took a photo – scroll down… 🙂

# Do I need a visa to go to North Korea? If so, how do I get one?
Yes, you need a visa – for 99% of the foreign visitors to the DPRK the travel agency you book your tour at will take care of that formality. All you need to do is send them a copy of your passport and a scanned photo of yourself.

# How did you get to North Korea? Is there a direct flight from XYZ?
I flew into Pyongyang from Beijing and left by train at the border between the DPRK and China (Sinuiju / Dandong). There are only a couple of flights to Pyongyang, most likely not from the town you live in, so most of the tours to the DPRK start and end in Beijing. (There are other ways, too, but those are rarely used.)

# Did you use Air Koryo? If so, how was it?
I wrote a whole article about Air Koryo – please *click here to read it*. Overall it was quite a pleasant surprise.

# What is Pyongyang Airport like?
It was small, which wasn’t a surprise given that are about two planes starting or landing every day. Immigration was easy though. I had to fill out two or three standard forms and hand them over together with my visa and my passport. The guy there wasn’t exactly friendly, but not worse than in any other country. After picking up the luggage I had to hand in the baggage claim sticker and that was it – nobody had a closer look at what I brought into the DPRK.

# Can I bring a photo camera to North Korea?
Yes, of course. Lenses above 150 mm are technically not allowed, but nobody cared that I brought my 18-200 mm lens.

# Can I bring a laptop to North Korea?
Yes, that’s no problem at all. I even brought a USB hard-drive I kept separate from the laptop at all times. Nobody cared.

# Can I bring a mobile phone to North Korea?
Yes, but you won’t have reception most of the time. (You might be able to pick up a signal when going to the JSA.)

# How was the food in North Korea?
I loved it! So much that I wrote an article you can *read by clicking here*. 🙂

# What was your favorite dish there?
The kimchi in Pyongyang. It’s amazing!

# Do they have strange food in North Korea?
I guess there is strange food in every country. The only strange food we were offered to try was *Dog Meat Soup*. Oh, and the Petrol Clam BBQ was kind of strange…

# Are there birds in North Korea?
Uhm, yes?! Oh, I get it, the rumors that there are no birds in North Korea due to the famine in the 1990s… You can see plenty of birds’ nests on the photos I’ve uploaded, so yes, there are birds in North Korea. No pigeons in Pyongyang though, at least I can’t remember seeing any of the flying rats. But especially in the countryside I can remember seeing and hearing birds.

# Have you been spied on?
I don’t think so. I ran into motion detectors at the *Yanggakdo Hotel*, but I am pretty sure they have been there for security reasons. I’m an average guy, why should I be of any interest to the DPRK?
But well, that’s what I thought about the United States, too, before the 2013 mass surveillance scandal. Isn’t life friggin weird sometimes? Everybody was like “Oh, you shouldn’t go to North Korea, they are spying on you!” – then I come back and only a couple of weeks later that scandal breaks…

# What were the guards… uhm… guides like?
The guides were very kind and I never perceived them as guards. I actually find the description “guard” very derogatory and at least “my” guides didn’t deserve name-calling like that at all! They started out friendly, but distanced, which I actually liked, since I am not much of a people person myself – all-inclusive resort tummler type characters annoy the crap out of me! After a couple of days of mutual trust building all three of them were actually pretty cool. Being a guide in the DPRK is kind of a risky job as they are responsible for your actions – if you violate rules (like shoving a camera into some soldier’s face) the guide will be questioned how this could happen, not you. After they realized that we wouldn’t cause trouble the guides let their guard down (pun intended!) and we had rather open conversations about all kinds of topic. Some stuff still had to be avoided (like you wouldn’t start a discussion about certain topics with people you know…), but overall those guys were just fun to be around with.
The paragraph above applies only to my guides Mr. Yu, Mr. Kim and Ms. Park – I’ve heard about and sometimes observed other guides who were less friendly and open.

(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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Although I am living in Japan for almost seven years by now I had never been to any other Asian country before this trip – mainly because you don’t get many paid vacation days and no sick days in Japan (i.e. if you get sick, you have to take paid vacation days), so I always went back home to Germany to visit family and friends. When I planned the trip to the DPRK I had to go through Beijing both ways – and when I saw that Koryo Tours offered a layover in Dandong I sacrificed another paid vacation day (sorry, family and friends!) that will shorten my summer trip this year even further. But 23 hours on a train didn’t sound too tempting and I guess I will never have another chance to go to Dandong, so I jumped on the opportunity… and it was a good decision!

While I basically hated every second in Beijing, my 24 hours in Dandong were really enjoyable. We were seven people from Koryo Tours staying there, Patrick and Juliette from my group, four from the other group. Fresh blood, new stories – and a culture shock!
Dandong and North Korea have pretty much nothing in common, that was clear upon arrival. We met our local guide and checked in at the hotel – free WiFi, yay! After more than a week without internet I quickly scanned through almost 200 e-mails (most of them blog related!) and sent a quick one to my sister to let her know that I was okay and had a great time in the DPRK. We only had 1.5 hours till dinner, so I hurried a bit and went across the street to the waterfront as our hotel was right next to the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge and the tourist attraction “Broken Bridge”. The Broken Bridge was already closed and the waterfront looked too big for the 30 minutes I had left, so I went back to the hotel to sort and read more e-mails.
When I met my fellow travelers in the lobby it turned out that I was the only one who had left the hotel so far – the others said they didn’t dare to do so without permission; and I am pretty sure hardly any of them was joking…
Dinner at the nearby restaurant was a feast. The food in the DPRK was really good, but even after a week it started to become a bit repetitive (no complaint, especially given the situation, I am just saying as it is!) – having Chinese for dinner was… surreal. The flavors were so different, so much more intense. (The Snickers I had for dessert must have been the sweetest food item I ever ate after being mostly off sugar for 8 days…) Also surreal was the amount of food they brought to the table. We were eight people in total, but I think you could have fed 30 with what was brought to us. A shame considering that people are malnourished just half a kilometer away!
It’s amazing how quickly you adapt to situations, which is another reason why I was happy to get off the train immediately after leaving the DPRK – because China hits you like a hammer after a week in North Korea. Not just the food and the freedom of movement. Everything! While in Korea everything seemed normal. The lack of cars, the low noise level, that it is mostly dark once the sun was gone, that we were told to stay in the hotel… friggin everything, you just adapt to embrace the culture you want to experience. 500 meters down the road – BOOM! A buzzing megacity; gluttony and profligacy everywhere! The strange part was: Dandong is pretty similar to big Japanese cities regarding traffic, noise, lights, food, consumerism, so I should have been used to that. But it really hit me like a hammer, an unexpected culture shock.
After dinner we had a walk along the waterfront, huge apartment buildings lit up like Christmas trees. I didn’t have a tripod and still was able to take decent pictures. Candy town. And on the other side of the Yalu river? Not a single sound, barely any lights, low buildings in the dark. The next day I took a photo from the middle of the river while on a boat tour – left China, right DPRK. The countries could have hardly looked more different.

The second day in Dandong was full of touristy stuff. First we went to a reconstructed part of the Chinese Wall, once upon a time continuing on the now Korean side of the Yalu river. Since I didn’t have time to visit the wall near Beijing this was actually a very nice treat – and a very surreal one, since that part of the wall was right next to the border. Not only were there tons of bilingual warning signs (Chinese and English, obviously), but I was also able to take pictures of the Chinese Wall and North Korea at the same time! I had no idea that it was possible…
Why were there no signs in Korean, you ask? Because, and this is a dirty little secret nobody wants to talk about, Koreans don’t dare to cross the border here; at least not permanently. The reason for that is the fact they would be easily spotted by Chinese doing so – and the Chinese government not only sends defectors back to the DPRK, they also pay their own people to rat out fugitives! Yes, while every North Korean who made it to South Korea or the States is celebrated, the same people are everything but welcome in China. To a point that average Chinese people have them deported for money, very aware that caught defectors won’t have an easy life back in the DPRK… Morality is luxury.

Next stop of the tour was the „Museum of War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea“ or just simply the Korean War Museum, one of the most interesting places I have ever been to. As you know, history is written by the victors – in this case you had two victors (or none…), and we all know what the Americans are telling us. So it was extremely interesting to hear the Chinese side, a side that was presented with a surprisingly high amount of signs in English; given that Dandong only has a small airport, it’s not exactly a destination for Western tourists. Most of the texts were biased obviously, resulting in sentences stating that the Chinese and Koreans “overcame all the difficulties with incomparable heroism and inexhaustible wisdom and smashed the “strangling warfare” by the U.S. Army”. Stuff like that sounds hilarious to western socialized people, often not realizing that lies can be easily hidden with the help of pretended objectivity. To me the most interesting aspect brought up by the communist side was the aspect of biological warfare. A small section of the museum is dedicated to those allegations brought up by China, the Soviet Union and the DPRK, while the whole topic is denounced by the US government and its allies. The shocking thing about those accusations is that they make sense! When I wrote about the *Rabbit Island Okunoshima* a while ago I mentioned one of the most despicable human beings that ever lived, a Japanese military surgeon named Shiro Ishii. Ishii was the head of Unit 731, a Japanese research group that developed biological weapons in top secret Chinese facilities during World War 2 – by testing them on humans, including vivisections of infected victims! (I mentioned them, because Unit 731 related people also tested poison gas produced on Okunoshima.) Instead of executing Ishii as a war criminal, the Americans granted him immunity in exchange for the data he gained during the human experimentation – MacArthur knew about that plan in 1947 and it was concluded in 1948. In addition to their own biological weapons program in Fort Detrick, Maryland, the Americans now had the Japanese material. But that’s not all! While Ishii’s daughter says that her father spent the rest of his natural life in Japan, Richard Drayton, a senior lecturer in history at Cambridge University, claims that Ishii actually „came to Maryland to advise on bio-weapons”. Just for your information: The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953, the allegations are from the year 1952… Ishii died a converted Christian in 1959.
(Another surprising realization I had at the museum is DPRK related. You know how Western media are making fun of Kim Jong-un being a bit chubby and having a terrible haircut? Well, I was walking around, looking at things, when I saw that really old photo on the wall – of a guy that looked like Kim Jong-un; slightly chubby, unconventional haircut. It was Kim Il-sung, his grandfather. Kim Jong-un looks like Kim Il-sung around the time of the Korean War! Now it all makes sense, because given the personal cult in the DPRK of course that’s not a coincidence…)

Last but not least we went back to the waterfront and did a little cruise on the Yalu river that separates China and the DPRK. A few western tourists are claiming that they’ve visited North Korea after taking that 45 minute long boat tour – according to our guide they haven’t as the river is actually considered no man’s land…
The boat tour started just south of the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge (constructed when the whole area was occupied by Japan) and the Broken Bridge (built between 1909 and 1911) and first gave a good look at the bridges while heading north. Both bridges were repeatedly attacked and damaged by the United States during the Korean War and at first both of them were repaired, but then the communist side focused on repairing the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, leaving the Broken Bridge first a ruin and now a historical tourist attraction. Today the Friendship Bridge is one of the few ways to enter the DPRK by automobile or train. After passing the bridges it was bizarre to see gigantic apartment buildings on the Chinese side… and basically nothing on the other. Then we turned around, passed the two bridges again and got closer to the Korean side; pretty close actually… There we could see how the low tide left some old, rusty Korean ships on the shore and how workers loaded coal via small cranes. While the people around us were all excited about getting a glimpse at North Korea I wasn’t able to share that excitement. I actually felt bad, knowing how much Pyongyang needed that coal, wondering if the appointed train would actually make it there to keep one of the two coal power stations running. None of us had goose-bumps looking at “the Evil Empire” as if it was a tiger at a zoo more than a century ago. We had seen more than the waterfront, we had talked to the people; it was surreal looking back, while the Chinese tourists probably were judging the whole country by what they saw there and then, talking about each other instead of with each other. I think all of us Westerners felt a bit desperate and frustrated while on that boat – having enjoyed eight days in the DPRK we finally realized how far away from the global community the country really is; not only ideologically, but also economically…

(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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It takes almost a whole day to go by train from Pyongyang to Beijing – and it’s quite an experience…

One of the few limitations Americans have when visiting the DPRK is the fact that they are not allowed to ride trains as the railway system is considered a military installation; so if you are American and you want to travel to North Korea you have to enter and exit by plane. All other nationalities usually take the plane in and the train out (or vice versa) – not because it is cheaper (it actually isn’t, at least not for the customer, probably for the travel agency though…), but because it is part of the fun. 23 hours on the train, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature! Well, to some people. Not to me necessarily. So I decided to split the train ride in half and have a 24 hour layover in Dandong, right at the border between China and the DPRK.

My last hours in North Korea began with the usual morning routine, but instead of going sightseeing after entering the bus, we went to Pyongyang Station – and I wish I had taken some photos outside instead of rushing inside with the flock as the square in front of the huge station looked quite modern, including some advertising and huge screens. Instead I spent another 15 to 20 minutes in the waiting room for international travelers, featuring the last gift shop before leaving the DPRK.

Pyongyang Station actually isn’t that busy and it seems to have only one platform – a gigantic platform where you can park buses crosswise. Nevertheless it serves four lines: One to Nampo, one to Rajin in the far North, one to Kaesong (theoretically to Busan via Seoul, but you know the problem there…) and one to Sinuiju; the one our group took.
The standard procedure is the following: The train leaves at around 10.30 in the morning for Sinuiju with several stops at stations along the way. At around 15.30 you arrive in Sinuiju, where you have to go through customs on the Korean side, which takes about two hours – sometimes more, sometimes less. Then the train crosses the river Yalu to Dandong, China. There you have to go through Chinese customs, which takes about 30 minutes. (Don’t forget to adjust you watch as China is in a different time zone!) Then you have about half an hour before the train continues at 18.30 to Beijing, where it arrives at 8.30 in the morning. At no time you have to leave the train – customs on both sides take care of everything on board. People going to Beijing directly are located in nice 4 bed compartments, travelers getting off at Dandong enjoy the 5 hour ride plus 2 hour long customs process in a smelly wagon with open 6 bed compartments. Since I opted for the layover in Dandong I was with the latter group…
We had seen lots of settlements and fields on the way to Kaesong and Nampo, but the northern part seemed to be a bit greener – and the train wasn’t nearly as shaky as that bus, so I was able to take some nicer photos and a really decent video.

The train ride through the North Korea countryside was actually quite relaxed, despite the fact that the 160 km long trip took a whopping 5 hours. The reason for that is the fact that the railway system was in abysmal condition. Like I said, we were not allowed to take photos and although we said goodbye to our Korean guides back in Pyongyang I stuck with it – out of respect and out of fear to get in trouble at customs. Our train was by far the most modern one on the way as all the other ones looked like they were from back in the days when Japan was still in charge of the country. The stations were in decent condition, but the trains… it’s actually hard to describe. First of all I don’t remember seeing many of them being in working condition, we saw only a couple of them with passengers in them. The trains and wagons parked within stations… half of them looked like they were involved in fires or explosions, the other half looked like they were rusting away for decades. I guess shock and surprise was another reason why I didn’t take photos. People thought the East German railway system was in bad condition when the FRG “bought” the GDR – but damn, this was a whole different level! Another sign that there was no to barely any railroad modernization since the 1930s or 1940s were the electricity posts along the track you can see in the video and on one of the photos. I’ve seen similar ones in Japan. Along railway tracks. Abandoned tracks! The DPRK must have spent quite a chunk of money on maintenance, but I am sure the railroad system in the 1960s was in better condition than it is now… except for the rather luxurious overnight wagon to Beijing.
Customs in Sinuiju took indeed a little bit more than two hours, but they weren’t really thorough. We occupied 5 or 6 beds in the smelly wagon, but they didn’t look at any of our photos and even forgot to look inside one of our suitcases…
Customs in Dandong were even faster, basically a passport and visa check, they didn’t even open any of our luggage. After the Chinese custom officers were done we left the train, said goodbye to our fellow travelers continuing to Beijing and left the station, where our 24 hours in Dandong began; three people from my group, four people of the other group. More about that on Friday!

24 hours later we were back at the station – well, me and my other two group members Patrick and Juliette as the group A guys actually stayed for 48 hours in Dandong.
This time we checked into one of those luxurious sleeper cars with four beds and a door, shared with a young Chinese woman travelling from Dandong to… somewhere in China. The train stopped every couple of hours and she left maybe two hours outside of Beijing. When I woke up in the middle of the night we just had stopped at one of those stations and I took a photo over my head aiming outside of the window – it turned out to be a quite nice one, so I added it to the gallery.

Overall the train ride to Beijing wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected it to be, probably because I was able to split it into two halves. Arriving in Beijing though my bad luck in the city continued: While at the *Mansudae Art Studio* I bought a lithography too big to put in my suitcase, so I was having an eye on it for almost a week. At Beijing Railway Station I left in a hurry and after about three minutes I realized that I didn’t have the lithography in my hand anymore. Despite the masses, the heat and the humidity I immediately ran back to the train compartment where the cleaning personnel already started their work, less than five minutes after I left in this huge, loud, summer smelly crowd – of course nobody understood me or had seen anything. I don’t think I’ve ever lost anything since I was five years old! But that was just the beginning of another horrible, horrible stay in China’s capital…

(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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