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Archive for the ‘North Hamgyong’ 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!

(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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The first full day in Rason was packed with tons of program. After breakfast in a separate building (once an exclusive retreat for party members, on some maps marked as “DPRK Leadership Complex”) we headed down the bouncy mountain road to downtown Rajin and paid respect to the Kims. Despite being part of the Rason Special Economic Zone since 1991, Rajin still doesn’t have its own set of statues, so we had to make do with portraits right across from Rajin Stadium. (The statues are currently being built on top of a hill overlooking the city and will most likely be revealed later this year.)
On that hill already is a music hall and a museum, the latter we visited for a couple of minutes. Here I found out that our second set of guardguides were not as funny and relaxed as we all thought the night before. After listening to the local museum guide and Mr. Kim’s translation I was about to choke since I caught a cold after four days of low temperatures and no hot water in North Hamgyong. I live in Asia long enough to know that blowing your nose is considered impolite in some areas, but snuffling wasn’t an option – the space was already occupied. So I waited for the guides to finish their speeches, until we got time to explore the room by ourselves. And then I dared to blow my nose, as quietly as possible of course – and if look could kill, I would have dropped dead.
Mr. Pak, soon be known as Robocop amongst our group, shooshed me with an evil stare only somebody with ten years in the North Korean military can develop. Our “lovely” third “guide” got his nickname because of his amazing range of facial expressions, which was somewhere between Keanu Reeves and… well… Robocop. Since he was the least experienced minder, being with the team for just two months, Robocop had the task of keeping an eye on us to make sure that we follow ALL the rules; especially the ones nobody mentioned. Before his new career as a tourist guide, Robocop actually was a career soldier who spent the past decade with the Korean People’s Army – and given his general demeanor I don’t think he was a chef there, though I am convinced he was very good at deboning…
Anyway, I survived both the snot attack and Mr. Pak’s evil stare (his shooshing being louder than my nose blowing), but I would have a run in with Robocop at least once a day – and so did a lot of people.

Next we visited an art gallery in the city. Half a year prior I bought two hand-painted propaganda posters in Pyongyang and I was hoping to get more here; especially after 5 days of only being able to buy nothing but alcohol and a couple of books. Finally some real souvenirs! Or so I thought as the art gallery turned out to be the first of many disappointments in Rason (not counting Mr. Pak’s shooshing, which actually was kind of a disappointment, too). Despite the fact that they had a dozen propaganda posters on the wall, the gallery staff refused to sell them to us. We could buy anything else, but not the propaganda posters. What the heck? Sadly they didn’t make any effort to sell us anything at all, so we left after a couple of minutes, slightly confused. (And when we drove by the gallery a few minutes later it was closed already, at around 11 a.m.!)
Next on the itinerary was “something very special” – we were allowed to go to the Golden Triangle Bank, one of several financial institutes in Rason, to change EUR, USD, RUB, JPY or CNY into North Korean won at the current, actual exchange rate. (When we did “something very special” in Pyongyang, they allowed us to change money, too, but at a horrible rate, worth a fraction of the actual value. Advantage in Pyongyang though – we received brand-new bills and coins…) All four of our guides warned us not to change too much money as we were not allowed to take it back to China – if we were caught, terrible things could happen to our Korean guides! Spoiler alert: Two days later at the border crossing nobody checked our wallets or what we could have potentially have hidden in clothing or underwear. Since we were a good group, nobody or hardly anybody tried, but it was one more bullshit story we wouldn’t have bought anywhere else in the world. Dozens, probably hundreds of Chinese cross the border every day and on a regular basis at Wonchong – you can’t tell me that they too are forced to cross without any Korean money on them!

Well, anyway, the usual spiel of “something they want to do, something we want to do” continued, so next on our schedule was a visit to a greenhouse where they were growing North Korea’s two most famous flowers, Kimilsungia (an orchid) and Kimjongilia (a begonia) – guess why we went there! While the Kimilsungia was named after Kim Il-sung when he saw the then unnamed flower during a visit to Indonesia, the Kimjongilia was cultivated by Japanese (!) botanist Kamo Mototeru in the dictator’s honor. There wasn’t really much to see other than a couple of dozen potted flowers (plus the usual array of info signs in Korea), so the whole group was back out and ready to go in no time.

Which was good, because now we were in a hurry to make it to the American run shoe factory in Rajin as the workers there were about to have a break; which would have prohibited us from seeing how shoes are made. Maybe it was because of lunch time or because it was Saturday, but the assembly line we saw wasn’t exactly super busy. Half a dozen workers were gluing sports shoes together and all of a sudden they were gone – so we had lunch, too. Interestingly enough the workers didn’t look like they were about to have lunch when we left – we saw them getting together in the yard to work on the construction of another building. I guess nobody cared or dared to ask, but some things didn’t fit. Either it was one big misunderstanding from my side or those guys weren’t really working in that factory on Saturdays…

Lunch was interesting in that regard as the restaurant we ate at was next to a souvenir shop – the next shopping disappointment. The store, targeted at foreign tourists, was stuffed with all kinds of low-price crap and high-price art (fine-art paintings, wood carvings, …) for Chinese and Russian tourists. No books, no sweets, no posters. Just a couple of national flag pins I loved during the first trip. In Kaesong near the DMZ those pins were 50 cent a piece, in Rajin they wanted 3.50 EUR! Congratulations, guys – I guess Juche and capitalism aren’t mutually exclusive after all, especially when supply and demand are involved; and rich Russian tourists!
Luckily the tides turned just minutes later and the money we got our greedy little hands on came into play, when we were taken to a local store to buy some sweets and notebooks for the kindergarten kids we were about to visit. A local store, with local money, in North Korea! (Okay, in Rason, the Candyland version of North Korea, not the real North Korea – but real enough to realize that this was a very special moment and something only a handful of Westerners have ever done!) I was finally able to satisfy my souvenir urge by buying some really interesting looking pins I’ve never seen anywhere else before – and then I was just fascinated by the fact that I had access to local prices. Again, in the probably overpriced and definitely Candyland version of North Korea, nevertheless in a store that had everything from gigantic sacks of rice to Chinese razors (30,000 won and up), from Hello Kitty sweaters (62,000 won) to cigarettes (1,300 won to 47,000 won per pack!), from local sweets (1,000 won and up) to plastic guns. Given that 10,000 won were about 1 euro, everything there was dirt cheap from our point of view – at the same time you have to consider that the biggest bill in North Korea is a 5,000 won note and a ride on the *Pyongyang Metro* costs 5 won… and that most people only get some kind of pocket money as the state provides housing and most of the food. This realization hits you so much harder when you are there on location! (It also explains why I paid 2 EUR for Kim Jong-il’s “On the Art of Cinema” in Chongjin while a fellow traveler paid 20 EUR for about 30 pages of legal text in Rason; Chonjin / Rason, supply / demand. North Koreans officially hate capitalism now, but Rason is proof that they are learning at the speed of light.)

From the shop we walked to the city center of Rajin to have a rest at some street stalls (selling beer, snacks and cigarettes). On the way there we met Czech brewer Tomas, who was temporarily living in Rason to supervise the construction of a microbrewery. By nature a kind person and admittedly bored, he invited us over to his place of work, but we had more urgent things to do at the street stalls; namely waiting… and waiting… and waiting… for 45 minutes.

Next on the schedule was the rather underwhelming Suchaebong Seafood Processing Factory, where we saw a couple of clams in water basins. Wow!

Luckily the kids at the kindergarten totally made up for it. As you know, I am still not a fan of these singing and dancing performances, but those kids were ADORABLE. Yes, all caps; THAT adorable! First they had to deal with a blackout halfway through their show and none of them even blinked. When the whole thing was over, of course we were encouraged to take photos with the kids, who were all giddy with excitement as most of their audiences have been Asian so far. Back then I was sporting a full beard and it was just hilarious to observe some of the kids talking to each other, pointing at their own faces with a circular motion and then pointing at my face. But it were fellow travelers Kent and David who put them in a previously unknown state of mirth when they started to take photos of the kids with their Polaroid camera – the room was buzzing with kid-sized humming birds, shaking countless pictures; absolutely unbelievable!
Sadly the kindergarten itself, while rather modern and without a spot, was one of those propaganda pieces of crap. I mentioned it in another article that *the chariot in front of the kindergarten was quite different from the one in Pyongyang*, but that’s not all. One of my fellow told me that she found what she described as “a war museum” when she was opening doors in the hallway while nobody was looking – and the militaristic sculpture next to the soccer field (labelled “strong and prosperous nation”) surely wasn’t put up there to build a bridge between the DPRK and the USA…

More adorable kids followed just minutes later, this time teenagers at the Foreign Language School. I fell victim to three 14 year old girls who bombarded me with questions in English, some of which I was able to ask back. Of course all questions were prepared and most of them were trivial, standard stuff like future jobs (2 out of 3 wanted to become soldiers!) and favorite hobbies (2 out of 3 liked to rollerblade in the park)… but when they asked me about “October 10th” I had no idea what they were talking about. Well, the founding day of the Workers’ Party of Korea, stupid! D’oh! Luckily they didn’t hold it against me and so we continued with less political topics – for example food. They were very eager to find out what pizza is and how they can make it at home; halfway through the description I realized that three female teachers in their 20s/30s were listening closely, too, more or less obvious. One of them was brave enough to ask afterwards what pasta is exactly and how to prepare it. When I mentioned that you can get it in every supermarket where I am from I felt a bit embarrassed, but I didn’t see any negativity in their eyes – her attitude was more like “I can’t wait for Rason to develop enough, so I can buy pasta, too!”. Probably the deepest insight got one fellow traveler who started talking about cars and who was asked by his students if he was military or a taxi driver – because even in the rather rich Rason Special Economic Zone hardly any Korean has a private car, so people being able to drive must be taxi drivers or members of the military, one of the few places in North Korea where you have the opportunity to learn how to drive. Those students obviously weren’t aware that in industrialized countries cars are as common as bikes are in North Korea.

The final stop of a really long day was at a textile factory where a few dozen women were sewing winter jackets – incredibly unspectacular. It kind of reminded me of the local company my grandma worked at when I was a child, and therefore nothing like the sweatshop images we all know and ignore from Southeast Asian countries. Of course we didn’t get any deeper insights (payment, treatment of the workers, …), but I didn’t get the point of visiting the factory anyway – we were a bunch of tourists, not investors. After we left though, one of my fellow travelers described how they saw that the labels sewn into the jackets said “Made in China”. Damn, I missed that little detail! I would have loved to seen it with my own eyes… and camera.

Anyway, Day 6 turned out to be a veeery long day – and this article turned out to be a veeery long one, too. I hope you enjoyed it… and I’ll see you in a few days!

(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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Why staying at Kyongsong? Because if the town was good enough for Kim Il-sung, his wife and his son, it is damn good enough for any western tourist! And of course there were more things to see, like the house the most famous Kims stayed at while giving guidance on location, now part of the Kyongsong Revolutionary Museum. There we listened to some “fascinating” stories about the Kim family, for example about how Kim Jong-il was really smart at a very young age. When he asked his mother Kim Jong-suk why most animals drink with the help of their tongues, but not chickens, his mother told him to observe the feathered fellas and come to a conclusion by himself. So he watched the chickens for seven days straight and then told his mom the correct answer at age 5!

Just out of town we visited the Jipsam Revolutionary Site, where three generals met during the Japanese occupation to defeat the invaders. Luckily our guides kept the story short; either because they were still hung over or because they slightly panicked when they saw planes practicing starting and landing at the nearby Kyongsong-Chuul Airport a.k.a. Kyongsong-Chuul Military Airfield. We got permission to take photos freely, except of the airplanes. Which was kind of hard to do, because the machines were coming down every other minute right over the scenic fishermen’s village. Luckily the planes were so tiny in the distance that nobody really cared – yet Mr. Li yelled another “No take photos!” at me when I took one of a boat on the shore. So we were allowed to take photos of everything – except for the unmentioned things they didn’t want us to take photos of. Sometimes I really had the impression that our guideguards had no clue what they were doing… So I paid even more attention to keep out of their sight without losing contact completely, because nothing is worse than an unaccounted tourist! And by chance it happened that I “accidentally” caught some of the planes on video when filming the coastline. I have no idea what kind of planes were starting and landing there, but the whole thing felt like a WW2 airshow. If that was a representative example of the DPRK’s airforce, those poor pilots better stay on the ground and hide somewhere in case of another war!

Next on the itinerary was a stop at a kindergarten in Chongjin – and we all know what that means, right? Singing and dancing children! Yay!
Luckily this kindergarten had so much more to offer, involuntarily!
For example the playground in the yard. Sure, it was a bit rundown, but it had a new layer of paint recently. And the rides were awesome, amongst them a rough merry-go-round with rockets and even a small Ferris wheel. I think children all over the world would have loved those playground attractions. The problem was: I am sure none of them had been used in the past couple of months, since branches of nearby trees blocked their movement! At first I was like “Hey, cool, those are awesome!” before the “Wait a minute…” moment kicked in. Kind of sad to maintain those rides and then make no use of them.
But that’s not all, because we also got a tour of the building. Well, part of the building. We witnessed an art class, saw the room for the kids’ afternoon nap, even had a look at the indoctrination rooms where the little ones were taught about the lives of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. The hallways and staircases were decorated with Hello Kitty and nature motifs (like a partly sculptured tree), all beautifully executed. The children’s performance was on the third floor, so when we went from the first to the third through a staircase, we were kind of rushed as the kids were waiting. Nevertheless I was able to walk down a hallway on the second floor for a few of meters, where I took a picture of a painting I am sure we were not supposed to see. It showed some armed children attacking a couple of snowmen. Even without being able to read what was written on them I knew that I struck gold – later I found out that the snowmen were labelled “American Bastard” and “Jui Myung Bak”, a play on words meaning “rat-like Lee Myung Bak”; Lee being the 10th President of South Korea. Lovely, just lovely!
But to be honest with you, it’s actually this kind of photos I was hoping for before the tour started – you can see quite a few pictures of Chongjin and Mount Chilbo on the internet; little gems like the snowman propaganda painting I’ve never seen anywhere before. At the same time experiences like that are the main reason why this series of articles is so much more negative than the first one – they make it so much harder to believe the show you get presented in Pyongyang. Everything in North Korea is full of contradictions all the time!

Well, lunch was at the Chongjin Seamen’s Club and I mainly mention it for the “hot se(a)men” jokes somebody has to make sooner or later; and now let us continue to pretend that the fourth season of Arrested Development doesn’t exist. The Seamen‘s Club is actually one of the few places in North Korea where foreigners and locals can mingle, though it seems like in the end everybody sticks with their own kind – and of course we were seated in a separate room, though we were allowed to roam the gated area freely. It was there that I bought my first souvenir of the trip, a hardcover copy of Kim Jong-il’s “On the Art of cinema” for 2 EUR! I almost felt bad getting it for that price, but in the end it probably was a good deal for both sides; and one of the few things I was able to buy overall. (More on prices and overpricing in the article about Day 7!)

After lunch we headed north to Rason. Since there is no freedom to travel in North Korea, not even within North Korea, we had to cross an internal border and needed two different “visa” for North Hamgyong and Rason – and also two different sets of guardguides, since Mr. Li, Mr. So and Mr. Sin were not allowed in Rason unless they had special permission. (And none of us were allowed in Pyongyang! If we would have hurt ourselves seriously, they most likely would have taken us to China, not to the capital – because we didn’t have proper documents to enter…) About half an hour away from the internal border the unavoidable happened – our bus broke down with a flat tire in the middle of nowhere and it took about an hour to fix it. Luckily we had a spare on board, so we left the forest just before the sun went down. Interestingly enough there were many locals strolling through the forest – probably the cause of the omnipresent plastic waste. Seriously, this was one of the dirtiest sections of forest I’ve ever been to! A real surprise, given that it was plastic trash and North Korea. Who knew they even had plastic there?! 😉

Finally arriving at the Rason border, Mr. Kim and his team took over (not the driver of the North Hamgyong bus, another one…) – and he turned out to be a jokester. First he apologized for the bad quality of the road, but hoped that we would enjoy the free massage for the next 10 minutes. When we asked him to turn off the internal lights of the bus, so we could have a better look outside (it was dark by then), Mr. Kim told us that one of the advantages of the DPRK (and the huge number of blackouts) was the fact that there was no light pollution in North Korea. Damn, if I ever do a comedy routine about NK I’ll definitely steal those two jokes!

Exactly 10 minutes later we left the bumpy dirt road and reached a normal one – and soon later we passed Rason Harbor on our way to the city center of Rajin. (Rason is a Special Economic Zone consisting of the cities Rajin and Sonbong – here the DPRK experiments with capitalism in cooperation with its ex-communist buddies China and Russia, plus a few others.) And by “normal” I mean that the road was not only smooth, it had street lamps! Light. In the darkness. 13 adult travelers excited like little kids. It’s interesting how fast you forget that you miss certain things you are used to – and how equally easily excited you can be to get them back. We all take electricity for granted and it’s truly amazing how much of it industrialized countries waste. While North Hamgyong is clearly lacking supply, Rason uses it reasonably; Yanji wastes quite a bit and Osaka… I’m sure Osaka uses more electricity than all of North Korea – and given that pretty much every apartment building and busy neighborhood is lit up like a Christmas tree, Osaka probably wastes more electricity than North Korea uses; which is amazing given the constant talk about being green and how the electricity price exploded in Japan after Fukushima!
After dinner at a well-lit (!) restaurant (in the same building as the local travel agency), we were supposed to check into our hotel just down the street, the Namsan Hotel – but Mr. Kim had a surprise for us: Instead of staying at the slightly run-down accommodation in Rajin’s city center, we drove up a mountain between Rajin and Sonbong to the newly built Pipha Hotel with a stunning view at the city’s (in)famous Emperor Hotel and the beautiful Changjin Bay. Upon arrival we found out that we were the first guests there – EVER. (And probably the last, as itineraries for future Northeastern Adventures still mention the Namsan Hotel…)
The Pipha Hotel turned out to be a slightly weird… installation. First of all, the hotel didn’t have a reception; it looked more or less like an annex building. We entered via an external staircase on the second floor, basically through a tiny lobby with a couple of seats in a hallway. There was a first floor / ground floor, but we never went there. As Mr. Kim said, the building was brand-new, so it was by far the most modern and overall best hotel I stayed at in North Korea across both trips. Hot water, running water and a (not working) AC, which was compensated by heating blankets. The first shower in three days felt wonderful! At the same time the Pipha Hotel showed how little experience North Korea still has with tourists. For example:
The bathroom had some toiletries, but those were sealed shut. While it’s worldwide standard that little packages of shampoo have a small cut so you can open them easily, the ones we were provided with had to be opened with a pair of scissors.
The room itself was quite nice, but when the architect planned the hotel, it seems like he didn’t think along… and put the main light switch of each room in the hallway instead of inside the room right next to the door. As a result it was impossible to switch the light on / off from within the room.

None of it affected our happiness about hot running water or the overall experience, those are just two more examples of things that we take for granted and that stand out when they are not the way we are used to. And despite looking strangely familiar, it turned out that Rason was full of things that were not the way we are used to…

(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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Alone at that beach on a rough coast, the sun rising, an ice-cold wind blowing – Day 4 of the Northeastern Adventure was off to a perfect start!
At first it didn’t look like it though. I am not an early riser, yet my third night in North Korea ended 10 minutes prior, when our host brought hot water to our room at around 6.20 in the morning. At the same time a dog started to bark and all of a sudden I knew that I wouldn’t go back to sleep, so I jumped into my clothes instead. Still a little bit sleepy and not yet used to the cold (in Osaka it was still around 30°C!) I stumbled down the dirt road for a few dozen meters until I reached the beach, slightly irritated by the patches of frost on the grass ground – you see that about two days a year in Osaka… which means that Osakans start to wear North Face jackets when the temperature falls below 10°C; at night! I was looking up then, the sun still scratching the horizon, when happiness about my decision not to stay at the room and to head outside instead rose within me. There is something about the combination of nipping air, solitary and beautiful raw nature that puts a smile on my face.

It turned out that Day 4 was actually all about the stunning nature of Mount Chilbo, so we headed out to the Hadok Falls and several viewing points within the Inner Chilbo area. Some we drove up to, but sometimes we hiked for a while (up to a kilometer or two) to reach our destinations. Again a beautiful autumn day at gorgeous locations! Irritating and amusing at the same time were the explanations of our guideguards, when they continued to telling us stories about pretty much every rock in sight. “This we call XYZ, because it looks as if ABC is doing DEF with GHI!” – and of course in most cases there were just rocks with no resemblance or relation to whatever we were told happened there. But Mr. Li came up with one mythological story after another. Stories he really seemed to believe in…
Quite a rare sight was the Kaesim Temple! North Korea isn’t exactly a religious country, so most “sacred” buildings surviving the Japanese occupation and the Korean War were destroyed afterwards. Not so this temple, founded in 826. Restored in 1377 and equipped with a bronze bell from 1764, the temple is an important depository for scriptures, sculptures and paintings.
An unexpected sight was a huge portrait of Kim Jong-il and three other guys halfway up a hill, depicting the group in the Mount Chilbo area. It seemed terribly out of place, but I guess with an increased amount of tourists in the future you have to remind people who was the boss and who started to develop the area for comrades on vacation. It was never mentioned specifically during the tour, but it seems like Kim Il-sung never visited Mount Chilbo as it was too rural and undeveloped during his days.

After a rather late lunch at the Outer Chilbo Hotel (with a group of exile North Koreans living in Japan on the next table – probably pachinko people…) we spent almost two hours on the bus on our way to Kyongsong. We arrived at the Yombun Revolutionary Site during dusk, with just enough light left to take a couple of photos before heading to the Kyongsong Local Hot Spa House (part of the Kim Jong-suk Sanatorium), where some of us took a hot bath. After seven years in Japan still not a fan of the onsen culture there, two other guys and I headed for the Kyongsong Guest House, the local and really basic accommodation – no blackouts, but again neither hot nor running water.
(Funny story: At least one of my fellow travelers took their camera with them into the spa house, but for obvious reasons not into the bath. Later that evening they were told by our western guide that the Korean guides recommended to delete some of their photos! Nothing like privacy, eh?)

The night at the Kyongsong Guest House was not only our last evening with our first set of guides, it was also the 40th birthday of Mr. So, who did a good job keeping us on schedule and ironing out any problems in the background, while Mr. Li kept us entertained and within limits. Dinner was even bigger than usual and after a rather melodramatic speech by Mr. So the celebrations began – including lots of alcohol and songs. Even our third guide, Mr. Sin, loosened up and wouldn’t stop singing, dancing and drinking…
(Speaking of third guides: A third guide is only present if Americans are part of the group! The western tour guides were always vague about it and kind of made it sound as if it was coincidence whether or not a third guide would be with a group, but according to more experienced fellow travelers it really depends on the presence of Americans…)

My twelfth day in North Korea across both trips was probably my favorite one overall. I love spending time in the countryside and this day had it all. A wonderful sunrise at a gorgeous beach, light hiking at a stunning mountain range and a beautiful sunset at the wild cliffs of a revolutionary site – in addition to that good food and interesting conversations. An almost perfect day…

(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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The most surprising and shocking revelation of the third day was the electric fence along the coast of North Korea!
After breakfast at the Chongjin Hotel we drove south through the city, past the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex (guess who originally built it!), which is dominating the look and economy of Chonjin. It seems like the little town of Ranam is supposed to become the new city center of Chonjin, with its rather modern apartment buildings, shopping mall and university, but it looks like it’s still a long way – and of course we weren’t allowed to take photos. Even when we stopped outside of Ranam the three guardguides made sure that we only took photos of some strange rock formations, not back towards Ranam and Chongjin; despite the fact that both of them were out of sight anyway. Free photography would be allowed in the Chilbo area and at special stops on the way, but not from the bus, they told us.
Several kilometers outside of Chonjin we finally reached the Sea of Japan (a.k.a. East Sea in South Korea and East Sea of Korea in North Korea) near the town of Orang. The beautiful coast of North Korea to the left, all of a sudden half the bus had “What the f*ck?!” written all over their faces, but of course nobody said anything – there was a multi-layered electric fence on top of a wall separating the beach from the bumpy dirt road! My rather loud DSLR prohibited me from taking photos, and so did the rather fast driving bus and the tainted windows. (I took a photo without asking the next morning, when I was alone at the beach of the Homestay Village, but I still had a bad feeling about it, given that there was supposed to be a memory card check when leaving North Korea through Rason – which actually didn’t happen in the end.)

Shortly afterwards we made a quick stop at a rather new saltworks, consisting of dozens of evaporation ponds – they actually built a viewing point for tourists to have a look.

To our surprise the next stop was just a few minutes away, when we headed inland again and passed Lake Mugye. It didn’t look that special and the concrete foundation at the shore was crumbling away, but almost everybody was happy about every opportunity to take photos, so none of us complained. (I guess the real reason to stop was using nature as a restroom – which didn’t work out for all of us, since there is hardly any place in North Korea without locals. The country’s population density isn’t that high (#65 in the world), yet you see locals at the strangest places in the middle of nowhere… everywhere.)

Following the rather short ride along the beautiful coastline and the equally short inland excursion, we finally reached the Sea Chilbo area and with it gained permission to take photos whenever we wanted (well, except for locals, poverty, military, …). Mount Chilbo, the Seven Treasure Mountain, is one of the most famous mountains in all of North Korea and is divided into three areas: Sea Chilbo, Outer Chilbo, Inner Chilbo – more about that in the next article as we spent almost a whole day hiking and sightseeing in the stunning Chilbo area.

After a nice snack at the scenic Soryangwha Waterfalls we continued to follow the winding road until we reached a homestay village between two small fishing villages – not the one for foreigners, one for locals! We made a quick photography stop coming down a hill, but surprisingly there was little to none activity in the village. I vaguely remember Mr. Li telling us a story how one of the Kims visited the village (or heard about it?) and sent them refrigerators to make the stay there more pleasant. By then we were already back on the bus to and on our way to THE Homestay Village near Pochon, the only homestay village in all of North Korea where foreign tourists are allowed to stay – except for Americans and Japanese for whatever reason.
There are not a lot of accommodations in the area (the closest one is the Outer Chilbo Hotel, about 15 kilometers away, where Americans and Japanese have to stay the night till this very day), so when the local government planned a new hotel, Kim Jong-il himself intervened and ordered to build a homestay village instead, as he thought it was the way of the future and at the time North Korea was one of the few countries not to offer this option. So in 2006 20 houses were built, some western style with beds (4 or 6 of them), the rest Korean style, with guests sleeping on the heated floor; the village center being a building with a restaurant and a small gift shop selling a few local products like beer and snacks.
After we chose a house, a member of the host family (most of them not able to speak English), picked us up and showed us our rooms. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, so all of us met outside for a relaxing walk along the beach. With no clouds in the sky it was just wonderful to enjoy this part of the Korean coast only a few westerners have ever laid their eyes on.
Next on the program, after most men returned from their regular work: a volleyball match against the locals. To avoid any “us against them” feeling we opted for mixed teams and it looked like everybody enjoyed themselves tremendously, despite the language barrier. After a demonstration of Korean wrestling, Kent, one of two Americans on the tour, sacrificed himself bravely when our group was challenged – and the Texas Yankee gave his opponent quite a tough time, much to the joy of Mr. Li, three young boys and pretty much everybody else present.
To get an even deeper understanding of Korean culture, we were able to participate in rice cake and noodle making afterwards, both of which we sampled before a delicious seafood and veggie dinner. But the evening wasn’t over yet! After a night walk with two fellow travellers, there were still two more items on the itinerary – first we met with the locals on the beach for a bonfire, then we all gathered at one of the houses to talk to the residents. I guess on previous tours people went home with their host families directly to have a talk with them, which tended to fail due to the language barrier and general awkwardness. Thanks to the bigger group and guides being able to translate, the whole thing was much more relaxed. The male head of the household came home late and didn’t have dinner before meeting with us, which didn’t stop him from chugging whole bowls of soju, local liquor with 20 to 40% alcohol, when being challenged – at first it didn’t seem to affect him, but then it hit him hard and we all left out of politeness; up to that point it was highly entertaining though. We were sitting in the living room and his wife, who understood English, but didn’t speak it, sat about a meter away from him in the kitchen – seeing them interacting with each other was downright hilarious!
Downright cute was the maybe two-and-a-half-year-old daughter of the village boss and his wife. They were living right next to the main building and we went to their house for the cooking practice in the afternoon – and their daughter was the cutest, most fearless toddler I’ve ever seen. Japanese kids tend to be extremely shy and most German toddlers seem to have a basic form of stranger anxiety, too. To see a fearless little girl in a country where most adults are horrified by foreigners was just heart-warming. She even attended the bonfire in the evening, laughing and dancing, trying to sing along – I really hope change comes quickly enough so she can keep her attitude and live an open-minded and free life!
Of course the homestay village didn’t put us in an average house with average Koreans. You can bet that all inhabitants are privileged local party members and that their interior is way above the DPRK standard, given that they have radios, TVs, plenty of kitchenware, … Nevertheless we experienced several blackouts during our 18-hour-stay – and none of the houses had working running water, and that included the toilets!

Which brings me back to the electric fences. I expected those around the concentration camps and of course regular prisons, probably near factories and of course everything related to military installations. Electric fences along the coast? That’s just bizarre! Of course the fences were not everywhere. Most of the North Korean coast consists of cliffs, so there is no need for fences there. The same applies for beaches within villages, where everybody can have an eye on each other. But as soon as you left an area that could not be directly controlled or quickly reached, one of those fences popped up. The North Korean government can’t provide sufficient electricity even for the privileged, let alone the regular population… yet there are electric fences along the coast?
One of my fellow travellers actually made a good point – those fences most likely are not active, since barbed wire and electric fences are deep in people’s minds. Everybody knows what happens if you touch them, so nobody dares to do so.
On the next day somebody actually brought up the topic to one of the guardguides and the answer was something along the line of: “The fences are there to prevent children from running into the water and drowning.”

(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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After breakfast at the Hoeryong Hotel we started a highlight tour of the city. First destination was a statue of Kim Jong-suk, Kim Il-sung’s wife and Kim Jong-il’s mother, who died in 1949 when lil’ Kim was just seven years old. Barely mentioned during tours to Pyongyang, Kim Jong-suk, pardon: comrade Kim Jong-suk, is all over the place in North Hamgyong province and especially her place of birth, Hoeryong. So after the mandatory bowing in front of her statue (the two stones where Kim Jong-il bowed marked in a different color!) we strolled through a park dedicated to her before visiting her native birthplace and the “Museum of the Revolutionary Accomplishments of Kim Jong-suk” – guess whom / what that was all about! Though I have to admit that it was actually quite interesting. I am a bit of a history buff and access to material about Kim Jong-suk is limited outside of North Korea, so at least they didn’t tell me stuff I’ve heard a thousand times before. Like what Hoeryong is famous for… (“beautiful women, beautiful white peaches, beautiful earthenware”)

Next stop was the Kim Ki-song Senior Secondary School, named after Kim Jong-suk’s younger brother, who was killed in their shared fight against the Japanese occupiers. What started as a typical school tour with a statue in front of the building and a room about the school’s history, turned into an interesting place on many levels. When we visited the computer room with its 16 workstations everything seemed to be normal, but when I switched to the other side of the room to have a look what the teens were actually working on, it turned out that all the screens were black! Smelling deception I talked to my fellow travelers who revealed that… just when I crossed the room the power was cut! Half a minute earlier the kids were actually doing something on their computers. A blackout during bright daylight is nothing to be proud of obviously, but it’s still better than faking a computer lesson completely…
When I left the room, a couple of large propaganda paintings on the walls caught my eyes. One of them showed an American soldier captured by a Korean one, some Korean characters in the lower right corner. I thought it was the artist’s name, but after the tour it turned out it was the paintings (sub-)title: The miserable end of an invader.
Next on the list was attending an English class with the scariest teacher I’ve ever seen. When you learn a new language you often pronounce words slightly incorrectly, so you sound too soft, too harsh, too scared, too whatever; so it probably was a pronunciation thing, but when she asked her students what Korea will be like in the year 2050 she sounded like Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. (The students didn’t seem to mind and gave their obviously prepared answers in a rather workmanlike way.) Speaking of pronunciation: I loved the schematics on the wall which showed how to position your tongue for certain sounds, though some of the example sentences were rather unusual. (“Korea is the land of Juche.” / “I am a student and he is a Worker.” (sic))
To my surprise the tour of the school didn’t end with a performance, but outside in the yard, where some boys played soccer and some girls played basketball – we were encouraged to join them, but the guys played on such a high level and with such dedication that nobody dared to, so the girls got all the attention. I was more interested in the little details anyway, like the piles of firewood and the crumbling statues in an almost garden like area.

My favorite stop in Hoeryong was at the Mangyang Ferry, the place where Kim Jong-suk crossed the Tumen River as a child to flee from the Japanese oppressors. They even had a wooden ferry boat under an open wooden construction right next to a mural of a young Kim Jong-suk. In sight of this revolutionary site was not only a bridge between China and Korea with customs offices on both sides, but also a pagoda shaped sightseeing tower for Chinese and western tourists – it seems like people love to stare across rivers to have a look at the Hermit Kingdom. On the way back to the bus we saw a soldier herding a couple of goats. While some of us were secretly taking photos I went all in and asked Mr. Li for permission – and to my surprise he granted it, though it’s usually an absolute no-go to take photos of military in the DPRK.

North Korea & Japan – A Rant

After lunch at the Hoeryong Hotel we started our two-hour long drive to Chongjin – and I think it was this bus ride that first drove me nuts and then lead to an ultimate facepalm. The insane part started when Mr. So handed out handwritten lyric sheets to everybody and insisted on teaching us the latest North Korea smash hit – created just a couple of days prior. (He gave us a number, they always give you numbers, it was something like 8, 13 or 16 days… I forgot.) Which means that he sang the song about a dozen times before making us join him. Like I mentioned before – I don’t like to sing or dance, Korean people love it. I survived living in Japan for more than seven years without going for karaoke. And here I was on this bus from hell with no possibility to escape – although I have to admit in retrospect a thought like that sounds ridiculous, given that we were passing by a concentration camp almost every day, where people really experience hell and have no possibility to escape…
The involuntarily amusingly surreal part began after the singing, when Mr. Li told us about some concrete pillars between two mountains, obviously part of a never finished or dismantled train track. Comrade Li said that those pillars were built by Korean people under the worst possible conditions during the Japanese occupation – in Pyongyang everybody focuses on how bad the Americans are, but in the northern parts the Japanese are still the ultimate evil. The workers back then had to work long hours, the weather was terrible, they didn’t get enough food, shelter was bad, if someone didn’t work hard enough he got punished and if somebody died he wasn’t buried, but thrown into the planking, becoming part of the concrete pillar – it was a horrible story, most likely true as the Japanese ruled Korea with an iron fist, yet it basically sounded like the current conditions in the concentration camp just down the road. But that wasn’t the only irony Mr. Li didn’t get at all – 5 minutes later we saw a huge yet ancient looking factory to the right and Mr. Li proudly told us that it was the biggest concrete factory in the country, built in 1936. (According to my research after the tour, the plant is called Komusan Concrete Factory and was finished in June 1936 with a production capacity of 150.000 tons per year.) If you are not that familiar with Korean history let me tell you that the peninsula was occupied by Japan from 1905 until 1945 – so North Korea’s biggest concrete plant was actually planned and built by the oh so evil Japanese who never did anything good at all… Am I the only one who can’t help but thinking of “The Life of Brian” and the “What have the Romans ever done for us?” scene?
This “concrete pillar / concrete factory” story is a prime example for the North Korean doublethink, on the other hand it shows that Japan is often overlooked when it comes to the Korea conflict and WW2 in general!
Gosh, I am pretty sure I will regret this rant sooner or later, but the Mr. Miyagi image so many people have of Japan is definitely wrong! The way Japan handles its role in World War 2 makes me sick to the stomach. It starts with the fact that the world, and especially Japan, pretends that WW2 started for Japan in 1941 with their attack on Pearl Harbor – and by that half of humankind ignores at least 10 years of unimaginable cruelty Japan spread all over Asia after the Mukden Incident in 1931, making it easy for them to portray themselves as victims of WW2, because Hiroshima and Nagasaki was clearly more cruel than the attack on Pearl Harbor; and other than this sneaky surprise attack, Imperial Japan didn’t commit much cruelty to American soldiers. But war crimes and atrocities were committed in unimaginable high numbers especially against Koreans and Chinese – *last time* I wrote about the concentration camps in North Korea, but if you want to read some really sick shit, do some research on “Unit 731”, Japan’s secret biological warfare department. Heck, I make it easy for you: *Here’s a link to Wikipedia!* But instead of taking responsibility Japan points towards Hiroshima, showing who in their opinion the real victim of World War 2 is – and nothing changed. Shiro Ishii and his butchers of Unit 731 got away free thanks to States, who granted them immunity. The Massacre / Rape of Nanjing is called “Nanjing Incident” in Japanese, the sex slaves of the Japanese military during WW2 are usually called “comfort women” even in English – and called “a necessary evil” by Osaka’s mayor Toru Hashimoto in May of 2013, who just says what most regular Japanese people actually think to this very day. The unwillingness of the Japanese to take responsibility is omnipresent! From the aftermath of World War 2 to the Minamata disease in the 1960s to Fukushima this very second – the examples are countless. To some degree the huge amount of abandoned places in Japan is another symptom of this problem as people rather walk away than take care of a problem. And when I explain to friends here in Japan that the difference between Germany and Japan is the Warsaw Genuflection on the one side and the Yasukuni Shrine on the other side, all I get is a complete lack of understanding.
So, why this long rant, spanning 100 years? Because IMHO both North Korea and Japan should finally shut the fuck up (pardon my French…) and deal with the facts. Anti-Japanese propaganda in North Korea is so out of place after almost 70 years, especially since half of the North Korean infrastructure and economy dates back to the Japanese occupation! What other country in the world has to say “Our biggest cement factory is almost 80 years old!”? It’s ridiculous! At the same time Japan needs to grow some balls and deal with its past. I am so tired of whining Japanese who cry over how much Asia hates them – and then they applause some politician douchebag who basically says “The rape of women all over Asia was necessary, killing a couple of hundred thousand civilians in Nanjing wasn’t that bad – but enough of that, I have to go to some shrine to honor a couple of war criminals!”. Heck, it’s not even just the past Japan has to deal with, it’s the present, too! When the toothless tiger DPRK did some missile tests in 2013, Japan positioned massive amounts of defensive military equipment in the government quarters, making North Korea a much bigger threat than it actually is – financed by Japanese money in the first place! I mentioned it before and I will mention it again: According to an article in the Japan Times from 2007, up to 200 billion Yen per year are flowing to North Korea due to pachinko parlors run by exile North Koreans in Japan. Back then 200 billion Yen were about 1.7 billion USD, while North Korea had a government budget of 3.2 billion USD in the same year according to the CIA. If that includes the pachinko money, then Japan was financing half of North Korea’s expenditures, if not it was still a third! So instead of whining about and pointing at North Korea – how about banning pachinko? The whole business is shady and half-legal at best anyway since most of the parlors not controlled by exile North Koreans are run by the yakuza, the Japanese mafia! But hey, that would mean getting things done and taking responsibility – and what most Japanese people think about that I wrote halfway through this rant…
(And as a disclaimer: This was a broad generalization, like French make good wine, Germans build great cars and Italians have fantastic pizza. Not all Japanese are the same and I met some of the most awesome people in this country – but also some of the most stubborn, ignorant, right-wing racist douchebags! I don’t need to tell you about temples, anime, sushi and video games – everybody knows what’s great about Japan, but hardly anybody dares to look at the existing dark side…)

Okay, so after we left the cement factory behind we passed a power plant to the right, according to Mr. Li built in the 1980s (1984? 1986?) – which really surprised me, because it looked like it was abandoned since the mid-80s, not built back then! But it was nice to finally see something industry related not built by the Japanese…

Next stop of the karaoke bus – the Susongchon General Foodstuff Factory, which was a little bit harder to find on the map after the trip, since there is no Susongchon station or Susongchon district. And when I finally found it, I was pretty much shocked again – on the way there we must have passed the entrance gate to the Chongjin concentration camp, Kwan-li-so 25; not by kilometers, but by meters. Of course nobody pointed that fact out, but if you are planning on doing the same trip later this year, *have a look at my GoogleMap* first and keep your eyes open!
The factory itself was incredibly unspectacular. We were bombarded with numbers and how big the factory became over the last couple of years, yet here we were at a decently sized factory on a Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. where hardly anybody was working. All production lines stood still and we met more representatives of the factory than workers. Some of us were bored quickly and asked to step outside to take a photo of a sculpture or monument in front of the factory, which they got permission for – only to be ratted out by some locals, reporting to our guides that foreigners were taking photos outside of the factory…

When we finally reached the city center of Chongjin, the sun was setting and we were running out of time. A quick bow and photo session in front of a Kim Il-sung statue followed by a short visit at the North Hamgyong Provincial Revolutionary Museum, where we heard a ridiculous story about some trees with revolutionary slogans carved into – when the forest caught fire during the Japanese occupation the trees were protected by a bunch of Korean freedom fighters with their bare bodies. According to the story some of the soldiers died in the flames, but the trees survived!

Last sightseeing stop of the day was the North Hamgyong Provincial Electronic Library, a place our guides were especially proud of since it was in possession of more than 300 computers connected to Pyongyang via some kind of intranet. All workstations were actually occupied by teenagers who took a test exam coordinated from the capital. Good for them!
Good for us was dinner at the Chongjin Hotel, run by a former exile-Korean in Japan, who returned to Korea in the 1980s, building and running hotels in North Hamgyong province; he now is in control over about half a dozen of them. Dinner was absolutely amazing, definitely the best meal I had in the DPRK across both trips, with tons of fresh seafood. The hotel itself was of questionable quality – no hot water or working toilet in the room. And when I turned on the light upon entering, I heard some low noises and saw some bugs disappearing under the peeling linoleum floor. Have a good night everybody!

(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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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…

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