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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Kaeson Youth Park was the exciting final destination of my trip to North Korea. Visiting the most modern amusement park in Pyongyang’s city center was on our schedule almost every day, but every time it had to be pushed back; the first time it rained, the second time was “foreigners’ night” (which defeated the purpose of mingling with locals), the third time we were out of town overnight, …
After getting back from *Kaesong* and having dinner at the famous *duck restaurant in Pyongyang* we finally went to the Kaeson Youth Park on our last night – with the *Arch of Triumph* right across the street our tour basically ended where it began.

Originally opened in 1984, the 40 ha big park fell into disrepair quickly, giving all of North Korea’s theme parks a bad reputation. Being an avid urban explorer I was actually looking forward to seeing some quasi abandoned amusement parks, but it turned out that the ones we saw were all modernized recently. The Kaeson Youth Park for example received a whopping ten new attractions from Italy in April 2010, including a rollercoaster, bumper cars and a freefall tower. It wouldn’t be able to compete with elaborate theme parks like Universal Studios or Disneyland, but it’s attractions would be popular at any funfair in world – hence the place’s nickname Kaeson Funfair, because that’s what it basically is; a non-travelling funfair.
In an article by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun I’ve read that enjoying all ten rides costs locals 1600 won, more than half of what the average person in Pyongyang earns per month (3000 won) – two things about that:
1.) According to their article 1600 won were about 40 US cents in 2011, according to currency converters it was about 12 dollars back then! (A little less today… Maybe there is a different black market exchange rate?)
2.) What the article fails to mention is the fact that most people in Pyongyang don’t have to live off their 3000 won income, it’s kind of an allowance since the state provides accommodation and their place of work provides meals (though I am not sure if it’s just lunch or three meals a day).
So yes, visiting the Kaeson Youth Park is very expensive for locals (a ride on the subway costs 2 won…), but it is possible for them to enjoy an evening there. Not a whole day though, because the funfair opens at 7 p.m. and closes at midnight or 1 a.m., depending on which guide you asked… 😉

At the *Taesongsan Park & Funfair* we didn’t go on any rides, so our group was set loose and we were able to explore on our own – at the Kaeson Youth Park we had to stick together, nevertheless I was able to take an almost foreigner free video since the group stretched quite a bit. We basically walked to the end of the park and made our way back to the entrance, people hopping on the rides in mini groups; with VIP treatment, i.e. skipping the queue – which came at a price: 1.5 to 3 Euros per ride, according to a guide more than 30 times of what locals pay, which means that the whole exchange rate thing is off completely…
Despite the fact that we arrived past 9 p.m. there were still quite few children around (usually in groups), but overall it was a good mix of locals again (youth groups, couples, families, soldiers), so it felt kind of natural being there, despite the fact that clothing usually was less individual than what you are used to from amusement parks in Europe or the States. We even witnessed a heated argument between two guys, most likely military – much to the embarrassment of our Korean guides. Personally I enjoyed seeing that, it gave the experience quite a human touch.
The Kaeson Youth Park was another hint that things in the DPRK are changing. Like I said, amusement parks in North Korea have a horrible reputation and most articles on the net make fun of them, but all three parks I saw had been renovated since Kim Jong-un became the leader of the country. The KYP looked like a modern funfair and it seems like that the powers that be intend to keep it that way. An estimated half of the park’s staff was busy cleaning and swiping, contributing to the image that I had during my whole trip to the DPRK – a struggling but upcoming country that is trying extremely hard to make the best of a bad situation.

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

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The human side of North Korea.
That’s what the title of this article should be, but I guess I’ll stick with the naming conventions I decided weeks ago – nevertheless the trip to the Taesongsan Park & Funfair was hands down my favorite part of the eight days / seven nights I spent in North Korea – although I most likely contracted food poisoning there…

After finishing the first ever *Fun Run* in the DPRK everybody went back to the *Yanggakdo Hotel* for a quick shower and some hearty breakfast. From there we drove to the Mansudae Memorial for a deep bow in front of two gigantic statues and a couple of photos of the area with a great view at the city, directly down to the *Workers Party Foundation Monument*; nice, but not interesting enough to deserve its own article.

The Taesongsan Park & Funfair are in the north eastern outskirts of Pyongyang, near the Pyongyang Zoo and the *Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery*, basically right next to Rakwon Station, the final stop on the Hyoksin Line of the *Pyongyang Metro* – nevertheless they are not marked on *GoogleMaps*.
People always say that there are barely any cars in Pyongyang, that the city feels deserted – not on May 1st near Mount Taesong! As soon as we got closer, traffic became quite heavy. Still nothing in comparison to any bigger in an industrialized country, but the traffic policemen were pretty busy and we actually had to wait at intersections. (BTW: Contrary to the internet phenomenon most of the traffic police are male, not female… about 2:1 or even 3:1 of what I saw!) There even was a taxi among the cars. Yes, a taxi! They have taxis in North Korea… The most crowded area was around Rakwon Station, where a constant stream of people left the metro system. Sadly most of the traffic and people photos turned out to be blurry or had window reflections in them, nevertheless I’ll include a couple of them to show you that there are people actually living in Pyongyang and that it is not a ghost town populated by a couple of actors who play “perfect country” for the handful of tourists who visit the DPRK every year…

The Taesongsan Park & Funfair is exactly what the name says – a huge park with lots of funfair rides. We drove about 1/3 into the park and when we left the bus our guides told us to everybody’s surprise that we could explore on our own and that we would meet about 40 minutes later. The announcement was borderline shocking since nobody expected anything like that. Yeah, we were told that we would be able to mingle with the locals on May Day, but everybody thought it would be a group experience. People bolted off in all directions, but I stuck with Jeff, Ben and Jimmie; having a feeling that this could be a great experience if I was able to keep up with Jeff (who had no intentions to shake anybody off!). But first the three decided it was time for a bathroom break, so all of a sudden there I was on my own, in a park in North Korea… completely unprepared, to be honest.
If this isn’t your first visit to Abandoned Kansai you know that I am not much of a street photographer – I take pictures of buildings, abandoned ones usually, to be more specific; not of people. And we were told not to take photos of people directly anyway. Which I ignored right away by taking a photo of one of those tent like food stands that spread all over the park and Pyongyang in general. (Privately operated, BTW! You have to apply for a license to run one, but that’s pretty much all I found out about them.) The woman running the tent immediately waved me over and I thought I was in deep trouble, but instead of yelling at me she had a big smile on her face. Before I knew what was going on I had a cold bottle of water in my free hand – and I had no idea how to manage the situation, because as I told you, we weren’t prepared for that. Was it a gift? Did she expect payment? But how could I pay without having any local money on me? (Foreigners are not allowed to have local currency, although they sell you notes fresh from the press on your last day at the Yanggakdo Hotel, at a ridiculous exchange rate though.) After a quite confusing (not to say panicking) moment I remembered that I had some sweets from Japan in my backpack, so I opened it and gave her some green tea chocolate – and everybody was happy. (It must sound trivial if you weren’t there, but it was a truly amazing situation to me…) Seconds later my fellow travelers showed up again and we continued our tour through the park. (And I found out that we can buy stuff from the tent stands with Chinese Yuan, although I thought it was forbidden for them to accept foreign currencies.)
I knew that it would be impossible to shoot a decent video with the whole group, so a minute later I went on a stroll by myself again, still trying to reflect what just happened. So I walked around for about 10 minutes and as you can see in the video – just a normal park with normal people enjoying themselves.
By the time I got back to my new friends from the States, Canada and Australia the next big thing was going on already. I saw Ben and Jimmie, but Jeff was nowhere to be seen, just some dozen local kids crawling over a table… and Jeff. While I was gone my American buddy sat down, took out his tablet and started to play a flight simulator; much to the interest of almost every Korean coming by, especially the kids. It was amazing! I’ve never seen that many smiling and curious kids at the same time, even a couple of adults stopped by to find out what was going on. Including Mr. Yu, who kind of broke off the spectacle… which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Mr. Yu was clearly uneasy about the situation, so I talked to him for a minute or two while Jeff headed deeper into the park – I followed shortly after and reunited with the rest of our mini group.

As I mentioned in a previous article, the Taesongsan Park is a popular spot for BBQs. A blanket, a gas heated pan plus lots of food and alcohol. Fun for the whole family. Dozens, probably hundreds of groups were spread all over the park, enjoying the blessing of a late spring under still blooming cherry trees. It kind of looked like home (which currently is Osaka, Japan), it felt like home. We were passing by quite a few groups when Jeff decided to approach one of them, us three still in tow. Almost instantly Jeff was offered a seat and before we knew what was happening all four of us sat down. Jeff gave me 20 Yuan and asked me to get some beer – I tried to find some at the food tents, but since I don’t drink beer I didn’t even knew what it looked like; of course nobody there spoke English. Except for Mr. Yu, whom I met again, but only for long enough to find out that we would meet half an hour later than planned since everybody enjoyed themselves so much.
With good news (but without alcohol) I returned to the group and sent Jimmie on the beer mission. By that time Juliette came by and was invited to join everybody, too.
The group we joined was a big family, at least three generations from toddlers to grandma. Jeff was in his element, showing pictures on his tablet to our hosts, introducing everybody, translating parts of the conversations – and what got lost was made up with nice gestures and big smiles. By the time our bottoms hit the ground we had chopsticks in one hand and a paper cup of soju in the other. Meat was sizzling in the pans and the scarf wearing grandma next to Juliette was cutting up delicious baechu kimchi; from a big plastic bag, the napa cabbages still in wholes.
Those 10 to 15 minutes we sat with that group of locals was the best time I had in the DPRK and I still don’t know how to describe the way I felt. (Not only myself, but everybody involved – we talked about this experience for the rest of our trip.) I grew up with a certain image of North Koreans, which is probably pretty similar to yours. Partly based on North Korean material (like parades, official news reports, interviews with average people after Kim Jong-il died), partly based on Western media portrayals – and here I was eating and drinking with (random!) locals on a sunny day in a beautiful park in Pyongyang; sharing THEIR food after THEY invited us. The nicest, most open-minded people I’ve ever met. Not a single negative word, not even a single negative vibe. Jeff, him being American by definition an oppressor and arch enemy, was actually the most popular one of us. Those people were nothing like the image I had of North Koreans before the trip! There was no way they could have been nicer or could have made us felt more welcome…
(Of course we didn’t take advantage of the situation and contributed some bottles of beer as well as sweets we brought from our countries to the feast. BTW: When our Austrian group members Anton and Veronika passed by halfway through our time there, our hosts invited them over, too – nobody was left out, everybody was welcome!)

All good things must come to an end, so after a while we had to leave to get back to the bus, but not without Jeff chatting up some more people on the way, all of them reacting very friendly and interested. Sadly I didn’t get a good end, but a rather bad one. I was feeling a little bit under the weather all day, but it got worse on the bus ride to the city center, where we had lunch on a boat. By the time we sat down I was freezing and sweating at the same time, feeling seriously sick. With Jeff’s help I was able to lie down in the cabin of a crew member and when I got up again I almost fed the fishes across the ship’s rail – luckily my stomach was almost empty and my body seemed to appreciate the gesture. I was feeling a bit better, nevertheless I stayed in the (boiling hot) bus while the others explored Moranbong Park for more interaction with locals; afterwards everybody said Taesongsan Park was way better since this time it indeed was a group experience again. I guess I picked up an undercooked piece of bulgogi and contracted food poising, which I literally sweat out for two hours or so. Which was another blessing in disguise as the evening bus ride to Nampo was the shakiest and bounciest you can imagine, but that’s a story for another time. (Oh, and just in case you wonder – although I could have done without the food poisoning, it was totally worth the experience at Taesongsan Park! No regrets whatsoever…)

(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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