(first published in 2016)
It’s the world’s most secretive state, powered by a regime that’s shrouded in mystery to most of the world — welcome to North Korea. Against many recommendations, I travelled there with my best friend Mitchell in early 2015. If you’re seeking a unique and unusual destination, then you consider North Korea, while it’s still open to tourism. Here are just a few insights from my experience in the great Hermit Kingdom…
How to get there
Contrary to popular belief, getting to North Korea isn’t too difficult. To apply for a DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) VISA, it’s best to go via a western travel agency that can submit your application to the capital. We chose Young Pioneer Tours as our travel agency and local guides. Their team are fun to travel with and made the experience feel safe and structured.
Once approved, you will need a Chinese multi-entry visa to begin and end your trip in China. We took the sleeper train from Beijing to the border Dandong and across the river bridge.
North Korea doesn’t stamp your passport, so your passport will document you leaving China to ‘nowhere’ and then arriving from ‘nowhere’ back to China. PS — Australian Border Control didn’t seem to like this.
On arrival, you’ll be given your DPRK official visa documents. Your Australian passport will be taken and returned to you on exit. I remember our guide made a joke that they’d misplaced our passports — no one laughed.
When in the capital, Pyongyang, you will likely stay at the Yanggakdo International Hotel. The hotel did feel a bit like Faulty Towers at times, just without Basil, Sybil and the Major. We had our assigned guards instead, who paced night and day around the building for “guest safety”.
In some ways the DPRK exceeded my expectations, and in others, it left me leaving with more questions than I arrived with.
I was expecting to see poverty and oppression everywhere, but that wasn’t the case, at-least in Pyongyang. I saw glimpses of struggle, but nothing to the extent of what was being portrayed in the media.
It’s a surreal place to visit, as you detox from western thinking and open up to a new and extremely unique culture.
The week long tour was filled with moments of surprise, wonder and disappointments. North Korea is truly unlike anywhere else, because it’s yet to be influenced by the culture of the western world through trade and tourism.
Pyongyang was vastly more modern than I expected. It had cars, tunnels, bridges, lights, and massive outdoor screens (showcasing state sponsored messages).
I was surprised to see thousands of locals walking around freely, walking to work, playing with their kids and riding bikes. There were even a few smiles and waves. The North Korean locals we found to be friendly, caring, considerate — and of course curious. It’s not often they clash with tourists.
What can you see?
Your trip is fairly scripted to what the state-run tourism agency has pre-planned. You can request to see certain attractions or try certain foods, but it should be requested well in advanced.
Along our tour, we got to see many of the tourist highlights including:
- A pyongyang city bus tour
- Juche Tower (incredible views)
- Arch of Triumph
- The DMZ border (day trip)
- Kaeson city (near the DMZ)
- USS Pueblo (a seized US submarine)
- The local Circus
- The Pyongyang Metro system
All of these places listed were an incredible experience in their own standing, and there’s a story behind each of them. Perhaps a future tourist book?
The life of a local
The North Korean people are warm, friendly and very hospitable. At first they seem shy, pondering whether to approach you or not. Many will stare, then smile and maybe wave. Without initiating a conversation, don’t expect them to be very outgoing, after all, their interactions with foreigners are surveyed.
Most of the locals in Pyongyang speak good English. A warm encouragement is the quickest way to opening up the dialogue. The North Korean people are very proud and passionate of their heritage, leaders and way of living. Instead of forcing my own views upon them, I found it a best to just listen and learn instead.
Believe it or not, you’re taken in good care by the hospitality of the locals. I never felt unsafe. But you have to remain cautious. One wrong move and you could find yourself in trouble. Amidst the fun, I forget how ‘unreachable’ I was from the rest of the world. It’s not like I could pop down to the local embassy.
I will say this, the locals sure do know how to put on a great feast, with good (Chinese) beer and crazy karaoke! Just like Australians, they love time spent around food, friends and laughter.
My tips for travelling to North Korea
- Take a quality camera. Lenses with zoom are fine, just don’t go over 200mm.
- I recommend you don’t bring laptops or usb devices. Border controls are not a fan of these portable devices.
- Take the sleeper train from Beijing to experience the river bridge crossing, and for a swift exit it’s best to leave via Air Koryo, North Korea’s own airline. You will get the best of both worlds.
- Take a few packets of Chinese cigarettes. It’s a popular gift to give and they’ll earn some favour if you inadvertently upset anyone.
- Scepticism and cautiousness is expected to a degree, but try your best to keep a quiet lip and an open mind. It’s an incredible place to soak in and reflect on later.
- DO NOT leave your tour guides and wander off. You could find yourself in trouble.
Covid update: Travel as we know it is on pause, and it’s hard to predict when travel to the DRPK will reopen, if at all…
Thanks for reading.
Photos by Lachlan Nicolson. All rights reserved.
Media enquiries: lachynicolson @ gmail.com