Spring Festival 1 – North Korea

I decided a while ago, that I’d do something interesting during my Spring Festival holidays, and so I decided to go to North Korea (officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK). There are several tour companies who run tours to DPRK, and I selected one, and booked, without too much thought. I figured that I may as well go now, since I’m so close in China.

To get there, you can go by train from China (unless you’re American, or Japanese. Then you have to fly). On my tour there were six of us – myself, a father and son from Liverpool, UK; another Brit who was going to teach in China after the trip was over; a Dutch guy on a round-the-world tour; and a Japanese guy who we met when we arrived, as we all came on the train and he couldn’t.

I got a night train from Beijing to Dandong, in Liaoning, on the Chinese-North Korea border, in Northeast China. It was cold, evidenced by the train door window freezing over when we arrived in Dandong.

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At Dandong, I met with the other members of our group, and the tour manager in China (he sorted out our tickets, gave us our paper visas and then made sure we got on the correct train). We went through customs on the Chinese side, then boarded the train, not sure what to expect….

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Model of bridge over Yalu River and ruin of original bridge, destroyed during the Korean War

On leaving Dandong, the train immediately crosses a bridge over the Yalu River separating the two countries, which happened to be full of ice. Then, over the bridge we ground to a halt and the North Korea customs staff boarded. We spent about two hours here, but the staff were pleasant and cheerful and there were no problems. We then left – slowly – for Pyongyang.

Passing through farmland, and fields covered in snow, we saw many local people going about their daily business. On board, there were some Chinese university students from Beijing, who I attempted to talk to with my limited Chinese knowledge.

Pictures showing our train to Pyongyang; and fields of snow in the North Korean countryside.

We were given lunch to take with us on the train, and we ate that, then settled in for the duration. Eventually, and apparently half an hour late, at about 18:15, we pulled into Pyongyang railway station. We were met by our two guides, and taken to our hotel. This was an international hotel, with 47 floors, a revolving restaurant on top, and bowling alley, billiard tables, table tennis tables, swimming pool and sauna, barber and casino in the basement.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were given a meal, and then left to our own devices in the hotel – going to play billiards or table tennis. I went to bed.

Our first meal in the hotel. We were given a lot of food!

Day 2

After a big breakfast, we departed from the hotel. We drove through Pyongyang, allowing us to see some of the city, and went to a hill where there were two huge statues of Kim Il-Sung and King Jong-Il. We had to buy flowers to lay in front of the statues, then we bowed, before being allowed to take pictures of them. Following this, we went to a museum which had gifts in which both men received from across Korea, as a few international gifts (most of the international gifts were in another museum, which we couldn’t access due to the weather). Following this, we went to a park, to see the house where Kim Il-Sung lived when he was young, and then went for lunch in a restaurant.

Statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, who we had to bow in front of and then lay flowers in front of two. There are giant statues.

In the afternoon we drove to a museum about the American impact of the war, detailing American behaviour during the war and the Korean response. This was quite a long drive.

Outside of the museum, with an interesting sign and me in front of a giant propoganda picture in the museum grounds. I did not include any photos of inside the museum as they are pretty graphic, showing torture and similar things.

We then returned to Pyongyang, had tea in a restaurant and went back to the hotel. I spent the evening with the two Liverpool guys playing table tennis and pool.

Day 3

After breakfast, we went to a mausoleum to see the bodies of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. It required us bowing, three times, before each body. Following this, we went into Pyongyang, saw the Arch of Triumph, and then went for some lunch in a restaurant.

From top: the mausoleum and outside area, including fountains with statues of women around it; a mural near the Arch of Triumph; city square, where military displays are held, near the river, which was frozen over and monument on the opposite banks; the Pyongyang metro; the Korean War Museum, including USS Pueblo; and a new hotel in the shape of a pyramid, which is not yet open.

After this, we travelled for one stop on the Pyongyang metro (there are two lines on the metro), and then went to the Korean War Museum, were we saw the USS Pueblo, the only US ship in captivity, I think. After this, we went to Pyongyang circus (that was only a little political), then had a meal in another restaurant and then went to a bar to try some North Korean beer. Following our return to the hotel, we went to play billards again.

Day 4

This morning we went to the DMZ – De-Militarised Zone. When we arrived, we were told that, due to the active nature of the area, we had to be accompanied by two soldiers, who go into our minibus with us. We went first to the building where the armistice was signed, and to the border itself.

For lunch, we had a meal in a local restaurant, then went to a UNESCO site, a medieval university (with the new university next door). We also went into a couple of souvenir shops. We then headed back to Pyongyang.

The trip to/from the DMZ took about three hours each way. The road was very potholed; we nicknamed the bus the ‘bone shaker’, because of this. When we got back to Pyongyang, we went to a final souvenir shop, and then a restaurant for our evening meal. We then returned to the hotel and had a final night of table tennis.

Views of the North Korean countryside; farmland; the medieval museum (complete with coloured wooden roof rafters). This was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The more modern building with the blue roof is the modern university next door. The tiger statue was outside the new university. The pictures at the bottom, including the blue huts, are the Demilitarised Zone. The blue huts are on the border – the concrete building next to them is the South Korea equivalent of the building we were in. The two bukdings in the remaining pictures are where the ceasefire was agreed and signed. The other photo is the signature of Kim Il-Sung approving the site, which was given just before he died.

Day 5

We rose, had our breakfast and left for the train station. Our train was at 10am. We met the Chinese students, who were on our train going to Pyongyang, but who we had not seen since, except briefly in the final souvenir shop the previous day.

Our train, and the logo on it.

After our return to Dandong, we had a couple of hours before we had to get the train to Beijing. We had something to eat, and waited.

Overall, a very interesting trip. The contrast between Pyongyang and the countryside was telling, and even in Pyongyang, we had an electricity black-out, a couple of times.

 

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