DPRK is often described as a secretive country that is not open to the outside world, let alone tourists; is hostile to the West, in particular to imperialist America; is poor and where the people have insufficient food and are dying from hunger; and so on. In practice, a lot of what have been and are being said about the country reflect what the West in general and the United States in particular would like the rest of the world to perceive it as such, for whatever reasons, primarily political.
A few agencies outside the country based in China have been organizing regular tours to DPRK through KITC and other official NGOs. They include YPT which organized our trip, Koryo Tours and others. They all have their websites which anyone can go to. There, one has access to informative and rather neutral descriptions of sites or attractions to which they are prepared or allowed to take potential tourists. Koryo Tours include FAQs on their website which I find interesting; and let me paraphrase from two sets of their Q and A to give you a flavour.
To the question, “Can I talk to the locals?” their answer is, “Contact with local people is possible, it’s allowed and is legal both for you to talk to locals and for them to talk to you. However it can be difficult for several reasons; the main one being the language barrier (foreign languages are not widely spoken in DPRK). Other reasons include the fact that people are generally very wary of foreigners and also are very shy, conservative and careful of drawing attention to themselves….. A day off work and a little liquid social lubricant works wonders to break the suspicious veneer!”
To the question, “Once I am there, am I free to go where I want?” the answer is candid and more definitive, “No, tourists are not allowed to travel around freely so at all times other than in the hotel, you will be accompanied by 2 guides and a driver regardless of how many people in your group. Please remember this is not a policy set by the travel company but by higher powers and there is no way round this. Any attempt to sneak off from the guides will have serious consequences for them and for you.”
One can find from the internet details of the attractions or monuments open to tourists in DPRK and in Pyongyang in particular. We went to most of them and a few more. Let me quickly mention a few. There was the Pyongyang Arch of Triumph which is a 60 metres monument modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris except 10 metres taller; the Party Foundation Monument built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Korean Workers Party with pillars of brush, sickle and hammer, each 50 metres tall (for obvious reasons); the Grand People’s Study House which is the country’s largest library; the Juche Tower which is a symbol of the country’s ideology; Mansudae Grand Monuments; Kim Il sung Square; Pyongyang Metro; the War Museum; Centre of Science and Technology; and a few others. I would not go through them because one can find details on all of them on the internet; and I have no wish to make this piece a travelogue.
We visited a few other places too. First, we went to a Stamps Exhibition Centre which features all the stamps ever issued by the country, well documented and laid out; and which included a commemorative issue of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region on 1 July 1997. The Centre also sells postcards and stamps so that tourists can post them home. We went to the Pyongyang International Trade Fair (PITF). It was their 20th PITF organized in a two-storey huge building packed with people buying all sorts of goods with RMB or Euros, some rather expensive, such as 50 inches LED TV sets. We also visited the Mansudae Arts Studio where we met artists and sculptors at work; the Children Palace which is like an academy for nurturing gifted young children in art and performing arts; a beer hall featuring seven types of beers, all sold at rather cheap prices, in Euros. Then, we were taken to a supermarket where we were required to exchange our RMB or Euros for local currencies to buy all sorts of goods and merchandise, which came sort of handy because we went there on the eve of our long land trip to DMZ and our longer train trip to Sinuiju. Lastly, we went to the DMZ and from there to the Concrete Wall. Josh told us that he had not been to the Concrete Wall and was keeping an open mind. Once again, details of this attraction can be found on the website. It remains a controversial item because South Korea and the West have insisted that it doesn’t exist; while some tourist-journalists have likened it to the Loch Ness Monster so that it is debatable whether the Wall actually exists.
I must also mention that we spend the good part of a day visiting a model farm and got ourselves dirty with farm work, removing the new sprouts from the paddy fields, thinning them and planting them in water. That was to be a highlight of our visit programme.
In Sinuiju, we saw the usual attractions, went to the History Museum, an arts museum and a model farm. They also took us for a morning hike in the hills, which they called trekking. We rode on bumpy roads for hours to the hotel in Dongrim and back, where throughout we saw workers at every 200-metre intervals or so shuffling mud and soil onto the road, and sprinkling water too, so as to make the road less bumpy, or at least that’s what we thought they were doing.
While in Pyongyang, we stayed throughout (five nights) in the Yanggakdo International Hotel (YIH) which is the largest operating hotel and the second tallest building in the country, after the Ryugyoung Hotel which in itself is also a major attraction. The YIH is located on Yanggak Island along River Taedong, two kilometres southeast of city centre. It is 170 metres tall with a slowly revolving restaurant on the 47th floor, with 1000 rooms (I have not counted) and was commissioned and constructed by a French construction company in the late Eighties and early Ninities, which may explain why the toilets are all stamped with Villeroy & Boch. The rooms are comfortable and we had a good time.
I would discuss my thoughts on the visit in another article.