Inside “the Hermit Kingdom”
By Bill Altaffer, San Diego.
I have traveled for over 50 years to every country in the world, but until 2005 North Korea was one of the few places I hadn’t been able to reach. Then the government finally opened the country up to American tourists. I jumped at the chance, approaching it with all the excitement and gusto of a kid on his first trip to Disneyland. This was my fifth trip to the DPRK – but no less exciting and interesting than the first.
North Korea is surreal. It’s a place for those blessed with the true spirit of travel. You may not like the food, or the occasional lack of things we take for granted, such as hot water or electricity. Paying for extraneous charges like a second cup of instant coffee. Having the state hold on to your passport. Presenting flowers and bowing to statues of the great leaders. And be prepared to squat with your own toilet paper. Walking around on your own will not happen. If you are used to seeing cats and dogs you won’t. You will encounter constant changes on your itinerary, but you will see everything. Also, it may bother you to be completely unreachable or able to communicate to the rest of the world.
Many people have opinions when it comes to North Korea and the policies of its government. I profess to take no sides. I am simply relaying what I have seen and experienced. To me, this trip is a traveler’s dream. Everything else in the world seems anti-climatic after visiting North Korea. Most in my group agreed it was like visiting another planet in a parallel dimension. It’s a Orwellian dystopian society that would probably not seem all that unfamiliar to 1984’s Winston Smith. DPRK truly is the extreme end of the travel spectrum. It seemed to me a fitting last stop to complete my recent “fifty days around the world” trip.
We flew in from Beijing on a new Russian plane into North Korea’s capital and met by our KITA guides (Korean International Travel Agency). We were loaded into cars and driven an hour out of town to the Ryonggang Hotspa Hotel, considered a 4-star property. But as we went right through the heart of downtown Pyongyang I noticed a couple of striking changes. Since my last trip a year and a half ago, the amount of car traffic had increased, and there were a large number of modern attractive new apartments.
The first day of our tour we went along a bumpy road to the West Sea Barrage via Mt. Kuwol. The barrage is an extensive construction dam and an important control to water and flooding.
Next we visited an ancient Buddhist temple at Songbul. The lone priest on-site was very friendly. The complex around Songbul temple is a site frequently used to shoot North Korean films. They were recording a new film at the time of our visit.
Visiting a working village at Sariwon Migok farm we were allowed to enter the home of one of the rice farmers. Driving back to the capital on a wide freeway with no traffic we spent the night at the Yanggakdo hotel. It’s on an island in the middle of the city. Built twenty years ago by the French, it used to have a golf course around it. These days, the golf course is inactive as it receives little to no patronage.
The next day we descended deep under the city to take a ride on the well-maintained (and seldom-used) Metro. The walls of each of the various stations were adorned in mosaic tiles showcasing socialist realism art.
We were present in Pyongyang on September the 9th which is North Korea’s National Independence Day. So we made the compulsory visit to the Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetery. It was a busy affair. We also visited the crowded Mangyongdae-guyok, or birth place of President Kim Il Sung, which was buzzing with international tourists.
Near the Arch of Triumph, which commemorates victory against the Japanese, we visited the amusement park known as the Mangyongdae Funfair, which is sometimes called the “Disneyland of Pyongyang.” The park features many modern and exciting rides – such as rollercoasters, ferris wheel, etc. – perhaps made doubly exciting by the lack of the usual safety standards we take for granted in the West.
Also, having the good fortune to be in the DPRK on Sep. 9th – the founding of the nation day – we witnessed street celebrations throughout Pyongyang. The government hosted a large outdoor dancing spectacle of at least five hundred couples. The ladies were clad in colorful traditional Korean dress.
In the evening we went to a giant 125,000-capacity stadium for the ARIRANG show, which is sometimes called the Mass Games. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the games are the largest spectacle of people in the world. It is something I have seen several times, yet each time it is different and I’m always amazed. The colors, sounds, the wall of 20,000 card stunt experts in the crowd – it’s in the top five experiences for most of those who have experienced it. Children as small as three take part. We saw acrobats shot out of cannons sail across the stadium at over a hundred feet. At the end all of the performers are on the field with massive fire works overhead. I can’t describe the magnitude of this event. Each of us were amazed by the spectacle we witnessed.
The next day took us to the DMZ (de-militarized zone) with South Korea. It was a two and a half hour drive to the border. We reached the city of Panmunjom where we visited the buildings where a cease-fire armistice was signed and then proceeded to a viewing building where facing the opposing building of South Korea. In the hazy distance we could see the area where joint manufacturing operations are conducted. But in between we saw five or so small buildings with one in the center where meetings are held. North Korean guards stand at attention watching as we tourists snap away with cameras.
From there, we went onward to the Koryo History Museum, with its five hundred year old trees on the grounds.
That night we slept on the floor in the Kaesong Folk Hotel. Before retuning to the capital we stopped at the tomb of Tongmyong, an ancient 13th century mausoleum housing the founding king and queen of the Goguryeo kingdom.
On the way to lunch via a floating boat on the Pyongyang river we visited the National movie studios, which showcase vast sets of various periods. We were given a tour by a very nice, handsome young actor.
Our dinner this evening was on the fortieth floor of our hotel in a revolving restaurant. Then a very remarkable thing occurred that I have never seen in my thousands of trips around the world. Our two very nice young guides, Kim and Chae, arrived both exquisitely dressed and began singing for us. Both were incredible singers who sang in Korean, as well as Russian and Chinese. We were very impressed.
One of them said that at the DMZ President Kim Jung Un said that they should negotiate with South Korea for victory. I said a mutual victory. No, just for their victory.
Later, we went off to the famous square named after Kim Jung Il and toured the history of Korea museum.
The next morning of our ten-day tour took us to the Grand Mausoleum. Again, in all my travels in every country in the world, I must put Kumsusan – the Memorial Palace of the Sun – as one of the top five experiences of my life. Descriptions of this facility will not describe it. As you are not allowed to film it I can’t show it, though I can describe it.
The massive palace compound is surrounded by a picturesque moat on all sides. Enormous cast-iron gates lie on the west side. Gardens are manicured to precision.
We lined up in the transportation court. Everything is a long walk, but we were often aided by a half a dozen assistants. Entering the coat room, we were told to deposit all of our things. Even tissues and combs, etc. must be left. Conservative clothing, as well as closed toed shoes, are imperative – nothing else is allowed. We were required to bow multiple times through out our visit. We had to move in a military style group. For civilians, this is a sobering experience. We were led to marble statues of the the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, as well as Chairman Mao, and other distinguished communists.
In the process of entering the giant marble building you will step on shoe cleaner, be blown by chambers of wind. It seemed as though half of the world’s marble was in this building. You enter rooms of the great leaders featuring their train cars, ships, and their black Mercedes S class cards. In separate rooms the medals, awards, as well as degrees are put on display. The whole experience is overwhelming. Deceased President Kim Jung Il’s Macbook Pro was placed on the desk inside of his train car.
Later that day we visited the Juche tower. “Juche” is Kim Il-Sung’s North Korean pseudo-philosophy of self-reliance, nationalism, traditionalism, and Marxism. At the adjacent Children’s Palace we visited class rooms of various art forms, like music and dance. As well as calligraphy and needle work. Afterwards, the children put on a professional musical performance in a large auditorium for over an hour.
The following day we drove on difficult roads past many tunnels with anti-tank structures designed to blow up any who might dare to invade. The five hour trip through the mountains and rivers to Wonsan was beautiful. We passed a new ski area being built, called called Mt. Masik Pass. It will have over 3000 vertical feet upon completion.
Arriving in the sea port on the east coast of Wonsan we ate at a seafood restaurant. Later we drove two hours to the 5-star Kumgangsan hotel. Along the way we visited the Sokwang temple, located in a heavily forested area and flanked on all sides by a grove of picturesque alpine trees.
Driving south along the scenic coast I noted the entire beach had a defensive electric fence for hundreds of miles. A good deterrent for any intruder.
Numerous mountains and waterfalls make this area ideal for hiking. This area was a joint venture with South Korea with a cruise ship coming up from the south from Mt. Kumgang-Kuryong waterfall area. We also visited Samil Lagoon, a beautiful and peaceful lake. According to legend, a king once visited the lake for a day but was so amazed by its beauty that he stayed there for three days, hence the name “Samil” (which means three days).
Off we went back to Wonsan. The Tongmyong hotel where we stayed had a great view of off shore islands. It seemed as though 99% of the country is traversed by North Koreans on foot or bike. We often saw soldiers in trucks with something in the back smoking as if it were cooking. It seems that the smoke comes from a charcoal power system that predates the Second World War.
Our second to last day included a tour of the USS “PUEBLO,” a captured US navy vessel which now serves as a museum, and the brand new Korean War Museum which is beyond a doubt the best war museum I’ve seen. Nothing else comes close to the amount of marble, chrome and glass with magnificent displays. The rotunda is the worlds best, showing the Korean War. Stalingrad and Kiev have good museums. But on a scale of one to ten they are a 1 compared to Pyongyang’s, which is a solid 10+. If war museums are your thing you mustn’t miss the new Korean War Museum.
The 10th day of our tour arrived, which was also our last, as that is the maximum limit for Americans. The day took us to the Grand People’s Study House, a giant library in traditional Korean style. Lastly the National Gift Exhibition, which is a newly built exhibition where the gifts from local people to state Leaders are on display. This is an extremely well presented exhibit. A great deal of money and detail went into the presentation.
Our farewell meal was a BBQ at Mt. Ryongak, and afterwards we boarded a plane and bid the Hermit Kingdom farewell and returned home to the universe we knew.
This eleven day tour was sponsored by Valor Tour of Sausalito, California. The trip cost just under $5,000 plus international air. They also offer shorter private trips, too.
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