life travel

North Korea, July 2013: Day 1

Our journey starts at Beijing Airport, which is my new least favourite airport, I think. It’s a tough decision between there, and Bangalore. In the mass of instructions we have received, which I printed, but skimmed rather than read in detail, I have missed that I am supposed to be at the airport at 10am, and arrive closer to 11am. I was enjoying a full night’s sleep, a last delicious breakfast, and unfettered internet access. Our (western) guide who is flying with is, is freaking out, but calms down once I arrive. Our flight is delayed anyway, so I’m glad I took the time for this last bit of relaxation on what is set to be a hectic trip.

The internet free portion of my vacation starts earlier than expected. OK, I have internet at the airport, but not Twitter. I had forgotten how rubbish the internet in China is – the hotel must have a VPN so that it hadn’t affected me up until now. But I was in China in 2009 when the rioting up North caused them to block Twitter. I should have remembered! I turn on roaming to send one last tweet as we wait for takeoff. And then – internet blackout.

As we land, the guy next to me starts frantically taking pictures. I’m in a middle seat, so can’t see much, but think I catch a glimpse of some fighter jets. That’s when it hits me – 1. I’m in North Korea. 2. Military is Serious Business here.

The trip through customs is surprisingly painless! I haven’t managed to fill out a bunch of the forms – they are hilarious, are you carrying weapons? How about published works of any kind? I also cannot spell Pyongyang without spellcheck/autocorrect. The guy is pretty chilled out about it though, quite sweet and friendly even. He just wants me to make sure my address is on there. I’ve neglected to write “Australia” so there is some confusion.

Next, there is a minor search of my bag, the guy there is also quite sweet and helps me unpack/repack it. Some of my friends have left their phones behind, I’ve compromised and am only carrying 2 (of the 4 that I have), as it is a vacation and not work. I’ve listed that I have 2 phones, one iPad, one Kindle, and one laptop and… nothing. I’m braced for much worse! All he says is “two?” questioningly, and I try and explain that I work making cellphone apps, but he doesn’t understand and doesn’t care so I’m free to go. I’ve had far worse experiences at US and Canadian customs.

We are collected by two Korean guides, and take the bus to the hotel. People are out and about in the city, dressed in western styles – although possibly the women are a bit more feminine, it’s rare to see women there wearing trousers (pants!) for example.

The tour guide gives us a brief introduction to North Korea, always referred to by them as “The Democratic Republic of Korea” or “DPRK”. Interesting to me is how she talks about it like it is all of Korea, and even counts the 10m Koreans living outside of Korea (either North or South). She talks about the Japanese occupation of Korea. It’s clearly the major event in their history. I miss Wikipedia, which allows me to look up history on the go, as I didn’t really study any in school (complicated reasons to do with the British school system that I won’t go into here).

We drive past the Eternity Tower, which we are told symbolises that their dear leaders are always with them forever, even if they are dead.

Arriving at the hotel, it looks quite grand on the outside but the revolving restaurant is distinctly retro, and the food is shocking (no vegetables, luke-warm). There is no soap in the bathrooms. Our room is very basic. In my limited reading, I had discovered that this was the #2 hotel in the city. I am quite surprised to discover how little it takes to qualify as that. That being said, the views from the revolving restaurant are pretty great. We are on an island, but not in a “ooh lovely, an island” way, more in a “kept away from the masses” way. There’s no leaving the hotel grounds without a guide. It’s like jail, or if you want a nicer analogy – boarding school. Where I always felt I was in captivity…

I barely have time to freshen up, and then we are off to the Mass Games. I take only necessities, leaving my passport in the room, so when the (Korean) guide demands it, I don’t have it to give to her. I’m not happy about just handing it over – my passport lives in a case my lovely friend Dave bought me that says “without this I’m nothing”, and that is exactly how I feel about my passport (is this an expat thing? Discuss). So I ask why I have to hand it over. I get some garbled reasoning about having to get a stamp in it from the Chinese, but that doesn’t explain why they have to have it the whole trip. I go somewhat Software-Engineer on her, picking holes in the logic and wanting to know why why why until she eventually admits that she doesn’t exactly know… but that I have to hand it over anyway. The western guide is clearly unhappy with my lack of blind compliance. Oh well.

The Mass Games is the most extraordinary spectacle I have ever seen.  There are kids at the back changing the pages of books to create these incredible backdrops. Meanwhile, hundreds of people are involved in each dance. It’s so coordinated, and I never catch anyone looking out of place or out of time. The part with the children doing gymnastics and skipping is mind-blowing to me. I cannot imagine that many western children being so fit and coordinated. My friend Arya and I go for the first class (150 EUR) tickets – it’s totally worth it, the view is incredible and the table in front of the seats is handy for taking good pictures!

I don’t really understand a lot of what is going on but key things I noticed:

  • Mention of the Olympics. I had no idea NK was in the Olympics! If only I had Wikipedia. I will look it up when I get back to The Internet.
  • Space (presumably refers to this).
  • Russia – featuring Dancing Bears. A show of affection for Russia?
  • People separated by divide. I gather this refers to the split between North and South, which the guide mentioned in her introduction.


On the way back to the hotel, our guide tells us that it consists of 100,000 people. They have the event every year since 2007, and usually it has a 3 month preparation time, although this year there was only 2 months to prepare (no explanation as to why this was the case). Mostly it is the same show, but there are some changes to reflect recent events (in this case, I guess the olympics and the space sections?). She sings a song for us, called “Arirang”  and promises the whole story on our way to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). She also tells us a story about a couple split by the invasion of Japan, it has an unfortunate ending – the husband kills the man who fancies his wife (even though his wife has done nothing), and storms off in a rage. The wife then kills herself. In general, I’m not a fan of possessive/abusive relationships branded as “love stories”.

I take an indirect route from the bus to the hotel, hoping to escape the guides and spend one last night with my passport. Would it be weird to sleep with it? In the end I get very little time with it, as I get lost trying to find my way to my room – we are on floor 16, but I’m trying to get to floor 6, which is impossible, as that section of the hotel is owned by the Chinese, who have a casino there too. No sooner do I make it back to the room than the phone rings. Our western guide has tracked me down, and my passport is wrested from me. I photograph it and ask for a receipt. He looks at me like I’m mad. I’m just to hand it over. Huh. Apparently this was all in one of the emails I didn’t read fully. I don’t really have any choice other than to cooperate.

There are two phones in our hotel room, but only the one in the bathroom seems to work – it’s the only one that rings anyway. This hotel is so ghetto!

I’m exhausted so it’s time to sleep – this trip is going to be mad. It’s a little weird to be without my phone, and I keep going to check it as something to do when I’m waiting for the elevator etc, but it’s not as bad as I thought. I’m resigned to it, although gutted that I won’t get to check in on fourquare all over NK. That would have been SO AWESOME.

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