Yes, you read right. Otherwise known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK, North Korea is one of those places that no-one ever seems to visit. So when I saw a tour there during the Chinese New Year holiday I jumped at the chance!
Dandong, China, is the border town with North Korea. I arrived around 8.30pm on Monday 4th February, checked in and met my roommate for the next week, Amaia. Randomly there was a knock at our hotel room around 9.30pm; upon opening the door we were given a portion of dumplings!
The adventure began early the next morning when we congregated in the hotel lobby to meet our Chinese guide Sabrina and the other 10 people on the tour. After collecting our North Korean visas and being given some last bits of essential information we went to the train station (handily, just next door to the hotel) to catch the 10am train from Dandong to Pyongyang. Of course, we had to go through customs on the Chinese side before we were allowed into the waiting area for the train. We were all surprised how busy it was.
Once we were all settled on the train (we were in a Chinese ‘hard sleeper’ carriage, which means there’s 3 bunks above each other in each section) it only took a few minutes before we were crossing the river over the Friendship Bridge and entering North Korea. We then stopped at Sinuiju for about two hours for customs entering DPRK. All our passports and North Korean visas were collected, our luggage was looked through and our electrical items were made a note of. All in all, it wasn’t a lot more of a check than getting the train into Mongolia from China, which I did about 3 years ago.
After we’d successfully made it through customs we were in North Korea proper. The train journey from Dandong to Pyongyang took around 8 and a half hours, including the two hour stop in Sinuiju. It was mostly spent chatting to the other people on the tour, looking at the passing scenery, and snoozing. One thing that made the whole trip extra special was the company – everyone on the tour got on really well, whether they had known each other beforehand or not.
We were captivated by the scenery as we travelled through the countryside, seeing expanses of farmland, barren with the winter temperatures, monuments and colourful murals dotted amongst rural villages and empty roads, and people walking or cycling as they went about their daily lives. Around 6:45pm DPRK time (an hour ahead of China) we arrived in Pyongyang where we were greeted by our tour guide Kim, met our other guide Pak, our cameraman Kim Su and our driver An.
It was dark by the time we arrived in Pyongyang, so we didn’t see much of the city as we were driven to the hotel that was to be our home during our stay in Pyongyang: Yanggakdo International Hotel. We were taken straight to the revolving restaurant on the 47th floor of the hotel for our first North Korean meal – seafood hotpot with shredded cabbage salad followed by grilled fish and rice and ending with breaded pork cutlets (which I didn’t eat as I’m vegetarian) and home-made fries.
A long day of travelling and excitement had left everyone on the tour tired and ready for a good night’s sleep after dinner and a bit of exploring . The rooms in the ‘special class’ hotel (equivalent to 5 star) were comfortable and spacious, and the beds were much softer than most Chinese hotel beds! There were also all the usual facilities in the hotel – a shop, three restaurants, a swimming pool, pool tables and a casino. Myself, Amaia, Christina, Hossam and Thomas decided to check out the casino after dinner. There was a long row of fruit machines along the corridor, more round the corner, and in the main room were several baccarat tables with a few Chinese players and two tables with a dice game a little like roulette. Thomas had a bit of a gamble on the dice game while we all watched; it was fun! We also checked out the hotel shop, buying essential supplies like drinks and chocolate. This came to the grand total of 245 North Korean Won (17RMB or £1.95), which we had to pay in either RMB, US dollars or Euros as foreigners are not allowed to have North Korean currency.
The morning of our first full day in DPRK was spent on our minibus driving to Masikryong Ski Resort through dramatic mountainous countryside speckled with ice and snow. On the way we stopped at the Mausoleum of King Tong Myong where we were told about the 5000 year long history of Korea by a lecturer.
We left the mausoleum around 9.20am; about halfway through our journey we stopped for a rest break where there was a frozen lake.
We eventually arrived at Masikryong Ski Resort around 1pm, where we checked in and went straight for lunch: pickled radish, polenta pancake, shredded potato (the meat-eaters had grilled fish), tempura daisy herb leaves (pork chops for the others), kimchi and tofu with red pepper sauce. Each dish was brought out one at a time and it was all really tasty (although the kimchi was a bit too spicy for me!).
After lunch most of our group went skiing whilst Christina and I decided to get the cable car to the top of the mountain. The cameraman decided to join us and film us in the gondola – slightly awkward in such a small space! At the top of the mountain we bumped into a few of the lads from our group who were setting off to ski downhill; the cameraman then decided to go and film them – probably because skiing was much more interesting than watching us drink tea and coffee in the café at the top!
Once we returned to the base of the ski slope we bumped into Hossam and Jane going on a ride on snowmobiles up the mountain, and Kim on skis for the first time. Myself and Christina decided to check out the spa facilities and Frances, who had had a go at skiing with the others but had had enough by then, decided to join us to get out of the cold. The spa was in the basement level of the hotel, and oddly we had to walk through the changing rooms and through the swimming pool to get to the massage room, where the masseuses kicked out the Chinese man who was in there so we could have the room to ourselves! We had a foot massage which was lovely and relaxing, then headed back to our rooms for a bit until we all met up for dinner.
Dinner followed a similar pattern to the previous meals – several small dishes brought out individually: potato pancake and shredded vegetables, kimchi, tempura vegetables (fish for the others), sautéed cabbage and other veg (or beef stir fry), spicy seaweed soup and rice with peas. We then all asked for ice cream (which we had to pay extra for) and had a bit of an interesting time trying to figure out the flavours available – first of all we were told pink or yellow then that there was only yellow or coffee. I of course went for the yellow ice cream which turned out to be pineapple flavour and delicious.
After dinner Amaia, Christina, Hossam and I decided to look for the karaoke in the hotel basement level. We found a room labelled ‘Dance Hall’ which was empty apart from a small stage with a drum kit, guitar and bass guitar on it, a bar opposite and one member of staff. She proceeded to turn on the disco lights and hand us a book of available songs for karaoke, so we took that as a sign that we were there to start the singing!
We were really surprised at all the Western songs that were available to sing; such classics as Bohemian Rhapsody, Like A Virgin, Wind of Change, I Will Survive and Breathless to name a few. After a while JP came and joined Hossam to serenade us with House of the Rising Sun, followed by Thomas, Alexander, Daniel and Marius. Christina finally persuaded the four lads to sing a rousing rendition of 99 Red Balloons in German (as they’re all German!). Our two tour guides Kim and Pak came and joined us for a while and we cheered them on to sing too. They treated us to a traditional Korean folk song followed by the well known ballad My Heart Will Go On, which we all joined in with.
One of the best parts of the evening was during a lull in the singing. A demo Korean song came on the TVs and JP had a go at singing along with it (and a very good effort he made too!). When the second Korean song came on the bar lady changed it to a new Korean song, stood up in front of us and performed amazingly. She graced us with two more Korean songs after that as most of us felt we couldn’t follow an act that good! It was a wonderful end to a brilliant first day in North Korea.
Part 2 coming soon!