Monday, September 30, 2013

Summer 2013 - 11th Stop: North Korea

Here comes the big one - four days in the most secluded of countries, this Hermit Kingdom of the modern world - the international question mark that is the DPRK. I guess any trip you take and each new place you visit is always going to be a step into the unknown, but this one is off the charts completely. From the outside, North Korea is one big mystery due to its self-imposed exile from the international community. And now that we've been and gone, I'd like to say that our view has become a little bit clearer, although, to be honest, I'm more confused than before...!

In the weeks since returning, I've been slightly dreading sitting down to type this particular entry, just because it's a place that I'm sure a lot of people will want to read about. Usually, my goal when writing each piece is simply to recount our tales and give a brief opinion on our surroundings, just for our own benefit more than anything. I just hope that whoever happens to be reading finds it as fascinating as it was for us. Certainly one of the most unique and memorable experiences you could ever hope to have.

So let's rewind again, back to our final day in Beijing. We had a meeting at 2 o'clock that afternoon with our tour company, Young Pioneer Tours (who were excellent by the way, highly recommended). It was just kind of a meet and greet for the travellers and guides, as well as a talk on the 'dos and don'ts' for our time in the country.

While waiting for the talk to begin, we were naturally eyeing up our fellow adventurers of various age and race. To pass the time, we started to speculate where some of these people were from; in particular one guy who was sitting next to us. All of this was done in Irish of course, the perfect crime. It would've been pretty awkward otherwise...

He was from Waterford.

We met another Irish guy soon after and both of them ended up being in our tour group, so we had a great old time together, spreading the craic around the DPRK.

Embarking on the tour, there were maybe 50 of us in total, broken into three smaller groups, meaning you never got the sense that you drowning in a sea of tourists. It was perfect really. You also had a choice of how you entered/exited the country, either taking a 24 hour train ride from Beijing to Pyongyang, or taking a 2 hour flight over the same route. That is unless you're American, in which case, you're only allowed to fly in and out (for some reason...?).

We opted for one of each, and I'm glad we got to experience both. Travelling in by train in particular was pretty interesting as we got to see a bit of the landscape and the rural way of life - a nice introduction to the country and quite different to anything on our Pyongyang itinerary.

It was our second 24 hour train journey in less than a week, and funnily enough, we had a lot more hassle the first time, crossing the border from Mongolia into China. The Korean border was actually a breeze! An inspector came on board alright and had a very casual look at our phones and bags, but nothing serious. He was well up for the bantz too, even though he had no English. Not your typical North Korean officer, or what our impression of one would be anyway.

We had been briefed already at the meeting about things to leave at home, such as GPS devices or any controversial books, like the Bible or the Qur'an, so we had no problems. Not that we were planning on smuggling in a couple of Bibles or anything. Funnily enough, I had just started on the Roy Keane autobiography, having picked it up in a book exchange in Beijing. I'm not sure what their definition of "controversial books" was though, so I kept that one to myself. Let's hope they're not Alf Inge Haaland fans, ay!

The tension started to build inside as we came closer to Pyongyang station, and we were about to step foot on Korean soil for the first time (even though, at this stage we had been in the country for half a day already). I guess it's one thing looking out the window and quite another being in the middle of it all. And as we finally pulled in to the nation's capital, the strangest thing of all was that it wasn't strange, at all.

It was just like any other city really. In fact, no. It was a lot nicer than most cities, certainly in Asia; no crowds, no commotion. It was all very... normal. Even from the outside, the station itself looked quite classically European. You could tell me this picture was taken in Paris or Vienna and I wouldn't be surprised. Well, except for the portraits of the two boys. Get used to it, you'll be seeing a lot of them!

Upon arriving at the train station, we hopped straight onto our tour bus and were whisked off to Pyongyang's premier accommodation, the 4-star, Yanggakdo Hotel. The place was well equipped with everything you could possibly need to entertain yourself, including restaurants, casino, spa, bowling, pool (both the swimming and cueball kind), table tennis, karaoke, the lot! With an array of amenities like this, you'd never need to leave the hotel grounds! Which is handy, because you're not allowed to...

No seriously, you're literally not allowed to wander off the premises without a Korean guide.

There were a few such "eh... what?" moments like that on the trip, although looking back, each one was a much needed slap across the face to bring us back to reality. With everything we were shown, it was quite easy to slip into a sleepy little dream of, "Hey, North Korea's not so bad. What's all the fuss about?".

The Yanggakdo Hotel there, affectionately nicknamed Alcatraz; partly because it's situated on a small island, and partly because you get shot if you try to leave!

At 47 stories, it is the tallest functioning building in the country, second only in height to the, still unfinished, Ryugyong Hotel, also in Pyongyang. Construction on this 105-storey, pyramid shaped skyscraper actually began in 1987, but after many stops and starts, it is still yet to be completed.

After arriving at our hotel that evening, we were given the grand tour, had dinner in the revolving restaurant atop the building and then rounded off the day with a mini table tennis tournament in the basement. Standard night in Pyongyang.

The next morning, we had a busy day ahead of us, firstly heading to the Mansudae Fountain Park and then onto, possibly the country's most recognisable landmark, the Mansudae Grand Monument; featuring, once again, everybody's two favourite Koreans - Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Once we reached the statues, we had to form a line and bow in front of The Great Leader and The Dear Leader to show our respect. There was also the opportunity to present flowers to the two lads (small bouqet: €2, large bouquet: €4 - a bargain in any currency!).

I'll just apologise now for the unrelenting grey skies you'll see in every picture. It didn't let up for our entire stay. There was no rain, no sun, nothing besides this dark, hazy gloom hanging over the country. Pathetic fallacy at its best, I suppose.

Next on the itinerary was the Grand People's Study House aka Pyongyang Library, which was a really nice building actually, with various study rooms, lecture halls and of course, only the latest in cutting edge technology.

Wait til they get Walkmans! There'll be no stopping them!

When we entered the audio-visual room actually, they were playing American Pie - the song, I mean, not the movie. That would've been quite surreal...! Although hearing the song was strange enough as it was. Especially seeing as it was the Madonna version! I'm surprised they left the word 'American' uncensored too. I would've expected more of a "...and they were singin', bye bye, Miss NORTH KOREAN pie..."

As I said before, the building itself was quite impressive with traditional Korean design, a lavish marble hallway, as well as great views over Pyongyang's central square and surrounding areas.

I have to say actually, Pyongyang was quite a nice city! What we saw of it anyway (or rather, what we were shown of it). Alright, I know an awful lot goes on here behind the scenes; poverty, human rights violations, forced labour camps etc. etc., but they at least know how to build a well planned, aesthetically beautiful city. So, you know, swings and roundabouts...

After the library, we drove to a foreign language bookshop, where you could buy a whole range of (presumably unbiased) reading materials, from newspapers to children's books, as well as posters and badges. We picked up a few essentials just to keep ourselves up to date on the day-to-day affairs of this fair city.

 Well, those condiment factories won't inspect themselves!

Afterwards, we got the opportunity to actually walk around the town (only one block, but I think it might have been the only time that we were allowed to travel on foot from place to place, even very short distances we had to go by bus). Anyway, we had a nice 30 second saunter to the aforementioned Central Square, (or Kim Il Sung Square as it's unsurprisingly known). And although it was just a short stroll, it was still nice to see even the tiniest slice of daily life, or at least what was presented as daily life...

Next up, was another short drive, this time to the Party Foundation Monument, built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean Workers Party. There you can see the hammer, sickle and brush, symbolising the three different members of a happy communist family - the worker, the farmer and the intellectual.

Again, say what you want about the North Koreans, but they know how to build a good monument!

After a nice hotpot lunch, we drove on once more to the Juche Tower, which you may have seen earlier on across the river from the central square. (Scroll back up if you don't believe me!) It's basically just a big tower, built to represent the Juche ideology - the political theory, developed (surprise surprise) by our man Kim Il Sung, upon which the policies and mentality of the DPRK are based.

Next, was a trip to the childhood home of the main man himself (which sadly wasn't called The House of the Rising Sung). We were shown around the site of his 'oh so humble upbringing' - the tiny rooms with straw mat floors, the misshapen pots (as they were too poor to buy proper ones), the small desk where a young Kim learnt to write and first vowed to liberate the country etc. To be honest, the entire scene and the stories we were told were pretty unbelievable; and not in the 'oh, it was unbelievable!' sense of the word, more of the 'I don't believe any of this' sense. The whole experience was just like a really bad episode of MTV Cribs.

Look! There's us at the historic site! Oh, I forgot to mention that we had a camera man following us around for the duration of the tour! Just to make a video souvenir of course... But not a free one, no. €40 a pop! Horrendous! You could present 20 small bouquets to the former leaders for that kind of money! A few people did get together though to buy a copy between them, and then very kindly emailed it on to the rest of the group. And despite my scoffing at the price and the motive behind the filming, it is actually quite nice to have a record of our time there.

We continued on from Kim's gaff to the Pyongyang Metro, which is the deepest subway system in the world! Little fact for you there.

And it may sound like a pretty lame spot to take someone on a city tour, but it was actually great! The thing is though, they could have taken us anywhere and it would've been awesome! It was just knowing that you were in North Korea that made everything more exciting! I would've happily gone to a rubbish dump in this country, just because it would've been a North Korean rubbish dump!

And the novelty factor aside, the subway stations were actually really cool - marble pillars, chandeliers, large murals on the walls - it felt more like entering a museum than a train station!

It was also quite out of keeping with the rest of the trip, in that, we were coming into direct contact with the locals. In an enclosed space too. Although, I'm sure the people in our carriage were specifically chosen to stand with the foreigners. I know that sounds quite cynical, but being in the country, it was hard not to think like that. I alluded to it earlier on, but walking around (or rather, driving around) Pyongyang, beautiful place as it was, you kind of got the sense that you were driving through a film set, as opposed to a living, breathing city. And the people that passed by, merely extras going to and from nowhere in particular. As I said, I know that sounds very closed-minded of me and just perpetuating the national stereotype, but I'm just trying to give an honest reflection on the impression we got.

When we finally surfaced again, we were outside the Pyongyang Arch of Triumph - the biggest victory arch in the world. Yes, even bigger than the infinitely more famous L'Arc de Triomphe. That must be frustrating, right? You go to the trouble of building the world's biggest arch, and people only care about the French one! No wonder they're so pissed off with the west. Talk about "arch enemies"!

And that night we experienced another "world's largest" record for the DPRK, two in fact; visiting the absolutely mammoth, 150,000 seater Rungnado May Day Stadium to witness the Mass Games - the largest event of its kind in the world.

No exaggeration, no joking; it is the most incredible thing you will ever see.

For those not familiar with the Mass Games, it's probably best described as an Olympic Games opening ceremony, on steroids. Picture 100,000+ participants performing gymnastics, dancing, singing, flying through the air, everything you can imagine! And all done with classic Korean military precision.

And the ever-changing images in the background? That's no TV screen or projection; those are 30,000 school children, each holding up a series of coloured cards, flipping them when necessary and moving in complete synchronicity with one another, just like the performers below them. Now that's what you call Koreagraphy!

The Mass Games tell the story of Arirang, an old Korean love story, as well as celebrating different points in the country's history and daily life; including military victories, national pastimes and international relations (well, with China and Russia anyway). Throw in a few fireworks and a bucketload of razzle dazzle and you've got, quite possibly, the greatest show on Earth!

Imagine how many people are in that last photo alone! There's no way any North Korean citizen who witnesses such a spectacle wouldn't be convinced that they were living in the greatest nation in the world. Hell, I was nearly convinced myself!

The next morning, we had to don our Sunday best (or at least, the best we had in our backpacks), to pay our respects once more to the country's great leaders - this time, in the flesh! And if our visit to the Mass Games  made our jaws drop, the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun sent them to the (pristine marble) floor! Whatever your beliefs, whether political or moral, you couldn't help but be in complete and utter awe at the sheer grandeur of the mausoleum.

(Photo: International Business Times)

There were no photos allowed inside though, so I had to nab a few shots from elsewhere. All phones, cameras, everything had to be left at a cloakroom at the entrance during your journey through the seemingly endless complex. In a way, it didn't matter that we didn't have our cameras with us, as the whole experience couldn't have been captured in a frame. It was just an overwhelming all round sense of national pride that it was impossible not to be touched by. And as we entered the grand hall pictured above - the music, the colours, the lighting, the lavish decor and grand marble statues all culminated in a feeling inside that was akin to standing at the gates of heaven. I know that sounds outrageously over the top, but have a visit yourself.

As you make your way along the guided path, you're taken through various regal halls, along conveyor belts lined with photos of father and son, and displays with medals and awards from leaders of the world (none from Ireland though). Finally, you come to the main event, but not before walking through a mini wind tunnel, to blast away any dead skin or specs of dirt that you might be carrying on your person.

In both rooms, you must approach the glass case in groups of four; bowing first at the feet, then at the left and right sides (but not at the head), before respectfully filing out again.

(photo: New York Times)
(On Spike Milligan's gravestone, there's the famous quote "I told you I was ill". The Koreans really missed a trick to pay homage to that here, something like, "I told you I was (Kim Jong) ill"!)

After exiting the two halls, there is a woman who over-dramatically half-talks, half-weeps her way through the tale of national mourning after the death of the Dear Leader. The whole act is not at all believable as it is, and it doesn't help that she has to pause after each line while it is translated for us. Never mind the fact that she has to do this little routine every few minutes when a new tour group passes through. But hey, that's her job. You have to wonder though what goes on in the minds of the Korean citizens - do they genuinely love their leaders as much as they outwardly proclaim? Even if they don't, they have little choice but to play the role anyway.

(Photo: NBC News)

When we emerged from this strange little cocoon, we were shown around the surrounding gardens, and attempted to make up for the lack of picture taking inside. The best thing to photograph though, as it turned out, were people getting their photos taken! From soldiers to... I don't know actually (it's a lot easier to identify soldiers by uniform). But lots of other work and social organisations were lining up get their group pictures taken at this monumental site.

Isn't that just the most North Korean group photo you've ever seen?!

We went from there to the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery, built in honour of those who gave their lives during the war against Japan. It's located on a gently sloping hill overlooking Pyongyang, the rationale behind this being that those who died in the struggle for Korean independence can rest in peace while looking out over the land they fought to protect. The bronze busts of the martyrs are even lined up in a staggered formation so everyone has a clear view. Guess who came up with that idea? The man himself - Kim Il Sung. (It kinda became a joke after a while, hearing about all the things he said and did. I don't know where he found the time for it all!)

The place was, like the majority of landmarks here, adorned with the usual patriotic symbols and heroic statues. You're probably starting to notice a trend - things Korean architects like: hammers & sickles, gallant poses, Kim Il Sung... Kim Jong Il too, but to a much less extent.

You've got to feel a bit sorry for L'il Kim though, living his life in the big man's shadow. He's still greatly revered here, but in terms of national love, the Dear Leader comes nowhere near his old man, who seems to have God-like status. Then again, KIS fought off the Japanese and established the nation of North Korea, whereas his son is probably best known for being the villain in Team America...

I guess poor, old Kim Jong Il will just have to live with being Korea's un-Sung hero!

After the Martyrs' Cemetery, we made a quick pit stop back at the hotel, only to find on arrival that the place was in sleep mode. I guess nobody had told them that we were coming back early as everything was shut down, elevators switched off etc. Another little chink in the armour. Surely a bustling 4-star hotel wouldn't need to conserve energy in such a way, or even have the time to do it?

There were a few of these moments during the trip, like another time, when we were in one of the city's main department stores and the power went. You kinda got the feeling sometimes that Pyongyang puts on this front of a thriving modern city, but behind the scenes it was all held together by sticky tape and a man on a bike, pedalling away to keep everything running.

I mentioned before that being in Pyongyang felt like being on a film set, so our next stop couldn't have been more fitting - Pyongyang Film Studios!

Apparently, Kim Jong Il visited the place more than 600 times over the years, such was his passion for the silver screen. He also had a personal collection of over 20,000 videos and DVDs to chose from. Pretty impressive, right? I know what you're probably thinking, "Wow, he must really like movies. Good for him, having a hobby", but I'm not done yet. This guy liked cinema so much that he had South Korean actress, Choe Eun-hui, and her husband, director Shin Sang-ok kidnapped and imprisoned for eight years! Too far, Kim, too far...

I'm not even joking either, have a read about it:

Even more interesting (well, for us anyway) is that they were actually captured while in Hong Kong! Repulse Bay, would you believe! We go to the beach there! Fear not, the story does have a happy ending as they finally escaped in 1986 while attending a film festival in Vienna.

During their stay in the DPRK, Shin Sang-ok made more than 20 films in two years (the rest of the time was spent in a prison camp), the most famous of which, in the west at least, being Pulgasari, which I assume is a cult classic. Imagine a North Korean Godzilla... well actually, you don't have to, watch it here!

Anyway, back at the studios, we were shown around various outdoor sets where all of the productions are filmed. So, if there are any budding Korean directors out there, you have a choice of shooting in Old Korea, Old China or Old Japan. There was apparently a "western street" too, but we didn't get to see it.

That's Japan there, (obviously, duh?!). Just like walking the streets of Tokyo...

And before we move off the subject of North Korean film for good, get ready for a quick bit of trivia, and I'm talking serious trivia here. The first movie from the west to be broadcast on DPRK national television - Bend It Like Beckham.

"Creid é nó ná creid - believe it or not!"

Our final stop of the day was Mangyongdae Children's Palace, which despite the name, actually isn't a palace at all, but more of an extra-curricular university for talented students. Here they can hone their skills in their field of expertise, in areas such as dancing, singing, music, art, gymnastics, calligraphy etc. We were shown around the college by one of the older students, where we could observe some lessons, or even sometimes get a mini performance.

They were undoubtedly very talented, and I'm sure they work extremely hard at what they do, but like a few things I've mentioned already in the country, at times it just felt quite fake and forced. When we walked into each room, the kids would be practicing away like normal, but as soon as the show would start, they'd plaster on these fake plastic smiles over expressionless faces. The performances were great, good on them, but none of the kids really looked like they were enjoying themselves at all, which should probably be the sole purpose of music or dance.

Now, this is what happy kids should look like!

But as I said, all very talented, there's no denying that. Well... Again, I apologise, it may just be me being cynical, but there was one thing I just didn't buy at all. The singing, dancing etc. we saw first hand and they all did a fine job. Great, no problems there. The thing that stuck out for me though was the art class. In this room, there was an arrangement of still life objects set up, with 20 or so easels in place, each one holding a perfectly drawn, perfectly shaded masterpiece. Bear in mind that these kids are like 11. And it wasn't just the fact that all of the pieces were flawless, it was that they were all fully completed. Nobody was halfway through, or just starting on the shading. Each one was finished, yet the students were sitting there, quite clearly pretending to draw.

Now, maybe they did really do all of this themselves and just wanted to showcase their best work, fair enough, but if so, why act like we just walked in as they were putting on the final touches?

After touring around the campus, we were treated to a massive variety performance in the main theatre with little bits of everything. And it was an amazing show! Especially seeing as they're just kids. But that's what I don't understand - we've seen so many truly great things in this country, why the need to put on this extra front? (That is assuming my little bits of paranoia are correct). Or actually, maybe all the great things we saw were just better executed lies?! I knew I should've checked if those bronze statues were just papier mâché...

That evening we made our way to Kaesong City, just on the fringes of the demilitarised zone between north and south, where we would be spending the night. It was a clear drive the whole way; one big straight road with scarcely another car on it. That was another little oddity of the country - they seem to have the infrastructure in place, without a population that are able to actually use it!

That night we stayed in a traditional Korean folk lodge, a lovely little place with old-style huts and straw mat floors - a nice alternative to our Pyongyang hotel, although similarly, we weren't allowed to the leave the grounds - for our own safety of course. Apparently, one time some tourists snuck out to see the city and lasted just seven minutes before being arrested by the military police. Eek!

We had a nice evening (despite another vintage Korean power cut), with a dinner of, among other things, dog soup! Don't worry, it's just a name... was actually more of a stew.

In fairness, it wasn't the worst thing I've ever tasted. It was just like beef really, except the meat was a bit... ruff! Har har har!

The next morning, our last full day in the country, we started off with a tour around the Kaesong area, first visiting the Tomb of King Kongmin, the only tomb of its kind still standing in the DPRK, and then onto Koryo Museum. I  think it may have been the first time on our tour that we heard any sort of history before the birth of Kim Il Sung.

We also passed by hundreds upon hundreds of people on their way to work. And they had a long, long way to go, especially as they were all travelling on foot or by bike. Not a single bus, car or motorcycle in sight.

But this was all foreplay really to the main event of the day - the DMZ, where these two not-so-happy-neighbours stand side by side. As we entered the border area of Panmunjom, a military officer joined our group to act as a guide, taking us around to various important sites, such as the conference and treaty rooms where the armistice agreement was signed in 1953 to end the Korean War, although, as this wasn't a peace treaty, the Korean War is still technically ongoing.

The highlight of the visit though was undoubtedly seeing the border itself, being merely metres from the South, yet unable of course to ever cross the line.

I guess we ourselves are coming from a country with its own north-south divide, although funnily enough, I've travelled all the way to North Korea, but I've never actually been to Northern Ireland! I presume they're quite similar...

I should probably correct myself at this point, I've been referring to the country as North Korea all this time, but that's not what they call it themselves. Here, it's just Korea. Even in maps and posters, you never see just the North or any sort of border lines, it's always the full peninsula. I was always under the impression that the DPRK was happy to be its own state, and saw itself as separate from the South, but that doesn't seem to be the case, according to our guides anyway. They all spoke of their hope for reunification, and everything we heard on the matter was of a united Korea, with American influence the only thing holding both sides apart.

I don't see how reunification could work though from a Northern perspective, if the men in charge are to keep face. As soon as the barriers are lifted and the Northerners are allowed to venture down to Seoul or any other town or city south of the border, they'll realise (if they don't know already) that everything they were told was a lie. They're not superior, not even close, and their existence thus far has been a pretty shitty one.

We made a few more stops around Kaesong and the Sariwon City folk village, before finally returning to Pyongyang that evening.

And what better way to spend your last evening in the DPRK than with a trip to an amusement park (where amusement is mandatory, I presume). I wasn't expecting much at all from it, but was still excited to go, again just for the novelty value. However, even though it wasn't the biggest, it really was great fun! They had some seriously cool rides: rollercoasters, bumper cars, one of those droppy things, some spinny rounder yokes (all of which I assume are up to international safety standards).

Our group were of course the only whiteys in the park, but the place was quite busy with locals. Any time we wanted to go on a ride though however, we were allowed just to skip to the top of the queue... which once more begs the question - who the hell were all these people?! I don't mean to keep sounding so paranoid, the country gets enough bad press without me adding to it with unfounded speculation, but why did none of the locals have a problem with us just rocking up to the park and skipping past everyone?

We ended the night with a few drinks at the city's diplomats club, enjoying the facilities of pool, arcade games and karaoke. The karaoke screen also doubled as a virtual golf driving range, leaving me with one of the most surreal moments of my life - spending our last night in the DPRK firing golf balls at The Carpenters!

Perhaps it would have been more fitting if it were The Eagles we were aiming for...! Actually, a bit of Hotel California would've been quite appropriate in the circumstances, "you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave...".

And that was it! The next morning we said goodbye to North Korea, in quite an uneventful manner really. Before coming here, I had visions of us arriving at the airport and being told we weren't allowed to depart, or at the very least, having some sort of dramatic final escape like the ending of Argo. But no. The airport was tiny and security was actually quite lax, considering how security conscious the rest of the country is. I even had liquids in my hand luggage AND a pair of slippers that I smuggled out of the hotel!

So, off we flew, back to Beijing on our Air Koryo flight, the world's only one-star airline! Definitely not the worst we've flown with though. We even got food and drinks, and a free newspaper! And we didn't crash, so all in all a positive flight.

Oh, video diary, I almost forgot! It's just in our hotel room as we didn't really have much privacy while out and about...

I forgot to talk about our hotel room actually. I don't know if I've ever stayed in a 4-star hotel before, but I doubt this was 4-star quality. I mean, we've stayed in a lot nicer hostels in our time. It was fine, but just quite bland. On the plus side, we did have a nice view over the city (what we could see through the fog at least) AND a telephone next to the toilet! Although, who we we'd be calling, I don't know...

We also had a TV with international news channels, which was quite surprising, especially seeing as our Korean guides were staying at the same hotel. We asked one of our western guides about this, and apparently, only the tourist rooms have international channels. The guides, or anyone else in the country for that matter, have no access to outside media...

Another little alarm bell was the fact that our itinerary changed quite a bit during our few days here. We had been warned that it might happen by our western guides beforehand, and it was nothing major at all; things might be swapped from one day to another, or replaced with something else at the last minute. It didn't really affect us in any way, but you still have to wonder why? Why would plans change for seemingly no reason? What must be going on behind the scenes to cause this?

Our North Korean guides were actually very nice, and I'm sure they have a much harder job than it seems, keeping everything in line when there are quite obviously things going on that we don't know about. There are usually just two local guides per tour, but as we had an American on board, an extra guide was added, as is the usual protocol.

Mr. Kim, our main guide, in particular was very nice and surprisingly able to make fun of people's view of the country and the political tension with America. Once as we passed a health spa, one passenger asked if she'd be able to go there later. He replied "you can, but I'd have to kill you!". It was so shockingly funny! He apologised profusely after that one just so we all knew he was joking.

He also told a couple of anti-American jokes, much to the delight of the group, even the American! I'll try to retell one for you:

There were three people on a plane that was about to crash, a North Korean, a South Korean and an American. There were only two parachutes on board and they were trying to decide who should get them. After a while, the American grabbed one of the bags and said "We are the greatest country in the world, I'm taking a parachute!", and he jumped out. The South Korean looked worried and asked "What are we going to do now?!". "It's ok" the North Korean replied, "we still have two parachutes left. The American jumped out with my backpack!"

Classic DPRK humour there!

So, that's that. Even though we were only here for four days, we certainly got our money's worth. Definitely one of the most incredible trips of our lives, and one I highly recommend to anyone reading. I can say with 100% certainty, you'll never have another trip like it. For those interested, check out Young Pioneer Tours:

The main draw for coming here is obviously the overall experience, but having said that, there are actually a lot of amazing sights to see, and a few things that might surprise you. And as I said earlier, no matter what your political opinions (or lack thereof), you can't help but be impressed by what they've created here. If you do want to visit, now is the time as, in all reality, North Korea won't be around forever, one way or another...