Editor’s note/foreword: I am an avid world traveler with the aggressive goal of seeing all 196 nations on this earth. This article is about my particular trip to North Korea and what I witnessed while I was there. It is not about my political beliefs on the country, my country, nor a historical documentary. It is not an editorial on the leadership and government of North Korea, their laws, or governing system. Oh yes, I definitely have my opinions–and they are strong–but they won’t be left here. I have heard the “other” side of the story when it pertains to North Korea and am not oblivious to the country’s shortcomings. However, please know that the following is simply my blog about my personal experience visiting North Korea for three days as a traveler, what I saw, heard, tasted and experienced.
There’s a lot text, but there was so much to share. Feel free to scroll down to the pretty pictures–there are tons of them if you scroll down–but I encourage you to grab a cup of coffee and take your time through this recap of three of the most incredible days of my life. I learned so much, and just maybe, you’ll take something away from this, too.
All of the pictures below were taken by me, except for the photos of me…they were taken by folks in my tour group.
As I walked down the jet way I could feel my heart pounding through my chest. My palms were the sweatiest they’ve ever been. Sweatier than when I asked a girl out for the first time in 8th grade. This was a different kind of nervous.
I had wavered back and forth on this trip for the last ten months—at times completely sure I would never really do it—and yet now here I was: twenty feet away from the door of a Russian Tupolev operated by Koryo Airlines. Over the past year I held the luxury and freedom of being able to change my mind. I could (and almost did many times) simply cancel this trip and go somewhere else—anywhere else on the entire planet would be more sensible—but having that “choice” was about to disappear. In a matter of mere seconds there would be no turning back. I bit my lip and said a prayer as I crossed the threshold and set foot in the plane. I’d be in North Korea in two hours.
Three years ago I didn’t know anything about North Korea. Though a world traveler who’d visited over 40 countries, most of them very recently, I knew absolutely nothing about North Korea except that Dennis Rodman had visited Kim Jong-Un and some people made a stink about it. That was it.
It was only after one of my co-workers told me about the mystique and downright “weirdness” of North Korea did I start learning about the hermit kingdom. He recommended I watch an episode of HBO’s documentary Vice about North Korea. I did. And what followed was an absolute and maybe even unhealthy obsession with the country. After that one conversation and movie, I was to begin a course that would ultimately lead me into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and there would be no stopping me.
I continued to scour youtube for videos about North Korea, and the more I watched, the more I learned, and the more obsessed I became. I skipped following along with Game of Thrones, House of Cards, and Mad Men, instead digesting a healthy and frequent intake of films about North Korea. From polished documentaries from National Geographic and HBO, to people’s home movies and amateur “vlogs,” I was hypnotized by what I saw.
There is simply no way I could explain all the reasons I was so infatuated with North Korea—that alone would be twenty pages long, and this is an article about my trip, not necessarily the entire history and regime of the country—so I hope, that if you’re not familiar with North Korea, and you don’t know the “weirdness” that I speak of, that you’ll stop reading this article, open up youtube, and watch a few videos about North Korea—it’s the only way you might possibly understand, A: why this country is so “different,” B: why I’d want to go there, and C: why “going there” is such a big deal in itself; an absolutely enormous deal.
So I watched these youtube videos on North Korea until I ran out of youtube videos on North Korea to watch. I couldn’t get enough, but there just isn’t a lot out there. I remember wanting to visit—and finding out that it was possible—but just couldn’t muster up the gumption to actually make it happen. It was one of those bucket list items that was simply a hypothetical. That is, until one of my favorite travel bloggers, whom I admire and trust, published a story on his travel website about going to North Korea. He went, and loved it; and I took it as a sign that I should take the plunge as well.
Without hesitation—literally that moment—I did it. I knew if I wanted to take the trip, I had to do it now, before I, or anyone else, could talk me out of it. So I cashed in the hundreds of thousands of airline miles I’d been saving my entire life and booked my flight to Beijing, where the tour would commence.
The “tour” was organized by a company called Young Pioneer Tours, whose slogan is: “We provide budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from”. And they were right—Mom could know nothing of this trip until I got back; she’d worry herself to death if she knew I was going into North Korea; it would have to be an absolute secret.
You just can’t meander into North Korea by yourself by the way. Literally, you can’t. They won’t let you; which is why I booked my visit through a tour company. Normally, I despise having to stick to a “group” when traveling, but if you want to get into North Korea, you have to do it through a state-approved tour company; and to be honest, I wouldn’t want to travel there alone anyway.
So it was a done deal. In ten months I’d visit North Korea. I was excited. I watched more videos, which only fueled my already over-the-top excitement. The trip seemed like it was ten years away, but the anticipation was half the fun. I told everyone. Except my mom. I’m not gonna lie—I enjoyed the reactions.
“You’re going where?” “Why in the world are you going to North Korea?” “How do you even get in to North Korea?”
Most of my friends thought it was cool and “daring.” However a few friends were adamantly against it, urging me to reconsider going to North Korea. They told me no good could come of it, and “why risk it?” One of my good friends admitted this trip was giving him anxiety.
But the trip was already bought and paid for, and even if I had the chance to cancel without losing any money, I was bound and determined to see North Korea. No one was going to change my mind. Until January happened.
I was horrified to read the news story about Otto Warmbier, an American who was detained in North Korea on January first, following a New Year’s tour there. What made it ten times worse, is that he was traveling with Young Pioneer Tours, the very same group that I was I going with. This changed everything. I instantly felt uneasy; sick to my stomach actually. I didn’t think I could go through with this. What was I thinking?
I followed every detail of Otto’s case, scouring the net for new info every day, sometimes multiple times per day. What was tough was that there weren’t any details for the first few weeks; only that he’d “been detained.”
“Great, they’re just randomly snatching Americans,” I thought.
Eventually news broke that Otto had stolen a banner at his hotel; a dare instigated by his church back home. He was shown at a press conference in North Korea apologizing, and downright breaking down, before his limp body being hauled off by numerous very scary looking North Korean soldiers. Things were looking grim for my trip; honestly I just didn’t think I had the balls to go through with it anymore.
Just when I managed to talk myself back into going, North Korea handed down Otto’s sentence. For removing a banner from the wall (turns out he didn’t even steal it), this poor s.o.b. was handed down a fifteen-year hard labor sentence. FIFTEEN YEARS—for taking down a sign off a wall. Unbelievable. And I was going to visit this country? I had a lot of thinking to do.
I can’t count the number of times I went back and forth. My friends only used the news of Otto’s case to further persuade me not to go. Things weren’t looking good.
But I kept looking for reasons to go forward with the trip. I emailed Young Pioneer Tours with my concerns and they insisted that as long as I “followed the rules,” I’d be fine. The days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, until I was staring at my calendar with just 30 days out. I’d need to make a decision pretty soon.
What finally convinced me to go through with it were the online reviews from people who had just returned from touring North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours. Every single review was positive, but I didn’t stop there. I reached out to every American who’d recently traveled to North Korea and who’d wrote a review about it; gave them my concerns, and asked for advice. All who responded backed up their stellar reviews with even more detail, and I was able to ask them specific questions and lay out all the doubts and worries that I had. Each and every traveler basically told me the same thing: follow the rules and you’ll be fine. And so it was decided; I was going to North Korea.
Though my fellow travelers were able to put me at relative ease, deep down inside I was still scared as hell. I kept playing out in my mind just how horrible it would be if I were to be held by the North Koreans; everything I’d be giving up back home, all the things I would lose; real deep stuff. My job, my house, my syndicated radio show that’s been my life’s work. All that would be gone, as I sat in a cell—or worse, a labor camp—while life went on back home without me. I thought about being stuck in a North Korean prison and never seeing my parents again; if and when I was finally let out, would they already be gone? I would be devastated. All because of a dumb trip. I remembering doing stupid things as a kid and when I was caught my parents scolding me and asking, “Well, was it worth it?” Would this trip be “worth it,” should I be detained?
These were the real thoughts that kept me up at night and plagued me day by day. Sure, being an adventurous, thrill-seeking traveler is all fun and games, until you’re taken away by the North Koreans. It was a very unsettling feeling, and although I read nothing but glowing recommendations from the folks who recently visited, something in my gut just felt wrong.
So why didn’t I just cancel and avoid this whole tug-of-war with my brain? Simple: my excitement and obsession with going to North Korea overrode my fear. Not by much, I’ll tell you. I’d say it was 51% percent sheer fascination and desire to see this off-the-wall nation, and 49% pooping in my pants, scared to death, “the end is near” kind of thinking. It felt like a tie between the two conflicting emotions, but in the end, I knew if I passed up this trip that I’d forever wonder what I’d missed; the kind of regret that eats away at you every day for the rest of your life.
The week before I left, I “got my affairs in order,” literally; as if I was going to be away for a long time. I signed over my power of attorney to my agent. I assembled an excel sheet with information for every bank account, insurance policy, and debtor that I had. I prepared instructions for my radio show to be continued should I not return as scheduled. Did I really think I was not going to be allowed to leave? No. But was there a chance? I thought so. And I did everything to ensure that should I had been granted an “extended stay,” that my personal and business life wouldn’t dissolve.
I even went so far as to make a video, asserting that if I was held in North Korea and confessed on TV to doing something bad—it was only because they forced me into making a false confession, and not to believe it; for I was going to be on my best behavior and there’s no way I’d do something stupid in North Korea. I did all I could. Now it was time to go. They said goodbye to me at work like it may be the last time they see me.
The flight to Beijing was amazing: first class, thanks to the air miles I’d been saving for twenty-plus years, by buying every single thing for decades using my United Explorer card. I arrived in Beijing Saturday afternoon and took in some sights, including The Great Wall and Tiananmen Square, before getting together with our group on Sunday for a pre-tour meeting. Here I met our tour guide, Charlotte, along with the rest of the group, to discuss the dos and don’ts of North Korea.
In a nutshell, according to Charlotte, the only thing that will absolutely get you in trouble is “disrespecting the leaders.” And if you watched the youtube videos I asked you to earlier, you already know that North Korea has three leaders: the eternal president, Kim Il Sung (deceased), his son, Kim Jong Il (also deceased) and the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Un. The people of North Korea absolutely worship their “leaders,” and everything goes back to respecting and revering them.
A few of the rules included not folding, crumpling or even disposing of a newspaper (or any other materials) featuring pictures of the leaders, not talking bad about the leaders, being nothing but respectful and serious at the monuments of the leaders, and not leaving any religious materials of any kind, anywhere. Failure to follow these guidelines could have dire consequences. Sound crazy? Sure it does—but I wanted to see North Korea and these are their rules. I had no problem abiding and it seemed like a fair trade-off to me.
There are also stern rules on photography: you may not photograph any military or any construction, and any photos you take of the leaders’ statues or pictures must not cut off any of their body—you must capture the entire statue when taking photographs.
The meeting was extremely helpful in calming my nerves. As long as the North Koreans weren’t randomly snatching up Americans, I was fine with the whole arrangement. I was assured that even most of the mistakes mentioned above wouldn’t get you arrested—you’d more than likely just have to apologize and maybe even be asked to leave early—but it’s the really stupid and intentional things that would get you detained: like stealing. But really, who does that in a foreign country?
I was the second oldest in a group of mostly twenty-somethings from around the world. It was a real-life United Nations, with travelers from England, Scotland, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, Germany and Iran. There were two other Americans in our group: males, solo travelers. This made me feel good. I thought if these youngin’s weren’t phased by North Korea, I shouldn’t be. But in reality, I still was, at least moderately.
Eleven of the sixteen group members and our group leader Charlotte boarded the overnight train to Pyongyang, North Korea, later that day. Americans aren’t allowed to enter by rail—we have to fly in—and we did, the next day at 10AM.
I started feeling the “mood” of North Korea at the departure gate in Beijing. I noticed that half of the passengers waiting were all wearing pins of “The Great Leaders” on their shirts. It was kind of eerie actually, but was really nothing compared to what was in store.
FUN FACT: Every adult I saw in North Korea wore these special pins with the face(s) of their leader(s) on them. Every. Single. Person. It was mind blowing! I was told that receiving the pin(s) when you are fourteen years old is like a “right of passage,” and they aren’t available to foreigners. To spend three days in a country and not see even one person without the pin over their heart was crazy.
I had the pleasure of flying on “the world’s worst airline,” which is the unofficial title given to the state-owned Air Koryo. Really, it’s been voted the world’s worst, but I’ve flown Spirit, so I was up for the challenge.
The aircraft was an old Russian Tupolev Tu-204-100. I’ve flown Boeing, Airbus, Lockheed (old school), Canadair, Embraer and Cessna planes…but a Tupolev? Oh man, these planes aren’t even used in America. Probably for a reason. Wonderful!
The airline offered free magazines and newspapers to all of the passengers upon boarding. No thank you! I was so afraid I’d fold it the wrong way, or rip it by accident, or spill soy sauce on it. I really wanted one, but didn’t want to take the chance!
The flight attendants were pretty, but very serious. No joking around, no laughing. Their uniforms were dressy, but very conservative; all of the attendants wore their hair in a neat bun. Taking pictures in the plane was not allowed.
Before we took off I was instructed to open my window shade. But when I raised it, it only fell down again by itself, five seconds later. The flight attendant sternly told me a second time to keep my shade raised. I kept raising it emphatically, only for it to be slammed down by itself seconds later. Of course the flight attendants never saw the shade slide down on its own. I’m sure they thought I was being difficult.
“Great, we haven’t even left Beijing and I’m already gonna get in trouble.”
I was so afraid I’d do something wrong and insult the North Koreans. I felt like George Castanza in an episode of Seinfeld.
“But the window shade keeps falling down by itself!” I could hear this in Castanza’s voice. Then Kramer says, “George, raise your window shade, you’re gonna get us in trouble.” George starts sweating and his face turns red as he attempts to raise the shade again, only for it to fall down again. “It won’t stay up,” shouts the more-frantic-by-the-second George Castanza. This was one episode of Seinfeld I didn’t want to be in.
The flight was interesting. Hamburgers that looked like they belonged in a cartoon or video game were passed out to passengers, along with our choice of liquid yogurt, water or blueberry soda. The in-flight entertainment was constant video of some sort of fancy North Korean concert performance, with an elaborate orchestra and a huge cast of singers and dancers. They performed in a giant concert hall, in front of giant video screens displaying the dear leaders and rockets blasting off.
I examined every part of that old plane; everything was so out of date, I wondered how many miles this old bird had on it. The “safety card” in the front pocket had one interesting note on it. “No binoculars allowed.” That was a new one. Sometime near the middle of the trip the flight attendant praised “our dear leader” over the intercom. Again, this was just the beginning.
90 minutes later we were touching down in Pyongyang. I saw nothing but rice paddies on the way down. I could hardly contain myself. Was this a dream? Was it really happening? Am I really here, finally?
Immigration was a breeze, although I definitely felt the overwhelming military presence. Customs was a bit more intense: as they asked to see my laptop, cameras and phone. The customs officer had me unlock my computer as he proceeded to thumb through my hard drive. It just got real!
I had spent the last week making sure just about everything was deleted from my computer and phone. And re-deleted, the “trash” emptied, cookies cleared, and history erased. You see, pornography just happens to be illegal in North Korea; and I’ve had that laptop for years. So yeah, there’s probably been enough material passed through that laptop to earn me a life sentence in North Korea. I even went as far as to completely delete my email accounts from my phone and uninstall Facebook messenger. Heaven forbid there was a message from 18 months ago that contained boobies. I wasn’t even gonna take the chance. I deleted any and all evidence from my electronics like my name was Hillary Clinton.
They also asked what books I had brought. Yes, books are examined for “banned” material. What a trip to be going to a country who wanted to control what books could be brought through its borders. Crazy!
After finally clearing customs and immigration I passed through the doors to be greeted by my Korean guides: Sim, Yang and Kim. Sim was a pretty lady (okay, a hottie), that looked like she was in her mid to late 20s, Yang was the older of the two men (late 40s?) and Kim was the young guy; tall, he looked to be about 25 and could probably kill you in four seconds.
We made introductions and walked outside to our bus. I was awe struck as I started to look around. I couldn’t believe I was actually “in” North Korea. Incredible. The thirty-minute drive into town was just surreal. Yang hopped on the mic and reminded us of the three basic rules that we learned yesterday. He was nice, but firm. We were quiet.
As we approached the city I was blown away at the first giant mosaic image of Kim Il-Sung I saw. For the past year I’d seen these so many times in documentaries; now it felt like I was actually inside the movie; some fantasy or sci-fi film…was this even real? These giant paintings of the leaders were everywhere. And no matter your opinions on North Korea’s government, the giant displays really are marvelous works of art.
At a stop at an intersection a little girl in the bus next to us waved and smiled; that just melted my heart, and helped me relax a little! Sensory overload took over and I was just trying to take it all in. Just peering out that bus window into this new world was almost too much to process. It was like I was on another planet.
Soon we pulled up to the Yangakkdo International Hotel. I knew so much about this hotel already, from my months of research. This was the main “tourist” hotel and situated on its own island in the middle of the Taedong River. “You can check in anytime you like, but you can never leeeeeaaaaaave,” I sang in my head. My passport was taken by my Korean minders for “safekeeping.”
It was also the hotel where Otto Warmbier stayed and confessed to stealing a banner. He mentioned the hotel many times during his confession and trial, and the property was all over the news. Like the giant murals of the leaders, the Yanggakdo too, had been etched into my head for months preceding the trip. Once again, I felt like I was in a movie.
FUN FACT: Foreigners aren’t allowed to explore on their own, but must be accompanied by their Korean guides, or “minders,” at all times, outside the hotel. Young Pioneer Tours is actually the foreign tour company–they arrange the tour and book the trip, take care of visas, and accompany you on the tour–but it’s your Korean guides (separate, state-sponsored company) that absolutely must be your escorts at all times once you’re inside the country.
Over the next two hours I explored the property—after asking of course, where exactly I could wander and what was off limits. Just like the urban legend alluded to, I noticed there was no fifth floor button in the elevator. The fifth floor was a staff-only area, only accessible by stairs. There are youtube videos of tourist “rebels” (more like damn fools) sneaking onto the off-limits floor. Floor five was also where Otto committed his crime of taking down a government sign. I had no plans of visiting floor five.
The hotel itself was quite grand, but dated. The furniture and décor were straight out of the seventies. I shared a twin room on the 38th floor (room 3815 to be exact) with my new friend Ryan. Ryan was an expert traveler with 77 countries under his belt. He was from Ohio, but currently had no fixed “residence,” as he spent his time hopping from one country to the next, non-stop, for months (maybe years) at a time. He was my hero.
We had a great view of Pyongyang, and the windows opened so we could get fresh air and stick our heads out. There was a small table with an ashtray and two chairs, next to the two twin beds. In the middle of the beds was an old solid wood nightstand/stereo-thingy that screamed old school. I was surprised that the TV received the English Al Jezeera news channel. I wondered if the rooms were bugged.
On the way to the hotel we’d been reminded by our American tour guide not to take anything from the hotel rooms, because they do check, and they will come after you to return whatever you tried to take. Charlotte told us of an embarrassing story about one of her previous guests stealing a towel and getting called out on it before the bus departed to the airport. Another visitor got busted trying to take home a pencil sharpener! I swore I wasn’t even going to poop in this damn hotel!
The entire group, including those who arrived by train, met downstairs at Restaurant Number 2 for our first meal together. It was the first of many elaborate multi-course meals; traditional Korean food, from Kim Chi to dumplings. It was a lot of courses and a lot of food. We were well fed the entire trip and provided a steady supply of North Korean beer.
After dinner we were given the official tour of the hotel, including the four or five restaurants on the first floor (there was also a revolving restaurant on the top), multiple convenience, gift and souvenir shops, a bar, and a coffee lounge. But what really turned up the weirdness 500% was what was underneath the hotel. We were led down stairs and through an incredibly small door that led to long hallways and multiple entertainment and amenity options. There was a Ping-Pong room, a billiards club, a karaoke lounge, a spa, sauna and pool, and perhaps the weirdest of all: a three-lane bowling alley. Mind blown.
Perhaps what was best about all these “choices,” was that whatever activity you chose to partake in, the Koreans participated with you. This led to some pretty fun times, starting off with some good ol’ fashioned Karaoke the first night. We watched the staff sing some Korean songs to start off the night—which we applauded wildly after each performance of course—before the gringos took over with our American songs. I was surprised at all the choices in the song book—very random, but there were a ton of songs. Lauren from the UK broke the ice with some classic Journey, and more classic “Karaoke songs for white people” ensued. I hung for about fifteen minutes while drinking my beer before heading up for the night. I was already tired—most of it mental exhaustion. These kids stayed down stairs getting pretty hammered; that was the last thing I was going to do in North Korea. I also wanted to be alert and awake the next day. This was my trip of a lifetime and I wasn’t going to ruin it with a hangover.
Here’s a video I recorded, while roaming the underground labyrinth at The Yanggakdo:
DAY TWO: We were up early the next day to have a buffet-style breakfast downstairs at Restaurant Number 1 before heading off to the DMZ at seven. On the way out of town we stopped at The Three Charters of National Reunification that stands over the Thongil Highway for some photos.
Once out of the city, we spent the next three hours cruising through the country. Not much to see except rice patties and farmland. Halfway to the border we stopped at a roadside souvenir and tea stand. Coffee, tea, soda and ice cream were being sold, along with multiple tables of gifts and books.
What was strikingly eerie was the fact that there was virtually no other traffic on the highway but us. Talk about feeling like you were in The Twilight Zone! Just us, for very long periods of time. The road was very bumpy. Our tour guides stressed the importance of not taking pictures at the military checkpoints, and we stopped for at least three as we neared the DMZ. A reminder that not everyone can “move freely” throughout the country.
Before arriving at the DMZ we stopped at big gift shop, full of tons of North Korean propaganda here: beautiful stamp booklets and collections and hand painted posters. Posters of what, you ask? Oh, just of America getting crushed by North Korea, no big deal. Yeah, it felt kinda weird buying posters depicting my own country getting hammered by our enemy, but the art itself was so unique and random, I had to have one…or five.
The DMZ itself was really cool and the only place in North Korea where you are allowed to take a picture of (and with) a soldier. The soldier was also the guide for this part of the tour, and showed us multiple parts of the DMZ, including the room where cease fire negotiations had taken place and a building that actually crosses the border itself; inside at one end of the table you are in North Korea, while sitting at the other end, you are in South Korea. I couldn’t help but notice the soldiers standing watch kept their fists clenched the entire time. Intense! I wanted to say, “Have a Snickers!” But I didn’t.
The subject matter during the lectures at the DMZ—along with most of the talks for the entire trip—had to do with “re-unification.” North Korea considers both North and South Korea to still be “one” country, and the splitting of the two after the Korean War to be just a minor and temporary situation. Not surprisingly, the “American Imperialists” who “didn’t belong in Korea,” were brought up often.
FUN FACT: North Korea does not refer to themselves as “North Korea.” Instead, they are The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK for short.
Then, in one of the most shocking, surprising and downright scary moments of the trip, our soldier guide (who I believe was a pretty high-ranking official), approached me directly while I was reading a display on the wall and started to interrogate me. Well, maybe “interrogate” isn’t the right word, but he had been speaking to the group as a whole the entire time, until now, and now all of a sudden had singled me out as one of the “Americans” and wanted to chat. Crap!
With the help of a translator, we must have talked for about seven minutes, but it felt like an hour. Our tour group, all at once, formed a circle around the officer and I, as to watch some sort of fight or “event” take place.
“Be cool,” I told myself, while doing my best not tremble as the officer lectured me firmly on his country and its ideals. I nodded my head as to show that I was listening. I remember him asking me “who Korea belonged to,” and I responded, “The Korean people?” Right answer, thank God.
He then asked me about America’s role in all of this. You could hear a pin drop. Oh God, how in the world was I supposed to respond to this? I had to think quickly. I don’t suppose he would have accepted, “Let me get back to you on that.”
First, let me be clear: I am a patriot and love my country. Even though I may visit places that have “questionable relations” with the U.S. (Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, etc.), never will I betray my own country, turn my back on America, or disrespect our land.
I answered his question the best I could, with all honesty and respect I told him, “I’m not an official representative of my country, so I can in no way speak for my government or all of our people. What I can tell you, is that many, many people in my country pray for peace with North Korea, and the world; and that many of us hope for better relations with you soon.”
He smiled. You could hear a sigh of relief from all who had gathered around us. He responded by telling me he wants peace as well, and thanked me for my honesty, and for visiting his country. We shook hands. We had a moment. It was awesome.
FUN FACT: (above) I’m smiling to avoid the tears…I swear, this guy’s death grip was crushing my hand. I may not be able to write or hold a fork again!
All this stress made me hungry, so it was off to Kaesong City for traditional Korean Pasangi, which is a series of dishes served in bronze bowls. The dog soup was optional. And I did it. I really ate dog soup. Hey, when in Rome, right?
The picture on facebook of me eating dog received a ton of reaction, including a few negative comments from folks asking, “How could you?” As if these people are any better than me because they eat cow, fish, chicken, pig, lamb, etc. Hey, I actually am a dog lover–I really am–but damn, this dog was already in the pot. And when was the next time I’d actually be able to say, “I ate dog in North Korea?”
FUN FACT: Anthony Bourdain (my hero) hasn’t even tried dog. So I one-upped Bourdain? Hell to the yeah.
FUNNER FACT: I tried liquor made of tiger’s bones later that day. It was awful.
With a full belly, it was on to the Koryo Museum, for a guided tour of what was Korea’s very first university. At this UNESCO World Heritage Site I toured some beautiful old buildings, scenic gardens and saw many old statues, weaponry and other Korean relics. Our guide wore an elegant traditional dress and was very kind and informative.
What happened next was such an unexpected treat, as we returned to the city and our tour bus rolled up to a performing arts school. No one knew what was happening as we simply followed our guides into the building. All of a sudden we were brought into a classroom full of young female students who, on cue, began playing simply amazing music on their 12-string kayagums. The smiles, the in-sync movements, and wonderful sounds all came together to give me goosebumps. It was sensory overload to the max.
After a song and thunderous applause from our group, we were rushed to the next classroom where a group of girls were waiting to play their accordions for us. Again, I was awestruck at their coordination and unity, as not just every note, but every little movement was 100% in-sync with not one discrepancy; and through it all, these amazing, big, bright smiles. Were these faces of joy real or an act? All part of a well-choreographed presentation, or did these girls really love what they were doing? So many emotions rushed through my mind and heart. Was I happy, sad, impressed? I’d say all of the above. It was just so much to process and resulted in chilling goosebumps and possibly a tear or two. I was hoping the rest of the group didn’t notice my cheeks were wet.
Apparently this was just the warm up, as immediately after the tour of classroom performances, we were taken down to the auditorium to see a “real” show. The next half-hour was nothing short of glorious, as microphones rose up from the stage floor and I witnessed a thirty minute variety show, featuring singing, dancing, and wonderful musical instruments being expertly mastered; all executed by small children with flawless moves and huge smiles. My favorite skit was a scene that featured a little girl playing a famous Pyongyang “traffic lady,” directing pedestrians, bicyclists, and cardboard cut-out cars in a make-believe intersection on stage. Every moment of the show was captivating and I was left breathless by the end. These were small children putting on a Las Vegas-caliber show. They were just incredible!
I couldn’t pass up the chance to buy flowers on-site for the children to present them on-stage after the show–but which child to give them to? I wish I could have bought flowers for each of them–all so precious! I hope they knew how much we all enjoyed the show, and as much I as was entertained at their unbelievable skill and grace, I couldn’t help but hope that they have (and will have) happy lives–happy lives that all kids deserve to have. At the same, my mind was at conflict…aren’t these precious children being brought up to hate Americans?
After my first full day in North Korea, my mind hurt. It was just too much to take in, in one day. The sights, the sounds, the colors, the landmarks, the statues, the propaganda, the language, the food, the politics, the soldiers, the children…just so much to absorb, I was mentally depleted.
We had a great dinner at a duck BBQ restaurant before returning to the hotel. While the others hit the bar, I tried my luck at a North Korean full-body massage. It wasn’t bad, but felt kind of weird to be almost fully naked and very vulnerable, stretched out on a table getting “handled” by one of our most feared “enemies.” She was strong, but had a loving touch. What a trip! Goodnight.
DAY THREE: Another breakfast at the Yanggakdo, this time with noticeably more tourists–a Dutch group was now sharing the hotel with us. Breakfast was good, and included instant coffee and a buffet-style spread that featured veggies, fish, rice, eggs and more.
We had a busy itinerary for our last full day, that started with a tour of the beautiful Mansudae Fountain Park. It was a gorgeous day–the weather was just perfect.
Next, on to visit the most recognized site in North Korea: Mansudae Grand Monument. Being in front of these giant statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il in person was surreal. And I had to be nothing but serious. Absolutely zero shenanigans are permitted here. As I mentioned before, the North Koreans are extremely devoted to their leaders, and this was ground zero for recognizing and respecting them. A few of the rules included taking pictures of only the full statues (no cutting any part of the statues off), posing seriously (this is the one place in the world where doing “duckface” really can get you in hot water), and you are supposed to bow when approaching the statues. I was actually given the option of buying flowers to leave at the base of the monument, and I did.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Dress up for your visit to Mansudae Grand Monument. They ask you not to wear shorts or open-toed shoes, but I recommend you step it up and dress business-casual or better. I was one of the only males in my group to wear slacks (not jeans) and a long-sleeve button-up shirt, and I was blown away at how appreciative my guides were. They thanked me numerous times and I remember Mr. Yang telling me at one point, “They way you dressed, Mr. William…velly smart…veeeeeeelly smart.” It really made a difference. If I could do it over again, I would’ve worn a jacket and tie.
The guides really are devoted to their leaders, and whatever your feelings are on the situation, if you simply show respect and seriousness to their leaders and the North Korean culture, and are attentive and courteous, your entire experience will be better. I learned it’s about building trust between you and your guides.
READER QUESTION: How could you bow to someone else’s leader? Isn’t that “selling out?”
Not in my mind. I understand how it could be perceived that way, but I knew what I was getting into before I booked this trip, and bowing at the monuments is all part of getting to visit North Korea. If I felt uncomfortable bowing, I wouldn’t have signed up for this trip. This trip was so amazing and exhilarating in so many ways, that bowing two or three times seemed like a fair trade-off to me. Also, the tour gives you the option to skip the bowing–you just have to stay in the bus while the others visit the monument. I didn’t mind at all.
FUN FACT: My guides informed me that you are not even allowed to “drive fast” past the monument. You must slow down to almost “walking” speed if you’re driving past.
Next, it was back on the bus and off to The Mangyondae Funfair to watch the kids celebrate Children’s Day, with sports, games and other various activities. We were given ninety minutes to watch the games and explore the park. This was one of the first chances we had to really mill about and integrate with the locals, unattended. After being closely “supervised” for the past 48 hours, this felt really liberating!
We had “cold noodle” for lunch, which was interesting, and then it was off to see the birthplace of the Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung. We toured the house where he was born, and I even got to drink water from the original well on the property.
Next, another massive landmark: Monument to the Korean Workers Party. This thing was huge!
Time to visit the Pyongyang Exhibition House of Culture to look at some classic art and crafts, but no photos were allowed there. Then a quick trip to the Foreign Language Bookshop, where books and DVDs in many languages were available. Although you won’t find any Nicholas Cage or Stephen King Classics here. I’m sensing a recurring theme…
Now, it’s on to Juche Tower!
Actually, let’s address the Ryugyong Hotel now. This thing is incredible. Looming over the city like some building in a superhero movie set in the future, this 105-storey building towers over everything, dwarfing even the city’s tallest high-rises. Wherever you are, this building seems to be looking down on you, watching you. And the most interesting thing about the Ryugyong: there’s no one inside.
The Ruyugyong is now probably my favorite building in the world. Not that there aren’t cooler structures, but for a building so grand and menacing, to be left so empty for years, with no real date of occupation–who knows, maybe it will never be occupied–there’s just something so intriguing about the whole thing.
Now, the highlight of the trip, at least to me: a ride in the Pyongyang Metro! The subway here is the deepest metro system in the world, at 110 meters, conveniently doubling as a nuclear bunker, just in case. I rode the escalator so deep into the earth it seemed like it lasted ten minutes. And then…we were in!
The subway ride was just amazing. Once again, almost too amazing–as sensory overload took over again. There was so much to take in all at once: being sandwiched in between all the hustle and bustle of the locals, seeing so much breathtaking art and architecture, hearing haunting but beautiful music over the P.A. echoing throughout the caverns of the metro, all while trying to take pictures and videos without missing your train, as our group leader attempted to herd the cattle that was our sixteen-member group. I wanted to stay all day.
I just let my go-pro run, from beginning to end, to capture the experience. I was later asked to delete the video taken inside the subway cars, which is why those parts are edited out on the video. It’s kind of long, but here it is:
Upon ascending out of the metro and back into the streets of Pyongyang, I was greeted by The Arch of Triumph.
Built to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan from 1925 to 1945, it’s the second tallest triumphal arch in the world, after Monumento a la Revolución in Mexico, standing 197 feet high and 164 feet wide.
After the subway, another treat–but sadly a place we weren’t allowed to take any photos–as we were presented a surprise visit to a local department and grocery store. The Kwangbok Area Supermarket looked like any department store in the U.S…if it was in 1965. The four-story structure featured a grocery store on the ground floor, then clothes, household items, furniture and more on the other floors, all adjoined by escalators. It was super clean and well organized, but super old school. Once again, I was racing against the clock, to try to see as much as I could in such a limited amount of time. One of the highlights was trying a hot dog on the ground floor of the store; a hot dog that was a definite departure from the American-style dogs I’m used to, but delicious nonetheless.
READER QUESTION: How did the locals react to seeing you?
Every place was different. Some people looked at us like we were aliens, with a kind of “what are you doing here” look. Others seemed to not even notice we were there, and look right passed us. Mingling with the locals was one of the things I looked forward to most, and we seemed to have done the least. I smiled at everyone I saw, and always felt rewarded when I caught a smile back. It was one of the neatest parts of the trip.
One of the most interesting and different places I’ve ever been in my entire life was the Victorious War Museum. Imagine being a guest in a huge museum that was all about kicking your country’s ass? From giant, life-sized walk-through dioramas that depicted bloody war scenes with real-looking American soldiers bloodily strewn about the field, to glass cases of American soldiers’ personal articles on display, I really felt weird here. And in many ways, wrong. The North Koreans are proud people, and I did my best to understand their points of view–but knowing we lost so many American lives in these wars, and seeing these deaths not memorialized, but “celebrated,” was a little tough to take in. My only moderate comfort and ability to rationalize everything I was seeing came when the guides explained, multiple times, that North Korea never wants to “provoke,” but only “defend;” and that their country doesn’t hate the citizens of America, just its government. Who knows if that’s the real story, but it made me feel a little bit better; as opposed to folks like ISIS, that just want to see us all dead.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the museum, but you may want to do a google search on it–it was absolutely the grandest museum I’ve been in–with multiple stories, high ceilings, marble floors, and enough exhibits to take a full year to see.
Outside was a giant exhibit of all the captured American military vehicles, from tanks to planes to helicopters, along with giant pictures of the American soldiers who manned said vehicles–surrendering, with their hands up. Yeah, kind of awkward.
But I don’t think there was a bigger trophy on the shelf, than an actual captured American war ship, moored and displayed in the water alongside the grounds of the museum. I got a tour of the USS Pueblo, along with a 30-minute propaganda video about the ship and how it was captured.
I can’t describe the feeling of visiting somewhere that your country’s captured military arsenal and dead soldiers’ personal items are on display, all presented in a matter-of-fact kind of way by smiling guides. But this is history. I can’t change that it happened. If I gained anything from this museum visit, the most valuable thing would be the stark reminder of how terrible war is, no matter the circumstances.
The City: I was the guy on our tour bus acting like the stereotypical Japanese tourist, with a camera around his neck, snapping pics around every corner. Minus the Hawaiian shirt and socks with sandals, I was the travel nerd that wanted to capture everything. After all, how many people make it to North Korea?! I even bought a fancy new camera just for this trip. Here are some random shots of everyday life, that I captured from the window of our bus, while we rolled around Pyongyang.
FUN FACT: I’m guessing it’s not allowed, because I didn’t see any: shorts, jeans, mustaches, beards, long hair (on men), sideburns, piercings or tattoos. I didn’t see anything but black or naturally gray hair; not one person with bleached, highlighted or colored hair. Basically zero “self expression;” everyone was dressed and groomed very “normal.” It felt like 1940. I wondered what would happen if some bleached their hair, or grew out a mustache. What would be the consequences?
As the night came to a close, our tour group was presented with another surprise: a casual walk down Mirae Scientist Street. This wasn’t on the itinerary, and was a nice bonus, as I enjoyed the spur-of-the-moment, “be with the people”-type activities, much more than the museums and landmarks, where you’re less likely to interact with common folk in everyday situations.
We finished off the night with beers at a local pub whose name I don’t remember (I will update this when I find out). Then we all headed back to the hotel where most of the group met at the bar for more beers. I stopped by to say goodnight, I was done!
I enjoyed spending time with everyone in our group. They were all so well traveled and had unique perspectives on everything. Just cool, cool people. No one had an attitude, and thank goodness everyone in the group behaved themselves. I was lucky to have met some really good people with residences all around the world–people I hope to stay in contact with. (If you are one of them, please find me on facebook.)
Shout out to Charlotte and Young Pioneer Tours. I’ll roll with them again, maybe next time to Eritrea or Afghanistan. Solid company. I’d never have had the chance to visit North Korea if it wasn’t for them. They took good care of us.
The next day it was up and at ’em and off to the airport for our flight back to Beijing. Most of the group would board the train out later. A final breakfast at the Yanggakdo, then to the airport we went. I said a goodbye to my guides, who I had really grown to like and admire over the past three days. I gave them all firm, two-handed handshakes, and would’ve given them hugs if I could have. I wished them all the happiness and health in the world, and I only hope they sensed my sincerity. They waved goodbye as I walked into the immigration line to officially depart the country.
Do you remember in the beginning of this article when I explained why I was so stressed to visit North Korea? While much of this fear subsided over the past few days, thanks to great company and many beers, now it all suddenly came rushing back. For Otto Warmbier wasn’t detained at any point during his trip until the end. It was at the airport, only while about to leave the country at the end of his tour, where Otto’s world suddenly came crashing down. If something bad was going to go down, it would most likely happen upon departure, and what happened next would just about send me into cardiac arrest.
I approached the immigration counter and handed my documents over, but something wasn’t right. The stone-faced official behind the desk kept thumbing through my documents, over and over again, as if something was missing, or worse, like she had discovered something very wrong. She soon displayed a perplexed look on her face as she squinted and stared even deeper into my documents. What was she glaring at? The flipping through of my pages over and over again seemed to get louder and louder. Then, the nightmare started to really take shape, as she got on her radio and rattled something out in Korean. I didn’t know a lick of the language, but it didn’t sound good…at all. She continued rifling through my documents again, and then jumped on her walkie-talkie a second time, repeating the “alert” that she just sent out. Something wasn’t right. All of a sudden, a male soldier in uniform approached the counter and joined the female officer in examining my documents. They talked in Korean while continuing to zero in on something in my paperwork.
I was sure this was the end. What had I done? Did they just realize I worked in the media and I broke some law by visiting? Did they think I was a journalist? Had my illegal filming inside the subway car somehow been noted and flagged me for detainment at the airport? What the heck was going on? I could feel my heart pound through my chest and my palms must have released a dozen ounces of sweat, as I stood there watching the rest of my group clear customs effortlessly, and leave me behind as they entered the departing terminal. I was the last one left. The only one left behind. And I wasn’t going anywhere. I was waiting for the handcuffs.
“Okay, goodbye,” she said, as she looked up at me.
Thank God. I didn’t know what the problem was and I didn’t care. I just got outta there. I breathed a final huge sigh of relief when wheels were up, and enjoyed another mystery burger on Koryo Air on my way back to Beijing. As soon as I landed I couldn’t find WiFi fast enough. I immediately sent a note to friends and family saying “I got out, I’m good.”
The last three days had wiped me out, and as much as I wanted to stay, I also wanted to go. My mind couldn’t handle much more. It just wasn’t about the grandiose statues, remarkable landmarks and stunning artwork–but trying to wrap my head around a lifestyle completely opposite and stark in contrast to anything I had ever experienced before was mind-numbing. Never mind the language barrier, we’re talking about multiple generations raised to worship their “leaders” as Gods. A sort of real-life Twilight Zone, that in one aspect seems like heaven: with virtually no crime, no graffiti, not a speck of litter on the street. A land where a lady is still a lady and real gentleman not only exist, but are commonplace. No shouting, honking, yelling or pushing. No homeless people (in sight, at least), no advertising, no pornography (is that a good thing?), and young girls are not scantily clad nor do they wear nose-rings, tattoo their bodies and dye their hair purple. And most importantly, a country with proud and strong citizens, who all–and I mean all–seem to be united as one, with undying patriotism and love for their country–a love so strong that they just don’t boast about their country, but are willing to die for it, without hesitation. What amazing attributes; things I’d absolutely love to see in America…all the things we’re missing, the things I think probably existed when my grandparents were kids.
But is the price to pay for these things worth it? With the pristine and virtually crimeless streets of Pyongyang comes an absolute inability to express ones self, to be “different,” to stand up and say, “I don’t believe in this, and here’s why.” Gone are the freedoms of living where you want to live, working where you want to work, listening what you want to listen to and watching what you want to watch. What about not being able to go after your dreams, no matter how different they may be. Or heck, even travel the country freely–to go where you want, when you want. What a great reminder that these are rights that not every one enjoys.
It’s true, after my trip to North Korea I left admiring and even wanting many of the things they have; but with even stronger emotion, I departed feeling thankful for what we have in America. We may not be perfect, and there are so many things I’d change if I could; but I remember being taught in elementary school that we are the greatest country on earth because of our freedoms and just how important they were…yet this message didn’t fully sink in until the age of 39, and my trip to North Korea. In the beginning of my blog I said I wouldn’t get political, but these are just a few basic thoughts, just the tip of a huge emotional and philosophical iceberg, that is my collection of thoughts on North Korea. This was the most incredible trip I have ever taken in my entire lifetime. The tough part is, I entered North Korea with a hundred questions, but left with a thousand.
You can check out my North Korea podcast here:
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