What it’s like to tour North Korea

Bla Aguinaldo
What it’s like to tour North Korea
Traveler Bla Aguinaldo visits North Korea and recounts his experience in one of the world's most isolated places

Traveling to North Korea had always been on my bucket list. I was curious to know what it was like to travel to one of the world’s most isolated places. I wanted to explore the unknown, to interact with the locals, to learn their stories.  

I didn’t actually know that they allow tourists to enter North Korea until a year ago. I learned that you needed to join an organized group tour to go to North Korea. I wasn’t a fan of joining a group tour since I am a backpack traveler. I searched for the cheapest group tour I could find, and it wasn’t cheap at all! But curiosity got the better of me, so I still went ahead to experience one of the most thrilling adventures of my life – well, so far.

My journey started with a train ride from Beijing to Dandong, border city to North Korea. During the 14-hour train ride, I was assigned to the middle bunk.

On our way to Dandong, there was a small commotion: one of the passengers was panicking and he did not want to continue on his trip to Pyongyang. He said that once the group arrives in Dandong, he will take the next train back to Beijing, and when asked why, he told our guide that he is a blogger, and he has written about North Korea before on his blog. 

Inside the train from Beijing to Dandong

Panic attack. Almost.

People were still asleep when I jolted out of my bunk. It was about 5 am and I looked out the window; all I saw were trees without their leaves and nothing but fog in the background. No houses. No man-made structures. Just bald trees and the white fog. It felt so creepy and I asked myself “Am I in North Korea, already? Is this how North Korea looks like?”

My heart started to beat faster and faster. I’m terrified. Thoughts of backing out of the trip were already running on my mind. I ended up just closing my eyes and returning to sleep. When I woke up at around 6:30 am, the view was much better and I was welcomed with buildings and houses from outside the train. 

Family

It was around 8 am when we arrived in Dandong. I texted my sister that she might not be able to contact me for the next 3 days as most of the messaging apps I use are blocked in China. I told her I would send her another message 3 days from now because no one in my family knew of my plans. I did not want them to worry about me seeing as there’s no Internet connection and mobile signal in Pyongyang.

Train to Pyongyang

Train to Pyongyang

We transferred to another train in Dandong that crossed the China-North Korea Friendship Bridge from Dandong, China to Sinuiju, North Korea. After crossing the bridge, the North Korean immigration officers entered our train to check our passports and visas.

China-North Korea Friendship Bridge

Immigration process

After checking our passports, another immigration officer entered our bunk to inspect our phones. I handed my phone to the IO, but it was locked so he asked me to open it for him. The IO inspected my phone for about 5 to 10 minutes. At this point I was already praying; my hands were very cold, but I tried my best to gather myself and keep my cool. I have a Bible app on my phone and I forgot to hide it! The thought of not being allowed to enter already crossed my mind and what would make it worse is if they arrested me for it.

Nobody is allowed to bring religious books/materials as well as any pornographic materials to North Korea. I was so nervous that I ate 6 pieces of bread and almost emptied a liter of bottled water, just to distract myself while the IO inspected my phone. When the IO handed me back my phone I almost cried in relief, but I needed to keep it to myself and move along. 

They then checked our cameras; I was surprised to learn that the immigration officers knew how to use different types of cameras, from simple point and shoot ones to the more complex SLRs. The German lady I shared my bunk bed with tried to assist the officer on how to operate her SLR, but the officer refused and did it on his own.

I handed my GoPro to the officer, but surprisingly, he did not know how to operate it. He looked at the name of the brand for about 5 seconds; maybe he was trying to memorize the make and model of my camera with the intention of adding it to their list that they needed to learn. Then he gave me back my camera.

They also checked our laptops, books and bags. I learned from one of the passengers that when his laptop was returned to him, it had an application installed with Korean words on it. When the immigration officer asked if there were books with us, the German lady handed her fashion magazine to which the IO checked every page.

The whole immigration process took 3 to 4 hours but it largely felt like an entire day. When the train started to move and everyone realized that the whole process was over, everyone was shouting and celebrating. It took us another 4 hours to arrive in Pyongyang.

We’re here – what’s next?

Foreigners are not allowed to wander around without their guides in North Korea. But because it was the 70th Party Foundation Day, they had to adjust on how they normally would handle the volume of people on the streets.

It was a national holiday in North Korea and locals lined up in the streets of Pyongyang to celebrate. A military parade was on its way and everyone was excited because the country was celebrating the momentous occasion.

Locals during the 70th Party Foundation Day

Pyongyang misadventure 

We were waiting for almost two hours already before the program for the parade started. I asked our guide which way it was to the restroom. She pointed me to the nearest building and I went inside to see that there’s a flower show inside. The comfort room is on the second floor so I had to climb the stairs to go there.

On my way back, I took pictures of the flowers being displayed in the building. As I returned outside, I was surprised to see that they were all gone. My tourmates, my tour guide, GONE!

Instead of panicking, I wandered around and took pictures of the kids playing around but whenever they saw me approaching them, they would immediately hide. I then decided to go towards the building again and to ask the ladies wearing Joseon-ot if I could take pictures of them.

They were reluctant at first but eventually agreed so I snapped away. I was trying to start a conversation with hopes of getting to know them but none of them understood English. 

Ladies wearing Joseon-ot (traditional Korean dress)

Suddenly, I heard people thunderously screaming. People were running outside the building and I rushed out to see what was happening. I then saw jets producing multi-colored smoke trails and everyone was amazed with the view.

Multi-colored smoke trails. Flight formation in Pyongyang

I only had my GoPro and my iPhone as my cameras during the trip (epic fail!) and I couldn’t use my GoPro since it was too far. It forced me to open my phone so I could capture what was happening and I was taking pictures non-stop.

Had the group not left without me, I definitely would not have been able to see this amazing air show and bring home these pictures. A few minutes after, I saw one of our guides and was told to transfer to another place where all the other foreigners were staying.

The German lady

Foreigners are not allowed to take pictures of police/military personnel and their activities. If they catch you, they will get your device, and they will delete the pictures you took. Even if you do get away with taking a picture, immigration police will inspect your phones, cameras, laptops, and will delete the pictures they want once you exit the country. There’s no Internet in North Korea so you won’t be able to upload it anywhere else either.

I went to the middle of the street to take a photo of two soldiers standing on an empty road and while I was there, I saw an old lady a few meters from where I was standing. She was around 60 years of age. We smiled at each other, and we started chatting. She asked if I was Japanese to which I replied: No, I’m Filipino.

She said she was from Germany, and proceeded to tell me that two days ago, she woke up at around 5 am and went for a morning walk. She said she looked for her guide in the hotel lobby, but no one was there, so she just strolled outside for about 5 to 10 minutes then went back inside the hotel. Upon arriving, there were police in the lobby looking for her and they questioned where she went while checking her belongings that she carried with her at that time.

Pyongyang adventure

I was looking around the area when I saw a group of soldiers marching from behind me. I saw them from a block away and I ran so I could get to a decent place where I can catch a picture of them as they marched. I was really scared at that moment as I saw several people being approached by the police for the pictures they had taken. I ended up mustering my courage and telling myself, “Bla. You can do this. Just close your eyes and click away.”

Parade experience

It was beginning to get dark when the military parade started. The loud cheers of the locals filled the event whenever the military tanks and trucks passed by. Every local I saw was genuinely happy, waving his or her handmade artificial flowers in the air as a sign of support to the military. Meanwhile I was on the right side of the street together with all the other foreigners. Our location was farther from where the locals were and because of that they had a better view of the military parade than we did. 

Military parade

I was having a hard time getting decent pictures from where we stood when I thought of running to the left side. I knew that the police would most likely blow their whistles once they see me running to the other side given that it was only for the locals, but that didn’t faze me. So I bent down, took a deep breath, and ran hastily to the other side hoping that the police wouldn’t notice me. I passed by several police and they never called my attention. “My plan is working! I’m a ninja!”

Moments later, a policeman blew his whistle. I looked behind for a second and saw him waving his hand telling me to go back to the right side. I immediately turned my back against him as if I didn’t see him and tried to blend in with the locals so he wouldn’t notice me.

When I realized I was already in the middle of the local crowd, they were all looking at me. I smiled and the old ladies smiled back before they went back to their chanting of “Gomapseumnida” (which means – thank you.). This was an amazing experience as you can sincerely feel their love and support for their military.

From Pyongyang, with love

Postcard I sent to my future self during my stay in North Korea

It was my last day in North Korea and we had an early breakfast because all of us were in a hurry so we wouldn’t miss the train back to Dandong, China. I bought postcards from the hotel and mailed them to a few family and friends.

I also went ahead and wrote a message to my future self through a postcard, but a few weeks had passed and the postcard had not yet arrived. As I got home from another thrilling travel adventure, I saw a postcard on our dining table (It had just come the day after). The card made me smile and teary-eyed when I read what I wrote to myself while I was in North Korea, having quite the adventure. – Rappler.com

Bla is a travel addict. He is a Certified Public Accountant by profession, and works as an SAP Consultant. He is an adventure backpack traveler, and plans most of his trips on a shoestring budget. He is currently on a journey to explore places that your parents warned you to stay away from, one vacation leave at a time. Visit his blog over here or follow him on Facebook

 

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