North Korea – Holiday in a Secret State
First of all, and the question that many people ask me when I tell them about a trip I made back in ’05: Why the hell did you go to North Korea?! The answer is simple: I like to do things a little differently. Most people think a great holiday is sitting on a beach in Thailand for a week, burning themselves and getting hammered every night, waking up around midday etc. I would much prefer to see places and do things so that when I come back from my holiday I’ve got a feeling of accomplishment. 韓國代購 I wasn’t really looking at holiday destinations when I was browsing the BBC news website and a story about DPRK’s nuclear ambitions when I saw a link entitled, Holidays in North Korea.
In that article I read about a company called Koryo Tours and from then my interest rose hugely. This company, run out of a Beijing office by 2 British guys, arranged visas and did regular tours to DPRK throughout the year, during which you had the chance of visiting and seeing things most of the world will never see. This was right up my street, and I exchanged a bunch of emails with one of the guys, getting more information on the trips and what was possible (unfortunately no diving was allowed, by I did ask and they did enquire!). In the end, I settled for a 6-day May Day Stadium tour of the country, flying into Pyongyang and coming back by train to Beijing. Not only would this tour include seeing some spectacular and rare sights, but there was also the prospect of going to see the World Cup Qualifying match between DPRK and Japan, to be played at the country’s May Day Stadium. This is the biggest stadium in the world, seating over 150,000 people. To put it into perspective a little, it is over twice the size of the Olympic Stadium in Seoul, South Korea.
I did a little research about the country, and although information is fairly limited, I managed to pick up an excellent travel guide and DVD documentary about the country. First of all, the Bradt Travel Guide to North Korea was an excellent resource, both before my trip and during my travels in DPRK. It includes a lot practical travel information and covers almost every area of DPRK that you might want to visit. If you ever manage to go there, this book would be highly recommended. Through Koryo Tours, I also managed to get my hands on a copy of a BBC documentary called A State Of Mind. This is a fascinating documentary, and is one of the best DVDs I have ever bought. It revolves around 2 girls who are preparing for the Mass Games in DPRK. More about these later, but in summary the Mass Games is a huge choreographed gymnastics spectacle involving thousands of gymnasts. In simple terms, it makes the Olympic opening ceremony look like a primary school festival. I will talk a little about this later, but will leave you with a photo of the event itself (unfortunately not mine, I didn’t have chance to see it on my visit as it is usually held in April/May and August/September).
As for currency, we were asked to bring anything, although Euros would be preferred. US$ were accepted, but if you paid for things in Euros you would get a much better price for things. In DPRK they have their own currency, although foreigners are strictly not supposed to have it for some reason. The money situation is a little strange at the best of times, and sometimes downright bizarre. Firstly, very few places will have change, so you should take small denomination notes of your money. Indeed, a number of places will have no money at all! For example, one night we were sat at the bar in our hotel having a beer or two after a hard day of sightseeing. I was about to pay the tab and head off to bed as I was feeling a little weary so I went to the bar with my bill (around 7 Euros) and I gave her a 10 Euro note. I sat around for 5 minutes or so waiting for my change, and then the waitress came back to me, said “No change” and handed me another beer! What an ingenious way of doing things: we won’t give you change, but we’ll just give you more of what you’ve been drinking. I’d have been paralytic if I’d have only had a 50 Euro note to hand! We were also asked to bring small gifts for the guides we would meet, as they would be more appreciated than money. So, as advised, I bought some hand cream for any female guides I would meet (Nivea is favoured by them, if my memory serves me correctly), and some cigarettes and chocolate for the men (the more nicotine, the better).