My days in Pyongyang (North Korea for Beginners)

This was the first time after many years I have been highly excited to explore a new travel destiny. I have chosen North Korea, of which it is said to be hidden behind concrete walls. Only mentioning this name made people give me an odd look followed by the question: "Why not South Korea?" International news on North Korea do not really support any tourism development (neither do the news for Myanmar)...

Having been in Myanmar for over 20 years, it was time for me to discover another 'off the beaten track journey', another country with restricted access and different policies how to behave.

My first surprise was in the plane of the national carrier Air Koryo. It was full! Yes! With about 80% of foreign travelers; mainly from Europe or Asia, but also US citizens, who are only allowed to visit this part of the world during the famous mass games which are yearly held in August and September/October.

Swiss Miss at the DMZ

I later heard there was an international film festival in Pyongyang. Another reason for full hotels and flights...
As for me (and probably for most of the other travelers), it was the first time to enter North Korea. After the 90 minutes flight I went through a fast immigration procedure and had to wait a while for my luggage. Customs was fast again and before I could look around for my guides, they stood with a big smile in front of me: "Are you Miss Myriam?"

I must admit during the whole trip I never had to wait for anything, all was performed like directed by a Swiss clock. But no time to rest neither!

The travel itinerary I had, was created by myself. Only very few detailed travel information can be found in the web. So I tailor made my own travel program and hoped it was interesting enough to later offer to my clients! Meanwhile I have much more ideas how to even improve my initial itinerary! From 3,4 days to 12 days - we promise you, there will not a second of boredom!

My second big surprise was the condition of the cars! I was told that there is also a joint venture between FIAT and NK government and they are using the 4 wheel drive cars. Due to the increase of tourism there is a bit of lack of cars now and I 'only' got a nice saloon car, but perfect for my purposes.

Swiss Miss in Pyongyang
However, I was not informed that I had two guides for myself waiting for me in Pyongyang – meaning: Twice tipping! (I also was not informed that THE currency travelers should use is the Euro and NO WAY the US$. Although I asked I got the reply from the agent dealing with this, that it is no problem to use US$ - maybe he thought we do not mind having to change US$ into a very  inconvenient Euro exchange rate...) Anyhow, after a short introduction I learned that Ms. Khun Song was still a student and an assistant to the very professional Ms. Hyon Sun Kim, the tour guide. Both young ladies were very well educated, talked fluently English, and had a wonderful smile. They were very pleased when they found out that they did not have to teach me too much of their do's and many don'ts, which in fact reminded me on my first visit to then Burma in the early 80'ies.

The next morning was dedicated to the Late Leader's Kim Il-Sung's mausoleum. Hundreds of workers in dark blue or black cotton suits and women in bright pink yellow, green, blue coloured traditional dresses were queuing with us together; but they let us foreigners first in. There was a Singaporean group, some French, Swiss and German travelers as well as a group of Americans who were in front of me. It is quite a journey getting into the mausoleum. A moving walkway took me down a long corridor - and believe it or not, I was floating towards the late leader. I had to turn right and go through an underground tunnel and then left again, finally entering the mausoleum building. I walked through several huge halls with a background sound of patriotic music. I got a little sound device which I had to hold to my ear. I am not sure if this voice belonged to a North Korean citizen, I would rather guess it was a VERY American sound, dramaturgically telling me tales of the people when Kim Il-Sung 'fell asleep', as in North Korea he is not considered dead. Last not least I had to pass a kind of wind tunnel, oh my, my hair was totally out of order when I entered the room where the preserved Kim Il-Sung lies in a glass coffin. I knew I had to bow 4 times. I had my both guides flanked left and right of me and only had to copy the 2 American couples in front of me (also flanked by their guides) who seemed to be in a rush to end this exercise as soon as possible. I admit, for us Western a once in a life time experience, but every country its own rules...
King Tangun's Mausoleum
King Tangun's mausoleum was next on my program. I have chosen it to just experience the contrast of the two mausoleums. It was not less impressive, to say so! King Tangun was the founder of the first ancient state of Korea and he is resting on top of Mt. Hanui at the foot of Mt. Taebak; rebuilt in 1994 (October Juche 83) his mausoleum is a bit similar to the Egypt's pyramid. White stone statues of his four sons are standing on both sides of the steps leading up to the mausoleum of the central section. The contrast of the white giant granite pyramid to the blue sky was indeed breathtaking and the fact that I was the only traveler there, made this place very unique for me.

Before I was heading with the girls to Kaesong we had a short visit to Kim Il-Sung's birthplace, located in a park. It had a reconstructed straw-roofed village house where Kim Il-Sung was supposedly born and spent his early years. Koreans come here every day to express theie loyalty to Kim Il-Sung and his family. After that they enjoy some time in the large park with its swan lakes, a small zoo, a monorail and a kind of Luna Park (under renovation at the moment).

Car-free Sunday
At about 3 p.m. I continued my journey to Kaesong which is connected to Pyongyang by highway and about two and a half hours away. Driving on a 4 lane highway with cars passing every once a while was another awesome experience for me and I honestly enjoyed this smooth ride through Korea's countryside.

I could go on and on and on, but I think you should experience your own travel impressions! Come and unveil yourself the mysteries of a country, known as the most secretive on this planet earth, but which is slowly dismantling its concrete walls for the curious traveler.

P.S. Oh, before I forget... I met Alessandro from Milano in front of the elevator at Yanggdon Hotel. During breakfast he listened to my stories of the Strand Hotel in Yangon and I found out that he published the most amazing photo book on North Korea. If you want to see more than a glimpse of the beauty this country has to offer: Go and buy  " Korea. An impossible journey?". You will love it!  As he is updating his website at the moment, you  may order the book at  www.ibs.it  (Just digit "corea" and "belgiojoso".) http://www.ibs.it/libri/Belgiojoso+Alessandro/libri.html


Arirang Video 1                                    Arirang Video 2
Travel stories - TravelwithustoAsia (Myanmar Travel Ltd.)

A glimpse into the world's most secretive country (North Korea) October 2008
Competition can sometimes be fierce, but also must be fair and legal (Myanmar) August 2007
My favourite place in the Golden Triangle (Myanmar) June 2007
Finding the Touch of the OC in a tiny Burmese Village (OC Metro; Myanmar) March 2005
EU's Hollow Lectures on Human Rights (IHT; Myanmar) June 2004
"Pass the Nyapi, Please!" (Myanmar) February 2004
Travel Report from International Travel News (ITN; Myanmar) June 2003
Adventures with the Tuesday Club (Myanmar) March 2003
About Myanmar Rumours and Unspoilt Beaches (Myanmar) October 2002
Service in the Tourism Industry here and there - Still a long Way to go... (Hong Kong, USA) Summer 2002
Near the Land of the Golden Triangle (Myanmar) May 2000
A Heavenly Journey to Mt. Victoria (Myanmar) April 1999
Shin Pyu Ceremony (Myanmar) April 1999