It’s been such a long time since I’ve been on the road that, in truth, I’ve found it quite hard to bring myself to write this post. Have I lost the passion to spread my adventures? Well, I’ve not had many. We are creatures of routine. However positive one is, it still creates doubt when change arises. Nevertheless, I was more than looking forward to a small adventure to North Korea!
So here is a short account of my travel there. As most of you know, the DPRK is very isolated from the rest of the world. It’s the way the powers at be want it. Hence, one can only travel there on a guided tour. Not my style at all. With little choice, I had to comply.
I was travelling there with my good friend, Leon who I had managed to get a job for, here in China. We share similar thoughts on various aspects of the universe and have travelled together before. We set off on the Friday to head to Dandong, the border town in China. We didn’t book any bus, but expected everything to fall into place. It did, and before we knew it we were off. The journey was rather uninspiring. Dandong however on first impression looked like a rather quaint city. Compared to Dalian at least!
The following day we spent in Dandong to see what it had to offer sight wise. First on the agenda was a swim in the Yalu River. Leon jumped in first and after he had his dip, I followed. With North Korea only a few hundred metres on the other side of the river it was half tempting to see what happened If we swam over half way…
Common sense prevailed and after drying off we eventually managed to get a cab to Hushan Great Wall. Once there we ended up spending our time there with a Chinese student. She was nice, but speaking no English it made communication a little difficult! After our ‘strenuous’ walk to the Great Wall, which was impressive, albeit refurbished we were offered to go on a short excursion to North Korea illegally. We were hesitant to go, but decided to. Heading there illegally first would have been impressive. Nevertheless it turned out to be just a boat trip around two Islands which were part of Korea.
We said our goodbye to our new friend and headed back, ready and excited for our small adventure!
We arrived at the Travel agency at 8.00am as ordered and soon found out we were travelling as a party of 31! Mostly Chinese, however there was a few of us foreigners on board including a very outgoing Australian/Chinese called James and a Swiss guy who’s name I dont know how to spell! As well as a few from Hong Kong and Macau.
As expected Customs was a little painful and time consuming. However sure enough we eventually were slowly moving across the bridge that seperated China and Korea. We were all excited and with every Korean we spotted it felt as if we were looking at an alien being. The guards that were checking our bags were friendly enough though, and after an hour or so we were off.
The countryside we particulary picturesque. With very litte cars, lots of people on bikes and no advertising; it was like going back in time. After an hour we came to a stop at a station. 30 mins passed without any indication of what was going on. 1 hour passed. We then learnt that the line had lost power, so we were going no-where. We simply had to sit it out. Thankfully we ordered some dinner, which, although eaten in the dark was very nice!
It was about 1.30am before we eventually set off again. With most people asleep, the cheers were subdued. But we were at last on our way to Ponyang. We had be waiting for about 10 hours… Life back on the road!
We rolled in at 6.30am. We all stumbled off and met our guides and were led towards our bus. It was quite interesting scence as everyone was madly snapping awaying with camera’s like they had not a minute to live. It was clearly a novelty being here!
We were all checked into the Hotel. which for Leon and I looked a bit out of our league usually. By Korean standards it was no doubt top of the line. For the average foreigner I imagined they would have been quite dissapointed. After a quick rest we headed down for a massive breakfast, comlpete with all the trimmings. They really were pulling out the stops to give us the impression of Korea being a wealthy country with no food problems… Later, we realised dinner, which we missed last night because of the train dilemna had been included. Hence the extravagent spread.
After breakfast we started our long awaited tour. We were headed for the ‘Nampo Dam’ or ‘West Sea Dam’. A ‘state of the art’ construction that closes the Taedong Rivver off from the Yellow Sea, yet still allows ships to safely pass. The ride was interesting. Firstly getting to know our (Russian sounding) English speaking guide ‘ Kang’ (probaly spelt wrong!) She was young, and new to the job. Interestingly she lived in Nepal for some years. She was obviously part of the upper crust of North Korean society. Nevertheless she was friendly and informative about any questions, not matter how controversial they were, and she was certainly not as strict regarding taking photo’s as we had assumed they would be before arriving.
We arrived at the complex. It was strange being led to a Dam. It was however, one of North Koreas biggest acheivments. Thankfully after 30 mins we left, and were back on the road. Next up was lunch, at a ‘local’ restaurant… It was certainly not local, as it was tucked away a few short steps from the Hotel. It was however a good feed again. A Korea version of hot pot, with perhaps some of the best local beer I’ve ever tasted. Apparently, a brewery from Germany was dismantled and rebuilt in the capital. The result being, delicious, almost honey tasting hectar.
After lunch we headed to the famed Metro, which claimed to be the deepest in the world. It took a good 1/12 – 2 mins to get to the bottom… I can’t recall taking such a long escalator. So perhaps that piece of propaganda was true… It did seem quite staged once we were down there. A train just leaving. The station being empty, with only the tourists waiting, and then a train re-appearing and us all getting on. Snapping away madly as we travelled one stop. I’ve heard rumours that all the ‘locals’ at this particular station are all actors. Whether its true or not, I’m not so sure. Either way it was quite a surreal ‘tube’…
Some more sights followed. Quite impressive were the two famed Bronze statues of both the great and supreme leaders. I managed to sneak in a ‘torso only photo’. Blasphemous in this parts… Thankfully I had redeemed myself a few minutes earlier, paying my respects by buying a bouquet of flowers, placing them in front of the mighty ones, and then bowing.
Other sights were the ‘Friendship tower’, which proclaimed the great friendship China and Korea have. The ‘Juche tower’, a tower which celebrated the rather contradictory ideology of self reliance, which North Koreans adhere to (either by force or piety one is not so sure) Finally was the impressive Arc of Triumph, which had a stark resemblance to the similary shaped arc in France…
The evening was reserved for the focus point or our, and indeed anyone’s trip to North Korea. The Mass Games. A spectacle which involves over 100,000 patriotic Koreans singing, Dancing and doing acrobatics. We had good seats and were primed with our cameras. I set up my small point and shoot by my feet on a tripod with the hope of sneaking a video of the show. We were told video’s were forbidden. Needless to say I spent a good part of the show paranoid that I would get caught, and then sent to a concentration camp. Paranoia aside, it was an amazing performance. It made one truly believe what was going on in North Korea was amazing, and if you doubted it before you no doubt left thinking otherwise. This of course was the point of the whole spectacle. I’m sure a large chuck on the country’s budget goes on entertaining it. But it is certainly worth it. 10/10 for entertainment and patriotism.
We all left on a high. The outside filled with a carnival like atmosphere. It had been a long day however. Travelling in tour groups certainly takes it out you. I was knackered!
Breakfast had certainly gone downhill. However I wasn’t use to eating 3 meals a day so wasn’t that hungry anyway. With another busy day ahead we got moving. We were heading the the MDZ, the demilitarised zone which separated the two Koreas. It was a couple of hours in the bus before we arrived. It was interesting in the sense that it is a historic marker. However you weren’t allowed to get too close to the actual line. So I was hoping for more.
After we headed to a nearby town for a look at a museum, and possibly the worse lunch yet. In which I paid an extra 90RMB for dry ‘ginseng infused’ Chicken. Oh well not worry. I wasn’t feeling too good by this point. Whether it was something I had eaten which had given me the shits or just the lack of water. Either way I had developed a splitting headache which lasted for the remainder of the day, which even made the children’s talent performance at a ‘local’ school, a pain to watch… As soon as we returned, past 7 I hit the hay. I think my Yogic life wasn’t ready to get back on the road in such a hectic fashion. Yoga certainly makes your body more sensitive, as I had found out!
I woke still feeling rather under the weather. As was Leon who had got more than a little tipsy during the night… We were leaving today, and I think we were all ready. Tours are very restricting in regards to your freedom. An essential thing for Leon and I. There was one last bit of sightseeing though. To National square. Where all the big parades are held in from of the National Library. It was a nice building, again we weren’t allowed to get so close. A few interesting shots we go though!
So back at the station. It seemed like only a minute ago we had arrived. Yet we had seen alot, and had a sense of Korea. Albeit the Korea they wanted to show us. We said goodbye to our guides, which had been very helpful and friendly. Now followed the 4 hours or so back to Dandong. Returning from a holiday is never the same as when you are arrived. Gone was the fascination with looking at the locals in excruciating detail. However when we arrived at the border the wait, and customs search were just as, if not more painful.
As we crossed back into China there were a few cheers from some Chinese who were happy to be back ‘home’. I guess I also felt like I was home, albeit a temporary one… Thankfully we had arranged to share a car ride with a Dalian local who was on the tour, and who’s English was surprisingly good. After a quick goodbye to everyone we grabbed something to eat before making the 400km journey back. We were dropped off outside Kaifaqu. We had been sitting down all down, so the 30 min did us good. Before we realised we were walking in the wrong direction, so hailed a cab…
It had been months in planning, and it was over before it started, but it certainly was money well spent and another unique experience I’ve had. Here are only a few words, which, like always display only a fragment of the real memories and emotions that one feels when on the road…