Travel/Experiences  •  Dispatch

Dispatch: North Korea

Geoffrey Cain recently enjoyed an 11-day holiday in North Korea, traveling by train to remote cities and provinces. Cain shares his thoughts about his trip as a tourist to the fascinating and picturesque rogue nation.

November 30, 2016
Impressions of Pyongyang
On arrival in Pyongyang we were treated to the typical lineup of Korean War memorials, party monuments, and the USS Pueblo—a US reconnaissance ship seized in 1968 and now a patriotic museum moored on the banks of the Taedong River. We later finished the tour in Pyongyang, where we got a front row seat of a military parade. We didn’t get to see Kim Jong Un give his speech to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling party, but we had a remarkable upfront view of the tanks, missiles, and troops in cars driving by that evening. Also fun was that the parade was surprisingly unstructured. It was one of our few chances to get out, walk around, and mingle with the local people.

An undeveloped countryside
Obviously, North Korea is home to terrible poverty, so I’m not romanticizing rural life here. But I could see why North Korean propaganda is incredibly successful. It preaches that this nation and race is the ‘purest.’ Surely its countryside, untouched and virginal, is convincing enough for its people. Another Western visitor remarked that the ramshackle villages were straight out of a William Blake poem. Aside from pockets of modernity and mechanization, the countryside looked like it was trapped in history: bicycles were the main mode of transportation, red peppers and corn were spread on the rooftops of traditional homes, and farmers harvested their rice and wheat by hand.

Culture Shock
I didn’t have any culture shock. In fact, I was amazed at how similar North Koreans were to their southern cousins. Even down to everyday anxieties like marriage. I hear a lot of South Korean youngsters complaining about the family pressures of having a big wedding, where the guests consist mostly of old friends and business partners of the parents. The North Koreans had similar grievances. If there was any ‘shock’, it was simply having no running water and electricity at times. But I’m used to that. I've lived in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Traveling by train
The real adventure started when we left the capital by train. North Korea gets thousands of foreign visitors a year—mostly shepherded around from the big three hotels in the capital—but train travel is less typical: until recently American citizens weren’t even allowed on it. The train showed us a stunning view of the countryside. For all its terrible politics, the DPRK is home to some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in all of Asia. The mountains of Kangwon were covered with a palette of orange and red autumn foliage, with crisp and nourishing air, and the rivers and streams so clear that you could see the bottom.

The hotels
In Pyongyang the hotels are pretty international as far as standards. My hotel was full of tourists from China and Russia, and also business people from China, Switzerland, etc. Outside of Pyongyang it’s an altogether different story. Small hotels in the countryside don’t have running water—you use a big spoon to pour water over yourself to bathe, like in parts of South East Asia, such as Laos or Cambodia. You need to bring your own toilet paper and soap.

How scripted did the tour feel?
I don’t agree with the notion that if you go to North Korea, you’re only going to get propaganda. Some parts of the tour were heavily scripted. But the beauty of taking the train was that many parts were not. Yes, you will have to listen to the party line, but if you pay attention, look around at what people are wearing and selling, drink with your guides, and understand Korean etiquette, you can glean quite a bit.
Between scripted portions, we got plenty of downtime on the train, when we could freely look at the countryside and wave at locals. But the train ride was where we got closer to the “real” North Korea, even if there were still barriers. We saw what appeared to be squatters living in old rusted train cars. We saw villagers riding bicycles and going about their daily lives. We saw the occasional market with random items laid out on the ground, being sold to passersby.

“Chongjin was where the tour got very interesting. Throughout the entire trip, we were instructed not to take photos of things that would shine a bad light on North Korea—poverty, run-down train cars with squatters, construction sites. But in Chongjin we basically couldn’t take photos of anything outside of the approved tourist sites. We couldn’t even take photos outside our hotel window—we were informed that security informants were watching from outside and would not hesitate to report us.

The food

People say that Pyongyang is famous for its nangmyeon, or chilled buckwheat noodles. But I didn’t see much in terms of good cuisine. The food in South Korea is far better, loaded with spices and flavors and catered to a fiery, tangy palate. We were mostly served ‘tourist’ food, but I requested Korean meats and pickled side dishes in the train’s kitchen car and did not find it appetizing compared to the usual fare of Seoul.

“I often see this effect in former ‘communist’ or isolated countries. The sad fact is that war, isolation, and poverty chase out the resources, money, and people needed to make good food. A South Korean historian tells me that Pyongyang was once famous for two things: food and kisaeng (geishas). The Korean War and the revolution destroyed that, sending the very best restaurateurs south.

Interacting with locals
The guides were friendly and approachable, but it was also clear from the start that they had years of training in Western etiquette and culture, and had dealt with thousands of tourists. They knew what we think about North Korea and how to manage us: they ran a tight ship and would get in trouble if we stepped out of line. They erred on the side of caution, and avoided revealing too much.

On the train, our guides were more festive and open. They drank soju and beer with us, and bought side dishes like crab and squid. After the drinking started, they would occasionally open up for short periods before getting back to work. One guide told me about how his family struggled through the famine, but why he truly believes North Korea today is a paradise.

We didn’t have many opportunities to openly interact with regular people beyond the occasional ‘hello.’ One time, I was sitting in the kitchen car having a coffee and speaking Korean with the waitresses and crew. Somebody must have told the guide, because he soon came out and politely escorted me back to the passenger car. A few days later, this happened again. Interaction with locals was fine to a certain limit, but it was clear that they did not want us going too far.

Number one take away from the trip
“Go before it’s gone. Nobody knows how long North Korea, in its current state, will last.”