Off the train: first impressions of Pyongyang, and a long ride to the hotel

Perhaps the first hour in Pyongyang best summarizes the entire trip: a constant rush interrupted by lengthy lulls; a genuine concern about appearances tampered by gushing reality that shatters it all; carefully crafted plans that break apart; and this awkward feeling of not being free anymore.

Arrival in PyongyangOur small group quickly gathers amongst the crowds on the station platform, where our guides have been awaiting us. There is light, energy and motion all around—despite tales of a dead, sleepy city, the place seems very much alive, in the noise and chaos of people, bags and boxes that keep spewing off the train.

Our main guide is accompanied by our tour manager—a higher ranking fellow at KITC (Korea International Travel Company, the government’s arm that manages tourism) who makes it clear that he’s graduated from the lower ranks into management—as well as a junior guide. That’s three guides plus a driver to accompany all twenty on us on a planned ten minute ride to the hotel. We’re certainly well taken care of; it’s unlikely we’ll get lost.

We need to go—the bus is waiting. Our main guide, Mr. Oh, is of the friendly but brisk type. When he decides to go, after an nth cigarette, there is no time to waste. We exit the station through the foreigners’ door on the right side of the platform, while Koreans line up at the left door. It’s a small, yet major detail, which can easily go unnoticed in the excitement of setting foot in Pyongyang. Koreans are not able to travel freely even within the country, and access to the showcase capital is carefully monitored. At the left door, agents verify travel and residency permits, though I don’t get a chance to see much of what the process looks like. At the right door, an agent waves foreigners through while scanning the crowds.

From outside, the station is an impressive building overlooking a plaza—a far cry from the rundown facilities we saw in the countryside. Yet it is simple and narrow inside—we walk through a small waiting room for departing foreign international passengers, where signs in English extol the virtues and achievements of President Kim Il Sung. Then, we take a short hallway, and we’re officially outside, in Pyongyang.

Giant screen outside Pyongyang's main train stationFirst impressions are always difficult to capture and relay—my mind is racing. The vast plaza is alive, surrounded by illuminated buildings. To our right facing away from the station, stands a giant screen displaying landscapes and various slogans—quite an unexpected sight in the DPRK. Incidentally, this screen has been the topic of a recent news article at It is a surprising development which coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Great Leader. It is dark outside and the glow from the screen dances over the plaza. Beyond the plaza seems to lie darkness. The cold and dim fluorescent light that emanates from the windows of each apartment building contrasts with the bright colors around the station.

In front of the station is a parking lot where our bus is waiting. There are few cars, mostly buses and vans. Perhaps those contrasts—the bright lights and darkness, the parking lot with no cars—are the most difficult to comprehend. At a first glance, everything seems to be pretty normal—we might have just arrived at any city in the world. Yet, there are obvious cracks beneath the surface.

We board our bus and wait a long time. That’s probably why we had to leave the station in a rush, I assume 🙂 Our bus is a modern vehicle with AC and comfortable seats. Outside, our guides are chatting and appear to be agitated. Our western guide has a pretty good idea of what’s going on—there is a hotel “situation.” Indeed, while Pyongyang hotels typically operate way under capacity—many travelers have reported that entire floors are often out of service—this week is a major milestone in the DPRK’s history and there is a large influx of visitors in the capital, both from outside the country (tourists and dignitaries) but also inside (representatives from various regions and administrative divisions.) While hotel arrangements are typically planned well in advance, this time around, our western guide doesn’t know where we’ll end up. He just suspects we won’t be at the Yanggakdo, the city’s premier international hotel.

Finally, we start moving. Our tour manager, Mr. Kim, welcomes us to the DPRK, and provides a short overview of the country and its history. It has been split into two countries, operating under two different systems, but Koreans are a single nation hoping for reunification. The country’s formal name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which he asks us to use in lieu of the commonly accepted name in the west, “North Korea,” that reflects the geographical position of the country rather than its values. During our stay in the DPRK, we’ll want to stay with the group at all times. We’ll be able to buy souvenirs, but only using Euros, Chinese Yuans, or alternatively US Dollars—we’re not to get our hands on Korean Wons. “We try to separate between Koreans and foreigners, that’s how our financial system works.” Finally, we should listen to our guides when it comes to pictures, and pictures of the army or military installations are absolutely prohibited.

As he’s talking, we’re moving away from the station. Soon the streets get darker, although they’re very busy, with large crowds walking or lining up waiting for buses and trams. There are kiosks on the sidewalks selling foodstuffs and other items, which shed a crude light onto the streets. From the darkness, the apartment blocks seem like shadows dotted by low-wattage bulbs, which fly by in a never-ending stream.

There is definitely life in Pyongyang—people going about their business, couples chatting, friends laughing, even traffic at some intersections. Looking from the windows of our bus, I get this strange feeling that these people are currently enjoying more freedom than we are. We’re the ones in a cage… yet, in a week, we’ll be crossing the border again, a dream most of them won’t ever realize.

Here’s a video showing our departure our ride on the city streets at night. The ride is bumpy at times—even downtown, some streets need work. As we get further away from the train station, the streets get darker.

The junior guide who sits in front of me turns around and notices that I am making pictures. He asks me to put my camera away, “no photo!” he says, with a charming but firm smile. This is frustrating—we’re just driving on a random street and it’s dark anyway, what’s the problem? I hide my camera under my jacket and continue to film. Our western guide whispers me not to worry, as once the tour officially starts we’ll be led by guides who know better. This minor tidbit is pretty characteristic of how many things seem to function in the DPRK. It’s unclear what the real rules are. I have no evidence that, at least in Pyongyang, pictures are officially prohibited in any way. Yet, some individuals take it upon themselves to make up or enforce rules that don’t exist. Sometimes, probably by fear—they don’t want to be the ones letting a tourist take an unfortunate picture that may paint the country in a negative light. Sometimes, probably out of principle… during my two trips several “outsiders” tried to prevent me from making pictures while my guides were okay with it. That’s why experiences in the DPRK can be so random, and going with an organization that has established ties with the staff can have tremendous benefits. Indeed, I will not see the junior guide anymore after this first evening, and others will be more Pyongyang's Ice Rink by nightunderstanding. In the meantime, my new personal law enforcement officer suddenly turns around as we drive by the Ice Rink, an elegant and beautiful ice skating and hockey venue that is pleasantly glowing in the darkness—“You can make pictures of this!” he says, with a proud smile.

We cross a bridge and the bus stops. We’ve arrived at the Yanggakdo, Pyongyang’s main foreigners’ hotel conveniently located on an island. Mr. Kim looks at the driver, looking confused: this is not our destination! We were supposed to stay there, but there’s no room for us! He apologizes, and we turn around, while he explains—it’s a great time to be in the DPRK; everybody wants to be in Pyongyang right now. So, hotels are busy, and we’ll be staying at another place—a six star hotel! We’ll love it.

I am both disappointed and intrigued—disappointed that I won’t get to see the Yanggakdo, a legend, with its secret fifth floor and its awkward leisure center in the bowels of the building… and yet, excited for the fact that we’ll stay at a place where foreigners are typically unlikely to go.

We continue our way on roads that become bumpier. I can peek into some of the apartments—they look small but tidy, each room apparently lit by a single bare energy-efficient bulb. Many people have flowers at their windows. I can’t see much from the bus, but I do notice the portraits of the leaders, hanging just below the ceiling, in each unit.

Suddenly, the bus pulls over and stops. For a moment, we don’t get details while the guides discuss the situation. It turns out that the road is temporarily closed, as the military is about to go through. We wait for a while, until a never-ending stream of trucks and other vehicles packed with cheerful soldiers, starts unfolding. The whole contingent that is scheduled to participate in the parade on 4/15 is on the move—and we don’t know how long it will be before the road reopens.

Nature calls, and our guide ushers us off the bus two by two, pointing at the bushes nearby. It is my first moment of freedom in the DPRK—walking a couple yards freely and relieving myself along a major arterial road. It’s an awkward feeling—perhaps the most simple things are priceless when you lose your freedom.

Back on the bus, we wave at the troops who wave and smile back. They seem to be a happy bunch. While pictures aren’t allowed, this level of interaction is definitely welcome and not frown upon.

I believe we waited over half an hour. With the little detour by the Yanggakdo, it’s been well over an hour since we got off the train for a 10 minute ride to the hotel.

We climb a hill, buildings are getting sparser, and at times the bus is in total darkness. Finally we reach the top, get off, and enter into an awkward marble lobby lit by colorful LED lights. The six star facility turns out to be the Ryanggang—a second class hotel even by Korean admittance, which apparently had been partially decommissioned and then put back into service just in time for the centenary celebrations. We’ll love it! 🙂

Ryanggang hotel lobby, Pyongyang

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