One of the unexpected benefits of touring the DPRK during the 100th anniversary of the President turned out to be the constant unpredictability which led to rather interesting experiences. Many tours of the DPRK are somewhat “cookie cutter”—tourists are bussed from an approved site to the next, according to a carefully crafted schedule. Some tours are orchestrated to the point that visitors come back half convinced that every Korean they saw on the streets was an actor of some sorts. Such tight coordination partially crumbled in April 2012, due to the increased number of foreign visitors and dignitaries staying in Pyongyang.
While foreign tourists are typically treated to one of Pyongyang’s two premier hotels—the Yanggakdo and the Koryo hotels—we stayed at the older Ryanggang, a property rarely seen by foreigners since the Yanggakdo opened in 1992 (it does not even have a Wikipedia entry!)
Opinions on the facility vary widely.
Our guide promised a “six star” property which we would thoroughly enjoy.
Perhaps he did not realize that KITC (the Korean tourism agency) itself labels the Ryanggang as a second class hotel… Unless maybe he read the following press release from KCNA, the DPRK’s news outlet, issued back in 2003:
Pyongyang, December 9 (KCNA) — Ryanggang Hotel in Pyongyang, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, enjoys popularity among foreigners and overseas compatriots for its kind service. It, built in May Juche 78 (1989) on a hill nearly 50 meters above the sea level, is called Ryanggang Hotel because it is located at the point where the River Taedong and the River Pothong meet.
The hotel, with a total floor space of 33,000 odd square meters, was built in tiers with its curvaceous and linear beauties combined with each other, so it blends well with the landscape of the area.
It consists of two buildings. One is for guest rooms and another for restaurants, halls, etc.
The hotel has more than 300 rooms from the second floor.
The entrance hall of the hotel is surrounded by cultural service facilities such as a library, billiard room, soft drink counter and shop.
From the rotating restaurant on the top of the hotel the guests can command a bird’s-eye-view of many parts of Pyongyang including Mangyong Hill, Kwangbok Street, Chongchun Street, the Tower of the Juche Idea and the Arch of Triumph.
The Hotel offers conveniences to the guests in every respect.
One thing is certain: our guide has never had a chance to read TripAdvisor customer reviews (most of which were written in the April 2012 timeframe,) which offer a slightly different perspective 🙂
As usual, the truth is somewhere in between the promised “six star” rating and the scathing reviews.
After a lengthy bus ride from Pyongyang station and through the dark Mangyongdae Sports Village on the outskirts of Pyongyang, we emerge into a cavernous and surprisingly colorful lobby, with an overabundance of neon and LED lights against a backdrop of marble. The design screams excess. It was built to impress, yet it is faded—awkward and overly pompous.
To the right of the entrance is a souvenir shop which offers a collection of DPRK merchandise—biographies in multiple volumes of the Great and Dear leaders, DPRK newsmagazines and papers in various languages, DVDs of Korean movies, and a large collection of history books on the history and glory of Juche.
Ahead of us is a hallway leading to a small bar area and the elevators.
To the left is the reception desk, featuring a prominent world map highlighted by a red, unified Korean peninsula. While a reception desk is a familiar sight, it serves little purpose for tourists, since all accommodations are pre-arranged, and Korean tour guides are typically the only ones who interact with the reception staff.
Indeed, our guide promptly comes back from the desk with a notebook, and addressing the group, announces “Thank you for your understanding. Thank you for your understanding. It’s the anniversary of the Great Leader, hotels are full, so we ask if you will share rooms. Thank you for your understanding.”
The question was rhetorical. He proceeds to read a list of names, hands out a single key per pair, collects our passports, and sends us off to our rooms. After an initial moment of disbelief—I’m now cell phone less, passport less, and rooming with a stranger—I find the experience to be quite amusing after all. Besides, it’s not like a cell phone or a passport would help, anyway 🙂
A line has formed around the elevator bank, as folks struggle with bags and the finicky elevators. Typically, they don’t start. Then, the doors close without warning, blissfully ignoring anything that stands in their way. Moments like this transport me 20 years ago back to my childhood—back when the world was a bit less paranoid about safety, for better or for worse. Back in the 80s the elevator cab at my parent’s condominium building did not have an internal door. It was terribly unsafe by today’s standards, yet, I don’t recall any accidents. Traveling to the DPRK is like going down the memory lane.
The hallway on my floor is bland, dark and awkward. Smoking is allowed virtually everywhere and the walls are impregnated with a tobacco odor. We reach our room, but the key doesn’t quite work. This is hardly a surprise to the staff—two cheerful maids seem to appear out of nowhere, wiggle the lock, and the door springs open. Sporting a broad smile, they ask us where we’re from in broken English, welcome us, and point to old, dirty, plastic slippers on the floor. This is a bit of a surreal moment—a warm, genuine welcome as we enter a worn out room with a broken lock.
The room is comfortably large, with two single beds, a desk, a dresser, a TV, a small sitting area, a nightstand and a bathroom. However, we’re probably enjoying the original furniture—not a single feature functions on the vintage radio cabinet (a true museum piece); the switches and knobs are long gone on the dilapidated AC unit, and the TV, which uses one of the only two working power outlets, has trouble receiving the only available channel. As for the ceiling light, it is simply missing.
The beds are Korean style—basically a board covered with a thin quilting, a blanket and a sheet. For some, it’s hell—the experience is akin to sleeping on a piece of wood—but personally, I don’t mind. I’d venture to say that I’ve actually never slept as well as in the DPRK… the schedule is sometimes grueling, the excitement and adrenaline often at an all-time high… any bed would be comfortable 🙂
Another Korean feature is the radiant heat from the floor. The room is so stuffy that we need to keep the balcony door open at all times. There is something on the wall that looks like a thermostat, though it’s unclear if it ever worked. I feel bad about wasting energy in a country that constantly fails to produce enough.
The bathroom is clean and functional, but gloomy, lit only by a single bare compact fluorescent bulb which casts a cold glow. A plastic jug is provided should the water supply be erratic—as it is often the case in the DPRK—though I never experienced a single issue in the hotel and always enjoyed comfortably hot water.
The room features a small balcony overlooking the hotel’s empty parking lot, dark hills, and a small cluster of city lights in the background.
Overall, my room, while violently outdated, was clean with a working bathroom. I slept well in clean sheets and did not encounter any issues.
Not everyone was so lucky. There is empirical evidence that the hotel probably used to be partially out of commission and was hastily reopened for the anniversary of the Great Leader. Some rooms are missing basic pieces of furniture, while some hallways are partially blocked or show traces of having just been reopened.
As it is time for dinner, I make my way downstairs—I quickly give up on waiting for an elevator and descend the dark marble staircase. Dinner is a modest but satisfying affair—in truth, probably the lowlight of the trip, since food was typically tasty and abundant otherwise.
Before going to bed, I visit the shop in the lobby and acquire a couple of books on the history of the DPRK and the accomplishments of the President. Seeing an exchange desk next in the reception area, I decide to take my chances and ask for Korean Wons (which foreigners are not supposed to use.) The clerk looks at me puzzled and terrified and I figure I should probably walk away. (Although, I’ll have better luck later at a department store while our guides are not looking.)
Breakfast in the morning is served in a large banquet hall featuring more marble and fluorescent and colorful lights. A modern LCD screen hangs on the wall, playing VHS quality pictures of the DPRK. There are eggs, veggies, toasts, jam and coffee in a buffet setup, although the kitchen doesn’t seem to be able to replenish the buffet at a sufficient cadence. Every time a tray of omelets appear, a mob rushes for a chance at snagging one, often unsuccessfully.
So, what’s the verdict? The Ryanggang is a far cry from the “six star” facility promised by our guide. In light of international standards, a one star rating would probably be more accurate. It was originally built to impress, yet it hasn’t aged well and is in great need of a refurbishment. The few working lights outside common areas are bare CFC bulbs, which make the rooms appear more faded and gloomy than they really are.
However, I feel privileged that I had the chance to stay at a facility that is typically not available to foreigners. The room was clean, and I did not experience any issues with water and electricity. The staff was extremely friendly and happy to engage in small talk, within the limits of the language barrier.
I’ll return. Perhaps after it gets upgraded to a seven star facility 🙂
In Pictures: Ryanggang hotel, Pyongyang