It’s been a fun couple of days in Beijing, and I’m almost about to pack my bags for a big leap into the Unknown when unexpectedly, the DPRK makes the news. The seemingly vaguely-heard-of-kinda-faraway country where I’m headed suddenly enters the world stage.
The DPRK makes the news – bad time for a trip?
The DPRK is preparing for a grandiose celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Great Leader, and to mark the occasion, will be launching a satellite. For peaceful purposes, of course—it is a meteorological satellite intended to help improve agriculture. Continue reading
There is a very pragmatic reason behind my stopover in Beijing—it is virtually the only way to get to the DPRK. Yet, the prospect of spending a couple of days in the Chinese capital on my way to the last socialist country is an exciting one. Beijing used to be quite similar to Pyongyang, and it is fascinating to observe how it has shaped up over the years, and to dream of how the DPRK may go through a similar metamorphosis sometime down the road.
Beijing in 2000
While I never visited communist China, I discovered Beijing in 2000. The city is of personal significance to me since it was my first destination in Asia and opened my eyes to the world. I remember settling in my middle seat onboard an Air China Boeing 747 which featured amenities as exquisite as sound tube headsets—even back then this was a bit of a disgrace, especially on a long haul. I was praying that the flight instruments were somewhat more up to date. I returned to Beijing in 2001, and then visited other parts of China in the subsequent years, but it had been 11 years since my last visit to the capital. Continue reading
A North Korean child in the countryside, somewhere close to Sinuiju by the Chinese border.
I am scheduled to arrive in Pyongyang on April 12th, 2012, a couple of days before April 15th. The date is not random—the Korean tourism agency strongly suggests that travel to the DPRK coincides with major a historical or political event. Fortunately, with a rich modern history, the DPRK’s calendar is full of dates of significance. These include for example the Korean New Year in January, Kim Jong Il’s birthday in February, the military foundation in April, May workers’ day, victory day in July, Liberation Day in August, and the mass games in August/September.
4/15 banner in Pyongyang
As the birthday of founder and President Kim Il Sung, April 15th is probably the most significant dates of all. Koreans get two days off to celebrate and express their appreciation for the Great Leader. Facilities are often fixed or upgraded, new buildings unveiled. All towns are decorated with slogans, flowers and large banners. People wear their nicest clothes for the occasion and carry Kimilsungias and Kimjongilias, special breeds of orchids, respectively pink and red, cultivated and named in honor of the leaders. A massive flower show in Pyongyang displays stunning Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia arrangements on two stories. The nation lines up to bow in front of the leaders’ statues and pay their respects.
This year’s anniversary is of even greater significance—it is the President’s 100th birthday and the scale of the celebration is believed to be unprecedented. Nobody is sure what to expect, given the unique ambivalence of the situation. Continue reading
Having covered some basic practical “pre-trip” questions in part 1, I will now focus on the experience (and restrictions) within the DPRK itself—ie. what you can expert in terms of freedom (or lack thereof,) food, accommodations, access to communication channels, etc.
The lobby of the Ryanggang hotel in Pyongyang. Who says the DPRK isn’t colorful?
I will touch on many of these questions in greater details in subsequent posts, but the following Q&A will set the stage if you’re curious about what travel to the DPRK involves—for example, often people I talk to are surprised to hear that one isn’t allowed to walk around freely on the streets… indeed that’s correct, and it’s probably something to know ahead of time 🙂
So, how about a little trip to the DPRK? There’s a special deal on Expedia.com! Well, not exactly. Traveling to the “North” isn’t quite like booking a vacation to Hawaii. Yet, in many regards, planning is surprisingly easy since you don’t have to (read: can’t) do much yourself and have to go through an agency.
TripIt.com humor… Thanks, TripIt, but it doesn’t quite work like that!
In this series of two posts, I’ll paint a broad picture in a Q&A form on how to go north of the DMZ and what it involves. I’ll drill further into some of these topics in future posts—this Q&A is intended as a quick and unofficial reference, should you be planning a trip yourself or simply wondering how the magic happens.
In part 1, I’ll focus mostly on how to get to the DPRK, while in part 2, I’ll answer questions around what to expect once there.
Peeking at the North from the South side of the DMZ
When I tell about my experience in the DPRK, the first question I typically hear is, “wait, did you say you went to North Korea?” quickly followed by “but why?” as disbelief turns into confusion. That’s a fair question. Should my writing a blog not make it obvious that I’m pretty passionate about the DPRK, I thought I’d provide a couple answers.