Very interesting travel anecdotes from an American who visited North Korea

This fellow is a photographer by the way so you can check out some photos on his website. Anyway here are some interesting anecdotes:

There are British travel agencies that arrange for tours, including the major one that was affected by the CNN thing and Nat Geo documentaries. Here is part 1 of the national Geographic documentary that got people in trouble. They don’t really start showing North Korea until several minutes in:

In and out from Beijing nonstop on Koryo Air, the lowest rated airline in the world. But, if you get to Beijing, you can find your way to PY for a fraction of the cost of a group tour. I met a pair of guys from Australia who paid about $450 for a week, all expenses paid tour of NK via a Beijing travel agency.

You can go via the South, but Beijing is the best way. Three times a week nonstop. Flew in with the North Korean Olympic team – sat next to Hong Un Jong on the flight, who won a Gold medal for women’s vault. She let me try on the medal. The athletes were met by the media on the tarmac and children presented them with flowers and what not while the supporting officials were off-loading shwag they brought back from Beijing. TVs, laptops, laptops, dvd players, laptops, pirated movies, laptops, etc. Must have been 50 boxes of Lenovo laptops.

I had a minder with me while I was there who happened to be the son of a diplomat, about 25 years old, and was very easy to get along with. He liked James Bond movies that he would get from one of the two free trade zones where black market items comes into the country. He drives a BMW X5 and goes to China frequently. The minders/tour guides are usually middle class and terrified of a number of things, chiefly what their charge may do. A foreigner will seldom get in trouble – it is their minder who will get in trouble. But, having the son of a major diplomat as my personal minder led to a more liberal trip.

The people, for the most part, do not like us. The nicest people I met, actually, were the late-teenage members of the army. They were fascinated with me. Kids are the worst – they are just programmed to hate Americans. The elderly still have family outside of the country, for the most part, and were trying to get me to get messages out for them, which I did.

The North Koreans put on a show EVERY DAY that makes the opening of the Beijing Olympics look like an after school recital. Seriously impressive. I tried to sneak some video off one of my point and shoots, but it wasn’t meant to be. That’s a major no-no. Still shots are less of a problem. Video is just shy of impossible.

Instead of traffic lights, the most beautiful girls in the country are selected to be ‘traffic girls.’ They wear these white blouse style uniform tops with blue skirts and are like the guys on the tarmac at JFK, but more rigid.

Tourists are lavished with 6 course meals. But those meals are really just plain weird. They will start you off with one or two Korean courses, and then out of nowhere you will get Mac and Cheese or Spaghetti with Meatballs. Another Korean course or two and then another ‘Western Choice.’ It doesn’t matter if you eat it or not, you’re going to be served the entire meal. I wasn’t allowed to sit with my minder during meals, so I tacked on to a tour group – EVERY tourist ends up at the same place at the same time. The gov’t basically clears a place out of locals as much as they can (except the subways), and that’s where you’re taken.

North Koreans don’t understand exchange rates. Most things are based on the euro. You can use Euro, USD, or Yuan while over there. However, the Yuan (China) is converted against the dollar, and they trade the dollar at a 1:1 rate with the Euro. You can’t use CCs over there, so you have to come in with a stack of cash. I brought in Chinese RMB and at the hotel I converted everything I had to Euros via the dollar and made a killing. Arbitrage at its finest.

There are only a few hotels where a foreigner may stay while in Pyongyang (three, I think), and the most lux one (which would be about 2.5 stars in the US, is on its own island in the river where the only access is by a large bridge. During the night, the bridge is lifted so you can’t sneak away. The hotel does try to keep you occupied though. There is a 9-hole par-3 course with driving range, three restaurants (including a revolving restaurant – if you want it to spin, they have to turn it on for you. This is a theme throughout NK – revolving restaurants, they love ’em – or more specifically, the Chinese seem to). There’s a bowling alley iirc, and a Casino/brothel in the basement run by an outside Chinese country.

I was always running into the same groups of people, no matter where I went. There’s no freedom of movement. Your minder and driver take you where they want you to go. Places are cleared out in advance, little actors or whatever come and go, etc. It’s all coordinated in an effort to put some good word of mouth out there. When you’re going to visit their version of Arlington Cemetery you’re ‘encouraged’ to bring flowers to the graves and there just happens to be a van in the parking lot of the hotel that just happens to have flowers for sale.

I went to a place called Mt. Myohyang. You pass some villages (where I was allowed to stop – very unusual) and poverty is obviously rampant. But, I’ve seen worse in more accessible countries across Asia and Africa. Then again, for the most part what I was allowed access to was sanitized before hand. So, starving people are really not on the itinerary. There is NO begging in PY, which would really be the only place you could see it up close and personal under normal circumstances. I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying undernourishment is rampant. For the most part, the people I saw and met were fairly healthy looking individuals.

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  1. Nerdizen says:

    David’s experience is very much like my own on my first visit to Mindanao in the Philippines. I have a habit of going off the beaten path. No matter where I went in Mindanao, Zamboanga del Sur, Lanao del Norte, Iligan City, Cagayan del Oro or wherever in the South, there was always this deep suspiciousness among the locals. Soliders everywhere with rapid-fire weapons and estranged militia representing this or that guerilla group in the shadows.

    I’m grateful for my complexion and dressing native, because kidnapping was rampant at the time and seeing the interior of the Philippines firsthand left me humble and appreciative that what little I had, it was more than enough to compensate my trusted advisors and interpreters. I still go back and forth to the Philippines as much as I can because when I am there, I feel so alive!

  2. […] I think the more interesting talk about North Korea can be found in this old post. […]

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