I’ve been wanting to do a day (or weekend) trip to North Korea, ever since they first started letting foreigners in a few years ago. It never worked out with my schedule before, so as a birthday present to myself I decided to shell out the cash and go for it. (For a one day trip the prices range from $190 to $300+, so it’s pretty expensive!) I really wanted to go with Adventure Korea, which is a tour company that specializes in taking English teachers on weekend trip, and who I’ve done some other fun trip with before. But they wer booked up until June or July, so I signed up with Go n See Korea.
We had to meet at 5:30am near City Hall, which is on the opposite side of the city from my apartment, so I was awake by about 4:15 just to make sure I made it there in time. My group was 2 other English teachers from the States, and about 50 Koreans who were an average age of 70 or 80, plus a few random Japanese people thrown in. We were quite a strange group!
Anyways we drove to Dorasan immigration station. (For those of you that did the DMZ tour, it’s the same building as the railway station near the DMZ that we visited.) At immigration we got our North Korean “passport” which we had to wear around our necks all day. These were big pieces of paper (purple for foreigners and yellow for South Korean) with our pictures on them, all of our stats like birthdates, place of birth, country of origin, profession, etc. (The North Koreans agreed to start these tours as a way of generating money, so they also have lots of things they can fine people for. For example, if you get your “passport” wet you have to pay. Fines are from a few $ to 100’s of $, so I was on my best behavior all day. I also heard, that they particularly try to fine Americans, so we had to be extra careful!) We also locked up all of our banned items, from cellphones, books, to even extra batteries on the Southern side.
After loading up into the buses again, we were ready to go to the North. The drive through the DMZ was very surreal. It was bizarre to see all of the North Korean soliders standing in attention and watching our every move. It seemed like there was a solider stationed pretty much ever mile along the road through out the whole day! Immigration on the Northern side actually went very smoothly. After going through the metal detectors and having our bags x-rayed, we had to have our cameras approved. (Anything with more than a 10 times zoom wasn’t allowed.) (Unfortunatly they only stamped our little paper “passport”, a stamp from North Korea in my real passport would have been really cool!)
As we offically entered North Korea, we first drove through the Industrial Complex area that the South Korea companies like Hyundai and Daewoo plus the South Korean government has funded and built in the North. It’s brand new and looks very high tech, but it was eery because there were hardly any people around. Supposedly 10,000 work in this area, but we only saw about 10 people, plus no cars, bicycles, or buses.
Then we drove through Kaesong City on our way out to Barkyeon waterfall. The city was really interesting. It supposedly has a population of 300,000, but it sort of felt like a ghost town as we drove through in the morning. There were soliders stationed on many of the streets and a few people riding their bikes on the sidewalk or in the dirt, but there was absolutely no one on the roads at all. In fact, I never saw another car the whole day. (There were some buses parked in a lot, but I also never saw these driving around either.) The city was very different from any place that I had ever been. In the countryside all of the houses were totally identical, and looked like they came straight out of a history book from 100 years ago. In the city, there were some taller apartment buildings, but these also looked very strange like they were all built by hand or something. The windows weren’t in straight lines and it looked like they would be pretty unsafe to live in. Also none of the shops or restaurants had any signs in front of them. The only signs that you could see in the city were propoganda posters and pictures of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Song. (We saw one big sign hanging from some apartment buildings, that was later translated for us saying “Let’s destroy our #1 enemy: America”. Pretty welcoming, huh?!) It was bizarre thought that the only currency accepted all day was US dollars!
Barkyeon Waterfall was pretty, but unforunatly as soon as we arrived there it started raining, so our hike in the mountains wasn’t quite as enjoyable as it could have been. Even out in the woods there was propganada about “The Great Leader” painted in red on the rocks and mountain sides.
After the waterfall, we went to lunch in the city. My group at lunch at a cute little place, but it was strictly for South Koreans and foreigners, no North Koreans ever enter the place. The lunch was great! We had about 15 little gold bowls laid out in front of each person. Inside the bowls were tons of different veggies, tofus, eggs, rice, and soup. (Stacy would have loved it!) After lunch we were allowed to walk around the restaurant grounds, but they had locked us into this area with tall fences all around us and 15 foot high wooden gates, so we couldn’t see out into the city and so the North Koreans wouldn’t be able to see us.
After lunch we went to some more sightseeing places like the Sunjukgyo Stone Bridge, Youngtongsa Palace/Museum, and a Confuision School. It was pretty interesting and beautiful, but of course we saw exactly what the North Korean government wanted us to see. We were allowed anywhere near the actual citizens and our “tour guides” closely monitored every picture that we took.
When we went back through immigration the North Korean border officials went through every picture that was taken by every person, making sure there were no pictures taken from bus windows, pictures of Kaesong city, of any people, or any writing. I think that we were all pretty happy to be going back to the South. I’m really glad that I did the tour though, it was a very interesting day. It really makes me wonder about the rest of North Korea and all of the things that they had kept hidden away from us on our tour!