[This is the 1st part in a series of blog posts about my adventures in DPRK from August 11 – August 17 2013]
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has a reputation few countries can compete with.
Perhaps it is because we understand so little that we speak so much; DPRK has one of the lowest tourism rates in the world, but possibly the highest number of armchair critics and experts. Numerous times this week I’ve been assured that my now first-hand observations and opinions are flawed because they contradict Documentary XYZ your friend’s brother’s girlfriend watched in 1982.
The low but increasing tourism rates, made possible by travel companies like Young Pioneers Tours (whom I would highly recommend for an amazing adventure, but more about that later) is the first indication of changing times in the DPRK. It is no longer a far-fetched and almost impossible feat to enter the less-visited side of Korea. In fact, you’re almost assured of a visa (Unless of course you’re South Korean or a journalist).
Americans needn’t worry either – there were plenty of US citizens around, and your visa (slipped into your passport) is taken at the airport when you leave the country so your passport remains unmarked. (Unless you’re me, who insisted on a big sticker in my passport at the SG embassy. )
The adventure began right here in Singapore; we’re one of only a few countries that has a DPRK embassy. Coincidentally, the embassy is a few minutes from where I live, and my first (known) experience with a North Korean local to pick up my visa was surprisingly friendly and warm – an indication of what was to come over the next week.
It was with great excitement and slight apprehension that I made my way to KL, where I met a group of people I’d quickly become connected to in this adventure we were about to take on. Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, France, USA, Indonesia – 20 somewhat mismatched strangers about to take on a most feared and mysterious land.
Part of the draw for this trip, for me, was the direct flight from KL to Pyongyang. Somewhere so far away suddenly seems so accessible when it’s just across the border (KL is a 1-hour flight from Singapore).
Now, I’d heard a bit about Air Koryo, but I wasn’t expecting 7 hours of Korean cartoons and fish burgers disguised as vegetarian meals. My Advice: Bring energy bars and snacks, and bring your own in-flight entertainment. Some in my group say no electronic devices were allowed, but I didn’t have any issues with an MP3 player, subject to the usual flight rules.
The highlight of the flight was definitely getting a copy of the Pyongyang Times, a local English newspaper. Reading about the “crafty tricks of Japan” kept me severely amused for some time.
The plane lands and you’re in – you’re officially in what many have called a Hermit Kingdom, and this is where your surreal experience really takes off.
Our Korean guides, part of the KITC (Korea International Travel Company) group, gave us a genuinely warm welcome, hospitality that would last through the next 7 days. In just the first few hours, what Mr. Huxley said was already proving to be true.
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley