What to know about visiting North Korea

After traveling to North Korea and receiving the various reactions from people before and after I returned, I thought about writing a blog that would answer the most common questions and curiosities. For anyone that wants to go to North Korea, drop me a line since I can now hook you up with a tour and a tourist visa🙂

  1. The food and drinks were plentiful and delicious! I met a South Korean who said North Korea has better beer, which I have to agree with, and the amount of rice wines and strange alcohol meant we were tasting something new every day… except for the strange schnapps with a whole snake inside. The food was served in cute little plates, a buffet of meat and vegetables, eaten with metal chopsticks, and their famous cold noodle soup (buckwheat noodles in a broth flavoured with mustard, vinegar and chili) was a specialty worth trying. Their “sweet” meat soup, aka dog soup, was something I skipped.
  2. You will always be isolated or somehow filtered from the public. Your lunch meal will be eaten alone in a room fit for 50 people, but it will only be the tourist(s), and a handful of servers, walking in and out of the room with enough food to feed an army. Your sightseeing will be shadowed by your appointed guide, and once you’re in the hotel you’re only surrounded by other tourists (mostly Chinese) and can’t leave the building.
  3. You are not allowed to make any transactions in their local currency, the Korean won. You must pay for things in Chinese yuan, US dollars or Euros, and keep them in small denominations – things cost very little. For example, a ride on the metro is 5 cents.
  4. There are only a couple of media channels, and all are run by the government – magazines, radio and television. Newspapers or other print material always have an image of Kimg Jong Il or Kim Il Sung, so it is not permitted to crumple, throw into the garbage, or sit on the newspapers – since this would be an act of disrespect to their leaders.
  5. Cameras and smartphones are allowed, and you are allowed to take pictures of anything you like – except labourers and military. I still managed to take photos of some construction workers (but was scolded for it) and a selfie with a soldier, but portrait photographs were discouraged and local people didn’t seem excited to be captured in the background.
  6. Koreans who do speak English will usually ask you “what is your impression” when they want to know your opinion on something. This seems like a loaded question if its about the DPRK, but they just want to know what you think of North Korea. And a hint for the wise – don’t be too honest if you have negative things to say, especially concerning politics or warfare.
  7. The roads are wide and cover the whole country, but their in terrible condition and barely any cars drive them. Be prepared for a long and bumpy ride if you leave Pyongyang, but definitely get out of Pyongyang to visit the mountains, Buddhist temples, and endless field of rice that made the country feel so green and peaceful.

If you’d like to visit North Korea, please send me a message or reply to this post with a comment. I am excited to be working directly with the North Korean tourism agency, booking private tours of groups of 2 up to 10. I think its fun to be promoting a bit of exposure both to those who want to visit the misunderstood DPRK, and for the local Koreans to have the chance to meet more of the outside world.

Photo Highlight: Leaders of the DPRK

The image of current leader Kimg Jong Un won’t be seen until after he passes away… but his father and grandfather, previous leaders and the liberator of North Korea, are present absolutely everywhere. In every village, on every highway, and behind every square, one can find their larger-than-life portraits and people regularly bowing down to them to pay their respects. Even I was forced to do it twice.

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il

This photo was taken from my Instagram – please follow @nomadic_cosmopolitan to see more North Korea photographs!

A Tourist in North Korea

The idea of traveling to North Korea was intimidating at first, and up until the point It was time for our train departure from Beijing, I didn’t believe it would happen. I was traveling with German friend who had arranged with the DPRK embassy in Berlin to pick up our visas near the train station in Beijing the day of our departure. We didn’t know who to look for, or if anyone would actually show up, but eventually someone did, and we got on the train with what looked like a visa and a one way ticket to Pyongyang. The train was a long and slow 24 hour journey, and crossing the border sparked a few more doubts, but after being searched and showing our phones, we were let through and actually made it into North Korea.

pastures and rice fields made the DPRK feel very rural at times

pastures and rice fields made the DPRK feel very rural at times

Surprisingly, there are a lot of tourists that come here, especially Chinese, and my guide said that last year there were over 25,000 tourists, but sometimes she’s a 0 off in her number translations so I believe it may actually be 250,000. Just on our first day, there were over 10 coach buses filled with Chinese tourists to visit the DMZ.

on the border between North and South Korea, which is literally that concrete line

on the border between North and South Korea, which is literally that concrete line

DMZ is the border between North and South Korea – though it stands for ‘de-militarized zone,’ the area was full of military, arms, and apparently mines on the South Korea side. It’s a 4 km wide no-mans land, but in one building on the actual border is a room where you can be on the north or south side, and sit on a desk across from someone on the other side. But only the north side tourists or south side tourists can be in the building at one time, accompanied by their respective soldiers, so it’s not much of a meeting place for the two nations.

The country has no internet, only intranet, and one can find out the weather forecast at any time of the day, but no one knows the European Football championships are happening. The ‘International’ hotels have computers for tourists to check their email or make global calls, but I figured I’d wait til I left to write anything.

Pyongyang at sunrise

Pyongyang at sunrise

The city Pyongyang is like any other sky-scraping, hazy city in Asia, a big capital city filled with millions of people. Even though the foggy mornings only turned into cloudy afternoons, my guide swears there’s no pollution and no one wears masks, but I still felt like it was easier to breathe in much brighter Beijing. There’s still a big difference from being in Pyongyang than any other big Asian cities. For starters, the city is extremely clean and sterile, with no litter about and I even saw one guy pick up chewed gum off the floor to throw it away in a garbage can. Pyongyang is also completely safe and calm, and mostly quiet except for the strange, militant, motivational instrumental music blasted on public loudspeakers, in restaurants, and the metro.

I didn’t hear it, but apparently there is international and western music to be heard on one of their only 2 radio or television stations. The most popular past-times here are karaoke, both western and Korean music, bowling, and ping pong. I saw empty billiards halls and soccer fields, but apparently they’re used a lot too.

The monument for Reunification above the Pyongyang-Seoul highway

The monument for Reunification above the Pyongyang-Seoul highway

The roads within and leading out of Pyongyang are all huge boulevards, sometimes large enough for 7 lanes of traffic each way. In the 90’s they built a highway to Seoul, which has never been used to get further than the DMZ because of the North South unstable political relations, but this highway was wide enough to land a Boeing 737 on it but worn and torn from neglect after failing to ever be used to get to Seoul. The only problem was the potholes, the thousands of potholes and bumps in the roads, everywhere. I wondered why the roads where in such bad shape, but the better question was why the roads were so empty – and then it all makes sense. In the DPRK, regular individuals can’t own vehicles, and there’s nearly no such thing as a private car. There are some 70 million people here, but no one drives, except for the lucky few. The roads are only traversed by public buses, tourist vans, military vehicles, taxis and private company cars. Once you leave Pyongyang city, there are only public and tourist buses, and the military or police, but still the same huge boulevards. Some people had motorcycles, and apparently the government provides you with a private car as a reward for winning a gold medal in international events (ie. Olympians). I also figured out that some of the cars, like the Volkswagen Passat more commonly seen, are fake copies made in China. Now I knew the Chinese made imitation clothes and electronics, but cars? Really?

The clothes that people wear were never branded – I didn’t see a single shirt with any writing or logo. Every adult citizen always wearing a small red pin over their left breast with a picture of Kimg Jong Il or Kim Il Sung (or both), which is so “they can keep their leaders close to their heart.” The dress was pretty formal, collared tops, slacks, pretty flower patterns, army green colours, a lot of freshly pressed white shirts and dressy trousers, and most of the women wore high heels, even for their long walks to work. Most people move by bicycle, and they’ve really become the main road traffic. People in the DPRK were very quiet, peaceful, complacent people. They’re not shy, but they never stare and would never be impolite or break a rule. I sometimes felt sloppy if I wasn’t standing upright enough, but people seemed forgiving of our casual, western behavior.

The religious and cultural life was hard to find. Historically a Buddhist and Confucius country, the socialist motto is to believe in oneself and ignore blind faith, the Juche ideal of self-reliance. Buddhist temples still exist and are cared for, but not necessarily used for worship. Apparently there is a Christian/Orthodox church which does have a few active members, but again this came from my guide who liked to evade directly answering controversial questions.

A 12th century Buddhist temple that still has resident monks

A 12th century Buddhist temple that still has resident monks

We had very little chance to meet other locals, talk to strangers, or interact with any North Korean people on our 5 day, constantly escorted tour. We were usually ushered into private restaurants for our meals, given a room in a hotel where the only other guests were our guides and Chinese tourists, and they often followed us to the shops and tourist sites so that the only chance to see any Koreans was from inside our moving car getting from A to B. My travel companion Michael had a theory that some locals were placed in our lunch room one day, and at a beautiful cave, just because I expressed my discomfort in always being withheld from spontaneous interactions.

It’s easy to get a little paranoid traveling in North Korea – the rumors and stories I knew before didn’t help either. I never felt unsafe or mistrusted, so its hard to know if the feeling is legit or just coming from within. But somehow, there was definitely a ‘Big Brother’ feeling, an element of being stuck in the Truman show and never sure what was real or fake or staged or normal. On paper, our itinerary was the perfect plan – a little bit of the city, a little bit of country, natural wonders, historical and cultural UNESCO sites, and of course the political side. It was like traveling in any other country. But still, that mix of Russian communism and a feeling of traveling back to the Soviet times lingered everywhere.

The capital city was quite neutral, all the buildings in the same pastel colours and parks filled simply with trees and water, but any large monument, statue or impressive artwork was always devoted to some communist ideal or one of their late great leaders, Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. The sickle, hammer and paintbrush, the 5 pointed star, the red flame, the Korean flag, or the Juche theory – all were visible from every corner of the city. The only photographs to be seen, in any public space, is the portrait of their late leaders. Not even shop windows have advertisements or pictures beside their name. The buses and metro are devoid of any marketing, except the large murals promoting the great power, greatness or kindness of their leaders, their country, and their people. It’s actually someone’s job to design cartoon posters, depicting the heroic soldier and the struggle of the people to keep their peace and freedom in their socialist system. They propagate very much for a unified Korea, and hate the US military/government for all their interference between the Korea’s. Their greatest achievement was the battle victory over the US in 1953, and I can’t even count the number of monuments and memorials that I saw dedicated to that war.

I tried asking about military service, since North Korea is famous for having one of the largest and strongest armies on the ground. I assume its mandatory, but my guide explained that no one has to do it, but everyone of course wants to do it, and therefore all men serve their time for the country through military service… sometimes for their whole life. We met one soldier at the DMZ who did engage with us, since he was very interested in the history of West/East Germany and spoke with Michael during our entire border visit. He let us take a photograph with him, even though I was told never to take a picture around military or working people. I guess there’s always an exception to a rule.

Riding tour in Mongolia

In Iceland, I work as a tour guide for horse back riding trips, but after 6 years of that I thought it’d be fun to take a tour as a guest. Mongolia is probably the only other country with as much, if not more, horse culture as Iceland, so it was easy to find the perfect vacation there. I thought everyone would want to go, but only one horse friend from Germany actually made it and our group only had 2 other people.

riding through the Gobi

riding through the Gobi

We chose a 9 day riding tour in the Gobi Steppe, but wanted to spend a few extra days in Mongolia before heading to China and North Korea. We spent our extra time in the capital city, which is a strange mix of hold-school communist architecture, new-world/mid-west high-rises, the Cyrillic alphabet, and Asian food and culture (mostly Chinese and Korean).

finding a well to water the horses and stock up for camp

finding a well to water the horses and stock up for camp

The food and drinks very really delicious, but we were mostly offered ‘western’ foods, and lots of it. Even though we were camping, in the middle of a desert, with no electricity or running water, we were served 4 course meals every night. Soup, salad, some meat, and dessert were the norm, plus boiled well water to drink tea and coffee, and once in a while the cook surprised us with special snacks like Pringles or a home made cake (I still cant figure out how she baked a cake by burning cow dung).

our ger camp

our ger camp

We were only 4 guests, but had one English speaking guide and 5 other staff – a chef, her assistant/waitress, the horse man, and 2 camel boys, who were responsible for the 4 caramel convoy carrying our stuff between camp every day. We moved every morning except the last night, where we stayed in a more permanent ger camp. Each day we rode 30-40 km, only on one horse, and we rode the same horse for 9 days straight. I tried to horse man’s horse briefly, just to sit in his Mongolian wooden saddle, but my friend Michael got to ride his horse a whole day because he wanted to try a faster horse. It made him very happy, until he raced the horseman (who rode Michaels regular horse) and lost. It urned out I had the fastest horse, which was great until how hard it was to stop after reaching flat-out speed. Sometimes it took many kilometres to slow him down, but I didn’t mind.

our camel convoy

our camel convoy

After the horse tour in Ulanbataar, we had a few more great meals, lots of vodka, and visited the city park to watch a music/dance/culture show and ride a Ferris wheel. Nearby was also Hustai National park, where it was possible to see the ancient Przewalskis horse in the wild. During the car journeys between places, we often drove on unmarked dirt tracks which were considered main travel routes by the locals. Mongolia was the only country I’ve seen regularly use hybrid Toyota Priuses as off-road vehicles, and it makes sense why horses are still used so much to move – its almost faster to go 15 km on a horse than a car, especially considering the fact that Mongolian horses can gallop for over an hour without stopping or slowing down. They were truly amazing, and I would have done it if my body could have kept up, but my legs couldnt handle it after they started bruising in a few different places from a strange saddle that you need to stand in.

Stop-over in Copenhagen

I´ve been to Copenhagen twice before, but trying to manage a days’ layover isnt easy. But, with a landing time of 12 noon and a departure time of 22:00, noone wants to sit around at an airport that long, no matter how nice, so here’s what I did and you should do too.

water lilies on the ponds

water lilies on the ponds

1.) Leave the airport: There’s a train every 20 minutes from Copenhagen airport to Copenhagen central station, and it only takes a little over 15 minutes to travel. Once you’ve arrived in the central station, you’re in the heart of Copenhagen and within walking distance to all the main sights, shopping streets and drinking/eating spots.

Denmark's Little Mermaid

Denmark’s Little Mermaid

2.) Go to Tivoli: If its summer, and you’re a Disneyland/theme-park kind of person, spend the day at this fun park. There are roller coasters, green parks, yummy concessions and all sorts of other fun stuff, and entrance is only 110DK (around €15).

3.) Walk around the pedestrian shopping streets. Even if youre just a window shopper, or only looking for the cafes or bars to visit on the way, its a lively street of people watching and lovely surprises, and delicious Danish street hot dog stands.

summer is the time for bicycling

summer is the time for bicycling

4.) Visit the parks: especially around any castle or sea-side. You’ll find the (in)famous little mermaid statue, and one beautiful star-shaped fortress.

5.) Drink Carlsberg: or any other cold drink in the sunshine

Nyhovn near sunset time

Nyhovn near sunset time

6.) Visit Nyhavn, the cozy little harbour full of sailboats and restaurant patios. Mingle or people watch, or just eat and drink, and you’ll still feel like you’ve had the most romantic day in Denmark

Weird things about Russia

Like any other big, powerful nation, everybody has an opinion or some stereotypes about Russia. Many haven’t even been there, but from the media, movies, or Russian friends abroad, people still manage to imagine the place in a certain way. I expected a lot of things, but was also surprised by many.

1.) People don’t smile, barely ever, but when they did, it was you the warmest smile anyone could ever give. And if they laughed, you always laughed with them🙂

2.) The average person doesn’t speak English, especially not in the transport sector, so you had to be lucky to have a hotel receptionist that could answer all of your questions or go to a fancy restaurant to get maybe one waitress who could take your order (or get onto google maps or google translate and work it out yourself which was an easy plan B with all the open wifi networks). However, when they did speak English, sometimes they wouldn’t stop talking, and you’d be checking in or putting in your food order for 45 minutes while he or she chatted your ear off.

I'm going deeper undergound

I’m going deeper undergound

3.) The metro stations and subway systems in Moscow and St. Petersburg where built to resemble theaters or palace halls more than public transport. There were crystal chandeliers and marble walls, paintings and statues, and all sorts of golden highlights. The metro is also super deep underground, which had something to do with Stalin wanting them to double as bomb shelters after WWII.

4.) The number of Churches, churches, and more churches… Orthodox and Christian, and the attached monasteries, was unbelievable. I swear we drove thru towns that had more churches than houses, and taller churches than any tree or building around. And some of them built in the middle ages, still standing, and preserved. Who has the time and money for all of them? But the artwork, inside and out, and all the golden domes, never got tiring, so thank God for them, whoever they are. But one weird thing that came up a few times was fluorescent or neon name signs added to the facade of some red-brick ancient church… which kind of looked like someone’s attempt to turn the churches into the red-light district.

5.) The European-ness of it all. Russia always seemed like an other-worldly place, an exotic country that is just as far away and strange as China or India, just in different ways. But Russia is surprisingly European, at least the places I visited, to the point that basically no cultural barriers were felt. They could maybe tell who wasn’t Russian by the way we dressed, but otherwise we had everything else in common.

6.) Russia loves Italy and Italian everything – especially art, fashion, wine, and food – cheeses especially. The best restaurants had Italian chefs or Italian inspired cuisine, and many of the palaces from former great rulers had the footprint of Italy’s earliest beginnings of the Renaissance.

7.) From the tiny countryside villages to the downtown core of Moscow, traveling around Russia was super safe. I had a small fear of the gangster or mafioso type, a hard-faced Russian undergrounder or some super-rich armed men in black, but we only saw a lot of nice black cars with drivers for some very pretty business people. People were also incredibly honest, and I wasn’t cheated once for a bus ride or cornershop purchase, even if I handed over 10x too much money accidentally.

8.) You can rent a horse outside the downtown bars in Moscow. I met a woman riding around at midnight by almost walking into her on the sidewalk outside Pinch restaurant, and she wanted to let me pay to ride her horse around downtown that night in between the nightlife taxi traffic and sidewalks full of party people. It didn’t seem like the best idea at the time, but now I regret not doing it.

the countryside homes

the countryside homes

9.) There are villages in the Golden ring whose economy seems to rely solely on teddy bears. From tiny to life-sized stuffed bears, you can buy them from each and every house on the side of the road from at least 2 different villages that I saw. And some of those village houses were barely standing, tilting on such an angle that you thought the ground must be on a hill you didn’t feel.

10.) Russia and rabbits… I don’t know what it is, but they like rabbits, a lot.

 

What to do in Russia

I’ve been trying to go to Russia for many years, but never made that many attempts. Once Icelandair had a sale to St. Petersburg for a little over €100 each way and I spontaneously bought a one way ticket there. Of course I found out soon after I needed to apply for a visa with an invitation letter and a return ticket, so that didn’t work out. I once had a 16 hour layover in Moscow on my way from Iceland to South Korea, but I didn’t manage to talk any of the immigration officers into letting me thru border control, even if just for a day. But I did manage to learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet, which was helpful when I finally made it.

Suzdal, one of the Golden Ring cities

Suzdal, one of the Golden Ring cities

There’s a food festival which started not so long ago called Foodiez of Moscow, and Thrainn the chef participated last year. So he’d been through the visa process and knew a lot of good chefs in Moscow and St. Petersburg. We each got an invitation letter from an Icelandic meat importer in St. Petersburg and then the visa was set. So now that I was finally going to visa, what did I want to do?

For starters, I wanted to go everywhere and see everything, but being the largest country in the world, that covers 11 time zones and isn’t exactly tourist loving (and speaks a language I don’t understand), I was a little restricted. And with only 2 weeks, I had to focus on the small area between Moscow and St. Petersburg, or, the ‘European’ part of Russia.

Moscow's Kremlin

Moscow’s Kremlin

Most guidebooks will tell you to do the same thing, and I don’t have much to add except the order which we did them. Moscow, you have to see the old fortress, called the Kremlin, which is full of exhibits, museums and orthodox churches, and the Red Square where you’ll find St. Basil’s Cathedral, a church that looks like its made of candycanes and came from Disneyland. The Golden Ring is a chain of cities northeast of Moscow, which we visited counter clockwise and skipped the more industrial cities. Vladimir was nice, Suzdal and Rostov were nicer, and Sergiev Posad wasn’t necessarily the nicest, but by far the busiest and most touristic.

Peterhof garden

Peterhof garden

The only other travelers we shared our kremlins, parks, museums and churches with were people from Russian speaking/former Soviet countries, and a thousand Chinese tourists. The latter always traveled together in large groups, usually touring by bus and magically managing not to mix up with the other dozen or so Chinese groups wandering the same sites.

The timing couldn’t have been better, since summer had just started but many trees were still filled with colourful spring blossoms; the sun was shining and the weather hit nearly 20°c every day. Even the big cities still had tons of parks and green spaces, and rivers and water fountains, so everything seemed lush and alive. Some gardens were to die for, and even charged entrance, but it was worth every ruble to see Catherine´s Palace garden and Peterhof Palace garden.

Catherine the Great's palace

Catherine the Great’s palace

Both those palaces are day trips from St. Petersburg, and can be taken with a boat, ferry, train or bus, and it was always fun to try a little of every transport form. After renting a car for the Golden Ring and backpacking the rest of the way, we had managed to ride the speed train, the local trains, long-haul buses, ferries, trams, local buses and the subway. Stops and stations usually had Roman letters, but it was definitely helpful to be able to read Cyrillic and try to phonetically sound out the words we saw to the words we heard. We stopped half way between Moscow and St. Petersburg, lengthening our trip from only 4 hours on the fast train to 7.5 hours of half fast-train and half local train or bus, but it was worth it to visit the medieval town whose kremlin was on the beach!

so many gold-domed churches...

so many gold-domed churches…

Some other stereotypes I had to fulfill were to drink vodka, trying as many types as humanly possible (you could probably stay in Russia for a year without trying the same vodka twice). I also wanted to see a Russian ballet and some Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff symphonies. We watched Chopiniana in St. Petersburg, and just the Mariinsky theatre itself was worth the visit (think of something like Teatro alla Scala in Milan). We saw a Prokofiev piano concert and the opera La Sonnambula in Moscow, at different theatres and only two of over a dozen available.

Luigi serving us on the chef's table at Pinch restaurant

Luigi serving us on the chef’s table at Pinch restaurant

If you also want to go to Russia for a foodiez trip, these are the must taste spots in Moscow, many of which turn into nightlife places on the weekends: Pinch, Twins, Uilliams, Ugolek and Severyane. If you want to try one of the top 50 restaurants in the world (#23 on the San Pellegrino list), try to get into White Rabbit, at the top of a city tower with great views of the city. In St. Petersburg, try Hamlet & Jacks or ‘Morojka for Pushkin’. With your meals, try some Russian wines, especially sparkling wine, which was much better than I expected. And for all of the above, its fun to try to sit on the ‘chefs table,’ where you are basically given settings and served on the kitchens service board.