North Korea is, no doubt, a unique country to travel to. The places that visitors are allowed to see and the activities they can do are restricted by the government. And a very structured official itinerary offers neither time for “free roaming” nor “meeting locals”. Things that the majority of travelers value the most and often take for granted – like eating street food or exploring the area on foot – are simply impossible in North Korea. Travelers are constantly monitored by the local guides, whose main responsibility is not only to show you their country, but also to make sure that the visitors don’t sabotage the status quo by revealing too much about the outside world.
We had a very busy itinerary with all the government-approved stops that included the Grand People’s Study House (which is basically a large library), the Kim Il Sung & Kim Jong Il mausoleum, the Martyrs’ cemetery, the DMZ film studios, a bunch of monuments and much more. But out of it all, there are a few moments that stand out in my memory the most. A few moments that amazed, entertained or dumbfounded me.
Talking politics with our guides
How do you tell someone that the main reason for you to visit their country is to see what the last real dictatorship looks like?
Before the trip we were instructed by our western travel agency to be very careful about what we disclose to our local guides and what kind of questions we ask. The main reason behind this was not to offend them. After all, we get to go back to our comfortable and progressive countries, and they have to stay behind. So when it came to my reasons for visiting DPRK, I just told them I love to travel.
For the first couple of days it was actually really hard to find the right words while talking to them. Even the most innocent comments came out the wrong way. One time I compared a “specially cultivated” flower called “Kimilsungia” to an orchid (which it totally is!!) – it was met with blank stares. Another time I asked if Kim Jong Un and his wife have kids… – an innocent question that our female guide said she didn’t want to know the answer to.
But going overnight to Kaesong, a large city close to the South Korean border, had finally changed the group dynamics. It was our third day in the country and the first real drinking party. Our guides relaxed and finally opened up. They were curious to hear stories about our countries and even the most uptight of them quietly asked to see pictures from South Korea. That night I realized that behind the cold demeanor and politically correct explanations, there were genuine curiosity about the world and even some doubt about the propaganda being fed to them.
Seeing communism in action
Schoolchildren’s Palace in Pyongyang is an after-school facility for exceptional children. It is not enough to be simply interested in music, dance or visual art – only the most talented have the privilege of studying there.
Like every other tourist group, we were brought to the palace to see how great the socialist education system is in nurturing talent. Going from one room to another, we watched children play music, dance, draw and read poems for us. It was interesting to be so close to them, but at the same time the whole experience was weird and uncomfortable. Every time we would walk into a new room, the kids and the teacher would drop everything they were doing and perform a little routine for us.
Because the children were sitting really straight and smiling sort of unnaturally, many people in my group thought they were behaving like robots. And there was definitely something mechanical in the way they acted that made me think of this visit as another propaganda tool. For many of us, this children’s “palace” was the most upsetting part of the entire trip.
Watching the Mass Games with our mouths open
For this famous synchronized performance, you really need to be there! No videos, pictures, or words can do justice to the show. Around 100,000 participants – 30,000 of which are children who create an enormous backdrop with their colored books – take part in this extravaganza. They practice year-round and then perform several times a week during the months of August and September at what is said to be the largest stadium in the world. It is a breathtaking 70 minutes that really showcases the nature of socialism where one is always a part of the greater whole.
Listening to the songs from the barges
The satellite pictures of North Korea at night don’t lie – it’s pitch-dark. We had a great view from the 29th floor of our hotel on an island and I was looking forward to photographing it at night. But once the sun went down, I found myself staring into a void. The illumination of two bridges on both sides of the hotel went off at 9 pm. The streets were dark, except for when an occasional car passed by. And only little dim lights were coming from the windows of apartment buildings.
I was sitting on the windowsill with the frames open, breathing wet warm air, staring into darkness and trying to imagine what life is like for all these people on the other side of the river. Let’s be honest, I was mostly regretful about their circumstances. Then all of a sudden I heard voices. It was a quiet, soulful singing coming from the water. I was puzzled at first, but later figured out that the singing was coming from the barges down on the river. During the day, those barges were collecting pebbles from the riverbed. At night they also had no lights, but apparently the workers were still there. Their melody may have been sad, but it wasn’t desperate. It was a song of people enjoying their rest, their warm quiet night, and the life as they know it.
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IRINA CALLEGHER is a travel addict with a full-time job. She shares photos and stories from her travels at TripsThatWork.com