This story is a continuation of the previous blog post “In the Middle of the Dictatorship, part 2“…
Give me your phone and go to the line
An independent trip to North Korea is impossible. The only chance is to join a group that travels together 24/7 in North Korea. You are absolutely not allowed to walk where you’d want to. The guides (or guards I would say first) will take care of that.
These guides are controlling everything. Where everybody is, from where are they going to take a picture, just everything. “No pictures” was one of the most common sentences we heard during that week. And yes, authorities will check every camera on the border on the way back to China.
Phones and laptops are entirely forbidden. All the electronic communication equipments had to be left to a safety box in China. For my big surprise we were allowed to send post cards and it actually came to the destination – a month and a half later.
They’ll take your passport as well and will give it back after the week. No stamps, no visa, not any kind of mark or evidence that you have been in North Korea. Maybe better that way. And if the name of the game still isn’t clear enough, in addition to this every bag will be checked in a army-style, very carefully, when you cross the border.
When the guides are speaking it’s allow to ask questions but you have to avoid aggressive or claiming tone. Tourists are expected to be interested of North Korea and its history. Locals believe that the western tourists are there because their pure admiration to the North Korean democratic system.
For tourists, the trip is all about exploration. Our task is not to go there and tell to the North Koreans how things should be – on the other hand it wouldn’t be even possible. We were not allowed to talk to the local people and we did not get any real opportunity to try that.
Or actually we did. A little unexpected chance came in a train when we travelled from the border city to Pyongyang. In China a blond western guy is like a ‘monument’ and gets lots of interested looks from the Chinese people, in North Korea it’s totally opposite. They turn their head away as soon as they notice you’re foreigner. On that time I was confused why they act like that. Afterwards I made some research and found out it is the law: look people in the eyes and you’ll get punished.
Capital city is a huge monument showcase
Travelling by train from the border to the capital city Pyongyang took roughly six hours. Tourists are usually isolated to their own car (however there were some North Koreans too. I believe they were so called trusted citizens). We almost had to run to our car in a hurry so that the locals would not see us too long around.
Train was anesthetic slow and straight from the 1950’s. Church-style benches were hard wooden one-piece benches. I couldn’t help myself to think I’m in the middle of the former Soviet Union. The capital city added more images of the Soviet Union: everything was big and powerful.
Statues and pictures of former dictator Kim Il-sung were everywhere. Those statues were as huge as Mao Zedong‘s statues were and still are in China or Lenin’s statues in Russia. And there were Korean texts everywhere, all propaganda I believe.
We took numerous sightseeing tours from monument to statue to monument to new statue and had to buy flowers, bow deep and show our respect to North Korean eternal President, “The Great Leader”. No chewing gum in your mouth, no smile, no laugh.
Every North Korean has a pin on their chest. It is a picture of Kim Il-sung. One of the most terrible things you could do is point the pin with your finger. Don’t do that if want to avoid troubles. Pointing is disrespectful!
In every building, metro and train car etc. there are two pictures of him in the same line with golden frames. Kim Il-sung on the left side and his son Kim Jong-il on the right side. Next year (2012) will be so called “year of prosperity” because the year marks Kim Il-sung’s birth centenary. The purposeful change has already begun and the line of pictures is likely to grow with one picture when Kim Jong-un will take country’s leader position.
“From the European point of view words as normal and North Korea are like night and day among themselves. This place is totally different than any other place on earth. However tourists are freer to explore the country these days than couple of years ago when we were not allowed to go to see the countryside. And if we were, they closed bus’ curtains while we drove through countryside. Nowadays tourists are getting chances to visit little bit outside the capital although still not given any chance to get the contact with locals”, Harris said.
So travellers are like in a cage there but in a gage with the golden frames. Tours in the capital and around starts when the rooster sings and ends in late night when it’s already dark outside. And damn it’s dark. Almost no lights at all. The rest of the evening before it’s time to go to sleep tourists have to spend inside a 5-star hotel, by name Yanggakdo, located in an island with one guarded bridge. Needless to say you are not allowed to explore Pyongyang independently.
… This story will continue… Stay Tuned!
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