Wednesday, October 25, 2017

North Korea

So I'm going to jump out of order here as I still a few previous trips to catch up on but there has been a demand for this one and a lot of questions asked so I'll hopefully address most of the most common ones here.


Easily the most common (though fortunately not only) reaction from people when they found out where I was headed.  If you are asking this question then we don't have the same philosophy driving us.  It's not the first time I've headed to a controversial place and most likely not the last.  I'm curious.  NK is essentially the last isolated and truly restrictive socialist state.  The last specimen of a nearly extinct species.  Think of it as a living history museum.  The Chinese tourists told me it reminded them of China 40 years ago.  I never saw China then.  I never got into the USSR.  So I really wanted to see what I could as it is right now.  Not in spite of it being crazy but because it is crazy. I had an opportunity to act on it.  For me it is enough of a reason.


"Safety?"  - I don't really know how to explain this.  I have seen the news.  I have seen the drama and rhetoric.  It has been going on for 70 years.  It is all propaganda.  There is very little new going on that hasn't been done before.  I 100% believe that there will not be a nuclear war or any other kind of war in NK anytime soon.  Apparently I was willing to bet my life on it but I think that is a completely nonsense statement.  I do research where I'm going and get as much practical information before I go somewhere.  This is important.  Very important.  I know others that have been, I knew what to expect.  The greatest danger was not nuclear war breaking out but getting imprisoned.  NK has the stated aim of trying to increase tourism to 1 million visitors by 2020.  They'll never get there but it's the attitude that counts.  They can't do that if they are imprisoning every person that shows up.  In fact they've been gradually opening up the country and making it easier to visit in the last 10 years. I'm not American, they have no reason to go after me unless I do something stupid.  I control my own actions and I can behave.  Just as I would never utter bomb threats in a US airport, I wouldn't steal a sign or insult their leader, thus, no problem.  Never once in all the time leading up to the trip or inside the country did my heart rate rise in fear.

"What about supporting evil?" - I've never believed in the "boycott tourism" argument. I won't get into it here.  If it's safe enough, I will go.

"Isn't it all fake anyway?" - Yes and no.  I'll get into it more later.  It is fake in the sense that everything is controlled and restricted for you as a visitor and to some extent the whole country is so different it can't feel real but that is the point.  I knew that it is going to be some weird restrictive, heavily propaganda'd journey.  You accept that at the beginning and try to "enjoy" looking at that aspect of the culture.  If you really want to there are enough cracks in the fa├žade to still feel a little of what is also going on behind the scenes without having to see the beatings and the bodies....


A lot of people are surprised you can even visit.  Your home country will recommend against going but as I said above, NK is willing to let people in under very specific conditions.  You must go on a tour.  It can be your own private tour, but you must be accompanied by 2 NK tour guides at all times and all the arrangements are made in advance, generally by a middleman tour company, usually based in China.  Some of the more well known and established are Koryo Tours, YoungPioneerTours and the one I dealt with, ExploreNorthKorea.  You pick a tour on offer, send a scan of your passport and Chinese visa, send your money (it's not cheap unfortunately) and they make all the arrangements and all you do is show up.  I was on a 4 day 3 night tour.


The majority of tours fly in and out of Pyongyang from Beijing. I wanted to see more of the landscape and get a glimpse of something more than just what they show you so one of my priorities was taking the train in from the border at Dandong in China. I flew into Shenyang in northeastern China and made my way to Dandong where I was to meet up with my group.  ExploreNorthKorea focuses on Chinese tourists so the tour group ended up consisting of myself and 18 Chinese tourists.  We had all been collected from a couple different companies and all funneled into the same tour which was actually run by a NK company.  We didn't know who would be with us though and a handful of us were put on the train alone and told our guides would find us on the platform at the end of the ride.  And that is exactly what happened.  All the different tour groups got claimed by all the different guides as soon as we stepped off the train.

Getting on the train in Dandong
Typical N. Korean rural scene.

As I said before, all tours have 2 NK guides.  In our case, 1 guide was for the Chinese tourists and spoke Chinese.  The other guide spoke English and was assigned to me.  Basically I had a private guide within the larger group. She was a 27 year old single female that I am convinced completely believed and loved the NK propaganda she was taught.  Right off the bat she asked me what kind of tourist I was. She claimed there were 2 types, those that did nothing but take a ton of pictures and those that claimed to know everything about Korea already and didn't need more info (the polite way to tell your guide to leave you alone).  Are you kidding me?  I did my internal evil chuckle and rubbed my hands in glee and promptly replied "I know nothing of your country, I want you to teach me everything you can." Muahahaha!  She then sat beside me on the bus or walked beside me at our stops (mostly to babysit me I'm sure) and I made her talk non-stop for days.

With my guide

I asked everything I could think of asking without getting in trouble.  I danced around topics and did my best to piece together what I could from what she let slip, how she evaded questions and the personal stories of her life.  She was not quite joking at the end when she said she was looking forward to getting rid of me and getting some rest :) I'm not going to get into all of what she said here, but my advice is to do the same thing if you ever go.  She was pretty good about it, though the main evasive topic revolved around the economy or money (because i'm not dumb and didn't ask about politics or military things directly). It was amazing how a fairly simple "yes or no" question like "Do you get much pollution from China?" could result in a tangential propaganda story about how great their leader is. It kept things interesting because you never knew what kind of response you'd get.  Surprisingly she seemed fairly uninterested in the rest of the world and looked down upon our "backwards, capitalistic ways". Not that they have many friends or good things to say about other socialist countries either; the Juche political philosophy they live by is an isolationist and self-reliant one.  This was also exhausting for me though, trying to be polite and curious and always continuing the conversation without rolling my eyes or making a comment that would get me into trouble. 
Overall though they do a pretty good job or setting up an environment where you can pretend things are normal. There are very clear and obvious rules to traveling in N. Korea, restrictions on where you can go, who you can talk to, etc but the tours are set up in such a way that if you were the type of person that just follows a group tour anyway and doesn't venture off on your own or get overly curious, you could be anywhere else as well.  There were no obvious uniformed guards or weapons or intimidation necessary.  The guides take your passport as soon as you arrive and hold onto it until you leave.  It's not unheard of elsewhere and I'm sure there are worse ways to make you feel like a prisoner.  We stayed all 3 nights in Pyongyang at the fancy Koryo Hotel.  They call it a 5-star but it's a 3 or 4-star by normal standards and about the best they've got.  When we first arrived there on day 1 the guide told me that I shouldn't try to leave the hotel because I wouldn't want to get lost and it's not a good idea to go anywhere without any ID.  A polite way of saying "Thou shalt not leave".  I talked to one of the Chinese guys in our group the next morning and he says he went out the front door (which would be allowed) but as soon as he tried to move away from it was called back by the "doormen" who were keeping a close eye on him. After a brief conversation with them about the hotel he was convinced they weren't actually staff because they knew nothing about the hotel or its amenities.  It is quite possible that a large number of the "staff" were there just to keep an eye on us as there were a few guys I noticed that never actually did anything but stare at us.  But as I was saying, dressed up as staff and not police you could play ignorant and convince yourself nothing was going on and never really know. It also took 4 or 5 tries of my guide telling me that I needed a morning wake-up call before I finally clued in that there was really only ever 1 possible answer to her initial question of me needing one. There is also only 1 possible safe answer to "So what do you think of Korea (they never refer to it as N. Korea, it's just "Korea" and needs to be reunified) now that you have seen this?" which I was asked after nearly every stop.  But as long as you play nice, they play nice. The food was good and we took our meals in restaurants or hotels that were obviously intended only for foreigners or upty-ups.
My hotel.

On the tour itself I was told I could take whatever photos I wanted except anything military, which you don't really see anyway.  I kept asking her at the stops if I could take photos and she would look at me like I was some kind of idiot and say "of course".  So again you don't feel like you are restricted within the confines of the tour which is already cleverly confining enough in where it stops and what it drives past.  But every tour in any place is limiting to some extent whether intentional or not, which is why I prefer independent travel in general.  There were locals walking past us in front of the hotel in the morning, or in the squares that we stopped at and at the circus or on the metro.  They aren't all fake "actors" as some urban myths would have you believe, but sometimes you think they might be robots.  There are a lot of blank faces walking by.  It was unnerving to see how little curiosity they displayed. Very few would even go so far as to glance our way.  I felt like a ghost which was far from the reaction I had been getting in China or even the Chinese tourists in my group.  While we might be restricted from interacting with the locals, I feel like there are probably some pretty strong incentives on their end to not interact with us as well. There are, of course, propaganda posters, signs, etc all over the place as well.
Don't need to be able to read Korean to figure it out...

Many many variations on this theme and style.
Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are everywhere still.

Pyongyang looks like a typical communist capital.  All the money is poured in there for the show-off mega projects.  Wide streets with no traffic (there are very, very few private cars), grand public buildings, large squares and huge monuments commemorating some great victory or idea or other and of course the many apartment complexes to house everyone.  We stopped at a handful of places to see a few monuments and the main square, but for the most part our view of Pyongyang was out the window as we drove through. Our visit to the metro (the deepest in the world) was a brief one and reminded my of the fancy stations in Moscow. 
Kim Il-sung square. Lots of groups rehearsing celebratory demonstrations.

Pyongyang street scene. Note the bland clothing and lack of traffic.

A newly build area of Pyongyang. They actually let us walk down the street a bit.

View from my hotel room. 

Pyongyang looks nice from the right angle.

Always strange to see the Americans portrayed as the bad guys at a war monument.

Note the long line for the bus and no other traffic.

Housewives demonstrating their love for the nation apparently.

One of many monuments in the city.

It's bigger than the one in Paris.
In the Pyongyang metro.

Another metro station.

On day 2 we drove nearly 3hrs south to Kaesong and the DMZ.  In Kaesong we stopped at a  museum before picking up our military guide into the DMZ where we were shown the spot where the ceasefire agreement was signed "and the Americans surrendered and admitted defeat in the war".  At Panmunjom, the village in the middle of the DMZ where the 2 sides stare at each other all day, I was able to look into my own past at the viewing platform on the other side of the DMZ line where I once stood in 2003 on a tour from South Korea.  Not much has changed since then.  I don't remember seeing NK soldiers back then and we didn't see any SK soldiers this time so maybe it was true when they told me they basically take turns guarding the place from each other.  I then made my biggest faux pas when the military guide asked how I felt "standing in the most dangerous place on earth with 2 great armies staring each other down, guns pointed directly at each other".  My response?  A flippant "Meh, I feel safe".  Which I did.  Which was the wrong answer.  The instant disbelief on his face had me quickly back-pedaling along the lines of "Um... because you can totally protect me from those guys over there.....".  Until the first shot gets fired it's just a chess match. After that I wouldn't want to be anywhere nearby but I can think of dozens of places that are much worse today.

Panmunjom. The line runs through the middle of the blue buildings. In 2003 I was on the other side.

Our military guide

Where the ceasefire was apparently signed. 

On day 3 we drove 3 hrs to the northeast to see the Friendship Exhibition Hall, a very large building displaying international gifts to the former leaders, thus proving their international clout and respect they get.  Security was tight and so were the restrictions, like visiting the crown jewels.  We were shown a few of the rooms and some of the gifts were impressive but most seemed to be from Chinese companies (greasing the wheels of business?) or unheard of fringe communist groups in random countries whose membership probably doesn't reach triple digits... But who am I to say? I just contented myself with following along and nodding at all the right times.
A mountain resort we stopped at for lunch on day 3. Overkill for the number of visitors they get.

The friendship hall.  It's bigger than it looks.

Speaking of the leaders, NK has a unique set up.  While Kim Jong-un is the current leader of the country, he's not top dog in the minds of the people.  He hasn't earned his statue yet so to speak.  His father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung have.  The 2 of them have statues and monuments and photos all over the place, especially over every public building.  Most N. Koreans that I saw also wore a pin over their hearts with either a picture of both of them or just Kim Il-sung.  We were also fed a constant near-mythological backstory of their lives and accomplishments as well.  They could do no wrong in guiding the Korean people to their current greatness, despite the best efforts of the evil Americans to undermine and alienate them at every opportunity.  Kim Jong-un has a lot to live up to which might be why he's a little extra feisty...

They've got their statues of course.
Photos of the former leaders are on every major building.

The landscape in the areas we passed through on the west side of the country is largely agricultural and the rice fields were ready for harvest.  Outside the cities it looked poor.  The roads were dirt, most people were on bicycles or walking (though that was true everywhere), the little machinery I saw looked ancient and run down and most labour was being done by hand.  Cargo trains were rusted through and some villagers were washing clothes in ditches.  Each small community was almost identical too.  It really looks like everyone outside the city lives in the exact same small, single-story white home.
A typical village. Note the monument and propaganda sign on the hill above.

Bicycles and dirt roads.
It is a pretty country.

We visited a working Buddhist temple, one of the oldest remaining in the country. My guide swore up and down that they have freedom of religion in NK but I have a very hard time believing that one.  We also visited a middle school in Pyongyang to see a musical performance.  I've never seen a more unamused looking group of performers in my life.  The circus was fun despite the lack of a modern set up.  The crowd was mostly local and they were having a good time and the acrobats were certainly skilled though again we had no interaction with anyone.
The temple.

Very very quiet.

The middle school we visited. Photos over the doorway on the left.

Musical performance.
Inside the school.

By day 4 I was ready to leave and not too disappointed to spend an uneventful day on the train back to Dandong staring out the window.  Would I go back?  Sure, but it's not high on my priority list and I doubt I ever will.

Thursday, August 31, 2017


Jan 18th, 2016  3am

I think I've killed her.  I'm watching Sasha die in bed and there isn't much more I can do to help. Her family is going to kill me for this. 
2 days into our next trip and it has already fallen apart.  Maybe I really should bring mom everywhere.  It all started to go wrong 10 hrs earlier.....

With a bunch of time off to use after getting licensed, Sasha and I had made a spontaneous decision to go away again for another 18 days, a month after returning from our trip to Belize.  Cuba had been high on my visit list for a while and so a good deal on an open jaws flight decided us.  Sasha had been to Cuba on a package with her family a few years before but I was determined to see some of it before all the inevitable future changes, especially with the US thaw in relations, so we planned to do some independent travel to half a dozen cities in the north/west half of the country.

We flew into Varadero in the evening, bypassed it completely and spent the first night in Matanzas.  The second day we got a ride in one of the old cars that Cuba is so famous for, all the way to Havana.  It was fun to be in one and at some point during a visit it is almost a tourism requirement but they really aren't that comfortable.  The seats are soft but not exactly ergonomically designed and the pollution and fumes will shave time off your life. 
Old town Havana is great.  It has so much character and area to explore.  Despite and perhaps because of, the smell, pollution, poverty and crumbling architecture it is a very interesting and a rewarding experience to just wander the streets and take it all in.  The main streets have quite a few tourists but often even walking one block over to a parallel street it is completely empty and you can move without bumping into tour groups.  I liked the grand Spanish style of the old town and how little new development has impacted the look and feel of the squares and forts around the harbour.  One doesn't need much of an imagination to fall back into earlier times of several different eras....
So we put in a solid day wandering the streets, drinking in the sights and sounds, dodging tourists, beggars, touts and garbage, dreaming of Havana's glory days as the jewel in Spain's Caribbean crown.

 Old town Havana.

 Everyday cars

 Spanish churches

 Tiny plazas and cafes to relax

 Great architecture

 And streets to wander

A solid day of urban exploration will work up an appetite in even the toughest of travelers and (un)fortunately Cuba has lots of little eateries of temptation.  It's like street food without being quite on the street, usually these numerous local food places are tiny shops or even a single window and a sign with someone making pizzas or other simple fare at rock-bottom prices.  So we ate, and ate again as we saw fit.
Cuban food is notorious for it's poor quality, poor availability and poor hygiene, even in the resorts.  There are countless reports from visitors out there.  I won't comment further other than to say that I can verify that it is all true.  Eating shall henceforth be referred to as "playing Russian Roulette".
So we shot and shot and eventually a bullet struck Sasha fast and hard. That evening she was bad.  I've never seen food poisoning like that.  We were up all night and she was so weak I was really starting to worry.  Fortunately our host (you didn't really think I'd end up as the hero did you?) was a trained, but not practicing, nurse and administered to her as best she was able.  Apparently getting any kind of medicine is next to impossible so we to make do with what we had on hand.
Of our 3 days in Havana, 1 was spent exploring (we never got out of the old town, and there is too much to see in the old town for just one day), 1 in bed as a zombie and the final 1 getting organized to leave and making sure Sasha could stand up on her own.  This experience however set the stage for the food paranoia that continued through the rest of the trip, severely limiting our options.  Even then our stomachs were upset the whole time.  We eventually came to the conclusion that the safest and best food option was not a nicer restaurant but simply to eat with our hosts.
Speaking of hosts, traveling independently in Cuba is one of the stranger systems I've seen though it is in the process of getting less strange (normal is still a long way away).  For us it all boils down to the economy opening up to the private sector and having options.  There were previously 2 currencies (there still are but they are in the process of eliminating one so they were de facto interchangeable and foreigners could now use both).  We can stay in private, licensed homestays (casa particulars) which are quite common and indicated by a little blue anchor symbol near the door which is what we did.  They can be quite nice and are family-run with an extra room or two that they use.  Everything else is shared and generally they will prepare meals for an additional fee.  I'd wondered about all this ahead of time but need not have worried.  It is a little too easy a system.  Everyone knows someone in the next town you are going to.  They call a friend, that person picks you up from the bus station at your next stop or at least knows you are coming.  Even if you didn't have something lined up (and there are times I specifically avoided being passed along so easily) there will be touts or family members there to meet you anyway.  Yes, you pay a little more for everyone's commission and it was frustratingly hard to avoid.  But if you wanted it the easy way, it's right there for the taking.  Rates seem to be uniform everywhere you go.
Which brings us to the getting around part.  There are a couple options, a single government-run bus company which is allowed to transport foreigners (the buses are nice but there is a limited route network and you have to reserve in advance with passport in hand because every independent foreigner wants on the same bus as you do and there really aren't enough options), a very limited train network and taxis.  We were like most, relying on buses and basically having a set route based on where we could get with them.  The first day we took an old car (taxi) from Matanzas to Havana because the buses were sold out when we got to the station and we found another couple with the same problem to split the cost of a ride.
This is a year and a half old already but at the time Obama was normalizing relations with Cuba and tourism was set to receive another huge boost with direct flights to the States and more visitors from the US.  It was bad enough trying to get on a bus.  With the current system and infrastructure they have, Cuba can not handle a massive increase in visitors.  This is ultimately the basis for why we felt we needed to go then.  Never mind the cultural changes that will inevitably occur I'm more practical.  There will be a lag as the country catches up to demand and in that time it will be messy.
After a long day on the bus Sasha and I made it to Vinales.  It is a small town in a beautiful valley famous for growing Cuba's best tobacco.  While cigars and tours related to them are all the rage throughout Cuba this was not our purpose in coming.  Yes it is touristy, but it is also cleaner, quieter and more relaxing than other places we intended to go.  Three days there was just what Sasha needed.  We walked down the road a bit but mostly relaxed and rested and being rained out half the time help assuage our guilt at doing nothing.  It is beautiful there, the valley dotted with fields between limestone rock formations, horse carts trundling past and caves.

 Our balcony view in Vinales

 A common rural sight

 Tobacco farmers

From Vinales we went to Cienfuegos after another long day on the bus.  Cienfuegos is on the southwest coast and the area played a role in the Cuban revolution.  Yet another line of tourism focus if that's your thing.  It wasn't ours.  Like everywhere else, it is looking a little run down these days but it was pleasantly quiet, and felt the least visited of the areas we stayed despite it having a Unesco-listed old town square.  The colonnaded sidewalks and a bit of a seawall also made this town stand out.
 Rooftop breakfast at our guesthouse in Cienfuegos

 Colonnaded streets

 Cienfuegos is pretty quiet...

 The Unesco-listed central square

From Cienfuegos we ended up in another classic car taxi to get to Trinidad, a small and very popular town and one of Cuba's original 7 settlements.  It is the smallest, making it feel more overrun by visitors.  Trinidad is build on a hill with the oldest and most interesting parts of town at the top.  It makes it easy to figure out where to go, just head uphill!  As with everywhere else we went in Cuba, walking one street over, or a little further than everyone else often left us alone.  The squares and churches are small but there is lots of historical character in the architecture combined with modern culture with all the live music wafting down the street from various cafes.  The hassle factor in Trinidad was a little higher than elsewhere but maybe it is worst at the resorts because I was expecting it to be much worse everywhere in general than we actually ever dealt with. Our only beach day was just outside of Trinidad after a quick and crowded bus ride too.  Outside the tourist centre it's a pretty sleepy and run down town of horse carts and dusty streets.

 Trinidad's lower streets

Camaguey was next.  It is more in the middle of the country and the scenery along the highway there is flat and fields of sugarcane.  It is also cattle country.  Despite being the 3rd largest city in the country we found it pretty relaxed and interesting.  It is another one of the original settlements and has a Unesco-listed historic centre.  We enjoyed wandering around and relaxing in the public squares in the evenings watching the families come out to chat and let their kids run around or school groups doing dance presentations.


Our final stop in Cuba was back north in Santa Clara.  Santa Clara has a nice, large central square to people watch in.  It's fame largely derives from being the final battle of the Cuban Revolution and the mausoleum of Che Guevara.  Of course we went to see the mausoleum and monument there (think big Soviet monument and statues with humourless guards).  The Che obsession in Cuba is very, very real.  I can understand it as all the communist governments do a very good job of forming cults around their heroes but the tourists can't seem to get enough either.  The counter-culture worship of Che makes no sense to me but to each their own.  We didn't buy any Che T-shirts but made it home with some great memories and both our lives.....

Che memorial in Santa Clara

 Relaxing in the central plaza