Categories
Asia North Korea

96 Hours in North Korea, Tour and the DMZ, Part 2

As we continued on our whirl-wind tour of Pyongyang, we visited the Civilian Movie Complex where North Korean films are made. While walking around movie sets that resembled ancient Chinese, Japanese, and Korean villages and streets, we stopped at the European-American house and found a snack bar inside. Now we were either enjoying an ice cream or soft drink treat on that movie set. And it was so good and welcome.

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Japanese movie set
Chinese movie set
Chinese movie set
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Europe/American house containing a snack bar
Ancient Korea movie set
Ancient Korea movie set

At the ancient Chinese movie set we visited the costume shop where we could select a costume to wear for $1 US. It was so much fun getting made into a character and all 12 and two of our guides had our group photo made in our “actor-actress” costumes.

Trying on costumes

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For other recreation we bowled at the Pyongyang Game Center and I was surprised to see that the equipment was from Brunswick and made in the USA.

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After the costume event, we went to Changgwang Health Complex, where North Korean families could exit refreshed from facials, haircuts, swimming, steam baths, showers, massages, and hot tub sessions. Several of our group participated in services along with the Pyongyang people.

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Ladies hand out shoes for the guests
Ladies hand out shoes for the guests at the Health Complex

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We also visited the Fun Fair Amusement Park in Pyongyang to experience over six heart-stopping rides, and we heard the happy screams from the riders. Even though it was dark,  we could see some rides needing upkeep because they were illuminated.

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On the way to the Fun Fair, we saw the monuments beautifully bathed in light and the rest of Pyongyang was dark. We were told not to worry about the power outages because our hotels and places we visited had generators. And everything worked for us.

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We visited the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, built in 1975 and expanded in 1985, where all the graves were marked with the deceased’s bust in bronze. Flowers were blooming in pots and the busts were shining brightly in the sun. It was a very respectful and quality presentation for the hundreds of martyrs entombed there. Kim Il-Sung’s mother and first wife are entombed in the cemetery.

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Looking down toward the entrance of the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery
Looking back at the climb we had to make up to the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery

North Korea has a population of about 20 million and all people belong to a work group. When a job needs to be done, a specific work group is called to harvest, plant, or maintain rice or any other need in the country. Rice, potatoes, corn, and beans are the main cash crops.

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Outside the city we saw work being done by hand in gardens and fields with minimal equipment. We saw a herd of cattle being led into the field to go about a day’s work in the rice fields to plow the fields 1-2 rows at a time with the farmer guiding the way.

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Where the farmers live while their crops are growing

On the 2 1/2-hour trip from Pyongyang to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), we saw rice field after rice field right up to the 38th parallel line that divides North and South Korea.

The countryside along the road to the DMZ
The countryside along the road to the DMZ

North Koreans are super-industrious and we saw them working everywhere individually or in groups. No one was idle or begging in the streets.

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A vineyard we saw

Two men in Kaesong, the capital of ginseng processing, were squatting and working a hand plow where one man pulled the rope towards him and the other man pulled the handmade wooden plow towards him, going back and forth, thus plowing a small strip of ground dirt. It looked like using a tug-of-war method to plow.

There are no billboards that advertise things to buy in North Korea. This is the only type of billboard we saw:

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At the DMZ, near Kaesong, we saw the line that divides North and South Korea. Inside the blue huts one could cross into South Korea.

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At the DMZ, we visited the museum where the Armistice Agreement ending the Korean War was negotiated from 1951 to 1953 and then signed. On display were photos, desks used in the negotiations, and the signed documents of the event. To get to this museum, we had to line up in 4 straight lines and proceed in order to the museum. So, line 1 went first, then 2 then 3 then 4. In the museum, we were free to look at all the displays.

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Policeman at the DMZ talks about the Korean War
Map of the DMZ
Map of the DMZ
Getting my photo with one of the policemen at the DMZ
Getting my photo with one of the North Korean policemen at the DMZ

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The road to the DMZ is in perfect condition with no potholes. Besides us, we saw only 3 other cars in the 2 1/2-hour trip.

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We were able to stand in the middle of the highway to take photos
The highway from Pyongyang to the DMZ
The highway from Pyongyang to the DMZ

On the way to the DMZ, we saw the most beautiful sunset.

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We saw an arch-like monument across the highway between Pyongyang and the DMZ of two ladies joining hands, signifying North Korea’s wish of the two Koreas becoming one.

Monument to 3-Charter of National Reunification
Monument to 3-Charter of National Reunification

In Kaesong we stayed at the traditional Korean Minsok Folk Hotel, slept on the heated floor and had only cold water, all in the traditional Korean way. Plus, we ate dinner and breakfast sitting on the floor also like the Koreans do. We stayed only one night for our unique Korean hotel experience.

Our hotel in Kaesong
Our hotel in Kaesong
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Our hotel grounds
Our hotel room
Our hotel room
Another part of our hotel room
Another part of our hotel room
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Breakfast at the hotel

On our walking tour of Kaesong, close to the DMZ, it was like we were observing an old 1930’s movie action scene of people going about their mornings in the city in slow motion. There were no cars on the streets and only a few trucks, bicycles and people pushing carts. And as we stood and watched the daily street life, we said hello to the Korean people that passed, and they responded with a smile and a wave. Several of them permitted us to take their photo.

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The streets of Kaesong
The streets of Kaesong

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Outside of Kaesong we saw the tomb of King Kongmin from the year 1372 that was two round domes side by side and covered in green grass. One dome tomb contained the remains of King Kongmin and the other contained his wife. These were not destroyed in the Korean War. Most buildings in North Korea had been built since the war, many with help from the USSR.

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I had the opportunity to buy
We had the opportunity to buy a beautiful, traditional Korean celadon vase

North Koreans have many holidays and celebrations with the Autumn Festival the biggest of all. Since 1975, the Arirang Games have usually been held every year from late July to October to celebrate the story of the DPRK. The games are held in the unique architecturally-designed May Day Stadium and are the only performance of their kind in the world. The opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing borrowed elements from the Arirang Games, our Beijing guide told us.

Arirang Games Photo Credit: Washington Post

At North Korean weddings the guests eat dog meat as a delicacy. It is served as Dog Meat Soup. The entire time I was in North Korea, I saw 2 dogs and they were in good condition. A newly married couple eat cold noodles on their wedding day to signify a long life. Honeymoons as we know them do not exist. Each couple pledges to get back to work after visiting family and friends. North Koreans work six days a week from 8 am to 6 pm, with Sunday free. After work they practice for the Arirang Games. We viewed them practicing one night until 9 pm and we went to the Fun Fair.

North Koreans love cigarettes and chocolate. They are very clean in everything except their toilets.

When a first child is born, a one-year birthday party is held where objects are placed before the child and the first one the child selects indicates what the child will be in life. The objects the child has to select from are a large spool of thread representing long life, a brush and Korean calligraphy set/pencil and book that indicates a good scholar, a pistol for the military, a book/bow/arrow for boys or a ruler/scissors for girls to indicate dexterity, money/rice/rice cakes for richness, music for a singer, and a knife that indicates the child will be a good chef.

A schoolboy in Kaesong sketches a pagoda
A schoolboy in Kaesong sketches a pagoda
The pagoda he was sketching
The pagoda he was sketching

We had the opportunity to visit the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang. Artisans demonstrate their crafts and offer them for sale.

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Outside of Mansudae Art Studio

The Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang is a place for people to come, study and use Dell computers. The computers are connected to an intranet that is only within North Korea except for a few permitted foreign websites that are mostly scientific.

Looking across Kim Il-Sung Square to the Grand People's Study Palace
Looking across Kim Il-Sung Square to the Grand People’s Study Palace
A North Korean man reads inside the Grand People's Study Palace
A North Korean man reads inside the Grand People’s Study Palace

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The trip to North Korea was enjoyable. It was an adventure I’ll never forget.

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Categories
Asia North Korea

96 Hours in North Korea, Part 1

Visiting communist countries is interesting to me because they only show you their beautiful monuments and places.

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Magnificent 90-foot-tall bronze statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il on a hill overlooking Pyongyang

So, for my 164th country to visit, I chose North Korea, and it was a 4-day whirl-wind 12-hours-a-day tour and we enjoyed every minute of it. I read somewhere that only around 2,500 Americans have ever toured North Korea even though it is legal for Americans to visit. I decided to take a tour of the country also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK. They believe they should be reunified with South Korea and that there is only one Korea, not a North or South.

Monument to 3-Charter of National Reunification
Monument to 3-Charter of National Reunification

To get there, I used a Canadian tour company, Bestway Tours and Safaris, that selected Koryo Tours of Beijing, China as the tour company I was to use. Koryo Tours is the #1 company to take visitors to North Korea. And they are busy because tourism to North Korea is rising yearly. Everything on the tour was paid for in advance except tips and souvenirs. Koryo Tours reminded us: don’t forget to tip and give chocolate and cigarettes. We were totally pleased with Koryo Tours’ services and recommend them for an outstanding tour.

Koryo Tours office in Beijing
Koryo Tours office in Beijing

Our North Korean leaders, Khoi and Mr. Lee with the Korean International Tour Company, and Sarah Davies with Koryo Tours of Beijing, were outstanding in every way. All 3 tour leaders were with us every minute we were touring. We even had a North Korean video photographer with us at all times to record the tour for us who worked also with the Korean International Tourist Company, the official tour company of the DPRK, in Pyongyang. At the end of the tour we could buy a DVD of our tour. On the tour, we went where the government guides took us and we enjoyed it.

One of our guides shot video for us
The guide who shot video for us finished on our last evening and brought us the DVDs to buy for $40 early the next morning.

Before departing on our tour, we were given suggestions on clothing and items to bring and not bring and general rules of the tour and of North Korea. We stayed at the Yanggakdo Hotel on an island in the Taedong River in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and we could not leave the island except in the tour bus. The hotel was clean and comfortable with good daily breakfasts and book stores and souvenir shops.

Our Pyongyang hotel room
Our Pyongyang hotel room
Our hotel bathroom
Our hotel bathroom

From Beijing, we flew by Koryo Airlines to Pyongyang, the capital of DPRK and a city of about 3 million people. We stayed two nights in that city and another in the city of Kaesong, near the demilitarized zone or DMZ. One more night in Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang gave us time to pack and buy souvenirs before we flew back to Beijing.

We started our tour by viewing the 90-foot-high magnificent bronze statues of Kim Il- Sung and Kim Jong-Il overlooking Pyongyang from a hill. They were flanked by huge bronze-relief monuments showing the history of DPRK. We placed flowers at the base of the statues to show respect.

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Bronze monument to one side of the statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il
Close-up of the mural
Close-up of the monument

Everywhere we went we saw photos and monuments of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, the North Korean former leaders. All government officials wear a pin on their lapel with the photo of their two past leaders on it.

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We saw the beautiful Arch of Triumph that celebrates the anniversary of the DPRK. It is 180 feet high and is bigger than the Arc d’Triumph in Paris.

Arch of Triumph
Arch of Triumph

We went to the top of the the nearby Juche Tower Monument to view the city of Pyongyang. Juche represents self-reliance.

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Juche Tower in the distance. In the middle ground are people practicing for the games this fall.
Juche Tower in the distance. In the middle ground are people practicing for the games this fall.

We saw Kim Il-Sung University, Kim Chaek University of Technology, and Kim Il-Sung Square, where the military parades are held. Every foot of the square is marked with white paint to indicate where each person in the parade is to stand, our guide told us.

Marks painted on the street for soldiers to know where to stand for drills
Marks painted on the street for soldiers to know where to stand for drills
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The Grand People’s Study Palace on Kim Il-Sung Square
Mangyongdae Schoolchildren's Palace
Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace

At the beautiful, marble Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace we enjoyed the children’s very professional performance of dance, music, gymnastics, and acrobatics. The high quality of the show astounded us all. The school has up to 5,000 students. I learned that North Korea has 40 different alphabets. In a park, we saw school children sketching pagodas on a pad. And I just had to have my photo made with one of the children.

Inside the Children's School
Inside the Children’s School
A student stands in front of a replica Space Shuttle
A student stands in front of a replica Space Shuttle
The children's show
The children’s show

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After school, the children learn computing, sports, foreign languages, chess games, musical instruments, embroidery, and Chinese/Korean writing.

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Most of the women school teachers wore the beautiful, traditional Korean dress (choson-ot), which reminded us we were in Korea.

A teacher instructs a student in embroidery
A teacher instructs a student in embroidery

The school children were dressed in a white blouse or shirt with a red bandanna, and a navy blue skirt or pants.

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On the sidewalks of Pyongyang, I observed many sophisticated-looking men and women. Ladies were dressed in heels, hose, and nice dresses, and men dressed in black dress slacks and a white dress shirt. The ladies carried metallic-looking parasols with UV protection to protect them from the hot sun while walking several blocks to their destination. Every North Korean person I saw in Pyongyang had a beautiful, excellent figure and physique. Everyone we encountered was poised, professionally dressed, and had perfect manners. The ladies had their long hair pulled back behind their ears or tied up in a bun.

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I asked our North Korean tour leader, Khoi, where I could get a parasol. Ten minutes later our bus arrived at a souvenir shop that sold them, and 5 women rushed out of the bus and immediately ran into the shop and grabbed parasols to purchase. We were not allowed to use North Korean won, but our own currency was accepted. Even though the umbrellas cost $35 each, we were very happy with our purchases.

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With our new gold metallic-looking UV-protection parasols in hand, we went to the 50-meter-high Party Foundation Monument that signifies a hammer for the worker, a sickle for the farmer, and a brush for the intellectual. There, we had many photos of our beautiful Korean parasols and the monument taken with us holding our umbrellas for all to see the different colors reflecting gold tones. We were so proud of our unique parasols and our North Korean guides were happy to see we were having so much fun with them.

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Party Foundation Monument

We visited the National Gift Museum where gifts from heads of state from many countries to Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are on exhibit. The gifts are exquisite and one-of-a-kind priceless articles and objects.

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National Gift Museum

We visited the boyhood home of Kim Il-Sung that had an intricately woven, artistically thatched roof. Outside the home is the well where he drew drinking water, and we were invited to drink the water from the well.

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A guide tells us about Kim Il-Sung’s boyhood home
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The well that Kim Il-Sung used as a child
Mural representing Kim Il-Sung's decision as a young man to go to war
Mural representing Kim Il-Sung’s decision as a young man to go to war

We had potato salad for our first food dish and found the Korean food to be very good and filling at each of the three daily provided meals. Special dinners were tasty, including a special BBQ dinner and a pansanggi dinner of 12 small golden dishes filled with different foods. And at all special dinners we sampled Soju, the Korean national rice wine that is 25% alcohol and very strong. At the Farewell Dinner we cooked duck over a table grill and enjoyed it with the strong rice wine. Dog meat soup is a special Korean dish, but I missed my chance to try it.

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A Pyongyang restaurant we visited
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Meat is ready to be cooked at our own table grill
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Pansanggi dinner in brass bowls

We had a “Hot Pot” dinner where the food is cooked in an individual pot filled with broth, spices, beans, meat, carrots, noodles, pork, salt, cucumbers, lettuce, and cabbage over a grill at each seat, all eaten with sticky rice.

"Hot Pot"
“Hot Pot”
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We learned that proper Korean manners include pouring tea for others first

We saw the outstanding-looking 105-floor, 3,000-room triangle-shaped Ryugyong Hotel, called the “Hotel of Doom.” It has been under construction since the 1980’s and still is not open. It dominates the skyline of Pyongyang. We saw many buildings of unique and creative architectural design in Pyongyang. Most buildings have been built since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Many of the buildings are pastel colored, ranging from light rose, green, gray, yellow, and pink to peach.

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Everywhere that there was a TV or audio, day or night, we heard and saw opera performances, singing and beautiful flowers. Pyongyang was very quiet and peaceful. On the balconies of all apartment buildings the people had put out flowers and nothing else. Every balcony on every apartment at every building were all the same.

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We stopped at three Metro stations on the underground 2-line Metro system that is 35 kilometers long, has 17 stops, and serves up to 300,000 riders daily. The incredible stations had chandeliers and wall paintings depicting the people and the DPKR’s leaders. All were just outstanding in their beauty.

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Mosaic mural on the subway wall

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Inside a subway car
Inside a subway car

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Public transportation above ground was full with people, and we saw many waiting at the bus stops. Almost no one has a car so the streets were nearly empty of vehicles. The mode of transportation is by walking, bicycle, bus, tram, and Metro. A liter of gas costs one Euro, which is approximately US$5.50 per gallon of gas. There were no traffic jams or wrecks anywhere. The trams have stars on each side that indicate how many years the tram had been wreck-free, our guide told us.

North Korean tram
North Korean tram

Strips of land adjacent to Pyongyang’s main streets were being planted with seeds, then covered in plastic raised about six inches above the ground to create a hothouse effect, making the grass grow faster. Persons balanced on boards above the grass, squatting and working these strips of grass daily, picking weeds, carefully hand-watering with a watering can, and not stepping on the grass bed during this entire process. One person on our tour saw a North Korean man carefully manicuring a new grass yard using tweezers. And many people in plastic raincoats worked through the rain on the grass strips.

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We’re halfway through our 96-hour tour. Next comes North Korea, part 2 and the DMZ.