Saturday, April 22, 2017

How we travelled to North Korea (and returned back!) - #1

This is the first post of the blog post series of our recent travel to Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) a.k.a North Korea. We traveled as a tourist family consisting of my wife, our 3 year old son and myself to this secluded country just to get an experience of what it feels like to be there.

Please note that my family and myself have a neutral political opinion about the country or the current situation there. This blog series does not indicate any kind of support/opposition towards their regime.

Click here for the second post. 
Click here for the third post. 
Click here for the fourth post.

My obsession with North Korea started back in 2014. It was limited to reading the news, books and their daily newspaper 'Rodong Sinmun'. I always wanted to visit Pyongyang and experience what it must feel like breathing the North Korean air. But travelling there was a distant dream. Shyamakshi was not interested, and I would not choose to go without her anywhere. The plan of visiting North Korea was never shelved, just because it was never in our agenda. 

Till 2016.

Last year, when Shyamakshi and myself were discussing about our next major vacation, Shyamakshi suggested we club Beijing and Pyongyang in a single trip. I am still not sure what made her want to travel to North Korea - her own curiosity or to keep the inner child in me happy. But then, who cares if your family agrees to show interest in your own whims and fancies! 

And so, we started planning it out before either of our minds change.

The days of the Inception

There are no tour organizers to North Korea from India. We contacted two of the reputed travel companies that can book us on a tour that they usually organize. We had a lot of questions, and we had a 3 year old toddler that would accompany us to North Korea. It started with sending out a list of questions to the travel companies. Here's a screenshot of a small sample of questions that we asked before finalizing the itinerary:

It took about 88 email conversations, back and forth between us and the representatives from the travel companies to finalize the dates and the itinerary. Since we had a child with us, we were recommended for an 'independent tour' so that our itinerary remains flexible and co-travelers are not disturbed.

We chose Young Pioneer Tours (YPT) for our trip to North Korea. We would take a train to Pyongyang - the capital of North Korea, stay for 4 days and then take a flight to Beijing. The North Korean visas were processed by Young Pioneer Tours. The action from our side was to get a tourist visa to China and show up at their 'pre-tour' meeting in Beijing.

The tour booking was done well in advance. 5 months before the trip, all was set - except for the tourist visa to China. Waiting for April to arrive was difficult. We decided to keep this trip discreet to avoid listening to any warnings, suggestions, criticisms and expert opinions from people around us. 

The day of the Pre-Tour Meeting

North Korea is a tricky place. As a tourist, you will be cut-off from the outside world. There are some dos/dont's to follow and some common sense involved. Hence, YPT ensures that all this is briefed to the tourists before they enter North Korea. In my opinion, this pre-tour meeting is part of the overall North Korea experience. You will be explained what to expect, what to do and what not to do (very important) and quite a few incidents that you might find funny or strange - depending on how you choose them to perceive. 

In this same meeting we were given our train tickets and North Korean Visas. 
The North Korean Tourist Visa
Our Itinerary looked like this:
  • 13-April: Take train K27 from Beijing to Dandong.
  • 14-April: Arrive in Dandong. Board the train from Dandong to Pyongyang. 
  • 15-April: City tour + witness the 105th Birthday celebrations of President Kim Il Sung.
  • 16-April: Visit the DMZ and places around Kaesong.
  • 17-April: Depart via the Air Koryo Flight to Beijing.
We were expected to meet our tour guides directly in Pyongyang. Unlike a group tour, we did not have anyone to accompany us in the train/flights. We would enter North Korea all by ourselves.

The day of the Missed Train

Our stay in Beijing was a typical Hutong Hotel in Dongcheng area. The roads are very narrow and blockages are frequent. All this led to late arrival of our taxi. The Beijing traffic pinched us as well, and we arrived at the railway station just 15 minutes before the train departed. As Indians, this is a very manageable situation. But unfortunately, the following held true.

The gates to the platform were already closed. Yes, we missed our train to North Korea! We called up our YPT point of contact John McGovern and explained him the situation. Fortunately he was in Beijing and close to the train station. He met us promptly, got us tickets for a fast train to Dandong for the next morning and worked up the updated itinerary. Our trip to North Korea was cut short by one day, but we managed to cover almost everything in our agenda.

We spent that night in Beijing. North Korea was still far away. The next night too would be in  China with North Korea just across the Yalu river.

The day of Dandong

Our fast train to Dandong reached in the evening. A YPT representative met us and provided us the tickets from Dandong to Pyongyang and gave us some prep-talk about customs check. Dandong was cold, windy and gray that day. We found it very depressing and surreal. Maybe we weren't done with the grief of the missed train. We took a quick stroll to the east. Across the Yalu river, we got the first glimpse of the hermit country.

North Korea on the other side.
So, here we were. Just a few thousand meters away from North Korea - after more than two years of obsessive readings, discussions, watching anything that had North Korea in its description and longing to breath its air. At this point I questioned myself if all that I knew would help me spend a few days in this isolated country? What lies beyond this point? What is the truth? What is not the truth? What will be shown to us? The questions kept popping up in our minds. We slept only because we wanted the next day to arrive faster. The day of the Sun.

Click here for the second post. 
Click here for the third post. 
Click here for the fourth post.