Saturday, April 22, 2017

How we travelled to North Korea (and returned back!) - #2

This is the second 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 first post. 
Click here for the third post. 
Click here for the fourth post.

The Day of the Sun

Many people that have visited the DPRK have mentioned the trip as time travel. I am not sure if we traveled in past or future, but we definitely transitioned from 2017 to Juche 106. DPRK has its own calender that started with the birth of their founder. 15th April 2017 was the 105th birth anniversary of their Eternal President Kim Il Sung. This day is referred to as 'The Day of the Sun' in DPRK and is a public holiday with lots of celebrations in their cities.

For us, it was the day of entering North Korea. At sharp 10:00 AM, our train left from Dandong, crossed the Yalu River and entered DPRK. It halted at the Sinuiju station for a customs check. 
The Broken Bridge bombed during the Korean War.
The customs check was extremely meticulous. We were asked to list down all electronic items, books or any other religious/art materials with us. Every bag of ours was opened and checked manually. My DSLR was scanned completely to find if I was carrying anything that was prohibited to their country. For a few passengers, hard disks and memory cards were erased. All this was done within the train. For each passenger. One by one. No one was allowed to get out of the train till this entire process got completed for everyone. Not sure of the fellow North Korean passengers, but the situation felt very tensed for us.

After about 1.5 hours, people started moving around freely. But the freedom was limited. On the platform you are not expected to move more than a few meters away from the door of your coach. I tried doing that once and received a loud 'Aye' from one of the guards on the platform. 

Around 12:30, when the train was about to move, a guard came in and signaled us to pick our bags and come out. The fellow Koreans in the train who spoke some English told us that he wanted us to move out. It turned out that he was allocating us a different seat, in a less crowded coach. Yes, he moved us away from the other North Korean passengers, right next to the guard's compartment. Possibly this was their way of keeping us away from the regular Korean travelers. Our new coach and seat numbers were also communicated to the guides who received us in Pyongyang. It was a well planned move.

The train moved. For the next 5 hours, we're only supposed to see through the window. Cameras were out. There was a lot to see and a lot to click.

Crossing the Sinuiju Town
Crossing the Sinuiju town
Some village on the route
Propaganda banners everywhere to keep citizens motivated.
An old man's living
The Day of the Sun banners.
The lone farmer and the fields of the state.
Kim Il Sung guiding his folks. Notice the flower bouquets placed at the mural on the account of his birthday.
Possibly a farming village. Most people either cycle or walk to anywhere.
A lone cyclist heading somewhere.

People walking/cycling.
Nicely manicured landscape with some motivational quotes.
Propaganda Banners everywhere!
Taking a break.
Notice the unpaved roads.
Smoke break.
The above pictures pretty much indicate 98% of the landscape that we saw till we entered Pyongyang. Farms, a few small villages, people walking/cycling with no sight of any town or houses nearby, people taking a break from work, propaganda banners at the top of hills - and then Pyongyang arrived.

Entry into Pyongyang. Tarred roads, manicured trees and lawns. The infamous Ryugyong Hotel in the backdrop.
At the Pyongyang railway station, our guides were already waiting for us. For two adults and one child, two tour guides and a driver was allocated to show us their country.

We were given a quick introduction about themselves, DPRK and then taken to our Hotel. The Yanggakdo Hotel is situated on a small island of Taedong River. Most tourists stay here and roaming outside of the hotel without the tour guides is strictly prohibited.

From the 18th floor of the room, Pyongyang looks urban. Quite contrasting to what we saw from the train.

The Pyongyang Skyline.
The sun sets on the Day of the Sun.

This day being the 105th birthday of President Kim Il Sung, there was a military parade and mass dancing in Pyongyang. Tourists were not invited but we were assured of a broadcast on TV at night. Our guides however allowed us to watch the celebration fireworks from one of the Taedong River bridges.

Celebratory fireworks on The Day of the Sun.
Our dinner was served at Hotel's KITC Restaurant No. 2. Hospitality at its best. Being vegetarians, we were taken care of well.

Dinner at KITC Restaurant No. 2
After dinner we headed back to our room. The hotel does have a lot to keep you busy, but we wanted to call it a day. The TV broad casted the events from today's celebrations.

On TV - Marshal Kim Jong Un salutes to the parade.

The next day was going to be a long day. Two days worth of tour now had to be shrunk in a single day. We were requested to report at the Hotel reception at sharp 8:00 AM.  The DPRK dream had finally come true.

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