#UnusualHoliday: Travelling in North Korea

#UnusualHoliday: Travelling in North Korea
This country is strange to the point of being surreal, Photo Credit: Truba7113/Shutterstock

Sit back, fasten your seatbelts but do not relax, for North Korea is unlike any place you’ve ever seen.

Aroshi Handu
June 29 , 2020
04 Min Read

A stretch of unimpressive grey buildings dot the land as you stare from the tiny window in your hotel room, trying to make sense of what’s happening down below. You can spot manicured gardens with statues of the 'Great Leaders', formally-dressed locals going about their day and funnily enough, barely any cars on the road on a weekday. You look away from your window and wonder if your hotel room is bugged. Welcome to North Korea. 

Most Indians are not very familiar with this closed-off nation, not very far from us. And with good reason too. There are very few Indians brave (or crazy) enough to venture out into this alien land with no connection to the outside world and no internet. Although unusual, tourism in North Korea is gradually emerging, especially for Western and Chinese travellers, as the country is eager to somewhat reinvent its poverty-stricken image. Currently, the only place tourists are allowed to enter is the capital city of Pyongyang. 


A rare panoramic view of Pyongyang

Picture this: a fairly well-maintained city in India set in the 70s’ but with a much reduced number of people on the streets. Add to that a dollop of authoritarianism. That’s what it's like here. But none of this has deterred people, especially Indians, from travelling to this city. The easiest way to reach Pyongyang is to take a flight from New Delhi to Beijing in China and then transfer to Pyongyang. Or, if you prefer spending a little more time traversing the Chinese countryside, you can hop on a train from Beijing. 

This isn’t a place where you can take a solo trip where you marvel at historic sights and take photographs as you go. As soon as you step into North Korea, your passport will have to be handed over ‘for your safety’ and you’ll be assigned a travel agent who will take you on a government-approved tour of sights restricted to the capital city. \

Some recent tours have expanded to other parts of the country like Rajin and Chongjin, but only under special circumstances. Interestingly, your passport will not be stamped and the visa will just be a printed invite from the tour company. Talk about living off the radar. 

Bronze statues at the Grand Monument at Mansu Hill  

You’ll most likely be taken on a tour to the many museums that dot the city. The bronze statues of the Mansudae Grand Monument, the Tomb of Kongmin, the Kumsusan Palace are some of the must-see spots. Quite literally, because they will be added to your itinerary, especially the museums that showcase America’s crushing sanctions and North Korea’s ‘superior might’ over South Korea; and of course, the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea. 

Bowing and showing respect is expected of from both locals and tourists

Pyongyang is very modern in some respects, but completely alien in others in that there is absolutely no reference to the outside world anywhere. There are no ads, no external internet (just a heavily censored intranet) and one will be severely punished for owning South Korean media like films and TV shows. You’ll be strictly expected to follow all the rules or else you might get imprisoned for things like taking non-approved photographs, wandering off on your own, interacting with the locals or the most dangerous yet — folding or damaging a newspaper or poster with the picture of the Great Leader. Curiosity will definitely get the cat killed here.

A few quick tips to keep in mind:

  • Don’t discuss religion or politics 

  • Do not interact with the locals

  • Do not wander off on your own

  • Do not take photos of government monuments

  • Do not desecrate any posters of the Great Leaders

  • Praise every stop on your tour

  • Take permission before photographing

  • Listen to your guide — any wrongdoing on your part can get them imprisoned 

  • Be aware of the political situation

  • Have enough cash with you before entering the country

Follow all the rules and don’t do anything foolish. Rest assured, you will have a pleasant stay in North Korea. 

An entrance to the Pyongyang Subway


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