Hello, mutants. Thank you for clicking the thing what led you here, innit.
OK. So I went to North Korea about 3 months ago, and I’ve just got round to writing up the testimonial I promised the company, Young Pioneer Tours. Whoops.
This is taken from a Q+A I did on http://forum.football365.com – a website as strangely obsessed with North Korea as I am and actually where I first heard of Young Pioneer Tours a few years ago. The circle is complete!
Some of you may know that I won a free trip to North Korea. Some of you might know that I had no idea I’d actually entered a competition. Some of you might know me as a miserable, sceptical bastard, so of course I thought it was a scam. No! There was no small print, no extra charges, it wasn’t a ploy for my new Chinese employers to spy on me, it was just a stroke of unbelievable luck.
What happened was, once I found out I had an interview for China, I started looking at YPT to see if I could realistically do it. Sadly, it was way out of my price range and it seemed like I would never be able to afford it on a Chinese salary. I clicked ‘Like’ on the Facebook page so I could go back to it on the off chance my finances changed in the future, and thought nothing more of it.
Fast forward a couple of months or so, and I found out I had the job in China. Success! We were warned to lock our Facebook pages to protect us from our employers’ cyber-snoopers trying to find out if they had taken on an alcoholic. Since by Chinese standards most British people are alcoholics, I took this advice to heart and locked out my Facebook.
A few days later I had a request from a fellow called Gareth Johnson. Who? I clicked on his Facebook and saw his location was China. Ignore!
Until I realised weeks later that there was a message in my Facebook junk mail from him telling me I’d won a free trip to North Korea, and if I didn’t claim it soon it would go onto the next person. After getting out my scam detection kit (I’m still not convinced it actually works, I’ve seen no results and the guy who sold me it to me was a bit dodgy) and asking the small print questions, it soon became apparent that it was legit and Gareth Johnson was in fact the director of YPT! Just by liking the Facebook page, I had entered myself into a prize draw and won!
Of course, I had to fit the trip around unpredictable Chinese holidays and incompetent bosses (who actually gave me the time off work I needed, but didn’t bother telling me…), so it was another six months before I was able to actually go. YPT were very patient with me though and very flexible, even though I was supposed to go in 2011. Even then, it was touch and go for a while – Kim Jong Il selfishly went and, ya know, DIED a couple of weeks before I was supposed to go! Luckily everything passed off without a hitch and the rest is history.
As for the Q+A, I think this covers just about everything that could possibly be asked about the trip. As I said in my introduction to the Q+A, I can only comment on what I actually saw. I am 100% aware of the scumminess of the North Korean regime and I’m not an apologist for them. If you want to find out about human rights, or starvation, or politics, there are things you can read up about that which are written by people who know what they’re talking about. All I said was, ask me a question and I’ll answer it as best I can. Hopefully this will answer any questions for anyone thinking about going.
Q: Captain Twunt wrote: Do they sell Carling in the pubs and if so how much was it for a pint?
Q: coisty777lineker wrote: What was the beer/lager like?
A: I didn’t see any Carling, but they had Heineken in a lot of places. It was never more than 1 euro or 10RMB for a 600ml bottle of whatever beer they had. We drank every day, which was lovely. The local brew was very good. They had a really nice micro-brew lager and a few wheat beers that went from pretty nice to pretty disgusting (but totally drinkable).
Q: DrKimble wrote: How was the food? How were the ladies?
A: The food was actually amazing. Highlights included: duck barbecue, Korean barbecue, a ton of all different kinds of kimchi… oh, and dog soup…
Dog soup, I’m ashamed to say, was actually delicious and tasted an awful lot like lamb.
The ladies were often actually very pretty. I was advised though that the penalty for one of them doing anything with me would probably be a work camp… though I think it would still be worth the risk for them, since I’m pretty good. Here is the only picture I have of a Korean girl not looking repulsed by me:
I think I took her by surprise – maybe she was thinking about puppies or the Leader before I pounced on her, but within a split second she looked as repulsed as the rest and normal service was resumed.
Q: Gonz wrote: What’s the standard of toilet roll like?
A: Better than China, and in a lot of places you could even flush it!
Q: Captain Twunt wrote: Do they show Neighbours on TV and if so, how far behind us are they?
A: I don’t know, but I’m sure I saw Bouncer on a cookery programme…
Q: Dictator wrote: What was the general state of the hotel you stayed in? I googled the one mentioned in the link you left to the trip organisers, and although it seemed pretty large and nice the pictures of the insides seemed 1960’s/bioshock-esque…
Not that I thought it looked messy or untidy, but I just found it a bit strange how dated it seemed, from the pictures I’ve seen anyway.
A: I found the hotels to be lovely. The one in Pyongyang wasn’t actually that old fashioned. Rooms were big and spacious and could have been any decent hotel in China, if that helps. Nicely decked-out, cheap bar, casino, and some other stuff we didn’t get time to see.
The other one in Nampo was just amazing. It was actually villa-apartments, really old fashioned luxury 60s decor but you had your own hot spring bath, villa, really nice surroundings and, best of all, no light pollution whatsoever so you got to see every star in the sky and the milky way!
Q: dimmsau wrote: were you being watched the whole time?
Q: marcus4zero wrote: Is it worth going and how closely observed did you feel like you were on the trip?
A: Worth going? Absolutely. Absolutely, absolutely. I want to go back again ASAP. Everyone who went had an amazing time. There were a really mixed group of travellers there in our group – lots of different nationalities and ages and various levels of travelling experience. One guy was a very seasoned traveller (actually, a professional traveller really, so naturally averse to group tours) who has basically seen the world five times over, but was like a kid in a sweet shop.
It was massively interesting, but to my surprise it was a lot of fun as well. I expected it to be mostly photo opportunities, museums and propaganda, but it was actually genuinely really fun and the sites were genuinely interesting and explained very well. In terms of being watched and observed, outside the hotel we were always accompanied, but not really ‘watched’ as such. We had a Western tour guide and two North Korean guides who spoke excellent English. We also had a driver, a guy recording for a souvenir DVD and a minder. The minder was the only one who was really watching anyone or anything. He was only there because we had fundamentalist Christian South Korean/Americans on the tour – which just goes to show that the place is more open than you might expect!
Apparently the minder was mostly there to keep an eye on the guides, not on us. He was actually really sound. He seemed to take a shine to me (he pretty much said it was just because I wasn’t American, but I like to think it was my sparkling personality). We had a few beers together and we were getting along swimmingly. then he’d pop out with something like ‘if we were around in 1950 we would be shooting each other’ or ‘Europeans are obsessed with money’. All in jest, I think…!
The guides spoke practically perfect English and were hilarious. If they are anything to go by then the North Korean sense of humour is about as dry as it gets – it’s hard to tell if they’re joking sometimes, which I love – but they were excellent company and, of course, they really knew their stuff. As for being followed around: the rule of thumb is supposed to be that if you’re not in the hotel, you’re not going to the toilet and you can’t see a guide, you’ve wandered too far. However, we wandered around a fair bit (without taking the piss). I never felt like anything was intrusive at all and I’m 100% sure they were never trying to catch us out or anything.
Q: The 3rd Doctor wrote: Did you ever reach an area were your escorts or whoever said, “You’re not going in there”?
A: Nope. I was expecting all the same things that lots of people asking questions were (don’t photograph this, don’t go here, don’t do that) but really, there was none of this whatsoever. I couldn’t believe it. To my knowledge everyone felt completely comfortable and after a while we forgot that we were supposed to be massively restricted. We were always made to feel like guests and they had really pulled out the stops for us.
Q: Mister Rourke wrote: How closely did they monitor your photography? Where did you go? I heard in Pyongyang (at least the parts they let you visit) they are OK but outside much stricter. Also, would you recommend it? I am contemplating doing exactly this, you see…
A: To my knowledge, the photography wasn’t monitored. We were forewarned not to take pictures of soldiers but that’s about it. Most people did this through the bus windows anyway and it didn’t cause any problems. We weren’t really supposed to take photos from inside the bus but everyone did very un-subtly and nobody stopped us. I don’t think they really cared. As for where we went, you can see our itinerary here: http://dprk.youngpioneertours.com/group/dprk-group-tours/korean-new-year-tour/
Since it was so soon after the death of Kim Jong-Il, there were a couple of changes, but anything we missed out on was replaced by other things – we didn’t get to go to the maternity hospital or the orphanage, for instance. Apparently because the orphans had gone home for new year… not sure what homes orphans have to go to, but whatever…
We did get to go to a shooting range though, where I shot a chicken with a bolt-action rifle:
In short, I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you get the chance, and even if you don’t, then do it. As I said in a previous answer, without exception everyone on the tour loved it.
Q. Johnnyshaker wrote: Did you have any interaction with any locals at all?
A: Yeah – we were freely mingling with them on the sleeper from Beijing to Pyongyang before we’d even met up with our guides/minders. There was no point in me even trying to speak to them because of the language barrier though, but there are plenty of people who have lived in South Korea and picked up some of the language who would be able to get something more out of this. We got about half an hour with the folk on the Metro but chat was stunted again by the language barrier. Most of the interaction was silly and fun stuff – me and a girl on the tour had a competition to see who could get the sternest looking person to wave back at us. Lots of waving, lots of smiling from unlikely people (usually soldiers). We strayed away a bit and we were standing about 10 feet away from these three little girls who were totally made up to see us. We were already too far away from the tour, no guides in sight and it might have caused us all problems if we’d gone over to talk to them, so we just sort of jumped around and waved instead. They loved it. When we went back to the bus, they were a good 300 yards away and we could just make out these tiny little shapes jumping up and down and waving at us.
Q: theunstoppablegiraffe wrote: How did you arrange going? How much did it cost?
A: I arranged it through Young Pioneer Tours. Well, I say I arranged it. Actually, all I did was give them a few basic details (name, passport scan, address, stuff like that) and they sorted everything else out. Tour, visas, transport to and from from Beijing, everything. All I had to do was get myself to Beijing. If anyone has ever tried to get a Chinese visa on their own, they will know just how valuable it is to have someone else take care of the visa side of things for you!
Ordinarily the 5 day tours with YPT cost in the region of 1000 Euros. That gets you a visa, an overnight sleeper from Beijing to Pyongyang, hotels, meals and a Pyongyang-Beijing flight. I was incredibly lucky in that I actually won the trip in a prize draw so it cost me £0. However, now that I’ve been I can absolutely say that even though it might seem expensive, for the experience alone it’s worth it. Add to that the fact that practically everything is paid for once you’re there, and it’s actually nowhere near as expensive as it might seem. It may be a ‘budget’ tour but nothing is lost from it being cheaper at all.
The tours themselves are run from the North Korean side by the Korean International Tourism Company (KITC) – they decide on the itinerary and they provide the Korean guides, drivers etc. That means that whoever you tour with, you will basically get the same tour – from what I’m told, for the most part only the price changes. Young Pioneers tours are about 500 Euros cheaper than their nearest rival, Koryo Tours, but there was a Koryo tour on at exactly the same time as us and they quite often turned up at the same site just as we were leaving! In actual fact, from what our guides said and from reading other testimonials it actually seems that YPT generally gets a better itinerary than their competitors, simply because they badger the guides to get to the ‘forbidden’ places or to do fun activities – while there is a lot of sightseeing which is great, there is far, far more to the tour.
Q: collinasbarber wrote: Does this mean you are never getting into the US from now on?
A: Not at all. No stamp on the passport, no problem! Apparently it causes no problems whatsoever, anywhere. Bear in mind that something like 10 people on the tour were Americans. I was gutted that there was no passport stamp though.
Q: theunstoppablegiraffe wrote: Did you see the metro station and did it seem like it was the only one?
A: We went on a five-stop tour of the metro. There are definitely more, because commuters were still going both ways. If they had managed to stage as many commuters going to places that didn’t exist and as many genuinely surprised expressions then I would have to just hold my hands up and let them have that one! The most surprising part of it for me was the freedom we were afforded on the metro ride. I thought they’d maybe empty the station or at least put us on a separate carriage to the locals, but we were just allowed to mingle with commuters unobserved which was incredible. One kid nearly choked on some bread he was eating when he saw us!
Q: hulio julio wrote: See many people starving to death around the train stations?
A: No, they were all burned alive in front of our very eyes. It sounds so obvious to say but it needs to be said, because it’s one of the things that surprised me the most. When we saw people, they were going about their business. Commuting, working, walking around, carrying things, the kids ran about, they rode bikes, they drove cars… then, occasionally (well, twice), a group of soldier/construction workers would quick-march past somewhere chanting an anthem. Surreal but very cool. I’ve never heard a sound like it.
It’s easy to forget that countries and cities are basically pretty mundane places and North Koreans still just go about doing their daily business like everyone else. North Korea is portrayed as a very surreal place, but the most surreal thing I found was how relatively normal it seemed.
Q: roboplegic wrote: Congrats on helping to fund their f**ked up regime!
A: Cheers! Though if you’re from a UN country and you’ve ever bought anything that was taxed, or if you’ve ever spent any money whatsoever in China, South Korea, Switzerland or Bulgaria among others, you’re doing exactly the same thing since their aid and/or trade is the only thing keeping 20-odd million people from starvation…
Food for thought. In 5 days we: Gave gifts of hard-to-get imported goods and hard currency (Euros) to our guides, minders, drivers etc. amounting to something like 100 Euros per head;
I gave our driver a chicken, meaning that for that night his family would have a nice munch of Korea Fried Chicken;
We bought extra things at restaurants, gift shops, bars, hotels etc. that would keep real, normal people in a job;
We acted as ambassadors for our respective countries and behaved impeccably, chipping away very, very, very slightly at a boundary that helps keep the regime f**ked up…
Q: davie jambo wrote: Do they show Scottish Premier League football matches in the pub on ESPN ?
Hell no! They’ve suffered enough.
Q: Cor Blimey wrote: Do you think that, while certainly the country has more than its share of problems, the Western view of North Korea is significantly exaggerated and unfair and frequently inaccurate?
A: Easiest question to answer so far: yes. Absolutely, yes. One good example – we were at the DMZ on the North Korean side, at the part that’s only separated from the South by a 10cm high wall of concrete:
You can just about see it there, between the two blue buildings. The near side has North Korean soldiers, the far side South Korean soldiers. We were actually allowed into one of the blue buildings, crossed the half-way point and technically crossed into South Korea! Anyway – there was a big stone building behind us where we stood on the balcony and took photos. One of the guys on the tour said that he’d been at the other side of the DMZ a few years ago where they’d told him that the building was actually a front, and was completely empty. They said it didn’t even have a back to it! I can assure you that it did.
On the whole though, I can’t say any better than you can what’s accurate and what’s lies. I can tell you that we visited the memorial to Kim-Jong Il and paid our respects. There weren’t too many people around. A line of locals went in front of us to lay flowers and bowed. One older fella came away and dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief. No wailing, no bullshit. Nothing as hysterical as after Diana died and obviously nothing like what we saw coming out of the North Korean media.
There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind though that we’re lied to on a daily basis to a similar (but obviously much lesser) extent to the North Koreans. Our governments are doing terrible things and we’re being lied to about it. It’s a cliché, yes, but it’s a cliché because we’ve heard it so many times before. Because it’s true. Pick up a newspaper, watch Fox News, see for yourself how free our own media is. Like us though, there are probably some of them who lap it up and ask no questions, and then there are certainly many who know the score and their numbers seem to be rising (I’m basing that on reading interviews with people who managed to escape, not my own experiences). That’s my wee editorial there.
So, there you have it. If you have any further questions, feel free to drop a comment! Also, drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you need to know any specific information. There’s still time to enter the prize draw for the 2012 free trip: http://dprk.youngpioneertours.com/.