Most people who visit North Korea stick to Pyongyang for 4-5 days and that is pretty much their North Korean experience. For us, we wanted more. We wanted to get out, go through the country side, visit the beaches and also the mountains. I had too many questions that I needed answered to just stick to the restraints of the city. The cities are the more mind boggling part of the experience but the regional areas blew you away in a different way.
The country is spectacular. Yes, we visited in winter so it was stark and barren but it was still stunning. It was not hard at all to imagine how beautiful it would be in the spring – cherry blossoms trees were everywhere. Rice paddies and wheat fields dominate most of the land. We passed cotton plantations, pear farms, apricot farms – all waiting for the cold, harsh winter to pass so they could blossoms and bring colour and beauty to a country so dark.
Weeping willows lined rivers and city paths, pine forests and maple trees framed small farming villages. Rivers were like glass – clear and smooth. The ocean was like a mirror, waterfalls some of clearest I have ever seen. We had snow – the first of the season. We even visited the ski fields now open for tourists – I did a hotel inspection here and was blown away. I felt like I was in Austria. It was beautiful.
The people – well, this is where it became evident of back breaking labour. Walking for kilometres alongside cows pulling rickety carts, riding bicycles through the snow with no beanies, rural life is tough. Elders who should long be retired, were bent over plowing fields getting ready for the next season of harvest.
Fisherman were busy on their wooden boats trying to meet their quota set by the state. We visited a co-op farm where the workers are paid in rice and if they exceed their quota, they can choose to keep the extra rice they earn or sell it at farmers markets for cash. We were shown the tractor the leader had bought this farm. It had a flat tyre and could not be used.
There were more military in the countryside than the cities. We were even stopped on the side of the road for half an hour in the middle of nowhere because someone important was coming and so all roads were blocked. I secretly hoped it was the leader but sadly, it wasn’t. Whilst stopped, a little girl came and went to the toilet in the middle of the dormant rice field next to us… we were right next to a farm village. I asked our guide what those houses were like inside. Did they have toilets and running water? I already knew they didn’t have electricity. She said no toilet and no water. There would be a well where they obtained water. I asked if we could walk through the village (knowing what the answer would be) and all of a sudden I was ignored – as if I hadn’t said anything. I waited a few minutes and asked again but rephrased my question ‘can foreigners visit and walk through any farmers villages like this one?’ The answer was ‘only some’ – I said ‘can we walk through one?’ Again I was ignored. I decided to drop it.
Whilst life looked tough, we did not witness famine or people who looked like they were staving. Everyone we saw was ‘normal’. Well fed, dressed reasonably considering their work.
When we hit the mountains, this is the part that impressed me the most. I will let the photos do the talking.
The DMZ experience in the north is totally different from the south. I have been twice from the southern side – this was something else.
The biggest controversy of what we experienced herewas the wall. You know the wall that separates north and south? It’s 247km from coast to coast. 8m high and goes 2m under ground and can only be seen from the North Korean side. It took the US and South Korea 3.5yrs to build. Wait you haven’t hear of this either? Well I have seen it… through binoculars – several pairs of them, and am still not sure what I saw. There was certainly a wall of some sort for a small section I looked at, but you can make up your own mind.
For those who didn’t know, did you know both North and South Korea have put in a joint bid to hold the 2032 summer Olympics? If they won, the opening ceremony would likely be held in Pyongyang at the worlds largest stadium. How does that information make you feel and what does that make you think about the Korea situation? Everyone will have their own opinion on this. I certainly have mine.
What about the announcement a few weeks ago with both sides inspecting and confirming each others section of the DMZ and officially confirming that it is weapon free. Also that the train line between North and South is now reconnected. Things are changing and moving.
To wrap it all up, North Korea is the most fascinating country I have ever visited. I am confused, but more learned. I have had my eyes opened but still feel like I saw nothing. For someone curious like me, I am hooked. I have to go back. I feel I know what to look for a little more next time. Look for the detail… ask different questions.
The people we saw were ‘fine’ because they know no different but they need to be freed. Tourism can help open their world and make a difference. The more influence from the outside the world, this can only be a good thing to break down a dated political system.
It certainly is not a destination for everyone and I respect that. But being in a position to be able to take people into this country, if I can make a difference, then I will.
I appreciate not everyone agrees on supporting tourism in certain parts of the world, trust me, I talk to people questioning some of our destination choices every day, but that’s what Crooked Compass is all about. Educating travellers safely with first hand experience so they can make up their own minds.
Does travelling to North Korea interest you? Crooked Compass offers small group tours to the ‘Hermit Nation’. Click here for more information.
This category of tours involves light trekking, walking, cycling, rafting or kayaking for a few hours each day with a small amount of inclines and declines. You will require a reasonable level of fitness and good health to participate. It is important to note that due to the nature of some of our trips, they may take place in remote areas (with basic facilities) and can involve long travelling days on various modes of transport.
Suggested preparation : At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake aerobic exercise (this may include jogging, cycling or fast walking) for 30 minutes, three times a week. It is also advised to walk on variable terrain and in variable weather conditions. For a cycling adventure, road cycling twice a week is recommended and for adventures which involve paddling and kayaking, it is important to gain confidence and rhythm rather than speed prior to departure.
This category of tours involve trekking, kayaking and cycling for period of 6 to 8 hours a day at a fairly consistent pace. Ideal for people looking to slightly increase the heart rate. For our moderately rated tours, you must have a good level of fitness and also be in good health. It is also important to be prepared for variable weather conditions. Altitude may also come into play. This category of tours may involve visiting remote areas where facilities can be quite basic. Accommodation may also involve camping, homestays or basic accommodation where facilities may not be considered of western standards. To enjoy this style of travel, it is suggested for travellers to have a reasonable level of fitness and health, a positive attitude, as well as a fairly active lifestyle. An open mind is also required.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake 45mins – 1 hour of aerobic exercise, three to four times a week. Some potential exercises that could be beneficial include hill walking with a backpack on over variable terrain and weather conditions, as well as running and cycling dependent on the activity you plan on undertaking.
This category of tours involves trekking, kayaking, cycling or other adventure activities in remote areas for up to 8 to 10 hours a day. It is important to note that with the remoteness of some regions comes a variety of other challenges such as variable weather conditions, accommodation as well as facilities. You must have an excellent level of fitness and good health to be able to partake in this category of tour. You must have confidence in your own ability and be in good physical condition. Includes extended periods of endurance.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 to 4 months of strenuous exercise, four times a week. When preparing for treks it would be beneficial to participate in hill walks with a weighted day pack (approximately 5-8 kg) once a week for aerobic fitness and strengthening of leg muscles. It is also important to do this on variable terrain to prepare for challenging adventures. When preparing for cycling adventures, regular bike riding (at least 4 to 5 times a week for 1-4 hours is essential). It is also important to cycle on uneven surfaces or even participate in other aerobic exercises such as running or swimming to build up strength and stamina. Altitude may also be a factor in these tours.
This category of tour often involves extreme trekking, cycling or other extreme adventure activities. It is important to expect remote and poorly defined tracks and to be prepared for variable weather conditions for 10 to 12 hours per day (may sometimes be more depending on weather and altitude). These adventures are suitable for travellers who have prior experience in strenuous travel and activities, are extremely fit and have excellent health. It is also important to note that some of the terrain on these adventures will involve trekking in snow, at high attitude levels and may require technical equipment.
Suggested preparation: It is important to note that physical fitness should be an ongoing activity, commencing around 5-6 months prior to departure, or even before if you have no prior fitness. Exercise should focus on building maximum endurance and stamina. Four to five hard sessions of 40-60 mins per week should be completed and can include exercises such as going to the gym, running, swimming or cycling to focus on building aerobic stamina. It could also be beneficial to prepare by hiking on rough terrain, in extreme weather conditions or partake in altitude training.