Because independent travel in DPRK is absolutely impossible, you would have to go through an approved travel agency. They will apply for a visa on your behalf and will organize the flight, hotels, local transportation and guides. Honestly, you wouldn't have to do a thing - just show up at the airport and let yourself be taken care of.
I personally wouldn't really enjoy this type of travel in any other situation, but after two weeks of navigating us through China (and making sure the hubby doesn't get lost), having someone else plan my rides and meals felt like an actual vacation.
In terms of the agency, I went with Young Pioneer Tours because they were the most affordable, convenient and fun option for us. Other two well-reviewed companies are Koryo Tours and Korea Consult.
Once you settled on the agency, you would have an option of joining a group or doing a private tour. In case of a private tour, you will still have two guides and a driver with you at all times. It cost a bit more of course, but - I'm guessing - also gives a bit more flexibility.
Now, I never thought I would write something like this, but I actually enjoyed the trip much more *exactly* because we were in a group. Having people from 15+ countries with different personal stories and reasons to come to DPRK made for some interesting conversations and insights. I just loved the cultural exchange that was going on in the group! And it totally helped that the beer was so cheap.
1. fly in from Beijing or Vladivostok, Russia
2. take a train from China's border town of Dandong
It used to be that American travelers weren't allowed into the country, which isn't the case anymore. However, they still can't take a train and have to fly in and out with North Korean Air Koryo.
For world's only one-star airline, Air Koryo wasn't that bad at all. We were given some free propaganda-filled magazines and really tasty veggie burgers, while TV screens blasted out a schoolchildren's concert.
No matter what company you go with, you will most likely end up at Yanggakdo hotel located on an island. Here's an interesting detail: we could walk around the hotel as much as we want, but couldn't leave the island - they have a checkpoint at the bridge. The hotel is enormous and has everything you may need: several restaurants, a bar, a karaoke room, a bowling alley, a swimming pool, a casino and a couple of gift shops to purchase cute Korean dresses for your next night out.
In addition to BBC World, a Russian channel and a couple of Chinese channels, we also had our favorite - North Korean propaganda channel! Seriously, it was so entertaining, that we had it on at all times. In the mornings they showed pretty Korean landscapes with music on the background. In primetime they had news, music concerts (singers dressed in army uniforms) and special reports from Kim Jong Un's "on-the-spot guidance" tours. Each of these tours seem to follow the same agenda: he points at things, people in his entourage quickly make notes, he greets the workers (soldiers/athletes), takes pictures with them and then all of a sudden everyone around him starts jumping up and down, cheering and sort of hysterically crying, except they aren't very natural at it... It looks something like this
The official currency of DPRK is called won. While all prices are listed in won, you can (and most likely will) pay in hard currency like euros, Chinese yuan or US dollars. So technically it's better for tourists to never bother with North Korean money, especially considering that it's illegal to take it outside of the country. But if you are like me and *really* want to make that exchange, be prepared for a questioning and a possible denial if your reasons for holding won aren't good enough. A had a really meaningful conversation with a receptionist at our hotel:
- Why do you need won?
- To buy things in your store
- What are you going to buy?
- Um.. whatever is there... water for example
- You don't need won to buy water
- Okay, in that case why do you have this big exchange sign here?
- If you wanted to exchange money
- To buy souvenirs
- Fine, I will buy souvenirs
That's how I got my won.
No surprise, we've never made it to places where locals shop. Instead, as a special treatment, we were brought to a hard currency supermarket called Paradise. Like the name suggests, it was a two-storey nirvana of various Chinese goods from baby clothes to bedroom sets, to ellipticals, to timpani drums. Prices there were in won as well and, based on the hotel's exchange rates (1 euro = 140 won; 1 USD =100 won), double of what they should be. I wonder how many North Koreans could actually afford shopping in there.
The real stores we passed a couple of times on the streets looked pretty sad from the outside: empty refrigerators and shelves with nothing but rows of what looked like mineral water. My understanding is that North Koreans shop at the black markets that have been spreading since the famine of the 90's.
I thought the food was excellent: very simple and less intense than Chinese. North Korean cuisine puts a lot of emphasis on cabbage, since it's probably the easiest vegetable to grow in the north. So no meal would be without cabbage and at one point there were four different types of it on our table.
Dishes are served on large plates to share among the guests, unless it's a soup that comes in individual portions. We also went to a couple of specialized restaurants like Hot Pot or Duck BBQ, where the food is cooked at the table.
Hot Pot restaurant is on the official itinerary, so if you visit North Korea, chances are you will make it here. They give you a pot, a little burner and a bunch of different ingredients (including cabbage) to make a soup. I never eat soups, especially cooked by me, but this one was superb!
On the very first day our guide outlined the three main rules:
- No pictures of military personnel, especially at the border (unless they are ok with it)
- No pictures of people in working clothes (try finding those without, considering they work 6 days/week)
- Pictures of Kim Il Sung statues have to be in full size. As in no creative positioning of his stretched arm in a corner of a frame... like you may have seen somewhere.
I'd say overall, taking pictures and filming was easier than I expected. Except for a few occasions, I was able to photograph relatively freely, even from the moving bus.
On the first day of the trip we all had to agree to bow in front of the main Kim Il Sung statue in Pyongyang and also at the mausoleum because in Korean tradition bowing shows respect. In fact, at the mausoleum we bowed three times in front of each Kim in very orderly rows of four. I remember our guide saying that if someone didn't want to bow, it would be a problem and my guess is that the person would have to stay behind at the hotel.
There was no particular dress code for regular days, but we did have to dress up to visit the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and now Kim Jong Il as well. No shorts or flip flops were allowed. Dress pants and button shirts for men were recommended, but some guys wore jeans and that didn't seem to bother anyone.
Did I miss any details? If there are things about traveling in North Korea that you are curious about - just ask!
If you are interested in my general impressions about this trip, check out Keeping An Open Mind In North Korea.