The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), aka “The Hermit Kingdom”, has always seemed like a mysterious land. The timing on my lap through Asia worked out perfectly, and I decided to check it out for myself – and to run the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon in the process. In short: exploring North Korea was an interesting look into an isolated kingdom, I ran my best marathon ever – 3:34, and took over 2500 photos and 3 hours of video, edited and presented below. Accessing North Korea
To get into North Korea as a tourist, it’s necessary to join a government-sanctioned tour group. Normally I tend to plan my own solo travel, often planning only a day or two ahead – so joining a tour group was a bit of departure for me. However it’s really the only way to do it, and actually, it was a great experience joining a proper tour group – even if our every move was overseen by a group of government guides.
I traveled with expert tour operator
Uri Tours, and specifically did their Pyongyang Marathon Beijing Departure Long Tour option. Before deciding to go to the DPRK with them, I did a bit of research on all of the companies running trips, and decided on Uri Tours for a number of reasons: They had a marathon-specific tour, which included both entry into the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon, as well as a more typical tour component. They seemed like they were a smaller company, with a bit more of a personal touch – my pre-sales emails were handled quickly and with a personal vibe. Finally, their CEO Andrea Lee seemed like a genuinely cool person, and took responsibility for leading the tour herself. During the trip I got to know her a bit, and it’s obvious that she puts everything she can into making these tours great. I’d certainly recommend Uri Tours for any of their itineraries. ( Uri Tours Pyongyang Marathon Photo Album) My experience exploring the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – North Korea
During my time in North Korea, I took close to 2500 photos, and around three hours of video. After a bit of editing, I’ve narrowed it down to 150 key photos, and a long video collection. This photo essay is a bit longer than my normal photo essays – I’ve chosen to include more images than I normally would, to give room for the many, many interesting aspects of the DPRK.
I was shooting on three cameras – an Apple iPhone6 smartphone, Sony RX100mk3 compact point and shoot camera (which I love very very much), and a GoPro Hero 4 Silver Action Camera. Photos from all three cameras are mixed into this collection. (
Also on Flickr)
Flying to North Korea
captTo get to North Korea, I flew with my group from Uri Tours from Beijing, China. Our first initial meeting as a group was the night before at a restaurant in Beijing, and then most people stayed together that night in Beijing in a hotel. A few more people joined us at the Beijing airport, and by the time the flight was boarding, everybody was assembled at the gate. it’s worth noting that this was a six day trip – I typically pack fairly minimally – and I had a 12kg, 40L backpack as my only luggage. I was a bit surprised by how much some of the other tour memebers packed. Lighter the better, I think..
Checking in at the Beijing Airport. Air Koryo is North Korea’s airline, and they have their own desk space in Beijing. Checkin went smoothly, just like any other airline. Here you can see me with my Osprey Exos 48 backpack, and Air Koryo boarding card.
Our entire group, except for one person, assembled at the gate. In order to travel to North Korea – the DPRK, you must be a part of an official government-sanctioned tour group. No individual tourists are allowed – although I did see a single guy doing a private tour accompanied by his required two government minders/tour guides and forieign tour guide.
The one woman we’re missing in this picture decided to skip the flight, and instead took a few days to ride the train from Beijing to Pyongyang. According to her report, the long train ride was fairly uneventful. Once the train was inside North Korea, the car doors were padlocked, and nobody was allowed off until it arrived in Pyongyang, where she was greeted by government “tour guides” to take her to the hotel to accompany the rest of the group. It certainly sounds like a unique and interesting way to enter the DPRK.
I did a bit of research before choosing to go with Uri Tours. Ultimately I decided to go with them because of their good track record, history of working with a few higher profile clients, and personal communication with the owner, Andrea Lee. Andrea and her friend/business partner Christna are doign a great job of continuing to build Uri Tours. They were responsive to my pre-sales questions, and were a pleasure to hang out with while on the tour. Although not everything was totally smooth, they did a great job at dealing with the day-to-day issues we encountered, and generally staying upbeat an awesome.
Boarding the plan – goodbye China!
Departing Beijing for Pyongyang. Air Koryo flies a small fleet of new and old airplanes, all Russian-made. I flew on an Antonov AN-148. Overall the flight was just fine – the plane was by no means brand new, but it ran just fine, and the flight was comfortable.
From Wikipedia: The An-148 aircraft is a high-wing monoplane with two turbofan jet engines mounted in pods under the wing. This arrangement protects the engines and wing structure against damage from foreign objects (FOD). A built-in auto-diagnosis system, auxiliary power unit, high reliability, as well as the wing configuration allow the An-148 to be used at poorly equipped airfields.
From the gate in Beijing, I was transported by bus out to the aircraft, which was parked on the tarmac. The wide open tarmac boarding scene gave some great views of air operations in Beijing, as well as a good look at the somewhat unusual AN-148.
Departing Beijing. I took this picture to capture the dense, newly built landscape surrounding Beijing – massive housing complexes spring up everywhere, with industry and factories on the outskirts.
Getting ready to land in North Korea. The difference between the outskirts of Beijing and Pyongyang are stark. There are essentially no suburbs or sprawl of Pyongyang – it simple stops and gives way to open land. There are a couple of housing blocks, but almost no cars can be seen, nor can any real activity on the ground.
Travel documents for North Korea.
My US Passport was used as my main ID, however my visa for DPRK, behind passport with photo, was not included in my US Passport. US and DPRK don’t have diplomatic relations, and therefore the visa and stamps wouldn’t be officially recognized in my US passport.
Once I was in North Korea and through the immigration desk, my US Passport and visa document were both collected from me, and held by one of the government tour guides for the remainder of the trip. It was a strange feeling to have my passport taken from me, and made me feel like if I messed something up, they’d just keep it.
Also in this photo are my ticket stub, customs declaration card, health & quarantine declaration card, and entry/exit card.
The main event of the trip was running the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon. After departing the airport, the first stop of the trip was outside of Kim Il Sung Stadium, in downtown Pyongyang. The outside of the stadium is adorned with massive mosaics of Korean athletes, and of course the requisite portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Opposite the stadium lies the truly massive triumphal arch, celebrating Korean resistance to Japan from 1925 to 1945. It’s the second largest in the world – although during the tour I was told that it was the absolute largest. Also visible in this panorama is the tip of the triangular Ryugyong Hotel.
While on the trip, photos were strictly regulated, and I was only officially allowed to take photos in pre-determined directions in pre-determined spots. However, I made efforts to get as many other photos as I could. This one was taken out the back window of our moving bus. The arch is a brilliant and grand symbol, instantly recognizable from the far corners of town. It also made for a great distance marker the next morning while running the marathon. Part of the marathon route goes through the traffic circle surrounding the arch.
The triumph arch is lit brilliantly at night, however as you’ll notice, not a lot else is. There are a few street lights on the main street, but they quickly fade away into darkness. There’s very little nighttime illumination in public areas, aside from monuments and billboards.
The main lobby of the Yanggakdo International Hotel. The decor was extravagant in a soviet-70’s way. Large golden chandeliers hung down from the sloped ceilings, and giant murals of majestic forests rose above the elevator bay entrance. Although the hotel was filled, it was only filled with tourists – no locals, or other non-tour people. Normally for such a large hotel I’d expect to see other groups, local families and groups on vacation, and handfuls of business travelers. However here, the entire place was staffed purely for us (and the other marathon trip groups). I wouldn’t be surprised if as soon as the foreign tour groups left, the entire place shut down completely – the vibe with the space, furniture, signage and staff felt very temporary, like it could be turned on and off at a moment’s notice.
Checking in at the Yanggakdo International Hotel. This hotel in the heart of Pyongyang is massive, and features a rotating restaurant on the top floor. My group arrived the night before the marathon, along with a number of other marathon groups. Everybody seemed to check in at the same time, and because of this, the elevators were severely overloaded. With so many guests, the elevators were not large enough or fast enough for everybody – especially since only a few of them were working.
The checkin desk was very basic. There were computers at the desk, bu tI never really saw any of them being used.
This is the main dining hall of the Yanggakdo International Hotel. the neon accent lights and majestic murals of mountain scenes completed the surreal, frozen in time vibe of the place. Beside my tour group and the other marathon groups, there was nobody else eating here.
Food was fair. Typical Korean dishes, but using very low quality ingredients. Meat was fatty, and the overal selection was limited, however in good quanitity. The impression I got was that they cooked up whatever they could acquire in enough quanitity. So some nights there were tons of onions and potatoes, and some nights tons of other random dishes.
Groups ate together, and my table ordered a round of local beers.
Running the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon
The main attraction for this trip was to run the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon. This was the second year that the marathon was open to foreigners, so it was a fairly new experience for everybody involved. It’s such a new thing for North Korea to be opening this to foreigners, that in the weeks leading up to the even, they actually suspended foreign entries, as they worked out the kinks in the system. In addition to my group from Uri Tours, there were also a bunch of other tour groups there – totalling about 200 foreign runners in total. For details on the exact marathon route, be sure to check out the Uri Tours Pyongyang Marathon Route post.
Uri Tours Marathon Promo Video
During the first two days of my exploration of North Korea, I worked with filmmaker
Justin Martell to shoot a brief promo video for Uri Tours. It includes footage shot by Justin, Matthew Galat, and myself.
Day 2 – marathon day. In the morning I woke up, got a quick breakfast at the hotel, and then loaded on the bus with the rest of my group to be transported back to Kim Il Sung Stadium.
When I arrived, I noticed that the tourist groups were kept distinctly separated from the Koreans. Everybody was in good spirits in general, and each tour company was working to sort out its group members.
It’s also worth noting that in this picture you can once again see the portraits of the leaders. I was given strict instructions for my photos that if any photos include portraits of the leaders, the portraits must be shown in full, and not cutoff or obscured in an way. I certainly didn’t adhere to the the entire time, but I believe my government minders would consider this photograph as compliant.
The Pyongyang Marathon was held on a Sunday, and lots of locals showed up for the big event. I’m not sure how people are selected to go to the events, but the overall vibe of the crowd entering the stadium wasn’t as enthusiastic as I’d expect going into a major sporting event. There was both the marathon as well as a soccer game on the agenda, and I would have expected these spectators to be a bit more jubilant about going – for free! Perhaps it was because it was somewhat early in the morning, or perhaps because they’re being forced to attend – I simply don’t know. In addition to this photo, I captured a bit of video of these guys, who got energetic as soon as I approached and shook their hands. It felt like we were all grateful for some sort of connection to the other side.
A group of kids, with their supposed coaches, about to enter the stadium. These kids had a great energy, and I think they were more interested in my camera than they were interested in me. Everybody in the background is staring in my direction because I was on the side of the tourists – we were all checking each other out.
Upon entering the stadium before the race, I was given 10 minutes to wander around and take photos. Being in the middle of such a huge stadium with people filing in is an incredible experience.
Locals in their assigned spots in the stadium. All of the cheers throughout the event were led by cheer leaders at the front of the crowd, and it all seemed very rehearsed and orchestrated. Strangely, the mood of the crowd seemed to calm to an almost sleep as soon as they were done cheering – and then perk back up when it was their time.
A guard stands next to the tourist bleacher area in Kim Il Sung Stadium.
Here I am coming around a corner during my run of the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon. Both tourists and professional Korean athletes ran at the same time – so the entire time I was running, I was being passed by the pros!
Only the professional athletes had timing chips that worked with this timing mat. Everybody else simply got a finishing time, done by hand. Since I certainly wasn’t competing with anybody but myself, this was totally fine.
Coming around the final turn inside Kim Il Sung Stadium to finish the Pyongyang Marathon. Entering the stadium with everybody cheering was a powerful experience.
With about a week of training, I finished the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon (26.2 Miles) in 3:34:47.
These women presented the trophies to the winners in each category. They’re wearing Hanboks, the traditional North Korean National Dress. Everybody is also wearing the double-portrait “Kim Pin”, in varying styles.
The Pyongyang Marathon award ceremony.
After the marathon, my group returned to the hotel to clean up and have lunch in the rotating restaurant. The view from the top is spectacular, with Pyongyang stretching into the distance. The haze in the air is smog blown in from China.
One of the elements that struck me as I was being driven through Pyongyang was the lack of advertisements, signage, or any other colorful expression. Really the only public messaging was in the form of government-built propaganda signs, and general public encouragement and rallying messaging. Lots of signs like this one, flags, and other posters, but absolutely no 3rd party advertisements, public art except for official monuments and installations, or any other signs.
A typical street corner in Pyongyang, with citizens walking to an elevated crosswalk. Although there were a few cars on the road, most of the people walk everywhere.
At the Mansu Hill Grand Monument, the huge statues of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung dominate, flanked by war memorials. During my stop here, I watched as a few member of my group deposited flowers at the base of the monument.
Monuments are everywhere in North Korea, and at night, they’re some of the only public spaces that are illuminated, They take the most prominent spots in town, and truly are grand – and numerous.
At the Pyongyang Victorious War Museum, I was led around by a well dressed tour woman, wearing a military-inspired uniform. She gave a tour to my entire group, including a walk through some relics from various wars, and of the US Navy Ship Pueblo.
Looking at various bombs that have been dropped on North Korea in recent years. Hearing the guides accounts of the wars was fascinating, with an obvious pro-DPRK spin on everything.
GER-2, the USS Pueblo. This is a US Navy Banner-Class Environmental Research Ship, which was captured by North Korea in 1968. To this day, the ship is a still-commissioned US Navy Vessel, but is now held captive in North Korea, and used as a museum. I actually got to go aboard!
AGER-2, the USS Pueblo. From Wikipedia: USS Pueblo (AGER-2) is a Banner-class Environmental Research Ship, attached to Navy intelligence, which was attacked and captured by North Korean forces on 23 January 1968, in what is known today as the Pueblo incident or alternatively, as the Pueblo crisis.
The seizure of the U.S. Navy ship and its 83 crew members, one of whom was killed in the attack, came less than a week after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “State of the Union” address to the United States Congress, just a week before the start of the “Tet Offensive” in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and only three days after 31 men of North Korea’s “KPA Unit 12” had crossed the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and killed 26 South Koreans in an attempt to attack the South Korean “Blue House” (executive mansion) in the capital Seoul. The taking of Pueblo and the abuse and torture of its crew during the subsequent 11-month prisoner drama became a major Cold War incident, raising tensions between the western democracies and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and People’s Republic of China.
North Korea stated that the Pueblo deliberately entered their territorial waters 7.6 miles away from Ryo Island, and the logbook shows that they intruded several times. However, the United States maintains that the vessel was in international waters at the time of the incident and that any purported evidence supplied by North Korea to support its statements was fabricated.
Pueblo, still held by North Korea today, officially remains a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy. Since early 2013, the ship has been moored along the Botong River in Pyongyang, and used there as a museum ship. Pueblo is the only ship of the U.S. Navy still on the commissioned roster currently being held captive.
Exploring inside the Pueblo was fascinating. It’s setup completely as a museum ship, with many of the crew’s artifacts in cases.
During my trip, my group got lots of great korean meals. This table full of food was fairly typical for us – although given the conditions seen outside, I felt a small bit guilty at times. Still, it was an interesting and tasty dining experience.
This Songaliquor is the local North Korean rice wine. A bottle cost about USD$2, and it’s guaranteed to give you a wicked hangover. Luckily, I gifted this bottle to a friend in Beijing before I could get around to drinking it.
The lobby of the second largest operating hotel in North Korea, the Koryo Hotel. After encountering the masses at the Yankkado hotel (the largest), we decided to move to this less-busy, but still grand hotel.
Entering tourist-oriented interior spaces in North Korea is a fantastic experience, with over-the-top decorations, shiny surfaces, lots of lights, majestic murals, and serene aquariums everywhere.
Another buffet meal in another hall of mirrors at the Koryo Hotel. Each dining hall we ate at was similar to this, with bunches of flowers everywhere, and lots of mirrors and lights.
Ouside my window at the Koryo Hotel was an almost-symmetrical stand of buildings, connected by a common plaza.
The neon signs on the outside of the low buildings are for restaurants – however during my entire stay there, I never saw any of these shops open, nor anybody go in or out. The windows were all darkly tinted, and I actually saw basically no signs of life from these buildings. At night, a few of the lights in the apartments would go on, but only one light per window. The neon signs would turn on around sunset, but turn off around 10pm every night – still with no activity at all. It very very much felt like this entire group of buildings was setup purely for show, with no real activity happening here at all. There were items on the balconies, but it was either a pot of fake flowers, or a solar panel. The entire vibe of the street outside, despite being in the middle of Pyongyang, was silent and empty feeling.
Crossing the river in Pyongyang. Despite barely seeing any cars on the road, there are a good amount of people walking and riding bikes everywhere.
On the fourth day, I headed out of Pyongyang, westward into the country. There’s one wide, paved road that leads west out of Pyongyang, into freshly-planted farmland. Although the road was paved the entire time west and south to the DMZ area, the road was in dire need of a refurbishment – this picture of the pavement was fairly typical for almost the entire drive to the DMZ.
Approaching the DMZ area, there were lots of giant, colorful posters promoting unification of North and South Korea. The posters really were wonderful works of art – even though the only ones to see them are tourists.
Before going to the the actual line, a guide explains the layout of the “Joint Security Area”, which is the neutral zone which surrounds a particular section of the “Military Demarcation Line” that is the actual border between the north and the south.
One of my government minders/guides, Ms. Lee, explaining to my group the layout of the border, and nearby villages. On this day, Ms. Lee wore her dress – but most other days she wore jeans and a blouse and leather jacket.
Entering the Joint Security Area. I had been to the JSA from the south side just weeks before – and this time, although security was still tight, the DPRK Guards were much more at ease.
Our guide leading me down the pathway in front of the northern building, and down the steps to the actual Military Demarcation Line. The feeling was light and jovial – but with the undertone that it could turn serious quickly.
As I approached the steps leading down to the blue buildings at the JSA, a group of DPRK guards exited their security building, and arranged themselves in formation around the MDL Line and blue buildings. The guards were arranged so nobody could pass to the sides of the blue buildings and over the border to the south.
Notice also in this photograph that there is an absence of any guards from the South Korean side. The US Military runs the JSA area from the south, and when I visited the JSA area as part of a US Military-led USO Tour, there were American guards giving us the tour, as well as South Korean guards guarding the buildings, AND North Korean guards monitoring the same spaces. The JSA is a neutral zone, and so guards from either side are freely allowed to walk around.
When I was there visiting from the north, there was absolutely no sign of anybody from the southern side – no guards, no US Military tour guides, no other groups, or anybody. I’m sure there were actually guards from the south watching us, but there was no sign of them.
Also in this picture is the main building on the southern side. While I was on the tour coming from the south, I was told that I was not allowed to turn around and take photos of this building. Interesting to see all of the surveillance equipment on the top.
Walking back from the MDL back to the north. The two guards facing each other in the background are standing right next to the actual line, a raised concrete strip.
Looking from the second floor balcony of the main building in the north, the layout of the entire JSA can bee seen. Of note, there are a bunch of surveillance instruments on the top of the building in the south. During my visit to this area from the south, I wasn’t allowed to turn around to take pictures of this building.
Also visible is China’s large weather tower.
Driving from the DMZ area Westward towards the coast, I went through a number of small towns. Kaesong in the south did have a bit of life – and was generally a bit more upbeat than Pyongyang – although there were still very few cars on the street, and it seemed almost deserted, except for a few decorations and people walking around.
Strolling around the Koryo History Museum.
At the Koryo History Museum, I got to speak briefly with our guide about life in North Korea. She was also wearing a beautiful traditional dress – as well as her red pin. The pin I’m wearing is the Explorer’s Club pin.
Women in North Korea had a beautiful 70’s vibe to their looks, and cared a lot about their makeup, fashion, and presentation. This woman working at a ginseng gift shop was beautiful, and very friendly.
Outside of Kaesong, I noticed this goat farmer coming in from the fields with a few of his goats, and a load full of pine branches. As soon as I started to snap this pic, my government minders got a little edgy, and came running at me to tell me to stop taking pictures. The farmer was seen as a negative sign, and they didn’t want photos taken of him.
Another great lunch in a grand dining room – complete with idyllic mural.
These epic paintings of the leaders were everywhere, and displayed proudly.
Back in Pyongyang, I had the opportunity to ride the Pyongyang Subway. This is one of the deepest subway systems in the world, and the long escalator ride down was distinct evidence of that. Again, there was a notable lack of any kinds of advertisements or signage – with the only signs being public announcements, directions, and newspapers for viewing.
The Pyongyang metro stations are grand, with each one having its own artistic motif. These subway cars are soviet built, and seem to run well – even though they’re seriously old.
The metro has two lines, which intersect in the middle of town. This handy light up board was the main directory for the station.
Each station has its fare share of epic mosaics, depicting the leaders in a variety of triumphant poses. This one of Kim Il Sung with common people was particularly grand.
A mosaic in the Pyongyang metro of Kim Jong Il standing in a grassy field. Epic.
In the station, there are central displays with the day’s newspaper.
This woman is reading about the marathon, which I ran the day before. Notably absent in the article about the marathon was the mention that any Americans had run it.
Riding the Pyongyang metro was a great opportunity to interact with some of the locals. Here, I’m sitting next to a group of school girls, who are getting nervous while practicing their english skills.
Dinner at the Koryo Hotel – another psychedelic room in the DPRK.
Dinner with my group.
Overall, the food in North Korea was great. It was traditional korean food, and almost all of the meals except for the buffet meals were delicious – including this bibimbap at the Koryo Hotel.
This flower show was held in commemoration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday – and featured an entire hall filled with some of the most intensely arranged flowers I’ve ever seen. There are even special breeds of flowers created especially for the leaders.
The iconic Juche Tower. From Wikipedia: Completed in 1982, the Tower is situated on the eastern bank of the River Taedong, directly opposite Kim Il-sung Square on the western side of the river to commemorate Kim Il-sung’s 70th birthday. Although his son and successor Kim Jong-il is officially credited as its designer, interviews with former North Korean officials contradict this assertion.
The 170-metre (560 ft) structure is a four-sided tapering 150-metre (490 ft) spire – the tallest in granite – containing 25,550 blocks (365 × 70: one for each day of Kim Il-sung’s life, excluding supplementary days for leap years), dressed in white stone with seventy dividers and capped with a 20-metre (66 ft)-high 45-ton illuminated metal torch. It is possible to ascend the tower by elevator and there are wide views over Pyongyang from the viewing platform just below the torch.
At its base, there are reception rooms where videos explaining the tower’s ideological importance are sometimes shown. It is presumed to be modelled on the Washington Monument, which it surpasses in height by less than a meter. The Juche Tower is the second tallest monumental column in the world after the San Jacinto Monument, which is 2.9 metres (9.5 ft) taller.
The lower part of the Tower of Juche Idea, with symmetric buildings in the background.
Associated with the tower is a 30-metre (98 ft)-high statue consisting of three idealised figures each holding a tool – a hammer (the worker); a sickle (the peasant); and a writing brush (the “working intellectual”) – in a classic communistic style reminiscent of the Soviet statue Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. The three tools form the insignia on the flag of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. There are also six smaller groups of figures, each 10 metres (33 ft) high, that symbolize other aspects of Jucheist ideology.
A wall carrying 82 “friendship plaques” from foreign supporters and Juche Study Groups forms part of the Tower.
Mount Myohyangsan is a beautiful mountain, and I had a great time hiking up it with the group. Throughout the trip, there was a Korean videographer tracking our every move on tape. At the end, I was sold a very old school video documentary of the trip. However, I’m sure that’s the only place the footage went.
A typical scene on the streets in western North Korea. Of note in this picture is a the woman on the right hand side selling flowers on top of a cardboard box. This is a small example of the illegal North Korean Black Market – and although innocuous looking, there’s been lots of talk about private enterprises like this recently.
Another lunch. This time, after our servers were finished bringing out food, they all went to change into costumes, and then performed a very sweet, very weird song and dance karaoke routine. Entertaining for sure.
Ms. Lee, my guide/minder pointing out the location of the Nampo Dam.
Sunset, as seen from the Nampo Dam Lighthouse.
I traveled mostly on a tour bus in North Korea, as dictated by the tour group. Overall it was comfortable, and Ms. Lee, my Korean guide, talked on the mic the whole time.
After a day on the water, my group arrived at the remote Ryonggang Hot Springs Resort. The main selling point of this resort was that the hot spring waters contained “health giving”, “therapeutic” RADON. I politely passed on taking a dip in the Radon Hot Springs.
An early morning drive from the Ryonggang Hot Springs Resort back to Pyongyang was beautiful.
In Pyongyang, I made a stop with my group for lunch at a restaurant right across the street from the giant Ryugyong Hotel. I was scolded for having this picture taken of me, because it shows the shanty village that surrounds the giant uninhabited building.
I was fortunate to be in North Korea for the birthday celebration of Kim Il Sung. On this day, I went to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the embalmed bodies of both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are on display in glass boxes. After a lengthy security check, I was escorted through the interior of the massive palace and into each room containing the leaders. Each room was protected from dirt by a vacuum corridor which I walked through on my way into the room. The rooms were illuminated by dim red lights, and lying in the middle of each room was one of the leaders – their bodies perfectly preserved, and in plain view inside a glass coffin. I was put together by a guard with a group of 3 other people, and the four of us were led around the coffin, where we bowed deeply on each of the four sides.
After departing the rooms with the bodies, I was given a tour of the rest of the palace, which contains the rooms full of medals and awards given to each leader, as well as a few of the leaders vehicles. Vehicles on display include a boat, a train car, a golf cart, and a couple black mercedes limos.
After viewing the bodies, I was released into the large gardens in front of the palace, where lots of other people were assembled, all taking photos.
A british news crew filmed a news segment in front of the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.
Me, posing in front of the flowerbed leading to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, Pyongyang, North Korea.
Me with one of our Korean government minders, as well as Uri Tours CEO Andrea Lee on my left, and Uri Tours guide Cristina Park on my far right.
Schoolchildren came out for the event, and seemed to be having a great time walking around in the sun, even as they were corralled by their teachers. Very cute.
After lunch in Pyongyang, I watched as roommate Nick played soccer with a small group of guys. This is in the middle of Pyongyang, and notice the lack of any signs or advertisements.
Showing my high-tech camera to a couple of kids in Pyongyang.
On Sunday in Pyongyang, everybody goes to the park. I took a wonderful stroll through the park, and got to watch the locals dance and play in the water.
Locals dancing together in the park on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Pyongyang.
At Mangyondae, Kim Il Sung’s birthplace, young kids with their military groups wait in formation before entering the leader’s original house.
On Kim Il Sung’s birthday, many large groups of people got together for coordinated dances like this one.
Dancers in matching outfits celebrated excitedly in the center of Pyongyang.
Women wait for their bus in front of the iconic Pyongyang Ice Rink.
Me outside of the Pyongyang Circus.
Pyongyang has lots of performing arts, shows, and other extravagances, despite the economic situation of the country. On a Sunday night, I had the opportunity to attend the Pyongyang Circus – a sight to behold.
To finish the celebration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, Pyongyang was treated to an amazing fireworks display over the river. I walked through the darkness with my group to the viewing location along the river. On my way back, I was surprised to find that there were almost no streetlights at all – the only illumination at night was for the monuments, and almost none of the public walkways had any lights on.
Video from inside North Korea
Throughout my trip, my group was flanked by a North Korean videographer, who tracked our every move on camera. At the end of the trip, he delivered a tripped out video diary, complete with a voiceover narrative, and the real star of the show, the synthy North Korean theme music, overlaid on most of the video. In the old school style of trip videos, this one is long long long and is mostly raw footage of me and my group exploring various parts of the country. The voiceover is a great example of the kind of stories and vibe that the tour had.
DPRK Tourism Video
DPRK Playlist – all videos, and raw clips of almost everything….