Tuesday, October 20, 2015

24 hours in North Korea

Who else gets to go to North Korea for their Birthday? Okay, I understand not everyone is interested in going, but the curiosity was killing me.

Quick Lecture- as of December 2013 North Korea started approving tourists with a special visa on the terms that you use a designated tour group from North Korea. It is also very controlled by the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Government. Which is why many people do not visit it. Journalists are strictly not allowed to enter, and everyone that visits is given distinct access into the country. In fact, only about 1,500 westerners visit the DPRK each year. (This is also how Dennis Rodman got to visit NK about a year ago.) So, YES it is legal. YES, I had a special visa to go inside. NO, I did not sneak in or climb over any barbed wire barriers, and YES it was outrageous.

 We started researching North Korea and found a tour company called Uri Tours that leaves from either Beijing or Shanghai airport. (You can find more information about them here) You fly in a plane from Air Koryo Airlines which is North Koreas only airline. (It is surprisingly (not!) the lowest rated airlines. Just FYI)
The tour company offers different tour packages but when we heard about a 24-hour tour bundle we were sold. We knew we didn’t want to spend that much time there. Duh. I know we were researched prior to getting access into their country. Our tour guides knew all about Samantha and her big blue eyes and dimples. (Creepy!) They knew our birthdays and where we were from. Lets be honest, they are probably reading this right now. Hey, Kim Jung-un!  

We got to go with our good friends Jake and Chelsie Watts. Apparently, they are as adventurous and silly as we are! We kissed our kids goodbye and left them safely in Shanghai with some friends. We paid extra attention to hug them real tight. I even left my wedding ring behind in case Samantha needed something to remember me by. (Okay, not funny).

I literally asked Chelsie at least 10 times if it was too late to turn back. I guess this was the last chance! During the flight I saw that the flight attendants had hidden microphones on their shirts. You know, in case they needed to record that we wanted extra peanuts. 

The flight was a few hours and when we landed in Pyongyang (the main city and capital of North Korea) we were pumped on adrenaline but very sleepy since it was about 2:30am.
Funny/not-so funny story- when we got to immigration, Peyton goes through, no problem, but they took my special visa and passport and then started passing it around and talking in Korean to each other. I had to wait and they took it to a back room for what felt like forever. I was so nervous and no one could tell me what was happening. I kept telling myself, “This is it. This is when they take me.” But after what seemed like 10 hours they came back and gave it to me. I guess someone forgot to give it an official stamp or something. I was sweating.

Our tour group- 2 germans, one from Mexico City and South Africa

Our North Korean tour guide
Anyways...because of the electricity restrictions in the DPRK the city was pitch black. It was hard to see where we were or where we were going. Besides some monuments, statues and a few light posts, we were in the dark. A part of me believes that this is all part of the plan, so that we don’t get to see what North Korea fully looks like. It took about 45-minutes to drive to the hotel where we could sleep for a few hours.

We were awoken in a few hours due to a propaganda recording in Korean accompanied by a pleasant song. On repeat. These people sure know how to party!

We went to breakfast and then started our long day. They took us to many different monuments and statues. We were also allowed to use our cameras! (A common misconception). Although, there were a few places and things that we were told we couldn’t take pictures of. Like, any military personnel. Which accounts for 40% of their entire population, BTW.

Our first stop we pulled up to a deserted amusement park. We all joked how this was where Peyton leaves us. (Well,  It was funny at the time.) 

Their current leader is Kim Jong-un. His Father Kim Jong-il and Grandfather Kim il-sung’s pictures’ are on almost every building. They have statues and monuments in a million places. We went to a few of them. There are also a few murals and mosaics all over town. These leaders are not only their presidents but it has been said that they are even referred to more like “Gods” of North Korea. You must bow to the statues and every day people pay respects with large bouquets of flowers that are laid at their feet. (I am reading a book right now that writes that the people were so distraught by Kim il-Sung’s death in 1994 that some died themselves by heart attacks and distress over his passing. I will leave it at that.)

We next went to the Pyongyang subway system that is actually one of the deepest metros in the world. Because…it doubles as a bomb shelter! It is 110 meters (or 360 ft) underground!! Holy cow. When we started on the escalator we had no idea. 30 minutes later when we got off, it was very beautiful with murals and mosaics with lots of detail. We got to ride the subway which was actually a tad outdated. 

That escalator just kept going! 

Instead of printing the newspapers they have them put out in the subway so that the citizens could gather around and read the news. 

Peyton riding the subway

On a side note- it really looked like this city was in a time warp. It was extremely eerie to see how underdeveloped compared to the rest of the world that they are. Old cars, old clothes, old stores … it felt like we were in the 70’s. Because yes, I was around back then.

We got to see the Arch of Triumph, which is right in the middle of the city. It was huge! The locals were practicing for the big 70th Anniversary celebration that was going to happen in a few days. The whole city was practicing their parts for this huge parade and festivity. It was cool to see a little Korean culture. I saw the parade 2 days later on TV and recognized right where we were. The World cup preliminary games against the Philippines were also happening that day. We asked to go, but after we were first denied access they wanted us to pay a crazy amount to attend. We decided to continue with the tour.

We were next taken to the “Victorious War Museum”. We were not allowed to take pictures inside of the actual museum, which I am actually grateful for. The museum made me enormously uncomfortable for the fact that they truly dislike America. They blame us for all the past battles and conflicts in the past wars. It was very obvious how they feel about us. I had never been to a place where I was so hated and despised so openly. It was the worst part of the trip.

 We then ended the day at the city square where more practicing was going on. This time hundreds of schoolchildren were doing their dances. It was huge!

This is the Monument of the Party. They have a hammer, paintbrush and sickle. This is sadly the only group picture we have of the trip. Epic date night! 

We then got to have dinner at Korean BBQ and went to a post office where we could send a few post cards.

Our BBQ was duck, and it was delish. 

We left North Korea 24 hours after we arrived and we were ready to do so. We love our home in America and we love our momentary place in China. 

For safety and respect reasons I will not tell you my sincere thoughts on North Korea, but I will say that coming back from our trip there I feel extremely grateful. I am thankful that I am an American. I am appreciative that I can leave my home country on trips and return when I desire. I am so very thankful that I have access to many different resources, food and opportunities. I am truly blessed to live the life that I do. I am glad that I got to see North Korea for the fact that I got to experience a culture that is very secluded and not many people get to do that. I am also pleased that I got to see how things are diverse all around the world. If anything, my day in the DPRK will go down as mind-blowing, wild and an experience I will never forget.