DPRK Part 2 – Pyongyang and Kaesong

Day 205: October 3, 2018

We had breakfast in the hotel in Kaesong then went for a walk down a traditional street. Kaesong was the capital of the Koryo dynasty which was the first unified state on the Korean Peninsula starting in 918. The dynasty collapsed in 1392 and the Yi dynasty took over until 1910 when the Japanese invaded.

Traditional Korean house

We boarded our bus and drove to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. We drove passed the Kaesong Industrial Region which was a joint venture between the two sides. It was created in 2002, but then shut down in 2016 due to tensions. Recently there have been talks between the two leaders on resuming the venture.

Outside the DMZ was a poster saying, “Korea is one”. Our guides spoke to us a lot about the desire for reunification. Three principles have been created for reunification: independence, peace and unity. The plan would be to form a federation where both systems are represented. The first summit was held in 2000 and a second one in 2007 that reconfirmed the joint declaration from 2000 which agreed to work towards better relations. According to our guides there was anti-reunification sentiment from 2008 to 2017 halting the discussions.

Poster stating “Korea is One”

In March 2018, the two sides met again to organize another summit. On April 27, 2018 Kim Jong-Un met with President Moon Jae-In and agreed to resume peaceful relations and working to end the Korean War. Another talk was held September 18-20 in Pyongyang. The next talk will be held in December in Seoul. Our guides expressed some nervousness over their leader travelling outside the DPRK. They worried what might happen to him when they know there are many people against the DPRK.

We entered a gift shop to wait for our local guide and our time to enter the DMZ. We lined up in twos and then we crossed into the DMZ one by one. Then we went back on the bus and drove up to the building where the armistice talks occurred. Inside was the table with chairs on both sides.

Location of armistice talks

Next we visited the building where the armistice was signed. According to the guide, the USA had wanted to sign it in a tent, but North Korea wanted it done in a building. The idea with the tent was that it was temporary so the USA’s shame of losing the war wouldn’t live on. We saw the tables on which the armistice was signed.

Location of armistice signing

Next we moved into the Joint Security Area which is the location where the two sides have facilities straight across from one another. Both sides have large buildings then in the centre there are seven long buildings.

Joint Security Area

Our local guide was a smiling older gentleman in the army very willing to take pictures. Others who visited the DMZ from the South Korean side said that the visited is much stricter on that side. There seemed to be little worry on the North Korean side. We hope to visit the DMZ in South Korea In December to see for ourselves.

Danny with our local guide at the DMZ

We drove out of the DMZ and to the Koryo Museum which was originally a university built in 992.

Children visiting the Koryo Museum

We saw some relics from that time including re-creations of the clothing worn by the low and high class society.

Clothing from Koryo dynasty

For lunch we were treated to a Royal Feast: 12 dishes served with rice and soup traditionally from the Yi dynasty. We also had the opportunity to try dog meat soup. The meat was very tender and similar to rabbit. The soup itself sadly had no taste.

Royal Feast and dog meat soup

Next we drove up a hill in Kaesong where we could see out over the traditional neighbourhood.

View over Kaesong

We drove back to Pyongyang and visited the Fun Fair. I rode the roller coaster with some others and most of us went on the bumper cars. The bumper cars had more power than others I’ve been on. Again I felt a bit uncomfortable that we were allowed to jump the line in front of the locals. It wasn’t too busy yet as people were just getting off of work. We enjoyed watching the locals. All of them were dressed in suits: women in skirt suits and men in military uniforms or the “Kim Il Sung suit”.

Locals riding the bumper cars

We left the Fun Fair and parked outside the theatre which had reunification flags hanging. A delegation from South Korea was visiting to celebrate the anniversary of the 2007 summit. We walked across the street to a restaurant for duck barbecue. It was the best meal in Korea by far.

Duck barbecue

After we went to a beer bar for some drinks. There were different numbers of beers brewed there that indicated the percentage of rice and barley. I didn’t enjoy it fully as everyone was smoking inside which gives me an awful headache. We viewed a video put together by the cameraman that had followed us around then headed back to the hotel.

Each of our Korean guides sang us a song on the way. Danny went down to the bowling alley in the hotel with the rest of the group for some drinks and bowling. I enjoyed some alone time in our room avoiding the smoke. Danny had a very good last night and returned quite late.

Danny with our three Korean guides
Day 206: October 4, 2018

We slept in a bit, had breakfast in the hotel then met the remainder of our group taking the train back to Beijing at 9:15 am. The rest had gone to the airport at 8:15 am to catch their flight back to Beijing.

We arrived early and found our bunks on the train. The rooms are similar to the Trans-Siberian ones. We roomed with two guys from the other tour: one from Spain and the other from Brazil. Both were working as engineers in Shanghai.

We said goodbye to our guides and started our train journey out of the DPRK. We discussed our different impressions on the DPRK, our guides and the differences between our tours with our roommates. We went to the dining car for some lunch then returned to our room.

Our North Korean train

The conductor came around with departure cards for us to fill out and one customs form for the eight of us travelling together. We arrived at the border and someone came to collect our passports and departure cards. Then an older Korean lady in uniform came for our customs form. We had been confused about how to fill the one form out for eight people. She motioned for me to stand, but just wanted me to move over so that she could sit down. She instructed Danny to fill out his information while she sat on the bed swinging her legs. On the list of items she made him fill in clothes, shoes, phones, camera and then he was going to keep going, but she took the form and signed it off. She had our roommates on the bottom bunks open their bags. One had a small box inside. She made him open it and inside was a statue of a Pyongyang tower. She said, “Oh, wow” and smiled then had the next bag opened. She left before even looking at Danny or my bags. We had heard that customs can be very different depending on the day and the officer. I guess we lucked out.

At the border we stopped next to another train. It looked like a freight train, but the car next to us had a door with a small barred door. A face all of a sudden appeared to look out then disappeared. It made all of us feel eerie.

It was interesting crossing the river because we went from fields on the North Korean side to high rises on the Chinese side. The Chinese also had a pier out in the river where many people were looking over to the North Korean side.

Pier in China

Soon the train continued over the border and stopped in Dandong, China. We all exited the train with our luggage. Inside customs we filled out arrival cards then waited in line. I got through with no problems, but Danny got pulled aside. His Chinese visa didn’t scan properly. I waited on the other side while everyone else in our group boarded the train. The train left just as Danny was let through. We were instructed to wait, but were unsure what train we would be getting on. All of the North Koreans had been pulled aside and were still being processed in a side room. Once they were all through we were led over to another platform where a Chinese train had our remaining DPRK train cars on the end. The rest of the cars would return to the DPRK.

It took us about 1.5 hours to get back to our cabin. Our roommates were relaxing, but they said they had been confused when the train started heading back to the DPRK.

We walked to the Chinese dining car for dinner which was about ten cars up. We had the set menu which was the best train food we’ve ever had. We returned to our room and got ready for bed.

Day 207: October 5, 2018

We woke up and packed our bags. We were scheduled to arrive in Beijing at 8:35 am. We were wondering if the North Koreans on the train would remove their pins showing Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il that everyone in the country wears. They seemed to have smaller versions on when we crossed into China.

When we arrived in Beijing we all got off the train and were just standing there. Someone said, “Well, I guess we should go. We don’t need to wait for our minders anymore.”. We exited the train station and said goodbye. It was weird how all of a sudden Beijing seemed normal. When we first arrived in China it felt so foreign, but compared to the DPRK we felt comfortable.

Danny and I took a taxi to the airport where we picked up Danny’s stored bag. We had brunch at a restaurant in the airport. We had to wait until 6:30 pm to check in for our flight. We both caught up on our internet then went to another restaurant for supper: our last Chinese meal. We really enjoyed all of the Chinese food.

After we checked in, we went through security then boarded our three hour flight to Guangzhou. We had a couple of hours layover in Guangzhou before our flight to Chiang Mai the next morning.

The DPRK was quite a different experience. We were able to see the inside of a country that is so unknown and taste a bit of what it is like. We question a lot of what we were told, but also appreciate being able to see things from another perspective. Sometimes it was hard to know if our guides fully believed what they were telling us or if they were just telling us what they had to. It seems like there is change (good or bad) that will be coming soon on the Korean Peninsula so we were glad to be able to travel there now.