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Holidaying in the Hermit Kingdom

Holidaying in the Hermit Kingdom

Had enough of long flights, busy resorts and dull itineraries?

For something different, I tried a nearby destination with few tourists and the world’s hairiest border. Oh, and no human rights. North Korea beckoned.

Having lived in Cuba and traveled behind the Iron Curtain and in Vietnam during the 1980s communist era, I just had to add a Pyongyang sticker to my battered Globe-Trotter. 

After buying a package tour and visa online, I took a smooth 90-minute flight from Beijing to Pyongyang. 

I was surprised that I could bring any devices (except GPS), so long as I declared them on arrival. Indeed, I could photograph almost anyone and anywhere, including soldiers and borders—except the most revered or sensitive mausoleums and ministries. And Internet access was cheap for casino patrons.

Accommodations varied from a shiny skyscraper on a city center island to a single-story inn enclosed by manned gates, high walls and a dirty moat. Guests cannot leave their hotel without minders, but they are free to wander the property.

North Korea is far from a foodie’s paradise: cold fried eggs, bland kimchi and stodgy okonomiyaki pancakes are staples made bearable by unlimited alcohol. But you will always be better off than about 95 percent of the 25 million population. 

On the first evening, I was treated to a screening of Comrade Kim Goes Flying, a 2012 British–Belgian–North Korean rom-com, in a spectacular art deco cinema. 

The next day’s itinerary started with a trip to the ghoulish mausoleums of Kim Il Sung (1912–94) and his son, Kim Jong Il (1942–2011), showcased under blood-red lights along with thousands of their medals, awards and gifts. Security was tight and all visitors bowed before the glass coffins of the embalmed “dear, great and eternal leaders.” 

Along with the Arirang Mass Games, an epic display of gymnastics and choreography, were visits to World Heritage sites, ubiquitous “war crime” monuments and—strangely for a staunchly atheist nation—well-preserved, 14th-century Buddhist and Confucian tombs and temples.

The village of Panmunjom, situated in the 250-kilometer, heavily fortified Korean Demilitarized Zone, is a pleasant three-hour spin from Pyongyang and a top tourist draw, with its patriotic speeches and tacky souvenirs. Astonishingly, I was invited to sit for selfies with the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement in the actual seat where it was signed.  

On my last day, I was able to wander, minder-free, around the Pyongyang International Trade Fair. Luxury yachts, imported limousines and locally made tractors were on display alongside traditional remedies, imported foodstuffs and Disney knockoffs. 

At dusk, from the hotel’s 47th-floor revolving restaurant, we enjoyed stunning views of the city and its pastel-hued suburbs over chilled $2 Budweisers, bottles of Italian wine and thick but bland seafood and kimchi pizzas.

My home for the lumbering, 23-hour return journey to Beijing was a six-berth train compartment. After bidding warm farewells to our friendly minders, we headed to the restaurant car for fiery Korean liquor and Chinese food.

Brief stops at eerily dark stations offered the chance of final souvenirs before we rolled silently across the border into China.

Words: Simon Farrell
Illustration: Tania Vicedo