Last year, we went to North Korea for 10 days.
No, I didn’t mistype. Yes, that’s the ‘bad’ Korea – the one you’re always seeing in the news.
And yes, I got out alive. (And I was, at no point during the trip, actually fearful that I might not.)
(If you’d like to find out more about how to visit North Korea – and find out why it’s not as scary as you think – check out our meaty article here.)
Anyway, as you can probably imagine, actually visiting North Korea was, well, a pretty confusing experience. Confusing enough that it’s still difficult to put into words, in some aspects.
So alternatively, I’m here to attempt to tell our story of visiting North Korea in pictures, beginning with our departure from Beijing to the train ride out.
We finished our 10 days with TONS of pictures, so we’ll be breaking this down into 4 parts altogether.
Parts 1 and 2 will feature mainly Pyongyang, North Korea’s “glamorous” capital city. (PS: part 2 is already up and you can check it out here.)
Parts 3 and 4 will feature the places we visited in North Korea beyond Pyongyang.
Regarding our trip, we chose to visit the DPRK (North Korea’s official name – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) with Young Pioneer Tours (unfortunately, it’s impossible to visit without a tour). They are by far the cheapest options to go with and you’re sure to have a great time. If you go with them, just be sure to mention the coupon code DPRKOUT during your reservation to get a free t-shirt and a free DPRK guidebook!
Our trip, along with most other trips to North Korea, actually began in Beijing, China – where we arrived about a week early to see the sights. The day before departure, we had a group meeting with the other people in our tour and tour guides to discuss logistics and ‘rules’ for our trip.
We flew on Air Koryo, North Korea’s official airline. Air Koryo actually operates a handful of flights, including between Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Bangkok, Thailand; Vladivostok, Russia; Kuwait; and Beijing/Shanghai/Shenyeng China. The flight felt mostly like any other – minus the two hours of North Korea’s most famous all-female band and North Korean missile launches playing on the screens.
First steps onto DPRK soil
Our first full day in North Korea consisted of the Pyongyang International Marathon (though we just ran the 10k!). 2017 will be the 4th year that foreigners are allowed to run the race and, when we were there (2016), there were upwards of 1,000 foreigners participating.
The start and finish of the marathon were in the “May Day Stadium,” the world’s largest stadium in the world.
Interior of the “May Day Stadium”
Though the stadium was by no means full, we were surprised by the number of North Koreans that were there to watch….whether they were there by choice, or not.
As is typical in most public venues we went to, pictures of the late leaders Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il (the grandfather and father of the current leader, Kim Jong-un) were prominently displayed.
Advertisement for the race posted outside the stadium. In case you’re wondering, the house pictured on top of the poster is the house where Kim il-Sung was supposedly born. You can find a picture of said house down below.
Rodrigo running past one of Pyongyang’s many monuments during the 10K
Rodrigo nailing his selfie game in front of Pyongyang’s very own ‘arc de triomphe’
Locals lined the street throughout the course
Somehow, I actually managed to get 3rd in the 10k (that’s me in the purple shirt at the end of the line!). I was then presented my prize (a lovely painted vase, a certificate, and a bouquet of fake glittery flowers) in the middle of the enormous stadium.
Here’s a close-up of that lovely painted vase, certificate, and fake glittery flowers.
Side note about that box – we carried that box containing the very fragile vase shown above for 2 MONTHS while backpacking in China and Mongolia. It was just too expensive to send home…by some miracle, it made it back to the United States unscathed and is currently on display on my mom’s kitchen table 🙂
The May Day Stadium from a distance
Though Pyongyang may have more cars than the rest of the country, the vast majority of citizens bike from place to place.
A familiar-looking Korean pagoda with the mysterious Ryugyong Hotel in the background
The futuristic Ryugyong Hotel has remained incomplete and abandoned since 1992. It was meant to be the world’s largest hotel, but is now the world’s largest abandoned building…and a major pain for the guides who are constantly asked by tourists why it was never finished.
DPRK flags on a street corner – according to our guide, the red represents blood of the revolutionaries, the blue represents hope, the white represents the clear mind of ‘our’ people, and the star represents history.
One of our post-race activities was a visit to a local waterpark where we swam, slid, hot tubbed, and got naked (courtesy of the locker room) alongside some local North Koreans.
Our dinners were usually treated to singing performances by the wait staff. Every. Single. Night.
The “Grand People’s Study House” in Pyongyang – though a beautiful building outside, it was pretty old-school inside
North Korean schoolgirls in Pyongyang
These two statues are likely some of the most famous landmarks in Pyongyang. Standing at 22 meters tall, they depict the late leaders Kim il-Sung (on the left) and his son, Kim Jong-il (on the right). As we approached the statues, we were asked to line up parallel to the statues and bow simultaneously.
As you can see, we were allowed to take pictures. However, we were asked that the pictures we took show the statues in their entirety and that we didn’t make any strange poses or signs – otherwise, it would be seen as very disrespectful to the leaders and the North Koreans. We also had the option of purchasing flowers to lay down at the feet of the statues after bowing. We politely declined.
As we were there around the time of Kim il-Sung’s birthday (since he’s considered to be the founder of the country, this was a really big deal), we found many women donning traditional Korean attire. They were unloaded off a bus shortly after we were to line up, bow, and offer flowers.
To both sides of the bronze statues are monuments depicting the Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Struggle and the Socialist Revolution
A single taxi driving down an empty street in Pyongyang
Kim il-Sung square in central Pyongyang. The square is the heart of the city and home to most of the city’s events – from celebrations to military parades.
In this picture, take note of the dots by my feet painted to keep people in the right spots during parades.
Just across the river from the square is the Juche Tower, named for the ‘Juche’ idealogy introduced by Kim il-Sung. Juche is the official state ideology of North Korea and is usually translated as “self-reliance.”
They are really serious about their Juche. North Korea actually follows something that they call the “Juche Calendar.” In this calendar, ‘year 1’ is in 1912, the year when Kim il-Sung was born. This means that the current year in North Korea is “Juche 106,” not 2017.
An ‘interesting’ listing of new books in an English bookshop in Pyongyang
North Korean ‘guidebooks’ found in Pyongyang’s English bookstore
Spotted inside a translated North Korean magazine – “The United States and the South Korean regime, panic-stricken by the invincible might of the DPRK….” (we regularly heard these sort of phrases throughout our stay)
Taekwon-Do remains a common hobby in North Korea (as it does in the south)
The “Pyongyang Times” translated into English – featuring the H-bomb test that had the rest of the world in panic
DPRK flag pins and other souvenirs
A painting of the DPRK’s iconic “traffic ladies”
One of the DPRK’s iconic “traffic ladies” in the flesh
An unexpected capitalist venture in Pyongyang
As part of our tour, we were taken to the apparent ‘birthplace’ of Kim il-Sung where his ‘modest upbringings’ were strongly emphasized.
Trying out some North Korean ice cream
These type of propaganda murals were a common sight all over the country
Yet another dinner performance
The Children’s Palace: an enormous building we paraded around to peek in on children in a variety of classes – including dance, calligraphy, art, and music.
Schoolchildren studying traditional Korean calligraphy inside The Children’s Palace, Pyongyang.
This is confusing.
The exterior of a metro station and locals going about their day.
Taking the escalator to the bottom of the Pyongyang Metro – one of the deepest metro systems in the world – with local North Koreans.
Attempting to blend in while Kim il-Sung watches over in the background.
Mural within the metro station
Don’t worry, that’s not all! You can head on over to part 2 here for more Pyongyang pictures.
To learn more about North Korea, check out our other articles:
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