Archive for February, 2013

Tour Transnistria!

This fall I will be continuing my tour of countries that don’t actually exist with a visit to Transnistria while helping out on Young Pioneer Tour’s month long Eurasian Adventure Tour.

The journey there will be an epic two week adventure from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans Siberian Express, touring through Belarus and Chernobyl in the Ukraine, and finally spending a few days in Moldova, the only ex-Soviet republic to vote the communists back in!

Phil Le Gal visited Transnistria on one of Young Pioneer Tour’s Eurasian Adventure Tours.  He has graciously allowed me to share his photos and comments on the experience:

Only a couple of hours away from Europe’s biggest cities exist countries we know very little about.  Sitting between western and eastern Europe is Transnistria, the “Prydnistrovska Moldavska Respublika” (also called Trans-Dniestr or Transdniestria).  Tucked between Moldova and neighboring Ukraine, Transinistria is an unknown and officially non-existent territory.

After the fall of the USSR Transnistria found itself integrated to Moldova.  Transnistria proclaimed its independence in 1990 which led to the 1990-1992 independence war between the breakaway republic of Transnistria, backed by the Russia and the republic of Moldova.  Although the ceasefire has held, the territory’s political status remains unresolved.  The outcome of the war was the birth of the republic of Transnistria.

Transnistria is currently only recognized by three UN non-members: Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia, themselves part of the list of states with limited recognition and not recognized by the international community.  Transnistria has its own constitution, parliament, central bank and money (the transnistrian rubble), army, flag, national anthem, passports and even stamps.  Still it is officially considered as being part of the Moldovan territory.

The border between Moldova and Transnistria, although not recognized, is very real with several checkpoints from both Transinistrian and Moldavian guards.  The Prydnistrovska Moldavska Respublika boast many of the USSR relics, war memorials and soviet era style architecture.

Welcome to Transnistria, Europe’s forgotten country:


A young Moldovan army recruit proudly guards the eternal flame at the war memorial Eternity.
It is dedicated to the soldiers who fell in World War II and the military conflict in Transnistria.


The biggest statue of Vladimir Lenin outside Russia is displayed in front of the Transnistrian parliament. According to the 2006 referendum 97.2% of the population voted in favor of “independence from Moldova and free association with Russia”. EU and several other countries didn’t acknowledge these results.


 A man is wearing a traditional costume.


Tiraspol – Transnistria (Moldova). Entrance of Tiraspol’s central Pobedi Park (or “Victory” park) containing a 50’s style amusement park.


Remains from the war, like this Russian MIG plane are left outside rusting.

All photos by Phil Le Gal.

Phil Le Gal is a French documentary photographer based in London UK specializing in photo documentary, reportage and portraiture.  He is passionate about stories, travels, revealing how others live, the contradictions and oddities of this world.  He is currently undertaking a Master in Photojournalism and Documentary photography at the London college of Communication.

You can get in touch with him here or visit
You can also find him on facebook :

Interested in joining me for the 2013 Eurasian Adventure Tour?  Email me at and I will set you up with a 5% trip discount!

Eurasian Adventure Tour

This fall I will be helping out on YPT’s Eurasian Adventure Tour!

Beijing – Moscow – Minsk – Kiev – Chernobyl – Transnistria – Chisinau – Bucharest – Sofia – Macedonia – Kosovo – Tirana

Group 1 (Beijing – Moscow) = €695

Group 2 (Moscow – Minsk – Kiev)= €255 / 950

Group 3 (Kiev – Pripya – Kiev) = €349 / 1299

Group 4 (Kiev – Odessa – Transnistria – Moldova – Romania) = €249 /1548

Group 5 (Bucharest – Sofia – Skopje – Kosovo – Tirana) = €350 / 1898

Quite frankly one of our favorite tours, our third annual Eurasian Adventure Tour!

The tour starts in Beijing, with an overnight stay and optional visit to the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao, before embarking on the 6 day epic that is the Trans-Mongolian, or the “party train” as it also known. We already have a number of people signed up for this part, so if you are considering taking the train anyway, why not join us fun young people?

Following our arrival in Moscow we start to fully embrace Soviet nostalgia, by visiting all of Moscow’s top sites, before taking the train to the most Soviet of all republics Belarus, and it’s capital Minsk, where we will be seeing such treasures as the former residence of Lee Harvey-Oswald, as well as staying in our own little pimping apartment.

This leads us on to group 3, our big group, where we will be visiting not only Pripyat (Chernobyl), but also doing the extreme missile base tour, as well as sampling the night time delights on a bar crawl. Accommodation? Old style Soviet Hotel, complete with rude staff, peeling wallpaper, and more corruption than you can shake a sickle at.

After group 3 leave us in Kiev, group 4 continue firstly to Odessa, then onto Tiraspol, capital of the breakaway republic of Transnistria. If you do not know anything about the place, Google it. And if you want off the beaten track this is it. There is one hostel in the whole country, and we are the first group to ever inquire about going there. A true Soviet Time-warp. Following a few nights here, we visit Moldova, the only ex-Soviet republic to vote the communists back in! Before taking the overnight bus to Bucharest, which as a flight hub, and will make it easier to arrange onward flights.

Group 5 completes the full communist chic element, with us visiting the former homes of Ceausescu, Tito, and Hoxxa, via Romania, Macedonia and Albania, as well as visiting the contemporary hot spots that are Mitrovice, and Kosovo, before finishing in Albania, which has ferry, road, and air links to aid your onward journey.

YPT are all about budget, and this tour is by no means any different, many companies, charge over 1000 Euro just for the trans-Mongolian, or 250 Euro just for a day at Pripya, we have managed to budget the whole thing, Beijing – Tirana, over 26 barmy days, to just €1898, all in. With the tour being split into 5 manageable parts, each part is completely optional, with guests having full autonomy to do any part they fancy, from just 1, to all 5

Join me for one leg, or for the entire crazy journey – email me at for a trip discount!


Tirana, Albania – from my travels 10 years ago.

Faces of North Korea

A high quality YouTube North Korea slideshow by ingoophotography.

March 30th – April 6th North Korea Trip


Come see the Ryugyong “Hotel of Doom” –  Photo by Joseph A Ferris III

I will be going to North Korea in just 6 weeks!

Be assured that for the tourism industry it’s still business as usual – the boss at Young Pioneer Tours, who is entering the DPRK today, says:

It has just been reported that seismic activity has been reported in the area where the previous test happened, thus suggesting a third nuclear test from the DPRK.

Apparently it was a 4.9 magnitude test, and whilst there has been no official response from the DPRK, it sounds like it was a success.

This will not affect our upcoming Kim Jong Il Birthday Tour, which far from being cancelled will have us in the country during what will obvioulsy be a very interesting time.

And whilst these incidents always bring talk of sanctions, or strained relations with other countries, it is our experience that it does not, and should not affect the tourist industry, with our 2013 program going ahead as planned.

I had a fully booked trip but this nuke test caused a few people to drop out – there is still time for those brave enough to join me!

March 30th – April 6th: Pyongyang, Nampo, Sariwan, Kaesong, and Mt. Myohyang – 1395 Euro.

We have two weeks until the deadline for the visa applications – serious inquires only.

I have posted the full itinerary for this trip in the comments.

I Have Been to North Korea Over 100 times

My friend Simon Cockerell, General Manager of Koryo Tours, just did a reddit AMA (ask me anything).

I have been to North Korea over 100 times. AMA

I’m the GM of Koryo Tours.  The leading North Korea travel company.  In this capacity I have been to the country 118 times thus far. Glad to answer any questions about what it’s like to visit North Korea.

Simon from Koryo

Simon from Koryo Tours at the Mt. Myohyangsan Friendship Exhibition – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

I have pulled the best questions and answers from the session:

Please note that the grammar and punctuation reflect the nature of the real time Q&A format. 

Do you know why Americans (and only Americans) are not allowed to leave the country by train? (Assuming that rule is still in force.)

That rule is still in force and honestly I have no idea why. After all many Americans have a second passport and can just use that for travel. When you travel in or out by train you don’t see anything particularly sensitive anyway. I would expect this rule to change before long (but I have been expecting that for some time!).

What would you say is the oddest custom they have?

Finding something odd is subjective of course. A lot of the traditional rituals that Korea has would be perfectly familiar to people in South Korea but very alien to anyone who hadn’t been to either place (or to East Asia). Surely though the most quintessentially North Korean rituals are mass rallies. While we don’t attend these you do see them happening n the TV and while passing by. These are often not even broadcast very extensively as they happen so frequently. These are a part of life for everyone in North Korea but something that most people outside of the country have never taken part in. I’d distinguish between these and political rallies in western countries as the latter are of course voluntary. North Koreans don’t really choose whether to attend their rallies or not

Have any of your clients gotten themselves in trouble while visiting?

No, the people we take in are well prepared and know the rules, regulations, etc. Nobody wants to get in trouble in North Korea, no to get anyone else in trouble there so people do tend to be fairly well behaved.

What are some precautionary measures that you or your company would advise tourists to take before visiting (ie don’t wear THIS, don’t bring a camera HERE). Is there a particular season or time of year that you find a big spike in the number of tourists visiting? And sub question: what is the place like ‘off-season’?

Low season is winter; its very cold and the days are short. In fact tourists are not permitted to go there between Dec 15 – Jan 15 usually. High season is when there are a run of national holidays and big events. For the Mass Games which takes place every year recently between Aug – Oct the largest numbers of tourists visit. Many Chinese go at this time too so there are times when it seems the place is overrun with foreign visitors. in terms of what can be taken into the country it was always mobile phones that were not allowed. This has now changed and you can take them in, you need to buy a local SIM (50 EUR) though and the cost of international calls is very very high. But it is possible to take in overseas phones now. Cameras etc are fine too, there is a rule against lenses over 150mm but it has been years since I’ve seen that enforced. Computers are fine but there is no internet available for tourists. While the locals dress conservatively it is fine for tourists to dress as they like, but at the most significant places such as the Mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il it is expected that tourists will make a bit of an effort – long trousers, no flip-flops, shirt, that kind of thing. Also visitors are advised not to give anything to locals which could be compromising for them – religious texts, western CDs, that kind of thing (although they can be taken into the country). As is well known this can cause some problems for people who aren’t supposed to have such things.

Have you noticed any major changes in the country since Kim Jong Il died? Do you think the country will ever open up to the outside world without foreign intervention?

I haven’t noticed any major changes since Ki Jong Il died. Some surface changes are clearly visible (obvious stuff like more statues of Kim Jong Il, that kind of thing) and more mobile phones in the general population, more building work going on (almost all in Pyongyang), but this may well have happened regardless of his death. So we wait with hope of more substantive change that has been widely predicted, but thus far not materialized. As for opening up the country I honestly don’t know. People there deserve better lives, even the people with relatively comfortable lives, but how and when it will happen is beyond my knowledge. A lot has been predicted by various experts but it remains unclear. We live in hope though, fingers crossed for substantive and beneficial change before too long.

You mentioned people are interested in the outside world. How much do you tell them? What are their responses?

As the people we deal with are adults I feel that if they ask a question they should get an honest reply. People don’t really ask if other countries are better than theirs though, they usually ask about what kind of houses people live in, what jobs people have. What films are popular, what people abroad think of North Korea? I’m of the opinion that answering honestly is best, they wouldn’t ask if they didn’t want to know after all!

Do you think the North Koreans actually believe all the propaganda their government produces, or do they realize that the government is their enemy?

I would say that by and large most people take most news they are given at face value. There is only one official news source and this is not a new system, the vast vast majority of people there have never known anything else. However people talk to ach other, and a fair number of North Koreans have been abroad (mostly to China) and know certain things that run counter to some things they are told. So its a combination. Much of the propaganda people are told is about how Koreans are best (rather than that they have more stuff I mean) and this is a powerful message for people wanting something to make them feel better about their situation. Being able to even slightly credibly blame the outside world (usually it is the US) for their predicament makes people feel that they are toughing life out all-in-this-together a kind of blitz spirit. This is outlined very well in this book by the way.

I caught the tail end of a show on NPR regarding the environment in NK. I recall that one of the things the guest noticed was the absence of small animals (squirrels, birds, etc). I think they were making the possible connection between that and food shortages, but since I missed most of the show, I could be wrong. Have you noticed anything similar?

Hard to be sure to be honest. You don’t see that many birds around although you do see them. Squirrels and other wildlife too. It may well be that they have been caught, etc I couldn’t say for sure. This would be more likely in the worst-hit areas of the country, the places with the biggest problems due to lack of food, however these places tourists can’t go to so I can’t say for sure

Thank you for doing this AMA as well as producing documentaries. When asked, I always suggest that everyone watch State of Mind. I’ve been saving up to do one of your tours for about 3 years now but I’ve been struggling with my curiosity to see it first hand, but also my morale outrage that I’d be lining the pockets of “The Kims”. If I took one of your tours, can you please tell the break-down of where my money would go? Again, I’m extremely interested in experiencing N. Korea first hand, but the thought that I’d be helping the State say, buy more weapons to “guard” and oppress more people in Yodok keeps me up at night.

Thanks for the comment. I answered this a bit in another reply but its a valid concern and a common one. We believe that engagement and humanization is a valid thing to be involved in, we also try to direct those interested in humanitarian issues to the right organizations and have a handful of small projects that we fund ourselves. As for the breakdown of where payment goes to explain this would require me to know the exact source cost of everything to be able to work out profit levels from things such as plane tickets, hotel bills, etc to be able to work out what tax is paid to the state by the organizations that we pay for goods and services. Sorry but I simply don’t know these numbers. Apologies for this.

Does the VICE-documentary about North Korea give a good insight of what going to North Korea looks like? It’s on youtube if you have not heard of it.

The Vice guide is interesting for sure. It’s a wildly sensational piece though shot on what is a pretty normal tourist trip. Obviously the magic of editing/camera angles/editorial/etc can be used to make anything appear in any way but I would say it is worth watching with a slightly skeptical eye. It’s entertaining though obviously.


North Korea Podcast Round 2

Jordan Harbinger and Cap’n Joe went BACK to North Korea in 2012 with a whole new group of awesome folks crazy enough to join them.

Checkout the podcast we recorded from inside North Korea during the 2012 celebratory week of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday anniversary.

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

North Koreans celebrate Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday anniversary in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

North Korean Intranet

North Korean Intranet

Intranet computer room at the Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea – photo by Joseph A Ferris

I was looking for this pic during the week when the Google visit went viral; found it in one of my Facebook North Korean albums – I drive myself crazy sometimes!

Interview with Deathandtaxes Online Magazine

The online magazine Deathandtaxes recently asked me some questions about my firsthand experiences traveling in North Korea – check out the full interview here !

A question from the interview:

I saw a short video online made by a guy who visited North Korea  back in 2011. The video is shot like it’s hidden in his jacket or something. It seems like you were just freely taking pictures. How were you able to do that? Is it a misconception that photos and video aren’t allowed in North Korea?

There are quite a few sensationalized videos out there and I think they present an entirely wrong impression of what the tourist experience in the DPRK is all about.  There are some photography rules, but when the North Korean guides see that the group is diligent about following those rules they tend to relax and let everyone have some photography freedom.  It helps that I keep my groups relatively small and manageable at around 10 people.  With a group that size we can really develop a positive relationship, developing an optimum situation where the guides feel secure and in control enough to let us enjoy more freedom while not feeling that we are putting them at risk.

Conversely I have witnessed a full tour bus of about 30 camera touting foreigners clearly disregarding the photography rules within the first couple hours of their trip.  The North Korean guides are responsible for the rules broken by the tourists under their care, and this group’s North Korean guides were clearly upset.  The remedy to these situations is easy, punish the tour group by restricting access to sites.  That group was allowed to drive to sites but only got to visit the parking lots.  We saw them restricted to the bus at the Hamhung fertilizer plant, a site where we were given full and unrestricted photography access.

The Q & A above allows me the opportunely to highlight a few photos from my experience with the tour group that lost its access to sites over its disregard to the photography rules.

West Sea Barrage, North Korea

Both tour group crossed the West Sea Barrage on the same morning.  The above photo shows the entrance to the eight-kilometer-long road crossing – this is a perfectly acceptable photo.

West Sea Barrage, North Korea

There were amazing photography opportunists as both buses got stuck in the midst of a crowd of North Korean locals on bicycles; barrage road transportation was delayed as ships passed through the locks.  We were directed not take pictures at this time, we didn’t.  Those on the other bus did and lost access to other sites because of it.

Locals waiting for ships to pass through the locks – I took the above photo from the West Sea Barrage visitors center on the hill above, we were not prohibited to take photos from there.

North Korea Fertilizer Plant Hamhung

We later met the other tour group at the Hamhung Fertilizer Plant. We were granted full access to the site.  The other group never developed their relationship with their guides and were restricted to the bus and not allowed to take photos.

Below are more photos from our visit to the Hamhung Fertilizer Plant:

North Korea Fertilizer Plant Hamhung

North Korea Fertilizer Plant Hamhung

North Korea Fertilizer Plant Hamhung

North Korea Fertilizer Plant Hamhung

North Korea Fertilizer Plant Hamhung

Hamhung Fertilizer Plant, North Korea

North Korea Fertilizer Plant Hamhung

North Korea Fertilizer Plant Hamhung

North Korea Fertilizer Plant Hamhung