Archive for April, 2013

Rare North Korean Passport Stamp

North Korean Stamps in American Passport

Extremely rare North Korean stamps in my passport. Americans, as well as most tourists, get their stamps on an external visa which they don’t get to keep. This is for the land crossing at Namyang\Tumen border and may be a first ever event.

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‘Kim Jong-Ale’: North Korea’s surprising microbrewery culture explored

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea

In my Kim Jong-il suit at the Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar.

Wired.co.uk picked up my North Korean Craft Beer post and developed the story further. Check out this excellent article featuring Josh Thomas from my early April tour, as well as many of my pictures.


Back from the Extreme Northeast of North Korea

Chongjin, North Korea

Girls on roller skates in Chongjin City, North Korea. Get a sneak peak of my most recent trip via my latest uploads to Instagram.

I’m safely back in China after an amazing week in the rarely visited Northeast region of the DPRK. Of all my trips to North Korea this has been my favorite. Our locally based guides of the Chilbo San Tourism Company were full of enthusiasm and provided us access to sites and experiences which are inaccessible if coming up to the region with the Pyongyang based KITC company.

We were the first western tour group to cross the Tumen/Namyang border on a route to Chongjin only traveled by NGOs and Chinese tourists in the past. Our ride to Chongjin took us on secondary mountain roads never traveled by any westerners before when we found our route blocked by an overturned truck and were forced to make a 7 hour detour – this was not a typical DPRK tour.

During the course of the trip we hiked a mountain peak in a snowstorm, taught kids American football in a small random village (we were forced to stop due to a washed out road), played with locals in volleyball matches, visited a middle school never visited by any tourist before and taught English in the foreign language class, and had a ride on a fishing boat in the Eastern Sea of Korea – I even won a North Korean traditional wrestling tournament at the Mt. Chilbo Home Stay.

I’m going to be resting up for a few days in Yanji and Beijing before I turn around and head back into DPRK to lead a tour to the Rason Special Economic Zone.


North Korean Craft Beer

On my March 30th- April 6th, 2013 trip I brought in Josh Thomas, a craft beer expert living and working as an expat in Hong Kong. This spring trip was customized for Josh’s Easter Holiday with a special itinerary designed around his passion, craft beer. After the trip I asked Josh to comment on his experiences with the North Korean brews he sampled, and the various venues we visited:

Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery

Josh Thomas and Ms Yu enjoy draft beers at the bar of the Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery.

You approached me to arrange a trip to DPRK with a focus on beer and nightlife. As a craft beer expert did the DPRK live up to your expectations?

It absolutely did! It actually far surpassed it. Like many things about North Korea, there wasn’t much information available about what the drinking culture was like there, but what I did know was that Koreans, North and South, love to socialize over alcohol and the rumor was that North Korean beer far surpassed the quality of South Korean beer. With the exception of a small number of American-style craft breweries in Seoul, this was 100% true! North Koreans do much more with much less and really seem to embrace the idea of experimenting with their brews. I fully believe that beer, being the one beverage found around the entire world, is a great unifier among all cultures. For me, as a home brewer and overall global beer nerd, I knew it would be one cultural aspect that I would share with the North Koreans. And it was true! Nothing was more special on this trip than the smiles shared over a beer, comparing and critiquing the beers, and talking about the differences between American beers and North Korean beers. There is no propaganda over beer, just real conversation, smiles, and drunken stumbles back to our respective rooms. And yes, North Koreans get hung over too.

We visited a lot of venues and drank a lot of beer on the trip, where were your favorites and why?

The best beers we sampled were found at the Paradise Microbrewery. Quite an interesting find in North Korea, it seems to operate as a highly independent brewing company, outside the confines of the state brewing Taedonggang Brewery. Unfortunately the brewer was not around when we visited, and the bartenders knew very little about beer and wouldn’t let us visit the back where the beer is made, but whoever made the beer seemed highly knowledgeable about beer. In my opinion the Paradise Pale Ale was the best beer of the trip!

Paradise Microbrewery Pyongyang

Beers on tap at the Paradise Microbrewery bar.

Without a doubt the best venue was Yanggakdo Hotel. Not necessarily because they were my favorite beer we sampled, but because I was able to meet the brewer and even visit the microbrewery where they made the beers. It was a bit sad to see eight 25 gallon fomenters when there was no chance of them using more than one at a time due to the famine, but the smile on the young lady brewmasters face when I told her that I thought she had the best job in North Korea was the most heartwarming moment of the trip for me.

Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery

Josh Thomas and Jordan Harbinger visit the Yanggakdo Hotel Microbrewery.

Tell me about the craft beer served and the venues at the Yanggakdo Hotel, the Paradise Micro Brewery, and Taedonggang Brewery Bar.

Beer in Asia, recently imported American-style craft breweries aside, is largely based on American-German style pale lagers. These beers, like Tsing Tao in China, OB in South Korea, and Asahi in Japan are roughly similar to the American-German pale lagers like Budweiser, Coors, and Miller. Fine for a hot day when you need a cold beverage, but not something I’d choose first – I said I’m a beer nerd, not a beer snob, I will drink a Tsing Tao on occasion, as I live in Hong Kong! I’d much rather enjoy a Harpoon IPA or Mikkeller Hop Bomb Challenge given the choice!

Interestingly enough, economic sanctions in DPRK have lead to an entirely different tradition of brewing, not found elsewhere in Asia. Electrical shortages, causing unexpected and spontaneous power outages, mean that the refrigeration required for lagers is simply impossible. Budweiser-style, largely tasteless, lagers such as is popular in South Korea (OB and Hite) simply cannot be brewed. As a result, North Korean beer is ironically a “steam beer”, the only type of beer invented in the United States. A “steam beer” (better known in the United States from the brand Anchor Steam) is simply a lager brewed at Ale temperatures giving increased flavor, a pronounced bitterness, and a greater body. Crazier still was their affinity for stouts and porters in the DPRK, serving us elegant Coffee Porters and Chocolate Stouts. Their own discovery and version of a Pale Ale was astounding considering the lack of formal brewing training available to the budding brewmasters. Speaking with one of these brewmasters at the Yanggakdo Hotel, I encouraged her to try brewing an American-style India Pale Ale, if she was able to get the hops imported. If I learned anything from the North Koreans, however, is that they make do with what they have. I’d love to try her result!

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea.

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea.

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea.

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea

Taedonggang Craft Brewery Bar Pyongyang, North Korea.

Tell me about your experiences in the more local venues?

Well I’m a bit of a cynic. Some of the local experiences I truly believe were local. Some of the experiences I think might have had some actors planted to stand between the tourists and the real locals. The diplomatic club and the clam bake in particular were great local experiences. It was amazing to see some Koreans finally ‘let their hair down’ so to speak, and stop being mascots for their country, and start being real people. Over the Nampo Hot Spring Hotel clam bake I got to know our bus driver, Mr Lee. It was over this meal, while he poured petrol over live clams, blowing out his bottle when it caught fire, and downing huge amounts of “Pyongyang Vodka”, a 40% alcohol form of Soju, that I really became friends with this quiet and unspoken man. He was unbelievably friendly and never stopped smiling and really seemed to love hanging out with us whenever he could. He, more than anyone else, became my true friend while in the country. What surprised me the most was that he quietly told me that he used to be a soldier in the North Korean People’s Army. Its hard to wrap your mind around, as an American, this short, quiet, and friendly man was once a soldier in the army we seem to most fear in the west.

What was your favorite experience of the trip that was not related to drinking?

Undoubtedly the petrol clambake. Part of traveling around the world for me is trying local foods. North Korea, in the midst of a famine, doesn’t necessarily have “local” foods that they would be comfortable offering to foreigners without being embarrassed. Much of our food was simply iconic Korean foods such as kimchee, banchans, and prawn pancakes. The petrol clambake, however, was fully North Korean. Like much I saw in North Korea, they used unconventional means to solve problems by themselves. No charcoal or wood to bake clams? No problem. Just douse them in gasoline! Most people would think they clams would come out tasting of fuel, but I’m happy to announce that they were actually delicious. Fresh, clean, and tasting of nothing but clam!

North Korean Petrol Gas Clam BBQ

Nampo Hot Spring Hotel petrol clam bake.

Would you go back? Suggest others to travel there?

I certainly would! Actually, I think the second trip would only be more fun than the first. Like anyone on their first trip to North Korea I was quite a bit scared going in. However, the nerves quickly dissipate when you meet your amazing guides and realize that you’re going to be just fine, but I can only imagine that a more relaxed mood going in will only enhance my second trip. I would highly advise anyone who can should organize their own trip and choose their own itinerary. To get the most out of a trip to North Korea, find an interest of your own that you can mirror in the North Koreans. They’re not the Taliban and they enjoy having a good time with any number of western things. If you’re a surfer, organize a surfing trip in North Korea. If you’re a chef, organize a local food tour. If you’re a cinema fanatic, get yourself into the Pyongyang International Film Festival! The options are literally endless and by organizing a tour that matches your own interests, you will get a greater insight into the culture and country.

American on the DMZ North Korea

Josh Thomas and a commander on the North Korea DMZ.


Communications Tech and a Smile

Kaesong Waitress

Cell phones in North Korea remain popular as ever; our waitress at the Kaesong Folk Hotel bar receives a wireless call.

Kaesong Waitress

Land lines still exist, are used, and give the moment captured a classic retro feel.

Kaesong Waitress North Korea

With her calls finished, and in between serving us traditional blueberry liqueur, our waitress poses for a classic portrait shot.


Back to North Korea – Extreme North East

Singing North Korean Waitress

Waiting for my Manila to Beijing flight for yet another North Korea trip this week.

On April 22nd I start the Extreme North East Tour and will be the first American tourist to cross the Tumen land border.

Beijing – Tumen – Namyang – Hyeryong – Chongjin – Mt Chilbo – Rason – Yanji

In November 2012, YPT, and Troy became the first westerner to cross the Tumen border in Namyang, into the extreme North-East of the DPRK. This will be the second group of Western Tourists to enter the country via Namyang and to undertake this route!

Our trip starts off either in Beijing, or meeting us directly in Tumen to cross on foot over the bridge and into the DPRK, and Namyang, where your extreme DPRK experience starts with a bang. This can be considered the most intense border crossing in the country, with every piece of paper that you own, and all your electronics and bags being given the most thorough going over you are ever likely to receive in any border! It might sound scary, but the intensity makes it quite the experience.

We are then met by our extremely friendly guides and driven to Hyeryong, a city only just opened to western tourists, and  hometown of not only the most beautiful women in the country (according to the Koreans), but also mother Kim Jong Suk, before heading on to the infamous Chongjin and the scenically beautiful Mt Chilbo, where we indulge in the only home-stay available in the country. This is an extremely unique and interesting experience, and your night spent drinking and eating with the Korean family will undoubtedly be unforgettable.

Following this we cross the internal border from the DPRK “mainland” into the Rason Special Economic Zone, currently the only place in the DPRK where foreigners can change money at the market rate, use local money and even shop in the private markets! Thus combining the least seen parts of this country, with the practically unseen.

We then finish the tour Yanji, Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, an area with the largest Korean-Chinese population in China.

 

 


Pyongyang Folk Park

Ryugyong Hotel Model at Mini Pyongyang Folk Park

Can’t get enough of the surreal Ryugyong Hotel (AKA the “Hotel of Doom“)?

At the newly opened Pyongyang Folk Park you can get up close and personal with a scale model Ryugyong Hotel as well as Pyongyang’s other famous landmarks and monuments.

The Korean Central News Agency of DPRK describes the park:

The Pyongyang Folk Park vividly showing the long history and time-honored culture of the Korean people was built in the area of Mt. Taesong.

The park consists of the district for comprehensive history education, district for the display of historic relics, modern district, folk village district, folk playing district, park district of Mt. Paektu and Mt. Kumgang and the management and operation district. It is an open-air history museum where visitors can see and experience at first hand the good qualities of the Korean nation and the genuine socialist national culture developing day by day.

The construction of the park greatly helps the Korean people, including and school youth and children, inherit and glorify the excellent tradition and brilliant culture of the nation.

A visit to the Pyongyang Folk Park costs a steep 14 Euros – at that price it might not be of interest to all tourists (remember there are no ATMs to replenish your cash supply), but I thoroughly enjoyed the site.  In addition to the  surreal collection of scale models of Pyongyang’s monuments, the park boasts a Korean geisha house where visitors can enjoy a traditional music performance and are served soju by young ladies in period costumes.  We also stumbled upon a film set and posed for pictures with actors in an anti Japanese revolutionary movie in the traditional village section of the park.  The site is also a popular place for wedding photos, which of course we were invited to pose in.

Mini Pyongyang Folk Park

Model of Pyongyang’s Arche of Triumph and Mount Kumgang.

Mini Pyongyang Folk Park

Model of the Party Foundation Monument.

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Soldier workers prep Mansudae Grand Monument.

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Model of Juche Tower.

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Models of Juche Tower and Arch of Triumph.

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Models of Juche Tower and Arch of Triumph.

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Model of Juche Tower.

Mini Pyongyang Folk Park

Music at the Korean geisha house.

Mini Pyongyang Folk Park

Music at the Korean geisha house.

Soju at Mini Pyongyang Folk Park

Soju at the Korean geisha house.

Soju at Mini Pyongyang Folk Park

Soju at the Korean geisha house.

Soju at Mini Pyongyang Folk Park

Korean geisha house.

North Korean Film Set

With North Korean actors on an Anti Japanese revolutionary film set at the Pyongyang Folk Park.

North Korean Film Set

North Korean actors on an Anti Japanese revolutionary film set at the Pyongyang Folk Park.

North Korean Film Set

North Korean actors on an Anti Japanese revolutionary film set at the Pyongyang Folk Park.

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North Korean wedding party.

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North Korean wedding party.

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My tour group poses with a North Korean wedding party.

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Bride and groom at the Pyongyang Folk Park.


Pyongyang Traffic Girl

Pyongyang Traffic Girl

I’m going to let you in on a little secret – I really like the traffic girls of Pyongyang.

When we asked our North Korean guides if the traffic girls are aware of their world wide fame we were told they do but don’t really like the notoriety.  Some of the girls fear the fame will go to their heads and distract them from their job of keeping the streets of Pyongyang safe.

Photo by Joseph A Ferris III


Nampo Gasoline Clam BBQ

Clam BBQ cooked by a sprinkling of lighted gasoline in Nampo, North Korea – eat your heart out Anthony Bourdain!

North Korean Petrol Gas Clam BBQ

North Korean Petrol Gas Clam BBQ

North Korean Petrol Gas Clam BBQ

North Korean Petrol Gas Clam BBQ

North Korean Petrol Gas Clam BBQ

North Korean Petrol Gas Clam BBQ

North Korean Petrol Gas Clam BBQ

North Korean Petrol Gas Clam BBQ

The petrol clam BBQ is an activity I have always wanted to do but have had difficulty arranging until now.  During certain times of the year the water is too polluted to safely eat the clams.  The activity is also dependent on arriving early enough in Nampo to arrange a fresh batch of clams to be bought from the local fisherman.

Only the West Coast clams of Nampo can be eaten his way.  These clams don’t open up when cooked, allowing minimal gasoline to seep into the tasty bits.  To make sure everything is safe to consume our North Korean guides insist on a large supply of soju and rice liquor to wash everything down with.


Snow White in North Korea

Snow White in North Korea

Snow White in North Korea – did Disney authorize this embroidery piece from the Pyongyang Embroidery Institute?  I think not.

Snow White in North Korea

I couldn’t resist and bought the piece for $40.

Somewhat shunned by other tour groups, my group loved the Pyongyang Embroidery Institute. You get to see girls hard at work on elaborate embroidery  pieces and shop their showroom for great deals on amazing artwork ranging from revolutionary war subjects to scenes of traditional Korean maidens, and yes, even Walt Disney.


Water Skiing in Pyongyang

Water Skiing in Pyongyang, North Korea

As the western media whips up fear of a North Korean nuclear armageddon, people in Pyongyang are water skiing the Taedong River – photo by Joseph A Ferris III


Diplomacy Through Tourism

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Michael Bassett, constructivist DPRK analyst, US Senatorial consultant, and retired US Army Tank Commander/Platoon Sergeant, gets a hug with a North Korean army commander last week on the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone – real world diplomacy through foreign tourism in North Korea.

Photo by Joseph A Ferris III


North Korean Taekwondo Expert Defeats American Imperialist

On my recent trip to North Korea I arranged a private Taekwondo demonstration at the Pyongyang Taekwondo Palace. It was an amazing and extremely rare experience but the best part of the show was when we convinced the North Koreans to match their best against DPRK analyst and US Senatorial consultant Michael Bassett. Unfortunately (but expectantly) our American representative suffered a swift and devastating defeat!

Pyongyang Taekwondo Palace

Pyongyang Taekwondo Palace

Pyongyang Taekwondo Palace

Pyongyang Taekwondo Palace

Pyongyang Taekwondo Palace

Pyongyang Taekwondo Palace

Pyongyang Taekwondo Palace

I assume the North Koreans will never let a tourist match up with their Taekwondo experts again – a first and last ever brought to you by American in North Korea. More pics from the Taekwondo demonstration to come.


CNN Interview

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Check out my segment on CNN’s Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.


Rollerblading Their Way to War

While the American media beats the war drums, and our citizens panic under a perceived nuclear missile threat, the citizens of Pyongyang, North Korea go on with their lives.

Rollerblading in Pyongyang, North Korea

Girls rollerblading on the banks of the Taedong River.

North Korean Boys in Pyongyang

Boys rollerblading near the Arch of Triumph.

Photos from my March 30th – April 6th 2013 trip to North Korea.