I spent some time last spring practicing conversational English with the girls of the Rason Foreign Language Institute. On my return I gifted them photos from the first visit:
The girls checking out the photos.
The girls checking out the photos.
Gift photo from my first visit.
Gift photo from my first visit.
The children we interact with at the Rason Foreign Language Institute are aged 13-15, and are chosen to converse with us because they rank the top of their class. Shy at first, the girls quickly warm up by asking questions about family life in the United States, asking about our favorite colors, sports, hobbies, and animals. I keep it simple and ask them similar questions, learning that they enjoy swimming, reading, piano, and watching cartoons. Most of the girls want to be teachers when the grow up; they all hope to someday live in Pyongyang.
I just returned from the Rason SEZ of North Korea on a private business trip, and although it was mainly meetings with officials, I still had time to visit some sites and get some great pics!
Girl swinging at the Rason sea park – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
In April 2013 I was the first American tourist to cross the Namyang/Tumen border into North Korea’s North Hamgyong province. Young Pioneer Tour’s head guide Troy Collings led the trip and wrote the following report – photos are mine:
I was fortunate enough to be back in North Hamgyong leading the first Western tour group to cross the Tumen-Namyang border and see the cities of Hoeryong and Onsong, on April 24th-29th. There were 12 of us pioneering the way and we definitely had our fair share of crazy events. First we were followed everywhere in Tumen, China by guys from the PSB which is like internal security, and they kept warning us that it was dangerous for us to go outside in Tumen at night because the locals like to drink and fight a lot. They also had some trouble believing we were actually going to North Korea so they asked a lot of questions such as whether we were invited etc.
We also heard only a couple of days before that we wouldn’t be able to go from Chongjin to Rason on this trip as the Koreans had not been able to get the permission in time, so we had to make a few changes. In the end though our partners at Chilbosan Travel Company were amazing and made sure we were always entertained and had new sites to see.
In the end all was well and PSB showed up the next morning to watch us cross the border. Chinese customs took some time as they wanted all our names and nationalities, and took a lot of photos of us going through customs and walking onto the bridge. After walking the long bridge into DPRK our passports were checked by a soldier at the gate and we met our guides Mr So and Ri outside the customs building. Customs was a much easier affair than when I went in November 2012 as they had installed a scanner- so we had to simply declare all our electronics and then get our bags scanned.
View from the Tumen – Chinese side of the border.
Finally we hit the road and were a fair way along when we came across a broken truck that had made the road impassable. So we got out and threw a football around in a yard in the miner’s village we had stopped in. After a while we started throwing it to some of the local village children. Our guides seemed to have no problem with it so it carried on for nearly an hour playing with them – it was a really memorable experience. Finally they decided we had no choice but to take a detour, so we drove back around to Namyang then towards the East Sea before swinging back around to Hoeryong. So we were lucky enough to be the first tourists of any kind to take that road, even Chinese tourists haven’t yet, and our driver constantly had to ask for directions. They also went and brought some local street food for us as we were well past lunchtime by this point.
Troy getting a ride from fellow YPT guide Rowan Beard on a remote North Korean road – yes, Rowan is a giant.
Waiting for truck and road repairs in a remote village.
Trip member teaching local boys American football while waiting for truck repairs.
The downside of this of course was the time we lost- we ended up having to have dinner in Hoeryong at around 8.30 pm, and finally arrived in Chongjin at 11pm, where we went to the Seaman’s Club for a quick bath. Some of us stayed to enjoy the club while those who were too tired went to the hotel to sleep. Rowan made friends with the manager over his iPad, while Joe, Mark, Ri and I chatted with the waitresses and showed them some pictures etc. It was an interesting start to what would prove to be an extremely interesting trip.
Chongjin Seaman’s Club.
Rowan and the Chongjin Seaman’s Club boss.
We woke up at 8, though I had to get up earlier to meet Mr Koh, the manager of the Chilbosan travel company for a quick chat. After breakfast we headed out to see the statue of President Kim Il Sung in the central square , and the nearby E-Library. It was Military Foundation day, so all the kids had the day off and a mass of them followed us around the area giving us hi-fives and waves, it was such an amazing welcome and they were so happy to see us. Joseph took some amazing pictures and we all felt like genuine rock stars.
Posing with the Chongjin Kim Il Sung statue guide.
Chongjin Kim Il Sung statue.
Chongjin locals wait for us to move on before paying respects at the Chongjin Kim Il Sung statue.
After the E-Library we went to see the model plan for the future development of Chongjin – a scale model showing the intended renovations and new constructions to develop the city. It’s next door to the E-Library, so we got to see all the children again. It was almost impossible to squeeze through them and onto the bus, not that any one was in a rush to do so. After that we had to head down to Mt Chilbo (we returned to Chongjin later anyway). The drive to Chilbo was fairly uneventful but as always provided some amazing village views and we even saw a few local markets from the bus.
Chongjin development model.
Kids in Chongjin.
Troy and Rowan with kids in Chongjin.
We stopped at the mineral painting showing the area – the largest of it’s kind in the world apparently, and received an explanation of the area. This is also the only place where you can take photos from the bus while it’s moving which is nice. We then ate lunch at the Outer Chilbo hotel – the manager of which also cooks all the food himself and is a rather famous chef in the area. He was kind enough to take the time to meet me before we left the area.
DPRK guide Mr So showing us the Mt Chilbo mineral painting.
After lunch we took a tour of some scenic spots and walks in Inner Chilbo and the Kaesim Buddhist Temple, where we were told that Mt. Chilbo rewards those with good hearts by providing good weather, but for those with wicked hearts the weather will turn bad. We spent the night in the Outer Chilbo hotel where we had a long dinner and sang with the hotel’s waitresses, spending the night drinking and talking with them and the Korean guides.
Rowan and the lovely waitresses of the Outer Chilbo hotel.
Troy and the lovely waitresses of the Outer Chilbo hotel.
In the morning after breakfast we set off for a long 8.5 kilometer hike to Gangsonmun area – unfortunately the path was still covered in deep snow in places, and near the peak it began to rain and snow. It seems at least one of us had a wicked heart, so we were punished by the mountain had to go back, of course as soon as we went back a far enough distance it became sunny again.
Hike up a Mt. Chilbo peak.
After our hike we ate a riverside picnic lunch – spicy fish soup that the Koreans cooked up for us. After lunch it was time to visit the home stay village, which I had been restless for all day.
Mr. So cooks mountain soup.
We arrived at the village, had a look around, and played volleyball with the locals – we ended up with two teams of 3 foreigners and 3 Koreans with some rotating subs. Each team even had their own cheer groups which was awesome. After we had some snacks and drinks with the village chief, participated in traditional Korean wrestling, and had a bonfire party on the beach with the locals. That night the Americans in our group were driven back to the Outer Chilbo hotel where they had a small party and a great chat with Mr Ri. The rest of us went to our respective home stays and talked to the occupants, shared photo albums, and finally went to sleep.
Volleyball at the Mt. Chilbo Home Stay.
Troy prepares for traditional Korean wrestling.
We woke up early to do some light farming work, which turned out to be very light indeed. Rowan and I planted a few seeds in a very, very small area that they asked us to plow. Some people helped sweep the yard, and one guy weeded a strawberry patch for a short while. After we had a stroll around the village area and breakfast. When the US citizens returned from the Outer Chilbo hotel we went out for a boat ride along the coastline in some old wooden fishing boats.
After the boating it was time for another hike up to Manulsang to enjoy the view and a visit to the famous Ponji spring to sample the water. We had lunch at the hotel in Outer Chilbo before departing for Kyongsong, stopping at the Yongbun revolutionary site along the coastline on the way.
After our arrival in Gyongsong we went to see the local revolutionary site where Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Suk had stayed in the past. Originally owned by a winemaker, it was the largest home in the area at the time. Following that we went to a local spa house to bathe which was great after two nights without running hot water – though in Outer Chilbo the hotel did provide us with a bucket of hot water each. After the baths I saw some locals hitting badminton shuttle cocks back and forth so I asked if we could play with them and our guides said no problem. We joined and played for some time, which was another unexpected, yet pleasant surprise.
Gyongsong hot spa clinic.
Locals playing badminton.
We spent that night at the Gyongsong hotel, having dinner there, and a party with the waitresses of the hotel. I was also able to get the guides to send someone out to the local shops to get us Swallow Beer (another type of beer not found in tourist shops and restaurants) and Craven A cigarettes (also not usually available for tourists), so again I was surprised at how amenable our guides were.
Gyongsong Hotel party.
In the morning we went to the Jipsam Revolutionary Site while on the way to Chongjin, and finally returned to Chongjin, where we visited the Chonsam region kindergarten and enjoyed a children’s performance. We had lunch at the Seaman’s club, where I was joined by Manager Koh who had brought Paeksul for us. Paeksul is one of the DPRK’s top liquors (It’s 30% alcohol and is made only from Pears), so it was a very pleasant surprise. I had to leave the others to enjoy lunch while I ate with the Koreans and discussed business for a while. We had some very exciting discussions – the future for tourism up there looks very bright.
Chongjin kindergarten show.
Troy with the Chongjin kindergarten teachers.
Troy and Rowan in a kindergarten classroom.
After lunch we shopped in the seaman’s club shop and then drove by the port to have a look. It was finally time to leave Chongjin and we drove off to Hyeryong city, where we were the first group of Western Tourists ever. Upon our arrival we paid respects to Kim Jong Suk’s (revolutionary war hero and mother of Kim Jong Il) statue and took photos of the central square area. We then walked over the hill to see the house where she was born, and visited the Hyeryong Revolutionary Museum, before checking in at the hotel.
Chongjing Seaman’s Club cold noodle lunch.
Hyeryong Kim Jong Suk statue.
That night we sang and danced with the Hyeryong waitresses. Everyone had a good time (expect for Joe who was sick), and I think the Koreans really enjoyed the chance to get to know some foreigners too, as they had only met Chinese before (and me in November of course).
After breakfast we visited the Kim Ki Song (little brother of Kim Jong Suk) Middle School. We were the first tourists ever to visit, opening it according to my requests in November, it was very good to see them come through. We saw several classrooms of the school, but the highlight was having the opportunity to speak with the English class. Never having spoken with foreigners before the kids were quite nervous, and with unfamiliar accents etc, it was quite a challenge, but fun and rewarding none the less. Unfortunately the teacher’s college and maternity hospital have not yet decided to allow us or not – we will see in the future if those sites will be available.
Kim Ki Song Middle School.
Kim Ki Song Middle School.
View of Hyeryong town.
From Hyeryong we drove to Onsong County, another first for a Western tour group. We visited the Grand Monument at Wangjaesan, which is perhaps the most impressive monument I have ever seen in the country. After we toured the Wangjaesan revolutionary museum at the base of the hill.
A small section of the Grand Monument at Wangjaesan.
Lastly it was time for customs; we had a customs official travel on the bus with us to check photos and help speed up formalities. The border post still took a fair while, though the scanners really helped! We then said farewell to our guides and crossed the bridge to return to Tumen. Chinese customs all seemed very happy to see us, and our PSB police friend was there to meet us. Customs took a long time here too, but finally we left and headed by bus to Yanji.
It was a great trip and I see a lot of potential for continued tourism in this region. Our partners up there seem very committed to helping us to access as much as we can. For returners, or people who want to see a more representative area of the DPRK, I would definitely recommend it. As one of our group members said, the bus rides were almost a tour within a tour, as we could see a lot of authentic villages, markets etc up there. Of course photography off the bus is not allowed (except within Mt Chilbo region.) I’m definitely looking forward to the next one!
- Restricted Chongjin, North Korea (americaninnorthkorea.com)
Located at the base of the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery, next to the Botanical Gardens, and serviced by the Rakwon Metro stop, the Pyongyang Zoo makes for a lovely visit. The Zoo is open daily, but weekends are an especially good time to visit as the zoo will be busy with locals on their day off, providing tourists with lots of relaxed opportunities to interact.
The zoo is nice by Asian standards. It is well stocked with most animals you would expect, and some surprises, such as sections for domestic cats and domestic dogs. Commonly found on most pens are signs describing how the animal on display was donated by Kim Jong Il. Opportunities to trot around the grounds on ponies and camels are available for those daring enough. The Pyongyang Zoo is not included on most itineraries, but a visit can be easily arranged provided available time in your itinerary.
A lonly St. Bernard.
Dalmatians donated by Kim Jong Il.
Dalmatians donated by Kim Jong Il.
Young Pioneers at bird cages.
Pony cart rides.
Pyongyang Zoo duck pond.
Ice cream vendor.
Zoo construction site propaganda art.
I have never been a fan of graphic novels, but recently I read and enjoyed Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea.
Guy Delisle worked in Pyongyang as a project manager for a French animation company in the early 2000’s. The outsourced animation projects he oversaw seemed to run themselves, and finding himself without much to do, Guy busied himself by sketching scenes of Pyongyang and documenting instances of culture shock he encountered.
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea is witty, and fair (I believe) to what the experience must have been like as an expat there in the early 2000’s. His portrayal of Pyongyang’s unique buildings and architecture is spot on, and I found myself reminiscing over the many little details of Pyongyang he sketched: 50’s era Hungarian buses with star embalms, each star indicating 5,000 accident free driving miles, ladies of Pyongyang wearing socks hiked up over their nylons, and fly swatting waitresses. Even the lonely (and endangered – so I’m told) turtle in the giant fish tank at the Yanggakdo Hotel bar is a recurring character.
For North Korea watchers not fortunate to have visited the country, perhaps the most useful sketches from Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea are of Guy’s visit to the International Friendship Exhibition, a site where interior photography is prohibited.
It’s a shame Guy never visited the Kumsusan Memorial Palace and Mausoleum; his sketches would have been quite valuable as interior photography is also prohibited there.
For fans of graphic novels, and for those waiting to properly fill out their North Korean book collection, I certainly suggest picking up Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea.
An overnight at the Mt. Chibo Homestay is a highlight of any trip to the remote North East of North Korea. On a pristine beach with the Chilbo mountains soaring behind, the home stay affords visitors unique interactions with locals, and ample leisure time to enjoy activities like village volleyball tournaments, traditional Korean wrestling, beach side campfires with sing-alongs, and traditional fishing boat rides.
More pics from the Mt. Chilbo Homestay below:
Tour of the homes; typical living room.
Fishing boat ride on the East Korean Sea.
Campfire with locals.
I won the traditional Korean wrestling tournament!
Guard with silver plated AK-47 protects the entrance to the International Friendship Exhibition.
Holding all the gifts ever received by leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the two massive mountain bunker palaces comprising the Myohyang-san International Friendship Exhibition are deservedly one of North Korea’s top sites.
Some of the gifts are notorious: bullet-proof cars from Stalin, a Kim Il Sung life size wax statue (that you are expected to bow to) from the Chinese, a basketball signed by Michael Jordan from former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Other gifts are more mundane: medals and plaques from communist friendship societies, nicknacks from diplomats, and TVs, golf bags, and living room sets from various Asian businessmen.
Humble or grand, the gifts on display serve as physical examples of world’s love and admiration for the deceased North Korean leaders – gifts to Mother Kim Jong Suk and Marshall Kim Jong Un are also housed there.
The International Friendship Exhibition holds an astonishing estimated 275,000 gifts – an exact count is digitally displayed in the first hall. Visitors are required to wear cloth booties to prevent dirt from being tracked into the sacred halls as they view the gifts. There is so much to see that groups get to choose continents – I recommend seeing the gifts from Africa and Asia.
Touring the numerous halls of the International Friendship Exhibition is tiring, fortunately there is a a resting pavilion and cafe overlooking a scenic valley for visitors to enjoy at the end of their tour.
KITC guide Miss Han and a local guide having a rest at the viewing pavilion.
Most North Koreans will make at least one pilgrimage during their lifetimes to view the treasures on display at the International Friendship Exhibition. Sacred Mount Paektu, Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il ),and the capital city of Pyongyang are the other great domestic North Korean pilgrimage sites.
Photography inside the International Friendship Exhibition is strictly forbidden (readers will have to use their imagination), but I was lucky enough to find a rare stamp of my favorite gift, the stuffed crocodile bar set given by the Nicaraguan Sandinista communists, which should give you an insight into the treasures the International Friendship Exhibition safeguards.
The North Koreans are building a ski slope, and despite setbacks over ski lift procurement, the mountain is set to open next winter. Last week the general managers of Young Pioneer Tours were the first westerners invited to the East Coast city of Wŏnsan to inspect the ski slope construction. In addition to taking some of the first pictures of the ski slope, they also report that the mountain will be open to western tourists. Skiers will be giving full access to the mountain – DPRK guides will not be chasing behind them!
Young Pioneer Tours fully expects to offer several winter ski trips once the mountain opens – more details to come!
Construction at the Wonsan area ski slope – photos by Young Pioneer Tours
Young Pioneer Stanley
I’m excited to announce that this Fall I will be the first person to bring the Flat Stanley Project to North Korea!
Originating from the Flat Stanley book series, Flat Stanley is flattened to half an inch thick when a bulletin board falls on him in the first book. Stanley takes advantage of his new dimensions by traveling by air mail and engaging in adventures around the world.
The books have developed into the Flat Stanley Project, with schoolchildren creating their own Flat Stanley characters and mailing them to hosts around the world.
The basic principle of The Flat Stanley Project is to connect your child, student or classroom with other children or classrooms participating in the Project by sending out “flat” visitors, created by the children, through the mail (or digitally, with The Flat Stanley app). Kids then talk about, track, and write about their flat character’s journey and adventures. Although similar to a pen-pal activity, Flat Stanley is actually much more enriching-students don’t have to wonder where to begin or what to write about. The sender and the recipient already have a mutual friend, Flat Stanley. Writing and learning becomes easier, flows naturally, and tends to be more creative. This is what teachers call an “authentic” literacy project, in that kids are inspired to write of their own passion and excitement about the project, and given the freedom to write about many things through the rubric of the Flat Stanley character.
I love geography education and am very excited to take part in this project – especially since I will have the Young Pioneer Tour’s company smart phone and North Korean 3G access to document everything in real time.
If you would like to follow my Young Pioneer Stanley, or the several Flat Stanley charterers I’m bringing to North Korea, please join the Flat Stanley website or mobile app, and search for me under the user name josephferris76.
Young Pioneer Flat Stanley starting his journey on the Research Vessel Melville.
I made a PDF photo book about the Pyongyang traffic girls.
Right click and save to download for free – looks great when viewed on an iPad!
Most warmer month DPRK tour itineraries include a visit Pyongyang’s Kaeson Fun Fair – it has the biggest roller coasters and is centrally located next to the Arch of Triumph. But other options for those looking for their adrenalin fix exist; next to May Day Stadium on Rungra Island is the newly constructed Rungra Island Funfair and Pleasure Park. The sprawling 100 hector complex actually comprises two separate amusement parks and a dolphinarium – unfortunately we missed the dolphin show on my visit. The Kaeson Fun Fair may have the blockbuster rides, but the amusements at the Rungra Island Funfair are more surreal; check out the crazy mouse roller coaster and the Mexican sombrero ride in the pictures below:
Young Pioneer Tour’s founder, Gareth Johnson, and I will be guiding this epic adventure:
Trip runs November 6th – December 2nd -with options to join various segments a one week intervals.
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.
Trans Siberian Express – photo by Garrett Ziegler
Pricing Combined Packages:
€1548 – Beijing – Bucharest November 6th – 24th
€1898 Beijing – Tirana (Albania) November 6th – December 2nd
Group 1(Beijing – Moscow) = €695
Group 2 (Moscow – Minsk – Kiev)= €255 / 950
Group 3 (Kiev – Pripyat – Kiev) = €349 / 1299
Group 4 (Kiev – Odessa – Transnistria – Moldova – Romania) = €249 /1548
Group 5 (Bucharest – Sofia – Skopje – Kosovo – Tirana) = €350 / 1898
The documentary A State of Mind broke ground in 2003 as the first western production to be allowed unrestricted access into Pyongyang, filming in the homes of friends Pak Hyon Sun (age 13) and Kim Song Yun (age 11), and showing insights into their daily life as they trained for gymnastics performances in a run of mass games.
Their determined preparation leading to the film’s “socialist realist extravaganza” mass games finale is fascinating, but I more enjoyed the peeks into the girl’s daily lives: attempts to ditch homework, delight as one girl inherits a room when an older sister joins the army, and a father complaining about his house full of chatty woman.
The filmmakers successfully present a non judgmental viewpoint, but there is no mistaking the reality of a people’s collectivist mindset. Sacrifice of individuality to the needs of the state is the film’s major theme – which is precisely what the mass game and other mass events aim to be the ultimate representation of.
Filmed a decade ago, this is not the DPRK I am firsthand familiar with, but I still love this documentary and consider it required viewing for anyone with an interest in the country. I personally know the director, and although I haven’t met the girls from the film, I have seen behind the scenes photos of them from the production, making this extra special film for me.
You can find A State of Mind on Amazon.com.