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:
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.
In the post 5 Reasons Not To Go To North Korea, the author claims (amongst many other things I strongly disagree with) that travel to the Northeast industrial city of Chongjin is impossible:
You know those tour buses that clutter up every major city in the world? The ones that pull up and regurgitate camera-snapping masses onto the streets of London, Paris, New York and Rome?
Give me one of those any day over a trip to Pyongyang.
You see, you only see what the government allow you to see. That is to say, you see the capital city and all the chintziest sights that the Kim dynasty deem suitable for foreign eyes, the sights that portray their tyrannic regime in the best light possible. Prosperous, modern, robust
Your cameras are checked. You can only take photographs where permitted. You can’t wander down a side street while the rest of your tour group is regaled with tales of double rainbows and icebergs heralding the birth of Kim Jong Il.
You won’t see Cheongjin, the industrial city on the coast that was thoroughly ransacked and ravaged during the famine, North Korea’s second largest. It’s not even on Google maps at present.
This isn’t accurate, Chongjin has been an approved tourist city for some time, the problem has been getting there. Until recently access was only possible by charter flight via Pyongyang, but in 2013 new routes in the Northeast were opened with Chongjin easily visited via either Rason or Namyang.
What exactly would a visitor to North Korea see that hasn’t been seen before?
Will they see the places I’ve listed above? Not unless the government relax their policies regarding where can and cannot be visited, and even under the rule of Kim Jong Un, who appears to be slightly less monstrous than his father, this appears unlikely at present.
Rather, a visitor to North Korea is only going to see what everyone else before them has seen. See the same statues, hear the same stories, walk across the giant streets with barely a car in sight – maybe even catch a military parade of some kind if they’re lucky.
There are so many new places and things to see in the DPRK it’s mind blowing. Join Young Pioneer Tours on one of their Northeast Extreme trips, a cruise out of Rason, Dandong day trips to Sinuiju, or check out the newly opened sites in the town of Pyongsong – there is no excuse for not seeing something new on a trip to North Korea if you are adventures enough to get out of Pyongyang!
Amazing interactions with local kids in the “you won’t see Cheongjin” industrial city of the Northeast:
What has this blog taught you about North Korea?
Insights? Shattered misconceptions? Please leave a comment – thanks!
Children at the Pyongyang Zoo – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
Woman in revolutionary outfit on a cell phone at Mansu Hill, Pyongyang – Photo by Joseph A Ferris III
Propaganda in Wonsan, North Korea – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
No visit to Rason, North Korea would be complete (at least for those interested in business or entertainment) without a stop at the Hong Kong investor owned Emperor Hotel and Casino. The second casino in North Korea (the original being a small dodgy room in the Yanggakdo International Hotel basement), the Emperor Hotel and Casino is located on a lonely stretch of coast with farmers and oxen tilling fields right up to the empty parking lots.
The lobby is spotless, the restaurant promising (but empty), and the signs politely remind Chinese gamblers not to spit. Visitors can only gamble if they exchange a minimum of 500 dollars into chips – we didn’t, so we couldn’t visit the gaming floor. Neither did we visit the dodgy Chinese massage parlor, but as per our guide’s proud recommendation, we did use the county’s only 5 star bathroom.
The casino has a fleet of Humvee vehicles reportedly confiscated from Chinese mafia gamblers who lost millions of dollars and refused to pay their debt. They left the Humvees instead, which are now used to shuttle patrons down from the Chinese border – they must have been on a run, we searched for the Humvees but the casino motor pool was empty.
And if this wasn’t all surreal enough, there is even an associated pawn shop for unlucky gamblers located on the road leading to the casino!
More pics of the Emperor Hotel and Casino:
Dodgy Chinese massage!
Development under the watchful eyes of a Kim mosaic in Rason, North Korea.
Join me for the September 22nd – September 27th Rason Business Interest Tour.
The 3 night, 4 day trip has us visiting many of the major joint-venture and foreign owned companies in the area as well as most importantly meeting people involved with the foreign affairs and investment departments in the area to explore opportunities in the region as well as the logistics of doing business here.
Whilst we will be visiting tourist attractions whilst here the trip will primarily be based around doing business, and as such we will only be accepting bookings from people looking to do business here.
This is an excellent opportunity to meet the people that matter, set up further appointments, and begin what can be a long process of doing business in the DPRK.
The trip starts and finishes in Beijing/Yanji, with us doing a Rason Business presentation at the wonderful LiuJing Hotel, Yanji on the evening prior to departure.
4 nights, 5 days • €695 (650 meet in Yanji) • (Beijing – Yanji – Rason – Yanji. (3 nights, 4 days in Rason, 1 night, 2 days in China)
This trip is capped at 6 people, three more spaces available, and time to sign up is limited.
YPT is extremely pleased to announce our very eagerly anticipated 2014 DPRK mainland tour schedule. We have added a lot of very exciting new tours to our program, as well as keeping all of our very firm favorites.
2013 is officially the last year of Arirang, but seeing as the country has run some kind of “mass games” pretty much every year since 1946, we are extremely confident there will be a program for 2014, as with everything at YPT we will keep you posted.
MASSIVE DISCOUNTS – The most exciting thing about the list is that we are offering massive discounts of between 20-30% on all tours for 2014 booked in 2013, with 3 days from as little as 350 Euro, and 7 days for under 1000. Prices for our January/February tours will go up on November 1st, with everything from March onwards going up on January 1st.
Email me at email@example.com to get your early booking discount!
From past posts readers might be under the impression that North Korean kindergartens are overwhelmingly filled with political and military statues and art. But there is a sweeter, more innocent side to DPRK kindergartens, aspects of which I would like to highlight in this photo post:
Photos from Chongjin and Rason Kindergartens .
Last spring I had a chance to visit the 16th Pyongyang Spring International Trade Fair held at the Three Revolutionary Ideas Exhibition. Entrance was 5 Euros and not everybody in my tour group wanted to visit. Those who didn’t enter got to mingle with locals and eat barbeque pork at an outside food court, but those of us who did visit were treated to an amazing look at North Korean technology and the country’s emerging marketplace.
Luxury Tissot watch booth. Other luxury Swiss items can be found at a shop at the Yanggakdo Hotel.
North Korean Samjiyon Tablet – are their tablets and new smart phones really made in North Korea?
This photo is credited as being the first to confirm the existence of the larger size Samjiyon Tablet.
Flat screen TVs showing the Moranbong Band.
Panasonic in Pyongyang.
Washers, dryers, and refrigerators.
Young woman in revolutionary outfit using North Korean currency at the trade fair.
Want to learn more about business opportunities in the DPRK ? Gareth Johnson, Young Pioneer Tours founder, and I will be heading up to the Rason Special Economic Zone for 3 days of business meetings on Sept 24th. This is not a tourist trip, but for those with serious business interests there is still time to join up. Please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org – full itinerary and price to be published shortly.