We are currently underway on Young Pioneer Tours’ Eurasian Adventure. Having made an epic 6 day crossing of the snow covered steppes of Mongolia and Russia on the Trans Siberian Express, I am now in Moscow after a week with no Internet or news from the outside world since Beijing.
For YPT founder, Gareth Johnson, several returning customers making the trip, and myself, the adventure started 16 days ago as we completed all the trip prep-work and obtained visas in Beijing. The YPT apartment turned into a frat house with men sleeping on every available couch and vaguely comfortable surfaces (I spent a few nights hot bunking with the intern), ordering massive amounts of pizza delivery, and getting up to general shenanigans (people who didn’t watch their backside got tasered!). We visited top end night clubs and proudly avoided all things cultural, but in the mornings we were busy working: making consular visits for visas, setting up trip logistics to unrecognized countries, and having lunches at a secret North Korean embassy restaurant.
I made 7 visits to the Belarusian Embassy, in the end sweet talking my way in and picking up my visa and passport on a day the consular was closed. The visa I finally received wont cover the time of my needed stay – I still need to visit the Belarus Embassy in Moscow to try to get the visa corrected.
With everything close to being sorted, on the early morning of Oct 6th we brought 5 customers to the Beijing Main Station, boarding our 2nd class Chinese sleeper compartments on the K3 Trans Siberian Express. Being a group of 7 delinquents we promptly headed to the dining car and drank 5 bottles of Chinese Great Wall wine. I snuck off for an afternoon nap, returning later for more wine until we got kicked out of the dining car for being drunkards.
We reached the Chinese side of the Mongolian border around eight thirty at night. Largely due to having to change the rail gauge Chinese border formalities take about 3 hours to complete. Passengers are usually let off and herded into the station, but we remained on board, our passenger car taken to a hanger and lifted to change the wheel assembly units – a fascinating experience.
Changing the rail gauge at the Mongolian border.
With the car rail gauge changed we waited for immigration. The attractive female officials of the Mongolian side, dressed up in fur hats, military outfits, and black leather boots were far more preferable to the dudes on the Chinese side. With customs finished, the bathrooms unlocked, and with the train heading north into Mongolia, I snuck into my top bunk for a sound nights sleep.
New day and new scenery; we are now rolling northbound across Mongolia with yurt dotted hills, pastures, and mountains passing our train windows. The temperature has dropped and shallow snow drifts cover the terrain. We still have our Chinese carriage but the food car has been changed out, now a Mongolian rig with intricately carved woodwork decorations, and an elaborate menu with only one meal available – nothing like the picture, but still tasty.
We hit Ulaanbaatar in the mid afternoon far a one hour stop. Our mission was to split up and buy bread, cheese, sausage, beer, vodka, mixers, and any other available treats. Ulaanbaatar is an ugly city with a certain charm that makes me want to return for a one week summer stay; I find the girls here attractive.
Despite warnings that Russain customs is intense and that we would need to be on our best behavior, our search for vodka was so successful that by the time we reached the 5 hour Mongolian/Russia border ordeal we were all excessively drunk. somehow they let us though without any major incident and we rolled on into Siberian Russia.
Mongolian dinner car.
Mongolian rail car detail.
Ulaanbaatar street life.
Woke up early (we are now on Moscow time) to the view of Lake Baikal out our window. With dark storm clouds on the horizon, and ferocious breaking waves on the shore, the largest fresh water lake in the world is truly impressive. Our passage along its southern shore took three hours. We seem to have settled into life on the train. The smells of 7 men sharing two cabins: cigarettes, stale beer, and spilled tins of Russian sardines has turned the cabins quite rank. I use baby wet wipes to “shower” with, I don’t think the other guys even try. The two Chinese compartment attendants don’t really do much other then watch DVDs and cook their meals in the wash room – we seem to be here fending for ourselves.
New sobriety laws have been passed in Russia and buying alcohol at the various stops is difficult but possible. We make our hushed requests for pivo (beer) and vodka at the station snack kiosks, with the attendant checking to see who is watching and advising us to hide he bottles in our jacket until back on our carriage.
The days roll by; it has gotten cold! The carriages are toasty, warmed by coal burning furnaces – we find it fun to get drunk, sneak past the attendant, and feed coal into them ourselves. It’s only early November but the Siberian air mass is already frigid, making our food and booze runs at station stops a test of endurance.
I try to pass the time by reading books, but this only raises ridicule from the other travelers who want to get drunk or simply find it amusing to mess with me. We found on our new 2nd hand iPad an app called Star Girl. A game whose demographic targets prepubescent girls, Star Girl has given us hours of entertainment as we go on dates, receive gifts from virtual boyfriends, and build our wardrobe with new outfits to increase our attraction points. The fact that we spend a lot of time in the virtual underwear shop is admittedly rather creepy – but a game that teaches young girls that having lots of boyfriend whose sole purpose are to give you gifts is even more disturbing then us enjoying the game.
Russian Siberian countryside.
Russian Siberian countryside.
Passing a Russian tank.
A station stop in Siberia.
Truck load of coal to warm the carriages.
Truck load of coal to warm the carriages.
Downed American aircraft at the new Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.
In 2012 Marshall Kim Jong Un declared the need to renovate the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, as well as overhaul and move the American spy ship Pueblo for the 2013 commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Victory Day. Over this last year both sites were closed to tourism, and although I missed the grand opening and festivities for the 60th anniversary of Victory Day, I was able to visit both sites on my October 2013 DPRK trip.
Visitors now start their museum experience with a walk through the Monument to Victorious War statue park. Flanking these statues is a mock trench system leading the way to an outside gallery showcasing old American hardware: all the captured/destroyed tanks and downed airplanes which had been previously housed in the old museum basement.
Fresh from a dry dock overhaul, the Pueblo has been moved from the Taedong River into a dedicated basin adjacent the captured American hardware. The Pueblo visit includes a ship tour and a viewing of the standard propaganda video about the capture.
From the Pueblo visitors are taken to the new war museum; unfortunately no interior photos allowed. On entering visitors pay their respects and bow to a wax statue of Eternal President Kim Il Sung. The statue so remarkably resembles his grandson, Marshal Kim Jong Un, that local guides explain to visitors the distinction. The new museum is world class (although through a North Korean historical viewpoint) with modern galleries, displays, dioramas, and walkthrough environments of urban and countryside battle sites. After touring the new museum and a break at a modern cafe, visitors pass through a walkway gallery leading to the refurbished 360 degree revolving battlefield diorama. The diorama has been outfitted with a new light and video/lazer show overlay, effectively bringing the Battle of Taejon to life. The 360 degree battle diorama ends the visit.
Always an impressive site, the newly renovated Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum is now a true highlight to any visit to Pyongyang!
Pics of the new Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and Pueblo:
Room rates at the Emperor Hotel and Casino in Rason SEZ, North Korea. 780 RMB = 128 USD for the cheapest room, 1680 RMB = 276 USD for their top suite.
Pipi Island and the Emperor Hotel and Casino – a custom gambling trip could easily be arranged if anyone is interested!
Boy on a Pyongyang tram – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
I just finished three strait weeks of leading tours: Rason SEZ, Pyongyang and the DMZ, and a Palawan island hopping trip – my excuse for the lack of attention to the blog. I have a relatively quiet two weeks off: hanging out at our North Korea theme bar in Yangshuo, China (more on that to come), securing a Russian visa in Beijing for the Eurasian Adventure Tour, and doing a research trip to the Chinese/DPRK border region.
I visited some great new locations on my last Pyongyang trip and I promise to get cracking on getting some new content posted ASAP!
I’m back from leading 25 Young Pioneers on a classic 7 day North Korea trip – my second trip to North Korea in a busy two week period. Several YPT guides and I plan to be back in the DPRK for a New Year’s Eve party; we are accepting guests brave enough to face a Pyongyang winter!
I have a bunch of trips scheduled for Spring/Summer 2014, most excitingly the Koreans have asked me to develop a special 10 day hiking trip to Mt. Kumgang.
YPT’s Chinese National Day group tour at the Pyongyang Grand Monument.
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)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org to get your early booking discount!
Framed print at the Rason Foreign Language School showing school children stabbing an American GI, Japanese imperialist, and a South Korean running dog.
Jet, apple, ship, star, tank, and pear on a poster at the Sonbong Kindergarten.
Military personnel, unified Korea, and a missile launch on a painted exterior wall at the Sonbong Kindergarten.
Girls share a seat on the Pyongyang Metro – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
I was reading last night that when western tourists are allowed into the subway system, there are North Korean citizens who have the job of dressing nice and riding the subway. That is all they do. Get off the train, head up the stairs, and immediately come back down to board the train. It makes the station seem busier and keeps up appearances.
I can’t believe this urban myth is still making the rounds! The Pyongyang metro is real and used by normal citizens to efficiently move around the city. Riding the metro as a foreigner is not the only way to interact with locals on a tour, but it is one of my favorite ways to do so.
Teletubby coffee mug on the North side of the DMZ – you never know what you will find in North Korea!
Volleyball Cheerleaders at Mt. Chilbo Home Stay – new routes to this area of the DPRK have been authorized!
We have just heard from our partners in the DPRK, and are very happy to announce a few new very exciting new routes into and out of the DPRK starting from next month.
Entering the country
It is now possible to enter the country from Hamyong, Rason, or visit Chongjin, and Chilbo, then take a charter flight to Pyongyang
Exciting the country
It is now possible to have a standard DPRK Tour (Pyongyang etc), charter flight to Mt Chilbo, and exit via Hamhyong, or most excitingly through the Rason SEZ.
This great news as it will mean we no longer have to exit via China, and most importantly no longer require triple, or even quadruple Chinese visas, with a double entry visa being sufficient.
We are still waiting for exact prices of the charter flight, which after we receive will start planning itineraries accordingly. This is something we have been pushing for for quite some time, and are extremely excited about.
We have had great news from our partners in the DPRK and China that as of now Sinuiju will now be open to day tourists from western countries.
Visitors require a valid passport of at least 6 month, and need to apply for a travel permit which will take 4 days to process.
Currently citizens of the USA, Japan, and Republic of Korea cannot join the tours.
The tours are restricted to days at present, but will be extended to overnight when CITS finish the new hotel in August.
YPT plans to run group trips every Sunday, as well as offering the ability to do independent trips throughout the week. We are also working on having Sinuiju as standalone extension for those people returning from a “mainland” DPRK tour, amongst other things.
We will be running a tester trip on May 26th, as well as meeting our partners for further negotiations. We aim to have more up to date news as soon as possible.
With pleasant weather, flowers and trees in bloom, and North Korean citizens making their first round of pilgrimages to important revolutionary sites, late Spring is an amazing time to visit the DPRK. Below are just a few images of the thousands of Young Pioneers we encountered while visiting the Mangyongdae birth house of Kim Il-sung on my last DPRK trip in late May of 2013.