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Is North Korea still an exotic destination?

Is North Korea still an exotic destination?

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Old Oct 16, 10, 12:05 pm
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Is North Korea still an exotic destination?

As I finished up my weeklong tour of North Korea a few days ago, I couldn't help but compare my experience to the articles and posts I've read about the country: The country is, by reputation, very difficult to get into (in terms of visas and the logistics of physically going), with only a handful of visitors coming each year--I've heard 4,000 being batted around. When I told my friends about the trip I was planning, their reaction was almost always one of amazement.

Here was the sum total of the efforts required for me to take this trip:
  1. Transfer about 1,400 euros to the "travel agent."
  2. Pick up my visa from the North Korean embassy in west London (which involved filling out a simple form and paying 10 pounds to the consular officer, who was very polite and spoke great English).
  3. Get a Chinese visa (which you don't even need if you're just quickly transiting China).
  4. Book a flight to Beijing.
  5. Check in at Air Koryo's counter at the airport, where my e-ticket was waiting for me.
Immigration and customs at FNJ were a piece of cake, then step out of the airport and onto the tour bus and all your needs are taken care of for the next week, until you get on the train headed out to China.

During my time there I frequently saw another busload or two of tourists, plus various small/private groups. Our guides said they handle something like 20,000 people per year.

Okay, so Pyongyang isn't exactly a weekend trip to Paris. But once you work up the guts to actually go, the preparation required is slim compared to, say, a weeklong trek through any part of Africa.

So does North Korea really deserve its reputation as an exotic destination almost nobody's seen, the trump card in the "what countries have you been to" game? I'm not doubting the country used to have this status. But now?

Those of you who have visited North Korea, or maybe just fantasized about it, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
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Old Oct 16, 10, 12:26 pm
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How much time did you get to spend there exploring on your own outside your tour group?
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Old Oct 16, 10, 12:32 pm
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I absolutely think it still is exactly because of the 'guts to go' part. I actually think North Korea is a very safe place to visit, much safer than say, South Africa, but noone will bat an eye lid when you say you're going to South Africa.
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Old Oct 16, 10, 12:39 pm
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Originally Posted by azepine00 View Post
How much time did you get to spend there exploring on your own outside your tour group?
Almost none. Along with our group of 19 we had two guides, a driver, and some guy who just sat in the back keeping an eye out on us. Any time someone tried to wander off we would be stopped. The one place we could walk around in relative freedom was our hotel in Pyongyang, which was on an island in the middle of the river running through the city.

At one hotel with a courtyard and a surrounding wall, the doors to the outside were actually padlocked shut at night.

This of course makes the tour different from other tours--it leaves huge parts of the country, or even the locality you're in that day, off-limits. So I can definitely respect people who manage to travel around without a guide, such as this guy who arrived in Pyongyang by train via Vladivostok (supposedly not open to foreigners) instead of by flight or the regular train via Dandong.

If you look at North Korea travelogues on the internet, you'll notice most of the pictures are of the same sites. Pretty much everyone takes the same itinerary, even on a private trip, unless you have something you're specifically interested in (for example, Buddhist temples).

Originally Posted by Omnivore View Post
I absolutely think it still is exactly because of the 'guts to go' part. I actually think North Korea is a very safe place to visit, much safer than say, South Africa, but noone will bat an eye lid when you say you're going to South Africa.
I agree completely that it's a safe place. Most locals are afraid to even look you in the eye so there's absolutely nothing to worry about in terms of pickpockets, touts, scammers, or other typical travel hassles. Made the trip very pleasant in that regard.
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Old Oct 16, 10, 12:40 pm
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I'm always envious/respectful of people who've been to North Korea, it's certainly exotic to me more so for the guarded nature of the country as opposed to real world difficulties getting in. I'd love to know more about what you saw, were allowed to see and the people you interacted with. I've wanted to go for a while and even thought about hopping over on my most recent trip to China but decided against it... I'm of Indian descent but born in the UK and have plenty of Middle Eastern stamps in my passport so US Immigration already gives me a horrid time

I'm fascinated by the isolationist nature of the country, I'd love to be there and experience what it's like to live in this cocoon along with the cult of personality about 'Our dear leader'

I know somebody who went and said the Russian plane they flew in was ramshackle at best and he had certain items confiscated like electronics and pictures. Some were returned upon leaving but the pictures were deleted if they were not agreeable, this however was many years ago
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Old Oct 16, 10, 5:57 pm
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Old Oct 19, 10, 3:19 pm
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Originally Posted by sajgidda View Post
I'm always envious/respectful of people who've been to North Korea, it's certainly exotic to me more so for the guarded nature of the country as opposed to real world difficulties getting in. I'd love to know more about what you saw, were allowed to see and the people you interacted with. I've wanted to go for a while and even thought about hopping over on my most recent trip to China but decided against it... I'm of Indian descent but born in the UK and have plenty of Middle Eastern stamps in my passport so US Immigration already gives me a horrid time

I'm fascinated by the isolationist nature of the country, I'd love to be there and experience what it's like to live in this cocoon along with the cult of personality about 'Our dear leader'

I know somebody who went and said the Russian plane they flew in was ramshackle at best and he had certain items confiscated like electronics and pictures. Some were returned upon leaving but the pictures were deleted if they were not agreeable, this however was many years ago
Getting around the stamp thing is easy. If you pick up your visa in Beijing it comes on a separate sheet of paper (i.e., not a sticker in your passport), and then they stamp your entry on that sheet of paper. Then they take the sheet of paper away when you exit, leaving no evidence of your having been there.

(If you get your visa in advance, like I did at the embassy in London, they will put a sticker visa in your passport--if they maintain diplomatic relations with your country.)

Stuff I saw seems to be almost exactly the same everyone else sees, unless you go on a specialized private tour (and even then some things appear to be "mandatory"). The biggest barrier to speaking with the locals is that they don't speak English. For the most part it's difficult to get physically near any locals, but it does happen.

There was a certain thrill in seeing things that we weren't supposed to see, like some of the particularly vicious propaganda on the "hidden" fifth floor of our hotel in Pyongyang.

Ohh, and the plane--seemed like a perfectly modern jet. Possibly it wasn't one of the old Tupolovs. In any case, my flight was one of three leaving each within a half an hour of each other. Every flight was full of North Koreans, nearly all in a suit and tie, with just a handful of tourists here and there.

Cell phones and passports are still held for safekeeping upon arrival and not returned until departure, and a customs official still looks through your pictures and makes you delete objectionable ones--but this is incredibly easy to get around nowadays since they allow laptops to come into the country.

Something else I found interesting--they have a mobile phone network in the country now. Our guides had mobiles and I saw quite a few people in Pyongyang with them as well. My understanding is that you need a special license for a phone, and I'd doubt they can dial internationally.

Any more questions, please feel free to ask as this is one trip I really enjoy talking about.
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Old Oct 23, 10, 6:55 pm
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Having been twice, I still think it's the most exotic place on earth to visit. I've been to more than 60 countries, and none were like the DPRK. The culture, people, food, customs... I think you'd only be less that wowed if you are steeped in Korean culture already.

'Guts to go' really should not be a factor. If you're going legally (on a tour group or pre-arranged 'independent' travel) you will be fine. Short of committing a major crime the worst they'll do is ship you out of the country back to China.
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Old Oct 25, 10, 3:57 pm
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I haven't been to North Korea. I've seen a few people's slide shows from their trips and some travel documentaries.

Based on my travels, I get the impression that North Korea, to some extent, can be viewed as a combination of:
- Almaty, Bishkek, other large ex-Soviet capital cities: Communist architecture
- Turkmenistan (during the time of Turkmenbashi): cult of personality
- Turkmenistan and Burma: you have minders, who escort you everywhere
- Various mideast and southeast Asian cities: half-finished buildings
- South Korea: culture
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Old Oct 25, 10, 3:58 pm
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Originally Posted by BDA shorts View Post

This of course makes the tour different from other tours--it leaves huge parts of the country, or even the locality you're in that day, off-limits. So I can definitely respect people who manage to travel around without a guide, such as this guy who arrived in Pyongyang by train via Vladivostok (supposedly not open to foreigners) instead of by flight or the regular train via Dandong.

If you look at North Korea travelogues on the internet, you'll notice most of the pictures are of the same sites. Pretty much everyone takes the same itinerary, even on a private trip, unless you have something you're specifically interested in (for example, Buddhist temples).
Thanks for linking to that report of the guy who took the non-traditional train entry - I really enjoy reading TR's and travelogues of visits to North Korea, and hadn't come across that one before - because of the uniqueness of the itinerary (and the many excellent pictures provided), I'd say that TR is probably the best one Ive ever read about a trip to NK....
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Old Oct 26, 10, 12:01 am
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Wow that was very nicely done... I can't believe I just spent over a hour reading the blog.
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Old Oct 26, 10, 1:21 am
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Originally Posted by Spent_All_My_Miles View Post
Based on my travels, I get the impression that North Korea, to some extent, can be viewed as a combination of:
- Almaty, Bishkek, other large ex-Soviet capital cities: Communist architecture
- Turkmenistan (during the time of Turkmenbashi): cult of personality
- Turkmenistan and Burma: you have minders, who escort you everywhere
- Various mideast and southeast Asian cities: half-finished buildings
- South Korea: culture
Have you visited any of these places? There are no minders in Burma, South Korean culture these days is pretty much orthogonal to North Korea's, and Pyongyang's solitary famous unfinished building is, in fact, currently under heavy construction again.
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Old Oct 26, 10, 2:02 pm
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Originally Posted by jpatokal View Post
Have you visited any of these places? There are no minders in Burma, South Korean culture these days is pretty much orthogonal to North Korea's, and Pyongyang's solitary famous unfinished building is, in fact, currently under heavy construction again.
That's right. When I was last in Pyongyang (September 2009) Orascom was hard at work on the exterior of the giant Ryugong Hotel. Can't wait to see it finished (and hopefully stay there one day when it's a Westin).
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Old Oct 27, 10, 3:21 pm
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Originally Posted by Sydneysider View Post
That's right. When I was last in Pyongyang (September 2009) Orascom was hard at work on the exterior of the giant Ryugong Hotel. Can't wait to see it finished (and hopefully stay there one day when it's a Westin).
Orascom's definitely got the cell network up and running. The junior minder had a cell phone which she was able to use even in areas outside of Pyongyang, and quite a few times I saw shopkeepers with mobiles as well. Little signs of modernization like that, and working to finish the tallest unfinished building in the world, seem like signs of modernization. I also saw a small handful of actual advertisement billboards (as opposed to propaganda), all for what looked like a car dealership. Our guide mentioned that this was the only advertisement currently up. Add the commercial activities in the basement of the Yangakkdo Hotel... it seems like some form of (un)free enterprise is going on. At least, if you're a foreigner you can do business in North Korea.

Between the train blog and my experience, I've come to this conclusion: Outside of the world that's involved in tourism, nobody in North Korea knows that you're not supposed to be walking around unsupervised. So once you make it out of the "perimeter" you can pretty much do what you want. I took a few "walks" while I was there, and while I got a few strange looks on the street I was largely ignored.

(Caveat: Someone noticed, I think a guide on a tour bus that passed me by, and told my guide, who then had a little chat with me...)
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Old Oct 28, 10, 1:35 pm
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Originally Posted by Sydneysider View Post
Having been twice, I still think it's the most exotic place on earth to visit. I've been to more than 60 countries, and none were like the DPRK. The culture, people, food, customs... I think you'd only be less that wowed if you are steeped in Korean culture already.

'Guts to go' really should not be a factor. If you're going legally (on a tour group or pre-arranged 'independent' travel) you will be fine. Short of committing a major crime the worst they'll do is ship you out of the country back to China.
That sounds cool. Its on my books for 2012 so I hope that pans out!

Which tour company did you use?
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