Lachlan Nicolson

It’s the world’s most secretive state, powered by a totalitarian regime and shrouded in mystery to most - welcome to North Korea. Against all recommendations, I travelled there with my best friend Mitchell in 2015. If you’re someone who is seeking to travel to an unusual destination, then you might want to consider the DPRK, while it’s still open to tourism. Here are just a few insights from my experience in the hermit kingdom.

Getting there

Contrary to popular belief, getting to North Korea isn’t that difficult. To apply for a DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) visa it’s best to go through a western agency that handles your application to the capital. We chose Young Pioneer Tours as our guides, whom were a delight to travel with and made the boarding journey relaxed and simple.

Once approved, you will need a Chinese multi-entry visa to begin and end your trip in China. Because North Korea doesn’t stamp your passport, you get the novelty of your passport documenting you leaving China to nowhere and arriving from nowhere back to China. This raised a few eyebrows coming home through the Australian Border Control.

On arrival you will be given your visa documents. Your Australian passport will be confiscated and returned to you on exit. I remember our guide making a joke that the government has misplaced our passports - no one was quick to laugh!

When in the capital city Pyongyang, you will most likely stay at the Yanggakdo International Hotel. The hotel did feel a bit like Faulty Towers at times, just without Basil, Sybil and the Major. We had guards instead, who paced night and day around the exterior for “our guest safety”.

Expectations

In some ways the DPRK exceeded my expectations, and in others, it left me leaving with more questions than I went with!

I was expecting to see poverty and oppression everywhere, but I didn’t. I saw glimpses of it, but nothing to the extent of what was being told in the media. It’s a surreal place to visit, as you detox from western thinking and open up to a new and unique culture. You will face a battle of mind games and moments of surprise, wonder and disappointments.

Pyongyang as a city was more modern than expected. It had cars, tunnels, bridges, lights, and outdoor screens (with propaganda playing). I was surprised to see thousands of locals walking around freely, walking to work, playing with their kids and riding bikes.

What to see

Your trip is heavily scripted to what the state-run tourism agency has planned. You may request to see certain things, but it should be done so prior to arriving so they have adequate time to “prepare for tourists”.

On our tour we got to see many of the highlights which included:

  • Pyongyang city tour
  • Juche Tower
  • Arch of Triumph
  • The DMZ (border between the south)
  • Kaeson city
  • USS Pueblo (sized US submarine)
  • The Circus
  • The Pyongyang Metro system

Life for locals

The North Korean people are warm, friendly and very hospitable. At first they will seem shy, pondering whether to approach you or not. Many will stare, then smile and maybe give a wave, but without you initiating a conversation don’t expect them to be very outgoing. After all, their interactions with foreigners are heavily surveyed.

In Pyongyang many of the locals speak basic English. I suggest warm encouragement as the quickest way to opening up the dialogue. The North Korean people are extremely proud of their heritage, leaders and way of living. While it may be easy to try to force our own views or opinion on them with our questions, I found it best to just listen and learn instead.

When you’re in the DPRK you will be taken good care of by the hospitality of the locals. They know how to put on a great feast, with good beer and some crazy karaoke! Just like Australians, they love time spent around food, friends and laughter.

Tips for travellers

  • Take a quality camera. Lenses with zoom are fine, just don’t go over 200mm.
  • I recommend not bringing your laptop or any usb devices. They can and sometimes will check the content on your camera and USB at the borders.
  • Take the sleeper train from Beijing to experience the river bridge crossing, and for a swift exit it’s best to leave via Air Koryo. You will get the best of both worlds.
  • Take a few packets of Chinese cigarettes. It’s a popular gift for most North Korean tour guides and guards. They will earn you some favour if you inadvertently upset them.
  • Scepticism and cautiousness is completely fine and healthy, but try your best to keep a quiet lip and an open mind. It’s an incredible culture to soak in and later reflect on.
  • DO NOT leave your tour guides and wander off. You could find yourself in grave trouble.

 

Lachlan ‘Lachy’ Nicolson is a 23-year-old digital marketer, blogger and entrepreneur. You can follow his journey of life, love and travel through his Instagram @lachynicolson or at AusTraveller.com.au

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.