With Backpack

One World in One Lifetime

The Schedule Has Been Changed

Posted by Heliocentrism on July 11, 2014

May 1, 2013

All Pictures

OMG, I woke up in North Korea this morning!

We leave at 7:30

I woke up early my first morning in the DPRK. Vera got up even earlier than I did and was in the middle of her morning exercise routine when I rolled out of bed.  We showered and got ready for a day in Pyongyang then went down for breakfast.

There were all sorts of food, mostly Chinese and Korean food. It was served buffet-style so, Vera and I stood in line. I got scrambled eggs with some Chinese steamed rolls and vegetables along with a glass of orange juice.

Somewhere between getting in line and getting my drink I lost Vera. I stood in the eatery with my plate and cup in my hand scanning the many tourists and tour groups for her. But, I could not find her. Losing interest in my quest to find Vera I found an empty chair at a table of Norwegians and sat down.

They were a group from a class on international relations at a university back in Norway. This was their end of the semester field trip. I told them, “If there was a class at my school that came with a field trip to Pyongyang at the end, I would have most definitely signed up for it, even though I was a math major.”

“Oh, you studied maths!?” one of the students ask. He was about to graduate and thinking about moving to another field of study for grad-school. He wanted to know all about studying math and fluid dynamics, which I studied in grad-school, and other academic things. I liked where this conversation was going even though it thoroughly bored everyone else at the table. I spent most of my time talking with the eager student and I hadn’t gotten far into my meal when Vera found me.

She stood at my table with another tourist from our group. They seemed a little frazzled.

Vera – “Josie, they’re looking for everyone. We’re leaving now!”

me – “We have a good 15 to 20 minutes. We don’t leave ’til 7:30.”

Guy – “Plans have changed. We are leaving now and we’re going to Kaesong tonight.”

Vera – “We have to get all our stuff and check-out of the hotel. Right now!”

I looked down at my plate. It was still filled with food. I drank my orange juice in one gulp and took the steamed rolls leaving the eggs behind and followed Vera.

As we were passing the counter of the bar for the restaurant we saw other people from our tour. Vera told them about the change in schedule. “We know. We’re just trying to get some bottles of water, but they don’t know how to sell it to us.”

“We need water too,” I told Vera, “we’re almost out.” So, we split up. Vera went to our room and packed all our stuff and I did what I could to get 4 bottles of water. I don’t remember exactly what the problem was. They clearly had water and the water was definitely for sale but for some reason they didn’t know how to make the money for goods exchange. (Communists…) Eventually they sold us several bottles and we headed to the tour bus.

Our western tour guide wore a zombie T-shirt today.

Babylon by Bus 

The bus was where we spent most of our time in North Korea. We would talk and joke around as the DPRK scenery whizzed by us. Most of what we learned about Korea and Korean life was told to us in the bus. On the ride to our first sight to see in the DPRK we were given a quick tour of things we happened to pass by.

Ms. Lee pointed out swimming pools, opera houses, stadiums, and many other things. She also gave us some trivia or statistics about each building we could see out of the windows on every bus ride. But there was so much information, I could not remember it all. But my ears perked up one day when she said, “Over there is the Pyongyang Number 1 Pizza Shop.”

Me – “Have you had pizza from there?”

Ms. Lee – “Oh yes. It is a very popular restaurant. The chef there was taught how to make pizza by Italian pizza making experts.”

Me – “Did you like it?”

Ms. Lee – “Yes. It is good, but I prefer Korean food.”

Me – “Do they deliver?”

Ms. Lee – “No.”

Then the western guide (WG) told us that although the pizza place does not deliver, you can still have pizza delivered to you. “You can hire a taxi. You pay to have the taxi driver go to the pizza place, pick up the pizza, and then drive it to you.”

Me – “Can we do that on this trip?”

WG – “If you’re willing to pay or you can get enough people to chip in… maybe.”

I started my campaign. I asked everyone around me if they were willing to order a pizza with me. They all said they were up for it and the guides said that they’ll see what they could do. If there was pizza in Pyongyang to be had, damn it, I was going to have some!

Most of our tour group. Some people wandered off.

Stay together

We went to the Mansudea Grand Monument to pay our respects to the statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. We were sort of let loose and were able to walk around and explore the area. When it was picture time we couldn’t find some of our group. Rather than look for them or, at the very least wait for them, we just took the photo without them.

I thought that while I was in North Korea I would be followed everywhere I went. If I strayed too far from my group someone would come get me. This did not happen. There was many times when I stopped to read or look at something for a few minutes and then looked up to see that my group had left me. It didn’t happen often, but maybe 2 or 3 times I could not see anyone I knew around me.

I’m sure that if I did try to run away from my tour group someone would have stepped in. Maybe I was followed and just didn’t notice it, but I didn’t feel like I was. Neither did I ever feel scared. I knew I was perfectly safe.

This did remind me of a part of Wild Swans where some foreigner visiting China in the 70’s loses his wallet. After going back to his hotel and finding his wallet waiting for him in his hotel room with all its contents, he expresses surprise at how honest the Chinese are thanks to the communists. The author said that only happened because the guy was a foreigner. No one would dare steal from a foreigner in Mao’s China.

I was perfectly safe because I was a foreigner (who was following the rules and did not bring in a bible or talk about religion…)

playing frisbees with North Koreans

Why don’t you try the rollercoaster?

We were then taken to the Mt. Taesong Amusement Park. There were some old-fashioned roller coasters that were probably several decades old. The guides strongly encouraged us to try them. No one seemed keen, though I think a few would have tried it if someone else would have gone first. But since no one wanted to be first…

Ms. Lee – “Why don’t you try the roller coaster?”

Me – “Ummm… Is is safe?

Ms. Lee – “Of course it’s safe!”

Me – “Are you going to go on the coaster?”

Ms. Lee – “No. I don’t like coasters.”

Korean treats

Our group walked around the park and was soon completely dispersed among the crowd of Koreans. Since I didn’t have much breakfast I started looking for a food vendor. There wasn’t much to choose from. I passed a few stalls, but I didn’t recognize any of the Korean food there. I wanted kimbap or dukbokki but there was none.

Then I found a vendor selling fried dough that looked like churros. I asked the lady at the booth how much they were in Korean. She handed me a sign with the prices in yuan. It didn’t cost much; I asked for two. She sprinkled more sugar over the doughy delights and handed them to me. They tasted a lot like churros but without cinnamon.

Hey, you have to try this!

It’s your job to finish it.

We were suppose to meet back at the bus at noon. Vera and I and some others from our tour gathered by the bus. Someone in our group came up to me and said, “You won’t believe this. You have to try it!” Then he handed me a bottle of soda.

I tasted it. It tasted like pineapple bubblegum and toothpaste. “That’s awful!” Vera looked at me. “Let me try.” I gave her the soda. “Wow, that is really bad.”

Everyone tried some. No one liked it. The last person tried to hand the bottle back to the owner. “Nope. It’s yours now.”

While in North Korea, we tried not to waste food. No matter how bad something was, as long as it wasn’t rotten, we tried to eat all of it, especially when we were out in public. The guy in the photo above was the one who got stuck with finishing the bottle.

a lost member of our group

Near where the bus was park were some lovely steps. We were told that there was a cemetery at the other end of the steps. It was a long way up, so I was not to interested in climbing up there. But Vera and a few other people decided to race up the steps to see what they could see while we waited for the last member of our group to find his way to the bus.  Vera said that when they got to the top, an official told them that they had to leave. They weren’t allowed up there.

Later I learned that Kim Jong-Il’s mother and grandmother were buried there.

Korean picnic

Korean Barbeque 

For lunch we hiked up a hill to a picnic spot. There was quite a lot of food and we all felt very full afterwards. I was happy to try North Korean kimchi for the first time. It tasted just like South Korean kimchi.

We were also served curry and rice which tasted just like Japanese curry and rice. We were given fish and squid to grill, but the main meat was duck. Actually, duck was the main meat in almost every meal we had in the DPRK.

DPRK Cola: for the thirsty anti-imperialist

Along with the change of schedule, there was also a change in our itinerary. We were no longer going to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun where Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are on display. We were all very disappointed about that. It’s not like many of us would ever return to North Korea.

Before the show

The Big Top

They took us to the circus. Our group sat in 2 rows and we were surrounded by other tour groups. In front of us was a tour group of Russians. Koreans filled up the other sections of the audience and were already there, seated and waiting, when we arrived.

We were told specifically that we were allowed to take as many photos as we liked before the show. But, once the lights were turned off and the show began, no photography was allowed.

The lights went off and the show began. There was an obvious glow from a camera’s view screen in the row in front of me and the click, click, click of photos being taken. North Korean handlers from many different tour groups swarmed in. “No photos!” someone whispered loudly. Then someone in my tour group down the row softly exclaimed, “It’s Pinky!”

“Damn it Pinky!” we groaned.

The “American” soldier

The circus had me on the edge of my seat. You just never know when someone would fall. The performers looked like they needed some more practice. Jugglers’ balls fell. Acrobats landed incorrectly and limped away. It was really tense.

One of the acts was of a drunk US soldier. He was at a restaurant and causing trouble for some law-abiding DPRK citizen. The North Korean messed with his head, kicked him in the butt, and showed everyone how much more clever he was than the American.

Later on the bus Ms. Lee asked us if we understood what that was about. One lady said she didn’t. “Why was the American throwing over tables at the restaurant? she asked. Ms. Lee responded, “That’s just how Americans are.” Vera and I looked at her. “Well, maybe American soldiers,” she corrected herself.

There was one act at the end where a trapeze artist tried to do a triple loop thing, but his partner could not catch him. Half the time they were out of sync the other half he would just slip from his partner’s grasp. The safety net didn’t look that safe. Every time someone fell, the poles of the net leaned a little more, causing the next faller to come closer and closer to hitting the ground. They readjusted the net when someone noticed it. But after a few falls it would start leaning again and I wondered if the next guy would end up face-planting the ground.

The trapeze artist tried again and again and again, but still could not do it. I sat in my seat wishing he would stop. The show had been going on for 2 hours and I needed to pee. Finally, on something like his 10th try, he completed the maneuver. I was so happy!

In case you were wondering how I got the above photo. I took it from a guy in my group. I’m not sure how he took the photo without anyone noticing. His camera must come with a feature to turn off the view screen…

Dancing with strangers

Just Dance

We were then taken to a place, somewhere in the city, to dance. Seriously, there was nothing going on except for people dancing. We weren’t in a park or at a fair. It was not a holiday. There was no party– just a crowd of people standing in a paved lot. I don’t know where to music came from, but everyone was dancing like it was 1999.

One of the ladies in my group asked, Mr. Park later, “Who were those people?”

Mr. Park – “Just people.”

Lady – “But, why were they there?”

Mr. Park – “to dance”

Lady – “Don’t they have jobs?”

Mr. Park – “Of course they have jobs. Everyone has a job here.”

Lady – “So, why weren’t they at work? Why was everyone just dancing for no reason?”

The loneliest highway

The Long Drive South

We got back on the bus and headed south to Kaesong. We drove for a very long time. The roads are not so good. There were many times when we drove on the wrong side of the road, because our side had too many pot holes. This was not a problem since most of the traffic on the road were pedestrians and there weren’t even many of them.

The roads were bumpy most of the time. I remember seeing a pregnant tourist back at the Yanggakdo hotel and could not imagine riding on these roads being good for her. I was just glad I packed a couple of sports bras. (I always think that I will workout on a trip, but it has never happened.)

We were told that we would pass checkpoints. We were not allowed to take photos of the checkpoints. Also on the list of things we were not allowed to take photos of were soldiers, military buildings, and everyday civilians.

A random shot of Pyongyang. Look, there are 2 soldiers right there!

These rules were a bit hard to follow. It’s easy not to take photos of the checkpoints, but how do we not take photos of soldiers? Everyone is a soldier. Looking out the window of the bus I saw soldiers just walking around town. Everyone or their mom is a soldier!

As for not taking photos of the civilians, we came to realize that the people we came into contact with, were not everyday civilians. The people at the fair, the Koreans at the circus, the people who we happen upon later in the tour; none of them were everyday civilians. No one cared if we took photos of them.

What’s for dinner?

There’s no place like Pyongyang

I have to be honest. The hotel in Kaesong was a dump. I’ve never been a fan of the traditional Korean way of sleeping. So I was happy to find a futon in our hotel room. But that was it for comfort.

There was no hot water. There was no shower. There was no light in the bathroom and the sink in the bathroom was falling down. The drain was not connected to anything, so when you washed your hands or brushed your teeth, your feet got wet.

Thankfully, we only stayed there one night.

Tour groups mixing

At the hotel we met up with the people from group B and had dinner. There was rice, many vegetable dishes, and… duck! We were also given beer and tea. There was an offer of karaoke, which is definitely not called noraebang in North Korea.

Why they go with the Japanese name over the South Korean one? …I don’t know.

We’re not in Pyongyang anymore.

Of course the lights went out…

But it didn’t matter. It was time for bed anyway.

All Pictures


North Korea
(Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk) 

How to get there:

The laws about who can get a visa to the DPRK change often. At the time of our trip, the Japanese were allowed in, but the Chinese were not. But, South Koreans are never allowed in. Korean-Americans, however, are welcomed, if they use their US passport for entry.


You won’t get to use the phone. But if you need to know, the emergency numbers are 112 and 119.




If you can read Korean: Kingdom of Kim (There is no English version of this book yet. I would love to find one.)


NEVER NEVER NEVER bring a bible to North Korea!

Mansudae Park
Mansudae Grand Monument 

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°01’55.7″N 125°45’11.1″E



According to Victor Cha’s The Impossible State and other sources, while Kim Il-Sung was still alive Kim Jong-Il was not guaranteed to be his successor. Kim Jong-Il had brothers and uncles who were also in the running.  So, to ingratiate himself to his father, the younger Kim ordered monuments and statues of his father built all over the DPRK, including this one. The statue of Kim Il-Sung in the picture here is bronze, but it used to be gilded. (The Kim Jong-Il statue was built after he died.)

North Korea has a history of playing Russia and China off each other to get money and resources from the two countries. At one point North Korean officials invited Deng Xiaoping, leader of the CPC after Mao, to Pyongyang to wine and dine him then ask China for money. On his tour of Pyongyang Deng was taken to Mansudae Park to see the majesty that is Kim Il-Sung’s golden likeness. After seeing the monument Deng supposedly said something like, “Why should China give you money? Just melt down your goddamn statue!”

Taesongsan Funfair

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°4′28″N 125°49′42″E




Although the Koreans called this a funfair or an amusement park, I wouldn’t go that far. It’s a nice park with a few rides; rides that you might not want to try out.

Moranbong Hill

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°04’30.9″N 125°50’27.5″E (maybe)
  • It’s a 20 minute walk (uphill) from the Taesongsan Funfair.



  • This is not too far from the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery, but we didn’t get to see it.
    • I’m not sure if foreigners in general aren’t allowed there or if we were just not allowed on our tour.
  • There is a great view of Pyongyang from this hill.
  • Make sure to use the bathroom before you hike up this hill. The bathroom on the hill is a bit of a challenge.
    • It’s really just a hut on the side of the hill with a hole in the floor. No doors, no plumbing — everything just slides down the mountain.
  • There is a North Korean pop group named after this hill, called Moranbong Band (모란봉악단).

The Pyongyang Circus

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°01’41.8″N 125°41’08.8″E



You are allowed to take as many photos as you like before and after the show, but not during.

The Kaesong Folk Hotel
Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 37°58’36.0″N 126°33’11.1″E



  • Forget about getting a decent shower here. There is no hot water or showers. If you have a functioning sink, consider yourself lucky.
  • There is a souvenir shop at the entrance to this hotel.
  • You will be sleeping the traditional, old-timey Korean way, on the floor with heating provided by an ondol.



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