So here we go. North Korea. It's always hard to convey the full picture with only words, but I think that you'll still get a good sense of our trip.
The first part of the trip was exhausting. We left Seoul after midnight on Friday night (yes, actually Saturday morning, but you know what I mean...). We were supposed to leave at 11.30 but some yahoos decided to take their time. I was a little peeved about that. I can understand 5, maybe 10 minutes late, but 40 minutes? I'm not sure what the story was, and if there was some legitimate excuse, then I'd be sorry for whatever problems were had, but holding up an entire bus of 40 people for one or two people is ridiculous. I still maintain that we shoulda left without them. They knew the schedule and in any other situation, they'd have missed their flight / train / bus, whatever. Yeah, I wasn't impressed, and the situation was not helped at all by the lacklustre organizational skills of our tour operators in several other regards, which I will not get into, 'cause really, you don't want to read about me ranting. You wanna know about the North!
Ok, onwards then. So... exhausting. After a long week, both Jen and I were ready to have a quiet evening at home. But instead, we had a rather challenging night of fitful sleep on the bus.
The next morning, we arrived at a stop where we were issued our North Korean visas and IDs, which we had to where at all times while in the North (or face huge fines). As cool as it would have been to have had a North Korean stamp in our passports, it's probably for the best that we were given our visas on lanyards that we had to wear. I can just imagine the problems if I travelled *anywhere* else in the world. "Sir, what were you doing in North Korea?"
So, you've done a whole lot of reading and you sill haven't really gotten much on the North yet. But wait! You have. You just don't know it it. Let me explain! That's exactly what it was like for us. A whole lot of waiting. And more waiting - often in one of our many buses.
Our trip was very structured and constricted, to say the least. Before we finally got to our destination, we ended up taking 4 or 5 different buses, with all the stops and processes we had to follow. All the tourists into the North stay in "The Main Square" and no one is allowed to leave this square. In this square there are a few restaurants, convenience shops, gift shops and such. Upon arriving at the square, we were allowed to take pictures, but on the bus from the border to the square, taking photos results in a $10,000 USD fine. Yikes! So, we have a couple of photos within the square, which is reasonably well developed. But outside this tourist square, the buildings that were visible from the road were noticeably more worn. Every half kilometer or so, along this road, there was at least one North Korean soldier in plain view observing the bus convoy, and probably many more not in plain view. While it was not forbidden to look at the soldiers, I'd think twice before doing it again. The soldiers' faces are stoic, but there's an odd look about their eyes. It was a little eerie.
When we left the main square to go on one of our tours, all the tourists would pile into the buses and we'd leave the square (or rather, tourist compound) in a big convoy. The compound was effectively in the middle of nowhere, a little mini city surrounded by mountains and fields of agriculture. Everywhere we went though, even though we only had fields beside us and we were stuck in our buses, the streets were lined with fences. At nearly every branch off our route, with a break in the fence, there was a soldier standing guard.
So, despite all the eyes always watching us and all the constraints on our movements, we still had an enjoyable trip. Besides the beautiful sights, which we'll share more of later, it was certainly educational. As much as I might wonder how much we saw was for show, I still feel like we've gained a little more insight into North Korea. An exhausting trip, but worthwhile.
Ok, I've written enough and if you've actually made it this far, congratulations, and my apologies for rambling on so long. We'll write more later about some other aspect of our trip. Stay tuned!
I can't post any pictures of the really interesting stuff I was talking about since I wasn't allowed to take those pictures, so here's one of Laina, Vanessa, Jen, and Kelly in the main square. Mountains all around us. And behind us is our hotel.