Archives for the month of: October, 2012

Early wake up call, electric shocks from the lift and then breakfast as usual. Today we are heading to Nampo on the west coast of North Korea to see the West Sea Barrage, a dam project intended to raise the level of the Taedong river improving irrigation and allowing for larger shipping. In reality it ended up submerging valuable farmland leading to famine across the country which is speculated to have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. This is not acknowledge within North Korea and the barrage is still celebrated as a triumph of construction by the country. If you’re interested in a detailed history of North Korea, and how it came to be, the best book I have found by far is Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. The quality, and quantity, of information available within is second to none.

Before heading onto the highway to Nampo we stopped by the Public Library just off Kim Il-sung square to see some of the classes there and take in the views from the roof. We were shown to a counter with a little conveyor belt that protruded from wall behind, they claimed that they stocked almost every book in existence, a member of our group quickly asked whether or not they stocked George Orwell’s 1984, they said that they did although we weren’t actually shown any books except for a couple that were already on the counter.

Next we were taken up a lift, with a smartly dressed lady attending it, and shown around several study rooms and class rooms. First was a large room filled with a grid of desks all pointing to the front where a pair of portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il took pride of place on the wall. We were then told the story of how Kim Il-sung visited this building and sat at one of the desks and exclaimed that it was not comfortable to work at. He then personally set about the creation of a desk with an adjustable top allowing the user to study in comfort. I’d heard this story before visiting as many people write about it due to the grandiose way that such a mundane invention is treated.

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The day starts, yet again, with an early morning wake up call that is not helped by my jet lag. Again I get ready and head to lifts to go to breakfast and get some much needed coffee. I press the call lift button, receive my electric shock, and the wait for the lift to arrive. Breakfast was much the same affair as the preceding day although there appeared to be set Chinese tourists sat at another table. With today’s breakfast we were also given bottles of a green peach soft drink made in North Korea. This stuff was absolutely delicious, they’d do well licensing/exporting it I reckon.

During breakfast our English guide recounted a story he’d heard to us. As you might know after North Koreas strong performance in a game against Brazil in the 2010 World Cup it was decided to allow the following match to be aired live in North Korea. This turned out to be unfortunate as in the following game they were thrashed 7-0 by Portugal. During the screening of the match at a bar, one of the local tour guides had ripped the TV from the wall and smashed it on the floor!

Once we’d all finished we loaded up into the van to head to Panmunjom and Kaesong. Panmunjom is a small village that sits in the middle of the DMZ (De-Militarised Zone) and straddles the border between North and South Korea. It’s main feature is a set of blue huts, inside which is a meeting table where each half of the table is in the separate countries. These facilitate various meetings that are occasionally held by officials from either side.

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Belarus is not exactly somewhere you’d see advertised in a travel agent. It is a borderline dictatorship, the current President having been in power for nearly two decades despite the maximum term originally being 10 years, and has been denied entry to the EU as it still practices capital punishment and has a military that is not under civilian control.

To put people off even more they are also quite strict on the visa front, requiring you to get a letter from a resident/travel agent/hotel inviting you to visit the country, a signed letter from your employer and £75 to cover the admin all before you’ve even booked a flight. If you’ve reached this point you’ll then find that there are almost no direct flights from London and you’ll end up spending hundreds getting there.

There are various companies that will source the Letter of Invitation (LOI) on your behalf but they usually charge a substantial fee (£30+) and offer it as part of a visa application package inflating the £75 fee with a service charge of their own. So as it stands we’re looking at £100+ on the visa and £250+ on flights, and quite frankly if you’re not specifically interested in going to Belarus it’s not really going to be worth the time expense.

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As promised my wake up call comes at 7am in the morning, the voice on the other end of the phone is polite. I got dressed and headed out the room to go for breakfast as we had been told we would be leaving at 7:30 am to visit the Kim Jong-il and Kim il-sung friendship places, two “museums” dug into mountains that contain the catalogue of every gift given to the regime from foreign diplomats no matter how insignificant.

Once I got to the lift I realised why the elevator attendant the previous night had been wearing gloves. Upon pushing the call lift button I received a more than subtle electric shock. At first I though it was static which meant if I touch the button again it’d be ok. Wrong. Another shock. After a couple of shocks the button actually illuminated to say the lift was on its way and soon I was on my way to the lobby.

Not actually knowing where breakfast would be served I wandered over to the doors which we had been waiting at the previous night, one of which was ajar. I looked in and saw one of my group at a table eating so headed in. There was another guy at the table who turned out to be  an American who was joining our group. The significance of his nationality being that he had not been allowed to take the train in like the rest of the group and had to fly in on an Air Koryo flight from Shenyang to Pyongyang the previous day. He mentioned he spent most of the afternoon wandering around expecting us to turn up and struggling to find much to do within the confines of the hotel.

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After 6 months anticipation finally crossing into North Korea was a “don’t believe it till it happens” moment. Our minibus from the Dandong railway hotel pulled into a waiting area at the base of the bridge to North Korea. We sat in the bus whilst the driver stepped outside and our guide went into the Chinese departure building, presumable to get the permits for the minibus sorted. We all had a bit of a nervous chatter and then our guide returned and we unloaded ourselves and our bags from the mini bus and entered the terminal building. We appeared to be the only people crossing although many Chinese guys were hanging around waiting for something.

After about a 30 minute wait we were called over to the passport control counter. Our passports seemed to be looked at very thoroughly There were long stares at one guys passport due to his one year Taiwanese student resident visa. Once we were all through we loaded our bags into one minibus and boarded another. We realised that our guide was in the other bus with all our visas. Our bus trundled over the bridge, which seems to instantly get worse in quality half way across (but I’m not sure if I imagined that or not). At this point the reality of entering the DPRK is getting very real. We are stopped by a checkpoint where a KPA guard wants to see our passports and visas. We thankfully manage to explain the visas are in the other bus and we are let through after some stern looks.

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I’ve had a few people suggest I start one of these travel blogs due to the slightly uncommon nature of a lot of the trips I make. I’ve got a bit of a habit of visiting off the beaten track places such as North Korea, Svalbard, Chernobyl, Palestine etc. and there tends to be a lack of information on trips to these places. There are blogs about all of them but very few cover how to go about visiting these places yourself.

I’ve always felt that a lot of people don’t travel because they are intimated by it, I know I certainly used to be. Thanks to the internet we have swathes of information available to us when planning a trip, but this presents the problem of having to sift through all of it.

So what to do? Well I thought I’d start by posting about trips whilst I’m planning them, distilling down the useful information I find and then discussing the decisions I’ve made based on that to put together a trip. Hopefully people will find my approach to the problems I encounter helpful.

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