China is a great place to visit, and there is more than enough to see for one (or seven) visit. But don’t forget that when you are in Northern China, you are also very close to some other great countries. Mongolia, Japan and Korea are only a short flight away, but the countries are so diverse, with different history, language and culture. Should you pick only one trip out of China, there is no doubt in my mind, it has to be North Korea.
When I came to China in 1995, I felt Beijing was already a modern city, that I came too late. Visiting Pyongyang in 2011 gave me a pretty good idea how China must have been in the 70s and 80s. Closed off, no commercialization, hardly any foreign impact. I even got a little nostalgic for my student days in Beijing, when I had to use the restroom at the airport. The same rough and cheap toilet paper we used to buy! Made by recycled, coarse paper, and almost of no value in the toilet paper department. I immediately felt I would feel a little like home here.
A lot was as expected. You can’t walk outside the hotel unattended, you only take photos when the guides say it’s ok, the streets are almost empty of cars and in the evening there are no streetlights. No window shopping, no night life, only restaurants for tourists. But the trip also shattered so many of the mental pictures I had of one of the world’s most isolated countries. Yes, it is crazy and weird and restricted, but it is also filled with beautiful people who live everyday lives, just like us. We danced in the park with drunk 70-year-old ladies in men’s clothes. We went bowling and to the amusement park. We watched a mass dance with thousands of beautifully dressed college students. OK, none of this is really part of my everyday life, but my point is that they are just regular people, who like to have a good time whenever they can.
Of all my traveling all over the world, this trip has been retold most times. To make it easy for my self and my listeners, I made a Powerpoint presentation of my best pictures, so that they didn’t have to look through all 400 of them. I would go back in an instant if I could, and insist on getting the same guides again. Great people with wonderful humor, the best English I have heard in Asia and every day doing everything they could to make us feel welcome and taken care of. Don’t think NK is for you? Well, see my list and find out!
Who would enjoy a trip to NK?
The nostalgic: If you think China has become too modern, and doesn’t look like the picture you grew up with in the 70s, then NK is for you. Sort of communist, highly paranoid, lots of concrete and very absurd.
The modernist: If you want to go to places few others have been. 2 million Americans visit China every year, but less than a thousand cross the border to NK. It’s the travel destination of the future, so make sure you get there now.
The adventurous: You can go hiking in the mountains, sign up for bicycling trips on the countryside, visit hot springs or go to the beach. Yes, you have to travel in a group or individually with guides, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring!
The curious: How often do you come over news report about NK that focus on what you can see as a tourist, or what kind of food you get, or how everyday life in Pyongyang looks like? You just have to see it for your self.
The nervous: In NK they put their pride in making you feel welcome, and will not let anything happen to you. That involves being attended by guides all the time you are allowed outside of the hotel. You will be taken well care of, and can come home claiming to have made good NK friends.
Interested in world affairs: A trip to NK is a trip straight into a history lesson. NK is still at war, and you will be taken to the demilitarized border, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and the USS Pueblo, confiscated by NK in 1968. Admittedly you’ll only get one side of the story, but every dialogue starts with listening to each other, right?
The helper: If have read the news reports about the poor humanitarian situation in North Korea you are likely to want to do something. On my trip, our group of 8 people employed 5 people working full-time with us. And then you had the local guides, and those working in the restaurants and hotel. Also, by choosing a tour company that truly cares about the country, you indirectly help the people there. Koryo tours has a range of projects, that in the end benefit people directly.
And every time a foreigner visits, the door is cracked a little wider. Hard currency trickle down to those who need it. More people get employed. More students get the chance to study, so that they can work in a growing service industry. People interact and get to know each other. More areas are opened up for foreigners to visit. During the last years, Americans have gone from only being welcome for the Mass games, to be able to visit all year around. Last month NK let you keep your mobile phone when entering the country. Small steps that will make a difference.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask me, I am more than happy to retell my stories from NK one more time! And if you wonder if it’s morally correct to go, read the discussion at The Shanghaiist,