Richard Beal is an Explore tour leader based in China who also leads our North Korea adventure tour. Here he tells us about his experiences in this unique country.
Many people ask: should I go to North Korea?
Well there are the beautiful people, untouched countryside and amazing scenery which make it a photographer's dream. It is also a country that can leave you with more questions when leaving than when arriving, I feel we should go with an open mind and see the country for ourselves rather then form our ideas based on other people - if you do you may be as surprised as I was.
Even before arriving in North Korea DPRK the adventure begins as you face all the questions from family and friends of “Why?" "How?" and "I did not know you could visit.” The tour starts in Beijing, China where we have our briefing, beginning with the do's and don’ts. Then after an early morning start it’s off to North Korea. As we sit in the airport ready to catch our flight to Pyongyang we get our first glimpses of some of the people who live in one of the world's most secluded countries. After touching down at Pyongyang International Airport and clearing the chaos of security we are met by our guides - their English is normally better than my own!
As we drive into Korea’s capital the guides' words blur into one as I am absorbed by the growing city around me. The people busy going about their work, the architecture and hand-painted, colourful communist propaganda posters pull me into this hermit-like country. It’s what I thought China may have been like years ago, but I never had the opportunity to view its full metamorphosis. In a way I cannot help but feel incredibly privileged to get a chance to see these changes and I am always struck by the sudden extremes of coming from Beijing - a full on, neon, modern, vibrant, mega city with bustling people and crazy traffic.
Right in the heart of the capital is the Yanggakdo Hotel, our 'home' while in Pyongyang. It's a 45 floor giant with a revolving restaurant at its peak and probably some of the best beer in Asia in the microbrewery bar below. Here we are fed a royal meal whilst the Pyongyang night closes in on the ageing metropolis outside. The guides and I to sit down to run through the week's schedule but as the itinerary is open to daily changes I know the adventure will only get better, especially as every day is cram-packed, waking early and returning late.
Once decided, I write the following day’s itinerary for the group, excited to travel for 5 stops on the Metro. The group always laughs at the thought of getting excited over a Metro, but on it we get to see a shrine to the achievements of past Korea and its leaders and also grab the rare opportunity for some local interaction. Our way is lit with chandeliers and framed with glistening mosaics - an experience not to be missed.
May and autumn offer the best times for a visit. May is filled with the unique chance to celebrate May 1st with the hundreds of locals taking their well-earned holiday, although care really must be taken when sampling the local drink Soju - many a tourist (and maybe even a few tour guides!) have had a dizzy afternoon, especially as Korean hospitality is very interactive and partaking is encouraged.
The other time for a visit would be autumn time around September to October where, I can say without any kind of exaggeration, you will see the most amazing show on earth. Nowhere else could you see thousands of performers in a 90 minute assault on the senses. In the words of one person on my tour last year “I was so amazed I forgot to take any photos - I must go again.”
It’s always a tour of contrasts as we are caught up in the busy life of Pyongyang, home to red architecture and colossal statues and monuments while also paying a sombre but surreal visit to DPRK’s dear leader Kim Il Sung. We stop by at the DMZ, the border between North and South Korea, where we learn the North Korean spin on the forgotten war (the Korean conflict.) The two sides of a split nation cautiously view each other over this huge physical divide.
Outside of the city, the tour even encompasses some of the countryside, driving across farmland and mountains, past lakes and rivers to the Kumgang region, home to one of Korea's beautiful mountain ranges. Our last day in North Korea is even an experience to remember as we bid farewell and board our train from Korea to China, which affords us a unique opportunity to view daily life as we are carried across North Korea's main agricultural region.
And for me, when I leave, Korea always stays with me. I am reminded about the freedom I have, the friends I have made there, the hospitality and the beauty, all in a small part of Asia almost sealed off from the world.
Join our North Korea adventure tour for your chance to have this unique and mesmerising experience for yourself.