I was recently on a 5 day trip to Pyongyang, North Korea and along the way I learned some interesting things I thought I’d do a separate blog on.
My North Korea trip was part of a larger trip to China and South Korea but you can find all the entries here:
It is impossible to visit North Korea without being in a tour.
It could be a tour of one but you’re still going to be accompanied by two North Korean tour guides the entire time.
You can’t just say “hey, I want to see that”.
You are given an itinerary of the places you see and the adventures you get to experience
Meals are almost always brought out in courses, usually little communal dishes you share with the others at your table.
The end of your meal is usually signaled by when a bowl of rice and accompanying soup come to the table.
They serve the rice and soup last so as to not ruin your appetite for the great dishes they bring out before that.
It’s also considered rude if you eat all the rice as it signals that your hosts did not feed you enough “real” food earlier so you should leave a little bit of rice in the bowl.
Like alot of places in the world, North Korea has almost exclusively squat toilets everywhere with the exception of foreigner hotels like the one I stayed at.
So, when you have to go and you find a western toilet somewhere you kind of say a little “hallelujah” to yourself and smile in your heavenly find.
Bonus points if it also has toilet paper but don’t get your hopes up and always carry your own.
Also, always carry soap or hand sanitizer and there’s usually none available.
A little tip I found along the way is if you see a handicapped stall it usually will have a western toilet.
There is a traffic cop at every intersection.
I’m not kidding.
Dressed in blue and wearing flashing lights at night, they stand there in hour shifts watching the traffic go by.
They go through a routine of moving their head from side to side like a chicken and then change position to look the other direction by doing a military step and spin.
They will also salute any passing vehicle showing a military licence plate.
It actually is quite fascinating to watch and the women look pretty damn hot in their blue uniforms.
Something about a uniform…
Everyone in the country wears a pin depicting the since passed leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
They all wear it all the time and, no, you can’t ask someone for one as a souvenir.
I’m actually under the impression if they lose it they have to file a ton of paperwork to get a new one.
I’m told, however, that you can buy a cheap knockoff in the Chinese border town of Dandong which for some reason I didn’t look further into. Dammit!
Population and visitors
The country as a whole has a population of 23 million with 3 million of them living in the capital city of Pyongyang.
They only get about 100,000 visitors a year from outside countries almost all of them being Chinese.
In fact, only about 5000 westerners visit every year so there being there is indeed a rare occurrence.
Pride and empty roads
There is an inordinate amount of pride in the North Koreans about their county and their leader.
They build beautiful hotels and roadways not because they need them but because they want to show them off.
The first night I arrived we were on a huge 8 lane recently finished roadway which had no cars on it.
Cars are actually not the usual mode of transport for most North Koreans as cars and especially gas are expensive.
Private ownership of cars is only about 1% and most cars are either carrying military or government officials.
No photos please
Unlike what most people are led to believe, you can actually take photos of pretty much everything as my 100s of photos will attest.
There are certain things you can’t take a photo of and your guide will always let you know if you can’t.
Big no-no’s are taking photos of the military and photos of tunnels.
I get the military, not sure why on the tunnels, but, whatever, who wants a photo of a tunnel anyway.
You also can’t take photos of construction but only because it’s military who do it.
There are portraits of the leaders on every government building and residents have to walk their bike whenever they are in front of them.
Outside of a couple billboards advertising cars, there are no ads anywhere in North Korea.
There are solar panels on many apartment suites to combat the often occurring brownouts making owning a suite that is sun facing so very much more important than normal.
There is a distinct lack of farm animals. As we travelled through the country side you only saw a handful of chickens, cows and other animals.
They are determined to protect their tunnels as there is a little guard booth with someone standing guard at each end of every tunnel. They’re also protective of their subway tunnels to.
Each year about 1000 North Koreans defect and there are 50,000 allowed to travel back and forth from the Chinese border town of Dandong where they work.
Pedestrians, even in crosswalks, do not have the right of way. Cars will just drive through the crosswalk while pedestrians crossing will wait in the middle of the road for the car to go by.
Everything that is built takes numbers into account. For instance, the statue of the great leaders is on a 7m pedestal and measure 27m tall indicating their victory day of 7-27-1953.