I am deeply fascinated with North Korea ever since I’ve watched the movie Taegukgi when I was 10. I’ve read countless books about the country (including the super-popular Escape from Camp 14, highly recommended) and watched vlogs from people who actually visited the country.
This whole plan to visit North Korea started when M and I were strolling beside the Hudson River sometime in the summer of 2018. I brought up the subject of bucket list locations and briefly mentioned North Korea as one of my top items. She said that it was hers too and promised that we would do it the following year when I graduate from college. Fast forward a year later and here we are!
This post is a detailed recount of our experience travelling to North Korea on a guided tour. If you’re interested in planning your own trip to North Korea, check out our detailed guide here where we explain the logistics of doing so.
Yalu river broken bridge
On day 0, we arrived in Dandong, China after a 1.5-hour high-speed train ride from Shen Yang, China. After checking in to our hotel, we met our tour agency to pay for the remaining cost of the tour, we then took a taxi to Dandong’s Yalu River Broken Bridge where we caught our first glimpse of the mysterious country!
Train ride from Sinuiju to Pyongyang
The next day, we woke up early in the morning to head to the Chinese border where we had to go through the Chinese customs and subsequently, the North Korean one. This whole process took us nearly 4 hours as we had troubles with our Chinese visa and the North Korea custom process is notoriously slow.
We spent the next 8 hours on the train, enjoying the North Korean countryside as the train made its way from Sinuiju to Pyongyang.
We only arrived at our hotel late at night. Right after dinner, we immediately tucked in for the night, getting our much-needed rest for the long day ahead.
Immediately after our alarm rang, I ran straight to our balcony for my first glimpse of Pyongyang in daylight!
I stood at the balcony and simply observed everyone on the streets. It just seems like everyone is going everywhere. At this point, I could not shake off the idea that this was all a show for us, to show us that North Koreans have a normal life like everywhere else in the world.
Our first location of the day was a visit to one of Pyongyang’s subway stations. It will be the first time we’re getting up close and personal with North Koreans.
The Pyongyang metro is one of the deepest metro systems in the world. The stations double as bomb shelters during times of war.
One unique thing we observed was the newspaper bulletin boards. We frequently saw passengers reading from it while waiting for their train to arrive. In a country where cellphones are not common, this is likely the way most people get their daily news.
We took 3 stops on the metro line. Throughout the journey, the train was packed to the brim and normal Pyongyang citizens were just going about their daily lives.
Kim Ill Sung’s Square
After the brief 3 stop train ride, we were shuttled to Kim Ill Sung’s square, the place where they host all their military parades.
The Kim Ill Sung square is inspired by China’s Tiananmen square. The large square is surrounded by prominent government buildings, with the Juche tower directly facing it.
Across from the Kim Ill Sung lies the tall Juche Tower.
As part of our tour, we got a chance to visit the top of the tower to get a panoramic view of the capital city.
The Taedong river separates the Juche tower and Kim Ill Sung’s square.
Monument to Party Founding
This 50 meters high monument symbolizes the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party of Korea. The hammer, sickle and brush symbolize the workers, farmers and intellectuals respectively. To the Koreans, these are the essential pillars of the entire country.
Behind the monument houses 2 red buildings with prominent words on their roof. The 4 words literally translate to hundred battles, hundred victories.
Mansudae grand monument
The Mansudae Grand Monument is a sacred landmark for North Koreans. Couples specifically come here during their wedding day to pay respects to their great leaders.
There are strict rules with regards to photographing statues of their leaders. The statues cannot be cropped and they had to be pictured from a direct angle.
Arch of triumph
Paris is not the only city with an arch of triumph. Pyongyang has one too!
This arch is a commemoration of Korea’s resistance against Japan before the founding of North Korea. As a fun fact, this is actually taller and larger than the one in Paris.
Manyongdae, Kim Ill Sung’s native house
We made a quick visit to Kim Ill Sung’s birthplace. It was a very traditional Korean folk village with alleged artifacts belonging to Kim Ill Sung’s family on display.
On our way out, we saw a bunch of school kids having their excursion at a local theme park. The kids were very curious about us yet shy.
Our tour guides told us that local schools hold excursions twice every term.
Local school visit
Afterwards, we went to a local high school where their students performed for us. They played traditional Korean music and danced to them.
Walk around a neighbourhood
After the visit to the school, our tour guides dropped us off at a car park in a random neighbourhood. We then proceeded to walk around the neighbourhood for a good 20 minutes.
And that marks the end of our first 2 days in North Korea. Right after the dinner, M and I went back to the hotel and immediately crashed for 12 hours straight.
The next day, we took a 5-hour bus ride down to Kaesong, the village bordering South Korea. We visited the demilitarised zone (DMZ) and the joint security area.
We were hurriedly brought to the Joint Security Area where we were able to see South Korean buildings from up close. Security was very strict here and we were told not to make any hand gestures to the opposite side.
Kaesong Korean folk village
Despite its reputation as a North Korean border city, Kaesong was actually the ancient capital of the unified Korean peninsula. As a result, the city houses several Unesco world heritage sites.
We paid a visit to Songgyungwan, which was the highest educational institution during the Koryo and Choson dynasties.
There were gift shops at every location we visited throughout the tour. We decided to purchase some propaganda postcards to send it out to our friends back home. Unfortunately, not all of them made it to their intended recipients.
Arch of Reunification
On our way back to Pyongyang, we went past the Arch of Reunification. This arch stands at the entrance to Pyongyang on the highway that leads directly to Seoul, South Korea.
It consists of two women in traditional Korean dresses, symbolising the North and the South, coming together to hold up an emblem of reunified Korea. According to our tour guide, the North Koreans hope that one-day reunification do happen and they can drive all the way down to the southern capital.
Journey back to China
We spent the final day of our tour mostly on the journey back to China. Pyongyang train station in the daylight feels very different as compared to at night.
The way back was a lot faster, probably due to the fact that we were travelling in the day. As we parted ways with our tour guides, the thought that we most probably would never see them lingered in our minds.
As we cross back into China and modernity slowly returning to our lives, the trip left us with more questions than answers. Our curiosity in the country only increased and we would hope to someday visit the country again.
We hope that our trip to North Korea has inspired you to plan your own trip there in the future!
Looking for more?
Are you looking for more travel adventures around Asia? Consider visiting the nearby Jade Dragon Snow Mountain at Lijiang!
It’s one of the most famous mountains in west China. At a height of more than 4000m above sea level, it might be the highest you’ll ever be on Earth. Check out our blog post here.