Veteran Tour Leader Rich Beal recalls his first trip to the DPRK
Just over a decade ago, I was lucky enough to have my first tour into North Korea.
I was working for a large travel company based in the UK leading tours worldwide when I was asked to lead this trip. My thought process was a mess – I had never been to North Korea and at the time it wasn’t high on my list. I had images of needing an armed convoy as you would in a war-torn country. But it didn’t take long to convince me as the lure of a new country with amazing history, ancient and modern, was enough for me to accept.
My first port of call was the Koryo office to meet with Nick Bonner and Simon Cockerell. I was amazed at the amount of information they had alongside their knowledge and passion for this part of the world. I left laden with books, CDs and information. Until this point, all I knew about North Korea was what I could see on the news, and it wasn’t good.
I meet my tour group in a south Beijing hotel. After a one-hour briefing, we headed to the train station to board the train to North Korea. I was pleasantly surprised by North Korean the border guards: there were no bribes, they were thorough, there were no shakedowns or bullying and they even wished us well on our trip.
After lurching past some incredible scenery, the train eventually came to a stop in Pyongyang. It was late April so crops were being sown, the past winter soil turned and dug to make way for the spreading green of agriculture. The first thing that struck me about Pyongyang Station was its Soviet architecture and the variety of life on display: Koreans meeting families, officials being greeted, and my tour group and I trundling along with all our luggage.
We met our North Korean guides at the station. I was nervous as you hear tales of secret agents whose job it is to spy on tourists. But the female guide was a lovely, middle-aged Auntie figure who always took care of us; I still look up to her today. She is one of those people who never forgets the small, personal touches, such as always wishing my father a happy birthday on May 2nd. The male guide was a bit more intimidating: a tall, older man with an immaculately pressed blue suit and a menacing expression. His first words to me were, ‘You’re late!’ to which I replied, ‘I wasn’t driving’. He laughed and commented that I was funny, and that he was sure we would get along.
We were soon on our way to the hotel stopping at various places on the way such as the city square, book shop and the waterfront. Some people say they are shocked by the lack of cars and people in Pyongyang. I was more amazed by the architecture, the colours and the overall feel of the city. Yes, there were fewer people and not a lot of traffic compared to other Asian cities, but to be honest it was a breath of fresh air coming from Beijing, a city of 20 million people and high levels of pollution. Pyongyang is only 3 million people.
When we pulled up to the Yanggakdo Hotel, I was taken aback. Situated on an island in the middle of the river, the hotel is nowhere near the biggest in the world but it has an imposing design. A revolving restaurant is at the top of the building, while leisure facilities like bowling, a sauna, a casino and a swimming pool are at the base. That evening, I enjoyed some Russian beer with my tour group.
The tour covered a fair bit of the country, travelling across to the east coast down to the DMZ and a little North to Mt Myohyang. The country is very beautiful with its granite mountains and wide valleys, which are home to the lush green paddy fields. You see life pass you by as the bus bounces along the long highways. The variation is pronounced as you pass from the countryside to the cities as in many areas life is hard and you see people working continuously tending crops, fixing machines and roads with what’s available.
The May Day holiday, also known as International Workers’ Day, was soon upon us. After some interesting morning museum visits we went to a large park, which was flooded with locals. We headed to the funfair, where most Pyongyangers didn’t really seem fazed by our arrival; they were preoccupied with games like tug-of-war, football and wrestling. There was also most dancing. With some free time to explore, it brought back memories of my own youth at similar fairs in the UK. Myself and a few of the other tourists decided to have a kick around – some locals soon joined in.
We then went to the bigger Moran Park. It was busy with families having barbecues and drinking beer and soju. I was amazed by the friendliness of the locals who offered to dance, drink and eat with us. We walked away feeling very light-headed indeed.
There are many things said about travel to North Korea many more things bad than good. I have worked and travelled in many countries now, and I always want to form my own opinion of a country rather than be restricted by government regulations. Some destinations I would not go back to, others I love – North Korea is more in the latter camp as there were so many unexpected experiences. Mongolia is my favourite country, but North Korea was such a beautiful surprise. For me, it’s a country for thinking, listening and understanding in. It’s best to travel there with an open mind as many things will be different from your home country.
After 11 years of travelling to North Korea, I’m still not tired of the experience.