A journey into the Hermit kingdom of North Korea
Pyongyang’s metro system, the deepest in the world, is another fantastic sight. Plunging down into the subway via a steep escalator, we were blown away by the ballroom-like decor, with polished marble, palatial chandeliers and walls decorated with mosaic Socialist realism murals. It was quite unlike any train station I had seen in my life, and was surreal enough to be straight out of a Stanley Kubrick film. Each of the stations is dedicated to a different theme, ranging from glory to victory to liberation. Interestingly the trains used here are mostly from East Germany, dating from the late 1980s.
As well as taking in the capital’s sights, most tours to the DPRK head to the demilitarized border zone at Panmunjom, where the demarcation line divides the Korea peninsula in two. In a fascinating standoff, both sides guard their side of the border mere metres from one another, as they have done since the Korean War ended in stalemate in 1953. It was intriguing to be briefed by a DPRK solider and to hear their version of events; one solider was sincerely apologetic he could not let us cross the line, and told us we had South Korea and the US to thank for it.
Also on the tour was Kaesong, the ancient capital of Koryo (a Korean dynasty spanning 918 to 1392) located 136km from Pyongyang . Here, we learned about the dynasty’s rich Buddhism legacy, even though temples are today more historical sites than working places of worship. Accommodation was in a hanok (a traditional Korean lodging) set around pretty courtyards and a peaceful creek, with the soundtrack of a crackly PA broadcasting propaganda all day and the option of ordering dog soup for dinner -- a surprisingly popular choice among our tour group.
Interacting with locals
Unfortunately opportunities to interact with North Korean residents are rare. Locals are generally guarded against interactions with foreigners (who by default are the enemy), but it is remarkable how far a wave and a smile goes. During a picnic lunch in the hills outside Pyongyang, we saw a large group of merry picnickers. With several bottles of soju (Korean rice liquor) and beer under their belt, they were having a grand time singing, dancing and banging instruments. Spotting our group, they beckoned us over and with gusto sang a welcoming song. After being starved of human interaction, it was a special moment that no tour schedule could succeed in capturing. For the first time we were genuinely made to feel welcome in the DPRK.