Welcome To Pyongyang

Last month, we went to compete in the second Pyongyang Marathon to be opened up to foreign, amateur runners. Our tour company, Uri Tours, chartered an Air Koryo flight to take visitors directly from Shanghai to the insular capital of North Korea. We chose a three-day trip, which took in sights from around the city, running a 10k, half marathon or full marathon and a visit to the Demilitarised Zone in Panmunjom.
As we gathered at Pudong Airport prior to the departure of our midnight flight, an Uri Tours guide handed out our DPRK Visas as we met the rest of the tour group with whom we would be spending the next few days. Although we had attended a welcome dinner at a North Korean restaurant in Shanghai the night before, this was the first time we had connected as a group, and the atmosphere was electric. Obtaining our DPRK visas had been relatively straightforward and all completed online, through Uri Tours’ website – we were even able to view each step of the process through their online portal.
There was a feeling of excitement, and trepidation, as we caught our first glimpse of the Air Koryo flight, a dated Antonov An-148 airplane, from the airport transit bus. Even some of the Pudong Airport ground staff crowded around the airplane to take a closer look, as it was a sight rarely seen on the busy Shanghai runway. The flight ran smoothly, with pleasant, English speaking, welldressed flight attendants, and we were all handed a very weighty food tray during the journey. We also experienced our first taste of North Korean media in the form of the DPRK Magazine, Pyongyang Times, and being blasted with the latest patriotic tunes, sung by attractive looking women, on the flip down television monitors.
We arrived in Pyongyang during the early hours of the morning, before the sun had risen. After we exited customs, and were welcomed by our DPRK tour agency, we boarded the bus to Yanggakdo Hotel. The dark roads were devoid of vehicles at this time of day, but as we got closer to the city centre, we could see famous monuments spot lit and the outlines of pedestrians or cyclists who were beginning their daily routines.

After a few hours rest, we began our first day by paying our respects at Mansudae Grand Monuments, 22.5 metre bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il along with depictions of the Anti-Japanese Revolutionary Struggle and the Socialist Revolution. The statues were impressive, and the grounds were full of wedding parties, all paying their respect to the “Dear Leaders” straight after their ceremonies. We were expected to show our own admiration by bowing and laying wreaths of flowers, although, even at the tour guide’s insistence, only one member of our group bought the required garland.
Our next stop was to Kim Il Sung Square, which was covered in permanent, painted white dots, to mark the positions of mass demonstration participants. The square was filled with unaccompanied young children, running home after their half day of school. Apparently, there is no crime in North Korea, and our tour guide almost had a breakdown when one of her guest’s bags appeared to have been stolen (in the end, the guest discovered that he had just misplaced his bag after a night on the local beer). As a result, children are free to wander around the city on their own during the six-day school week, consisting of a half day at school and afternoons of extra curricular activities. Our guide told us how she learned to speak English in the isolated state by listening to recordings and movies at her university’s library when she was a student. Her eyes lit up when she talked about Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Shark Tale being her favourite movies. From there, we walked over to the Foreign Languages Bookshop, where we were able to pick up English language North Korean books, the Pyongyang Times and painted propaganda posters, amongst other things. On our way back to the bus, we spotted our first Pyongyang traffic controller, carrying out her duties with impeccable style, flair and attention to detail in her precise and, seemingly important, movements. They became a common sight on the spotlessly clean and uncongested roads.
Next, we were shuttled to Mangyongdae Native House, Kim Il Sung’s familial home, and heard about the horrors committed by the Japanese, which lead him to take up arms and fight for his country. It’s a well-kept shrine to the country’s founder and a place of pilgrimage for many North Koreans. On our way back to the city centre, we also stopped in at a North Korean recreational shooting range and bowling alley to let off some steam.
Later that day, we joined the masses and hopped on the Pyongyang Metro for one stop, from Rehabilitation to Glory. The large, and apparently deepest, chandelierclad stations had mosaics of Kim Sung Il going about his duties, and busy trains frequently pulled in and out. We were stewarded to the end of the platforms by our tour guides, and boarded an almost empty carriage at the front. The journey gave us a window into everyday life for Pyongyang residents.
We had an early night, to prepare for the mental and physical strength needed to participate in the Pyongyang Marathon, and woke early to sample the buffet breakfast. In general, our meals at the hotel were plentiful, but we were often offered bland ‘versions’ of Western dishes. However, the city takes their famous Pyongyang cold noodle dish seriously, and it is therefore a safe bet for lunch or dinner, especially when washed down by the national drink, soju. After carb-loading, we piled onto our tour bus to make our way over to Kim Il Sung Stadium, the starting point for the Pyongyang Marathon.
Being allowed to run loose on the streets of Pyongyang was a highlight of the trip. After being minded by our DPRK tour guides the previous day, having the freedom to run the route, wave at, or high-five, locals and take pictures of the impressive monuments along the way was a delight. The route circled the city centre and had runners crossing the Taedong River by bridge at two points. Crowds lined the streets to cheer competitors on, and even more spectators greeted their international guests as they started and finished the race in Kim Il Sung Stadium with synchronised hand clapping, Mexican waves, cheering and horn blowing. It was a truly once-in-alifetime experience to see and hear thousands of North Koreans going crazy for your achievement, seemingly ecstatic about how they were spending their Sunday morning. The international runners who placed first second and third in the 10k, half marathon and full marathon were awarded a selection of prizes and invited to take the podium in the middle of the stadium to enthusiastic clapping, as we jealously kicked ourselves for not training harder.
After lunch and a quick rest, we dragged our weary bodies over to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which also houses the USS Pueblo, an American Navy ship captured by North Korea, and numerous shells of American army vehicles left behind after the conflict. The state of the art museum was a very interesting look into the way the DPRK views the history books and a pretty impressive 360 degrees multi-sensory mural detailing a battle during the Korean War.
We finished our day with a visit to Paradise Micro- Brewery and Bar, part of a burgeoning microbrewery scene in Pyongyang. We were able to taste a 70% barley to 30% rice beer, which went down very well after an exhausting day of running. It was also great to see our guides relax and mingle with their guests, whilst learning more about us, and explaining their views on the world. There were a few locals in the bar when we turned up, however, the locals seemed to empty out when our band of bedraggled foreigners arrived.
On our final day, we left Pyongyang heading towards Panmunjom, the abandoned village in the Demilitarised Zone. On the way to the DMZ, we experienced a scenic bus journey through the North Korean countryside, seeing smaller towns and villages along the way. When we reached the DMZ, we got a sense of how real the conflict still is between the two Koreas. We passed through multiple checkpoints and received another crash course in Korean history (by now we were experts) before making our way to the border, into the UN controlled hut that straddles the demarcation line and crossed tentatively into the South Korean side of the room.
On the way back to the city, we stopped off at a town called Kaesong, famed for its ginseng, and were presented with an 11-dish lunch, served in individual heavy, bronze bowls. This was a meal that was traditionally served to the elite during the Koryo Dynasty and we certainly ate like kings.
On our last evening in the city, we paid a surreal visit to Kimilsungia Kimjongilia Flower Festival. Named after the two previous leaders, the bright flower festival brought to life how ever-present and significant these two powerful men still are to the nation.
Before our flight back to Shanghai, we visited the Koryo Stamp Shop to send postcards to friends and family from the DPRK, and to pick up some replica propaganda posters as souvenirs of the thought-provoking trip.
North Korea has welcomed a large number of Chinese tourists over the years and there is now a greater demand from foreign visitors from further afield. This trip put a human face to the on-going dispute between the Koreas and brought home a lot of the issues. We don’t believe that denying the country contact with foreign visitors would be the right step and therefore we felt comfortable making the trip. If you want to find out more and pay a visit to see the country for yourself, we suggest contacting Uri Tours for more information.
Web: www.uritours.com


Talking To Andrea Lee

Andrea Lee, co-founder and CEO of Uri Tours, heads all DPRK-related programmes for the company and is an avid traveller. We spoke to the intrepid entrepreneur about her company, DPRK tours and her favourite North Korean food.

Talk: What were you doing before you started running Uri Tours?
Andrea Lee: Before Uri Tours and North Korea, I was a corporate lawyer in NY structuring private equity funds.
T: Please can you tell us a little about your background and how you became interested in North Korea?
AL: We are a family founded business As Korean-Americans, North Korea is a natural and relevant interest for us as it is for Koreans everywhere. We had an opportunity to visit the country in the 90s, and we found ourselves returning year after year with other interested and curious travellers. We formed Uri Tours to provide the everyday traveller with an opportunity to experience one of the most controversial yet beautiful countries in the world. We're now the largest American provider of DPRK travel and tours and the official, and exclusive ticketing agent for Air Koryo in the Americas.
T: How many tour packages do you currently run in the country and can you tell us more about them?
AL: We have weekly departures on some of our packages and offer tours all year round. Our DPRK Weekender tours departing from either Shanghai or Beijing and the 5-Day Standard can be booked any week of the year. This year, the Party Foundation Day in October will be a big draw for tourists. The DPRK is celebrating its 70th anniversary of the foundation of the worker’s party, and visitors should expect a military parade, mass dances and fireworks.
T: Which is your favourite tour?
AL: The Pyongyang Marathon tour is by far my favourite tour. It’s a great chance to experience Pyongyang in a way that is far from your average tour experience. You’re on foot, engaged with local spectators, taking in all of the main Pyongyang sights while staying active. It’s easily become one of our most popular tours, and we’re already starting to see sign ups for next year.
T: What has been your most memorable experience in North Korea?
AL: There’s not one or two moments. The best part about running this business is the relationships I’ve forged with our local partners who are constantly striving to be better service providers and the travelers I have met along the way. A trip to the DPRK is more than a vacation. It’s an experience that can challenge one’s worldviews and leave a lasting impact on the traveller as well as the local community.
T: Is North Korea a dangerous place to visit?
AL: The DPRK is a safe destination for tourists. However, as a visitor to the DPRK, one must be prepared to follow the rules of the tour. We ask all of our participants to stay with the tour, to leave certain “antistate” publications at home, to respect local culture and to obey basic rules on photography.
T: Who can and who can’t visit the country?
AL: Almost anyone who is physically fit to travel can visit the country, including Americans. However, South Korean passport holders and journalists may not apply for tourist visas at this time.
T: Will Uri Tours be offering more trips directly from Shanghai in the future?
AL: Yes. Currently, Shanghai departures are seasonal flights available from April to October. This summer, we have many tour options departing from Shanghai including a golf tour, a FIFA World Cup tour and a Mount Paekdu getaway. We’re excited to be offering these tours directly from Shanghai and expect to have more direct Shanghai offerings in the future.
T: Tell us about a must-try North Korean dish?
AL: The Pyongyang cold noodles is by far the most famous Korean dish coming from the North. It’s comprised of buckwheat noodles in a cold meat broth enjoyed all year long. I’ve met North Korean people who even claim that they eat it 365 days of the year by choice. Kimchi is also a must-try dish for anyone visiting either Korea. Every region in Korea has its own signature way of preparing kimchi. My favourite is dongchimi kimchi served in a refreshing brine, originally from Pyongyang.