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Freedom! Leaving North Korea

Travel North Korea: Powerful and Prosperous Nation
Day 5: Completing our last day of the tour and leaving North Korea with a visit to Kim Il-sung Square and the Pyongyang International Culture Center. Going through exit immigration and returning to China.

Getting ready for our last day, we packed, checked the room and brought our bags down.

We started with breakfast which for some reason was not a buffet this time but a set meal at each table.

Then we gave our guides the room keycard in the lobby and waited for our group to assemble. Once everyone was there, we boarded the bus and left the doors of Yanggakdo for a last time.

On the bus, the guides handed back our passports.

Kim Il-sung Square

Our last important stop of the tour was the main square in Pyongyang. The square is the 30th largest square in the world and opposite the Juche Tower.

The sky was blue, making it a perfect day for photography.

The guides were acting a bit shady, asking Christina about her school and what she studied. It seemed as if they wanted to double check information before letting us go…

Pyongyang International Culture Center

We made last stop at this building that was actually a giant tourist shop. It was the largest we’ve visited the whole trip. With our mandatory time here, we purchased a few souvenirs.

Many of us waited outside and took pictures of the city life while waiting.

On the bus ride to the train station, our guides told us the procedure for leaving and boarding the train.

Pyongyang Station

Arriving at the station our guides got off first and were frantic about getting the group together and into the waiting room. It was very busy and easy to lose the group.

The waiting room was full of couches and had a guard at a desk for each exit. They also had a gift shop.

When the train was ready for boarding the guides moved us to the platform. We tried to buy some food from a food cart but the lady obviously didn’t accept our RMB. Another lady in a uniform came over to shoo us away.

Back on the train we were in a cabin with our Chinese guide, the Beijing guy from before, a clueless lady wearing a number “23” in the colors of the US flag, and a Dandong student studying in Canada.

There was nothing unusual on the way to the boarder. We took advantage of our bunks to sleep a bit and with out new confidence of the leniency took pictures out the window.

Our lunch was organized in the dining cart and consisted of a plain soup, plate of rice, eggs, chicken, big chunks of fish with fish eggs, and pickle slices. The waitstaff was very rude and physically blocked our attempts at taking any pictures.

North Korea Immigration Exit Process

Our relaxing journey was disrupted once we reached the immigration stop.

The cars flooded with military officers. A person in a blue uniform came around to check all the tickets.

This time we had a female officer checking our cabin. The lady collected our custom forms and checked our bags, one by one. Christina and I were well prepared as we found all kinds of clever ways to hide our photographs (making new albums, copying into lightbox, switching SD cards, etc.) Surprisingly and somewhat of a letdown, the officer didn’t check our phones or cameras. She just casually scanned the contents of our bags and after we were checked, we would leave the cabin.

A beige suit officer came to collect all the passports and exit forms. He kept confirming I was Australia while scribbling on a piece of paper. Then he asked to check my phone. I showed him it was an iPhone which he wrote on the back of my arrival card.

Then a lady came to scan all the women in the room with a metal detector and a man came to do the same for the men in the room. Such a pointless check as we could store anything into our bags at that point.

Then they all left and we had to wait.

During the downtime, our cabin-mates started several interesting conversations. We covered lots of topics mostly centered on North Korea, but also on cheating, love, finding wives and girlfriends (in North Korea), and even the young Dandong kid’s crush on our North Korean guide.

The officer finally returned and handed back our passports. Receiving the document in hand, I felt as if suddenly a huge weight was lifted. They did not put any stamps in our passports.
Minutes later we moved and headed across the bridge to China. We passed the abandoned amusement park and an empty swimming pool surrounded by people so that from the China side, it looked like they were having a grand ole’ time.

Then I heard the familiar “请交护照” Please hand over your passport! and thought FREEDOM! We made it to China!

The immigration process was run of the mill and soon we were staring at a waving Mao statue, welcoming us back to the land of opportunity. We were so excited that we barely said bye to any of the other tourists in our group.

We concluded our North Korea adventure with a relaxing evening at the best hotel in Dandong, according to Tripadvisor.

Hopping into a cab, we reveled in the fact that we could go where we want, when we wanted to.

Crowne Plaza Dandong

In a daze, I observed the room with a plush king sized bed, huge bathroom, and a view over the Yalu River into the empty North Korea and it seemed too good to be true. But as I thought about the North Korean peasants starving to death, I felt guilty for the luxury we had. Most North Koreans will never experience the exhilaration of free will in their lifetime, all because they happened to be born in the wrong country.

Lost in philosophical thought, we eventually exited our room for dinner. The onsite Waterfront Restaurant was very upscale with a private waitress specifically assigned to our table. We order a squid dish, cold buckwheat noodles, stir fried Jiao Bai vegetables, and an amazing walnut dessert.

After dinner we went for a stroll in the foggy night. Christina and I were both in a somber mood as our bodies and minds could finally relax from the last four days of tension. We arrived at a small bridge and continued around this park with exercising equipment. This area was the site of a lively night market with shops, hawkers and food stalls. We soaked in the scene and watched a man perform the traditional art of sugar sculpting.


Exhausted, we retired for the night. Dandong sightseeing tomorrow!

David De Clercq

About David De Clercq

Founder and writer at World-Adventurer.com, David is on a mission to travel to every country in the world and has less than 10 countries left! He loves new adventures, unique cultures, historic landmarks, and luxurious hotels. Follow along as David shares a journey of a lifetime!

  • haha I looked so happy at dinner in Crown Plaza… Never realized how free and liberal China was before this trip. 😀

    • Thanks for such a detailed story about your trip! I really enjoyed reading it, especially after travelling there myself one year ago. I went with a Dandong based company too: http://www.ddcts.com/. Gauging from your trip report it seems that all tours from Dandong have exactly the same program.

      Was it OK to take photos using mobile phones? Last year they were not allowed into the country (laptops were though), so we had to leave phones in Dandong.

      • Hi Roman,

        I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Yeah I’m sure most of the programs are similar since they only allow tourists to visit specific approved sites.

        We were told that this year was the first year that we could take smart phones in (and laptops) but apparently we couldn’t take any cameras that had GPS on them which didn’t make much sense since most smart phones have that feature…

        Did you have a similar experience with the immigration officers?

        Dave

        • Hi Dave,

          We have been warned about cameras with GPS too.

          When we crossed the border into North Korea we had all our luggage checked. The officer who did it apparently was bored and sometimes would find something random that was not allowed into the country (like a usb stick, even though I could take my laptop in).

          On the way back the officers walked through the train, collected all cameras and randomly checked the photos. Even though I did make a copy of mine, nothing was deleted.

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