Planning and Day 1: How we planned our travel to North Korea (DPRK), country 51, and the arduous start of our journey from Beijing to Dandong in the middle of a torrential downpour.
Planning to go to North Korea
Many people were shocked that Christina and I were planning a trip to North Korea.
It’s not safe! and You can’t travel there! were common assertions.
The fact is, you can travel there and it is reasonably safe.
Tourism is open to almost everyone (even US citizens since 2010) and all you need to do is to register with a tour company, usually in Beijing, and they organize the complete tour. You must travel with a tour group as they do not allow free roaming and I doubt they ever will.
From my research, as long as you are respectful, follow the rules and directions of your guide (especially on what you take pictures of), and never say anything negative about the country and ruling party, then you should be fine. The last point seems especially important as there may be “watchers” around you (even in your tour group) reporting anything questionable that you may say. So we obviously have to be on guard.
My biggest concern was this website. As a writer, I did not want to be labeled as a journalist or worse, a spy, and be detained (which happened to the Korean Americans that Clinton had to bail out). Journalists cannot visit DPRK under a tourist visa. They can apply for and visit with a limited special media visa.
When selecting country 51/196 I looked for something nearby. North Korea is actually one of the closest nations from Beijing so it was an obvious choice.
The idea of traveling to the country is a juxtaposition of dread and excitement, as it is one of the most secretive and true communist governments left in the world. Shrouded in mystery and horror stories one never knows what lies within the borders of the real North Korea.
I had to see it for myself.
There are several tour agencies that arrange for North Korea tours. We went with Dandong China International Travel Service Co. which is based in Dandong and usually handles Chinese tourists. I figured it would be safer and more interesting to see it from a Chinese tour as they are the “big brother” of North Korea and possibly the only ally left.
The application process was surprisingly easy and straight forward. The tour agency only requested an email containing:
- A photocopy/scan of the passport front page
- A photocopy/scan of the China visa with at least two entries(Chinese nationals don’t need this)
I emailed them the requested documents, about three weeks in advance and that was it. There was no downpayment or any documents I had to sign. It was so casual that I wasn’t sure that they were going to follow through and apply for the visa.
Our directions were to show up at their office the day before the tour leaves and pay for the tour. It was as simple as that.
Or so we thought.
Travel to Dandong
To get to Dandong from Beijing, you can either take a plane or a half-day train.
We opted for the flight which was much faster, meaning we could leave in the morning and arrive in time to pay for the tour.
Christina and I started on our adventure to North Korea one early foggy Beijing morning. Once we arrived at the airport and got to the front of the check-in line, the lady behind the AirChina counter raised an eyebrow and told us that we could not yet check-in and try back in 30 minutes…
Our flight was cancelled due to weather.
After over an hour of inquiring, arguing, checking online, and booking, we were set to go to Dandong via a flight to Dalian and 3 hour ride to the city. Apparently a major storm has wrecked havoc over the area, cancelled flights for three days and even washed away railway sections, canceling all trains. Yet there was no mention or warning about it whatsoever… So the highway was our only option.
Booking and catching the next available flight, we flew with China Southern. From Dalian we caught a ride to Dandong to the tour company office.
We arrived JUST in time. Some staff stayed after hours so they could process our application, aka collect our cash.
After several trips to the ATM, we had enough to pay for our tickets.
Foreign Nationals All inclusive 4-day tour: 5,000 RMB (~US$800)
Chinese Nationals All inclusive 4-day tour: 3,600 RMB (~US$580)
Mass Games Ticket (required to see and included in above): 800 RMB (~US$130)
This was also the first time we had a chance to look over the itinerary (as we the trip was planned while we were busy traveling in Mongolia).
Giving us a receipt, the employee told us to come to their office at 7 a.m. the next morning.
An Evening in Dandong
Checking into our hotel, near the train station, we went out to purchase some supplies and sit down for dinner.
We asked around and were told the nearest shopping center opened was the Tesco a few blocks down. I didn’t even know that the British brand was operating in China.
The Dandong Tesco provided a surprisingly fun shopping experience due to:
- Licensed goods? – Plenty of “name-brand” clothing sold at discount rates!
- Cleaning Staff Uniform – Old lady janitors walked around with “CLEAN FORCE” labeled in bold on their backs.
- Customer is NOT always right – We witnessed a store employee telling a customer off which lead to a screaming match in the middle of the store!
We stopped at a local Korean restaurant, 民俗村 for dinner. As Dandong is right on the border, many Koreans immigrated and made China their home, which translates to authentic Korean cuisine! This particular restaurant was small, noisy, and disorganized, but the food was excellent!
With our spoils from Tesco and our stomachs full, we went back to the hotel wondering what our train ride to the DPRK had in store for us tomorrow.