Saudi Arabia – a brief journey into the mysterious kingdom

Of all the countries in the world, we’ve never had one requested as much as Saudi Arabia. Over the years we’ve had a constant stream of regular clients asking us if we can find a way in there. The sheer difficulty of gaining access has long made it a holy grail to many travelers. Other than visiting on business or for Hajj and Umrah, the country has been an almost impossibility to visit on tourism. This has led to a distinct lack of travel articles, blogs and photos of the country, giving it an almost mythical feel for many. The only view people do seem to have is the one portrayed regularly in the media; an incredibly conservative Islamic kingdom with severe laws and punishment.

I’d tried for years to find a way in. Transit visas continually ended down a dead end. Rumours of tourist visas would regularly crop up but then would always fade away. And there was little chance of a foreign travel agency being invited to Saudi on business.

Fast forward to last month and I finally cracked it thanks to a random invitation from a Sheikh who was interested in what we do. I flew into Riyadh on a night flight and landed exhausted, threw on a suit and headed into the centre for my meeting. Suits aren’t the most ideal attire in temperatures of 40C+, and in I walked pouring with sweat and struggling to keep awake. The gift of a jar of Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls was a good opener, creating a beaming smile across the Sheikhs face and he was soon calling me his brother. We sat and chatted for a while, covering topics from politics to football and everything in between. As we finished he told me to go and get some well-earned rest and promised his son would pick me up later for a night on the town.

First impressions of Saudi were far away from what I’d expected. Boarding the flight, I’d expected to be surrounded by conservatively dressed men, with women in niqabs. A few were but the majority were dressed liberally. Some had long hair, one guy was wearing corduroy flares and hipster glasses, another had a Metallica t shirt on.

View from Sky Bridge, Riyadh

As I wandered Riyadh that night though, it soon became apparent those I’d seen on the flight were immigrant workers. The Saudi males were very much in local dress and women in black niqabs. We headed to the Kingdom Centre to ascend up to the Sky Tower bridge, one of Riyadh’s highest points. On the way through the mall we passed through the ladies section. The women and girls there may have been wearing clothing that has barely changed in centuries, but their way of life was clearly firmly set in modern times. They were all glued to their phones, some of them holding two, speaking on one and tapping away on the screen of the other. They were in and out of shops, carrying bags of all the latest high name brands. Even Victoria’s Secret had a store in there.

In Iran, it’s clear that many women push the boundaries as far as possible with their make-up and hair which shows through their hijabs. In Saudi, the same was noticeable with many women’s eyes and hands. Fingers would be adorned with rings, whilst their mascara filled eyelashes could be clearly seen through the narrow gap in their burka.

Masmak fort, Riyadh

The following day I took a tour of the old part of the city. Right in the centre is Masmak fort, the centre of the old citadel and dating back to 1865. Inside there were photos of Riyadh from the first half of the 20th century. It looked a magical place. It was a true vision of Arabia. As I ventured out of the fort though and wandered around the area it soon became clear that this era was long gone and is never coming back. Very few of the old mud brick buildings had survived and those that had were not really in any recoverable state. The modernisation of the city had long since got rid of most of its history.  Nobody seemed to miss those days, it very clearly seemed to be a city looking to its future rather than dwelling on its past.

Remnants of Riyadh old town

As I was driven back to the airport later for my flight to Jeddah, I could see the construction advancing at a rapid pace. On the outskirts of the city, in what was nothing but desert a couple of years ago, was now a huge financial district nearing completion. It is to be known as King Abdullah City and so far consists of 59 skyscrapers nearing completion and covering 1.6 million square metres.

I arrived in Jeddah alone later that night and was forced to deal with walking the gauntlet of drivers hawking for business. Taxis have long been the bane of my life. None so more than after arriving late at night into a strange city. As well as the countless times around the world I’ve been ripped off, I’ve had:

  • a taxi driver in Panama threaten to stab me
  • in Iraq a taxi driver tried to take me on a short cut through Mosul.
  • a Somalian taxi driver make me move into the middle of him and the passenger and sit with the gear stick between my groin for a bumpy 2 hour,  excruciatingly painful ride.
  • In Kuwait when getting into a taxi I insisted the driver gave me a price before we set off, but he refused to and told me I could pay him whatever I thought was a reasonable price for the service. When we arrived at our location I gave him what I felt was fair and he told me it wasn’t enough and that it should be a minimum of 3 times that amount.

So on to Jeddah, and after lengthy attempts at haggling I finally agreed to a price that was double the price I’d earlier told myself I definitely wouldn’t go above.

I’d been dreading how much I was set to spend on rip-off cabs over the next couple of days when I heard Uber has made it out to Saudi. They might have dubious business practices but they’re turning into such an essential service whilst travelling. No hassle at all; no communication issues, no haggling over prices and no wondering what time they’ll turn up.

At least that’s what I thought it would be like. The next day was a series of drivers cancelling on me or being unable to find me despite my location being clearly displayed on their GPS. I lost track of the times they called me to see where I was, costing me £2 a minute every time I had to answer. At one point I waited 45 minutes before I got an Uber, after a series of cancellations. In the meantime at least 50 standard taxis drove past. When one finally turned up and I got inside, he cancelled the ride on his app and told me he was “off Uber duty” and I had to treat him like a standard taxi and pay the rate he wanted.

The next day I decided I would give up on taxis and just walk everywhere. A big mistake and one I’ve never learned from after years of visiting desert cities. In Bahrain I decided to take myself on a walking tour of the city but ended up spending 2 hours unable to find my way out of a building site. In Qatar after arguing with taxi drivers (again) I decided to walk from the airport to my hotel in Doha. By the time I arrived my clothes were drenched wet through and I felt like I’d lost 25% of my body weight. The worst one of all though was on the outskirts of Vegas. After losing a friend who I was out with in a nightclub I decided to leave but that I would walk back to the hotel. I left through what looked like an exit but what turned out to be the service entrance. As the door closed behind me I found myself stuck behind a 10 foot gate. I drunkenly scaled it and found that it led directly onto the freeway. I spent an hour walking along a crazily busy 8 lane highway unable to find a way of crossing so that I could get back to the city. Eventually my only option was to crawl through some drains that passed under part of the freeway.

And so it was in Jeddah. Thirty minutes of walking along busy roads in the middle of August in temperatures in the mid 40’s was as little fun as you can imagine. All the scorn I’d often poured on Gulf States for the way they’d ruined their history and replaced it with shopping malls and expensive cars. And at this very moment it all made perfect sense. I could think of nothing better than to be sat down inside a nice new air conditioned mall. And that’s exactly what I did. Flagged down a taxi, headed to the Red Sea Mall. Gorged on junk food in the food court and then stocked up on expensive replica Al Hilal football gear in the club shop.

Floating mosque, Jeddah

I’d struggled to find anything in Jeddah that set it apart from anywhere else in the Gulf until I later headed out to Al-Balad, the old part of the city. Unlike Riyadh, a lot of it had survived. There may be very few Saudi’s still living there anymore but now it’s packed with immigrant workers living in the cheaper crumbling houses; the only affordable part of the city that is left. The area is full of houses of totally unique architecture and like nothing I’ve seen before. They were built with coral blocks and wood – no doubt causing an ecological disaster but now creating a site like nowhere else on earth. As I wandered around I finally felt like I was in the Arabia I’d always imagined. Narrow winding streets and bustling markets.

Al Balad coral houses, Jeddah

One feeling I couldn’t’ shake off though was that I shouldn’t be there and that I was imposing on a side of Saudi that was almost unknown to the outside world. The camera around my neck probably intensified these feelings. I convinced myself I would be grabbed by the secret police at any moment, but it never came. I’d read before I visited never to take photos of people, even from a distance and to expect people to refuse even if asked. Towards the end of my visit, I finally plucked up the courage to ask a market stall holder if I could take his photo after pacing backwards and forwards past his stall for ten minutes. I expected a rapid rebuttal but was instead greeted with “Of course you can!”. I was excited about taking a great portrait shot with his Mosque adorned carpets hanging behind him. But the incredible heat was so intense that my lens was completely steamed up and no matter how many times I wiped it and waited for it to adjust to the temperature, it continued to steam up, ruining any chanced I had of getting any shot at all.  This would be a running theme throughout the rest of the afternoon.

Later that evening I spoke with a local who gave me his thoughts on how things are changing in Saudi Arabia. “Mark my words, women will be able to drive here very, very soon” Within a month of returning home, the news was announced that indeed, women had finally been given the right to drive in Saudi.

Local man fishing on Jeddah corniche

I left Saudi with an urge to visit again soon to find out more about this very misunderstood nation. In some ways it felt similar to Iran – a nation of intelligent, well educated people living under a strict Islamic leadership. The people I met certainly did not seem resistant to the change and modernisation in certain attitudes and laws that appears to be coming, albeit very slowly. People are also very aware of how the country can no longer rely on oil and there seemed to be an intrigue and even excitement amongst many about what opportunities the future holds and the opportunity for people to be creative in finding new avenues for how to move the country forward.

A tourist in Syria – by Dylan Harris

Over a decade ago I read an article by a writer who took a journey by train from Istanbul to Damascus. The story really stuck with me, creating a mystical view of Syria in my mind; from the warm,  and hospitable people to wandering the souks of Aleppo and the ancient streets of Damascus Old Town. I didn’t get around to visiting before the war broke out, but in the years since I’d heard similar tales from others who had visited, of an incredibly welcoming place packed full of history at every turn.

As time went by and I gradually travelled to all of the neighbouring countries in the region, I slowly started to wonder despite the current conflict if visiting Syria was at all viable. Were there any areas safe enough? I had no immediate plans to travel there; at first it was just an idea floating around in my head and I enjoyed the challenge of trawling the internet, reading security reports and chasing down leads and potential fixers. The more I looked into it though, the more it became an obsession. It was an obsession I couldn’t really explain. Working in this particular industry, there were business reasons for wanting to visit but it’s the most dangerous country on earth and war has been raging all across for over half a decade. Why would anyone want to visit a warzone? How could I possibly justify it to friends and family? I thought about it long and hard and realised the only people that would understand it are those who have the same passion for offbeat travel. It wasn’t the war that was attracting me. It was the total sense of the unknown. Travellers of old would venture into uncharted territories, totally unaware of what lay ahead. Now that travel has become so easy and accessible, it is slowly starting to lose that old sense of wonder and intrigue. When looking into Syria though it was stirring up all these emotions for me. I didn’t want to go and stand on the front line and partake in War tourism. I was just genuinely intrigued as to how the people were surviving there and what stories they had to tell. Could these reasons justify my urge to visit? Maybe not but I’d already made up my mind.

I then started the long process of figuring out how exactly I could get in. Other than illegally smuggling myself over the border the only realistic options left were crossing from Northern Iraq into Kurdish Syria or coming in from Lebanon and taking the relatively short journey from Beirut to Damascus. The Iraq option was initially the most promising. I knew the KRG region well and had a contact who could set up a fixer to meet me on the Syrian side of the border. Eventually though I gave up on this avenue. As well as the visa being problematic for non-journalists, the safety in this part of the country was simply too unpredictable. And on top of this, although the rise of the Kurdish state in Rojava is an incredibly important subject, as a whole it’s not the most interesting part of the country.

I decided to focus on Damascus. Despite the war still raging in the suburbs of the city, the old town had always remained relatively unaffected, and by all accounts life there had begun to return to a level of normality. The road to the Lebanese border, being the capital’s only real lifeline to the outside world had now been heavily secured by government forces.

In August 2016 I was finally able to track down a contact in Damascus. He was someone who had previously worked in the tourism industry but after the outbreak of war had switched to fixing trips for journalist. We spent time chatting on the phone, going over in fine detail the crisis and the constantly changing safety situation. After a couple of weeks of calls, emails and WhatsApp messages, it was finally agreed. I was going to Syria.

The date was set for January 2017. The visa application went in and the following weeks were spent reading up on the fluid situation over there and poring over security reports and maps daily. The few days prior to my scheduled visit, the nerves started to kick in. I started to question again why I was going and was it really worth it? Could I really be sure that I’d be safe? The day got closer and doubts continued to race through my mind and even by the time I reached Beirut, I was asking myself should I cancel.

That decision was then taken out of my hands, as the day before I was due to enter, I learned my visa had been rejected. The fear and doubts about the trip dissipated quickly but were replaced by a strong sense of disappointment that something I’d been planning for over a year had fallen through at the last hurdle.

I left it a couple of months and then decided to try one more time with the visa application. Realistically I thought it would be rejected again so I didn’t have high hopes but then in mid May, I got a call to say it had been approved. Last minute flights were booked and off I went, back to Beirut. The day before I flew out I’d read a report of a journalist who’d recently done the exact same journey as I was doing. He talked about sleepless nights in the lead up to his visit. As things had happened so quickly this time, I didn’t have time to worry about anything.

Arriving in Beirut, I was picked up at the airport and we headed East. We drove along familiar roads, into Hezbollah territory that I’d visited previously when travelling to the Roman ruins at Baalbek. As we got close to the ancient Lebanese city of Anjar we turned off  and took the short journey to the border.

In years past, this border would have been packed but nowadays there was barely any traffic and just a handful of people crossing. After the questioning at Beirut airport (have you been to Israel? Are you sure you haven’t been to Israel? Why are you coming to Lebanon?), the simplicity of this land border crossing was quite unbelievable. No questions about why I was going to Syria, just a quick stamp in the passport and waved on my way. Exactly the same on the Syrian side. Visa papers displayed, passport handed over and 2 minutes later I’m told “Welcome to Syria” as my passport along with fresh Syrian stamp is handed back to me.

I now had a hour long drive to the Damascus to deal with. Reports from a couple of years earlier had described this 65 km stretch of road as the Cannonball Run. Drivers had to keep their foot to the floor for the entire length of the road to avoid snipers, car bombs and everything else in between. Despite assurances otherwise it was difficult to get the thoughts out of my head. The adrenaline soon started rushing as my eyes darted around constantly scanning the roadside. As it turned out the road was totally quiet and it eventually turned out to be a nice serene drive into the capital.

“I Love Damascus” sign, recently installed in the new part of the city.

My accommodation was a beautiful boutique hotel tucked away down a narrow street in the old town. The owner had taken incredible care and expense to renovate the buildings and interior courtyard to it’s original splendour. The problem was that it had its grand opening six months prior to the civil war starting so it had been virtually empty of guests ever since.

The courtyard inside my hotel in Damascus old town.

After checking in and being treated like a long lost family member by the incredibly friendly hotel staff, I ventured out into the city with my fixer for a tour. After visiting over 100 countries, I felt like I’d experienced pretty much everything whilst travelling. This was like nothing I’d felt before though. I was really travelling into the unknown for the first time ever. No tourists had set foot in here for years. There were no travel blogs to read or forum posts to check through. The small element of fear still inside me was bringing out a rush of adrenaline that had my senses working overdrive. Every sight, sound and smell were amplified like never before.  My mind raced back to years of watching Vietnam films and seeing life carrying on as normal as could be in Saigon at the peak of the War and wondering what it could possibly have felt like being in a place like that while war raged on all around. And this is how it felt. Years of the Syrian civil war being the lead story on the news; it was hard to comprehend that I was here. I wandered down the narrow streets and felt like this could have been any time over the past two millenia. It felt like the city was just the same as it was in biblical times. History was everywhere I stepped. I descended down a stone staircase into a cavern known as the House of Saint Ananias. Today it’s a Christian church but its origin is more than 2000 years old, being the home of St Ananias who baptized Saul; he of Road to Damascus fame, who later became Paul the Apostle. It is religion that proved one of the most intriguing aspects of Damascus; churches built next door to mosques whilst Christians and Muslims around the city both mixed together without any problems. An incredible contrast to the extremism ISIS are attempting to spread throughout the rest of the country. And it wasn’t long before signs of the current conflict were noticeable. One minute I’d feel I was transported back hundreds of years, the next I would turn a corner, see mortar damage, barbed wire and heavily fortified checkpoints. Signs of the regime could be seen all over. Each shop that was closed had Syrian flags painted across their roller shutters. Portraits of Assad were everywhere and accompanied at checkpoints by portraits of Shia martyrs.

One of the many Assad portraits adorning walls and fences around Damascus.

That evening I was sat in a courtyard relaxing and enjoying a beer. My sensory overdrive had slowed down and the adrenaline levels had finally started to subside. I started to think how I could be anywhere else in the world and how there was no sign at all of a war still taking place just a couple of miles away.

Enjoying a beer on a Thursday night in Damascus

That was about to change when a couple of minutes later I saw a flash of light travelling across the sky. It was tracer fire. Following this there was the sound of several rapid shots of gunfire that continued to sound closer and closer. It sounded like it was only a couple of streets away. As much as I wanted to stay calm it was difficult. As I looked around though, the locals were continuing to drink and chat with each other as if nothing was happening. I asked someone how close the gunfire was.

“Oh a couple of kilometres. The wind is making it sound closer than it is”.

I sat back in my chair again and sighed a sign of relief. At that very moment, a huge bang sounded right behind me. I almost had a heart attack. I turned around to see a 8 year old girl laughing at me. She’d just stamped on a sealed plastic bottle.

I thought back to what my fixer had said to me when he left me earlier that evening.

“If you leave the hotel, turn right only. Do not under any circumstances turn left. This way leads to the suburb under rebel control.”

It was past midnight and I’d had several beers already. Anywhere else I’d have been happy with a few more drinks but this was the last place I needed to be staggering home drunk and taking a wrong turning.

The following day I walked around the vast Al-Hamidiyah Souq. Eyes were fixed on me as I pushed my way through the crowds. The more people stared, the faster my heart would race. One young man in his twenties approached, holding out his outstretched hand.

“Thank you for coming to Syria”, he said with a smile across his face.

He shook my hand and then walked away. A couple more then gained the courage to approach me and asked for selfies. One of them asked if I had WhatsApp. The feeling of paranoia dissipated immediately. The people looking at me were just curious. They hadn’t seen foreigners here for years. The day afterwards I received a WhatsApp message from the guy who’d asked me for my contact.

“It is great to see tourists here again. Thank you for visiting my country”.

One of the friendly locals who approached me in the souk.

I moved on to explore Al Azem palace, a former residence of the 18th century Ottoman governor. It was in here when I saw two foreigners, the only ones I saw throughout my time in Syria; a journalist from Newcastle and a priest from Winchester. Both of them were at odds to point out what they’ve seen all over Syria and how it differs totally to what the Western media has been portraying.

The priest had been here five times since the war started and was in Aleppo as it was liberated. He said every person he met was incredibly relieved that it was back in government control. He was told of people being killed by the rebels if it was found they were supportive of the government. Others were being killed just for not being Muslim. This from the so called moderate rebel groups, not ISIS or Al Nusr. He said he’d heard all kinds of horror stories and seen first hand a children’s hospital full or corpses and smashed up equipment. He spoke with the BBC just after he saw all this – prior to the interview he was asked to brief them on what he planned to say. He claimed that he was actually told by the BBC he was not allowed to say any of the above. He told it anyway but those comments were edited out of the final piece, despite him being promised the interview was live.

The journalist had been in Syria for the past five years. He told similar stories and insisted that the closest thing to the truth that’s coming out of Syria is from Russian media. He says he’s walked around towns that have been liberated by the government forces and seen scores of dead Al Nusra fighters – none of them Syrian, but from Saudi, Pakistan, Bangladesh and others.
A lot of what they were saying, I’m sure would be immediately dismissed by many when we’re so used back home to hearing a totally different narrative. But it was hard to ignore what they were telling me and incredibly eye opening. These were people who were living it on the ground and had first hand experience. How many of the news sources we read back home have such local knowledge? These individuals may well have ulterior motives for their side of the story but it didn’t feel like that to me. It felt real and honest. What was already in my head as an extremely complex issue had now become even more complicated.

Ticket booth at the entrance to Al Azem palace

That evening I returned to the same bar as the previous night. The owner also had a food stall selling late night snacks. I’d become his regular customer now, to the point where he trusted me to run his bar.

“I need to buy supplies. Please can you mind the bar for me?”

I found myself behind the counter selling kebabs.

As the night progressed, more and more people came in to buy food and drinks. They also wanted to chat. Everything revolved around the conflict. There were other snippets of conversation but it always went back to the war. As you’d imagine, it was hard for the people here to think about anything else. I asked one girl if she’d ever thought about leaving along with millions of other refugees who had poured into neighbouring countries and across into Europe.

“Why would we leave? This is our country. If we all leave then ISIS win and take over this country. We stay and fight to the end”.

The journey out of Damascus followed the same route as the way in, but this time in the dead of night. I departed the hotel at 1:30am to find the streets totally deserted. If ever there was a place I wanted to get out of quickly this was it. The streets were in complete darkness, totally devoid of people, cars and noise. The darkness would suddenly be broken every few minutes as we reached a checkpoint and the soldiers would shine torches inside. The silence continued at the checkpoints other than a whisper to demand we show our passports, whilst another of the guards checked in the boot and back seats.

The journey felt twice as long as it had done on the way in, but I reached Beirut safely after what had been a truly life changing trip.

Christmas in Pyongyang 2015 – by Shailyn Shah

“Does Kim Jong Un live in Pyongyang?” A rather ‘safe’ question I thought to myself. The response I got “probably”, with minimum eye contact as our Korean tour guide hastily looked away. Other members of the group looked at me as if to say ‘that was awkward’. The secrets of North Korea stay in North Korea… In August having found a super cheap ticket to South Korea and China, I decided it would be my big long haul holiday for the year. In my interest, I looked at whether there were any tours to North Korea whilst I was there. I came across a few but struck gold with a tour run by Lupine Travel which perfectly matched my timings and price range. I mentioned to a number of people I would be going to North Korea in December. The resounding response I got was “wow” followed by “you won’t make it out alive” or “you will get arrested”. I said it would be fine, though at the back of my head did have some worry. Even a number of the Chinese I spoke with in China were shocked that I was going to visit “third world” North Korea.

There was something about the secretive kingdom that intrigued me. Whether it was to experience what I believe to be the last truly functioning socialist society or to experience daily life in the hermit kingdom I can’t quite pin point it. Ultimately, it was this intrigue that lead me to book a tour to the country, but also the same intrigue that was shared by a number of my friends who asked me to share my experience of North Korea. Prior to my trip to North Korea I had done a lot of reading on the country. I read a range of travel accounts, human rights accounts and books written by those who had previously lived there or defected from the country (thanks to my friend Jess for lending me her book “Without You, There Is No Us”). As expected, the majority of literature was somewhat negative in tone, with the occasional horror story thrown in to make you think twice about going. One of the facts I came across is if a person commits a crime, three generations after him or her will have to stay in a North Korean “rehabilitation” prison camp. Also interestingly, suicide rates amongst North Korean defectors are amongst the highest in the world. Those who defect from the country cannot bare the guilt of their families being tortured in a prison camp as a result of them escaping. Of course, a lot of these facts need to be taken with a slight pinch of salt, given that many come from South Korea which has its own political agenda to promote.

Travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) is highly restricted. Only 2000-3000 western tourists and around 100,000 Chinese tourists visit a year. In recent years the number of Chinese tourists has decreased as relations have strained due to the North Korea taking a relatively lax approach to the Crystal Meth drug trade with China (according to the Chinese) and China’s anger at the North Korean nuclear weapons programme. Our group of 12 had one Chinese guide accompanying us and two North Korean guides with us at all time. We were the last western group to visit the DPRK of 2015. It’s important to note, tourists are not allowed to visit the DPRK freely, and must join a group or private tour accompanied by local guides.

Crossing from China to North Korea

My trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) started in the Chinese town of Dandong. Dandong is one of the few entry points in to North Korea via the “Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge” which crosses the Yalu River. As one of the few crossings in to North Korea, it’s interesting to see difference either side of the river, particularly at night. Whilst Dandong is lit up with high rise buildings, barely any light comes from the North Korean side.

Starting at Dandong railway station, we set off on train 51 which runs from Beijing – Dandong – Pyongyang twice a week. The mood at Dandong Railway station was one of excitement, but also worry as to whether we would even be allowed in the country.The group was split between two six bed sleeper compartments, in one of the three carriages that departed from Dandong. We departed China at 10:30 and within minutes, having crossed the bridge were met with images of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il as the train stopped Sinuiju station. We were in!

In a matter of seconds, immigration and military officials poured in to the carriage…and so proceeded the most intimidating customs and immigration experience I have been through, lasting around an hour and half in total. Prior to the tour we were warned to delete any controversial images or videos from electronic devices and leave behind any controversial literature at the hotel in Dandong. As expected books, and magazines we searched (page by page) and some electronic devices were searched – laptops, tablets and mobiles. My copy of ‘Time’s Person of Year’ was thoroughly checked. Thankfully, there was nothing about Kim Jong-un in the magazine! After what seemed like a lifetime of waiting, we finally got our passports back, and the all clear to continue on to Pyongyang – some 227km away. The journey was painfully slow, and we arrived in Pyongyang around 18:30 in the evening. Though a relatively short distance, the journey took a long time due to a number of stops along the way where carriages were added to the train. Poor railway infrastructure also meant the train had to travel very slowly. This was somewhat surprising given it was one of the few routes used by tourists to enter/exit the country, but also the key route used by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il to visit Russia and China, due to their fear of flying.

 

First impressions of North Korea

Despite the train travelling painfully slowly, it did give us a good opportunity to experience the real North Korea as we passed through small towns and villages. With 80% of the nation covered in mountains, it’s no surprise we experienced these along the way. With the mountains in the distance covered in snow the natural beauty was truly stunning, reminding me of the Swiss Alps, particularly at sunset. Though, you just have to look in the foreground at the poorly constructed housing to realise life for citizens of the DPRK is far from stunning. Stopping at various stations along the way and seeing many military men guarding bales of hay on a train in a daytime temperature of -6oC, or those on the few other trains that passed us, which clearly looked like they had no heating I couldn’t help but feel sorry. There we also a lot of bikes and people walking, but very few cars. We are later told the primary reason behind this was because the North Korean regime wanted to limit the greenhouse emissions they send to the atmosphere. The reality is the country is so poor many simply cannot afford a car or motorbike.

 

Arriving in Pyongyang

We arrived in the capital of the DPRK, Pyongyang after the sun had set. Pyongyang has a different vibe to the other areas in North Korea we had passed. Though it was night time, it looked like any other city, just with fewer lights. This was something which was confirmed in daylight as I peered out of the window of our hotel room on the 23rd floor, surrounded by high rise socialist housing and monuments in the distance. Pyongyang is where the North Korean elite live, so it is distinctively different from other parts of the country, and relatively well maintained (at least the parts we were allowed to see). Having originally been told we would be staying at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, on Yanggak Island in the middle of the river Taedong, we were pleasantly surprised to be told we would be upgraded to the DPRK’s best hotel – the Koryo Hotel – as we were the last tour group of 2015. The Koryo Hotel is primarily used by North Korean and International delegations whilst the Yanggakdo is primarily used by tourists. We were later told the hotel had problem with its heating and with such few tourists around logistically it made sense to close the Yanggakdo and move us to the Koryo.

The upside of staying at the Koryo was we were surrounded by some local people and the military, though I had no interaction with them other than maybe sharing a lift with 10 other military personnel or passing them in the hotel lobby. As we entered the hotel there were two long lines of hotel staff with garlands, party poppers, streamers who we thought were there to welcome us. They were actually there to welcome the DPRKs fishermen who walked in just after us, and wow what a welcome it was! Sharing a room with one of the guys in my group, we were on the 23rd floor with a city facing view. The hotel and room, was like any western hotel room, just that interior design hadn’t progressed much from the Soviet style, and the room smelt like “nans house”. The room even had BBC World News, Russia Today, Al-Jazeera and CCTV of the 15 TV channels available, alongside North Korean TV. I very much doubt the North Korean delegations staying on other floors had access to these channels. We were given a strict warning by our two North Korean guides that we were not to leave the hotel grounds under any circumstances unless accompanied by one of them. The same was also true for certain floors of the hotel which we were not allowed to visit. Towards the end of my time in North Korea the hotel almost felt like a prison. On the plus side, we quickly learnt that North Koreans make amazing beer (who would have thought!), which definitely helped to pass time some of the evenings. Who else can say they got drunk in North Korea? The love of North Korean beer was also shared at a brewery we visited, which had 7 different types of beer on offer. Our guides took our passports for the duration of our stay which was somewhat worrying. Welcome to Pyongyang …

Dinner was at the hotel restaurant serving a large selection of Korean food, tofu, meats and eggs for the vegetarians. Breakfast the next morning was a standard western breakfast of toast, eggs, tea and coffee, albeit a limited selection.

 

‘Exploring’ the DPRKs capital – Pyongyang

We spent the remaining days of our tour exploring Pyongyang and the De-Militarised Zone which separates North and South Korea. We had a strict schedule that we stuck to and were driven around between sites in a modern Chinese Yutong coach. After a while, I realised we were driving on the same roads again and again between sites and shared this observation with some of the others in the tour. On the last night the coach even crossed the river to travel on the road we usually went through on town, only to cross back across the bridge to get to the restaurant. Perhaps I was looking in to this too much, or our movements were restricted such that we could only see the better roads of Pyongyang. Interestingly, when we travelled close to some monuments, the coach always went around the monuments unlike the rest of the traffic which always drove through the monuments.

The first site we saw in North Korea was Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. This is the mausoleum in which you can see the bodies of the previous leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lying in state, alongside the medals/awards they were given and some of the transport methods they used. The palace is massive in size with strict security, who go as far as to check contents of your wallet. Once inside, you take a series of travelators with images of the leaders on each side. An observation I made was that a number of the images looked photoshopped with shadows facing in different directions and what appeared to be people floating above the ground.

We then got to the room where Kim Il-sung’s body is lying in state, prior to which we passed a small tunnel of fans – I presume to blow any dirt off us before we see the Presidents body. Inside the room, Kim Il-sung’s body is in the centre with a Korean flag surrounding the casket on which his body is rested on. The room has red lighting with exception of white lighting on his body. We were told to bow once at the feet, once on the left side of his body and once on the right side of his body. Our guide made a point to mention the lower you bow, the more respectful it was, so I was somewhat paranoid to make sure I bow as low as possible so as not to offend anyone. After this, we moved on to a room showcasing the medals and awards Kim Il-sung received domestically and internationally, before going through a similar experience viewing the body of Kim Jong-il lying in state. Interestingly, before we bowed there were a number of military personnel who bowed before us, quite a few of whom were crying as they bowed. Whether these were genuine or forced tears I don’t know. The last few rooms we visited in the palace were the rooms documenting the travel they both did alongside viewing the train carriages, car and boat both used whilst alive. Kim Jong-il’s train carriage (also the one he died in) had an Apple MacBook laptop. Someone I spoke to on the train from Pyongyang back to Dandong mentioned that model of MacBook wasn’t available until 2012, despite Kim Jong-il passing away in 2011, though I don’t know enough about MacBook’s to verify whether this is true. Following this we went back on the “never ending travellator” and took some pictures of the exterior of the building.

From the palace went to the Grand Monument on Mansu Hill. The focal point of the monument comprises of two statues – one of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il which is placed on the highest point of Pyongyang. The statues are 22.5m in height and overlook Pyongyang. One of the anecdotes we were told by our guide was that a South Korean delegation visited the statue and asked a girl how high the statues were, to which she answered the correct height. The girl was then asked, how much the statues weigh, to which she answered “the hearts of the North Korean people”. At the statues some group members placed flowers, and we all bowed. After some photos, in which we had to frame the full statue in the picture, we then proceeded to take a short city walk in Pyongyang’s chilly -11oC temperature. We passed some of the high-rise buildings, reserved for some of Pyongyang’s elite residents. I couldn’t help but think of an article that I had read on the Guardian a few weeks ago which made reference to how many buildings in Pyongyang have collapsed due to the poor construction practises.

Walking in the city centre was a surreal experience. Absolutely no one who passed us on the streets showed an interest in us, whilst those who passed us in buses were super interested in looking at us. I couldn’t help but think those we passed on the street were strategically placed there. We continued on, passing the People’s Canteen (effectively a large restaurant) and the Grand People’s Study House (national library) at Kim il-sung Square where our tour ended. The square is the principle place in which political events, mass demonstrations and parades take place, covering an area of 75,000 square meters. Across the river from Kim Il-sung Square we could see the Juche Tower. Reminding me of the Washington Monument, and less than a meter taller than its US lookalike (very convenient), the Juche Tower commemorates the North Korean Juche ideology. Juche is often viewed as a variation of Marxism-Leninism, and was developed by Kim Il-sung following the idea “self-reliance”. The three key principles of Juche follow political independence, economic sustainability and self-reliance in matters of national defence.

After recovering from the cold with a hotpot lunch, we moved on to President Kim Il-sung’s childhood home in Mangyongdae. Four generations of the Kim dynasty lived in this simple thatched house in which relics used by Kim Il-sung and his family are preserved for the North Korean people. Officially, all North Koreans are required to visit the house at least once a year. My personal favourite was viewing the walking stick presented by Kim Il-sung to his grandad!

Our time in Pyongyang continued with a visit to the circus. Unlike any circus I have been to in Europe the circus was a purpose building, but rather than a traditional circus it was more of an acrobatics show. The circus was the first place where we really got to “interact” with the local people. Many of these locals had mobile phones and where flicking through or letting their children play games on them before the performance started. We were definitely in the company of the North Korean elite I thought to myself. The performance itself was incredible. Acrobats were flying all over the stage, many without any safety ropes. The interlude acts as they set up the harnesses, rigs and safety nets were also super interesting making the most of audience participation to get some laughs. Mid way through the performance they bought out two bears for a mini acrobatics performance. Looking around, the North Koreans were thrilled at this, my fellow western tourists weren’t anywhere as near as impressed. On the plus side, both the bears looked well fed, even if they were placed in restrictive harnesses.

The Pyongyang Metro was also on our jam-packed itinerary as we joined the locals at rush hour for short ride on the Pyongyang metro between two stops. At over 100m deep the metro along with buses, trolley buses and trams make up the lifeline of the city’s transport network – particularly as cars are in their scarcity. The metro currently uses former German rolling stock from the Berlin U-Bahn, with each carriage featuring a portrait of the former leaders President Kim Il-sung and General Kim Jong-il. We boarded the train at the terminus Puhŭng station and went one stop to Yŏnggwang Station travelling on one of the two metro lines in Pyongyang the Chollima Line. Both stations were immaculately maintained reminding me of some of the grand metro stations in Moscow with its columns and great attention to detail when it came to the art that flanked each side of the platform. It’s safe to say I have never taken so many pictures inside a metro station in my life. But I couldn’t resist it. There was something strangely fascinating about riding the Berlin U-Bahn in Pyongyang, almost an oxymoron in itself. In the centre of the platform, glass boards held up sheets of the local newspaper for people to have a quick scan of as they were waiting for the train. A great idea I thought to myself. I remember thinking to myself it’s quite strange they take us on a metro ride as part of an organised tour, but in hindsight I guess North Korea is keen to show the small number of tourists who visit that it is like any other country. The fact we only visited two stations was strange however, and I recall thinking whether all the other stations were the same, and indeed if other stations even existed. I can confirm after doing some research, other stations do exist.

We exited the station jumped on the bus and headed to a local school. Approaching the school, we could hear music playing from one of the rooms and kids playing football. We headed inside in to a large auditorium where we watched a performance put on by some of the girls at the school aged around 14 or 15. The performance consisted of traditional North Korean song and dance accompanied by some of the girls playing music instruments. The only downside, was that the school wasn’t heated! This was interesting given we were likely taken to the best school in Pyongyang. I hate to think what the other schools were like. Whilst we were freezing cold in Pyongyang’s -13oC, the girls – many of whom were traditional dresses – couldn’t wait until the end of the performance!

We left the school at dusk and headed to the Arch of Triumph. Modelled on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris our tour leader was keen to point out Pyongyang version was taller than the one in Paris – the ultimate snub to capitalism I thought to myself. The Arch of Triumph was inaugurated on the 70th birthday of Kim Il-sung in honour of the role he took fighting Japan to gain Korean independence. Lit up in all its glory, starting at the Arch of Triumph, for a split second I forgot I was in North Korea. We were called back in to the coach and I remembered exactly where I was.

 

Reflecting

My time in North Korea had been super interesting. So much had happened in such a few days, with such a jam packed itinerary, I really had no chance to take it all in at the time. Having almost every movement watched, a carefully orchestrated route and fear of breaking the rules I was somewhat happy to leave North Korea and head back to China. Paranoia had led to paranoia, and even more paranoia, to the extent I wondered if our hotel room had been bugged. Time and time again I found myself questioning the smallest of situations again and again, wondering whether people had been strategically placed for us, whether things even existed, whether there was genuine love and respect of the leaders and what of the outside world people knew about. Questions led to more questions many of which will forever remain unanswered. Yes, people are extremely poor, yes national unity verges on psychotic and yes, by no means is life easy, but underlying all of this is a beautiful and completely fascinating country. That is, if my organised tour showed me the “real” North Korea…

by Shailyn Shah (http://www.earthuncovered.com)