Category: trip reviews

Iceland has the best hot springs in the world

Iceland has the best hot springs in the world

Yesterday I took some time to write about the Grjótagjá hot springs cave in northern Iceland, which I felt was so amazing that it deserved its own post. Of course, there are far more hot springs in Iceland than this one.

Blue Lagoon

The most famous one by far is the Blue Lagoon, which has extensively been used in many marketing campaigns and has been written about thousands of times. Given the surfeit of information available about it, I’m not going to spend much time on it here. Rather, I’ll leave it at this:

If you have time, it’s a fun yet expensive ($40) way to relax. While it is man-made, the striking blue color of the water is natural, and forms a beautiful contrast with the black basalt rock walls. However, if you are looking for an authentic Icelandic experience, this is not it. The only Icelandic people here are the staff. And unlike most other hot springs in Iceland, the atmosphere inside the pool is loud and raucous with free-flowing alcohol, a contrast to the serenity of other hot springs. But given its proximity to Keflavik airport, it can still serve as a fun welcome to Iceland, or one last way to relax before getting on a plane. If you are planning on going, advance tickets are a must regardless of the time of year. You will almost definitely be turned away if not.

Myvatn Nature Baths (pictured above)

If you like the pretty milky blue color of the water at the Blue Lagoon but hated the feeling of being overrun by tourists, this is the place for you. Located an hour or so east of Akureyri (and very close to Grjótagjá), admission is half the price of the blue lagoon, and provides a much quieter atmosphere, with the bathers consisting mostly of Icelanders and German tourists (the Germans really leave no stone unturned when traveling).

 

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The beautiful mountain landscapes provide a great backdrop which one can look at for hours on end. On top of that, the cafeteria inside serves an unspectacular yet filling lunch for a very reasonable price (hard to find in Iceland if you want to eat something besides hot dogs). You also might see them selling something called “geyser bread”, which is bread that has been cooked in a volcano. It is extremely dense and bland. Don’t be tempted.

Secret Lagoon

Despite its proximity to the famous Golden Circle, this is rarely mentioned in conjunction with the various stops on the Golden Circle. Given its name, this is probably somewhat intentional, and I wouldn’t mind keeping it this way either.

It can be a little hard to find (especially in the winter when road conditions are less than ideal), but once you get there, you have a beautiful outdoor geothermally heated hot spring. Unfortunately, I didn’t get many pictures because there was so much steam everywhere:

IMG_20160306_173927IMG_20160306_173936Nonetheless, this is a great way to relax after a long day of driving around the Golden Circle, as you can dig your feet deep into the squishy mud below you. There is also a small boardwalk that goes around the pool where you can see mini geysers “erupting”, but I wouldn’t recommend dipping your feet in any of these, as the water is around boiling temperature.

Seljavallalaug Hot Springs

I would recommend this only for people looking for a true “off-the-beaten path” adventure. While geographically its not very far from the main Ring Road that encircles the highland, and quite close to the famous Skógafoss waterfall, it does take a little bit of (easy) hiking to get to. Thankfully, unlike Grjótagjá, Google Maps is very accurate for directions to Seljavallalaug:

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Depending on what kind of car you have and what time of year it is, you should be able to follow pretty far up the road (Highway 242) until you can’t go any further. From there, all you have to do is stay on the path above, and you will eventually come to it.

On one hand, it’s not much more than a concrete pool fed by the runoff of volcanically heated water. On the other hand, part of what makes it so special is the feeling of accomplishment you get when you’ve been hiking for a while and come across something like this, not to mention the views of the nearby mountains aren’t too shabby:

 

I was quite at ease, and as you can see, you certainly don’t have to worry about being overrun by tourists.

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While there certainly is more to Iceland than hot springs, it certainly is one of the country’s more unique attributes, and provides a great way to relax as you tour the country. Happy bathing!

The above is in no way meant to be a complete rundown of all the hot springs in Iceland; rather, it’s just my attempt to highlight a few particularly noteworthy yet different ones. There are many many more ones in Iceland that could be explored with enough time, and I’m sure there are even more that have yet to be discovered!

 

North Korea Trip Part 5: The stunningly impressive propaganda of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War museum, karaoke, and departing the country

North Korea Trip Part 5: The stunningly impressive propaganda of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War museum, karaoke, and departing the country

For the entire day, our guides kept talking about how we needed to allow a significant time for the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum (Korean War Museum), and when I got there, I finally understood why. There was a very dramatic stone entrance (one side said 1950, the other 9153), and about a half mile down, there was the museum, with a plethora of statues leading up to it. To say the least, it was quite grand. We were met by an English-speaking North Korean soldier, who would be our guide.  

The first stop was the area where they proudly displayed all of the US items which they’ve proudly captured (military vehicles, ammunition, etc.) They did concede that not everything was from the US, and that some of it was from affiliated allies, but it is mostly US stuff. Next up was the USS Pueblo, the American battleship which was captured. We walked into it, where we started out by watching an incredibly anti-American “educational” video about the history of the USS Pueblo, and its capture. We then toured the ship, which, save for a few Korean signs, looked to be almost in the same condition as when it was captured – we saw where they ate, where the communications were, where they slept, where they studied, and so on. There were all sorts of documents regarding the capture and surrender. The guide let us know that one of the North Korean soldiers responsible for orchestrating the capture presently works as a guide at the museum. I asked if we were going to get to meet him, but she said that he was not working that day. I then realize, being an American, this is probably for the better. They then showed a significant amount of original documents, mostly consisting of different communications between the US and the DPRK, admissions of mistakes, pictures of the soldiers being humiliated, and so on. At one point, the guide said to me (in broken English), “there is a Pueblo, Colorado, right?” I was initially confused and had her repeat it, and I replied yes. I’m not sure why she wanted to know that.

Aside: I forgot to mention that while I was at the DMZ, the North Korean soldier asked me about my profession. Trying to think of something very vague and easy to understand, I replied “politics” (which was true at the time as I worked in political polling). I got a quizzical look, quickly realized my mistake, and replied, “statistics”, which was much more pleasing to them.

After we finish touring the Pueblo, we walked into the absolutely lavish, enormous museum. They told us we could not take pictures. This was unfortunate, as the museum was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the trip, and words cannot even begin to describe how elaborate it is. Just about everything was made of gold. There was a statue of Kim Il Sung by the entrance which we were asked to bow before.

We were informed that the entire museum would take 2-3 days in order to see all of it, but that we would be on an abbreviated tour. There were a fair amount of North Korean citizens all touring the museum. All of them were wearing muted colors, no bright colors (a consistent trend throughout the trip). Some stared at me. The first room we went to, they played for us a short video entitled “Who started the Korean War?” (answer: America). We then began to tour the museum. Every room and section was very well-organized with tons of assorted artifacts, maps, and other materials, including many written letters to and from Kim Il Sung.

Unfortunately, I am writing this all from memory, and I wish I could remember more of the tour. But there were a few things in particular which did stand out. At one point, demonstrating the tunnels which were dug beneath the border, there was a recreated tunnel that we got to walk through, showing the different little hideouts used for different purposes. We also went into an enormous planetarium-sized room, with a gorgeous painting of the war that stretched 360 degrees around us, and we then slowly spun around the room. They said the painting took over a year to complete. We did however skip the room titled “crimes committed by the US.” One of the final rooms depicted the end of the war, with a recreation of a battlefield with several dead US soldiers, with vultures attacking their bodies, and a recorded loop of a vulture sound in the background. Disturbing, to say the least. The next room was a lengthy hall with a plaque dedicated to every North Korean soldier who fought in the war. Naturally, throughout the tour, the tour guide/soldier was providing all sorts of delightfully anti-American skewed accounts of the Korean war. The tour took several hours, and I was quite relieved when it was all over, as it was very intense, especially for an American. We left the museum, with it now being dark outside, and got on the bus. Several others in the group were impressed with how calm I remained throughout the whole thing.

Final dinner, and final night in the hotel (with bowling and karaoke)

We began driving to the restaurant for dinner, and on our way, a bicyclist tried to cross the street in front of our bus (illegally). Our bus driver honked at him, swerved out of the way, and avoided an accident (it was entirely the bicyclist’s fault). I then saw one of the ubiquitous turquoise-uniformed crossing guards start marching (literally marching) over to him, with a look of death in her eyes. I didn’t see the rest of it, but I sure would have hated to be that guy.

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We walked into the restaurant, and I was relieved to see that there are actually other locals eating, for once. On top of that, our guides were going to eat with us too, which was definitely a good sign. There were several tables reserved for us, each with beer, water, and several plates of raw duck meat, with a do-it-yourself grill in the middle. At this point, I started to get really excited. This turned out to be undoubtedly the best meal of the trip, as it was your standard Korean barbecue experience, but only using high-quality duck meat. It was so delicious. I wish more Korean places did this. They also brought out some dumpling soup, some rice, and some kimchi, all of which were delicious. However, as we looked over to the table where our guides are sitting, we noticed that they are eating nangmyeon (cold noodles), a Pyongyang specialty (arguably Pyongyang’s signature dish). We were informed that due to a tourist getting sick previously from eating this, they do not serve it to tourists any more. Regardless, it was still a delicious meal overall. To celebrate the trip, we ended up ordering several extra bottles of soju. Fun times.

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After the meal, we were informed that our cameraman was going to show us the video that he has produced of our trip up to the end of the first full day, so that we could decide if wanted to buy it or not. We sit down in another room of the restaurant and watch it. There were some cheesy intro graphics, but overall, I was pretty impressed with the quality of the video; He definitely knew how to zoom, pan, etc. However, the actual picture quality showed that it clearly was not shot on a top-rate videocamera. Some people in our group decided to buy it, but at $40 USD, I passed.

It was the birthday of one of the people in our group (I can’t say North Korea is where I would have wanted to spend my birthday, but each to their own), so after dinner, we planned to go to the “nightclub” in Pyongyang (frequented by diplomats), but it was closed. That’s life in North Korea though; never know when something will be open.

We headed back to the hotel, and discussed procedures for the following morning (some people were staying longer, some people were taking the train out, etc). Breakfast the next day would be at 6:30am, and we would leave at 7am for the airport. As it was the last night, we decided to all head down and take advantage of the miscellaneous facilities downstairs.

We start out at the bowling alley. Just like in America, I asked for the biggest size shoe they had (but unlike America, they didn’t have anything that I could remotely fit into, so they let me keep my current shoes on). The bowling alley initially didn’t seem too different from your typical bowling alley; 4 lanes, automated scoring with cheesy animations when we got a strike, spare, etc. We formed a few groups; our guides and cameraman also joined. Though the cameraman didn’t speak English, he still understood basic cues like pointing to him when it was his turn, etc.) While initially things looked normal, there was some trouble with the pins being reset, and we saw a guy emerge from the back waving his hands shouting something in Korean. I had a feeling that he was responsible for manually resetting all the pins every time. I had one of my better games in a while, with several strikes. Though it was not good enough that I’d return to the DPRK to replicate my bowling luck 🙂

The next stop is karaoke. We entered a pretty small, dark room with lots of tacky Christmas-y lights (but not actual Christmas lights of course; there’s no Christianity allowed). There were a couple other people there, plus a bartender, and the person in charge of the karaoke, which consisted of a woman with her laptop with an iTunes-like program open, just clicking the songs that people select. The songbook only had titles, no artists. There were several languages available, including English, Chinese, Korean, and maybe a few others. Most of the songs I either didn’t recognize, or weren’t good karaoke songs. I then saw “Don’t Stop Believing.” Figuring this was pretty much the universal karaoke song, and one that everyone would know, I chose this one. However when it’s my turn, she chose a song that’s slightly ahead in the alphabet instead (“Don’t” something else).I corrected her, and she still came up with a different “Don’t” song. Finally, we got to “Don’t Stop Believing.” except it’s a DIFFERENT “Don’t Stop Believing” that I’ve never heard before. I decided to just make up a melody based on the lyrics on the screen.

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This kind of turned me off from choosing other songs, but I stuck around to hear the others sing anyway. Finally, I decided to give it another try, and picked “Hey Jude”, based on its popularity earlier when I played it on piano. However, she chose “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix. As I actually knew this song, I didn’t bother to correct her, and went through with it.

We finally left karaoke, and then went up to finish off the night at the revolving restaurant on the top floor. Except it’s not revolving. In addition to that, the interior is extremely poorly designed, so that the glare from the lights inside shone all over the windows, obscuring what would have been a beautiful (albeit mostly dark) view of Pyongyang at night. I decided to head to bed instead of staying up. We were in the same hotel as before, and I was assigned the same room. Weirdly enough, as if they knew I’d be coming back, there was a Canadian 50-cent piece that I had accidentally left there the first night, and it was still there.

I got up at 6am to shower; again, with no hot water. I headed down at 6:25am for breakfast. Our elevator stopped on the 16th floor, and in walked my tour guide Rim. I’m a little surprised to see him, as I had assumed that despite what they said, that they didn’t actually stay in the hotels, and likely instead stayed in Pyongyang. He asks me how I slept; I told him “fine.”

I headed into the room for breakfast. Breakfast was mostly similar to before, though no fancy underripe tomatoes. There was some good boiled cabbage, an omelette, crepe-like sweet things, a yogurt drink, and this time I smartly ordered tea. I only ate with the four Finnish people in our group, as they were the only ones flying out at the same time as me. At breakfast, we pooled our tips together for the tour guides to give to them later.

We then got onto the bus to head to the airport. At this point, we then get our passports and tourist visas back (they had collected them on the first night, with no explanation). Before leaving, I gave our cameraman a pack of cigarettes as a tip (as he was not coming with us to the airport). He and our bus driver (especially the latter) smoked quite a bit throughout the trip. Neither of our tour guides did though (somewhat unusual for a male, not so much for a female). As we drove through Pyongyang at 7:15 am, there are people EVERYWHERE. And not just in one part of the city. I asked our tour guide if they’re going to work, and she said yes. But I couldn’t imagine everyone went to work this early. As usual, everyone is wearing brown, black, or grey (blending in with the scenery, sadly), except for the occasional little girl wearing bright pink or red.

Aside: I forgot to mention that our guide was careful to explain that under their wonderful socialist housing system, the government owned all housing, and everyone was given new housing every five years, with first priority to government and military. We tried to ask for more specifics, but had no luck.

Though it was hard to know for sure given the lack of street signs, I’m pretty sure we passed the area where they pointed out to us a gas station the day before, but there was no gas station. Eventually, we got to the airport. I give the bus driver a pack of cigarettes as a tip. It looks a little dim inside the airport, but I figured that was just Pyongyang. However, we couldn’t go in. After the guides talked to the security officers, they informed us that the power has been “cut” (I’m also relatively certain that this is a result of their lack of English knowledge and that they meant to say the power had gone out, rather than had been deliberately cut, but who knows). After waiting around for about 20 minutes, it came back on. We then began the goodbye process. We gave the guides their cash tips, and I also gave them each a chocolate bar from San Francisco. I shook hands with Rim (male guide), and I went to give Oh a hug, which she totally was not ready for. I’m not even sure if she even understood what was going on, acting as if she’d never received a hug before. Whoops; cultural faux pas. Should have just shaken her hand too. I told them both to let me know if they’re ever in America so that I could show them around, but I knew that there was very little chance of this happening.

I made it through the metal detector. First step cleared. Phew. Next step is to get our boarding passes. I presented a document that they’d given us earlier for the entire group. They then gave us our boarding passes, this time printed on Air Koryo paper. There was a picture of the Juche Tower on back. The last stop was customs. I made it through, and they collected my tourist visa. Phew. i wouldn’t have to stay in North Korea. There was a small duty-free store, which seems to sell Coca-Cola (surprising, as i thought the DPRK was one of the few countries where coke still didn’t exist; perhaps it was fake). The waiting area was otherwise non-existent. As usual, our flight was late. Finally, they signaled us to go out. We walked out to a shuttle bus which was then going to take us to our plane (not sure why the plane couldn’t come closer to the gate; there certainly wasn’t anything else going on). It was freezing cold outside, and there was no heat on the bus. The bus driver was reading the local propaganda newspaper while waiting for the bus to load. After waiting for everyone to get on, we then headed over to the plane.

Similar to before, there was a display rack set out with all of the local newspapers, and I grabbed a few for the flight. Taking off was mostly similar to before; same videos, etc. This time, the two-hour flight back wasn’t as exciting, as the novelty had somewhat worn off, and I did’t have anything to listen to. The same crappy food and good beer is offered; this time I did’t even eat any of the crappy burger. My ordering of a beer (at 9am) raised some eyebrows, but I figured this is probably the last time I’ll ever get to have this beer. We landed in Beijing two hours later, safely. I switched my phone away from airplane mode, and text messages started to come in. I then connected to the airport wireless network, and started to receive personal and work e-mails (though of course no Facebook notifications). I took a deep breath and smiled. Ah, China never felt so free.

 

North Korea Trip, Part 4: The DMZ, and disturbing conversations with the military

North Korea Trip, Part 4: The DMZ, and disturbing conversations with the military

This is the fourth part of a multi-part series chronicling my trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 can be found here, Part 3 can be found here and FAQs about the trip can be found here.

Thanks to the heated floor at our hotel, I slept OK. Had it not been there, I probably would have frozen to death, as the sliding wooden doors did not provide much protection from the outside. Knowing that breakfast was at 7:30am,and that hot water came on at 7am, I set my alarm for 6:55am sharp. The bathroom in my room was enormous, about the size of the bedroom. There were some shower slippers that were far too small for me. As I went to the shower, I noticed what looked to be a candy wrapper. I was kind of annoyed, but not too surprised, given the rugged nature of the hotel. As I went down to pull it out, I saw that it was actually plugging some type of slit/hole in the bathtub, and didn’t seem to want to come out. How does one cut a hole in the bathtub? I turned the water on, and as promised, it was hot. I then turned the knob that switched the water flow from coming out of the bathtub faucet to the shower head. Rather than serving its purpose, the knob instead comes right off. So, my shower consisted of me holding my hands under the bathtub faucet and splashing water on myself. Considering that I had no hot water the night before, and no towel the night before that in Beijing, I was starting to get a bit annoyed (and looking forward to showering in America). The wallpaper in my hotel room was a rather random pattern of golf balls and feathers. I kid you not. There was also a part where it was peeling, with looked to be a Korean newspaper underneath.

The night before, we were given the choice of “Korean breakfast” or “Western breakfast.” Our group was split about half and half (I of course opted for the Korean breakfast). It consisted of more kimchi and cold greens (in a good way), as well as some decent soft tofu soup (soondobu), and some seaweed and rice. Western breakfast was a fried egg and four rolls for each person. As I walked outside, it was actually a pretty beautiful setting, with all sorts of leaves and trees changing colors (which I didn’t get to see the night before because it was so dark). There was a small gift store that they encouraged us to hit up before getting on the bus. I bought some North Korean ginseng tea (as we were supposedly in one of the ginseng capitals of the world). It costs $7 USD. I gave the woman a twenty, and she gave me 10 euros back. I was now carrying three different currencies in my wallet (USD, Euros, RMB). We boarded the bus and headed out.

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Before we went to the DMZ, they took us to the tomb of King Kongmin. Naturally, none of us spoke up, but we were all a bit disappointed as we had thought the first stop was the DMZ. Of course, we were all too tired to remember if they mentioned this the night before. King Kongmin was a ruler during the Koryo dynasty. I probably should have been listening better to the tour guide, but I wasn’t all that interested, and it was still just past 8am. We took an extremely windy road to get there, and on the way we passed through lots of farmland. Most of the farmland either had lots of cabbage or was flooded, likely due to poor irrigation. At the end, we reached the tomb. There was a pretty steep staircase that we walked up, and at the top, we see two round tombs. There were a fair amount of other pretty cool-looking statues around “guarding the tomb.” We were up pretty high, and we had a nice view of the mountains (fun fact that they told us: North Korea is 80% mountains, which is why it makes farming so difficult (though the government has not helped this). There was quite a lot of beautiful foliage. Just to be sure that it was real, I pulled a few leaves off, and they were indeed real leaves. Definitely a relief.

DMZ

Finally, we got back onto the bus, and headed toward the DMZ. As we started to get closer, our tour guide pointed out a sign for Seoul indicating how many kilometers away it was (as if the road went right on through). As I mentioned, they’re REALLY big on the reunification thing. We saw a few other reunification-themed propaganda signs too.

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We pulled into a gift shop right before the official entrance into the DMZ. There were a few propaganda billboards with messages along the lines of “One Korea” and “A Korea for the future of the children”. It looked like we caught the gift shop slightly off guard, as most of the staff was in plain clothes when we walked in, but they soon changed into elaborate pink dresses. The gift shop was mostly kitschy overpriced pro-DPRK stuff, which I didn’t have much of an interest in. We were also told that we are waiting for another tour group, and then from that point, we will be accompanied by soldiers the rest of the way. First, we went into another room, where we saw some maps. A soldier briefly explained the map (in Korean, with our guide translating). This was the first of many things I heard from the soldier about their version of the Korean War, but the buzzwords were mostly similar, “the tragedy of the war,” “US imperialists,” “defeat of the US,” “hope of reunification,” etc. We were also told that this is the one time we can take pictures of the military.

The soldiers then got on board, and we headed in. Surprisingly, they were fine with us taking pictures. We began the drive into the DMZ with three armed soldiers at the front of the bus, as they require. Throughout the trip, I’ve sat in the second row on the right in the front of the bus, mostly so I can see everything ahead of me through the windshield. One of the soldiers sits next to me and starts “talking” to me (in reality, he’s looking right at me while speaking, but he’s speaking Korean, so our guide is continuously translating).

He started asking me some general questions; where I’m from, and so on. His eyes lit up when I was American. He asked me what I thought of American foreign policy, and I told him (with my guide translating), that I was worried, and kind of saying in a joking tone, “I never know whom we’re going to attack next!”, referencing our recent near-war with Syria. He then asked me, “So if the DPRK were to be the next target of the US, whose side would you be on?” I was about to ride into the DMZ with three armed North Korean soldiers, and I was getting asked about my political allegiances. Thinking fast, I reply, “I don’t want to even think about that.” I think this was the best possible answer I could have given. He also asked me about Obama, to which I replied that he was better than Bush, but that I still was not a fan (in real life, I am). Continuously throughout the trip, both the guides and soldiers seemed to imply that they think the US was very much on the verge of declaring war on North Korea, which of course was not actually the case) but given how much anti-US propaganda was in the newspapers every day, I could see why. The soldier also asks me how the weather was in America, and I replied that it’s not too cold in California, but that it was pretty cold in New York. (North Koreans didn’t seem to have any concept of America beyond Washington DC, New York, and Los Angeles. But as I thought about it, excluding countries which I’d already been to, I didn’t know of many countries in which I could name three cities or more). The soldier then joked about how it was funny that so many US soldiers died in the Korean War because they couldn’t handle the cold . I was obviously horrified that he was laughing at this (not to mention the questionable validity of the statement), but I remembered my surroundings, and nervously laughed with him. I reminded myself that I was the only American on this trip, and I was in some ways an ambassador, and that it was my job to show them that not all Americans are die-hard military hawks like Bush, and that many of us are just regular, normal, thoughtful people. On top of that, all it might take is one stupid statement or action from an American in North Korea to make their government close down the country again to Americans. The soldiers were also wearing those huge funny Russian-style military hats.

Finally, we arrived at the famous blue houses. Across the other side, we could see what looked like a heavily armed building, with the occasional glimpse of South Korean soldiers patrolling it. We could see the North Korean flag pretty closely; further away in the distance to the other side was the iconic South Korean flag (easily one of my favorite flags of any country). There are North Korean soldiers patrolling on our side, but as the guides explained, they were only there to protect us. We then listened to more anti-US propaganda from the Korean soldiers about the Korean war. After that we posed for some pictures; individually, as a group, with the guides, with the soldiers, etc.

Aside: One interesting thing I noticed is that whenever I gave either of my guides my (Android) phone to take a picture, they always ended up accidentally switching to video mode and taking a bunch of short one second videos and being confused, before finally figuring it out. The way it’s set up on the screen, there’s an icon of a camera (which is already elected), an icon of a videocamera (not selected), and a pinwheel (which takes the picture). It seems like they (likely never having used a smartphone before) assumed that to take a picture, you pressed where there was a camera icon, (which in reality, switches it to video mode). Pressing the pinwheel seems so straightforward to us with any smartphone (and even for those people that don’t have a smartphone, chances are they’ve been asked to take a picture with someone else’s smartphone at some point), but apparently it’s not intuitive to everyone.

We got back on the bus, and headed to the house where the famous negotiations took place and where the armistice was signed. We sat down at a table with about 4 or 5 chairs on each side. The soldiers started talking about the history, mentioning about 10 times how even though the war ended in a stalemate, it actually was a victory for North Korea over the US. They then pointed out who sat on each side of the table, amusingly observing that I, the American, was on the side which the DPRK sat at, which made us all chuckle. We walked around for a bit and saw some of the artifacts, the actual armistice agreement, the UN flag that was accidentally left behind, and statistics about the human toll of the war (but only for North Korea). It was a pretty incredible feeling to be standing where so much history took place.

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We also later went go to a monument commemorating when Kim Il Sung visited (throughout North Korea, when any of the Kims visit any important site, there’s always a huge plaque to commemorate it, as well as one of the quotations they said. Finally, we got onto the bus and began to head back. The drive itself was quite beautiful with all of the trees changing colors. While the DMZ was an incredible experience, it felt good to be heading back.

Final stops in Kaesong

The next stop was another tall bronze monument of Kim Il Sung in Kaesong, at the top of a hill. The tour guides were very specific about where we could take a picture, so that we could capture all of Kim Il Sung in our picture. We then walked over to an overlook which allowed a 180-degree view of Kaesong. The guides made sure to point out the traditional architecture of the houses, which Kim Il Sung was very adamant about maintaining throughout all of the turmoil. In the background, I could also hear what sounded like a recorded tape stuck on a loop of a dog barking. Just another part of the facade, I suppose.

The next stop was lunch. Again, it had the traditional set up of a store on the first floor, restaurant on second floor. Except apparently this time, the person running the gift shop on the first floor didn’t get the memo, and pulled the curtains closed when she started to see us. I peered through and saw that the counters were empty, unlike the typical everyday scene when there is lots of stuff on them. But why would they take the stuff off the counter every day and then put it back? It’s not like there is any petty theft in North Korea. Another mystery.

As usual, we were the only ones in the restaurant. There was a pretty cheesy ceiling decoration which looked like vines with plastic pumpkins hanging off of it. Do North Koreans not know that pumpkins grow out of the ground, not off vines?

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The meal itself was rather interesting. If you’re familiar with Korean cuisine, you probably understand the concept of banchan, the small complementary small cold dishes served at the beginning of a meal, and usually are refilled as often as requested.

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However, for this, they tried to insinuate that this was an entire meal (calling it “Korean Tapas”, as everyone at the table got their own set of 12 small dishes, some soup, some rice, and that was it. Not exactly authentically Korean. That being said, some of the dishes were actually pretty tasty. In particular, there was a very sweet, sugary, brown cake-like dish with some holes in it which I had never seen before, but was delicious. When we left the restaurant, I saw someone (presumably from the restaurant) selling hot freshly made ones on the street, so I presume it was somewhat authentic/popular/a local delicacy. This was also the only street food I saw on the entire trip. Naturally, the guides did not eat with us this time either. 

We then got back on the bus and started on the road to Pyongyang. We stopped at the same unmarked rest stop along the way. The drive had more fields of nothing but cabbage. There were also quite a few really young kids wandering all by themselves on the highway. We passed all of the same check points, but given that it was light out, the guards recognized the tour bus and moved the gate manually for us each time without any lights flashing, special codes, or people needing to get out (other than the first time).

Again, I tried to stay awake for the entire drive, but I dozed off a little bit. When I was awake though, one of our guides asked me about American perceptions of North Korea. I first made him promise me that what I said wouldn’t get me in trouble, which he agreed to. Even after that, I phrased all my answers starting with, “The american media tells us _______”, mostly touching upon how we hear that the quality of life is low, people have poor health care, people are starving, etc. I of course also mentioned that everything that I’d seen this trip so far contradicted what I heard in the American media, and how it was so nice to actually see the truth for myself firsthand. Most importantly, I said all of this with a straight face.

As we started to enter Pyongyang, our tour guide pointed out a gas station which we passed by. I’m almost positive it was not there when we left Pyongyang or the previous time we drove by that area. Regardless, he pointed out that gas was extremely expensive, which was why people tended to rely on public transportation (not mentioning that only the wealthy could afford cars).

We then stopped at the reunification arch, which had identical, symetrical women on either side (representing the two Koreas, expressing hope that the Koreas will one day be reunited).

Grand People’s Study House

Our next stop was what they called the “Grand People’s Study House” – their fancy word for a library. After the first knock on the door, no one answered. Our guides made some calls. A tour guide then greeted us. We went inside, and were greeted by an enormous seated statue of Kim Il Sung . The tour guide then started giving us an introduction (in Korean, translated by our guide), but I soon lost interest. Right as we walked in, a young Korean boy scurried up the stairs. The building was lavish and enormous. They showed us around several rooms, where we saw students studying, looking fairly normal. Some were looking at us, some were not. They showed us the books, even showing an old book that said “NBA” – some sort of guide to the basketball league (from the 90s). Some of the students were using computers. I ask if I could use one; expecting to be denied, they said sure, and the guide switched the input language from Hangul (Korean characters) to Latin (characters). It was a local library intranet though with no actual access to outside pages; mostly used for searching for books in the system. It worked when I inputted a keyword, though the books returned were 20-30 years old. Later on at a different computer, I actually did have “internet” access to a very limited internet. For fun, I inputted “google.com”, but the page could not be found. Of course.

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They then showed us to the main checkout desk, where they had a (what they considered to be) very advanced system, in which the librarian could request any book, and it came out on a slide. They proudly touted the variety of different languages which books were available in, and showed us a Finnish book (for the Finnish people in the group). I should also mention that there are pictures of the Kims everywhere.

We then went into the music room, where each student had their own mini-boombox. Inefficient I suppose, but somewhat technologically advanced for them. There was also a piano in the room. Remembering that I said earlier that I played music, our tour guide Oh asked me to play piano. Trying to think of non-controversial yet recognizable songs, I started with Beethoven’s “Fur Elise”, moved on to Chopin’s “Minute Waltz”, and then, remembering that they are somewhat familiar with Western music, played “Hey Jude” by the Beatles, which people recognized. I resisted the temptation to play any overtly American music.

They then invited us out on to the balcony, where we had an incredible view of Pyongyang, especially Kim Il Sung Square. There was propaganda in every direction, including several government ministries. I could also see the Juche Tower straight ahead. The guide explained that the green roofs were a sign of royalty, or something along those lines. We then exited through the bookstore located within the library (more propaganda material, of course), and got back on to the bus to head to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum (or, Korean War Museum).

Next: the amazing propaganda of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, singing karaoke, and my departure.

North Korea Trip, Part 3: The subway that isn’t much of a subway, and the worst jokes I’ve heard in my life

North Korea Trip, Part 3: The subway that isn’t much of a subway, and the worst jokes I’ve heard in my life

This is the third part of a multi-part series chronicling my trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 can be found here and FAQs about the trip can be found here.

More Pyongyang exploration before lunch

The next stop was the Revolutionary Martyrs’ cemetery, dedicated to North Korean veterans who fought against the Japanese during the Japanese occupation of Korea. It consisted of many rows of tombstones, each with a bronze bust of the soldier’s head and dates of birth, death, and service.  The rows of tombstones slowly went up steep hill, where they culminated with the wife of Kim Il-Sung at the top, where we were expected to lay flowers. There was a great view of Pyongyang from the top. There were also some very anti-Japanese writings, as well as pro-Workers Party writings scattered throughout.

We then headed to the large town square that had two enormous bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, whom we were expected to bow before and lay flowers. There were some Workers’ Party flags on each side. The guides reminded us that we were to capture the entire statue in our pictures. Also nearby was another large open area with enormous billboards of the Kims. I forgot to mention that on the way to the bronze statues, our tour guide, seeing a wedding party approaching us, said, “How lucky we are to witness a wedding today!” This made it sound like their appearance might have been staged. Nonetheless, she taught us how to congratulate a bride and groom in Korean, and we said it to them as they passed by. (The guides did teach us some very basic Korean, but the only one that stuck with me was “thank you”, pronounced “kamsa hamida”). We saw one other wedding, this time with a military member. Oh asked me if I had a girlfriend, and made a joke about me trying to find one here. When asked about interracial marriages in North Korea, Oh said there were none, but that I could be the first! I can’t say I’m too surprised, given the extreme homogeneity of the society (I’d always heard that South Korea is the most ethnically homogenous country in the world, but I wondered how anywhere could be more homogenous than North Korea).

We tried to go to a bookstore before lunch, but it was closed. This came as a big surprise to both us and the guides, as the trip was so meticulously planned with everything always working out fine. Nearby, there were some kids playing basketball and other sports. They told us we’d go to another bookstore after lunch instead.

Lunch

After driving around in a manner that seemed aimless, but was actually not, we ended up near their embassy row for lunch. The restaurant was in a mostly nondescript building. Again, there was a gift shop on the first floor, and an otherwise empty dining room on the second floor that has a table set only for our party (but also this time for the guides/bus driver/cameraman).

Each place setting had a portable hotpot with a burner underneath, a plate with a slice of white bread, a sandwich roll, and a very dry muffin, as well as a bowl with an egg. There were also some large bottles of beer and water on the table. Our guide explained that Korean hotpot dates back to when the Korean army used to use their helmets to heat up water, and then put in whatever food they had in order to cook it inside of it. The waitresses brought out a plate of ingredients to cook in the hotpot. I wished I had first tasted the broth in the hotpot before adding anything. It looked like it was just water; if not, it was very light in color. The plate of ingredients included some thick pieces of pork, cabbage, carrots, and some other veggies. We also had four silver tins of seasonings – salt, pepper, red pepper, and MSG (not uniquely North Korean; MSG is a very common hotpot seasoning in China too). The waitress came around and lit each hotpot. Oh instructed us that first we put the pork in; when that boils, we add the veggies, then after that, we scramble the egg, and finally we add the seasonings.

I did just that. I added quite a lot of the seasonings to get my broth flavorful enough. It wasn’t as good as Chinese hotpot or Japanese hotpot, but still was quite flavorful. It was definitely one of the best meals on the tour (not coincidentally, it was one of just two meals our guides ate with us, and it was also one of the only meals where we knew our food was being cooked to order). They also brought out a few other dishes: what they called “KFC” (very good fried chicken, though it was not Korean-style, and a bit cold), some cucumbers with mustard greens, and tempura fish. Oh, there were also thin slices of radish in a reddish “broth” which they constantly referred to as “kimchi,” but we were only supposed to eat the radishes. And of course the obligatory bowl of rice (which they ALWAYS brought at the end of the meal).

The rest of Pyongyang for the day

The next stop after lunch was the Workers’ Party monument. (According to our guide, there are three political parties in North Korea, but the Workers’ Party is the most dominant one. We are unable to get him to give us any more details). There are three stone statues – one of an axe (the worker), one of a sickle (the farmer), and one of a candle (the intellect) – which together, makes up the Workers’ Party. As soon as we got off the bus, a local tour guide appeared out of nowhere to give us a tour of the monument (in Korean, with our guide translating). Once we went inside, there were more statues to look at.

After that, we then headed to a bookstore, which was essentially in a dark, nondescript building where a woman ushered us up the stairs to a room with some books set out on shelves. It was full of propaganda material (of course), mostly books, but also some neutral stuff, like different types of kimchi recipes, maps, and the like. I bought a copy of the music to “The patriotic song of the DPRK”, including both the piano score with lyrics in English and Korean. As I got back on to the bus, the cameraman (who spoke no English), motioned to me, indicating that he wanted to look at what I bought. He opened it up, and started humming the melody. It reminded me of how much I love universality of the language of music.

Aside: Out of the four people who accompanied us (the driver, cameraman, and two tour guides), the cameraman was the only one with a smartphone (some type of Android phone); the other three all had flip phones, which were common in North Korea).

The next stop was the Juche Tower – an absolutely enormous gray tower with a red flame on top. Juche refers to the socialist ideology in North Korea. As we approached it to take the elevator up to the top, there were a wall of plaques from countries all over the world (including a few from the US), usually from a socialist party of sorts, commemorating the Juche ideology. The door to go in the tower was locked. Oh knocked a few times, but there was no answer. She made some calls on her cellphone, but still no luck. We then walked around the tower instead, seeing more monuments, and learning about the flowers kimilsungia and kimjongilia (no joke). There was a beautiful view of the river in Pyongyang too. by the time we get back, an English-speaking guide had mysteriously appeared to let us into the tower. She took us up the stairs to the top. There was a really amazing 360-degree view of Pyongyang – actually quite a beautiful city aside from all of the propaganda. On the way down, the guide and her assistant were quite struck by my big feet. Sadly, size 17 meant nothing to them, and I didn’t know what my European shoe size is, nor did it say on the shoe.

As we were leaving, we were informed that for dinner that night (in Kaesong, where we’ll be staying (near the DMZ)), while the dinner itself is included as part of the tour, we have the option of special ordering dog meat soup soup (yes, you read that right, also known as “sweet meat soup”), or ginseng-stuffed chicken (a local specialty in Kaesong, one of the largest producers of ginseng). For those of you who don’t know, the Korean peninsula is probably one of the biggest consumers of dog meat in the world. Figuring “When in Rome”, I went with the dog meat soup. I then hoped to myself that me needing to special order it wouldn’t mean that they’re going to go out and kill a dog for me. I was really hoping that whatever kind of dog was going to be used in my soup wasn’t a very cute breed, but it seems to be indeed very cute.

The Pyongyang Metro

The next stop was the Pyongyang Metro, their underground subway system, which the government likes everyone to see. Rim explained that they have the metro (as well as trolleys and buses) to eliminate traffic congestion (hilariously false, given how few cars are on the roads, as few citizens can afford them. The cars that are on the road seem mostly to be a mix of Toyota Land Cruisers, Mercedes-Benzes, and foreign brands I didn’t recognize. That being said, most buses and trolleys seemed to be pretty crowded, with long lines at many bus stops. As we were driving to the metro stop, I started to figure out what felt weird about Pyongyang: While at first glance, the city appeared to be filled with normal hustle and bustle, with lots of people either walking or bicycling, no one seems to have a destination. I think there was only one person I saw the entire trip in Pyongyang who actually entered a building. Everyone else just seemed to be walking, but never actually going anywhere.

We got to the station. There were a bunch of fare terminals, which our guide bypassed, and the official at the subway motioned us through, counting how many people there were in the group. Most of the other North Koreans also seemed to bypass the fare terminals by saying something to the official. The Pyongyang Metro claims to be the deepest in the world (partially for military reasons, supposedly?). The only other two cities that also make the same claim, Kiev and St. Petersburg, are, not coincidentally, both located in what used to be the former Soviet Union, whose transport North Korea modeled their subway off of.

This subway system is REALLY deep. DC has nothing on Pyongyang. The escalator ride down took quite a long time. Lots of little Korean kids giggled and pointed at me; I smiled and waved back (which I did quite often throughout this trip; they were indeed quite taken with me). When we got to the bottom, we saw a map of the system. There were two lines. We were at the very first stop of one of them.

We went down onto the platform, where there were trains on each side, one just having finished the end of the route, and one about to start its route. The station was quite gorgeous, with lots of mosaics and murals everywhere, both of the Kims, and just scenes from Pyongyang life. We boarded the subway which was about to begin its route (needed to manually open the doors), which was a old subway from East Germany. Pictures of the Kims are of course in every car. It was fairly crowded.

Then, something very strange happened. A bunch of the people on the subway on the other side of the tracks, the one that just arrived at its final destination, all sprinted across the platform to get on our subway. This made no sense. This finally gave me the convincing proof that I had been looking for, that touring North Korea really is a giant facade, and underscoring how people who live there don’t really have a  destination, it just matters that they look like they do.

Despite being told we were going six stops, we got off at the second stop, and were encouraged to take pictures. It was another beautiful stop. We caught the next train. The next three stops were also all very pretty (though not as much as the first two), and we didn’t get out. We did get out at the sixth stop, which is also lavishly decorated. As we were leaving, I saw our guide say something to one of the officials who worked there. I obviously didn’t know what it was as I couldn’t speak Korean, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it was something along the lines of, “The tourists are gone now; things can go back to normal.”

We exited by their version of the Arch of Triumph – even higher than the one in Paris. We passed this landmark several times throughout our trip, and I never saw the accompanying metro stations (or any other metro stations) again, despite the fact that there were 17 of them. That being said, another interesting thing about Pyongyang was that there were almost no street signs. I’m not joking. Looking on Google Maps when I got home confirmed this was indeed the case – people just know their way around (or they just aimlessly wander?) Then we got on the bus for the 2.5-hour drive to Kaesong, where we would be staying that night (before we went to the DMZ the next day).

The road to Kaesong

The guides encouraged us to use the bathroom , as we were about to get on the bus for a good 1-1.5 hours until the next chance to go to the bathroom (2.5 hour drive to Kaesong, bathroom break in the middle). As we were walking out, we noticed an amusement park. It would have been nice to check it out, though I would not have trusted the safety of the rides. We all piled onto the bus. While the guides were constantly talking about miscellaneous stuff, most of us started to doze off, as it’s been a long day which started early, and it’s also starting to get dark. I tried to stay awake as much as I could, knowing that I was on a once-in-a-lifetime trip and I would never get to see this again, but I eventually succumbed though. The scenery was not particularly interesting. There were a few people on the side of the road. Lots of cabbage was being grown, but not much else.

The “rest stop” was an unmarked grey building on the side of the road about halfway there. Apparently it’s where everyone stops on the way to and from Kaesong and Pyongyang. I forgot to also mention that the “highway” we were on was called the “Reunification Highway”, as it led from Pyongyang to the DMZ, in the hope that one day the two Koreas would be unified. “Highway” is in quotes as it was mostly a slightly nicer road with two (very poorly marked) lanes on each side with TONS of potholes. The rest stop was a pretty dingy place that a woman opened up as we arrived. There were bathrooms on the first floor, and then we were invited up for coffee and tea on the fifth floor (what is on the middle three floors???). Given the choice of coffee or tea, I chose coffee, but it was pretty terrible, and also cost me 10RMB ($1.67 roughly, but still annoying). This would be the last time I chose coffee in Korea; it seemed like tea was a much better choice.

We got back on the road. At this point, it was dark out. We passed a series of checkpoints along the way, at which point we’re instructed to not take pictures. At each one, except for the last one, it seemed that the driver flashed his lights in some type of code, which allowed us to proceed. Allowing us to proceed, by the way, consisted of the soldier moving the metal barricade aside for us, and then moving it back. For the last one, our tour guide actually had to get out and present identification. Note that this is NOT because we’re going to the DMZ, as there are other cities before the DMZ. This is probably more because we were just going to a different area, and they heavily restrict travel between different cities.

Also, the guides have started to tell jokes. REALLY really unfunny jokes. Like, not even “chuckle” jokes.

For example (to be fair, this joke works much better when spoken, not written): a man walks into a restaurant. the waitress asks, “What would you like”? The man replies, “After tea”. The waitress starts blushing (or as our guides said in their broken English, “gets blush-ed”, and walks away. Why did she walk away? We’re pretty stumped. Eventually, the guide asks us what letter comes after T in the alphabet; the answer is “U” – which is why she blushed. groooooooooooooooooooooooooooan.

Another joke: George Bush tells his secretary to bring people to make him laugh, and if not, they will be executed. The first person comes in, tells funny jokes, but Bush doesn’t say anything. He’s executed. The same thing happens with the second person. Third person walks in. Bush starts laughing before he starts saying anything [that’s the joke]. Seeing the blank looks on our faces, our guide explains that Bush was laughing at the first joke [because he’s slow]. Like seriously, wow. Awful jokes.

The guides invited me instead to tell jokes. I tried to think of a joke that was not incredibly inappropriate, and one that doesn’t take a native or advanced English speaker to understand (ruling out most of my awesome pun jokes). I had nothing. I realized that I should probably expand my joke repertoire.

Eventually, we arrived at our hotel. This was a “traditional” Korean hotel, which basically meant we eat on the floor, and sleep on the (heated) floor. It was mostly dark when we get off the bus. There were a few trees. We were told we have the option of either having hot water that night, or the next morning. We unanimously chose the next morning. They told us that hot water will be turned on at 7am, with breakfast at 7:30am, and departure for the DMZ at 8am.

They showed us to our rooms, and we agreed to reconvene for dinner in 5-10 minutes after getting settled in. One of the people in our group, upon trying a door, complained that her room was locked and wouldn’t open up, and a member the staff shouts, “NO NO NO, THIS ROOM!” (what was in the room she was trying to go into???)  My room was pretty spartan; there are two sleeping pads on the floor, a fridge, and a TV. The bathroom was almost the size of the bedroom. I put my stuff down, changed into some more comfortable clothes (keep in mind I was still in dress clothes from the trip to the mausoleum that morning, which felt like eons ago), and we met outside, and we’re led to the room with dinner. We all sat cross-legged on cushions on the floor in front of a low table (though I eventually switched to a different position; I couldn’t sit cross-legged for very long).

There was beer and water on the table already, as well as some potato chips. They brought us some tofu, some greens, some boiled cabbage, chicken, more delicious eggs, and a fairly chewy pork dish. Then comes the dog soup. This was quite tasty, though I did have to make the broth spicier. I guess the closest thing I could compare dog meat to would be goat meat, though it was not quite as flavorful. Being the only item that for sure was freshly prepared, it was also definitely the best thing I ate that night. The people who special-ordered the ginseng chicken were disappointed.

After dinner, some of us (and the guides) headed to the “bar”, which was more of a flower-y room with tables and chairs (though there was a woman behind a bar, which has a decent selection of liquors and local beers). We had some more of the same delicious beer we had at dinner (and on the flight). Some also ordered some soju and cognac. The bartender spoke practically no English, and seemed pretty bored for most of the time, playing on her phone. Though when we spoke Korean to her, this made her happy.

It was pretty nice to have a chance to socialize with everyone else on the tour, as well as with our guides. We talked a lot about our own countries, where we came from, where we’ve traveled to, and so on. At one point, someone asked Rim if there are any homosexuals in North Korea, to which he replied, “not yet.” It’s unclear if he understood the question or not. Note that (just as in South Korea), smoking is permitted in many indoor places, which made several people in our group happy (contrary to expectations, our male tour guide did not smoke, though our bus driver and cameraman did smoke quite heavily). Eventually, it started to get late, and we were all getting pretty tired, so I headed to bed. Though before I headed to bed, Oh asks me if she can exchange her American $100 bills for some smaller bills. I was initially suspicious, wondering if she was trying to give me fake money in exchange for real money, but then I thought about the potential penalties that she would face, and realize that it’s unlikely she would take that risk. (In retrospect, I now understand why she did).  I crawled into my tiny room through the tiny, rickety wooden sliding doors, and went to bed. As I sat in bed, it’s hard to believe so much happened over the course of just one day. It felt like several days. North Korea in general just felt weird. I was starting to be glad I didn’t choose a longer trip. I wondered if there’s anyone else (not in our group) staying at the hotel. I didn’t see anyone else.

Next: My visit to the DMZ, before which I was questioned on my attitudes toward US military policy by heavily armed members of the North Korean army

North Korea Trip Part 2: Seeing a very “ronery” (deceased) Kim Jong Il, learning about “free elections”, and other adventures in Pyongyang

North Korea Trip Part 2: Seeing a very “ronery” (deceased) Kim Jong Il, learning about “free elections”, and other adventures in Pyongyang

This is the second part of a multi-part series chronicling my trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Part 1 can be found here, and FAQs about the trip can be found here.

After we picked everyone up, we headed out for dinner. The restaurant was pretty dimly lit from the outside. We went into the building, and were told that on the first floor, there is a gift shop, and on the second floor, there’s the restaurant. I’m not sure why it was set up as such, but for whatever reason, this is how all of the restaurants we went to were set up. I originally thought maybe this was only for the tourist restaurants, but after seeing locals eating at other restaurants, i confirmed this was not the case. As I walked up the stairs, I saw a huge poster, “Welcome, Korea International Travel company (the name of the government tour agency leading our tour). I realized that this was probably the restaurant that all the tour groups get taken to on their first night, and adjusted my expectations accordingly.

We were the only ones in the dining room, which had a table that had already been set for us. Lots of pink. Napkins were neatly folded in a flower arrangement. Several bottles of water and beer were on the table. More Korean propaganda videos were on the wall. As soon as we were seated, our guides left us.

They first brought out some very unappetizing-looking hot dogs (no bun) with a lot of the casing still visible. I passed. There’s no way this was authentic North Korean food. The waitresses then bring out several more courses (all without comment): scrambled eggs (these were surprisingly good, and in general, nearly all of the meals on the trip featured really simple yet delicious egg dishes), some bean sprouts, steamed/sauteed cabbage and other veggies, something fried, and some kimchi. It was generally pretty good, nothing amazing (kimchi wasn’t bad, but not spicy enough for me; I honestly think my kimchi was better than theirs). They then bring out a bowl of rice with some veggies on top. not sure if this was a pathetic attempt at bibimbap, but either way, it was nothing too special (though not terrible either once mixed all together), and some mostly clear soup, which we apparently were supposed to pour over the rice and veggie dish (another common theme throughout our meals). The lights went out for a few seconds, then came back on.

Our guide Rim then came back in, mostly dodging our question about why he didn’t eat with us. He pointed to the kimchi, explaining that this is a traditional Korean dish, which I initially rolled my eyes at, then remembered that most of the people came from countries where there were very few Koreans (and Korean restaurants), and what may have been obvious to me about Korean cuisine as a San Francisco resident may not be to them. The lights went out again, then came back on. At this point, there was then another Korean party at another table, and they actually received a menu, which seemed to have some pretty cool-looking pictures.

Rim then went over the rules of the trip: “We respect our dear leaders from the bottom of our hearts” [points to his pin of the Kims]. – I later ask him if i can acquire one for myself while in the DPRK, but he says no; apparently you have to be given one by the government, though the others in the group tell me they’re pretty widely available in China. “Which means if you have a newspaper with the picture of our leader, you do not crease or fold it across the picture of him, you do not throw it away”, and so on. He went on to explain that we are not to go off by ourselves at any point during the trip (though he does mention that our hotel for the night, being on an island, allows us some chance to walk around outside, but nowhere too far). He emphasized the importance of formal dress for the mausoleum that we were going to the next day, where we would see the bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lying in state. He also told us to not go to the fifth floor of the hotel, which is not accessible by the visitor elevators, but is accessible by the staff elevator as well as the staircase. here’s why. At some point while Rim is talking, the lights went out for a third time, and this time they did not come back on. As if this is a regular occurrence, the waitresses proceeded to bring us candles. As we left the restaurant, still in the dark, the waitresses shone flashlights on the stairway to help us down, again acting as if this is totally normal. 

After dinner (and after every other event on the trip), our guide Rim always asked us, “Did you enjoy X”, and we all instinctively would say yes, regardless of if we actually enjoyed it, not wanting to offend. He never once commented on our identical reaction to everything

 

Yanggakdo Hotel

This was the hotel that nearly all tour groups stay at; it is on Yanggak Island in Pyongyang (“do” means island; while the guides explained everything to us, I can’t remember what “yang” and “gak” mean, though I do remember that “Pyongyang” means “flat land”, so maybe something to do with land?). The hotel was enormous; 43 floors in total, plus a revolving restaurant on top (apparently North Koreans love revolving restaurants). There was also a bowling alley, karaoke room, and swimming pool one level down, and two levels down, there was a Macau-owned casino which is open to everyone except North Koreans. I (and the rest of the group) was assigned to the 41st (!!!) floor.

As I walked to the elevator, There were all sorts of pictures on the wall (with English and Korean captions) of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un, and Kim Il Sung, mostly with children, or showing them doing some kind of good, as well as other pictures showing schools, highlighting their wonderful free education, or doctors’ offices, highlighting the wonderful free healthcare, or people voting, highlighting the virtues of being able to freely vote in this wonderful socialist democracy. I recognized these pictures as being identical to ones I saw at the train station, and ended up seeing the same set of photos in many buildings throughout the trip – it appears that the government provides this set of photos to all businesses to display in a public area. There is also a sign in the hall with two arrows, one for “Restaurant”, the other for “National Restaurant.” The “National Restaurant” side has two restaurants, “Korean Restaurant” and “Chinese Restaurant”. The “Restaurant” side also has two restaurants, “Restaurant No. 1” and “Restaurant No. 2”. We are told that breakfast will be at 7am the next morning in “Restaurant No. 2”, and that we will leave the hotel at 8am to go to the mausoleum.

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As I was going up to my room, my elbow accidentally brushed against the buttons for floors 21, 24, 27. The elevator stopped at each one, and each floor was pitch black, confirming my theories that they just put everyone at the really high up floors to give them a nice view, and the rest of the hotel is largely uninhabited on most nights, which isn’t too surprising, as the hotel contains around 1,000 rooms but is located in one of the least visited places in the world (even with the recent increase in tour groups, North Korea is still one of the 25 least visited countries in the world).

The room was fairly standard, with some drab colors. There were two single beds typical of the ones found in Asian hotels. There was a small placard that said, “warm greetings.” There was an old-fashioned contraption built into the desk that has a digital clock (not working), and two knobs for turning on the lights, as well as an old-fashioned  phone. The view of Pyongyang was nice, though (as to be expected), there are very few lights on for a city of this size with so many tall buildings. The TV didn’t work (though I found out the next day that this was unique to my room, and others’ TVs worked). From what I heard, the channels were mostly North Korean propaganda, but also the BBC, surprisingly. me and The others and I made tentative plans to meet downstairs later to check out the bowling alley/karaoke, but I was so exhausted from jet lag that I ended up passing out on my bed, and so ended my first full day in North Korea.

 

Breakfast/getting ready

Breakfast was at 7am; we had to be ready by 8am to leave. Preferring to eat first before getting ready (unlike the rest of our group), I got up at around 6:55, threw on a T-shirt and jeans, and took the elevator down to the lobby. I ran into some people from my group who ended up staying up a bit later the night before; they said they went to the revolving restaurant and had absurdly overpriced beer. After being told that breakfast would be in “Restaurant No. 2”, a beautiful waitress dressed in a pink traditional Korean dress greeted us outside and pointed us inside “Restaurant No. 1”. It was a pretty nondescript dining room, with a bar on one side, a picture of the Kims, windows all around (but not much to look at, especially as the sun isn’t quite up yet), and a table set just for our party (most of the tables have not been set). Our table (as is the case throughout the trip) had a Western place setting with fork and knife, rather than the traditional Korean setting with chopsticks and spoon. Again, the napkins were nicely folded into a flower.

They brought us all out each a plate of small tomato slices that had been beautifully arranged to look like petals of a flower. The only problem is that they were significantly underripe,as I could tell from the green-ish coloring. Just to be sure, I tried one, and confirmed that they were indeed underripe. We were asked if we’d like coffee or tea; we all answered coffee, and I’m pretty sure they brought us back cups of instant coffee from a mix, judging by the taste, as well as the fact that there was already some type of cream added. Next, a huge plate of thick white toast slices (perfectly square on all sides) came out for the table (with packets of butter and jam), followed by another huge plate of toast. This was another thing I noticed consistently throughout our meals; we always received an incredible amount of bread to start, regardless of if we had asked for it (perhaps as a filler?). After that, an omelet (delicious, again), and some type of crepe with some cinnamon-like filling inside (also, delicious) arrived. They also had started to play some music in the room, which mostly seemed to be Korean versions of Disney songs (seriously, you haven’t lived until you’ve had breakfast in Pyongyang listening to “Bippity-Boppity-Boo” in Korean).

I headed back up to the hotel room to get ready for the mausoleum. By this time, the sun was up. I opened my window to take a picture of the skyline, and was greeted by a huge chill. North Korea is cold in the winter (not too surprising, given that it is a peninsula pretty far north of the tropics, and after all shares a (small) border with Rrussia). Nonetheless, the view was very nice; especially being on the river, with a nice skyline on either side. Despite being on the 41st floor, there was no screen of any sort, just two easily openable layers of windows. I had a great view of the Ryugyong Hotel, a gorgeous pyramid-shaped hotel (again, with several revolving restaurants at the top which the North Koreans so love), which is the tallest building in Pyongyang. The only catch is thanks to structural issues, it still has yet to open. Despite prominently featuring in several photo shots throughout the trip, the guides never once talked about it except when prompted, always saying that it was “still under construction.” There was no hot water in the shower (again though, a problem unique to my room). I sucked it up, took a cold shower, put on dress pants (actually my amazing Betabrand sweat pants that looked like dress pants), dress shirt, tie, blazer, and headed down to meet the group in the lobby.

Off to the mausoleum

Our guide Oh was already there, smiling as always, complimenting me on my formal dress, asking me how I slept, to which I told her I slept fine. We got on the bus, and headed to the mausoleum. Pyongyang is mostly empty, though it is pretty early in the morning, and Sunday is a day of rest (their only day of rest, as they work and go to school on Saturdays). It was also quite beautiful; we drive down several colorful nice tree-lined streets that could easily have been taken from New England. there were a few people out walking, which seemed pretty normal. We saw the mausoleum from a distance, and it was simply enormous. The driver went around to a side entrance. There was a guard there, who saluted us. Our guides say a few words in Korean to him, and he let us through.

[FYI: the forthcoming trip to the mausoleum was easily one of the most memorable parts of the trip. Sadly, as cameras were not permitted, I have to do my best to recreate everything from memory].

When we got there, they then told us that first, we will hang out in a “waiting room” until they’re “ready” for us to enter. Very odd of course, but hey, it’s North Korea. They told us to empty our pockets of everything while on the bus except for cameras. The waiting room was a mix of tour groups and very well-dressed locals, all with pins of the Kims. The waiting room had what looked like to be several empty ticket counters, and some propaganda magazines, as well as a large picture of the Kims on the wall. After we were given the go-ahead in the waiting room, they lined us up in rows of four, and had us proceed in. It’s a very nice building with lots of marble. We checked our jackets and cameras at the front, then passed through metal detectors. We were in. Patriotic music was playing softly in the background on repeat.

 

We began marching in, again in four columns, until we reached the first moving sidewalk, where we switched to two. On one side, there was a beautiful river surrounding the mausoleum with several swans (they explained the importance, but I can’t remember). One the other side there was a large outdoor area/courtyard facing two massive pictures of the Kims on the outside of the mausaoleum. That ended, and we turned the corner. There was a series of moving sidewalks that must have easily gone on for over half a mile. They were the slowest I’ve ever been on, but people were not using them to walk faster; everyone was standing in place on them, moving very slowly. On either side were large portraits of the Kims showing them doing various positive things, meeting with various world leaders, etc. The guides were happily explaining each one to us. I actually recognized a few of them from http://kimjongillookingatthings.tumblr.com/, but I kept my laughter to myself. I also tried to ask my guide some questions about Kim Jong Un, but she seemed to be intentionally evasive, not telling me any more about Kim Jong Un than I already knew.

Aside: Given that the guides were obviously in very good standing with the government, when they gave evasive answers or would reply “don’t know” when I asked about Kim Jong Il or Kim Jong Un, it was hard to tell if they really didn’t know, or if they knew and didn’t want to answer. I remember at one point during the trip, I mentioned the late Kim Kong Il’s very expensive Hennessey XO habit to our guide, which he said he had never heard about, saying that he didn’t hear the same stuff that is reported in western media (duh), but he must have had some idea of what went on.

After what seemed like forever, we finally reach the end. Despite a complete lack of signs and several rooms in various directions, our guide knew exactly where to go (she said she had been there “many times”). She told us that we were now going to enter the room where Kim Il Sung’s body lay in state, and that we will, in groups of four, make three bows – one at the front, and one on each side (but not the back). We went in the room; and there indeed is Kim Il Sung lying in state, perfectly preserved. Given that he was probably at about chest level and we had to stand at a distance away from him (therefore it is hard to see his face), I would not have been able to identify the body by just looking at it, but knowing that it is Kim Il Sung, I could definitely see it. Just about everything in the room was red, including the blanket he was draped with. There were guards everywhere. I bowed with my group on three sides, and exited. The next room we went into was a room full of medals and proclamations he’s received from countries all over the world, starting with North Korea (naturally, lots), and then sorted by continent, with more portraits of him above the medals meeting with world leaders. Some of the stuff he’d received medals for was pretty comical (advancing democracy, human rights, etc). The next room had a map showing everywhere he traveled, broken down by train, plane, car, and boat, as well as his actual Mercedes, his personal train, and his personal boat.

We then repeated the same process again for Kim Jong Il, first seeing his body lying in state (thankfully, I repress the voices in my head singing “I’m so ronery” and remain solemn), then the room of medals, then his “transportation room” – though he didn’t have a ship. He did however have a golf cart. The train car (in which he died) appeared to have been preserved to look exactly like it did when he traveled in it. Did you know Kim Jong Il always traveled with a Macbook Pro? I did not! There was also an electronic foot massager below his desk. I forgot to mention; before we went to see each body lying in state, we passed through a little corridor with a bunch of fans blowing cool air (to perhaps brush off anything we had on us that we might bring into the room)?

Next, we went into the “mourning room”, a giant open area with giant statues of the Kims. There was a guide there who worked for the mausoleum who explained in Korean (with our guide translating after the end of each sentence) that this was where we weep for the dear leaders, and all of the sacrifices they made for a better country, all the wonderful things they did, etc. In reality, what she said was longer than than what I’m writing, but I think you get my gist. Everything she said also sounded like she was on the verge of tears after saying it, though she never did actually cry, nor did anyone in our group. We bowed, and moved on. We then began to exit by going back on the same moving escalators, but going the other way. We got our jackets and cameras, and then went to the outside area/courtyard, which was immaculately manicured, with several workers sweeping up pine needles/leaves/the like as we’re out there. Another large picture of the Kims was on the wall. We took a few pictures, then got on the tour bus.

All things considered, the mausoleum was absolutely one of the most elaborate tributes to a deceased person(s) I’ve ever been in. The size and scope of it was absolutely mindblowing, and everything is immaculately designed. As I mentioned, I do not have any pictures from inside, but there is a fair amount of official government pictures on the internet of it. A look at the Wikipedia page mentions that it cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars to originally convert it to a mausoleum following the death of Kim Il Sung, which didn’t surprise me. Also, while it is free and open to any DPRK citizens at any time (according to the guide), it is only open to foreigners on Thursdays and Sundays.

Next: Lunch, exploring more of Pyongyang, and heading down to Kaesong to prepare for our trip to the DMZ.

 

North Korea Trip Part 1: Arrival and Initial Impressions

North Korea Trip Part 1: Arrival and Initial Impressions

 

The following is the first in a multi-part series chronicling a trip I took to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) in 2013. For questions about planning a trip there, please refer to this post.

Pre-Flight

I arrived at Beijing Capital Airport at 10:45am for a 12:55pm flight. The people waiting at ticket desk were a mix of foreigners/tourists and (presumably) North Koreans. When I saw “Pyongyang” on the departure screen, it started to hit me a little bit that I’m actually doing this. The ticket desk was unbelievably slow. The flight was also incorrectly listed as being at 12pm. Finally we got our boarding passes (sadly, they are printed on Air China paper – I’m assuming this wasn’t a result a of a codeshare, but rather Air Koryo not being able to afford their own paper or something.

When at the ticket desk, we noticed that our flight was “JS 152” – we all thought it’s kind of odd that an airline called Air Koryo would use “JS” as their airline code. Upon arriving, we find out that it stood for “JoSeon”, a reference to the famous dynasty that ruled Korea for over 500 years, and also used to express hope that Korea would one day be reunited (this was a BIG theme throughout the trip).  Note that the logo for Air Koryo is a bird whose wing is in the shape of (North and South) Korea. To this day, I (or the rest of the internet) still cannot figure out why the airport code for Pyongyang is “FNJ.”

When I got to the gate, I noticed several well-dressed Asian businessmen – all wearing red pins with the faces of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (though some only had Kim Il Sung; I’m guessing new ones were reissued after the death of Kim Jong Il). At this point it’s really starting to hit me. Upon closer review of my tourist visa, I also noticed that for my arrival and departure dates, they put the year as “102”, rather than 2013. Then I remembered that they measure years by the birth of Kim Il Sung (in 1912).

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Boarding the plane

We boarded the plane (late, of course), and there were a bunch of North Korean publications on a display rack outside the plane – the Pyongyang Times (an English-language weekly propaganda newspaper), an all-Korean daily newspaper, and then a monthly propaganda magazine published in English and in Korean. I grabbed one of everything. The Pyongyang Times had a picture of Kim Jong Il on the front telling me about all of his great achievements, all the great stuff opening up in Pyongyang, all sorts of anti-US, anti-Japan, and anti-South Korean articles, etc. The monthly magazine had more in-depth features, yet was still blatantly propaganda.

Air Koryo, the state-owned airline, has been rated as the worst airline in the world. It was pretty bad, though I wouldn’t say absolutely awful. That being said, their planes are old planes which the Soviet Union used to use. Needless to say, I was pretty scared when we were taking off, given the inordinate amount of rumbling I heard below me. As soon as we got on the airplane, soft patriotic music started playing, and it continued throughout the entire flight, with accompanying videos. Food consisted of cold hamburgers (imagine a McDonalds burger (not the Big Mac, just a plain burger) made of pork instead, and left sitting out for five hours). It was inedible. Yet all of the North Koreans around me finished the whole thing. Were they just super hungry? The beer they served though was quite excellent – like Sapporo but even better. I found out later that it was a locally made beer in Pyongyang, so I’ll probably never have it again. flight attendants are these beautiful petite Korean ladies with perfect skin who say almost nothing the entire flight, and when they do talk, speak very little English. Interestingly enough, their name tags have their birth dates on them. Most are in their early to mid 20s.

Arrival at Pyongyang Airport

We touched down in Pyongyang. I had an aisle seat so my view out the window was limited. That being said, I kept expecting to see some semblance of an airport, but nothing. Just fields. Finally, it’s time to get off the plane. It’s raining. We walked down the staircase, and then went about 50 feet into the airport entrance. The “airport”, it turns out, is just one big concrete room sectioned off into different areas (keep in mind there’s only one flight in and out per day, for a city of 2.4 million people). I was not able to take a picture, but here is one I found. This not a part of the airport, this IS the airport. This is taken from the outside entrance to the airport, you can see security in front. Though you can’t see it in this angle, there are customs desks on either side of the blue chairs at the far end. The blue sign all the way at the end down on the right is for the gift shop. The area where the blue chairs are are both the lone “gate” where people wait to board their flight, and also where incoming arrivals come. (On certain days, there is only one departing flight and one arriving flight (both to/from Beijing, with the incoming and outgoing flights at vastly different times), on other days, there are no flights). On the other side of the wall at the very top (i.e., facing people who just flew in) are pictures of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.

According to the guides, this was currently just a “temporary” airport, and they’re building the real one next door (and we do indeed observe construction workers working on a building next door), but it’s unclear if this is actually the case, or if they’re just saying this because they’re embarrassed about how spartan their airport is.

As soon as I got into the airport, I saw giant pictures of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung on the wall. Amused, I tried to take a picture, but one of the military guards saw me, shook his head at me and I put down my camera, but he still came over anyway to confirm that no picture was taken. Turns out it wasn’t the picture of the Kims (how i’ll refer to them hereafter) that he was upset at, but the fact that pictures of members of the military in uniform (practically any authority figure in North Korea) are prohibited, not to mention it’s possible I could be taking pictures of sensitive documents.

There were three steps to getting in – first, they collected the quarantine cards (mostly self-reported), then customs – this was the part I was most nervous about. I was asked several questions (mostly due to my poor handwriting) and eventually approved. On the customs card, we were required to check off if we were bringing in “publications of any sort” or “historical and cultural wealth, and artistic works.” On the quarantine card, we were also asked to check off if we recently had diarrhea. Despite that actually being the case the night before in Beijing, I checked no. The last step was an actual metal detector. The security guard asked for my phone separately, then I put everything else through the x-ray machine. I was praying that they didn’t search anything (not that i had anything to hide, but it would have been an annoyance, and I was already irritated after randomly being searched in the Vancouver airport and having them look at everything I was bringing). Made it thru. Phew. I w as officially in North Korea.

There was a small souvenir shop in the airport (just one); I saw some extra copies of the newspapers I had picked upon the plane. I went to take a few, but it turns out they were only free on the plane. The woman said, “1 euro”. This was one of the weird things in North Korea. They have their own local currency (the won), but this is only used by residents. Just about every shop allows foreigners to pay with us dollars, euros, or RMBs. That’s right, they have four different acceptable currencies in North Korea.

There was someone was selling 3G sim cards that work in North Korea. However, given that there was a high probably that these were probably bugged to allow the government to listen in on conversations, I had no interest in buying one, especially as I’m going to be with a group the whole time anyway.

Getting acquainted, and heading to the train station

We found our tour guides, and they brought us to the bus outside. They informed us that all tour groups have one male guide, one female guide, a videographer, and a driver. Our guides were Rim (male) and Oh (female). Oh told us that we could also call her “Oh Mi”, which used her middle name too, since she realized that “Oh!” by itself can also be an exclamation. Both spoke somewhat broken English, but we could definitely still understand them. The driver, Kim, and the cameraman did not speak any English. Oh was in her mid-30s, married to a diplomat to Western Europe, and was a businesswoman in Thailand previously before returning back to the DPRK (why???), and also had spent time in Venezuela and Cuba, lives in Pyongyang, and has a five-year-old daughter. Rim had never left North Korea, also is in his mid 30s, was married to someone who works in “finance” (I can’t imagine this is a big industry), and had one infant child.

The airport is about 24 km away from Pyongyang City, so we headed to the train station in downtown Pyongyang to pick up the rest of our group (taking the train into Pyongyang from Dandong in China is cheaper, but is not an option for US citizens). Given that it was raining out, I did’t want to make too many judgments about what I saw, as it might have been due to the weather. That being said, as we got closer, I started to see large colorful propaganda billboards. I of course didn’t understand the Korean, but the pictures pretty clearly convey the message. But more striking was that the city was mostly dark – there were very few street lights on, and businesses, while open, did not have the lights on (despite there being people in there). Without being prompted, the tour guides solely blamed the US economic sanctions for Korth Korea’s issues with electricity (though somehow I’m guessing Kim Jong Un’s lavish home never has any electricity issues).

The train station was actually fairly normal, other than a bookstore with a significant amount of anti-japanese and anti-US books about why we were to blame for the Korean War, imperialism, and just about every other problem. There was a normal-sized waiting room with giant pictures of the Kims, and a TV playing videos of Korean children. The guides asked us if we would like to wait for the train on the platform outside, to which we say yes. We were then informed that in order to do so, it would cost us 1 RMB (roughly $0.17).Very weird. We went outside, and again, things looked fairly standard. The train was late though, and no one quite knew when it would arrive. There were no computers or automated displays though (other than a clock outside), just a woman at a desk with arrival/departure info written in pencil in a notebook. There were two red banners with Korean characters, a shorter one and a longer one. I asked the guide to translate. The shorter one said, “Long live the great comrade Kim Il Sung”, the longer one was commemorating their successful launch into space last year. That was the first of many times I would see the short banner; it was displayed practically everywhere in North Korea.

While we were waiting for the train to arrive, one person in our group left the group (still staying on the platform, but definitely a ways away, to take pictures of Pyongyang from the platform. There was a military officer who ended up being in his picture, which the officer was furious about, and the officer started yelling. Rim came over to check Wolfgang’s camera for pictures, and then after he came back to the group, Rim emphasized to everyone that we were not to go anywhere without the group, jokingly saying “if I lose you, I get in trouble and I don’t eat dinner” – but we were wondering if it truly was a joke or not.

Regardless though, for those wondering about the safety of a trip to North Korea, this story further underscores the point that if the tourists do anything wrong, the guides will get in far more trouble, therefore it is in the guides’ best interests to make sure everyone in the group is following the rules at all times. Excluding South Koreans and journalists (the only two groups of people who are essentially prohibited from going to North Korea), there have never been any reports of anything happening to any tourists, as the government is fully aware that one incident would pretty much end any interest in foreign tourism to the country, which would hurt their economy even more (and yes, i did feel slightly guilty that my money was going to support an incredibly oppressive regime, but not enough to deter me from going).

 

The group 

Given that the primary way to go to North Korea is through Beijing, Most tourists tend to be European expats working or studying in Beijing. Our group had four Finnish people who worked in management at the Nokia factory in Beijing, one Spanish person getting his master’s in Beijing, one German person getting his master’s in Beijing, and one Dutch person getting his master’s in Beijing, plus our tour leader (who organized the itinerary).. They all spoke moderately good to amazing English, though all had very slight accents that indicated it wasn’t their first language  The Dutch person left Beijing for Pyongyang on the day his china visa expired, with the intent of getting a new Chinese visa at the Chinese embassy during the trip in Pyongyang. while he was successful in doing so (thanks to diligent work on the part of our tour guides, which also delayed some sights, annoyingly), I cannot think of a more boneheaded/risky plan – had anything gone wrong, he would have been stuck in North Korea, which would pretty much be the worst thing ever. In case you’re wondering, there is no US consulate in Pyongyang (or anywhere in north Korea), but thanks to an agreement we have with Sweden, the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang is a “protecting power”, meaning that they handle any issues that a US embassy would typically handle in another country (though this still isn’t quite the same as actually having a US embassy).

English

As I mentioned, the tour guides spoke broken English, but it was easy enough to understand. According to them, everyone in North Korea learns English in school, but it’s British English. I only noticed a British accent from our tour guide Oh. While hearing a fluent British accent sounds very proper and refined, hearing a native Korean speaking broken English in a British accent is indeed hilarious, especially with some of the emphasis she put on certain syllables.

She also claimed that everyone in North Korea was able to speak English, but this was a blatant lie – other than a couple of guides to monuments, people knew very little English beyond “thank you, good bye, hello”, and anything that might be required for their job “tea or coffee?”,. “ten euros”, etc. Our tour guides made the dubious claim that everyone in north Korea was literate, but I had no way of confirming this one way or the other.

As I was the only native English speaker in the group, the tour guides encouraged me to correct their English if they said something wrong, as they both wanted to improve their English. Similar to most developing countries, it seems that the ability to speak English correlates with how good of a job one can get. As we were one of the last tours for the year (there are very few winter tours), I asked Rim what he was going to do once the tours were over, and he said “study English” – when i asked him what country he’d most like to go to (having never been outside the country), he said the UK.

While I politely corrected their English when I heard something wrong, overall, their actual word usage was pretty good – Rim especially spoke very slowly, often pausing to think about the next word (usually choosing correctly), while Oh tended to speak faster, but make more mistakes. Most of their errors tended to be pretty standard errors for people who speak a native Asian language learning English – such as not using plurals, not using articles, not using gerunds. More impressively though, they did seem to understand English grammar – when Rim said “We’re going to DMZ”, I corrected him, explaining that I would say “We’re going to the DMZ”, and he laughed, saying “right, there’s only one!”, to which i also smiled, laughed, and agreed with him. Most of their sentences were pretty simple, though at times they said very complicated sentences, making me wonder if they actually understood why the sentence meant what it did, or if it was just something the tourism agency told them to say. Rim tended to write down my corrections on his notepad.

 

Next: dinner, our first night and morning at the hotel, exploring Pyongyang, and seeing the body of Kim Jong Il lying in state

 

 

The 10 things to know before taking a cross-country train trip

The 10 things to know before taking a cross-country train trip

In my last post, I detailed how one can use Amtrak Guest Reward points to take an Amtrak trip across the country for free, as I did last summer from the San Francisco Bay Area to Boston.

It was an amazing experience, though I’m not sure I’d do it again. If I were though, there are a few things that I would do differently, as well as a few things that worked out well for me.

Fair warning, my camera was nearing the end of its days on this trip, hence the low-quality photos.

1. Expect delays. And lots of them. Due to mandatory rules about crew rest, if your train arrives late the night before, it might depart late the next day to allow the crew to get enough sleep. This is what happened to me, as my train departed 2.5 hours late. And unlike planes, trains can’t “make up time.” So if you leave 2.5 hours late, then add 2.5 hours to your arrival time.

But that’s not the only delay. Amtrak doesn’t own most of the tracks it runs on (especially west of Chicago), and therefore has to defer to freight trains when on single tracks. This happens a lot, and you will be sitting still looking out at the cornfields of somewhere like Iowa, like this:

 

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The bottom line is, only do this trip if you have a significant time cushion built in. My itinerary had an eight-hour layover in Chicago, but we arrived 11 hours late, meaning that I missed the once-a-day connecting train to Boston. Instead, I had a 21-hour layover (they paid for my lodging and meals), and while I had fun exploring Chicago, I ended up arriving in Boston more than 24 hours after I was scheduled to.

2. Plan your food/drink accordingly.Yes, there are hot meals served on Amtrak. And they’re surprisingly good. However, they’re not cheap, nor are they incredible. I would maybe recommend doing one for the experience. You can also bring your own food, but remember that there is no refrigeration on board. If you want to ensure that you’ll be eating hot food and not spending too much, research your layovers in advance, as there tends to be at least one restaurant near most major stations.

However, this will require somes advance planning: I saw that I had a 10-minute stop in Grand Junction, CO and located a restaurant adjacent to the station using Yelp, called them an hour in advance to place a takeout order, sprinted in to get it as soon as we pulled in, and then sprinted back on to the train with a few minutes to spare. Having a hot meal of eggs, green chiles, and homefries was a welcome change from the cold bahn mi sandwiches I had brought.

Amtrak does sell snacks and drinks (including alcohol) on board, but given that it doesn’t cost you anything to bring these yourself, you’ll save a lot of money (though if you need your beer to be cold, it might be better to buy on board). Of course, you’ll want to not go overboard on the alcohol, because it’s also important to…

3. Behave yourself. Just like on a plane, the staff is not afraid to kick you off if you’re not behaving. While I don’t think this is an issues for most readers of this blog, there was a man on our train who had a bit too much to drink, and started to get verbally abusive to his girlfriend. The train had no problems making an emergency stop in a remote town in Colorado, where he was met by police. I don’t know what happened to him, but even if he got a second chance, it means he had to wait 24 hours for the next train to arrive, as the California Zephyr is a once-daily route.

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4. Don’t spring for the sleeper cabins; the coach seats are perfectly fine. If you can relate to the princess from “The Princess and the Pea”, then this might not apply. Otherwise, I slept fine most nights, and I’m 6’7.” The leg room is more than ample, and the seats recline quite a bit (though not 180 degrees). Obviously you’ll want to bring a sleeping bag and/or blanket, however.

5. Bring cards, games, or something to engage other people on the train. While you’ll most likely spend daylight observing the beautiful scenery, and nighttime asleep, there is a period of roughly four hours (depending on what time of year you go) where it’s too dark to look at the views, but too early to go to bed. Especially if you’re a solo traveler, this can be a fun way too meet other people and pass the time. My first night, I played “Cards Against Humanity” well into the night with three people I’d never met

6. Get a good data plan (or do a digital detox). While Amtrak is starting to roll out WiFi on 2=shorter routes, especially those frequented by business travelers, they still don’t have it on the long-distance routes. If you’re just looking to do some writing, you’ll be fine, as they have plenty of outlets, but if you need to do work requiring the internet, it will be very expensive to tether to your phone’s data plan. Or, you can just take a break from the internet and enjoy the views.

7. Spend most of your day in the observation car. The observation car is a car with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that allow for much more expansive views of the landscape than a coach seat, as I documented in a short video I took:

But seriously, you’ll see all sorts of great stuff:

It’s open seating, and conversation is encouraged, unlike the coach cars where people are expected to keep the noise down. However, it is not for sleeping, and you will get a stern warning for doing this (whether you mean to or not), and be asked to leave the car if caught again. But don’t take it as an invitation to put on your headphones and tune out, because you’ll also want to…

8. Learn. While this varies route to route, Amtrak has a variety of educational programs on board to help you learn about the route. On the California Zephyr, there are guides from the California Museum in Sacramento that stay on board between Sacramento and Reno to educate you about how this section of the route came to be, including the incredible hard work of the many Chinese immigrant laborers who helped build the track through the mountains, which was invaluable for shipping goods between the coasts.

There are also people from the National Park Service between Grand Junction and Denver who talk about the Colorado portion of the route, telling us how some of the highways on the way were among the last of the entire interstate highway system to be completed due to the difficulty of snaking around large canyons, and other interesting tidbits.

9. Know your breaks and stops. Definitely pick up a paper copy of the schedule beforehand. While the actual arrival times will become useless after the first delay, they still are useful for knowing how long it takes to get between two different stations, as well as when there are extended stops (such as for 20-30 minutes, when you can get off and walk around the area for a bit. However, most of them tend to be either in areas with not many places to see, or are in places with lots to see, but in the middle of the night.

It is also important to listen for which stops are “cigarette breaks”, meaning that it’s OK to get off the train for a few minutes and get some air and smoke (if you like), versus stops where only departing passengers are expected to get off. As I mentioned earlier, the California Zephyr is a once-a-day route, and other long-distance routes run with similar frequency, so it’s critically important to get back on in time.

10. Take advantage of the generous baggage policy. Unlike the airlines, Amtrak has a very generous checked bag policy, allowing you to check up to two bags for free, and two more for $20 each. On top of that, they don’t really have a policy restricting carry-ons. While I’m sure others have pushed it further, I stuffed my already-full giant travel backpack with a trombone and bass guitar sticking far out of the top, and no one seemed to care. Obviously, if you’re just doing this as a fun trip, you won’t come close to exceeding their checked bag limits, but if you’re doing a big move, like I was, it’s a much cheaper way of getting your stuff across the country than shipping it.

 

Have your own long-distance Amtrak story to share (either good or bad)? Did I miss something? Feel free to post in the comments below, or e-mail me.

What to do on a getaway to Guadeloupe

What to do on a getaway to Guadeloupe

Last month I took advantage of Norwegian’s insanely cheap fares from Boston to book a quick getaway to Guadeloupe with a friend. Given that I know some readers have already booked trips since seeing the last post, I figured I’d do a short write-up. As we were only there for three nights due to both budgetary and time reasons,A this is not intended to be a comprehensive overview of everything on the island, but rather a run-down of a few highlights as well as key tips.

 

Go diving/snorkeling

Guadeloupe has some of the best diving in the Caribbean, including Îlets Pigeon (Pigeon Island, pictured above), famous for the Jacques Cousteau underwater reserve. Unfortunately my underwater camera couldn’t handle the depths I was diving at, but I can say firsthand that the fish were great (especially if you like parrotfish), and the coral was even more beautiful. There is even a great little bust of Cousteau himself at the bottom.

If you’re looking to get certified (or already are) with PADI (the most widely recognized SCUBA organization), then I highly recommend coordinating with Atlantis Formation, which offers three dives per day at 50 euros each (including equipment rentals). They even give you free (alcoholic) punch when you’re done, and we got to enjoy a local marching band:

Eat street food

Make sure to check out at least one night market. There is one in Le Gosier city center every Friday, and other cities also tend to have weekly ones on other nights.

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A popular local snack are accras, deep-fried balls of local fish (similar to a hush puppy):

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Even after (correctly) translating “boket” to “bucket” using my Haitian-Creole translator, I still wasn’t sure what this was, but I ordered it anyway. Turns out “bucket” is like a pita pocket sandwich, where the bread acts as a literal bucket for the filling! Try to go somewhere where they are making the bread fresh to order.

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Of course, this is France, so you shouldn’t leave without having at least one crepe:

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There is another vendor there who is a bit of a local legend for her version of a crepe that uses cassava instead of the traditional flour-based batter:

cassava

Another vendor at the night market was selling the best coconut ice cream of my life, fresh from his old-fashioned ice cream maker:

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There will be vendors selling freshly cracked coconut water all along the street, and these are definitely worth stopping for. You can get a giant waterbottle’s worth for just 4 euros, which will be extremely refreshing.

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Go to botanical gardens

The Jardin Botanique de Guadeloupe is famous for a wide variety of plants from not just the Caribbean, but all around the world:

They also have a great selection of (somewhat) exotic animals:

Check out a waterfall

Getting to Chutes de Carbet (Carbet Falls) is a fun little drive into the heart of the island’s national park. From the parking lot, it’s about a 25 minute walk to the view of the main waterfall; ambitious hikers can trek several more hours to get to the top. We arrived after sunset however which provided for less than optimal photo conditions, though I did get this shot from the parking lot:

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Stay at a fun hostel

In particular, the E. Gwada (Creole slang for Guadeloupe) hostel in Le Gosier has been popular among budget travelers for quite a while, and with good reason. The prices can’t be beat ($56/night for a private room with two beds), the staff is friendly, it attracts a (mostly) fun group of fellow travelers to socialize with, the WiFi is fast enough, and the bar isn’t hesitant to give out free drinks.

Sample French/Creole restaurants

The restaurants here tend to mostly be French with a Creole influence. As this is a Caribbean island, seafood also figures heavily into the cuisine, so make sure try to fish when you have the chance. They also do a local take on chicken curry, which is quite delicious and spicy, but doesn’t look nearly as appealing on camera:

Also, the French really really like pizza, but have interesting toppings for it like honey and goat cheese. We arrived very late to our hostel the first night and this was the only place nearby that was open:

Relax in hot springs

If you see “Bains Chauds” (hot springs), pull over and follow the signs. While the water may not be super hot depending on the tide, it’s definitely a great way to relax by the ocean:

Eat at a boulangerie

While it may feel like the Caribbean, you still are in France after all, which means the pastries are second to none. Nothing like a nice pain au chocolat as a road trip snack:

Drive stick shift

You’ll save quite a lot of money on car rentals if you know how to drive stick shift going in (or take the time to learn in advance). It’s a lot more fun winding around the many scenic curves of the main highways that outline the island when you’re in control if your car’s gears. Just don’t make the same mistake I did and get a car with an underpowered engine that will give you trouble getting up hills:

car

Speak French

Guadeloupe is an overseas territory of France, and while (like most of the Caribbean) most people working in tourism can speak enough English to get by, you’ll be able to have far more in-depth conversations with locals if you know a little bit of French. As most guests here are coming from mainland France, the island is a little less bilingual than others. While the Google Translate app will help immensely, it still might help to learn French to assist with pronunciations. As it is also a free offline download, the Haitian-Creole translator will also be useful for those limited times when there are signs in Creole rather than French. Also, even the most mundane things sound fancier in French:

fancy

Bonus: We didn’t get to check it out, but Pointe des Chateaux, at the very eastern end of the island came highly recommended.

 

Have more questions? Have your own experience to share? Feel free to e-mail me or post in the comments below.

 

 

How to go to the edge of the world’s largest waterfall – and why it’s every bit as amazing as I expected

How to go to the edge of the world’s largest waterfall – and why it’s every bit as amazing as I expected

Those who know me know that the one thing in nature I love more than anything else is waterfalls.

For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to go to Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world, located on the Zimbabwe/Zambia border (note that largest refers to height multiplied by width, and is different from tallest, widest, or most powerful).

More recently, I heard about a natural phenomenon called Devil’s Pool, a natural “pool” formed on the edge of the falls only accessible during the dry season, which is roughly September through December (during the wet season, currents are too strong and people would be washed over). When I heard about this, I knew I had to go.

As I mentioned earlier, Victoria Falls is located on the Zimbabwe and Zambia border, and as such, there is one airport and city in each country that serve the falls: Victoria Falls Airport (VFA) in Zimbabwe, and Livingstone Airport (LVI) in Zambia (named after the explorer David Livingstone who “discovered” the falls and named them after Queen Victoria).

While I would recommend staying on the Zambia side regardless of if you’re going to Devil’s Pool (as there’s a little bit more to do), if you’re planning on seeing Devil’s Pool, I would definitely recommend the Zambia side, as this is where Devil’s Pool is. Using 50,000 Air Canada Aeroplan miles plus $33 in taxes and fees, I booked an award flight from JFK to Livingstone via Johannesburg, with the first leg being a nearly 8,000-mile, 15-hour flight on South African Airways which is the longest (distance-wise) flight I’ve taken in my life.

I booked a private room at the Fawlty Towers Hostel in Livingstone for $45, though this would have been cut in half if I was with someone else as it had two beds, and the price can be lowered even further if you’re willing to share a dorm.

Unfortunately, one company holds now a monopoly on Devil’s Pool tours, and they charge accordingly, including meals with the tours in order to charge a higher price, whether you like it or not. There are five daily tours to Devil’s Pool: three morning tours for $95 at 7:30am, 8:45am, and 10:15am which include breakfast, a 12:30pm tour for $155 which includes lunch, and a 3:30pm tour for $135 which includes high tea. More information can be found here. However, the best way to book your tour is through wherever you’re staying.

Not wanting to take any risks given my afternoon flight to Johannesburg, I opted for the 7:30am tour, and was told to meet at the Royal Livingstone Hotel at 7:15am. Unless you’re willing to walk several miles very early in the morning, the best way to get there from either side is via a taxi (though if you’re coming from Zimbabwe, you’ll have to take several taxis due to the international border crossing). The night before, I arranged with a local taxi driver to have him pick me up at my hotel at 6:45am, negotiating a price of 100 Zambian kwacha (roughly $9). In Zambia, while they accept the dollar, euro, and rand, you’ll save a little money by paying in local currency, as most merchants tend to use an exchange rate of 9:1 or 10:1 to the dollar, despite it actually being more than 11:1.

My cab driver arrived promptly, and drove me to the hotel, where, after meeting the others, we hopped onto a boat to begin the journey to the edge of the falls, with the mist slowly getting closer

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We hopped off the boat, and were rewarded with views of Victoria Falls like no other, far different from the viewpoints I had experienced in each country’s respective national park the past few days.

Looking out in the distance, we could see the group before us in the pool, getting a sense of what we were in for:

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We also passed the plaque for David Livingstone on the way to the pool:

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Once we got closer, the guide told us to all give him any phones/cameras that we wanted him to use for pictures/videos, remembering which one belonged to who (there is no need to bring a waterproof camera or waterproof case.

My guide then invited me into the pool first (usually they’ll invite couples together if there any, otherwise people will go by themselves).

He motioned me toward the edge of the falls, told me to lean over, then grabbed my feet, told me to spread my arms, and I took in the absolutely amazing view around me, looking at water rushing down 355 feet. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

I spent about 15 minutes in total in the pool itself, with a few minutes at the edge, and even sitting a bit further away knowing that I was at the very top of the largest waterfall in the world was an incredible, surreal feeling. I could have spent all day. Sadly, we eventually had to go back.

But first, before we got on the boat, we had breakfast at a little table they had set up for us nearby, with freshly made eggs benedict, as well as an assortment of other breakfast pastries. It was surprisingly tasty. I was also quite amused by the nearby “Loo with a View”, an outhouse that had no door in the front, just an amazing view of the falls:

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We then hopped on the boat, got back to the hotel, where my cab driver met me and drove me back to the hostel, where I hung out for a bit before getting packed up and going to the airport. Going to Devil’s Pool at Victoria Falls however completely lived up to all my expectations, and I hope to return someday.

 

Update: While this post mentions September through December as the best time to visit, reports of low water levels due to the drought mean that it may be possible to still go this month and even next, but definitely e-mail them in advance before planning any trips.

 

Do you have your own Devil’s Pool story to share? Questions about something I wrote? Feel free to e-mail me or post in the comments below.

 

How I saw the Northern Lights for under $400

How I saw the Northern Lights for under $400

Like most people I know, seeing the Aurora Borealis (more commonly known as the Northern Lights) has always been a bucket list item for me.

But given that seeing them often requires traveling pretty far north to remote areas of countries where things tend to be a bit more expensive, the cost was often prohibitively high.

Given that airfare tends to usually be the most expensive part of international travel if that cost can be reduced or even eliminated, the overall cost can be reduced significantly. That’s why when I saw a $400 roundtrip flight from Oakland to Stockholm on Norwegian (which I love), I knew this deal was too good to pass up. Of course, the name of this blog is Wicked Cheap Travel, not Cheap Travel. Why pay $400 when I could get it for free?

Note: Prices are even lower for this route this year, as the same trip is now $300!

norwe

Perhaps Norwegian is feeling the pressure from WOW Air and their $99 flights to Iceland

Knowing that there are several cards out there offering signup bonuses of $400 or more on travel, I used the CardMatch tool to see if I was pre-approved for any, and saw that I was indeed pre-approved for the Capital One Venture card, which offered a signup bonus of 40,000 points after spending $3,000 in three months, good for $400 when redeemed for travel purchases. Importantly though, I was able to make the purchase first, and then redeem my points to erase it later after I had spent $3,000.

Of course, that only covered my flight to Stockholm and back. As it is a major city (read: light pollution) at a lower latitude, that alone would not be enough to see the northern lights. Instead, I would have to go to the far northern part of Sweden to Abisko National Park, generally considered one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights.

Disclaimer: For this trip, I spent half my time in Stockholm, and half up north seeing the Northern Lights. This blog post will be written from the perspective of only going to Sweden to see the Northern Lights and nothing else so I can keep the title)

Given the Northern Lights’ unpredictability due to a number of factors, it is generally a good idea to allow yourself a few nights to see them. The higher you go, the greater chance you have of seeing them at least once. After reading some other reviews, I settled on three nights.

There are three ways of getting from Stockholm to Abisko: drive, take a train, or fly. Given that it’s a 15-hour drive or so, this didn’t seem too appealing. I figured I would mix it up and take the train up, and fly back.

To get from the Arlanda (Stockholm) airport to the actual city of Stockholm (where one can catch the train to Abisko), there is a very fast express train that will take you there for roughly $30 USD, or a taxi for $60 USD. As there were four of us, we opted for the taxi.

As is often the case with remote areas, we knew that food options would be super limited. Consequently, we stocked up in Stockholm on groceries, mostly getting a mix of bread, pickled/smoked fish, meatballs, amazingly cheap caviar, and fresh fruit, which ran about $20 per person.

I used the Swedish national railway site and saw that I could pay roughly $69 for a coach seat, or $87 for a sleeper. Given that this was an overnight train, I figured I would “splurge” on the sleeper, something which is much harder to do in the US with Amtrak often charging five times the price.

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One of the many nice things about Europe is that unlike the US, there is a strong affinity for train travel. As a result, lodging is often set up along train routes so people don’t have to figure out how to get from the train stop to where they’re staying in areas that are often very remote with limited taxi service.

In what was unquestionably the biggest expense of the trip, my three friends and I booked three nights at the Abisko Turiststation STF, getting a cottage that sleeps four people for $688, which came out to $172 per person. Of course, this was located a five minute walk from the train station, and inside the national park itself, so we didn’t have to go very far once we got there. It was very cold and windy:

cold

Once it got dark, we wandered out into the park in the freezing cold weather, and an hour later, we were rewarded with a sight that could only be the Northern Lights, and it was everything I hoped for (though they’re not as green in person, this is more how a camera captures them).

The only downside about being so far north is that there is not a whole lot to do during the day, so we explored the adjacent Kungsleden trail, one of the most beautiful hikes in the summer, but mostly just a pleasant walk through snowy woods in the winter.

We went out again the next night to see the northern lights, and they were even more impressive that night, moving in all sorts of different directions, and putting on quite a show for several hours (note that you will need a very good camera to capture them, if you don’t have one or don’t trust your skills, you can sign up for a tour where you rent a camera and they show you how to use it):

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johann north

david north

The next day, two people went to the famous nearby Ice Hotel, while I and my friend did a day trip to Narvik, which included some beautiful fjords:

fjord

Along the way, we also saw quite a lot of reindeer:

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And on the way back, we got a great shot of the Lapponian gate, the halfpipe-looking structure:

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Photo credit: Johann Dong

Unfortunately, when we went out later that night, we were not able to see it a third night, and gave up after several hours being out in the cold and seeing nothing. Nevertheless, we were certainly not about to complain having seen them two of three nights, given how often people will not see them any nights.

The closest airport to Abisko is Kiruna (KRN), thought it is still a bit of a ways south. I had booked a $60 flight on Norwegian from Kiruna to Stockholm to connect with my flight going back to Oakland from Stockholm, but this too I eventually got for free, as the $3,000 I would spend to meet the credit card signup bonus requirements was redeemable for an additional $60 in travel.

Unfortunately, none of the trains or buses run early enough to the airport, so the options are either booking a shuttle with Lights over Lapland for $50, or a taxi for $200. As there were four of us and the price was essentially the same, we pre-booked a taxi with Taxi Kiruna. They came to pick us up promptly, and after the long journey to Kiruna, we caught our flight to Stockholm, then back to Oakland, where the weather was slightly warmer, but no more northern lights to be found.

Seeing the northern lights was an experience I’ll never forget, and one that I’m now trying to continuously seek out from different countries. But this doesn’t have to be an expensive trip. To review the essential costs (not including the Stockholm portion of my trip or the day trip to Norway):

 

Flights from OAK to ARN, KRN to ARN, and ARN to OAK: $460 originally, free with points from credit card signup bonus

Taxi from Arlanda to Stockholm: $15 (per person)

Sleeper train from Stockholm to Abisko: $103 (cheaper now with the kroner falling against the dollar)

Lodging in Abisko for three nights: $187 (per person)

Groceries: $20

Taxi from Abisko to Kiruna: $50 (per person)

Total cost: $375

 

Have you been to Abisko and have something to add? Questions about something I wrote? Feel free to e-mail me or post in the comments.

 

 

Northern Lights photos credit:  David Tse