North Korea is a place of deep contradictions.
It confirms our worst fears with its nuclear belligerence, only to reveal its romantic folkloric past.
It confirms a taste for criminal delights – then seduces us with its unexpected charms.
Functioning cities are just a short bus ride from unimaginable prison camps. Those prison camps are only miles from the beautiful sights of Korean mythology, which tell of magical birthplaces and undead leaders who still rule.
These paradoxes make North Korea what it is. Here we present the wonderful contradictions of North Korea….
My favorite contradiction from the post:
North Koreans are generally kind, modest, humble people.
But they sure know how to party. It’s a huge part of the culture.
Many more of my photos are used in the post – make sure to check it out in its entirety!
Hanging out next to a South Korean brothel on ’60s street at the Pyongyang Film Studios.
From the Lonely Planet online guide – Some 20 films a year are still churned out by the county’s main film studios located in the suburbs of Pyongyang. Kim Il Sung visited the complex around 20 times during his lifetime to provide invaluable on-the-spot guidance, while Kim Jr has been more than 600 times, such is his passionate interest in films. Like all things North Korean, the two main focuses are the anti-Japanese struggle and the anti-American war.
The main complex is a huge, propaganda-filled suite of office buildings where apparently post-production goes on, even though it feels eerily empty. A short uphill drive takes you to the large sets, however, which are far more fun. Here you’ll find a generic ancient Korean town for historic films (you can even dress up as a king or queen and be photographed sitting on a ‘throne’ carpeted in leopard skin), a 1930s Chinese street, a Japanese street, a south Korean street (look for the massage signs that illustrate their compatriots’ moral laxity) and a fairly bizarre range of structures from a collection of ‘European’ buildings. Some groups have been lucky and seen films being made during their visit, although usually it’s hauntingly empty.
More pics from the Pyongyang Film Studio linked below.
2012 Kimilsungia Flower Exhibition
Taking pictures of the military in the DPRK is officially forbidden, but never fear, during visits to special cultural/social events, and if lucky to be touring with one of the more relaxed North Korean guides, photography freedom with the men and woman of the North Korean military is likely to be allowed – one such place where we had freedom to mingle with the troops was the at the 2012 Kimilsungia Flower Exhibition.
The Kimilsungia is a hybrid cultivar of orchid originally created in Indonesia. Official North Korean accounts tell of how Kim Il-sung admired the orchid during a botanical garden tour while on a state visit to Indonesia. Upon his inquiries about the flower President Sukarno promptly informed Kim Il-sung that it was as of yet unnamed, but due to his already performed great exploits for the benefit of mankind, it was apparent the flower must be named the Kimilsungia.
The flower exhibition is highlighted by the many elaborate arrangements created by and gifted from the foreign embassies based in Pyongyang, as well as the numerous North Korean military units and domestic social institutions. The huge arrangements gifted from the armed forces are adorned with statues of guns, swords, tanks, and missiles. Other arrangements often highlight the history of Kim Il-sung with models of his birthplace or other important historical sites associated with his life.
I had relatively low expectations for the flower exhibition but ended up delighted by the many military arrangements on display, especially the ones with models of the controversial test missile, and most of my group agreed that having shared our visit with large numbers of military personnel made the Kimilsungia Flower Exhibition a highlight of the trip – It’s the randomness in which you get to mingle with the armed forces that makes a visit to North Korea so much fun, perhaps if we had made the visit the following day the exhibition would have been empty and the experience much less special.
There is a separate Kimjongilia flower festival held each February during the birthday celebrations for Kim Jong-il. Neither the Kimjongilia or the Kimilsungia is the national flower of North Korea, that honor goes to the magnolia.
Someone in my group asked why the Kimilsungia was a smaller flower than the Kimjongilia, our North Korean guide simply said that that was not a wise question to ask……
Enough about Iran, lets go back to the DPRK – 2013 May trip being planned!
I’m planning on guiding a spring 2013 DPRK tour with spots currently available! This could become a very interesting trip if a project I’m in collaboration with gets approved – we might bring along someone who would be filming documentary footage – it seems that the fact that an American guide running custom private trips in the DPRK makes for an interesting story.
I was hoping to schedule the trip for one of the spring DPRK holidays but it looks like I will be occupied during those times, I’m joining up with a special private group to explore newly opened routes in the remote Northeast and will be the first American to cross the land border from China into the DPRK at the Tumen crossing.
But there is a certain advantage to skipping the holidays, the DPRK gets crowded with tourists at those times (believe it or not) and there can be some disappointment when expectations for promised events, transportation, and lodging aren’t met.
So instead of the crazy late April holiday season I’m looking at a leisurely 6 day trip in early May. Perhaps we will be the only western tourists there, the county will be ours and I can guarantee we will be provided with my pick of the very best North Korean guides. The trip I’m sketching out would include all the classic Pyongyang sites and nightlife, along with a visit to the DMZ and overnight in Kaesong, and a visit to the west coast industrial sites and an overnight at the Nampo Hot Spring Hotel.
Agdam Mosque – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
To make our visit to the war torn ghost town of Agdam we had to illegally enter Azerbaijan – which we did with surprising ease via Armenia and the non recognized breakaway Republic of Nagorno Karabakh. The Nagorno Karabakh visa was easy to obtain, requiring just 10 USD and a short wait at the government ministry building in their funky little capital of Stepanakert. My Nagorno Karabakh visa is coolest looking full page visa sticker in my passport, but by having it I am now forbidden to enter Azerbaijan for the life of my current passport – but don’t tell anyone, I have never had a desire to go there anyways.
Crossing the Armenia/Nagorno Karabakh border – my illegal entry into Azerbaijan.
Agdam is a place of tragedy, a city once of 40,000 inhabitants, now completely deserted after having experienced the full hell of war and genocide. Agdam was a base for Azerbaijani forces attacking the Karabakh region during their 1993 war, captured by Armenian forces, and was utterly destroyed during the subsequent Azerbaijani siege and Armenian last stand. It now remains as a demilitarized zone with the city mosque as the only building still intact. Completely abandoned, trees grow in the middle of streets, livestock randomly graze inside bombed out buildings, and locals from nearby villages make regular visits to scavenge for usable building materials. Visits and photography there by tourists is illegal.
View of Agdam via Google Earth.
We made our visit as part of our Young Pioneer’s Iranian Tour Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh Extension research trip. Most taxi drivers flatly refused to take us to Agdam. Being illegal for us to visit, a taxi driver bringing foreign tourists there could lose his license if caught, but we finally found one who had a son high up in military command and he assured us it would be no problem. What we whitenesed on our visit was utter devastation with conditions on the ground a testament that its nickname, the Hiroshima of the Caucuses, was well deserved.
We made our way to the mosque in the city center and climbed its minarets for a 360 degree view of the destruction. From the top I could have had some amazing photos but we were quickly detected by a military patrol camped in a nearby bombed out building and forced to flee and hide. After making it back to our driver he reiterated we had nothing to fear while under his care, maybe so, but I really didn’t want to risk having my data cards confiscated and losing all my Iran pics.
Besides Agdam we also visited the quirky little village of Vank. Fixed up by a local born philanthropist, this eccentric used his foreign made riches to promote local tourism and to create such oddities as the Titanic Hotel and a special Tiger Mountain Lover’s Retreat. Vank is a perfect base for visiting amazing nearby mountains, pristine country scenery, and ancient monasteries. A visit to Agdam, a stay at the Titanic Hotel, and exploration around Vank will certainly be on the itinerary if you make next year’s trip with us!
View of Agdam from atop a minaret.
Destroyed building and mosaics in Agdam, Nagorno Karabakh.
Iranian suit shops; there was an entire street of them just meters from our Tehran hotel. In their display windows mannequins show off the most hideously fantastic men’s wear I have ever seen (although the shops in the mariachi district of Mexico City are stiff competition). Haberdasheries of bling and of the cheesiest swag, these suits are Gangnam Iran style and I wanted one! Unfortunately our group quickly moved on from Tehran leaving me with an intense longing to return for a fitting.
On the final day of the tour we returned to Tehran where we had a very special dinner planned at the Armenian Club, the one place in Iran where non Muslims can drink. I didn’t have much time but I let Gareth Johnson, owner of Young Pioneer Tours and trip leader, and Marko Moudrak, “the Russian”, in on my plan; with just 45min before our dinner reservation we would get fitted for ridiculous suits (and I should be careful calling them that, I’m told they are wedding groom suits), surprise our group, and crash the Armenian Club with our new fabulous bling……and that’s exactly what we did.
But it was the following day when things really got ridiculous. Most of the group split up, many flying home, but the three of us with suits were traveling overland to cross the border into Armenia on our Young Pioneer Tours research trip for next year’s Armenia/Nagorno Karabach Iran trip extension. We did 11 hours in a mini bus to the Armenian border in our suits, crashing dusty truck stops and leaving locals slack jawed in disbelief in our wake. A dare had been put out there that we wouldn’t have the balls to cross the Iranian border in our suits, of course we did, although there were plenty of dirty looks shown our way by the police and customs officials – they kept us waiting a good hour giving us plenty of time to consider our stupidity, but in the end our exit stamps were issued.
The Iranian soldiers at the final check point had a better sense of humor and just laughed at us during their document check and we were finally released to make the cold and lonely walk over the bridge into Armenia. The Armenians greeted us kindly, and despite some problems with our electronic visas, professionally worked to sort everything out. After an hour wait our passports were handed over to us and the young border official offered us a “welcome to Europe” and then with a sly smile, “so…. what the hell is up with those suits?”
At the Armenian Club in our suits.
In my Tehran suit shop.
At the tomb of the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
I haven’t been posting here for some time, not due to disinterest, but because I have been on a tour of Iran and independently traveling Armenia and the semi independent breakaway republic of Nagorno Karabakh, all without my laptop.
Making a trip to Iran has always been high up on my bucket list, but due to visa complexities for Americans, and dealing with remote and unresponsive Iranian tour companies, I have always believed a trip would be virtually impossible to setup. Luckily I met the owner of Young Pioneer Tours last spring, and over tasty North Korean draft beers at the Paradise Microbrewery, Gareth invited me to join up with his company’s second trip to Iran.
With Young Pioneer Tours getting into Iran as an American was not a problem at all. The visa process was effortless and they even accommodated my crazy request to pick up the visa at the Iranian Embassy in Budapest, Hungary.
Young Pioneers provided an extremely affordable tour that not only specialized in the all the must see historical sites and cities such as Shiraz, Isfahan, and Persepolis, but also hit the sites not normally visited by tourists such as the old US embassy, the Iran Iraq War Museum, Martyrs Cemetery, and the tomb of the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Driving by the old US Embassy – photos not allowed!
And don’t be afraid if you think you can’t handle a week in Iran without a drink, we were allowed access to the Armenia Club, the only place where you can legally get a vodka or bottle of wine as a foreigner – well actually it’s a gray area so it’s not exactly on the menu but booze is certainly available. Local moonshine is available too if you discretely ask the right people….but of course I can’t officially condone such behavior on this site.
Young Pioneers brought in 9 people on this trip, just the right size in my opinion, and they plan to continue with up to 2 or 3 trips a year. There were some slight restrictions for being an American but nothing like North Korea. Our local Iranian guide was required to escort me during our daily tours but in the evening after being officially dropped off at our hotel for the night I was allowed free time in the city.
Hanging out with locals in Shiraz.
This Iran trip was a huge success and a ton of fun. Currently I am traveling privately with Gareth, the owner of Young Pioneers on a research trip to develop an Iran extension option trip to Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh – more on that part of this adventure on a post to come. Right now I’m excited to announce that if anyone is interested in traveling to Iran with Young Pioneer Tours, through my referral I can get you 5% off on the trip. I can also get this discount for any YPT North Korea tour, or any other custom trip you would want to develop with them, so please write and let me help with your travel plans.