We are currently underway on Young Pioneer Tours’ Eurasian Adventure. Having made an epic 6 day crossing of the snow covered steppes of Mongolia and Russia on the Trans Siberian Express, I am now in Moscow after a week with no Internet or news from the outside world since Beijing.
For YPT founder, Gareth Johnson, several returning customers making the trip, and myself, the adventure started 16 days ago as we completed all the trip prep-work and obtained visas in Beijing. The YPT apartment turned into a frat house with men sleeping on every available couch and vaguely comfortable surfaces (I spent a few nights hot bunking with the intern), ordering massive amounts of pizza delivery, and getting up to general shenanigans (people who didn’t watch their backside got tasered!). We visited top end night clubs and proudly avoided all things cultural, but in the mornings we were busy working: making consular visits for visas, setting up trip logistics to unrecognized countries, and having lunches at a secret North Korean embassy restaurant.
I made 7 visits to the Belarusian Embassy, in the end sweet talking my way in and picking up my visa and passport on a day the consular was closed. The visa I finally received wont cover the time of my needed stay – I still need to visit the Belarus Embassy in Moscow to try to get the visa corrected.
With everything close to being sorted, on the early morning of Oct 6th we brought 5 customers to the Beijing Main Station, boarding our 2nd class Chinese sleeper compartments on the K3 Trans Siberian Express. Being a group of 7 delinquents we promptly headed to the dining car and drank 5 bottles of Chinese Great Wall wine. I snuck off for an afternoon nap, returning later for more wine until we got kicked out of the dining car for being drunkards.
We reached the Chinese side of the Mongolian border around eight thirty at night. Largely due to having to change the rail gauge Chinese border formalities take about 3 hours to complete. Passengers are usually let off and herded into the station, but we remained on board, our passenger car taken to a hanger and lifted to change the wheel assembly units – a fascinating experience.
Changing the rail gauge at the Mongolian border.
With the car rail gauge changed we waited for immigration. The attractive female officials of the Mongolian side, dressed up in fur hats, military outfits, and black leather boots were far more preferable to the dudes on the Chinese side. With customs finished, the bathrooms unlocked, and with the train heading north into Mongolia, I snuck into my top bunk for a sound nights sleep.
New day and new scenery; we are now rolling northbound across Mongolia with yurt dotted hills, pastures, and mountains passing our train windows. The temperature has dropped and shallow snow drifts cover the terrain. We still have our Chinese carriage but the food car has been changed out, now a Mongolian rig with intricately carved woodwork decorations, and an elaborate menu with only one meal available – nothing like the picture, but still tasty.
We hit Ulaanbaatar in the mid afternoon far a one hour stop. Our mission was to split up and buy bread, cheese, sausage, beer, vodka, mixers, and any other available treats. Ulaanbaatar is an ugly city with a certain charm that makes me want to return for a one week summer stay; I find the girls here attractive.
Despite warnings that Russain customs is intense and that we would need to be on our best behavior, our search for vodka was so successful that by the time we reached the 5 hour Mongolian/Russia border ordeal we were all excessively drunk. somehow they let us though without any major incident and we rolled on into Siberian Russia.
Mongolian dinner car.
Mongolian rail car detail.
Ulaanbaatar street life.
Woke up early (we are now on Moscow time) to the view of Lake Baikal out our window. With dark storm clouds on the horizon, and ferocious breaking waves on the shore, the largest fresh water lake in the world is truly impressive. Our passage along its southern shore took three hours. We seem to have settled into life on the train. The smells of 7 men sharing two cabins: cigarettes, stale beer, and spilled tins of Russian sardines has turned the cabins quite rank. I use baby wet wipes to “shower” with, I don’t think the other guys even try. The two Chinese compartment attendants don’t really do much other then watch DVDs and cook their meals in the wash room – we seem to be here fending for ourselves.
New sobriety laws have been passed in Russia and buying alcohol at the various stops is difficult but possible. We make our hushed requests for pivo (beer) and vodka at the station snack kiosks, with the attendant checking to see who is watching and advising us to hide he bottles in our jacket until back on our carriage.
The days roll by; it has gotten cold! The carriages are toasty, warmed by coal burning furnaces – we find it fun to get drunk, sneak past the attendant, and feed coal into them ourselves. It’s only early November but the Siberian air mass is already frigid, making our food and booze runs at station stops a test of endurance.
I try to pass the time by reading books, but this only raises ridicule from the other travelers who want to get drunk or simply find it amusing to mess with me. We found on our new 2nd hand iPad an app called Star Girl. A game whose demographic targets prepubescent girls, Star Girl has given us hours of entertainment as we go on dates, receive gifts from virtual boyfriends, and build our wardrobe with new outfits to increase our attraction points. The fact that we spend a lot of time in the virtual underwear shop is admittedly rather creepy – but a game that teaches young girls that having lots of boyfriend whose sole purpose are to give you gifts is even more disturbing then us enjoying the game.
Russian Siberian countryside.
Russian Siberian countryside.
Passing a Russian tank.
A station stop in Siberia.
Truck load of coal to warm the carriages.
Truck load of coal to warm the carriages.
Soldiers at the Pyongyang Party Foundation Monument – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
Im excited to announce my tentative spring/summer 2014 DPRK guiding schedule:
June Airport Tour – soon to be announced!
North/South Ultimate DMZ Tour: July 10th – July 19th
This is all tentative, largely based on when I get off my ship in the spring, and how long my summer vacation is. I don’t think I will have the vacation time to do both the May Day trip and Mt. Peaktu – my preference will be to work a little longer into May and guide Peaktu in August. These are all trips I have been penciled in for, I will certainly be guiding much more than this, but I wont know until spring time comes.
As I’m stuck here in Beijing, getting reading to lead Young Pioneer Tour’s Eurasian Adventure, I thought it might be useful to readers to describe the Russian visa process in Beijing.
Information online about the Russian visa process is rather dodgy, with many stories of frustrated travelers describing it as the worst visa experience of their lives. Our situation had three of us requiring visas, two people with Chinese residency paperwork, and myself only having a one year multiple entry tourist visa. We started yesterday in Beijing’s “Russia Town”, south of the San Li Tun district, and right next to the North Korean Embassy – we had a great lunch at a secret little DPRK restaurant used by embassy staff.
Our first idea was to search out an agent through a Russian travel agency. Starting at the Aliens Market (Russian market) we explored main avenues and side streets, discovering plenty of fur shops and freight exporters, but no travel shops. About to give up we inquired at a hotel which directed us to an unmarked travel agent who could facilitate visas.
Getting a normal Russian tourist visa in Beijing through an agent requires the following:
Chinese resident visa.
Travel insurance for citizens of Schengen member countries.
Passport photo on white background.
Filling out an application provided by the agent.
There were several options for pickup, but my friends opted for 3 working days at 1,800 RMB cost.
I don’t know the name of the agent, but her email and phone number are: firstname.lastname@example.org and 13910885537. Her small office is located in front of the Tianya Mansion shopping center on Yanbao Road, just west of Temple of the Sun Park.
Although I only have a Chinese tourist visa the agent would have attempted to get me a Russian tourist visa, but she only gave the odds of success to be 50%, money back if denied. Given time restraints this wasn’t an option for me.
If you have a Chinese resident visa, plan to skip the agent, and get your Russian visa directly through the Embassy, my understanding is you would require the following:
Chinese resident visa.
Travel insurance for citizens of Schengen member countries.
Passport photo on white background.
Application – provided at the embassy.
Invitation letter and hotel voucher – provided by an internet agent.
Photocopy of passport photo page.
Because I only hold a tourist visa, today I went to the Russian Embassy and applied for a transit visa. The process was rather strait forward, requiring the following:
Application – provided by the embassy.
One passport photo – white background.
Copy of the Trans Siberian train ticket, and copy of my exit train ticket.
Proof of visa to next county – Ukraine is visa free for Americans.
Copy of passport photo page.
We arrived at the Embassy consular entrance before 9 AM and were first in line. Service was prompt, helpful, and friendly (by Russian standards), and I was finished with the process within an hour. 5 working day pickup cost approximately 800 RMB; I paid approximately 1,500 RMB for overnight service.
The Russian transit visa allows 10 days maximum in country, allowing for time on the train and stopover in Moscow.
With all luck my Russian transit visa is processed without any problems and tomorrow I can start the Belarus visa process!
Most warmer month DPRK tour itineraries include a visit Pyongyang’s Kaeson Fun Fair – it has the biggest roller coasters and is centrally located next to the Arch of Triumph. But other options for those looking for their adrenalin fix exist; next to May Day Stadium on Rungra Island is the newly constructed Rungra Island Funfair and Pleasure Park. The sprawling 100 hector complex actually comprises two separate amusement parks and a dolphinarium – unfortunately we missed the dolphin show on my visit. The Kaeson Fun Fair may have the blockbuster rides, but the amusements at the Rungra Island Funfair are more surreal; check out the crazy mouse roller coaster and the Mexican sombrero ride in the pictures below:
Volleyball Cheerleaders at Mt. Chilbo Home Stay – new routes to this area of the DPRK have been authorized!
We have just heard from our partners in the DPRK, and are very happy to announce a few new very exciting new routes into and out of the DPRK starting from next month.
Entering the country
It is now possible to enter the country from Hamyong, Rason, or visit Chongjin, and Chilbo, then take a charter flight to Pyongyang
Exciting the country
It is now possible to have a standard DPRK Tour (Pyongyang etc), charter flight to Mt Chilbo, and exit via Hamhyong, or most excitingly through the Rason SEZ.
This great news as it will mean we no longer have to exit via China, and most importantly no longer require triple, or even quadruple Chinese visas, with a double entry visa being sufficient.
We are still waiting for exact prices of the charter flight, which after we receive will start planning itineraries accordingly. This is something we have been pushing for for quite some time, and are extremely excited about.
We have had great news from our partners in the DPRK and China that as of now Sinuiju will now be open to day tourists from western countries.
Visitors require a valid passport of at least 6 month, and need to apply for a travel permit which will take 4 days to process.
Currently citizens of the USA, Japan, and Republic of Korea cannot join the tours.
The tours are restricted to days at present, but will be extended to overnight when CITS finish the new hotel in August.
YPT plans to run group trips every Sunday, as well as offering the ability to do independent trips throughout the week. We are also working on having Sinuiju as standalone extension for those people returning from a “mainland” DPRK tour, amongst other things.
We will be running a tester trip on May 26th, as well as meeting our partners for further negotiations. We aim to have more up to date news as soon as possible.
Propaganda art at the Rason SEZ shoe factory – unfortunately not for sale.
I have been reading through your website after a friend put the idea of a NK trip into my head. The idea of seeing NK before too much changes (example of Suddam’s Palace before his fall compared to after) just wont get out of my head. While there is surprisingly a lot of information about the tours on offer, various questions still elude me. Would you be able to do a detailed article on how to get the most out of a NK holiday? Maybe some of my questions are more suited to a private tour with friends which is why they don’t pop up as most tours seem to be group booking with random people. After going so many times, I couldn’t think of a better person to ask.
- How much should you tip a guide? Some websites are saying up to 10 euro per guide per day from each group member… that would make them extremely wealthy compared to he average NK citizen after only 1 tour? Do the guides keep the money or is it given to the government and they are paid a wage?
Our policy is to tip 7 Euro per day per participant of the tour (or equivalent in hard currency). The cash will be pooled together and split something like 40% – 40% – 20% between the two guides and driver. The money goes to the tourism workers, guides, and driver, and is not handed over to the government.
Yes, access to hard currency does make the guides wealthy in the DPRK, but remember that money will be spread out and shared between the guide’s extended family and their networks of support. The wage paid by the government for the guiding job is negligible.
- How much cash do you need, some people say 200-300 euro others up to thousands. Besides tips and extra food/alcohol and small but expensive souvenirs, what else can I buy? And realistically how much per day should I plan to have to spend including tipping?
For a seven day trip based in Pyongyang 400 dollars should be adequate. Of course there are no banks or ATM machines so I always play it safe and bring more than I need. If you really love propaganda art perhaps consider bringing more, hand painted posters cost around 60 Euros, hand embroidered masterpieces start around 200 Euros. Also consider your price for the Arirang Mass Games ticket if you go in late summer/fall, and don’t forget your tip!
- Everything is in Euros and they say ‘have lots of small denominations.’ How small? what is the average price of items I would be spending money on? Do I need 50 Euro in small coins or are we talking 1 euro plus to buy anything?
Actually USD, Euro, and RMB are all acceptable. Small bills are helpful – don’t come with a single 500 euro bill, nobody will break it. Bills below the 50 denomination will be the most useful. When spending hard currency be prepared to receive mixed change, perhaps it could come in a mix of Euro coins and small RMB bills.
Things you might spend small bills on: an extra coffee in the morning or after lunch, a game of pool or bowling, a beer or two at night, sending postcards, bottled water…..
- In one of your articles is says that you gave the guide several euros to buy more beer. How accepted is this practice? Would they be able to get you other things not normally provided? Traditional meals from local restaurants? Memorabilia that isn’t sold in a government run tourist stand?
Using hard currency and having our guide get beers at local cost was a special circumstance, I wouldn’t normally expect it. You might be able to have them get you ice cream or other local treats, just ask and see, but unfortunately all sit down meals will be at authorized tourism restaurants. It is possible to order extra food off the menu but the cost will be out of your pocket and in hard currency.
- How can you get the guide to allow more time for photos or other small side deviations? (if there was a nice park and you wanted to stop and take some photos but it wasn’t on the itinerary).
Easiest way to get this accomplished is to act as a responsible visitor and respect their photography rules and customs. When you gain their trust it’s much more likely your guides will accommodate a request to stop and check out a passing site.
- Taking home a piece of art would be high on my list of things to do. Where would this be available? Is there local art of personal expression or is it controlled art by the government? Again is this something the guide would need to source?
Not on many tour itineraries I would try to get your guide to fit in a trip to the embroidery institute. It is possible to commission work there, or you can browse through their showroom. Also mention to your western guide your interest in art so they can work early on to ensure stops at showrooms and galleries are including in the itinerary.
- Are there stores that would have antique items for sale, old books or small items that would make a unique gift, rather than a commemorative pin or stamps? Again is this something the guide would need to source?
I have not seen anything like this, and while possible, acquiring antiques is only done by a few people with long and developed relationships and after many return visits.
- When attending the Mass Games, is there any advantage (photography wise) to purchasing a much more expensive seat? Is there 220 euro better photos in VIP section compared to 80 euro standard seat if you have a good camera and quality lens?
I have only been to Arirang Mass Games once and consider my 150 Euro 1st class seat to be completely adequate. We had a table which was perfect for a small pocket tripod (they don’t like large pro tripods). You have a great view wherever you sit. If you go for the 80 Euro third class section consider bringing a monopod.
- You mentioned at night there is only bars and theme parks to go to. Can you bar hop from hotel to hotel until closing time? Possibly to meet up with other tour groups?
If you want to go out at night take a close look at the itineraries offered by tour companies. My company (Young Pioneer Tours) routinely offers nightly visits to the various drinking venues, but bar hopping really isn’t an option. The majority of tour groups will be based at the Yanggakdo Hotel, with the best place to mingle with other groups being the hotel’s microbrewery bar.
- Are the women working in the hotels, as guides or ones you can interact with all married? If not what is the etiquette for social interaction? Are they banned from physical interaction with westerners after hours? (obviously not talking about prostitution as that is illegal, free will interaction) I wouldn’t want to offend anyone the same way you wouldn’t ask a woman in Muslim country as it is not socially/religiously acceptable.
No, they are not all married, some are single, and some are dating. Interacting with people in the tourism industry is fine, you can invite the girl that works at the Viennese coffee shop to play foosball, or have a dance with a BBQ waitress, but these interactions will be part of their workday and any meeting up with an off duty girl is impossible – as is any type of intimate interaction.
Your female tour guide will probably have a beer with the group after hours at one of the hotel bars, but please be aware of the situation, often the DPRK guides can be seen meeting up with long time friends and enjoying some quiet time after a long day – drunken tour members crashing their private time is not particularly welcome but a common scene.
- There is a lot of talk about local beer (I am not a beer drinker), do they have local spirits? (excluding rice based alcohol) Whiskey?
I’m a beer and wine guy myself; I have seen some imported whiskeys available, but I suggest you bring in your own bottle from Chinese duty free. There is absolutely no problem with BYO in DPRK. Local spirits besides soju include blueberry and apricot wines, and various snake liqueurs.
- Do you have any recommendation for non itinerary items you can suggest to the guides on a standard 7 day tour? Seeing a sporting, art or cultural event. Do you need to tip to get these added on for the day or only pay entry to the event (if required).
You just need to enquire what is happening in Pyongyang during you stay, it is possible for the guides to arrange a visit to the circus, dolphin show, revolutionary opera, sports events, pizza restaurant, shooting range, or maybe even the Moranbong Band concert. These activities are not held on a daily basis, cost extra, and your entire group will need to agree on making the activity. I would suggest approaching your western guide to help setup any extra activities.
Sorry I know the list is long, but I tried to make it concise. I feel the above would really help anyone seriously considering going to NK and help in the planning process. Your site and views on NK was inspiring, to be able to show the unbiased beauty of a country with so much negative press is a rare talent, keep up the good work.
Hanging out with the Pyongyang lamb BBQ girls.
Im off to Pyongyang tomorrow to lead a Young Pioneer Tours group on the first ever North Korean fishing trip. This will be my last DPRK trip of the season – wish us good weather, good photography, and hungry fish!
I’m back to the ship June 8th, hopefully then I can settle down and get caught up on all the photos and blogging. My next vacation will be in the fall. I already have some ideas for Oct. DPRK trips, if interested plus send me an email.
On a tank statue at the Rason kindergarten.
I just returned to Yanji, China from yet another epic trip to North Korea. Keep an eye on my Instagram over the next few days for the latest pics from this trip. Tomorrow I have an overnight train to Beijing and return to Pyongyang to guide a 9 day fishing trip starting May 13th.
Kindergarten Performance Chongjin, North Korea – Photo by Joseph A Ferris III
With so many great pics from my last trip, such as the one above, it’s unfortunate that I’m in such a rush with less then a week turn-abound between DPRK trips. I have had no time to give my photography work and this blog the attention they deserve – arranging visas, train tickets, sleep, laundry, and buying fishing equipment has taken precedence.
Tomorrow I head back up to Yanji to bring a small group of DPRK return visitors into the Rason Special Economic Zone.
Does Rason ring a bell? It’s where American tour guide Kenneth Bae was recently arrested and convicted for unspecified crimes against the government.
I have been receiving plenty of warnings from concerned people that I will become the next pawn on the international stage, but please remember that unlike Kenneth Bae, we will be engaged in legitimate tourism. Laptops and hard drives full of religious materials, and videos profiling human rights abuses will be the last thing I will carry across the border with me. So please don’t worry about me!
Extremely rare North Korean stamps in my passport. Americans, as well as most tourists, get their stamps on an external visa which they don’t get to keep. This is for the land crossing at Namyang\Tumen border and may be a first ever event.
Girls on roller skates in Chongjin City, North Korea. Get a sneak peak of my most recent trip via my latest uploads to Instagram.
I’m safely back in China after an amazing week in the rarely visited Northeast region of the DPRK. Of all my trips to North Korea this has been my favorite. Our locally based guides of the Chilbo San Tourism Company were full of enthusiasm and provided us access to sites and experiences which are inaccessible if coming up to the region with the Pyongyang based KITC company.
We were the first western tour group to cross the Tumen/Namyang border on a route to Chongjin only traveled by NGOs and Chinese tourists in the past. Our ride to Chongjin took us on secondary mountain roads never traveled by any westerners before when we found our route blocked by an overturned truck and were forced to make a 7 hour detour – this was not a typical DPRK tour.
During the course of the trip we hiked a mountain peak in a snowstorm, taught kids American football in a small random village (we were forced to stop due to a washed out road), played with locals in volleyball matches, visited a middle school never visited by any tourist before and taught English in the foreign language class, and had a ride on a fishing boat in the Eastern Sea of Korea – I even won a North Korean traditional wrestling tournament at the Mt. Chilbo Home Stay.
I’m going to be resting up for a few days in Yanji and Beijing before I turn around and head back into DPRK to lead a tour to the Rason Special Economic Zone.
Waiting for my Manila to Beijing flight for yet another North Korea trip this week.
On April 22nd I start the Extreme North East Tour and will be the first American tourist to cross the Tumen land border.
Beijing – Tumen – Namyang – Hyeryong – Chongjin – Mt Chilbo – Rason – Yanji
In November 2012, YPT, and Troy became the first westerner to cross the Tumen border in Namyang, into the extreme North-East of the DPRK. This will be the second group of Western Tourists to enter the country via Namyang and to undertake this route!
Our trip starts off either in Beijing, or meeting us directly in Tumen to cross on foot over the bridge and into the DPRK, and Namyang, where your extreme DPRK experience starts with a bang. This can be considered the most intense border crossing in the country, with every piece of paper that you own, and all your electronics and bags being given the most thorough going over you are ever likely to receive in any border! It might sound scary, but the intensity makes it quite the experience.
We are then met by our extremely friendly guides and driven to Hyeryong, a city only just opened to western tourists, and hometown of not only the most beautiful women in the country (according to the Koreans), but also mother Kim Jong Suk, before heading on to the infamous Chongjin and the scenically beautiful Mt Chilbo, where we indulge in the only home-stay available in the country. This is an extremely unique and interesting experience, and your night spent drinking and eating with the Korean family will undoubtedly be unforgettable.
Following this we cross the internal border from the DPRK “mainland” into the Rason Special Economic Zone, currently the only place in the DPRK where foreigners can change money at the market rate, use local money and even shop in the private markets! Thus combining the least seen parts of this country, with the practically unseen.
We then finish the tour Yanji, Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, an area with the largest Korean-Chinese population in China.
I have a March 30th flight with Koryo Airlines to North Korea – the first of many!
A lot has happened since the last time I was in the DPRK (I went to Iran on my last vacation): nuclear and long range missile tests, new sanctions vigorously enforced by the Chinese, suspect internet hacker attacks to both North and South Korea, a visit by Dennis Rodman, cell phone access, and a brief experiment allowing 3G internet access to foreigners – the handful of foreign residents may still use the service, but access to tourists has been rescinded.
Other changes, less remarkable, but of interest to those traveling to North Korea: the US spy ship Pueblo has been moved to the Homeland Liberation War Museum (the ship and museum are currently closed until this summer), the Mausoleum has reopened with the body of Kim Jong-il on display, and new routes in the North have been opened to tourism – this April I’m set to be the first American tourist to cross the Tumen/Namyang border into the remote North of the country.
There have been big changes for me as well; I make my return to North Korea as a guide for Young Pioneer Tours. The recent raised tensions have unfortunately made our North Koren partners less than enthusiastic about my new position. KITC does not want to be seen working too closely with Americans at the moment – visas have been issued, and Americans can still tour, but when I’m in country I need to officially present myself as a lowly agent working through YPT, not for them. We hope this will change once tensions ease.
I had plans to take advantage of the new 3G access to live blog and interact through social media from inside North Korea, but as mentioned above this service has been rescinded. When I’m outside North North Korea people can still follow me via the various social media outlets I’m on:
Facebook Page – Instagram @josephferrisiii – Twitter @JosephFerrisIII
The grand lineup of my spring DPRK trips:
March 30th – April 6th: Private/custom Pyongyang, Nampo, Sariwan, Kaesong, and Mt. Myohyang.
April 22nd – April 29th: VIP private investors tour to the Rason Free Trade Zone and first time visits to newly opened sites in the far north – Tumen – Namyang – Hyeryong – Chongjin – Mt Chilbo – Rason – Yanji.
May 30-June 3 Rason cruise, Rajin Port, to the Mt Kumgang.
More Air Koryo photos posted below:
The journey there will be an epic two week adventure from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans Siberian Express, touring through Belarus and Chernobyl in the Ukraine, and finally spending a few days in Moldova, the only ex-Soviet republic to vote the communists back in!
Phil Le Gal visited Transnistria on one of Young Pioneer Tour’s Eurasian Adventure Tours. He has graciously allowed me to share his photos and comments on the experience:
Only a couple of hours away from Europe’s biggest cities exist countries we know very little about. Sitting between western and eastern Europe is Transnistria, the “Prydnistrovska Moldavska Respublika” (also called Trans-Dniestr or Transdniestria). Tucked between Moldova and neighboring Ukraine, Transinistria is an unknown and officially non-existent territory.
After the fall of the USSR Transnistria found itself integrated to Moldova. Transnistria proclaimed its independence in 1990 which led to the 1990-1992 independence war between the breakaway republic of Transnistria, backed by the Russia and the republic of Moldova. Although the ceasefire has held, the territory’s political status remains unresolved. The outcome of the war was the birth of the republic of Transnistria.
Transnistria is currently only recognized by three UN non-members: Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia, themselves part of the list of states with limited recognition and not recognized by the international community. Transnistria has its own constitution, parliament, central bank and money (the transnistrian rubble), army, flag, national anthem, passports and even stamps. Still it is officially considered as being part of the Moldovan territory.
The border between Moldova and Transnistria, although not recognized, is very real with several checkpoints from both Transinistrian and Moldavian guards. The Prydnistrovska Moldavska Respublika boast many of the USSR relics, war memorials and soviet era style architecture.
Welcome to Transnistria, Europe’s forgotten country:
A young Moldovan army recruit proudly guards the eternal flame at the war memorial Eternity.
It is dedicated to the soldiers who fell in World War II and the military conflict in Transnistria.
The biggest statue of Vladimir Lenin outside Russia is displayed in front of the Transnistrian parliament. According to the 2006 referendum 97.2% of the population voted in favor of “independence from Moldova and free association with Russia”. EU and several other countries didn’t acknowledge these results.
A man is wearing a traditional costume.
Tiraspol – Transnistria (Moldova). Entrance of Tiraspol’s central Pobedi Park (or “Victory” park) containing a 50’s style amusement park.
Remains from the war, like this Russian MIG plane are left outside rusting.
All photos by Phil Le Gal.
Phil Le Gal is a French documentary photographer based in London UK specializing in photo documentary, reportage and portraiture. He is passionate about stories, travels, revealing how others live, the contradictions and oddities of this world. He is currently undertaking a Master in Photojournalism and Documentary photography at the London college of Communication.
Interested in joining me for the 2013 Eurasian Adventure Tour? Email me at email@example.com and I will set you up with a 5% trip discount!
This fall I will be helping out on YPT’s Eurasian Adventure Tour!
Beijing – Moscow – Minsk – Kiev – Chernobyl – Transnistria – Chisinau – Bucharest – Sofia – Macedonia – Kosovo – Tirana
Group 1 (Beijing – Moscow) = €695
Group 2 (Moscow – Minsk – Kiev)= €255 / 950
Group 3 (Kiev – Pripya – Kiev) = €349 / 1299
Group 4 (Kiev – Odessa – Transnistria – Moldova – Romania) = €249 /1548
Group 5 (Bucharest – Sofia – Skopje – Kosovo – Tirana) = €350 / 1898
Quite frankly one of our favorite tours, our third annual Eurasian Adventure Tour!
The tour starts in Beijing, with an overnight stay and optional visit to the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao, before embarking on the 6 day epic that is the Trans-Mongolian, or the “party train” as it also known. We already have a number of people signed up for this part, so if you are considering taking the train anyway, why not join us fun young people?
Following our arrival in Moscow we start to fully embrace Soviet nostalgia, by visiting all of Moscow’s top sites, before taking the train to the most Soviet of all republics Belarus, and it’s capital Minsk, where we will be seeing such treasures as the former residence of Lee Harvey-Oswald, as well as staying in our own little pimping apartment.
This leads us on to group 3, our big group, where we will be visiting not only Pripyat (Chernobyl), but also doing the extreme missile base tour, as well as sampling the night time delights on a bar crawl. Accommodation? Old style Soviet Hotel, complete with rude staff, peeling wallpaper, and more corruption than you can shake a sickle at.
After group 3 leave us in Kiev, group 4 continue firstly to Odessa, then onto Tiraspol, capital of the breakaway republic of Transnistria. If you do not know anything about the place, Google it. And if you want off the beaten track this is it. There is one hostel in the whole country, and we are the first group to ever inquire about going there. A true Soviet Time-warp. Following a few nights here, we visit Moldova, the only ex-Soviet republic to vote the communists back in! Before taking the overnight bus to Bucharest, which as a flight hub, and will make it easier to arrange onward flights.
Group 5 completes the full communist chic element, with us visiting the former homes of Ceausescu, Tito, and Hoxxa, via Romania, Macedonia and Albania, as well as visiting the contemporary hot spots that are Mitrovice, and Kosovo, before finishing in Albania, which has ferry, road, and air links to aid your onward journey.
YPT are all about budget, and this tour is by no means any different, many companies, charge over 1000 Euro just for the trans-Mongolian, or 250 Euro just for a day at Pripya, we have managed to budget the whole thing, Beijing – Tirana, over 26 barmy days, to just €1898, all in. With the tour being split into 5 manageable parts, each part is completely optional, with guests having full autonomy to do any part they fancy, from just 1, to all 5
Join me for one leg, or for the entire crazy journey – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a trip discount!
Tirana, Albania – from my travels 10 years ago.
Come see the Ryugyong “Hotel of Doom” – Photo by Joseph A Ferris III
I will be going to North Korea in just 6 weeks!
Be assured that for the tourism industry it’s still business as usual – the boss at Young Pioneer Tours, who is entering the DPRK today, says:
And whilst these incidents always bring talk of sanctions, or strained relations with other countries, it is our experience that it does not, and should not affect the tourist industry, with our 2013 program going ahead as planned.
I had a fully booked trip but this nuke test caused a few people to drop out – there is still time for those brave enough to join me!
March 30th – April 6th: Pyongyang, Nampo, Sariwan, Kaesong, and Mt. Myohyang – 1395 Euro.
We have two weeks until the deadline for the visa applications – serious inquires only.
I have posted the full itinerary for this trip in the comments.
I’m the GM of Koryo Tours. The leading North Korea travel company. In this capacity I have been to the country 118 times thus far. Glad to answer any questions about what it’s like to visit North Korea.
Simon from Koryo Tours at the Mt. Myohyangsan Friendship Exhibition – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
I have pulled the best questions and answers from the session:
Please note that the grammar and punctuation reflect the nature of the real time Q&A format.
Do you know why Americans (and only Americans) are not allowed to leave the country by train? (Assuming that rule is still in force.)
That rule is still in force and honestly I have no idea why. After all many Americans have a second passport and can just use that for travel. When you travel in or out by train you don’t see anything particularly sensitive anyway. I would expect this rule to change before long (but I have been expecting that for some time!).
What would you say is the oddest custom they have?
Finding something odd is subjective of course. A lot of the traditional rituals that Korea has would be perfectly familiar to people in South Korea but very alien to anyone who hadn’t been to either place (or to East Asia). Surely though the most quintessentially North Korean rituals are mass rallies. While we don’t attend these you do see them happening n the TV and while passing by. These are often not even broadcast very extensively as they happen so frequently. These are a part of life for everyone in North Korea but something that most people outside of the country have never taken part in. I’d distinguish between these and political rallies in western countries as the latter are of course voluntary. North Koreans don’t really choose whether to attend their rallies or not
Have any of your clients gotten themselves in trouble while visiting?
No, the people we take in are well prepared and know the rules, regulations, etc. Nobody wants to get in trouble in North Korea, no to get anyone else in trouble there so people do tend to be fairly well behaved.
What are some precautionary measures that you or your company would advise tourists to take before visiting (ie don’t wear THIS, don’t bring a camera HERE). Is there a particular season or time of year that you find a big spike in the number of tourists visiting? And sub question: what is the place like ‘off-season’?
Low season is winter; its very cold and the days are short. In fact tourists are not permitted to go there between Dec 15 – Jan 15 usually. High season is when there are a run of national holidays and big events. For the Mass Games which takes place every year recently between Aug – Oct the largest numbers of tourists visit. Many Chinese go at this time too so there are times when it seems the place is overrun with foreign visitors. in terms of what can be taken into the country it was always mobile phones that were not allowed. This has now changed and you can take them in, you need to buy a local SIM (50 EUR) though and the cost of international calls is very very high. But it is possible to take in overseas phones now. Cameras etc are fine too, there is a rule against lenses over 150mm but it has been years since I’ve seen that enforced. Computers are fine but there is no internet available for tourists. While the locals dress conservatively it is fine for tourists to dress as they like, but at the most significant places such as the Mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il it is expected that tourists will make a bit of an effort – long trousers, no flip-flops, shirt, that kind of thing. Also visitors are advised not to give anything to locals which could be compromising for them – religious texts, western CDs, that kind of thing (although they can be taken into the country). As is well known this can cause some problems for people who aren’t supposed to have such things.
Have you noticed any major changes in the country since Kim Jong Il died? Do you think the country will ever open up to the outside world without foreign intervention?
I haven’t noticed any major changes since Ki Jong Il died. Some surface changes are clearly visible (obvious stuff like more statues of Kim Jong Il, that kind of thing) and more mobile phones in the general population, more building work going on (almost all in Pyongyang), but this may well have happened regardless of his death. So we wait with hope of more substantive change that has been widely predicted, but thus far not materialized. As for opening up the country I honestly don’t know. People there deserve better lives, even the people with relatively comfortable lives, but how and when it will happen is beyond my knowledge. A lot has been predicted by various experts but it remains unclear. We live in hope though, fingers crossed for substantive and beneficial change before too long.
You mentioned people are interested in the outside world. How much do you tell them? What are their responses?
As the people we deal with are adults I feel that if they ask a question they should get an honest reply. People don’t really ask if other countries are better than theirs though, they usually ask about what kind of houses people live in, what jobs people have. What films are popular, what people abroad think of North Korea? I’m of the opinion that answering honestly is best, they wouldn’t ask if they didn’t want to know after all!
Do you think the North Koreans actually believe all the propaganda their government produces, or do they realize that the government is their enemy?
I would say that by and large most people take most news they are given at face value. There is only one official news source and this is not a new system, the vast vast majority of people there have never known anything else. However people talk to ach other, and a fair number of North Koreans have been abroad (mostly to China) and know certain things that run counter to some things they are told. So its a combination. Much of the propaganda people are told is about how Koreans are best (rather than that they have more stuff I mean) and this is a powerful message for people wanting something to make them feel better about their situation. Being able to even slightly credibly blame the outside world (usually it is the US) for their predicament makes people feel that they are toughing life out all-in-this-together a kind of blitz spirit. This is outlined very well in this book http://www.amazon.com/Cleanest-Race-Themselves-Melville-Publishing/dp/1935554344 by the way.
I caught the tail end of a show on NPR regarding the environment in NK. I recall that one of the things the guest noticed was the absence of small animals (squirrels, birds, etc). I think they were making the possible connection between that and food shortages, but since I missed most of the show, I could be wrong. Have you noticed anything similar?
Hard to be sure to be honest. You don’t see that many birds around although you do see them. Squirrels and other wildlife too. It may well be that they have been caught, etc I couldn’t say for sure. This would be more likely in the worst-hit areas of the country, the places with the biggest problems due to lack of food, however these places tourists can’t go to so I can’t say for sure
Thank you for doing this AMA as well as producing documentaries. When asked, I always suggest that everyone watch State of Mind. I’ve been saving up to do one of your tours for about 3 years now but I’ve been struggling with my curiosity to see it first hand, but also my morale outrage that I’d be lining the pockets of “The Kims”. If I took one of your tours, can you please tell the break-down of where my money would go? Again, I’m extremely interested in experiencing N. Korea first hand, but the thought that I’d be helping the State say, buy more weapons to “guard” and oppress more people in Yodok keeps me up at night.
Thanks for the comment. I answered this a bit in another reply but its a valid concern and a common one. We believe that engagement and humanization is a valid thing to be involved in, we also try to direct those interested in humanitarian issues to the right organizations and have a handful of small projects that we fund ourselves. As for the breakdown of where payment goes to explain this would require me to know the exact source cost of everything to be able to work out profit levels from things such as plane tickets, hotel bills, etc to be able to work out what tax is paid to the state by the organizations that we pay for goods and services. Sorry but I simply don’t know these numbers. Apologies for this.
Does the VICE-documentary about North Korea give a good insight of what going to North Korea looks like? It’s on youtube if you have not heard of it.
The Vice guide is interesting for sure. It’s a wildly sensational piece though shot on what is a pretty normal tourist trip. Obviously the magic of editing/camera angles/editorial/etc can be used to make anything appear in any way but I would say it is worth watching with a slightly skeptical eye. It’s entertaining though obviously.
A question from the interview:
I saw a short video online made by a guy who visited North Korea back in 2011. The video is shot like it’s hidden in his jacket or something. It seems like you were just freely taking pictures. How were you able to do that? Is it a misconception that photos and video aren’t allowed in North Korea?
There are quite a few sensationalized videos out there and I think they present an entirely wrong impression of what the tourist experience in the DPRK is all about. There are some photography rules, but when the North Korean guides see that the group is diligent about following those rules they tend to relax and let everyone have some photography freedom. It helps that I keep my groups relatively small and manageable at around 10 people. With a group that size we can really develop a positive relationship, developing an optimum situation where the guides feel secure and in control enough to let us enjoy more freedom while not feeling that we are putting them at risk.
Conversely I have witnessed a full tour bus of about 30 camera touting foreigners clearly disregarding the photography rules within the first couple hours of their trip. The North Korean guides are responsible for the rules broken by the tourists under their care, and this group’s North Korean guides were clearly upset. The remedy to these situations is easy, punish the tour group by restricting access to sites. That group was allowed to drive to sites but only got to visit the parking lots. We saw them restricted to the bus at the Hamhung fertilizer plant, a site where we were given full and unrestricted photography access.
The Q & A above allows me the opportunely to highlight a few photos from my experience with the tour group that lost its access to sites over its disregard to the photography rules.
Both tour group crossed the West Sea Barrage on the same morning. The above photo shows the entrance to the eight-kilometer-long road crossing – this is a perfectly acceptable photo.
There were amazing photography opportunists as both buses got stuck in the midst of a crowd of North Korean locals on bicycles; barrage road transportation was delayed as ships passed through the locks. We were directed not take pictures at this time, we didn’t. Those on the other bus did and lost access to other sites because of it.
Locals waiting for ships to pass through the locks – I took the above photo from the West Sea Barrage visitors center on the hill above, we were not prohibited to take photos from there.
We later met the other tour group at the Hamhung Fertilizer Plant. We were granted full access to the site. The other group never developed their relationship with their guides and were restricted to the bus and not allowed to take photos.
Below are more photos from our visit to the Hamhung Fertilizer Plant:
A painting of North Korean fisherman, Pyongyang Mansudae Art Studio, North Korea.
The managing director and owner of Young Pioneer Tours and myself are teaming up to guide the first ever North Korean fishing trip!
The details are still being worked out but the highlights will include:
Fishing on the banks of the Taedong River
Fishing on a boat in the Taedong river
Fishing in the Sijung Lagoon
BBQ Seafood lunch on Wonsan beach
Fishing in East Sea from Jangdok Island
BBQ clams on the Wonsan pier
Visit Pyongyang’s New Dolphinarium
Afternoon of Golf
In addition to knocking back a few beers and fishing with North Korean old timers, we will be visiting the classic Pyongyang, Kaesong, and Wonsan sites, including a visit to the the Mausoleum for a viewing of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung.
Be part of something never done before, but we need interest to make it happen!
We are looking to make this a two part trip:
Option A: fishing trip to the Rason Special Economic Zone, May 8th – 11th -more info on this trip to come!
Leave a comment or email me at email@example.com for more info!
Fishing boat, Wonsan, North Korea.
Boys fishing off the docks, Wonsan, North Korea.
Boys fishing off the docks , Wonsan, North Korea.
Woman pushing a bike in Kaesong, a picture I took in 2011 during the brief time when it was legal for women to ride bikes.
Women on Bicycles Banned Again
By Kim Kwang Jin of Daily NK
A source from Hoiryeong in North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK today, “The use of bicycles by women was officially allowed last year, but was prohibited again on the 10th. There have been local People’s Safety officers patrolling since the day after that.”
The source continued, “Before the ban was lifted last year, if a woman was caught riding a bicycle she was fined just a bit of money, no more than 5,000 won. But now they are confiscating the bicycle instead, and this has been causing a bit of upset.”
As the source also noted, if the ban is widespread and lasts any length of time, it will have a deleterious effect on the functioning of North Korea’s markets. Bicycles have been a critical factor in helping to spread commerce as a means of survival over the last ten to fifteen years, with women at the forefront of the trend.
“Bicycles are essential in North Korea,” the source explained. “They have no cars, motorcycles or other means of transportation. Bicycles are very useful; women can not only go to and from the markets on them, they can also give their children lifts and carry as much as 50 or 60kg.”
“Women used to ride early in the morning to avoid getting caught,” the source recalled. “During the squid fishing season, women from fishing towns even use bicycles to carry the catch to inland regions.”
It is said that Kim Jong Il initially banned the use of bicycles in the 1990s after the daughter of a high-ranking official was killed in a traffic incident in Pyongyang. The North Korean state media subsequently justified it by saying that the image of a woman riding a bicycle runs contrary to socialist morals.
Students hit the books at the Pyongyang Grand Peoples Study House.
I’m out on the Pacific Ocean, 4 days Southeast of Hawaii, and just one month into a four month rotation on a scientific research ship conducting expeditions from San Diego to Japan.
Being on the ocean gives a person the gift of a lot of free time away from the normal distractions of life. With that time I have started to study the Korean language; for these cruises I brought with me the Pimsleur audio Korean course (great for the days when I’m walking the deck for a little exercise), as well as several textbooks and workbooks, and a ton a Korean language learning podcasts. Its going as well as one could expect, some things are starting to stick, all the honorific tenses are confusing, but the hangul characters are not too bad – kinda fun actually.
Of course nothing beats time working with a real teacher in a native environment, and that’s just what Young Pioneer Tours is offering this summer to those who join up with their first ever Rason Korean Language Tour.
Far off the beaten track (up until 2009 no western foreign tourist had ever visited), a trip to the Rason Special Economic Zone allows for special opportunities; Rason is the only place in the DPRK where foreigners are legally allowed to use North Korean currency and to mix freely with locals while shopping in the public markets – this is your opportunity to pick up all your own school supplies and practice your daily lessons as you buy fresh seafood for the nightly BBQ. Rason is also the only place where visitors (expect for Americans and Japanese) can get a North Korean visa stamped into their passport.
This tour has time scheduled for local sightseeing but the focus of this trip will be classroom time for the study of basic Korean with a North Korean instructor. You will also visit the local foreign language institute for conversational exchanges with older students, and have the chance to develop a lesson plan and teach an English class to elementary children!
Already proficient at the basic level? Alternative intermediate or advanced class time can be arranged.
Young Pioneer Tours will be running this tour in Aug 2013, unfortunately I’m going to be at my professional job at that time, but I’m certainly interested in doing this trip myself. I will be making my first trip up to Rason this spring; by my following vacation in the fall of 2013 I will be qualified to run this program on a custom basis if anyone is interested.
I peaked into a North Korean hotel kitchen and found this sign.
For the scheduled Aug language tour, as well as any of Young Pioneer Tours scheduled tours, a referral from me can get you 5% off!
Having been closed since the December 2011 death of Kim Jong-il, the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun has recently reopened, and along with refurbishment and new displays, the bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are now available for viewing.
North Koreans outside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun.
My 2011 visit to the mausoleum was the most surreal thing I have ever done. There is a deliberate awe inspiring buildup factored into the paying of respects at the body of Kim Il-sung. On entering the complex one is subjected to multiple security checks, cameras are confiscated, cloth booties are issued to be worn over the shoes, and you are forced to ride kilometers of moving walkways into the marble encased heart of the complex. From there you are marched around in groups, disorientatingly led from room to room, and forced to bow to various Kim Il-sung statues, all the while listing to an audio account of how the laws of nature were broken on the day of Kim Il-sung’s passing – upon his death the people cried with such emotion that their tears crystallized into diamonds in the pavement.
Before entering the holy of holies for the finale of bowing to the body of Kim Il-sung (all visitors will be expected to bow as a sign of respect – to go this far and not do so would cause a MARJOR incident), everyone must pass a through a bank ultra industrial sized air blowers, removing all traces of lint or dust to ensure no possibility of contamination. You will be expected to bow three times, once at Kim Il-sung’s feet, and on his right and left side. Authorities take your picture as you bow – the perfect little memento for your permanent secret record and always available for review by authorities if questions concerning your respect for the Eternal President become an issue.
If you can imagine how surreal all of this is for visiting foreign tourists, think about how overpowering the experience must be for a North Korean visiting for his first time from the provinces. A visit to Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun is the ultimate in propaganda showmanship; there is no other place or experience like it in the world.
I assume most of the procedures described above will continue with only slight changes to accommodate the paying of respects at the body of Kim Jong il (it is reported that he is placed at rest in a glass display next to his father). Viewing of newly created displays showing Kim Jong-il’s yacht, his medals and awards, and even the train car he died in will also be include in the visit.
North Koreans outside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun.
A flower girl at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun.
Tourist trips don’t start up again until mid January, until then I will be eagerly awaiting the firsthand accounts of those who make the first visit to the newly opened mausoleum. Sunday morning visits to the mausoleum have already been included in the schedules for my two custom spring trips.
For insights and observations recorded from inside the DPRK, including the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun, check out our 2011 podcast. The North Korean Economy Watch also has an interesting look at the odd history of communist leader preservation.
I have it confirmed from two sources that the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun/Kim Il-sung Mausoleum has reopened to tourists and will be available for all 2013 itineraries!
Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun – photo by kinabalu
It’s going to be a busy spring; in addition to the two custom group trips I am planning, and the private owners/investors tour to Rason, I am also now scheduled to work as one of the guides on Young Pioneer Tour’s DPRK May Day Extravaganza Tour!
This May Day Tour is going to be a blast! It coincides with Young Pioneer Tour’s five year anniversary, and they plan to make the event a massive party!
Join us for of the most spectacular holidays to take part in North Korea, the May Day Festival. Aside from all the usual sites May Day gives us one of the best opportunities to relax meet and hang out with locals during the celebrations on Moronbong Hill. Koreans take this holiday very seriously and you will more than be expected to sing dance and play around with them. Could there be a better time to go?
This tour also marks the 5 year “birthday” of YPT taking revelers into the DPRK, and as such for a VERY limited time we are offering the tour at our very retro 2008 price. We are aiming for this tour to be massive, and are hoping for all of our guides to be present for the tour.
As with all tours we are currently offering a free upgrade to flight for the journey in, with us taking the amazing train out as standard, or a small extra charge if your preference is to fly.
We are also offering a very special extension to Rason directly following the tour that can be done as a standalone trip, or both combined for a great discount. For those not in the know Rason is the Special Economic Zone of the DPRK, and the only place where you currently receive a stamp in your passport (excluding US and Japanese passports), and can legally use Korean Won, as well as visit the local markets.
April 29th – May 5th/7th
North Koreans on holiday – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
We are scheduling the May 1st holiday to be a day of fun and relaxation. In the morning we will join locals for dancing and folk games at the Mt Taesong Amusement park. A BBQ lunch at Moranbong Hill and continued local festivities is scheduled for the afternoon.
This tour also includes a visit to the newly opened Pyongyang Rungna Island funfair- with rides and even a dolphin show – as well as overnight visits to Nampo and Kaesong. If interested send me off an email; I can’t offer the 5% discount as this trip is already heavily discounted as an anniversary gift to our customers, but I can arrange to have you placed in my group.
I still have some spots available on my early April and mid May custom tours, those itineraries are posted on my American in North Korea Facebook Page.