Teletubby coffee mug on the North side of the DMZ – you never know what you will find in North Korea!
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.
With pleasant weather, flowers and trees in bloom, and North Korean citizens making their first round of pilgrimages to important revolutionary sites, late Spring is an amazing time to visit the DPRK. Below are just a few images of the thousands of Young Pioneers we encountered while visiting the Mangyongdae birth house of Kim Il-sung on my last DPRK trip in late May of 2013.
Fishing on the Taedong River, Pyongyang, North Korea.
I just returned from guiding the first ever North Korean fishing trip tour. Our small group fished in both the East and West Korean Seas, but we had our best luck at the beautiful Sijung Lagoon. Both the driver and I landed several golden carps which the Sijung Lagoon Hotel staff served as sashimi for us.
Fishing with our driver at Sijung Lagoon.
North Koreans love to fish and our guides were wildly enthusiastic about this trip. Young Pioneer Tours is already looking at offering it again this fall – this is one not too miss!
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.
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.
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.
A North Korean Army Captain and myself three days ago on the North Korean side of the DMZ at Panmunjeom.
I just returned from North Korea on another amazing trip! I understand the world is freaking out, but from what I witnessed I believe war is NOT imminent. We saw the army planting trees and building houses, while the people of Pyongyang were busy overhauling the city sidewalks.
The Kim Il-sung birthday holiday season is coming up and I expect the bellicose rhetoric to soon ease – hopefully the American media can restrain its warmongering too.
Our guides were fantastic, food was great, but photography was difficult on this trip – don’t worry I still got a ton of fantastic pics with tons of content to come.
Update: I will be going on CNN in two hours – things are going crazy.
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.
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.
Bigger is better in North Korea, and standing at 60 meters the Pyongyang Arch is the World’s largest triumphal arch – sorry Paris.
As a gift from Kim Jong-il to Kim Il-sung for his 70th birthday, the arch has 25,500 blocks of white granite, each representing a day in his life up to that point – another equally impressive 70th birthday gift with the same sort of construction numerology is the Tower of the Juche Idea.
The arch was commemorated to highlight the 1925-1945 revolutionary struggles and victory over the occupying Japanese forces. Supposedly there are rooms and viewing pavilions but I have never been let inside or had a closeup look.
Young Pioneers visit the new Kim Jong-il stature and pay respects to Kim Il-sung on his 100th birthday. This was the first day foreigners were allowed to visit the new statue, it was ceremoniously unveiled to North Koreans the day before – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
I am happy to announce that I am now partnered with Young Pioneer Tours!
What does that mean for this website? Not much I hope, I want to continue to serve up interesting and original content true to my high standards of presenting an accurate representation of the North Korean experience. In the past I have been approached by Internet advertising companies with offers for the sale of advertising space or paid content, but I pledge not to sell out, anything I advertise or promote on this blog will be due to my genuine interest in the subject, or my direct involvement or investment in the project.
How then am I partnered with Young Pioneer Tours? I’m excited to announce that I’m an investor in our soon to open (Feb. 2013) North Korean themed beach bar at White Sand beach Puerto Galera, Philippines. There you may find me as a company representative, selling trips to curious visitors, blogging while on the beach, and perhaps serving up a North Korean beer or two – more on all this as things develop. We have some other big investment projects in the works, they are too sensitive and it’s too early to go into detail about them now, but readers can expect some absolutely unique DPRK content on the horizon.
In general I plan to continue running private custom DPRK trips with Young Pioneer Tours providing the logistics, but YPT also plans on having me on as one of their part time professional DPRK guides for their regularly scheduled trips. For their regularly scheduled trips I can offer 5% off via my referral – that’s not just for North Korea, we also offer excellent regularly scheduled Tibet, Myanmar, Iran, and trans Asian trips too!
Please check out the schedule below if interested in joining up with one of my 2013 trips:
March 30th – April 6th: 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 – closed trip.
Late September/Early October: Mass Games tour with possibility of a documentary film crew – spots available.
I also expect to be helping out Young Pioneer Tours with their big November 2013 Eurasian Tour: Trans Siberian Express Beijing to Moscow, Minsk, Kiev, Chernobyl, Odessa, Transnistria, Moldova, and Romania.
For more info email me:
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.
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.
Last year we were late getting to the Pyongyang Children’s Palace – we got to see most of the show but missed the tour of the classrooms. For this year’s visit to the larger Mangyongdae Children’s Palace I made it a point to arrive extra early so we could get the full tour – on a day when a major performance was scheduled for western tourists and foreign dignitaries we were the first group to arrive.
Below is just a portion of what we were shown on our tour. Child protegees train hard to perfect their skills in gymnastics and dance, while others students relax with games of volleyball and the traditional board game go. How much of this was staged for us and how much was typical of what goes on, visiting tourists invading their classrooms or not, I cant really say.
- Classroom Tour at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace (americaninnorthkorea.com)
- The Mangyongdae Children’s Palace (americaninnorthkorea.com)
100 Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations in Pyongyang, North Korea – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
Tell me a little about yourself and I will hook you up with a great DPRK travel deal for visiting! Please leave a quick comment here (so I will know to check my email) and email me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following info:
Full name, how you learned about this blog, what your country of residence is, when you are interested in visiting the DPRK, and what you are interested in seeing.
As of Oct. 2012 I’m pleased to announce I can offer 5% off to people I refer for our scheduled trips to both the DPRK and Iran – so get in touch!