Guest Blog: Sheree Stokell
There’s the North Korea we all know and then there’s the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). North Korea we’re familiar with: we see news of their military projects on our TV, from the Korean People’s Army testing new technology to staging energetic parades in Pyongyang. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea is officially named by its people, is less a military parade and more a golden chest filled with history and dazzling rural and natural beauty. I went in 2016 with Young Pioneer Tours through this obscure country to glimpse a proud people and a beautiful environment.
For this fan of rural landscapes and sleepy villages, the train ride from a developed Chinese city to countryside crisscrossed with foot tracks, bicycles, maize fields and clear, cool streams was a pleasant surprise. It was September, and there were crops as far as the eye could see, almost ready for harvest. Hardscrabble mountains occasionally rose out of the terrain of though we didn’t get to see it all because some local Koreans on the train adopted my husband and I as drinking buddies! All the Koreans in our 6-person berth pooled their food and drink with us and we had a little party: up close and personal with an inherently festive and energetic people.
“Some of the world’s most impressive architecture”
“Here is a nation of proud, industrious and good-humored people who are much more like us than we could ever realise without visiting the country”
The next day I took a trip to Mt Myohyang, where the DPRK treasure halls and Korean temples are located in stunning mountains that take you to a world of natural beauty and traditional architecture. The journey from Pyongyang took us past numerous farms and unspoiled shallow rivers. Small towns dotted the horizon and we could see children playing football in the distance. From there it was to a mysterious underground cavern discovered by coal miners and paved with a path chosen by Kim Jong Il himself.
Next I joined the Grand National Day tour and saw the obligatory Pyongyang sites (the mind-blowing Kim and Worker’s Party monuments, guided museum tours, Korean women dancing in a whole spectrum of colourful dresses, the greatness of the Korean leaders) as well as few less-than-touristy but every-bit-as-fascinating activities involving the daily life of Pyongyang. It was the National Day Holiday and people were in a festive mood, eating ice cream, dancing and enjoying barbecues with family and friends.
Next the tour took us to a small but busy airport in Orang, the gateway to Chongjin, the northern main city which is closer to Vladivostok than Pyongyang. Jets buzzed around in training circuits between passenger and cargo planes landing and people milled in astonishing numbers. This was the land of mountains, forests and rugged, pristine coastlines.
Here we found a flourishing dedication to Korean culture. A tour to a music excellence school treated us to some very disciplined and talented singing six-year-olds performing traditional Korean music and dancing. We then visited a foreign language high school and interacted with the English students, which for this former high school English teacher, was a highlight of the YPT itinerary.
“Tourism has only opened in this area fairly recently so the wilderness is unspoiled”
A further highlight of DPRK was the Chilbosan National Park. It’s hard for westerners to imagine that behind the marching and monuments of Pyongyang is a spectacular landscape of toothy volcanic mountains bursting with forests and clear streams. Tourism has only opened in this area fairly recently so the wilderness is spoiled by nothing more than a dirt track and some locals who tend their farms.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed the aspects of North Korea we’re familiar with such as giant statues of the leaders in Pyongyang, what was almost the greatest treasure was the natural and rural landscapes of this tiny, rocky country. The greatest treasure was of course, its people. Eleven days in the DPRK left me feeling I’d seen the best but that there was so much more to see next time I visit.
Sheree Stokell 2017