Five Unique Ways to Visit North Korea in 2011

You’ve listened to enough friends and co-workers drone on and on about the boring, conventional vacations they take. In the pre-social media days, these people would have bored you to death with slide show and photo albums. Now, they just clutter your Facebook news feed. Want revenge? Take the most unusual vacation imaginable, and they’ll forever be embarrassed to waste your time with worn out tales of roller coasters and walking tours.

The answer to your problem is easy: North Korea.

I just heard from Koryo Tours that there are three great tours in the works for this year, each a cure for the common vacation. Even if you’ve been to this reclusive country in the past, there are some new opportunities that are bound to blow your mind.

1. Hang out in Hamhung: this is North Korea’s answer to Boston. Once you’ve been to the big city (Pyongyang), explore its smaller cousin. The east coast city hasn’t seen a whole lot of westerners. Most of the non-locals who have passed through were East Germans (I know, that’s not even a thing any more) who were involved in rebuilding the region after the country’s 1945 “Liberation from Japan.” Last May, Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours became the first tourist to put leather on the ground in Hamhung since North Korea became a country. Now, the way is paved for you! Local attractions include the Hamhung Grand Theatre and the Hamhung fertilizer factory (where Kim Il Sung once imparted some wisdom!).


2. Make merry at Outer Mount Kumgang: Also an east coast destination in North Korea, Outer Kumgang is home to a Hyundai-run resort and is now open to access via North Korea for the first time since the 2008 incident when a soldier shot a tourist there (ouch!). It’s a great place for hiking, and Samil Lagoon is apparently not to be missed.

3. Rock Rason: Koryo Tours is now offering independent tours of the Rason area of North Korea, making it the only western travel company ever to do so. This is a rare treat and a chance to see something beyond Pyongyang if you’re an old pro at North Korean travel.

4. Take on the Tuman Triangle:
visit China, Russia and North Korea in one trip, as you explore the area around the river that creates the borders for these three countries. According to Koryo Tours:

The route that our pioneering group of 18 took was a flight to Yanji in NE China’s Jilin province, then to the North Korean free trade zone of Rason (previously known as Rajin-Sonbong, a place where western tourists are almost unheard of but which Koryo tours have been visiting since 1996). We spent 4 days in the area doing a diverse range of activities such as seeing ports and seafood factories, playing beach football against Russian railway engineers, shopping in a public market – the only place this can be done in North Korea – going to the obligatory revolutionary sites, visiting the doctors (!) and local kindergartens, going to a deserted casino, doing a boat trip around the nearby islands, and more!

The last group was the first ever to cross into Russia by train at the town of Khasan, blazing a trail for you to experience what few can only imagine.

5. Sheer stupidity: you could always try to cross the border sans guide, visas and common sense, but that usually doesn’t work out all that well. Your best bet when visiting North Korea is to find a travel company that really specializes in the destination.

North Korea extends Arirang again!

Well, it looks like this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity will be offered again this year. That’s what happens, though, when you’re dealing with Pyongyang – you never know what to expect. The latest news is that the Arirang Mass Games festival has been extended from the end of September to October 17, 2009, giving Koryo Tours time to schedule one more outing for western visitors.

Like the last trip offered, this short run through the most isolated country on the planet will last three days and includes flights to and from Beijing, all meals and hotel stays, transportation, entry fees, guide services and just about everything else (though you are encouraged to bring gifts for your hosts). You’ll also have two opportunities to see the Arirang spectacle, along with the usual North Korean sights: Juche Tower, Pyongyang Metro, Kim Il Sung Square and others.

The trip comes at a price of €850 (around $1,100), though discounts area available for students, children and groups of three or more booking together. Of course, the dates aren’t flexible – this is North Korea, after all. The trip runs from October 15 to 17, and the booking deadline is October 3. Americans are welcome on this trip.

So, if you saw the last deal from Koryo Tours and weren’t sure, you have another shot at visiting this unusual destination.

Not sure what Arirang is? Check out the video after the jump.

Spend a weekend in Pyongyang

If you didn’t get a shot at the last short trip that Koryo Tours organized into North Korea, you have another chance coming. This rare breed of travel company – which brings westerners into the most isolated country on earth – is planning an excursion for September 24 – 26, which will include the sights of Pyongyang and the opportunity to witness the Arirang Mass Games spectacle.

The “mini-break,” as Koryo Tours is calling it, starts and ends in Beijing (so you’ll need a double-entry visa for China) and includes all fees, accommodations, transportation, guide services and flights for the Beijing-to-Beijing roundtrip – you’ll have to arrange your own travel to and from Beijing. Along the way, there are two chances to go to Arirang, not to mention Juche Tower, the Korean War Museum’s interesting take on history, Kim Il Sung Square and the Pyongyang Metro. U.S. citizens are permitted to join in on the experience.

So, if you’re looking to cross into the unknown, make your reservation by September 14. At €850, it’s an absolute steal. If you have any misgivings, Koryo Tours says, “A fascinating, safe and unique experience is guaranteed.”

Amazing North Korea trip deal: Arirang for $1,000!

Koryo Tours is offering the least expensive North Korea travel deal I’ve ever seen. Granted, there aren’t many tours to this corner of the world, so there can’t be too many discounts. But, even in this limited field, a $1,000 jaunt to the most isolated country in the world is an incredible find.

For this low price, you can spend three days in North Korea in August (departing from and returning to Beijing). The price of the package includes flights, accommodations, guides, entry fees and the other basics of getting into and out of Pyongyang. You’ll also get two chances to see Arirang – the Mass Games – and a tour of the country’s capital, including the Juche Tower, Kim Il Sung Square and the Pyongyang Metro. Meals are also covered.

The trip runs from August 27 – 29, 2009, with the last date to book August 17, 2009. Students, children and groups of at least three are also eligible for discounts. And, Americans are allowed to take the trip.

There has been nothing like this deal, and the odds of it being offered again are rare. This could be the best chance you have to go to North Korea.


Infiltrating North Korea Part 9: Worshiping at the Altar of Kim

It’s impossible to visit North Korea as a tourist without being forced to personally pay respects to the Great Leader oneself.

This is always done at the capital’s Mansudae Grand Monument where an enormous bronze statue of the Great Leader towers above the city. According to my copy of Pyongyang Review, the statue was built in 1972 due to the “unanimous desire and aspiration to have the immortal revolutionary exploits of the great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung remembered for all time and to carry forward and consummate the revolutionary cause of Juche [self-reliance] which he initiated.”

The Grand Monument is one of the holiest places in Pyongyang and our guide appeared a little nervous when we piled out of the minivan. “There are a lot of people here,” he told us. “Please don’t do anything that would embarrass me.” He also asked that we did not take any photographs of the Great Leader which would cut him in half. Only full shots were allowed in order to show the utmost respect.

Before leaving the parking lot, our guide walked us over to a small flower stand where a member of our group was asked to purchase an arrangement. After doing so, we joined a large crowd of North Koreans also bearing flowers, and walked up a slight hill towards the statue and two large monuments which stand on either side of it, one of which commemorates the anti-Japanese struggle while the other chronicles the socialist revolution and includes a large slogan that reads, “Let us drive out U.S. imperialism and reunify the country!”

Because of the mass of people paying their respects, we had to wait a moment before a member of our group was allowed to walk the remaining distance and place the flowers at the base of Kim Il Sung. When he returned, we all stood nervously in a line facing the statue. I wasn’t about to bow, and I assumed that the others in my group wouldn’t as well. Our guide however, had no choice. He bent low to the waist and offered up a very serious bow to the Great Leader. And then, we were free to go.

We hung out for a little while and watched as a never ending flow of North Koreans did the same as we had just done; parading up to the statue, offering flowers, and then bowing deeply to Kim Il Sung. For an atheist nation, I never would have expected such religious devotion.

Yesterday: The Cult of Kim
Tomorrow: The Followers of Kim