North Korea, probably the most hermetic country in the world, is not the most conventional traveler destination. I remember during high school I did a 3-month project about this unique nation. I was very interested in researching why in today’s globalized world, there is still place that work so bizarelly in many ways.
My teacher and classmates enjoyed hearing about some strange facts about North Korea. Some of them were shocking, for instance, that North Korea spends almost one third of their GDP in military defense, that they only have three TV channels or that the government controls who lives in the capital, Pyongyang. Other rules were ridiculous, like the ban on blue jeans, the obligation for men to choose from a list of 28 hairstyles, or that there is actually no ban on pot. I remember this last one made some of my classmates laugh hard. Other things were absolutely horrifying, like the fact that public executions still take place, or the 3-generation punishment rule.
At that point, in my last year of high school, it was only a research project about a destination I did not even consider visiting. I thought it would be impossible to go, or if I ever had in mind going, and although I love traveling by myself, it would have to be a trip done with someone, but no one would be crazy enough to follow me.
Everything changed during my first year of university, in 2013, when I received a call from my friend Bru who I met online through Instagram, before it was mainstream. She was a very fun, experienced and adventurous traveler twenty years older than me. I answered the phone and she immediately asked me if I wanted to go to North Korea with her the following year. I immediately answered “yes!!!” If I ever considered any chance to visit this country, a place visited by only a few insane minds like me, this was going to be the time. To make this possible, we only had to contact a travel agency in Barcelona called Viatjes Pujol, one of the very few agencies that can organize trips to the country.
Our adventure took place in April 2014. We chose this month to travel because North Korea’s Day of the Sun is celebrated every 15th of April, the date when Kim Il-sun, the founder and current leader’s grandfather, was born. On that special day, a huge military parade happens and that was something I was always extremely excited to witness in person.
To arrive to North Korea, you first need to travel to Beijing, where you can either take a train or a flight to Pyongyang. Among the vastly low number of people that travel to North Korea, most of them do it by air. Once you step a foot on Pyongyang, you meet your local guide that accompanies you through the whole journey. But, if you cross the country by land on a train, you can enjoy around 15 hours of freedom from the moment you cross the China-North Korea border to the instant you arrive to the capital where you meet your guides. Additionally, you can see the real North Korea, and most importantly and recklessly, you can photograph it freely.
Our adventure started in Beijing, where we arrived a couple days before taking a train to North Korea. I remember the adrenaline was filling my body from toes to head. My mom was not very happy about the fact that I was going to a country which a couple months before had had high tensions with its southern developed sister. Once we got inside the country, we would not have any connection to the outside world, since there is no internet in this hermetic nation, only intranet, with not more than 30 websites to navigate in for the lucky ones who can have access to a computer. With our passports in hand, suitcases rolling though the train station´s floor, and our cameras hanging on our shoulders, an intrepid experience was about to begin!
We entered the train and went to our 2-bunk bed cabin with room for four people. On one side, a door divided our private space from the alley connecting to the rest of the cabins, on the other side, a huge window with a great and neat view to the outside world. That was such a great sign, since that meant that we were going to have privacy to take photos of the outside world in a country that makes sure no one photographs the poverty and reality of this proud nation.
Shortly after we got inside and put the things on our beds, another man we did not know came in. He was another Spaniard who had previously visited North Korea a couple years before, and was heading to the country by train just like us, so we would have to share the same space with him for the next 24 hours. He was quite unusual and funny. He was amazed by communism and thought that North Korea was the ultimate communism hub. Unlike my friend and I, who just wanted to visit the country to live the experience of being in such an odd and out-of-the-ordinary destination.
The train departed in the afternoon. We were the only white foreigners on board, or at least we did not see anyone else. The rest were a bunch of North Korean officials and Chinese nationals. During the first hours of train ride, still in Chinese territory heading northwards from Beijing to the border with North Korea, we learnt plenty of things about North Korea thanks to our passionate travel companion. He was learning Korean and showed us a little notebook with some words translated from North Korean to Catalan. He also showed us a few tattoos with communist symbols on his chest, and predicated about the amazing benefits communism brings to society. My friend and I did not want to engage in any kind of political discussion with him so we just actively listened to what he was saying. After all, it is still interesting to see how other people´s minds think, and most importantly, you need to be open minded and respect everyone´s opinions even if they sound a bit insane.
Our first dose of “what the f*ck” experience happened at night, still in Chinese territory and probably just a few hundred kilometers from the border. It was close to midnight, when one of the North Korean officials on board opened the door of our cabin and sat inside with us. He was obviously very inebriated, I do not know how much he drank, but by his overly friendly and outgoing attitude, it was not just a couple shots and a margarita. Communication was a bit of an issue. I say “a bit”, because our new travel companion managed to translate some of the things he was trying to tell us.
My friend Bru did not want to miss the opportunity to take this moment to eternity and placed her GoPro recording on the little table placed next to the window, without the official noticing. I know, you might think we were very reckless, but sometimes, with the adrenaline of the moment, you just need to take risks. The North Korean official, probably in his mid 50s, talked to us about his family. He showed us pictures of his wife and daughter from an old mid 2000s cell phone. I recall him showing the same photos several times, before the real party started. In the excitement of the moment, our passionate communist travel companion took his phone and played a North Korean song, and they both started to sing it! My friend Bru and I could not believe what we were witnessing, it was so unusual and odd, so freaking random, that just for that, the experience was worth it.
After that thrilling North Korean style train party, we went to sleep. The following day, with the sun already up in the sky, we were about to cross the bridge border that separated both nations. We were so excited and nervous, since we did not have what you would call “discreet camera equipment”, with two big zoom lenses, and we thought that the border officials would give us trouble for that. In fact, the border crossing went smoothly, and the luggage check was not as intensive as we expected. I believe it was due to the fact that she was a pharmacist and I was just a 21-year old university student.
We passed the border test, and we were officially in North Korea, the most hermetic country in world, with our private cabin, our big zoom lenses, and a huge glass window that felt like a screen of a TV playing a history documentary. We could not believe that we had, ahead of us, another 12 hours of witnessing (and documenting) the real North with our own eyes, and with the freedom of not being watched by local guides.
During the first our in North Korean territory, we managed to take the first snaps. The landscape was very arid and dry, although there were also cherry trees showing off their blossom beauty. Everyone was rather skinny, working in the fields and moving from one place to another by bike or on foot. We barely saw any cars. Other people were transporting things like hay or wood pulled by oxen. There were also farmers taking their flock of sheep to graze. In the distance, we could spot some little villages with communist propaganda.
The scenario looked like Spain in the early 1900s, it was difficult to believe that we were in 2014. Photographing the life of regular North Koreans from a moving train was not an easy task. Close to 90 minutes after crossing the border, we had our first stop in a town’s train station. There, we saw a young official likely my age. We stopped there for half an hour, so I ventured to step out of the train and enjoy my first free experience in North Korea. I know that I have mentioned this before, but the I need to say it again. The fact that I was stepping foot on North Korean ground without any guide monitoring my moves was an absolutely unique and action-packed experience. I talked to the young official, and with body language, I managed to have some interaction with him. I showed him a crystal ball I used to carry around with me that I used to take photos of the background upside down. He found it very interesting.
After this little break, we continued our journey by train towards Pyongyang. We passed near some bigger towns where you could see the daily life of the locals. Some buildings were surprisingly very colorful and the roads were wide but with barely any cars. Everything seemed very plain, with no billboards, McDonald’s or Zara stores. I wondered why roads had that size if hardly anyone owned a car or a motorcycle.
A couple hours after, we had another stop in another village where something very curious happened. In a country where consumerism is non-existent, there are still ways to get around if you want to own a modern smart TV. How can you do that if there are not stores that provide these products inside the nation? Well, you better go to China and buy it. When the train stopped, we saw a woman getting out carrying a big box with a smart TV inside. I do not know if what this woman did was illegal, or if she had some sort of connections that gave her this privilege. But there was one thing that was certain; she got her TV!
When the train left again, we were immersed in the depths of North Korea´s countryside life again. We enjoyed every single kilometer of the route. I ventured to step out of the cabin with my camera and went to end of the moving train to photograph from other angles. Next to the train rails, I saw some some shepherds with their sheep, farmers carrying bags on their backs, people going on foot with their bikes, people going through little cross points and even a child wearing his school´s uniform.
Back to the cabin, I continued documenting everything I was witnessing. I saw a truck with a bunch of young women that waved at us when they spotted us from the moving train. I also saw people getting water from a water well, which made me think that there was no running water in these poor villages. In addition, despite the circumstances, I could still perceive that children had time to play, to smile and to laugh.
The train was approaching to its destination and our once-in-a-lifetime adventure was coming to an end. We passed through a few more villages where we could see more North Koreans spending a normal day in the countryside. A mother holding her daughter’s hand, a man with his ox, and farmers working in the fields and resting after a laborious day. There was as well a group of people cleaning their clothes by a river, and even a young man playing the guitar on the street.
I will always remember these first few hours in North Korea as one of the most memorable episodes ever lived in my life. The photos that I took are unique, because from the few people that travel to North Korea, a much smaller amount do it by train and have the chance to document the country´s reality, the way most of its population lives. Once you arrive to Pyongyang, you are assigned a guide which monitors your movements and shows you what they want you to see, the development of the capital in contrast to what the truth is outside of it.