Saturday, 26 July 2014

2 Guys in North Korea: Part 2

If you've read 2 Guys in North Korea: Part 1 you'll know that we absolutely loved our little jaunt to this largely unknown and feared country. What I didn't delve into though was one of the most important factors that made it so successful. I don't want to take away from the country and the experience of being there in itself, but I have to give a huge amount of credit for just how amazing our trip was to Young Pioneer Tours (YPT).

As always we did a lot of research before we went to North Korea, and it became clear to us pretty quickly that there were two tour companies to choose from. Before going any further I should explain: it is a requirement of the North Korean government that foreigners be booked onto an organised tour which is accompanied by a Korean guide employed by the KITC (Korean International Travel Company). The KITC is the only travel company in North Korea, and is owned and run by the government. No matter which company you book your tour through, it's the KITC that will provide your Korean guide, but you won't be communicating directly with them until you get there. So the non-Korean company that you book your tour with is sort of like a compulsory middle man. Well that's what we assumed. We realised though that while that's the minimum, YPT takes it much much further than that, and that's what makes them so incredible.

There are umpteen companies claiming to run tours in North Korea, some of which are real, some of which aren't. However, the feature that sets aside the two leading organisations is that, apart from just a general level of knowledge, experience, care, and professionalism, they send their own guides into North Korea with their tours. A lot of the issues we hear about where an individual has stepped out of line and been arrested/detained was either because of a simple misunderstanding, the foreigner not really understanding what was and wasn't acceptable, or a Korean getting the wrong end of the stick and acting rashly. This is much less likely to happen if there's a western guide there looking after the group who knows and understands the Korean cultures, traditions and laws, and has the trust of many locals. And in fact, YPT has never had any issues like these on their tours.

So there were two companies for us to choose from – “how did we choose between them then?” you might be asking. Well it's very simple - price. On surface level, according to the basic information on their websites and the majority of reviews, they offer mostly the same stuff. YPT though was offering a 9 day tour for 1245, as opposed to the best option for us from the other guys being a 5 day tour for 1490. Honestly we hummed and hawed a lot because we knew much more about the other company as they'd been around for a lot longer, but we just couldn't get past the price difference. So after much deliberation we went with YPT, and I can't possibly explain just what a fantastic decision that was to make.

From the moment we met Troy, Shan, Rowan, Chris and Julian at the pre-tour meeting in Beijing, we were thrilled. They had everything completely under control and were incredibly helpful with all the little bits and pieces that people still had to organise, including a lot of pretty complicated logistical arrangements between the four back to back tours that we were doing. We got a detailed and relevant brief about the dos and don'ts and some specifics of what we'd be upto, and best of all – they were all soooo cool! And from then on we fell more and more in love with YPT. The more we found out, the more we liked.

Troy was our main guide for the longest part of our time there, but we also had Rowan, Chris and Julian for various parts, and it was so fantastic to have guides who genuinely wanted each member of their tour to have the best possible time that they could, going completely out of their way at every turn to ensure that each of us was getting as much from the tour as possible, including but not limited to always being the first to buy a round of beers.

This is a company run and staffed by people who have a deep interest in North Korea and North Koreans, and a passion for showing it to the world in a light that we usually don't see it in. Something we couldn't help but notice was the relationships between our western guides and the locals (guides, staff at the hotels and restaurants, policemen, border guards, and other locals we met along the way) – these guys had clearly done their time, proven themselves, and come out the other side with the utmost respect from some of Pyongyang's most elite. Not only are these well established relationships an admirable achievement, but this really makes all the difference in exceeding the expectations of their customers and providing outstanding tours. To have that level of trust from the locals is invaluable.

I try not to throw around my praise too lightly, but I must say: hats off to Young Pioneer Tours. And thanks for a fantastic time!

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

2 Guys in North Korea

So once again, I have to apologise for the long time between posts. The reason is that our travels are briefly on hold while we live somewhat normal lives in Melbourne and prepare ourselves for our next extravaganza, so assuming that you're not particularly interested in hearing about what we bought at the supermarket or which television shows we watched, I decided to keep quiet for a bit.
"4 Guys in a Car: The Book" is still on its way, but as is often the case with these things I guess, it's taking longer than hoped, but it is still very much in the pipelines. And don't worry, I will certainly let you know when that happens. However in the mean time we have had one small adventure that might intrigue some of you.
From quite a while back, Ben and I had been developing an ambition, a craving even, to visit North Korea, or DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) as it is formally known, and referred to as inside the country. As such we decided to get married so we could go there on our honeymoon. And in a nutshell: it was truly fantastic. (Even though we didn't get to drive our own car.)
To be honest, we did have our reservations about going there. We're pretty gung-ho, but we're not completely fearless, and we've seen all the same media as everyone else. This person arrested for that, that person arrested for this, nuclear weapons being tested here, there and everywhere, and a whole country of people who are completely brainwashed and will do whatever they're told and believe everything they hear. No communications with the rest of the world, no foreign consular services, and no straying from your tour guide for the whole time you're there. There would be no looking at this, no looking at that, no going over there, no speaking to these people or talking about that subject. No internet, no phones. This of course didn't deter us in the slightest from wanting to go there, it just made us think we'd have to be careful. We were expecting it all to be very exciting, but frankly we were prepared to be exhausted.
As is the case with many things though, the impression that we'd built up over years of gleaming snippets from other people's experiences, was really nothing like the reality that we found. The stories of empty restaurants being set up only for us, only being taken to a very small handful of things that we're "allowed to see", and everything seeming contrived, as if it was put there just for show, was absolute bogus. Obviously we were on a tour, and like with tours in any country, that meant we had an itinerary organised for us every day, and we were following around a group and a guide the whole time. It was a bit tighter than most tours in that our free time was within a certain location and we weren't able to leave the hotel by ourselves, but we barely even noticed because there was so much fun and cool stuff to do and see.
No, of course they didn't take us on a tour of the slums, or go on and on about any heinous crimes to humanity that their leaders may or may not have committed, but really, would you get that anywhere? Yes, ghost tours and tours of the underworld and such like are becoming pretty trendy in the western world, but in a very romanticised and dramatised fashion. You don't go on a tour of Melbourne and sit on the bus to have a guide tell you about a policeman shooting and killing a young man, or a security guard knocking out a drunk girl, or the woman who was raped just over there; they'll tell you about pioneers who have roads, buildings, suburbs and schools named after them, and all the amazing and unique events held in the city every year, and how we produce this and invented that and the world can thank us for this other thing. The outstanding difference, which I admit is quite an important one, is that 99% of what was told/shown to us in North Korea was about one of the three Leaders. But of course they were going to take us to see the interesting and admirable things and show off about their country.
Our itinerary involved trips to several cool bars and a microbrewery, a waterpark and leisure centre, a bowling alley, a sports complex and a hot spa resort, just to name a few. In amongst our organised itinerary though we also had the opportunity to go a bit out of the way and explore some places that would have been impossible to find without our amazing western guides (more about them to follow). One day for example we were disembarking from the bus to walk through Kim Il Sung Square to the foreign language bookshop (an absolutely fantastic place to buy souvenirs by the way), when our Kiwi guide, Troy, mentioned that there was a nice little cafe in the drab looking, non-descript grey building just in front of us. Assuming we wouldn't be able to go there, we asked him a bit about it, and then much to our surprise, he suggested we check it out. He went and asked our local guide (even the western guides aren't really supposed to be unaccompanied) who had no hesitation in letting us wander there by ourselves, and so in we went. It looked like a pretty normal cafe, a bit less hipster and trendy than we've become accustomed to over the last few years, at least here in Melbourne, but there was one local guy sitting there sipping on something and it was very much a real cafe. A couple of us ordered coffees which were made on their surprisingly up-to-date espresso machine, and we paid at the hard currency desk*. That was an experience we certainly weren't expecting to get in North Korea!
I could go on and on about all the really unexpected and incredible experiences and conversations we had, but I'd probably use up the whole capacity of the internet. There was the walk in the park on the national holiday to commemorate the late President Kim Il Sung's 102nd birthday, which turned into Ben and I joining in an impromptu dancing and singing show with some locals; the time we witnessed a mass dance and were urged to join in (we obviously did, and magnificently so if I do say so myself); we were at a firework show where we became completely separated from our group and guides, and were pushed side to side by a mosh pit of partying Koreans, all using phones to text, make calls, and take pictures; there was the conversation with one of our Korean guides about the unification of Ireland and the other guide who couldn't stop telling dirty jokes.
Having said all that though, I can't completely gloss over what you're all wondering: yes we did see some of the stuff that you'd be expecting. We were given a couple of heinously contrived tours of cooperative farms; we were taken to a few schools and kindergartens, including the famous Children's Palace, where we were given matching shows of disturbingly perfect songs and dances, all of which told the same story of the revolution; we bowed in front of statues, pictures and even the embalmed bodies of the revered President Kim Il Sung and General Kim Jong Il; and we had to of course be extremely careful not to say anything negative, or even not completely positive, about any of the Leaders.
I should say that I am not in any way claiming that the atrocities that the Leaders are alleged to having committed are or aren't true, and I'm certainly not supporting the regime in any way. All I'm telling you about is the experience that we had there as tourists, and pointing out that I think we usually only get one picture painted for us about North Korea, and it seems that most people go there with the resolution that it will be like this and they will take the pictures and tell the stories that support the image we have of this insane, brainwashed country. There is actually more to it than youtube clips of 1000's of Koreans dancing in perfect unison, pictures of rows and rows of uniformed military marching in time to a horrible recording of an eerie revolutionary song and rules about where and when to bow. It is, in fact, a country full of real people with families, careers, hobbies, ambitions, ideas and personalities. And it is a damn fine place to go for a fun and interesting holiday.