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!


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