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North Korea

is for sure not known for being an attractive tourist destination but in search for money, the DPRK thinks about opening a nature reserve at the boarder to South Korea for International tourism and is making meanwhile serious efforts for advertising it. Together with a reporter from RTL German Television cameraman Joa Czogalla was accompanying a Chinese group of investors and tourism professionals invited by North Korea goverment to have a first impression of the future leisure paradise.

I had the opportunity because my reporter for the German private television channel RTL got herself luckily in a journey consisting of 76 Chinese, mostly travel agents and potential investors (and their friends and relatives) for an international tourist zone in North Korea planned in a nature reserve at the boarder of South Korea (sic!). Besides my colleague there was also a reporter from the Washington Post sneaky enough to get this opportunity.
After fifty or more calls the assistant of the reporter got her two tickets for this remarkable tourism exploration group. Our four days time travel begun at the 4th of November 2011 at 7am sharp at the airport in Harbin. First and important act was to have our mobile phones collected from our Chinese travel organizer. Welcome to the world of undisturbed face to face communication! This was of course just the beginning. Later in North Korea we would have to give away our passports and it was like being totally dependent on the good will of our hosts for the rest of the journey. My colleague had of course informed our German Consulate in Beijing about our travel but how to get in contact with them for the case something went wrong?
The flight with Koryo Airlines was meant to be the first in the New Era of North Korea tourism and therefore, a little celebration at the airport was planned but not executed because the plane was late. We read before the plane would be a Tupolev and we were anxious on what state it would be. We had no problems at the immigration of China to check out with our North Korea "Tourist Card" a light blue with a visa picture in it seemed to be like business as usual. With a little delay of just half an hour we were boarding our Tupolev Tu-134, here our travel started.

bull eye Tupolev

This series of planes was build between 1966 and 1984 and therefore ours was at least 27 years old. You'll get a kind of nostalgic feeling immediately when you enter this airplane. It feels narrow and but cozy with light blue curtains and it's big bull eye's as passenger windows, brown curtains to separate the compartments of the plane. In a classless society there exist of course no distinction between economic and first class but we were seated at the end of the plane with direct exit to the luggage department and to the one and only toilet of the plane.
Cigarette smoke coming from the lavatory of our airplane short before our landing in Pyongyang announced that our captain in reserve who was occupying it at this time was perhaps mentally preparing to take over in the case of need. After one and a half hours flight we were welcomed by a cold and rainy weather in North Korea. A group photo taken on the wet airfield was the promising start of our tour. Originally, it was planned to continue our trip by airplane to Kamgang close to the planned special tourist zone after a short stop for the immigration procedure (they have no immigration but in Pyongyang), but thanks to the weather condition we had the opportunity for our first overland travel by bus.
A remark to my working conditions so far: Filming on an airfield in North Korea with our proconsumer JVC camcorder was no problem. I was wondering what would happen if I just would go on filming and let it run and really nobody did complain. I took them by surprise. Imagine you try this on any airport. I think nobody was really prepared what would happend, when they let a television crew participate on this tour. I finally got friendly stopped when I was preparing to film the immigration procedure of my colleague (the contrast between a blond woman and an in green and red military uniform dressed officer was visually really tempting).
The airport of Pyongyang was in renovation and we were checked through a small provisorial building what reminded me a bit of my favorite airport on my Philippine island paradise. A complete contrast to any airport in China, I doubt it if you are able to find an airport of this small size. The good thing was that personal service still possible there.
map North Korea
Our Destination was to Kumgangsan Nature Reserve in Kangwon Province, around 300km away from Pyongyang. Our estimated time to drive there with our little group of three buses was about seven hours including little breaks. I was calculating and wondering why we would need large period of time to travel there, then we were told that the reserve was in the mountains. I also wondered if the roads there are steep and winding and that maybe be the reason, I still was a very blue eyed first timer to North Korea.
My colleague was happy that we would have an opportunity to have a first impression of land and people, though our filming was restricted. In our travel instructions it was written we were not allowed to take pictures or to film on the way between the airport and Pyongyang and later on also not to film any poor scenery. The later restriction meant in fact that we were not allowed to film almost nothing if you would measure North Korea with our Western standards.
Soon I recognized that there was no need to restrict any filming out of the bus. The weather was doing it own kind of censure ship. It was just fogy, rainy and there was nothing to see but trees and a mostly brown barren landscape reminding me on late autumn/early winter. And I discovered the very reason why you need seven hours for a 300km drive. It was not about the state of the buses (better than often in China) or the traffic. There was barely any traffic, no cars, just few trucks and some military vehicles. Though I saw a highway sign but there was no sight of a highway we know.

bus inside North Korea

On what we we were driving looked like our first Autobahn in Germany back in the 1940ieth without any maintenance. And now it became clear why it would take 7hrs to the Nature Reserve and why we mostly could not film out of the bus windows. No stabilization could take out the wild up and down movements of this unique 'off-road' experience on a highway.
For our Chinese travel companions this rough travel conditions were no problem. A group of 5 to 6 of them were immediately continuing what they already began in the airplane: playing cards in the middle of the rows on a improvised. The rest were listening to the long explanations of one of the travel guides about the living conditions in North Korea and falling sooner or later asleep. We had later in our voyage more than enough opportunities to listen to this tales in English from our guides in face to face sessions while climbing rocky mountains paths or while eating mostly cold dinner or lunch so I will skip this at this moment. The Chinese were also better prepared for food intake then we were. They brought their own smelly sausages and with this smell, you better forget about eating just not to mess up the bus.
A flat tire every now and then is normal and brings some entertainment.
The relief breaks every two or three hours gave us the first impressions of the landscape and also the first possible encounters with the real people. The first stop (with landscape and not just on the road for a leak) was at a mountain lake with a restaurant and after a few shot of the scenery I made my way unguided into the restaurant and found a bigger group of 'real' people sitting (like in the 'Last Supper') in their brown uniform styled suites around a table and sharing some fish and rice (the rice directly on the table). My first 'real' impressions made me quite excited, so I just started shooting and tried to be friendly. I was able to continue for some minutes until a waitress started to complain, but then everything was already on the 'card' (no more tapes nowadays). So, I friendly thanked all of my first new friends in the Democratic Republic of North Korea and walked away to meet my colleague who had bought us some peanuts (imported from Malaysia, 250gram for just 2.50 Euros) to lighten up our mood. The food supply for this bus travel was just a couple of fluffy bakeries without any nourishing effect.

North Korea Travel

A flat tire every now and then is normal and brings some entertainment.

The second stop was in the early dawn and I thought we were already in Kamgan, a big city closed to our destination. We stopped at a big hotel and I felt like this is the pull back in times when Germany had this nostalgic eastern part with all this beyond design. There I also roamed around in the street in front of the hotel and again made a shot with real people mostly in their old bicycles. One of our first impressions concerning the fashion in this part of North Korea was that people are wearing no shoes but rubber boots, probably because there are no cows around for necessary leather supply. Also the rain clothing was somewhat of improvised or not existing. But to be positive, one has to say that at least the plastic bags and rubber boots were adding a bit of color to the gloomy impressions.

view in a province city in the DPRK

View from on of our hotelstop

Things you won't see in North Korea: Advertising boards,super markets and street lamps, but of course they have propaganda boards (also here they are adding a bit of color). Houses in the province were mostly pure concrete structures and often missing any finishing so the rain could enter the walls from the outside. We were also able to see some light bulbs every 50 meters or so in a house or in a small shop, but as the light disappeared the city we drove through went black. Driving in the dark later in the countryside was a dangerous adventure. As I mentioned there were no street lights and people in their brown or grey garments were popping out all of the sudden or (seldom but possible) a car without any lights slowly driving was suddenly in our way. It was still raining, the windows of the bus was foggy.
And of course almost at the end of our travel one of our three buses gave up so the passengers had to be divided into the other two busses. Short later after this break we had to stop at a military control, a good sign because our final destination was located in a military zone at the boarder to South Korea. And then finally we arrived at a friendly illuminated big concrete structure known in Asia as a hotel. In the reception was a big painting with the red sun raising and the struggle began under the Chinese for the hotel keys while I was shooting impressions of the hotel souvenir shop.

Part Two: Leisure Paradise in a Military Zone at the Border to South Korea