North Korea Travel veteran Joe Van Harding opens up on what it took for him to finally make the leap and book a trip to North Korea.
Planning Your Tour
Booking a trip to North Korea presents many a barrier that most other destinations just don’t have.
Even in a globalized world where before Covid-19 you could legitimately be in any place in the world within 48 hours. Travelling to the DPRK always requires that extra mental step.
So you’ve done your research, spent hours reading articles, watching documentaries and listening to podcasts, now your appetite has been well and truly whetted as to North Korea becoming a viable destination.
Next comes the searching for tours. You’re in luck – not only is a tour possible, but market forces have been acting on the North Korean tour market meaning that not only are tours now much cheaper, the variety is well and truly spectacular. These days you can do anything from Hiking tours to Farming tours to Study tours in North Korea.
Getting Over the Mental Hurdle
The one thing that gets in the way of booking a North Korea trip is the mental block that comes with making that final plunge into the unknown. Just like buying a new computer, house or car, you can feel that pressure of pre-buyers remorse kicking in. Compounded so with the fact that most of the research you have done mentions the oppressed nature of the state.
Should I really be travelling there?
For me this part was the hardest hurdle to overcome. I had the budget, found the tour and had hours of research behind me, but it was that nagging doubt in the back of my mind that I needed to overcome. That curiosity that I needed to scratch and decision that only I could make.
And boy was I not disappointed.
Crossing The Line
All the anguish and doubts disappeared as soon as our train departed the Chinese side in Dandong and emerged into North Korean territory. That sense of no turning back and the wonderment to come was a feeling that doesn’t come around so often. All the questions I had built up over the years were finally to be answered or at least partially answered.
Will there be cars & people on the streets? What do North Koreans eat? Is everything really fake?
My criteria in booking a tour was to treat this as a once in a lifetime trip and to see and experience as much as possible within my budget. This saw me opting for the longer 10 day tour in order to see cities such as Wonsan (North Korea’s Costa Del Sol), Hamhung (North Korea’s second largest city) as well as opting for the aforementioned train ride in as well as a flight on the infamous Air Koryo to depart the country – something I can only recommend.
The North Korea Tour Experience
Another big question when booking a tour surrounds the individual experience. Can I walk around by myself and are there government minders with you at all times?
Well to answer the first question regarding your freedom to roam the country alone, no this isn’t possible. I liken this to bringing a North Korean to your home country. You would most likely show them the nicest places to show off your country in a good light. However this would stop them seeing the other realities either next to or on the journey to and from the attraction.
Secondly, on the North Korean minders, yes there are two minders with you and yes they may check that you are not breaking any rules, however I must say that they were such an unexpected joy to the tour. Highly informative, outgoing and downright great to be with.
If respected they can be a great source for you to get some of those burning questions answered.
Should you Go?
Overall, my North Korea tour really overshot my expectations, yes it’s expensive and yes its a scary prospect, but the benefits for me really have outshone any of that.
Most importantly it hasn’t stopped my curiosity about the country. In fact if anything it has enhanced it.
I can put context to what is going on, I can draw on what my guides told me and I can look back at a fulfilling and busy trip as truly something that I am glad to have done.
So would I recommend booking a trip to North Korea, in short – Absolutely. All I would say is that you should go with an open mind, be respectful and be a sponge to soak up as much of the experience as possible.
Lichtenberg 47 Fanboy
When Joe is not supporting his boyhood local football club Lichtenberg (45…46…47!) he can usually be found blabbering about how he was named after an overweight Irish singer while enjoying an undercooked döner kebab washed down with a lukewarm “sterny” by the banks of the Spree.