Tour tips

You've read about the tour... here is some additional information if you are thinking of coming...

1) TRAVEL ADVICE FAQ

2) RULES

2) TIPS


1) TRAVEL ADVICE FAQ

If you have a read through our section 'tour articles and testimonies' you will see just what can be got out of a tour to North Korea. We follow with some answers to questions you might have:

Is it Safe?

The DPRK does not appear on any lists of countries where it is dangerous to visit and is probably one of the safest countries in the world you can visit. In over fifteen years' experience and nearly 1000 tours we have never felt that our groups were in any danger. We have never had any problems with the Korean authorities, experienced any thefts or felt in any way threatened. All of Europe (apart from France) and countries such as Canada, Australia etc. have diplomatic relations with North Korea and they support tourism. We are always welcomed by the Korean people and are seen as guests in their country. Certainly if you are willing to smile and be courteous you will receive a very positive response. It is one of the last places on the world where there are very few visitors and you can have a big impact on whom you meet. No specific vaccinations are required for visiting the DPRK but we ask you to check with your doctor for advice before you travel.

Group travel is not for me - can I travel there independently?

We do offer independent tours for yourselves or group of friends however fully independent travel is just not possible in North Korea, your Korean guides are obliged to be with you all day. In North Korea travelling in a group is often much more fun and relaxing than being on your own for several days with just two Korean guides and your driver, so in this case group tourism makes sense. Koryo has the choice of the best guides (male and female) and they are always very good company and add a great deal to your visit. It is not unusual for tourists and guides to remain in contact by letter long after the trip. A typical tour consist of between 8 and 15 tourists, most are made up of couples, individual travellers and perhaps one or two friends. About a quarter of our tourists are female. During the day the itinerary is often fairly packed so you are kept busy but you get a good lunch break. There is plenty of time to be on your own, if you wish, in the evenings and we also offer a single room supplement at cost price if you prefer your privacy.

How much will the tour cost?

The tours are extremely good value for money because they are all inclusive, we employ the best guides and pack the itineraries with exciting places to visit and things to see. The price includes travel from Beijing to Pyongyang, accommodation, meals and guides and are in relative luxury. We provide the best possible tour itinerary and our experience tells us that if you cut any corners you end up missing the best sites and get a second grade trip. We are aware that tours are expensive but the basic reason for this is that tourists to the DPRK are obliged to have a full service package; there is currently only one airline (although Air China are scheduled to start flying in 2008) so no competition to keep prices down, only 4 trains a week with very limited capacity and there is a limited choice of hotels that are available to foreigners, all expensive ones. It should be noted however that the tours we sell are all inclusive from Beijing to DPRK and back to Beijing, covered in the price are plane and train tickets, hotel accommodation, meals, guides, transport around DPRK and entrance fees to the places visited, extra money is only required for extra drinks with your meals, tips and souvenirs/general spending money. Therefore the tour cost is not as unreasonable as you may think. We also offer discounts to students and to groups of people booking together.

Should I travel to North Korea?

Travel broadens the mind and no more so than in North Korea. There are no restrictions for you to visit and the United Nations, European Union and other agencies see tourism as a positive way of engagement. Very few journalists are allowed into North Korea so the amazing experiences you will embrace there are rarely publicised. It is not a country that many people visit, and there is virtually no information available about it. Koryo Tours has been responsible for opening up destination such as Wonsan to tourism but perhaps the greatest impact is that which we have on the Koreans. Any contact we have with the Korean people has to be beneficial in breaking down barriers, particularly as many people outside Pyongyang have not seen let alone interacted with foreigners. On our tours amazing things happen such as tourists joining in folk celebrations with the Koreans on their day off. Tourists have experienced the most magical times such as impromptu football matches with workers, playing with Korean children, being approached by Koreans who practice broken English on them. In the West we portray the Koreans as a very humourless and robotic people, however this stereotype is soon broken if you travel there, they are a very proud people and although their life is a struggle their humour and warmth is unsurpassed.

What is the difference between a group tour and an independent tour?

Group tours are on set dates that we have scheduled in advance, usually to coincide with a major holiday or event in DPRK, see our tours page for details of forthcoming group tours. The prices for these are set although discounts are available. Independent tours are tours for which you choose the dates and have more control over the itinerary (although it still has to be arranged in advance), the downside of this is that independent tours tend to cost more as there are less people in the group, if you have a group of friends or colleagues who would like to travel with you then the more people in the group the lower the price will be. All tours, whether group or independent, are accompanied by two Korean guides and a driver, even if the 'group' consists of just one person.

How long does it take to get a visa?

We ask you to complete application for the tours one month before the departure date, in some cases (if you live in Beijing for example) this can be reduced but one month is the optimum time. The visa can be issued in Beijing just before the tour or in your home country (if you have a DPRK Embassy there), you should let us know when you intend to leave your home country so that we can arrange the best place to have the visa issued.

Can I take pictures/video?

There are many restriction on photography that have to be obeyed in DPRK, however you can take pictures of most things and everyone who visits always takes many more pictures than they think they will (extra digital memory cards and sticks are NOT available in DPRK so be sure to take plenty of those). The Koreans do not examine your film or force you to develop the films you have taken (although the customs officials at Sinuiju may ask to see your pictures). Video cameras are generally prohibited but can be taken on some occasions, again restrictions as to their use do apply but nothing that prevents the trip to DPRK being accurately recorded in film


What is the food like…and how is the food situation in North Korea?

DPRK is a country that has suffered severe food shortages over the last decade and western NGOs have been operating in the DPRK for many years. Although the famine situation has been largely relieved it is far from a culinary land of plenty. However as a visitor and guest in the DPRK you will be well fed with 3 meals a day including meat and fish. The food in DPRK is far from fantastic but is not too bad, some meals are very good and some are just good enough. Vegetarians can be catered for and Vegans also to an extent although it cannot be guaranteed that utensils used to touch food will not have touched meat, or that cooking oil does not contain animal fats.
Fruit and chocolate is scarce in the DPRK so if you need this while you are on the tour then you should take it with you from Beijing.
The food situation for the normal people of North Korea is still in a critical state, the mass starvation of the mid-late 90s has abated but the supply of food still barely reaches the demand so the situation is still tenuous and malnutrition is a serious problem. We have contacts in the major and minor NGOs involved in helping with the problems so if you were interested in more information or making a donation we can assist you in any way you need.


Can we go anywhere we want?

There are many restrictions on the movements of foreign visitors to DPRK. You basically have to be accompanied wherever you go (apart from if you just have a stroll around near the hotel) and much of the country is off limits even to NGOs and diplomats. The standard locations we take in on our tours include; Pyongyang, Nampo, Mount Myohyang area, Kaesong and surrounding area, Panmunjom/DMZ, Wonsan and surrounding area, Kumgangsan and area, Paekdusan, Samjiyon, Sinchon, Mount Kuwol and area, among other places. We can also arrange for tours to visit other less common places such as Hamhung, Mount Chilbo, Sinuiju, and Rajin-Sonbong free trade zone.


Can we talk to local people?

Contact with local people is possible but is difficult for several reasons; the main reason is the language barrier (foreign languages are not widely spoken in DPRK) and other reasons are that the people are generally very wary of foreigners and also are very shy (and careful with drawing attention to themselves). You are free to attempt a dialogue with a local but do not be surprised if they are not interested in talking to you, however it can be very rewarding when you do manage to make some human contact and your guides and Nick , Simon and Hannah will make every effort to enable it.


What happens if I need medical attention?

Pyongyang has a foreigners hospital which is of higher quality than the other hospitals in the country, if you need any medical treatment above the order of a few aspirin or a plaster/band-aid then you would be sent here (Note that Koryo Tours cannot be held responsible for any medical costs). In dire emergencies you should check that your insurance company has a provision to have you airlifted back to Beijing and a western standard of hospital eg SOS Beijing.

Will there be a parade, Mass Games, etc?

Military parades and Mass Games happen a lot less frequently than people think; less than once a year on major anniversaries. Western tourists are not allowed to attend the military parades but we do get invited to other celebratory events such as Mass Dancing on Kim Il Sung Square, Mass Games and occasional public festivities. We cannot guarantee what celebrations will take place until quite close to the dates and in some cases only on the day. We expect Mass Games to run from August to October. Mass Dancing events on Kim Il Sung square and around the city can take place in February, April, May, July, and September. Please contact us and we can update you with what activities are expected. May Day (workers' day off) is often a great time to attend festive celebrations with the people, (team games such as tug of war competitions in the park) and mid April is the Pyongyang festival for Peace and Friendship where entertainers from around the world (mainly the socialist countries) come and perform. There is also the Pyongyang Film Festival once every two years - held in September. We always manage to attend the best event that it is possible to attend on festival days.


What are the hotels like?

The hotels we use in Pyongyang are the deluxe class hotels; the Yanggakdo Hotel (usually) and the Koryo Hotel (occasionally) these hotels are western 3 star (Chinese 4 star) equivalent and are equipped with bars, restaurants, shops, swimming pool, bowling, casino, and other entertainment facilities (including Karaoke of course). The hotels in Pyongyang always have reliable electricity, heating, air conditioning, hot water, and now have foreign TV channels including BBC World and Japanese and Chinese TV. The hotels we use outside of Pyongyang are less well developed and have temperamental supplies of electricity and hot water, however there are some spectacular hotels in other places in DPRK such as the traditional Korean style Minsok (Folk) Hotel in Kaesong and the Pyramidal Hyangsan Hotel near Mount Myohyang


How many tourists go to North Korea every year?

It is estimated that less than 2000 western tourists visit DPRK every year and although this number is rising it is still an exclusive club to be a member of. There are around 20 - 30,000 Chinese visitors a year and large numbers of Japanese Korean groups (Koreans living in Japan). Since 2005 US tourists have been allowed into DPRK during the mass games period (August to October).

Is there an expat community in North Korea?

There are now around 100 resident foreigners in Pyongyang excluding Russians and Chinese. Most are Embassy staff, NGO workers and UN, World Food Programme, etc staff and assorted others including 3 English teachers at Kim Il Sung University, a Bank Manager, and even the one remaining US defector to DPRK, Pyongyang's longest serving foreign resident and the subject of our latest documentary film 'Crossing the Line'.


Have there been any changes in recent years?

In 2002 some economic reforms took place moving the Won (DPRK currency) to a more market oriented valuing system; as a result of this people are now expected to pay for many services and in return they are paid money for working. This has meant that things like small kiosks along the streets selling items such as bread and drinks have started popping up and North Korea's first official market has opened in Pyongyang with more planned. These changes may not seem like much from the outside but they are fairly radical when viewed in the context of the DPRK. It is difficult to know how far these reforms will be continued if at all.


Will I be spied on?

Despite claims in various newspapers it seems to us (although we don't know for sure) very unlikely indeed that the Koreans would bug the hotel rooms of western visitors. Paranoid fantasies aside, what can the average visitor possibly have to say that would be of interest to the Korean authorities? if they want to hear a foreign viewpoint on something they can watch BBC World News in the hotel! Nevertheless as in all places in DPRK it is best to restrain your criticisms until having left the country.


Will the guides try to brainwash me?

The guides, like all North Koreans, have very strong beliefs which probably differ quite starkly from most tourists, however they will not try to brainwash you for perhaps the simple reason that their system of 'Juche' socialism is intended for those of Korean blood only. They are not into spreading world revolution through the mouths of their handful of western visitors. They express their beliefs and faiths very strongly and these are held universally throughout the DPRK so it is both impolite and futile to argue certain points with the Koreans. Something to remember when visiting is that they will not try to brainwash you, so don't try to 'liberate' their minds in return, it would only breed resentment and cause irritation.


What are the guides like?

We work with a small core of the best guides available, they are employees of KITC (Korea International Travel Company) and range in age from early 20's to late 40's. They are all fluent English speakers (we can also provide guides who speak French, German, Italian, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and other languages) and have a lot of experience in dealing with foreigners. We can say honestly that they are good people, great fun and as normal as you can get…. not the robotic 'minders' you may be expecting.


What are the trains and planes like? Are they safe?

First the trains; there are 4 international trains a week between Beijing and Pyongyang and back again, 2 are Chinese and 2 are Korean, they are more or less the same. There is only one class of accommodation available for the 24 hour journey and that is soft sleeper class meaning 4 beds to each berth, 12 berths to each carriage. Each carriage has 2 western style toilets and a samovar for boiling water available for the whole trip. The trains are safe and although the 2 international carriages are attached to a very large local train when in China only the international passengers can get into the international carriages so there is nobody wandering around who shouldn't be.
Note that there is not a passenger train to Vladivostok at the time of writing, this service has been suspended

The Air Koryo fleet are 1960s Russian models, usually an Ilyushin but occasionally a Tupolev (for the charter flight to Paekdusan a small Antonov 12 is used). Although these are not the newest planes available they are well maintained and the western diplomatic staff in Pyongyang use them and so do various pilots we have taken in and they love them! The seats are not the most comfortable with not a lot of space in economy class but it is possible to upgrade to business class and after all the longest flight you can take with Air Koryo is only one and a half hours. Food is served on the flights and magazines and newspapers and handed out for free. Air Koryo have 3 flights a week to Beijing, 2 to Shenyang (in North East China) and one to Vladivostok in Eastern Russia. In the past there were 2 flights a week to Khabarovsk also in Russia but at this time this route is not in use. Occasionally there are flights also to Macau and to Bangkok but not as often as Air Koryo's timetable claims them to be.

Can I write about my trip?

North Korea does not issue visas to journalists except in special circumstances where they are invited by the authorities. Occasionally this restriction is relaxed and we are able to take journalists, if you are a journalist wanting to go then please contact us and we can try on your behalf or we can add your name to a list to be informed as and when you are permitted to go. In the past some journalists have tried to sneak in to DPRK by submitting false details, when this happens the company they travel with is held responsible and there are grave consequences; in 1997 we were shut down for 9 months when a British Channel 4 journalist came on a tour with fake details - this not only causes us and our Korean guides problems it also created problems for two aid agencies we had introduced to the country. Please do not compromise our work in North Korea. We require each of our tourists to sign a form stating that they will not publish any articles about the tours without our express permission, we are required to insist upon this by DPRK law.
If you are interested in writing a travelogue or report on the tour for a personal website or something similar then we have no problem with this as long as you discuss it with us beforehand and have our written agreement.

THE RULES

Please be aware that whilst we do the utmost for our tourists you are under very strict regulations as to what you can and cannot do and this is not negotiable. For example; you are not free to wander around on your own, there are photographic restrictions and video cameras are generally prohibited. The main problem is with journalists who have tried to enter the DPRK with us but without informing us of their status. This has led to two serious instances which has got our guides into trouble. WE CANNOT TAKE JOURNALISTS INTO THE DPRK. We therefore ask all journalists to notify us of their position so we can suggest other alternatives.

It is therefore only advisable visiting the DPRK if you can tolerate the following points:

  • In the DPRK you will be under close scrutiny from the guides and security. Use of cameras causes the majority of problems. You can only take a photograph of what the guides allow. The public are obliged to report all photography. Taking photos of soldiers, at check points, poverty, sneaked photos and close ups of people without their express permission will cause serious problems. Photography when being driven around is also restricted. Even what we would interpret as 'day to day' harmless scenes may cause problems. It is too easy to get carried away and think that it is not causing offence or would not put the guides in danger. This is not the case and therefore we ask our tourists to take a very responsible attitude even though it may mean missing the photographic opportunity. If the group gets the confidence of the guides you will have amazing opportunities for photography and you will miss out on very little. DPRK regulations state that you cannot take a lens over 150 mm into the country.
  • Leaving the hotel without the guides or the guides' express permission is not possible. If you are feeling the need for 'a breath of air' then a casual stroll along the river is possible but only if accompanied with a guide. It is possible to stroll in the grounds of the hotel but please ask the guide and do not take your camera.
  • We are 'invited' to the DPRK and therefore we ask our tourists to respect the Koreans and their vision of the Great Leader - this involves bowing at the 20 metre statue on Mansudae and on various other occasions. Chewing gum, eating sweets and wearing scruffy clothing in places of Korean national importance (such as Mansudae statue to Kim Il Sung, the Friendship Exhibition and Manyongdae birthplace of Kim Il Sung) will offend guides.

In all these instances it is the guides that get into trouble and not you. If you are happy just to be taken around the 'system' with all the diatribe and trimmings, then you will have the most amazing experience. If any of the above poses a problem it is advisable not to visit the DPRK as we have too many experiences of seeing guides put in serious trouble by tourists who are not aware of their actions.

Customs The usual list of prohibited items applies here i.e. arms, drugs, pornography etc. Immigration officers may examine your baggage and will frown on books/articles about North Korea printed in the West and South Korea. Please do not bring in any item that may risk confiscation. You will be asked to declare currency and electronic items such as cameras, radios etc. Mobile phones and video cameras are confiscated at the border and given back to you on your return. MP3 players/iPods are ok to take in. On occasions we are allowed to take in video cameras providing they are used for personal viewing only and you abide by the restrictions on what can be filmed. There is no limit on currency. DPRK regulations state that you cannot take a lens over 150 mm into the country.

 

 
THE TIPS

Currency The official exchange currency in DPRK is now Euros (USD were taken out of circulation in 2003 but can still be used though we advise you bring Euros). It is possible to exchange other currencies (such as Pounds, Yen, Renminbi, HK Dollars) in the hotel but be aware that the rate will not be in your favour, better to change the money before entering the DPRK. We do not recommend taking in travellers cheques as they are difficult to cash. Economic reforms at the end of 2002 mean that the DPRK Won is now valued at roughly 165 won to 1 Euro. It may be possible to get hold of real DPRK money in the hotel but the best currency to use when buying goods remains the Euro.

Food All meals are provided and inclusive on the tour and are fair but not cordon bleu. Most of the meals will feature traditional Korean food, inc: 'Raengmyon'' (cold noodles); 'Pulgogi' (barbecued meat which you cook yourself); 'Kimchi' (pickled cabbage). Local beer and, on occasion, Ginseng wine are available at meal times. There is a rather limited menu for vegetarians.

Postal/phone services Postal services are available at the hotel. IDD phone and fax is available though monitored. It is cheaper to call from the phone booths in the lobby of the Yangakkdo hotel rather than from your room. It is possible to send e-mails in the DPRK from the hotel server but you cannot check hotmail etc. Electricity Supply: 220 volts, two round or flat pin plugs. Television is PAL.

Shopping Most goods are available in the foreign currency stores and hotels. However, prices are relatively high. Specialised items such as slide film, memory cards/sticks for digital cameras, batteries, contact lens solutions etc., should be taken.

Climate Korea has a temperate climate with distinct seasonal changes. Early Spring is sunny but chilly so bring a warm coat and under clothes. In late Spring light clothing in the day and warm clothing at night is needed. Summer (June to August) is fairly hot and humid during the day and cooler night but bring a light raincoat as this is the rainy season. Autumn has marked variations between day and night so be prepared. Winter (December to February) has clear skies not much snow but is biting cold.

Photographs There is a 24 hour photo processing service in hotels and some shops. There are no restrictions on taking photographs in Pyongyang but common sense is called for, particularly at Panmunjom. As in any country do not use your camera on the border crossings. Korean courtesy demands that you ask permission before taking photographs of people. Ask your guide if in doubt. They will also be extremely pleased to receive a copy later.

Etiquette When offering or accepting food, gifts etc., it is polite and customary to use both hands. Hello = an-nyong ha-sim-ni-ka. Thank you = kam-sa ham-nida. Though it is not customary to give tips in Korea it is appreciated. We suggest small gifts for the guides and driver such as cigarettes, fruit, coffee or chocolates. Some provisions are also good for the train ride and to share on the bus while we're on tour.

and more ideas....

Most Korean men smoke and it is a good idea to bring a carton or two of Western cigarettes to share amongst the driver and guides. Korean women do not smoke so giving cigarettes to a female guide will benefit only her father or husband. It is also worth having some bars of chocolate or cosmetics such as Nivea hand/face cream, or jars of coffee/dried milk as you will meet various female guides during your trip. We would suggest you give these during the second day as a pleasant gesture. We strongly suggest you bring home/family photos etc. to let your guides/waitresses etc see a little of how you live.

The more 'little' things you have (chocolate, pens etc) the better as you will meet quite a few Koreans who will guide you at various exhibits from children to adults and most people are happy to receive a gift, though sometimes it is easier to ask your guides to offer them. If you have a polaroid camera a photograph makes a great gift - or you can send photos through us from back home.

The Koreans are very wary of foreigners but it is clear that you can have a great impact if you come across as open and friendly. In 1993, children would be very wary and try to ignore you, however they are now responding with 'hello' and are obviously fascinated. It really helps to smile and where possible engage the Koreans, learning basic greetings in Korean will help.

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