Hontiki recommends: North Korea

North Korea is a very real, yet very different, tourist destination. Perfect for the blog updates and Facebook statuses!

The Bridge of No Return. Photo: Hamish Macdonald
The Bridge of No Return. Photo: Hamish Macdonald
The Bridge of No Return. Photo: Hamish Macdonald

Done the Europe gap-yah? Want something more extreme to upload to Facebook than pictures of yourself building an orphanage in Africa? Desperately seeking an experience that’ll make you deeper and more worldly?  If you’re like so many  annoying young tourists who travel as much for the experience as they do for the opportunity to bore their friends with photos and  tales about said experience, then I offer you the trip to end all trips. What I give you is a trip so extreme, so unusual, that you will automatically trump all of your friends’ banter about how they really connected to the French countryside in the one day they spent there on their latest Contiki holiday.

Presenting: North Korea.

I kid you not. It’s actually a perfectly plausible, interesting and safe trip. Between 2006 and 2011, 430 Australians died in Thailand. Not one Australian died in North Korea, so you’re already one step closer to convincing your parents. To go, you’ll need to apply for a visa well in advance and visit with one of their state-owned tourism bureaus. Koyro Tours and UriTours currently are the most popular with Westerners, as well as the most economical. UriTours offers an 8 day tour of North Korea for around $2600, departing from Beijing and not including flights.

The intrigue of North Korean tourism very much comes from the fact that none of your mates will have gone there. I can log on to Facebook right now and easily find photos of 30 different friends posing in front of the Eiffel Tower, admittedly including myself. But imagine yourself posing in front of Ryugyong Hotel, also known as the Hotel of Doom, due to the fact it has been in construction since 1987 and  the elevators are supposedly architecturally unaligned. Now that’s alternative! The pyramid shaped hotel is currently the largest uninhabited structure in the world, and so, safety concerns aside, it would be ten times cooler than the Spanish Steps (seriously, they’re just stairs. I don’t get it).

The Pyongyang Metro boasts an incredible art deco display in many of its stations, with socialist murals and grand chandeliers definitely a sight to behold. And then there’s the Mass Games, which Koryo Tours promotes as a “synchronised socialist-realist spectacular, featuring over 100 000 participants in a 90 minute display of gymnastics, dance, acrobatics, and dramatic performance.” It’s a spectacle of Olympic Opening Ceremony proportions, except with  a side of propaganda. UriTours even promises to organise family reunions for travellers with family residing and/or trapped in North Korea. Poignancy in Pyongyang? Sign me up!

To travel to North Korea is to visit a world that is so often reported on, yet so little understood. With less than 3500 Western tourists going every year, the stories you could tell at 21sts would definitely appeal. I can almost guarantee that the uniqueness of this trip will result in someone finding you more interesting. The boring, the vain and the lonely; take note.

But for all the treasures North Korea offers, there are also a lot of restrictions, which arguably adds elements of danger and intrigue to the all important post travel blog/tweets/statuses/stories. You’ll sound a bit like James Bond, except probably with a lot less sex and violence.

The first restriction to greet you is your guide, who you will have to have with you at all times, literally everywhere except within your hotel grounds. These guides will accompany you to a selected list of government approved locations, and you’re either going to love them or hate them by the end of the trip.

You can’t go to North Korea between December 15th to January 15th, so Christmas in Chilbo (a UNESCO World Heritage mountain range) is out of the question. Camera lens over 150mm? That’s also a no go.  And you’ll have to wait until you’re out of North Korea before you can boast about your adventure, because internet access is strictly prohibited for tourists. I’d also advise against trying to bring some love to a country sorely in need of a big hug. North Koreans cannot marry foreigners and Australians already have a bad enough reputation in the love and run department overseas.

A final word of advice: read the FAQs of your tour company’s website before departing. In response to the question ‘Will I be Spied On?’, Koyro Tours reassuringly answers that it doesn’t know for sure, but “…Nevertheless, as in all places in North Korea, it is best to restrain any criticism until having left the country”. Depending on how you look at it, that advice is either hilarious or terrifying or even a warped combination of both.

So there you have it: North Korea. It’s the trip for those who  enjoy talking and Facebooking about their trip as much, if not more, than the actual the trip itself. I can’t promise you that you’ll be the life of every party, although I can pretty much guarantee you cult-like status in every GOVT tutorial you have. Say hello to those participation marks you’ve never particularly cared about.

But look, I hear you reading this in my smug tone and thinking to yourself, have you ever gone to North Korea, Thomas? What the hell do you know?

Well, no I haven’t. But in my defence, both journalists and South Koreans are not permitted to travel to North Korea, and while I’m neither of those, I’ll be showing my solidarity to my journalist brothers and Korean sisters by instead spending the Semester break on a Contiki tour in Europe, Facebooking obnoxious selfies of myself at Yacht Week.