Meet the latest traveller in our series Interviews on Off the Radar Travel Destinations! Last time we spoke to Lukas and lucia on their travels in Slovakia.
This week, we have with us Adrian Phillipson – Consultant Psychiatrist, traveller, active cyclist and, lover of all things automotive, from Sheffield, England. Adrian has travelled to more than 80 countries. In 2009 he completed the Mongol rally, driving from Sheffield to Mongolia in a 0.9litre $600 car. In 2011 he dragged his long-suffering wife, Anita, from Jakarta to Thailand by Auto-rickshaw. Today he will be talking to us about The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (otherwise known as….North Korea.)
Tell us a bit about yourselves and your travels
I spent my early twenties trying to establish a career as a professional gap year student – taking three in a row! It meant that I was lucky enough to backpack around South and East Asia, South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Australasia. A couple of years ago, after having spent some time enjoying smaller breaks exploring England and Remote Scotland, Anita and I impulsively took some time of work, and before we knew it we were heading out of Beijing on a train bound for Pyongyang.
Why did you chose to travel to North Korea?
I asked the same question as we were stood outside the North Korean embassy in Beijing where we were waiting for a man who had just disappeared into a side entrance of the North Korean Embassy with $1000 and our passports! Luckily, about half an hour later he re-appeared with fresh visas, stamped on a separate piece of paper for our passports, and two train tickets for later that day. North Korea is actually much easier to travel to (providing you don’t have an American passport) than you would think – several tour companies run “packages” there, and you can book on-line. We went with Koryo Tours.
Where did you stay?
Options are extremely limited – every tour to North Korea is partnered with the North Korean Tourist Board – when we went, all foreign tourists stayed in the same hotel on an island on the river Taedong. The hotel lobby had a book shop filled with literature written by Kim Il-sung – the shop assistants sung songs of national pride whenever you bought anything. We were not allowed to leave the hotel – our guides (who accompanied us for the entire trip) informed us that tourists were usually allowed out, but the week we were there, there was an international Taekwondo tournament, and it might be dangerous on the streets.
What were your favourite and most difficult parts on this journey?
The itinerary of the tour was strictly marshalled by our guides, who shepherded us around in a mini bus on bizarrely empty roads. (Our guide told us that it was a holiday that day, hence the eight lane motorway out of Pyongyang was deserted). On the first day we went to the demilitarised zone at the border with South Korea (on the 38th parallel) and had our photograph taken with the guards. We were informed that there were over one million North Korean troops within 10km of this area (we didn’t see them). The next few days included a trip to a museum of gifts donated to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, including a gold elephant from Robert Mugabe, a reinforced train carriage from Stalin…..and a plate from the “Communist Party of Stoke.” (a smallish town in England).
The trip took us to many less predictable destinations – a supermarket, an orphanage, a theme park, and a library with rooms filled with 1980s ghetto blasters where you could listen to (carefully selected) music, although this did include The Beatles.
A large portion of the trip was spent respectfully bowing to statues of Kim Il-sung, and the final day of the tour included a visit to “The Great Leader’s” mausoleum.
The highlight was probably going to The Mass Games – stealing the Wiki entry, where it is described as “a synchronized socialist-realist spectacular, featuring over 100,000 participants in a 90 minute display of gymnastics, dance, acrobatics, and dramatic performance, accompanied by music and other effects, all wrapped in a highly politicized package”
What were some of your favourite dishes/food there?
We did not try the national delicacy of gaegogi (dog meat)….we were, however, actually fed very well – the highlight being a picnic in one of the larger parks of Pyongyang more so because it was one of the only opportunities where we met with North Koreans other than our guides.
Would you recommend North Korea to other people? Families? Solo travellers? Backpackers?
North Korea was absolutely fascinating – there is no-where else left like it. It was completely safe to visit. One, of course, has to visit with some understanding of the past and what has happened in the country. I would recommend reading a book called “Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick. It is probably not a family destination – and there are limited opportunities for backpacking – although I understand that you can now do a cycle tour of some of the little-visited countryside.
What’s next on the horizon for your travels?
There is a cycle race from Belgium to Istanbul over two weeks called the Transcontinental – I haven’t managed to get a place, but have volunteered to work on route as a marshal.
To read some of Adrian’s other interesting adventures, see here on his travels to Bangladesh working with local people with mental health issues.
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