Going off the beaten track is one thing, but doing it in North Korea is another entirely.
If you love to travel off the beaten track, North Korea is definitely a place that lives up to that. The secretive state needs no introduction but let’s face it, you won’t find many holiday brochures for the communist state. However, if there is one place within the DPRK that shows strands of capitalism, it’s in Rason – the special economic zone – located in the northeast of the state.
Visiting North Korea
Although Rason allows for certain foreign investment it does not mean it’s possible to roam freely at will. Every visitor will have to explore with a tour company whilst being accompanied by a state guide.
Despite this, travelling inside Rason, in comparison to other accessible parts of the DPRK such as the state capital Pyongyang, allows a little more ‘freedom.’
I took a trip with Young Pioneer Tours to seek this rarely-visited city, situated close to both China and Russia.
It isn’t an easy journey to make it to Rason; in fact, gruelling is the word that comes to mind. After a 26-hour journey from Beijing to Yanji in eastern China, it was then a few hour’s drive – including crossing immigration – to reach the city.
North Korea is 90% mountainous and with the cold bitter air that comes with Rason in the month of March, it was a bit nippy.
That being said, in Rason, comparatively to the rest of North Korea, it is more open to ‘document’ or take photos of the everyday life. Rather than be chaperoned from every impressive monument or political proxy, Rason is a place that gives you an insight into everyday life.
We all know North Korea is different to the rest of the world when it comes to culture and etiquette. As a visitor photography is limited and prohibited in certain places, pointing is seen as a rude gesture and if you’re going to even mention the name of the leader Kim Jong Un – well, you can’t even murmur his name. It’s ‘General.’
Visiting the only market in North Korea open to visitors, you’re allowed to freely haggle with market traders. Everything from traditional North Korean suits, the cheapest cigarettes in the world and cosmetic goods, it’s one of the most ‘liberated’ experiences in the whole state.
Beers, Banks & Barbers
During my trip, we were even given the go-ahead to visit a local pub, only metres away from our hotel by the central square in Rason. We could order Czech pints of beer or go for a more local mix of Talpi fish, soy sauce and Korean Soju.
Rason was the only place for visitors to open a DPRK bank account. To us, it was a novelty but we actually visited the Golden Triangle Bank and got our debit cards. Talk about quick service!
That’s not all. Diverting away from our basic itinerary we were given the chance to visit a local barbershop. Don’t believe what you read, it’s not mandatory to have a ‘North Korean cut,’ normally consisting of a low short back and sides trim. I decided to go for that style regardless.
When in Rome, North Korea right?
Having conversations with the locals gave us a unique vision to their thinking. We visited Rajin Languages School, speaking English to some local students aged 12-15 years old. Although, non of the conversations were complex, finding out what students social lives entailed or their plans for the future were as fascinating as you can imagine.
It wasn’t uncommon to hear students declare their interest growing up in joining the military and protecting the DPRK people and nation from ‘invaders.’ With a communist country controlled by dictatorship, this shouldn’t surprise.
The local gymnasium provides a landmark point for social activities, including indoor volleyball, old 90’s arcade games and dominos. I even managed to get a glimpse of a newly-married couple, posing for photos in the games area.
Our state guides gave us further insight into the thinking of DPRK citizens, especially when it came to further tourism and politics.
The Vietnam Summit had occurred only days earlier and with only one form of media available to the DPRK citizens, no one knew the outcome. It wasn’t until the second last day of our trip that the State TV bellowed out their own program and outcome of the meeting, leaving locals at a frozen standstill, watching big screens and TVs across the city.
Yet, the guides emphasised that nuclear missiles weren’t what the locals wanted to have. It was insurance they needed, to prevent from any invaders changing their ways.
They were however, sensitive when it came to photography and firmly believed visitors would likely use them for propaganda. I suggested that North Korea should ‘open up more’ to benefit the rewards for more tourism. This question was sharply nipped in the bud.
Don’t expect ‘overtourism’ anytime soon.
In no way does Rason appear like a city that is ready for a nuclear war. Things are very quiet with hardly any noise pollution. Everyone seems to keep themselves to themselves.
It’s not possible to explore without a guide but if it were, the risk to safety would increase.
Other destinations in world are volatile to visitors, such as sections of Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Rason was a place full of intrigue more than anything else.
North Korea is a time warp and Rason was no different. Although Rason as the special economic zone allows for some differences, it’s a world away from life outside the state today.
North Koreans follow the ruling family of the state in an almost cult like manner. The cultural and ‘religion’ sensitivity here is far different from the rest of the world. To us, North Koreans are officially atheists. However, they actually follow Korean transcending spiritual energies known as Shamanism and the 20th century ideology Cheondoism.
Why It’s Off The Beaten Track
North Korea provides visitors with a chance to embrace what it is.
With developing countries like the DPRK, the best experiences are embracing the little things. It’s important to forget the bucket lists and popular Instagram spots. You definitely won’t find that within North Korea. Visiting was chance to see everyday etiquette, popular local delicacies and environments. There are photos of the DPRK ruling family in locals’ households. In the city there are cartoon-designed propaganda posters. Things are just different.
If you love the off beaten track, there’s arguably nowhere more so.