Monday, November 19, 2007

26 Hours in North Korea

As soon as we left Manhae Town and Mt. Sorak National Park, Kristin told me we were headed to a place so we could spend the night in North Korea. What?! I thought I was dreaming, so I asked Kristin to tell me again where we were going. She told me we were going to spend the night in North Korea. Can you believe it?! I got to step foot in North Korea for a few minutes at the DMZ. I never thought I would get to spend the night in North Korea.

Kristin said we were headed for a place called "Mt. Kumgang Resort." It is a resort area run by Hyundai-Asan, a company that also makes Hyundai cars. The area is also known as Diamond Mountain and Kristin says the mountains are very important to Koreans. She also says the resort was opened in 1998 after the leaders of North Korea and South Korea agreed to improve relations between the two countries.

Before Kristin told me anything else, she wanted me to know that her group wanted to spend several days in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital. But her group was not given permission. Kristin says she doesn't know why they weren't given permission but she has told me several times that very few people get to travel to North Korea. So I guess I am really lucky to get to spend the night there.

Kristin wasn't kidding when she told me it was going to be hard to get into North Korea. We had to stop at THREE different places before we could even get on the road to the resort.

Our first stop was the Hyundai-Asan "resting area."

At this place, people came on the bus and made Kristin and her group put most of their newspapers and reading materials into special clear bags. I asked Kristin why. She said the North Koreans have very strict rules about what can and cannot be brought into their country. That means most reading materials, cameras with long zoom lenses, computers, and even binoculars cannot be brought into North Korea. Who knew?

As soon as this was done, another person came on the bus to look at all of the electronic devices people had including cameras, computers, cell-phones, and audio recording devices. Everyone who had a cell phone had to put it into a special clear bag. Both of Kristin's cameras passed inspection but she had to put her audio recorder into a special clear bag. I asked Kristin what they were going to do with the bags. She said they would be stored until we got back from North Korea.

Once this was done, Kristin was given a packet that had some purple paper with her picture on it. She was told this would be her temporary "passport" and identification for North Korea. She was also told she had to wear it at ALL times around her neck. They didn't have a special passport for me. Kristin told me not to worry. She had made special arrangements for me to be inside of her bag when we got to North Korea. Whew!

When everyone had their "passports" and had placed their items in the special bags, the bus drove down the road a bit further and we stopped at a place called the Donghae Highway Transit Office. Here Kristin had to take her suitcase and have all of her items run through the an x-ray machine (yes, I got to go through the x-ray!). She also had to have her American passport stamped to show she was leaving South Korea.

Once her American passport was stamped, we got back on the bus and had to wait until just before 9:15 AM before we could drive across something called the "Southern Limit Line" and then into North Korea. I asked Kristin why we had to wait. She said the North Koreans only open the border at certain times during the day and we had to make sure to be at the border at the exact time or we wouldn't get to cross. I had no idea!

The Sea of Japan (or the East Sea as they call it in Korea) was on the right hand side of the road. The other side of the road didn't look all that interesting but Kristin told me it was full of those landmine things like at the DMZ. I wanted Kristin to take pictures but our guide told us that no pictures were allowed. :(

After we crossed the border, our bus stopped at a big white tent along the left hand side of the road. When we got off the bus there were lots of mean-looking soldiers in olive-green uniforms. They had big guns. Kristin told me not to be afraid, but I decided to stay hidden in her purse. Before I hid, I did notice there were many other Asian tourists going into the white tent. But I didn't see any other Americans.

Kristin's group had to line up in the order of the numbers on their purple "passports." Kristin was toward the end of the line. She had to present her American passport and her purple passport to a very mean-looking soldier. He stared at her for a few seconds and then stamped her purple passport.

Kristin then had to hand her two cameras to our Hyundai-Asan guide and place her bags on a belt to be x-rayed just like she does at the airport. I normally like going through the x-ray machine but this time I was really worried the North Korean soldiers wouldn't let me in. In the end everything was fine. They didn't even search her bag. Whew!

On the other side of the x-ray, we waited inside the white tent until everyone in Kristin's group made it through. Then we headed to the bus. Right before we walked outside I noticed a large bear waving at us. The bear looked like a mascot that walks around an amusement park or on the sidelines of a football game. This bear looked really happy. I thought this was strange...especially since there were mean soldiers all around us. Kristin said the bear must be the mascot for the resort.

Kristin didn't waste any time walking to the bus with her bag. I think she wanted to avoid the mean-looking soldiers. I don't blame her. As we got on the bus, one of them blew a whistle and raised a red flag when an Asian tourist tried to take a photo with his camera. They were not kidding when they said no photos!

Our bus was the first in a long convoy of buses (the others held the Asian tourists). A small North Korean army vehicle was in front of our bus. A solder with a stern face and big gun looked at us as our bus left.

Right after the bus started moving I saw a big building with a picture of a man on it. Kristin said it was a picture of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea. Kristin says there are photos of him and the current leader, Kim Jung Il, everywhere in North Korea.

A bright green fence with that razor wire I saw lined the road our bus was on. Kristin told me the fence was electrified. That means it would zap me with a bolt of electricity if I touched it. Wow! The North Koreans really don't want anyone to stray off the path. Again I wanted Kristin to take photos, but we were told that wasn't allowed. Then I noticed a North Korean soldier with a red flag along the side of the road. Then I saw another one a few hundred yards later. Kristin said they were there to make sure we didn't misbehave. Believe me, I was NOT going to misbehave. Some people in Kristin's group did manage to hide their cameras and take a few photos, but Kristin didn't want to get into trouble so she kept her camera in her bag. Here's a photo Sean took along the road to the resort.

It might be hard to tell, but the people in the photo above were working in a farm field. They were also being watched by military soldiers.

It seemed like it took forever to get to the actual "resort" but Kristin says it took less than 10 minutes. Our bus passed a tall building under construction that Kristin says will probably be another hotel.

Then we parked in a large parking lot. Several other buses parked by us. I'm not sure what I was expecting to see in North Korea, but I didn't think it would be good since the soldiers looked mean. So I was really surprised when we got off the bus. The area we were in looked like a modern rest stop along Interstate 80.

There is a convenience store, a large gift shop, food places, and there was even a bank with ATM machines! Our hotel, the Hotel Onjong-ri, was just across the way from the parking lot.

The hotel is very nice. The lobby looked like some of the fancy hotels I have stayed at with Kristin before.

Our room was on the 10th floor and I was expecting another room without a bed. Instead, Kristin's room was small but pretty nice.

It had a TV, a small refrigerator (full of food and drinks), and it even had a view of one of the nearby mountains.

The bathroom was also very nice with new tile (and hot water!). But Kristin was shocked to see the sink was made by American Standard. That's because Kristin says the United States doesn't have formal relations with North Korea. And because the US and North Korea aren't friends, she didn't think she would see American products like the sink.

We didn't stay long in the hotel room. Some people went to the spa, but Kristin decided to walk around and look at the resort area. The resort looks really big on this map, but Kristin didn't walk too far from the hotel.

Kristin says she knew we were being watched and she wanted us to be on our best behavior. I asked her how she knew we were being watched and she pointed out a green military-style truck that kept driving by the hotel. She was able to snap a picture of it below when the soldiers weren't looking (look closely and you will see it through the trees.) I really promised to be good. I didn't want to have to meet one of the mean-looking soldiers.

Sean also walked around instead of going to the spa. He even took a photo of a village next to the resort from him room.

The village doesn't look anything like the resort. And it also doesn't really look like any of the places I saw on the road between the border and the resort. But you are going to have to believe me on that since Kristin couldn't take any photos in the bus.

Just after Noon we walked across the parking lot to have lunch. Chan-mo, our guide from South Korea surprised Kristin with a bottle of Coke. It made her smile, especially since she had to eat another bowl of rice (but she did use chopsticks to eat the rice).

At lunch, I noticed that some of the waitresses were wearing a red pin with a picture of someone on it. Kristin says the picture was either Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, or Kim Jong Il, the current leader of North Korea. I thought the pin was interesting and I wanted Kristin to buy me one. But Chan-mo explained that the pins were not for sale. He says they are only given to the special workers and it would be rude to ask to buy the pin...or even point at it. I had no idea!

Kristin did buy me some pins at the gift shop that have Mt. Kumgang resort images (including the dancing bear) on it. She says I have to share these with my siblings. Thanks Kristin!

After lunch, we had to get on our bus (at a very specific time) so we could go on a walk around a nearby lake. I noticed as we walked to the bus that there were LOTS of other people visiting the resort. Just look at the line of buses outside of the restaurant.

Our bus was one of several that drove to a nearby lake. It was actually very pretty, but again, Kristin could only take pictures in certain areas. There was nothing but trees and a lake to take photos of, so I started to think the North Koreans were hiding something. I just don't know what they are really hiding. Here are some photos from our visit to the lake.

This is Kristin's entire group at the lake.

Do you see the bridge in the photo above. Guess what? We got to walk on it! It was really scary. It was really high and it swung from side to side as people walked on it. I was SO afraid I would fall that I decided to hide in Kristin's bag until we were safely across the bridge. Whew!

I was really tired after our walk around the lake. And I stayed in Kristin's bag most of the time! She's the one who had to walk over big rocks and up and down big hills!

I was hoping that we would get to go back to the hotel after the visit to the lake, but the bus took us back to the parking lot near the shops. Kristin said we were scheduled to see a dance show and it was going to start in less than 15 minutes. WOW! I told Kristin the schedule was just like my school schedule. I have to be there at a certain time or I will be in trouble. Kristin said it is kind of like going to school. She says that's what it is like to live in a place with strict rules.

I also wasn't sure I wanted to see a dance show, but Kristin said we didn't have a choice. Hmm...I don't have a choice about going to math class either. I was really starting to not like the strict schedule but I wasn't going to complain. I know that not very many people get to visit North Korea.

The dance show was OK. There were lots of people in bright costumes doing all sorts of tricks and acrobatics. Photos were also forbidden, but Sean managed to get a few photos without getting caught. Here's one of all of the performers.

I was REALLY tired after the show, but I knew better than to ask Kristin if we could go back to her room and rest. You guessed it, the resort had scheduled our dinner right after the dance show.

This time we went to a different restaurant in the resort area. We took a bus down a narrow (and dark) road to get to the restaurant. It is located on the grounds of another hotel. Just outside of the hotel is a large, bright sign of two men. Kristin says this is Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the past and current leader of the country. Very interesting. I don't see big signs of President Bush like this at home. Big thanks to my friend Ray for taking this photo.

The restarant was not as nice as the one where we ate lunch. Kristin called it "Soviet" style. I'm not sure what to call it, but it wasn't very clean and it smelled kind of funny. I soon figured out why it smelled funny. We had to cook our meat on a small grill ON THE TABLE. Can you beleive it?!

It was kind of cool to watch people cook their food, but some of the grills started shooting BIG flames and there was tons of smoke in the room. I was really glad when we left the restarant. I was afraid we were going to be in a fire!

Kristin and some of her journalist friends decided to walk back to our hotel. I was really sleepy but I stayed awake to see Kristin take this photo of our hotel at night.

Then I fell fast asleep until Kristin got me up VERY early the next morning (6 AM) so we could have breakfast. Man, there is no time to relax or have real fun at this place!

Kristin had to be checked out of her room as soon as breakfast was done. We then had to be on the bus by 7:45 AM so we could go on another hike around the area mountains. Another hike! I was still tired from the hike around the lake. I decided to take a nap on the bus on the way to our morning hike. I was SO tired that I am not even sure which part of the resort we went to, but it was pretty cool (even if it was early). But Kristin had to walk up long and really steep steps to get partially up the mountain.

Here I am with Kristin on one of the mountain peaks (but not the tallest...we didn't have time and Kristin didn't have the energy to climb to the top!).

As we walked down the mountain, Kristin saw this little chipmonk run across the path. She took a photo of it because it was the first animal she had seen the entire time we had been in North Korea. As soon as she said it, I realized she was right. We didn't hear a single bird on the hike or at the lake. I heard a dog the night before, but I didn't see it. Very strange that we didn't even hear a bird, don't you think?

Just as we were gettinhg ready to get on the bus, I asked Kristin to take a photo of the cartoon characters at the start of the trail. I saw some of these at the lake and even more on the road up the mountain. I asked Kristin what they were for and she said she had no idea. They sure seem to like cartoon animals at Mt. Kumgang Resort!

We didn't stay at the mountain very long. That's because it was time to leave the resort. And I knew from our experience the day before that the border was only open for a very short period of time. I was really looking forward to getting back to South Korea. It's not that Mt. Kumgang was a bad place. It was just weird. Kristin called it "surreal." She also said she felt like she had visited "Disneyland in the Twilight Zone." I'm not sure what she means, but I think she means it was a very strange trip.

We almost missed our chance to cross the border. Just as our bus was leaving the hotel parking lot, one of the journalists in Kristin's group couldn't find his American passport. Oh NO! He had to rush back to the hotel to find it. I could tell Kristin and her friends were really worried. I was worried too. Kristin said her friend would not be able to get back into South Korea without his passport. It is a good thing he found it in his room!

We took the same road back to the border that we had taken to get to the resort. And yes, there were soldiers watching us all along the way. They even looked me in the eye as our bus passed. Very scary! And just like the trip in, we were told we could not take pictures. But Sean decided to break the rules. He wanted a photo of one of the soliders really badly, so he took this photo as the group walked through North Korean customs. He was able to take this photo becuase Kristin's coat partially hid his camera. I am SO glad he did not get caught!

I breathed a HUGE sigh of relief when Kristin's American passport was stamped back in South Korea. Kristin has taken me on some big adventures in the past, but this is the best (and scariest) one yet!

That's my review of my 26 hours in North Korea.