Due to an inconvenient typhoon hitting the DPRK - we unfortunately missed a day since Air Koryo flights had rescheduled the flights. So instead - we stayed in Beijing an extra night and sank down some cheap beers till nightfall.

We woke up at 5am and were finally on our way to the DPRK via the infamous Air Koryo!

A view of a North Korean airline from the back of the plane.
For a one-star airline, Air Koryo wasn't bad in comparison to other budget airlines. The entertainment was on par with the food which was just warm carbonated soda and bread. If there was any take-away notes, pack a snack and wear a tee.

The guides

Our guides were waiting on the other end of customs helping everyone through by translating the dialogue between the airport security and other members of the group.

On the surface, it seemed like they held quite a bit privilege and respect in this country. The guides will be our safety net for the rest of our tour.

Pyongyang countryside

As the guides were welcoming us to their country, explaining the local laws, rules for photography and providing us with general everyday Korean phrases - I started snapping away.

A side-view of a North Korean tour bus darkly lit with someone leaning over the seat.
The tour buses were far better than what I had expected - they were well-kept, clean, comfortable and most importantly, fully air-conditioned.
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Lush outskirts of the North Korean country side
Did you imagine the North Korean outskirts would look like this? Vibrant and lush - humid and still dressed in the classic DPRK uniform.
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Wide-shot of pastel apartment blocks amongst trees and a field.
The designs of the these apartment blocks were everywhere. What I liked most was the brutalist style coated with pastel colours - which felt very conflicting to the tone that's usually depicted of a communist regime.

As we moved into the capital, the contrast between the countryside and capital was abrupt. The national flag waving on every street, streets lined with lush trees, pristine roads, children openly playing in parks, and monuments towering over wide open squares; It was clear that Pyongyang was a statement for a Utopia.

Main street of a pastel colour buildings, trees and flags.
The streets were incredibly wide and lined with willow trees. Ryugyong (류경) is the poetic name given to the city for its large number of willow trees - literally meaning "Capital of Willows".

The roads were some of the cleanest I have ever seen in my life and looked well maintained.

The architecture in Pyongyang was impressive, spectacular and it certainly wasn't something I was expecting to be commenting on. The buildings was like something straight from science-fiction. But then you're also seeing Koreans formally dressed as if they were from the 60's - such contradicting visuals.

⏱ The itinerary

One important piece of information about DPRK tourism is that almost every major sight we were visiting would of had to been approved by the State previously - so all requests go up the chain. Schedules were very strict and would be difficult to make arrangements on the fly.

The State also reserves the right to cancel things with minimal notice - which they had done with the DMZ and Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. This of course, caused a ripple effect which our poor guides and operator had to account for and shift things around.

Koryo Hotel

The hotel we were staying at for most of our trip was actually very good - and exceeded expectations. However, I didn't feel comfortable taking pictures in the lobby - there were many guards and workers that were trying really hard to be formal.

This was the view from my hotel room on the 21st floor of Koryo Hotel. It wasn't the greatest of views but it was eye-opening in a way that this was much better than what I was expecting. The hotel rooms were all retro fitted with 60s decor - I genuinely think it is furniture from the 60s.

We dropped off our luggage at the hotel and went for lunch next door to have our first taste North Korean cuisine.

There wasn't a rush to bring out the phones for this meal. The food was 'decent'. The food didn't seem 'freshly cooked' but rather prepared hours or even days before hand and just reheated. I still liked it - others clearly didn't.

🐕 Mystery meat

I don't think many people had an answer on what some of the meat could be but it wasn't dog, it's rarer than you'd think. However the gentleman on the left made a special request one night to have dog soup - he liked it. I obviously wouldn't be able to stomach the thought.

Mangyongdae Native House (만경대고향집)

This was our first exposure to the Korean lore and the build up to the cult of personality. This was a sight to build the narrative of their great leader and first president, Kim Il-sung. President Kim Il-sung has been dead for over twenty five years now and is considered an 'Eternal Leader'. His son Kim Jong-il succeeded him in ruling the country.

He was a revolutionary leader who had led the Korean War for independence against Japan in 1945 and also 'won' the Korean War against the US. Kim Il-sung was a powerful figure and you will definitely be reminded who he was by the end of the trip.

Mangyongdae Native House was kept in pristine condition for being a sacred site. A sacred site holds the highest importance to the Koreans. So it was paramount to be on your best behaviour and to show respect for your surrounding environment. ie: Do not walk on the grass. Do not smoke or litter.

Amidst our peaceful walk around the site listening to the guides and a song written by Kim Il-sung himself - we arrived at some humble straw huts where the young revolutionary leader and his family grew up.

The deformed black pot on the right was sold to Kim Il-sung's family at a discount and was all they could afford. This is an attempt to show us the humble beginnings of the family's roots. Whether or not these were the actual materials tracing back to that day, it looked like a careful reconstruction and deliberately placed for ideal viewing angles.

The Koreans go into such elaborate details to build a truth. They establish little details like a dent, a scratching, where Kim Il-sung played with a chicken - and have you questioning whether or not this is the real thing.

These were the living quarters containing portraits of his extended family. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed inside since it was still technically a sacred site.
There was a nearby well which we would drink to bring prosperity, good luck and make you look younger by 10 years. It didn't work.

As we were nearing the end of the tour, there were school children and locals coming in large groups to pay tribute to their leader. It was clear that this site was part of a pilgrimage to pay respects to a leader who fought for their independence.

Pyongyang Metro (평양 지하철도)

The Pyongyang Metro is one of the most thought-provoking and eye-opening experiences I have had on a trip. It is almost impossible to describe all of what I was seeing and feeling.

Riding an escalator down to one of the world's deepest subway systems (110m) while listening to socialist broadcast on muffled loudspeakers. This would be the everyday life for commuters in Pyongyang.

Notice anything unusual about this photo other than the length of this escalator? No? Well, how about the absence of advertising. If you hadn't noticed it - then I don't blame you because it is so finely engrained into our everyday lives that it's just natural to assume it's always there and it's not obvious when it's missing. Not something I say I had missed when finding out this revelation.

Our destination was the Arc of Triumph at Kaeson station, our journey would involve taking the Chollima Line and stopping at two stations.

Welcome to Puhung Station (부흥), the terminus of the Chollima Line. The literal meaning of Puhung means 'Rehabilitation' or 'Reconstruction' - which sits on the Socialist theme which they name the stations after.

Loud screeching noises coming from the Soviet retro trains, ultra-nationalist music playing through the loud speaker, extremely bright lighting, retro interior, large bronze plated art pieces and wide mosaic Socialist murals - to say this was bustling would be an understatement.

You can't have a nice day without a photogenic mural of their dear leader, Kim Il-sung, with everyday people smiling at the prosperity of the great country. You have the engineers, scholars, housewives, scientists, school children - this is the underlying group for almost all socialist art pieces here in DPRK.
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The trains are originally from Berlin and still contain original German graffiti - but I don't think the two portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were there originally. The carriages are very plain, dimly lit and there are no maps or advertising. But don't worry, there's socialist music to fill in the silence.
It's not DPRK without your fair share of rumors. Apparently the whole Metro is for show, the other stations don't exist and all the commuters are actors to give the illusion that this is a functioning transport system. But you'd be foolish to think that this would be a sustainable way to mislead the 4-6k tourists they allow in DPRK each year.

The experience of riding the metro was like an on-the-move art gallery tour with a side of time travel to the 60s.

The chandeliers and 80m wide floral mosaic murals at Yongwang Station was another spectacle for tourists. Not complaining because it was actually very spectacular but this sort of 'socialist flexing' was a theme you will pick up on.
A captivating shot of me pushing the politeness of Korean hospitality and the boundaries of personal space. The feeling was familiar to that of catching the Central Line. The quietness of passengers deep in their own thoughts, dim lighting, blackouts, the loud and squeaky carriages. The only difference was that it was actually running and passengers were polite.

The display of Socialist realist art in the stations was not something easily missed. These mosaic murals spanned over several walls and contained pieces well beyond the millions. I couldn't say for exact how many murals there were in total - but we visited 3 stations and there were at least 10. There are 16 stations.

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In order to see the amount of detail in the shading and line work - this image is best viewed on a large screen. It'll also make a great questionable desktop wallpaper.
Move aside Michelangelo's David, meet one of many striking Kim Il-sung monuments brightly lit at the end of another dimly lit platform. It's very Bioshock-esque.
This is one of my favourite shots because it captures the many moods of the Korean people contrasted against bright pink and shiny surfaces. It genuinely looked as if it was all part of some Orwellian experiment.
These escalators looked like they were going to take us to the Ministry of Love. #1984

It's no wonder that the Pyongyang Metro has been on the itinerary for every tour - not only is it a flex of Socialist artistry but it is also a grandiose adventure in the heart of Pyongyang.

Arc of Triumph

After leaving Kaeson station, we stopped by another spectacular monument built to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan. We made our way around the roads and to the top for some quality panoramic views of the capital.

The Arc of Triumph is constructed out of white granite. It is 60m tall and 50m wide - 10m taller than the Arc de Triomph in Paris. It was also much easier to take a photo of and easier to access than the Arc de Triomph - shoutouts to the strict tourism.
A young guide waiting outside the Arc of Triumph was dressed in traditional Korean attire, Chosŏn-ot, with a mandatory lapel pin of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. This pin is a symbol that the leaders are always with the people and plays an important role in the North Korean cult of personality. There's currently no pin with Kim Jong-un. Yet.

We were taken to the top of the Arc of Triumph by another guide to get some views of the city with clear skies and sun. Yes, the Koreans have elevators.

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Photography rule #2. No photos of construction. 🤦‍♂️
Another one of my more favourite shots. I particularly liked the contrast between the shadows and the guide's yellow Chosŏn-ot against dull concrete.
Pink pastel buildings are not something you will grow tired of seeing here in Pyongyang. The pyramid-shaped building on the right is the Ryugyong hotel but more on that later. For now, observe the city design - and how it is beautifully designed and open. The sad truth is that they really only had this opportunity after the US bombed about 75% of it during the Korean War.
The building on the right is a cinema or theatre of some sort which I assume only show a limited number of revolutionary/propaganda films and not the latest Marvel flick. Unfortunately, it wasn't part of the itinerary to visit but I have heard of other private tours being allowed to see a film during their stay in Pyongyang.
If there was no pretext prior to this shot, it would be difficult guessing this monument was in the DPRK.

Taedonggang Brewery Bar No. 3

That's right! There's actual bars in North Korea and we were going to have our first taste of a locally brewed beer called Taedonggang.

We were heading to a state-owned brewery called Taedonggang Brewery Bar No.3 - catchy. To my initial shock, we arrived at the side of a dark unassuming building with no signage, walked up two flights of stairs and were greeted with a German-themed brewery with heaps of local Koreans.

The experience of drinking in the world's most isolated country felt so familiar that you'd forget you're actually in North Korea.

Juche Tower, a monument named after Kim Il-sung's Juche ideology. A monument that we will be seeing a lot of during our drives across the city.

As we walked out into the night after a decent pint - we had an intimidating view of Juche Tower gleaming over the city. Foreshadowing some of what we'll be seeing the day after and I couldn't wait to explore more of this bizarre country.

The second day will be remembered as one of the most jammed-packed itineraries I have ever experienced - and included many of the my trip's highlights.