Darko Zelić

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What are the hotels like?

Apart for the water issues (see the first question) I would say: decent.
They were always clean, beds were mostly cosy (sometimes a bit stiff), rooms even had heated floors, hotel restaurants were always serving decent food, and in all hotels you'd have a place to grab a beer at the end of the day (in some even a micro-brew!). The better hotels had karaoke bars (the best 2 also had English songs), pool tables were not uncommon, and the hotel in Pyongyang even had a bowling alley and a swimming pool (on top of everything previously mentioned).
What are the hotels like

Electrical plugs and voltage?

All hotels had that combo outlet that can take both the US fork and the two-pin European plug. I think that the voltage is European (220-230V) but I can't guarantee it.
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I hope this isn't too much of downer but how did it feel being in a country that so obviously kicks human rights with both feet?

I apologise for giving an unpopular answer but: it felt great.
Yes, there are people starving somewhere in the country (they are in my homeland as well), yes it is a military state, but people are people, and people will always find the best in everything. I know that Pyongyang can look like it's all fake and full of puppet actors, but we've spent a lot of time in the countryside to have seen a different face of DPRK. There's one common thing: that face has a smile.
People are poor, but they handle it with dignity. And I don't remember the last time I've seen people as genuinely happy as the tipsy locals having the BBQ, minding their own business, singing and dancing for the national holiday.
The whole experience was way less shocking than I expected, but that could go with the fact that I lived through something similar in the messed up socialist Yugoslavia of the 90's. Yes, our thing didn't go on for 60 years, but still. Also on that note, I don't find the difference between Pyongyang and other cities surprising - it is the same case in Serbia: a lot of money is invested in the capital, while the other cities get what they get.
So, as I keep repeating: it's just ordinary people, doing ordinary things under extraordinary conditions.

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Was there anything you found surprising, disappointing or cool?

I think you have probably gotten the impression of my emotions by reading the other, more elaborate, answers, but to put it shortly: I was surprised by how normal the country feels, disappointed not to see any unicorns and I found the friendliness of the people really cool.

Did you have to bow to the statue of the great leader?

Yes. Almost on daily basis.
Namely, almost all of the destinations we visited had huge bronze statues of the President (Kim Il Sung) and the General (Kim Jong Il); and every time you'd have to "show respect". The first time, in Pyongyang, we even had to lay flowers at pedestal of the statue (one bouquet for the whole group). But it didn't end at bronze statues: we also had to show respect to the wax figures of the President, General and the Mother (Kim Jong Suk); as well as to the embalmed bodies of the President and the General. The last part was, by far, the weirdest.
Anyway, our group didn't make much of it - we were not bothered by doing it as the gesture meant nothing to us. Especially after a couple of times, it just becomes a routine. However, the gesture means a lot to them, so if you're not prepared to do it - please don't go to DPRK.

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in your previous answer you've mentioned that your guides were drunk....so, there is no any kind of alcohol prohibition? Where and how can you find alcohol? Night life?

There is no alcohol prohibition whatsoever and people of DPRK like their beer (not sure how big they are on Soju). Like I mentioned previously, we've been told that it is very common to go to a beer bar after work. For national holidays (and there was quite a few while we were there), city people make picnics in parks where they drink beer, listen to music and dance. We saw them being all jolly and informal on Moran Hill for Kim Il Sung's birthday - and no, those were no actors, but just ordinary people having good old fun. The beer is commonly sold on entrance to big parks, alongside soft drinks and ice creams. Also, all stores carry beer (both the tourist-only stores and the regular ones). Beer was also served to us with every lunch and dinner, and whenever we'd pass a family having a picnic lunch somewhere outside, they would also have a bottle or two of beer between them.
As a tourist, you'll get your alcohol mostly in the hotel restaurant, hotel bar, hotel karaoke bar, hotel bowling alley, hotel billiards room, ... See the pattern? Other than that, every resting stop&shop had beer and spirits in addition to snacks and soft drinks. The closest we got to how locals buy beer was on two occasions: once when we were taken to a shopping mall in Pyongyang and once when we bought the beer from a kiosk in front of our hotel in Hamhung. I don't know how many locals visit that mall in Pyongyang, but we sure did see a number of locals buying from that same kiosk in Hamhung.
Night life for tourists is limited to what your hotel can offer, which is quite a lot in Pyongyang, but next to nothing in other cities. In better hotels outside Pyongyang there were karaoke bars, which was always fun - bar ladies can always sing very good, and by the end of the trip we were singing along with them for the two most famous local songs. In the poorer hotels, you would just grab a few beers after dinner and go to bed. But even that turned to be fun on one occasion where we drank a considerable amount of beers, where the bar lady got to love us and our a bit reserved male guide (officially reserved due to his poor English) got finally full-friendly with us and talked about everything. As we were getting more friendly with our guides, they would drink more with us, and finally we were singing together, bowling together and feeling like a real group of friends.

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What is the nature like in the demilitarized zone? Is it a lot different from the surrounding area? I have heard it is quite preserved.

Actually, the nature in the whole of DPRK is pretty beautiful. I'm not saying it's batshit jaw-droppingly insane like in Iceland, but it's not polluted or abused, as you might expect from a "third world country". Close to the famous part of the DMZ (Panmunjom) there is nothing very special nature-wise. On the other hand, a bit further along the DMZ there is Mt. Kumgang and around Kumgangsan there's really amazing scenery (Samil lagoon, Guryong waterfall, etc.)

Is their beer good?

It is no-frills but it is not bad. We were mostly fed Daedonggang, the "best beer of DPRK", which is just a plain ol' pilsner. Other than generic pilsners, they are quite big on unfiltered brews. And finally, I bought a bottle of something calling itself a "dark beer" which had a nice bread-like aroma, but was nothing anyone would call dark.

How does North Korea compare to some of the other Asian countries you have been to?

So far, I've only been to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and a couple of streets of Beijing. Compared to all of them, the country is way cleaner. People seem to be way way nicer (that might not be by choice, but still it is noticeable). By far less chaotic, because there's no heavy traffic (I'm looking at you Ho Chi Minh City!). It is also incomparably safer - there is no way something is going to happen to a tourist, ever. I even got the impression that if you disobey the rules and disrespect The Great Leaders you're just kicked out of the country and then your guide has to suffer. In many ways, the experience of DPRK is conservative - having that you are not allowed to do a lot of things. But still, I think you can stretch the confinement zone to a fair extent to still have a really good time. As you might have noticed, I used the word "civil" a lot in my previous replies, because that was the most present feeling that I got - compared to the usual begging and selling and nagging and all the craziness of the busy streets of, say, Bangkok.

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Does the tourist experience give you insights on how ordinary people live?

To a big extent: no, but you can at least see something from the bus. As I mentioned previously, conversations with people other than guides were very limited, so you have to do a lot of interpretation of what you see.
What I could see was a way lot more smiles than I anticipated. Civility and dignity even when in poverty (we were, of course, not shown the lowest edge of existence in their country, but most of the places were not as rich as Pyongyang). Just normal people doing normal things under abnormal circumstances. Pyongyang life looks pretty Western to me - "a lot" of cars, overcrowded public transportation (including metro), people grabbing beer after work in the beer bars... When I say "a lot" of cars - it is still nothing compared to what we have here, but compared to the rest of the country where are next to no cars, Pyongyang has really a lot. So many that we were stuck in traffic more than once, but still a few that it's safe to run to the middle of the street to take photos.
The one part that really sticks out is that children have no free time at all. I know this is becoming more common in the West as well, but there it is over the top. Until the age of 17 every kid goes to one of many massive extracurricular activities centres after school where they spend hours on end. We saw a performance by the kids of one of the best extracurricular activities centre in Pyongyang and that was beyond amazing - many professionals could learn a lot from those kids. The show included singing, dancing, playing all sorts of instruments and gymnastics; and in our collective opinion it surpassed by far the show we saw in the circus a couple of days before (performed by the international artists as part of April Spring Friendship Art Festival).
Outside the city, children's life is even harder. On the cooperative farms, they have kindergartens where children spend 10 days in kindergarten and then 1 day at home. On some private farms, we would occasionally see a child working alongside the parents, and the kid would be anywhere from 4 to 15.
Another thing that is painfully obvious is that there is an incredible amount of military and they basically do everything. From construction work to scientific research - most (if not all) buildings are made by military; and on the other hand, if you finish a university, your dream is to actually work for the military because that's the best you can do in DPRK.

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How free were you to take pictures?

The only rule was "don't take photos of the military" and I was stupid enough to obey it (others didn't and they have some sweet photos of women in uniforms). There was one more time when the guide told us "taking photos is forbidden, but you can take some on the sly" - which was when we visited the circus. Since I have a somewhat massive dSLR, it didn't really fit in the "on the sly" part, so I decided to just bring my iPhone. Never was I so wrong - all around me were tourists with dSLRs clicking away like crazy. And not only them, but also people with point and shoots and smartphones using flash with every photo (and thus not being very sly). The only places where we really could take no photos were the indoors parts of Military Museum, the International Friendship Exhibition and the Palace of the Sun (mausoleum).
I was also afraid of the infamous photo checking when you leave the country (everywhere I read that they will check ALL the photos, so you should have multiple cards, with presentable and non-presentable photos). Thus, I backed up all of my photos to a hidden folder on my iPad, but in reality there was no check of our belongings at the airport AT ALL. When we entered the country (by train), they did a very vague check of our photos if they could find them (he couldn't on my phone) and I say vague because the soldier doing the check completely ignored the massive camera bag he was sitting next to.
We were also told that lenses above 150mm are a no-go, yet no one was bothered by my 250mm lens. Another thing we were told is that video recording equipment is strictly forbidden, but we saw a lot of people with anything from GoPros to massive shoulder-mounted video cameras.
So, in a nutshell, take your gear, make beautiful photos.

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Have you had any experiences of people not understanding the concepts you talk about, such as the concepts from everyday life in Europe?

Not really - as I mentioned previously, we didn't talk that much with people other than our guides, and our guides were well informed about the Western life. Our main guide, Ms Yu, comes from a high-rank family and she has access to all the commodities - a tablet computer (running some version of Android from what I could see), iPod touch, internet access (obviously, not on her phone but she did look some things up either from the hotel or her house on the internet - and she stressed that "internet" out because the ordinary people have access only to their country's intranet), a wardrobe full of western clothes brought to her by her father from Canada and USA. Also, her brother is a computer programmer and a physicist, so, I guess technology is just not uncommon to her. When you take the technology out of the relation, other things are pretty much the same here and there - well, at least according to the people we talked to.
However, we did ask them if they have heard about the missing Malaysia flight and they have never heard of it. So, I think that concepts are not an issue, but information is.

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El stvarno dufke ima svuda ko u Olandiji?

Zapravo, travu nismo nigde videli, ali to ne čudi mnogo jer nije baš da će da je bude u suvenirnicama. Nije nam ni palo na pamet da pitamo vodiče.

Sorry but IDK how exactly did you wind up going there?Did you get hired to help them update to windows XP?Or did you hack the NSA mainframe for them?

After visiting Cuba a couple of years ago, I got even more intrigued by the leftover communist countries around the world. There were some experiences in Cuba that I could relate to, coming from a socialist background myself, so I wanted to know more. Also, DPRK was on my radar even before that due to them being completely cut off from the type of life we find normal and I wanted to see and experience that with my own eyes. So, I just went as a tourist - no business engagements.

Did you meet any genuine North Koreans?

Mostly no, but still to some extent yes. We didn't talk to the random people in the street (combination of a very busy schedule and people being shy/scared of consequences) but we did talk a lot to our two main guides in very informal setups (including: them being drunk) and about all kinds of topics. Also, we were always trying to get the local guides (at the sights) out of their heavily pre-rehearsed loops by making jokes and asking random (non-provoking) questions. They were reacting as any other humans would do - they would laugh to our jokes, answer the questions and even raise some questions themselves. For example, at the International Friendship Exhibition, we had a coffee break of some 15-20 minutes or so. The (very beautiful) local guide was very intrigued by people in our group and she would approach us individually to ask us questions. Some were pre-rehearsed, but some were straight from her head. For example, she found me intriguing not only for the "unusual looks", but also for the fact that the ex-president of my country sent gifts to The Great Leaders (and she was very ecstatic about pointing each one of them out and shouting "Tito!").

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Did you visit the border with South Korea?

Yes, we went to the DMZ and we even crossed the border! Of course, that's only a technicality since one of the barracks for meetings is half in DPRK and half in South Korea, and we were allowed to go in the South Korean part of the barrack. Even so, two soldiers were standing at the door towards South Korea, in case people got silly ideas.

Does the rest of your group share your opinions on the experience?

I can't guarantee it, but I think the general emotion is the same.

How exhausting is the trip for a typical Western tourist?

I don't know what a "typical Western tourist" is, but the trip can be exhausting, both physically and mentally.
For the physical part: there was really a lot of walking around at a busy pace. We were always stressed because we were always running on a tight schedule. We were always getting up really early (for me: way earlier than I get up for my work) and quite often we were staying late in the (karaoke) bar of the hotel. We also had a day of hiking in a very beautiful scenery but, luckily, at a bit slower pace. However, we were all completely beat after that and the last couple of days we were all running on reserve batteries. Needless to say, my main activity after returning to The Netherlands was sleeping.
For the mental part: you have to listen about The Great Leaders almost every day and it gets old very quickly. The stories were nothing fantastical or extraordinary as many other people have blogged (maybe the American tourists take the stories way too literally, out of context or just have wild imagination themselves). We heard a lot how The Great Leaders inspected the sights we were visiting (always with a precise count for each of them) and how they said great things so the locals, in turn, built great things inspired by the "teachings" (everything The Great Leaders say is referred to as "teaching"). Also, I don't think that it's related to my socialist upbringing that I have a filter for those stories, having that the Dutch and Belgian people I was with in the group didn't make much of the stories either (other than they're repetitive).

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What is the biggest advantage of North Korea over other tourist destinations?

The crazy combination of messed up political regime and unspoiled beauty. Personally, I went for the cultural experience of a completely secluded society and to see how it compares to Cuba and Yugoslavia. However, there is a lot of genuinely beautiful things to see as well, from architectural, natural, historical and anthropological points of view.
People of DPRK are beautiful, civil, curious but respectful. We've been to a couple of cities that are newly opened to tourists and people were interested in us as much as we were interested in them. Kids would often approach us and run around us. Adults kept their distance for the most part, but were still checking us out. Especially when you have a fat, bearded, long-haired guy and another tattooed guy in your group (kids were often pointing to us with their mouths open, but sometimes the adults did that as well). When we were on the bus, people would always wave and smile to us, civilian and military alike, in big cities and just in the middle of nowhere. I really enjoyed that and I haven't experienced that anywhere else.

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What did you miss most while you were there?

Apart from her (word of advice kids: don't fall in love just before a trip like this) it was definitely a reliable access to water and freedom of movement, of course.
Having running water was really an issue and having hot water was a very complicated endeavour. One hotel had a bathtub full of cold water for flushing and a barrel with an oversized water-cooker in it for hot water. Some other hotels had running water only for a couple of hours a day (not necessarily when you're in them), and even the hotels that always had running water would have hot water up to 1 hour a day (that is scheduled up-front with your group leader). But it is surprising how you can force yourself into not being bothered by the cold shower, since it is way better than having no shower at all (even if it's in pitch dark since the power went out).
On the freedom of movement: you, obviously, have none. You are always accompanied by two local guides and whatever you want to do has to pass by them (and they actually need to schedule it if it's outside the planned route). Outside Pyongyang, we were covertly followed by either real military or civil army. They wouldn't approach us, but we noticed a number of times that someone was always 20 steps behind us, especially if you're on the tail of your group taking photos. In Pyongyang, the situation is way better - only your guides are directly monitoring you, and if you gain their trust they're more lenient (so you can feel more free with walking around and taking photos from different angles, if time allows). But still, all walks in the cities were short - we had one "longer" walk in Pyongyang (circa 15 minutes) and that's when I felt saddest for not being able to walk around on my own - Pyongyang is one of the most beautiful cities I've been in, but you get only a small taste of it here and there.
On the lack of external communication: yes, you still don't have a mobile network or internet access. However, if you want to, you can phone home from almost every hotel you're staying in (a couple of people in my group did it every 2-3 days) and you can even send e-mails from some hotels. It is pricy, but still within the boundaries of reason. And, I know, most of you would expect that internet would be the first thing I would have missed (being that I'm omnipresent on it) but, to be honest, I didn't miss it a single bit. Our schedule was really full, so there was not much time to be wasted for internet. Although, we did spend a lot of time on the bus, but we used that time to either talk to each other, sleep (because you actually needed it) or listen to music. And to be completely honest - I think that not having internet is what made us more connected as a group, because we would always hang out together, always talk and never seclude to the social loneliness of Facebook or Twitter.

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Language: English