Visiting North Korea is definitely my highlight this year in travel so far. I booked my trip 6 months before the tour and I had so many days waiting impatiently until the day I arrive to Pyongyang. How did I end up there? There was a lot of preparation behind it because the country is quite secretive and visits to the hermit kingdom are rare. Here are things to know on how to visit the DPRK.
Travel to North Korea with an open mind
I think the most important thing about any trip to North Korea is visiting with an open mind. It is the number one thing to have otherwise, there is no point visiting North Korea. With a close mindset, the trip will be very unsuccessful from many perspectives and aspects. The trip requires a lot of preparation but there are no surprises arising if you get ready on time.
There are strict rules to follow in North Korea. But imagine, it’s like when you enter a church you need to keep quiet, that’s one of many rules. When you visit a mosque, you need to take off your shoes at the door. Similarly, when you visit North Korea, you will have to obey some rules. The country, the leaders and the culture are sacred for its people so you need to respect this the minute you cross to their border.
Only approved tour agencies can take you to North Korea
If like me, you don’t like travel agencies and prefer to discover on your own, then sorry, it will not be the case in North Korea. The only way to access the country as a tourist is via an approved travel agency. There are many, mainly based in Beijing. I personally went for Koryo Tours as they are the most recommended by other travel bloggers like Drew Binsky and other travellers. Moreover, I chose Koryo Tours because they have a budget tour to the DPRK with reasonable prices.
Koyo Tours was also great because of their amazing organisation skills. They made sure that we understand what we were getting into. Their website is packed with useful information but they also send a little booklet when booking to read all the details on things you can do or not do in North Korea. One day before the trip, they organise a mandatory pre-tour briefing which covers the same points sent beforehand but goes into more details. It was also an opportunity to meet the other people on the tour.
Book the right tour
Tour agencies operating in North Korea offer many thematic tours ranging from quick weekend breaks in Pyongyang to 21 days long trips around the country or even tours to run the Pyongyang Marathon. You need to choose wisely because a weekend might not be enough and a 7 days tour might feel too much.
I personally stayed 4 nights in DPRK and one night on the train back to Beijing. The whole experience was great but it was enough after reaching the final day. So I am satisfied with my 5 days tour. Although some people in my tour opted for an extended stay, others felt like the trip had to stop after 5 days as the excitement started to fade away.
Personally, the most frustrating part of the tour is that there is no option to be alone and have some free time. Sometimes I just like to get lost in a city, this was not an option in Pyongyang for sure. The tour was also a great taste on how much time I can handle such situation but it was exactly what I expected so I kept my mind open about being stuck with the guides with no free time and no contact with the outside world.
Therefore, four nights in DPRK was about right, however I would go for more in the future in the case tourists have some free time to roam around unaccompanied by guides.
Visas to North Korea
Once I paid my tour, Koryo Tours made arrangements to get my DPRK visa on time for the tour. So this is nothing to worry about as all tour companies take care of it. It costs however 50 euros which is usually not included on the tour fees. The visa is not stamped on the passport. Before the tour, my tour leader gave me the visa which is a separate blue sheet known as DPRK Tourist Card. On arrival and departure from North Korea, no stamps are left on the passport.
China is the starting point of the trip
Most tours to North Korea start from China as it is the only country with direct connections to North Korea (some tours might be starting from Russia though but they are rare). To go on tour to North Korea, I had to plan my entry and stay in China too. I asked for a double entry visa to China and for this, Koryo Tours gave me a letter that justifies my demand for a double entry visa. My tour departed from Beijing so it is recommended to arrive at the latest one day before the tour starts.
Read more: Urban Hotels: The Opposite House in Beijing
I went for a 3 days stay in Beijing before my trip to North Korea. It was an opportunity to do some last minute shopping especially for buying an extra memory card for the camera and some of my favourite snacks. It is allowed to bring food to North Korea. My transit in China was great as it is a smooth preparation for North Korea in terms of adapting to the East Asian time zone for example.
Some nationalities do not need to get a Chinese visa for a stay of under 144 hours transit in Beijing. So it is possible to take advantage of that. You can refer to this page to see if you can enjoy a 144 hours visa-free in Beijing.