It’s been a while since YPT announced that for the first time ever tourists were allowed into the DPRK to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Pyongyang. What made this news extraordinary was that during the months of December and January the entire country has always been closed to visiting tourists as the country conducts renovations and prepares for a new and busy year. So this was a very positive outcome as I believe they recognise the rapid growth and increasing amount of demand from tourism.
Here we reminisce on our first ever New Year DPRK tour, and the surprises & delights encountered.
Naturally, I was just as excited as anyone else on the YPT team to hear the news and I was more than eager to jump in and lead the first ever group to NYE in Pyongyang city with fellow YPT guide Joe. I met up with my funky little group on NYE day in Dandong, the Chinese city that borders North Korea on the Amnok river, as we hopped on the train headed into the North Korean capital.
Whilst my group gathered in our train cabins we were all curious as to how the North Koreans celebrate New Years as the Koreans are more involved with Soellal (the Korean lunar new year). Nothing was yet confirmed but mentions of possible fireworks were spoken prior the tour. So we could only hope!
As we arrived at Pyongyang railway station we were warmly welcomed by our North Korean guides and were promptly reminded it was only seven hours until New Years! After quickly checking into our hotel we all packed out the famous lamb BBQ restaurant with live performances by the lovely and talented waitresses. Everyone was swiftly getting into the celebration mood.
Next stop was the famous Diplomatic club (known as the Diplo by the cool kids). The was no time wasted opening the bottles and getting our groove on with the well updated Karaoke machine. It’s not a new years celebration without someone belting out Barbie Girl by Aqua.
During the singing and the dancing it was announced by our Korean guides that we would all shuttle our way to the iconic Kim Il Sung square located in the heart of the city to listen to the city’s bell ring in the new year. This was a huge surprise to us. My curiosity grew larger as what kind of crowds of people or celebration would we expect at the square.
Hundreds of meters away from the square we encountered huge crowds of people and cars packing into the streets of Pyongyang as they were all making their way to the square. I didn’t want to risk the chance of missing out on the celebration so I ordered my group off the bus and to stumble (in style) our way to the square.
My eyes couldn’t believe it. Hordes of families and soldiers stood together at the square with their eyes gazing at the Juche tower as it was brightly lit across the other side of the Taedongang river as well as some surprised looks to see a group of foreigners rock up to the public party.
Within seconds Pyongyang’s skyline was on fire with countless fireworks being shot off from the river.
I made some quick observations of the Koreans around us. The main thing I noticed was that everyone had their cellphones out taking photos of each other and the surroundings. The floodlights from the nearby government buildings brightened up the square saving the need for anyone to use a flash from their phone.
After getting too involved with the plenty of photos that were being taken with the families around us the city’s bell suddenly began to ring. It’s new years! Everyone begun cheering and a loud explosion from the sky was heard. Within seconds Pyongyang’s skyline was on fire with countless fireworks being shot off from the river. It was a magnificent view that totally blew me away.
The Koreans around us continued shouting and cheering as my hand was shaken countless times by the many locals wishing me and my group a happy new year. The atmosphere was unreal and there I was celebrating one of the largest celebrations of the year within a country hardly any foreigners understand, experiencing a celebration that until now no tourists had ever experienced. This definitely goes down for being one of my most memorable new years ever… and hopefully not my last in Pyongyang.