In February, (Yes, I realise this is long overdue, but better late than never!) I was fortunate enough to be invited by our DPRK partner company KITC (Korea International Travel Company) to visit for a research trip. I decided to take Sophie from our office with me as it was her first time to Pyongyang and she certainly deserved it.
The trip had a fair few firsts for me, which is always a pleasant surprise- it’s great to see new places open: both for our customers and the locals and I also must admit it adds some variety for us guides.
Two of my favourite guides came on the trip as did our local partner Kim, who it’s always nice to have along. He’s too often stuck in the office taking care of things there. I had brought along some nice spirits so we enjoyed a fair few drinks each night, though he seemed surprised when I had to announce on the last night that I’d run out. Fortunately we filled the gap with some local liquor and Taedonggan draft beers on the boat restaurant.
Rather than go through everything chronologically i’ll just share the parts that were new and/or interesting. I presume many people are interested in the new ski resort, so I’ll start with that.
Masikryong Ski Resort- Also commonly referred to by Western media as Masik Pass Ski resort. I was very impressed with the resort, not just the skiing facilities, but also the hotel which had very fancy rooms, a decent coffee shop/bar in the lobby and a great swimming pool/sauna. Perhaps most importantly for tourists- it had internet! The internet is plug in only, not wifi, and costs 5 USD for 30 minutes use. It’s not very quick but all things considered, it’s nice just to have it. We stayed only a night there but we had much more to see and do and a morning of skiing was enough for us beginners. In terms of skiing itself they have 9 ski slopes, though we stuck to the learners one! They all looked to be of a very good standard and all the equipment was very modern and good quality. Who knew that skiing in North Korea would be so high standard and is also probably some of the cheapest skiing in Asia?
Also something to consider for Pyongyang cold noodle fans- you can order the Hamhung style white noodle Nangmyeun at the hotel restaurant. It’s an extra charge, but if you’re a genuine fan like me it’s worth a try.
Haemaji Coffee Shop- These places have sprung up very quickly and there are now several of them around Pyongyang. The name translates to sunrise in English and at least the first one near Mansudae (Mansu Hill) is open 24 hours. The coffee here is decent but I can’t recommend the cocktails! I only tried a whisky sour and was surprised to be presented with a small amount of whisky drowned in orange cordial and a single large block of ice floating in the middle. Their iced drinks were all quite good though. The décor is very modern and comfortable and they also serve some cakes etc, though I wasn’t hungry enough to try any.
Mirim Horse Ranch- This and the new water park have already been mentioned in Rowan’s blog in January (I can’t believe he beat me to them!) but are so fun I think they deserve another mention! They have two riding areas- one inside and one outside. Inside is best for beginners with a nicely sawdusted floor in the unlikely event of a fall. They have local trainers who help teach you to ride, they don’t speak English but do a great job of getting the message across anyway. They will also hold the rein and keep the horse under control for you if need be. Outside is a track for more experienced riders and here’s where you want to be if you know what you’re doing. They also have a good bar for those who would rather just watch and have a pint or a coffee. Prior to riding you’ll also visit a small exhibition that chronicles the country’s leaders and their relationships with horses over the years, as well as their riding prowess.
Munsu Water Park- One of the best new places in the city and well worth the extra entry fee (3 euro to enter, 10 if you swim) this place is much more than just a swimming complex. They have massages, a great barbershop/beauty salon, trampolines, billiards, great bars, restaurants and coffee shops as well as the huge swimming complex with some top notch water slides. Not to mention this is a great place for meeting locals!
Haedanghwa Restaurant main branch- Though not exactly new, it was my first visit here as the extra charge usually doesn’t work well with group tours. The Teppanyaki sets come in 3 kinds- a 30 USD set, a 50 USD set and a 70 USD set. The two more expensive ones must be insane as we went with the 30 dollar option and it was more than I could eat and included some pretty gourmet items including caviar and goose liver. The steak was better than anything i’ve ever had in China too. The chefs do all the exciting things that make Teppanyaki so popular- throwing knives around, roof teasing flambes and so on and they also served us a local original cocktail- Hawberry tea with Soju.
Okryugwan Children’s Hospital- Apparently we were the first foreigners in the tourist field to visit here and it was something I didn’t even know was open yet, until the day we arrived in Pyongyang. The hospital was quite impressive with some very high grade Siemens medical machines such as X rays and CT machines. The décor was very pleasant as well with lots of colourful pictures on the walls- many of them very clearly Disney characters! They also had a very snazzy looking video conferencing centre where they could advise local hospitals in different regions on procedures, assist with diagnoses etc.
The Taedonggan Boat Restaurant- Though it wasn’t cruising at the time due to the ice, it was still nice to check this place out. The room had ridiculous heating, which fortunately they agreed to turn off at Kim’s request, I had thermals and a sweater so my options for losing layers were pretty much non-existent, as were the others. The food was good but it was more about the atmosphere and they also have several kinds of Taedonggan beer on tap. At one point the power went out, but it was only for about 10 minutes. Also of interest- it’s the first smokefree restaurant i’ve seen in the DPRK.
Sinphyong Kumgang- Another newly developed scenic spot this place is named after the more well known Kumgang Mountains in the South East, well known for the former joint tourism area between the North and South and also the site of the recent North-South family reunions, and the Sinphyong lagoon nearby. The weather was a bit cold and the road in was closed due to ice, so we could only really check out the map of the region. Kim had some photos to show me and it seems like it will be a pleasant way to break up the long bus trips from Pyongyang to Wonsan, Hamhung or Kumgang.
All in all it was a great trip with some friends and we had a lot of time to relax. We also covered most of the places I hoped to see (the only disappointment was that we couldn’t get out to Kalma Peninsula due to weather and the affect on our schedule). I’m looking forward to the next one!