Essentially I am behind on my blog, but not only feel I should probably mention two of the best places I have been, but also that if I am going to blog, I should at least try to be consistent…. I arrived at Yanji, for want of a better word a little bit shit faced, and felt if this was to be the tone of my day, I might as well continue. Although we did have a genuine bonafide customer to meet, we also had three SuperYPTGuides TM, so the plan was generally to take it in turns, a turn I alas did not end up taking. For those not in the know how, Yanji is the capital of the Yanbian Autonomous Region, the Korean autonomous zone of China. A place which to Korean irredentists should and always will be part of “Greater Korea”. The story goes that back in the day Mr Kim Il Sung gave up his claim to the area, in exchange for help during the Korean war. Nowadays the place is supposedly about 50-50 with the Han, and I have to say I was expecting just another Chinese town. I am happy to say I was wrong. Yanji is awesome, well awesome in its own way….If like me you have a bit of a thing for all things Korean then Yanji provides so many similarities, yet so many querky little differences to North, or South Korea, and it is well worth a visit. Yanji was almost like a bridge between North&South in a strange, and I promise not pretentious way…. Rason being the SEZ of the DPRK, I was kind of expecting whilst not the same, something a little similar. For an educated traveler, I was wrong once again, but more so this time…….. The night before our departure to Rason, we stayed in the DPRK run hotel in Yanji, which featured Korean singing, and, dancing, and is a very nice hotel. Expensive, nice, and surreal, very surreal. Our drive to Rason was for want of a better word an interesting one. Having had many a DPRK driver, our one was somewhat perfect, like straight out of stereotype book of DPRK drivers. There were issues on the way with how we got there, what the way was, and that he didn’t “have” a license. Luckily in China these things are not the biggest of issues. What did prove an issue however was customs and immigration. I have done DPRK customs, wow, now I guess 58 times, including in and out, but this was my first Rason edition! Now whilst the Chinese, mostly business people seemed to breeze through, we alas didn’t. 3 hours which included keeping books they did not want in the “free economic zone”, but also going through our computers. As someone that does business in the DPRK, I certainly don’t want to dwell on things like this, it serves no purpose, and is not something I should do. But I was surprised to see this in their “Hong Kong” We were greeted by the one and only English speaking guide, for our 4 days in country. The guide was, and is great, very open for a DPRK guide, and one of the treats about the trip. Now Rason/Rajin-Sonbong was more than a month ago now, so I do not want, or remember enough to go through things day by day, so I will summarize as best as possible. The number one highlight of the trip was that Rason is the only place currently in the country where tourists can freely exchange money at the unofficial, but realistic rate (my wallet is full now!), but also where foreigners can visit and very much take part in the private enterprise markets. The DPRK is one of the only places in the world, where what is not so interesting becomes fascinating. It was truly awesome, I bought a brown, communist style suit, and we all purchased a lot, and I mean a lot of seafood, for pennies, which we ate for dinner. The food generally was very good as a whole, particularly if you did not mind throwing in a bit to top up with seafood. Low-points? I got sick, fucking sick, worse than I have been in probably 7 years, in fact we all got a little bit sick. I have to add it was a fever for all of us, and nothing “to do” with the DPRK, and they gave us what medicine they had. That being said it was fucking cold everywhere, and that didn’t help. To be fair the 4 days straight on the piss I did before, coupled with minor alcohol poisoning also probably did not help the cause. Being without a phone in the remotest part of one of the remotest countries in the world whilst sick, was a little strange. Overall I was very impressed from a travel agent point in Rason. It is certainly not somewhere that you could spend too long in, there simply is not enough for tourists to do, but for 4 days it provided a unique glimpse into the lives of the real DPRK, and was far closer to what I expected a communist country to look like than Pyongyang was for me. From an SEZ point of view I was really exited to see Rason, as a businessman already in the DPRK, I seriously wondered about what opportunities there might be. In reflection? Currently there is no internet, customs takes 3 hours, and the environment could be better. SEZ? Its definitely a Z..
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