Entering the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) started with a desire to see and experience beauty in the north. And beauty, I did see.
You can’t venture into the DPRK half-heartedly. I chose to leave behind my phone so with empty hands and a blank SD card, we checked out of Tumen, China, and walked over a bridge to North Hamgyong province, the northernmost township of North Korea. After a mandatory bag check, our passports were stamped, marking our welcomed entry into the DPRK.
The beauty of the North Korea was breathtaking. From the winding mountains to the valleys below, each scene would steal a piece of my heart and leave a smile on my face in exchange.
My first meal in the DPRK included a second helping of a delicious seaweed soup – this would be a frequent occurrence. In fact, each meal was unforgettable – the organic vegetables, wild roots, seafood and otherworldly Korean side dishes would put my mother’s cooking to shame. There were evenings when there was too much food leftover and although some dishes were left untouched, we always made sure the restaurant staff knew just how pleased we were and that my pants definitely felt tighter than yesterday.
We continued our journey across endless mountains and communes to Chongjin, a large port city and the capital of North Hamgyong. Chongjin is North Korea’s third-largest city with a population of over 600,000 and is known for its strategic port and its production of steel.
We visited towering bronze statues of the ruling Kim family, museums dedicated to the grandmother of the current leader and revolutionary sites, significant in its resistance against Japanese occupation. Each visitation was hosted a party official – typically a woman – dressed in her staple khaki and red uniform, providing impressive details about the design and construction of the monument.
What will remain with me is the beauty of the people. I saw it in the way high schoolers interacted with their friends, I saw it in the eyes of students, in the smiles of grandmas…
We had grown attached with our guides as they watched over us, taught us national songs about mountains and tree planting and sat side by side on our bus. There were moments when our interactions with the tour guides was so ordinary – when Mr Lee told us about the butterflies in his stomach as he first held his girlfriend’s hands, when Mr Kim laughed at my poor Chinese pronunciations, when they asked if my fever was improving or when he showed us pictures of his daughter.
The beginning moments with our guides may have been full of pleasantries and careful conversations but by the end of our designated time together, we had shared much more.
The goodbye was difficult, so tender and permanent. There was a real end in our goodbyes. It was as if we were back in time, in an age when technology was limited so people who journeyed across oceans said goodbye as if it were the last.