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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Kaeseong, North Korea

Story and Photos By Tori Nethary

(this story was written before the recent closing of the border with North Korea and the Kaesong area – Ed.)

Anxiety started to sink in as I boarded the bus in Seoul, South Korea with Kaesong, North Korea as my destination. I was not afraid of being captured or being killed, but more so of the unknown. When I travel, I do my research. With my Lonely Planet, emergency numbers, extra copies of my passport, and itineraries in hand, I feel confident and secure going just about anywhere. Now imagine being told to leave your cell phone and other electronics behind, with nothing but American money and directions to ‘follow directions’ reiterated time and time again. Once cleared through South Korean security, we had to wait for the North Korean authorities to give us permission to enter. From then on, everything was a privilege, not a right.

Upon entering North Korea, we were all stunned by it’s beauty. The mountains were impeccable. We were led to our first main destination, the Pakyon Waterfall. It is said to be one of Korea’s three most famous waterfalls, and it’s reputation did not disappoint. Standing on the landing, getting sprayed by the mist, took us out of the Korea that we know, and into a mystical land.

The Pakyon waterfall.

The Pakyon waterfall.

The water is so pure that a quick drink was the only thing that refreshed us from the beating sun. That was the first chance that we had to communicate with the North Korean tour guides and local vendors. Most were very polite and would pose for pictures with a smile, while others seemed to have some issues.

Onward, we went to lunch,

All for you – and try not to waste any of it.

All for you – and try not to waste any of it.

where we were served as royalty. We ate an authentic Kaesong meal, which included rice and soup, along with thirteen different side dishes per person. This was unfathomable, as in South Korea, we are used to eating family-style, with side dishes to share. To respect the North Korean’s that do not have the luxury of eating proper meals, we were told that we should the meal to its entirety. This was quite the challenge. After filling our stomachs, we had the opportunity to get a view of the massive Kim Il Song bronze statue.

There were strict rules on how close we could get to the statue, as we would not give the appropriate respect deserved.

Tori remains a respectful (minimum) distance from the “Almighty Leader”

Tori remains a respectful (minimum) distance from the “Almighty Leader”

We then headed towards the city centre, which housed Kaesong’s department store and the Kaesong Namdaemun. Looking at the streets of North Korea’s past capital city, you would be surprised by the lack of people, automobiles, and advertisements. It takes one back to an old movie set from the 1930s.

A mixture of reality and the faith of stories told by past generations was left for us to judge. Jung Mong-ju was assassinated by Lee Bang-won in 1392 on the Sonjuk Bridge. We witnessed viewing his blood stains, which still remain today, 616 years later. With the stone bridge being protected by a peripheral boundary, and bamboo trees symbolizing loyalty now growing around the bridge, it is now referred to as the Sonjuk Bridge.

Our final attraction was the Koryo Museum, which holds over a thousand different relics, many stone pagodas, and exhibition halls. This was also the stop to buy souvenirs or post cards. I was prepared with over thirty addresses in my back pocket, and therefore, spent my entire allotted time writing post cards with help from friends. A sore arm and sixty four American dollars later, I either sent thirty two of the most unique post cards that my family and friends back home will ever receive, or I was scammed by the most obvious scheme in North Korea. I am not sure how long I will wait until I know which holds true.

A North Korean policeman is a human traffic light, directing few cars between occasional lone circling of the intersection.

A North Korean policeman is a human traffic light, directing few cars between occasional lone circling of the intersection.

Busy Kaeseong downtown.

Busy Kaeseong downtown.

Leaving North Korea, we drove through the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which looked all too familiar. You could see the green stripes of a Family Mart glowing from afar, and we knew we were heading back to the chaos of Seoul. We made it through immigration with only a few people’s cameras and bags getting searched. An immigration officer having a good day even stamped our passports, and that is something most people in this world will never have.

The privilege of stepping into Kaesong, North Korea for a day was an experience that I will never forget. If you have the time and money, I highly suggest opening your eyes to North Korea, as it is an influential part of the world as we know it.

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