North Korea

In North Korea I had the best birthday of my life.

In a September afternoon, I came to learn that North Korea’s Labour Party shared the same birthday as mine, 10 October. More unbelievable was that I found an ultra-budget tour to Pyongyang to celebrate this particular day. To party with the Party and to make my party – I decided right away.

I went with a British travel agency, therefore came a British tour guide and a group made up of Westerners. They were from Russia, Spain, Australia, Ireland, Netherlands and Canada. I was the odd one, but holding a British passport helped me feel more fit in the group.

From the Chinese border town Dandong to North Korea it’s just a bridge’s distance. We cheered when we officially made it into North Korea as our phones also lost signal. The train stopped. We were checked by the North Korean immigration officers. Rumours had it that security was strict, but the officers did not even check what was inside my phone and iPad. Easy, smooth and trusting, I thought.

Going to Pyongyang was not a long distance, but the train was slow, which made it a great opportunity to peek outside of the showcase city. We were all excited to see the villages and towns and incomprehensible propaganda banners and were taking snaps, but it did not take us long to become bored. Outside the window was grey. Probably it’s because of the stained window, or the country was just colourless other than the fading red banners.

It’s lunch time. We moved to the dining car and had our first North Korean dining experience. There was no menu. We were given what they would (or could) serve. We got a bowl of rice and a lot of small dishes. Some were not edible, but the portion was generous. Later I found out the same happened for the rest of our dining experience. We were always given so much food that we couldn’t finish, and the Irish girl got an upset stomach from eating too much.

The North Korean guides warmly greeted us at the train station in the evening. They were Ms. Chol, who was our main guide, and Mr. Kim. On the tour bus, she gave us a taste of the North Korean narrative when she explained, “our country is divided into two, but altogether we have (I forgot the exact number) people.” No one challenged her. We better not.

After we settled in the hotel, I got a call from Ms. Chol, which racked my nerves. She said Mr. Kim checked my passport but couldn’t find my Chinese visa. I explained to her that I’m from Hong Kong, so we use the Home Return Permit card instead. Perhaps it was new to them, therefore Mr. Kim kept my card for the night, checked it thoroughly to confirm I was not lying and the card was not fake. He was curious why I had a British passport when I was also a Chinese national, so I gave him a brief introduction of Hong Kong history. From there, our friendship started to bond, and he noticed that the next day would be my birthday.

The next day morning I went down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. A waitress in traditional Hanbok came towards me, said happy birthday and offered me some fresh flowers. I was stunned, so as everyone. Ms. Chol then came to congratulate me. “Did your mom say happy birthday to you this morning?” she asked with excitement. Surprised by such a question, I looked at her with embarrassment and said, “I can’t get any calls here.”

An awkward silence then followed, but I broke it by asking her what she had for breakfast while eating my scrambled eggs and toast. She said she had traditional Korean breakfast, which was soup and rice. My foodie genes urged me to ask if I could try the same tomorrow. Perhaps she misunderstood. She asked the waitress to bring me the Korean breakfast right away. So I got flowers and two breakfasts. I was so well-fed that morning.

Throughout the day wherever I went, the local guides and people would come to me to say happy birthday, as if my birthday had been broadcast. I even got gifts from the stamp shop. It was bizarrely amazing.

I used my birthday as a privilege and went further with it. I put on a happy birthday girl face and made various requests that a normal tourist would not have done so. For example, when the Dutch guy was ordered by Mr. Kim to stop taking photos of a street food booth, I asked Mr. Kim if I could get ice-cream there. Normally, tourists cannot buy food there as we do not have the local currency. But Mr. Kim bought me ice-cream, and everyone in the group paid with Chinese yuan to get theirs.

My friendliness disarmed the North Korean guides. When we took a walk in the park, I chatted with Mr. Kim a lot and asked him to teach me a few words in Korean, but I clumsily said gibberish to the passers-by when I couldn’t remember the Korean word for “congratulations”. Mr. Kim burst into laughter. He then started to show me photos of his family.

Mr. Kim was in a really good mood that day. He began to change his serious cold face into a smiling one and open up himself. Later we were taken to a bar to be shown “how North Koreans hang out and get a pint too”. After a few beers, he loosened himself and suddenly said,

“I know that maybe your country is a lot more comfortable.”

This confession caught me off guard and made me so uncomfortable. North Korea always claims to be the best country for its people. For the whole time, we talked as if there was a glass wall between us. The barrier is transparent, but it’s there. There were off-limit topics, and what they said sometimes was not entirely true. They knew that you knew it’s not true, and we knew that they knew it’s not true. But we did not want to break this glass wall and tell the truth that hurts sometimes, so we remained distant, polite and dishonest. Mr. Kim’s words carried some unspeakable weight.

Knowing he slipped out of his tongue, we changed the subject and I mischievously went over to the next table to mingle with the locals and got some dried fish from them. Mr. Kim just smiled. He didn’t stop me.

The highlight of the day came when we went back to the hotel after a day of sightseeing. The North Korean guides took out a two-layered birthday cake, the biggest cake I’ve ever had in my life. It’s beautifully decorated with lots of flowers made of cream, something so luxury for the ordinary, I assumed. We proceeded to the hotel’s karaoke room and sang the famous North Korean song “Pun kam su mida”, which literally means “nice to meet you”, to end our day.

It was really nice to meet you, I thought. The genuine friendliness of the North Koreans left me impressed. Something can be faked, but not when people were genuinely nice to the others. I came to North Korea with curiosity and also respect and friendliness to the people, and in return, they treated me with the best they could. I might have broken a lot of rules in their eyes, but it’s all forgiven.

Amid the negative coverage North Korea receives, I found something positive by going there myself and was once more convinced that kindness lies in humanity, regardless of ethnicity and ideology. We all know the ordinary North Koreans live painfully in poverty, but so do the Pyongyang elites when they live in what they know are lies every day. It evokes one’s empathy through interaction with them. After all, travelling is all about learning about others and developing empathy and gratitude. Call me politically incorrect by going there, but I was hugely rewarded with friendships and a better insight into this isolated country.