North Koreans don’t like journalists. That’s the simplest and fastest explanation as to why the website was down for a couple of months.

Last year I went on a trip to Chernobyl with two good friends of mine. The idea for the trip was initiated on a random night a couple of months earlier when we started wondering what would be a “weird” place to go for a trip. Obviously after Chernobyl it was just a matter of time before someone posed the question: “What’s next?”

North Korea was an obvious choice. My friend, Bernard, is a veteran of Far East travels and wanted to combine that with a trip to other parts of Asia. I wanted to see China. And so, in March, we started planning the trip.

At the moment of this writing I’m already back from North Korea and I’m somewhere in China, travelling alone as my friend has headed south to Singapore. Before I start writing about the craziness of what we have seen and experienced in North Korea I would like to share some information about our travel planning and also list a few mythbusters. In the next days I’ll try to write more.

  • North Koreans do not allow journalists on guided tours – due to this I decided it would be best to bring my site down. I’m no journalist, but in today’s world pretty much anyone with a computer can be considered a journalist.
  • North Koreans don’t like two social groups in particular – Americans and people who speak Korean. For this trip I decided to leave the American passport home and I travelled only on my Polish passport. My travel guides in North Korea never learned of my dual nationality.
  • Getting a visa to North Korea and organising the whole trip was very easy. I can highly recommend Ms Sabrina Wong from “Explore North Korea” (www.explorenorthkorea.com), who was our travel agent on this trip and was extremely helpful along all the steps of the trip. The benefit of travelling with “Explore North Korea” is that we had a Chinese group and it seems like the rules were less strict for us than for other foreign groups.
  • Talking of rules. At no point during the trip were we told that we can’t take pictures except for the first day when we learned that we’re not allowed to take pictures of soldiers. At the border everyone had to put their cameras into a plastic bag and a North Korean official went through the pictures. The whole operation lasted for about an hour. I managed to hide one of my cameras, which I now consider to be a move more stupid than brave since none of my friends’ photos were deleted.
  • I was told by a friend who did this trip some time ago (thank you Joao!) to take a flashlight (due to frequent power outages) and towels (as there are none in hotels). I’m happy to report that the Korean electric industry has made some massive improvements and during our six days in North Korea we experienced only one two-minute outage! Towels were also there. I’m fairly certain that someone in North Korea is monitoring the Internet and reading the feedback from foreign travellers…
  • Talking of Internet. It’s non-existent in North Korea. One of our guides said that she thought they did not really need it because of the libraries they had. Yeah, right. Trying to explain to them what I currently do in life (online advertising) was a challenge to say the least. Anyway, I was very surprised to see cell phones in North Korea – unfortunately, they can only make local calls and calling them from abroad is impossible.
  • There are way more cars in Pyongyang than I expected. At times we could even speak of traffic – a lot of the cars are high end. Our thought is that they must belong to party officials and the government.
  • Although we have not noticed malnutrition, there was a whole lot of poverty and rural towns are just falling apart. Halted construction, no machines in the fields.
  • North Koreans are actually very nice people, they smile a lot and were often more than happy to take pictures with us. At one point I became a celebrity, probably due to my white hair, and went through five rounds of North Korean photo sessions. Oh, that’s another surprise. A whole lot of people in North Korea own digital cameras!
  • Yes, they’re brainwashed. Big time. It’s probably the saddest thing I have ever seen in my life to see all the people revere someone so deeply and unquestionably. At least on the outside, who known what’s going through all those people’s heads. You could see communist billboards and “advertising” in every town and city, with either a portrait of Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il or a communist slogan. Every single person wears a lapel pin with Kim Il-Sung’s portrait on it. It’s disgusting.

I’ll leave more for later, these are just some of the highlights and mythbusters. Overall, the trip was an unforgettable experience, although a very sad one. Our guide in North Korea asked us what was the best part of the trip and I answered that it was her and her friend – no kidding, the interaction we had with our guides made this trip an amazing experience. They are two great girls and I wish them all the best from the bottom of my heart – I hope that something changes in their country for the better or they somehow manage to change their situation. Due to this fact when describing them I’ll be using fake names and I won’t show their faces in the pictures.

Many thanks to my friends, Bernard and John, who made this trip even more exciting!

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Beginning February 2011 I have started a new job at Google in its EU HQ in Dublin, Ireland. I will be responsible for AdWords-related issues for the UK / Ireland market.

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