By JUSTIN DUNN
ADVENTURERS Andy Drury and Nigel Green have just one rule when planning their travels – it CANNOT be anywhere safe!
They’ve spent two decades visiting the most weird, dangerous, off-the-beaten track destinations the planet has to offer.
Absolutely NOTHING is off limits to this pair of cousins, who otherwise lead normal lives as builders living near Guildford, Surrey.
Family men Andy, 47, and Nigel, 50, have been shot at by the Taliban, gone monkey hunting with primitive tribes in India, been taken captive in Iran and visited the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster – where radiation levels are still 100 times higher than usual.
Two years ago they decided to do what pretty much no one else would – visit the crackpot nation of North Korea, which is currently threatening nuclear strikes against neighbouring South Korea, the United States and Japan.
Here, in adapted extracts from their journals, they describe the MADNESS of the rogue war-mongering state – where the tastiest meal they had during their three day trip was a bowl of DOG SOUP.
THERE are no direct flights from the UK to the North Korea capital, Pyongyang. Instead, we had to take an Air Koryo flight from Beijing, China.
This was bad. The airline, which uses aging Russian Tupolev aircraft, is officially the world’s WORST with just one star out of a possible five.
The plane didn’t inspire confidence. It must have been built in the seventies and as we taxied along the runway – after a 90 minute delay – it shook and rattled so much we thought it was never going to get off the ground.
Once in the air it was no better. The entire inner plastic panel on our side of the aircraft just gave way and moved every time the turbulence kicked in.
It was the first flight we’d experienced where we seriously thought it might crash. The Koreans screaming at the back didn’t exactly help, either…
When we arrived, our mobile phones were confiscated at customs and we were given a receipt to claim them back on arrival for our flight back to Beijing.
And once through customs, we found our two “guides” waiting for us – Huan, a girl of around 25, and Kim, a man of around 50. Every tourist here has “guides”, but you’re under no illusion they work for the government.
There were no traffic problems on the drive from the airport into Pyongyang for the simple reason that there is no traffic. Car ownership in North Korea is almost exclusively reserved for government officials and the military.
Arriving in our 25th floor room at the Yanggakdo Hotel, the first thing we did was check for bugs – the electronic listening device type.
We’d read that rooms were bugged and monitored from the 5th floor – made believable because the lift had no button on that floor, and our guides ALWAYS met us on the 4th floor as we travelled down.
That evening we went to see the Grand Magic Show – the ONLY activity in Pyongyang. It was being held in the Rungnado May Day Stadium, which seats 150,000 people – the largest stadium capacity in the world.
Foreigners – us and one or two diplomats – had to sit separately from the “locals”, who were all affluent Workers Party members and military top brass.
A special permit is required to live in Pyongyang and they are given only to select individuals. No undesirables or people with disabilities are allowed to clutter up the streets.
Before the show we watched the spectacularly lit fountains in the grounds of the stadium, hard to take in while eight million people are threatened with starvation because of the government’s policy that feeds soldiers first.
Back at the hotel later on we opened a window, only to be met with utter silence. We were in the centre of the capital city at 10.30pm on a Saturday night but there wasn’t a sound – thanks to the 10pm curfew.
There’s nothing there in any case. Pyongyang is spotlessly clean but there is barely any traffic and no shops to be seen. Besides, there’s no choice and hardly anything to buy, and no advertising.
Next morning we put on shirts and ties – required for a visit to the Memorial Palace and Mansudae Grand Monument. We discussed attempting to have a wander before the guides turned up to see how far we could get, as the hotel is built on an island for containment purposes.
But on our way down the lift stopped at the 4th floor, and there was Kim. The few tourists in Pyongyang arrive on one of the two flights a week, are put in specific rooms at two hotels and all taken on tours to the same places at the same time. At no point do the guides not know where you are.
Huan, the female guide, was actually great fun and bubbly, but had no idea about anything outside her homeland. She knew nothing of film stars or pop stars, other than the Beatles. We had an iPad with us that had films and music on it, and she was absolutely fascinated with everything on there – but she had to read it ducked down out of sight of Kim.
The Kumsusan Memorial Palace or Kim-il Mausoleum was the official palace of North Korea founder and former president, Kim Il –Sung, who now lies there embalmed in state inside a clear glass sarcophagus following his death in 1994.
Photography, smoking and talking are not permitted anywhere. All bags and coats had to be handed in before entrance.
Our shoes were cleaned in a walk-through machine, and then we were put through a metal detector and patted down. Good job we’d decided not to bring tiny spy cameras to get the first ever picture of Kim Il-Sung lying in state – one of our rare sensible decisions!
From there it was a short drive to Taesongsan Park and Funfair where we were told we’d see typical Pyongyang families enjoying themselves – and this is where we spotted the infamous roller coaster.
Being so poorly maintained and therefore dangerous, obviously we had to give it a go. It was scary – there was rust and weeds on the track and we were certain at one point that the track actually LIFTED at one sharp corner.
We also had a go on the shooting gallery, where you could have a go at shooting “US imperialist aggressors” with an air gun.
Next was a visit to the Mansudae Grand Monument – a 20m high bronze statue of the Great Leader in front of a 70m mosaic of Mount Paektu, spiritual home of the Korean nation, erected in 1972 as a 60th birthday present to himself.
We were also taken to the the Juche Tower, built for his 70th birthday, which at 170m is the second tallest monumental column in the world.
Huan and Kim decided to take us on the Pyongyang Metro. The trains were packed, and when ours arrived the doors burst open and people literally fell onto the platform. Squabbles broke out and a woman who’d been trampled on jumped up and punched another woman in the back of the head.
We tried to get a North Korean bank note as a souvenir but were told by Kim this was not permitted.
Then we went for lunch – which turned out to our own little stove and pot with various raw ingredients. We followed Kim’s instructions to the letter but no amount of hotpot expertise was going to transform the lumps of gristle and fat into edible meat.
After lunch we were taken to see the USS Pueblo, an American technical research ship boarded and captured by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1968. It’s the only ship of the US Navy currently being held captive.
At various points our guide showed us bullet holes incurred during the firefight, including a large shell hole in the ship’s structure. It was funny to hear the guide refer to “US imperialist aggressors” every time she spoke about them!
A grim evening meal followed, so we stocked up on chocolate and biscuits at the hotel. Even they were tasteless – though it does seem wrong to criticise food in a country where so many are starving.
Next morning we were taken to see the city of Kaesong Town, Panmunjon Village and the DMZ – the Korean Demilitarised Zone, a 2.5 mile wide buffer between North and South Korea and home to complexes were until recently peace – or reunification – talks were still taking place between the warring neighbours.
As we approached the DMZ, we noticed a series of large 30ft high concrete pillars along both sides of the road. We’d read that each one contains dynamite and can be detonated if North Korea is invaded from the South.
While there we went into the Joint Security Area (JSA), where unarmed representatives of both North and South used to meet regularly for meetings before the current stand-off.
Most tourists can enter this building from either the north or south – but it was eerie knowing that where we were, if large scale hostilities broke out on that border, that everything and everybody would be incinerated within minutes.
In the 1980s South Korea built a 323ft flagpole with a 287lb national flag in Daesong-dong Village.
The North responded by building a taller one at 525ft with a 595lb flag on the other side of the DMZ. The North has a “village” near the border that officially houses a farm, childcare centre, a kindergarten, schools and a hospital.
But the place is completely EMPTY. It was built in the 1950s as a propaganda exercise to encourage South Korean defectors. Scrutiny with telescopic lenses revealed it to be concrete shells with no window glass or interior rooms.
The building lights are turned on and off at set times and the empty pavements swept clean by a skeleton crew of caretakers.
Kaesong Town was somewhere we could actually take pictures, probably because the driver had no option but to drive slowly. Gone were the immaculately kept streets of Pyongyang. The roads were atrocious, the buildings falling apart and the people looked miserable and malnourished.
Bearing in mind Kaesong is one of the most important cities in North Korea, we couldn’t help but wonder how bad the rest must be.
Once back in Pyongyang, we wanted to try dog meat at the Dangogo Gukjib dog restaurant on Tongil Street, but Kim said it was not possible.
But at the hotel’s Korean Restaurant we ordered dog soup and sautéed dog – and it was the best meal of the whole trip.
The soup was quite spicy and the sautéed dog was tasty, incredibly – with actual meat on the plate instead of just fat and gristle.
So we sat and drank a couple of bottles of the excellent locally made beer before making our way back to our room, ready to pack for that dreadful flight back to Beijing in the morning.
* IN MIDWEEK SPORT - ANDY & NIGEL ON MOGADISHU MILE. On sale on Wednesday.
* Follow Adventurer ANDY DRURY on Twitter at @andrewdrury