Lights Out

My tour of North Korea lasts from September 3 to 20 and will include eight nights in Pyongyang. The time in the capital city will be shared between two hotels, the Yanggakdo and the Koryo. The Yanggakdo (first photo below) is 47 storeys high and is the main hotel for foreigners. The Koryo (second photo below) is located closer to the city centre and is 35 storeys. For sixteen years, the elephant in the room, the 105-storey pyramid Ryugyong Hotel lay dormant and incomplete, however construction resumed in April 2008. It is not yet ready for habitation.

When viewed against the Pyongyang skyline, the Yanggakdo and Koryo are colossal structures but they are only rarely filled. In the dozens of blogs I have read, tourists have stated that they were the only guests on their entire floor. It is known, though, that the hotels are filled during national holidays and the time of the Mass Games. I will be in Pyongyang on the DPRK’s National Day (9 September) and will attend the Arirang Mass Games, so I wonder just how packed the Yanggakdo will be. 

Tourists do not have the freedom to walk around Pyongyang unescorted. One must always have a guide and at the end of the day’s sightseeing, the travellers are brought back to the hotel where they must stay. One can’t walk around alone at night, and one can’t take an early-morning jog before the next day’s sightseeing begins either. Tourists are effectively imprisoned in their hotels when their guide drops them off. In order to make guests feel welcome, all of Pyongyang’s hotels for foreigners have a multitude of activities to occupy their time. The extras make these hotels sound like Las Vegas of the East.

In my brochure showing the Pyongyang hotels, the Koryo has a bar and coffee shop, swimming pool and gym, karaoke, billiards room and bookstore. Spartan, compared to western hotels yet the Yanggakdo has all of those amenities and more, including a micro-brewery, sauna, massage parlour, golf course with driving range, bowling alley, nightclub and casino. I am happy that each hotel has its own bookstore, as I will make frequent visits to shop for souvenirs.

When we travel, we take the freedom to walk around a city for granted. In North Korea, this is not a right and when I stay at the Koryo, which is located in the centre of Pyongyang, I will ask the guide if my group might have a night stroll. I had read one blog where a traveller begged his guide to take his group on a night walk around Pyongyang, and fortunately his request was granted. Pyongyang at night is a surreal experience, since energy rationing precludes citywide illumination and most of the city is unlit. At 11 p.m. the entire city turns off and tourists point out a highlight of their stay as they watch building by building go to black. A flashlight is a must if one wants to find the way back to the hotel. 

The Yanggakdo is located on an island in the middle of the Taedong River, thus the river serves as a moat. Hotel guests are trapped on the island (which was obviously fully intended). One of the prize features of the Yanggakdo in its tourist description is the highlight: “Chance to walk outside the hotel”–which, given that this is North Korea, is a luxury indeed. You can’t go anywhere except around the tiny island, and if you attempted to cross either bridge into the city, you’d be stopped. Bloggers report that if you sit outside on the hotel grounds at 11 p.m., you can see the doughnut city turn its lights off, leaving only the Yanggakdo as its illuminated empty hole. Those aerial shots of North Korea at night are to be believed: the entire country shuts off, leaving a sea of black, supported by the blazing white glare of Southern illumination.

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