Scratch beneath the propaganda-covered surface of North Korea and you’ll find that there’s far more to the world’s most secretive state than its public image of strict regime, controlled media and elaborate military parades.Read more...
North Korea - Eating and sleeping
You will always be well fed in the DPRK. Apart from the handful of foreign restaurants in Pyongyang, North Korean fare is pretty basic stuff with many simple soups of eggs and bread for Westerners. The ubiquitous foods are pickled cabbage (kimchi), bread (bang) that comes as white-slice doorsteps, and white rice (bab) with vegetables and meat, and may contain remnants of husk; watch your teeth. Other regular dishes are potato (gamja) and egg (dalgya)-based soups (gug), stews (jjigae), casseroles (jeon-gul) and salads (saengchae). Chicken (dakgogi) and fish (saengson) are the most frequent meats (mullet fish and fish-head soups!).
A fruit seller at a market stall in Pyongyang © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com
Neither pork nor beef is very commonly found, the latter because it’s always been a ‘controlled substance’, rationed by the state, but it appears in Korean barbecues (beef is pulgogi, pork is kalgi) where a tray of coals are put centre-table and you fry away – great fun. Usually, set dinners are multicoursed by separate, simple dishes that keep coming. A set of numerous small dishes for one is called pansanggi, and there’s a version with spicier dishes of octopus (nakji), crab and salted fish like anchovies (jeotgal). For a feast on the coast, order steamed crab (tang) and a heaving great crab, intact and dead (hopefully) will be hurled onto the table. Sinsollo is a Korean version of hotpot, with sliced meats, vegetables and egg stewed and broiled together in a doughnut-shaped ‘chaffing’ pot. Pyongyang cold buckwheat noodles (naeng myun) are another speciality actually found all over the country: very chewy pre-cooked noodles garnished in ice-cubed water. Very tasty and very heavy, a bowl of cold noodles is a meal in itself.
Beef (pulgogi) is a ‘controlled substance’, rationed by the state, but it appears in Korean barbecues, where a tray of coals are put centre-table and you fry away – great fun.
Don’t drink the tap water! Bottled mineral water is widely available with two or three bottles going for a euro (sometimes water’s given as change), but wherever possible stock up for the day ahead. Soft drinks are still mostly local, with lightly fizzy, sweet lemon juice (remonadu), lovely pear juice (baeju) and an apple juice (saguaju, which they call cider but is non-alcoholic) in bottles, along with a bitter cranberry-type juice. There’s also canned peach juice, but in the DPRK a man drinking peach juice is equivalent to prawn sandwiches at a football match. Coke and Pepsi appear and part like ghosts.
There’s also canned peach juice, but in the DPRK a man drinking peach juice is equivalent to prawn sandwiches at a football match.
There are a few common beers (maegju), namely the light blue and gold-label RyongSong, a pleasantly light, lagery brew, the dark blue and gold-label Bonghak, and the green-labelled brews from the Taedonggang Brewery No 3, which produces a nice heavy ale, but also a rice-based one that’s pretty foul. As its name suggests, the Taedonggang Brewery No 3 is based in Pyongyang, and is kitted out with the brewery equipment bought lock, stock and barrel from Ushers of Trowbridge, Somerset, imported into the DPRK in 2002 and very briefly advertised on Pyongyang television.
There are various local brewed draught beers at many of the hotels and bars around the country, with a nice tan-coloured draught beer available at the Yanggakdo, among other hoppy ales, or a dark, malty flagon-filler. Imports of Bavarian, Erdinger, Tiger and Heineken are becoming more available, and a few lagers in cans that suspiciously resemble Heineken.
What there is very little of is real coffee. Some is served at great cost at the Viennese café on Kim Il Sung Square, and a lot of what coffee exists is poor-quality instant. The Yanggakdo serves weedy cups of instant, while coffee is available on order for €1 a go from the third-floor breakfast buffet at the Koryo Hotel, and even then it’s still only instant!
Hotels come in deluxe, first, second and third class, and there are also guesthouses. The local press often report that the top hotels are ‘full’ with foreign guests and delegates. It’s preferred that you stay in the deluxe hotels, and you’ll be informed that it’s not because they need hard currency more but that this is the regulation, or the other hotels are too inferior for honoured guests; maybe their electricity and hot-water supplies are too unreliable (and yet they’re all always full).
In short, it is not impossible to go cheaper, and there are more hotels becoming available as new builds and renovated hotels are reclassified in higher grades. But tours are package deals, based on long-standing arrangements with the hotels already stated on the itineraries long before travel, and for the sake of hassle and considering just how good a top-flight DPRK hotel is, quibbling over a few notes ... well, most people don’t. The prices and ranges listed are essentially a gauge for those non-tourist visitors or specialist tourists. The most common default position is tourists share rooms, and perfect strangers become ‘roomies’. Any visitor should say before travel if they want a single room, for which they’ll be charged an extra supplement.
The most common default position is tourists share rooms, and perfect strangers become ‘roomies’.
There are still local hotels in which no foreigner can stay, but the grading of foreigners – the practice in which some nationalities stayed at some places while others stayed elsewhere – is becoming less marked. Nonetheless, Westerners tend to end up at the higher-grade places, for which the greater costs are justified by way of them having (more) secure hot water and power supplies; more restaurants with longer menus; more entertainment, from billiards to massage and sauna; and greater communications facilities.
It happens, though, particularly during busy times of year, that tour groups do not stay at their designated hotel but end up billeted somewhere else, possibly even in a different town, which is all part of the craic. If the new hotel is of the same class, that’s that, but if it’s of a lower class, there could be a fractional refund. Hotels in the DPRK are banded as Deluxe (Top End), First Class (Upper Range), Second Class (Mid Range) or Third Class (loosely bracketed as Budget, and mostly only available to Westerners in the remotest parts).
There are still local hotels in which no foreigner can stay, but the grading of foreigners – the practice in which some nationalities stayed at some places while others stayed elsewhere – is becoming less marked.
Now it is said, in some parts, that the hotels and bars in the DPRK are so equipped that some folks don’t have to actually be in the room to see and hear what’s going on. No-one has satisfactorily proved that this is the case. However: ‘We were in the lift of the Yanggakdo Hotel, going down from the 46th floor to the 44th. I pressed the floor 44 button and we started to descend, but the lift shot past the 44th, and I asked, “What’s going on, we’ve missed the floor”, whereupon the lift abruptly slowed, stopped somewhere around the 42nd floor, then rose slowly back to the 44th. We alighted without a further word!’ (Anon)