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 - When and where to visit
The DPRK’s warm, temperate climate divides into four seasons: spring (March to May), summer (June to August), autumn (September to November) and winter (December to February). The seasons are dry except the monsoon-like rainy season of summer; that over half of Pyongyang’s 916mm of annual precipitation falls in July and August is very typical. Typhoons also tour the peninsula’s coasts, causing floods and wind damage.
The southeast coastal region is the wettest, with Wonsan averaging 1,400mm in annual rainfall. Westerly winds from the Asian land mass make winters cold and dry, getting colder and drier the further north you go. High humidity besides, the DPRK’s July temperatures can run up to 25˚C in the southwest round Nampo to Pyongyang, while winter in the capital plumbs to –8˚C and atop Mount Paektu plummets below –20˚C.
(Photo: A boy with flowers pays his respects to the statues of the Great and Dear Leaders at the Grand Monument on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com)
The rainy season, mainly July and August, is very humid, cloudy and sticky, and not brilliant for radiant photography as the rain soups up poorer roads and rail lines and curtails access. The best times to go are April to June and September to October, when it is cool, dry and colourful, from spring’s heaving tides of white blossoms to autumn’s cascades of gold and red. If there are Mass Games on they are an absolute must-see.
Grand Monument on Mansu Hill
You will appreciate its grand austerity and holiness.
May Day Stadium
The best time to visit is when one of the Mass Games events is on. What a show, what a venue!
This park on the Taedong’s east bank overlooks the May Day Stadium and is dotted with relics and pavilions dating across the past thousand years, as well as giving grand views of the city itself. The hill is a sea of cherry blossom in spring, a blizzard of snow in winter, and a cool haven of shade in Pyongyang’s baking summers.
On the Taedong’s east bank, from the top of this tower one gets the best panoramic view of the city and can see pretty much all there is to see, including the areas you’d otherwise have no chance to glimpse.
Boaters going for paddle on the river with Pyongyang’s iconic Juche Tower in the background © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com
In the country
Myohyangsan is another firm fixture of any itinerary, the mountains of Myohyang are on one hand a beautiful ridge of gulleys bedecked by waterfalls and steeped in Korea’s Buddhist history, and on the other the location for the Great and Dear Leaders’ showrooms displaying their hoards of astonishingly gauche gifts from international dignitaries over the years.
A spectacular geological phenomenon in its own right, this volcanic mountain lake is the spiritual birthplace of all Korea and is celebrated as such across the peninsula: high, cold, remote and deafeningly peaceful.
On the road south of Wonsan to Kumgangsan, this tranquil place is where the better-off Koreans, Russians and other old friends go to relax in mudbaths, with petrol-cooked clam parties and fabulously clean beaches beyond the electric fence.
It is unusual for visitors to gain access to the inner sanctum of this site, which is one of Korea’s most sacred, both historically and ecologically. If a trip can be arranged, you should jump at the chance, particularly to visit the Podok Temple, high up on the hillside.
Kaesong to Panmunjom
The ancient city of Kaesong is pretty and is worth a two-day trip with a couple of outlying ancient tomb sites thrown in, their serenity contrasting with the silent intensity of a trip into Panmunjom in the DMZ.
Visit the stunning landscapes and rock formations of inner Chilbosan © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com
Every tour involves Pyongyang at some point. A very common itinerary (broadly speaking) would last four to five nights and take in Pyongyang, Kaesong, the DMZ, and possibly Myohyangsan and/or Nampo. It’s also possible to concentrate on the northern regions and take in Paektusan, Chilbosan, Rason, Chongjin and Yanji over a week. One could see pretty much everything there is to see in the country over 16 days or so, albeit in what would be a very intense fortnight and then some. But if you can afford it, it’s well worth it.