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Being the capital of North Korea, Pyongyang is a very quiet city and used as a sort of showcase by North Korea regarding culture and education, with main attractions being several schools of art, music and other sorts of cultural activities. The city is spread out along the shores of the Taedong river and at first sight you would not believe there are actually 3 million people living in Pyongyang. Cars, especially private ones, are almost non-existent and people move around on bikes and foot mostly. As a tourist, you are not allowed to move around freely and because of that it feels like being in some sort of box, or moving around in some place that is not real. But it is and it's a perfect example of Stalinistic building styles, combined with surprisingly green areas as well.
You will not easily forget the sight of the Juche Tower or watching the body of Kim Il Sung in his mausoleum. It is also home to the highest structure that has never been finished: a hotel more than 300 metres high. Although it's almost impossible to have real contact with the local people in Pyongyang, a visit to the capital of the last true communistic country, is highly recommended and memorable.
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There are many statues and even more portraits of Kim Il Sung then you could ever imagine, but the best known and the biggest is the official Mansudae Grand Monument with a much larger than life statue of the Great Leader. The bronze statue was erected in 1972 along with the neighboring museum, in honor of President Kim's sixtieth birthday. The statue measures around 20 metres and in the back is a 70-metre wide mosaic of Mount Paektu. Literally every visitor to the country will pay a visit to the statue and you are expected to pay your respects by leaving flowers at his feet. If you arrive by air, this will be the first stop on your way to your hotel. No one just drives by the first time!
The Arirang Mass Gymnastic and Artistic Performance in Pyongyang is sometimes incorrectly called the "mass games", as it is not a game at all - there are no teams, no winners, and no losers. Instead, it is a spectacular show with over 100,000 performers staged in the May Day Stadium, which holds over 150,000 people, now recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest such performance in the world. Normally these performances are held six nights per week from August 1 through September 30 with some variations in start and end dates depending on various internal factors in North Korea. The 2014 Arirang Performance is rumoured to be cancelled and may not resume until 2015.
The celebration of the life of North Korea’s founding father, Kim il Sung, is held every year on April 15. The capital, Pyongyang, sees military parades and parties, while smaller events take place across the country.
International Workers’ Day is celebrated in North Korea, as it is elsewhere in world, on May 1, with Pyongyang seeing a huge folk festival in Toesongsan Park along with sporting events and parades.
This important festival on July 27 marks the day on which the Korean War armistice was signed, and involves mass dancing and military parades.
Liberation Day is a national holiday in North Korea, held on August 15 as part of the huge Mass Games festival in Pyongyang’s main stadium.
This event celebrates the founding of North Korea’s Workers’ Party, a cornerstone of the country’s ruling elite. Held on October 10, it is a chance to see one of the country’s Mass Dances as well as the last days of the famed Ariring Mass Games in Pyongyang.
North Korea in general has a land climate, meaning cold but usually dry winters and hot summers. In summer most of the rain falls and it's often rather humid. Temperatures can reach 35 °C for days on end and in winter temperatures can plummet way below zero. Therefore, autumn but especially spring (when it's usually dry), are the most pleasant times to visit Pyongyang.
Taking the train between Beijing (China) and Pyongyang is an option, but not as an individual. You have to arrange it with a travel agency and be part of a tour group. Most tours have tourists fly one way, for example with Air Koryo, and then take the train the other way back. Trains leave Pyongyang for Beijing at Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays around 10am. From Beijing trains leave on the same days at around 5.30 pm. It takes 24 hours in both directions, including formalities at the border towns of Sinuiju (North Korea) and Dandong (China).
There is even one train a week between Moscow (Russia) (Yaroslavski station) and Pyongyang, usually leaving on friday (Moscow) or Saturday (Pyongyang) and it takes a week to complete the entire journey.
Getting around Pyongyang by yourself is not allowed. You are most likely to be part of an organised tour so you will travel around by car/bus. With a guide, it is possible though to walk around the city and take a ride in the metro system, which is an attraction of its own.
The metro system has two routes. However, if on a package tour, your short trip on the metro will be organised in advance. Only visitors of foreign residents may use the entire metro. Despite being old, the trains run quite efficiently, and are phenomenally cheap at 5 won per journey irrespective of distance. The biggest drawback to this form of transport is that the metro is only on the west side of the river, while Munsu dong - where all foreign residents live - is on the east side.
Taxis can be taken, but drivers are wary of accepting foreigners. One exception might be the Koryo Hotel, near the railway station. Expect the driver to check with the hotel that he is allowed to take you. Generally around €5 will cover a medium distance one way journey, although the rate for foreigners is USD1/km before 18:30 and USD2/km in the evening.
Local residents generally eat at home, and as such the Pyongyang restaurant scene is lacking. You will normally eat dinner at your hotel. There are a number of small diners in the city, but they are mostly aimed at local workers and have rather spartan fare—boiled corn, kimchi, some fish or squid, white rice. The legal situation surrounding these semi-private establishments is complicated, and foreigners are not advised to eat at them.
There are, however, several restaurants well-suited for tourists.
There are very few bars and clubs, though North Korean beer is available at hotels. Some may also offer Chinese and other foreign beers, such as Heineken. The local draught beer is excellent, and costs from €0.50 to €1.40.
There are three main places, apart from restaurants and hotels, where foreign residents go to socialise; the old Diplomatic club, near the Juche tower by the river, the Friendship, inside the Munsu dong foreigners' compound, and the Random Access Club (RAC), run by the UN, also inside the foreigners' compound.
Unfortunately, Pyongyang and North Korea in general are no budget destinations. On a fixed tour, you will stay in top end hotels. These hotels are generally good value and full board is almost always included. One of the best hotels is the Yanggakdo hotel on an island in the Taedong river. It is 47 floors high and on the top floor there is a revolving restaurant with great views over the river and city. It is similar like a 4-star hotel in China. It has a restaurant, karaoke, coffee bar and post counter where you can post postcards or letters. Rooms are nice. You can get CCTV channel and BBC channel as well.
In February of 2013, Koryolink announced that mobile 3G internet will be accessible by foreigners. It is currently possible to access 3G internet in North Korea by purchasing a SIM card in Pyongyang, but the rates can be hefty and some higher data plans require monthly plans for frequent travelers or foreign residents. Through the 3G internet, you can access most websites including Facebook, Twitter and all other social media sites. It's not recommended to access banking information from North Korea, as financial institutions can track your IP address and will block your account.
See also International Telephone Calls
In January 2013, Koryolink announced that foreigners can now bring their cell phones into the country and can purchase mobile SIM cards, which allow you to make international phone calls straight from your phone. The rates are expensive (about $5 per minute to call overseas). SIM cards can usually be purchased at the Koryolink counter found in the Sunan International Airport, but there are days where the counter is not staffed.
In Yanggakdao Hotel in Pyongyang you can make international call but it will cost around €1-3 per minute, depending on where you are calling.
You can post international postcards or letters from the Yanggakdao Hotel in Pyongyang. It takes about 10-15 days to reach your destination.
You can purchase postage and postcards in several souvenir shops. The best place for postcards is at the Korea Stamp Shop in Pyongyang next to the Koryo Hotel or at the Koryo Stamp Shop in Kaesong. International postage is about €1 Euro and postcards are usually €1.20.
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