As I mentioned in my first post, this summer I went to North Korea. Once I had decided to go, I searched the internet to see which tours were available, searching in both English (my native language, and thus the "easy" option) and Chinese (which I also speak well enough to keep up with my university studies in Chinese). I very quickly found some English-language tours that organised tours that left from Beijing, but with a whopping price tag of $3000. Well, forget that, I thought. I immediately turned my attention to the Chinese-language tours leaving from Dandong, the Chinese border city near North Korea. After contacting one of the companies, I discovered that the price for an Australian citizen to visit North Korea during the Arirang games was 5600RMB - nearly twice the price than that for Chinese citizens, but a 70% discount when compared to the English language tours. Plus, the tour left from Dandong, rather than Beijing, which meant less time in places that I've already visited, and more time in the DPRK. I was sold.
What I wasn't counting on when I chose the Chinese tour was the fact that it gave me a very different set of people to travel with when compared to the English-language tour. Apart from a pair of Hong Kongese, a lone Singaporean and myself, the rest of our group of 30-odd people was from mainland China, and throughout the tour, none of them were afraid to share their opinion on what they saw with the world, and thus give me a new insight into the country.
For most westerners, North Korea remains very much the cultural "other". Its closed society combines Korean-style Confucianism with Marxist ideology - both social philosophies that have had little influence in the west. Furthermore, the political situation means that what news we get of North Korea is frequently coloured by North Korea's status as an international pariah, and is also very patchy, since western news sources often have little knowledge themselves of what the country is like. This all adds up to mean that westerners going into North Korea already have this image inside their head of North Korea as some kind of hell-country, and it is through this preconception of the country that they filter all of their experiences when visiting it. Judging by the fact that almost every time I did pass a group of non-Chinese foreigners in North Korea, I heard them making sarcastic comments about this country, I feel that this kind preconception does not necessarily lead to a positive view of ones experience.
For the Chinese, on the other hand, almost all of the people who went on my tour were old enough to remember at least some of the Cultural Revolution. For these people, and even for the younger Chinese members of the group, North Korea was not the cultural "other". Instead, to them travelling to North Korea was like travelling into the past. As we were shown around the country, my Chinese travelling companions pointed out things that they had noticed and told me, "This is just like China used to be like." While my North Korean tour guides were quite capable in explaining the meaning that North Koreans attributed to what we saw, my Chinese companions were just as enlightening as they told me the meaning that they attributed to things. My Chinese companions did not need to laugh oddities away with sarcastic laughs, because many of them had lived through such oddities themselves. They understood North Korea in a way that no westerner could, and they helped me to understand the country in the same way that they did.
I'm grateful that I chose to travel with the Chinese tour, and not just because it saved me money. By giving me travelling companions who understood what they were seeing, and could relate it to their own lives, I was given a much greater insight into the country than I ever could have had by travelling with those who have never had any direct experience with a society like that of North Korea. While the trip to North Korea definitely would have been worth the money I paid for it in and of itself, it was my travelling companions and not the tour company who managed to tip the scales from "good" to "unforgettable".
Myself, my boyfriend and "Leslie" - happy travelling companions
Oh, and that lone Singaporean I met? It turned out that he was a pretty good travelling companion himself, and he became my boyfriend less than a week later.