The Yanggakdo International Hotel is North Korea’s biggest and most popular hotel. Well, until they finally open the Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang’s most famous unfinished building for more than two decades; named after an old name for Pyongyang itself, meaning “capital of willows”. The Yanggakdo Hotel on the other hand is named after the island it is on, Yanggak – located in Pyongyang’s main river, Taedong. Nicknamed “Alcatraz of Fun” due to the fact that foreign guests are not allowed to leave the Yanggak Island, the hotel features several restaurants and bars, a couple of shops (books, alcohol / imported food / local cigarettes, postcards / stamps, …), a tailor, a Chinese run casino basement and a Korean run basement with a three lane bowling alley, billiard tables, a pool, a karaoke bar, a massage parlor and much more.
Built from 1986 to 1992 by a French company called Campenon Bernard Contruction Company (now: Vinci) the Yanggakdo Hotel and its 1000 rooms (spread across 47 floors) opened in 1995; though you can imagine that half of the hotel is not used, given that there are less than 50000 tourists visiting all of North Korea per year – and there are several other hotels in Pyongyang, like the Koryo Hotel, the Sosan Hotel, the Ryanggang Hotel and the Chongnyon Hotel. Looking at the itineraries of several travel agencies it seems like the Yanggakdo Hotel is extremely popular to house the 3500 Western tourist per year. Probably due to the fact that it is located on an island – which means that they can prohibit random contact with locals without having to lock up people at the hotel.
Contrary to many other travel reports you are actually allowed to leave the Yanggakdo Hotel. Most people prefer getting drunk or getting some sleep after doing sightseeing for 12 to 14 hours a day, but on two evenings I decided to stroll around a bit – which admittedly requires some balls as the area doesn’t have any signs and potentially interesting places, like the tip of the island, are not easy to find; and at night you need a flashlight, too…
The first time I went for a walk I was the only member of my tour group at the Yanggakdo Hotel as the rest of them decided to have dinner at a pizza restaurant at Pyongyang – so I decided to go back to the hotel and have Korean food for dinner with the other May Day Long Tour group. I like pizza as much as the next guy, but I didn’t come to North Korea to eat pizza… (And although the restaurant was generally praised before the group went, my fellow travelers seemed to be a bit disappointed afterwards.) Poor Mr. Kim had to come with me to the hotel, too. You know, just in case… (One of those situations you can interpret both ways. Depending on your attitude you can claim had he had to go with me to keep an eye on me – or you can say it was a form of service, just in case I needed something. We actually parted in the lobby right after the arrival, even before dinner, where Mr. Kim did something tourist guides never do – he gave me his room number in case I had a question.) Since the pizza restaurant took more time than my Korean dinner at the hotel I told Mr. Kim that I wanted to go to the tip of the island to take some night shots of Pyongyang while waiting for the rest of my group to arrive – no problem.
Getting to the tip of Yanggak Island wasn’t that easy, especially at night, since entrance of the hotel is on a much higher level and there are no hints on how to get there. Luckily I met two of my dinner companions on my way there, so somehow we made it after a couple of minutes and several concrete staircases, narrow paths and dark corners. The view from the tip of Yanggak Island is absolutely gorgeous and totally worth the hassle of getting there, so I took a couple of photos and left when the wind got too cold to being outside with just jeans and a T-shirt.
The next night I went there again. This time prepared, i.e. wearing a jacket. I took the exact same route as the night before (*and marked it on the GoogleMap I created*), but this time I didn’t mention it to anybody and I was without company – to my surprise I triggered an alarm on the eastern side of the Yanggakdo Hotel. Sound, light, guard with a flashlight coming outside through a door. Since I didn’t do anything wrong I kept walking and the guy didn’t even try to make contact, but it felt kinda weird. On my way back I kept as far away from the building as possible without stepping on the grass – nevertheless I triggered the alarm again, with the exact same result. It was an interesting experience, because until then I didn’t feel surveillance at all. Especially after the two days in Beijing, where they have security checks at every train and subway station plus countless cameras everywhere. I don’t think I ever saw “security cameras” anywhere in the DPRK except for a couple of days later at the DMZ. But this little episode proofed that just because you don’t see surveillance it doesn’t mean that there is none – and it made me wonder if and how the system would kick in if I would have gone in the other direction, towards the Yanggak Bridge, which marks the southern limit of freedom on Yanggak Island…
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