When travelling to North Korea, people often come with low expectations of what the accommodation will be like. Once, a customer asked me based on pre-conceptions “Will I need to bring a flashlight? Is there electricity?”. Luckily, that wasn’t the case. Still, the idea of staying in a hotel in North Korea is something which most people are not used to. As the quote above suggests, it comes with all kinds of fears, misconceptions and myths. The reality, however, is quite different. In this article we’ll be focusing on what life is like at the Yanggakdo International Hotel (the prominent hotel for tourists in North Korea). Although certainly not without its oddities and perculiarities, it ultimately goes beyond expectations in satisfying people’s needs whilst in the DPRK.
The Yanggakdo hotel (to the right) on an early morning in Pyongyang
The Yanggakdo hotel was built in the late 1980s by a French contractor. It’s a huge building, spanning up to 47 floors in total with it’s famous revolving restaurant perched on the top. Given North Korea’s conditions, the sheer size of it means more often than not it’s never quite full, except for a couple of occasions throughout the year. It possesses a number of facilities which give visitors plentiful to do, including a basement casino, a swimming pool, a bowling alley, as well a number of bars, restaurants and cafes and of course, gift shops. There’s also a post office where you can send postcards home and a place to even phone the outside world (barring South Korea). Although very few people go to North Korea with the expectations/desires of it being a leisurely location, the Yanggakdo certainly makes an attempt to do this, creating a rather bizarre atmosphere for those who experience it.
The hotel directory in the lift
The rooms are intriguing. Like any modern hotel room, you open them with a card key got from reception. Likewise, they have everything you would need and are not inadequate in any way. Yet, paradoxically, the interiors are somewhat aged. Visitors often comment on the old 1970s style telephones provided and the inset table radios which no longer work. There’s even a TV too! (not a widescreen of course) To much surprise to everyone, it doesn’t just host North Korean Television, but offers a variety of channels from the outside world too. This used to include BBC World and CNN, but now it’s been reduced to Chinese Television, Al-Jazeera and Russia Today. (I think the latter probably speaks for itself). Still, people end up finding it a privilege not to be “isolated” inside North Korea. All in all, the rooms really do their job. Comfortable and convenient. That’s a lot more than what you expect.
A typical Yangakkdo Hotel room
Of course you’re probably reading this thinking “well, it’s just an ordinary hotel after all“, but there were some particularities too. First of all was the North Koreans themselves who were staying and working in the hotel. Concerning the latter, there are locals who use the hotel whilst visiting Pyongyang for business reasons. Whilst they can be spotted throughout the building, they were somewhat segregated from the western tourists. Although you could often spot some sitting and talking in the bar, they notably never used the other facilities such as bowling, etc. Additionally, they were often staying on floors which were in total darkness. A couple of times on a night a North Korean got in the lift with me and got out on a floor which was pitch black, whereas the ones foreigners stayed on were lit up (as if the electricity was being prioritised).
A glimpse of the hotel lobby
As for the staff, well there were a couple more odd things I spotted. One day whilst packing up to leave, on a morning, I saw on an open door on the floor. Inside the door was a number of hotel maids. They were sitting in a circle and were singing hymns from books as if it were like a church meeting. Having spotted this, they closed the door not soon thereafter. A year later I noticed something similar. We had come back to the hotel early to get changed from our formal attire (after having been to the Kususan Palace of the Sun) and as we approached the entrance, the staff of the hotel were all outside, dressed in tracksuits, singing and dancing together. This was unique experience. As with the above, on both counts it give an insight into what life was like “behind the scenes” in North Korea. In particular, the mandatory acts of group political participation and meetings people are made to do. Who would have thought you seen this at a hotel?
The hotel staff sing and dance outside, waving the DPRK flag
Last but not least, what about the infamous fifth floor? The existence of this place is noteworthy given the lift keys go 1…2…3…4…6, yet, for obvious rational reasons, I’ve never tried my luck and attempted to go there. Again for obvious reasons, should you go to the DPRK I recommend you don’t either. What goes on in this floor is a mystery, some say it is a surveillance centre but in reality, it is empty at night. Nevertheless, it is a staff only facility which steps outside the flowery patterned comfort area built for the visitors. That distinction in and of itself is worth keeping in mind. It is symbolic as to how the hotel is in fact an acting “transition” between the world we know as outsiders and the “world” of North Korea. The public areas of the hotel are a comfortable experience, but they are effectively outside of the reality of the country itself. Still, the eagle eyed observer will note, as I outlined above, there are metaphorical “windows” in the hotel which give small glimpses into North Korean life. Above all, staying in the Yanggakdo is an amazing experience. You won’t remember any other hotel like you do with this one.