Our May tour to North Korea coincided with the 2nd annual DPRK Amateur Golf Open. The tournament this year was competed in by 15 people from 4 different continents. Nationalities included DPRK, UK, USA, Mongolia, New Zealand, Australia, China and Philippines. The tournament took place over 3 days and the overall winner was Simon Jones from the UK. The tour was followed by KCNA (Korean Central News Agency - North Korea's state TV network) of which highlighted TV footage can be seen here.
At the same time that our Iranian group tour was taking place we had a tour to North Korea to coincide with the 100th birthday celebrations for the Eternal President, Kim Il Sung.
Pyongyang was pretty much at full capacity during this period but we managed to secure use of the Chongryon Hotel in downtown Pyongyang. Whereas tourists are almost always housed in the island hotel, Yanggakdo; this gave the group a rare chance to stay in a 'local' hotel. It is usually used for local youth groups travelling to the capital. Situated next to it is Pyongyang infamous fast food restaurant.
Unable to gain permission to attend the military parade, the group were instead allowed to have the extremely rare chance to walk around Pyongyang in the evening. after viewing the firework display, the group joined the street celebrations. With the streets so packed full though, the group soon became split up and lost on the streets of Pyongyang with the hordes of locals! After frantic searching from the local guides for half an hour, all the group members were finally located..maybe the the annoyance of the group who had been able to do something previously impossible in DPRK - wander around on the streets freely with the locals!
We've now been running our trips to Turkmenistan for just over two years but this April saw the launch of our first ever Turkmenistan group tour. The group was mainly made up of repeat customers who have visited other destinations with us and were keen to try out another of our trips. They visited Ashgabat, Mary and the highlight: camping over at the flaming gas crater of Ashgabat. One of the group, Martyn Hanks painted some great watercolours whilst over there of the various sites viewed throughout the tour. Check them out on our Facebook page here.
You can also read a blog of the trip by one of the group members
Iran is our newest destination, one which we've been offering trips to since 2011. This year however saw the launch of our first ever group tour to the fascinating country.
Despite the hurdles that had to be jumped over for British citizens to get visas after the closure of the Iranian Embassy in London, it all became worthwhile after arriving in Tehran. Extravagant hotels, amazing food, breathtaking mosques, ancient historic sites and best of all, amazing, friendly people. We've yet to travel anywhere in the world where the people are so hospitable and genuinely warm towards foreigners and tourists.
The message was clear from everyone we encountered. Please let everyone back home know that Iran isn't dangerous. The people are very fond of Westerners and love to welcome them to their country. And welcome us they did. Each city we went to we were invited into peoples homes. We met their families and ate their wonderful food.
We went to Tehran, Esfahan and Shiraz before the tour ended and the Iranian Amateur Golf Open began. Our group joined up at the course with a handful or Iranian golfers and 3 days golf followed on the Enghelab Sports complex just North of Tehran. The winner was Iran's Mehdi Shanjani, owner of Iran's biggest chocolate factory! The tour ended and we were genuinely gutted to be leaving. However a new group tour is being planned at present so hopefully it won't be too much longer until we head back over there!
Our first group tour of the year saw us visiting North Korea in what is the coldest trip we have ever run!
After the death of Kim Jong Il the previous month it was touch and go for
a while whether the border would shut down for tourists and the trip would
have to be cancelled. In the end the border re opened and we became one of
the first groups of tourists to enter North Korea under the new leadership
of Kim Jong Un
North Korea had been having a relatively average winter up until a couple of days before we crossed the border. All of a sudden a massive cold snap hit and huge snow fall followed.
The tour was by train from Dandong and what lay ahead of us was the most arduous journey anyone on in the group had ever taken! Within a hour of setting off, the train broke down. We were stuck in the middle of northern DPRK countryside on a unheated train in temperatures of up to minus 30C. Hours passed and it got colder and colder. While it was business as usual for the locals, laughing away, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes; our group were cowering in the corner, with suitcases of clothes emptied all over us to keep us warm! After 13 hours, but what felt like 13 days we finally arrived in Pyongyang and were able to transfer to the warmth of the Yanggakdo Hotel.
It was a journey that none of us would like to repeat in a hurry but one that was certainly memorable and will no doubt be retold many times in the future!
A tour of Pyongyang, Nampo, Kaesong, DMZ nd Mount Myohang followed over the next 3 days and one evening we got visit the Pyongyang circus. Whilst visiting USS Pueblo, we were lucky enough the get the rare chance to meet one of the soldiers who captured the Pueblo 50 years ago.
Due to more problems with the train over the days we were in DPRK, we were allowed to depart the country by bus. This gave us a fascinating drive through little towns and villages all the way up from Pyongyang to Sinuiju. A route which is almost untouched by tourists and gave us a very rare glimpse into North Korea life outside the main cities.
We'll be running two more Winter tours into DPRK this coming November and February but we'll be wrapping up much warmer this time!