In North Korea, the game goes on

There's more to the little-visited Democratic People's Republic of Korea than the West suspects, says Tony Wheeler. You'll even find avid football fans

Back at our hotel, an all-male group from north-east China has clearly been making serious inroads into the restaurant's beer supply while we've been out walking. By dinner, they're getting to the uproarious song stage and the restaurant staff begin to move a series of dividers between our tables to protect us from the sight, if not the sound, of Chinese party animals. Nick, whose fluent Mandarin has already provided plenty of amusement in the train's dining car from Beijing, will have none of this. Leaping from his seat, he seizes one of the dividers and pulls it aside, yelling, in Chinese, "we will have no divisions here". A roar of approval goes up from the Chinese band, glasses are raised to our international group, and we're requested to add our songs to the festivities. Subrapta Das wins the contest with what he describes as "a bawdy Sri Lankan number".

Back at our hotel, an all-male group from north-east China has clearly been making serious inroads into the restaurant's beer supply while we've been out walking. By dinner, they're getting to the uproarious song stage and the restaurant staff begin to move a series of dividers between our tables to protect us from the sight, if not the sound, of Chinese party animals. Nick, whose fluent Mandarin has already provided plenty of amusement in the train's dining car from Beijing, will have none of this. Leaping from his seat, he seizes one of the dividers and pulls it aside, yelling, in Chinese, "we will have no divisions here". A roar of approval goes up from the Chinese band, glasses are raised to our international group, and we're requested to add our songs to the festivities. Subrapta Das wins the contest with what he describes as "a bawdy Sri Lankan number".

There are 15 of us. As well as Subrapta, from India, there are five Brits (the largest contingent) plus Germans, a Canadian, two Australians and even a Slovak, who is really an American travelling on a second passport. We're in Chilbo in the far north-east of North Korea, where we'd spent an afternoon admiring the views and following a mountain trail down from a lookout to our hotel. The next day, at another mountain hideaway, some of our group joined in an impromptu lunchtime football match with the construction crew working on an extension to the hotel. The 2002 World Cup, across the border in South Korea, may not have been headline news in the strictly censored and controlled North Korean media, but the enthusiasm for the game was still there.

Most of our group had arrived in North Korea on an overnight train from Beijing in China. There had been a couple of hours' pause at the Chinese border town of Dandong before we rolled across the river to the greyer, quieter, poorer sister city of Sinuiju on the south bank of the Yalu river. After more low-key, but drawn-out, border formalities it was early afternoon before we headed south, and close to sunset before we pulled into Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The three North Korean guides who would hover beside us for the next eight days met us on the platform, and on the way to our hotel we diverted to our first, obligatory, stop: the giant statue at Mansudae of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung.

It was the first of many "pilgrimage" stops. North Korea today is inextricably tied up with the exploits of the dynamic duo, Kim Il Sung and his son, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. In the following days we would visit the Tower of the Juche Idea ("Juche" is North Korea's own version of Marxism), the Arch of Triumph (30ft higher than that little arch you may have seen in Paris) and the Monument to the Party Foundation (giant hands holding up a Soviet-like hammer and sickle – the workers and farmers – but with a calligrapher's brush as well, representing the artists).

Then there was the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Site (where the Great Leader's birthplace is perfectly preserved), the Great People's Study Hall (with a seated statue of the Great Leader in a remarkably similar pose to Abraham Lincoln's in Washington DC), the Victorious Liberation War Museum (aka the Korean War in some other parts of the world), and enough Great Leader and Dear Leader billboard-sized portraits to fill a major art gallery. Anyone who thinks the "post-realist, neo-pop epoch of socialist romanticist art" reached its high point in China during the Cultural Revolution has clearly not been to North Korea.

Our trip to the north of the country was on a small chartered aircraft. It appeared to be the only flight that day from Pyongyang International Airport and was certainly the only non-military flight at our destination. We helped the crew unload our bags; there was nobody else there to do it. Elsewhere, we travelled by bus, first to Wonsan on the east coast, the port where, for many years, the "imperialist spyship USS Pueblo" was moored. Nowadays, the ship is just a stone's throw downstream from our hotel in central Pyongyang. Our final excursion was to South Korea, though only a couple of steps outside North Korea and only inside the building which straddles the border line in the very inaccurately named De-Militarised Zone (DMZ). In fact, the DMZ is probably the world's most densely militarised zone.

Quite large numbers of South Koreans visit the north, but only to a strictly segregated resort, run by Hyundai. Reasonable numbers of Chinese come from the mainland and from Taiwan, although Pyongyang's casino is probably a bigger attraction than the chance to observe the last truly authentic remnants of Communism is. But real visitors from the West? There's probably just a few hundred a year.

North Korea is so little visited and so little understood that the few "facts" we "know" about the country are quite likely to be wrong. The preconception is that Pyongyang is a grey, sombre city, whose unsmiling citizens are robotic automatons out of some real-life 1984. The reality is that the North Korean capital looks rather like a number of other planned capitals, from Washington DC to Canberra, and although very little English – or any other foreign language, for that matter – is spoken, we still attract a fair number of shy "hellos".

On the other hand, there isn't much street-lighting at night, and gazing out of my 40th-floor hotel room at the midnight view of central Pyongyang, a solitary set of headlights was all the traffic to be seen. Not that that seemed unusual; the streets are empty even in daytime, with no cars and even fewer bicycles – although after Beijing any city is likely to look remarkably free of two-wheelers. There isn't much traffic anywhere in North Korea; a road ran parallel to our train trip from the Chinese border, and in one hour-long stretch I only saw a single vehicle. When we stopped at a motorway service station on the six-lane highway to the DMZ, I had to wait 10 minutes before a solitary car appeared in my camera's viewfinder.

Then there's North Korea's disastrous food situation. What did we see of that? Nothing directly, which is hardly surprising when your visit is so regimented. After all, Chairman Mao managed to hide the fact that 30 million people in China starved to death during his disastrous Great Leap Forward, and early-Sixties visitors – from François Mitterand to the American journalist Edgar Snow – failed to notice what was going on. We did see Western aid organisations' vehicles and their offices, and the land is farmed with what looks like a desperate intensity. Every square inch of arable land seems to be in use, including many square inches which, from an environmentally sensible perspective (don't farm on very steep hillsides, for example), probably should not have been.

And the World Cup? Well, it appears that, in a delayed fashion, the North Koreans did know what was going on even though the games were not broadcast live. A friend in China reported watching South Korea's game against Italy in a Beijing pub, accompanied by a small group of North Korean friends and a larger South Korean contingent. "North or South, it didn't matter," she reported, "they were all screaming for Korea and were ecstatic when they won."

Tony Wheeler is the founder of Lonely Planet Guidebooks

Travellers' Guide

Getting there

Beijing is the most-used entry point to North Korea, and your visa is only issued when you get there. You can fly non-stop from Heathrow on Air China or British Airways for around £600 through discount agencies.

Beijing-based Koryo Tours ( www.koryogroup.com, e-mail info@koryogroup.com) is the best starting point for a North Korea visit. A typical one-week trip from Beijing, including train travel in one direction and a flight in the other, costs about £1,000 including all meals, accommodation, guides and internal transport.

Being there

Visiting North Korea is a "group travel" experience – you can't step out of your hotel without a minder at your shoulder. "Foreigners are subject to fines or arrest for unauthorised currency transactions," says the US State Department, while the UK Foreign Office advice ( www.fco.gov.uk) concentrates on concerns over adequate medical facilities.

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