Simon Calder: A new horizon? Start with the Axis of Ealing
The man who pays his way
Saturday 24 December 2011
There's some corner of London W5 that is forever North Korean. Indeed, you may have driven past it. The official address of the Embassy of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is 73 Gunnersbury Avenue, but motorists know the thoroughfare better as the North Circular Road. (Presumably the home-hunting diplomats discounted properties on the south side of the river on ideological grounds.)
North Korea was deemed to be a member of the "Axis of Evil" by the previous US president, George W Bush, placing it in company with Iran and Iraq.
The Axis of Ealing, according to the information on a big sign on Gunnersbury Avenue, is more benign: the London borough is twinned with Marcq-en-Baroeul in France and Kreis Steinfurt in Germany. Could North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, be next?
On Tuesday afternoon, the detached suburban house (seven bedrooms, three bathrooms) was busy with dignitaries arriving to sign the book of condolences following the death last weekend of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il.
China's ambassador arrived by chauffeur-driven BMW, with his entourage bearing an enormous wreath. His Excellency was closely followed by representatives of the New Communist Party of Britain and the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), who turned up together, on foot, with smaller bouquets. They had come, they told me, to pay their respects to the people of North Korea.
Heaven knows those crushed and malnourished people deserve respect. Most urgently they need food and fuel, but a taste of freedom and opportunity would be good. The last Stalinist state in the East has the most tightly controlled frontiers in the world, and the most oppressive restrictions on movement – and talking to foreigners.
It is over-optimistic to expect North Korea's regime to be the final despotic domino of 2011 to fall. And on the to-do list the "Great Successor" Kim Jong-un, loosening ties on tourism to boost earnings probably comes a long way behind "What does this big red button do?"
But while we pray that the regime may implode before its nuclear weapons explode, the week's events have put the divided peninsula on many a wish-list as a tantalising new horizon.
Regent Holidays, which has been organising trips to North Korea for a quarter-century, has seen a 20-fold increase in inquiries in the past week.
How quickly could those eager travellers get there? Andrea Godfrey, general manager of Regent, says it takes six to eight weeks to arrange all the visa formalities through the Ealing embassy. If you are tempted, six places remain on the Kim Il-sung Centenary Tour departing in April. It celebrates the birth in 1912 of Kim Il-sung, the "Great Leader", who departed in 1994 but has stayed on as "Eternal President".
The tour will be led by Neil Taylor, the man who prised open Cuba, China and Albania for the benefit of British tourists in the 1970s. He believes North Korea will be in no rush to take the path of enlightenment, or at least enrichment, by loosening the restrictions on visitors: "Tourism in the DPRK now is like that in China in the 1970s. It was over 20 years before foreign individuals were relatively free there. They are not too worried about numbers: Chinese are pouring in, and they willingly accept the current restrictions, so that is where money is to be made." Not over Christmas, mind: North Korea traditionally closes to visitors for a month from the second week in December. As the chance of meeting a friendly foreign tourist dwindles to zero, it'll be lonely this Christmas for the few Western expatriates in Pyongyang.
Gatwick's key to a May Day at the DMZ
North Korea's state airline, Air Koryo, will fly you to Pyongyang from anywhere you like – so long as it's Vladivostok, where the Trans-Siberian railway ends, or the Chinese cities of Beijing and Shenyang. For travellers to the divided peninsula, Korean Air offers more choice to the southern half — including a new flight from Gatwick to Seoul. It starts on 29 April, reaching South Korea's capital early on the final day of April – in time for you to book a May Day trip to Korea's leading tourist destination, the "De-Militarized Zone".
Roam around the gun emplacements on the southern side of the most heavily fortified frontier on earth, play I-spy across the border, and explore the tunnels which North Korea once dug to facilitate invasion.
There is nothing to compare, though, to Regent Holidays' pioneering itinerary in the far north of the DPRK – main attraction, a potato-processing plant.
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