Huanren: A night in a castle

Road Trip

After finishing our DPRK tour, we decided to go on a road trip along the border. We decided to go to Huanren, Linjiang, Ji’an and then come back to Dandong for a beer festival.

We had breakfast in Dandong and sorted ourselves out with a driver. Our tour guide friend had contacts here so he was able to get a good deal for us. After breakfast, we grabbed some beers for the road and went to meet our driver. First stop: Huanren.

The drive to Huanren was uneventful. We spent this first leg of the journey on a highway so there wasn’t much to see. Especially after the sun set.

We arrived in Huanren after dark and the town was lit up like Las Vegas. We weren’t here to stay in the town though; our friend knew of a castle-like hotel. It was a little outside of town and we could stay there for a decent price. The only problem was he couldn’t remember where it is.

Lit up like Vegas
Lit up like Vegas

We made some calls to try to figure out where the place was. As we drove back and forth through Huanren our driver got more and more frustrated. In the end our combined efforts managed to figure out where we needed to drive. We got to the outskirts and spotted a lit up castle atop a dark mountain.

We made our way towards it, having to drive up a thin and twisted road to the castle. This was beginning to feel a little like a Bond movie.

Checking In

We had arrived late in the evening. The lobby was empty except for the doorman and a woman at reception. Our driver left to find a cheaper hotel while we negotiated a room for the night. We managed to get a decent discount on our room. Sometimes it pays to be friends with a travel agent.

Our rooms were the finest I’ve ever seen. This was a five-star quality hotel. We were staying in luxury. My girlfriend decided to chill out in the room while Gareth and I went to explore.

We went outside for a walk. The hotel was lit up by floodlights which attracted giant moths. They were huge. Big enough to eat your face off. I might have an irrational fear of moths.

There was a fountain here that wasn’t running and an empty car park. I’m pretty sure we were the only ones staying here. Apart from that there was nothing else to see in the dark. We went back inside to find the bar.

It was around 9 in the evening. The staff had been looking at us all night, confused looks on their faces. They told us we should go back to our rooms. We asked about food and drink and they told us we should order room service.

They brought us a wine list and I spotted they had ice wine. I’d had this once before in Moldova, and fell in love with the stuff. We ordered this, a couple more wines and some food.

We headed back to our rooms and theorised on why this place was here and how it managed to fund itself. We were pretty sure it was some kind of front for a money laundering operation. Like I said, James Bond.

Checking Out

The next morning my girlfriend and I decided to get breakfast. We woke Gareth but he wanted to lie in for a bit longer. He warned us that the breakfast here was terrible anyway. At least there would be coffee.

I’ve seen some bad breakfasts in Chinese hotels. It’s usually bad Chinese food. If you’re lucky there’s some bad Western food. You can usually find something edible so it’s never that bad. And there’s always coffee.

This hotel had the worst bad Chinese breakfast I have ever seen. I couldn’t find anything I could stomach. There was no coffee machine so I asked one of the staff. No coffee. Not even that. I watched Yi eat some food while my stomach grumbled.

Yi asked if we could see the wine cellar. One of the staff went to fetch the key and took us to it. The cellar is built into the rock behind the hotel. The layout was perfect for hosting high-class wine tasting events. You go into a cave and see several wine barrels. A larger cave houses a huge table laid out waiting for guests. This must be the bad guy’s lair where he makes all his evil plans. I wondered where James Bond would be held prisoner.

Afterwards we went for a walk outside. We could see more in the daytime and the moths were gone so it was safe now. The fountain was running again. From the hotel’s position on top of a hill we could see the valley below us.

And there lay the truth of this place: a large vineyard and wine factory. I figured this place must be here to sell wine to distributors. Set them up in a nice hotel, give them a tasting and show them around the vineyard. The hotel itself doesn’t need to make money. The real money is made selling wine.

Gareth woke up. Our driver arrived. We checked ourselves out. On to our next stop: Linjiang.

Yanggakdo Hotel

While in the DPRK we were to stay in the Yanggakdo Hotel. The hotel is named for the island it is situated on, and it means “Goat Horn Island”. This name comes from the shape of the island, which looks like a goat’s horn.

Goat's Horn Island
Goat’s Horn Island

When we arrived at Pyongyang train station the other members of the tour were waiting for us already. They had decided to take the plane in, leaving only the three of us (myself, my girlfriend and Gareth, our tour guide) to take the train. We were then taken to the hotel by bus.

The hotel lobby was extremely fancy. This place seemed to me like a 5 star hotel. There was a tank here with several fish swimming around and a large turtle in a tank next to them. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this – it was awesome to see a turtle here, but the tank seemed quite small for the size of the turtle.

We were then introduced to our Korean tour guides and it was explained to us that we weren’t allowed to leave the island without a Korean tour guide, however anywhere we do want to go we should just ask and they will try to arrange it. After this we were given our room keys and arranged to meet back downstairs for a tour of the hotel and for some drinks.

The room we were given was very anachronistic. It was a really nice room with amazing facilities – including a HDTV, but at the same time the furniture could have come straight out of a 60s spy movie set in the USSR. There was also an amazing view of the city from up here, and looking down from the window we could see how high we really were. I don’t think I’ve experienced vertigo to that scale before.

Meeting back downstairs we went to the bar behind the fish tank and ordered some beers. Gareth sat with our Korean guides to talk through the details of the tour while we ordered some beers and got to know each other. After a while Gareth came over to us to deliver some bad news: we wouldn’t be able to see the mausoleum.

There were some roadworks on the way to Panmunjon (the middle of the DMZ) so we would have to take a lengthy detour. This meant that something had to go from our schedule and the best he could work out without losing too much was to drop the mausoleum. It was unfortunate, but these things happen.

He joined us for a drink and after a short while they wanted to close the bar. So Gareth took us on a tour of the hotel. Behind the foyer were the imaginatively named Restaurant Number 1 and Restaurant Number 2. In the same area they had the Chinese Restaurant and the Japanese Restaurant – places we would be avoiding. Downstairs they had the Casino and two massage parlours – one Korean and one Chinese. It is said that the ending in one of these is happier than the other.

After this we returned to the foyer and were shown the souvenir shops next to it. They had several books in several different languages about various topics, such as Kim Jong Un’s biography and Juche (the philosophy/”religion” of the DPRK).

Downstairs from here there were several other facilities – ping pong, snooker, a swimming pool and a karaoke bar amongst them. Most of these places were closed so we grabbed some beers and soju for the road and went outside.

We watched boats on the river as we passed the soju around. This soju wasn’t very good – it had a very rubbery taste, so we finished it quickly and washed out the taste with beer. During this time there were a couple of power cuts – the lights in the city would flick off and then return a short while after. I wondered how often this happened.

After we had all done drinking we went for a wander around Yanggakdo island. Gareth explained that we needn’t worry about getting caught as this was allowed, and even if we did somehow manage to wander to an area we weren’t supposed to we would simply bump into some guards who would turn us around.

We were out of beer, tired and had a long day ahead of us tomorrow so we returned to our rooms to spend our first night in the DPRK.