In praise of...the Pyongyang Hotel

The Pyongyang Hotel makes no claim to be the most luxurious or famous hotel in the city from which it takes its name.  

Most tourists stay in the Yanggakdo, set Alcatraz-like on an island in the Taedong river; others in the glitzy terracotta Koryo with its twin towers and revolving restaurant.  A few stragglers end up further afield in the Sosan.  The pyramid-shaped Ryugyong may be the most famous hotel of Pyongyang, but is famously incomplete and not yet taking bookings.  Next year. Maybe.

Nestled among these skyscraper giants the four-storey Pyongyang Hotel could easily be overlooked, but it has its own distinctive charm, albeit modest.  Over the years it has become our home from home when running Choson Exchange workshops in the capital.

Part of the attraction is the location.  Walk out of the hotel and there you are on a busy downtown street in Pyongyang, right opposite the Grand Theatre.  Cross the road to the left and you are at the riverfront, perfect for a refreshing morning stroll or jog to Kim Il Sung square and back.  We normally take rooms on the fourth floor with a view all the way down Yonggwang Street to Pyongyang  Station, from where the overnight trains to Beijing leave, and the soothing synth strains of ‘Where are you Dear General’ gently waft at midnight.

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In the morning, the calm of the night gives way to the hustle and bustle of a capital city waking up.   Early risers may catch the morning tannoy music, as energetic citizens head to the riverfront for their constitutional walk or group exercise.  Once the morning rush starts the trolleybuses become more frequent and more packed, people hurry to work just outside the window, and flag-waving motivational marching band troupes offer encouragement to their comrades.



The rooms are basic and clean, and foreigners have the privilege of access to Al-Jazeera and other international channels in addition to the terrestrial Korean offerings.  Hot water used to be a hit-and-miss affair, which meant if you weren't in the shower during the allotted time slot then you just had to boil a kettle and make do; these days, it's more reliable.  

But then you didn't come to this country on a spa break or to watch TV, did you.

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The real charm of the place for me is the people who work there. Let's not romanticise- many service jobs in North Korea are painfully repetitive and monotonous.

It is someone’s job to staff the international phone desk- and make no mistake, that’s what they do six days a week from morning until late at night for more years than it makes me comfortable to think about- but they carry it out with unfailing cheerfulness and no hint of surliness.  

The maids who knocked my room door last time I was there and laughed at me as they realised my confusion- I thought they were telling me to hurry up, when they were just asking for laundry (the words sound kind of similar in Korean); the lady who tends the 4th floor corner bar, serving with grace and a smile until the last person leaves in the small hours of the morning, before retiring to her room for a precious few hours of sleep, and then returning to open up the next morning for breakfast; the karaoke room staff who will gladly join you for a duet in any song, regardless of language.  

Some reviewers might lazily dismiss the Pyongyang as a dour establishment mined from the 1970s eastern bloc seam, but delve a little deeper and you discover a place of great character and surprising warmth.  

Oh, and the barista cafe on the top floor serves the best espresso in the city.