Koryo Tours About Us: Meet the team! Tour leader Zoe answers some FAQs
Hi, I'm Zoe!
I'm originally from Liverpool in the UK, but haven't lived there in years (so no Liverpool accent..!).
Nice to meet you!
How I became a tour guide in North Korea?
The same way everyone seems to - you go first as a tourist and it kind of escalates from there! I first decided to go to North Korea when I was living in Japan during the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe a few years ago. All of my Japanese friends would say to be “I really want to go to the UK, but it’s too dangerous at the moment”. At this time, there had been a few terrorist attacks in Paris and the UK was on the highest terrorist attack alert. Hearing people say that my own country was too dangerous to visit shocked me, and made me realise how much of an influence the media can have. In reality, when you’re on the ground in the country, things can be very different. I wanted to see Korea for myself. See if it’s really like the media says… Turns out, it’s really not!
I went back to the UK to finish my university degree and started working as a tour guide shortly after I graduated. I want to show people that Korea is more than just what the media says. It’s a country of beautiful people just trying to survive like every other human on the planet. As a tour guide, I feel like I can help to spread this message.
What is your favourite thing to do in North Korea?
I’m not a big museum-goer or a fan of tourists sites much when I travel in general. I like to get onto the level of the local people, get a feel for the place, and do a good bit of people watching. Apart from the great sites and monuments that Pyongyang and Korea has to offer, my favourite thing to do is actually to just hang out. I like visiting new cafes that pop up around Pyongyang, enjoying a pint of Taeddongang beer or just chatting with the guides and locals.
A tour anecdote you'll never forget (good experience, bag experience, funny things the guides did or tourist did or a running gag etc)?
The first time I played the “blue frying pan” game in Korea. If you don’t know this game (not many people do, I’m not even sure it’s a real game) then you’ll have to play it on tour with me! It’s one of those mind games where you have to guess the rule of the game through playing it… I started on the way down to the DMZ (a 3-hour drive) and it carried on for a few days with gradually more and more people getting the game. The more people to figure it out, the more others were interested and wanted to keep playing so they could get it too.
The last people to understand the game was our Korean guides who were desperate by the end. A few days later after much frustration, they finally figured out the rules of the game… And I think wanted to kill me. Still, they ask me to play the game every time I go back!
Tour leaders usually get things right. Tell us about one of your personal travel disasters！
It’s true, as tour leaders we have to be pretty organised. We not only have the responsibility of ourselves but many other people in the group too! When I’m travelling by myself, I’m more relaxed and sometimes (very rarely, promise!) let things slip.
This is a long story, but has a nice ending! One recent travel disaster of mine happened in Myanmar. I was getting a local flight from one remote part back to the capital city for a connecting flight back to Beijing, just before a tour to Korea the next day. After arriving at the “airport” (just a small building really) I soon realised that I’d booked the wrong date for my flight. Exactly one month too late. Annoyed at myself, I got over the money loss and tried to book a place on the planned flight. Only there weren’t any tickets left. 15 minutes before the flight was due to depart the guard called me over and said there was a seat spare. I pulled out my card to buy the ticket and he looks at me amused. No cards accepted. Ok, nearest cash machine? In another building 2 minutes away. He agreed to wait and I ran off to the only 2 cash machines nearby. First one wasn’t on. Second one refused to accept my card.
So I missed that flight.
There was one more flight departing that had seats that would get me to the capital in time, but I still had the issue of no money.
A lovely Burmese family saw me in terrible distress and without asking questions, straightaway offered to help. They were also going to the capital. They tried to get me a ticket onto their flight but it was fully booked. Instead, they bought me a ticket onto the only flight that was left. It would get me to the capital 2 hours before theirs. They said if I didn’t mind waiting, I could pay them back when I get to the airport and can get cash out. Otherwise, I shouldn’t worry about paying them back.
This was one of the most stressful couple of hours I’ve ever had whilst travelling - but actually I’m very glad it happened! It reminded me that people are pretty awesome, and we should all try to help each other out more. The kindness the family showed towards me really touched me and made me lucky I had this experience.
With every travel disaster, there’s always something good that turns out of it!
(I met the family at the airport and paid them back. We exchanged emails and keep in touch!)
Favourite country/city travelled to so far and why?
Apart from the DPRK (obviously), my favourite place I recently travelled to was Bangladesh. Very few tourists travel to this country, and in fact, the only foreigners I saw were those working in the South for the Rohingya refugee crisis.
Because of this, nothing is set up for tourism. This makes the country sometimes difficult to travel around, but definitely more real. It’s pure Bangladesh. Raw country.
The people I met in Bangladesh were also so lovely. As a solo female traveller, I was a bit apprehensive at first, but everyone was very nice and respectful. It just took me a long time to get everywhere for all the people wanting selfies!
Do you have a tour ritual, before and after tour?
No judgement here please - this is a safe zone. My tour always starts and ends with a Starbucks.
OK, when I travel I love trying to be with locals as much as possible, doing local stuff etc… But I just can’t help grabbing a Starbucks every now and then. Especially when China just gets too… China. No matter what country you’re in, you walk into a Starbucks and it’s a different world. Not necessarily a good thing, but I do like escaping every now and then and Starbucks is one of those familiars I can bring with me all over the world.
So I get into tour mode with my coffee in Dandong train station before entering Korea and end it with a chilled out coffee at the Starbucks opposite Beijing train station before heading home.
(If you’re coming on tour with me - large soy latte please! ;) )
Bonus: A question you're always asked by people but hate answering?
“So you studied Japanese… Why China?”
Most people find it pretty curious that I studied Japanese at university. Actually, I don’t really have a reason as to why I chose to study Japanese. I love languages and always have. I wanted to learn a language with a different alphabet so thought hey, Japanese. Why not? It didn’t take me long to realise ‘why not’. It’s a crazy difficult language. But it gave me a good basis for learning Chinese after I moved to China!
I came to China to work in North Korea. After I graduated from university, I went straight into the job of being a tour guide in North Korea - and I love it!
Turns out it’s lucky I like China and learning Chinese too - much better than Japanese!
(Don't think about those university fees, Zoe...)
I also have my own YouTube channel where I show a different side to North Korea than most vlogs around... Subscribe for a real unseen look into North Korea! And follow me on Instagram for a human approach to North Korea: @zoediscovers.