SHANGHAI: It may not be everyone's destination of choice for a holiday, particularly in light of recent saber-rattling on the international stage, but the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has just played host to a group of Chinese tourists.
And the impressions they brought back? It is a land filled with friendly and passionate people for whom a charming smile costs nothing.
Shanghai-based Jinjiang Tour Agency took its first group of 24 travelers from Shanghai to the country after the Chinese government formally awarded it destination status late last year.
During their three-day stay last month in DPRK, the tourists were treated to a series of exhibitions extolling the virtues of the DPRK way of life and the "miraculous feats" of the nation's leaders. It was, they said, an eye-opening and rare experience.
"The DPRK people have long been portrayed as a robotic people, but this stereotype is soon unmasked when you get there," said their guide Xie Jianxiao. "They are a very proud people and their friendliness and warmth is contagious."
He still remembered the warm smile from a Korean restaurant girl who welcomed the group as if they were old friends. "The girl had spent some time in Shanghai years ago and liked the city. She even asked us to send greetings to her friends in Shanghai," he said.
He was also moved by an unknown old man who said "Ni hao" (hello) and "Xie xie" (Thank you) to them in impeccable Mandarin. The man even asked the little boy beside him - presumably his grandson - to shake hands with their Chinese guests.
"Isn't it a sweet surprise?" said Xie, adding that when they smiled at a stern-looking traffic policewoman standing in the center of the road the officer responded with a "big and sweet smile".
The group went ahead with the tour despite the increased tension on the Korean peninsula.
"We did inquire about the safety issue but the agency said there was no threat of war and so we went ahead," said Gu Chuanteng, one of the tourists. "It turned out that the issue was totally irrelevant there. Everywhere we went we encountered peace and calm."
For most of the tourists, some over 60 years old, it was a nostalgic trip bringing back memories of China in the 1960s and 70s. Streets were festooned with propaganda posters depicting workers punching the air as a rocket blasts into the sky behind them.
Every DPRK resident sported a plastic lapel badge bearing the face of Kim Il-sung or his son, current leader Kim Jong-il, according to Gu. But there was also the new: kiosks along the streets selling bread and drinks, shops selling sports items and electrical devices and the market in Pyongyang where people could buy and sell goods for cash in what had previously been a strictly State-controlled supply economy.
"Such changes may not seem like much from the outside but they are radical in the context of DPRK," said Xie. "They are the tip of an iceberg that may underscore changes in the future, particularly among the young."
Gu added: "Tours are tightly marshaled in that the guides would follow our whereabouts, but it seems they are more open to change now. I was told by the tourist agency not to bring cameras with zoom lens, but I found they actually allowed them."
Gu said he would be interested in returning but hoped the country would become "more open with a greater variety of tourist destinations other than monuments and museums".
Xie is now busy preparing for the second tour group to the country. "We've received surprisingly very positive feedback from the first group of travelers," he said. "Although there are concerns about safety, the DPRK is definitely a worthwhile destination."