North Korea Trip Travelogue
A trip to North Korea, undertaken in September 2011
For a fee, it's very easy to access North Korea. However it's only possible via a tour, and there are a number of tour companies that do it, I went with Koryo Tours. For more information on what's what and how to get in etc, visit the Country page here.
Day 1 - Tuesday 7th September
After a rush, I left for the airport just before 10 on a warm Beijing morning, and got to Terminal 3 on the express shuttle half an hour later. It then took around another 20mins to get into Terminal 2, as the train agonisingly slowly moved between the two buildings. Rushing and airports seem to go hand in hand for me, and so I was relieved to finally find the correct check-in desk. There was no one from the tour company there at the check-in, however I managed to blag my way in to the security section. At the gate there was yet again no one from the tour company, so it was rather disorientating. There were some people on the tour, but very few knew what was going on. I opted to get some food and fags for the guides inside the DPRK as requested. The previous day we'd had a pre-trip meeting at the Koryo offices, where we were briefed about all the dos and don'ts. We handed over the last of the cash to pay for the trip, had insurance checked, were reminded about shirts and ties for the mausoleum (shirts and ties? balls, off to the nearby market...) as well as signing some meaningless documents about not publishing anything about the trip without consent...Oops!
As the plane boarded, something was discussed with the attendants, and I was allowed on the plane. It was really disconcerting that there had been so little presence from the tour company, but it all worked out thankfully. Finally on-board it appeared that there was someone from the tour company. The plane was like something out of the sixties. It had lots of old features and fittings. There was extensive use of wood and primitive plastics, rather than modern plastics and aluminium. It was a little disconcerting on the taxi approach,. being delayed by 20minutes didn't help. I was sat between two guys, a Canadian from Edmonton, who regaled me with how people were earning large amounts of cash there due to oil. Then pointing out how in winter it gets down to –47c. On the other side was a Welsh Taekwando manager, off to a tournament in North Korea. I guess being a sports person is another way to enter the country! The North Korean air stewardesses handed out copies of the Pyongyang Times, they were carefully laid over their forearms. We were told not to fold the paper in half, as it would be discourteous to the Dear Leader. Note the date in Juche (the centenary year, a 100 years since Kim Il Sung was born), part of the many odd ways North Korea is run.
On arrival, we didn't really know what to fill out on various bits of forms, so just left them blank. The Customs people didn't seem to really care. After getting off the plane, people spilled all over the aircraft parking area. Some started taking photos, so I joined in. Various rumours persist about a draconian approach to photography here, but initial signs were that it was quite liberal. I expected a soldier to come running out and berate people for taking photos of the airport and planes (as happened to me in Jugoslavia as a kid), but it didn't happen. We then filtered into the customs area, where first off, our health forms were taken (are you sick, are you HIV+ type questions). Then came passport control.There were no stamps in the passport, we were all on a group visa, consisting of the card below, attached to a sheet of A4 with our passport photos on and names beneath.
And then finally something you don't usually get. Our bags were scanned, and then we had to go through them with an official, the official like all soldiers was bedecked in a splendidly drab brown uniform. He was checking what we declared on our forms, as to what we were bringing into the country. You have to declare all electronic goods and publications. They weren't worried about the magazines I'd listed, which included Private Eye. They went through my camera bag, and one of the side pockets of my main backpack. He asked me at the start and the end if I had a mobile (this was given to the tourguides) or GPS device. My remote camera trigger also briefly raised his eyebrows, but only briefly.
After the bags were checked I walked out into the North Korean sunshine, it was warm and welcoming. People milled around, and some managed to work out which group they were in. Most seemed to have no clue, as did the guides. Eventually the annoying Tour Company owner got me on one bus. Then, took my backpack to another bus. Before finally taking me back to the original bus. Sigh. I hate tours.
On board, the bus departed for the half hour drive to the hotel. However, because North Korea were playing Tajikistan in a World Cup qualifier, we went to the national sports stadium instead. We were introduced to our 2 tour guides from the DPRK, both women. One stood up and ran down the list of local customs, including a mention of how taking photos when not allowed was very bad. We also had a brief introduction to Korean history from the North’s perspective. She referred a couple of times to figures about Korea, as in the whole of, rather than just the North. We were also informed not to go anywhere without our guards, for 'our own safety.'
We passed along tree lined roads with lots of paddy fields and general pleasantness, people tending their fields etc. I spotted a military chap in uniform seemingly having a dispute in a field over something with the dozen or so workers round about. He kicked up some hay and appeared to be shouting. As we got into Pyongyang, there were little groups of worker types huddled around and shooting the breeze. We passed trams and trolleybuses crowded with locals. People were everywhere in certain areas, and sparse in others.
We pulled into the Yanggakdo Stadium, which was just down the road from our hotel. As we got in and took a seat, a few minutes later the half time whistle blew. The tour guide still collected €20 from us though, although how many Westerners can say they've been to a football match in North Korea? The Korean fans were mostly silent, cheering now and again when someone was charging forward. The crowd seemed mixed, with lots of army personnel and regular citizens sporadically placed. Mick, the tour company owner was shouting loudly, and chanting for the one player who's name he knew. The DPRK won one nil. The goal came in the second half. It wasn't the greatest of games, lacking the flair of other teams. The eerie quiet atmosphere didn't help. On leaving we joined the many thousands of fans, spilling out. Most were military where we were. Lots of darkened cars pulled off with dignitaries inside. Military lorries departed with troops on board. The bus gave up trying to get to the hotel, even driving on the pavement at one point. So we started walking, and typically the bus passed us and got to the hotel ahead of us. As you can see in the pic below, the stadium was devoid of banners, and glass bottled beer was allowed in.
We stood around in the lobby of the Yanggakdo Hotel, again waiting for something to happen. Finally we were told our room numbers. I was told I'd share with a Japanese guy from Tokyo called Hiro. The room was on the 15th floor, and had a sort of en-suite area. I pretty much fell asleep, and woke up at 9. The restaurant finished at 9, but I luckily grabbed some rice to eat. The lovely waiter brought me some meatballs and a beer as well. I walked around the hotel ground floor and then up to the revolving restaurant. Only 2 of the 6 lifts get up here. While walking down to a lower floor and down a corridor, I stumbled into what appeared to be some sort of brothel arrangement, with lots of doors and perfumed smells. As I walked in down the corridor a woman in a negligee and heels briefly opened a door to walk out, saw me, shrieked and went back inside. I thought it best to return to my room, and get some Zzzzzzs as it was an early start the next day.
Day 2 - Wednesday 8th September
Woke up at stupid o'clock (6am) and rushed to get ready and out the door for 6.30 when the bus was due to leave. Dawn was breaking out of the window, and the city was still and quiet.
We hopped in the coach and whizzed off through the city and out to the main dual carriageway to the south. There were a few soldiers milling around what could have been a checkpoint for the city, we weren't stopped though. It was rumoured that checkpoints exist to prevent the 'unwelcome' trying to get into Pyongyang. We ploughed on south, and the road was predictably empty, the odd local bus or VIP car was all we saw. The road wasn't potholed, and had a strip of trimmed bushes down the middle, trees running down the outer edges for pretty much the whole way. We saw small villages, a town or two, but not much else. Most of the fields were cultivated and full of crops, maize, potatoes and rice mainly. Now and again we could see peasants working the land. There were groups just sat on the edge of the road here and there. A person or two cycling down the road or just walking, but not much in the way of signs of life.
We stopped at a tea stop , similar to a service station in the UK, with a bridge going across the road and the bit over the road was a canteen of sorts. Usual developing world affair, with glass cabinets displaying a few sweets, biscuits, spirits and what not. I noticed the same set of photos as in the hotel lobby, including a badly photoshopped picture of a swimming pool with slides.
We pushed on south, and passed the city of Kaesong. One of the southernmost cities, and with an industrial area on the other side of the main highway from the city, that works in collaboration with the South. We started to pass through a number of checkpoints, and on the edges of the roads were huge square concrete pillars usually in clusters of 4s. It was said that these were tank traps, they d be blown at the base and fall down to block the road if under attack.
Eventually we pulled into the Panmunjom area of the DMZ, which is the border with South Korea. We passed under a thick concrete tank trap, with a block of equal thickness above and some Korean writing on. There was a similar one on the other side for where the road lead. On the right as we came in, was a building with a gift shop in. The usual food items, colourful but cheap looking toy dolls and what not. There were also propaganda posters and North Korean literature up for grabs. The next room had a large map on the wall of the area, as well as two gloomy pictures of the Kim s on the wall (the same as the ones seen below on the Metro trains). A Korean solider in combat gear, explained stuff in Korean, and then various guides translated into English and German, so it was rather difficult to hear. Basically the area with the UN huts sits in a neutral zone, on the South Korean territory, as seen below. The larger spaced dots/posts are the 'border' and the small closer together dots the DMZ zone. The small square just South of the blue line in DPRK territory, is a cluster of buildings where meetings have been held. Also where the ceasefire was signed and those books are kept there for visitors.
We then all filed out and into the buses again. Along the road smaller but similar thickness blocks lined the road ready to be blown on order and block it. This is one of the most heavily mined areas in the world, so taking a short-cut through the fields would likely be a messy result. The fields in the DMZ were all cultivated and being worked on here and there. A group of 7 or 8 peasants in reasonable proximity doing something or other in the fields.
At the last part of North Korea, we walked out to a large monument to the Great Leader, It was mostly taken up by a huge carved signature of the Great Leader and a few lines of text. It was something about how he had worked tirelessly to re-unite Korea. Following this a large office block presented itself, which faces a similar one on the South side of the DMZ line. In between were about 3 blue huts and a few white either side, where discussions are held with the South from time to time. Guards stood around one of the huts. A concrete kerb ran between the huts to form a line. This is the border between the north and south. The DPRK soldiers stood a few centimetres from the line, and the South Korean soldiers stood at the end of the huts on their side, forming particularly macho poses. Note the lack of rifles/machine guns by all sides, including the American GI's in the background.
When the DPRK refer to the South Korean Army as a puppet of the Americans, they re not joking. A tour group in the South walked past, with GI s escorting them. We walked down to the huts and walked in. At the Southern end of the hut were two DPRK soldiers. We were able to walk within two tables of them, but we were clearly now on the Southern side of the border kerb. Another talk was held with two guides talking in different languages over each other. We then went into the main office building, and upstairs to look down on the area from the balcony. The South Korean guards had left by now, and the only sign of life on the Southern side was a couple of GI s walking past in light camouflage outfits.
A few snaps from the balcony, and it was back on the bus. We left the DMZ zone, and headed back to Kaesong. Driving into the town, we went to a restaurant. On the upper floor were rows of tables, laid out with food. Lots of little brass bowls with brass lids on top. We removed the lids in one go, collecting them together in one hand. We all dug in, discussing the various options in front of us. There were shreds of eggplant, some very thin fish based items (very salty), Seaweed acorn jelly, cucumber and other stuff. There was also sticky brown sugary rice, which we were told was the dessert. Approximately half the group also had Sweet Meat Soup (large white bowl below) which was a spicy soup with Dog meat. I didn't try it, but was told it was like low grade beef. As those that ordered it started eating, a dog could be heard barking somewhere in vicinity. The diners were hoping they weren't hearing what they thought, and guiltily continued eating. On the whole trip, I don't think I once spotted any animals. Presumably consumed for food during past famines.
Back on the bus, and it was off up the road to a statue of Kim Il Sung looking out over the city. We were pre-warned not to behave disrespectfully or take photos that might be deemed offensive. Next up was a thousand year old university, that closed when the people of the time moved it to Seoul. There were typical pagoda style wooden buildings with painted eaves and beams. There were also various items from centuries ago behind glass cases in two buildings on the side. The guide quickly walking past them, rattling off what they were.
We then left for a short trip into the countryside around Kaesong, and ended up on a hill with a burial site for a king from the past. It featured two rounded mounds at the top of some stairs. Around the mounds were numerous stone animals. We were told about 'Oh My' mountain. The King lost his wife, and wanted somewhere to have a memorial built. Everyone who suggested it, and he didn't like the idea, was executed. He climbed the mountain opposite the current site. And said if he didn't like it, he would wave his scarf to show the person should be executed. However on getting to the top, the King was sweating, and took out his scarf to wipe his forehead. The site finder was beheaded, but the King actually liked the spot. On returning down from the mountain, the King was told what happened, and said 'oh my'. I do love folklore tales.
Back on the coach, and it was a return up the main highway to Pyongyang, with a break at the Tea stop service station. Some youngish Korean women turned up and sang a song or two, another woman playing the accordion to their left.
Back at the hotel, it was a quick turnaround, and then a return to the bus to the May Day stadium for the trip highlight. The Mass Games Arirang (pronounced R E M) Festival. I had stumped up €150 for the 1st class seats, and we sat above the €300 VIP seats. Either side were the €100 2nd class seats and the third class €80 seats. More badly needed foreign currency for the North Koreans.
The event lasts 1h20mins, and tells of the past, present and future of Korea (including the pipe dream of reunification). A line of men stood with light blue rectangular flags around the outside, forming the wings. Then countless performers filtered through on cue. Sometimes there were thousands of performers on the field. There were also lots of performers on wires going across the stadium or performing various pieces high above the field. All the time there were people (said to be teenagers) on the far side of the stadium with large books, opening them at specific times to form a huge single display. At other times, they all held up white sheets and became a background for projected images and scenes. It was all pretty mind blowing, and over far too quickly. It's said that the performers work full time solely on preparing and carrying out these performances.
We then entered the chaos outside, as scores of school children, regular people and soldiers milled by. We worked our way to the bus, and passed shedloads of trucks all parked up for the soldiers. Exhausted after a long and eventful first full day, it was back to the hotel. The hotel is conveniently placed on Yanggakdo Island in the Taedong River. Making it like a luxury prison to some extent. You're not allowed off the island unescorted. As such the hotel is more like a resort, there's golf, 10 pin bowling, bars, restaurants, casino, karaoke, ping pong and the rumoured Golden Spring Island Sauna (see above discovery of a brothel).
Day 3 - Thursday 8th September
It was time to don the Paul Smith shirt and tie from a market near the Koryo offices in Beijing, a whopping £6 worth of clobber. I then had to attempt to look smart in my £6 Primark combat trousers with Berghaus hiking boots. It was odd to come out to the bus and see everyone looking smart. We all hopped on the bus, and Ms Kim, our tour guide, gave us the low down on visiting the mausoleum.
We arrived at a parking lot, and next to it was a tram station. Lots of locals got off and formed orderly queues. The large majority were women, mostly wearing their brightly coloured national dresses. We were told to line up in 4s, and walked to the entrance point for the Mausoleum for Kim Il Sung (as of 2012, Kim Il Jong is here too). We descended some steps to an area with lots of coat hangers etc. Here everyone left all they were carrying apart from their wallet. Lots of cameras were left on a bench, below a numbered hanger. We were told in Ms Kim's briefing that we weren't allowed to put memory cards into our wallets. This is why I left my camera on the bus, although I don't think they'd have gone through one's cameras in that time.
We climbed some stairs and stepped onto a long travellator. It seemed to go on for ages, and then there was another one, and another etc. Eventually we came to a long room with a white stone statue of the dear leader stood up, and perched on a white rock. Columns ran down the room, and a soft red light filled the ceiling and around the President for Life. Just in front of the statue was a short yellow line, and in a row of four, we stood for a few seconds in reverence of the great leader, and were then beckoned to a doorway on the right. We walked up to a desk and beyond was an image of the Korean flag and bronze busts of distraught figures, gripped with grief at the death of their leader and nation founder. The women at the desk gave us a silver handheld Sony device with a speaker we held to our ear. The most bizarre voice came on the listening device, regaling us with how the Korean people were in mourning over the Great Leader s death. We were told the British actor that did the drawn out shakespearean/Orson Welles style voice was actually on the same flight as us to PyongYang for his first visit to the DPRK.
After this it was into a hallway with grey marble everywhere. We took a lift up to the top floor, and walked out to queue for a dust blowing machine. Basically a 2m passage with 4cm nozzles blowing air over us. The woman ahead of me got her heel stuck in the grid floor, and I ended up spending 30 seconds or so in there, so was ultra clean. We walked out, and were stood in a room with around a 10m high ceiling, all grey and white marble. In the middle sat the sarcophagus with The Great Leader's body in it (as of 2012, Kim Il Jong lies next to his father). He looked like his skin was slowly disintegrating plastic. I wasn't sure if he was real or a Madame Tussaud s Waxwork. Around him was a square ring of rope barriers. The line of people went to his feet, around to the top of his head, and back down the other side. We had to line up in rows of 4, and bow at his feet, his left side and right side. I did a bow of a few degrees, others did a full 90 degree bow or less. The Great Leader had received various Honour medals, certificates and what not. They were laid out based on the continent they came from, conferring an element of legitimacy to him. One of the certificates was from Kensington University, California. Terry (American) informed us this was a fake online university that just issues certificates with no study. Which makes one question the authenticity of other 'awards'. Especially as even pens are banned, to note things down, this adds to the puzzle.
I was pleased to not see anything from Britain, however there was stuff from France, Italy, Spain and Belgium. Peru had given more than anyone else. Above the display cases that lined the room were pictures of the Great Leader with various respectable people, like men of the year, Colonel Gadaffi and Mubarak. Also Yasser Arafat and unrecognised African leaders. It was quite disturbing to see hugely elaborate and expensive looking necklaces/chains from poor African states. We descended back down to the ground floor, and passed down the travellators. We didn't go under the road, but swung a left into the square that sits outside the Mausoleum. Lots of women in their nationals dresses were milling about. A stand had been put up to facilitate group shots in front of the building. The mausoleum had been the Great Leader s offices. On his death, they were converted to the mausoleum.
After the square it was off to the Anti-Japanese memorial. I removed the shirt, but decided to keep the tie. As we approached the memorial, countless troops were filing past on the pavement in their lifeless staid brown uniforms. Some of them must have been cadets or something, as they looked very young. The younger chaps waved back at our waving. As would be found during the rest of our time in the DPRK, when one makes an effort at communication, the stiff faces melt into a smile. Whether a wave from the bus, or saying anyon hashim miga (Hello).
Some of the group got some flowers, and as we passed the bottom of the huge stone staircase, a few people requested to climb the stairs, rather than get driven up. I decided to go up the steps, and raced Stan (a red haired Chinese-Australian) up the steps. He was marginally quicker than I. Although I was struggling for the last few flights, and slowly walked up. The view behind us was amazing, one could see the whole of the city spread out in the distant haze.
Ahead of us in the distance was a very dark red stone flag (see above image), with a fan like set-up behind it. In front of this were rows of white plinths with bronze statues of deceased people on. Down each side were large bronze pieces showing the brave fighters taking on the evil Japanese. At the top of the memorial park was the aforementioned stone flag structure. We all lined up in front of it and those with flowers walked up to the memorial and laid flowers. Together we all bowed. There were a lot of troops milling about, including some teenage looking girls in a green uniform. We were told these were from the Daughters of the Martyrs School. We walked down a little way, and got back on the bus, which had parked up near where we were.
We set off back into the centre of Pyongyang, a city that for the most part looks modern and clean. Reminiscent of Warsawa, which was rebuilt from scratch after WWII and has a distinctly modern feel to the place. The red roofed building looks well designed and utilising good materials. In the foreground the main form of surface transport, trolleybuses, this one sadly not working.
We ended up at a smallish concrete park, it had a large pool with a prominent water fountain in the middle. There were a few other water features dotted about. In the distance one could see a large statue of the great leader. A few of us crossed the road to a pedestrian area, where a large painting of the great leader looked down. Stan and Dan chased some small school kids, who thought it was all hilarious.
We were beckoned back on the bus by Miss Kim’s assistant. From here we drove to the Foreign Bookshop. A narrow bookshop around 15m long and 5m wide. It had racks of books in different languages mostly from the ‘pen’ of the great or dear leader. There were a few with pics of Pyongyang, as well as the normal propaganda posters. We went to the main Kim il Sung square after this, where the main government gets together.
Following the main square, we pulled up at an Italian restaurant. Like most restaurants we'd visited, it was a drab exterior building. The ground floor sold the usual booze, fags and sweets. The middle floor was a cash exchange desk. The top floor had a woman singing to a Karaoke machine, and a few steps down, a number of tables for customers. At the top end was the pizza making kitchen, open to the room behind a counter. I bought a can of Fanta from Italy (it had Italian all over the can) and someone else got a can of Pepsi from China. I had a Napoli Pizza which was surprisingly good, washed down with local beer. Another tour group I chatted too, consisted of 3 guys who'd paid €1000 each for 5 days. One of them had just shot a chicken at a range nearby, and the restaurant had prepared it for him. Out of the restaurant, and it was back to the hotel, for a quick change for those in smart clothes.
Next on the agenda was the Korean War Museum, which featured various bits and bobs from the Korean War of the 1950s. We first sat and watched a video which gave the DPRK view of events, including anti-American references and noted the ‘Puppet’ regime in the south. There were lots and lots of posters of Kim Il Sung with his people everywhere, him nearly always in the centre of the painting. It was interesting to see this full on propaganda and the way Kim Il Sung had built himself up as a sort of demigod, Father of the Nation.
There was also the motorcycle and side car he used, plus DPRK mortar launchers. We went up a few floors in the world's slowest lift, and turned a corner into a narrow room. In front of us was a diorama. And a couple of steeply raked seats. We watched the diorama of basically lots of trucks going up a hill and bombs being dropped. Next up was a trip into the basement, which was filled with captured and crashed American and South Korean planes. As well as cars, tanks, motorcycles, and piles of small arms. The finale involved a trip to the top of the building for a 360degree diorama. We all sat down to watch the revolving 14m high piece, while the soft spoken (very attractive) female guide pointed out this and that.
On leaving the Korean War Museum, we went to a nearby Korean ‘Victory’ square, filled with the usual sculptures depicting fighting soldiers and people being very brave. At the end was a low white arch. Some kids skated past on in-line skates as we passed them to get back on the bus.The fact that there were very few people around, you did quietly wonder to yourself if this was all rehearsed. In the background the Ryugyong Hotel, at the time work had started again on it, after being abandoned for well over a decade until 2008. Money from an Egyptian Mobile phone company helped complete it. I'm not sure how on earth they plan to fill it, they can't even fill the hotel we were staying in.
We then went down to the river. After climbing up a bank opposite what looked like a school, with the obligatory monument on top of the bank. We climbed down to the water's edge, where the USS Pueblo sat. A US spy boat that the DPRK had intercepted in their waters. We were shown a short video inside the canteen area, that showed how it was captured, and the return of the soldiers. Also how the soldiers confessed, and signed documents showing they were spying. On a look around the ship, there was a room full of ceiling high machines, supposedly ‘spying’ machines. The US soldiers had been trying to destroy them when the Koreans boarded, as well as destroying documents. There were two fixed heavy machine guns on the boat, but little else. We assembled on the front of the ship for a talk by a (yet again, very attractive) young Korean woman in her military uniform. I asked if it was possible to climb to the birds eye, thinking they'd say no. The guide Ms Kim, asked the attractive guide, and bizarrely she agreed. So I whisked up the ladder to the bird's nest, past the broken rung. It was a little scary, but I've done worse. Dan followed me up as well. We took a few pics, and did the ‘Titanic’ film pose. And then the navy soldier on the shore blew his whistle for us to come down. The guide also beckoned for us to come down. On the way down I noticed a round shell hole in the mast, which in theory would have made it unstable as a third of the circumference was missing!
Back on the bus, and we went to a brewery, which didn't look like much of a brewery. After walking here and there through a manufacturing type office building, we ended up in a room with a long bar, and a couple of tables. We all ordered a drink, I went for the dark beer, which wasn't very dark, but more dark yellow. It had a slight misty consistency, but was pleasant to drink. Some of the others had a few, as well as some dried fish. I watched a bit of local TV in the background, which seemed to consist of random photos of the country, with a song over the top. The song's lyrics were subtitled in Korean, so presumably they can sing along. Images of farmers in fields, beauty spots, people on building sites looking purposeful, that kind of thing. After paying up, it was back to our hotel. Here we went straight up to the revolving restaurant on the 47th floor. We had the usual selection of Korean dishes, similar to that described above sans dog. I then went to bed, but some stayed up late, until 4am in the Karaoke bar in the basement.
Day 4 - Friday 9th September (Korean National Day)
Ray didn't show up due to being hungover which delayed us, and then the bus broke down. We walked to the International Cinema hall nearby, where Mick regaled us with stories about he got 12000 North Koreans to see 'Bend it Like Beckham'. 'Mr. Bean' was also shown, but trimmed down and cut in half, due to the 'Man' deciding it was causing North Koreans to experience the emotion of happiness.
The bus turned up, and we were spared any-more stories of Mick’s wonderfulness and ‘opening up’ North Korea. We headed off out of town, past a decaying funfair. We ended up at the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, Mangyongdae Native House. There were huge queues of people lining up to see the place. Lots of them women in their Korean National Dress, small kids running about and men in the awful short sleeve grey suit they seem to like wearing. His place was humble as one might expect. A half open to the elements building, a few store sheds, and another building with numerous white doors. These opened to rooms with a few pictures in and wooden chests. There was also a well used by the Great Leader, which people queued up to drink from.
The bus then left again on it's magical mystery tour, and ended up passing numerous buildings devoted to various sports like Taekwando, gymnastics etc. We ended up at a Metro station, and descended into the depths. The escalator seemed to go down a long way, but was around the same length as Angel station, if not a bit longer. At the bottom we walked along a short passage. It had two metal sections for shutters in the event of a nuclear attack. At the end of the aforementioned short passage, were steps down into the station. The first one we saw, Puhung Station on the Chollima Line, was just amazing. Beautiful ornate ceilings, murals and bronze plaques down each side.
The trains were red bottom half and dirty light green top half, they started life in running around Berlin. They were rather bland inside. Just padded bench seats and open areas at the doors. Each carriage had a photo of the Great and Dear Leader placed at the end near the ceiling. Showering the commuters with their greatness, lucky blighters. The portraits chosen looked rather odd, almost making them look like gangsters than leaders. Compare these photos with one by David Bailey of the ruthless East London gangsters, the Kray Twins (here).
There are rumours that the metro service only uses a few stations, and that only a couple of trains run. I would say this is likely false. I had seen people going into the metro stations as we passed around the city going to other places. When in a station, trains came by about every 3-4 minutes, implying they had quite a few trains (the purchase of Berlin's U-Bahn trains was for 108). Some stations were quieter than others, but all seemed busy. I got told off for taking a photo into a tunnel, and Ms Kim asked to see it deleted. So I deleted the photo I'd taken with a flash that wasn't very good, and kept the much better photo of the tunnel entrance.
We came to our final destination, and left the metro station next to the Victory Arch, ‘taller’ than the Arch de Triumphe in Paris, as they like to say here.
We then passed Kim Il Sung stadium, and walked into Fountain Park. Built on a hill, it was full of locals chilling out, most were in family size groups eating various dishes. Some of them began to offer food to us. Nate got really stuck in, including drinking copious amounts of the local moonshine. The local moonshine was reckoned to be about 70% proof! I got given a few bits of food here and there. Including a sip of beer and dried fish. I felt bad I hadn't brought my fag packs to hand out. The Tour Guide wanted us to leave, but Mick convinced her to go down to the Lovers Pavilion. And so we did, and there was a woman in a light pink dress dancing with herself, until Terry joined her, and then a few others. We were then herded back up the hill to leave the park. There were sellers here and there with a few items on a small portable table, mostly pretzels, fags, booze and water.
The bus did a bizarre run around, and basically dumped us on the other side of the road to where we were, via a loop of the Victory Monument. We were lead into a shop selling various tourist items. I bought a book on the highlights of Pyongyang. Others bought various ginseng based items, as well as books and small dolls. After snapping a police car and filming kids kicking a ball around, it was time for food. Nate said to me on the bus he really wasn't feeling well, and wobbled about.
The bus dropped us of at a hotpot restaurant. We all sat at tables, with a plate of things to chuck into a small covered pan of boiling water. I chucked in the greens and meat. Sat opposite was the tour owner Mick who told me how he'd come to China to study landscape gardening, and realised there were opportunities in the DPRK. After walking out, I passed Nate at the bottom of the building steps, with a large circle of spew fanning out. The moonshine had taken its toll. As Nate departed looking in a bad state with Mick, Ray turned up to keep the numbers balanced.
Apart from a handful, most people went to see either a classical concert, or a pop concert. For some reason they started at 3pm on a Friday?! It maybe due to it being National Day. I opted out, as I wasn't overly keen, and a bit worried about the money situation, as DPRK has no ATMs. So after everyone had been dropped off, the Bus picked up the stragglers from the other two groups and we set off. Stop 1 was Kim Il Sung square again. I was glad, as I had my SLR camera with me this time. However it looked like our stop was only going to be a few minutes. As I'd barely crossed the road, when I got called back. I did spot an old metro station entrance covered with thick wood planks. Across the river one could make out the Juche statue. We turned a few corners, and we were at a coffee shop. As we were getting used to, the prices were pretty steep. I paid €3 for a milkshake and about €5 for apple pie. It was then back to pick up the others after their concerts.
Those that went to the pop concert didn't quite get what they expected, basically an orchestra with a singer. We arrived at the river, and the Juche Tower monument, tall and square with a flame type piece on the top. According to Kim Il-sung, the Juche Idea is based on the belief that "man is the master of everything and decides everything". It's not emphasised that's just one man! It's mainly used to justify the decisions of the DPRK Government. To go to the top was €5, and as the city seems to sit with a constant mist, I passed on the opportunity. In the entrance area for the tower were a number of plaques from private individuals, Juche societies and countries supporting the Juche idea. I wandered down to the river where a few locals were wandering about. The second tour group leader, who spoke little English, didn't like me walking off to go to the far end of the monument park. The poor woman's job seemed to be sweeper upper of those straying from the group and chosen route. Apparently her husband was high up in DPRK society and had been abroad on business trips.
On the bus, we were told earlier in the day there was a surprise for later, and it turned out to be a mass dance on a square. As we pulled up to a monument with 3 large objects, I think a fist, scythe and something else, in front were about 6 or so groups of women in mostly Korean national dresses. As we arrived we milled around for a bit, and at 6pm they kicked off. Lots of walking to the left clap, walk to the right clap, swing your partner around type stuff. Some of the group joined in with the dancers.
The costumes were some sort of national costume, as seen on an unfortunately numbered issue of the countries magazine for foreigners.
After half an hour, it was back on the bus to the hotel, where we had dinner in the Chinese restaurant. A non-mind blowing affair. Hiro and I raised Nate from the dead to join us for dinner.
It was then time to attend the last event, the fun fair. Trundling off back into town, we ended up next to the Victory Arch, where a fun fair was tucked on the other side of the Kim Il Sung stadium. For a small city, it does have a lot of big stadiums. The fun fair was bought from Italy, and was one of the few places I saw North Koreans naturally smiling. We went in and there didn't seem to be any barriers. I also wasn't aware of anyone paying. Each of the 10 or so rides just had long queues. We however, were paying, obviously! So we got to cut in front of the queues, and on one occasion, some poor fella was sat on the ride, and taken off to allow one of us to go on. There was the Pirate ship, lots of swirly roundabout things, dodgems, a launch tower, a few tamer rides at the top of the park for young kids. The one I went on was a so called Superman rollercoaster, as one assumed the flying position on the ride. We were 4 across and whizzed up and launched spiral to the top. It was after the first few turns I remembered I'm not overly good with heights. However after we launched other things replaced that initial fear, as we did barrel rolls and cut around tight turns. It was a buzz sensation after getting off.
I raised a few eyebrows walking around the park with my camera on a tripod, trying (the operative word) to get some interesting night exposures of the rides. A number of us had brought packs of fags to give out, but hadn't really dished any out until now, so were frantically offering them to people to get rid of them. However no one seemed to be accepting them. When we offered them, people waved us away. So I ended up leaving them dotted around the park for people to find.
People seemed suspicious of us, but quickly wore a smile when we said hello in Korean. There were the usual hoards of brown uniformed soldiers, as well as locals using point and shoot cameras, and even mobile cameras. We left back to the hotel. Although it was late, I was keen to explore the mysterious ‘level 5’. I got the lift to the 6th floor, to find the layout was pretty shabby compared to other floors. I also saw a row of locals sleeping on the floor in a room through a door left ajar. I found a stairwell I hadn't used before, and saw that where it went there was a door on the level below. I nervously went in, and was immediately greeted with a long poster that seemed to be about the Korean War and Japanese concentration camps. Further on were other painted murals, one with a red flower and lots of words either side. Another had a solider with a bayoneted rifle screaming, and the final one had a picture of a computer with blue background and various bits of writing. Annoyingly my flash didn't work, so I could only film.
I went down to the bar where I could only find Ray, the two Canadians and a Dutch guy. They were inserting the word ‘Juche’ in-front of every other word. After finishing their beers we went down to the basement area. There were a number of rooms for services down here, laundry, hairdressers, the usual fags and booze shop, a bowling alley and the Karaoke bar, which was filled with tourists, boozing it up. It was too smokey for my liking, and I wanted more pics of the 5th floor. I went back to my room and put my SLR in a carrier bag. Then headed down. Only this time I went to the 7th floor. As I was looking for the fire escape, a Korean came up to me and asked what I was doing. I said going down the stairs, and he took me back to the elevator. I took the elevator to the ground floor, and walked up to the 5th Floor. As I did so, about 10 tourists came down from the floor above, and we all ended up going around together. It was insane, insane that no one came out. Although someone had left their shoes outside a door. I grabbed some shots, and quickly left. More on the 5th Floor and it's murals can be seen elsewhere on the site, click here. I returned to the room, and Hiro wasn't there, as he was staying with Sally again, the two had grown close. Sally (name changed) was an interesting character,she appeared in a news article with her in pvc catsuit at her party that got out of hand via being popularised on facebook. She was currently working as an escort to a wealthy Chinese business man.
Day 5 - Saturday 10th September
The trip ended as quickly as it had begun, and we were rushing through breakfast grabbing our bags and waiting on the bus for stragglers, saying our goodbyes to those flying out. The bus was running late, and the tour guide was flapping. We got to the station and went in a side exit. Then along the platform to the end of the train to our 4 berth sleepers. Chucked our bags in, and then took a couple of last pictures, said goodbye to the guides, and the train rolled away. We were told not to take pictures, particularly of the train station platforms, but did anyway.
The train made a few stops en-route. We got to see a bit more of the real North Korea, carts pulled by oxen, people living probably at subsistence level. There were lots of small single storey dwellings with slightly pointed upturned corners in villages. People washing clothes in rivers, that sort of thing. The truck 'bus' is not an uncommon site, variations include people crammed into a trailer behind a tractor.
Eventually we got to the border, and the train halted. The North Korean guards got on, and started at either end of the carriage. They got everyone out of the compartment, and then called in each person to talk through their customs form. We had to declare all our books and electronic equipment. A woman in the first compartment had shown her wallet which contained the North Korean Won she'd bought, and it was confiscated, or 'confiscated.' They were reasonably thorough and took around 20-30mins for the compartment. The next compartment was searched, and the customs guy patted down the guys and got them to empty their wallets. The guy loved a copy of GQ magazine, and was bewildered by a book called 'Moonwalking with Einstein.' Another guard turned up and did us. I basically had to show him my netbook, and that was it. He didn't open my bags at all. I was done in 20 seconds. He didn't search my netbook, or ask to see my pictures. He certainly didn't find my well hidden North Korean Won. As far as I'm aware, no cameras were searched. Job done, we got our passports back and the train rolled off across the bridge to China.
There was another bridge that ended halfway across the river, which had a viewing platform on the end of it now. It didn't look that hard to try to swim for it. And a number of peasant/labourer types were milling around by the banks. We all cheered when we got over halfway across the river, and were greeted with a different type of communism, one which included modern skyscrapers and huge TV sets blasting out advertising. The Chinese customs were a formality, and over pretty quick. We then spent an hour or so at Dandong station. Our carriage formed a new train to Beijing. As the light faded, the train shunted off West into the dusk.
It's hard to pass judgement on the DPRK, not least the ludicrous use of 'Democratic' in their choice of country name. Democracy itself is a flawed system, but no way does it have any resemblance to the North Korean system. The Western media don't help the situation by whipping up shock stories and random half truths. The reality was either everyday life, carefully stage managed events and people, or something in-betwefont-famfont-family: Arial; layout-grid-mod border=e: line;font-family: Arial; layout-grid-mode: line;ily: Arial; layout-grid-mode: line;p class=en. I think the theory that people who are considered trustworthy or keen members of the ruling party get to live in Pyongyang is true. Were the people in the park with what seemed like a lot of food, genuinely freely picnicking there, or were they instructed to go there every time a tour turns up? Without commercialism and a thriving export market, you wonder what exactly the people do. Maybe some of them have a 'role' to play in making the country look 'normal'. At the birthplace of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, there was a healthy queue of people there. Did people genuinely seek to make pilgrimage to the site, or were they rounded up to make the place look popular? These things play on your mind, and you try to ignore them and believe it's all natural. But this is North Korea, a country that is the odd child at the front of the class. The one who doesn't join in with the rest of the class and lives in their own fantasy world. This is after all, a country where 1 in 4 people is a member of the armed forces, in a country no one in their right mind would want to invade. It's neighbours are China and the USA backed South Korea, invading them would be suicide. However the constant propaganda and dwelling on ancient history (The Japanese hadn't occupied the country for over 70 years, but are still vilified everywhere).
The North Koreans all wear a red badge with a picture of Kim Il Sung on it, whether in the civil service, military or regular Joes. The warped mind control starts at a young age, and the badges would be a constant reminder of that. Since I visited, Kim Il Jung died, and he now appears next to his father on the newer red badges. These badges can't be bought, they are bestowed on you.
No one really smiles in the country, and carry a look of despondent accepted drudgery. People only smile in official photos or on TV. Looking at Tourists walking about with large cameras, modern clothes and jewellery, being something they will never own. I noticed it once, and then while checking out an attractive female solider it rang home. The guide told me the attractive soldier was married, but she had no ring. One of the guides was married, and as mentioned, to a high up cadre, and had no ring. I don't think I saw a wedding ring on any of the men or women that I saw. Possibly a cultural thing (although South Koreans have rings), or a poverty thing. It was difficult to know, and awkward to ask. I think I might have seen the odd necklace or earrings on a woman, but outside of that, there was very little jewellery on display. Another observation was the very limited clothing choices, especially with men. It seems whatever role you ended up in, dictated that you would have a choice of three outfits to wear. These included a hideous short-sleeved shiny silver suit, a choice of drab green, light blue or white shirts with black slacks. Other items include a light khaki zip up sweat top, and a similar coloured jacket, as worn by Kim Il Jung most of the time (see newspaper at top of page).
The country doesn't do itself any favours when trying to appear normal or gain acceptance, the main indication of this is the fact that their countries leader is dead, and has been for decades. Kim Il Sung was made president for eternity on his death. After Kim Il Jung passed away, he too was given titles into the afterlife. The whole megalomania around the Kims is deeply disturbing, many North Koreans believe Kim Il Sung created the planet and can control the weather. It would be hard for us to comprehend what it's like to live in a country, day in, day out, with little to go on other than constant reminders of the Kims. The Metro stations were all covered with murals and statues of mainly Kim Il Sung, as were the streets and villages.
If it's not images of the Kims being at one with the people, it's propaganda and images of war that pervade. The North Koreans know little of the outside world, and must feel that aggressive countries are lining up to invade them. Little knowing that no one in their right mind would want to invade the impoverished country mostly devoid of oil and gas. The Foreign bookshop in the centre of town sells various propaganda posters and books about Juche to tourists, you can see how aggressive some of the posters are. Most worrying being the one on the bottom left, featuring a large missile next to a re-united Korea.
Numerous grandiose monuments dotted Pyongyang, most that weren't featuring the Kims, were militaristic in nature. Most showing war scenes, as seen above in Victory Park, or reliefs of brave soldiers, sailors and airmen, like this one.
One of the common things said about North Korea is that the lights are turned off at night to save power. I guess this is mostly true, although our hotel had power the whole time, 24/7. This is a view from the hotel's upper floors across Pyongyang at around 11pm.Considerably darker than most Westernised countries, although one could argue that conserving power is a good thing, I expect most regular North Koreans don't get the choice.
Some may have come here looking for pictures of the 'crazy' and 'embarrassing' photos, secrets of the Kim's Hermit Kingdom. To be honest, I didn't really see anything, other than a few bits mentioned above. The country has set routes around it, and those routes don't take you anywhere they wouldn't want you to see. The country has very little foreign income, and it's export market is limited to mostly selling arms to similar questionable regimes, made in 180 Underground factories around Jagang-do. A 1984 plan to open up the economy to foreign investment through joint ventures, attracted no interest. Most Men work at non-functioning factories, leaving women to bring in income through small stalls and the black market. It gets some crucial income from South Korean factories based in Kaesong Industrial Region. Ironic, in that the income goes towards paying for propaganda against the 'American Puppet' regime in the South. Other accusations are that the country suffers from famine, with reports as recent as this year (2013) of cannibalism due to the dire situation. The North Koreans are brought up to trust no one other than their leaders, and snitch on family and friends. So cannibalism wouldn't be difficult to comprehend when food is scarce. When travelling around, I saw no instances of starvation. Equally I saw not a single instance of obesity, something that is visible south of the border, particularly in cities like Seoul and Busan. The situation isn't helped by the 18th Century farming techniques used, as seen here.
You don't come to North Korea for the food, you don't come for the beaches. You come to see a curiosity, a theme park, where most of the inhabitants live miserable lives. However seeing you will give them hope, and knowledge about the outside world. Would I go again? Of course, North Korea is a place of mystery and curiosity. For me, trying to delve into the truths of North Korea are fascinating. It's a country that makes you think about everything, and apply that to life back home and in other countries. For example North Korea recently purchased tens of thousands of cctv cameras to spy on their citizens even more. In the UK, we have some of the highest number of cctv cameras in the world. This photo taken in spring 2013, shows the main thoroughfare in my home district of Hammersmith, London. It's a mile of almost total coverage in an area with very low crime rates for London. Also in 2013, an NSA contractor exposed US and UK secret surveillance of it's citizens. Freedom is a myth in North Korea openly suppressed, in the UK and the West, it is suppressed by stealth. I pointed the cameras below out to a friend who passes them every day, and she didn't notice they were there. A bit like Freedom, one day it's there, and then another it's gone. In North Korea, it's definitely gone.
A 10 minute video of this trip can be found here.
A Google Map with most of the locations mentioned above can be found here