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North Korea – Holiday in a Secret State
First of all, and the question that many people ask me when I tell them about a trip I made back in ’05: Why the hell did you go to North Korea?! The answer is simple: I like to do things a little differently. Most people think a great holiday is sitting on a beach in Thailand for a week, burning themselves and getting hammered every night, waking up around midday etc. I would much prefer to see places and do things so that when I come back from my holiday I’ve got a feeling of accomplishment. I wasn’t really looking at holiday destinations when I was browsing the BBC news website and a story about DPRK’s nuclear ambitions when I saw a link entitled, Holidays in North Korea. In that article I read about a company called Koryo Tours and from then my interest rose hugely. This company, run out of a Beijing office by 2 British guys, arranged visas and did regular tours to DPRK throughout the year, during which you had the chance of visiting and seeing things most of the world will never see. This was right up my street, and I exchanged a bunch of emails with one of the guys, getting more information on the trips and what was possible (unfortunately no diving was allowed, by I did ask and they did enquire!). In the end, I settled for a 6-day May Day Stadium tour of the country, flying into Pyongyang and coming back by train to Beijing. Not only would this tour include seeing some spectacular and rare sights, but there was also the prospect of going to see the World Cup Qualifying match between DPRK and Japan, to be played at the country’s May Day Stadium. This is the biggest stadium in the world, seating over 150,000 people. To put it into perspective a little, it is over twice the size of the Olympic Stadium in Seoul, South Korea.
I did a little research about the country, and although information is fairly limited, I managed to pick up an excellent travel guide and DVD documentary about the country. First of all, the Bradt Travel Guide to North Korea was an excellent resource, both before my trip and during my travels in DPRK. It includes a lot practical travel information and covers almost every area of DPRK that you might want to visit. If you ever manage to go there, this book would be highly recommended. Through Koryo Tours, I also managed to get my hands on a copy of a BBC documentary called A State Of Mind. This is a fascinating documentary, and is one of the best DVDs I have ever bought. It revolves around 2 girls who are preparing for the Mass Games in DPRK. More about these later, but in summary the Mass Games is a huge choreographed gymnastics spectacle involving thousands of gymnasts. In simple terms, it makes the Olympic opening ceremony look like a primary school festival. I will talk a little about this later, but will leave you with a photo of the event itself (unfortunately not mine, I didn’t have chance to see it on my visit as it is usually held in April/May and August/September).
As for currency, we were asked to bring anything, although Euros would be preferred. US$ were accepted, but if you paid for things in Euros you would get a much better price for things. In DPRK they have their own currency, although foreigners are strictly not supposed to have it for some reason. The money situation is a little strange at the best of times, and sometimes downright bizarre. Firstly, very few places will have change, so you should take small denomination notes of your money. Indeed, a number of places will have no money at all! For example, one night we were sat at the bar in our hotel having a beer or two after a hard day of sightseeing. I was about to pay the tab and head off to bed as I was feeling a little weary so I went to the bar with my bill (around 7 Euros) and I gave her a 10 Euro note. I sat around for 5 minutes or so waiting for my change, and then the waitress came back to me, said “No change” and handed me another beer! What an ingenious way of doing things: we won’t give you change, but we’ll just give you more of what you’ve been drinking. I’d have been paralytic if I’d have only had a 50 Euro note to hand! We were also asked to bring small gifts for the guides we would meet, as they would be more appreciated than money. So, as advised, I bought some hand cream for any female guides I would meet (Nivea is favoured by them, if my memory serves me correctly), and some cigarettes and chocolate for the men (the more nicotine, the better).
We had a brief meeting in Beijing 2 days before we travelled, to sort out our passport visas and be given a few guidelines for DPRK. It was all fairly routine stuff (be respectful, ask before taking photos etc) but it had to be said because if not then someone would always go too far. The thing is, in DPRK the foreigner wouldn’t get into much trouble about that, but their tour guide would be severely reprimanded and the company may not get as much chance to tour the country. We were especially told to be respectful and nice to the main guides, because if they like the group then you might see things that not every tour group gets to see. We were also told that, disappointingly, the World Cup Qualifying game between DPRK & Japan had been moved to a neutral location (Thailand) because of crowd trouble in a previous game. Some people were unhappy with this, but there really was nothing we could do. We could complain and be grumpy through the entire trip, or we could make the most of what we would see. Even though the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of Kim Il Sung could not be visited due to renovations, I still knew this would be an unforgettable journey. With that in mind, 2 days later we boarded the twice-weekly Beijing-Pyongyang flight, courtesy of Air Koryo.
Now, when you travel somewhere, there are certain signs that your trip is going to be an eventful one. Being on an flight to one of the most secretive countries in the world, sat in between a guy from the World Food Programme an an Ethiopian arms dealer is one such sign! But this was the situation in which I found myself, sat in this plane straight out of the 70s. But to their credit, both guys were very friendly, although the Ethiopian did bend the truth slightly, saying he was visiting DPRK on holiday. It was only later I found out he travels there almost every month, and always says to people he’s going on holiday. I wonder how big the North Korean tourism business is in Ethiopia. The mind boggles. There was also a Spanish guy on the flight in a communist-style suit with a big medal, who told us he was connected to the DPRK government. We were told by one of the tour company guys to steer clear though, so I kept my distance.
The first thing you see when you get off the plane in Pyongyang is a huge picture of Kim Il Sung on the roof of the airport. As I looked back at the plane, I noticed the air crews pouring water on the smoking plane tyres! Think someone might have landed a little too quickly! Other than that, the flight was great. Everyone was slightly confused as to why the landing gear was lowered at about 20,000ft, but who are we to tell the pilot what to do! In the airport, bags were collected and items such as MP3 players and mobile phones were handed in to customs officials as they are not allowed in the country. Contrary to popular opinion though, camera and video cameras were fine to bring in.
The guides introduced themselves to us, and our main guide was a woman with perfect English, called Mrs Lee. She was an awesome guide… very friendly and knowledgeable about everything. She was one of the government-appointed guides, but talked about everything with the minimum of bias and the highest amount of information. She’d obviously met quite a few tour groups, and was full of questions about our families and what we did in our home countries. A few people brought photos of our photos and lives from home, and it was a nice feeling to introduce them to her. There were actually 2 guides appointed to our tour group of 20 people. There were 2 reasons for this I think, neither of which was that they could spy on us better! Firstly, the group was quite big and they wanted to manage everyone in the best way. The second reason could be (and I hasten to add that I don’t know this for sure) that the 2 guides could censor each other. If there was only one, then it is possible that they could say something negative about the country or its politics; with 2 people there is always someone else listening. We also had a cameraman walking around with our group, who would make a VCD of our trip that we could purchase at the end of our trip. That was a nifty little idea, and I said I would definitely like a copy of that.
One of the first things that hit me as we entered Pyongyang on our tour bus was how clean it was. There were lots of people, both adults & children, who were pulling up weeds along the streets and paths by hand. Technologically-advanced, this city is not, but it looked friendly enough so far. None of the military parades of huge missiles evident so far, that you usually see in the western media. Our first stop on the tour was Fountain Park. This was a wide open space (Pyongyang has a lot of these) with many very large water fountains, along with some beautiful statues of women dancing. There were a few kids walking around and we managed to get some friendly acknowledgements from them by smiling and waving. The power of a smile, even in the so-called Axis of Evil, is immense. A small group of girls were walking across the park and they came over. One of the girls proceeded to give us a 2-minute jamming session on her guitar-like thing (can you tell I don’t play music?!) while her friends looked on. As advised, we asked for permission to take some photos of the girls and the surroundings, and then started snapping away. To be honest, there were not the restrictions on taking photos that you might expect. Of course, nobody tried to take photos of military installations or personnel, but whenever we asked to take shots, the answer was always “Yes”.
From the park, we headed to our next stop (and the most important stop on the tour): the bronze statue of Kim Il Sung at Mansudae. For those of you unfamiliar with DPRK’s history & politics, Kim Il Sung was the leader of the country from 1948 (when the country was founded) until his death in 1994. Following his death, there were 3 years of official mourning. This period of Kim Il Sung statue at Mansudaetime with Kim Il Sung’s mourning, coupled with bad harvests and declining living conditions, became known as the Arduous March. The statue was said by our guide to weigh as much as all the hearts of the Korean people. Note that the word “Korean” was used to signify both Koreas. In DPRK they still say that Korea is one country, and that they will reunify in time. Around the statue are 2 other monuments, both depicting people fighting in the Korean War (called in DPRK The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War) from 1950 to 1953. As the statue, a few of us bought flowers and laid them at the front of the statue, before walking back and paying our respects by bowing. This was the first occasion I realised that some people might not be suited to a trip to DPRK. You have to go through the bowing to Kim Il Sung, and just accept it, even if you don’t approve of the leadership of the country. It is all about showing respect and politeness for a foreign country in which you are a rare guest. It’s a similar deal with the stories that you are told. Sometimes they seem far fetched, the guides know they sound far fetched, you know they do, and the guides know that you know. But the key is just to play along with it, take it in with interest and use your head a little. A couple on our tour tried to ask questions that were pushy or embarrassing, and all that did was make the guide flustered and upset at us. Nobody benefited and, most likely, everyone lost out. So if you do consider a trip to this fascinating country, bear that in mind.
The hotel we stayed at was the Yanggakdo Hotel in central Pyongyang. If you go to DPRK, you will most likely either stay here or in the Koryo Hotel. This hotel is excellent and is on its own island! It has a 9-hole golf course, cinema, football stadium, casino, rotating restaurant at the top of the hotel (this is a recurring theme), and pretty much everything else you could want in the hotel grounds (so tourists wouldn’t be tempted to cross the bridge into the capital itself?).
The hotel also has 47 floors and around 1,000 rooms. But the thing is, there were only around 25 people staying at the hotel, and in our tour group people were sharing rooms so at the most, 20 rooms would have been occupied. All our group were located on the 25th floor, and people were making frequent comments about what could possibly be on the other floors. As far as I know, nobody was brave/foolish enough to try and find out. Although the hotel was much akin to a ghost town, the rooms were nice and clean, and offered a great view of the city, including the Juche Tower.
While we were going to dinner on the first night, we were told that there wouldn’t be few, if any shows or festivals on at the moment, due to everyone working in the fields. At that time, the university had closed and a number of government offices had been closed as people were mobilised to plant rice due to fears over food shortages. Having seen similar stories about China, this seems to be the communist way of dealing with problems like that; throw everyone you can at it. It might not be so productive and is certainly not efficient or economical, but it is what they do. It also shows the Juche, or self-reliance, ideology coming to the fore. Our venue for dinner was the National Restaurant, and we were the only guests there. This was also a common theme – we were the only people dining out. Although this isn’t hugely surprising, and I doubt if we were not visiting the restaurant would even be open. The food was pretty good actually, and it was obvious they were trying to showcase DPRK’s fine dining. It made me think and reflect a little though. They were serving up some of the best food they could offer in the country to us, and yet so many people in other parts of the city are coping on tiny rations of rice and vegetables each month. Again, it’s one of the things you just have to accept while you’re here. Accompanying dinner was live music, by a group of women in traditional Korean dress. The songs were revolutionary songs, and the music had a definite Russian feel to it. I looked around for copies of “The Best Songs Dedicated To The Great Leader and The General Album… Ever!!!”, but alas it was nowhere to be found. We did conclude that the drummer constantly looked like she wanted to just start thrashing the drums, rather than stick to the regular tapping of the cymbal. Not sure what the state of heavy metal music is in DPRK, but she’d fit right in.
Going back to the hotel, I had a couple of beers before heading back to my room. Once there though, I was able to turn the lights out, open the window and gaze out into the night skyline. If you do that in most cities, and especially capital cities, you can hear road works, traffic going past, loud music etc. In Pyongyang it was almost silent. You could hear a couple of voices drifting over the water to the hotel, but other than that it was quiet. There were relatively few lights coming from the large number of buildings that were a kilometre or two away. For some reason I woke up at about 4am in the night, and once again went to the window which we’d left open. Looking out, you could see nothing – there wasn’t a single light visible and the only sound was a dog barking somewhere in the city. Very eerie, but a fascinating experience.
Woke up early and switched on the TV in our room to get a fuzzy BBC World transmission (DPRK don’t pay for any TV rights, so they have to unscramble the signals as best they can themselves I believe). There was an announcement that it was International Environment Day, which was appropriate as I was probably in the cleanest capital city in the world. Pyongyang makes Tokyo look like a trashy dump, and I didn’t see a single piece of litter on the street throughout my entire trip. Another thing Pyongyang has is vast open spaces. It is reported that according to UN environmental statistics, Pyongyang has the largest amount of green and parkland per person of any capital city in the world. The skies were blue, but it was pretty hazy and you could only just see over the Taedong River and into Pyongyang. But after breakfast, that was our destination and first up was the Juche Tower.
An offspring of communism, Juche is summed up quite well by Wikipedia: “The core principle of the Juche ideology since the 1970s has been that “man is the master of everything and decides everything””. The most fascinating features of this structure are all to do with numbers. The tower was created in celebration of Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday, and the building has 25,550 blocks (one for each day of KIS’s life). The tower is actually made up of tiers: on the north and south side there are 18 tiers and on the east and west side, 17 tiers. Add those up and you get the magical 70. Also, at the base of the tower there are flowers carved (the Kimilsungia) into the stone. 35 flowers on the east and west sides gives you… you guessed it, 70.
The views from the bottom were pretty good, but the panoramic views from the platform at the top of the tower were breathtaking. You could see the entire city, although there you could see virtually no cars on the roads. There were a couple of bicycles, but almost no motorised transport. Following the Juche Tower, our next stop was the closeby Korean Workers Party Monument. This was erected to celebrate 50 years of the Korean Workers Party, and again the numbers play an important role. The top of the hammer, sickle and brush (denoting the 3 classes of people in society) are 50m high, and the diameter of the monument is also 50m. The history of the Party is written in bronze letters on the wall of the monument, and the size of the things has to be seen first-hand to be appreciated. The people built this in one year, which goes to show how productive they can be when given the resources to play with.
After seeing a little our of the city, we headed out of town, past Kim Il Sung University, and went to Mt Taesong and the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery. Here, around 200 martyrs of revolutionary fighting against Japanese Imperialists are buried and remembered. Each martyr has a statue made from copper and all the busts face Pyongyang, positioned so that each one has a clear view of the capital. Pride of place at the top of the cemetery goes to Kim Il Sung’s wife. In the cemetery, sombre revolutionary music player (I’m sure, solely because we were there), which gave a strange feeling to the whole event.
Lunch was taken in the (rotating) restaurant at the 230m tall Television Tower. A rickety old lift got us up to the top but it must have been the slowest lift I’ve ever been in! It took about 3 agonising minutes to get to the top, with the constant fear that the string that was pulling us up could snap and sent us plummeting to our certain doom at any time! But we made it to the top and the views were spectacular. The food was, once again, the best that DPRK had to offer, and our after lunch entertainment was karaoke courtesy of the 2 waitresses who’d been serving us. A smile towards one of them ended up in her holding my hand while she sang her song (I’m sure talking about the greatness and wonderfullness of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il)! I was slightly distressed that I might have unknowingly just joined the Workers Party of Korea, and wouldn’t be allowed to leave!
First stop after lunch was the Arch of Triumph in the middle of Pyongyang. Sound familiar? Well, you might think of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and when you look at this arch you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for the Parisian landmark. This arch was modelled on the one in France, but built bigger so that the claim can be made that this is the largest stone arch in the world.
You’ll notice that DPRK likes its world records. The arch was pretty impressive, as was standing in the middle of a 3-lane road for minutes while taking pictures of it, without the slightest fear of a car coming. Try doing that in London! On the photo to the right you can see the Arch of Triumph in the foreground, but I expect many of you are wondering what the triangular-shaped building is in the background. Well that is a secret for now, and all will be revealed in part 3 of this travelogue. Rest assured, it is definitely worth waiting for! Near the Arch of Triumph is another stadium in Pyongyang, and outside the stadium were some people preparing their gymnastic routine for the Mass Games.
We headed back out into the sticks after seeing the arch, and towards a Buddhist temple. On the way, we saw loads of people working in the fields, even on a Sunday (their supposed day off during the week). This was real subsistence agriculture though; you saw oxen pulling makeshift ploughs through the soil and in some places it just looked so dry and barren that anything would struggle to grow there. The temple itself was quite interesting, although not as much as the sights I’d seen previously in the day. Apparently, Buddhism was the main religion in DPRK before the Juche idea was put forward. I have read conflicting evidence about this though, & there are many reports that religion is banned in DPRK, despite what we were told by the guides. I can’t report either way though – I’m just stating what I saw and keeping unbiased about everything. After the temple trip we headed back into Pyongyang and it got a little surreal. We were taken to a clothing export exhibition, which showed examples of the garments that they had exported to other countries (mainly sportswear). They gave us examples of the countries they exported to (e.g. UK, Hong Kong, China), and we were then taken to a shop where we could buy some DPRK authentic clothing! Other were sceptical but I just jumped right in and guy myself a T-shirt! The whole trip here was as if they were saying, “Look at us! We produce things that other countries want and need!”.
A 30 minute bus journey led us back into the country and over to King Tongmyong’s tomb. The guide at this site wasn’t an English-speaker, but our resident guide translated everything for us. We were shown around the tomb on King Tongmyong, who lived around 5,000 years ago. It was apparently he who set up the nation of Korea, and who founded the first capital city in the country. In the grounds of the temple, there were 3 artists painting the landscape (by chance, or told to be there?). I wanted to think it was the former, and the pictures were pretty good so I bought one. Hopefully not all of that money would go straight to the government. I got the artist’s name on the picture and had it dated, and I gave a present to the guide for showing us around. The result: I had another DPRK girl holding and stroking my arm as we walked back to the bus! So much for being told we would have very little contact with the locals.
In the south of Pyongyang is the Mangyongdae Shrine, which is where Kim Il Sung was born and where he spent his early years. The house he was born in was fairly humble and it sounded like his family was quite poor. The house’s setting was now in a park and was really nice to walk around in; the walk to the viewing area was interrupted only by a couple of squirrels and chipmunks crossing our path. We were told that Koreans didn’t visit the house after KIS’s death because they wanted to keep it in a pristine state. Not sure if that is strictly true, but I just nodded and smiled and took it all in.
I’m out of words just about for this article, but once it is live here I will submit the next part. Thanks for taking the time to read it.
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