my burogu

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

North Korea Trip

Why North Korea?

A Mural, Pyongyang

I had some free time and therefore wanted to go on a trip, but didn't want to go too far from Japan. So I looked on the map. Korea is Japan's nearest neighbour and I've never been there, so thought it would be good. But then again, I wanted to do something a bit different and realized North Korea wasn't too much further away. “Why not?”, I thought. So I investigated a little further and found that it was relatively easy to get there, if a touch on the expensive side as you have to go as part of a group tour . But once I'd had the idea, I couldn't let it go and soon found myself booking the trip. Nowadays international brands rule the world economy and big cities all look alike. They all have McDonalds, Starbucks and sell mobile phones. North Korea, or Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is the one country left on earth that doesn't have that. I had to go and see it for myself.

The route.

Later this year, Kayo and I are travelling overland back to the UK from Japan. So I thought I'd make this an adventure too. I took a ferry from Shimonoseki in Japan to Pusan, travelled north through South Korea, then took a ferry from Incheon to Qingdao, China. Then a train to Beijing. From Beijing we flew to Pyongyang and on the reurn journey we took the train back to China. I got off in Dandong, where I sailed down the North Korean coastline to Incheon, took the train back south to Pusan and then returned by overnight ferry to Japan.

View North Korea Trip in a larger map

Day 1
Beijing - Pyongyang

I stayed in Beijing for 3 nights before I left for Pyongyang. On my final night in Beijing I went out for a few drinks. It was really cold when I headed back to my hostel, so I took a taxi. Because of the cold I thought it would be a good idea to run the 200m or so from where the taxi dropped me off along the backstreet to where my hostel was. I fell over. My chin slammed into the concrete and I had a massive graze along my cheek. I was rather dazed and hadn't even realised I was bleeding until a man appeared from nowhere and handed me some tissues. “Oh No”, I thought.

I awoke early the next morning and weighed up my options. I was due at the airport by 11am to meet the tour group, pick up my North Korean Visa and check-in for the 13:00 flight to Pyongyang. I was aware that I should really go to hospital, but definitely didn't have time for that. I found a chemist, bought some gauze and antibacterial cream and then headed to the airport hoping there would be a First-Aid room where someone who knew what they were doing could dress my wounds and I wouldn't look like a total freak when I met the members of my tour. I arrived at the airport terminal around 10am. Fortunately there was a first-aid room. Unfortunately the nurse wouldn't treat me. She said that my injuries were too serious for her and that I had to go to hospital. I explained that I had to catch a flight and had no time to go to hospital, but would duly go at my destination. She agreed to treat me, but made me sign a disclaimer before I left.

I wandered over to the check-in counter feeling a little better about myself but still slightly concerned that I was heading to a country with one of the worst healthcare systems in the world with a nasty injury that would clearly need some more attention over the next few days. It was all my own doing though, so I couldn't complain. After clearing customs I went for some breakfast. I'd not had time to eat anything and ordered some fried rice. I put a small forkful in my mouth but couldn't move my jaw. It was seriously painful. I gingerly finished my plateful of food and went across to board the plane.

I'm no plane spotter so can't tell you much about the technical aspect of the plane. It was, however, like entering a time machine. 70's style décor, 70's styled hostesses (all female) and legroom designed for dwarfs. The overhead lockers had no doors and of course there were no TVs. The plane filled up and I found people watching fascinating; trying to work out what everyone was going to be doing in DPRK. I expected the plane to be filled with mainly tourists, but there were a large proportion of Koreans on the flight too. I was sat next to a Japanese man who said he was going there for work, but didn't say what his business was. I had a window seat and spent my time looking out of the window. It was my 1st view of North Korea. The fields were brown and the houses were few. It all appeared quite normal. As we came in to land, people were still walking around the plane and even as we touched down there was at least one cabin attendant and one passenger walking down the plane. The Japanese guy next to me was bricking himself. So was I, but I hid it a bit better. We landed safely.
The wind was cold as we walked across to the terminal building. Immigration was swift but customs took a bit longer. A varied mix of cars came and went outside the terminal building. From brand new Lexuses & BMWs to 30 Year old Ladas and Volvos.
Pyongyang airport arrivals board.
Pyongyang airport
It was getting on for 6pm by the time we boarded our tour bus to go to Hotel Yangakdoo and the sun was setting over the Pyongyang skyline. Our guides introduced themselves and gave us an outline of the itinerary of our trip. We had dinner at the hotel restaurant (my jaw still very painful) followed by a quick group meeting. I discovered that one of the ladies in our group was a nurse and she very kindly offered to look at my cuts. She re-dressed & cleaned my wounds and reassured me there was nothing too serious to worry about, but that ideally I should be having some stitches in my chin. I went to bed soon after as my face and jaw were throbbing.

Day 2
Pyongyang and The DMZ.

We had a breakfast of omelette, toast and coffee in the hotel restaurant before leaving for the DMZ at 8:00am sharp. We stopped to admire the Arch of Reunification as we left Pyongyang and then headed south towards the border. I took lots of photos of not very much along the way. The farmland looked brown and fertile, but what struck me most was the lack of trees on the mountains. There really were very very few trees. I'd read that they were all cut down during the 90's famine trouble to provide fuel to keep warm in winter. It was such a contrast from the South and here in Japan where the mountains are covered with forest. We saw numerous local people along the way. Many tending to the farmland, some painting concrete walls, others picking up stones and a fair few people doing nothing at all. Maybe they were having a rest, but it was pretty chilly for that, so I have no idea what they were doing.
Our Tour Bus

North Korean Countryside

While we travelled in the bus, our guides told us about North Korea's hopes for reunification. It was heartening to listen to them talking very sincerely about re-unification between the two sides one day. It's just a shame for the people of Korea that it's so so far away and the millions of obstacles that lie between this hope and reality.

We visited the Armistice Hall - the building where the armistice agreement was signed in 1953. It's set in a beautiful and tranquil area, which is ironic considering it's place in history and what it's surrounded by.
Thye building where the Korean war armistice agreement was signed

After that we went to the Joint Security Area where discussions are held nowadays between the 2 sides. We entered the discussion hut, set exactly on the border between North & South and shook hands across the table.
Looking at South Korea from the North
Peace man
My new mate

Like much of the trip, The visit to the JSA was far more relaxed than I expected, the KPA (Korean People's Army) soldier who guided us around being friendly but firm and there were no photograph restrictions. The only slight negative was the speed at which we were ushered round meant no time for dordelling.

We then headed for a visit to a statue of Kim Il Sung in the town of Kaesong, a view across the old traditional Hanok style buildings. Kaesong was the Capital of the Korean Peninsular from 936 – 1392. The town lies South of the 38th Parallel and we were told that the South expected it to become their territory after the war and therefore didn't bomb it. That's the reason there's such a well preserved traditional quarter remaining. Lunch was great – The culinary highlight of the trip. 11 golden bowls of various side dishes, an individual stew/soup, and some delicious Korean rice wine (Soju).

Kaesong City

After lunch we headed back to Pyongyang for a quick tour of USS Pueblo, the captured US “spy ship”. We watched a “documentary” before we toured the ship. It was quite funny and more one sided than a Michael Moore film. The voiceover was done by a Korean chap imitating a BBC announcer from about 1960 with very mixed results.
Our guide around Pueblo
Our guide around USS Pueblo

Next up was the Children's' Palace. We watched a performance of music, song & dance from children aged 6-17. The performance was breathtakingly magnificent. Not a foot put wrong and as professional as anything I've witnessed before. And yet some of these kids are only 6 Years old! It left me with very mixed feelings; How hard are they made to train in order to reach such standards? They can't have much childhood as the training regime must be brutal. But then outside the palace after the performance, I caught sight of a girl having her photograph taken alongside her parents & grandmother. They were all smiles and everyone looked incredibly proud. These children are very highly regarded in their society and will go on to have a privileged lifestyle due to their incredible talents. If we look at our own society, and particularly at our sports stars, I'm not sure it's so much different from say, Serena Williams starting tennis when she was 3 years old, is it?

Dinner was had in a community centre lookalike building. But the food was good and our waitresses performed some birthday songs for Frederick on his 40th. He even got a birthday cake. Our guide, Mr Lim got in on the act and sang us an acapella “Edelweiss”.

After dinner we rushed back to the hotel to catch the end of the fireworks for Kim Il Sung's birthday, the following day. We needn't have hurried as the display was almost never ending and continued for well over an hour. I have no idea how much money was spent (wasted) on these fireworks. Of course, it was spectacular, but in a country with so little, I found it quite depressing. The most spectacular and saddest fireworks I've ever seen. Quite Obscene!.
Fireworks for Kim Il Sung's Birthday, Pyongyang.

Day 3
Kim Il Sung's 98th Birthday Party in Pyongyang

So.... Today was the Big Day. The Great Leader's 98th Birthday. Well, it would have been if he hadn't died in 1994. But the good people of the DPRK weren't about to let that stop the party. And good news for us foreign tourists, too. We were invited!

But before the party started we had a few sights to see. Namely the Arc of Triumph. - No, no. Not L'Arc de Triomph – that's in Paris, you fool. The Arc Of Triumph. OK, so it's almost an exact copy, but the important thing is that it's bigger – by a couple of metres, but bigger all the same. It was built in 1982 to celebrate liberation from Japanese Occupation in 1949. It was a very impressive arch.
The Arc of Triumph, Pyongyang

Next was the biggie! A trip to pay our respects to the great leader at the Mansudae Grand Monument. The MASSIVE statue of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. We were encouraged to buy some flowers to lay at the statue. I wasn't keen, personally, but I didn't want to offend our guides either. Fortunately for me, some other people in our group bought some flowers for The Big Kim so I didn't have to. We joined the locals on the steps leading up to the statue and lined up in 2 rows. A TV crew came up and filmed us, but because of my facial bandages I was tapped on the shoulder and asked to move to the back row of our group. At least, I hope it was because of the bandages and not because that I'm generally just not fit for TV. Although, now I come to think of it, I've been on the radio a few times, but never on TV. Hmmmmmm...........
People laying flowers for Kim Il Sung's birthday
Kim Il Sungstatue, Our guide Muang Un Byol & Me

Next was another biggie. A trip to Kim Il Sung's mausoleum to see the man himself. This is the building he's on display:
Kim Il Sung's Mauseleum
All marble and a cavernous space with airport style travellators to speed us all up as we walked along the corridors to the mausoleum room. Again, this must have cost a fortune to build. We queued up for an hour or so before we finally made it to the room with his body on display. We lined up on each side of him and were asked to bow at each side of his body but not when facing his feet. 3 bows in all. This was probably the most surreal moment of the whole trip.

Outside the mausoleum building was a gathering of the elite's school children. They were holding an entrance ceremony into “The Workers' Party” for all 9 year olds. I think there were many other ceremonies taking place around the city for children who wanted to join the other political parties. Oh hang on – maybe I'm mistaken.

Me and some lads

We took some photos with the kids and had a little banter as they could say “How are you?” and a couple of other English phrases. They were just like any other group of kids. Shy to begin with, but quick to change and start laughing and joking around.

We had a BBQ lunch in a peaceful park on the outskirts of Pyongyang. Next was a trip to a concert hall to see a performance of North Korean Music performed by a specially invited Orchestra from Seoul. Unfortunately for me, the relentless schedule was catching up with me and much to the amusement of our guide, I dozed off through the first half of the performance.

Next up was a flower festival in honour of Big Mr Kim. It was all very nice, but I'm not really a flowery person, so it didn't interest me that much. A guy from our group signed the visitors book saying “Who would have though politics and botanics could go hand in hand?”

After that we visited a monument for “The Workers Party”. I'm not sure I could ever fit in DPRK society with it's one party politics. I'd be more at home in “The Slackers' Party”, but there's no such thing and I'm definitely too much of a slacker to start the revolution.
Workers party monument
Pyongyang at sunset

We had dinner in a restaurant and then watched the news. Sure enough, we (not me) appeared on the TV as expected. For about 2 seconds.

Back at the hotel we had a few beers in the non-revolving rooftop restaurant and then headed down to the karaoke hall in the basement for a few more. I was hanging out with a Dutch guy who was on about his 6th or 7th visit to DPRK. He even had a prestigious pin badge as a thank you for translating some books into Dutch. We were also hanging out with some crazy drunk Chinese guys, some other tour guides and another North Korean guy who owned a shipping company. This little session was one of the highlights of the trip – though naturally I avoided the karaoke like an illicit supply of uranium.

Day 4
The countryside to the North of Pyongyang

This morning we drove up to a village called Myohyangsan. It took a couple of hours on the empty highway leading north from Pyongyang. First stop was to have a look around an ancient Buddhist Temple, Pohyonsa. It was all very pleasant and we were introduced to one of the monks who lived in the temple. Our guide informed us that there are about 20 monks living in this temple complex. Personally, I felt very sceptical and estimate the number of monks to be about 1. On the way back to Pyongyang our main guide, Mr Lim, informed us that there about 100,000 Buddhist and a similar number of Christians in DPRK.
A north korean monk

Next up was “The International Friendship Exhibition” What do you think that is? I'll explain. It's 2 very very large and extravagant buildings displaying all of the gifts that have been sent to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il over the years. Kim Il Sung's contained over 100 rooms and around 208,000 items while his son's display 68,000 items. There was a digital counter in the foyer giving the exact numbers. Gifts included cars, TVs, plaques, animal skins, tea sets, jewellery, and everything in between. There were even a couple of train carriages received from Lenin & Mao. But I think everyone's favourite was a carved crocodile standing on its hind legs carry a tray of drinks. That was the one item which truly deserved to be on display. We weren't allowed to take photos inside the building, but this is the building:
International Friendship Exhibition

After lunch we headed back to Pyongyang. I sat next to our female guide, Myung Un Byol, on the bus and we talked about music. As I'm sure you know, not much information about the outside world passes through the borders of DPRK and music seemed like an interesting topic to investigate what a highly educated, intelligent and fluent English speaker knows about what's going on away from her country. I asked her if She new Michael Jackson. “Yes”, she replied confidently, “I know him”. “That's good. At least the most famous singer of our generation made his presence felt over here and the good people of North Korea are not totally in the dark about the west”, I thought to myself. “He' sang Titanic, didn't he?” She inquired. “Erm....... Noo”. I let her listen to some Beatles on my mp3 player, but I think she felt uncomfortable. Not from the music, I think she quite enjoyed that. But it's illegal for the people to listen to any media from outside the country. Still, at least they're all spared J-Pop, K-Pop and all of our Popstars rubbish.

Back in Pyongyang we visited the War Museum......................

The 100 hundred storey Ryugyong Hotel (from a distance)......................................
Work started on this hotel in 1987. The project soon ran out of money. Our guide told us (with a straight face) that it should be finished by 2012.
The monument to mark the end of the War (even though it's not officially ended yet).....

Activity number 8 for the day was a ride on the subway. Two lines, few passengers, beautiful chandeliers, no delays and a frequent service. It's not like London.
Pyongyang metro

After dinner we had chance to go for a quick walk around Pyongyang. And I got a chance to have my photograph taken with one of the mysterious traffic ladies. They are to foreign tourists in DPRK what geisha are to foreign tourists in Kyoto. My jacket complements her uniform rather well, don't you think?
Traffic lady

Yangakkdo Hotel:
Our Hotel - The Yangakkdo
The view from my room on 42nd floor:
View from my hotel room on 42nd floor
The hotel has it's own microbrewery which makes great beer. Far better than any beer I drank in the South.

Day 5 – The train from Pyongyang

Pyongyang Station:
Pyongyang station
We had a short lie in before heading to the station for our train out-ta here.
We said took a few final pictures, said our goodbyes and that was that. A surreal, whirlwind tour coming swiftly to a close.

I was lucky enough to be sharing my compartment with a North Korean family. They lived in Dandong city just across the border in China. The father spoke some English and told me he was in import/export.
Pyongyang - Beijing Train
I didn't have any food with me, so the family very generously shared their lunch with me. It was great food too – fish, goat meat, kimchee and rice balls. I went down to the restaurant car to see what I could find to give them in return. I found some dodgy Russian chocolate which seemed to go down well with the mother.
Lunch on the Pyongyang - Beijing Train
When we reached the border the family was given a hard time and thoroughly searched by the immigration inspectors. It meant that they ran out of time to search my bags properly. The immigration staff hurriedly collected my declaration forms and gave my suitcase a swift cursory search and then we were set free over the bridge and back to China.
Half a bridge to China

Reflections on my stay in North Korea.

Before going on the trip I had very little idea what the situation would be like in North Korea. Whilst I had no doubt that it would be an interesting trip, I was unsure if it would be a touch on the sad and depressing side too. My fears were to be false. As a tourist, at least, the experience was all positive. The (few) people we met were all very kind and helpful and we were very well looked after from start to end. I felt in no threat whatsoever and had a very positive experience.

Were there many restrictions?

The tour was conducted with our 2 guides and we were asked to not wander too far away from them, but it didn't feel like we were being “nannied”. I've always travelled independently and this is my first experience a group guided tour, but my feeling is that it would be very similar to being on a guided tour of any other country. The itinerary was pretty full on with no time to rest or be bored. We arrived back at the hotel each evening feeling tired out after a full day on our feet. There were a couple of bars in the hotel to have a drink before bed.

Our guides encouraged us to ask permission before taking photographs, but the only time we were required to refrain from photos was of military vehicles and personnel, in the mausoleum and in the exhibition halls(were were handed our cameras into a cloakroom as entered the buildings). I never heard anyone refused permission.

The sights we were shown

Yes it's true that we were only shown the places that they wanted to show us, but by this token it's no different from visiting another country in a tour group. For example, when people come to Japan the tour itinerary invariably includes Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara & Hiroshima. This is because the tour companies choose the places that they think the tourists want to see. If you were to visit North Korea on your own private tour then I think are able to request the places that you want to visit and the tour company would do it's best to allow you access to these places.

Low points.

Having to bow at the statue of Kim Il Sung made me feel very uncomfortable indeed. To outwardly have to show respect to the person responsible for causing so much grief and misery in this land felt very wrong. But it was a small price to pay for getting the chance to see this fascinating country at this point in time.

Personal Highlights

My favourite aspect of the trip was chatting to our guides, hanging out in the karaoke bar and talking to the locals on the train. Reading between the lines of what we were told and guessing what the real situation is like. I recall a couple of incidents; Our guide, Mr Lim, told us that the Ryugyong hotel would be completed by 2012, but looked very sheepish and quickly moved on to his next point. I'm sure he's been saying the same thing ever since he started the job and knows full well the situation. He has to say what he has to say, but everyone knows the truth and his body language told us that he did too. There was another situation when I was talking to our female guide, Muang, about pets. I asked her if she had any pets in her house. She reeled of a story about how her and her sister had a dog for 4 years when they were children, but I got the feeling it was total bollocks and she'd rehearsed the story. Obviously it's difficult to know the truth and I have to judge my instincts. However, I have to say though, that on the whole I thought our guides were very open and honest with us when the situation allowed them to be. Of course we have a general idea of what questions they can answer, what questions they can't answer and what questions they give their official standard answers. But they do a great job under the circumstances.

Was it worth going?

Without doubt! It was a wonderful trip. Time passed too quickly and I wished that I signed up for the 6 night tour. I'd very much like to go back in the future and I'm sure if I do get a chance to return, the situation will be vastly different. It made me think about politics and history a lot more than I usually do when I go on a trip. Having the chance to visit the DMZ from both sides of the border was especially fascinating. The South are just as guilty as the North when it comes to spinning stories to suit their political needs.

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  • At 11:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Nice one Canty. Good blog mate. How dare you try to poison the minds of that poor woman with the Beatles. You should have shoved her some drum and bass and really freaked her out. Josse.

  • At 11:06 PM, Anonymous John Wells said…

    Nice post John. Thoroughly jealous I didn't make it there with you. Definitely for the next trip though.

    That said, looks like you went at a good time -- things are getting a little hot these days.



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