Postcard from the Edge of Confusion – Part 2

(continued from Confusion – part 1)

Other Interesting and Quirky Pyongyang

  • Fun-fair – one evening we were asked if we want to visit one of the 3 permanent fun-fairs. We jumped at the chance and had a grand time. Huge queues were in front of every ride, but as we were paying about 100 times the price of the locals, we were able to queue jump, much to the amusement of the people watching. We went on the bumper cars, free fall tower (where we were treated to a nerve racking extra-long wait at the top), and the horizontal roller coaster. It was eerie watching the people, unlike visitors in the west, North Koreans do not scream on the rides (we did) and were very orderly in the lines – really different mentality.
  • The Ryugyong Hotel – a 105-story pyramid-shaped skyscraper with 5 revolving restaurants on the top. It is breathtakingly amazing architecture. Construction began in 1987, but was halted in 1992 when Russian money ran out – but was resumed in 2008. During the hiatus, it was such an ugly embarrassment to the establishment it was removed from maps and photoshopped out city panoramas. It is now a fantastic landmark, but no word on opening dates – rumour has it that the construction was so botched that the elevator shafts are not straight so it may take a few more years. It is like a sentinel looking over the city.
  • National Friendship Exhibition – to show how much North Korea is loved, this 1 month old exhibition showcases 8,000 of the 20,000 gifts bestowed on the country by fellow Koreans. Sadly, no photos were allowed, but the highlights included:
    • A double sided portrait of Kim Il-sung riding a tiger, and, on the rear, having a post-ride fag with the tiger in background with a “was it good for you” expression on its face.
    • Portrait of Kim Il-sung made of feathers (18,000 birds died to make it)
    • Ashtray made out of an inflated blow-fish
    • Model of a aubergines (eggplant) made of ivory
    • Miniature of world’s biggest table (think about it, it was a table)
    • An aboriginal dot picture of Kim Jong-il (this a huge no-no in aboriginal culture, portraits should never be depicted in this art form)
    • Laughably old technology – a back projection screen TV, pressure cooker, a couple of VHS tape players and a Walkman were in the “technology” section (if you don’t know what the last 2 are, look them up on Wikipedia)
    • A huge jade tiger balanced on a globe representing the earth. It has it claws dug deep in America (accident? I think not)

Outside Pyongyang
After the excitement of the capital we made several excursions out of town.

  • Heading out to the border with South Korea we stopped off at the Folk Hotel in Kaesong. Here we got a taste of how the real North Koreans live, sleeping on the floor with traditional mattresses, weirdly lumpy pillows, very low doors, intermittent hot water & electricity. The authentic evening meal had us sitting on the floor too. Although limited in our movements, our guides allowed us a brief sojourn in to the town, taking in the propaganda posters and the ambiance of the city.
  • The de-militarized zone (DMZ) – running along the 38th parallel for 250 kms, this strip of land serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea and was the most regimented place we visited. Under strict guidance of where we could go, we were lined up like school children and made to walk along pre-determined paths to the negotiating tents on the boarder as well as the buildings where the treaty splitting the country was signed. Here we got another blast of the anti-Americans propaganda that is rife is all areas. It was quite disturbing.
  • Nampho (West Sea) Dam – this 16 km long construction closes the Taedong River from the sea, improving irrigation and preventing sea water swells. When building was behind schedule, Kim Jong-il came by and gave them some architectural advice and made some suggestion regarding construction techniques. Thus the barrier was finished in record time (according to the propaganda video). It was accompanied by some hilarious video footage of divers hammering large underwater nails in to the concrete.
  • Bottling Plant – This was probably the most surreal experience we had. To show how industry is thriving in North Korea we went to a mineral water bottling plant. The plant looked new, but was empty – we were told the whole factory was out to lunch (at 2:30?). We were hurriedly shown round the grounds and then shown some propaganda posters while frantic phone calls were made. A lorry turned up and people started loading crates of water and the story changed – apparently the plant was undergoing maintenance. Finally, we entered the factory; saw the machines, where we were told the plant only worked at night due to electricity shortages. We were then shown the water’s source, where we could taste the water from dripping taps. One of our party went round the back of the building and caught some kids pouring water in to basins, which seemed to be the source we were drinking from. Who knows what the real deal is – whatever it is the bottles were so precious we did not even get a free sample.
  • Ryonggang Hot Springs Resort – this “resort” hotel is situated on a hot spring and so from 6 – 7 pm (after which the hot spring was turned off) we could draw sulfurous water in to the hot spring bath tub located conveniently in our room. Whilst bathing there was a racket coming from nearby fields. This is the “radio” that all North Koreans enjoy every day from 5 am – 10 pm. The speakers broadcast a mixture of “news” and music all over the country. Apparently, every house also has a speaker mounted in to listen – a little too 1984ish for my liking.

I can say little to the food shortages that were rife in mid-1990s. We ate like kings, although there was a reliance on eggs and there was the strange habit of serving the rice (the most prized foodstuff) at the end of the meal when everything else was finished. Locals too seemed to have a choice; most shops seemed to have a supply of goods. As there are no branded shops, simple blue icons were used to identify what could be bought where. Some of the tastes we enjoyed:

  • Breakfast – normally at the hotel consisting of eggs and toast, beautifully toasted by the toaster girl, a dedicated resource in the restaurant. Often interesting dishes supplemented the eggs – anchovies, potato crisps and seaweed graced the buffet.
  • Hot pots – for this meal we were presented with a boiling saucepan and a plate of raw eggs, vegetables and meat.  You basically “made your own soup” – it was delicious, although the meat was a bit tough. The large pot of monosodium glutamate on the table was a bit confusing – depending how much you added it had a dramatic effect on the taste.
  • Dog soup – a little controversial and at €5 an “extra”. We ordered a couple of bowls and shared them between  the group. The lean meat itself was tolerable, with a good meaty taste – the fatty parts and the liver were not so appetizing. As we left the hotel, we heard barking in the background and a guilty hush spread on us as we made our way back in the darkness (electricity was out)  to the rooms.
  • Various barbecues – we had an indoor duck BBQ and a lovely out door picnic BBQ with lamb, squid and more duck. One of our party from Singapore was delighted with the squid and squealed “I love fishy, fishy” when served which became a rallying cry for the rest of the tour.
  • Kimchi – served at just about every meal , including breakfast, it is the national dish of Korea. It is made of fermented vegetables with a lot of spices. One of our guides told us that every year in November they take 1 week of their holidays to go home and help make the supply for the family for the following year. Considering they only get 2 weeks holiday a year, it is a huge commitment.
  • Meal fit for a king – this was great – the table was laid with many bronze pots that you mixed and matched as desired. Some of the pots contained undefinable foodstuffs others delicious delicacies, such as seaweed, smoked meats, kimchi and, unsurprisingly, egg.
  • Pizza – Kim Jong-il was very partial to watching the odd movie with a pizza, so sent 4 chefs to Italy for 4 years to learn the art of pizza making. As a result, Pyongyang has its very own Italian restaurant, serving deliciously authentic pizza (although the one with salami and chocolate on did raise a few eyebrows). We visited the restaurant on our last night, to our surprise it featured karaoke waitresses, who were naturally joined on stage by our rambunctious party. We left clutching extra pizzas to enjoy cold on the train the following day.

A glib statement, but really one of the most incredible trips I have ever done. It was also very relaxing, with no access to phone, internet, Facebook or e-mail I was free to just enjoy myself – it was heaven.  Sure, we were fed propaganda, but it may not be as one sided as one might think. My impression is that there is an element of propaganda from the western world too.

For me the psyche of the nation was the most fascinating. The single minded trust and belief in the national messaging is almost unfathomable for us in the west and with no external sources or independent news, the party messaging is not questioned. Many of the statements we were told are simply illusionary – for example, DMZ guard who explained with absolute conviction how the “US will be crushed if they ever try to invade again” or the facts about Kim Jong-il (who got 14 holes-in-one on his first round of golf). The great leaders are so respected that we were not allowed to fold a newspaper if the face of one of the Kim-clan was in the crease, let alone throw it away. I ended up bringing them back with me.

Their future of North Korea is uncertain – there was a lot of talk of how the US is preventing a reunification with the yearning South (truth is only 3% of South Koreans mentioned reunification as a topic at the last elections.)  If it also estimated that 10% of South Korean GPD would have to be spent for at least 60 years for an effective reunification. The costs for bringing infrastructure up to scratch would alone be crippling – the 10 lane highways we traveled down were potholed and uneven and bridges were cracking. At the Arirang one segment was dedicated to the fact “there can be no successful North Korea without China” – so that may be the direction the party leadership is heading.

Practically everyone we met was kind, pleasant and seemed at least content, but I am still confused about so much of what we saw – how much was real and how much was a façade?  Questions that remain:  Was the hotel bugged or is the 5th floor simply the monitoring station for the casino? Was the water factory really just a sham? Why does the USS Pueblo have an ice cream maker on the main deck? Sadly, I think we will never get the real answers, but I honestly think it is good for us in the west to visit this amazing country – “the unknown” causes fear, uncertainty and doubt. I now know a little more about North Korea, and hope some of the citizens there know a little more about us in the west. I would return anytime.

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7 Responses to Postcard from the Edge of Confusion – Part 2

  1. Amy says:

    My cats are not amused at the thought of dog soup on the menu, as they would be considered “next.”

  2. ian says:

    Hi Christian, the trip was booked through an excellent outfit called thanks to their organization, brilliant (western) guide and excellent contacts in North Korea, I think we got away with seeing and doing more than most groups. You can do an “individual” trip, but I would not recommend this. With no western guide to balance what you are told, I am not sure the trip would have been as enjoyable – what really made the tour was the fantastic bunch of people (14 in all) we traveled with. Drop me a line if you want more info…

  3. Christian says:

    Oh, one question I forgot:
    How did you book this trip?

  4. Christian says:

    Thanks for writing so much about your trip, Ian!
    This is so interesting. And it’s really scary. I’m not sure if I would feel comfortable on such a trip.
    I have to say that you see similar behavior here in the US, too. Not so extreme of course, but for example I will never understand why nearly 50% of the Americans believe in what the Republicans tell them. As you write it’s a “single minded trust and belief in the […] messaging” which in the republican case isn’t broadcasted via radio only but via the national talk shows and even the official news on TV every night.

    Because of your great post about North Korea I will now start reading the rest of your blogs, too 😉

  5. Ch says:

    That’s hilarious, but I’m concerned if Kim jnr. reads this, the guide will be made into dog-soup for not successfully convincing you about the golfing prowess of his father.

  6. Peter says:

    Sounds like an amazing experience. I liked the mixture of what you saw and your interpretations. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Dominik says:

    This is a really interessting postcard of something that the majority of us is probably unlikely to visit…

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