It is a little tricky getting to North Korea; apart from the visas, you have to travel via China, from where you options are safe train or iffy plane. Thus, I found myself in Beijing, and spent the first day of my holiday fretting if my delayed luggage would turn up before our train left. It did, just, and after meeting our guide we took the K27 train for the 24 hour ride to Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
The first few hours were spent getting to know the international bunch of people we would be touring with over the following 7 days. The restaurant car on the train was limited so we had a lovely meal of Chinese pot noodles. As we had no idea of the content, we went by colour. I had a lovely pot of red, although some people swore green was far better. Purple was universally derided. We bonded well and before settling down for the night (and due to a slight misunderstanding) tried to frighten each other with nighttime scary goat stories – of which there were a surprising number.
The following morning started with about 4 hours of customs formalities at the Chinese / North Korean border. The smart uniformed North Korean guards, with huge military caps, came on board with high-tech laser temperature scanners to check for illness and subsequently searched luggage. Any communication devices (such as phones) and anything with a hint of GPS was sealed in envelopes (conveniently stored in afore mentioned caps) – only to be opened when exiting the country.
The final 5 hour leg of the journey was then spent gaping out at the North Korean, very rural, countryside. There was almost no traffic on the wide, badly maintained roads and the seemingly thrown together housing and apartment blocks were interspersed with huge, beautifully tended, murals of the eternal president Kim Il-sung and supreme leader Kim Jong-il in various poses. The latest leader, Kim Jong-un, has yet to make an appearance. There was a huge military presence everywhere. This was not blatant, but a sort of nagging constant, especially at the train stations – North Koreans are forbidden to leave their city of residence without special permits.
We soon reached the suburbs of Pyongyang and its central station. Here we met our 3 North Korean guides and driver and took a well-appointed bus tour through the city to The International Yanggakdo Hotel. Huge high-rises and bombastic monuments flew by along our route. The hotel is centrally located on an island in the Taedong river, which bisects the city. Whilst in residence, we had free reign on the hotel property, but were not allowed to cross the bridge back in to the city – a pattern repeated in all hotels we stayed in.
The Yanggakdo looked like any other international hotel, 47 stories and 1,001 rooms, casino (only for foreigners), pool, bowling alley and capped with a revolving restaurant – but it has secrets. The lifts had a mind of their own often ignored the buttons pressed and returned to the lobby for no apparent reason. There was also no button for floor 5 – rumored to be the central surveillance floor. Theories about what goes on there are wild – are the rooms bugged? Could be – the crappy bedside table had a radio, clock and light switch – why did this necessitate 24 wires coming out the back? Also the mirror in almost every room was free hanging, but in ours it was screwed to the wall. That, coupled with a mysterious unmarked room backing on to ours made me very suspicious Suffice it to say, I did a lot of naked lunges in front of the mirror. If they were recording us, it will not be a pleasant video.
The next morning we were reunited with our guides and headed in to the city. Over the week we got a glimpse in to the North Korean psyche though these charming people. They were naturally followers of the Juche state ideology and we were to learn more about this at our first stop – The Grand People’s Study House.
The Grand People’s Study House is the national center of Juche studies where people can pop in and ask questions, read books, learn languages, listen to music or watch videos. We were guided though this house of learning and listened to the outrageous claims – “it contains 30 million books” – to put this in perspective the British Library has 13.5 million, the library of congress has 22.7 million. Asked if we could see the books, we were shown a selection of English books including “Huckleberry Finn” and “Bees and their Role in Forest Livelihoods” which appeared, as if staged, on a small, automated cart. We gate-crashed several class rooms dedicated to computer studies and languages and even spoke to an English class. Claims of 12,000 students a day using the facilities would mean about 150 entering the building every 10 minutes – we probably saw about 150 in total, which appeared, as if staged, from a small, automated elevator.
Juche dominated the rest of the afternoon, visiting the 150 meter tall Juche Tower (apparently designed by Kim Jong-il) and the amazing “Monument to the Party Foundation” – consisting of three 50 meter high icons: a sickle, hammer and writing brush which signifies the 3 Juche social classes: peasant, worker, and the samuwon (intellectuals and professionals). At this point my brand new camera gave up the ghost – so thanks to all for helping out with the photos from this point on – but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I was just free to admire everything without worrying if I had taken a good shot.
From the monument, we hopped on to the legendary Pyongyang metro. At 110 meters underground, it is one of the deepest in the world and doubles up as a shelter. It consists of 2 lines, about 15 stations and massive escalators – our guide spent several minutes extolling the amazing virtues of the exchange station where the 2 lines crossed. The names of the stations have eschewed the traditional naming conventions of places or streets and we jumped on the cast off East German trains at Glory station, passing through Beacon, Victory and Reunification to Triumph. It was a great experience mingling with real people for the first time, although we felt like aliens as we were given special treatment in the carriages and were gawked at like zoo animals. The architecture of the stations was also incredible – Glory spouting a firework themed hall and Triumph featuring incredible mosaic murals and yet another statue of the great leader.
Showtime in Pyongyang
Afternoons and evenings were taken up by shows. During our time in Pyongyang we were lucky enough to see 3 different shows; the circus, a performance at the Children’s Palace #1 and the sublime Arirang.
- Circus – When we were told we were off to the circus I expected a tent and few animals. I was not ready for the extravaganza we witnessed. The theater was impressive enough with a retractable stage revealing an ice rink and we started off with a mind-boggling performance of an ice skating bear with two ice skating baboons jumping through hoops. From there we went on to juggling with doves, plate spinning, rope jumping on ice and gymnastics – impressive stuff, but the bear did look a little mangy and worse for wear.
- Children’s Palace Performance – the Children’s Place is an after school club where selected children are trained in singing, dancing, painting, music etc. We arrived at the iconic building simulating a mother’s caring arms and, passing the creepy, surreal statue outside, were treated to a very staged tour before the show. The biggest crack in the façade was in the sketching room, where one pupil, supposedly drawing a figurine, was actually just colouring in the page. Our 13 year old guide informed us she was a singer, but when asked to sing she looked so nervous I swear she almost puked. The show was, however, excellent. The movement and gestures of the children performing so technically perfect it was freaky – but lacked somewhat in heart.
- However, the circus and children’s performance just paled in to inconsequentiality compared to the Arirang (Mass Games). This remarkable and inspiring spectacle is held in the May Day Stadium – “the largest stadium in the world” (unlikely) was one of the main reasons for my trip. About 100,000 perfectly synchronized performers take part in the 90 minute show telling the story of unrequited love. Half the stadium is taken up by a about 12,000 school children creating a human backdrop– imagine each student holding cards, each card being a pixel in a huge, ever-changing, fresco. In front of this fresco the main action and gymnastics takes place on the stadium floor. Words simply cannot do it justice – I was so emotionally overcome I just ended up balling my eyes out at the beginning. Sadly the show may be soon cancelled – the costs are as spectacular as the event. About 200 million man hours are spent yearly on the show and it is so time intensive, students feign illness to get out of doing it. Still, it was one of the most astonishing things I have ever witnessed.
The next few days were spent at various locations in and around the city listening to ludicrous, almost pythoneque, claims. These locations included:
- USS Pueblo, a spy ship captured by the North Koreans in 1968 sparking a major international incident. We watched a propaganda video about the “brazen US imperialists who are now running downhill” and toured the ship. For me, the most remarkable thing was the huge ice-cream machine on the main deck. That, for me, bought up more questions than the whole spy incident. Where did they get the milk? What flavours were available? Questions, I fear, that will never be satisfactorily answered.
- Embroidery studio – here we saw some superb artistry of butterflies, tigers and other party icons (such as the flowers Kimilsungia (a purple orchid) and the Kimjongilia (a red begonia)). Now a days much work seemed centered on preserving photos in silk – we watched as some fat Russians were immortalized for a mere €40 – one of my fellow travelers wanted to get a picture of himself at a urinal done in silk, but sadly we did not have enough time. We also learned about the 120 patents that North Korea have on embroidery (50 of which relate to nano-technology embroidery) and learned about the North Korean miracle cloth Vinylon, made out of limestone. When pressed the guides were not too sure about the exact process of converting sedimentary rock to flowing fabric, but promised to ask the scientist.
- Korean film studio – apparently taking up an unbelievable 10,000 km², where 300 movies are made per year (bending the truth per chance?). As no filming was taking place that day (surprise), we tried on some of the costumes and toured the sets. Apparently, Kim Jong-Il wrote the script for the most popular North Korean film, has composed 6 operas and enjoys staging elaborate musicals. He also visited the studios over 600 times – when this latter fact was divulged, a voice from the back muttered “600 times before breakfast” causing titillation throughout the group.
- Mangyongdae – the 1912 birth place of Kim Il-sung, which is remarkably well maintained in beautiful grounds. The (new looking) original mattresses and pots were on display as well as the brush where he, aged 4, first penned the words “Korean Independence”. More titters. We then drunk from well in the garden a popular attraction as it brings the drinker closer to Mr. Il-sung. (Continued on page 2)