Postcard from the Edge of Dip

East Timor is not hugely popular as a travel destination. It is in the top 20 of the least visited tourist locations (surprisingly, along with Lichtenstein) and has the spurious honour of having the word “democratic” in its official country name (along with those other bastions of free-speech North Korea, Algeria, ex-East Germany and the Congo), but it is mysterious and has not seen a Kimbell footfall, so I was off.

The Start of the Trip
The trip did not start well; at Singapore Airport, our main guide for the tour was refused entry to the plane due to “passport issues”. Left on our own, we were sucked in to further abysmal planning of Young Pioneer Tours and the dreadful vortex of Lion Air and Jakarta airport. Eventually we arrived at our intermediate destination, Bali, there to meet our replacement guide, who was largely ineffective, as he had never set foot East Timor either. It was the blind leading the blind.

After a very short night it was back to the airport for the Sriwijaya Air flight (no, I had never heard of them either) to Dili, the East Timorian capital. Huge throngs of people were crowded round the perimeter fence – my first thoughts was they were there for the novelty of seeing a plane, but it turned out there are about 7 flights daily, and they had turned up for a funeral. First impressions were pretty bleak – a sun-baked, Africanesque country with a very un-Asian looking (and acting) populace and that laissez-faire bone-idleness of a 3rd world country after the UN has poured in money. An impression only minimally altered after our sojourn there.


A Bit of History
East Timor is one of the world’s youngest countries, becoming a state in 2002, and has had a pretty chequered past. After being colonized by Portugal in the 1600s (“God gave us Timor for its sandalwood”) it was basically exploited and then neglected until World War II, when Portugal’s neutrality made it a natural target for a Japanese occupation. The Japanese regime was brutal, up to ¼ of the population died of starvation and forced labour. Portuguese rule returned after the war until the 1974, when a military coup in Lisbon effectively made Portugal abandon its colonies. At that point, civil war broke out and neighbouring Indonesia seeing an opportunity branded them as communists, got US support and invaded. Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor was marked by violence and brutality, culminating in a horrific massacre of innocent civilians at a cemetery in Dili in 1991. This was secretly filmed and was a turning point for independence – finally, a referendum was held in 1999 resulting in a clear vote to become independent. This was a red flag for the pro-integration militia who, with the support of the Indonesian military, swept through the country destroying infrastructure and displacing about 400,000 in to West Timor.

Even since independence, things have not been easy. The UN has been stumbling around and re-patriated 200,000 and documented war atrocities, but the problems are deeper. The 13 administrative “districts” are basically chiefdoms with a deep distrust of each other, so assassination attempts and warring factions kept UN peacekeepers busy in the country until 2012. Even today, one planned night in some beach villas had to be cancelled as a neighbouring village had burnt them down. All this mixed with a good dose of Catholicism, a 400-year-old-attitude of “let the women do all the work” and buoyed with a 10-year-old-attitude of “things will be handed to me on UN plate” means that East Timor is in a deep hole, which will be very difficult to climb out of.


Things Look Up in Dili
Clearing customs, we met our local guide, Kym, and things started to look up – Kym, an Australian, had been living in East Timor for 17 years and really knew the place inside and out via her Dive, Trek and Camp Tour Company. That combined with the soft-spoken, superbly competent driver, Marcel and native, trainee guide, the charismatic Casanova (“check my selfie 5 times a day”) Anastacio, our tour group was complete. Kym was a breath of brutally honest fresh air (“Is Malaria a danger?” “Yup, 4 people who have stayed in my house have had it, Dengue is also common”) and a wealth of knowledge. It is thanks to her that the trip was saved. We unpacked at the excellent Beachside Hotel (where I couldn’t take a dip as the tide was out) and Kym started off showing us some of the highlights of Dili, including:

  • 27 meter high Statue of Christ and its 600 steps, built in 1996 as a “gift” from the Indonesian government – but funding ran out and East Timor ended up paying for most of it
  • The sadly inadequate East Timorese Resistance Museum, fascinating subject, but rather text heavy and without any mention of troubles since 2002
  • Chenga! Exhibition documenting the atrocities during the war. The bored museum “guide” appeared, pointed in to a room and told us to “start reading read here” and then left.
  • The Santa Cruz cemetery where 250 East Timorese pro-independence demonstrators were massacred in 1991 by Indonesian troops
  • An exhibition of photos taken by Australian and East Timorese youth to document their lives – each were given a cheap camera and the resulting contrasts are astounding and disturbing
  • Feeding the massive crocodile that appeared in a priest’s pool in Dili. It has subsequently been moved to compound in military barracks. Arriving, bored soldiers came over to see what was happening so it ended up being more of a “Chippendales meets the Reptile Show”. Highly enjoyable.

Kym also took us to a number of excellent restaurants and bars. We had excellent food at beachside barbecues and experienced an “East Timor / Lebanese” Fusion Restaurant.


On from Dili and Return
From Dili we meandered our way the 240 km to the end of the country and Jaco Island for snorkeling. However, this was a 3 day trip as the roads outside Dili are “mixed” – some have asphalt, most don’t and many required 4-wheel drive and so it could take hours to traverse a couple of kilometers – Marcel earned every penny of his tip negotiating the treacherous conditions.

Accommodation outside Dili was interesting. Our first port of call in Com had gorgeous beach side location, but sporadic electricity, huge holes in the mosquito nets, pillows made out of cement and a lack of air conditioning made the night long and sweaty. It was here that we really got a view of the psyche of the nation. Walking down the main drag, the men were sat drinking and playing cards, while 200m further on the women were preparing the evening meal and looking after the kids. Pigs, dogs and chickens scampered everywhere, and we were magnets for the kids, who bunched around us offering us trinkets with the cry “one dollar”.

We had an excellent meal (fish and rice) before going to the movies – a (male) outdoor showing of “Beatrice’s War” a love story spanning Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1999. Half way through the movie, the local dogs decided have an orgy which made for an interesting accompanying soundtrack. The female director and producer coming out at the end caused some discussion.

From Com, we headed out towards snorkeling at Jaco. We passed through the newly created national park, supposedly to see some ancient cave paintings, but, due to a funeral, the village guides just waved us on. Finally arriving at Jaco (the roads were unbelievably bad), I donned my snorkeling gear and headed to the water – my first dip! However, we were called back from the water due to the presence of a man-eating crocodile in the area (the reason for the aforementioned funeral) and we could go in “at our own risk” – we didn’t. The presence of this reptile also meant there was no fish as the fishermen refused to go out until the reptile was caught. Still we had a chicken leftover from the Chippendales feeding so we had a good lunch.

We did manage to see a cave painting on the way back via a newly constructed death trap of a path. However, the picture in our guidebook may have been slightly Photoshopped compared to the original – you decide. Returning to the car, two locals popped out of nowhere and demanded cash for doing absolutely nothing. Heavy debate ensued – but this “something for nothing” mentality is the bane of the country.


Returning and Conclusion
On the way back to Dili we stopped at several local towns soaking up the Portuguese influence on the country and meeting more locals. A promised dip in the cool pool in Baucau failed to materialize as the water had been drained – why, no one could tell us.

After a final night at the Beachside, it was with sadness that we said goodbye to our guides, but I must admit it was with a tinge of relief that we got back on the plane to Bali. East Timor is a fascinating country to visit – a real eye opener and grounds you in reality – but the country will take years to get to a functional democracy. Infrastructure investment and a change in attitudes are a prerequisite, but I fear these are not coming to any chiefdom soon. The UN is slowly withdrawing and this will further slow the economy. There is a glimmer of hope with people like our guide pushing the locals, but such jewels seem to be few and far between.

Would I recommend visiting? Absolutely yes, provided you get a competent local guide like Kym who can show you the ropes and book reasonable accommodation. It is fantastic experience – but probably not a repeatable one, at least for time being.


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Postcard from the Edge of Fun

Recently I have the opportunity to experience typical fun on 3 continents. This is a summary of the diversity that makes this world so interesting:

New Zealand

Regardless of where you are travelling from, the flight to New Zealand is very, very long, After reading The Economist, listening to an audiobook and watching all 3 Hobbit movies (honestly, I think I read the book faster), I picked up the inflight magazine and read about the Hobbit film set. As I had an afternoon to spare in Auckland, I thought I would match imagination with reality and check out the film set – it seemed to be major tourist attraction (well, major for New Zealand).

The set is located in the middle of a huge sheep farm and access is tightly controlled. Along with security, there are gardeners, guides and actors all over the place, although they seem to have stopped short of employing orcs and trolls, but some of the sheep looked a bit peculiar. The security is understandable, apparently a large number of nutters visit the site every year, such as the 2 meter tall German “hobbit” who turned up (in full costume) claimed he was finally home and tried to move in.

To accommodate the masses, you have to book a time slot and are herded round the set in a group like, well, sheep. Apparently, a large tree was the deciding factor for this location, that and huge (non-financial) support from the New Zealand government. They provided army engineers and grunts to dig out the hobbit-holes and drain a swamp to create a pond – which is beautiful, but was subsequently cut from the movie. Peter Jackson (the director) wanted additional trees on the set, so these were built and each leaf individually wired on. However, the Korean-imported leaves were “the wrong shade of green” and so had to be individually spray painted to meet his rather anal requirements.

The 40 minute walking tour takes you past the pond, the original tree and up through the tiers of hobbit-holes to the spray painted tree (where you can see the wires holding the leaves). Each hobbit hole had the original props (firewood, sausages and fish) setup outside. The holes themselves are, unsurprisingly, facades, concealing cavities big enough to hold a couple of actors, but no more. We were allowed in a single hole for photographic purposes.

The penultimate part of the tour was a visit and drink in the Green Dragon pub – this is not a set, but a money-making locale to get people in the mood before visiting the gift shoppe. The pub is available for weddings, which are apparently quite common. The gift shoppe finale was home to extortionate film merchandise including ridiculously overpriced felt Gandalf hats, non-working rings, posters and other trash that was being snapped up by enthusiastic fans. I would have bought a ring if it worked.

This tour was interesting, but not as orgasmic as some of the die-hard fans in our group seemed to find it. Would I recommend it? On balance, if you are in the area or are a fan, it is worth the trip, but not on its own.


North America

After crafting Hogwarts in the Islands of Adventure theme park, Universal have now fashioned a 2nd Harry Potter attraction (Diagon Alley) in the neighboring Universal Studios theme park. This is stroke of genius as to visit both Harry Potter sites you now have to buy a (much more) expensive 2-park ticket, but I bit the bullet and coughed up.

I got to the park early and reacquainted myself with Hogwarts as it opened early, but had to walk to Diagon Ally in the other park as the Hogwarts Express train was “late” (ie had broken down). A few trips of the triple decker night-bus would have got us there in comfort, but it was anchored in front of the Diagon Ally façade.

Entering the Alley, the attention detail and the adherence to the word of the books was just phenomenal. Gringotts, complete with escaping dragon, dominates the street, with Flourish and Blotts and Olivanders beautifully reconstructed. This perfectionism carried on in to the ride. The main hall of the bank was gorgeously recreated, the lift down to the vaults realistically simulates a long ride, making you believe you have travelled miles underground. Once there, the walls, floors and ceilings seem to be hewn from solid bedrock. The ride itself was enjoyable, but a teeny bit disappointing – not quite the rollercoaster the book describes and lacking the real-life dragon excitement at the end.

By the time I got out, the Hogwarts Express had “arrived” (ie was fixed) and it was great fun. The carriages were perfect replicas of the crap trains I remember from my youth, complete with rusty patches in the corners and well-worn seats. The train has huge external “windows”, which are actually screens so rather than seeing theme-park backlots, you get to experience the outskirts of London, English countryside (heavily raining), and finally Hogwarts. The internal train “windows”, looking out to the corridor were also clever screens and the shadows of dementors and cast members were shown as a little adventure story unfolds on the train.

Was this worth the horrendous cost of double theme park ticket for Orlando? This time a whole hearted yes, but then Harry has been a bigger part of my life than Bilbo.



So much in Singapore revolves around food and so some of the best fun you can have in here is culinary. The food choice is incredible but it takes on an extra dimension in July as it is durian season. Prior to moving here, I had never come in to contact with this fruit, but was intrigued by the “No Durian” signs on most public transport.

The reason for this is that the large prickly buds exude a pungent scent that is difficult to describe – some call it sweaty cheese, some charitably call it moldy onions, garnished with a gym sock – however you describe it, it is certainly pervasive, intense and memorable.

We arrived at the durian stall and foregoing the prepackaged cheaper fruit, went for a whole “premium” fresh one, which was sliced before our eyes – it was a “cat mountain king” durian, the crème de la crème of this “king of fruits”. After accepting it, it was weighed and the 4.8 kilo fruit cost us €65 (US$75), a high price for single fruit, and we sat on a street table. This caused a crowd to gather, as an angmoh (slang for us foreigners) are seldom seen tucking in to such a delicacy and my reaction was carefully scrutinized.

The fruit has large seeds that are covered in a custard-like goo, which has a strange consistency when bitten in to, it was kind of like biting in to a large block of lard. The taste? Well hardly the sublime experience my Singaporean pals had led me to believe, but not unpleasant – creamy, nutty, fruity are all adjectives I would use, certainly unique.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience that I would rate highly. I ate as much as I could and then went for a McDonalds. Would I do it again? McDonalds certainly, durians, probably if they were cheaper.. I am a Kimbell after all.


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Postcard from the Edge of the Flow

Sitting in luxurious ANA business class seat on the way to Tokyo, I casually flicked through a few channels and decided on a documentary of Hiroshima. The program featured a guy emitting a beam of light from head, who summoned giant paper airplanes for no apparent reason – not the first thing that springs to mind when you say “Hiroshima”, but this was the motto of this little break – just go with the flow.

After a week working in Tokyo, the holiday began in earnest and I welcomed one of my oldest school friends (figuratively and literally) to the tour. Stunning weather accompanied us on trip and the sun beamed down on us as we reached our first stop – Mount Fiji. We first visited some adjacent scenic views points before heading up to Fuji’s Station 5 at 2,500 meters, about 1,300 meters from the summit. Until the hiking season begins in July, this is the highest accessible point but offers little in the way of views, or things to do and see. We frolicked in the snow for a while, but soon descended to see one the best beauty spots in Japan, Lake Ashinoko. However, by the time we got there, the fog had rolled in and we ended up driving 2 hours to see a fog bank – but some consolation was the vending machines which dispensed excellent cans of piping hot coffee. These machines would are everywhere in Japan and sell everything from reasonably priced drinks to panties (used or unused), (really).


From there we took the amazing shinkansen (bullet train) to Hiroshima. The trains themselves are engineering marvels, each axel is powered, so there is no locomotive and the acceleration out of a station is unbelievably smooth and fast. Additionally there are no signals along the track, all is controlled centrally which enables an average speed of over 200km/h even with stops. The 900km journey took just 4 hours 20 minutes and at peak times there is a train every 3 minutes. We had free reign of the whole network thanks to our Japanese Rail passes which paid for themselves multiple times over the week.

Hiroshima, translates as “big island”, but it isn`t one. It sits on 6 rivers and there were two main reasons for us to come here. The Peace Park commemorating the obvious, (although not so obvious from the documentary I saw on the plane) and the most high tech rubbish incineration plant on the planet (really).

The park contains a collection of museums and memorials that draw millions of visitors annually and is incredibly moving. Half of the permanent exhibition was sadly being renovated, but the part we saw was very poignant; remnants of clothing, children’s melted belongings, and outlines of bodies on a wall – all tastefully presented. The visit culminates at Atomic Bomb Dome memorial, the only structure left standing near the bomb’s hypocenter and a UNESCO site. After that the high tech incinerator was much more fun (I was going to say it was a blast, but I am not sure that is appropriate).

With our “go anywhere” rail pass we took trip out to the island of Miyajima, with its beautiful “floating” torii shrine, but upon our return from a trip up to the island summit (via a “ropeway” – a euphemism for cable car, chair lift or any other rope base transportation system) the tide had gone out and the torii was not so floaty, in fact it was stuck in a pile of mud.


From Hiroshima we headed to the “ruins” of the Himeji castle. Dating to 1333, it is a superb example of yet another UNESCO site in Japan. The Japanese are really keen on awards, things that aren’t a UNESCO site, are a “registered tangible cultural property” but this castle is well deserving of the original accolade. It has been beautifully restored (it only opened in March after being under wraps for 7 years) and the defense fortifications alone were worth the trip – especially designed windows for archers, secret slues for boiling oil, white paint for flame residence, a maze of corridors, steep narrow staircases, secret doors for samurai to hide in – shoguns were obviously paranoid.

From Himeji we tootled up to Kyoto and their 17 UNESCO sites. These are rather inconveniently far apart from each other, so we hired bikes and spent several days visiting a lot of temples, gardens and shires. Temple crowds were polarized either overrun with thousands of school troops & tour groups or totally empty. Either way, after the 7th or 8th, you sort of get “templed out” and they sort of blur in to one another, but somethings remain etched in memory:

  • The “golden” temple (UNSESCO) – Rokuon-ji which has been covered in gold leaf and sits in the most gorgeous gardens. Dating from 1397, it has been rebuilt several times the last time 1955 when “considerably” more gold leaf than before was applied
  • The “nightingale floor” fiasco – many temples had incredibly squeaky floors. We put this down to crap workmanship, but apparently they were designed that way so if an assassin would creep in in the middle of the night, you would be forewarned. The jury is still out on this one, it’s either brilliant marketing or a genuine gap in the market
  • Path to the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine. The shrine itself is not much to look at but the 4km hike up the mountain is lined with thousands of red torii gates that are a photographer’s dream (if the person taking the photos could frame it properly)
  • The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – an otherworldly serene place, again visited best early in the morn when crowds are at bay, except for inconsiderate bikers who park in the middle of the path.
  • Temple in Nara, where you could buy luck by sponsoring a new replacement roof tile, and adding some graffiti. This buying luck was an excellent wheeze all over the temples – my favourite was the tea and cake that would bring three times your usual luck.


The food variety in Japan is extraordinary as its architecture and we ate like kings. Food ranged from the sublime Kobe beef and juicy oysters, to the unintelligible – I could swear we were served tadpole broth with carpet at some point. We ate everything from 7 course gourmet meal to bento boxes and  burgers and enjoyed just about every one (slime and carpet broth excepted). The local specialties were also a treat – we tried an okonomiyaki – a delicious savory noodles concoction, which looked like something a six year old would put together if left unsupervised.  Finally, there was the fish market which included the freshest sushi ever (with the fish sliced there and then) and a nice display of octopus eyes, which we did not try. I would love to see the recipe that starts with “take 1 medium octopus eye…”


At the airport on the way back I perused the magazines, and reflected how incomprehensible much of Japan is for foreigners. I genuinely had no idea what half these magazines were about so invented titles for them – my favourite being “Sea Slug Egg Weekly”. Flying back to Singapore, I reflected on the rich cultural experience and glanced at the screen – there to see a cartoon about a trainee astronaut who started shooting rainbows out of his nose. I give up.


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Postcard from the Edge of a Pagoda

My advice to anyone: Go to Myanmar – and go now. Although in its infancy, tourism has taken root and like an invasive species, is starting its strangle hold. The country has only really been open since the military junta was overthrown in 2011, and there still are no McDonalds, Burger Kings or KFCs (but the first is opening next month) and the Internet is intermittent at best. Who knows how long the local ladies in a temple will be prepared to share their delicious tea-based snacks with you or you will still be able to witness the amazed look of a child seeing their image captured on a digital camera for the first time. But I digress, let’s start at the very beginning.

The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, formerly Burma, is just a short hop from Singapore and offers the perfect opportunity for a short break. Our trip had 3 centers, Yangon (the former capital), Bagan (with its temples) and Lake Inle. In every location there was much to do, eat and see – especially the local dress – all the men wear practical skirts called longyi, which I took too like a duck to water, but like water off a duck’s back it slid off several times, so underwear was essential.

Yangon (formerly Rangoon)
Although no longer the capital, Yangon is by far the largest city in Myanmar and is experiencing a rapid change with construction everywhere, dwarfing the British colonial structures that are rapidly deteriorating. Our guide, Suu, met us at the airport and although he was a fountain of knowledge, it was not always that useful. On the way to our hotel, the questions kept piling up – why did the country’s name change from Burma to Myanmar? (Answer: astrologists told a general). Why the recent change from driving on right to left hand side of the road? (Answer: astrologists told a general). Why did capital move from Yangon to Naypyidaw? (Answer: astrologists told a general). How many temples are there here? (Answer: a lot). By that time we had arrived at the hotel.

After freshening up (in the lobby as our rooms were not ready), we jumped back in the car to visit our first pagoda located in the heart of the city. At the Shwedagon or Golden Pagoda we became familiar with more astrology as we admired the 99 meter high construction. Burmese do not have surnames, and can change their names at will. Typically, people stick to names that start with a letter assigned to the day of the week they are born, with the exception of Wednesday (really, I am not making this up) where it depends if you were born in the morning or afternoon. Each pagoda has 8 stations for people to pray at, depending on your birth day – I was born on a Monday, so I would pray at the tiger altar and my name would be something like Kan (ka being the typical start of name for a Monday child, and the fewer syllables the better). Wednesday morning people would be Lan and pray at the tusked elephant altar, Wednesday afternoon, Yan, and you’d be at the tuskless elephant altar. Additionally, Monday, Wednesday Thursday and Friday are considered to have a benign planetary influence. Again, I stress I am not making this up.

The afternoon was spent meandering in the huge Scotts market, where I bought my first longyi – a very fetching azure number, which subsequently bestowed a blueish hue on everything it was washed with. Then, after a few more temples, we managed to get in to our hotel rooms to change for dinner – a rich buffet on a royal barge, featuring dancing elephant puppets. We staggered back to the hotel, snapping blurry night-photos on the way, and had an early night as we had to get up early for the following day.

Route and Yangon

The next port of call was to Bagan – an ancient city located centrally in Myanmar, which is famed for the temples and pagodas that were built there from the 11th to 13th century – 2,200 out of the original 4,000 survive, and they litter the landscape. It is not only the number of constructions that is impressive, their sheer majesty is awe-inspiring, many built to epic proportions. Some are monolithic (stipa style) contain a Buddha relic (typically a hair), whilst others are hollow (gu style), typically containing 4 huge Buddha statues facing entrances aligned along the compass points.

The architecture and masonry shows a staggering understanding of construction for that time – and this is easy to comprehend as brickwork has been laid bare over time. Our guide took us on a tour encompassing seemingly all of them. Each one had a different facet – here a big Buddha, there a pained ceiling, this an Indian Buddha, that a Chinese one – to be honest it is all much of blur as I look back and after 2 days of this I was a bit templed out. But the sunsets sitting on top of huge monolith looking out over the Irrawaddy River were spectacular.


Lake Inle and surrounds
The last part of the tour was a bit controversial as opinions were split on whether we should go at all, but it turned out to be an absolute highlight. We started by visiting the Shun Oo Mm or Pindaya cave which is home to 8,094 Buddha statutes dating from 18th century. Adding any more is forbidden as it was really getting out of hand and there is nowhere else to put them, it is packed. Just entering the cave is a sensory overload as it is completely unexpected – a labyrinth of gold from floor to ceiling.

From there we headed to our final stop, Lake Inle, 22 km long, 11 km wide that would be a tourist attraction simply for its beauty, but what makes it additionally enthralling is the commerce and population that thrive there. Home to 70,000 people, the lake has its own gardens, created by floating bamboo pontoons that are covered by earth, silversmiths, monks, restaurateurs and naturally fishermen. The latter being unique as they row the long-boats by foot while standing up so they have both hands free to throw the nets.

We took a boat to our idyllic hotel which seemed to be floating in the lake. The individual chalets, were tastefully decorated with an outside shower, but the best chalets were sadly reserved as one of the generals from the military junta was staying, but this meant extra-special entertainment during dinner and we had a little chat. Actually a nice bloke.

The next day was spent trolling around on the lake, visiting all the shops, restaurants and gardens, or just gawping at the fishermen going about their daily business. One temple was for me a highlight, as they had 100 over-friendly cats – they have to get on with each other due to the fact the temple is surrounded by water and it is not like they can go anywhere. The temple had literally piles of pussy-cats everywhere.


Myanmar is fascinating and a very unique county, but who knows how long this will last. They still have their own lunar calendar, with alternating months of 29 and 30 days and their own measurement system, in the market rice was measured out in pyis (about 2.5 liters). But this uniqueness is already diminishing – invasive species are threatening indigenous ones, fertilizers are having an influence on the lake, product weights are now printed in grams as well as pyis, McDonald is looming, and personally, I think the world will be a little poorer for it.

(c) Ian Kimbell 2014, and some photos (c) Markus Klumpp

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Postcard from the Edge of a Symbol

So my first trip to South Korea left me reeling a bit. Arriving at Incheon Airport in Seoul, I was expecting a high-tech, efficiently run airport, but immigration had the most asinine, inefficient queuing system I have seen since being in Africa. After 50 minutes of queuing (compared to 10 minutes for another random queue) I made it out to the airport bus to my hotel ready for sightseeing the next morning.

The huge metro has some unusual facets. Firstly, buying a travel card was next to impossible for a non-Korean speaker. I eventually got one and in order to decipher the instructions, I downloaded a handy app where you take a picture of the text, which is then automatically translated. The results are shown below – I only used the app once.

After my card opened the magic barrier, I stepped on what must be the world’s slowest escalator system. As I descended snails zoomed by and several generations fruit fly evolved. Eventually arriving on the platform, I was fascinated by a common sight in the stations, a large cabinet housing bio-hazard suits and gas masks. Living under the shadow of North Korea obviously has the authorities concerned; some stations are also ear-marked as bomb shelters.

Trying to exit the metro presented its own unique set of challenges. In every other city, area maps showing the area round the station typically have north pointing to the top of the map. In Seoul, the station is centered east-to-west in the map regardless of actual orientation, so north could be any direction. It took me a while to figure this out and as I kept exiting through the wrong door, getting hopelessly lost.

The first day was spent looking at some of the cultural highlights, the Gyeongbokgung royal palace, where I was just in time to see the changing of the guard. Up until now the only change I had witnessed was at Buckingham Palace, but apart of the descriptor, the similarities are few. In Seoul, a big drum is hit and a guy enters blowing a conch shell followed by group of guards wielding knives and shields, who then shout a lot and waggle their weird shoes. The dignity I was expecting somehow lacking.

From there it was off to the excellent Korean War Memorial which offers an excellent depiction of the recent history of the country, and is sponsored heavily by the UN. A whole gallery is dedicated to glorifying their role. From there, it was off to the actual DMZ. Having already visited this area from the north, I was looking forward to entering it from the south. This must be the furthest you have travel to get from one side of a building to the other. Surprisingly the amount of red tape you need to enter from the south was far more arduous than it was from the north. The overzealous guards forbad us from taking photos as there was tour going on at the north side and spouted rubbishy propaganda about the north and Kijŏngdong (the “uninhabited” propaganda village) that can be seen from the south. We had driven through the village 2 years ago and it certainly seemed to be inhabited. I left feeling very disenchanted with the tour, even if it was sponsored by the shiny do-no-wrong UN.

The next few days were spent working and trying to figure out how to flush the toilets. Now, call me old-fashioned, but any appliance you get intimate with, and that has direct connections to both water and electricity supply, needs to be treated with respect and understanding. However, the instrument panel on the side just let me baffled and perplexed, and irrevocably damp in places I had not foreseen. The battle with the porcelain was sustained as I continued my trip to Tokyo.

Tokyo was even hotter and clammier than Seoul, 35°c and 75% humidity which made my sight-seeing really unpleasant. It necessitated regular visits in to anything air conditioned along the way, which left me with some incredible insights. On the way to the Sinjo Temple, I ducked in to a 6 story building which was especially busy at 9:00am on a Sunday. Each floor was an open hall, filled with me just standing about. There were a number of machines along the wall with huge monitors around the walls displaying what looked like odds. After a while horse racing appeared on a screen and I realized I was in a mega-betting shop. It seems that the pachinko (bagatelle) parlors that used to litter just about every street are sadly being replaced.
Electronics were a common theme. I visited the sadly bland Sony Center, which seemed to trying to differentiate itself with environmentally friendly goods. Unfortunately it was just like a large electronics store, with “me-too” products. From there I went to Yodobashi Camera a really large electronics store. Spread over 10 buildings it has everything and more besides, just finding what you wanted was an issue, I got lost and ended up spending more time looking for an exit than at actual product.

The last few days were spent working, where more electronics assailed me. Just using the gents need a small reactor to power everything including: automatic lights, a digital notice board showing which cubicles were free (a “Scheisleitsystem” for the German speakers), automatic flush, automatic soap dispenser, electronic selection of water temperature, electronic hand sanitizer dispenser, automatic hand dryer with UV light build in for sterilization.

Despite the strangeness, I thoroughly enjoyed my trips such foreign lands.. and will be back shortly.



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Postcard from the Edge of a Fire

After moving to Singapore, one of the big attractions is to leave my tiny, hot and over-priced apartment (although you are welcome to come and stay) and visit the plethora of other, cooler attractions in Asia. My first trip was a 4 day jaunt to Kuala Lumpur to visit some very old friends (both figuratively and literally). I can hear them cursing me for that comment even now I am back in Singapore.

However, KL (as we in the know call it) was not the main point of the trip, it was a staging point to see the fireflies (and other attractions) in Kuala Selangor, a town about 100km north-west of the city. The fireflies are billed as “the 8th Wonder of the World” (by the Kuala Selangor tourist authority) and is supposed to be one of the biggest existing colonies. I was very excited as I had only ever seen a single firefly a long time ago and the chance to see a huge synchronized display really caught my imagination.

After a night in KL, we rented a car after eventually finding the lady behind the counter and then our way out of the city. We drove through miles of lush palm-oil plantations (bye-bye native jungle) reaching Kuala Selangor early evening. The best time to see the display is about 9 p.m. on a moonless night (I had timed the trip for a new moon). As we had some time to kill, we visited a number of local fish restaurants until we found one devoid of drunken locals and sat back for some superb shrimp, scallops and calamari.

Although I had read the best views of the fireflies were along a particular stretch along the banks of the Sungai Selangor River, we settled on convenience taking a boat from the jetty behind our hotel. Our hotel owner (who we subsequently found out owned the jetty) told us that it would be an amazing sight. It was. Amazingly crap. The 18 seater motorboat spat fumes and farted out in to the muddy water only to stop at a small tree with about 5 fireflies flashing in a non-synchronized, random pattern. I was outraged at the dross experience. The guide was trying to be nice, picking a fly out and letting it run over our hands, but it seemed to sense how disappointed we were and quickly flew back in to the tree, choking on diesel fumes en route.

Getting back on the jetty, I quickly fired up the car and set off to the recommended area – I really wanted to see this. We arrived just after 9 pm and here things were looking up. Tiny, stealthy, non-fume-belching row-boats lined up for our custom and slipped silently from jetty towards a massively pulsating bush. This was more like it. The first stop was a filigree elegance of pulsing light. Thousands of tiny spots pulsated causing the most celestial patterns. It just got better with every stop – this was probably not the 8th wonder of the world, but it was pretty spectacular – and cheaper than the crap tour to boot.
I went to bed a happy boy, and joy of joys, watching a firefly blinking away in the corner of my room. Amazingly, It was still blinking in the morning as I came to realization the green flashing was actually the air-con unit.

The rest of the time was spent on the other attractions in Kuala Selangor, the stone temple (concrete) and the unusual combination of the monkey / fish park, with the “every 20 minute-bus”, that didn’t turn up with any regularity. The monkeys were pretty ordinary, just hanging around chilling, but really moved, well scarpered, when I let off a big sneeze. The fish exhibition was homage to the Golden Arowana, which apparently brings luck and money to an owners household this is due to the species’ resemblance to the Chinese dragon, but at about $10,000 each I think it would be more of a drain.

Returning to KL, we had a few hours to experience an indoor rollercoaster and a fantastic evening meal at a hawkers market before retiring sans fireflies. The following morn it was off back to Singapore on a 5 hour bus drive, and back to the flat. I am planning my next trip in June…

Kuala Selangor

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Postcard from the Edge of Preachy

So typically my Orlando visits culminate in theme park trip or two. Or three. However, having experienced just about every single ride currently available and the dearth of new attractions, I decided to save my precious tickets until Harry Potter’s Diagon Ally and a slew of new rides open next year.

So with a spare morning what to do? Well, one attraction that seemed to have a lot of press in theme park journals recently is the The Holy Land Experience, which aims to give travelers a taste of “Jerusalem in 1st century Israel”. It sounded interesting so I jumped in the car and headed off.

Arriving you are confronted with a huge line of animals lined up 2×2 to get in the Ark. This nicely juxtaposes the huge line of humans linedup 2×2 to get to the ticket booth. There comparisons with Noah stopped abruptly as we were forced to fork out $40 to enter. My line also seemed to consist uniformly of a single mammalian group wearing bright, identical XXXL t-shirts with hilarious slogans such as “iPray”.

After getting my ticket I followed the crowd past the tightly controlled entrance, in to the “Jerusalem Street Market” – where the street “merchants” in sackcloth were selling plastic religious tat – very 1st century. From there it just got more and more preachy and tacky, with a nice cardboard cutout of Jesus and huge crowd clustered around a “real” Jesus, who was busy blessing a woman in a wheelchair – she did not get up. I had been expecting interesting exhibits and perhaps a ride or two.

I wondered in to the “Last Supper Communion” – a cramped room where guests participate in a reenactment of the last supper with Jesus (the bloke I had just seen outside) and his disciples (of which only 10 turned up). My options from there were not exactly extensive. An impressive model of Jerusalem helped keep people lingering in the gift shop, but I headed over to the Scriptorium, which is designed to show the history of the written word.

Naturally, it was not the written word per se, but the written word of the Bible. Behind the peachiness, it actually hid some interesting exhibits including examples of Lutheran, Guttenberg, Tyndale and Coverdale Bibles. However, the 1 hour long guided tour was pretty soporific and the voice over track was a bit too evangelical. I skipped several of the exhibits only to be trapped in the final room, where we were forced to sit and listen to the introduction of some of the “main characters of the Bible” – they were revealed one by one behind curtains like some 1970s peep-show.

From there it was either another holy communion (performed every 15 minutes) or a wax works exhibit of key scenes from the Bible. I went for the wax works, which, in my view, made a bit of mockery of many classic scenes. Jesus ascending to heaven looked, unfortunately, a bit like bad drag act directing traffic, but I did spot an excellent sign “This way to the Last Supper” incongruously tacked to a wall with a fire extinguisher.

Running out of time, I headed to the supposed highlight – “the Church of All Nations”, which turned out to be a theatre where the live drama “Legna – A Light-hearted Look at Where Heaven & Earth meet” was playing, and boy did it hit the heights of preachy. Not only that, once the doors were closed there were bouncers stationed at all the exits to “encourage” people to sit through the dross. I must admit, it did not tickle me in any way, shape or form, so feigning a phone call, I managed to tiptoe round the bouncers to escape to the parking lot.

It certainly was an experience – never again to be repeated.


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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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Postcard from the Edge of Confusion – Part 1

The Journey
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.

Pyongyang Monuments
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.

Interesting Claims
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)

(Continued on page 2)

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Postcard from the Edge of a Waterfall

Iceland conjures up many images, mutant volcanoes disrupting air traffic, banks that fail and a wailing Bjork – were these true? This was a chance to make up my own mind by circumnavigating the island in 10 days.

First impressions count and they were not brilliant.. rain stormed and the airport was full of transit passengers queuing in the corridors and hanging around the limited shops displaying general dross such as a puffin claw bottle opener and a pile of glued together stones (really). We dashed out to the rental car and were on our way on route 1, the 1,340 km “mostly paved” orbital ring road that was to be our mainstay for the next 10 days – at a sedate 90 km/h, the top speed allowed.

This was the first time I had put all the bookings in the hands of a travel agent, and boy did they come through. Some of the hotels may have been a teeny bit out of the way, but the agent did a superb job of balancing cost, time and location – as we found out at our first port of call.

This delightful residence introduced us to the “hot pots” (outdoor Jacuzzis fed by the geo-thermals in the area) and was perfectly located in the middle of the “Golden Circle” encompassing the three main sights that Iceland has to offer. The next day we visited these attractions – the original geyser (erupts conveniently and photogenically every 6 minutes), the Gullfoss (massive waterfall, first of many) and the Þingvellir national park (where in 930AD the first parliament was inaugurated). We spent a day snuffling around and spent the evening feeling like lobsters in the hot pot.

This first day marked a remarkable change in the weather we did not see any more rain clouds until day 8. OK, it was cold, and in some places very windy but most of the time the sun shone and shone. This made for some remarkable rainbows at the various locations, but encouraged swarms of flies at others. Our trip to the remarkable Myvatn Lake was slightly marred by consuming copious numbers of the little buggers as they kamikazied toward the carbon dioxide in your breath. Some had a bad sense of smell and went for the ears too.

From there, the next 6 days were next spent on and around route 1 – visiting some of what must be some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. The relative youth of the country made for some amazing sights:

  • The “smaller” blue lagoon in the north of the country – soothing geothermal pool
  • The dumbfounding sight of a glacier breaking up in to icebergs as it enters the sea
  • Mud pots gently bubbling, issuing clouds of steam and sulfurous gas
  • Getting back to my Enid Bylton days, by discovering the pleasures of the caves behind a waterfall and the rainbows!
  • Surreal landscapes that seemed to go on forever (at 90 km/h they did)
  • Rainbows!

On the 8th day we arrived back to civilization in the form of Akureyri, Iceland’s 2nd largest town and currently embroiled in controversy – the 18,000 residents want the place upgraded from a ‘town’ to ‘city’ -personally I think ‘village’ more than covers it. Our trip luckily(?) coincided with the culmination of the 150th Akureyri Arts Festival – a massive stage had been erected for the evenings disco and there was the promise of the annual “haunted fright night”. Both did not quite live up to expectations, the stage never had more than about 40 people in front of it (5 of which were the bouncers) and fright night was a collection of locals in 1890 wee-willie-winkie night gowns pretending to be zombies. Most of the town turned out for the “big” night and, with all the street lights extinguished, people just ended up scaring each other in the darkness. The event was, however, enlivened by an occasional horseman of the apocalypse trotting by.

Reykjavik was our final port of call and gave us an excellent opportunity to soak up more quirkiness of Iceland. This started with a taste of hákarl, possibly the most revolting thing I have ever had in my mouth. Literally ‘putrid shark meat’ its rubbery texture and nauseating smell meant I could chew it, but could not bring myself to swallow. Luckily I followed the advice of my guide book, which stated that if you try it, you should strategically place yourself near a convenient bin.

There is not that much else to do there. We visited the most famous landmark the Hallgrímskirkja church, which is incredibly plain, but offers great views over the city from the steeple, and then moved on to the Perlan museum, which is most noticeable because it looks like half a giant bra, discarded on a hill. It did house an excellent museum chronicling the history of Iceland from the first settlers, with no-holds barred on the violence, gruesomeness or associated ghost stories from the Egil’s saga. An epic I could probably stomach a tad better than hákarl.

We had a wonderful time, but I have 3 gripes with this country:

  1. The northern lights were off again – this is the 3rd time I have been in the arctic circles, and lights were nowhere to be seen. I am beginning to believe it is a huge conspiracy.
  2. The Icelandic language – Icelandic has 12 vowels and how are you supposed to look up any word starting with “Þ” or “Đ” – our navigation system had some serious issues and trying to read anything was a nightmare.
  3. The money. The Icelanders certainly got their own back on the financial front loading you with inconveniently large and bulky coinage, most common 1 kroner coin is worth €0.006. We got our own back in the airport though, dumping tons of them for our final coffees.

I would certainly go back again and if you are looking for someone to suggest a brilliant itinerary, check out

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