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Archive for July, 2014

Monuments of Pyongyang

Posted by Heliocentrism on July 25, 2014

Friday, May 3, 2013

All Pictures

A hotel with a plan

Thankful to be back at the Yanggakdo

Vera and I were so grateful to be back at the Yanggakdo with its fully functioning hot showers and other amenities. It’s a generally okay hotel. You can tell it’s old but still, it’s alright. In our room everything worked fine. We did hear of others whose drains were clogged, or whose hot water didn’t work, or whose toilet kept running.

Before we went out for our day’s tour of Pyongyang, I filled out a laundry request form. I was running low on clean clothes and since the Yanggakdo had a laundry service (for a fee) I thought, “Why not?” When else will I have a chance to get laundry done in the DPRK?

“Do you want some Chinese fruit candy?”

Wikipedia

By now I had stopped asking about the day’s plans and only focused on where we were going next.  We were heading to the International Friendship Exhibition. As we drove along Ms. Lee decided to quiz us on what we knew about North Korea. She stood up and asked everyone on the bus when Kim Il-Sung was born.

I shouted, “Juche 1!” The Koreans found this to be very amusing. Later Intern Kim asked me how I knew about the Juche years. “Oh, I read about Kim Il-Sung on Wikipedia,” I said not remembering where I was and that this would bring on more questions.

Intern Kim – “What is that?”

Me – “It’s an online encyclopedia… Do you know what the internet is?”

Intern Kim – “I know the intranet…”

Me – “Okay, it’s kind of like that… On the intranet you can communicate with other people in North Korea. They write things and then you can read what they write. But, with the internet you can communicate with other people anywhere in the world.” I had no idea whether or not she had access to the DPRK’s intranet. From what I know only an elite few get to use the intranet and fewer still get access to the internet and they are mostly hackers.

Intern Kim – “And wik… wiki…”

Me – “Wikipedia. It’s a place online with lots of information. People who know things, write about what they know so that other people can know it too.”

Intern Kim – “And they write about Kim Il-Sung and Juche?”

Me – “Not just about Kim Il-Sung and Juche; about everything that people know. How pineapples grow. The history of noodles. The best ways to run away from a bear. Think about anything you want to know, if someone in the world knows it, you can probably find information about it online. Wikipedia is just one of the many places online with information.”

Pyongyang’s No. 1 Pizza Restaurant

On the way we passed the pizza place again. I reminded the guides of my request to order pizza. People on the bus also chimed in. Everyone was willing to pay for a slice or two just so they could have some North Korean pizza. “Okay,” the western guide said, “Tonight, when we get back to the hotel we’ll order a pizza.”

My heart sank. I knew that was never going to happen. We usually get back to the hotel way too late. Everyone will just head off to bed. Even I, who wants this pizza so much, will be too tired to care by the time we get back. I took a photo of the restaurant so that I could at least have that…

We have our booties ready. Now bring on the craziness!

All Tack, no Taste

When they took away our cameras we knew we were in for something good. We all speculated about what we would see on the ride over. We all knew that a basketball signed by Michael Jordan would be there. But what else would we see and what stories would be told?

When our bus pulled up there were rows and columns of people dressed in their finest suits and chosonots. They all stood patiently in front of the main gate. We walked right past them. “Weren’t they here first?” someone asked a guide. “It’s okay, they will go in later.” They were still standing out there when we left.

I think I have two lefts.

They made us wear booties over our shoes. The ones who got in first stood in an empty white room waiting for the others to turn in their cameras and put on their booties. Eventually everyone was waiting in the white room, but there were no guides. We stood there wondering what to do next.

I needed to use the bathroom. There were many halls that lead away from the white room. I picked one at random and started to walk. I got almost to the end of the hall when a soldier stepped out to ask me what I was doing. “Is there a toilet somewhere? toilet?” I tried speaking more slowly, “toiiillllleeeetttt?” He indicated that I should follow him and he took me back to the white room and down another hall.

As we passed the white room some people from my group asked what was going on. “He’s showing me the way to the bathroom,” I said as I marched along. When we arrived at the bathroom there was a parade of women behind the soldier.

These are the only photos I have of the inside of the International Friendship Exhibition. Sorry.

Our guides eventually came to get us and we began the tour. We started by bowing to a statue of Kim Il-Sung on the second floor. Then we entered a room with gifts from dignitaries from other countries to Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il. The museum’s guide told us all about the fabulousness of each gift. Everything was the best top-quality thing given to Kim Il-Sung or his son and the Korean people with the utmost respect and admiration by some person held in high esteem from some country somewhere.

Everyone stopped at a large embroidered picture of Kim Jong-Il riding a tiger Putin-style in what looked like full traditional Korean Military dress. The tiger was wearing some sort of armor and bearing his teeth. It was so grandiose and gaudy. It was the tackiest thing I’ve ever seen. (…and I used to live in Florida!) “Wow, this is amazing,” was all we could safely say while trying not to giggle. The curator stood there proudly. “Foreigners like that one very much,” he told us. If only he knew why.

There were plastic baubles passed off as gems and meaning given to things that had no meaning, or had meaning that the Koreans did not fully understand. In the corner of the room sat a giant rock; a boulder. It was given to North Korea by Russia. The curator told us how heavy it was. According to the museum guy, it was the biggest rock of this type in the world. “It took hundreds of Korean soldiers months to get it here from Moscow (or wherever).”

Wait! Russia gave you a giant stupid rock and you have to haul it back to Pyongyang yourselves? With friends like the Russians…

There was a giant clam shell given by some country, I think East Germany. I looked at that thing and imagined a bunch of diplomats at a seafood restaurant somewhere complaining about an upcoming trip to Pyongyang. “I have to get this Kim guy something and give some BS speech about the inspiration of Juche’s ideals.”  “You know what you could do, Ambassador Schmidt?” a subordinates says. He scoops up a large piece of clam onto his plate. “You could just give him this normally large clam shell from our meal and tell him that this, ‘largest clam shell in the world’, is just like Juche, the biggest idea in the world…”

We left this room and walked around the rest of the building. Once again I lagged behind. I took my time to look at the things that interested me and ignored the things that didn’t. It was just a matter of time before I was on my own. This didn’t last long though; maybe 5 or so minutes. Intern Kim found me and we looked at stuff together.

I read the label of one item, it was a sewing machine given by some Chinese guy. I asked Kim what it meant. She was surprised that I could read Hangul. “Did you learn Hangul in school?” I giggled and said, “No, I learned it in Seoul.” I asked her why the Chinese guy had such a Korean sounding name. She read the label again. After reading several other labels she said, “The people might be Koreans living in other countries not Chinese or British people.” So the gifts not in the first room are from North Korean diplomats living abroad.

We took our time going through each room. The group was several rooms ahead. A guard came in and reprimanded Intern Kim for moving too slowly. I didn’t want her to get in trouble, so I started to go to the next room. Then Kim told me that it was okay. As long as we stayed together we were fine.

We passed some furniture. It was a whole living room set, but it looked like it had been dipped in gold. Intern Kim asked me if I liked it. I thought it was god-awful like most of the trite in the exhibit, but I wasn’t going to just come out and say that. “You don’t like it?” she asked. I think she could tell from the look on my face. “It looks very expensive,” I said, “but not very comfortable.”  “You can’t sit on a gold sofa,” she sighed and we both giggled.

We moved to the South Korean electronics room. It had, among other gadgets, flat screen TVs made by LG and Samsung. Kim asked me which company was better.

Me – “They’re both pretty good.”

Kim – “Which one is more famous?”

Me – “They are both very famous.”

Kim – “…outside of South Korea?”

Me – “My first computer was a Samsung. My refrigerator in my apartment in Japan is made by LG.”

Kim – “Are they rich?”

Me – “The people who run those companies could buy several of those golden living room sets, though they would probably buy something… softer.”

That was amazing!

Intern Kim seemed to be taking it all in as we trailed several rooms behind the group. We looked at things and talked about life in South Korea and Japan. She didn’t seem at all interested in the US. Instead she wanted me to compare life in South Korea and Japan to what I saw in Pyongyang and even to compare South Korea to Japan.

We could not see all the rooms because when the group was finished we had to go. A uniformed museum worker came to tell us that our group was leaving. The Koreans lined up outside were waiting for us to go so that they could come in and enjoy the exhibits.

We got our cameras back and returned the booties. Then waited for everyone else by the bus. We gathered in little groups to quietly discuss the madness we had just seen.

Vera – “Did you see that tiger? The curator said it had rubies and sapphires on it. It looked like plastic!”

Me – “No I missed that one. I was too busy staring at the awesomeness that was the giant Russian rock.”

Flip-flops – “How about the stuffed alligator?”

French Guy – “Did you see the collection of rotary phones? Do you think that China just polishes their old things and sends them to North Korea?”

 

Is it a holiday or something?

When we got to the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Museum I saw more people there than I had the entire trip. Everyone was dressed up. Several people asked the guides why so many people were there that day. They wanted to know if it was a holiday. The guides said it was not a holiday, but maybe these people took a personal day to come here. “It is a great honor to come here, so people gladly use their time off for a visit.”

But that did not explain the herds of schoolkids. Were they all playing hookie from school to visit this museum? It just doesn’t sound like the kind of thing kids get up too. But what do I know; I’m a capitalist. I only care about money and stopping North Koreans from getting electricity.

Kim Hyŏng-jik and Kang Pan-sŏk, Kim Il-Sung’s mom and dad

Just like at the International Friendship Exhibition, we cut the line even though the people had been clearly waiting a very long time to see the house. Not only did we skip them, but they were made to stand back and they had to wait until we were done to continue with their pilgrimage.

We’re just a bunch of line-skippers.

The place was re-created to look like it did when Kim Il-Sung was a boy. Supposedly he grew up as a peasant, but there is very little proof of that. Revolutionaries generally don’t come from peasant backgrounds. Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Lenin, George Washington, Gandhi, and Dr. Martin Luther King jr. were all at the very least middle class.

One of the twins is starting to look very North Korean.

We had some of the Kim Il-Sung well water. This is supposed to be the well that the Great Leader drank from growing up. The guides told us that many people believe the water has healing properties. “School children drink the water before taking exams.” We all tried some.

Generally you should not drink the water in North Korea unless it is boiled first. (Instead, drink bottled water.) Plus, everyone drinks from the same set of cups that never get washed. It was gross. I thought it was icky. But everyone else in my group was doing it, so I drank the water too. (No, I did not get sick, but for the next couple weeks I had a burning desire to wear some Juche pants.)

Puhung Station

Ticket to Ride

Actually, we did not get tickets to ride. We hopped the turnstiles. Okay, we didn’t literally hop them. The guard made us walk around them. I was a little disappointed because I wanted a subway ticket for a souvenir.

Are we there yet?

We took the long escalator down to where the trains were. I think the escalator ride was just a little shorter than the subway ride. The Pyongyang metro is one of the deepest metro systems in the world. It also serves as a bomb shelter.

Is that the midtown express?

The station below smelled like an old basement. It had a very Russian or Moscowian feel. It most definitely was not boring with murals, chandeliers, and statues to look at. It makes you want to say, “So this is what it would be like if Liberace were communist!”

commuters

We got on the train and several Koreans got up to give us their seats. Most of us refused the seats and asked them to sit back down. Some Koreans returned to their seats, others moved to another car. It was an awkward ride.

One couple said that the guy sitting next to them struck up a conversation. They said he was a lovely man, but when they asked him where he learned English he changed the subject. “He was still very nice,” they said, “odd, but nice. And we could tell he was well educated.”

I don’t know why we stopped here.

We stopped at a subway station. We did not change lines. We just stood on the platform to take photos. Then we got on the next train.

A shop with stuff in it!

When we got to Kaesong station we got off the train again. This time we headed for the exit. On our way out we past this shop in the subway. Look at all that stuff! It was colorful, pointless, decadent, and kitchy. It looked like stuff you find at a carnival. This was the last thing I would expect to find in a North Korean subway shop.

I wasn’t the only one. Almost everyone in my group turned to snap a photo of this shop. And then… “STOP, STOP, STOP!” This time both Ms. Lee and Mr. Park were shouting at us. Even the cameraman nodded at us disapprovingly.

I really have no idea why this photo would cause such a reaction. Here is proof that North Korea has stuff for sale and it looks like they also have people buying the stuff. Whether they are actually buying things or not I can’t tell. But I don’t know why they didn’t want anyone taking this picture.

Ms. Lee explaining why we could not take a photo of the shop.

I don’t remember exactly what reason was given. It might have had something to do with the people at the shop being ordinary citizens. But, that makes no sense. We had just taken many photos of similar people on the metro…

Ms. Lee made everyone delete their photos, but once again she did not see me. I don’t know why. I was standing right there too. The only thing I can think of is that I have my camera on silent. It makes very little noise. I also almost never use my flash. Or maybe she just liked me…

My very own ticket!

Ms. Lee didn’t stay mad at us for too long. As soon as we got to the exit she went to the ticket booth and bought us all subway tickets from her own money.

“This is the Arch of Triumph.”

Intern Kim Shines

When we got to the Arch of Triumph, Intern Kim asked if she could try leading the tour. So, instead of Ms. Lee doing the talking, Kim did. She was a little nervous, but she did a fine job. We asked her a few questions which she answered and then we clapped and cheered for her. She blushed.

Lunch is next!

Him Again!?

We were told that our next stop would be for lunch so we all got on the bus. Once I was in my seat I heard some altercation going on outside, but I could not see what it was. I wanted to get off the bus to see what was going on, but there were too many people standing in the aisle of the bus and in line outside waiting to get on. I heard yelling in Russian.

“What’s going on out there”, I asked someone standing by the door of the bus. “It looks like some Russians arguing.” “Is one of them wearing a pink polo shirt,” someone in the bus asked. The guy at the door stuck his head out. “Yes. Do you know him?”

“Pinky!!!!!”

“My stew is not cooking fast enough!”

Lunch and Races

Our next meal was stew that we could cook to our liking. We could make it as spicy or as bland as we liked. We could use some or all of the ingredients placed at our table.

The guy in front of me didn’t like spicy food or eggs, so I took his egg. By this time in the trip I had become less picky and more hungry between meals. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast around 6:00 and we were late for lunch at around 14:00. We would also probably eat a late dinner around 21:00 or 22:00. Being picky with food was a fool’s game!

dessert to be shared among 4 people

This meal was, like most North Korean meals, okay. It was not overly delicious, but adequate. You ate and when you were no longer hungry you had no desire to keep eating. I still tried to eat all my food because I knew that we would be running late again and dinner time would get pushed back.

I had just gotten to the point where I was tired of the food when they brought out dessert. I knew that bananas were a rarity in the DPRK and was amazed that we were given a banana. We had to split the banana among 4 people but still. It’s the thought that counts.

I left the table to use the bathroom and noticed some smokers sitting outside, without any Korean guides. I got my bag and sat with them. We stared across the street at the Iranian embassy. One of the smokers asked, “What do you think would happen if we ran over there and told them that our North Korean handlers were being mean to us?” “We want sanctuary in Iran,” the other one said as he put up his hands and playfully pretended to run across the street.

One by one people who finished eating came outside. One guy challenged a western guides to a race. We relaxed and hung out on the sidewalk like this is what one does everyday in Pyongyang.

The Juche Tower

Juche Idea

The Juche Idea is that of self reliance. A person is in charge of his or her own destiny if he or she is reliant only on his or herself. This is what North Korea is founded on. Or rather, this is what its propaganda claims North Korea is founded on. But it’s all nonsense.

North Korea started out propped up by Russia. It relied heavily on Russia and China to support it in the past. Then it got handouts from South Korea, Japan, The US, Canada, and the European Union. When there is any lack in the country like a power outage or a shortage of rice, they blame America. So much for being in charge of your own destiny.

Cameraman Choi and Intern Kim telling jokes while we wait for the elevator

Some of us took the elevator to the top of the Juche tower. It was overpriced for an elevator ride, but I’m never going to get a chance to do this again so I went for it.

While we waited for the elevator some people browsed in the gift shop, others wrote in the Juche Tower guest book, and still others sat on the sofas and relaxed. This was the first time I saw Cameraman Choi speaking. He only speaks Korean, so I could not talk to him directly. I asked Intern Kim to translate for me.

I asked him if he gets tired of visiting the same monuments over and over again. He said that he quite enjoyed visiting the monuments because he gets to work with his camera. He loves making the videos.

As I looked over the city of Pyongyang I told Ms. Lee that I thought the city was beautiful. It was. It’s a tourist paradise with a monument on every corner and over the top crazy stories of impossible feats at every turn. I asked Ms. Lee if there were foreigners living in Pyongyang who weren’t diplomats. “Sure there are,” she said. “Do you want to live in Pyongyang?” she asked. “I can’t; I’m American.” “That is a problem,” she replied.

To be honest I wouldn’t mind working in Pyongyang for a few months for an NGO or something. I could not work for the North Korean government like I did in South Korea or Japan. I know of one person hired by the DPRK government to do some translating and when it was time to leave, the North Korean government refused to let her go. She eventually got out and, I think, wrote a book.

Needless to say, I shall not be living or working in North Korea any time soon.

It’s not what the people wanted, but it’s what they got instead of food.

The Famine and the Monument

North Korea’s famine started about 1994. Russia gave up trying to get any payment for goods already given to North Korea. Trade, if you can call it that, stopped between the two countries. North Korea has never actually produced enough food for itself, relying on outside help to make up the difference.

I’ve noticed that regimes never refer to their famines as famines. Cuba called theirs the Special Period. China called theirs the Difficult Three Year Period. Russia never talks about theirs. North Korea refers to theirs as the Arduous March. According to Wikipedia, the famine was not a result of bad weather or a season of bad crops, but of a lot of bad decisions made by the government over decades. One of those being to stop farmers from growing food, and forcing them to grow plants used to make heroin and cocaine.

In 1995 North Korea built this thing; a monument for the working people, the people who were starving to death.

selling pins

Pinning

The pins in the DPRK work like this. Anyone can buy a pin with a North Korean flag or map on it. But, the pins with the leader’s face on them are only worn by Party members. Not every Korean is in the Party, but every Korean must wear a pin.

Our tour guides all had pins with Kim Jong-Il on them. There were no Kim Jong-Eun pins when I was there. The pins we were allowed to buy were only of the Korean flag. But I’m sure if you really wanted one, you could get a face pin or several in China.

“Man, this homepage sure is interesting!”

They’re using the internet? Those guys!?

We went to Grand People’s study House. We were met at the door by a guide; let’s call him Mr. Bak. There was a Russian tour group that got there right before we did so we had to wait for them for a few minutes as Mr. Bak made small talk. He wanted us to know that he wasn’t some nobody who has never been any where. So, he told us that he has travelled a lot.

“Where did you go?” we asked him.

“Well let me see… Germany… Russia… China… I can’t remember all now.”

Well Russia and China was nothing special. But we wanted to hear about his trip to Germany. (We wondered if he meant Germany or East Germany.) We begged him to tell us what he thought about Germany or even why he was there.

He said he was there for some conference to learn about German policies or something. He couldn’t remember now because he skipped out of the meeting and went to the pub instead. He doesn’t remember what he thought about Germany since he was blazing drunk the whole time. “The beer was very good!”

Once inside the building he showed us some guys on computers. “They are using the internet,” Mr. Bak bragged. The men were standing in front of the computers with their hands behind their backs. I’m no expert on using the internet, well actually I am. One does not use the internet for that long without typing something.

Vera said she watched one guy closely. “He stood there staring at the browser. It was just some sort of homepage; nothing to occupy one’s mind that long. After a few minutes he scrolled down then stared some more. Then he scrolled back up and stared, then back down again. He just kept doing this over and over again. But there was nothing there for all that reading and rereading.”

“What are we supposed to be studying?”

We saw the famous Kim Jong-Il invented adjustable tables. There were actually really nice. I wonder if I can get one at Ikea?

“uhgg… More tourists?”

Mr. Bak then took us to an office where a professor was doing some research. Unlike everyone else in the building, he actually seemed like he was in the middle of doing something. I felt like we were barging in. He spoke English and answered our questions, but in a curt manner. I felt bad for the guy and wanted to leave. I know what it’s like to have a silly boss who gets on you for not working efficiently, but won’t leave you alone so you can actually get some work done.

“ZZZzzzz ZZZZzzzzz ZZZZzzzzz”

The tours were long. We started very early in the morning and we got back to the hotel very late at night. We always seemed to be late for the next thing no matter how much we hurried along. So much stuff was packed into our days. Going to North Korea is a once of a life-time thing for most visitors so, the guides do their best to keep you occupied. By this day, day 4 we were all pretty tired.

Ask for any book you want.

You want science? I got your science right here!

Next Mr. Bak wanted to show us something amazing. He made us stand by this counter where a lady was looking bored and staring at her computer screen. “Wow, another internet user,” I thought.

“What kind of book would you like?” Mr. Bak asked giving a proud smile. “A book about food,” someone in the group replied. “Ask this librarian for any book and she will give it to you.” Mr. Bak then said something to the bored lady and she pressed a few buttons on her keyboard.

Out came a metal box from the wall. The bored librarian reached in and pulled out Discovering Food and Nutrition. “What other book would you like,” ask Mr. Bak. He seemed to be challenging us. There was no way he could possibly win this sort of challenge.

“Do you have Fifty Shades of Grey?” someone asked. The group giggled like it was an inside joke. “Is that a good book?” Ms. Lee asked. “No,” someone else said, “It’s a very bad book.” Then he gave the fifty-shades guy an ironic chastising look.

“What about Mark Twain?” Vera asked.

“What about a science book?” Flip-flops challenged.

The bored librarian did not acknowledge any of our suggestions. She did not even glance our way. We looked at Mr. Bak. He said something in Korean, but the bored lady gave no response. There was only the sound of typing. “She’s tired of us already, I think,” joked one of the guys. Then another metal box appeared.

The lady pulled two books out of the metal box and set them on the table. Then she went back to looking at her computer screen and ignoring us. Mr. Bak nodded at us self satisfied. “Any book you want!” he beamed.

“Can anyone asked for any book?” someone asked. “This is the people’s study house. It is for the people.” Mr. Bak said solemnly.

He lead us away. “Let me show you all the books…”

“They’re coming! Everyone look intently at your screens.”

He took us into a room with many computers and many people staring zombie-like at their screens. “More internet users?” someone asked. “No, these people are using the intranet,” he explained. “From the intranet, these people can see what books we have at the library. They can also read speeches of the great leaders or read a newspaper.”

There was a computer not being used. He asked for a volunteer to sit at the computer. “Type in the name of any book or author you like,” Mr. Bak dared. The volunteer typed, “O-R-W-E-L-L.” Everyone in our tour group looked anxiously at the screen. The computer took a while to process the information.

In the meantime Mr. Bak yakked on about how the operating system was Korean made. The computer was made with the best DPRK technology to be fast. It was just looking through all the books in the library, and there were so many books. That’s why it took so long.

Orwell search result

Finally a result came back. One entry: Animal Farm. Someone asked Mr. Bak where the book was. “It’s in the library or maybe someone has borrowed it.” We asked if we could go see the book. Mr. Bak said that we would have to go back to the bored librarian and ask her for the book, but we had no time.

No one asked about why the best of Korean technology was a Chinese computer or why the Korean operating system used Internet Explorer. There are just certain topics that one does not discuss with an Internet Explorer user.

I teach English… in Japan.

What do you have in England?

Next we walked into an English class. The teacher was not there yet, but the students were in their seats. Some of us took the remaining seats and the rest stood at the back of the class. One of the guys on our tour (Mr. Hoodie) was also a JET like Vera and me. (We might have mentioned to the guides that the three of us worked for the same “company”, but we did not mention that the “company” was the Japanese government.) Since he was an English teacher, Ms. Lee asked him if he would like to say a few words to the class.

The teacher walked in and did a double take. She was not expecting us and was a little put out. But, she went with it. She greeted her class and engaged them in light conversation. Then she asked for someone in our group to speak.

The guy in the photo above got up and introduced himself and our group. Then he got the class to ask him some questions. They wanted to know where all of us were from. Mr. Hoodie never told the students who was from what country. Instead he said, “Some of them are from England, like me. Some are from France. There are some Australians. There is a guy from Switzerland and a couple Fins. …and we even have some… Americans.” At this some of the people in our group oooooed, making the students laugh.

“Tell me everything about your country.”

One of the students wanted to know about England. “What do you want me to tell you about England?” “I don’t know,” the student said, “I’ve never been to England. What is England famous for?”

The guy thought about it for a bit and decided to tell them about Stonehenge. “Do you know about Stonehenge?” he asked the class. All he got were blank stares. The teacher stepped in and reminded the class to speak. “I don’t know what that is,” said one brave student. So Mr. Hoodie tried to explain, but couldn’t. He also tried to draw a picture of Stonehenge, but it did not help either. “How could I explain England to North Koreans when they haven’t ever heard of Stonehenge?” he later asked me. “You can’t; you just can’t.”

Just enjoy the view for as long as you like.

Non-constant time flow

After the class, we went to the roof of the People’s Study House and watched the citizens practice their marching in Kim Il-Sung square. I think we were there for a good 20~30 minutes. We had plenty of time to go back to the bored librarian to find the Orwell book, but we didn’t. But I was sure that if I had asked right then to go back, suddenly there would be no time.

Next we walked to the Foreign Language Bookshop. Of course all the books there were either written by one of the Kims or about one of the Kims. The shop also sold newspapers and magazines. I was quite bored by all of it and was about to stand outside on the sidewalk to watch people walking by, when I heard some of the guys giggling in the corner.

“What’s that?” I asked. The guys showed me the cover of their book and then where I could get a copy. I picked it up and started to read at a random page. The story was called A Puzzle Solved and was about how clever Kim Jong-Il was and how impressed Madeleine Albright was by him. There was so much nonsense in the book; I had to buy it!

It turns out that Kim Jong Il is North Korea’s very own Chuck Norris! The book has a number 1 on the cover. I hope that implies a couple of sequels…

Who knows more about making films than the Great Leader?

At the Movies

Although it’s Kim Il-Sung in the statue above it was Kim Jong-Il who revolutionized North Korean cinema. With Kim Jong-Il’s guidance the film industry of Pyongyang improved with techniques like, using multiple cameras, using foreigners as baddies, and kidnapping a good director from South Korea and having him make movies.

Once again we were lined up in front of a bronze Kim Il-Sung and made to bow. Then we were introduced to the studio guide who was dressed very much like the Dear Leader.

Mr. Park and the Dear Guide

The Dear guide gave a very forgettable speech about Kim Jong-Il’s greatness in film and of all his accomplishments in film production. I really don’t care that much about films, even Hollywood films. I tried hard to pay attention to see if he would at any time mention Shin Sang-ok, but he did not. Rather, he focussed on talking about the progressions and improvements of North Korean films as if we were all familiar with these movies. “Oh, ‘Unsung Heroes,‘ why that’s some of Ryu Ho-son‘s best work!”

Coming Soon…

We were then taken to a cold room where a very old man was working on a film. Well, I don’t know if he was really working on a film. There was a film being played and an old man in the room pushing blinking buttons.

I think the old man had a hearing problem. The volume of the film was very, very loud and the sound was out of sync with the film. I sat on the floor in the cold room holding my head in my hands trying to will my impending headache away.

The old man talked over the loud film and Mr. Park translated. We were meant to ask questions during this cacophony. Someone asked him exactly what it was that he was doing. He responded that he was fixing the sound and adding extra noises to the film. To demonstrate this, he played some noises for us. A track of someone knocking on a door, footsteps, a dog barking were played for us at full blast.

I noticed that the people closest to the door were walking out. I needed to get out too. As I left someone was asking what the example film was. “Oh, it’s a real film,” Mr. Park assured her. “It will be in theaters by this summer.” “Yeah right,” Vera whispered to me, “That thing looks like it was filmed in the 70’s and it’s nowhere near finished!”

Clearly, the DPRK lost out on some talent when they let us leave.

After that we played dress-up then took a few photos. There were no chosonots long enough for me so I was given a man’s robe with a lady’s hat.

Then we walked around the movie lot. I think we were supposed to be impressed by the many sets they had, which were South Korea in 60’s, Japan in the 50’s, China, and Europe. Europe was done in such a way that gave the impression that the builders thought of Europe as one country and that they had only read about Europe and had never seen it.

Europe!

When we passed the “Europe” section, everyone thought that the tour was over and that we were now just walking back to the bus. The Dear Guide asked us if we knew what type of house this was, as he pointed to the house in the photo above. Someone asked if that was his house. He was not expecting a question like that and thought he should give us a clue.

He said something like, “This is a very famous place.” But that left us even more confused. “Is this a reconstruction of a famous house?” another person asked. “No, not the house. The style. Where would you find this type of house?” The Dear Guide still held out hopes for his big reveal.

“Is this a traditional North Korean house?” someone asked ironically. We had no idea where this conversation was going and since irony is lost here in the DPRK we thought we might as well have some fun. “No. Do you have houses like this in America?” the Dear Guide asked.

“No,” Vera said, “but it’s kinda shaped like a barn.” “A barn?” the Dear Guide sounded a little shocked. “It’s not a barn, it’s Europe.” The Dear Guide turned to a few of the Europeans in the group and asked, “Don’t you have houses like this in your country?” “No,” one of them said, “I also thought it looked similar to a barn.”

Japan!

We had clearly offended the Dear Guide, but not too much. He was still happy to take photos with us at the end of the tour and he even told one of the tourists from our group where he gets all this suits made. “I was wondering about that because it looks like a suit that Kim Jong-Il would wear,” the tourist told him. With that he beamed with pride and all other offences were forgotten.

Are we walking in the street?

Dinner!

Our bus pulled off on the side of the road. We all wondered what was going on. The western guide on our bus told us that since we were running late, they decided to order pizzas now. Camera man Choi was going to get the pizza and bring them back.

“Does this pizza place have a restroom?” someone asked. It did. We were told that if we needed the bathroom we could follow Camera man Choi into the pizza shop. Of course, everyone had to “use the bathroom”. Who would choose to wait on the bus?

I don’t remember why the bus parked so far away from the restaurant, but it was a 10 minute walk from the bus. We weren’t walking on the sidewalk. I didn’t realize that we were in the road, since there were virtually no cars. When a tram came close to hitting one of our bunch who was not paying attention, I got myself onto the sidewalk by walking over some plastic sheeting that was on the ground. We were told not to walk on it, but I had to.

Pizza Man

I really did need to use the facilities. There was a long line for the women. By the time I finished and got to the counter everyone was asking the pizza guy lots of questions. I looked around the shop and noticed some people sitting at a table eating pizza.

They were staring at us longingly. “Real Koreans!” I thought and several of our group moved over to them. “Where are you guys from?” one of the people asked. My heart sank; they were not North Koreans at all. “I’m from New York,” Vera said. “Oh, I’m from New York too!” one of the people said. “I’m from Toronto…” one of the pizza eaters said looking for a fellow Torontonian in our group.

We sort of paired up and we were all talking at once. “What are you guys doing here?” we asked each other. “We’re here on a group tour of North Korea, you?” “We’re a medical team…” one of the people answered.

“Okay, time to go,” Ms. Lee called. No one responded. We kept asking the people questions and they kept asking us questions. “What kind of medical team? Do you guys work in a hospital in Pyongyang?” Ms. Lee and Mr. Park held on to a couple arms and started to drag us out of the shop. “We are late. We really need to go.”

“Maybe we’ll see you guys around later,” one of the people said as we were exiting the shop. “I don’t think so, most of us are leaving tomorrow. Well, anyway, goodbye! Goodbye!” They seemed sad to see us go. We didn’t want to go. We wanted to stay and talk with the medical team and ask more questions.

Camera man Choi holds all the pizzas.

We got back on the bus and tried to assess the situation. Everyone retold what little information they got from the people in the pizza shop. But, already the stories were being distorted. “They were doctors.” “No, they said they were a medical team. No one there claimed to be a doctor.” “I thought they were medical administrators.” “They were South Koreans.” “No, they were Korean-Americans.” “No they were Korean-Canadians” “The lady I talked to was Korean-British.” It was the most exciting thing to happen to us all day.

not as good as pizza

We have to share?

We went to a restaurant for our last meal of either bibimbap or Pyongyang cold noodles. I have had both these dishes before in Seoul and to be honest, I hate them both. I ordered the cold noodle because they were a specialty in Pyongyang, but I was not expecting much.

cheese melted like hopes and dreams…

Luckily for me the meal started off with 2 slices of pizza. We had to share the pizzas with group B, but they didn’t get to go to the pizza shop. I’m glad we got the pizza because I downright hated the food at this meal.

Up until this point the food had been okay, passable, not delicious but not bad either. This time it was bad. I gave up all attempts at trying to clean my plate. I tried everything that was given to me, but I only like the pizza. We were going back to China the next day; I could eat then.

Group B’s Video

Next we watched the first 10 minutes of tour videos. Group B’s video was played first. When their video was done they left. The next thing on the schedule was a trip to the night amusement park.

They tried to rush us along so that we too could make it to the park, but we asked to stay, drink tea, and watch our video instead of going to the night amusement park. We were all tired and just wanted to relax. The guides seemed okay with that, so they put on our video.

blackout

…Then the lights went out. It took a little while for the people at the restaurants to get flashlights and then get a generator going. For us it was funny, but it was not so funny for the people in Group B.

“When the lights went out we were in complete darkness. Our guides gave us flashlights and at first we were waiting for the lights to come back on. But after 15 minutes they did not. So we went back to the hotel. We were only there for half an hour.”

On our way back to the Yanggakdo for the last time Mr. Park asked if we wanted to hear a folk song. We all said, “yes.” A couple days before Ms. Lee sang Arirang for us and we loved it. So he took the mic and started to sing what we thought was going to be another Korean folk song.

All Pictures


 

North Korea
(조선민주주의인민공화국)
(Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk) 

How to get there:

The laws about who can get a visa to the DPRK change often. At the time of our trip, the Japanese were allowed in, but the Chinese were not. But, South Koreans are never allowed in. Korean-Americans, however, are welcomed, if they use their US passport for entry.

Phone:

You won’t get to use the phone. But if you need to know, the emergency numbers are 112 and 119.

Website:

Downloads:

Videos:

Books:

If you can read Korean: Kingdom of Kim (There is no English version of this book yet. I would love to find one.)

Notes:

NEVER NEVER NEVER bring a bible to North Korea!


The Yanggakdo International Hotel
(양각도국제호텔)
(Yanggakdo gookchea hotel)

How to get there:

  • 38°59’57.3″N 125°45’05.9″E

Don’t you worry about directions here or any other place in North Korea. Someone will also be around to show you where to go.

Address:

Yanggakdo International Hotel
Pyongyang, North Korea

Phone:

There are phones in the hotel, but I never used it. So, I don’t know whom you can call.

Website:

e-mail:

You can send emails from the lobby of the hotel. You can also mail letters.

Cost:

Your tour will take care of this.

Hours:

  • Breakfast starts at 7:00

Videos:

Notes:

  • The Yanggakdo Hotel is not the only hotel in town. Neither is it the only functioning hotel in town. But it is the one in which any tourist in Pyongyang will most likely be staying.
  • This hotel is where many American prisoners get to talk to the Swedish ambassador. Some have actually been held prisoner here.
  • You cannot go to the 5th floor!
  • You cannot go to any floor where the lights are turned off. If you try to, an official will escort you back to the elevator.
  • You can walk around the grounds but you cannot leave Yanggakdo (Yanggak island) on your own.
  • Be careful when using the elevators. The doors will slam shut even when you are in the way.

The International Friendship Exhibition 
(국제우의전람관)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°01’47.3″N 125°38’00.8″E

Websites:

Videos:

Notes:

  • It opened on 26 August 1978.
  • It was moved from MyohyangsanNorth Pyongan province.
  • It contains gifts presented to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il from various foreign dignitaries along with gifts from North Koreans living abroad.
  • You will have to wear booties.
  • You are not allowed to bring your camera in because it houses all sort of crazy stuff and the lies here are so thick they are delicious!
    • Kim Jong-il built the International Friendship Exhibition in three days!

Kim Il-Sung’s Birth Place

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 38°59’34″N   125°39’24″E

Websites:

Video:

Notes:

  • He might not have been born here at all. No one really knows.
  • This is where you get to see “how Kim Il-Sung grew up”.

Facts about Kim Il-Sung

  • Kim Il-Sung was born Kim Song-Ju on April 15, 1912 somewhere in Pyongyang.
  • At this site he is shown as being poor in his early years but he probably grew up in a middle-class family and not a peasant one.

The Pyongyang Metro
(평양 지하철)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°00’38.6″N 125°43’03.3″E (Puhung Station)
  • Coordinates 39°00’28.4″N 125°44’04.7″E (Yonggwang Station)
  • Coordinates 39°02’35.5″N 125°45’14.6″E  (Kaeson Station)

Websites:

Cost:

  •  5 KP₩/ticket (For Koreans only)

Video:

Notes:

  • There are 2 subway lines; the Ch’ŏllima line and the Hyŏksin line.
  • Constructions started in 1965 and the subway stations opened in 1969 ~ 1972.
  • The stations can also be used as bomb shelters.

The Arch of Triumph
(개선문)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°02’40.8″N 125°45’11.6″E
  • Just take the metro to Kaesong station.

Websites:

Notes:

  • It was modelled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but it’s taller.
  • It was built in 1982 to commemorate Korean resistance to Japan.

Some Hotpot Restaurant
(청류관광기녕품상점*)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°02’06.1″N 125°47’02.3″E
  • It is somewhere near the Swiss Embassy.

Websites:

Video:

Notes:

  • *청류관광기녕품상점 is the name on the building. I don’t know if that is the name of the restaurant.
  • The restaurant is on the 2nd floor and there is a little shop on the first floor.

Ms. Lee told us how hot pot became popular in North Korea. She said that when soldiers had a break from fighting during the war and they were hungry. They had to be very creative. They did not have many supplies. So they would build a fire and use their helmets as pots. Then they would put water to boil and add whatever vegetable or meat, if they were lucky, they could find.


The Juche Tower
(주체사상탑)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°01’34.1″N 125°46’02.4″E

Websites:

Cost:

  • It costs €5 to go to the top of the tower. This is not included in your tour.

Videos:

Notes:

  • It was finished in 1982.
  • The plaques on the tower (like the one in the photo above) were given to the Korean people by North Koreans living abroad. There are no Americans studying the Juche idea in the US.
  • It is slightly taller than the Washington Monument.

Monument to the Korean Workers Party

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°01’40.2″N 125°46’36.4″E

Websites:

Videos:

Notes:

  • It was completed in 1995 during North Korea’s famine.

Grand People’s study House
(인민대학습당)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°01’12.8″N 125°44’57.0″E

Websites:

Videos:

Notes:

  • If you go there, you’ll talk to some professor and walk into some “random” English class.

Foreign Language Bookshop

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°01’18.8″N 125°45’15.4″E

Websites:

Downloads:

Notes:

  • You can buy books and newspapers here. All the books about North Korea, the Kims, or Juche.

 Kim Il Sung Square
(김일성광장)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°01’10.6″N 125°45’09.6″E

Websites:

Videos:

Notes:

  • This is where all the parades and marching takes place.

Pyongyang Film Studio

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°04’17.4″N 125°42’40.7″E

Websites:

Cost:

  • €2 to dress up and play with fake swords.

Videos:


Pyongyang No. 1 Pizza Shop

How to get there:

  • I have no idea!
  • There is no information online.

Websites:

Notes:

  • There is a Pyongyang No. 2 Pizza Shop, but according to our western guide, it’s not as good.
  • They also serve pasta.
  • Do not confuse this place with Pyulmori.
  • Some tours make this an official attraction.

Pyongyang Cold Noodle Restaurant 

How to get there:

  • I have no idea!
  • There is no information online.

Websites:

Notes:

  • There is a very popular cold noodle restaurant called, “Okryugwan“. That is not the restaurant we went to.
  • This restaurant had a shop on the first floor where you could buy DPRK won.
  • For the main course there was the option of having either cold noodles or bibimbap.
  • I guess Pyongyang is famous for these cold noodles.

Map:

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Propaganda Day

Posted by Heliocentrism on July 18, 2014

Thursday, May 2, 2013

All Pictures

Poster across the street from the hotel

Better cold than dead

The Kaesong Folk Hotel was horrible, though some people did enjoyed their stay. I think it depended on which room you got. I already told you about our bathroom.

The hotel is advertised as being a traditional Korean experience. I’ve stayed in a traditional Korean village, this was nothing like that. First off, the ondol was the main feature of the hotel room; the thing that gave the place its authenticity. This ondol ran on electricity! …and it was plugged into the wall. Every apartment and house in South Korea has an electric (or gas) ondol right now. This is not traditional or old-timey. I lived with one for 2 years. (In case you don’t know what an ondol is, it’s a heating system that runs under the floor. Instead of having a radiated heater, or a ventilation heater, you heat the floors.)

Real traditional Korean guesthouses would have wood burning ondols and little chimneys on the side. But, this was just a minor issue. I really didn’t care about the ondol running on electricity. What I had a problem with, was that the cord that ran from the ondol to the electrical socket was damaged. The rubber on the cord was torn and disintegrating and the wires were exposed.

It was a cold night and Vera and I thought through our options. We could plug it in, stay warm during the night, and risk waking up in a blaze of fire. Or we could freeze a bit and definitely wake up the next day un-electrocuted and un-barbequed. We put on extra socks and t-shirts and chose not the plug in the ondol.

I felt bad for Vera. The ondol is the most fabulous thing. In the winter in Seoul I would do a load of laundry, wash my floors, then lay all my clothes on the floor. The ondol would have my clothes dry in an hour’s time. Coming from Japan where there is no such thing as a good heating system, I wanted Vera to experience the wonder that is the ondol. It keeps the room so nicely warm and because the floor is where the heat comes from, there’s no need to wear socks.

The souvenir shop

맛있다?

The drive the day before from Pyongyang took a long time. We didn’t get to Kaesong until about 9:00pm so we didn’t eat dinner until late. We were very hungry on the bus, but hardly anyone had snacks with them. There was a pair of twins who had curry flavored beef jerky and fruit candy from China. They generously shared their treats and everyone loved the fruit things; the jerky, not so much.

So, in the morning I headed to the souvenir shop for snacks for the ride back to Pyongyang. I walked in and greeted the shop keeper in Korean. She was very friendly. She asked me where I was from and I replied, “미국입니다 (I’m American).” Then she asked me something else, but I had reached the limits of my Korean.

She didn’t seem to care. I had spoken a little Korean, so she continued talking to me in Korean. She asked where I had learned Korean and I told her, “서울. 이년. (Seoul. 2  years.)” “Seoul?” As she was thinking about Seoul I spotted a jar of gochujang. “Gochujang,” I exclaimed. “맛있다? (Is it delicious?)” This was all the Korean I knew.

“Yes, it’s delicious. Made in Kaesong.” She told me the price and I bought it. But I couldn’t eat gochujang as a snack. I asked her about what snacks she had. This took a while, because I did not have the vocabulary at all. Eventually she showed me some ginseng jelly candy. It didn’t sound like anything I wanted.

She opened the package and handed me one of the cubes. Then she gave one to Vera. Vera liked it and bought a pack. I didn’t think it tasted bad, so I bought some too. I got one pack for me and 2 packs as omiyage for my co-workers. (Once I was back in Japan the ginseng jelly candy didn’t taste as good as it did in Korea. My co-workers hardly touched the stuff, preferring instead to sample the fruit candy I got them from China.)

Next I asked the lady for water, a word I know in Korean. She pointed me to where it was. As I picked up a couple bottles, I noticed some chocolate bars. They had Russian writing on them. There were only 4 of them. I bought one and announced to everyone else that there were chocolate bars for sale. The rest of the bars were sold out shortly afterwards.

Everyday Citizens

We had breakfast at the hotel; rice, Korean omelets, vegetables, and… duck. Afterwards we packed up our stuff and put it on the bus. We were still waiting for everyone when I saw several guys from our group walking out the gates. I didn’t know we were allowed to leave the hotel gates, but since they were doing it I followed.

We didn’t go far. There wasn’t much to see other than the poster at the top of this post. We all snapped photos of that and a couple other shots of the area. Then Ms. Lee came running after us. “Stop! Stop! Stop!” We had taken photos of people and that was a big no-no.

I was a bit confused. We took many photos of random people on the streets of Pyongyang. How was this different? But, rather than say anything, I slinked back through the gates and boarded the bus. I put away my camera and sat there quietly waiting for the bus to start moving. One or two people deleted their photos, but they were not asked to.

You like propaganda? We got your propaganda right here!

You like that?

The first stop on today’s tour was at a propaganda poster and stamp shop. This place was amazing. This was where everyone in our group spent most of their money. Some bought posters, some bought books of posters, others bought stamps or stamp books. I bought postcards.

I wanted to get a postcard for all my friends and family back home, but I also wanted to mail the postcards from North Korea. That meant that I could only get postcards for people whose addresses I had memorized or written in the notebook I keep with me. If I had internet access I would have gotten so many more postcards.

I picked out 6 postcards. I would send one to my mom, one to my brother, one to my sister, and three to Mark. I went over to the counter and asked for stamps, but the lady there spoke no English. I called Ms. Lee over and asked her to translate.

Ms. Lee – “What do you want?”

me – “I would like to buy some stamps? Do they sell stamps for mailing here?”

Ms. Lee – “Yes they do. What are you going to mail?”

me – “These postcards.” I showed her my postcards.

Ms. Lee – “You want to mail these? Where will you send them?”

me – “These to the US and these to Japan.”

Ms. Lee looked at one of the postcards with a Japanese soldier being bayoneted.

Ms. Lee – “Are you sure you want to send this to Japan? Won’t you like one with Korean flowers instead?”

me – “No. These are better!”

Posters from North Korea sent to Mark

The sales lady opened a book filled with stamps. They had many propaganda stamps. Some had the same pictures as the postcards. I picked out my stamps. The lady at the counter asked where I was from. “미국입니다 (I’m American),” I said as I paid for my stuff. She looked at my purchase and shrugged as if to say, “Whatever, as long as you buy stuff.”

I labeled the postcards to Mark, 1, 2, and 3. Postcards 1 and 3 got to Mark about 3 weeks after I got back to Japan. Post card 2 took 2 months to be delivered. All North Korean mail goes through China. Since #2 had a couple lines criticizing Beijing, my guess is that China held onto it for a little while. But, that’s only my guess.

A rack of amazingness, that’s what that is!

Did they just leave!?

After paying for my postcards I continued browsing. I was looking at some paintings when a girl from the group wearing flip-flops asked me if I knew where the bathroom was. I didn’t, but I thought that I would join her in finding one. We found a lady in a hanbok… (I mean chosonot) and she told us to go through some ominous-looking door and head to the back of the building. It seemed a bit sketchy, but a lady in a chosonot told us to go there and if anything happened that would be our defense.

Flip-flops and I went through the door and walked down a hall and up another and made a turn and solved a riddle and finally found a bathroom. We were going to take turns, first her then me, but the task of using this bathroom needed more strategy than that.

There were 2 doors, a main door and a door for the one bathroom stall. The door for the stall refused to stay closed and the main door refused to stay open. There was no light in the bathroom, so the main door needed to stay open. Which meant that other door needed to be closed. There was no way to use this bathroom on one’s own without a flash light. So we took turns using the facilities with the other holding one door shut and the other door open.

Once done we made our way back through the maze. By the time Flip-flops and I were back in the shop no one but the shopkeeper was there. She stood there smiling at us and waving goodbye. We thanked her and made our way through the front door.

As I opened the door I could see where our bus used to be parked. We looked down the road. There was a cloud of dirt being kicked up by our bus as it headed for the main road. “What!? They left us!” Flip-flops shouted in a thick Australian accent. “How could they leave us? Don’t they count heads?” Then she took off running after the bus.

I didn’t think they were actually leaving us behind, but if she ran I guess I should too… So, I ran after her.

The bus stopped and let us on. Everyone applauded as we walked to our seats. I looked at Vera. She told me, “I was wondering why we stopped. I didn’t know you weren’t on the bus.”

Me – “Wait, what!?”

The western guide sat in the seat next to mine. “I knew you guys weren’t on the bus. I was just messing with you. I knew. Really, I knew.” Something about his insistence made me doubt him just a little bit.

“Have you ever actually left someone behind?” I asked. He chuckled, “Yes, once. I only noticed after I got a ring on my mobile from another tour guide.” I looked shocked. “He was okay. He got a ride with the other group.” He said this, but I knew he was joking.

The tours are advertised as having no more  than 20 people in a group. So if 50 people sign up for a particular tour, they would be split into 3 groups. Our tour was split into 2 groups; group A, my group, and group B. Both groups see the same stuff each day, just in different order. While we were at the poster shop, group B was at the museum and visa-versa. So, if Flip-flops and I were really left behind we could have just waited for group B to show up.

(I’m not even going to think about what would have happened if we got left behind at the museum after both groups had already seen it. Hopefully, Flip-flops and I would have made new lives for ourselves in the workers’ paradise selling propaganda postcards.)

The twins and their friends trying to encircle a tree

This also brings up the topic of cell phones in the DPRK. Our western tour guides were in constant contact with each other and with their support team back in China. The Korean guides also had cell phones and received a few calls from the other Korean tour guides.

Our western guide told me, “Our phones come from China, but they work here in North Korea. I can call Beijing or I can call my guy (the western guide for group B) here in Korea. But I cannot call Mr. Park or Ms. Lee. They have DPRK phones. DPRK phones cannot call Chinese phones. So If I need to call Mr. Hyun (a Korean guide for group B) I have to call my guy and have him pass his phone to Mr. Hyun.”

Mr. Park translating what the museum guide says

Next we went to the museum to look at Korean relics. There was a museum tour guide who, along with Mr. Park, gave us lots of information. But I could never get close enough to either of them to really hear what was being said. So, I hung back and just took photos.

I started to lag behind. It was pretty much me, the camera man, and intern Kim at the back of the pack. I began to suspect that the camera man didn’t speak any English. Up to that point I had never heard him speak. He mostly kept to himself and smiled a lot. Intern Kim, however, struck up a conversation with me.

She knew I lived in Japan, so she asked me about the city I lived in. “Is it bigger than Pyongyang?”

Me – “No! I live in the boonies.”

Intern Kim – “The what?”

Me – “The countryside. It’s a small town.”

I tried to describe Oita for her by answering her, “Does it have a…” questions. “Yes. It has a several train stations, many buses, pools, shopping, a highway, but it’s still a very small town. I don’t know if it has more people than Pyongyang, but there is way more traffic.” (Pyongyang doesn’t have much traffic.)

Illegal photo

Delete your photos now!

We got back in the bus. Our next stop was the tomb of King Kongmin, the 31st king of one of the many dynasties of Korea. (I’m really bad at history. In school I was very thankful that my own country was just a little over 200 years old, because that’s about as far as my attention spans goes for history.)

On the drive there we passed many farmers working in the fields. Well actually, the day before we learned that they were not farmers, in that they do not own farms, but that they were soldiers working on farms. “Everyone works on the farm,” Ms. Lee told us, “even I do.” We looked at her aghast. “Yes, Mr. Park too!” she said. “It’s good exercise for me,” Mr. Park said flexing his muscles.

The western guide stood up and told everyone on the bus that city-dwelling Koreans take about 2 weeks out of each year and go to the countryside where they help plant or sow. Everyone does it. It’s like a community thing.

The bus continued along a windy path and everyone gazed out the window. People took photos here and there when something somewhat interesting came into view. There wasn’t much to photograph. It all looked like bare land right before planting. So when we found a relatively large group of people farming we all got our cameras out.

Then I heard Ms. Lee screaming. She was very angry. I had never seen her angry before. Even this morning when we took photos of “everyday people” she wasn’t angry. “I said no photos of military buildings!”

Everyone looked around. “What military buildings?” we asked each other. She pointed to the building in the photo above. “We had an agreement!” she yelled. She went on lecturing us for several minutes. “I know you don’t understand, but it is very important that you follow the rules,” she said as she walk down the aisle of the bus. This time she did make some people delete their photos, but she didn’t see me.

I wasn’t even taking a photo of the building. I wanted a photo of the people. If she hadn’t said anything, I would never have guessed that that was a military building. In fact, I think she might have been mistaken. Why would anyone put a military building out in the open like that; no guards, no fence. I still think it was just a place for the farmers/soldiers to keep their equipment — unless that is what makes it a military building…

Walking to the tombs

So… Tell me about Seoul.

When we got to the tombs the bus parked at the bottom of the hill and we had to walk the rest of the way. Ms. Lee apologized for us having to do such an arduous task. “Oh, don’t worry about it,” I told her, “When I lived in Korea I knew that everything worth seeing was up some mountain or another.”

She smiled at me and asked, “Did you live in Pyongyang or Kaesong?” “Nampo,” I replied, “I prefer living by the beach.” She laughed. “How long did you live in South Korea?” she asked, emphasizing the word “south”. “Two years,” I said, “but my Korean is still very limited.” Intern Kim joined the conversation by asking, “Where did you live in South Korea?”

Me – “Seoul.”

Intern Kim – “Did you like living in Seoul.”

Me – “Yes. Seoul is one of the best places I’ve ever lived!”

Ms. Lee – “Do you like Korean food?”

Me – “Yes. I love it. I was in Seoul for winter vacation and I visited all my favorite restaurants again.”

Intern Kim – “What Korean food do you like?”

Me – “Oh, the best by far is gamjatang, then jjimdak, then maybe chapchae.”

They looked at me like they had never even heard of these dishes. I tried describing them, but I don’t think it helped.

Ms. Lee – “Have you had raengmyeon; cold noodles?”

Me – “I’ve tried it, but. I don’t really like cold food.”

Intern Kim – “They have raengmyeon in South Korea?”

Me – “Yes. They eat it mostly in the summer.”

They asked about other dishes, “Do they have _____ in South Korea too?” I answered all their questions as best as I could. Then one of them asked, “Do they have western food in the south?” “Yes,” I replied, almost giggling, “they have just about anything you can think of; American food, Japanese food, Chinese food, Thai food, Moroccan food….”

“They have Japanese food!?” They seemed almost scandalized. Then one of them asked, as if she had a most ridiculous thought, “Do they have Korean food in Japan?” “Yes,” I said, “There are at least 3 Korean restaurants I can think of in my town alone.” “The town in the countryside?” asked Intern Kim seriously. “…Yes.”

Oh, those foolish Japanese!

Another Story about the Tombs

When we got to the top where the tombs were, Ms. Lee told us a story.

“As you know, the Japanese invaded Korea. When they found these tombs they knew there was treasure inside. They walked around the tombs, but they could not figure out how to get in. They grabbed a farmer and demanded to know where the opening was. The farmer would not tell them, so the Japanese killed him.

Then they got some children. They asked the children where the opening was, but the children refused to say anything to the Japanese even after they were tortured. They grabbed many more people, but no one would tell the Japanese where the opening was. No one wanted to Japanese to steal the treasure inside. It was for Korean people only!”

Then she asked us if we could figure out where the opening was.

Is that the opening?

Everyone walked around and around the mounds looking for the opening. I began to wonder why the Japanese needed to look for an opening. The top is made of grass and dirt. The rest is made of stone. One could simply disassemble it with a good pick-ax and a shovel.

After we had all given up or given our incorrect guesses, Ms. Lee showed us where the opening was. It was not a puzzle. You either knew where it was or you didn’t, so there was no way to have figured it out.

“So the Japanese could not get the treasure then?” someone asked, “It’s still inside after all these years?” “No. The Japanese used dynamite and blew it up.” Ms. Lee said. “And the treasure?” we asked. Ms. Lee sighed, “…in Japan somewhere I suppose. All this was rebuilt after the Japanese left.”

“So the Japanese weren’t so stupid after all,” I whispered to Vera, “they got what they came for.” “Yes, but if you’re used to repeating propaganda,” Vera whispered back, “you don’t realize what you’re really telling people when you repeat a story.”

We’ll show you how to end a war!

The Other Side of the DMZ

Here is what I know about the Korean war. Just keep in mind that I am not a historian. I’m just a woman who reads a lot of books about China, North Korea, and their leaders.

According to Mao: The Unknown Story, the Korean war was started by Kim Il-Sung. He first went to Stalin for help in invading the south. Stalin didn’t really want to get into a war with the US, which is pretty much what this would turn into, so he just ignored Kim.

Kim then went to Mao and asked Mao for help with his invasion. Mao was all about that! He couldn’t care less about reuniting the Koreans. He just loved conflict. Besides, he had some ex-Kuomintang soldiers he wanted to put on the front line as cannon fodder.

He also wanted people to see China as a threat and hopefully, if things went his way, he could somehow work this into him becoming the leader of international communism taking Stalin’s place. But most of all, he thought that with this war, Russia would finally give him the secrets to making nuclear bombs.

(According to Only Beautiful, Please there is a museum in Dandong, China that has the actual letter that Kim Il-Sung wrote to Mao asking for help to start the war. When North Korea tested nuclear weapons against China’s wishes it really pissed the Chinese off. China being the only one to ever side with the DPRK in the who-started-the-Korean-war debate put the letter on display as proof that North Korea started the war to get back at their little communist brothers.)

Stalin was excited when he heard that Mao would get involved. He would not have to do anything. China would provide all the manpower and support. With China’s complete disregard to their own soldiers’ lives, they would end up killing tons of Americans by any means necessary. Stalin, however, never gave Mao any nuclear secrets. Mao would have to wait for Kruschev.

On our way to the DMZ

In the end no one won. Nobody got what they wanted and all countries involved were worst off for the war, or police action as the US called it. About a year and a half into the war Kim Il-Sung wanted to call it quits. He had not counted on the US carpet bombing his country. All the factories, mines, roads, and other things needed for industry the country had were blown to bits.

But Mao wanted to continue. Even though he had lost his own son, Mao Anying, in the war he still kept things going by asking for more and more concessions. Mao dragged the war out for another year and a half. In 1953 they agreed to an armistice, so the fighting stopped, but the war never ended.

A lot of propaganda for such a tiny room

Once at the DMZ we were given many lectures on the “real” history of the war. Up until this point, the tour had only a minimum amount of propaganda. On the bus ride from King Kongmin’s tomb to the DMZ, Ms. Lee told us that she knew no one believes North Korea’s side of the story, so she wasn’t going to bring it up now.

Instead, she wanted to focus on things that we all agreed were true. She talked about the people who lived in the area and their farms. Then she talked about the DMZ tour from the South Korean side and how restrictive it is. She talked about how in the past, North and South Korea had little squabbles at the DMZ. All of this is true.

Kijong-dong as seen from South Korea

However there was no mention of Propaganda City. It was built to be easily seen from South Korea and is part of the ROK DMZ tour, along with one of the many tunnels that the DPRK has dug trying to get to Seoul. If only North Korea knew how much money South Korea was making off their failed espionage attempts!

I tried asking Ms. Lee about Kijong-dong as indirectly as possible. “What about the people who live in Panmunjom within the DMZ? I hear the farming there is really good…”

I know that on the South Korean side, there are farmers who live within the DMZ . They are tax exempt and make about $80,000 a year, but they must follow several strict rules to keep their farms. I wanted to know about Propaganda Village or if North Korea had a similar farming community.

But, Ms. Lee evaded my question, by pointing to the farms we could see from the bus. We were not yet near the DMZ at the time. I did not push the matter further.

Finally, a photo of our whole group, with some of group B in the background.

But at the DMZ the propaganda was laid on so thick that I lost interest. Instead of listening to the DMZ tour guide, I wandered off on my own to take photos. After a while I was joined by Mr. Park.

Mr. Park – “Don’t you want to listen?”

Me – “I know it all already.”

Mr. Park noticed my ring.

Mr. Park – “You are married.”

Me – “Yes.”

Mr. Park – “Why didn’t your husband come with you on this trip?”

Me – “He was scared. He was born in South Korea.”

Mr. Park – “He is Korean?”

Me – “Korean-American.”

Mr. Park – “If he is American he can come here. Next time, bring him.”

Mr. Park and I vaguely talked about family, friends, and life without saying much. All I remember about him now, is that he had a wife and he was a party member.

The little blue room of tension (the one in the middle)

I was looking forward to going back to the little blue room of tension. I had been in it before on a South Korean tour of the DMZ. But, we were told that we could not see it today. According to the DMZ soldier showing us around, there was some quarrel between the two Koreas at the time. Because of that South Korea locked the door to the building and North Korea didn’t have a copy of the key and couldn’t get in.

So many little bowls

Where do I begin?

The trip offered an opportunity to try dog. I’ve turned down many chances at eating bosintang when I lived in Seoul and I’ve never regretted it. I declined the dog soup. We were also given an option to have samgyetang, a dish that I think is okay at best. The cost for it here was 30 euros. I didn’t think it was worth it. I opted for no add-ons to my meal.

We were given an assortment of banchan in small metal bowls along with a hot bowl of noodles in a light broth. After I had eaten everything, even the stuff I didn’t like, I still felt hungry. Just when I was regretting not getting an extra dish, they brought out a simple chicken stew. It did the trick.

my soup and banchan

Top row: ??, kim, sweet sticky rice with beans

Middle row: fried tofu, ojingeochae bokkeum, some sort of egg concoction,  …duck

Bottom row: spinach, soybean sprouts,  muk, watery kimchi

I didn’t really like many of the dishes. I found most of them to be either bland, like the noodle soup, or too sweet like the rice, egg thing, duck, and ojingeochae. But, I didn’t come to North Korea for the food, so I wasn’t too bothered.

Vera dressed up for Kim Il-Sung.

How many statues does this guy need?

After lunch both groups A and B, walked up the hill to see yet another statue of the Great Leader. We came just in time to catch a newly married couple paying homage to the metal lord and taking photos. At first we tried to respect their privacy and move around them to take photos, but the guides kept pointing them out. It was like they wanted us to take photos of the couple. So, I guess they weren’t “everyday Koreans”.

Then we were led along a path towards a shady area. From there we could look down at Kaesong Old City. We took a few photos of our view, but something grabbed our attention.

“Who are these dancing people?” “Why are they here?” “Don’t they have jobs?” The groups had become very suspicious of our guides and the people around us. “Who told them to come here?” “Do they get paid to act happy?” We all whispered these questions among ourselves.

We were encouraged to dance with them, but we did not want to. Finally group B’s western guide walked to the middle of the group and started a little jig. He was so tall and lanky at about 7 feet some inches and he could not dance. That alone was enjoyable to watch. His dance kind of mellowed out everyone. We were still not buying that everyone around us just happened to be here, but at least now everyone was willing to act like this was normal.

Photo taking from the bus

Oh, just take a little bite…

We got back on the bus. As we pulled away the dancers and the wedding couple stood on the side of the road and waved to us. “Why was the couple still here?” It was a bit bizarre.

We drove on the wrong side of the road and then on the correct side of the road. We past checkpoints and people walking in the road. Some people rode motorbikes; most rode bicycles. A few people pulled large farm animals behind them as they walked. Every now and then we would overtake an old rusty bus jam-packed with people. They looked at us with expressionless faces.

Russian Chocolate

“Hey! Hey!” boomed a voice from the back of the bus. “Has anyone tried that Russian chocolate?” “Not yet,” I said. “Open it and try it now,” the person giggled.

I took out my chocolate bar. It looked promising. Once the wrapping was open, things didn’t look right. The chocolate was brown, but the wrong shade of brown. Still I broke off a piece and tasted it. “Oh no! This is horrible.” It didn’t taste like chocolate should. If there was such a thing as imitation chocolate, this is what it would taste like.

Someone looked at their bar’s wrapper. “What do you think the 2002 means?” “Do you think that’s the year the chocolate was made?” “No”, answered someone, “that’s the year the chocolate factory was closed down by the Russian health inspectors.”

I didn’t want to just throw away food, even bad chocolate, so I wrapped my bar back up and put it in my backpack. I dumped it as soon as I got to China.

Anything to get off the bus!

So underwhelming

The next stop was a the Reunification Arch. I had been looking forward to seeing it since I lived in South Korea. We all got out the bus and took a few photos. After about 4 photos I was done. That’s it.

After a short 10 minutes, it was time to go. There was nothing more to do at the sight, but I didn’t want to get back on the bus.

Who’s the builder here?

About Pyongyang

There were a few things I noticed about Pyongyang. First, the buildings didn’t look like buildings anywhere else. They all had a homemade quality about them. You know how you can tell when a dress was sewn by hand. No matter how good the stitching is there is just something a little off. That’s kind of how the buildings looked. Even the nicer buildings downtown looked homemade.

Second, was that only the front of the front row of the downtown buildings on the main street were painted. All the other sides and the buildings behind the main street builds were cement gray. This gave the area a very unfinished look.

The third odd thing was the people planting everywhere. On the sidewalks there would be people swinging hoes to till the soil. I’m not sure what they were planting; I’m guessing grass since there were many grassless patches throughout the city.

Remember that time when North Korea went into space?

The Kids

The next thing was the kid’s show at Mangyongdae Children’s Palace. It was a far cry from the circus. There were very few if any mistakes made by the performers. Mind you, that the kids didn’t really do any acrobatics.  But with all the near misses I saw during my first show in Pyongyang, I was expecting someone to drop something or mess up in some way. But, nope!

I could tell that the kids practice day and night. Everything was perfect. There wasn’t even a hair out of place! Everyone hit their marks. Everyone played or sang with intensity. The kids were scary-good and it made a good show. I just hope the kids are happy…

Hey kids!

The kids in the audience seemed to enjoy the show. Other than our groups A and B and a few other tours, the place was filled with children; no parents. I’m not sure if they were just here to watch the show or if they were also performers, maybe with the night off. They all wore uniforms and kept themselves in little herds.

They seemed shy but curious about us. I went over to a chandelier to get a closer look at it. I heard giggles and whispers above my head. I looked up and saw a bunch of kids. They quickly ducked. I stood there waving at them. Most of them came back and returned my wave. I snapped a picture and more came.

Is that supposed to be food?

Who knows where we’ll go next!?

Next we went to a bar. We started out with an itinerary but that was tossed out days ago. Sometimes we went to places on the itinerary, sometimes we went to places not on the itinerary. This was one that was not on the itinerary.

There was a bar section and an area for hermits who don’t really want to mingle with others. We went to the hermitty booths area. We were given a fish and some people ordered beer. I hate beer so I focus more on the fish.

We weren’t sure if it was food or not. It was dried fish, but it had more of a cardboard texture rather than a dried fish texture. We asked someone on the wait staff, “Are we meant to eat this?” We were assured that it was in fact food.

Like this, maybe?

We tried to eat it. One person tried to bite it, but could not. Several of us ripped strips of the fish off and put it into our mouths. It was almost impossible to chew.

Like this.

One of the waitresses saw us and came over to help. She gave us a small bowl of sauce and placed a strip of fish in it. She waited for a moment then indicated that someone should eat it.

oh…

Once it was rehydrated it had more of a fish-like texture. This made it easier to eat.

Nope. Don’t like it.

It still tasted bad…

grillin’ time!

You’ve never heard of it?

For dinner we went to the KITC Restaurant. We were to eat Korean barbecue. Each table had almost everything one needs for Korean barbeque. There were lettuce leaves. There was gochujang, dipping sauces, soup, and raw meat; pork and… duck. The only thing missing was ssamjang.

Vera and I sat at a table with some French guys who lived in Hong Kong. As we were talking Ms. Lee walked around to each table to make sure everything was going smoothly with the grills. When she got to my table she asked me if I needed anything. “Do they have ssamjang?” I asked. Ms. Lee looked puzzled and asked, “What is that?”

“It’s a type of paste like gochujang, but it’s not made with red peppers,” I told her. “Is it like ketchup?” She seemed to really not know what it was. “It’s a Korean thing. You eat vegetables with it.” “Oh,” she said, “You want gochujang.” “No,” I insisted, “ssamjang is different; it’s salty. You eat it with samgyeopsal or galbi, but it’s really great with hot peppers.” “Are you sure you’re not thinking of gochujang?”

“Yes,” I conceded, “I must have been thinking of gochujang.”

All Pictures


 

North Korea
(조선민주주의인민공화국)
(Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk) 

How to get there:

The laws about who can get a visa to the DPRK change often. At the time of our trip, the Japanese were allowed in, but the Chinese were not. But, South Koreans are never allowed in. Korean-Americans, however, are welcomed, if they use their US passport for entry.

Phone:

You won’t get to use the phone. But if you need to know, the emergency numbers are 112 and 119.

Website:

Videos:

Books:

If you can read Korean: Kingdom of Kim (There is no English version of this book yet. I would love to find one.)

Notes:

NEVER NEVER NEVER bring a bible to North Korea!


The Kaesong Folk Hotel
Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel
(개성민속여관)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 37°58’36.0″N 126°33’11.1″E

Website:

Notes:

  • Forget about getting a decent shower here. There are neither showers nor hot water. If you get a functioning sink, consider yourself lucky.
  • There is a souvenir shop at the entrance to this hotel.
  • You will be sleeping the traditional, old-timey Korean way, on the floor with heating provided by an ondol.

Koryo Museum
Propaganda Shop 
Koryo Songgyungwan University
(고려 성균관 대학교)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 37°58’52.0″N 126°33’58.2″E (maybe, or somewhere near here)

Websites:

Video:

Notes:

  • This museum is either near or part of a university which was founded in 992 AD.
  • The propaganda shop is near the museum. 

Tomb of King Kongmin
(공민왕릉)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 37°58’55.5″N 126°28’22.5″E

Website:

Video:

Notes:

  • There are 2 mounds here.
  • One mound used to have the remains of Kongmin, 31st king of the Koryo Dynasty. There other used to contain his wife’s remains.

There’s an interesting story that goes with the mounds. When King Kongmin’s wife died he wanted to bury her in the perfect spot. The king offered to honor anything requested by anyone who could find this ideal burial place for him. People kept suggesting spots, but none satisfied the king. The king became very annoyed by so many bad suggestions.

Then one guy told the king that he had found the perfect spot. “It’s just up this mountain.” So the king went up the mountain while the guy stayed below with the king’s guards. The king, tired of being jerked around, gave the order to have the guy killed if the burial spot was not to his liking. To signal his displeasure the king would wave his hanky.

The king climb the mountain and he loved the spot. It was perfect! But it was such a long climb and such a hot day that the king’s forehead became quite sweaty. So he took out his hanky and wiped his forehead.

The guards below saw the king wiping his forehead and mistook it for a wave. They killed the guy immediately.

When the king came back down and found out what had happened he exclaimed, “Oh my!” So now the mountain is called the Korean equivalent of  The “Oh my!” Mountain.


The DMZ
(한반도 비무장지대)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 37°57’22.0″N 126°40’36.9″E

Website:

Videos:

Notes:

  • Although there a many rules for dress and behavior when visiting the DMZ on the South Korean side, there are no such rules on the North Korean side.
  • You will only see ROK or US soldiers on the South Korean side if there are tours being conducted there at the time.
  • There is a gift shop nearby incase you want your propaganda in t-shirt or candy form.

The Tongil Restaurant

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 37°58’21.1″N 126°33’26.7″E

Website:

Video:

Notes:

  • This is where you can try dog soup for an extra 5 euros.
  • You can also try samgyetang for an extra 30 euros.
  • You can also have neither. The basic meal is still quite a lot of food.
  • Or you can split an extra option with someone.
  • I think you have to order the extra dishes ahead of time.
  • The meal is mostly made up of many side dishes, noodles, and soup.
    • The side dishes will be different for different tours. It depends what’s in season.

Kim Il Sung Monument

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 37°58’36.9″N 126°33’31.8″E
  • You can walk here from the Tongil Restaurant.

Notes:

  • You can see Kaesong Old town form a nearby look-out.
  • I heard that at night this is the only thing in town that has light.
  • You might see newlyweds out for a photo-op here.
  • I’m going to guess that you will also see groups of dancing picnickers.
  • This statue was made in 1968.
  • The statue is on Janam Mountain.
  • Not too far from the statue you will find the Kwando Pavilion.

At the bottom of the hill, you may have an opportunity to see a traffic boy. In Pyongyang, you see traffic girls all the time. But, only outside of the capitol will you ever see a traffic boy. The key is to find a place outside of Pyongyang that has traffic…


Monument to the Three Charters
Arch of Reunification
(조국통일3대헌장기념탑)
(Joguk Tongil Samdae Heonjang Ginyeomtap)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 38°57’52.1″N 125°42’56.4″E

Websites:

Notes:

  • It opened in August 2001
  • One woman represents North Korea, the other South Korea.
  • It takes but a few minutes to see this. Snap some photos then you’ll be on your way.

Mangyongdae Children’s Palace
Mangyongdae School Children’s Palace
(만경대학생소년궁전)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°00’50.0″N 125°39’32.0″E

Websites:

Video:

Notes:

  •  Kids sing and dance, play instruments, to a little acrobatics, and show you how much they love Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un.
  • They ask for 2 volunteers during the show to come up on stage.
  • You can buy a video of the show in the lobby, but it might not be a video of the show you just watched.

Taedonggang No.3 Bar
(대동강제3술집)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 38°59’38.7″N 125°48’34.1″E

Website:

Notes:

  • This bar was recently remodeled.
  • They serve 7 types of beer.

There were no bars on our original itinerary. So, I’m not completely sure that this is where we went. I know we went to a bar that was close to the factory that made the beer it served. And, that the bar we visited had many types of locally made beer. That sounds a lot like Taedonggang #3 Bar, so that’s my guess.


 KITC Restaurant in Mangyongdae

How to get there:

  • Coordinates ???
  • Sorry. I just can’t find any information on this place.

When I went there it was night, so I can’t even tell you what the area around it looks like.

Notes:

  • KITC stands for Korean International Travel Company.
  • If the lights go out, you will be given a flashlight.

Finding information about the places we visited in North Korea is so hard. There were some things I knew already, because I’ve read a lot of books about North Korea. But some things I don’t know, like the exact location of things… If google can’t find it, it can’t be found.

Map:

Posted in Kaesong, North Korea, Panmunjeom, Pyongyang | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Schedule Has Been Changed

Posted by Heliocentrism on July 11, 2014

May 1, 2013

All Pictures

OMG, I woke up in North Korea this morning!

We leave at 7:30

I woke up early my first morning in the DPRK. Vera got up even earlier than I did and was in the middle of her morning exercise routine when I rolled out of bed.  We showered and got ready for a day in Pyongyang then went down for breakfast.

There were all sorts of food, mostly Chinese and Korean food. It was served buffet-style so, Vera and I stood in line. I got scrambled eggs with some Chinese steamed rolls and vegetables along with a glass of orange juice.

Somewhere between getting in line and getting my drink I lost Vera. I stood in the eatery with my plate and cup in my hand scanning the many tourists and tour groups for her. But, I could not find her. Losing interest in my quest to find Vera I found an empty chair at a table of Norwegians and sat down.

They were a group from a class on international relations at a university back in Norway. This was their end of the semester field trip. I told them, “If there was a class at my school that came with a field trip to Pyongyang at the end, I would have most definitely signed up for it, even though I was a math major.”

“Oh, you studied maths!?” one of the students ask. He was about to graduate and thinking about moving to another field of study for grad-school. He wanted to know all about studying math and fluid dynamics, which I studied in grad-school, and other academic things. I liked where this conversation was going even though it thoroughly bored everyone else at the table. I spent most of my time talking with the eager student and I hadn’t gotten far into my meal when Vera found me.

She stood at my table with another tourist from our group. They seemed a little frazzled.

Vera – “Josie, they’re looking for everyone. We’re leaving now!”

me – “We have a good 15 to 20 minutes. We don’t leave ’til 7:30.”

Guy – “Plans have changed. We are leaving now and we’re going to Kaesong tonight.”

Vera – “We have to get all our stuff and check-out of the hotel. Right now!”

I looked down at my plate. It was still filled with food. I drank my orange juice in one gulp and took the steamed rolls leaving the eggs behind and followed Vera.

As we were passing the counter of the bar for the restaurant we saw other people from our tour. Vera told them about the change in schedule. “We know. We’re just trying to get some bottles of water, but they don’t know how to sell it to us.”

“We need water too,” I told Vera, “we’re almost out.” So, we split up. Vera went to our room and packed all our stuff and I did what I could to get 4 bottles of water. I don’t remember exactly what the problem was. They clearly had water and the water was definitely for sale but for some reason they didn’t know how to make the money for goods exchange. (Communists…) Eventually they sold us several bottles and we headed to the tour bus.

Our western tour guide wore a zombie T-shirt today.

Babylon by Bus 

The bus was where we spent most of our time in North Korea. We would talk and joke around as the DPRK scenery whizzed by us. Most of what we learned about Korea and Korean life was told to us in the bus. On the ride to our first sight to see in the DPRK we were given a quick tour of things we happened to pass by.

Ms. Lee pointed out swimming pools, opera houses, stadiums, and many other things. She also gave us some trivia or statistics about each building we could see out of the windows on every bus ride. But there was so much information, I could not remember it all. But my ears perked up one day when she said, “Over there is the Pyongyang Number 1 Pizza Shop.”

Me – “Have you had pizza from there?”

Ms. Lee – “Oh yes. It is a very popular restaurant. The chef there was taught how to make pizza by Italian pizza making experts.”

Me – “Did you like it?”

Ms. Lee – “Yes. It is good, but I prefer Korean food.”

Me – “Do they deliver?”

Ms. Lee – “No.”

Then the western guide (WG) told us that although the pizza place does not deliver, you can still have pizza delivered to you. “You can hire a taxi. You pay to have the taxi driver go to the pizza place, pick up the pizza, and then drive it to you.”

Me – “Can we do that on this trip?”

WG – “If you’re willing to pay or you can get enough people to chip in… maybe.”

I started my campaign. I asked everyone around me if they were willing to order a pizza with me. They all said they were up for it and the guides said that they’ll see what they could do. If there was pizza in Pyongyang to be had, damn it, I was going to have some!

Most of our tour group. Some people wandered off.

Stay together

We went to the Mansudea Grand Monument to pay our respects to the statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. We were sort of let loose and were able to walk around and explore the area. When it was picture time we couldn’t find some of our group. Rather than look for them or, at the very least wait for them, we just took the photo without them.

I thought that while I was in North Korea I would be followed everywhere I went. If I strayed too far from my group someone would come get me. This did not happen. There was many times when I stopped to read or look at something for a few minutes and then looked up to see that my group had left me. It didn’t happen often, but maybe 2 or 3 times I could not see anyone I knew around me.

I’m sure that if I did try to run away from my tour group someone would have stepped in. Maybe I was followed and just didn’t notice it, but I didn’t feel like I was. Neither did I ever feel scared. I knew I was perfectly safe.

This did remind me of a part of Wild Swans where some foreigner visiting China in the 70’s loses his wallet. After going back to his hotel and finding his wallet waiting for him in his hotel room with all its contents, he expresses surprise at how honest the Chinese are thanks to the communists. The author said that only happened because the guy was a foreigner. No one would dare steal from a foreigner in Mao’s China.

I was perfectly safe because I was a foreigner (who was following the rules and did not bring in a bible or talk about religion…)

playing frisbees with North Koreans

Why don’t you try the rollercoaster?

We were then taken to the Mt. Taesong Amusement Park. There were some old-fashioned roller coasters that were probably several decades old. The guides strongly encouraged us to try them. No one seemed keen, though I think a few would have tried it if someone else would have gone first. But since no one wanted to be first…

Ms. Lee – “Why don’t you try the roller coaster?”

Me – “Ummm… Is is safe?

Ms. Lee – “Of course it’s safe!”

Me – “Are you going to go on the coaster?”

Ms. Lee – “No. I don’t like coasters.”

Korean treats

Our group walked around the park and was soon completely dispersed among the crowd of Koreans. Since I didn’t have much breakfast I started looking for a food vendor. There wasn’t much to choose from. I passed a few stalls, but I didn’t recognize any of the Korean food there. I wanted kimbap or dukbokki but there was none.

Then I found a vendor selling fried dough that looked like churros. I asked the lady at the booth how much they were in Korean. She handed me a sign with the prices in yuan. It didn’t cost much; I asked for two. She sprinkled more sugar over the doughy delights and handed them to me. They tasted a lot like churros but without cinnamon.

Hey, you have to try this!

It’s your job to finish it.

We were suppose to meet back at the bus at noon. Vera and I and some others from our tour gathered by the bus. Someone in our group came up to me and said, “You won’t believe this. You have to try it!” Then he handed me a bottle of soda.

I tasted it. It tasted like pineapple bubblegum and toothpaste. “That’s awful!” Vera looked at me. “Let me try.” I gave her the soda. “Wow, that is really bad.”

Everyone tried some. No one liked it. The last person tried to hand the bottle back to the owner. “Nope. It’s yours now.”

While in North Korea, we tried not to waste food. No matter how bad something was, as long as it wasn’t rotten, we tried to eat all of it, especially when we were out in public. The guy in the photo above was the one who got stuck with finishing the bottle.

a lost member of our group

Near where the bus was park were some lovely steps. We were told that there was a cemetery at the other end of the steps. It was a long way up, so I was not to interested in climbing up there. But Vera and a few other people decided to race up the steps to see what they could see while we waited for the last member of our group to find his way to the bus.  Vera said that when they got to the top, an official told them that they had to leave. They weren’t allowed up there.

Later I learned that Kim Jong-Il’s mother and grandmother were buried there.

Korean picnic

Korean Barbeque 

For lunch we hiked up a hill to a picnic spot. There was quite a lot of food and we all felt very full afterwards. I was happy to try North Korean kimchi for the first time. It tasted just like South Korean kimchi.

We were also served curry and rice which tasted just like Japanese curry and rice. We were given fish and squid to grill, but the main meat was duck. Actually, duck was the main meat in almost every meal we had in the DPRK.

DPRK Cola: for the thirsty anti-imperialist

Along with the change of schedule, there was also a change in our itinerary. We were no longer going to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun where Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are on display. We were all very disappointed about that. It’s not like many of us would ever return to North Korea.

Before the show

The Big Top

They took us to the circus. Our group sat in 2 rows and we were surrounded by other tour groups. In front of us was a tour group of Russians. Koreans filled up the other sections of the audience and were already there, seated and waiting, when we arrived.

We were told specifically that we were allowed to take as many photos as we liked before the show. But, once the lights were turned off and the show began, no photography was allowed.

The lights went off and the show began. There was an obvious glow from a camera’s view screen in the row in front of me and the click, click, click of photos being taken. North Korean handlers from many different tour groups swarmed in. “No photos!” someone whispered loudly. Then someone in my tour group down the row softly exclaimed, “It’s Pinky!”

“Damn it Pinky!” we groaned.

The “American” soldier

The circus had me on the edge of my seat. You just never know when someone would fall. The performers looked like they needed some more practice. Jugglers’ balls fell. Acrobats landed incorrectly and limped away. It was really tense.

One of the acts was of a drunk US soldier. He was at a restaurant and causing trouble for some law-abiding DPRK citizen. The North Korean messed with his head, kicked him in the butt, and showed everyone how much more clever he was than the American.

Later on the bus Ms. Lee asked us if we understood what that was about. One lady said she didn’t. “Why was the American throwing over tables at the restaurant? she asked. Ms. Lee responded, “That’s just how Americans are.” Vera and I looked at her. “Well, maybe American soldiers,” she corrected herself.

There was one act at the end where a trapeze artist tried to do a triple loop thing, but his partner could not catch him. Half the time they were out of sync the other half he would just slip from his partner’s grasp. The safety net didn’t look that safe. Every time someone fell, the poles of the net leaned a little more, causing the next faller to come closer and closer to hitting the ground. They readjusted the net when someone noticed it. But after a few falls it would start leaning again and I wondered if the next guy would end up face-planting the ground.

The trapeze artist tried again and again and again, but still could not do it. I sat in my seat wishing he would stop. The show had been going on for 2 hours and I needed to pee. Finally, on something like his 10th try, he completed the maneuver. I was so happy!

In case you were wondering how I got the above photo. I took it from a guy in my group. I’m not sure how he took the photo without anyone noticing. His camera must come with a feature to turn off the view screen…

Dancing with strangers

Just Dance

We were then taken to a place, somewhere in the city, to dance. Seriously, there was nothing going on except for people dancing. We weren’t in a park or at a fair. It was not a holiday. There was no party– just a crowd of people standing in a paved lot. I don’t know where to music came from, but everyone was dancing like it was 1999.

One of the ladies in my group asked, Mr. Park later, “Who were those people?”

Mr. Park – “Just people.”

Lady – “But, why were they there?”

Mr. Park – “to dance”

Lady – “Don’t they have jobs?”

Mr. Park – “Of course they have jobs. Everyone has a job here.”

Lady – “So, why weren’t they at work? Why was everyone just dancing for no reason?”

The loneliest highway

The Long Drive South

We got back on the bus and headed south to Kaesong. We drove for a very long time. The roads are not so good. There were many times when we drove on the wrong side of the road, because our side had too many pot holes. This was not a problem since most of the traffic on the road were pedestrians and there weren’t even many of them.

The roads were bumpy most of the time. I remember seeing a pregnant tourist back at the Yanggakdo hotel and could not imagine riding on these roads being good for her. I was just glad I packed a couple of sports bras. (I always think that I will workout on a trip, but it has never happened.)

We were told that we would pass checkpoints. We were not allowed to take photos of the checkpoints. Also on the list of things we were not allowed to take photos of were soldiers, military buildings, and everyday civilians.

A random shot of Pyongyang. Look, there are 2 soldiers right there!

These rules were a bit hard to follow. It’s easy not to take photos of the checkpoints, but how do we not take photos of soldiers? Everyone is a soldier. Looking out the window of the bus I saw soldiers just walking around town. Everyone or their mom is a soldier!

As for not taking photos of the civilians, we came to realize that the people we came into contact with, were not everyday civilians. The people at the fair, the Koreans at the circus, the people who we happen upon later in the tour; none of them were everyday civilians. No one cared if we took photos of them.

What’s for dinner?

There’s no place like Pyongyang

I have to be honest. The hotel in Kaesong was a dump. I’ve never been a fan of the traditional Korean way of sleeping. So I was happy to find a futon in our hotel room. But that was it for comfort.

There was no hot water. There was no shower. There was no light in the bathroom and the sink in the bathroom was falling down. The drain was not connected to anything, so when you washed your hands or brushed your teeth, your feet got wet.

Thankfully, we only stayed there one night.

Tour groups mixing

At the hotel we met up with the people from group B and had dinner. There was rice, many vegetable dishes, and… duck! We were also given beer and tea. There was an offer of karaoke, which is definitely not called noraebang in North Korea.

Why they go with the Japanese name over the South Korean one? …I don’t know.

We’re not in Pyongyang anymore.

Of course the lights went out…

But it didn’t matter. It was time for bed anyway.

All Pictures


 

North Korea
(조선민주주의인민공화국)
(Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk) 

How to get there:

The laws about who can get a visa to the DPRK change often. At the time of our trip, the Japanese were allowed in, but the Chinese were not. But, South Koreans are never allowed in. Korean-Americans, however, are welcomed, if they use their US passport for entry.

Phone:

You won’t get to use the phone. But if you need to know, the emergency numbers are 112 and 119.

Website:

Videos:

Books:

If you can read Korean: Kingdom of Kim (There is no English version of this book yet. I would love to find one.)

Notes:

NEVER NEVER NEVER bring a bible to North Korea!


Mansudae Park
Mansudae Grand Monument 

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°01’55.7″N 125°45’11.1″E

Website:

Notes:

According to Victor Cha’s The Impossible State and other sources, while Kim Il-Sung was still alive Kim Jong-Il was not guaranteed to be his successor. Kim Jong-Il had brothers and uncles who were also in the running.  So, to ingratiate himself to his father, the younger Kim ordered monuments and statues of his father built all over the DPRK, including this one. The statue of Kim Il-Sung in the picture here is bronze, but it used to be gilded. (The Kim Jong-Il statue was built after he died.)

North Korea has a history of playing Russia and China off each other to get money and resources from the two countries. At one point North Korean officials invited Deng Xiaoping, leader of the CPC after Mao, to Pyongyang to wine and dine him then ask China for money. On his tour of Pyongyang Deng was taken to Mansudae Park to see the majesty that is Kim Il-Sung’s golden likeness. After seeing the monument Deng supposedly said something like, “Why should China give you money? Just melt down your goddamn statue!”


Taesongsan Funfair

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°4′28″N 125°49′42″E

Website:

Videos:

Notes:

Although the Koreans called this a funfair or an amusement park, I wouldn’t go that far. It’s a nice park with a few rides; rides that you might not want to try out.


Moranbong Hill
(모란봉)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°04’30.9″N 125°50’27.5″E (maybe)
  • It’s a 20 minute walk (uphill) from the Taesongsan Funfair.

Video:

Notes:

  • This is not too far from the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery, but we didn’t get to see it.
    • I’m not sure if foreigners in general aren’t allowed there or if we were just not allowed on our tour.
  • There is a great view of Pyongyang from this hill.
  • Make sure to use the bathroom before you hike up this hill. The bathroom on the hill is a bit of a challenge.
    • It’s really just a hut on the side of the hill with a hole in the floor. No doors, no plumbing — everything just slides down the mountain.
  • There is a North Korean pop group named after this hill, called Moranbong Band (모란봉악단).

The Pyongyang Circus

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°01’41.8″N 125°41’08.8″E

Website:

Notes:

You are allowed to take as many photos as you like before and after the show, but not during.


The Kaesong Folk Hotel
Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel
(개성민속여관)

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 37°58’36.0″N 126°33’11.1″E

Website:

Notes:

  • Forget about getting a decent shower here. There is no hot water or showers. If you have a functioning sink, consider yourself lucky.
  • There is a souvenir shop at the entrance to this hotel.
  • You will be sleeping the traditional, old-timey Korean way, on the floor with heating provided by an ondol.

Map:

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Off to Pyongyang

Posted by Heliocentrism on July 4, 2014

April 30, 2013

All Pictures

My North Korean visa

Air Koryo

The flight to North Korea was the thing that worried me the most about the whole trip. I knew that their fleet was mostly made up of old Soviet planes and that they were banned from European air space. But, I’m American and Americans are not allowed to take the train to Pyongyang. I had to fly.

Everyone on the tour was split into 3 groups, those on the train, those on flight 1, and those on flight 2.Vera and I were scheduled to take the second flight to Pyongyang from Beijing that day. Everyone in the group checked in and showed their Korean visas which were not put in the passports, but on a loose sheet of paper.

Once past the security check the people on the first flight left. Everyone else ran to Starbucks to fill up on coffee and sweets. No one was expecting the food to be any good once we left China.

Leather seats? Nice.

The plane itself wasn’t too bad. There was no safety demonstration, but I had expected this. Air Koryo prides itself as being the only airline in the world to not do any safety demonstrations. They give you the freedom to figure out where the exits and life rafts are during any emergency.

I was a bit worried that the plane might have been too heavy. The plane had three pilots and they all kept coming to the passenger area to stuff boxes of cigarettes and other goods into the overhead compartments. I thought that this behavior was beneath a pilot. Surely other airline pilots have underlings who could put their swag on the plane before the passengers show up.

Oh, hamburger! I love hamburgers.

This was my first North Korean meal. It was served to me on the flight. I was in awe. I had never had a hamburger as an in-flight meal before. This was great! Until I opened the wrapper.

What the hell is that!?

I took 2 bites of my “hamburger” and I was not hungry any more. It was dry. The bun was too sweet. The ham had a faint newspaper taste. It’s not really North Korea’s fault. Asia in general has never had a good handle on how to make a decent sandwich. (Though, North Korea is the only place I’ve seen where no one has a clue as to what a hamburger is. I thought Kim Jong-Il invented it way back in 2002…)

I can’t tell you how many times I stood at one of those toastie (toasted sandwich) street venders in South Korea and watched some lady lovingly make me a toasted sandwich. She would gently toast the bread, grill some ham, and fry some eggs. Then she would put them all together with a slice of cheese that would melt just so.  I would look down to get my money out of my wallet to pay her. As I pick my head back up getting ready to hand her my cash, I would see her adding the finishing sprinkles of kiwi sauce on my once delicious sandwich.

I’m not even going to go into the horrible things done to sandwiches in Japan, but it involves whipped cream and strawberries or sometimes noodles.

My worries about the food in North Korea did not stay with me for too long though. There was an unnerving amount of turbulence during the flight and that kept me preoccupied. The plane shook like we were driving on a bumpy road. “Seriously,” I ask one of the Russian guys sitting next to me, “are the wings of the plane supposed to flap?” He looked out the window and gave me a nervous look.

“I’m going to die in North Korean airspace after the worst meal of my life!”

After 2 hours of non-stop shaking, we landed in Pyongyang. As we taxied I looked out the window and saw a plane with its nose removed and smoke coming out of it. It looked like it should be park in some redneck’s driveway. “That’s going to be our flight out,” one of the Russians joked.

Take your time. Make sure you get a good shot. We’ve got allll day.

We then got out of the plane and stood about on the tarmac. Everyone started taking photos and posing in front of the plane. No one seemed to care what we did or how long it took us to do it. After 10 minutes our Western tour guides called us to move towards the airport. But the Russians took their time.

In the photo above you will see a guy in a pink shirt. That’s Pinky. He, and the other Russians, were not in our tour group, but we kept bumping into him. Pinky seemed determined to stay in North Korea as an honored guest of one of its prisons.

Once inside the airport we were at passport control. The actual airport was being repaired so the building we went to was a one-room everything-included type of thing. As we stood in line to go through immigration, we could see the luggage carousel, and the loved ones waiting at the other end of the building.

Pinky stood in the passport line and decided that this would be a great time to take a photo. No country allows you to take photos at passport control, and North Korea is no exception. A swarm of uniformed women encircled him. “Please, no photos.” They were very polite.

But Pinky was a bit thick and continued taking pictures. The whole room/airport became quiet. We could all hear his camera click, click, clicking. “NO PHOTOS,” came a man’s voice then something in Russian. There was one more click. Then Pinky put down his camera.

The uniformed ladies stood around him. I assumed they were deleting his photos. I leaned over to Vera and whispered, “We need to watch out for that guy. Wherever he is, that’s where we need to not be.”

Luckily for us, Pinky wore his pink shirt everyday so we could easily spot and avoid him. Throughout our trip whenever there was a disagreement with some North Korean handlers, there was Pinky.

There’s Pinky, the last one off the tarmac.

Once we were officially given permission to enter the DPRK we stood over by the carousel and waited for our luggage. All sorts of amazing goodies came in to the country via our plane. There were boxes of food stuffs, cigarettes, cribs, and diapers galore.

Everyone stood in admiration as a giant flat screen TV came through the carousel curtains. We wanted to know who it belonged to. Our eyes were fixed on the box when it turn a corner and fell to the ground with a loud crash. It made that sound large expensive electronics make when they fall out of windows.

“Well, that’s that…” someone said sadly. Our hearts went out to the poor soul who spent a lot of money for a now-broken TV. We all looked away. We didn’t want to add shame to this person’s grief.

As we were waiting for our bags to come down the carousel, another plane landed. “There were 3 flights to Pyongyang today?” someone asked the guide. “No, that’s the first flight. Apparently they were delayed.”

I later asked someone on that flight what happen. She told me that they got on the plane and sat there for 4 hours with no explanation why. “Did they at least give you 2 ‘hamburgers’ while you waited?” I asked.

When I got my backpack there was still one more security check before I could leave the airport. It was similar to the procedure most countries have when entering the departure gates of an airport.

I had one blue backpacking backpack and a smaller green backpack like what you use for school. Both bags were placed on a conveyor belt and went through a machine to be scanned. I then walked through a metal detector and was wanded by a guard. My bags were then turned over to an official who went through my stuff. Seeing that my bigger bag was filled only with clothes, the officer had no interest in it.

He opened the smaller green bag and hit the electronics jack-pot. He took out my Acer tablet, a device whose GPS capability meant that it was not allowed into the DPRK. “What is this?” he asked in Korean.

“Uhmm… That’s my tablet.”

He looked me dead in the eyes with no expression. He did not know what that meant. “What is this?” he asked again in Korean.

“…It’s like a small comput…”

“Camera?” he asked. “Uhmm… Yes. Yes. That is my camera,” I said. He put the tablet in the things-you-can-bring-into-the-DPRK tray. Then he found my cannon. “Camera?” he asked again. “Yup. Another camera.” He pulled at a strap which was connected to my waterproof Kodak. “Camera!?” He was starting to get annoyed.

He held out some more things for me to identify. “That is an mp3 player, that is a battery charger, that is another mp3 player, and that is a flash light.” He seemed a little puzzled by the mp3 players. “Music,” I said putting on pretend earbuds and dancing. “Okay,” he mumbled and put the players in the tray with the other stuff.

“Phone where?” he asked in English. “I don’t have a phone,” I answered.

“No phone!?”

“No.”

Is that what he was looking for?

He then waved me off. I walked on over to the others in the tour group. We stood outside the airport watching people come and go. I saw a couple UN SUVs and wondered who was inside them. I wanted to talk with the UN workers but they drove off.

Cars parked at the Pyongyang Railway station. Notice the Jeep and the Mercedes?

We got on a very nice tour bus (It looked brand new) and headed to the railway station. There we were to pick up the group that took the train. On the ride into town the guides introduced themselves. For some reason I can’t remember any of their names, so I will call them Mr. Park, Ms. Lee, Camera Man Choi, Bus Driver Woo, and Intern Kim. (Park, Lee, and Kim being the most common Korean names. Choi and Woo, because… Why not?)

Ms. Lee greeted us and asked if we knew how to say hello in Korean. She did most of the speaking during the trip.

“Annyeonghaseyo!” we replied.

“Oh my,” she said in mock surprise. “You all sound like South Koreans! We’ll have to fix that and give you all good North Korean accents before you leave.” She laughed as she said this. I liked her instantly.

“Here in North Korea we say ‘Annyeong Hashimnikka’.” I was surprised. In South Korea, that’s how to say hello to your boss’s boss or the president. “We are very polite here in the DPRK.” She tried to get us to repeat the greeting, but most of us could not remember all those extra syllables. So she sang us a song to help us remember.

When we got to the train station the rest of the group was not there. The train was late, so we went on to the hotel.

The guides: Mr. Park in the gray suit, Ms. Lee in the cream suit, and Intern Kim carrying someone’s luggage

We sat in the hotel lobby for what seemed like hours. I don’t know what we were waiting for. We roamed the first floor of the hotel. There were many shops but there was not much to buy.

One shop sold hanboks and snacks. Another sold old communist books and pins. A third had toiletries and cold drinks. There was a bar, but it was closed. No one dared to venture to other floors without permission.

In the Yanggakdo Hotel lobby

About a half hour after the train travelers showed up, we were put into 2 groups, paired up, and given key cards. There was only one key card per room. It didn’t really matter. It was a group tour and we would always be together.

Before we headed off to our rooms, we handed over our passports. They were taken for safety reasons, or to check our visas, or… I don’t remember what reason we were given. I’m sure nothing good came of it.

Did you find any bugs?

We put our stuff in our room. The first thing Vera and I did was search through the draws and look under things. We weren’t really expecting to find anything, but I had hoped to find a bugging device. We didn’t find any.

I turned on the TV. There were a couple Korean and Chinese channels and BBC World. But who cares about the news when you’re in North Korea!? We got the gifts we brought and went back to the lobby.

Death Trap

If you ever stay at the Yanggakdo hotel, be aware that the elevator doors will try to kill you. They snap shut. They closed on me once and it hurt. Unlike most elevator doors that sense when a person is in the way and stay open, these seem to close harder.

The elevators themselves also to have a roguish attitude. Once I pressed the button for the 35th floor only to have the elevator breeze pass the 35th floor and stop at 37. There was no light on the 37th floor. I stuck my head out the elevator to see an official standing there in the dark shaking his head at me and indicating that I was not allowed to get out the elevator.

The glass elevator

Most of the time we had the elevators to ourselves. But every once in a while one would stop at the 14th or 15th floor and herds of stern looking people with green uniforms would get in. We tried to be friendly and say, “annyeong hashimnikka,” but that would not get any reaction from anyone.

Once I did manage to get on one of the dark floors. I pressed the button for my floor and was taken somewhere else. I stepped off and before I realized that something was wrong, the elevator door slammed shut behind me. I stood there in the dark wondering what to do. I was only a couple floors away from my floor so I decided to take the stairs, but the door was locked.

dividing up the goodies

At the Bar

Vera and I made our way to the bar in the lobby that was now open. We sat with our sub-group, group A. Some people ordered beer and everyone got to know each other. We put our goodies on the table and someone divided the stuff into 5 bags; one for each guide, the driver, and camera man.

The camera man’s job was the film our trip then make a DVD. He sold this to whomever wanted to buy it. Vera opted out, thinking that the money might go towards propaganda or something. I figured just by coming to North Korea I have given money to propaganda, I might as well get the DVD of my trip.

The rotating restaurant at the top of the Yanggakdo hotel

We were then given a tour of the hotel. We first went to the basement and saw the casinos, restaurants, pool, and bowling alley. There was also supposed to be a barber shop but we didn’t bother to look for it. Then they took us outside and told us that we were free to walk the grounds as long as we stayed on the island.

Vera and I wanted to explore the island during our trip, but we always left so early in the morning and we returned so late at night. We were just too tired to explore the island.

After the hotel tour Vera and I went to see the fancy restaurant on the top floor. There was a wait staff there, but no customers. After this Vera and I went back to our room.

One of the casinos

Locked Out

The key card didn’t work. We could not get into our room. We went to the lobby to ask the receptionist to reset our key card. He did and we went back to our room, but the door still did not open.

We headed back down to the lobby again. This time we asked for a new card. The receptionist offered to open the door for us. We tried to explain that what we wanted was to be able to open the door ourselves. That way, we would not have to bother him every time we wanted to get back into the room. He didn’t understand.

He called some maids and told us to go upstairs to meet them at our door. “They will open the door for you.” We went back upstairs. We were tired and thought we could just sort this out in the morning. We found the maids standing by our door just like the receptionist said.

One of them opened an adjacent room and motioned us to follow her. The other one picked up the phone and spoke into it in Korean. They couldn’t get the door open either. They patted the bed to indicate that we should sit down. They told us that a locksmith was called to open the door.

The maids spoke no English and the little Korean I learned from 2 years in Seoul was washed away by the little Japanese I learned living in Japan. “So,  how long have you guys worked here?” I tried to make small talk, but I had no idea what to say. Add to this the fact that we could not speak a common language and relied heavily on gestures and the random Korean words I could remember.

One said that she had worked at the hotel for 4 years and the other 6. “Do you enjoy it?” I asked because I couldn’t think of anything else. “Yes,” they said. Of course, what else could they say? “No, it’s a horrible job, but it keeps our families out the gulags.” The conversation was pretty one-sided.

They didn’t seem that interested in us other than to know we were generally happy with our hotel room. “Other than not being able to get into it, the room is fine,” we explained. I tried willing the locksmith to arrive quickly. There’s only so much awkward conversation I can take.

The hotel’s bowling alley

When someone did come, he turned out not to be a locksmith. He was just a guy with some tools. He removed the hinges and took down the door. Then he handed Vera a new key card for a new room. It was a mirror image of the first room. We moved our stuff into our new room and went to bed.

“Should we check this room for bugs too?” I asked Vera.

All Pictures


 

North Korea
(조선민주주의인민공화국)
(Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk) 

How to get there:

The laws about who can get a visa to the DPRK change often. At the time of our trip, the Japanese were allowed in, but the Chinese were not. But, South Koreans are never allowed in. Korean-Americans, however, are welcomed, if they use their US passport for entry.

Phone:

You won’t get to use the phone. But if you need to know, the emergency numbers are 112 and 119.

Website:

Videos:

Books:

If you can read Korean: Kingdom of Kim (There is no English version of this book yet. I would love to find one.)

Notes:

NEVER NEVER NEVER bring a bible to North Korea!


The Yanggakdo International Hotel
(양각도국제호텔)
(Yanggakdo gookchea hotel)

How to get there:

  • 38°59’57.3″N 125°45’05.9″E

Don’t you worry about directions here or any other place in North Korea. Someone will also be around to show you where to go.

Address:

Yanggakdo International Hotel
Pyongyang, North Korea

Phone:

There are phones in the hotel, but I never used it. So, I don’t know whom you can call.

Website:

e-mail:

You can send emails from the lobby of the hotel. You can also mail letters.

Cost:

Your tour will take care of this.

Hours:

  • Breakfast starts at 7:00

Videos:

Notes:

  • The Yanggakdo Hotel is not the only hotel in town. Neither is it the only functioning hotel in town. But it is the one in which any tourist in Pyongyang will most likely be staying.
  • This hotel is where many American prisoners get to talk to the Swedish ambassador. Some have actually been held prisoner here.
  • You cannot go to the 5th floor!
  • You cannot go to any floor where the lights are turned off. If you try to, an official will escort you back to the elevator.
  • You can walk around the grounds but you cannot leave Yanggakdo (Yanggak island) on your own.
  • Be careful when using the elevators. The doors will slam shut even when you are in the way.

Map:

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