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Posts Tagged ‘The Yanggakdo International Hotel’

Back in China, Again

Posted by Heliocentrism on August 1, 2014

Saturday May 4, 2013 

All Pictures (North Korea)
All Pictures (China)

Last night in Pyongyang

Is this room bugged?

Our last night in North Korea Vera and I stayed up a little talking about the day’s events. We talked about the famine and the ludicrous government. I had just started naming many of the inadequacies of the DPRK when Vera said that maybe we should wait until we got to China before we took this conversation any further. “I mean,” she whispered, “what if this room is bugged?”

“Vera,” I said, “have you not noticed how nothing in this country works properly? First of all, if they are going to bug someone, why would they pick backpackers with a budget tour company? I don’t know any secrets. I don’t even know people who know people who know secrets. Besides, even if the room were bugged, the bugs probably stopped working like the lock to the door of our first hotel room.”

DPRK cleaned!

Let’s blow this popsicle stand!

By Saturday morning I was ready to leave North Korea. It was a timely departure; not too soon and not too late. I had spent just enough time in the DPRK. Some on our tour would stay and travel north to see other DPRK sights, but I was not jealous of any of them. My only regret was that I had to go back to China instead of going straight home to Japan.

I packed my bag with my freshly laundered clothes and Vera and I made our way to the basement for breakfast. It was the first calm breakfast I had in days. In the restaurant, were only the people from my tour. All other tourists were rushed out hours earlier being told that their schedules were changed and that they were now running late on their new itineraries.

After eating we slowly made our way to the buses. We were now split into 3 new groups; the train group which had no Americans, the plane group which had the Americans leaving the DPRK today, and the staying group made up mostly of an Australian couple, a Hong Kongese couple, and one American.

public transit bus in Pyongyang

I got on the bus and sat in my seat thinking over everything I had seen in the DPRK. Then I heard something strangely familiar, yet out of context. I sat there thinking about it. It was music, a song, a pop song… A K-POP SONG! It was Gangnam Style by Psy!

I stood up to look around the bus. Where was that coming from. I wasn’t the only one; five other people were asking each other where the music was coming from. Then we saw a guy in the back with his index finger over his lips asking us to keep this secret. Next to him was a North Korean guide. The guide was staring intently at the guys phone with wide eyes and making cooing noises in amazement. When he noticed that more people were looking his way, he put the phone in his pocket.

Ms. Lee entered the bus and gave everyone back their passports. I had forgotten that I had given it away. “What do you think they were doing with all the passports?” Phone guy asked. “Making copies to improve their spy program,” another guy answered.

Ms. Lee asked for our attention. “We are running late. There are two problems. One, there is a towel missing. If you have taken a towel from the hotel by accident, please return it.” She paused to see if anyone would admit to taking the towel. When no one responded she continued. “The second thing is… has anyone seen Steve?”

The Kims haven’t seen Steve.

Steve was not in Group A and I did not know what he looked like. Most of the people on the bus were from Group A and also didn’t know which guy from Group B Steve was. Phone guy took out his phone to show everyone a picture of Steve from the night before. There were about 6 photos of Steve. In all of them Steve was drinking heavily and as Phone guy scrolled through his pictures you could see Steve getting more and more drunk. The last photo of Steve was in the bowling alley. “That’s the last I saw of him,” Phone guy said, “around 2:00 this morning.”

The western guide for Group B ran onto the bus and asked if anyone knew who was Steve’s roommate. “Steve didn’t have a roommate,” Phone guy told him. “Crikey,” the guide said. “We’ve been calling his room and no one is answering.” “If we don’t find him soon we’ll be late for our flight,” one worried tourist said. “I’m sure they’ll hold the flight for us,” another person replied, “What else do they have to do today?”

To the airport posthaste!

The towel thing was never resolved. There were threats to search everyone’s bags, but it was never carried out. Someone suggested that maybe Steve stole it in a drunken rage and ran away in shame, but the Koreans were in no mood for jocularity.

Eventually a maid, in search of the missing towel, opened Steve’s room to find him passed out on the floor. The two western guides were called up to his room to get his stuff packed and deliver him to the door of the bus going to the airport. Steve walked down the aisle of the bus beet red, unshaven, unwashed, still smelling of booze, and still in the clothes from yesterday as shown by Phone guy’s phone photos.

Waiting to leave

We were taken to the airport. We all stood by the luggage carousel waiting for our plane to start boarding. It felt a little odd. Usually you check in, go through security check, and then wait for the plane to start boarding. But here, it did not happen in that order.

We walked through security check first; everyone did. Our Korean guides who were not leaving the country went in first. Our western guides were both taking the train back to Beijing, so we were on our own once we passed the gate.

a bus to the plane

Once our passports were checked and not stamped, we walked out the door and onto a bus. We stood on the bus and wondered which plane we would be taking. “As long as it’s not the plane that was smoking when we landed here,” someone said. Then the bus drove us right over to that very plane, or at least one that looked just like it and was parked in the very spot the smoking plane was a few days ago.

“Another photo for the Leader!”

There were these really tall and thin North Korean guys posing for photo after photo in front of the plane. I thought they were part of a DPRK basketball team at first since they wore running shoes with their suits. But, then I noticed one of them writing that he was a diplomat on his landing card. Their clothes were too big and too small for them at the same time. They were swimming in their suits, but ankles and wrists were inelegantly exposed.

Ready for freedom in China

I sat next to one of the lanky guys on the plane. His knees jotted out so far that he was practically wedged in between his seats and the guy’s in front of him. He squealed a little when the guy in front of him reclined his chair. I asked him if he spoken any English and he said, “Nu aye dun’t.” I think this was his first plane ride because he kept watching me and followed what I did, like when I pulled the tray table down for lunch.

When we were given landing cards I filled mine out. He pulled out a piece of  paper with the responses he was to give written in Roman script, but he did not have a pen. I asked him if he wanted to borrow my pen, but he didn’t understand me. I handed him the pen. It was a small pen I got when I signed up for internet service back home and it said “Yahoo BB Japan” in friendly letters. He thanked me in English and took one suspicious look at the pen before filling out his card and handed the pen back to me.

Shortly after we were airborne it was lunch time. This time when we were served “hamburgers” I ate the whole thing. It wasn’t so bad this time. My lanky row mate seemed completely indifferent to the food. He was more interested in the movements his chair could make and all the buttons around him.

What did you guys really think?

Once we were safely landed in China a bunch of us from both Group A and Group B sat at a Starbucks in one of the terminals and talked about the trip. There was a lot of, “Do you know what Mr. Park told me?” and “Do you know what Intern Kim asked me?”

It was cathartic. For the most part we all held back on expressing our opinions and views during the trip. Most of us never corrected anything we were told and went along with whatever crazy story with nothing more that a slight whisper to one or two other people. At the airport we let it all out. Then we all went our separate ways.

That’s not what the sky in Beijing looks like at all!

Let’s Eat!

I had reservations to return to the hostel we stayed in before we went to North Korea, but I did not want to go back there. Vera booked one night at a placed called Sitting on the City Walls. I thought that anything would be better than the dump we were in before so I followed her hoping to get a room for the night.

Vera would be leaving for South Korea the next day and I would head back to Japan. We had a whole afternoon in China and felt like we should do something interesting after we dropped off our stuff at the hostel.

my bed that sits on a city wall

After checking into Facebook and emailing family and friends to tell them that we were safely back in China, we searched the internet for something to do. There was nothing we could think of. I’m sure that Beijing has lots of things to do, but we wanted something hassle-free transportation-wise that we had not seen or done before.

The suggestion of just going to a nice restaurant somehow turned into going to Hooters. I had never been to Hooters before, mainly because of my lack of enthusiasm for either football or boobs, but a greasy and highly caloric American meal seemed the fitting end to my journey into the DPRK.

2 appetizers = 1 meal

The food was good. It was the best thing we had tasted in days! I don’t remember if I was able to finish all my food, but I do remember feeling a little sick afterwards. “And we were in North Korea for just 5 days; imagine being stuck there for months,” I told Vera as we dived into the buffalo wings.

“I just wish I could get Ms. Lee and Intern Kim out to show them China,” Vera said. “If they could only see China and how great it is over here compared to the DPRK. I’m not even talking about America or Japan; just China.” “I think they know, Vera. They must know that life is better almost anywhere other than North Korea coming into contact with so many tourists. But knowing the truth and being able to do anything about it are two different things.”

All Pictures (North Korea)
All Pictures (China)


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.

China 
(中国)

How to get there:

  • You can enter by plane, train, boat, or bus
  • Make sure to get a visa before going to China.
  • Visas to China are expensive for people of some nationalities.
  • Getting a Chinese visa is not a quick process. Apply as soon as you can.

Phone:

Website:

There is a long list of websites that cannot be accessed while in China. Facebook and parts of Wikipedia are just two of them. As with everything, there are ways around it. There are sites that will let you get to Facebook and other sites for free for about 15 minutes, then you will have to pay.

My advice is to find a few of them and use them for free. Then use them again on a different computer. If you are in China for a long time, then you might want to invest in paying for the service. Ask friends living in China for the best deals.

Videos:

Books:

*These books by Jung Chang are banned in China. But I highly recommend reading Mao: The Unknown Story before going to Beijing.

Notes:

  • If you want an internet cafe look for this (网吧) on a sign.

photo from their websiteSitting on the City Walls

How to get there:

Address:

城墙旅舍
57 Nianzi Hutong
Dongcheng, Beijing
China, 100009

Phone: +86 10 6402 7805

Websites:

e-mail: beijingcitywalls@163.com

Cost:

  • Website
  • 100 Yuan/ bed (dorm)
  • 260 Yuan for single en suite
  • 480 Yuan for double bed or 2 twin beds en suite

Notes:

  • You can book tours of Beijing through this hostel.
  • Remember that in China you pay a refundable cash deposit when you check into a hotel or hostel.

Hooters Beijing

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 39°55’58.9″N 116°27’02.4″E

Address:

201, China View Building No.1, East Worker’s Stadium Rd,Chaoyang District,Beijing

Phone: (86-010)65858787

Websites:

Cost:

a bit pricier than most Chinese restaurants

Hours:

  • 11:00-01:00 Sun-Sat

Map:

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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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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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