Written by Shady Ady on 24 Nov, 2010
A trip to North Korea isn’t really complete without enjoying a dog barbecue at least once. I’ve eaten dog once before in China, and have to say the taste of dog certainly beats the image of eating it. With so few restaurants accommodating foreign tourists,…Read More
A trip to North Korea isn’t really complete without enjoying a dog barbecue at least once. I’ve eaten dog once before in China, and have to say the taste of dog certainly beats the image of eating it. With so few restaurants accommodating foreign tourists, it seemed as though the whole tourist population of Pyongyang had converged on this single restaurant, serving a variety of barbecued dog dishes. Sadly all of these foreigners were able to use chopsticks far better than me, a dismal fact considering I’ve been in China for almost a year. Up until now, I’d decided against asking Ms. Lee our guide any probing questions against North Korea. But after building up two days worth of trust and respect, there wasn’t going to be a better chance. I was under the impression that North Koreans who wanted unification believed South Koreans would happily throw away their capitalist, democratic life, to revert to a socialistic stranglehold where freedom is limited. Our guide portrayed a different picture, accepting that if reunification did indeed happen, life in North Korea would change forever, possibly for the better.With the night still young and being forced to return to my hotel, I challenged my guard Mr. Jang to a friendly game of table tennis. It wasn’t a morale boosting victory I was after though, but the chance of conversing to try and understand a little more about life in North Korea. As the beer flowed, so did the conversation. Of course, talking to one person who has regular contact with foreigners isn’t going to give any definite answers. It’s easy to see why the majority of North Koreans have no complaints with the system they live under. Everything is free. Free housing, free healthcare, free schooling, free electricity and free gas. There is also no tax, with only a small amount deducted to pay for the wages of those working in the government owned electricity and gas industries.As the conversation took a lull, a Workers Party official entered the room and sat at the bar. His chest glistened with sweat above his blazer and white vest, and from the direction he came from, I would have guessed it was the strenuous exercises of a Chinese massage parlour girl who’d worked up this perspiration. Ordering a beer he looked towards the TV, which was playing footage of the recent Workers Party meeting, where Kim Jong Il’s third son, Kim Il Un (the Brilliant Comrade) was promoted to general, a possible move of ushering him in to power. As we peered towards the TV screen, I asked Mr. Jang what he thought of Kim Il Un’s appointment. Amazed that we were so up to date with his country’s current politics, he responded, "of course I respect him because he looks just like his father and grandfather." If the future leader of your country looks like a past leader you still fanatically worship, the chances are, he will be a sure-fire winner! A very clever marketing ploy!I asked him whether he thought his third son was a better choice than his first or second sons, a question that was met with a look of bewilderment and the words, "he has more sons?" At first I presumed this was just the way a secretive state shared information, keeping their inhabitants in the dark. Then I realised I knew just as little about the children of my own Prime Minister David Cameron. Maybe it’s wrong to always jump to such preconceived conclusions.Talking more politics, I was surprised that although he believed in his country’s socialist, ‘Juche’ approach at governance, he knew it’s not something that everyone agrees with and an ideology that wouldn’t be successful everywhere. I always envisaged North Korean propaganda would teach people that socialism was the one and only way of living. Maybe working in the tourism industry has led to thinking of the contrary.Since arriving in North Korea, other than the beauty-blessed female traffic police, and several ‘New York taxi yellow’ police cars, there was little sign of a police force. Of course, any rational thinking person would realise that the amount of patrolling soldiers and a military backed government would make the need for the police virtually obsolete. As our guide pointed out, in a country where crime rates are virtually nil (possibly the thought of entering one of the notorious gulags is a good deterrent), there isn’t really the need for a highly visibile police presence. Moving on to free-time, I wondered what people do when evidence of Western and foreign cultures is minimal. Gone are the choices of computer games, nightclubs and the singing of any non Korean karaoke songs. Instead the most popular activities are board games and picnics. Such innocence could explain why most people don’t get married until their late twenties. The following morning, before catching our return flight back to northern China, there was still time to visit a few more of Pyongyang’s many monuments. Driving past the Tower of the Juche Idea, the adjacent Kim Il Sung Square was full of thousands of school children practising various performances for the 65th anniversary of the Workers Party. Intrigued by our random appearance, children stopped what they were doing and stared excitedly in our direction before unleashing shy waves and timid giggles.The last stop of the trip was a twenty metre high Kim Il Sung statue, where the obligatory laying of flowers and a bow had to be performed. Plain clothes policeman watched our actions from a distance. Again our actions showed watching North Koreans how respected their ‘Great Leader’ is in other countries.Visiting North Korea doesn’t come cheap and four days of non-stop itineraries only leaves you wanting more. As I poured over the doctored photos on show at Pyongyang airport while waiting for the return flight to China I realised I’d probably never experience a trip like this again. For a tight-fisted traveller who plans with the most meagre of budgets, this splurge was certainly worth it. Feelings that disappeared minutes later on the turbulence filled return flight with Air Koryo back to China. Like a scene from Final Destination, the small plane was tossed around like a pinball. It was only now that I questioned my agreement of travelling on an antique plane owned by one of the worlds worst airlines. Due to size constraints, please visit http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/ShadyAdy/ for more photos. Close
This would be my last full day in North Korea. Unfortunately, due to the extortionate prices charged to visit this secluded republic, my meagre teaching wages couldn’t afford a longer stay.Again leaving the hotel at the crack of dawn, with other buses and their armed…Read More
This would be my last full day in North Korea. Unfortunately, due to the extortionate prices charged to visit this secluded republic, my meagre teaching wages couldn’t afford a longer stay.Again leaving the hotel at the crack of dawn, with other buses and their armed escorts waiting for Workers Party members in the hotel car park, we were on our way to what many call the most guarded place on Earth: Panmunjom.Panmunjom was once a village on the border between South and North Korea. This was the place where the 1953 Armistice Treaty was signed, which halted the Korean War. With the creation of the 250km long and 4km wide de-militarized zone (DMZ), inhabitants left Panmunjom. Falling in to ruin, the village eventually disappeared from view. Now it’s one of the safest places you can go to view neighbouring South Korea. Even so, with both countries officially still at war, the amount of soldiers stationed here gives the place a lot more of a Cold War feel.Driving away from Pyongyang, it soon became obvious we were venturing somewhere more sinister. While antique tractors and donkeys huffed and puffed away at work in the adjacent fields, military road blocks came and went at regular frequency. It was whilst stopped at one of these checkpoints that the Chinese contingent of our tour decided it was the perfect opportunity for an impromptu karaoke show. Taking the microphone from the bemused guide, one by one the Chinese tourists belted out songs in horrendous wailed voices. These sounded more like the mating call of a fox than a harmonious love story. North Korean guards peered through the windows with faces of pain. With columns of concrete (reportedly full of explosives to be detonated in case of invasion) now appearing alongside the road, the Chinese group turned towards the back of the bus where I was seated and beckoned for me to join them in their karaoke fun. My polite refusals were vetoed by my wife, who, with the help of two overly excited Chinese grandmothers dragged me to the front of the bus. As soldiers and explosive-filled concrete columns raced by outside, a sea of expectant eyes met my gaze. Realising there was no escape, I closed my eyes before shrieking, "she’s just a small town girl, living in a lonely world, she took the midnight train going anywhere…" As the sound of appreciative claps filled the bus, confidence overtook reality. By the time I opened my eyes again after singing the first verse and chorus, the only part of the song I could remember, the clapping had been replaced with silent stares of horror. I returned back to my seat and we continued onward in near silence. For all the hype, Panmunjom and the DMZ comes as a slight anti-climax. Gone are the feelings of danger. Replacing them are the feelings of entering the country’s premiere tourist attraction. Even the warnings of being shot on sight if you dare to try and run across in to South Korea, don’t seem as real and potentially life threatening as they possibly are. There is no doubting the ingrained, brainwashed hatred of America that most people in North Korea possess, but until this moment I had yet to witness it. This was all about to change. Given our own soldiers and a general for protection, we were guided around Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area (JSA) where, in the blue huts that straddle the border, ongoing peace and possible reunification meetings are held. Being the only Westerners in Panmunjom, the North Korean general was soon singling us out for special treatment. After asking where we were from and realising my wife is American, the lecture began and the ‘enemy’ word was thrown around like confetti.Standing in the room where the Korean War armistice agreement was signed, the general informed all those listening of the atrocities carried out by American forces on innocent North Korean civilians, atrocities that should never be forgotten, and all enemy American soldiers based in South Korea should be urged to leave immediately. Known in the west as ‘the forgotten war’ and in North Korea as ‘the victorious fatherland liberation war’, the Korean War was a result of the political division of Korea. In fact, North Korea, with air support from the Soviet Union, fought against fifteen countries emblazoned under the flag of the UN. But it’s only the ‘imperialist enemy’ of America that faces the hatred from North Korea. On a table in the room where the agreement was signed, the original flags from that day stand proud. Strangely the tattered, colour-drained UN flag, stands next to a brand new looking North Korean flag.Walking onwards towards the actual border, our guide Ms. Lee informed us that whilst North Korea allows 240 families to live and farm on its side of the DMZ, South Korea uses their side to store its arsenal of nuclear weapons. Two huge national flagpoles stand opposite each other on each sides of the border. The North Korean flagpole, the tallest in the world proudly holds its 600lb flag. Next to it, another pristine, ‘model’ village looks out towards South Korea.A little further on as we neared the Joint Security Area, the general stopped us again to inform us that they expected the war with America to be imminent, an attack that could start any day. For once, even Ms. Lee looked towards us with the look of, "even I don’t believe this." The trip to Panmunjom was completed with a visit to one of the five huts that straddle the border, with half located in South Korea and half in North Korea. It was in one of these huts that visitors were able to legally cross in to the opposing country, watching the North Korean border guards standing on the border outside. Two North Korea border guards blocked the door leading out of the hut in to South Korea, in case anyone was stupid or brazen enough to attempt an escape.With American military police visible across the border, I approached the general and offered him several packets of cigarettes to thank him for our protection whilst inside the DMZ. Handing them to him, he gave the look of disgust before scoffing, "these are Chinese cigarettes, why didn‘t you bring American cigarettes?" I was tempted to question his hypocritical love of the imperialist enemy’s products, but decided the humour might be lost in translation. Returning to Pyongyang after stopping for a thirteen dish lunch in the rundown city of Kaesong, I asked our guide if such lavish meals were the normality in North Korea. As women washed their hair and clothes in a polluted river that ran through Kaesong, whilst other inhabitants sang and danced in traditional dress, Ms. Lee responded, "yes, of course," without a moment’s hesitation. Quickly realising I doubted her answer from witnessing these views out of the bus window, she retracted her original statement with a more honest answer. Once back in Pyongyang, we were taken to see the infamous USS Pueblo, an American spy ship captured by North Korea in the Cold War era in 1968. Now the ship is one of Pyongyang’s prime tourist attractions and it’s biggest propaganda tool. Again, the words ‘American, imperialist and enemy’ were used in rapid succession. Before dinner, there was still time to visit the Arch of Triumph (a replica of France’s monument of the same name) and enjoy a ride on Pyongyang’s subway. Now normally, a ride on a city’s subway system doesn’t constitute a tourist attraction, but this is one of the few times you are able to get close to regular North Korean inhabitants. Journeying deep underground to reach the platform full of communist-era mosaics, echoing those of Moscow’s subway, commuters failed to hold my friendly stare. We were only able to ride the subway for one stop. Local commuters were banned from riding in the same carriage as the tourists. I asked Mr. Jang, our guard, why this was the case. After an awkward moment, where we both knew my question had been understood, while at the same time also knowing it was a question that could never receive an honest answer, he replied with an answer for a totally different question. The journey was over in a matter of minutes. Upon reaching the surface, we were quickly ushered in to our waiting bus and whisked off for dinner: a barbecued dog dinner.Due to size constraints, please visit http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/ShadyAdy for more photos. Close
............................For most people the highlight of any trip to North Korea is the chance to see the Arirang Games, the largest choreographed gymnastic performance in the world, performed by over 100,000 gymnasts, artists and children. The games are the perfect opportunity to show off the…Read More
............................For most people the highlight of any trip to North Korea is the chance to see the Arirang Games, the largest choreographed gymnastic performance in the world, performed by over 100,000 gymnasts, artists and children. The games are the perfect opportunity to show off the states ideology; "the subordination of the individual’s desires for the needs of the collectives," and allow spectators to marvel at the complex levels of teamwork. The performance highlights North Korea‘s rich, powerful history, their successes and future possibilities. Before we ventured to Pyongyang May Day stadium, the biggest stadium in the world with a 150,000 capacity to see the Arirang Games, there was still time to see ‘The Great Leader’s’ birthplace, located on the edge of the city near a rusting amusement park. After leaving his home on the outskirts of Pyongyang, in 1925 at the age of thirteen, Kim Il Sung didn’t return home until twelve years later, after he led the Koreans to victory over the Japanese. Quite an impressive fete for a twenty-five year old, and a fete far more imaginative than truth. Like a lot of Korean history, changes have been made to create the personality cults of the nation’s leaders, keeping them at unparalleled levels of positive public opinion. In the recently restored dwelling where he was born, lay the straw mat he slept on after returning home victorious. This sixty year old straw mat has remarkably stood up to the test of time. Seeing a fabricated heirloom, alongside doctored photos and an invented history, you wonder what if anything of this attraction was in fact true. As I pondered this, North Koreans frantically fought over each other to drink water from the ‘Great Leader’s’ childhood well.Finally, it was time for the Arirang Games. With hunger cravings satisfied with a plate of traditional Pyongyang cold noodles, we found our seats and waited for the performance to begin. Railings and attending soldiers separated us from the local spectators. Opposite us sat 18,000 children. These children would act as the backdrop, producing mosaic after mosaic of tiny coloured squares. As they held up a mosaic of the ‘Great Leader’ himself, the local spectators applauded with deafening ferocity.The professionalism of the performance was immense. Considering that each routine contained thousands upon thousands of performers, to complete the ninety minute show without a single mistake, pushes the boundaries of human endeavour to its limits. North Korea doesn’t do things by halves, and this play was no different. It’s hard not to marvel at its ingenuity and leave believing that the Juche philosophy that the country follows; of self-reliance and teamwork does have the ability to create a powerful, successful nation. But then again this record-breaking performance was produced for this sole reason. As I mulled over the evening’s entertainment it dawned on me that I had yet to come in to contact with a woman who was not blessed with the looks of an angel. I asked our guide Ms. Lee, what all the ugly girls do for work as I had yet to meet one, to which I received a giggle, a smile and a shrug in response. With the constant PMT frowns now broken, maybe Ms. Lee was starting to warm to us.Due to size constraints, please visit http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/ShadyAdy/ for more photos. Close
One thing they don’t like to give you whilst in North Korea is free-time. Free-time breeds curiosity and in North Korea curiosity can land you in a lot of trouble. After scoffing down a breakfast consisting of New Zealand Anchor butter and my first toast…Read More
One thing they don’t like to give you whilst in North Korea is free-time. Free-time breeds curiosity and in North Korea curiosity can land you in a lot of trouble. After scoffing down a breakfast consisting of New Zealand Anchor butter and my first toast in a year, we were immediately on our way. Our guide Ms. Lee (one of four family names that make up 95% of the North Korean population), who had yet to crack a smile and Mr. Jang our guard, who seemed far more laid back, stuck to us like a wasp on jam.As there were only my wife and I in our tour ‘group’, we would be joining up with a larger Chinese group. No matter what your nationality is, all tour itineraries include the same attractions. The only difference with the more trusted Chinese is they are allowed to stay in a city centre hotel, rather than an island in the middle of a river.Waiting for the Chinese contingent, I was able to observe the city skyline in the hazy, early morning sun. Towering in the distance, the pyramidal Ryugyong Hotel looms above everything else. At 105 floors it will be the second tallest hotel in the world when completed. Work on the Ryugyong Hotel started in 1987, but came to a halt in 1992 when the country ran out of money and faced a demoralising famine. Work has re-started again on what some call ‘the worlds most expensive ruin’ and ‘the hotel of doom’, with the hope of it being completed in 2012 to coincide with The Great Leader’s 100th birthday celebrations. In the foreground workers in their drab, colourless Communist attire walked towards their offices. Expressionless children walked to school. Soldiers with guns placed haphazardly against their bags waited for buses to take them onwards to their destination. Although informed by Mr. Jang that the legal age to join the military was nineteen, many soldiers on view looked as though they had only recently finished breast-feeding. It’s obvious what a threat Westerners are still deemed to be. Whilst the fifteen Chinese tourists shared two guides between them, my wife and I had a guard and a guide just for us. Attempting to talk to any inhabitants on our own accord can be classed as an act of espionage and lead to imprisonment no matter how innocent this may be. Whether this is actually true, or similar to the, "if you pee in the swimming pool, the water turns pink," yarn you’re told as a youngster, it certainly works. Without the interaction, it stops the dilution of their culture and ideologies, while at the same time keeping their suspicions of foreigners heightened. Our tour bus was soon racing on our way along Pyongyang’s quiet roads to our first destination, the International Friendship Museum near Mt. Myohyangsan. This was a good ninety minute drive out of the capital. Flags bearing the country’s and Workers Party’s emblems were out in full force in preparations for the ruling party’s 65th anniversary. With no advertising anywhere, the only posters were those full of propaganda.Starvation. Malnutrition. Chronic food shortages. Such hardships faced by normal North Koreans seem a regular occurrence if you believe any of the articles written about the Hermit Kingdom. Driving through the ‘show’ streets of Pyongyang, it’s hard to validate any of these claims. Immaculately presented shops with shelves full of commodities, although of minimal variety, lead you to believe in a prosperous existence. As workers hand-scrubbed the pavements, it made me wonder how many of the inhabitants shop in these outlets and are able to buy the bulky TV’s on show. Driving away from the city centre, rural life appeared from nowhere. Paddy fields full of farmers harvested their rice crops. Small towns of varying grandeur came and went. Some looked like recently built ‘model’ villages. Others were far more rustic and traditional. Along the empty roads, workers filled in potholes one by one by hand and trimmed the median hedges with scissors. For the small number of vehicles in North Korea, there seemed to be a ridiculous number of breakdowns, mostly communist-era built military vehicles. Hugging the river for the majority of the journey, elderly men waded across the waist-high river with bicycles carrying a variety of products: tires, straw, people. Two women looked like they were digging a shallow grave for a deceased male relative, whose lifeless corpse was lying next to them. After seeing several similar images further along the river, I realised they were groups of workers hand-harvesting the river’s silt for construction projects. The original ‘corpse’ was jut a worker taking a well-earned rest. Some workers had waded into the river up to their waists to obtain the silt, obviously not scared by the chances of catching hypothermia. The International Friendship Museum was built to hold all the gifts donated to the country’s ‘Great’ and ‘Dear’ leaders from people throughout the world. Currently it contains over 26,000 gifts, protected by Kalashnikov-wielding soldiers. Ms. Lee proudly proclaimed it would take eighteen months to see them all if you spent one minute viewing each gift. Using my high school mathematic skills, I realised this should have been eighteen days, a mistake bluntly rejected by Ms. Lee as an idiotic mistake on my part. A museum full of lavish gifts might not tickle everyone’s appetite, but there are plenty of hidden messages underneath the surface of such an attraction. For the visiting North Koreans, it shows them that their leaders believe even personal gifts should be there for the entire population to enjoy, not selfishly taken for personal gain. It also shows local inhabitants the love and respect their country garners from nations worldwide. After the death of their ‘Great Leader’ Kim Il Sung in 1994, China presented a life-size wax statue of him to North Korea as a sign of their condolences. A waxwork Madame Tussauds would be proud of, this gift has been given its own room inside the International Friendship Museum, where all visitors have to bow before his greatness. It was at this point that I learnt holding your hands behind your back is deemed an insult rather than a sign of respect in North Korea. A watching attendant angrily slapped my hands apart to a chorus of disapproving looks from a group of school children.After visiting a temple and attempting to eat a nine-dish lunch we set back towards Pyongyang, passing regular military blocks. Whilst we sped through them unchallenged, locals waited to have their papers checked, unable to move freely from place to place without official approval. The next stop on our action-packed itinerary was one of the Pyongyang’s two children’s palaces. Under the leadership of ‘The Great Leader’ these were built to allow children to practice a range of extra-curricular activities for free, from needlework to accordion playing. As we were led around the classrooms, the children smiled at us like little mechanical robots. "Every day 5,000 students come here and learn for free," Ms. Lee chirped, again trying to impress us with large numbers. There was no doubting the enormity of this ‘palace’, but if there were really 5,000 learning students behind the many closed doors, they were certainly the quietest and most well-behaved children I’ve ever had the pleasure of venturing near. Before leaving we were treated to an ‘impromptu’ theatrical performance of music, singing, acting and gymnastics. So professional was the performance, it was hard to believe that they only practiced after school.....................to be continuedDue to size constraints, please visit http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/ShadyAdy for more photos. Close
North Korea hasn’t really received many creditable reviews as a tourist destination. With George Bush’s infamous ’Axis of Evil’ words and the fatal shooting of a 53 year old South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier, this isn’t the kind of publicity tourist boards…Read More
North Korea hasn’t really received many creditable reviews as a tourist destination. With George Bush’s infamous ’Axis of Evil’ words and the fatal shooting of a 53 year old South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier, this isn’t the kind of publicity tourist boards want to receive. Such stories often fail to tell the whole story, and after researching our chosen destination thoroughly, as long as you abide by the country’s laws and customs, it’s probably one of the safest destinations in the world to visit. With your own personal guide and guard, the inability to delve from the set itinerary, coupled with the fear for potential criminals of being sent to one of the notorious gulags, the chances of a hassle-free trip looked high.Unfortunately, the view of Americans in North Korea is still one of suspicion and hate. As my wife is from ‘The Land of the Free’, it meant we were unable to take the train across the border for fear of spying. Instead we were left to enjoy a flight on the national airline of North Korea, Koryo Air, officially one of the world’s worst airlines. All but two of their ageing seventies built Russian planes are banned from flying in Europe or America due to safety fears. We would be catching one of these for the short forty minute flights to the capital Pyongyang. Normally I am one of the first people in the queue for boarding a flight. My tickets and passport in sweaty palms, ready to be thrust in to the waiting attendants face. This time was different. As the gate opened, my wife noticed that the passport number on her visa wasn’t correct. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have worried. But this was North Korea, a country that has sent many an American to their prisons for border infringements. With America running out of ex-presidents to save their ill-informed residents from long stints in labour camps, we were forced to make some urgent calls to the North Korean visa department.After conversing the issue, I was a little worried that the first words I heard over the phone were, "Oh my God!" With two minutes left before the gate closed to our flight, I was told, "don’t worry, get on the flight and we will sort everything out for when you arrive." Trying to not worry that your wife could be whisked away on arrival as you fly on one of the world’s worst airlines wasn’t an easy thing to do. Luckily being the only Westerners on the flight kept our minds entertained. As other passengers stared at us like we were wearing strait-jackets and had just escaped from a mental asylum, a pretty air attendant bumped another passenger up to first class so she could sit and practice her English with us. Offering us a variety of must-see attractions worth seeing whilst in North Korea, she didn’t seem to grasp the notion we would never be able to use her advice, due to our fixed itinerary and inability to visit many of the places locals frequent. After leaving us to carry out her job specifications, I was left to read a copy of North Korea’s only English language newspaper, The Pyongyang Times. Replacing the normal newspaper stories of rape and murder were propaganda-fuelled stories of their ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong Il watching a woman’s brass band and negative articles about their South Korean ‘puppet’ counterparts. Within no time we were descending in to Pyongyang. Rice paddies glistened below, like flooded plains. Surprisingly we walked through immigration hassle-free. Meeting our guide and guard, who would watch our every move like hungry hawks during our time in the Hermit Kingdom, we made the short journey in to Pyongyang and to our hotel. After having our cell phones confiscated on arrival I was surprised to see so many inhabitants nattering away on their own handsets, technology I was under the impression was banned under the current regime. It doesn’t take long to realise this secluded country is like no other. Roads are virtually empty. The few other vehicles you see are either military or public buses that look like they were taken straight from 1970’s hippy America. Inhabitants hurry along the empty roads on bicycles and foot to their destinations. With uniforms reminiscent of World War II, soldiers are evident everywhere. Not surprising when you consider five-percent of the entire population work for the military. It’s like stepping in to a time machine and transporting back to a bygone age. As night fell, streets remained under a blanket of darkness thanks to the lack of street lighting. The only buildings draped in light by the sporadic electricity supply were either impressive monuments or artistic Communist architecture. The day before we arrived into Pyongyang, the leading Workers Party held their biggest party meeting in thirty years. Here they started the motions for choosing the country’s next leader, Kim Jong Il’s third son, Kim Jong Un, who would now be affectionately known as ‘The Brilliant Comrade’. With hundreds of party officials in the city, it meant our hotel, Yanggakdo Hotel, built on an island in the middle of the Taedong River, was full of high-ranking government officials. With plain suits draped over white vests, their attire seemed more suited for the likes of Rab C. Nesbitt rather than the country’s governing elite. Like all North Koreans over the age of thirteen, these officials wore pin-badges of their ‘Great Leader’, Kim Il Sung, the country’s first leader who died in 1994. The God-like fanatical worship Kim Il Sung receives is at times unnerving. When venturing to North Korea, you don’t really have any choice in the hotel you are given. You are always given the best and most secluded hotel to help curb curiosity levels and to promote an image of wealth and exuberance. Our hotel came complete with bowling, a nine-hole golf course, revolving restaurant, and a Chinese staffed massage parlour that offered the type of massages that would make a grown man blush. It’s amazing how a place can differ from the images you previously had. I expected my hotel to be full of wire-taps and international arms-dealers, but as I rode the elevator to my thirty-third floor room, sharing it with government workers and a military official decorated in a multitude of stripes and medals, covering both sides of his shirt, I realised this wasn’t the case. If being surrounded by such powerful members of the country’s political hierarchy wasn’t surreal enough, to be then led away for dinner into an empty restaurant designated only for foreigners, brought the reality of where I was flooding back. For a country experiencing possible food shortages and high levels of chronic malnutrition, I felt slightly guilty as I ate my seven course dinner, which I’m sure was a show of, "food problems, what food problems?" With the night still relatively young, my wife and I retired to the hotel’s bar, comically referred to as a tea shop, where we drank German-style North Korean beer, quite easily the best beer I have drank since coming to Asia a year ago. Retiring to my hotel room, my slight tipsiness added a new dimension of eeriness as I looked across the unlit, silent Pyongyang skyline. Close
Written by jorgejuan on 12 Mar, 2006
I was in Beijing just enjoying the city with my hired bicycle when I saw the North Korean Embassy and went inside for curiosity to have information about this hermetic country. I was introduced to the chief of the travel agency RYOHAENGSA, who had his…Read More
I was in Beijing just enjoying the city with my hired bicycle when I saw the North Korean Embassy and went inside for curiosity to have information about this hermetic country. I was introduced to the chief of the travel agency RYOHAENGSA, who had his office in the same Embassy. I expressed to him my interest in visiting this country and then he offered me an individual tour for only $450! I accepted at once.
The tour included airplane to Pyongyang, 3 days and 3 nights single room in the colossal PYONGYANG KORYO HOTEL, food, car with driver, plus a guide in any language I liked and a railway ticket the last day to the border with China. In Pyongyang airport, the car with driver and guide, both called Kim, were waiting for me and brought me to my splendid hotel. I think it was the best and most luxurious one I have ever been during my travels, with about 45 floors. I asked for a high room and was given one with a number as long as a telephone number. The excursions I had included were: circus, mausoleum of former President Kim II Sung, palaces, and factories.
In the mausoleum they asked me money to buy flowers to put in the tomb of Kim II Sung, which I refused (the cost was about $10, but I was travelling cheaply and had only $50 left to get to Russia and back to Spain). They became angry with me and offered me another excursion. I asked for a Buddhist temple, and was brought to a beautiful monastery (empty) from the 15th century, outside of Pyongyang. During the nights when I used to walk alone, without the driver and the guide, I saw how the people were cutting grass in the parks for preparing soup. Yes, people are suffering from hunger in North Korea, and that made me feel guilty. I was there in an excellent hotel, and the local people were dying from starvation. The last day, when I left the country, the emigration officials did not want to stamp my passport.After visiting North Korea I felt that I have been to a special place, in a retro country. One day when the political situation changes I will feel proud of having been there like I was about visiting the old Soviet Union, or in Nicaragua during the times of the sandinistas, or having crossed the Check Point Charly between the two Berlins during the Cold War period.