Saturday, April 14, 2007 Korea (North) North Korea

Back to Pyongyang and the Mass Games!

Another exhausting but incredible day. Here's the story…

The hotel was not able to deliver on its promise of half an hour's hot water this morning. At breakfast, we discovered that we were lucky even to have running cold water in our room, as most other people had just had a bath that was plugged and full of water. And a bucket.

On the itinerary we had been given before the tour started, one of the items for yesterday was 'a walk in the old town'. We were looking forward to this part, because so far we have been strictly segregated from 'real' North Korean people. But the guides never mentioned the possibility of doing this walk yesterday—it seemed that this item had been cancelled. We wondered whether it was because of the people who wandered away from the group when we were up at the Kim Il-sung statue yesterday, showing that they couldn't be trusted with something really risky for the guides. The guides certainly did not need to willingly put themselves under any more pressure than necessary for a bunch of tourists who can't follow simple instructions like "Do not leave the group".

We got back on the bus ready to return to Pyongyang, and then Simon from Koryo Tours said that he had managed to get special dispensation for us all to go for a walk around the old town! Whether he pulled any strings with Mr and Mrs Lee to secure this walk for us, we will never know.

There were two conditions. (1) There is to be absolutely no wandering off. (2) The cameras stay on the bus.

This seemed like a fair trade to us. We stepped outside. Like children on a school trip, the group of forty tourists walked in a long crocodile, two by two, along the road to the old city gate. It was immediately clear that this sort of thing does not happen every day in Kaesong. In the capital Pyongyang, the people are almost getting used to the sight of foreigners now, but here in provincial North Korea, we were still a novelty: fascinating to some and deeply frightening to others. People were crossing the road to avoid us, children were staring, people coming out of buildings and side streets were startled and didn't know how to react. We said Anyonghashimnika! (hello!) to some of the passers by, and waved at some of the children. We got no overt responses, but we felt that we had received a discreet smile or two.

Our walk from the Kaesong Folk Hotel to the Nam Gate was about 600 metres. It was easily the strangest and most intense few minutes of our whole round-the-world trip so far. We walked past dark shops and houses, and a thousand interesting corners around which we would have loved to peek. But of course it was impossible.

This was extreme tourism.

The two buses sped past us and waited at the Nam Gate to pick us up. The guides didn't want us to cause even more of a disturbance by walking back the way we had come. As the engines started up there was a buzz on board—if you weren't there, it is impossible to describe to you how significant the walk had been.

We drove out of town and back to Pyongyang, and the guides must have breathed a huge sigh of relief that their risk had paid off without incident. It is amazing how in this country full of the most strange sights, such a simple thing like taking a short walk in town will prove to be one of the most memorable things we have done. No matter how much the regime tries to keep knowledge of the outside world at bay, surely this sort of complete cultural barrier cannot last much longer.

Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification [Enlarge]

As we came to the edge of Pyongyang we saw the Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification, built in 2001. This vast statue bridges the Reunification Highway and forms a gateway to the city. It was our first of the many bizarre, gargantuan monuments in Pyongyang on our itinerary. We hadn't seen any of the city on the previous times that we had driven through, as it was always either dark or foggy. But today it was clear and sunny. The statue is impressive: two female figures, thirty metres high, dressed in traditional Korean dress and holding aloft a map of a unified Korea. We parked just in front of it and got out to take pictures, and Glenn waited a while for a car to come along and drive under it to give a sense of scale.

We drove across the town centre to the Mansu Art Studio. This is where the statues and mosaics of the Great Leader are made, and where they also make beautiful paintings and celadons. We were shown around several workshops where the work of the artists was on display. In the second room, we met two young male artists who had a display of oil paintings. The work was amazing—highly skilled, as all the work is in the DPRK, but some of it was quite western in style. Korean taste in art looks, to our eyes, garish. To Korean eyes, our western taste is insipid. One painting caught our eyes more than all the others. It was fully western in style, and probably the most insipid picture in the room. It showed a Pyongyang street on a snowy, foggy morning. The artist had perfectly captured the grey tower blocks, the trolley buses with their dim lights shining through the gloom, the people hurrying from one cold place to another. We both fell instantly in love with it. We have never bought an original painting before—what little 'art' we used to own was cheap and came ready-framed. We asked the guide, via Mrs Lee, how much the large oil painting of Pyongyang was. It was 100 euros (GBP 68 / USD 136). We said we would like to buy it. Mrs Lee said to hang on, as she thought she could get us a better deal. Moments later she had done a deal for 100 US dollars! (GBP 50 / EUR 74) We paid quickly, and also persuaded the artist to write down the name of the painting and a biography of himself. We're going to have to FedEx the painting back home when we get to Beijing.

Ryugyong Hotel [Enlarge]

It was 12:15 and time for lunch. We drove across town towards the Manyongdae area of Pyongyang for lunch at the Pine Tree Mountain Restaurant. On the way we got our first view of Pyongyang's most contentious sight: the Ryugyong Hotel. At 105 floors and 330 metres, this reinforced concrete structure was started in 1987, but after five years construction stopped. It has remained as a shell for the last fifteen years. It would have been the world's tallest hotel if completed (it is still 9 metres taller than the next tallest, the Burj-al-Arab in Dubai). At 3,000 rooms and 360,000 square metres of gross floor area, it would also have been one of the world's largest buildings.

The rumour outside the DPRK is that the design is flawed, the concrete is of such a poor quality that the building cannot be finished, and that it cannot be demolished either, so it stands as an embarrassing monument to everything that is wrong with North Korea's system. We were pretty impressed with the architects for trying, as it certainly leaves a mark in your mind when you look at it. Before our trip we had read that the people of the DPRK, including tour guides, are under orders to deny that the Ryugyong exists, even though it can be clearly seen from virtually anywhere in the city. In actual fact, our guides did not deny its existence although they were not particularly keen to talk about it. They said that construction is on hold because at the moment Pyongyang has more hotel rooms than it can fill, so it is a waste of money to continue work at present. An excellent photo we have found from inside the fenced-off site is here.

Paying respects to the Great Leader [Enlarge]

Propaganda is all around you in Pyongyang, in the monolithic statues and mosaics around the city, but at our next stop we got an inkling of how it is used in film and television. After lunch, we drove to the Pyongyang Film Studios where most of the DPRK's movies are made. Near the entrance, small children were queuing to lay flowers at the feet of another statue of the Great Leader. In this effigy he is depicted with a fatherly arm around a young girl, as he pours forth his wisdom to the film-makers of the DPRK.

The latest blockbuster had just wrapped and the lot was quiet. The film studio manager showed us around some of their outdoor sets where they film most of their epics. The sets are all historical, and all set in north-east Asia: North Korea in the 1930s and 50s, China and Japan in the 1930s, and South Korea in the 1950s.

South Korea at the Pyongyang Film Studios [Enlarge]

It seems that the entire output of the studios is designed to promote the heroic struggle of the people of the DPRK and to reinforce the message that all the hardships of the past and present are down to the Japanese colonialists and the US imperialist aggressors. Of course it is impossible for North Korean films to be made on location in other countries, and we were told that cost limitations preclude filming on location even inside the DPRK so the film studios have to use and reuse the few sets they have. One building we were shown was built and painted in a different historical style on each of the four sides, so it could be used for films from four different eras in Korea's past. Someone asked whether North Korea has big movie stars. "Of course!" was the reply, but sadly they were all off set today. That seemed to signal the end of our visit.

At the 'Victorious Fatherland Liberation War' (Korean War) Museum. [IMG_2271]
Captured US jeep [Enlarge]

The main war museum in Pyongyang is the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. Like so many of Pyongyang's buildings, it is enormous. To see all the exhibition rooms would take days and, as usual, we only had about 45 minutes. A woman in immaculate army uniform showed us around. She was efficient and strict, a bit reminiscent of Lotte Lenya playing Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love. When she told us to move to the next room, we moved. For the first time in our trip so far, our group of committed independent travellers was fully under control. The war museum houses all kinds of military paraphernalia from captured US planes, guns and helmets to documentary evidence of the misdemeanours and war crimes perpetrated against the DPRK by—you guessed it—the US imperialist aggressors. The best was saved for last. At the top of the building in a revolving room is the world's largest 360 degree panorama. Since this was the first cylindrical panorama we had ever seen we had no frame of reference, but it was indeed very big. A huge canvas ran around the outside of the room, on which the background was painted. In front of the canvas was about five metres of 3D scenery—including, apparently, a real American tank. It was very well done, so much so that you could hardly see the join between the painted background and the 'real' foreground. The subject of the scene was a generic fight in the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War, in which the Korean People's Army has recently retaken a village and triumphantly beaten the US army. Did you doubt it?

Changgwang Health Complex barber shop [Enlarge]

Where do you go in Pyongyang when you need a haircut? To the Changgwang Health Complex, of course. Sadly we were here to admire the facilities, not for highlights and a manicure. Before we could see the place we had to remove our shoes and put on a pair of flip-flops. They were one-size-fits-all (or not, as the case may be) so Isla's flipped and flopped with every step, while Glenn had to walk around the building on tiptoes. Looking around the group it seemed as if no one's shoes fitted. We first visited the barber's shop, where a number of hairstyles were available. We were more interested in the North Korean TV showing in the waiting room. Some members of the group said that they could pick it up in their hotel room—we must try to find it tonight amid all the satellite stations we are given as privileged guests. Next we were divided into single sex groups and led off in opposite directions. Isla and the girls' group walked through the women's changing room, through the gym to the outdoor children's pool where two dozen boys and girls were playing around in the water and sliding down the play-slide. They didn't seem particularly surprised to be visited by a group of foreigners—either they were used to it, or they were expecting us. At the same time, Glenn's group of chaps was viewing the Olympic-sized pool and diving boards. The two groups swapped locations without bumping into one another.

We were reunited before too long and bussed off to our final stop of the afternoon, the captured American navy vessel USS Pueblo. Wikipedia has the full story. There have been recent talks about repatriating the Pueblo, but for the time being she is moored in the Taedong River, just a couple of bridges down from the Yanggakdo Hotel, and has so far attracted over a quarter of a million visitors. We walked around the boat, admired the shell holes and the spying equipment, then we were shown the most anti-American documentary of our trip so far on an impressively modern flat-panel TV and DVD combo.

By now Mr and Mrs Lee wanted us back on the bus, quickly. Tonight we were going to the Mass Games and time was running short. Some people in the group had asked if we could stop at the hotel for a quick shower before dinner, since we had not had hot water this morning. The Yanggakdo wasn't far away, but we had to drive the long way round to get to it and by the time we got there we only really had time to go upstairs to our room, dump our bags, find our jumpers and go back downstairs, remembering that the lifts are notoriously unreliable. True to form, our lift took us all the way down from Floor 37 to Floor 3, then for some inexplicable reason reversed direction and started going back up. We pressed lots of buttons and persuaded it to stop at Floor 12, where we got out and had to wait for another one that was one its way down.

Dinner was another traditional Korean feast: hotpot. Like the royal lunch in Kaesong, we each had a small burner in front of us and a bowl filled with soup. Once the soup was boiling we added raw meat, then let that cook for ten minutes. We added vegetables, including green chillies and let it cook another few minutes, then finally an egg. It was a nice idea, but to be honest a chef would have made a better job than us.

Arirang Mass Games [Enlarge]

We were good and warm now, and ready for the highlight of our trip—billed by Koryo Tours as "The most amazing thing that you will ever see, guaranteed". North Korea doesn't go in for internal competitive sports too much. (Whooping other countries is OK, but not each other.) So, as a form of entertainment, a sporting endeavour, a mass health drive, a show of power, and a demonstration of what can be achieved when the individual submits totally to the needs of the collective, the DPRK gives the world The Arirang Mass Games.

We arrived at the Rungrado May Day Stadium at 19:15. Predictably, the stadium is big. In fact it's the largest stadium in the world, with seats for 150,000. North Koreans (privileged ones only, of course) pay a pittance to see the Mass Games; but westerners pay anything from 50 to 300 euros. On Simon's advice, we all went for the standard 50 euro tickets as there is very little difference. He was right—we ended up right next to the 300 euro enclosure, in pretty much prime viewing position.

The stadium is like any huge sports stadium, open air and mostly made of concrete. From the carpark it's a short walk up some steps and then in through one of the twenty-something entrances. Then there's a short tunnel which brings you out about halfway up the side of the grandstand. As we walked down the tunnel, a wall of colour greeted us, accompanied by a wall of noise. This was twenty thousand schoolchildren on the opposite side of the stadium, holding up large books of coloured card, shouting in chorus, banging their card books and snapping them open and shut to create huge mosaic slogans and pictures. It was all done in perfect unison. It was breathtaking. Literally. We all sat down and Isla took a while to summon enough self-control to close her mouth, which had fallen open in wonder. We just sat and stared for a good ten minutes. And the show hadn't even started! How are the banks of children kept in time so well? Does an electric current run through each seat every time they are supposed to flip their cards? In the quest for perfection in North Korea anything is possible. Actually, each bank has a 'conductor' standing down at the front, with a flag. That explains the timing, but we never figured out how they know which page to go to and who exactly the conductor is pointing at. The kids must have the entire show memorised. As you look at our photos on the right, bear in mind that the huge backdrops you see behind the dancers are this human mosaic. You can see it in action in the video at the bottom.

Arirang Mass Games [Enlarge]

A silent troupe of dancers walked out in straight, very straight, lines and stood on their marks. This was the opening night and there was some extra pomp to be gone through. At 20:00 the speeches began, in alternating Korean and English for the benefit of the tourists, of which there were quite a few. As the speeches went on we were filmed copiously both by our camera man and by other North Korean videographers. Some of them had normal looking TV cameras, but several were using old cine cameras with rolls of film on the top. We guess these will be used for newsreels to be shown in the more remote villages and towns. We can only wonder what commentary will put on top of the footage of the western tourists.

Arirang Mass Games [Enlarge]

Then, with great fanfare, the show began. It was impossible to know where to look. If you watched the card holding students making their amazing pictures, you missed the dancers. But by concentrating on the dancers you couldn't watch the pictures change. It was a joy to take in the whole thing, then to switch you attention to a small group of performers and watch how the whole uniform mass was composed of individuals, every one dancing their socks off, whether they were right at the front or tucked away in a dark corner at the back. The show was made up of lots of different scenes. Dancers gave way to torch and flag twirling young men. Then tiny children, no more than seven or eight years old, performed headstands and back flips. They were followed by skipping elves, then a marching band the size of a small army. The army slot culminated in a montage of the late Kim Il-sung being displayed on the human video wall, to rapturous applause from the adoring crowd. This show was in honour of his 95th birthday, after all.

Next there was a slightly surreal portion where dancing goats, pigs, chickens and rabbits emerged, accompanied by several types of vegetable. This was the farming slot. The creatures moved aside to reveal baby animals behind them. Behind the chickens, however, were dancing eggs. Just the dancers' little white legs were visible under the shell. It was adorable, bizarre and comedic in equal measure.

Arirang Mass Games [Enlarge]

Then the dancing gave way to some acrobatics. The lights went out and spotlights picked out two acrobats, a man and a woman, who were swinging at a great height above the stadium floor. They had no safety harnesses. They twirled around each other, the man clinging by his finger tips, the woman dangling by her feet, from his feet. And then she fell! There was a genuine collective gasp from the audience. For an instant we thought that there had been an awful accident, but the spotlight followed her down and into the safety net that had secretly appeared in the darkness and now covered the whole stadium floor. Acrobats started being shot up into the air, flying in colossal arcs which spanned the entire length of the world's largest stadium, before falling into the net, while others whizzed through the air on zip lines.

A huge inflatable globe was wheeled out, a united Korea illuminated in red, and all the dancers, marchers, acrobats and performers took to the arena for one final sensory overload of sound, colour and synchronisation. And then it was all over.

It was, as promised, absolutely the most amazing thing we have ever seen. The short video below and our photos cannot even begin to do it justice. It was indescribable. It made an Olympic opening ceremony look like a school play. We were exhausted just watching it, but the performers have to do it again every night for the next month! As we crossed the car park we mingled with thousands of the gymnasts, all justifiably buzzing from their performance. The bus took us back again to the Yanggakdo hotel, and we went back to our room to look at our photos and to try to start making some sense of this amazing, incomprehensible country, where almost the entire population lives with no electricity or running water but where they can put on the greatest show on earth. Where nobody is free to think or act for themselves, but where the people truly love and exalt the leaders who enslave them, in a way that the subjects of the communist rule in the Soviet Union or China never did.

Click the button in the video below to watch it—it is just a few bits and pieces that we filmed during the show; we weren't allowed a tripod and anyway most of the time we were too busy being amazed to even think about using the camera.

All our photos from today are here. You can see everywhere we go in Google Earth by going to our progress map, then clicking the Google Earth tab.

Map of Day 141

Day 141
Kaesong to Pyongyang

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Update 7th May 2007: We were on North Korean TV when we went to the Mass Games! It was recorded and put on YouTube by atiu88. See clip below. We are shown on the right hand side of the screen at 01:28. The clip is worth watching anyway because it includes lots of stuff that we didn't include on our video, and is generally better quality.


Gregor Spowart said...

Thanks for this - I've been reading your blog from the start and reading the NK section brings all the memories back - especially the thrill you get from walking the streets. We had a walk though a park for Kim Il-Sung's birthday and ended up dancing with a number of the locals - it was incredible.

I love your photos - Mr and Mrs Lee were our guides as well.

I didn't get to see the mass games though so I'm very jealous!

Thanks again - and all the very best for the rest of your trip!

Gregor, UK

Glenn Livett said...

Thanks for the comment Gregor (which we've just noticed because the Blogger email notification seems to be broken). Have just enjoyed reading your own DPRK story - it brought it all back.