Friday, April 13, 2007 Korea (North) North Korea

First night in the Axis of Strange

Room 3707, Yanggakdo Hotel [Enlarge]

Shortly after clearing airport security we were met by our guides. We were split into two groups of 20, each with two guides, a trainee guide and a cameraman. Yes, we are going to be videoed all week. The official reason is so that we can buy the souvenir DVD at the end, but who knows what other purposes the authorities have in mind for the footage. Anyway, we had no say in the matter—this is North Korea, where the customer is not always right. We were assigned to Group A, and our three guides were Mr Lee, Mrs Lee and trainee 'Young Mr Lee.' Fifteen percent of all Koreans are called Lee—having three of them on our bus is going to get a bit confusing. Mr Lee was the most senior, in his early forties, Mrs Lee was Glenn's age and Young Mr Lee was a new graduate from the university. They were all immaculately dressed and eager to show us their country. They all spoke English well, but Mrs Lee's English was the best. She spoke with a beautiful British accent which came, she said, from the language tapes she had used at school. On the evidence of Mrs Lee it sounded like the tapes were recorded by Felicity Kendal.

By now it had got dark, and was raining heavily. We made a dash to the waiting buses in the car park. There were few lights on outside. As the coach pulled away the guides introduced themselves and gave us an outline of the week's itinerary. We were reminded that this was "a group tour, not an individual tour", and therefore it was important that we stay with the group at all times.

The airport is 24 kilometres north of the city centre and so we spent a while in the countryside. There was no evidence of life in the pitch darkness outside the bus, and because it was cold and raining, the bus windows soon steamed up. What happened next was a complete surprise. We came to a junction and Mrs Lee said over the microphone "We're nearly there now." We wiped a peep-hole on the window so that we could look outside. We were almost in the centre of Pyongyang and had not even noticed! There was little or no street lighting, and only weak low-energy light bulbs were visible in the windows of the apartment blocks as we passed.

We crossed a bridge onto Yanggakdo Island in the middle of the Taedong River. Yanggak means Sheep's Horn, which is the shape of this particular island. A few turns later and we were at the towering 47 storey Yanggakdo Hotel. This is the largest working hotel in Pyongyang, and probably in the whole of the DPRK. Before checking in, we were ushered through for dinner. Like all meals this week will be, this was a set meal and they were expecting us. The dining room was empty apart from our group, and had a very utilitarian feel with its plain white walls and fluorescent light bulbs. The restaurant staff were friendly enough, but were working to a very tight remit. Their job was to bring plates of food to each of the four or five large, circular tables; and requests for an extra spoon or another beer seemed to cause problems.

At dinner we had our first taste of the legendary Korean kimchi. This innocent looking dish of pickled spiced vegetables is apparently served with every meal—the Koreans even have it for breakfast. There are many varieties, although the most common is cabbage, seasoned to a fiery intensity with red chilli. At first taste it was okay, and we both managed to finish our portions. Let's see how fond we are of it by this time next week! It was served as part of what can only be described as a banquet, particularly in a country where it is believed that famine in the last decade has killed between one and three million people. The other dishes were cucumber, chicken and noodle soup, chicken and cabbage, beef, rice and salad. And North Korean beer, which was really rather good. If we had been eating this meal in, say, China, we would have regarded it as pretty mediocre quality. But we were acutely aware of where we were, and therefore we felt a mixture of gratitude and guilt to be getting it. The guilt was made worse when we couldn't eat all of the food—but we're sure it didn't go to waste after we had eaten our fill.

While dinner was going on, Mr Lee was dashing in and out trying to sort out our rooms and get us all checked in. The hotel was full, allegedly. Certainly the lobby had been busier than we were expecting—the fact that this was the opening week of the first Mass Games for two years probably had something to do with it. But was the hotel really full, or did they want us to marvel at how so many people want to visit their country that they have trouble accommodating them all? Luckily, they soon managed to find the right number of rooms to accommodate our group. We were told to be down in the lobby in the morning, ready to roll at 08:00 when we would be leaving to go to Kaesong for an overnight stay near the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. We carried our bags to the lift [US: elevator] and pressed the call button.

A word about the lifts in the Yanggakdo hotel. There are eight lifts. They are wired in pairs rather than being fully cross-wired, so you have to press all four buttons if you want to be sure of getting the nearest lift to come to you. Of course, everyone pushes all the buttons, which means that three out of four times a lift stops at a floor, the people who requested it have already caught one of the others. The result is that lifts stop at almost every floor on the way up, and almost every floor on the way down. Most of the times when they stop at a floor there is nobody there.

Eventually a lift arrived in the lobby and we requested the 37th floor. As expected, we stopped several times on the way up at seemingly deserted floors. Some of these floors had no lights on and the lobby areas outside the lift weren't carpeted. They looked a bit like the lift lobbies of multi-storey car parks. Who stays on these floors? Presumably the army of tour guides and the bottle blonde Russian staff who work at the Casino and the 'Gentlemen's Sauna' in the basement. We jumped gratefully out of the lift on floor 37 and went to our room: 3707. It was a very normal looking three/four star hotel room. There was complimentary shampoo and slippers, clean white bed linen, hot running water and a flushing toilet. We even had BBC World on the TV. That definitely wasn't in the script! On the down side the bath towels were tiny hand towels, and as for room service and lists of local taxi companies—not going to happen.

We spent a little while catching up on the latest in the North Korea/Macau Bank/Nuclear inspections wrangling. There was no point unpacking all our stuff just to pack it up again in the morning, but we did need to wash our clothes because we didn't know what the laundry situation would be in Kaesong.

This morning we woke up early, which was fortunate as the phone finally rang for our alarm call five minutes before we were due to go downstairs for breakfast. We are living right in the middle of a capital city, and yet when we opened the window we were greeted with complete silence. This will be one of the things we remember about North Korea: the stillness and silence. There was occasionally the sound of a horn from a distant vehicle, or the noise of a load of scaffolding or something being moved around in a yard, but that was it. We couldn't see anything either, due to the thick blanket of fog which had descended overnight. We desperately wanted to just walk out into this strange place and take it all in, but we knew that was completely impossible. Instead, we are being whisked off today to the southern city of Kaesong, ancient capital of the Koryo empire, and closest city to the border with South Korea—the most heavily militarised area on earth. Pyongyang will have to wait until we return tomorrow evening.