Wednesday, April 18, 2007 Korea (North) North Korea

Seriously needing to get out now

Grand Monument on Lake Samji [Enlarge]

This morning there were a few sore heads and bleary eyes. If the bar at the Pegaebong Hotel had not run out of beer it is probable that some people would not have gone to bed at all. As we met for breakfast, most people were starting to look very travel weary.

Breakfast had a potato theme to it. The butter was rancid so we ate our potato bread dry, or with a little potato jam. There were also hot baked potatoes available. It was tempting to slip a potato into each pocket to keep our hands warm as we ventured out into the cold. The good news was that minibus B had been retrieved from the spot at which it ran out of diesel last night, and refuelled. We have no idea where the fuel comes from, we have yet to see a petrol station in North Korea.

Grand Monument guide [Enlarge]

We needed to be at the airport for our 11:00 charter flight back to Pyongyang, so we only had time to see one more attraction in Samjiyon: the Grand Monument on Lake Samji. Standing in deep snow was a typically huge bronze statue of the Great Leader. This one depicts him in his younger days, when he was fighting the Japanese on the slopes of Mount Paekdu. It is made of special non-tarnishing bronze, by the looks of it. It has been here since 1979 and is still as shiny as ever. It's so shiny you might almost think it was made of plastic. We couldn't check it out in detail because we would have left tell-tale footprints in the snow, and in any case we weren't even allowed to walk on the raised step which surrounds the statue, so we would have been arrested for disrespecting the Great Leader before we got within five metres of him. We had to make do with wandering around the well swept paths admiring the statues from a distance. As well as the Kim statue, there were larger than life revolutionary scenes. On the right were anti-Japanese guerilla fighters bravely charging forward to attack the enemy. On the left were people who had been forced out of their homes, making camp, cooking, playing music and generally making the best of things in their secret camp in the mountains. And to cap it all there was a miniature version of the Juche Tower in Pyongyang, complete with glistening red flame.

Guerilla Army monument on Lake Samji [Enlarge]

The two minibuses slithered back along the narrow forest trail to Samjiyon Airport. As we pulled in to the airport, which is primarily a military airfield, we caught the briefest glimpse of a squadron of ancient, silver MiG fighter jets through the bushes, probably MiG-15s, which are apparently still used at Samjiyon as trainers.

Check-in was the smoothest we have ever experienced anywhere. The bus drove almost all the way to the plane, which was still parked where we left it yesterday. We got off the bus, took a hand-written boarding card from Mr Lee, walked to the plane and boarded. Why can't British Airways check-ins be like that? Again everyone had to take all their luggage on board—we didn't get to see what was in the hold this time.

The short flight was accompanied by Air Koryo cider as ever, and the educational reading material this time was a copy of the magazine Korea Today, which should really be called Korea Yesterday given that virtually every story is about the miracles performed by Kim Il-sung. On landing at Pyongyang we found the airport almost deserted. There were no staff at immigration and it seemed our arrival did not even merit switching on the lights. Perhaps the red carpet would be out later on though, as we noticed that the arrivals board was showing a flight coming in from Incheon, South Korea's main airport! This is not a regular occurrence. Within half an hour or so of touching down, we were having lunch in the revolving restaurant on the top floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel.

Update 7th May 2007: The flight from the South was bringing some VIP delegates for talks, which turned out to be quite significant.

After lunch we had time for a shower and to do the laundry before meeting in reception at 14:30. For the second time this week, we had a choice of our next destination. We could visit the Grand People's Study House on Kim Il-sung Square—a huge library with 30 million books—followed by a trip to the Revolutionary Cemetery; or we could go to an international football match [US: soccer] between the DPRK and India. Isla used to be a keen footy-fan, going to watch her home town play most weekends, but Glenn hates football and had never been to a football match before. But this was North Korea! How cool will it be to be able to say that the only live match you've ever been to was in Pyongyang! We had been asking all week if we could go to the match, which we had read about on the plane into North Korea, in the Pyongyang Times. It reported on the first leg of the tie, in India, and we wanted to see the return match so that we could observe for ourselves the heroic team that had secured a 0–2 victory, humiliating the home side with their bravado and skill. So there was no doubt about it, we were going to the football. The tickets were fifteen euros each and, after splashing out on an oil painting, a trip to the circus and two visits to the Mass Games, we did not have enough cash left. So we had to borrow twenty euros from one of our comrades, to be repaid in Chinese yuan once we get to an ATM on the other side of the border tomorrow. We now have absolutely no money left.

Taesong Department Store, Pyongyang [Enlarge]

On the bus we learned that we had enough time to visit a department store before the match started. So what? So, this is Pyongyang, and visiting one of the famous department stores is a big event, that's what. Sadly it wasn't going to be the grand-daddy of them all, Department Store No. 1, since foreigners are never allowed in there. But it was a worthy consolation prize in the form of the foreigner-friendly Taesong Department Store. Hard currency only, of course. In the DPRK, euros have taken over from US dollars as the hard currency of choice, even with the locals, although they have to be much more careful about flashing them than we do.

Taesong Department Store, Pyongyang [Enlarge]

We were given fifteen minutes to have a look around the four floors of desirable goods. Stepping inside was like going back in time to an austere age of shelves and racks thinly stocked with whatever products the shopkeepers happened to be able to source that week. Exclusively Chinese imports by the look of it. But at the same time there were a few 'show' items such as large plasma TVs on sale for a few thousand euros. By our calculation, that's a few hundred years' earnings for the average North Korean, according to the estimates at Life Funds for North Korean Refugees. Floor 1 (the ground floor) was electrical goods and furniture including some fake wood sideboards. Floor 2 was clothing and cuddly toys. Floor 3 was jewellery and household items. Floor 4 was art, ornaments and souvenirs. Even if we had had any money left to spend, there was nothing we could possibly have wanted here. But as ever it was a surreal experience not to be missed.

We carried on to Kim Il-sung Stadium for the football match. We weren't sure what to expect. The match was an Olympic pre-qualifier for the Asian group, between two nations who don't have much of a footballing pedigree. It was on a weekday afternoon and the North Koreans don't have much mid-week leisure time. Nevertheless, people were flocking through the streets to the stadium. They weren't exactly waving flags and scarves and blowing whistles and trumpets, but it looked like there would be a good turn out.

Kim Il-sung Stadium [Enlarge]

The stadium was imposing, but not in the way that the Arirang one was. As we went in to take our seats we could not see any spare spaces. We had no need to worry: an entire row of Koreans was hastily relocated for our benefit. As expected, we were in prime position, and we had comfortable little fold-up chairs to sit on. The guide taught us how to say "Come on, Korea!" in Korean (it's "Chosonikkida!", but we're not sure how you spell it).

We were surprised to find ourselves sitting right behind a line of Indians, who had turned out to support their side—presumably they were embassy staff. Over on the far side of the stadium the grandstand was full of Koreans, almost half of them wearing army uniforms. Everyone stood for the national anthems. The game began, although we hardly noticed, as there was no cheering, no booing, no singing. The atmosphere could only be described as polite and reserved. There was a low level of chatter, the occasional rustle of a newspaper and a gentle round of applause when the play merited it. It was typically surreal. When the Koreans scored their first goal our group all leapt from our seats, cheering and waving the flags we had brought along specially (never more important to support the home side than here); and we found ourselves celebrating alone, stared at by a still-seated, bemused crowd who were obviously wondering who let these crazy foreigners in.

Pyongyang football crowd [Enlarge]

The Indian team were no match for the DPRK. Another goal followed just before half time (we confined our celebrations to hearty applause that time). After the break, India tried a little harder. Whatever their Russian coach had said to them during the interval had worked, and sustained pressure eventually produced a goal. But it was too little too late and the game finished 2–1 to the DPRK. So, did their side's dominance stir up support in the crowd? Was it the rousing cheers of the loyal fans that spurred the team to victory? Er, no. This was, without a doubt, the least animated football crowd ever seen. It's not for the want of patriotic fervour, it's just that they are completely unable to express themselves.

What a week. Leaving the stadium, the road back down to Kim Il-sung Square was choked with traffic. Yes, a North Korean traffic jam! We were so happy to be gridlocked! We couldn't make a left turn to join the queue so our driver went right, then immediately did a U-turn. All of a sudden we were surrounded by blacked-out SUVs doing U-turns with us. It seemed that we had taken our fleet of minders by surprise. Or possibly they were just fans who were trying to dodge the traffic like us. Who knows.

While we sat in the traffic we managed to get a traffic lady to smile at us, but only after everyone on the coach slid open the windows and smiled, shouted "hello" in Korean, and waved our DPRK flags frantically at her. She tried to resist, but in the end she couldn't help smiling back. We tried again, getting three attempts at one poor traffic lady when we were diverted around Kim Il-sung Square to avoid a military parade practice. But testament to their resolve, we couldn't break any of them. There was a definite end-of-term feeling on the bus—there is no way we would have dared to do this at the beginning of the week.

When we got back to the hotel and met up with the folks who had chosen the other option for their afternoon's entertainment, we found that they had had an equally crazy time, being trailed by a Japanese film crew and watching the practice for the world-famous military parade which is coming up on 25th April (as we understand it, foreigners are never allowed to see this parade, so they were really privileged to see the practice). The DPRK has enough craziness for every taste. We didn't bother taking our chances with the Yanggakdo elevators so we instead chatted to Mrs Lee in the lobby until it was time to go out for our farewell dinner. It was at the Pyongyang Duck Barbecue Restaurant. There was a festive air and it was a great meal—cooking pieces of duck on our own four-person barbecues in the middle of each table. There was soju as well as the usual Taedonggang beer. We haven't dwelt on the subject of the beer before, but there's a funny story about that too. A few years ago the North Koreans decided that they should be brewing their own high quality beer, so they bought up the insides of a British brewery, shipped it to the DPRK, reassembled it and got brewing. The brewery in question was Ushers of Trowbridge. The county town of Wiltshire. Where we come from. In fact, Isla was working in Trowbridge when the site closed in 2001 and it was big news that the town was losing its historic brewery. It wasn't such big news that the buyer of the brewing equipment was Kim Jong-il, though it did make it into a small piece in The Guardian in 2004 (it's the second story on the page). Now the Ushers site is being redeveloped as a supermarket while the old machinery continues to make very tasty ale.

A strange thing happened to the group today. People agreed that returning to Pyongyang felt like 'coming home'. Pyongyang, the city that felt so strange and backward when we arrived less than a week ago, now felt comfortable and advanced—compared to the countryside. We are becoming institutionalised, and that is scaring us. When we booked this tour, we thought that seven nights might be too little. But now that we've spent six nights here, we are extremely claustrophobic and desperate to get out of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It is messing with our minds. This time tomorrow we will be back in the free world (we never thought we would refer to China as 'The Free World'). How will we cope with being able to go out for a walk by ourselves, we wonder? It's daunting.

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 145

Day 145
Samjiyon 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.