Monday, April 16, 2007 Korea (North) North Korea

Springtime in Pyongyang

From the Yanggakdo Hotel. [IMG_2452]
Central Pyongyang [Enlarge]

It was another sunny morning when we woke up at 07:30. We flicked on BBC World to find out what was happening around the globe. Imagine our surprise when one of the main news stories featured Charles Scanlon reporting on the North Korean nuclear talks—from last night's soirée! We were just getting over the that's where we were! shock when two members of our group danced on by in the background, behind the presenter! How much more surreal can this week get? We have to come all the way to North Korea to get on our own TV news. Good job we weren't shown on screen, as Isla's mum and dad don't know we're here. It's strange to think that North Korea is making headlines all over the world, watched by millions who are concerned about nuclear proliferation and stories of mass famine. And we are actually in the country, closer than anyone. But we are dancing at soirées and going to the circus, completely unaware of what is going on, along with the majority of its inhabitants… We went down to breakfast to share the news with the two new TV stars.

Talking of TV, we managed to find North Korea's only channel on our TV in the hotel room. From what we can tell, it is filled with wall-to-wall weirdness and extremely unwatchable. The programme we saw last night was some sort of karaoke singalong accompanied by rousing music and pictures of lovely North Korean scenery. For well over an hour. Televisions in North Korea are modified so that they can only pick this channel up, and it is a serious crime for the Koreans to try to receive anything else.

Our group at Kim Il-sung's birthplace, Mangyongdae [Enlarge]

First stop of today's tour was Mangyongdae, Kim Il-sung's birthplace. In a picturesque wooded hillside area on the western edge of the city, the house where Kim Il-sung's parents lived in the early twentieth century has been reconstructed as a tourist attraction, or rather a spot of religious significance. We were shown what a simple life the Great Leader had been born into, and then posed for a group photo in front of the little cottage. Then we went for a walk up the hill to a scenic spot overlooking the city. It was a beautiful place on a beautiful day, and a good place to spend a little while before resuming our very full tourist agenda. At the gift shop, we found that they were selling bottles of cola, which Mrs Lee described as 'Korean Coca Cola'. In the name of science we bought a bottle. It tasted like those little 'cola bottle' penny sweets that you used to get (probably still can) and was flat. Really nasty, but the bottle's label will make another great souvenir.

The next item on the agenda was a ride on the Pyongyang Metro. Now normally such a journey wouldn't merit an agenda item of its own on a tourist itinerary, but this week is not in any way normal.

Pyongyang Metro Yonggwang (Glory) Station [Enlarge]

Pyongyang is proud of its metro system, and almost every tourist has a ride on it. But it seems that tourists only ever travel one stop, and always between the same two stations, Puhung (Rehabilitation) and Yonggwang (Glory). Because of this, a number of conspiracy theories abound on whether the metro is even real, or whether the whole show is staged.

We have found evidence that some westerners have managed to travel more widely than this usual short tourist route, so we can be confident that the wider system does exist and is operational, at least some of the time. But there are also claims that the wider system doesn't run much these days because of power shortages; or that it does run but the lights are off in most of the stations; or that the network is much smaller than the maps say it is; or even that it is much bigger than the maps say, because it has secret lines heading off towards military installations. Well, we've ridden on it now, but surrounded by our Protective Bubble as we are, we still have no idea what it's all about, and no hard evidence to offer.

Just push the button for where you want to go. [IMG_2476]
Pyongyang Metro Puhung Station [Enlarge]

We started at Puhung (Rehabilitation) Station, at the end of the Chollima Line. Just inside the station, there is an electronic map of the metro network, and Mrs Lee showed us how it works. You push a button for where you want to go, and the map lights up the stations en route and shows you the best way to get to your destination. The only thing is, the network is just an 'X' shape, with only one interchange station. Wouldn't a straightforward map pasted onto the wall be sufficient to guide the lost traveller?

Having been allowed straight through the barriers without paying (tourists never have pay because they are guests in the country), we descended an extremely long escalator into what felt like the depths of the earth. As with everywhere else in the DPRK, one of the things that struck us the most was the complete absence of billboards and adverts. The whole week here we have driven far and wide and seen precisely zero brands, logos, or commercial slogans. Not one. But on the escalator down into the metro, the pure whiteness of the walls made this absence even more apparent.

Now allegedly a hundred metres below the surface, we passed through triple, metre-thick blast doors. There is no attempt made to hide the fact that this place clearly doubles as a bomb shelter. We emerged into an extravagantly decorated atrium and found ourselves staring at mosaics of the Kims lit by exquisite chandeliers. We paused at the top of the staircase which led down onto the actual platforms to take in the scene before us. As if on cue, not one but two trains arrived almost simultaneously. The station erupted into life with people coming and going.

After a few minutes our train arrived and we were ushered into a carriage. A few people in the group thought they had seen a number of Koreans getting off the train on the other side, then crossing the platform and getting straight back onto our train. Maybe they had all missed their stop. Glenn stuck his head out of the still open door of the carriage and noticed that the station which a few moments ago had been buzzing, was now completely empty. OK, Puhung is at the end of the line, so it is fair that the other platform would be empty, but still it seemed a little strange that nobody was coming down the stairs any more.

In our carriage, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were there as usual, their portraits smiling down at us from above the door. We made the short journey to Yonggwang (Glory) Station, and got out. This was another magnificent station, similar to Puhung but with its own character. Again we spent a few minutes looking around and then we left. Our coach was waiting for us at the surface.

The following is our opinion formed from this limited experience. It seems highly likely that we rode on a special, 'luxury' train, and that some or all of our fellow passengers were stooges. All the seats in our carriage were taken. Precisely all, no more, no less. The station suddenly became busy just as we arrived. Where did all the people come from? The streets are not full enough to supply that many passengers all the time. Once we boarded the train, the station emptied. The reverse happened at the other end of our journey. It sounds crazy that we are even contemplating that the whole show was faked, but that's what a trip to North Korea does to you! [Actually we are seriously starting to doubt our sanity on a number of counts, but that's going to be the subject of a 'debrief' post when we get out of here.]

Kim Il-sung statue [Enlarge]

Down by the river, we visited the Fountain Park. This is a popular place for newly-weds to pose for photographs. Our main reason for coming was to buy a couple of bouquets of flowers so that we could place them at the feet of the Great Leader's statue, our next stop. Bowing at his embalmed corpse is not enough. The cult of Kim Il-sung requires just a little more respect than that. So, having procured two bunches of fresh flowers our group got back on the bus and headed for the imposing statue of the eternal president. It is 21 metres tall, bronze, and suitably impressive. No matter what your view is of the DPRK, you cannot deny that they are the masters of patriotic monuments and statuary. We waited for a break in the crowds then we walked forward and stood in a line in front of the steps leading up to the base of the statue. Two of our group had volunteered to lay the flowers so they walked forward and respectfully placed their bouquets alongside the hundreds of others which were already in place. Then they rejoined the line and we all took a bow, directed by Mrs Lee. Mr Lee took photographs for the group using our cameras. Our respect-paying duty was done. To celebrate, we went to a souvenir shop.

Laying flowers at the Kim Il-sung Statue [Enlarge]

After lunch in the Yanggakdo's 47th floor revolving restaurant, we visited the Art museum, then went for a walk by the river. The guides seemed much more relaxed than they had been at the start of the week. A combination, perhaps, of the April sunshine, the holiday atmosphere and the fact that we were getting much better at staying together as a group. Or maybe they'd been very worried that we might misbehave at the mausoleum and the statue where we and they would be being most closely watched. Now that the formalities were out of the way it seemed that they could chill out a bit. Having said that, they were still too nervous to let us go rowing on the river with the locals.

Tower of the Juche Idea [Enlarge]

We crossed the river to the Tower of the Juche Idea, a 150 metre tall granite column with a 20 metre torch on top. It is the highest stone tower in the world (of course). The torch is illuminated at night on special occasions. The tower has a large basement with several rooms inside, and a lift to take visitors up to the viewing platform just below the torch. We had an excellent view over the whole city from the top, but unfortunately it was also extremely cold so we couldn't stay up there for long. We had a rest in the basement's lounge, watching local TV and drinking overpriced coffee. Once we had warmed up a bit we went to the Workers' Party Foundation Monument, another massive statement to the greatness of the system. To the traditional hammer (for the workers) and sickle (for the farmers) is added the pen, to represent the intellectuals.

Us at the Monument to the Workers' Party Foundation [Enlarge]

Ever since our first visit to the Mass Games we had been asking Simon from Koryo Tours if there would be an opportunity to go again. He assured us that there would, but we had heard nothing more. By our calculations, tonight was our last chance as we are flying up north to Mount Paekdu tomorrow. But nothing had been said, and we hadn't actually seen Simon very much. He has spent almost all his time with group B. At our final stop of the afternoon, in another souvenir shop (!), we heard in passing that Simon arranged yesterday for group B to go to the Mass Games again tonight. He had not thought to ask us if we wanted to go too. Several people in our group were incensed, as this was the main reason they had come on this trip. We were not quite as bothered as them, but given the choice we would most definitely have signed up. Someone found Mr Lee and begged him to find out if we could go too. It was only about an hour and a half before the show started, and he wasn't sure if it was possible at this short notice. But he pledged to do his best.

Singing waitresses [Enlarge]

While we went for dinner, Mr Lee was nowhere to be seen. The meal was held in a slightly surreal restaurant, at which the waitresses doubled as singing, dancing entertainers accompanied by a 1980s synthesizer. Unfortunately we couldn't stay to enjoy the show for too long, because the amazing Mr Lee was back with good news—we were going to the Mass Games again! We didn't have our warm clothes with us, we had laundry to do, we couldn't afford another 100 euros, and we had just been told that we had to be on the bus at 07:00 tomorrow. We really could have done with an early night. But we are probably never going to have the opportunity to see this again. There was no doubt about it, we had to go, and we would have mortgaged the laptop if necessary. Having paid up again, we are now down to our last ten euros, and we have no way of getting any more money until we return to China on Thursday.

Arirang Mass Games [Enlarge]

The Mass Games were as wonderful as before, and we got to see some things that we had missed or forgotten about the first time round. There is so much to see that it is impossible to take it all in. We finally got to bed about 22:45, and set the alarm for 05:10 tomorrow morning. So much for an early night, but it was well worth it.

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.