Friday, April 27, 2007 Korea (South) South Korea

To the DMZ again

The border [Enlarge]

Our first priority in South Korea was to pay another visit to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) which separates the Korean peninsula, while the memories of our visit from the North were fresh in our minds. Whereas Pyongyang is several hours away from the border, Seoul is short drive of just 50 kilometres. In fact the capital of South Korea is so close to the border that it is within range of the North Korean artillery massed just over the border. Allegedly the North could hit Seoul with half a million artillery rounds per hour for several hours.

We booked a day trip to the DMZ with the United Service Organizations (USO), which is generally accepted as being the most comprehensive and best-run tour of the many which are available. For USD 42 (GBP 21.07) each, we would get a full day's tour of what has been described as the most dangerous place on earth. Lunch not included.

It was a beautiful sunny morning as we emerged from Exit 10 of Samgakji subway station at 06:45, exactly two weeks to the day after our mirror-image visit had started from Pyongyang. We were dressed in accordance with the UN Command's dress code, instigated to avoid the possibility of images of decadent or immoral westerners being taken by the enemy and used as propaganda:

Informal civilian clothes commonly viewed as acceptable in equivalent public settings are normally acceptable. For example, clean jeans without fraying or tearing and a clean t-shirt with running shoes are considered appropriate. However, ripped jeans, a t-shirt lettered with profanity, and flip-flop sandals would be deemed unacceptable. Visitors wearing clothing deemed faddish, extreme, torn, tattered, frayed, overly provocative, or otherwise inappropriate by the UNCSB-JSA guides will not be allowed to enter the DMZ.

We found the USO tour office easily enough, on a military base called Camp Kim. There was a big crowd going on the trip—two coachloads. They were a variety of people: tourists from seven or eight nations (but mostly Americans), expats, army wives. There were no locals, apart from our guide. South Koreans are not allowed anywhere near the DMZ without ultra-special clearance, lest they get a crazy idea like defecting or trying to make contact with the soldiers on the other side. It is a serious business, as thousands of families have been separated for the last fifty years, and they have no idea whether their loved ones are still alive.

We signed in, showed our receipt to prove that we had paid, and set off on the coach. Our guide, a Korean man in his forties, was happy to talk about the South Koreans' attitudes to the North, and to potential reunification. Older Koreans, he told us, are very wary. They saw what happened in Germany after the iron curtain fell, and they know that the financial burden of reunifying could cripple the economy for decades. But people under 40 are more pro-reunification—they don't understand what happened in Germany, and they don't understand just how bad things are in the north. Our limited experience of the country so far bears this out: the young South Koreans we have spoken to seem to know very little about the north, and are surprised to hear about the lack of basic services there—it's like they just assume that what they hear in the media must be grossly exaggerated. The guide went on to say that in his view, reunification is not an issue that Koreans in the south think about regularly. They certainly don't long to be reunited in the way that the northerners do.

The more we see of Seoul, the more differences we see between the two Koreas. The differences in nutrition and healthcare mean that young South Koreans are a similar height to Europeans. In the DPRK Isla was a tall person, here she's back to feeling like a short-arse. The pace of life, the standard of living, the traffic, the media, the technology—Seoul and Pyongyang are like two different planets.

The highway from Seoul to the DMZ is much like the highway from Pyongyang to to the DMZ: wide and straight. But there would be no posing for photos in the middle of the road this time—the traffic was unrelenting. As we drove, the guide pointed out the barbed wire and watch towers lining the river banks all the way from the suburbs of Seoul up to the border. Apparently there was a spate of North Korean mini-submarines which manoeuvred up the river towards Seoul and landed spies. It's for this reason, also, that the river now has so many weirs. It's been twenty-seven years since anyone was caught trying to get in in this way, but they're still vigilant. We turned off towards Panmunjom and encountered our first military checkpoint. Our passports were taken away and checked to make sure that we were all foreigners.

Our Korean guide and driver were replaced by US army personnel. The Americans are slowly pulling out of South Korea and handing over to the ROK army. For the past three years the Panmunjom site has been run by the ROK. Our USO guide had been giving us the anti-DPRK spiel all the way from Seoul, but now the propaganda stepped up a gear. We were herded into a lecture hall and barked at by a US Corporal in a slightly odd presentation, and reminded that we were entering a very dangerous area where we would be face-to-face with soldiers from the Korean People's Army. We didn't mention that a fortnight ago Isla had stood with her arm around a KPA Officer. We then had to sign a document indemnifying the military in case of our capture or death. The last 'killing incident' was in 1984, but apparently someone was kidnapped just three years ago. One or two people in the group looked a bit nervous. We figured that if the North Koreans wanted to kidnap and interrogate us, they'd have done it last week. Frankly, we were more concerned about our US army guide who went to great lengths to boast about what an excellent shot he was, and that if anything went down, his gun would be out and he'd be firing before any of us knew what was happening. He made it clear that a surprise KPA attack was a distinct possibility.

Finally there were some ground rules:

  • No waving.
  • No shouting.
  • No gestures.
  • No pointing.
  • No facial expressions, like smiling or sticking your tongue out at the KPA soldiers.

The KPA would be watching, photographing and video-taping us and any negative images would be used for propaganda. That would have confused the North Korean public, seeing us in the newspapers one week under the headline "Foreigners pay their heartfelt respects to the Great Leader", and next week as "Imperialist aggressors taunt the brave KPA with gestures".

Watching the enemy [Enlarge]

We drove up to the Joint Security Area (JSA) and went into Freedom House, which stands opposite the DPRK's Reunification House, both looking out over the row of blue and silver huts. We were made to line up in two neat columns and wait for permission to walk outside for our first view of the enemy. Once our guide was happy that the rows were straight enough he led us outside. In our last visit, we had not seen any ROK soldiers, but there had been plenty of KPA guys defending us from the enemy. This time, the North Korean side was deserted, but we were reassuringly surrounded by ROK personnel, standing in modified taekwondo stances, half hiding behind the huts (they half hide so that they present a smaller target to the enemy, but can still see what's going on).

Isla asked as innocently as she could about the circumstances when KPA and ROK soldiers come out to guard the huts. "The KPA only come out when there are visitors from their side here," we were told. Funny, that's exactly the same reason we were given for the absence of ROK soldiers a fortnight ago. We remembered back to our long wait on the northern side a fortnight ago, before we were allowed into the JSA. Had that been because a group of tourists from the South was already there and they needed to swap the soldiers over?

Two weeks ago to the day, this guy (and his friend just inside the open window) were posing for photos with us. Today we were told not to attempt any kind of communication, or make any gesture. If we do so, they will photograph us and use the photo for propaganda (something along the lines of "the imperialist aggressors are making plans to invade our homeland!"). [IMG_2895]
No waving, no shouting, no pointing [Enlarge]

As we stood on the steps listening to our guide, we looked across to two North Korean officers on the other side. One ("KPA Bill") was standing on the steps, watching us through binoculars. The other ("KPA Bob") was inside Reunification House, his binoculars poking out of a ground-floor window. They remained motionless like this, intimidating us like the frightening monsters the script says they are supposed to be. We couldn't be sure from this distance, but we think it might have been KPA Bill who was our guide on the other side, and very friendly he was too.

Now we were primed to enter the UN hut where the armistice talks were held—the same hut we'd been into two weeks earlier. Last time, it had been quite informal. We were invited to sit down in the chairs, to walk around the table, and even to tap the microphones to give the listening Imperialist Aggressors an earful of static. This time there was to be no touching the furniture. We were not even allowed to walk around one end of the table—an ROK soldier was positioned to make sure that couldn't happen. Another ROK soldier stood guard at the door at the north end of the room—the one we had entered and left through last time we were here. If he didn't do that, we were told, there was a very real danger that some KPA guards, who were permanently stationed just outside the door armed with clubs, would burst in and kidnap several of us for their own nefarious purposes.

As we were in the hut, we suddenly noticed that the KPA soldiers were coming out of their barracks and taking up their guard positions on the Military Demarcation Line (MDL)! For the first time we would briefly get to see the full face-off, just as it was time to leave.

The flag is so large that it has to be lowered in rain, or even damp weather. The added weight would be enough to snap the flag pole. [IMG_2916]
A very large flag (Propaganda Village) [Enlarge]

We were hurried back into the bus, and we drove round Freedom House and up the hill to a small monument with the flags of all the UN countries who participated in the Korean War. As we went, we were just able to snatch a few photos from the moving bus of the line of huts (this is our excuse for the photo at the top of this post being wonky). The lookout on the hill was a good place to see the no-man's-land that separates North and South Korea in all its wild glory. Because the area has been heavily mined for fifty years, the land has become a haven for wildlife (including, as our guide wittily remarked, rare species such as the three-legged deer and the exploding orchid). But seriously, there's a significant bird-watching-tourism industry on both sides of the border. We didn't see any notable wildlife, but we did have a good gawp at the soldiers in a KPA watch tower, who in turn gawped at us through their binoculars. We also had an excellent view of Gijeongdong, or Propaganda Village, site of the world's tallest flagpole. The pole is 160 metres (525 feet) high, and carries a flag which is the size of a basketball court, and weighs in at an estimated 270 kg (600 lb) when dry.

From where we were standing, we could see glimpses of the road up to Reunification House, the road we had come along from Pyongyang to the DMZ. As we watched, two North Korean tourist coaches rolled up the road, stopped and unloaded their passengers who then gathered round the Kim Il-sung monument, just as we had done exactly two weeks previously. So this was why the KPA guards had suddenly assumed their positions around the huts—they had a visit on. It was a very strange experience to peer through the trees and see another group being given the exact same tour as we had, stopping at the Kim Il-sung monument before going down to the MDL itself.

Bridge of no return [Enlarge]

We drove on again, past the monument to the soldiers who died in the Axe Incident, past the Bridge of No Return where POWs from both sides were given a one-time-only chance to choose which side of the border they wanted to live on—either stay on the side that captured them, or cross back to their own side.

It was almost time for lunch, but before we could leave the US Army area we needed to visit the gift shop. We bought a UN pin-badge to complement our badges from the DPRK. Lunch was pretty good, better than what we got in the North, and better than the instant noodles that we've been living on since arriving in Seoul. Over lunch we confessed to our fellow tourists that we'd been to the other side. Mostly Americans, they were surprised to hear that it was possible, and we suddenly became the centre of attention as they fired off all the questions they hadn't felt able to ask the guides.

After lunch we drove up to the Mount Dora Observatory, a large glass-fronted building with an excellent panoramic view over the DMZ and beyond to Kaesong. It was the same idea as the lookout point in the DPRK, but we had to pay to use the binoculars! The visibility was very good and we could see Kaesong quite clearly, but we couldn't spot the huge statue of Kim Il-sung at the top of the hill. It felt weird, in the extreme, looking across at what had been our first stop in our life-changing, mind-bending trip through the DPRK. Geographically Kaesong was so close, but in every other respect it was so far. Sadly, photography of the inside of the observatory was not allowed, nor could we take pictures within ten metres of the railing.

Finally we visited the Third Tunnel of Aggression. The North shows off The Wall built by the US Imperialist Aggressors; while the South shows off The Tunnels dug by the DPRK Stalinist Aggressors. During the 1970s three 'infiltration' tunnels were discovered, commencing on the north side of the MDL and emerging in the South. In 1990 a fourth tunnel was located and, according to Wikipedia, the ROK and US military "regularly drill in the DMZ in hopes of finding more". The tunnels were dug so that entire KPA divisions (one per hour) could be rapidly transported under the DMZ to capture Seoul. Kim Il-sung was apparently an admirer of the German Blitzkrieg strategy.

Our trip to the DMZ was complete. We boarded the bus and rejoined the traffic jam which snaked its way into the heart of Seoul. It had been a strange experience. We got just as much propaganda from the US soldier who showed us round as we did from his counterpart in the DPRK. He wanted us to think that every KPA soldier was evil, jealous of our way of life and intent on doing us harm. Whereas the party line in the DPRK is that the US Aggressor is a malicious occupying force, it never gets personal.

Division of this peninsula is a cause of enormous sadness in the DPRK, and a lingering threat in the ROK. We went today in search of some sort of enlightenment, but we have just ended up even more confused and bemused than we were before.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007 China China / Korea (South) South Korea

Journey to the other half of Korea

Qingdao Ferry Terminal [Enlarge]

We spent most of our first day back in Beijing resting and uploading our photographs of North Korea to Flickr. We have taken hundreds. But not as many as some of our comrades—one of them took over a thousand pictures at the Arirang mass games alone! It was good to finally get the photos copied onto our laptop, as it's been a bit of a worry not having a backup of these expensive and completely irreplaceable memories.

The next stage on our round the world trip was a sleeper train ride from Beijing to the beer brewing capital of China, Qingdao (pronounced 'Ching-dao', to rhyme with 'now'), followed by the overnight ferry across the Yellow Sea to South Korea.

The train didn't start from Beijing until 22:50 so we paid for an extra half day to secure ourselves a late checkout from the hotel. Then, as late as possible without having to pay for a full extra day, we set out on a slow walk to the railway station. We had a very good club sandwich in the almost deserted restaurant of the Howard Johnson Paragon Hotel, near the station. The restaurant was in an atrium at the centre of the hotel, almost unlit, with a glass roof between us and the sky. It felt a bit like having a meal at the bottom of a mine shaft. We killed the rest of the waiting time in one of the station's soft-seat lounges, where the helpful staff kept an eye on us to make sure we didn't miss our train announcement, and Tom and Jerry cartoons played out endlessly on flat screen TVs.

We boarded the train amid the usual Chinese riot. We found our compartment, stowed our stuff, said a few hellos to our Chinese companions (who immediately fell asleep) and then settled down for the night. Still completely knackered from our DPRK trip we slept through until 06:30 in the morning which gave us just the right amount of time to sort ourselves out ready for an on-time arrival into Sifang station on the outskirts of Qingdao. We disembarked and went to find a taxi. One invaluable tip we've picked up is always to print off a map of where you're going in Chinese script, if at all possible. Luckily we had found one such map on the Weidong Ferry website, and we handed our map to the driver, showing the location of the Weidong ticket office. He seemed to know where he was going, and we got to the office just before 08:00. We had booked our berth over the phone from Shanghai, weeks and weeks ago. At 08:30 the office opened and we swapped our reference number and a wad of banknotes for two tickets. All that remained was to find a way to kill the seven hours until boarding time.

We had originally planned to do some sightseeing in Qingdao during this time, as it has lots of places for tourists to see. But we were so tired that we couldn't be bothered to do anything but set up camp in a corner of the terminal and sit it out.

It was our second wedding anniversary! On this day in 2005 we spent the day in a beautiful country house with our friends and family. Last year we were in London at the Royal Albert Hall, and riding on the Millennium Wheel. Today, we spent the day sitting in the departure hall at Qingdao ferry terminal surrounded by hundreds of crates of cargo being exported to Korea. And a Chinese acrobatic troupe, complete with see-saws! It will go down as one of our stranger anniversaries.

While Isla minded the bags, Glenn went for a wander down the street to see if there was anything interesting within range of the terminal. (There wasn't.) Glenn hadn't been gone long when a young Chinese man approached Isla. "Where are you from?" he asked. "England," said Isla. The man proudly showed off his jacket, which had a Union Flag on the front and ENGLAND written across the back. And then he grinned and said "James Bond!", and walked off. There was no answer to that. By the way, we are now carrying three bags, plus a plastic shopping bag, until we get a chance to mail home all our North Korean propaganda! Also, we're still carrying that damned terracotta warrior! Our travelling light philosophy is briefly on hold, and we hate it.

We finally boarded at about half past three, and then set sail at 17:35, about an hour late. Our 'Royal Class Cabin' was the equivalent of a 3-star hotel room and perfect for the overnight crossing. It wasn't cheap at 1150 yuan each (GBP 76 / USD 150), but hell, it was our anniversary—and the alternative was open bunks or mattresses on the floor of a fifty-berth dormitory. We could have booked the President Suite, but that seemed a bit extreme.

We were the only westerners among the few hundred on board, and we were objects of great curiosity. The voyage was uneventful, and we spent most of it in the cabin, as there was absolutely nothing of interest on the ship, despite what the website said. We couldn't even buy a can of Coke and a bar of chocolate, as the only shop on board was a tiny duty free shop selling nothing but booze and fags. It is obvious that the Weidong Ferry does not get many tourists.

Every half hour or so there was an announcement in Korean and Chinese, which we had no ability to comprehend. We could have been sinking and we wouldn't have known. But credit to our new, we've seen it all, laid back personas, we weren't bothered by not having a clue what was going on. We are used to it now.

Korean cars being exported [Enlarge]

We disembarked in Incheon port (pronounced In-chon) at 10:30 this morning. Incheon is about an hour's ride on the subway from Seoul, the capital of South Korea. At the exit to the ferry terminal was a tourist information booth where we got directions to the nearest ATM and subway station. As usual, we hadn't bothered changing money before arriving, since developed countries always have plenty of ATMs.

We walked out of the port, wondering what our twenty-first country would have in store for us. It should be one of the easier ones, we thought, as South Korea has a reputation for being one of the most high-tech countries in the world. We went into a nearby supermarket, as directed by the tourist information lady, where we had a choice from several ATMs. At which point each machine in turn barfed at us and told us in broken English that it only accepted Korean cards, and so could we please stop contaminating it with nasty foreign ones. Bugger. Oh, and our phone didn't work either. It is a worthless piece of plastic here, as the Korean system is completely different to the rest of the world's. We spent the next half hour or so trying ATM after ATM throughout Incheon, before giving up and exchanging a few American dollars that we found at the bottom of our wallet for just enough Korean won to get us to Seoul. With the exceptions of Laos and North Korea, every country we have visited has had bog-standard, any card welcome, ATMs. Still, at least we could get to Seoul, and with the help of a friendly local we boarded the subway. After a short walk to our pre-booked hotel, we checked in and contemplated where we'd landed, and what we'd landed ourselves in.

Map of Days 149-151

Days 149-151
Beijing to Seoul

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.

Saturday, April 21, 2007 China China

The Dandong extension

Dandong waterfront [Enlarge]

A good sleep and comfort food for breakfast yesterday (bacon sandwiches!) put us in a good mood that even the torrential rain couldn't dent. A couple of people were sick from the meal on the train the day before, and didn't join us. We're glad we gave the restaurant car a miss.

This was the beginning of our post North Korea rehabilitation and deprogramming. We met Brooklyn and the rest of our group at 09:30 and went outside to the bus. Just outside the hotel was a slightly shifty man. He should really have been wearing a grubby raincoat that he could open to reveal a selection of dodgy wares pinned inside. What was he touting? North Korean money. It is illegal to take any won out of North Korea. The customs checks had been pretty arbitrary so we would almost certainly have got away with taking some out, but since all transactions were done in hard currency, we never got a chance to get hold of any won. We've managed to keep a low denomination note from every country we've been to so far, so we wanted one or two from the DPRK if possible. This guy was asking 10 yuan for 150 won which was fairly close to the official exchange rate, but significantly below the black market rate, which is presumably where his profit margin is. That, or the notes are fake. If they are fake, they're certainly convincing, and given that the won is worth so little, it would surely be cheaper for him to buy the real thing than print his own? We shelled out for a clear plastic bag containing a one hundred won and a fifty.

North Korea on the right, China on the left. [IMG_2793]
The One Metre Hop [Enlarge]

About thirty minutes' drive out of town we visited the one metre hop, known in China as yi bu kua (the literal translation is 'one step across'). Here the Yalu River is so narrow that you can allegedly hop, step or jump across to North Korea. It looked a little too wide for that, but you could certainly wade quite easily. How far you would get after your paddle is debatable. For a start, you'd only find yourself on a North Korean island still in the middle of the river. Secondly, we could clearly see a couple of KPA soldiers hiding in the bushes. When we started pointing cameras at them they ran away. A few years ago apparently an Italian journalist jumped over and was immediately captured by the soldiers. He was interrogated for a day or two and then released.

Then we popped next door to the eastern end of the Great Wall, reconstructed from the ground up a few years ago. We climbed up to the highest point, but there was so much low cloud and drizzle that there wasn't much of a view. The worst of the rain had stopped by now though.

Although we had been to plenty of souvenir stops in the DPRK, we didn't get a chance to buy the most sought-after North Korean souvenir of all: a Kim Il-sung badge. These little pin badges are worn by almost every adult in the country. They are not for sale anywhere in the DPRK. People are 'given them' by the government. Replacements are not available. Someone in group B had asked their guide what happens if someone loses their badge. The predictable reply was, "They don't lose it". Simon from Koryo Tours had told us that the souvenir shop in Dandong is the place to get authentic Kim badges. Sadly, we weren't too impressed with them. They were clearly extremely low quality Chinese fakes, and didn't even have the same design as the real things. We decided to hang on and wait to see if there were any better ones on offer elsewhere.

An example of propaganda designed to demoralise the US troops. [IMG_2821]
Korean War museum [Enlarge]

Next we went to the Korean War Museum, or rather the museum of the "War to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea", which is the name of the war in China. At the height of the cold war it suited China to prop up communist North Korea, so that it could act as a buffer between China and South Korea.

After lunch we managed to find a working ATM, replenished our empty wallet and repaid our footballing debt. We had tried and failed to get cash last night from two ATMs, and we were seriously worried that maybe some North Korean anti capitalist pig jamming technology at the DMZ had fried our ATM card (yes, that's how we think now, in fact one member of our group is actually considering replacing his mobile phone in case the Koreans bugged it while it was in their possession). But rather boringly the problem turned out to be a minor network outage with the bank concerned.

We took a short cruise on the river. The contrast between the opposing waterfronts was incredible: on one side, the buzzing high-rise city of Dandong; on the other, a semi-rural scene of people washing in the river and fishing from the mud banks. The Koreans are not ignorant of the difference, and lots of them regularly cross the river—the price for the border guards not noticing them is as little as a packet of good-quality cigarettes. They can then work, sell produce or scavenge for food before returning to their own side again after dark. We also walked out to the end of the broken bridge, where we could look over to the other bridge by which we had left North Korea on the train. It doubles as a road bridge, and while we were there a reasonable flow of traffic was passing in both directions (almost all of it trucks and vans). Meanwhile on the broken bridge a woman was selling more souvenirs, including Kim badges. They were the same tat as we had seen before and it became clear that we are not going to find any authentic badges for sale. We got a good deal on one of the fakes.

Sinuiju river bank [Enlarge]

By early evening, it was time to board our final train back to Beijing, which arrived at 08:30 this morning. We have completely lost track of time this week, and so we both forgot that today is Glenn's birthday! We took a taxi back to Koryo's office to pick up all the stuff that was prohibited in the DPRK, checked in to our hotel and began a long rest. The week in North Korea has probably been the most memorable week of our lives, but it has been no relaxing holiday! Now we have to learn to think for ourselves again. In a few days we are heading to South Korea. We can't wait to see the other side of the world's last divided nation.

Map of Day 147

Day 147
Dandong to Beijing

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.

Thursday, April 19, 2007 China China / Korea (North) North Korea

Return to the free world

Pyongyang station [Enlarge]

We should have had a lie in this morning as we were not due to leave the hotel until 09:30. But Sod's Law came into play and we got a wake up call meant for someone else… at half past six. We got up, showered, dressed, packed up our bags and took them down to our last ever Yanggakdo Hotel breakfast. We certainly won't be eating eggs for a while—we've eaten more than our average annual consumption of eggs in one week. We had been told to be on the bus at 09:30, ready to go. The entire group managed better than that, and was on board and waiting for the driver at 09:15. This unusual burst of punctuality was due partly to the group's continual improvement in doing what is asked of it, but mostly because everyone was now desperate to get out of here. Our train back to China wouldn't wait for us, and staying here for several days while we found another way out of the country would drive us mad. Not to mention the 500 US dollars per day fine which would be levied on each of us for overstaying our visa.

Before the coach left the hotel, Mr Lee had some things to distribute. First of all he handed out the DVDs made by our cameraman. He has been following us all week, and we saw a sneak preview of his results in the duck barbecue restaurant last night. It looked really good. Then Mr Lee gave someone a large plastic bag containing all the mobile phones for both groups. The bag had a customs seal on it, which would be checked by the border guards on the way out. Consequences for opening the bag before then were not mentioned, but they really didn't need to be. Finally Mr Lee made us check three times that we had our passports and all our belongings with us. Then we set off for the train station.

This is our carriage, which is only going as far as Dandong, just over the Chinese border. [IMG_2773]
Pyongyang to Dandong carriage [Enlarge]

When we had booked the tour, we decided to take the one day 'Dandong extension'—a brief stopover in Dandong, the Chinese city on the DPRK's northern border. Roughly half of us had chosen to do this (all of our group and two members of group B), and we were all placed together in a North Korean train carriage. The rest of group B are staying on the train overnight, and going all the way to Beijing in one go. Their carriage was Chinese. The style was the same (four berth compartments), but the Chinese carriage was newer and had heating!

A lot of shunting was going to be necessary. A long train would leave Pyongyang. Most of the carriages (full of North Koreans) would only go as far as Sinuiju, the Korean city which faces Dandong across the Yalu River. Our carriage and group B's Chinese carriage would be unhitched and taken across the bridge into China. Our carriage would be left there, and group B's carriage would be connected up to a Chinese train going from Dandong to Beijing.

We shared a compartment with two Australian ladies with whom we have become good friends during week. Between them they have got decades of amazing independent travel stories to tell. One of them first travelled to China in 1979, when the only way in was on an organised tour and many people had never seen a westerner—sounds strangely familiar!

The final parting word from the guides was a reminder not to take any photographs from the train as we travelled through the DPRK countryside. If anyone on or off the train sees us take a photo they are duty bound to report it to the authorities. The customs officials will find out and people's photos will be gone through and 'edited'. Then Mr Lee, Mrs Lee and the two group B guides waved us off. They were still smiling as we chugged slowly away, but the second we were out of sight they must have collapsed in an exhausted heap on the platform. All the guides worked so unbelievably hard this week to meet our requests wherever possible. They must think that Westerners are a bunch of spoiled, lazy, scruffy, rude, disobedient, rich, arrogant dickheads. But not once do they let it show. We'd like to think that they will get a couple of days off, but we know that won't happen. They will be straight back to the office to prepare for the next group. And when summer comes and it's busy on the farms, they will join the other office workers from Pyongyang who have to go and do a turn helping out doing hard manual labour. Our lives are incomparably easy compared to theirs, and they are amongst the elite in the DPRK—the trusted few who are allowed to travel around the country and interact with foreigners.

The train made steady progress out of Pyongyang and the dreary grey landscape of the city turned into the dreary brown of the countryside. There wasn't much to photograph anyway. It looked like all the other rural areas we had seen, and a lot like many of the rural bits of China, and even India, that had slipped past the windows of other trains we have taken. All the sensitive stuff is pretty well hidden. After a while a railway employee from the restaurant car came round touting for business. We had a look, but the restaurant car was thick with cigarette smoke, and on seeing the state of the kitchen we lost our appetite anyway. Mindful of the story we'd read about Indian railway kitchens, and of the fact that we had two long train journeys ahead of us, all day today and overnight tomorrow, we slipped off back to the compartment. We don't ever want to get sick, but we especially don't want to get sick now. The duck barbecue last night had laid low one member of our group (we did suggest at the time that using the same chopsticks to eat the cooked duck as she was using to handle the raw duck was a bad idea). She spent the first hour of the trip in the squalid train toilet, and the rest of the time on her bunk, sleeping it off.

A man came round and handed out three forms to each person: a DPRK departure card, a customs declaration card and a health screening card. We filled in the first two okay, but the health card was only written in Chinese and Korean. Luckily two of the group could read enough Chinese to get us by. At 15:20 we stopped at Sinuiju station, on the DPRK side of the border. The passports and cards were collected up and taken away. Then the customs officials came round. We had to leave the compartment and come back in to be interviewed individually. Some people had their bags searched, some people had their photos reviewed on their cameras, and yes, some people lost photos. But we survived the experience unscathed. The guard wasn't even bothered about our oil painting, for which we had carefully asked for a receipt to prove that it was regular art and not socialist realist art, the export of which is banned.

At the same time as our border formalities were going on, the North Koreans in the other carriages must have been getting their papers checked. There is no concept of free movement in the DPRK—you need permission from both the head of your work group and the local government to even travel to the next village. Going to a border town must require an even greater level of checks and balances to make sure you don't have any crazy ideas like escaping. All of a sudden the station sprang into life as the Koreans were released from the train. They began to file past our window along the platform. They were all weighed down by some very heavy looking luggage. The older women in particular looked like they were permanently bent at 90 degrees from a lifetime of carrying heavy loads on their backs. After things had calmed down, we were told that we could get off the train and stand on the platform if we liked. "But stay near the train!" It was cold outside, and so after a quick bit of fresh air we retreated back to the slightly warmer carriage. Some people who were brave enough to stay outside managed to have a conversation of sorts with the DPRK wrestling team, who were travelling to Beijing for a tournament.

Bombed bridge separating North Korea from China [Enlarge]

Three hours and five minutes after we had stopped, our passports rematerialised. We were approximately as cold as we had been when we were stuck at Niš in Serbia, but far less bored thanks to the Aussies' travel tales. These two make our round the world trip look like a package holiday. Almost immediately, the train began to move again. As we rolled slowly across the Yalu River on a utilitarian box girder bridge, we could see the famous 'half bridge' that was bombed by the Americans during the Korean War and now stands as a strange kind of monument, jutting out pointlessly into the middle of the river. The Chinese half is intact, but the Korean half is gone apart from a few concrete pillars.

Chinese immigration was relatively painless, but still took over an hour. The officials were smiley. They said "Hello", we said "Ni hao". Obviously North Korean customs checks are so thorough that the Chinese don't feel the need to do any more checking. We were finally released from the train and met our new guide on the platform, in the form of the small but voluble Brooklyn. He led us out to the waiting coach which whisked us across town to the Zhong Lian Hotel.

It wasn't the Sheraton, but it sure felt like it. We could buy overpriced ice creams in the foyer, we could access our email in the Business Centre, and if we wanted to we could go outside, into the street, and walk anywhere we wanted. You cannot believe how weird, how exhilarating and how scary that feels unless you have experienced the DPRK. We checked into our room then went down to the hotel's restaurant for dinner. That meal was good! At the end of our tour of China, barely a week ago, we would have been happy never to have a sumptuous Chinese banquet ever again. But after seven guilt-ridden days of eating meals which were generally very poor quality, but which were so relatively extravagant that no North Korean (apart from one) would even be able to imagine them, this delicious and high quality food was so welcome.

Talking of guilt, there is plenty of information on the web about the food shortages in the DPRK, and the consensus seems to be that this year is going to be another really tough one after the floods of 2006. We used to get annoyed if our local supermarket ran out of frozen peas. But most people in North Korea (or at least the non-elites outside Pyongyang) are surviving on 200 g (7 oz) of rice or grain per day, and hardly anything else. These are people we've seen in the street, people we've driven past, always smiling and looking cheerful. They live in a country that tries to depict itself as modern, advanced, and superior. A country which preaches Juche (self-reliance) but is hooked on international aid to meet its most basic needs. Standing on the riverside in Dandong this evening we could take our pick of 24 hour convenience stores and buy anything we wanted for a small amount of money. Then we could jump in a taxi and drive through the neon-lit streets to a bar or restaurant serving any dish from almost anywhere in the world and eat until we were full. But five hundred metres away on the opposite bank of the river, so dark that you could be forgiven for not realising there's even a city over there, people were coming home from work to their cold, dark apartments, and going to bed with their hunger barely touched by their starvation rations. You will surely never find a contrast as stark as this anywhere in the world.

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 146

Day 146
Pyongyang to Dandong

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.

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.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007 Korea (North) North Korea

Wintertime in Samjiyon

Pyongyang Airport duty free shop [Enlarge]

At 05:10 we were woken from an all too short sleep by Marie, one of our next door neighbours in the Yanggakdo Hotel, banging on the door. We asked her to do this, as our only alarm clock is the beeper on Glenn's cheap-and-dodgy Chinese watch, and we didn't have faith in its ability to wake us at such an hour.

Last night's laundry was just dry enough to put on. Dressed and packed, we reported for breakfast, still half asleep. Miraculously everyone made it on board the bus by 07:00 and we drove through the deserted streets of Pyongyang to the airport. Our tour group had chartered an Air Koryo flight to Samjiyon in the far north of the country—from where we would be going up to the top of Paekdusan (Mount Paekdu, also often transliterated from Hangul as Paektusan, Baekdusan or Baektusan). The mountain is a volcano, with the world's highest crater lake at the top. It is the most sacred place to all Koreans, from the North and the South, as it is regarded as the birthplace of the Korean nation and its people. On that the two Koreas agree. Where they differ is that the North has appropriated the region as the site of the legendary guerilla battles won by the victorious Great Leader Kim Il-sung during the anti-Japanese war, and as the birthplace of the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. More on that later.

Chaos greeted us at the airport. It was due to be a very busy day at North Korea's main airport: firstly our flight out at 08:00, then a scheduled flight to Beijing at 08:30, and three arrivals due in at some point during the day! Looking at the mayhem in the terminal we wondered if the staff would cope. We were told to fill in departure cards. We queried this, as we were not leaving the country. But no, the official said that people who are departing need to fill in departure cards; so we did. Of course when we got to customs, they weren't interested in taking them from us because we weren't leaving the country. Initiative is regarded as a counter-revolutionary trait here, and is strongly discouraged. At times like this, it shows.

When we had left the hotel, it was much emptier than it had been at the start of the week, as most guests who were here for the opening few nights of the Mass Games had now left. We will be away from Pyongyang for only one night, and when we return we will be back in the same rooms as before—the rooms will not be used in between, as we still have the keys. However the management wanted to charge us for leaving luggage in our rooms, so naturally almost everyone decided to bring all their luggage with them. The only problem was, when we got to the airport the staff wouldn't let us check in any luggage, so it was all going to have to come on to the plane with us.

We wondered why they weren't allowing any bags to be checked in. And then we caught sight of the plane out of the terminal windows. Its hold was being filled with North Korean cargo! The load appeared to include many sacks of food. Presumably at least some of the sacks are rice given as food aid from the US imperialist aggressors (which, incidentally, the North Korean people are told is not aid, but reparations for the Korean War, forced on the US by the victorious Kim Il-sung as part of the armistice terms). It was our plane, but the Koreans were not going to pass up on the opportunity to transport a free plane-load of freight up north. Of course if it really was food aid then we don't mind a bit.

We perused the wares in the duty free shop and tried out the bus-station-like seats. That took all of five minutes, and we felt very glad that we didn't have to spend more than half an hour waiting for our flight. We said goodbye to Simon, who was heading back to Beijing to man the Koryo Tours office.

Our transport for the short flight up to Paekdusan was a Tupolev Tu-134B, one of two owned by Air Koryo. It was small and quite smart, with large windows. It felt safer than the antiquated Ilyushin in which we had flown from Beijing to Pyongyang. Because we're travelling light we were unhampered by luggage, and so we were able to beat the crowd and nab the front seats in business class (yeah, baby!), with extra leg room. That was the only business class perk we would be getting on this flight however.

We got airborne without incident and soon the sunny Pyongyang morning was far behind us. We flew over bleak, pointy hills which started to get a sprinkling of snow as we flew north. We got another copy of the inimitable Pyongyang Times, and more of the uniquely tasting North Korean cider that you only seem to get on Air Koryo flights. The further north we flew, the whiter the hills became, and before long the snow was beginning to fill the valleys. For the first time we noticed that Mrs Lee was wearing a natty set of snow boots and a very warm looking coat. We had a niggling feeling that we were going to be badly under dressed for northern North Korea.

Road from the airport into Samjiyon [Enlarge]

When we landed, Samjiyon airport was surrounded by substantial snowdrifts. The best we could do was put on our jumpers and an extra pair of socks before the doors opened. Unlike in Pyongyang, there was no silly airport bus to take us the few metres to the terminal. Here we walked, and in the end we didn't even need to go into the terminal, which was just a small building with the control tower on top. First off the plane, we grabbed a seat on the minibus which had arrived with perfectly timed precision, and then assisted our comrades as they hoisted their suitcases into the small vehicle. When every seat was taken and every inch of aisle was crammed with baggage, half the group were still standing on the tarmac. Luckily there would be another minibus along in a minute. Our driver said something in Korean and Mrs Lee translated his words. He said that the road to and from the airport was narrow and there was no room to pass, so we couldn't leave until the other bus arrived.

The other bus was not far behind, and we soon set off. Initially the road was quite clear of snow, but as we got further from the airport it turned into a white skid pan. Our driver was used to these conditions, judging by his rally-driver-style method of taking corners on full opposite lock. The other bus behind us was struggling to match his pace. We stopped and waited for them to catch up a few times.

Samjiyon town, population 27,000, is typically strange. Many of the buildings are new and smart, with freshly painted walls and brightly coloured corrugated metal roofs. They look quite chalet-like, not the drab grey blocks we have got used to. At first glance, the town almost looks like a French ski-resort; but when you look behind the facade, the buildings have that unmistakeable North Korean appearance—cold and dark. There is plastic sheeting nailed across the inside of a lot of the windows, there are no lights on inside any of the houses, and there is no sign of smoke from any of the chimneys. We saw plenty of people hanging around the streets of Samjiyon, but even with their presence, the town doesn't feel lived in. It reminds us of Imber, the village on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire that was commandeered by the Ministry of Defence in World War 2, then never given back to its residents. Most of Imber's buildings have been destroyed and replaced by hollow shells for army street-combat practice. From a distance Imber could pass as the real thing, but up close all the houses look dead and uninhabited. Incidentally, it is opened up to the public a few days each year and we took the chance to go and see it in April 2006. Our photos are in a Flickr set here.

Lobby of the Pegaebong Hotel [Enlarge]

We are staying in Samjiyon's finest (only?) hotel, the Pegaebong Hotel. The lobby is typical North Korean style: simultaneously grand and austere, with no lights on and that usual all-pervading coldness. We were given a little time after check in to unpack and relax in our room while the guides arranged the first of the morning's activities. The rooms are all recently refurbished, and ours has two clean single beds, a nice warm Korean-style heated floor, a view onto the snowy hillside, a TV and a modern bathroom. But as with the hotel in Kaesong, there is a complete absence of running water. Glenn had the bright idea of filling the toilet cistern with water from the full bath, so that at least we could flush it properly. Unfortunately he soon discovered that the toilet wasn't even plumbed in, as the water ran straight out of the back of the toilet and onto the floor. It seems that there has never been running water in this hotel. We tried the TV. It worked, in that you could switch it on, but it displayed nothing but static. Preparing to go out again into the snow, we put on a few extra layers of T-shirts, along with our shirts, jumpers and coats. In the end, we were wearing all of our clothes. There was a knock at the door and a flask of hot water was delivered, so we made a coffee from the small supply of sachets we had brought with us.

Paekdusan Museum [Enlarge]

Now that everyone had taken their luggage into the hotel, there was a bit more room in the minibus. We drove the short distance to Paekdusan Museum. In this new and impressive building we were shown paintings and panoramas of Mount Paekdu. These are provided, in part, because the actual mountain, several tens of kilometres away, is hard to get to during the winter. In fact, the guide said, it is completely inaccessible from September to June! The itinerary provided by Koryo Tours (who have been taking people to the DPRK since 1993), clearly stated that we would be going up the mountain, but it now seems that we won't, and in fact we never had a chance of doing so. We felt pretty let down by Koryo. No wonder Simon went back to Beijing rather than accompanying us.

Back on the minibus Mr Lee confirmed what the museum staff had just said. Paekdu is impossible to get to at this time of year. He and Mrs Lee were as surprised as we were—we believe that they truly didn't know until this point. Mr Lee said that perhaps we could try later to see how far we could get, but for now we would be doing the other items on the itinerary. Amid rumbles that just giving up like this wasn't showing much revolutionary zeal, someone proposed that if we couldn't go up the mountain, maybe we could go up Samjiyon's ski-slope instead? The ski-slope towers above the town and has a chairlift all the way up. We could see that the chairlift wasn't running, but we felt that if anyone could make it work, Mr Lee could. The minibuses took us to a new building at the bottom of the ski-slope, and we walked to the chairlift.

Samjiyon chair lift [Enlarge]

Why is there a ski slope and chairlift in North Korea, where the citizens never take a holiday? We honestly don't know. It's a tiny slope compared to what you get at 'proper' ski resorts. Either this slope is a training facility for the DPRK Olympic team, or it's a plaything for high-up party officials, or they have visions of turning the tourist industry up a notch at some point. Who knows?

At the chairlift station we knocked at a door and a couple of men came out. They seemed to be in charge of the chairlift. [Hang on! Surreality time-out! They don't know we're coming (it was our idea), there's no electricity to make the chairlift work, and there are no skiers around who might want to use it anyway. And yet they have two men permanently based in the station?] One of the men said that we couldn't ride on the chairlift because there was no electricity. Mr Lee had a quiet word with him and he went to make a phone call. Apparently he was asking the electricity suppliers whether they could see their way to sending some power our way for a few minutes to let a bunch of tourists go up the hill. The answer, of course, was no.

Some of the group decided to walk up the hill anyway—partly in revolutionary zeal, partly just to have some time in relative freedom. All week we have not once strayed more than a few paces from the guides. We decided not to follow them—we've done enough skiing to know that a ski-slope at the end of the season, baked in the sun by day and sub-zero by night is going to be more icy than snowy. We were under dressed and unequipped. The last thing we wanted out here, in one of the less developed corners of a very underdeveloped country, was to get wet or slip over and break something. The folks who did try only got about half way up before turning back.

Group with snow comrades [Enlarge]

Confronted with a pristine field of snow, the Brits in our group did what all Brits do and began to make some snowmen. The snowman building instinct is so strong that it must have once had an evolutionary purpose! Some of the Aussies had never witnessed snowman construction before and were keen to join in. We made two finely crafted snow comrades decorated with stick arms raised in patriotic salutes, Australian five cent coins for buttons and pretty convincing pine-frond-comb-over hairstyles. When the climbers returned, Mr Lee took a photograph of the group with the two somewhat short and plump snow comrades.

Being snowbound for three-quarters of the year means that very little grows in the Samjiyon area. The one crop they have any success with seems to be potatoes, introduced here by Kim Jong-il after his father died, in a rare admission of the failure of the previous policy of planting rice everywhere, whether the ground could support it or not. Almost everything on our lunch menu was potato-based. Potato bread, fried potato, and potato jam, all washed down as ever by North Korean beer. The potato jam tasted just like honey. All in all, lunch wasn't too bad and we reconvened in the minibus reinvigorated and a little warmer than before.

Rimyongsu waterfall [Enlarge]

Mr Lee gave us two options for the afternoon. Option one was to attempt to get to Mount Paekdu. He said we almost certainly wouldn't get very far, but he was willing to try. Option two was to visit the originally planned sights of a waterfall and the secret camp where Kim Jong-il was born, and then to attempt Paekdu afterwards if we have time. The risk with option one was that we could spend all afternoon trying and failing to reach Paekdu, and end up not seeing anything. The only sensible choice was option two. Then Mr Lee went to group B's bus to put the same options to them. He was gone for a long time and seemed cross and rattled when he got back. Group B had evidently been less easily convinced than us, and several of them still really wanted to attempt to get to Mount Paekdu. We joked to Mr Lee that he shouldn't have bothered asking group B as they are just the workers and Group A are the intellectuals. Anyway, the decision had been made, and we drove off towards Rimyongsu waterfalls.

It was quite a long way along a flat, straight road. Once again our bus led the way and once again we had to wait for the B bus to catch up. When both buses finally made it to the destination we discovered that they had got stuck and had to push. Located on the edge of a village, the Rimyongsu falls are very pretty. Two camera-shy locals were building a dam across the outflow of a small lake to boost the water level—the lake is the village's only source of drinking water. Above the lake, up a winding wooden walkway, there was a pagoda-style viewing area.

Receiving the Great Leader's guidance [Enlarge]

When we came back down, a woman in KPA uniform was waiting for us. She had come to give us a talk about the area. We were so cold by now that we slunk away and sat in the bus with a few other slackers. We don't mind cold if we have the right clothes: a few years ago we did –24°C (–11°F) in northern Finland quite happily. But unprepared as we were, it was no fun. We're sorry to say that we missed the talk, which was apparently about the visit to this very spot many years ago by the Great Leader himself, and the on-the-spot guidance given by him to the grateful villagers. As we were getting ready to leave, a troupe of young locals marched past us, their leader carrying a huge red flag. They assembled next to a monument and stood to attention as a man came out to meet them and started reading from a book. Mrs Lee told us that the man was probably reading them some of Kim's guidance from that day, so that they could be inspired by it. We couldn't help noticing that they all seemed as badly dressed for the conditions as us, although in their case we're sure it wasn't caused by lack of preparation.

Stuck on a hill [Enlarge]

After the waterfall we drove a long way through the forests to visit the secret camp. According to current North Korean history books, this is the place where Kim Il-sung and his wife Kim Jong-suk commanded their guerilla army and defeated the Japanese. While they were here, Kim Jong-il was born, his birth being foretold by a swallow and signalled by the appearance of a double rainbow over the sacred Mount Paekdu and a new star in the sky [And they say religion is banned in North Korea?!]. Official birth records in Russia seem to suggest that in actual fact the young Kim was born in Vyatskoye, near Khabarovsk in Siberia, a year earlier than claimed. Western propaganda says that not only were the Kim family not in this area during the anti-Japanese war, but there wasn't any fighting here at all. Make up your own mind.

With Jong-il Peak in the background. [IMG_2680]
Walking to the Dear Leader's birthplace [Enlarge]

With group B's bus leading the way we were making reasonable progress up towards the camp when they ran into a spot of bother. Their bus couldn't make it up a snowy slope. A stream of group B 'workers' jumped out of the bus and pushed. They got it moving and it drove a little further, then stopped to let them back on. We backed up a bit to find some flat, less slippery ground so that we could get moving. A few hundred metres further on, the B bus got stuck again. This time their efforts to get it going were unsuccessful and it was decided that everyone should go the rest of the way to the mythical birthplace on foot. A true pilgrimage. As we walked past the B bus we had a look at its back tyres. They were as bald as racing slicks. No wonder it had been struggling to keep up with us all day—it was a miracle that it got as far as it did.

Allegedly. [IMG_2689]
The Dear Leader's birthplace [Enlarge]

It was a slippery but pleasant twenty minute walk up to the camp, where we viewed the pristine wooden huts, the Dear Leader's childhood toys, and the huge monument on top of the nearby mountain (Jong-il Peak). Having marvelled respectfully, we walked back down to where the buses were. We then spent about an hour reversing back down the narrow track. At least that meant our bus went first this time! We did okay for quite a while, with the driver looking in his mirrors to keep it between the metre-high snow banks. But then he got it wrong on a bend and buried the side of the bus deeply into the snow bank. He couldn't move forward or backwards to get out. He ordered us out to push, but the door was on the side of the bus which was buried, and it wouldn't open. He told us to climb out of the windows. No way! Of course there was a simple solution to those brought up in countries where initiative is not systematically squashed—we told the driver to get out, and then we exited by his door! It didn't take long to push the bus out of the snow bank and we got underway again, this time with the driver hanging out of his window for a better view.

In the time it had taken to get going again, group B had not caught up with us. We had previously stopped to wait for them to catch up, but after the third time of doing this, our driver seemed to get fed up, so this time he didn't wait for them.

We finally got back to the Pegaebong Hotel just after dark. Dinner was ready, so we went straight in to the dining room and got started. Half an hour later, we were well into our potato-based meal and group B still weren't back. We asked Mrs Lee if she had heard any word of them. She hadn't, and she was looking worried. There are no mobile phones in the DPRK, and no telephone boxes. There is no mountain rescue service. If you get into trouble, you've got to get yourself out of it. She asked our driver to go and look for them. He refused, saying that when he found them he would have to reverse all the way back in the dark! He had a point.

At least forty-five minutes after we returned, two people from group B walked into the dining room, to a round of applause. Their bus had run out of fuel! They all had to walk the last three or four kilometres in the pitch dark, with no idea where they were going. Over the next fifteen minutes or so more of the group drifted in, two-by-two.

The reality began to set in. If we had all tried to get to Mount Paekdu, their bus would have run out of fuel halfway up the mountain, miles out of town. Who knows how much fuel we had in reserve? It could have been serious. Later in the evening, in the bar, the folks in group B told the story of their daring walk through the wilds of North Korea. As the blueberry wine flowed (no evidence of blueberries in the taste, and 40% proof so not really wine), the tale got taller. The story had started out with someone's torch picking out one lone, slightly nervous looking, KPA soldier in amongst the trees; but after a while it had turned into a heavily armed garrison, trailing them through the forest. Some group A people said that they wished it had been our bus that ran out of fuel, so it could be their story of daring escape in the icy wilderness. Heck, by now it probably is! For us, there is quite enough North Korean surreality in our story with the snow comrade building, bus pushing and ten kilometre reversing. No exaggeration is necessary.

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 144

Day 144
Pyongyang to Samjiyon

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.

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.