Getting rather bored typing all these up so long after the fact, especially with Japan blowing my tiny little mind every hour or so.
But, some other highlights from the trip, to jog my memory when chatting in the future… Kindergarten – creepy/crazy… 5 year olds playing piano/violin perfectly, and then a group “show” for the tourists… horrifyingly good. But mostly horrifying. More big statues and monuments. Mount Paektu – where I did some stupid stuff taking advantage of getting access to Chinese cell-towers with the border so close. But also – a rather beautifully scenic spot in itself. Some waterfalls, of various quality. Change of plans re: airports and hotels, due to some missile testing. A ski resort… next ski trip: North Korea International School Children’s Camp – complete with an aquarium boasting some fish and mammals I’m sure are illegal to be kept in captivity elsewhere in the world The bus breaking down A “Collective Fruit Farm” – effectively a massive group of orchards… all with apples literally falling off the trees – making me wonder… are these ever going to be picked, or are they just left there for the tourists to see? A typically North Korean “Buddhist Temple” – complete with “Buddhist Monk” extolling the virtues of Juche and the Kim Dynasty, and how they totally fit in to the Buddhist Way The Museum of International Friendship – the two massive underground complexes displaying every gift ever presented to any of the Dear Leaders… this really does deserve a full write-up, but… in short – typical of DPRK – an insanely great idea, a great insane idea, and lots of numbers/facts/statistics that don’t really add up under scrutiny A country-side hike, during which I took the opportunity to lag behind, and instead just get lots of photos with locals A final day’s walking and tram-ride through Pyongyang, dinner on a riverboat with weird live music show. And then – all over. Final bit of confusion at the airport, where they saw my two passports, and I’m pretty sure I am now on record as entering DPRK on one passport/nationality, and leaving on another.
Day #6 Oversized monuments – the Party towers (giant concrete hammer, sickle, brush), the Juche Tower – a massive phallic celebration of the Juche “philosophy), and then down to the West Sea Barrage, or the Nampo Dam… a rather impressive structure damming an entire river mouth. And finally – a shooting gallery, with the option of shooting live animals (a coop of chickens was clearly visible at the end of the gallery… waiting for somebody to sate their blood-thirst). The “kill a living being” option was NOT taken, but I did fire a few rounds from a “sniper rifle” (mixed success), an automatic rifle (AK47 or similar) (zero success), and a pistol (reasonable success) – and was then gifted a prize teddy bear by the ladies, presumably from having a near 50% success rate with the pistol. Teddy bear was proudly displayed to the bus driver, and became the group mascot, in the windshield.
Day #7 – 9.9 (Day of the Foundation of the Republic) The big national holiday… but not the big military parades one thinks of when it comes to North Korea’s celebrations. Instead – we visited the boyhood home and birthplace of Kim Sung Il, then watched some “mass dancing” – a highly organised big crowd of people pretty much “line dancing” – and then marching off in rank-and-file, men in one direction, women in the other. Very odd. Visited the Water Park – but with not enough time to actually get a swim in. Instead we were just shown all the local citizens obviously having so much fun… by order. And then, an opera… and true to form, I slept through most of that. I managed to wake up for the next stop on the agenda – a “local beer bar” – where we were supposed to be able to try a few beers elbow-to-elbow with locals. It was deserted… not a single other person in the bar.
Day #8 A quick visit to the “Science Street” – which the government is clearly very proud of – a recent district dedicated to science/education. Not particularly interesting. The War Museum – however – very good… we only got to see a fraction of it, but it was a beautiful massive complex, including… – USS Pueblo – the US spy ship which was captured… along with a video bragging about this, and stressing the DPRK’s version of events around the whole thing. Interesting stuff. – A collection of enemy tanks/planes/weapons captured during the Korean War… showing off – A video explaining how the Korean War started (it doesn’t, actually, it just stresses how evil the US was, and how brave the North Koreans were in repelling the yankee imperialist aggression) – A 360 degree mural based on one particular battle – with effects as the battle is described. Not sure I’m describing it well, but it was quite well done. Anyway – in the afternoon… caught a flight up to Orang, on one of the only old-school Soviet-era IL-18 (I think) aircraft still in service… just happens to be the same one which was previously the “presidential plane” for the Dear Leaders. Saw some of the eastern coastline… and stayed the night on Chongjin, ready for visiting the nearby Mount Paektu.
Day #4 Saw a bridge (famous for some reason), and a temple, and some turtle statues. Then – the DMZ. A 4 mile wide buffer between the South Korean puppets of the US, and the aggressive US imperialist forces; and the brave defenders of North Korea. Saw lots of artifacts from the Korean War – the table where the armistice was negotiated; the table where the armistice was signed… including the UN flag which was shamefully used by the US forces to pretend that the defeat wasn’t theirs; and the actual axes used in the “Gardening Incident”. Had lunch in the DMZ, before being whisked off to a viewpoint where we were taught about the dastardly “Concrete Wall” built by the nasty Americans, on the South side of the DMZ. (Insert Trump/Mexico/Wall joke here) Apparently, the US & their South Korean puppets deny such a thing even exists, but with binoculars – I could see…. something. It was also stressed how many homes for families could be built with the materials used for this silly wall… lots. After the whole Border/DMZ experience – visited the site of some old palace, where the foundations are still visible (no thanks to the US bombers, who bombed the site, and apparently wanted to totally destroy it to build a barracks. OR – the Japanese, who tried to destroy it, until the brave locals rose up and refused to let them). And then, just few minor sites around the local area… but – first sign of trouble in the group, with a small incident of perhaps non-approved photos being taken, arguing the point, etc. Trouble in socialist paradise.
Day #5 Probably visited something else down south, but can’t remember what. Stamp shop, and a museum? Oh – and a collective farm. Complete with a dance show put on for us. Odd. I do remember some fairly heavy rain coming in, and we raced it back up to Pyongyang, in our bus which was rattling apart. Got back to Pyongyang, and informed the rain was the forerunner of rather a large storm – one likely to close roads throughout the country, and we were probably lucky to get back from Kaesong when we did. So – itinerary was almost certainly going to be mixed up a bit, with no travel out of Pyongyang possible for a day or two. Headed up to the revolving restaurant up top of the hotel, and watched the storm, and then dinner at a restaurant/microbrewery attached to the hotel. Beers were had.
Rather than my normal dry “diary-style” updates, with 3 weeks to catch up on… I’ll try for (relatively) succinct bullet-points as much as possible.
Flight/landing/border-control Check-in desk – some sort of North Korean celebrity on our flight, many people getting autographs/photos. Also, the Lebanese soccer team? Flight – many more westerners than I’d expected – probably due to this being peak tourist season, with the national holiday on 9.9 Border-control – fairly easy, but customs insisted on getting every cellphone, laptop, electronic-book/reader, external hard drive out of the luggage. Didn’t actually search the contents, just pulled them all out into a pile, and our local guide signed a piece of paper – presumably taking responsibility for whatever was on there. Met our local “guides”, and others in the group – onto a bus into the city, and my first glimpse of that magnificent boondoggle, the Ryugyong Hotel. Which has effectively been turned into a 105-story high LED billboard… so – not a waste of time/effort after all?
Day 2 A fairly nice introduction to the country/city… wandering around mostly innocuous sites… – a visit to the central square; – the National Library (or – “Grand People’s Study House“) – where the first book I happened to see was “Guidance Principles of Missiles” – I shit you not; – a ride on the underground/subway – which is impressive (old-school russian trains alongside newer ones – but the stations we stopped at – big cathedral-like spaces with massive mosaics lining the walls, big chandeliers, etc, etc; – the Pyongyang Arch of Triumph – same as Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, but 10 metres taller; – the Supreme Court, where I managed to get the photo of myself in the Defendant’s stall; – the only supermarket in the country where we’re allowed to shop using the local currency, at local prices – rather than the inflated tourist prices used everywhere we’re allowed to go. So… a couple of bottles of wine it is; – And then – the Mass Games.
Mass Games – Awesome. – Batshit crazy. I muttered that phrase several times during the Games… and it also became the single phrase I used most often (typically under my breath) while in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. – There’s no way of really describing this event. Other than “Batshit crazy”. When one takes the largest stadium in the world, use one entire side of the seating as effectively a human “backdrop” for the actual show, and then fill the actual field with hundreds of children gymnasts, adult gymnasts, military guys somersaulting over cars then smashing bricks with their fists, etc, etc… just… batshit crazy. – I think I was told – 80,000 performers? And I’m not sure if that includes what must have been tens of thousands of schoolchildren seated on the far side of the stadium, holding up coloured panels – forming the mosaic backdrop. Who thinks of this, and then actually does it? Every night, for months? – Apparently we missed out on some of the more spectacular “acts” – as it had been raining, and the more dangerous aerial stunts were skipped.
Day 3 Still not fully recovered from the (literal) madness which was the Mass Games… our very first stop the next morning was probably the other most-batshit-crazy thing in the country. Kumsusan Palace of the Sun – or the Mausoleum of both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Il – “Smart dress” was required, and I’d had to especially buy cheap knock-off trousers/shirt in Beijing for this one sight/site – Airport security checks – with all cameras/phones/anything being left in a locker… – then an age of travelators, underground – travelator after travelator – with sombre music being played at low volume… – At one point, I believe this was my first time, “paying respect to our Leaders” – bowing before a pair of lifesize wax figurines – then a sort of sanitising chamber – where air is blown all over you to remove any… contamination? dust/dirt? – and then – the glass casket of Kim Il-Sung in a massive marble cubic room… approaching him 4 at a time, bowing 3 times – once at his feet, and once from each side – before moving onto rooms storing all the awards/medals/honorary-degrees he’d ever been given – Then – his private bulletproof cars – and, his private train carriage – Before – coming across Kim Jung-Il – in an identical room to his Dad, and following the same protocol… 4 at a time, bowing 3 times as we move around his body – And then – all the awards/medals/degrees HE had been given, – And HIS private cars, train carriage, and boat. – Before the long long journey back to the cloakroom/security point, via travelator, to reclaim cameras/phones/etc. By this time, there were quite a lot of locals making the inward pilgrimage… and it was obvious how important this was to all of them. Some – already crying.
After we got out of the Mausoleum, it was lunch, and then a bus ride down towards Kaesong, near the border/DMZ with South Korea… and a quick visit to a more traditional tourist site nearby – one of the tombs from Koryo Dynasty, which together make up a UNESCO Heritage Site. They were rather more subtle with their tombs back in those days… no travelators.
In General… – the first of many times “paying respect to the Leaders”… there were many many more times. I bowed more over the last few weeks than the rest of my life combined. – “batshit crazy” – became a little mantra, muttered under my breath many times over my time in North Korea… but in a good way a lot of the time. A better way of describing most things would be “beautifully insane” or a smilingly-approving “you magnificently mad bastards”. – Already, within 3 days, I believe I’d started my list… a list of “things to research” when I got back to internet. That list is very long, of things I was told while in DPRK, and I want to cross-check against the version in history books outside of DPRK. It seems the dastardly Americans have been selling us a lot of false information for quite some time, about quite a few things.
So much for keeping that short/concise. But – I’ve got to try and get this all written down while fresh(-ish) in my mind.
Back to Beijing. A few days of pretty much nothing more than drinking TsingTao in the sun each afternoon… other than today’s adventure into the central city, where I picked up a North Korea visa, and shipped off a large box of boots/helmet/souvenirs/etc back to NZ. (Jaguar – I used your address, but I don’t expect it to arrive for a month or two)
Tomorrow – off to North Korea… so it’s very unlikely that I’ll be sending or receiving any messages for a few weeks. I’m due back in Beijing on the 19th, but will probably be rather busy re-packing before heading to Japan on 20th. There should be “proof-of-not-being-arrested” by 22nd.
Mongolia – done. Ticked off the final points… rode into Gerkhi Terelj National Park, rode around a heap, saw the “Turtle Rock”, dithered about whether to stay in the park, or sleep next to the ridiculous giant Ghenghis Khan statue… eventually opted for staying in the part – as it was really the most interesting/scenic landscape I’d seen for some time. (Steppes/desert are great, for a short time… but seeing something new was enervating). The entire park was hills and rock formations… quite cool after so long in the steppes. Checked into a ger camp – for one last night sleeping in a yurt… and proceeded to drink beers in the last of the evening sun. Drank too many, and had to go to sleep without fully appreciating the night’s gimmick of “traditional Mongolian music”. The place I stayed at was obviously geared toward South Korean tour groups, and I figured I wasn’t going to see too much of anything authentic anyway.
Next morning – used my camp frying pan for the first time – to fill with soapy water, and give a cursory wash of the bike, to make it look just that slightly better. The lady who’d hired it wanted it back “as good as new”… and I figured that if at least the entire thing wasn’t covered in mud, that would be a decent goodwill measure. Then – off to see that stupidly big silver monstrosity – the 40m high stainless steel statue of Chinggis on his horse. I kept expecting to see this shining monster on the horizon, but it only came into sight reasonably close. As big as it is… my first impression was “yeah, that’s a big hoss and Khan”, but the second impression was “not as big as I’d expected”. Had a look around the inside of it… including a very large boot – 9m high. Possibly the most interesting thing about the whole thing – was looking at the original plans for the entire statue/complex. It’s supposed to be a massive theme park, with the silver statue just the centre-piece. Privately owned/built – this thing is supposed to be surrounded by 200 yurts – hotels, souvenir shops, other edifices… 10 years later, the statue is surrounded by about a dozen gers, and the steps up to it are already falling apart. But – still impressive… although I have my doubts as to the condition it will all be in 10 years from now. After visiting the “Biggest Equestrian Statue… IN THE WORLD!” – it was time to drop the bike off. I pointed out the 7 pieces which had fallen off, and there were no objections to giving my deposit (passport) back. In fact, the nice lady (much nicer, and less flustered, than when I’d picked it up) – gave me a cold beer to enjoy while I repacked everything from the useless panniers, and waited for a taxi. So, finally, back to UlaanBaatar, to kill a couple of days. The sheer number of people here (which isn’t much) – is a little scary after 24 days of wide open extremely isolated spaces.