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.
After deciding to stay on tarmac for the last few days – it took 80km of that to get bored, and find an excuse for one last little bit of dirt/gravel/corrugations. From Dalandzadgad – headed north, and then off into the wilderness one last time… to the “White Stupa”. Which is actually white with violet stripes, and rather striking (the photos don’t do it justice). After the disappointment of Bayanzag, it was quite cool. First rode up to the top, for a few photos, and then down to the bottom – where the terrain is just heaps of little rocky mounds, with tracks all over/around them. Would be amazing fun on a proper dirt bike – with the Shineray, it was still a bit of fun, albeit getting stuck several times on very steep slopes by stalling, or the chain coming off. Not a great experience with practically zero brakes to call upon. Spent the night in a ger/yurt near the stupa, Tsugaan Suvaraga – and had some dodgy soup and fermented camel milk supplied by the lady owning the ger. Also saw a camel being milked for the first time… a slightly more manual approach than the herringbone sheds back home. Catch/tie up the baby camels, wait for the mother to come running, and then milk one side of the mother while the baby camel is suckling the other.
Next morning – I’d been convinced by the locals that the best route to where I was going was via a road not on my maps… so gave that a go. And thankfully – yeah, all easy. Then, started getting worried about fuel… both small towns I stopped at to get topped up – refused to sell me any petrol. I finally figured out that the power was out all the way south of UlaanBaatar. Procrastinated for an hour or two at the second place, having some food, before becoming convinced I could probably make it to the next major town. I’d already been paranoid about the 35km from first little-town to second… the next 50km was nerve-wracking, with the fuel meter sitting on “E” right from the outset. But – made it to Mandalgovi – where I found a gas station with a generator going – and cars queued up for petrol. I was more than happy to queue up behind them all. Checked in to a basic hotel – and visited the local museum. No power, of course, so wandering around in a deserted museum, with a torch. Rather an odd experience, especially when there are full skeletons of dinosaurs and woolly rhinos appearing unexpectedly. Like something out of a bad movie. And then – bought some beers, and went to sit in the park to drink them – with a couple of local drunks doing the same (with vodka). Got “chatting” with them… and remembered how annoying drunks can be when it comes to the language barrier. Just a constant refusal to understand/remember that them saying the same thing over and over wasn’t going to be understood. Eventually let them fleece me of a bit of money – I don’t know if they were charging me for the vodka I drank, or what – and deliberately not understanding their requests I come with them to their next stop. Oh – and in the wee hours of the morning, another local drunk entered my hotel room, confused at finding me there, standing and staring at me for quite some time before figuring out he needed to find another room to crash in (and I suspect, this was a regular occurrence… get drunk, go to the open-doored hotel, find an empty room, sleep). And as I’m ready to leave in the morning, a lady was absolutely smashed, jabbering away at me constantly… throwing her hair-clip at a passing car which she must have taken a disliking to… very, very drunk – at 10am. The Mongolians, they love a drink, but they cannae handle it.
Today – almost nothing but tarmac… just a boring 220km or so stint to get fairly close to UB, with an eye to visiting that ridiculous giant aluminium statue tomorrow. The road was all sealed, barring the occasional and sudden massive pothole (which sneak up on me, as I’m unwilling to stand up on the pegs, not trusting how they’re attached currently), and a couple of times leaving the road to find a relatively secluded spot for a wee break. So – arrived in Zuunmod – with an eye to finishing this extended leg of the trip. On the to-do list… clean the bike (the lady who gave it to me made me promise to return it “as is”, as it was her brand-new pride-and-joy. It is not currently “as-is”… I count 6 pieces which have fallen off, and it looks as dirty/dusty as a 15-year-old farm-bike. I’m hoping that if it is at least as shiny as it was when I started, she might overlook the various bits missing.
Left the luxury of a “proper” hotel room, heading into the wilderness. A little bit scary on one’s own, with very very little other traffic (if any), and a bike one doesn’t entirely trust… being constantly rattled and battered by the “road”. I was hoping to put in a fairly big riding day, but that plan was scuttled when I had to stop to investigate a horrible noise from the back wheel… turned out the lower half of the chainguard had become detached, and rather mangled. Beyond road-side panelbeating, so I took that off, and tied to the bike… considering whether to bother carrying it all the way back to UlaanBaatar. In the end – managed to get a couple of hundred kilometres done, helped by time being freed up by no breakfast and no lunch… and then – no real dinner. Got to the town of Bogd, half-hoping it would be heavy rain overnight, so I could make the terrible joke that I was “bogged down in Bogd”. Instead, finally found a “hotel” – which was a family with a spare room, and a sofa-bed in their lounge. I was installed into the lounge, and a couple of guys in the spare room. I’d ended up chatting a fair bit (as much as possible with language barrier) with the driver of the other car – nice guy, I gathered that he used to be a rather senior officer in the army, but now seemed to be driver/bodyguard for what he called his “director” – a professor/doctor… drunk/asleep in the passenger seat. Ended up having several beers, and a bit of fermented horse milk (proudly pulled out of the car in a 20 litre container)… and some of his pot-o-noodles for dinner.
Next day – off towards the recommended Bayanzag… which I’d forgotten was also known as the “Flaming Cliffs”. Got there in the afternoon, and rode around the area marked on the map as being this attraction – not really finding anything remarkable. Some reasonably interesting variants in scrublands – which I believe is what gave the area the name… but nothing spectacular. Some fairly small orange rock formations, that’s about it. I checked into one of the several ger camps nearby (demonstrating that I was indeed in the area of a reasonably major “attraction” – and gave one more shot at riding around, nearing sunset – to see if something jumped out at this time of evening. Still… nothing really. I could see some reddish cliffs, but… that was about it. So, rather than get stuck riding around in the wilderness, in the dark, with practically zero protective clothing (I was wearing the helmet, everything else would be highly discouraged as appropriate riding kit) – it was back to the ger camp, and quickly convince the owners that I was trustworthy enough to just grab beers from the fridge when I wanted, and would definitely settle up at the end. Looking up Bayanzag today, once I had internet available – it seems that I did indeed miss the main attraction, although I think I glimpsed it at one point, from a bit of a distance… and wasn’t too intrigued at the time.
From the disappointing/misunderstood Bayanzag – it was South, towards the desert proper… again, intending to put as many km on the (non-functional) “clock” as possible. And again, stopped in the middle of nowhere to investigate some nasty noise… and discovered the top half of the chainguard had come loose, and was even more mangled than the bottom half I was still carrying. So again – that was removed, and this time – it being in such a bad state – thrown away. And then – an hour or two later… the left foot peg suddenly felt like it really didn’t want to be there, or support my weight at least. Looking into that – on that side of the bike, one bolt had shaken loose, and the frame holding the other bolt on that side… had snapped off. I couldn’t initially replace the missing bolt, so spent quite some time with the peg (and side-stand, being of a piece) – zip-tied to the frame, and not putting any weight on either foot-peg… terrified the whole thing would come off. After 20 or 30km of that – riding with no foot-pegs (on very rough roads… not fun) – I had another go, with the help of some locals, and managed to get a bolt into the left-side of the structure. So – felt a bit more comfortable riding, but still avoiding putting any significant weight on the pegs… so significant bumps were still rather hairy. Eventually crested a hill, and saw sand. A lot of sand… the Khongoryn Dunes. Rather large, impressive. Checked into a small ger camp/camel-hire joint – where the owner/operator was very friendly – invited me into his ger for some greasy lamb ribs being shared around, and then some freshly made local-style soup. All of which looked extremely greasy, and rather unhygienic – but was rather welcome after surviving on chocolate and water for a couple of days.
And today – headed towards asphalt roads… the last few days having convinced me that “boring sealed roads” were underappreciated sometimes. And – meeting a few other bikers today – including some on “proper” bikes, such as a couple who’d ridden their Dakars from Germany, and another couple with a pair of GSs from Belgium… I didn’t feel so bad about being sick of these roads. They all felt the same… even the German couple who’d been riding for the last 10 months were keen to see the end of Mongolian roads/tracks. I enjoy the offroad stuff, even on a crappy little 150cc bike, but the corrugations. So, so many corrugations… just vibrating one until my vision became so blurry I couldn’t even see to pick the smoothest line. Oh – and when I’m opting to ride in sand rather than the corrugations… you know something’s wrong. Anyway – finally did reach some asphalt – and did get thoroughly bored of it very quickly… but it led me to the reasonably sized city of Dalandzadgad – and therefore a reasonably sized hotel, with a nearly-hot shower.