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.
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?
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.
– 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.
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.
– 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.