August 7th, 2011. Dandong, Liaoning Province, China
The K27 bound for Shineuiju pulls out of Dandong train station at 9:30 a.m. After a few hundred meters it crosses the Yalu river before arriving at it’s destination a few minutes later. Soldiers carrying guns and wielding metal detectors board the train. One approaches me and asks me to open my bags for inspection. “Do you have any GPS devices”, he asks in impeccable English. I reply in the negative. Once the search is over we leave the train and are escorted single file under the platform down a long, dark, dank tunnel to emerge in a large waiting room where we are told to wait for three hours. On the wall the two smiling portraits of the Great and Dear Leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il stare down at us. Welcome to North Korea.
I am about to embark on a four day tour of a country that everybody has heard of, many have an opinion of, but most will never get to see. I am part of a Chinese tour party, about 50 strong. My co-travelers view me with curious stares. Some try to practice their English skills, others kindly offer me food. Some North Koreans civilians, easily identifiable by the Kim Il Sung badges they proudly wear on their chests, buzz around us watching us closely. I gather that these are to be our tour guides, or maybe a better description should be our handlers.
I head downstairs to the gift shop. It’s window opens up onto the station platform which is alive with activity. In front of the building a group of twenty-something females, all dressed in full uniform, are demolishing a wall with sledgehammers and pickaxes. People are scurrying around to board the train to Pyongyang. There are some civilians, most dressed in the same drab green or grey work clothes, but it’s those dressed in military uniforms that dominate. A group of sailors horse around and soldiers, wearing high peaked hats, lean out of the windows of the train chatting to their comrades on the platform. It’s a scene that could easily be lifted straight from a 1940’s war movie, bar the lingering kiss goodbye.
Finally, we are told to board the train. As we line up again, one of the Chinese tourists raises his camera to capture the moment. A female guard moves swiftly to stop and reprimand him. As I get on the train I am surprised to find that we are sharing it with some of the Korean locals, they seem indifferent to our presence as they talk and send messages on their cell phones. After a few minutes we leave the city limits and I am greeted by a lush sea of green. Rice paddies and fields of corn stretch as far as the eye can see. I think of recent reports of famine and a starving population, but the evidence points to the contrary. I wonder if the same story can be told beyond the distant mountains on the horizon.
Along the way we pass villages and towns. All with similar white washed houses topped with terracotta tiled roofs. Farmers work in their fields, kids fish in the ponds and streams that line the route. There is obviously poverty here, but no worse than I have seen in other countries that I’ve visited. Inside the carriage the heat is relentless. Women fan themselves, the Korean males strip to their undershirts, the Chinese go bare chested. I head to the restaurant car and order a beer in order to cool down. “Product of Argentina”, it says on the can. It seems I will have to wait until the nations capital in order to sample the local brew.
After nearly five and a half hours and just under two hundred kilometers, the train arrives, on time, in Pyongyang. I am greeted by my English speaking tour guide, a Mr Kim, not surprisingly. He ushers me onto a waiting bus which drives a short distance before arriving at the hotel. A gleaming 47 floor tower with a revolving restaurant atop. My room is pleasant, ,a decent sized suite with living room and bedroom. I search for a power outlet to charge my camera, but find there are only two, dim, ,lights in the room with plug connections that I have never come across before. Eventually the shaving socket in the bathroom comes to my rescue, but the whole fixture falls off the wall as I plug my charger in.
The next morning I open my curtains to get my first glimpse of Pyongyang. The Dae Dong river, lined with bridges, snakes before me. To my left is the Juche monument and the May Day stadium, the world’s biggest. But, it’s the magnificent pyramid of the Ryugyong hotel that dominates the Pyongyang skyline.
As our bus leaves the hotel compound, it’s rush hour in Pyeongyang and people are making their way to work. Most by foot or bicycle. Some take taxis, splendid looking 1970’s Volvos. The fashion is notably dated, not a pair of Nikes or Levis to be seen. The buildings too are old. Utilitarian concrete blocks, paint flaking, a few with polythene sheets where windows once had been. Empty shells of unfinished building projects add to the grimness. The few shops I see are void of window displays, the dim interiors look sparse, the signs out front all using the same old fashioned red font. There are no advertising hoarding, but instead huge propaganda posters loom everywhere. It’s as though someone pressed a button circa 1972 and froze the city in time. But the illusion is broken by the cars. Expensive, new Mercedes and Lexus fill the roads. Occupied by military officers and the party faithful. The priveledged few.
The bus leaves the city and hits the highway to Kaesong, one of only 3 major highways in the North. The entire road is almost entirely straight, but the bus weaves and swerves to avoid potholes, people and the occasional herd of goats. Our first port of call for the day is the DMZ, the DE-milatarized zone, the line that divides the peninsula along the 38th parallel. Before reaching the DMZ itself, we stop at the building where the 1953 armistice was signed. The original documents still lying in glass cases. Our military guide tells of the unprovoked attack on the peace loving north by the imperialistic American army and their South Korean puppets, and their subsequent crushing defeat at the hands of the mighty North Korean and Chinese armies. Sorry, my American friends, but you lost!
Next it’s on to Panmunjom, the village that sits on both sides of the border. It’s familiar territory having been here twice before, but from the South Korean side. We enter one of the huts where talks between the North and South still take place. I ‘cross the line’ once again, but this time it’s back in to the country I’ve called home for the last ten years. Then, we enter the building that overlooks the South Korean viewing platform. I remember seeing this ominous looking building a few years before and trying to get a furtive snapshot of the guards on the North Korean side. But, now I stand on it’s balcony and those same guards stand next to me. The realisation of the moment hits me hard. I’m in North Korea.
After lunch it’s back to the capital for one of the trip’s highlights. The Pyeongyang Metro. We take the longest escalator I have ever been on down to the world’s deepest subway and the incredible station below. Grandiose columns reach up to high vaulted ceilings lined with opulent chandeliers, the walls decorated with huge propaganda murals. A train is just arriving, it’s old, but elegant, probably harking back to when the subway was first built in 1973. We get on the train, again there is no attempt at segregation from the locals and an elderly Korean gentleman ushers me to a seat next to him. One stop later it’s off the train into an equally impressive station, up another endless escalator to the waiting bus outside.
We drive to Mangyongdae, the alleged birth place of Kim Il Sung. A quaint, thatched cottage located in the heart of Pyongyang surrounded by acre upon acre of park, but not a person is to be seen. The resident guide, dressed in full hanbok (Korean national dress), talks in a tragic, wailing voice about the Great Leader, and grandfather of the nation. When a Chinese tourist steps over a barrier to take a closer look she becomes aghast with shock and disbelief at the sacriledge that is being committed, but I am not convinced by her display.
I arrange to meet my tour guide that evening in one of the many hotel bars for a few drinks. I order two bottles of Dae Dong Gang beer, named after Pyongyang’s central river. It’s a pleasant full bodied lager, which doesn’t surprise me since the brewery was bought lock stock and barrel in 2002 from the U.K. But, it’s the soju I want to try, Korea’s most famous drink. I choose a bottle of Dotori (acorn) soju and am surprised not only by it’s strength, but also it’s taste. Unlike the soju in the South, which has a taste somewhere in-between paint stripper and battery acid, it’s smooth and very palatable. The drinking culture is also very different. There is no ‘one shot’, there is no touching your hand to the wrist to refill your friend’s empty glass. Instead you pour your own drink and sip it warm from a tall glass, not too disimilar to an aperetif. When it comes to paying the bill, I thank the waitress using the polite,
but informal 고마워요 (Go Ma Weo Yo) for thank you. My tour guide turns to me and says angrily, “Do not use the South Korean way here! In North Korea we are always polite. We do not lower our language! You have to say 고맙습니다 (Go Map Seum Ni Da, polite formal)”. A little taken aback I correct myself and apologise to the waitress, who appears a little bit embarrassed about the exchange.
The next day we head to Mount Myohang and the Kim Il Sung, International Friendship Hall. It is a large, lavish building, topped with a Korean traditional style roof. Inside it houses all the gifts that have been given to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il from other nations. Our guide boasts proudly that if you were to spend one minute viewing every gift it would take you two months. I peer into the glass cabinets and note that the majority seem to be from China or the world’s crackpot nations and despots. There is also a surprising number from big, famous multi-nationals. Obviously political ideology takes a back seat when it comes to money. Amongst all the exquisite pottery, ornate wood carvings and elegant paintings one gift sticks out like a sore thumb, a large 1983 Chinese made ghetto blaster. An image pops into my head of a younger Kim Jong Il, boom box on his shoulder, body popping and getting jiggy with it. I laugh out loud. Bewildered heads turn to look at me.
From here it’s back to Pyongyang and to the governmental and administrative center of the city. Kim Il Sung Square is flanked by large communist style buildings. Nearby lies the Children’s Palace where we will go to see a performance. The students that I meet there are so incredibly talented, that they would put to shame any kid who was the star of his or her yearbook. We get to see fine arts, incredible musicianship and outstanding performances that would make most South Korean parents green with envy.
I come across an art class and see this one girl painting the most exquisite flower painting. I forget myself for a minute and remark to her ‘예쁘다’ (it’s so pretty). I see a brief moment of alarm in her eyes, and she does her best to ignore me and carry on with her appointed task. I too, realise my mistake and step away quickly. I pass the same classroom again some forty minutes later. She is still there, painting the same beautiful flowers. I hope she is OK…
And then it comes to the highlight of the trip. Not just for us the curious onlookers, but for the North Koreans too. The Mass Games. It’s their showpiece, to show to the world their brilliance. And, I have to admit, I was totally blown away by what I saw.
Walking into the stadium felt a bit like going to see a baseball game in the South. Excitement is high. Soldiers, party workers, school children buzz around us. They are the chosen ones for this evening. And then…semi disappointment. I emerge into the word’s biggest stadium to be greeted by half emptiness. In my section are about 50 foreigners. To my left are about a thousand soldiers, all chanting some patriotic slogan. To my right are several hundred middle school kids, acting like kids should.
Then, in front of me I see the most magnificent site. Twelve- Thousand high school kids. The chosen ones. Those that provide the backgrounds for the mass games are being whipped into a fury by some unseen conductor.
Suddenly! A shout goes up and what were those high school kids is turned into a solid wall of their high school’s colours. The kids are chanting, the pictures turn effortlessly from one picture to the next. There’s a ‘battle’ going on here. They are trying to out do each other. I sit breathless watching it. And this is just the warm up.
And then…the performance starts. We see the history of the Korean people, the deification of Kim Il sung. Kim Jong Il’s beautiful birth on top of that mountain top,complete with rainbows and angelic voices. A rather interesting homage to China and North Korea’s splendid victory in the war. Fuck You! America. They had me convinced.
And then it was back to my hotel. The most bizarre trip of my life was done.
The next day beckoned. I looked out across the Dong Gang river for one last time before boarding my train, Again through the lush paddy fields. And finally I got to know some of the Chinese tourists who had seemed oblivious to me until this point, but now they wanted to be my friend. They told me that their best player had taken 5000 dollars in the casino in our hotel. I took him for 50 bucks. Small victories…