This is the day the group is split up and we go off to North Korea. The others go to Qindao on the Chinese coast with the evening train. I haven’t been able to get to the post office to ship my shopping back to Sweden (I’m pretty overloaded and need space for more shopping =P) so I dump it with Jacob so that he can do it for me, supposedly it costs around 500 sek to ship 10 kg by air mail back to Sweden. I follow Anna’s advice and mix in some dirty laundry with it so that it won’t be so obvious that it’s all new stuff and attract the attention of the customs people.
There’s lots of hugging but the blow is softened by the fact that we’ll actually meet once more in Seoul as we come back from North Korea and the others are there before moving on to their last leg of the trip in Japan. We get one of our Chinese guides with us to the airport and she tells us some stuff about the city on the way out. There’s something like seven ring roads in Beijing and she tells us a joke about the traffic: “The wife says to her husband: ‘How much so you love me?’ ‘As much as the traffic on the third ring road’ the husband answers.” I’m not sure I understand it but I guess it means that it’s pretty much traffic there…
In line at the airport I strike up a conversation with a couple of brits, guessing their nationality after hearing the b-word (bollocks). They’re going to North Korea as well (well duh, we’re in the same check in line after all…) and we discuss how to call someone a bastard in an amiable way. I discover that I’ve lost my departure card when it’s time for passport check, no problem though, just fill out another and I’m good to go. The passport check is kind of neat as the counter has buttons you can press to signal your level of satisfaction with the process. It’s very expedious and I press the highest button.
Coming up to baggage check I realize I left my brain back at home and packed my Leijona shot in my carry on. They start by taking that and continue on with my toilet back (which I moronically also put in my carry on…) and away goes my scissors and hand disinfectant. I get to keep my Minty Boost though.
The airline we’re flying with is called Air Koryo and they don’t have the most modern planes. We board a really cramped Ilyushin Il-62M and find our seats. The seats are really fun because if you push the seat in front of you it flops over like a domino, I’m reasonably sure it wouldn’t pass any kind of safety standard (in fact, it turns out that it’s banned in the EU). After a brief security demo of how to put on the belt (apparently they don’t have either oxygen masks or life jackets on this flight) the cute attendants begin handing out some reading material. Imagine my delight as the Pyongyang Times and the DPRK Juche is put into my lap. They’re filled with inspirational tales like the one about the textile factory manager who was so good that his workers sang songs in his honor.
In spite of the rickety plane and the cramped seating the flight is quite comfy, mainly because it’s so silent. The Il-62M has four engines all placed at the very back making for a very silent flight if you sit up front. Landing at Sunan International Airport we’re immediately greeted by the sunny smile of the eternal president Kim Il-Sung, displayed on top of the terminal building. A bus is there to pick us up and drive us the 100 meters to the terminal, now that’s service! =P The baggage check is surprisingly light, they want to know if we have any mobile phones, but we collected them all and gave to Karina prior to takeoff. Mobile phones are banned in DPRK and are “sealed” (by sealed means put into a plastic bag, rolled into a ball and clad with massive amounts of tape and finally a paper with a stamp is affixed) and taken care of by the guides until we leave the country again.
The baggage check guy wants to know if I have any batteries for some reason and I show him the ones in my Minty Boost which seems to satisfy him. Before exiting I’m stopped once more and need to show that my boarding card matches the baggage tag, pretty smart actually. Some people weren’t as lucky though, there were guards over by the baggage carousel watching the luggage go by and every now and then they decided that they saw something suspicious and resolutely plucked one of the bags of the belt and carried it off for a more thorough inspection (without notifying the owner).
Outside the terminal we’re met by our head guide Mr Kim. He introduces himself and then goes inside to help Karina with the phones. Turns out that we have no less than three guides: Mr Kim – a guy in his forties, Miss Kim – a beautiful 23 year old and Yeoh (I have no idea if that’s spelt correctly), a 23 year old guy in a suit. A camera man and a bus driver are also part of our crew.
After a while Karina is ready and we head for the bus that’ll be our second home for the next four days. It’s a really old bus imported from Japan (and therefore right-hand steered) with a pimped out interior featuring chandeliers and lazy-boy seats! As we drive into town the age becomes apparent as the bus shake like the hands of a wino before the mornings first drink. The lousy road probably has something to do with it as well, they’re even worse than in Ulaanbaatar! Writing while on the road is out of the question anyway.
My first impression of Pyongyang is that it’s pretty run down, not as bad as Russia though. It just seems like they built all the buildings some 20 years ago and haven’t done any kind of maintenance on them since. The whole city is more or less like that, with the exception of the important buildings, that are in a tad better shape. Mr Kim goes over how we’re allowed to take photos on the way: out of the bus window in the city is okay, so are nature sceneries, but people, especially close ups and military men are a definite no-no.
We later learn that the “no photos of people”-thing is more a cultural thing than anything else. North Korea, and South Korea as well to a lesser extent, is still a place where you dress up and is prepared for when a photo is taken. So taking photos of people, especially when they’re unprepared, dirty or otherwise unkempt is extremely rude.
Driving through the city I see several billboards, but none of them have any advertising on them, instead there are large inspirational propaganda posters. It’s a pretty surreal feeling… We make our first stop at the Arch of Triumph, which of course is the largest in the world, purposely made just slightly larger than the one in Paris. The fact that we can just stop and hop off to look at the monstrosity bear witness to the sparsity of traffic in Pyongyang. It’s mostly trams and cable buses milling about followed by the occasional Volvo 144, Mercedes or the domestic Pokugee.
The Volvos are a leftover from 1973 when Sweden delivered 600 of them to Pyongyang and North Korea decided not to pay for them. The total debt is about 2.2 billion sek and still unpaid. They’re all in surprisingly good shape though, so they must make their own spare parts or something.
We drive on and you can really tell that the North Koreans aren’t used to traffic, the driver honks every 30 meters or so at different jaywalkers and -bikers, but often they won’t even turn their head. They just go about minding their own business, seemingly not caring very much whether they get run over or not, very strange. There are also a lot of soldiers just standing around (with weapons), but given that DPRK can field the world’s fifth largest army, in absolute numbers, not percent, I guess that’s kind of expected.
We arrive at the Yanggakdo Hotel and make a speedy check in before being whisked off to dinner. Driving in Pyongyang at night is an interesting experience, almost everything is dark, only the windows to people’s homes are lit up (as well as the monuments and propaganda posters of course), everything else is dark, even the street lights owing to the serious energy shortage in North Korea. The restaurant is a nice place where we’re treated to a traditional Korean meal with kimchi, omelet, rice, chicken, deep fried greens, and some sort of pork stew. I’d been dreading the Korean cuisine before coming here, but it’s not bad actually, it’s a lot of picking though so eating takes a while. The fact that the chopsticks are made of metal (=slippery) doesn’t help either.
After dinner we’re bussed back to the hotel and we mill about looking at the visiting Chinese dignitaries, they’re in town as a gesture in connection with the 60 years celebration. It gets old pretty soon though and we go to bed trying to digest the fact that we’re actually in North Korea.