Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

Winding Down

For our very last day of this fantastic trip we treat ourselves to a late morning. Looking at the map we decide to go Anguk, which the guide book describes as a “more upscale neighborhood”. It turns out to be a bit of a disappointment though, not much to look at and not very upscale at all.

We stop for a coffee at a cozy place and are served latte in a cappuccino cup (Sanna, our Barista from the Japan group, would’ve had a hizzy fit). Turning to the map once again we find a little park that looks nice and decide go there. Navigating the Seoul streets isn’t easy and every now and then you’re forced to take a detour but eventually we find our way to the park – only to find out that it’s more or less crap, a couple of dusty patches of grass and a gazebo. So we quickly move on and find ourselves down by the small stream going through the center of town with very nice walkways on each side. I’m told that in the evenings there’s also a rather tasteful laser show to enjoy. Here and there there are some stepping stones strewn in so that you can cross over if you want. A stroll along the stream is highly recommended if you find yourself in Seoul.

For lunch we find ourselves at a steakhouse, reflecting over the fact that none of us has seen a single McDonald’s restaurant in Seoul even though we’ve seen several Burger Kings. Weird.

Post-lunch we continue spelunking in the same aimless manner as before and end up in some kind of market quarters where lots of locals seem to hang out. Despite this the prices are outrageous (a bag of dried mangoes is 13k!) and the stuff they’re selling is mostly crap. So Kimberly and I decide to go back to the more fun quarters where we got our foot massage to do some present shopping before leaving.

The evening winds down with a final dinner at an Indian restaurant where I actually win the gift certificate of 2000 sek in the end-of-trip lottery! I guess I have more than one incentive to do this again… =)

Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

DMZ Deja Vu

Today we’re going to the DMZ from the south side and Kimberly and I start out a wee bit tired (of which our gracious travel mates aren’t slow to take advantage…) A bus takes us there and a guide tells us a thing or two about the DMZ; for instance about the time when the boss of Hyundai (being a former North Korean) gave away 1001 cows to North Korea. Or that the people who live in the DMZ, yes there actually are people living there, earn from $80k to $100k a year just to live there and farm the land. But then again, you do run the risk of stepping on a mine or being axed down by crazed soldiers

Entering the DMZ we come across the South Korean version of tank traps which consists of cement “portals” sort of like the ones at Stonehenge. When you need to stop something, the top part is blown off using explosives, falling down on the road and blocking it.

As we get to the actual Joint Security Area, where the blue barracks are, we get surprisingly strict instructions. There is to be absolutely no pointing, no stopping unless told so or even looking in the wrong direction. The North Koreans were much more laid back! The South Korean soldiers on duty were also very constipated, all wearing pilot glasses, helmets and standing with closed fists in front of their bodies. There was also a peculiar sound about them that took me a while to figure out what it was. It seems like they have steel balls sewn into the hem of their pants in order for them to fall just right! And when they walk around, those balls roll around and clatter against each other, hilarious! =D

Then again I guess they do have reason to be a bit more jumpy what with the North Koreans and their less than stellar track record of predictability… On the way out we stop by the usual souvenir shop and I buy a couple of trinkets. The place seems to be mostly staffed by Americans, interestingly enough.

Next stop is the “Third Tunnel of Aggression” where the North Koreans tried digging an invasion tunnel under the DMZ and nearly succeeded. If it wasn’t for the South Koreans capturing a spy that told them about its location. The North Koreans of course denied it being an invasion tunnel and claimed that it was a coal mine, pointing to black patches on the tunnel walls. (patches soon to be found being paint since the kind of rock that’s in this region never contains coal…) We did get to go down into the tunnel itself as well, wearing yellow hardhats. Which was fortunate since I bumped my head in the ceiling more than five times going back and forth.

Back up top we get to see a propaganda movie that is only slightly more balanced than the North Korean ones. There is also a little museum covering larger DMZ incidents. Interestingly enough the entry about the Pueblo (the captured spy ship) is rather tiny here and hardly mentioned… Outside the building are a few monuments, but the coolest thing I find is the “Mine” warning sign off to the side. I guess stepping out into the forest to pee is out of the question!

We hop on the bus again and arrive at some sort of watch tower with a view of North Korea and a joint factory venture between North and South Korea. The place is actually rather silly with a line some 10 meters from the actual view after which you weren’t allowed to take pictures. The view wasn’t all that special, especially since we’d just been in North Korea, I feel that they could’ve skipped this bit and gone straight for the train station which is the last stop on the tour.

What makes this train station special is its role as a symbol for the reunification effort, one day you’re supposed to be able to board a train to Pyongyang on this station. But right now it’s just shipping the workers at the joint venture factory to and fro.

On the way back to Seoul we’re herded into one of those crappy crystal shops you always end up in on tours like this. We manage to escape unscathed and spend the rest of the evening spelunking around the less touristy parts of Seoul and finishing off the evening with some excellent Indian food.

Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

Going to Never-Ever Land

We’re up early to go a theme park just outside of Seoul called Everland. Kimberly had seen in the Vagabond travel magazine that this park had one of the world’s best wooden roller coasters and since I’m a serious roller coaster fanatic nowadays, I decided to tag along. It’s me, Kimberly and Henrik that hop on the subway that morning heading for the bus station. On the subway I spot a guy with a Bon Jovi tattoo spelled like “Liv’in on a Prayer”, poor guy. (on the other hand, I bet there are sizable amount of westerners walking around with nonsense Kanji on their skin)

After a lot of asking around we find the right bus stop (there are like 15 to choose from) and start waiting for our bus. There are an abundance of buses here, on average there is probably one bus every 20 seconds stopping just at our stop. The ride to Everland is about 45 minutes and Kimberly isn’t feeling to hot, probably has something to do with the Tequila race she initiated last night.

Entry fee to Everland is 35k (about 220 sek or $30) and then you get to ride everything for free. The park looks more or less like Liseberg but is decked in a Halloween outfit. It feels a bit weird walking around there in shorts when the place is covered in pumpkins and witches. The wooden roller coaster is over at the end of the park and since we heard from the others who were there the day before that the place was packed we headed right over there. We seem to have picked a better day though since the place is all but deserted, mostly it’s just the cleaning crew swooshing around on inlines sweeping up the odd piece of trash. We arrive at the roller coaster only to find out that it doesn’t open for another half hour. Finding not much else to do we plant ourselves first in line and wait for it to open.

Rushing through the queuing labyrinth we seat ourselves in the very first cart and are on our way up the first incline. The first drop is an awesome 77° and it certainly delivers when you’re up front! The rest of the ride is kind of a disappointment though and I actually think Balder at Liseberg is better. Sure, it twists and turns well enough but I miss those humps that Balder has that makes you feel weightless. We decide to give it another go though while there’s still relatively few people in line and aim for the last cart this time. It’s almost an entirely different ride this time with great G-forces and high speed turns. Satisfied we stumble out of the ride, through the little store that’s on the way out. We’d noticed that almost all the Koreans we’ve met here have some sort of headgear, be it cat ears, bunny ears or something similar. So I pick up a pair of Giraffe antennae, to you know, blend in with the locals…

Anyways, we go looking for something else to ride and find one of those raft rides where you sit in a round raft and get water squirted all over you. Here you get some sort of cover to hide behind though, so you’re not getting very wet. The ride itself is not very exciting and we’re realizing that we’ve probably done the best part of the park already. There is another roller coaster, but it’s closed for repairs so we go for a flume ride before calling it quits. On the way out we see a Comanche helicopter passing overhead. There seems to be some sort of military base nearby since there have been passing helicopters and planes the entire morning.

We get back to central Seoul in the afternoon and Henrik heads off to see the War museum. I remember Anna saying she was going for the kind of foot massage where little fishes nibble at your feet taking off dead skin. Sounded awesome so Kimberly and I head over to Stay Korea to hook up with her, turns out she had some other plans and wasn’t there. Peter had also tried the fishes though and tried to describe the way there. Full of confidence Kimberly and I headed off in search of Myeong-dong station where we should take a right and two lefts and look for a foot sign. Right-o, how hard could it be?

Turns out it can be pretty hard, we don’t really mind though since the area is jam packed with one great store after another. There’s just so much cool stuff that I can’t get enough. After a lot of asking around though we finally find the place, called “The Foot Shop” (Peter actually wasn’t that far off, it’s right, left, right and then on the left hand side).

The place has insane opening hours, from 10 am to 3 am so there’s no problem getting a midnight massage I guess. Fish nibbling followed by a foot and leg-massage is something like 120 sek if I remember correctly and takes about an hour. We both go for that alternative and after some initial confusion change into the clothes the staff wants us to. The fishes are a very ticklish experience, after a while I manage to control myself but Kimberly just can’t stop laughing. After ten minutes or so it’s time for the massage, a shame really, since I’d liked more time with the fishes. Not that they seem to make that much of a difference, but I’d still warmly recommend it for the experience alone.

The massage is taken care of by two very capable Chinese women that don’t speak much English. The massage is pretty rough and our poor feet gets what’s coming to them, not that I’m complaining, but with the pleasure comes a bit of pain. We attempt some conversation but they’re not very well versed in English so we don’t get far. Walking away on little clouds we go around the block and just look at stuff before returning home to the hostel.

Tonight is the farewell dinner for the Japan crowd who are leaving for the boat tomorrow morning. Anna and Karina have had some troublems finding a place willing to serve 36 people on short notice but had eventually found a nice Italian place. Across the road from it there is a Lomography shop and Jacob and I head over there whilst waiting for the food. Lomography is a cool company selling cheap old school plastic cameras that uses old chemical film and Jacob has a Fisheye camera from them. I’m really keen on getting one but decide this isn’t the time.

Dinner is great and afterward we’re all in the mood for some karaoke. Hunting down a place isn’t as easy as we’d thought though and the first one is a really fancy non-alcoholic place. That obviously won’t do, but the guy in the door suggests a place across the street under his breath. It’s down a cellar and there’s a guy behind a counter hooking us up with a room and some, probably illegal, lukewarm beer. The room hardly fits all of us, the giant screen and the even gianter remote control. Everything is in Korean of course so it takes us a good while to figure out how to get English text and all. After a few false starts and Johnny buying a Jack Daniel’s to brighten the mood we’re off singing ABBA for king and country. Jacob puts on Bull on Parade for me to sing, thanks man… I do get to put on a smoldering rendition of Creep later on though, so I’m happy.

Anna goes out on another beer run but suddenly comes back and grabs me; “you gotta come see this!” Over in the next room are a bunch of thoroughly inebriated Koreans delighted to have some new best friends come over and sing with them! We do our best to sing along with the awful Korean pop music, all the while being “filmed” by one of the guys using the fire extinguisher as a video camera… Ah, good times!

After a while the others find us and we all party with the Koreans. When we’ve had our fill of karaoke for the night we find ourselves a nice bar with a nice drink selection where we spend the rest of the evening drinking fancy umbrella drinks.

Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

Knives aplenty!

Up early with another fantastic breakfast buffet, hotels just aren’t that expensive in China which explains our luxurious accommodations. Shenyang airport is tiny and we’re flying with Korean Air bound for Incheon just outside of Seoul. The service is excellent with comfy seats and beautiful hostesses.

During the transfer to our hostel Karina lets us know that if we’re interested there are a few tickets left for “a show where they are drumming with knives”. Staying true to my more yes-oriented lifestyle I of course go for the offer. We’re staying at Ann Guesthouse right at the subway station Hongik University, a very good location within mere crawling distance of what seems like a thousand bars. The rooms are fine but the manager leaves us to figure out basically everything by ourselves (and being impossible to get ahold of). Us regular travelers didn’t notice too much of hassle though, but tour leader Karina wasn’t happy at all (that’s why I don’t mind paying a little extra for someone who just deals with crap like this =P).

Anyways, as soon as we’ve settled in we head over to Stay Korea where the Japan-group lives (a place that both Anna and Karina recommends highly). It’s just a ten minute walk but right now only Anna is there, the others are out exploring Seoul. We don’t mind that much though and head down to the convenience store for some beer and snacks. The weather is fabulous, something like 20°C and sunny and we just bask on the balcony for a while. Kimberly and I find some wine coolers at the store at 10% alcohol making us more than a little silly as evening approaches.

Eventually it’s time to move on to see the knife show and me, Karina and Anna head out to grab some dinner on the way. By this time we’ve more or less had it with the Asian kitchen and go for some excellent Italian. I’m pretty much hammered at this point and is made appropriately fun of by my escorts. Fortunately the show is a ways off and I’m sober enough to really appreciate the show once we get there. The show was Nanta, actually a very famous musical comedy style show that’s been running non-stop ever since 1997! And it was great! Really funny and talented performers juggling and drumming with knives and any other kitchen appliance you can think of. This yes-policy is really paying off!

After the show we join the rest of the gang at Ho bar for a very happy (and wet) reunion celebration.

Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

Nude Adventures in Shenyang

My roomie Janne wants to start the day with some chess and I oblige, beating him three times in a row before deciding to head out and explore the town. Adjacent to the hotel lobby is a classy store, the kind where all the clerks wear suit and tie and I wander about looking at all the overpriced goods. After a while I happen upon a box of bird’s nests used for making soup from, it’s a certain kind of cave-nesting swallow that builds its nest out of saliva. Very hard to get of course and therefore automatically a delicacy I guess. They’re hideously expensive; just over 10 000 yuan (about the same in sek and just shy of $1500) for a box of sixteen. I snap a picture and is politely interrupted by a lady explaining that photography is prohibited.

I head back to the lobby and run into Karina and Ingar who have been out for a bit already. I tag along and we end up at a Starbucks near what seems to be the center of town. After a cuppa joe we’re ready to explore and brave the murderous traffic in the roundabout surrounding a giant Mao statue. By the looks of it you’d think you’re back in DPRK, the thing is easily ten meters long and about as high, surrounded by hundreds of flowers. Our photography is interrupted by a big tanker with a guy on the roof wielding a water cannon watering the lawns and plantations. It’s really an absurd sight.

Even the city center is full of back alleys with sordid-looking holes in the wall masquerading as stores and we steer clear of them. After a while our feet are sore and we start looking for a place to get a foot massage. There doesn’t seem to be any places that serve both men and women so Karina and Ingar go by themselves and I’m left to explore on my own. One minute I walk by watch stores where I can’t afford to even look at the watches and the next I walk by houses ready to fall over, it sure is a diverse town! After a while I feel nature calling and I head into a large building looking like it would contain a toilet. Some sort of clerk gesturing for me to take off my shoes, so I do and head over to the doorway with a mans silhouette over it. A kid escorts me over to a locker and gestures for me to undress. At this point I start to suspect that this is in fact not a toilet. My suspicions are confirmed when a portly Chinese man walks by, stark naked, farting loudly. I decide that the bath probably has a toilet somewhere and take off my clothes, but after some unsuccessful spelunking I decide that I don’t want to see any more naked men pouring water on each other and quietly leave.

Hooking back up with Karina and Ingar we finally find what looks like a proper shopping district, we go down what looks like a subway entrance to find an underground mall. This is like the coolest place ever! There are tunnels in all directions, lined with tiny shops selling anything and everything you can think of. It’s almost like I can stretch my arms out and touch both walls simultaneously. The place is crowded, but not overly so and I start wandering off on my own. There are lots of cool local brand clothes, not like in Beijing where everything are copies of well known brands. Many of them with hilarious engrish-style prints and others just plain weird. I try lots of clothes but find to my dismay that I’m a tad too large for the majority of the clothes. Normally I’m a medium to large guy but here I’m lucky if XL fits.

As I walk up and down this underground mall for hours on end it strikes me that I haven’t seen a single tourist all day. It’s a really cool feeling and it also means that you don’t have to haggle so much when buying stuff since the prices are already reasonable. Having bought more than I’m sure that I can fit into my pack I finally head back to the hotel for some workout in the hotel gym, followed by a dip in the pool. The evening is rounded off with us stuffing our faces at the fabulous buffet.

Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

Goodbye DPRK

At breakfast Mats tells us an amusing story about his mailing experience from the night before. He went down to the post office in the lobby with a bunch of postcards ready to mail them. The lady takes the postcards and starts flipping through them one by one, inspecting them closely. Every once in a while she stops to scrutinize something and gives him the old “communist glare” (yeah, you know the one I’m talking about). Suddenly there is something wrong and she calls over her colleague who takes a look at the postcard and nods in agreement. Post office lady points to the stamp on the offending postcards and shakes her head. Close inspection reveals that there is a miniscule tear on one of the teeth of the stamp. That might have been okay on any other stamp but this stamp bears the likeness of the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung and is therefore sacrosanct. Mailing the others is okay, but that one postcard is rejected.

Following breakfast we’re taken to the train station and boarded on a rather luxurious Chinese train, with flat TV-screens in every coupe. The train ride is slow and the scenery uninspiring, only the occasional freight train livens it up, mostly due to the unimaginable sorry state they’re all in. Gaping rust holes half a meter in diameter seems to be the norm. Some of them are actually transporting people as well, crammed into regular ore carts.

We head over to the lunch cart which looks more or less like a school canteen from the seventies with some surly North Korean party officials enveloped in noxious cloud of cigarette smoke. We sit down at a table ordering some beer which is the only thing the staff manages to understand, Henrik tries ordering a bottle of water by making the international sign for water (moving a half-closed hand repeatedly up and down) to no avail. Suddenly the lights go out and Mats seizes the opportunity to slap himself on the thigh and yell “You bastard!” in a girlish voice. There is general amusement as the lights come back on, but only at our table it seems… Deciding that we’ve overstayed our welcome we leave shortly after.

After some positively horrid box-lunch we reach the border in the late afternoon. Now starts the circus we’ve heard so much about where the border police take their good time going through all the pictures in our respective cameras. Any offensive photos are promptly deleted, and by offensive I mean embarrassing to the North Koreans. I get only one photo of an, from appearances alone, generator gas driven truck deleted while Ingar gets a total of 15 deleted. Getting ahold of Kimberlys video camera containing some four hours of film the officer decides to do the only sane thing and hands it back over after watching a minute or so. All in all it’s about two hours before we start rolling again and we get back the bundle containing our mobile phones.

Passing over the Yalu river that separates North Korea and China is somewhat surreal. On one side are wooden sheds and on the other the shiny highrises of Dandong. It’s also a bit strange to enter one of the more oppressive regimes in the world with a feeling of freedom. Originally the plan was to go by boat to Seoul, South Korea, from Dandong, but due to the Moon festival all boat traffic is canceled so we board a bus to Shenyang instead. What’s the first thing you do after escaping one of the last dictatorships in this world by the way? You go to McDonalds for a McMao (no, there is no such thing, but wouldn’t it be great if it did?!) of course! (and getting the best service I’ve ever received a McDonalds anywhere, you’re hardly done placing the order before it’s on your tray)

We arrive in the tiny podunk town of Shenyang (6.5 million people) by nightfall and boy is it a sight! The whole place is lit up in neon like a classy version of Vegas, it finally feels like we’re back in civilization. Checking in to the really fancy New World hotel we gather in the hotel bar to digest our North Korean adventure.

Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

The Worlds’ Bestest Friend!

Waking up to a marvelous sunny day in the mountains, we check out under the supervision of Kim Jr. and Sr. smiling down upon us from a giant mural in the lobby. Soon we’re packed into the bus and on our way to the first sight of the day: a Buddhist temple. The roads up here are surprisingly good, I even manage to put in my contact while in transit!

The temple is quite large and the gates are filled with really neat statues of gods killing sinners in various imaginative ways. It’s very beautiful and we just walk around and enjoy the stillness of it all. There are a few walking trails further up the mountain, but we don’t have time for that with our hectic schedule. We get to see an exhibition of 11th century block types and ancient printed books which the North Koreans are rightly proud of. The usual souvenir shop wraps up the temple and we’re off to the International Friendship Exhibition, a bunker filled with “gifts” from all over the world.

Pulling up there’s the usual throngs of schoolchildren and military men. Petter suggested that maybe it’s not them being paraded for our sake but the other way around. The good citizens get to see how tourists from all over the world come to see their beautiful country. Who knows, food for thought anyways…

We’re met by the museum curator who, for a change, is a very lively woman who’s really entertaining to listen to. We also meet up once again with the American and I asked him if he’d be having trouble upon reentry to the US with a North Korean visa in his passport. Turned out that he didn’t get one for some reason, shame really, because they’re very pretty!

We got the usual tirade about how old the place was and other uninteresting stuff, we also weren’t allowed to photograph anything inside the exhibition and received sewn shoe covers to wear inside. Already in the lobby you could tell the place was really something, everything is highly polished marble and with the shoe covers it was really hard not to just slide around. So naturally Mats and I took off in some ballroom dancing to the guides’ delight. At first at least, after a while they tire of it and Yeoh snaps an annoyed “this is no ballroom” to me.

After some initial facts about the place the tour took off, little did we know how long it would be! The place is really huge with over 150 rooms, each filled to the brim with “gifts” (depending on who you ask, there’s between 60 000 and 220 000 of them), the next weirder than the former. The whole place is kept at an even 18C so as to best preserve all the gifts.

One of the first things we get to see is Stalin’s old limo, weighing in at 6 tons and with 8 cm thick glass in the windows. The next room offers some real treasures: a golden cigarette case graciously given by Tito, a giant (~2 m) Chinese urn, engraved so that there were holes in it so that you could see inside and the two other urns inside, like a Matryoshka doll, also engraved of course. A large tree, made entirely out of jade, a crystal bowl from Finland, a plane made out of ivory and my personal favorite: a baby crocodile, posed on its hind legs holding a serving tray for drinks donated by the Sandinistas.

From then on it’s more or less a blur since we pass through so many rooms that there’s no chance of keeping them separated. Some highlights include an old Chinese Boom Box, an aircraft carrier made out of glass, complete with little fighter planes, a chess set where the rook is a guillotine, a piece of rice whereupon the entire song of Kim Il-Sung is engraved. We also passed a display of gifts from Sweden, it was mostly crystal glass given by the VPK (Old Swedish Communist Party) but also a painting of a Viking ship given by an unnamed Swedish painter. We also got to see an armored train set used by Kim Jong-Il (who has a fear of flying) when visiting abroad, given by Stalin as well as a teddy bear given by the DDR and tie that I forget who donated.

There were lots more we were shown, but I’d hate to bore you. Next up was Kim Jong-Ils exhibition that was housed separately and with much fewer gifts (just short of 60 000). Walking into that house we went through a corridor with photos of animals donated to the Pyongyang Zoo. There were elephants given by Ho Chi Minh, an ostrich given by Mugabe and, surprisingly enough, a polar fox given by the Swedish Skansen, that, as far as I know, has no communist connections… As an amusing aside, all of the photos were badly manipulated for some reason, the ostrich was dropped into an English park landscape without any shadow for instance. Kindof weird really.

Among the Jong-Il presents were a basketball signed by Michael Jordan given by Madeleine Albright (very fitting since Kim Jr. loves tall people, which is why he’s often seen wearing platform shoes), a 10 ton gemstone, an old iMac and an oil painting from Cuba with a crossed-over bald eagle (symbolizing USA of course). There were lots more here as well of course, but we’ll leave those be. As a finale we went up to the sixth floor to enjoy the view and just relax. The curator lady was curious about me as I was making notes all the time and was wondering what I did for a living (all questions had to be translated by miss Kim since curator lady only spoke Korean). She seemed a bit surprised to know I was a programmer but she was obviously intrigued by all my writing.

The top floor balcony really was something extraordinary with giant comfy chairs and a view to die for! Curator lady sticks a piece of paper in my hand and a pen and I figure that she has noticed that I was running out of space on the scrap piece of paper I’d been writing on (forgot my regular notebook in the bus). So I continue writing about how nice it is on the balcony and how nice the curator lady is and how easy it is to get her to smile (something that is generally really hard in North Korea as you can imagine). After a while she comes back and grabs the paper and runs over to miss Kim to get it translated (fortunately I’m writing all my notes in English)! I run after her and when miss Kim is done translating, curator lady give me a minute-long berating entirely in korean. I do my best not to laugh as I understand that I was supposed to write down the feelings I was getting while sitting there on that beautiful balcony or maybe a poem, not continue my diary notes. I could see that she is really happy though and not entirely serious about her telling-off, as I saw her putting the note in her pocket, obviously very happy about being talked about in such favorable terms. I love when making a fool of myself leads to such hilarious results, imagine how boring it would’ve been if I’d just done the right thing?

Walking back to the bus she converse with me several times, entirely in Korean of course… The bus takes us back to the hotel for lunch (featuring deep fried eggs!) before going back to Pyongyang where the war museum, the captured spy ship Pueblo and a microbrewery is on the schedule.

The war museum, no sorry, the “Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum”, is a magnificent behemoth of a building and as soon as we enter we’re whisked off and placed before a TV. The museum guide starts a VHS tape and we’re treated to a 30 minutes explanation about how USA carefully planned and mounted the assault on the North Korean people. Several pieces of “evidence” were presented, such as South Korean conscription, the outlawing of democracy in South Korea (actually true, South Korea was a dictatorship up until as late as 1987), an 11-point plan for invading North Korea and so on. The reason for invading was the economic depression, a war with North Korea would be an excellent way of stimulating the economy. It just went on and on…

When finally done with the video we were walked up a floor and sat down in front of a gorgeous diorama picturing the courageous North Koreans toiling through the Chol Pass, bringing supplies and ammunition much like on the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam war. Suddenly it comes alive with tiny trucks driving around and light beams signifying artillery fire. An ominous voice retells the story of these brave comrades driving trucks with the lights turned off on steep mountain roads with artillery and American bombers doing their best to obliterate them. It culminates with the American bombing one of the bridges and North Korean villagers rushing forth to support the failing bridge on their shoulders and one of the drivers throwing himself upon a timed bomb so that the other trucks could reach their destination.

All this shameless propaganda, while certainly amusing, is really creepy in being so… earnest. But while I guess that ought to be expected at a place like this it’s still unsettling.

The tour now speeds up considerably, it seems as Mr. Kim has managed to get the museum to stay open past its regular closing time just for us and the museum staff is anxious to get home. We rush past several giant, totally empty, room and end up in the basement where they have MIG-15s, torpedo boats and other cool stuff. Prominent are the piles of “trophies”, captured guns and ammo, displayed like it’s actually something to see. There are also lots of captured American vehicles, crashed planes and a helicopter all accompanied with detailed descriptions of the circumstances under which they were captured.

The finale is a huge circular diorama depicting the battle of Kaesong city which you enter from below and stand in the middle of while the whole thing slowly moves around you. The canvas covering the wall supposedly was 132 m all around making the whole thing 42 m in diameter. I didn’t experience it quite as large as that but it sure was impressive.

Mr. Kim is eager to get us to visit the Pueblo as well before it gets dark and we’re bussed over there in a hurry. The Pueblo is an American spy ship that was captured in 1968 while snooping on North Korean radio traffic. What they aren’t telling though is that a few days earlier that same month, 31 North Korean commandos managed to infiltrate Seoul on a mission to blow up the presidential palace, the American embassy, the municipal prison, the army headquarter and a prison camp holding North Korean agents. The commandos were caught before being able to complete any of their objectives. The snatching of the Pueblo, in international waters according to the Americans, was likely an attempt to divert attention from the raid.

The boat in itself is rather boring since we’ve grown bored of the endless droning by now. We aren’t allowed to leave before watching another video about the event though so we tough it out. The video talks about how the prisoners from the Pueblo were humanely treated, even though they didn’t deserve it and how the world supported North Korea in its struggle. Eventually the North Koreans got a public apology form the Americans and the crew were returned, forced to walk into South Korea “without their dignity”. “The world unanimously said: ‘US shattered again, another victory for the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung'”.

When finally done with the boat, Mr. Kim has promised us that we would visit a supermarket. I was really excited about this, envisioning rows upon rows of identical shoes being sold to the citizens of Pyongyang. Imagine my disappointment when it turned out to be yet another one of the regular souvenir stores. It wasn’t a total waste though as I was able to buy a really sweet looking collection of propaganda posters. The guy selling them claimed that he was the one who had printed them so I had him sign them for good measure.

The day’s tour ended with a visit to a microbrewery where we drank weird green beer and marveled over the delicacies on the menu (raw snake head, raw liver…).

Back at the hotel we spent the evening drinking beer (60 euro cents for 64 cl at 4.5%…) and shooting the breeze up top in the revolving restaurant. The bar staff got really anxious when we switched tables and Petter left, leaving payment on the table. Seems like they had a hard time coping with having to keep track of how much we’d bought without being able to count the empty bottles (they were back at our previous table). Guess they weren’t much used to having to think for themselves…

Before going off to bed we also had one of the power outs Pyongyang is so famous for, making our North Korean experience complete.

Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

Day of the dead

Today the big event is visiting the mausoleum of the eternal president Kim Il-Sung. This is not a joking matter to the North Koreans and we’re required to “look smart” as Mr. Kim puts it. This means dark pants (no jeans!), dress shoes and dark shirt, for the women, skirts with a hemline below the knees are in order (pants are of course also okay). Mostly there shouldn’t be any “happy” colors. Turns out that in practice this wasn’t all that strictly enforced and I could probably have gotten away with a lot less fancy outfit (albeit with a good bit surlier guides I’d wager…).

The mausoleum is a very popular tourist location for foreigners and North Koreans alike and for some reason it’s only open to foreigners on Tuesdays and Thursdays. To get in there is a long line but it progresses pretty rapidly and before long we reach the wardrobe where we’re required to turn over our cameras. The only thing we’re allowed to bring inside is our wallets. We pass over a shoe wash and up a red escalator to go through a metal detector, then starts the endless moving walkways… The mausoleum is a really big place and since you’re supposed to be mourning the great leader no loud talking or even rapid walking is allowed. So after a long while of standing on walkways we finally reach a largish hall with really cheesy music playing, turning the corner we’re greeted by a 10 m high statue of Kim Il-Sung. Our guides says we’re required to go up to a line on the floor and pay our respects to the giant effigy. We walk up to the line, five at a time and bow before the statue with a queasy feeling in the stomach. All except Aase that is. She didn’t catch the instructions and headed straight for the door, only to be expediently fetched by the guards and made to bow with the rest of us. =)

Next up is another great hall and right at the door we’re handed little mp3 players with some, interestingly accent-less, fellow recounting the heart-wrenching tale of the day the president died. While the narrator drones on we look at the frescos covering the walls showing people from all over the world in desperate mourning from hearing the news. Apparently the North Koreans actually believe that Joe Random living in his hut on the savanna in Africa gave a damn about their precious leader since he’s right up there on the wall crying along with the rest of them.

We take the elevator up to the top floor where it’s finally time for the actual corpse. Before entering we pass through something I can only describe as a “blowy thingy”, it’s a kind of tunnel with air blowing from all directions. I have no idea what it was for but theories are welcome. I’m carrying my wallet in my hand, something that isn’t popular with the guards and I have to put it in my pocket before entering the room with the corpse.

The room is dark with maybe 20 m to the ceiling and we line up four at a time and bow once on each side of the glass coffin. That’s it really and we’re marched outside for the equally long and boring walk back out. After retrieving our cameras we’re allowed outside in front of the mausoleum for pictures. We snap a few shots of the marble behemoth and are on our way again. Next stop is the Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetery, paying homage to the rebel fighters that died during the 35 year-long Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945). Pulling up on the parking lot there is a surreal moment as we see an entire class of school children hurriedly getting up from their resting place in the shade and starting to walk about as if they were waiting for us to arrive. Parallels to Truman Show seems unnecessary…

The cemetery is jam packed with school children and conscripts and it really is beautiful in that “we don’t know when to quit” communist sense. Each grave is marked with a beautiful bronze rendition of its inhabitant and interestingly enough there are just as many women as men depicted. It’s customary to place a bouquet of flower before two of the monuments, one male and one female bouquet that is. So Karina takes one and I take the other. My monument is up first and I place the bouquet with the numerous other already there. I forget to bow though, probably a terrible faux pas, seeing as they cut that bit out of the movie we got to buy when leaving. =)

The cemetery is built like a giant staircase with the most revered graves at the very top where Karina places her bouquet (and remembers to bow). Then we take the bus back down and Mr. Kim tells us how marriage works in North Korea: The men most commonly marry between the ages of 28-30 and the women between 24-26, that’s about the time the men get out of military service I guess, information is scarce on this but Yeoh maintains that military service is voluntary. Make up your own mind. The ceremony involves taking pictures in front of a giant screen with monuments from their hometown and divorces are apparently very rare.

After the cemetery we stop at Juche tower, a structure celebrating the Juche idea (more or less summarized as “we don’t need no stinkin’ help!”). It’s 170 m high and it a 5€ fee to go up top. But first we get a short tour on the ground from a little lady (speaking excellent English, not exactly common here) telling us all the boring details about what the height of the tower signifies, the number of stones etc. (consult Wikipedia if you’re interested). There is also a large bronze statue of two men and a woman wielding a hammer, a sickle and a writing brush symbolizing a worker, a farmer and an intellectual as some sort of tenets of society in usual bombastic communist manner.

Next up is the foreign bookstore, which is nothing more than a tiny bookstore with more of the ever present propaganda books. The real treat is outside as we get a close up view of one of the cute police ladies directing traffic! We spend more time photographing and filming her than inside the bookstore to the great dismay of our guides. Afterwards we’re shuttled back to the hotel for lunch, where we for once actually get fried meat that we get to fry ourselves at the table, delicious!

Following lunch we’re off to a film studio and on the way over there Miss Kim talks passionately about how much better it is to make films the North Korean way where everything is filmed at the studio with all sceneries you could possibly want built right there instead of as in Hollywood where you have to find new locations each time. So much better indeed… =)

The first thing we’re treated to is another giant statue of Kim Il-Sung together with some cameras and a bunch of filmmaking people (and a mural as well with more of the same, the Kims sure know their way around propaganda). We learn that Kim Il-Sung personally selected the spot for the studio and that he commissioned 6 films. The film-loving Kim Jr. on the other hand has commissioned over 600.

We’re dropped off by some buildings supposed to look like historical government buildings from the Koryo dynasty and are asked if we want to try on some of their period costumes used in films. Following my policy of answering ‘yes’ to as many suggestions as possible I get to dress up in some incredibly ugly plastic scale mail with a helmet and sword. Petter, Mari, Arne and Aase tag along as well and we all pose for pictures in our hideous outfits. There’s also a tiny shooting range using some sort of cork rifles and we watch some Chinese tourists fruitlessly trying to hit the targets.

Moving on we pass some old huts used for films set in the countryside in the twenties and arrive in a street set in Chinese ’30s style, a lot of movies set during Il-Sungs exile to Manchuria is set here. Next is a set in Japanese ’60 style with lots of advertising and Miss Kim goes on telling us about how in other countries only can use the exteriors of their movie sets whereas they here can use the interiors as well. There’s also a European set that sort of looks like something out of southern German countryside and a very weird-looking church. That’s wraps up the movie studio and we’re bussed back into town.

On the way we ask about the pyramid hotel and Mr Kim says that it’ll be done in three hours (by which he probably meant three years, just in time for the 100 years celebration of the birth of Kim Il-Sung). He also tells us that although religion is not encouraged, it’s tolerated and he points out a church on the way. Politically he calls North Korea a Socialist Democracy and tells us that they have three parties (which Wikipedia claims are in coalition as one party…) where the Workers’ Party of Korea is the largest one.

Driving down the main street in Pyongyang we learn that the average apartment is built in the ’80s and is 3-4 rooms with central heating. There are no taxes, only a small fee for electricity and water (40-70 won a month, roughly 2-4 sek). As we pass a ghostly amusement park he moves on to tell us about the education system, the kids go through basic training, um sorry, compulsory school, between ages 5-16 after which there is an exam that decides if you get to attend college. There is a 1-1.5 month summer break (and one just as long in winter as well) but they maintain a 6 day school (and work) week with only Sundays off. On Saturdays they have only three classes while on other days they have five or six.

The school info ties nicely in with our next stop, the Pyongyang Children’s Palace, where the most talented children get to do extracurricular activities such as music, sports and painting. We’re met by a girl at about 13 that in a staccato voice welcomes us and tells us about the school. The whole speech is just as comical as it is scary and when she’s done she leads the way into the bowels of the school.

Inside follows a long tour of the different activities held, there’s accordion class, calligraphy, embroidery, painting, ballet, piano, drawing, singing, various ball sports, dance and of course; Tae Kwon-Do. There’s even a class where the kids are programming, imagine my excitement! Cursory inspection revealed it to be some kind of MFC GUI they were building. The computer setup was rather weird also, some of them were running Windows XP, while others where running something that looked like Red Star Linux or something. They were all able to program MFC regardless of operating system though.

Before sitting down for the show the kids have prepared for us we get to visit the obligatory souvenir shop filled with the fruits of child labor, that is, the works of the kids at the school. We were also given the opportunity to buy flowers to hand out to the performers at the end of the show which I did. The show was awesome, those kids were nothing short of pros and played lots of instruments, did gymnastics and sung. All with great showmanship! At the end, the ones who had bought flowers got to go up on the stage and hand them out. I gave my bouquet to a really great boy soprano who seemed really happy to receive them. (The flowers were made out of plastic btw, and are probably reused each show.) Janne also bought a bouquet but didn’t hand it out at the show, instead he gave it to our guide, the staccato kid, which made her really happy.

All done at the school, we’re informed that our next destination is Mt. Myohyang and that the 160 km bus ride there is to take about two hours. We will then spend the night there and see the sights before returning to Pyongyang the following evening. Dusk is approaching as we drive out of Pyongyang, but that doesn’t mean that our driver switches on the headlight. Actually, the only thing he uses them for is to light-honk on the numerous jaywalker shadows. It’s not until it’s almost pitch black that he finally caves and turns them on…

On the road I quiz our other city planning expert, Marie, about the sad state of the roads. She guesses that the groundwork is shoddy and given the harsh North Korean winters, it can get as low as -40 °C (about as much in Fahrenheit) due to unfavorable ocean currents, this isn’t exactly a recipe for success… The numerous, long, cracks spidering the tarmac are probably due to frost damage, which basically means that in order to fix the roads, the North Koreans would have to tear up the entire road and redo the groundwork. No wonder they choose to stick their heads in the sand instead…