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…

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