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.

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