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.

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.

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…

What do you think of our nuclear missiles?

Wake up call is at 6:30, no time to dilly dally, we have a full day ahead of us. Breakfast is at 7:00, except that it isn’t. Our guides has forgotten to notify the staff about the time and we have to wait until 7:30. It’s a great breakfast though with juices, coffee, on-demand omelet, toast, salad, fruit and yoghurt. After a hurried breakfast we hop on the bus and Mr Kim starts off by teaching us two phrases in Korean: “Annyong hashinika” which means “Good morning/day/evening” and “Kamsa hamnida” which means “Thank you”, and then proceeds to tell us about today’s program. First we’re going to the DMZ, then to nearby Kaesong city to look at an old bridge and a history museum, then back to Pyongyang to look at their subway and hopefully we’ll have time for a quick stop back at the hotel to change clothes before the Arirang Mass Games in the evening.

So we start off on the 160 km drive to the DMZ which Mr. Kim says will take about 3 hours. We were all quietly thinking “WTF?!” about that estimate but when we reached the highway outside town we understand why. The highway is in a really sad state, striped with cracks, making it impossible to drive much faster than 60 km/h. It’s also really wide and would easily be a four-lane, maybe even six-lane, if they’d bothered to paint any lines that is. The result is that everyone drives all over the road and general praxis seems to be to honk generously whenever overtaking someone to let them know you’re coming. There’s also a lot of people walking all over the road, so it’s not only the fact that the bus is shaking to pieces keeping the speed down…

On the highway

While careening down the highway, Mr. Kim siezes the opportunity to tell us just how sincere the North Korean people are in their wish to reunite with their southern brethren and how the USA is blocking the reunion. He drones on for over half an hour even though everyone stopped listening at the ten minute mark. Eventually he tires and we’re allowed to drift off to sleep.

After a while we reach a roadblock and the bus turns off the road and onto a gravel road. After a few hundred meters we see why: it’s a bridge that is blocked off and the foundation doesn’t look in too good a shape. Probably a good thing we’re not on it… The gravel road turns into something marginally asphalted and we’re going less than 20 km/h at this point. I attempt to take some pictures, but the bus is shaking so violently that it’s impossible. It’s also too much people around, pushing bikes with humongous loads and ox carts filled with rice for me to get away with taking any pictures.

Suddenly Mr. Kim leans over and asks to see my camera. Gulp! I’m envisioning the deletion of all my pictures and a stern lecture about what’s okay to photograph. But instead he’s merely curious about the camera! He wants to know how old it is, what it costs, where it’s made, how many megapixels and so on… =P Phew..!

After some more driving on back roads we’re finally back on the highway again. Suddenly we’re passed by another, smaller tour bus (which are the only vehicles out on the road really). This seems to tick our driver off and we rapidly pick up speed. Soon we’re thundering down the highway at breakneck speed and it’s not long before we pass the other bus again and Mr. Kim turns to me with a big smile and two thumbs up: “Very fast bus, Japanese made, not Chinese!”. I lean over to see how fast we’re going, only to realize that, just as in Mongolia, the speedometer is broken…

The landscape zooms by and it’s mostly farmland. The main crop is obviously rice but we also see a lot of corn and even some cotton. We make a quick bathroom at a teahouse where there’s also a souvenir stand. I buy a Korean phrase book from 1989, containing gems like “Long live the great leader Comrade Kim Il-Sung!” and “I want to vomit”.

Souvenir stop

After some more miles on the bus we finally reach the DMZ. The first thing we lay eyes on are a bunch of people wielding actual pickaxes to hack stones to make a new porch (maybe it’s the people from last year’s tour?). Obviously we’re not allowed to photograph them… We gather in front of a big sign with a map of the DMZ and an army officer tells us all about it. It’s two km of buffer zone on each side of the actual border where all weapons are prohibited and we also get an earful of info about the buildings of which I miss most due to poor English and a general disinterest. We’re are asked to form two lines before walking into the DMZ and entering the bus again. The bus drives down this narrow road with two meter high cement walls on each side. On top of the walls are Indiana Jones-like contraptions in the form of giant square blocks perched up on a little slide with just a little stopper underneath to keep them from sliding down onto the road in the event of an invasion, very cool! After a while the blocks are replaced with electrified barbed wire and we pass over several flimsy bridges obviously designed to be collapsible.


The first building we arrive at is the one where the cease fire talks were held. Here we’re informed about how the US provoked the war and how the DPRK heroically threw back the aggressors. The US had suggested a specific spot to sign the cease fire agreement – an open air spot, supposedly so that there would be no memorial of this shameful event. But the North Koreans pulled a few all-nighters and built a large house in just five days to serve as monument for future generations. The Americans also didn’t want the flag soiled by this defeat and instead used the UN flag. The house is also filled with pictures of North Korean triumphs such as the siezing of the Pueblo, the felling of an American helicopter and the letter of apology from the Pueblo drama.

Cease fire house

Next up is the signature monument, which is just what it sounds like, a monument displaying the signature of the late Kim Il-Sung. It’s taken from the last document he signed before passing away in his office, diligently serving his people until his very last breath. The monument has a lot of symbolism built in, it’s 4.15 m high, denoting his birthday at April 15th, 7.7 m wide denoting the day of the signature. The monument is also adorned with 82 magnolias (magnolias are the state flower of DPRK and 82 is for the age of the president at the time of death). The document he signed is was a last wish for reunification with the south.

Then finally it’s time for the actual border. In the Joint Security Area, as this particular spot is called, the border goes in a north-south direction and straddling it are three blue barracks. In the middle one is a conference room where North and South meet every now and then to talk. The main table is placed so that the border runs right through it and the people on each side are still in their respective countries. We get to enter South Korea for a few meters before going back.

The border

Afterwards we go back to a larger building with a balcony from where we can get a better view of the area and can take proper photographs. We even get a photo-op with the officer guiding us (a one-time exception to the no-photos-of-military-men-rule). It’s also worth mentioning that the American guy we keep running into as his tour is taking the same route, has all the same opportunities as we do to photograph and move about.

That concludes the DMZ tour and on the bus back the officer that was guiding us leans over to me and you can really see his eyes beaming with pride as he asks “What do you think about our nuclear missiles?” I’m completely taken aback and start mumbling incoherently about it being “generally bad” and that “Sweden doesn’t have any” before being told that it’s okay and I don’t have to answer… What would you have said?! Sheesh…

He’s still curious though and wants to know what I do for a living and how much I make. I get the numbers wrong by a decimal place and answer “about 300€ a month”. He seems pleased and I take the opportunity to ask him the same question back. This seems to make him a bit uncomfortable but after a while he answers “2-300€ a month”. Now, I have no idea of how truthful he was, but odds are that my mistake made him a bit more forthcoming than he otherwise would have been. It’s a pretty safe assumption that he doesn’t earn more than that anyway. I also ask how high an officer he is and as far as I can tell he’s somewhere in the upper middle tier in whatever hierarchy they have in the North Korean army.

Next stop is Kaesong City where a large part of the population seems to be occupied with fixing potholes, using donkeys and other likewise medieval means. Kaesong is North Korea’s third largest city with about 300K inhabitants and just kilometers from the DMZ. We’re here to see the old Sonjuk stone bridge where some guy got assassinated back in the 13th century or so. This was in the time of the Koryo dynasty, from which the country has gotten its name. Afterwards we cross the road to a little temple containing two bigass turtles carrying the entire temple on their backs. I actually don’t remember the significance of this temple, but the turtles were cool. =P

Kaesong Main Street

Now we finally get to eat lunch (believe it or not but we squeezed all that in before lunch, the schedule in North Korea is _packed_). Lunch consists of a boatload of little bowls, each containing a little dish. There’s deep fried potatoes, candied rice, seaweed, kimchi, another kind of kimchi, some sort of mushrooms, omelet, squid, sauce, bean sprouts, acorn jelly, lotus root, pork, some sort of North Korean dinner liqueur (20%), rice, noodles and finally a bowl of chicken broth. Since we’re behind schedule we’re only given a little more than half an hour to eat up before moving on to the stop: the history museum.


On the way over we see several women doing the laundry, old school, in the river with a washboard and all. The actual history museum is nothing to get excited about, they talk some more about Koryo dynasty and we also get an earful about the benefits ginseng root (they’re somewhat obsessed with ginseng in North Korea). There is something cool to be learned though, and that is that they had actual printing presses as early as mid 12th century, very impressive!

After the museum we get to shop postcards, stamps and general souvenirs in a shop outside the museum. I buy some liqueur for 1€ (25%), alcohol sure is cheap in this country (beer is 60 euro cents for a 64 cl bottle (4.5%)) and four postcards, including stamps, for 6€, not exactly cheap…

That’s it for Kaesong and we get back on the bus to go back to Pyongyang. The young guide Yeoh sits next to me and we talk about this and that. He wants to know about the company that I work for (Ericsson) and is surprised at how big it is. He’s never heard of it but seem to recognize Huawei when I mention them as competitor. He’s also interested in computers and I ask him how much of the population that has computers. He answers that 60% of them do. Umm right, I’d be surprised if 60% even have power…

Being a tour guide is his full time job and he has 4-5 tours a month, from June to November is the most busy period since that’s when the Arirang Mass Games are performed. This is also the only period when Americans are allowed to visit as I understand it. The rest of the year the guides study history, geography and such.

As we come back to Pyongyang it’s time visit the subway. It’s being presented by the guides as something really special so we’re not sure what to expect. “It’s a metro for chrissakes, get over it!” was what most of us were thinking… We arrive at the station and showed an interactive map of the subway where you can push buttons and the path from this station to the one pushed is lit up, kind of impressive if it weren’t for the fact that the entire metro system consists of two (2) lines… Then we go down a really long escalator to look at the actual platform, and I have to say that I’m duly impressed. The station is beautiful with colorful paintings of happy Koreans adorning all walls and chandeliers in the ceiling. In the middle of the platform, newspapers are mounted and people are standing there reading.

The Pyongyang Metro

The train arrives and we hop on to go one station down the line. The cart is adorned with the omni-present pictures of the Kims (junior and senior) of course. Henrik has heard that the trains are old DDR leftovers and and asks Mr. Kim about it. This clearly doesn’t go over well with our guide, but finally he answers that yes, they are indeed from DDR. The next station is just as beautiful as the former, but you can’t help but wonder if we’ve seen the only two pretty stations in the entire metro system.

The second station

After a quick change into warmer clothes we’re bussed off for dinner and treated to hotpot. Not a favorite really but not bad either. We’re short on time as usual and after devouring as much we can we’re packed back on the bus. I’m looking for a place to dispose of my chewing gum after dinner but realize that there are no trash bins in Pyongyang! This actually seems true for much of the Asia I’ve seen, they seem to rely on people with brooms instead.

Mr. Kim asks if we are fed up (to general amusement) and we’re off to Arirang Mass Games! This is something that really can’t be put into words properly so I’ll stick to the bare necessities: The whole thing takes place in an open air stadium and looks like that old Leni Riefenstahl movie Olympia, or the Olympic opening ceremony times ten if you will. There are 100 000 people on the field (not at the same time though) for the 80 minutes the show lasts and on the opposite side of the stadium from the audience sit 20 000 school kids, each with plates in different colors that they hold up at certain intervals. The plates are like pixels in a giant screen and everything is synchronized like clockwork! No dead (or lazy) pixels in sight, truly amazing!

Arirang Mass Games

There is really no way to describe this, we just watch slack jawed and try to comprehend all that is going on. This is the weirdest/coolest/bestest/scariest thing I’ve ever seen.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

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.

Our ride

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.

Our ride to the terminal

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.

Sandeep enjoying the seats

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 Arch of Triumph

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.

The Yanggakdo Hotel

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.