Sunday 9 September – Pyongyang
|We specially timed the tour so as to be in Pyongyang today – it is the country’s National Day today and one of their major holidays. It is also the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung.
We had our first breakfast, this morning. To our relief, it too was an unremarkable experience – neither brilliantly good, but happily also not bad. While we don’t see much of an opportunity for gourmet eating tours to North Korea any time soon, it is starting to seem like we’ll not need to worry about inedible food, and as for the occasional jokes about mystery meat being dog meat, it turns out that dog in both North and South Korea is an expensive delicacy rather than a cheap meat to be surreptitiously substituted for regular types of meat when no-one is looking.
After breakfast, we loaded up into our two coaches for a varied day of touring. We first went to the massive Kim Il Sung Square in what seems to be the center of the city. Actually, that raises an interesting point. Very little seems to be known about the overall layout of the city, and Google maps has almost no data for anything/anywhere in the country at all. Google Earth shows a not always very clear view of the city, but without knowing more about what/where things are, it is not very useful.Perhaps the most useful online resource is Wikimapia.org.
I bought a small 112 page book titled ‘Korea’s Tourist Map’ and published in 1995, but this was also close to useless. It had a ‘scale not shown’ (and possibly not to scale) outline map showing some roads and features in Pyongyang, but it was clearly far from complete and as passengers passively being driven on the coach, it was hard to understand exactly where we were and where everything was. However, in general, it did seem that nowhere we were visiting in the city was more than 10 or so minutes from the previous or the next place, and while there was indeed some traffic on the roads, and sometimes we did have to stop for lights to change color, it was clear that traffic problems had yet to make themselves felt. Unlike most developing Asian cities, it was a wonderful feeling to know that our travel times were pretty much a reliable given time, no matter what time of day we were traveling, or what might be happening in the way of traffic events and incidents around us.
It was only a short distance from Kim Il Sung Square to the Mansudae Grand Monument. This was formerly a huge statue of Kim Il Sung, erected in 1972. But with the death of Kimg Jong Il in December last year, the area was reworked and the single central statue of Kim Il Sung has been replaced with two statues, side by side and symmetrically either side of the center, of both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong il, being unveiled in AprIl this year (a very fast construction project).
Some of us took the coach the short distance on to the statutes, while others of us chose to stroll along the wide road and sidewalk, alongside many local groups doing the same thing. Being the country’s national day, many more people and groups than normal were making visits to the statues.
Visiting the statues is a formal and (we guess) probably obligatory part of any tour, and as part of the visit, the group is required to present a bouquet of flowers. Our group ‘over-achieved’ with three of us buying bouquets of flowers – in my case, I got a very large bouquet of beautiful fresh flowers from a street-side seller for €3 or €4 (I forget which, but a wonderful value at either price). When we reached the formal area in front of the statues, we waited our turn then lined up and approached the statues all en masse as a group, bowing once (or as one group member put it subsequently – ‘At the same time you were bowing, I noticed something on the ground and bent over to look at it’).
The three of us with flowers then approached the statues, bowed again, deposited the flowers, and returned back to the rest of the group, all the while being filmed by a local television crew, doubtless delighted at a chance to show on that evening’s news a group of foreigners displaying respect to their dead leaders.
We had a strange experience during our visit to the statues. After we’d done the formal presentation, we then had photos taken and wandered around for a bit, then our guides asked if we would mind moving on or leaving. I looked back down the square in front of the statues, and suddenly it struck me. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of Korean people, all hanging back and waiting for us to leave before they in turn would then move up to pay their respects to the two statues. Suddenly I realized that we were being given a VVIP experience – we didn’t have to wait our turn to approach the statues, and everyone else politely and patiently waited while we took way too much time during our out of sequence turn.
This was to be the situation everywhere we went. Our coaches would drive into forbidden areas (in the sense of no vehicles allowed, that is) and pull up right outside entrances, and we’d be whisked to the front of any queue wherever we were.
What next? We couldn’t visit Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum, unfortunately – it being currently closed, apparently to have Kim Jong il’s body placed alongside Kim Il Sung, so that was the one formal part of the tour.
So we went instead for a lovely walk through a nearby park, which – as is often skillfully done in other cities too – created an enclave of peace and beauty in the middle of the otherwise urban central city. Birds chirped in the trees (contradicting claims on some websites that there are no birds in Pyongyang – while it is true there weren’t a lot of birds, and surprisingly, almost no pigeons or seagulls, there definitely were some birds).
Water flowed in streams. The locals played volleyball and picnicked and frolicked, out for a summery Sunday in the sun. A fumbled volleyball landed at our feet, and one of the group picked it up and threw it back to the players. For a minute, there was ambiguity on their faces and on ours, then they grinned and motioned for us to go join them. With only a few exceptions, our group members were all two or three times the age of the players, and so we declined, probably to the mutual disappointment of both us and the locals.
Some of us bought ice creams, ice blocks or drinks at a small vendor stall in the park.
We then rejoined our coaches and proceeded on to the Foreign Language Bookshop – our first souvenir opportunity (other than at the airport immediately upon landing and also at the hotel’s gift shops).
This was a very cramped and very crowded store, but we went on in and many of us emerged with books, magazines, posters, and other bits and pieces. The store didn’t have t-shirts though, so acceding to requests from people in our group, we went immediately on to another souvenir store that had some t-shirts and other souvenirs – and very nice ice cream bars which proved a hit with many in the group – before then going on to a restaurant for lunch.
The lunch was a somewhat generic sort of Korean meal. Like every meal (except for breakfasts) beer was served for free as part of the meal.
After lunch we resumed our city touring, and visited the Tower of the Juche Idea, built in 1982 (the same year as the Triumphal Arch) and also to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday. At 560 ft in height, it is about 9 ft taller than the Washington Monument, and also has an elevator which will take you up to the top (a €5 fee applies).
The Juche Idea is Korea’s guiding political philosophy. Quoting from a book purchased at the Foreign Language Bookshop :
At least as expressed in this book, the principles don’t seem all that very different to those of personal freedom and responsibility we embrace ourselves in the west.
From the top of the tower we had unobstructed 360° views over the entire city – something that clearly refuted claims that we’d be severely restricted in terms of what we’d be allowed to see. Sure, we didn’t drive down every side street, and understandably, of course we were preferentially shown the best parts of the city, but from the top of the tower, with binoculars and/or telephoto lenses, the whole city was laid out, bare, for us to see (have a look at the photos on the left for examples of typical city scenes).
It was interesting to compare what we saw of Pyongyang to what we’d seen of Seoul (although weather precluded us from going up the Seoul Tower). Seoul, from my limited time there, seemed to be a very densely built city with a jumbled mix of old and new buildings all closely packed together with no apparent rhyme nor reason to how the city was laid out, and precious little green space – even their restored Cheonggyecheon stream area was all paved over and didn’t have a single blade of grass visible.
In comparison, Pyongyang is open, airy, and spacious. The main streets are very wide, as are the sidewalks, and there’s a reasonable amount of parklands and other non-developed areas in the city. Of course the low density of traffic is partly a reflection on the country’s as yet undeveloped economy, and probably in time the streets will fill with cars as has previously happened in Russia, China, and South Korea too for that matter; but one hopes that even as prosperity fully greets Pyongyang in time to come, the city will retain some of its current open nature.
Both Seoul and Pyongyang were largely destroyed during the Korean War (in addition to the damage they’d sustained in earlier conflicts with the Japanese) and so both started out more or less afresh in the mid 1950s. While Seoul clearly leads as measured by city size, traffic density, and similar measures, Pyongyang presents as the better designed and laid out city.
A guide at the top of the Juche Tower proudly told me that the well laid out design of Pyongyang is a reflection on the benefit of a centrally planned city compared to a more unplanned city development in a place such as Seoul. Maybe she has a point.
We could see that not all the buildings were impressive and new – indeed, some were every bit as ramshackle as were some of the buildings in Seoul, and clearly some people lived in conditions that were not as fortunate as others – but the same could be said of hutong dwellers in Beijing, and as we vaguely perceived during our pre-tour optional hutong tour in Beijing, just because buildings seemed slumlike from the outside, that did not mean they were slums or that the residents were poor.
Perhaps I need to add that the generally held conventional wisdom perception that people in North Korea are almost without exception abjectly poor and close to starving is not completely correct, but neither is the other extreme claim – that the people enjoy enviable standards of living and lifestyles. The truth is somewhere mysteriously in the middle.
As for the follow-up matter of whether the relatively lower standard of living in North Korea is due to a failed economic/political system or due to the lack of western support and trading opportunities, well, let’s just acknowledge that there can be no doubt that if the North were to have been as much a beneficiary of American aid and development as was Europe and Japan after WW2 or South Korea after the Korean War, or China after the opening up of China, then without a doubt the country’s natural disadvantages (most of the good farmland in Korea is in the south rather than north) would have been more than offset by international investment and trade opportunities.
Apologies for the soapboxing (is that a verb?). But any tour of North Korea inevitably leads the people on the tour to ponder such things, and while none of us feel we left North Korea brimming with clear answers, we probably all realized that we left with a better appreciation that the reality of North Korea; its past, present and future, is somewhere in the murky grey zone rather than starkly all white or all black. Perhaps that’s all we can ever expect from a single five day visit, and if I get additional insight from the 2013 tour, I’ll of course rush to share it with you!
On from the Juche Tower – we then visited the Monument to the Korean Workers Party. The KWP is the official political party of the country (there are two very much smaller parties which are sub-groupings of the KWP as well). This monument showed three hands holding aloft the three symbols of the KWP – the hammer and sickle, same as in the Soviet Union, to symbolize industry and agriculture, and also a brush to symbolize intellectuals – definitely a more complete and inclusive triad than the two featured in Soviet Russia. The 165 ft tall monument was built in 1995 to commemorate the 50th founding of the Korean Workers Party.
We next went to the Korean Central Botanical Garden that primarily displayed the two flowers that were named after Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong il. The Kimilsungia is an orchid, and the Kimjongilia is a type of begonia. Both are red in color, but surprisingly, neither is the national flower of North Korea, this status being instead conferred upon the magnolia.
At that point, some of our group wanted to go directly back to the hotel, while others were keen to go to the final stop on our day’s itinerary – a local bowling alley – the Gold (sic) Lane Bowling Alley. So we re-jigged who was on each coach, with about half going straight back to the hotel and the other half going on to the bowling alley (again showing that our touring arrangements could be flexibly altered at short notice).
You might think a bowling alley to be a strange sort of place to include on a tour of Pyongyang (and for that matter, a strange sort of place to find there, too), and you’d not be wrong. But we were interested to see a slice of local life and to get more of a flavor of what the local people did, so we went there not so much as bowling enthusiasts but instead as interested visitors to the city.
The bowling alley was full with a line of people stretching out the door. This was due to it being a national holiday and more people than normal wishing to do something special such as go bowling, we were told. However, our line-busting magic worked and we were ushered in to the building, which from the outside looked nothing like a bowling alley and for all the world like a museum or something similar.
Inside however, we could have been anywhere in middle America. The lanes looked remarkably familiar, and even had similar automated systems and computer scoring – one of our group joked that another thing in common with US bowling complexes was that one of the lanes had their automatic equipment out of operation.
The management offered to clear a lane so we could bowl, but we felt awkward at displacing the locals and so after a brief look-see, left and went back to the hotel.
The other coach group were going to see the Mass Games this evening, and four of our group decided to go with them and enjoy a second time, too (more flexibility….). The rest of us were given a special treat – dinner in the revolving restaurant on the 47th floor of the hotel.
However, immediately after arriving at the restaurant, the revolving motor was turned off and it stopped revolving. Apparently there’s a simple switch on the wall – if we’d known where it was, we could have flipped it and restarted it ourselves. Revolving restaurants seem to be a popular feature of Pyongyang hotels, although the Koryo Hotel’s twin towers only have one open restaurant – it turns out the other revolving restaurant, for part of its revolution, allowed diners to look down and into some sensitive government offices!
The food was again uninspiring but inoffensive and the service distant and silent. We had to guess as to what the food was we were receiving and when the succession of dishes had stopped and the meal was over.
After dinner we were taken to a street performance of mass dancing, held as part of the National Day celebrations. An interesting part of this is that while we expected and hoped to be able to see this, it was not actually confirmed to us until late in the day.
This was puzzling. Surely such things needed to be planned in advance – it wasn’t as though it was an impromptu random meet up of thousands of people! One of our group asked our lady guide why we weren’t able to plan this more exactly, and her answer was interesting.
The guide said to our group member ‘You know, we only had a ceasefire, not an end of war declaration; and we have to be diligent to not notify people where such target events might be held in case of attack which could happen at any time.’
Did our guide really believe that? Was it the true reason? It surely was an interesting explanation, in any case.
So, and without all of us fully appreciating the apparent risk of South Korean attack due to our being close to the mass dancers, we bravely went to watch. In a large square some thousands of people were dancing to popular music blaring from loudspeakers. They danced in circles and lines of various forms that were a cross between ballroom and country & western/line dancing.
The people were apparently from local universities and offices and factories, going to dance en masse in social groups, and – I was subsequently told – this is a popular way for young people to socialize and get to know each other.
Some of our group found themselves co-opted into joining in the dancing, which they did with varying degrees of enthusiasm and for varying amounts of time. So too were there varying degrees of enthusiasm and energy displayed by the local dancers, which was perhaps unsurprising because the dancing continued for a long time with no breaks.
After watching everyone perform for a while we went back to the hotel to enjoy a second good night’s sleep. What an amazing day it was, full of so many experiences, almost none of which were as we’d have guessed them to me, and nearly all of which were definitely better than hoped for.
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