Tuesday September 11, 2012 – Pyongyang
|After quite a lot of traveling yesterday, it seemed appropriate to have a day with less driving today.
So after a leisurely breakfast (and much discussion about last night’s near international incident) we went first to Pyongyang’s version of the Universal Studios tour. This was, unsurprisingly, very different to that you’d experience in Hollywood or Orlando (no trams and no monsters for one thing; almost no tourists for another).
We got to see some of their backlots, which actually looked remarkably similar to some of the backlots at Universal, and then many of our group had fun dressing up in costumes and having their pictures taken. There was a nominal sum of a Euro or two for the privilege.
Like many of the other places we visited, our own two guides were supplemented by a local guide who worked for the specific place we were visiting – in this case, of course, the film studios. Many times the local guide wouldn’t speak English, so they would speak to us in Korean and one of our own guides would translate. We did wonder if that wasn’t an unnecessary over-complication – almost certainly our own guides had heard the same exact speeches from the local guides tens or hundreds of times before and knew what the translated version would be without needing the prompting from the local guide.Be that as it may, it was interesting to be told that our local guide at the film studio was a ‘famous’ North Korean director who has had a number of movies appear at the (North Korean) box office. Alas, neither his name nor the titles of his movie successes meant anything to any of us.
We got the sense that even now, most North Korean movies focus on ‘patriotic’ themes to do with the struggle against the Japanese and the fight against the South and the US. That’s not to say that Hollywood doesn’t also continue to churn out WW2 movies at a great rate too, but at least in Hollywood there is what we feel may be a broader variety of movies made on many different subjects than is the case in Pyongyang, and of course, Hollywood thinks nothing about questioning the role of our own country in the various historic events that have shaped our nation and the world. We’re not too sure how successful a Steven Spielberg might be in Pyongyang, but we’re definitely positive that a Michael Moore would not be well received.
After visiting the film studios, we then went to their equivalent of perhaps the Library of Congress – the Grand People’s Study House. This is the country’s central library and is housed in an impressive huge building, built (like so many other things) in 1982 to celebrate Kim il Sung’s 70th birthday. The building has 600 rooms and spans almost 1.1 million sq ft on multiple levels.
Upon entering, we immediately found ourselves in the middle of a ‘Book Fair’ – an event whereby it seemed that western companies were displaying and perhaps selling books to Korean people. There was even a booth from New Zealand.
It is said the library can hold up to 30 million books, but ‘up to’ includes all numbers less than that, including even zero, and we weren’t allowed to look at any of the book collections. Instead, we were shown three English language books at the very un-busy main lending desk as ‘proof’ of the library’s comprehensive collection – it is suggested elsewhere that Koreans need special permission to view foreign books.
We were impressed with the linear induction motor drive system that propelled book carts from somewhere in the stacks to the front desk and back again, however. The claim is that a book can be received at the front desk within 90 seconds of a request being made.
We were shown a few of the rooms in which lessons were being given, including an English language class and another class in English about Ireland, with writing on a whiteboard advising that whisky (sic) was their popular drink.
Some of the classrooms had networked computers in them, and to our surprise, the computers and network routers were all branded Dell, and ran Windows XP. One of the more resourceful of our group copied down one of their service tags and checked online – it revealed that Dell sold the computer to ‘China’ in Feb 2011. The trade embargo that has been imposed on North Korea is clearly porous rather than solid.
The network seemed to be an intranet only and with no connections out to the broader internet as a whole – I subsequently learned that private citizens are not normally allowed access to the internet, although we understand that more trusted students and citizens may be allowed some level of access to the web outside of North Korea.
We went up to the balcony near the top of the building, which gave us sweeping panoramic views around much of the city, and which had a gift shop immediately adjacent to the entrance/exit to the balcony, with this being (according to an English guide leading another group there at the same time) the best place in Pyongyang to buy t-shirts. Enough said! Many in our group quickly responded and started buying things.
We then had a very long wait for the elevator to take us down. It is probably an embarrassing reflection on us as over-weight westerners to note that almost every elevator we went in would sound its overload alarm well before it was full of people (in the west usually the limiting factor is the elevator cage’s space rather than weight capacity). I asked if we could simply walk down the stairs, only to be told by a guide that there were no stairs, only an elevator.
Such a claim was of course a complete lie, but there seemed little point in arguing the matter, and so I (and everyone else) waited with as much patience as possible to go back down to the ground floor.
There was an interesting digital display in the elevator, showing numbers ranging from about 310 to 375. What was this, I asked? A guide told me it was reporting the line voltage. Interesting (as were the massive voltage drops under load). I did notice very large voltage regulators in a number of the stores, apparently as a way of smoothing out and adjusting for a perhaps unreliable and irregular main power supply.
We also understand that there are severe power shortages in the country, although that is partially contradicted by data in the CIA World Factbook that suggests that in 2008 (the most recent figures it had available) the country had a total annual production capacity of 22.5 billion kWh and a consumption of only 18.9 billion kWh. Wikipedia has a confusing article that adds nothing to one’s understanding of the nation’s electricity situation, but does suggest that power production declined in 2009 compared to 2008(it also has no more recent data).
Lunch was a lovely hot pot type meal today, with each of us having our own individual hot pot. Lunch today was the day when one of our group accidentally knocked over a glass, causing it to roll off the table and crash/smash on the hard granite tile floor.
It took repeated requests to get the glass pieces cleared away on his side of the table, and still more requests to get the pieces that had traveled to our side to also be removed. But after that was sorted out, an apology given, and a replacement glass provided, we thought no more of it until leaving at the end of the meal.
As we got ready to leave, the glass-breaking member of our group was presented with a bill. He was required to pay a tiny trivial sum to cover the cost of the glass he broke. He did so gladly, probably thinking that the value of the story he now has to tell his friends far exceeded the small cost he had to pay!
Next it was time to visit another monument, this one celebrating their victory in the Korean War. Victory?
The reason for visiting this monument was interesting. As soon as we arrived in Pyongyang, we immediately saw the huge Ryugyong Hotel on the skyline, and not only were people disappointed we were not staying there, but they also wanted to go visit it.
The Ryugyong Hotel is almost 1100 ft tall, has 105 floors, and will have somewhere between 3,000 and 7,600 guest rooms (sources differ) spread over perhaps 4 million sq ft of floor space, and is topped with a series of revolving restaurants (the official count is five, some people say seven, and I’m reliably informed the actual number will be three).
Construction started in 1987 and it was planned to be complete in 1989. After some delays, work halted in 1992 and wasn’t restarted again until 2008 when an Egyptian partner started to participate in the project – this being the same company that won the contract to provide mobile phone service, and some commentators suggest this was a quid pro quo foisted onto the Egyptians in return for allowing them to provide cell phone service.
What had been an eye-sore on the horizon was finally covered in its mirror-glass paneling in 2011, and the North Korean government no longer felt the need to continue air-brushing it out of pictures of the city. The hotel was expected to open in April 2012 in time for the 100th celebration of Kim il Sung’s birthday, but that didn’t happen and the current official word on progress vaguely says that the hotel is complete but not open. Unlike western hotels which have a soft opening prior to an official opening, it seems this hotel had an official opening prior to its actual opening.
It is a brave person who would predict when the hotel will now be open, and no-one really knows what the state of the hotel is now that its glass panels have been faced onto the building exterior and obscuring whatever is inside. Officially, it is expected to be complete later in 2012, but it is already mid-September and I’ll willingly wager large sums with all-comers that the project will no way be complete prior to 1 January 2013 [update – we’re now not expecting it to open until perhaps 2015]. Plenty of naysayers claim there to be massive problems with the construction of the hotel, and some suggest that the elevator shafts are impossibly twisted; but I’ve also had experienced North Korean watchers without ideological axes to grind wave off such criticism with the calm assurance that no matter what problems may or may not be present, any and all of them can and will be fixed.
It is important to realize that many of North Korea’s critics have their own agendas and reasons for being critical, and that their criticism may sometimes be more strident and less fair than the situation would really allow for. Just as it makes sense to take unqualified praise of North Korea with a grain of salt, so too does it make sense to exercise careful judgment before blindly accepting criticism of the country, too.
I explained some of this to our group to explain how it was we weren’t staying there, and in response to everyone’s interest and the guides’ vague assertions that the hotel was finished (and also to resolve the truth of my claim that the hotel wasn’t ready for occupancy) I passed on a group request for us to go visit it. We were told that we couldn’t go inside the hotel and the guides conceded that work inside was not yet finalized.
The follow-up request was for us to go and simply look at the outside of it. It was, after all, a stunning sight on the skyline and even if we couldn’t go inside, we all would have enjoyed a chance to get close to the hotel and at least see it from the outside.
This request got an unenthusiastic and vague ‘maybe’ and muttered oblique comments about the difficulty of doing so. On successive days, my follow-up requests got vague responses, but with time passing I became a bit more insistent and so today the male guide told me a better version of the truth – the government was aware that this project had attracted a lot of criticism in the west, and didn’t want to expose itself to any additional criticism. So it didn’t want people to take mocking pictures of the structure.
I pointed out that now the building had been completely clad, pictures could no longer be mocking, instead, they showed a structure that surely any country would be proud to showcase, and after all – wasn’t the hotel standing there proudly in the middle of the city for all to see? Furthermore, I said, as for taking ‘mocking pictures’ there were thousands if not millions of pictures of the hotel in various stages of incompletion already on the internet. What was the point of now trying to limit updated photos when there were so many already online?
The male guide – the more ideologically close minded of the two guides – was unimpressed by these comments, and of course, the reality was that it was not a decision for him to make. People way above his pay grade had decided that tourists were to be kept away from the building, and his job (and possibly much more) would be at risk if he ignored that order and took us anywhere close to the building.
Anyway, we compromised by ostensibly going to a regular tourist site, which purely by coincidence happened to be closer to the Ryugyong than we’d ever been before, and which had a reasonably clear line of sight to the hotel. Beyond that – well, that’s what telephoto lenses are for, right?
So there we were at the victory to the Korean war monument, and graciously grateful to be there so as not to even ask for clarification on the word ‘victory’.
An interesting thing happened. Several of us started walking across the square to where a large statue of Kim il Sung was present (who else!) and upon approaching it, started to do what was normal and natural for us as tourists. We decided to walk right around it and then return back to the rest of the group. But as we approached the statue’s rear, the male guide called out to us in a stentorian voice ‘You Can’t Go There!’ and called us back.
This startled us. Why couldn’t we go around the statue? I was a bit peeved, because shouting at us like naughty schoolboys made neither us nor the guide look good. We’d not been advised of any restrictions, and had no bad intentions, so why the drama?
The guide muttered something about dangerous construction on the far side of the statue – the War Museum was 100 ft or more past the statue and behind a fence, and there was construction going on, but to describe it as dangerous was a bit of a leap, particularly in view of some of the work/safety practices I’d observed elsewhere in Pyongyang.
I let the matter drop, and later on the guide obliquely apologized to the entire group by buying them ice-creams at the end of our metro ride.
It was only subsequent to returning from North Korea that the real reason for the guide’s sudden insistence we not go around the statue was revealed to me. Apparently, one of the things that people don’t do in North Korea, for fear of showing disrespect, is go behind statues of their leaders. We didn’t know that, and the guide didn’t want to tell us the real reason for fear of the reason (truly) appearing stupid or of revealing his earlier failure not to tell us about this restriction. So it was easier to invent a reason than to tell the truth.
Next up was a visit to Kim il Sung’s birthplace. This was in a cemetery – his parents were graveyard caretakers, and – as you’d suspect – the house and adjacent buildings, plus the cemetery as a whole – had all been very well cared for (and probably massively upgraded too), the place now being something of a pilgrimage destination for loyal loving Koreans keen to worship at Kim il Sung’s birthplace.
We committed another couple of transgressions there. One of our group stood up on a yellow colored ledge that was about 4” above the ground to get a better view through the crowd of us to see the guide in front, and apparently the yellow colored ledges are seriously out-of-bounds (no idea why). This was sort of explained to us after our member had committed her sin, and then a few minutes later, another of our group stood on an uncolored non-yellow concrete/stone block, also to get a better view. Ooops. Our mind-reading abilities had let us down again.
The guard at the location proceeded to get very agitated and had a long heated argument with our male guide, who then lead us back to the coach while our female guide had to run urgently back for her turn at being told off, teetering perilously on her high heels as she ran downhill a couple of hundred yards back to the guard. She subsequently told me she had managed to make her peace with the guard on behalf of both guides and the group as a whole, and coincidentally mentioned that she had fewer chocolate bars and other items in her purse than before….
Onward and upward, with our next stop being a ride along Pyongyang’s metro. The metro claims to be the world’s deepest (about 330 ft underground). That claim is disputed and St Petersburg makes a similar claim, but whichever is the winner, it is fair to say that it is a very long way down the escalators and one hopes they never fail.
Sharing the claim for world’s deepest metro isn’t the only thing in common with St Petersburg. The design of the Pyongyang system reeks of Russian overtones, even to the point of having similarly elaborate stations. But while the stations are definitely based on Russian designs, the trains are from East Germany (and above ground, the trams are from the Czech Republic).
Some people have speculated that the entire Pyongyang metro system is a sham, disputing the claimed number of operational stations and even suggesting that the metro system only springs into life when tourists are present. For sure, a country that can mobilize 100,000 people to put on a 90 minute performance extravaganza certainly would be able to sprinkle a few hundred people around a couple of metro stations and I wondered about this as we descended down to the underground platform and embarked on our ride.
It was interesting to see, on the platforms, newspapers on display for people to read while waiting for a train. It might seem like a good idea (particularly in view of the apparent difficulty of disposing of newspapers – see the section on our almost international incident) to provide mounted copies of newspapers, but it is a bit counter-intuitive to put them on subway platforms and begs two questions.
The first question is how long a person normally has to wait for a train. If trains are every say 4 – 6 minutes that means an average wait of 2 – 3 minutes; hardly long enough to get much of a read in while waiting, especially in view of – and here comes the second question – how crowded would the platforms me, and if there are lots of people, what are the chances of you being able to get to read a newspaper while waiting due both to all the other people wanting to read the newspaper and blocking out your view, and/or all the people waiting to get on the next train and your desire to get in line so when the train arrives, you can get on rather than have to wait for the next or next train due to not having been queued up to get on the train.
So the newspapers actually imply both a low volume of ridership and also an appreciable time between trains.
After a couple of stops, our particular car was convincingly crowded full of people, but I did notice the trains in the opposite direction were generally empty and few people were standing on the platform. I’d also noticed that although all the buses and trams were full, very few people were ever going in and out of the metro stations. It seems fair to say that the metro is definitely not operating anywhere close to capacity, but beyond that, who really knows.
There was an ever-present feeling of being shepherded around a Potemkin-style village, wherever we went, with the ‘trick’ being to try to discern where the reality overlapped with the illusion and which was real and which was not. As for the metro system, it is perhaps simplest to say that being a limited system with only two lines and apparently 15 stations, there’s simply not enough destinations to be of use for a large percentage of the local population, and so until it grows more stations and routes, it will remain under-utilized.
Our next stop was a local children’s school. This was a popular stop with some in our group, but made others of us feel somewhat uncomfortable. Precocious pre-teenagers demonstrated a range of impressive skills from music performance to embroidery to calligraphy. One of our group noted the finished embroidery pieces were for sale and wondered if this was more a child sweatshop than a child school, but it was a thought offered more as a joke than seriously.
In at least one of the classes – an art class where students were drawing objects in pencil to show form, light and shade, several in the group wondered if some of the students – the ones furthest from us – were just going through the motions, and we noticed that all the students were simply filling in a little shading rather than attempting any of the more complex parts of the drawings, but had been largely completed (by someone) prior to our arrival.
However, it was true the children didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves very much, going through their paces carefully but not joyously, and I felt the same sort of ‘icky’ feeling I get if I accidentally come along a Jon Benet Ramsey type pre-teen beauty contest and its contestants.
After going through a series of set-piece stagings in classrooms, we were then presented with a talent show in the impressive school auditorium, where more young children demonstrated a prodigious range of performance skills, including even magic.
We had not one or two but three dinner choices this evening. The original suggestion was to go to a duck barbecue restaurant, which I misunderstood as being the same restaurant as the previous night, but with duck being the lead meat rather than lamb. Being as how there had been some duck as part of the other assorted meats, that seemed uninteresting, and so we then were offered two choices – dinner at the hotel, or for an extra fee of €10 per person, we could go and eat at a pizza restaurant instead.
Some confusion surrounded the €10 fee and what it would buy us. Would it get one slice of pizza only, or an entire pizza, and if the latter, how large a pizza would it be? Anyway, the group as a whole decided to take the risk, even after the disappointment of the €10 chicken supplement during our Kaesong lunch, and everyone opted for pizza, no-one choosing to go to the hotel instead.
The pizza restaurant looked like any other building, with nothing to suggest that an Italian pizzeria lurked inside it. But we dutifully all trooped in and sat at the tables, and within a few minutes, three pizzas were plonked down in front of us, each cut into eight pieces. 24 pieces of plain cheese pizza. We carefully shared them among the 17 of us (one of our 18 person group, gluten intolerant, had a special meal prepared for her).
Nothing more happened, and we started to worry if that was it. I went to ask the guides, who assured me that more pizzas would be forthcoming – in fact, they said, the €10 fee paid for a pizza for each of us – 17 pizzas in total. Great.
Shortly after I returned to the group, three more pizzas turned up, and they were also plain cheese pizzas. I went back to the guides, who were dining elsewhere in the restaurant, and opined that ideally we’d not be getting 17 pizzas all the same (ie plain cheese) but that they would come in a variety of toppings. Oh yes, I was assured, they’d be a mix of different pizzas.
When the next three pizzas (still plain cheese) arrived, I pursued the matter further. It now appeared that all the pizzas would be cheese, because the only type of pizza the restaurant made was a plain cheese pizza.
Hmmm. An over-abundance of differently topped pizzas was marginally acceptable to us, but 17 cheese pizzas? Please, no. So I asked that we turn off the pizza tap and stop eating, because we were all now getting fairly cheesed out (or should that be – cheesed off?).
I was then told that the restaurant had needed to order in the supplies for the pizzas the previous day and there was no way that we could now avoid paying for all 17 pizzas (or, apparently, being served them either).
When in Pyongyang, do as the Pyongyangians do, I guess. So we said ‘you keep the rest yourself’ and a short while later, left after having struggled through 12 cheese pizzas, with the guides gleefully taking the other five with them in western style to-go pizza boxes. They told me, the next morning, that a group of them in the hotel had a wonderful pizza party when they got back to the hotel. The guides all stayed at the hotel with us while they were looking after a group, giving us 24/7 access to them if any problems arose.
On the other hand, the one time that one of our group felt unwell and chose not to travel with the group, a guide stayed with him in the hotel but refused to give the group member his room/phone number, telling him instead to phone reception and ask for him there if he needed anything. Why the secrecy?
As a follow-up to the cheese pizza experience, I subsequently discovered that the pizza restaurant does offer a variety of different pizza toppings, and the North Korean expert who told me about this also ridiculed the suggestion that all the ingredients had been especially ordered in the previous day, just for our 17 pizzas. As he pointed out, where would the supplies come from in less than a day?
Anyway, it was an interesting experience. Indeed, one of our group added to the positive experience we all enjoyed. Kim, an accomplished and trained opera singer, and at the urging of other group members, chose to get up and participate in the live entertainment that was being provided at the pizza restaurant. The girl who had been singing didn’t quite know what to expect when Kim went up, but apparently music is another universal language and she was quick to agree to allow Kim a turn, and helped find suitable music for both Kim and the pianist. Most of the sheet music was hand copied (not even photo-copied) and ranged from German Lieder to rather dated popular songs (Frank Sinatra, for example).
It was a subtle bit of one-upmanship to have a member of our group prove to be a massively better singer than the professional at the restaurant, but Kim too was very gracious and everyone enjoyed the experience all the more for her having chosen to perform a couple of numbers. She obliged with an encore on our final night’s dinner too.
One more activity remained for us after the pizza restaurant. We went back to the hotel, where some of the group called it a day, but seven of us, intent on getting our full money’s worth on the tour, continued on to one of the local amusement parks, immediately adjacent to the Triumphal Arch, for an evening at the Korean equivalent of Knott’s Berry Farm.
To start with, we had assumed this would be a familiar sort of event, sharing the amusement park with throngs of locals, although we understood we’d have to pay for each ride taken rather than a single flat entrance fee. No worries about that, though. But when we arrived, we discovered that the park was officially closed for the day, but was open for us and for a group of soldiers – young girl recruits who giggled shyly at seeing us and spent most of their time seated on the ground in orderly rows and columns singing songs. These girls apparently belonged to a prestigious brigade dedicated to Kim il Sung, and a guide told us they were singing a song expressing their longing for and their disappointment in never being able to meet their Eternal President. Yes, North Korea is the only country in the world with a dead head of state.
For a while there were half a dozen other English-speaking tourists also in the park, the rest of the time we had it to ourselves. We could go to any ride and it would be started up for us, and off we could go on it, with no delay, while being followed around by a lady from the ticket office who was making careful note of all the rides we went on.
The roller-coaster was world-class, and there were some twirly vomit-inducing rides that almost succeeded in embarrassing one of our group who felt compelled to answer the challenge of another of our number and follow her onto all the rides.
We also let off some of our latent aggression on the bumper cars, where there was one other rider – some sort of moderately senior Korean army officer and his daughter or niece (come on folks, be charitable here!). We risked WW3 by eagerly smashing in to him, and he delighted in a strong counter-attack, and all too soon the ride finished.
At the conclusion of our time at the fun park we’d spent a mere €10 each on admission and rides in total. As we left, the girl soldiers trooped past us, happily accepting Hershey bars from one of our group who seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of them.
Six of us went happily back to the hotel after another very varied day. The seventh, now drenched in sweat after one too many whirly twirly rides, suffered stoically in silence, and was happily back to normal the next morning.
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