18.04.2012 - 19.04.2012
Day 7 – Wednesday 18th April
Today was my last full day in the DPRK, so depressing, I know this place has it’s issues but if you take everything with a big handful of salt you can really enjoy the architecture and just the general vibe of the place and the people do genuinely seem happy. So we started the day off with a long drive down South back to Pyongyang, and as I’ve mentioned before every 10 seconds the shitty roads mean that you’re bouncing up and down so trying to fit in some sleep is impossible. Once we got to Pyongyang, our first stop was the feature film museum, which is basically a massive complex with a ton of different sets which relate to certain countries. So, for example you’ve got South Korea street and Europe street and Japan street and traditional North Korean countryside, the European one was surprisingly correct actually, the houses looked just like the ones you see in Luxembourg (Uncle Steve reference) or the French countryside. Apart from that it was all a bit of propaganda and the other roads just put Japan and Korea in relatively bad light. It was all relatively interesting though, as most films in Korea are filmed here so there are rows and rows of editing rooms and rehearsal rooms as well as all the sets. Despite the fact that they make over 200 films a year here or something, the place was deserted, they keep blaming it on the national holiday, but I’m very sceptical about that as everything seems to be closed, it’s all to convenient to be honest. Anyway, moving on, the next stop was the main Kim-Il-Sung square, which I’d already seen from the balcony of the people’s study house, but we’d never actually stood in it because every day there seemed to be some sort of function going on. It was super surreal to be stood in the middle of this square where over the years you’ve seen pictures of millions of people in perfect military parade, and even the last couple of days it was always full of 1000s of people. So we got a few good pictures standing in front of the particular parts, and just genuinely tried to take it all in as I say it really is surreal to be standing in this square. Next we went for a short walk to the international book shop, which despite it’s name is actually a relatively important tourist site as they sell newspapers in English and all the Kim-Il-Sung propaganda and anecdote books in English as well as a shit ton of other pretty good souvenirs. Had I had more money and no need to carry these things around for months I could’ve bought a lot of souvenirs but I resisted and managed to leave with nothing. The only thing I really want is some Korean money, which no one will give you, and a newspaper of when I was there, which I stole from the hotel the night before. Next we hopped on the bus to the posh hotel which is like that of Dubai with two big towers and a big bridge in the middle connecting the two sides, here you’re able to send postcards, finally! We’d been to the postcard shop much earlier in the week and I’d been carting around these propaganda cards and stamps around with me waiting to send them off, so after writing one to myself, the family and Greg (sorry everyone else but those were the only addresses I had to hand) I was very happy. What’s better than a postcard with typical Korean propaganda and a stamp with a North Korean stamp, how often are you going to receive that. After lunch we went to the Fatherland Liberation museum, which was absolutely hilarious. The whole thing was about how the US imperialists started the Korean war and attacked the North, trying to impose their evil ways and stop the reunification of Korea. I love how they can make a whole museum based on completely incorrect history and then be happy to show tourists around, when we obviously know that the North started it all. It was cool to see all the US tanks and planes and weapons that they captured though, and they also had a massive revolving 360 degree exhibition at the end showing what happened through the art of mannequins and fake explosion sounds every now and again. It was all a bit pointless, but pretty cool. Unfortunately, the museum was absolutely fucking freezing (that’s the problem with building ridiculously big buildings with huge hallways and never ending corridors I guess) and we had lots of things to do so we got going after only seeing a few exhibitions. Next we went to the ‘69’ school (brilliant name!) So called as it was opened on the 6/9/69 (dates are backwards in Korea) where we looked around a few classrooms, unfortunately as everyone is still on national holiday they were all empty. They were all pretty basic to say the least; the biology classroom didn’t even have running water! The weirdest thing was the Kim-Jong-Il learning room, where they have one lesson a week on the history of the great leader; unfortunately the textbooks were in Korean because I would’ve loved to have seen the stuff they have to learn. After looking around we got taken to the main hall where there was a little performance ready for us which unsurprisingly was ridiculously good. They play the most obscure instruments like the accordion, yet they are all completely perfect and all in time and they all have voices of angels, and they’re only like 11 years old. The whole thing was very impressive, and at the end they got us all up and we had a dance around with all of them, just imagine a group of 16 middle aged Brits trying to dance around in circles with a load of schoolgirls, it was pretty horrendous but obviously a good laugh. Luckily the performance wasn’t that creepy and the kids seemed like they were enjoying themselves and not just being forced to come in on their day off and perform for tourists. Even after all these activities, the day still wasn’t done, and somehow the guides managed to get us in to see this orchestra where we sat in the row directly behind Kim-Jong-Un’s seat, unfortunately he couldn’t be fucked to attend though! The whole thing was played on the TV later as well which shows it was a relatively important event. Normally I hate big orchestra kind of things, but this was (as with everything else in this country) something else, they were so fucking good! Apart from the epic choir and all the amazing music there was lots of dancing and at one point these 3 people came on to do this sand art thing. Basically they have a lit up screen and they throw sand on it, and then they sort of mould the sand into certain shapes so they look like people or places. I have seen this done before, but they were doing each picture in like 5 seconds, their hands were moving stupidly fast and yet they have to be so precise, seriously it was one of the most incredible things I’ve seen. I really wish I took a video to show the speed of it, but if you just imagine that each picture I took of different drawings was like 5 seconds apart, you can understand how ridiculous it was what they were doing. The whole thing was just fucking epic, and every now and again they show a picture of one of the leaders on the screen at the back and everyone has to get up and clap which was quite fun, I don’t support the regime but it’s obviously rude not to. Long story short, it was 2 hours of just mind blowing stuff, and with that the day was done and it was time for our last supper. We went to a really fancy restaurant and had duck (amongst lots of other things) on grills cooked in front of us. Unfortunately 90% of the duck was just fat so there wasn’t too much to eat, but the rest was so tasty. Then for the big surprise of the day, we went to our hotel for the night, which was the Yankado, the 5* hotel which we were supposed to have been in all along, it’s on a separate island in the middle of Pyongyang with a revolving bar on the 47th floor! Unfortunately the bloody bar was closed, and after spending about an hour walking past the swimming pool, the bowling alley, the billiards room and loads of other ridiculous amenities we couldn’t find another one. So in fact, everyone agreed we would’ve rather have spent the last night in the shitty hotel, because then at least we could’ve spent it as a group rather than everyone having to go their separate ways. Still though, managed to get a few beers and drink in the rooms, and had a fun night nonetheless.
Day 8 – Thursday 19th April
So this is it, it’s time to leave one of the most bizarre countries on earth, really depressing as I have had such a good time here. So, after a wake up that was much too early for my liking, and really didn’t leave time to appreciate the comfortable beds of our plush hotel we got going to the airport. Here we dropped off half the group to get their flight while the rest of us hard core/stupid people decided to get the 24 hour train instead of a 1 hour flight. After a quick coffee at the airport, we headed off to the train station, here we finally had to say goodbye to our guides who have been absolutely brilliant and really not so strict, and who truly made our experience very good and by the sounds of it much better than the other groups. After a lot of hassle with tickets and sorting out who went in what room, we all got settled down ready for the long journey ahead. The train really wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, I’m guessing it’s a Chinese one which they just use for the tourist trips rather than an actual North Korean train. We all had our little compartments with 4 beds and there were toilets at the end of each carriage along with hot water, which seems good enough to me. It took about 6 hours for us to get to the border, where all the North Koreans (I’m guessing mainly business men as you can’t just leave willy nilly) were lined up on the platform and all the toilet doors were locked, and guards searched under the train and under the beds, and pretty much anywhere to find someone who might be trying to sneak across. Then they got started on the tourists, for everyone else they opened up their bags and had a good shuffle through, then they take a look through your pictures. Fortunately for me, the guard was so interested in my blond hair, he spent the whole time just stroking my head and arms and didn’t look in any of the bags of our rooms and looked through about 10 of my photos, which made the whole process stupidly easy! The whole debacle only took about 2 hours, and then we were on our way out of Korea and off to China. The border between the two is a river, and on the bridge across you can really see the difference between the 2 countries, it’s absolutely ridiculous! On the China side there’s just a wall of high rise buildings and advertising and then on the North Korean side, crappy farm land with people still ploughing by hand and ox, with no sign of a building in sight. Unfortunately, the bloody girders got in the way of all my pictures so I couldn’t really get a good shot of the massive difference. There we were, back to horrible civilization again, and we had a 2 hour wait at the Chinese station where they attached a few more modern carriages, before we got going to Beijing. These 2 hours were so depressing, being back to Capitalism again (where I have to say China has to be the most capitalist country in the World) was not a pretty sight, and I hate to say it but I really wanted to be back in North Korea! After getting back on the train and spending the night drowning our sorrows, we eventually arrived back in Beijing 2 hours late, and coming out of Beijing central station in the middle of the day where there had to have been a million people (and a McDonald’s pretty much as soon as you get off the train) was not a pretty sight! All the noise of the cars and the packed metros and the shit storm that is Beijing, becomes even more intensified when you’ve come from a country which is a good 50 years in the past. My general impressions of North Korea were very good, I know the regime doesn’t work there and a whole chunk of the country is either in camps or starving, but if you just take everything with a pinch of salt it’s still a beautiful country, and really nice to sort of go back in time. Everything they build is on a ridiculous scale, which always makes for quite an interesting experience. Apart from that, the whole country is completely devoted to farming and on the bus/ on the train all you see is people obviously trying desperately hard just to get enough food for everyone to eat, and even in the countryside everyone leaves in these carbon copy villages of rows upon rows of houses which are completely identical. In the city it doesn’t seem so weird because a lot of cities have that (including London) but to see it in the countryside is quite creepy, and it shows the true extent of communism and how everyone has to be exactly the same. Which leads me on to the point of how well drilled the people are, whether it’s for good or bad, everyone is very regimented and this makes for very civilized people, and incredible musicians, dancers, circus acts, and obviously a good military. It’s all very creepy that they can follow someone so blindly, but it’s no different to a religion and the whole ‘Juche’ ideal of self reliance, and not just being able to follow the rules but also helping out your community when you have any time off means that people all pull together, and shit just gets done. It also means people have some sort of pride in their community and there’s no graffiti for example and if someone sees a piece of litter, they will pick it up no matter if it’s theirs or not. However, the roads are fucking useless, the people still use cows and ploughs to farm their land and you see a shit ton of people just crouching in the shitting position on the side of the road as they don’t have anything to do! It’s nice to see that everyone goes around on bicycles rather than cars, and when you go past everyone waves and they do seem pretty happy with their lives. As the saying goes ‘Ignorance is bliss’ and I think if the people did know what the hell was going on in the world around them, they’d probably die of shock or just kill themselves through the lack of being able to cope with the situation.
I hope you all enjoyed the read, it took fucking ages to write, I had an awesome time and encourage anyone to go as it's bloody interesting, and I'm almost certainly gonna go back at some point.