As promised my wake up call comes at 7am in the morning, the voice on the other end of the phone is polite. I got dressed and headed out the room to go for breakfast as we had been told we would be leaving at 7:30 am to visit the Kim Jong-il and Kim il-sung friendship places, two “museums” dug into mountains that contain the catalogue of every gift given to the regime from foreign diplomats no matter how insignificant.
Once I got to the lift I realised why the elevator attendant the previous night had been wearing gloves. Upon pushing the call lift button I received a more than subtle electric shock. At first I though it was static which meant if I touch the button again it’d be ok. Wrong. Another shock. After a couple of shocks the button actually illuminated to say the lift was on its way and soon I was on my way to the lobby.
Not actually knowing where breakfast would be served I wandered over to the doors which we had been waiting at the previous night, one of which was ajar. I looked in and saw one of my group at a table eating so headed in. There was another guy at the table who turned out to be an American who was joining our group. The significance of his nationality being that he had not been allowed to take the train in like the rest of the group and had to fly in on an Air Koryo flight from Shenyang to Pyongyang the previous day. He mentioned he spent most of the afternoon wandering around expecting us to turn up and struggling to find much to do within the confines of the hotel.
Breakfast wasn’t bad, a couple of eggs, some toast, some kind of pork/beef patties and by far the most critical at this moment, coffee. We noticed the butter was imported, An Austrian in our group was gobsmacked to see that it had come from a town not far from where he grew up. Everyone else gradually trickled down for breakfast. One guy asked for some milk to have with his Coffee, the staff didn’t get his meaning fully and brought him a full glass of milk, when he started to pour this into his coffee there were gasps all around from the staff. I noticed that the rest of the breakfast room was empty, we were currently the only guests in the hotel.
Ms. Kang and Mr. Han soon turned up and we headed out to the same minibus we had gotten from the Train to the Hotel the previous night. As we started to drive to through the city we were told the temperature for the day, around -21 celsius, and the distance to the palaces of around 150 km to the north east. Our English guide mentioned that there were a lot more cars than he had seen on his previous visits, but deduced this may be due to it being winter. He also pointed out a taxi, which he’d not seen here before.
Our eyes were firmly gripped to passing buildings and people on the streets, huge queues at tram and bus stops, a mixture of ancient soviet style cars and more modern chinese ones. I’d heard rumours that all people with visible disabilities were all shipped out of Pyongyang to make it look idyllic, this was quickly dis-proven by the site of people with missing legs on crutches.
We hit a checkpoint where Mr Han had to handover some papers, I noticed the road on the other side was empty and appeared to be more of a motorway. I put two and two together and guessed that we were displaying our documentation giving us permission to be outside of the city. As we started down the motorway we realised the snow on it was being cleared by hand, the entire length of it. I saw only a handful of other vehicles on the entire journey to the palaces, thousands of people labouring to clear the road for maybe a couple dozen people? The heartbreaking thing is that it was to snow again that night.
Most of us slept on the coach for a while. Whilst awake I noticed the landscape was mostly empty, harsh looking apartment blocks in the middle of nowhere and mountains with only wispy grass and skinny trees. Occasional the view would be interrupted by a huge mural of one of the Kims, literally on a small cliff miles from any city.
We pulled up outside the entrance to one of the palaces. We were informed that due to the upcoming 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth his palace was closed for improvements. This meant we wouldn’t be able to see the large armoured trains gifted by Stalin and Chairman Mao but would mean we would be able to spend more time inside Kim Jong-il’s palace giving us the option to go beyond the main areas where the most impressive gifts are and get to see smaller gifts given by each of our own countries. Things were looking up.
We approached the front door to the palace, which was clearly a blast door as this facility doubles as a bomb shelter. We proceeded past the two guards flanking door, armed with silver plated and engraved AK47’s, and were told to check in all of our cameras at the luggage desk, again no photos allowed. We were then issued what looked like a pair of shower caps which we were to use to cover our shoes so that we wouldn’t scuff up the marble/granite flooring.
The first room we visited contained many stately gifts from major international powers as well as regimes friendly to North Korea. Ornate glassware from the EU, gilded traditional swords from Libya and delicate pottery from Iran. A notable mention is a basketball signed by Michael Jordan as a gift from the US.
Next we were taken to see the cabinets from each of our respective countries (In the group we had British, Norwegian, American, Austrian and Irish). I was surprised to see three full cabinets from the UK, one full of gifts from the state, one of gifts from companies and another from various socialist/communist movements from the UK.
There were plates commemorating most major events in the lives of the Royal family gifted by the British government. The political groups had sent posters and plates remembering the miners strikes and other similar actions. The most interesting gifts were from companies. Aviva UK insurance had sent one of those tacky carriage clocks you tend to get with life insurance policies and another company had sent a model of a Route master bus?
The gifts relating to each of the other nationalities in the group were of a similar nature, although they mostly contained traditional art from the governments rather than our commemorative plates.
Other memorable gifts were a stuffed bear from Russia along with an AK47 assembled by Mikhail Kalashnikov himself. A large rear projection TV from South Korea and a full suite of hand carved wooden furniture from an African Dictator (Idi Amin I believe). It was odd that all of these gifts were just moth balled away and never used.
We collected our cameras and were escorted up on to a balcony outside the palace which had truly spectacular views down the valley outside. Opposite the palace is, what we were told, an ancient Korean Buddhist temple that had existed for thousands of years. Once we had approached it it was clear this place was pretty newly built but we went along with the charade as what is there to be gained by driving a wedge between ourselves and our guides.
After the temple we were taken to lunch in a hotel in a nearby town. Outside we noticed a UN marked 4×4 and once in the dining hall we notice a westerner with a guide eating his lunch shooting us disapproving looks. The food was what would come to be standard fare. Some white rice, Kimchi (Cabbage with chilli and vinegar, surprisingly excellent) and a selection of meats. The meal was accompanied by beers, it was at this point we realised that most of the beers looked to be named in the format “Brewery 2 Beer 1” and “Brewery 1 Beer 3”, quite efficient but lacking in a little romance.
We were loaded back into our bus and took off back in the direction of the capital, we’d been given the option of going to the Pyongyang circus that afternoon and we were all pretty eager to get there. The motorway back was still full of people clearing it by hand. The major benefit of the lack of vehicles on the road was that our guides were able to estimate our journey times extremely accurately i.e. “We will be in Pyongyang in 1 hour 25 minutes”. Despite this when we arrived at the circus everyone else had already gone in and we were rushed in.
We took our seats in the freezing cold auditorium and I was quick to notice that the whole place was full of locals whom all had digital cameras and were snapping away. At a guess the only people with access to the circus are the elites of the party. Most of the acts were standard circus affairs, gymnasts, magicians, a juggler but then thrown in the middle of this was something I didn’t think still existed. A dancing bear. Now I was aware some people do still engage in this horrific activity but I’d always assumed it was tucked away in seedy corners, not in the national circus in the capital of a country. Initially I was in shock and just started taking pictures due to the situation being so bizarre, but this quickly went away and I felt quite annoyed about the whole thing. Ultimately you cannot tame a bear, only brutalize it.
Once the show finished we were rushed out as fast as we had been rushed in. A couple of people in the group had figured out that distracting the guides with cigarettes would sometimes buy us a few extra minutes and in this instance meant we were still outside when the rest of the attendees started to exit the building. This gave us a chance to try and have a chat with some people but the language barrier proved to great.
Our next stop was restaurant for dinner and were served a candlelit dinner (out of necessity due to recurring theme of no power). On the way to the restaurant Mr. Han had phoned ahead, evidently so they could prepare the food for when we arrived. This sounds great but when the room temperature is well below freezing this meant we arrived to luke warm, however, I must say it was still delicious. We were served duck with heavily salted crispy skin along with various sides and we got to try Soju, a Korean spirit they brought to mind the phrase “Fire Water”.
After the meal we returned to the hotel, suffering another electric shock from my hotel room door handle, and promptly collapsed into bed due to the potent combination of Jet lag, sleep deprivation and several beers topped off with a glass of Soju. Wake up call is scheduled for 6:30 am.
To be continued…
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