The day starts, yet again, with an early morning wake up call that is not helped by my jet lag. Again I get ready and head to lifts to go to breakfast and get some much needed coffee. I press the call lift button, receive my electric shock, and the wait for the lift to arrive. Breakfast was much the same affair as the preceding day although there appeared to be set Chinese tourists sat at another table. With today’s breakfast we were also given bottles of a green peach soft drink made in North Korea. This stuff was absolutely delicious, they’d do well licensing/exporting it I reckon.
During breakfast our English guide recounted a story he’d heard to us. As you might know after North Koreas strong performance in a game against Brazil in the 2010 World Cup it was decided to allow the following match to be aired live in North Korea. This turned out to be unfortunate as in the following game they were thrashed 7-0 by Portugal. During the screening of the match at a bar, one of the local tour guides had ripped the TV from the wall and smashed it on the floor!
Once we’d all finished we loaded up into the van to head to Panmunjom and Kaesong. Panmunjom is a small village that sits in the middle of the DMZ (De-Militarised Zone) and straddles the border between North and South Korea. It’s main feature is a set of blue huts, inside which is a meeting table where each half of the table is in the separate countries. These facilitate various meetings that are occasionally held by officials from either side.
It was a 3 hour drive to the DMZ and it had snowed again the previous night meaning people were back out clearing the motorway with shovels. The drive was interrupted by a 10 minute stop for toilet breaks, literally just on the hard shoulder as there was not another car in either direction on a straight road to the horizon.
We eventually pulled up outside another gift shop which sat next to the barbed wire marking the start of no mans land. Hanging out around the giftshop was a western looking guy in North Korean attire and speaking in Korean, a couple of us had an inkling it might’ve been Alejandro Cao de Benós de Les y Pérez but we may have been wrong. We were given some time to look around the gift shop, I didn’t buy anything, and then we moved into another room to be given a talk by Korean Peoples Army (KPA) soldier about the history of the DMZ. After the talk the same soldier escorted us outside and it was explained that we’d have to cross through the gate into the DMZ on foot and then re-board the bus on the other side. I’m not sure what purpose this served except possibly that we entered of our own accord?
Once we were back on the bus we started in the direction of the meeting huts, stopping halfway to pop into a hall where we were told the story of the UN flag given to North Korea as part of the armistice. The flag was in front us in a glass case next to a North Korean flag that’d been brought to the same meeting. Our KPA lecturer was keen to point out how the UN flag had faded and deteriorated whilst their own flag had remained vivid implying the long lasting resilience of the regime. Between you and me I reckon they’d replaced their flag.
Next we headed on to the actual meeting huts, famously referred to as the most dangerous place on earth by Bill Clinton, although I think he meant it more on a diplomatic level than a physical one. On the short drive to the huts it was pointed out to us that North Koreans are allowed to farm in their half of the DMZ whilst South Koreans may not on their side. We parked up outside the huts and headed in, we were asked to take seats around the meeting table in the middle. Mr. Han began to tell us the history of some of the meetings that had happend and then suddenly changed the topic and pointed to a framed picture on the wall that contained the flags of all countries involved in the Korean war. He said that he was ashamed for us that Britain had been involved in the war and mentioned the other countries that members of our group were from. After this slightly awkward moment we walked outside and we taken up to a balcony in an admin building so that we could take photos and then bordered the bus again to head to Kaesong for lunch.
The buildings in Kaesong were not too different to those in Pyongyang but what was noticeable was the severe lack of any vehicles. We saw a couple of trucks, one loaded with soldiers, and a few motorbikes, but nothing like there was in capital. We pulled up outside a two storey small building and headed inside and upstairs for lunch. Again it was absolutely freezing inside (in the picture with food above you’ll notice everyone is still in their winter coats) and soon after the food was served it was no longer hot. The meal, however, was one of the most elaborate things I’ve even eaten. We were served roughly a dozen small bowls with a variety of foods including dried fish, seaweed, meat soup and a huge bowl of rice. The problem with these huge servings is that inevitably you can’t finish it all, which leaves you feeling horribly guilty when you’re aware of the food situation in the country. I could only think of two possible reasons for the portion size, firstly that it’s just to give the false illusion of availability of food, or secondly, the leftovers can be taken home by the staff without inventories running afoul.
After lunch we headed to another “ancient” Korean building, a small palace similar in layout to Beijings Forbidden city. The rooms had been turned into a museum to the traditions of Korea with displays of brightly coloured Korean clothing and paintings and drawings of historical events. Once back outside we were shown into a stamp shop for yet another opportunity to purchase souvenirs. They had a selection of postcards which were much more revolutionary in nature that the ones I’d gotten already so I purchased one to send to my parents, hopefully the image of a US soldier being trampled on by a KPA soldier didn’t give the postman an odd opinion of my parents! The stamps were surprisingly fascinating, not normally being particularly interested in them, they were extremely orante depicting various communist imagery and of the ruling dynasty. I picked up a few regular stamps with the North Korean flag on them and also grabbed a large gold leaf stamp of Kim Il-sung to frame as a souvenir.
On the return journey to Pyongyang, down the reunification highway, we noticed that there were many concrete monuments on each side of the road that were roughly the same height as the road is wide. These monuments were nothing but monoliths and someone mentioned that they had read that the bases of them are loaded with explosives so they can be collapsed to block the road in case of an invasion. Looking at the terrain on either side of the road you can believe that this would dramatically slow an advancing army form the south.
A few hours later we were back in the capital with the afternoon and early evening to be spent seeing some more of the local sights. We stopped off at the Reunification arch which spanned over the road back into the city, a quit impressive monument that was built in 2001 to commemorate reunification talks between the North and South. At the base of these archway were even more people clearing the road by hand.
The next stop was to go for a ride on the Metro, tourists are allowed to ride between two neighbouring stops at the end of one of the lines, the rumour being that these ones are far more ornate than the others. Unfortunately as we tried to drive to the first one we hit a road block where a policeman on the street informed our guide that the road was closed and so was the Metro station. Our guide seemed quite annoyed about this but quickly decided that we’d go down into the other station, have a look around, and then come back out. The way down to the platform was similar to a Metro station in any other country except for the fact you were descending for much longer as the stations double as bomb shelters, we noticed the blast doors recessed into the wall at basement level. The platform itself was spectacularly ornate, I’ve heard it is similar to the ones in Moscow which I’ve not seen myself. The entire length of the walls on each side were a mosaic of the Skyline of Pyongyang and there were chandeliers hanging from the arched marble roof. We hung around long enough to see some trains pull in and out, these were bought from East Berlin and still have German graffiti carved into the wood.
We were taken back out to the surface and headed to Kim Il-sung square so we could get a view of the Juche tower and the central Library. The Juche tower is a monument to North Koreas strand of self-sufficient communism branded “Juche”. This concept of extreme self-reliance is one of the key factors leading the country to be so isolated. After the square we drove to see the Triumphant arch, which is very similar in style, and name, to the one in Paris. It’s key difference, as our guides were keen to mention, was that it is in fact larger than the one in Paris. I noticed in the distance a TV tower with what looked an observation deck, I asked to confirm if it was a TV tower and was told yes, but when I asked are people allowed to go up to observation deck Ms Kang just turned away and walked off. A little bit peculiar I must say.
Next to the arch was a department store where we could look at yet more souvenirs, although this one had a much larger, and weirder, selection of items. There were walls of paintings including some communist propaganda posters that I’d love to have bought but didn’t have enough cash as there’s no way to get a hold of any once in the country. There was a liquor section containing such things as a liquor made with tiger bone and large bottles of Soju with cobras inside. I didn’t fancy explaining either of these things to British customs.
The nights dinner was to be Korean hot pot, a dish I’ve heard rave reviews about. It consists of a boiling pot of soup that you have over a flame to keep it hot, you then select various thinly sliced meats and vegetables and cook them in the soup along with an egg that you crack on to the top of it all. It was all very nice and quite pleasant to have a meal served at a reasonable temperature for once. A side from this the power did continue to cut in and out throughout the meal. The restaurant also had a pet cat, unique in being the first pet we had seen in the whole country. Due to the drinks someone in the group dubbed it “Kim Jong-cat”, thankfully I don’t believe the restaurant staff or guides got the pun.
We returned to the hotel to entertain ourselves for the evening, myself and two other guys in the group deciding we’d go see what the hotels entertainment area in the basement was like. After dropping off stuff in the room and getting changed I headed out to the lifts to meet the other two where we would have to solve the recurring problem of successfully calling the lift. This time it turned out to be fair more problematic. I tried to call the lift several times but just received shocks without the lift actually being called. We all took turns on each lift button for several minutes shocking ourselves repeatedly to no avail. We remembered that we were only a few stories beneath the rooftop restaurant so thought that the best bet would be to look around for some stairs and climb up. After a few minutes we found the fire stairs, which were in total darkness, and nervously started to climb. After two stories we hit a barricade, not a nice set of doors, but a massive pile of broken bits of wood that were blocking the stairs. This re-enforced my feeling of we shouldn’t really be in this part of the hotel. We decided to exist the star well on a different level to where we started and immediately noticed the decor was far more dated, potentially only a couple of floors had been made to look modern, and headed round to the lifts. We bumped into a guy in workman’s overalls who had already managed to call a lift and descended with him.
Once in lobby we were keen to have some fun after our little mini adventure. We decided we’d try the pool room out, there were a couple of other guys in uniforms playing pool at one of the other tables, we quickly played a game but decided we’d rather give bowling a go as three is an odd number for pool. We didn’t realise we were supposed to pay for the game at the bar and just quickly walked out. We thought bowling could be a bit of fun so we went in, paid up this time, got our shoes and some beers and walked over to the alleys. There were three so we had one each, there was your standard computerised score keeper you’d see at a bowling alley in England. Where it got surreal was that the machines kept turning off and on again so we had to keep restarting the game, and then occasionally the cage would come down and knock over any remaining pins and register a strike. Another odd thing was that you’d take a mouthful from your glass of beer and look back a minute later to see it had been refilled to the top. This made it incredibly difficult to keep track of what you’d drunk. We also noticed that half the time the pins were being reloaded by hand by a guy we’d seen disappear down the alley when we arrived. Once we’d finally reached the end of our games we headed back up to one of our rooms to drink some beers we’d pinched from the restaurant earlier and then headed off to sleep for the inevitable very early wake up call.
To be continued.
If you’re enjoying these posts please consider subscribing either through WordPress or by email using the Follow tab in the bottom right of this page. You’ll only get notified of new entries, no spam!