Those who have known me a while will know that I just about kept my body shape in control (mainly in Okinawa through sweating generally due to the heat and humidity) or because of walking so much with my car dying. It definitely wasn’t due to exercise though! But after a couple of months of being back in England […]
Archive for March, 2007
Unless you’ve had your head in the sand all week, you can’t fail to have noticed at least something about this tragic story coming out of Japan. On Monday, the body of Lindsay Ann Hawker, a 22 year old British girl from Coventry, was found in an apartment in Chiba, Greater Tokyo. The body was in a bathtub out on the apartment balcony and was covered with sand. Preliminary reports have suggested that the girl was either strangled or asphyxiated. Currently her father and long-term boyfriend from the UK are in Japan to identify the body and conduct press conferences and launch appeals for information about Lindsay. This is a very sad event, and as a fellow educator in Japan my condolences go out to her family and friends for their loss. Rather than just repeat what the news reports are saying, I’ll try and make some comments from what I’ve heard and my experiences in Japan.
Apparently, this girl went to the guy’s apartment on Saturday with the intention of giving him an English lesson. She left his address at her own apartment in case there were any problems and headed off. Nobody heard from her after that, and by Sunday night her friend had got worried and called the police. Initially, news reports said that Nova (her employer) had contacted the police, although this has since been denied by the company themselves. She had only been missing 24 hours though and understandably the police were not treating this as a hugely serious case. However, they did follow up the call her friend made on Monday, and they went to this guy’s apartment. When the police arrived, the guy (now the main suspect in the case) was still at the apartment, and he proceeded to leg it barefoot out of the window, and into the rats nest of alleyways and tiny streets at the back of the apartments. The police didn’t chase or track this guy at all, which does come across as strange. Admittedly, they didn’t know anything was wrong with the girl at that time but imagine the situation: you are a police officer investigating a missing person case. You knock on the door of her last known whereabouts and a guy somehow manages to escape out of the apartment. Usually that would be the signal for any officers with sense to think “He’s getting out of there pretty fast – maybe we should have a word with him”… but not here in Japan.
Reports said that her purse/handbag and passport were found close to the apartment (probably dropped by the suspect). My question to that piece of reporting would be: why did she have her passport in her bag when she’s going to teach an English lesson? As a foreigner in Japan, she would have her foreigner’s card to use as identification, and there would be absolutely no reason for her to carry around a passport with her. It’s hardly as if apartment break-ins and passport theft is a huge problem in Japan. It did seem a little strange.
This morning, a number of reports are saying that police claim the suspect stalked the victim before her death, and that he visited her apartment, giving her a note with his name and phone number. And so we come to the second point of debate. Why would she ever consider going to the apartment of someone who has been stalking her, regardless of whether he wanted an English lesson or not? Teachers here in general are told that English lessons should be conducted in public or otherwise neutral places. Superintendent Yoshihiro Sugita, said to a press conference, “We have found no traces of blood and there was no sign of a physical struggle. “The victim was completely naked and her clothes were around the apartment, although we don’t know whether they were taken off by her or by the suspect”. Her parents have strongly denied that she was having any sort of relationship with the suspect, but there just seems to be more to this case than is initially meeting the eye.
The suspect in this case is Tatsuya Ichihashi (see left), and a warrant has been issued for his arrest, on suspicion of abandoning her body. The charges are not more serious than that at this time because police are still conducting investigations and doing forensics on the body. There have been no reported sightings of Ichihashi since the incident, and I have read a couple of unconfirmed reports that he is being hidden by the yakuza (the Japanese mafia). If this is the case then I would expect the trail to go cold very soon. The police won’t touch the yakuza as they have far to many links with the government and people high up in the Japanese hierarchy. Incidentally, I want you to have a look at the photos of the suspect to the right, and the victim above. I’m sure when you look at them, you will think something along the lines of “Well she looks a really nice girl… but he looks evil”. But think about it and you’ll find that this is almost always the case, and the reason is partly because the media likes it that way. You never see a photo of a murder suspect smiling, having a good time etc. If you did, that might make you think good of the suspect. Similarly with victims, you always see the best photo possible of them. I know the latter is partly because the victim’s family will always submit a good photo of their loved one, but it is just another thing worth thinking about.
I spoke to my family yesterday, and each one of them mentioned that this girl’s murder is one of the top stories in the UK at the moment, both on the news and in the newspapers. In contrast, on the Asahi website here in Japan (one of the biggest sites for Japanese news), it is absent from the front news page. Indeed, the story is 9th most important according to this website with a number of (in my opinion) less important stories featured above it. And this is one of the issues in Japan. It’s a sure-fire bet that if the victim had been Japanese and the suspect a foreigner (more so if they were in the US military), then all the TV channels would be broadcasting hourly reports and updates, and the suspect would not have been allowed to leg it out of the apartment and escape. Crimes where the foreigner in Japan is a victim do seem to be regarded as much less important than crimes by foreigners. I have fortunately not been the victim of any crime while I have been here in Japan, nor have I seen any, but I have read numerous reports backing this statement up. The Metropolis, an English-language magazine here in Japan, posted an article about this just last week. But in Japan, if you are charged with a crime, then you may as well plead guilty, regardless of whether you are innocent or not. Japan’s criminal courts have a 99% conviction rate, and the only way to get a lenient sentence is to plead guilty and show remorse. If you do that you might get off with a shorter jail term, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Nova are understandably keeping their distance from this story for a number of reasons. One of the main ones being that they discourage their teachers from taking private lessons and teaching outside the Nova classrooms. Obviously, doing that would decrease the revenue that Nova makes, as well as the safety aspect of it. Indeed, they have banned teachers from interacting with their students outside the classroom, I believe due to approaches made by some teachers on female students. However, another reason is that they are already involved in a scandal in Japan, and want to keep away from any further bad publicity. Last month, Nova were inspected for allegedly giving students false cancellation policies, and then charging them huge amounts if they wish to discontinue their course. They were also refusing to give money back and refusing unconditional cancellations, claiming that the cooling-off period had expired. Although one of the biggest private language schools in Japan, Nova’s reputation among the foreign community in Japan is not a great one to be honest.
This story brings back memories of the murder of Lucie Blackman, allegedly by Joji Obara. She was a hostess working in the Roppongi district of Tokyo when she went missing in 2000. Her body was found in a remote village a year later with her head encased in concrete. That case is finally due to reach a verdict on April 24th this year. The only thing I will note about this previous murder is that the word hostess does not mean escort or prostitute, as many westerners might think. Hostesses in Japan are women who work in places usually called “snack bars” and who drink and talk with men through the night. There is very little physical contact between the two parties. I will actually write a little more about this occupation in the near future, although I must admit I know little of the details about it.
Well, I’m sure the media in the west are having a field day with this story, parading Japan as a country in which no foreigner is safe. Indeed, the BBC already have an article online, entitled “Are foreign women safe in Japan?“. I’ll answer that question for you now so you don’t have to click the link. Yes, they are! They’re probably a whole lot safer in Japan than they would be in their home country. I will try to post more about this story as more details come out, but I hope I’ve given you a few things to think about.
I’m sorry part 3 of this report has taken so long in coming. I’ve been pretty busy with teaching and arranging dive courses for prospective students, and haven’t had time to sit down and tap away at the keyboard for any length of time. But I’ve got some time now and am ready to give you the next instalment of my trip into Kim Jong Il’s wonderland! For those of you that need to catch up, part 1 is here, and part 2 here.
When I left you last, we’d just finished visiting the Mangyongdae Shrine and the birthplace of Kim Il Sung. And a new day was starting with lots of tourist attractions in prospect. Looking back at my journal, I should probably re-emphasize the importance of getting along with the guides and going along with what they say, even if it seems relatively far-fetched. A few people seemed to be asking questions with the sole purpose of making the tour guides feel uncomfortable, and even some going right up to people and taking photos of them without asking permission. This just mean the guide got into trouble (who is ultimately responsible for our actions), which in turn means we may have missed out on other opportunities during the remainder of the tour. A couple of us kept trying to build bridges that other tour members seemed intent on burning down, but it was pretty embarrassing.
OK – ranting over and onto business. An 8:45am start got us to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in central Pyongyang. This war is known in the West as the Korean War, and more interestingly in China as The War of Resisting the US & Aiding Korea. This war started on June 25th, 1950 and there was an armistice on July 27th, 1953. There was no actual peace treaty signed between the Koreas, and so they are still officially at war. This museum is huge, covering around 80,000 square metres. It shows how the “Koreans battled and defeated the US Imperialist army of aggressors”. You heard that a lot: “US Imperialists” in DPRK. It was a very interesting museum, especially seeing some of the documents and letters (allegedly) sent by US military staff. The presentation was biased, but so would a similar museum be in the US. I now have the opportunity to see both biased sides of the story, and try to make my own mind up by finding a middle ground. Not sure believing any government will give you the full facts now, so it’s just a case of using some intuition and common sense. The highlight of this museum was a huge panoramic painting, depicting the Battle of Taedong. This 360-degree painting was 132m in circumference and we sat on a platform which rotated us around the picture. It was a memorable view and beautifully created.
Connected to the museum was the Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War. This is actually a set of 10 monuments depicting moments in the Korean War. The monuments are set in a white stone floored area and was very impressive. The centrepiece of the monuments is a huge statue of a Korean People’s Army (KPA) soldier shouting to his comrades. As we viewed the monuments, a large group of primary school children passed us and we smiled and waved, and got some response from them. Again, not sure whether we saw them by chance or whether they were meant to come to this place while we were there. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt though. Near to the monument and museum was a band playing revolutionary music, apparently to keep the morale of the workers up. Hopefully this will succeed, as the people of DPRK need all the help and morale boosts they can get.
If you recall from part 2 of this travelogue, I promised to tell you a little about the triangular-shaped building which was present in one of the photos, and which you can see to the right here. This is one of the biggest white elephants in Pyongyang, and was meant to be the Ryugyong Hotel. Construction was started on this 105-floor, 330m high building in 1987. It was scheduled to have 3,000 rooms and 8 (yes, eight!) revolving floors at the top!!! After 5 years of attempted construction, the hotel was left as an empty shell due to lack of funding, electricity blackouts and food shortages. There are photos of the hotel being lit up at night, but this is due to one of 2 possible reasons. One is that the DPRK computer people have been playing with Photoshop. The other possible reason put forward is that people were sent into the hotel one day to actually put lights in all the rooms before a photo was taken one night! I personally prefer the latter version of the story. It is also rumoured that after the 82nd floor (or thereabouts), the elevator shaft is no longer straight, so you have to take the stairs from thereon up!
From the war monuments, we headed over to the captured US spy ship, the USS Pueblo. This ship was captured in 1968 in DPRK waters and had 83 crew members on board. Apparently the ship was in an awful state (no working guns, engine only partially working etc) and was taken by a DPRK force of only 7 troops. Just imagine for a second that mission briefing to the DPRK troops: “OK comrades, this is the big one. There’s a US Imperialist ship with around 80 American devils trespassing in our territorial waters. Kim Il Sung has given our generals on-the-spot guidance and advised us to capture this vessel with the biggest force we can muster… which is why you 7 have been called in! Now get rowing and good luck!”. The US crew were returned to their homeland, but only after the US government had issued a formal apology for their spying actions. They initially declared that it was a fishing boat and was in international waters, but then they were forced to reveal the truth. I’m reminded of this when I read the current news story about the British sailors and marines who have been detained in Iran. After being captured, the ship was tugged around the coastline of DPRK and is now taking pride of place in the main river flowing through the capital. We were shown around the ship and watched a video about the capture with some hilarious English pronunciation (I can’t even start to describe it!), before being led to the main deck to take photos and ask any questions we had. This filled our morning, so we headed for lunch on “floating restaurant number 1”. Not too sure if there is a number 2 or 3, but lunch was certainly nice drifting up and down the Taedong river.
The first stop of the afternoon was the Foreign Language Bookstore. Here you could buy an array of literature in allsorts of languages (English, Japanese, Chinese, German, French, Russian are just a few that spring to mind). We all bought books and some pin badges. A couple of people bought some posters but I was looking for ones of a more socialist realism (aka propaganda) nature. I quietly mentioned it to my guide and she told me that she might be able to find me something better, and to hold off buying. Took her word for it and refrained from making a purchase for now.
On the way to the Grand People’s Study House, we walked past Kim Il Sung Square which was full of students practising for the forthcoming Mass Games. It was pretty impressive to see all these gymnasts working out, and we took photos from a distance. Unfortunately, a couple of the other tourists proceeded to get far to close to the people while snapping phot8os, and our guarded was shouted at by the person in charge of the practice. Onto the Grand People’s Study House though, and it really is a vast library, storing over 30 million books, although I can only recall seeing about 10 during my entire visit to the building! Many professors work in the library, and can offer advice to people studying from their books, with each professor having a small number of speciality fields. 250 professors are employed here, out of a total staff of 1,000. This place wasn’t the most riveting that I’d been to, but it was still good to see all the same.
We moved onto Primary School No 4 next. When I booked the trip I asked if it would be possible to visit a school in DPRK. I’d taught in Maldives and now in Japan, and was interested to just look inside a school and try and get a general overview of the atmosphere there. Surprisingly, this was arranged and we went to one of the best primary schools in the coiuntry, and the one which Kim Jong Il himself attended. Although they told us that every school was very similar to this one, it was obvious we were being shown an excellent school. The day was Childrens’ Union Day, which meant that it was a school holiday, and there were no kids about initially. We were shown around some empty classrooms and it was interesting to see their layout. Each classroom has got a picture of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung at the front of the class, much like Japanese classrooms had pictures of the emperor in classrooms pre-WWII. We got around to the gym and found around 14-16 students playing table tennis. Although they were only 8/9 years old, they were still damn good and could probably beat the British ranked No 1! I wonder why Asian countries produce so many good table tennis players… but I digress. These students, we were told, practised 2 hours a day after school, and it certainly showed.
We were then taken to a small room upstairs with a stage. We were all greeted with ludicrously sweet looking students who took us to our seats. They were all smiling, which was cute but rather disconcerting. It was obvious they had been told that they should smile for the foreigners to show a happy face. But their smiles looked too much and very fake. Once we were all sat down, around 16 students gave a song and dance performance, including 3-piece band, singers and some excellent dancers. These students were in “song & dance club” and also practised 2-3 hours after school each day. I expected that some of these would move onto Mass Games club when they move up to junior high school. That is where they really have to work, putting in around 5-6 hours of training each day after school. Their performance was flawless and afterwards we were pulled up on stage by the students for some dancing. I gave the teachers some pens, pencils, and a small poster a couple of my 1st year students had made for them. They smiled and quickly took them away. I sometimes wonder what happened to the poster: whether it was kept, thrown away, or maybe displayed to the students as a sign of the foreign Imperialists trying to feign friendship!
We said our goodbyes to the students (who continued their Joker-like grins) and got on the bus for our final stop of the day – the Pyongyang subway system. The metro system has 17 stations and we travelled between Puhung (meaning Renaissance) and Yonggwang (meaning Glory). There are rumours that these are the only 2 stations in operation, and even these might only be used to showcase the system to visitors. The only station on the Metro system which is closed is Kwangmyong (meaning Brightness). This is allegedly because it connects to the Kumusan Memorial Palace, where it is believed there are a number of military facilities. The guide gave us our tickets and we got on the escalator to go down… and down… and down… and down! The subway stations are around 100m underground and are also designed to be used as air raid shelters (which would make this the deepest subway system in the world. Yay – another record for the DPRK!). The stations have triple heavy blast doors and very little is going to get through those things unwanted. The platforms of the stations we departed and arrived at were like museum pieces. Marble floors, huge chandeliers and mosaics covering the entire wall. When we got on the train we were joined by a few Pyongyang residents who had been waiting on the platform. Once again, their authenticity came in to question, with numerous claims that are actually actors just there to give the impression that the subway system is being used.
It is claimed on one website that the subway system in Pyongyang has a huge underground square, to be used in the event of war in the DPRK. The size is rumoured to be around the same as Kim Il Sung Square, meaning that it could hold up to 100,000 people. The command post in this square has new communication facilities and a number of 10-ton trucks that could be used to transport troops. Whether this is true or not is up for debate, but it is certainly plausible.
That’s it for another day of my trip to DPRK. In the next instalment, we’ll be travelling to Kaesong, and getting ready to visit the DMZ, the border with South Korea, and the Sinchon War Crimes Museum, highlighting the atrocities committed by the US Imperialists! Stay tuned and let me know what you think.
You can also see a photo gallery of my trip by clicking here.
First of all, thank you to everyone who read part 1 of my travelogue. Hope you found it interesting and at times marginally entertaining at least. And with that out of the way, it is time to move onto part 2 of my trip. Thank you to everyone who sent me messages about part 1 – I really do appreciate every person who takes the time to read my writings online. Onto business. The hotel we stayed at was the Yanggakdo Hotel in central Pyongyang. If you go to DPRK, you will most likely either stay here or in the Koryo Hotel. This hotel is excellent and is on its own island! It has a 9-hole golf course, cinema, football stadium, casino, rotating restaurant at the top of the hotel (this is a recurring theme), and pretty much everything else you could want in the hotel grounds (so tourists wouldn’t be tempted to cross the bridge into the capital itself?). The hotel also has 47 floors and around 1,000 rooms. But the thing is, there were only around 25 people staying at the hotel, and in our tour group people were sharing rooms so at the most, 20 rooms would have been occupied. All our group were located on the 25th floor, and people were making frequent comments about what could possibly be on the other floors. As far as I know, nobody was brave/foolish enough to try and find out. Although the hotel was much akin to a ghost town, the rooms were nice and clean, and offered a great view of the city, including the Juche Tower. The photo to the right shows the view looking out from our hotel window with Pyongyang either side of the river.
While we were going to dinner on the first night, we were told that there wouldn’t be few, if any shows or festivals on at the moment, due to everyone working in the fields. At that time, the university had closed and a number of government offices had been closed as people were mobilised to plant rice due to fears over food shortages. Having seen similar stories about China, this seems to be the communist way of dealing with problems like that; throw everyone you can at it. It might not be so productive and is certainly not efficient or economical, but it is what they do. It also shows the Juche, or self-reliance, ideology coming to the fore. Our venue for dinner was the National Restaurant, and we were the only guests there. This was also a common theme – we were the only people dining out. Although this isn’t hugely surprising, and I doubt if we were not visiting the restaurant would even be open. The food was pretty good actually, and it was obvious they were trying to showcase DPRK’s fine dining. It made me think and reflect a little though. They were serving up some of the best food they could offer in the country to us, and yet so many people in other parts of the city are coping on tiny rations of rice and vegetables each month. Again, it’s one of the things you just have to accept while you’re here. Accompanying dinner was live music, by a group of women in traditional Korean dress. The songs were revolutionary songs, and the music had a definite Russian feel to it. I looked around for copies of “The Best Songs Dedicated To The Great Leader and The General Album… Ever!!!”, but alas it was nowhere to be found. We did conclude that the drummer constantly looked like she wanted to just start thrashing the drums, rather than stick to the regular tapping of the cymbal. Not sure what the state of heavy metal music is in DPRK, but she’d fit right in.
Going back to the hotel, I had a couple of beers before heading back to my room. Once there though, I was able to turn the lights out, open the window and gaze out into the night skyline. If you do that in most cities, and especially capital cities, you can hear road works, traffic going past, loud music etc. In Pyongyang it was almost silent. You could hear a couple of voices drifting over the water to the hotel, but other than that it was quiet. There were relatively few lights coming from the large number of buildings that were a kilometre or two away. For some reason I woke up at about 4am in the night, and once again went to the window which we’d left open. Looking out, you could see nothing – there wasn’t a single light visible and the only sound was a dog barking somewhere in the city. Very eerie, but a fascinating experience.
Woke up early and switched on the TV in our room to get a fuzzy BBC World transmission (DPRK don’t pay for any TV rights, so they have to unscramble the signals as best they can themselves I believe). There was an announcement that it was International Environment Day, which was appropriate as I was probably in the cleanest capital city in the world. Pyongyang makes Tokyo look like a trashy dump, and I didn’t see a single piece of litter on the street throughout my entire trip. Another thing Pyongyang has is vast open spaces. It is reported that according to UN environmental statistics, Pyongyang has the largest amount of green and parkland per person of any capital city in the world. The skies were blue, but it was pretty hazy and you could only just see over the Taedong River and into Pyongyang. But after breakfast, that was our destination and first up was the Juche Tower.
The Juche Tower is a 170m tall stone tower (I believe the tallest in the world) which is dedicated to the Juche ideal. An offspring of communism, Juche is summed up quite well by Wikipedia: “The core principle of the Juche ideology since the 1970s has been that “man is the master of everything and decides everything””. The most fascinating features of this structure are all to do with numbers. The tower was created in celebration of Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday, and the building has 25,550 blocks (one for each day of KIS’s life). The tower is actually made up of tiers: on the north and south side there are 18 tiers and on the east and west side, 17 tiers. Add those up and you get the magical 70. Also, at the base of the tower there are flowers carved (the Kimilsungia) into the stone. 35 flowers on the east and west sides gives you… you guessed it, 70.
The views from the bottom were pretty good, but the panoramic views from the platform at the top of the tower were breathtaking. You could see the entire city, although there you could see virtually no cars on the roads. There were a couple of bicycles, but almost no motorised transport. Following the Juche Tower, our next stop was the closeby Korean Workers Party Monument. This was erected to celebrate 50 years of the Korean Workers Party, and again the numbers play an important role. The top of the hammer, sickle and brush (denoting the 3 classes of people in society) are 50m high, and the diameter of the monument is also 50m. The history of the Party is written in bronze letters on the wall of the monument, and the size of the things has to be seen first-hand to be appreciated. The people built this in one year, which goes to show how productive they can be when given the resources to play with.
After seeing a little our of the city, we headed out of town, past Kim Il Sung University, and went to Mt Taesong and the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery. Here, around 200 martyrs of revolutionary fighting against Japanese Imperialists are buried and remembered. Each martyr has a statue made from copper and all the busts face Pyongyang, positioned so that each one has a clear view of the capital. Pride of place at the top of the cemetery goes to Kim Il Sung’s wife. In the cemetery, sombre revolutionary music player (I’m sure, solely because we were there), which gave a strange feeling to the whole event.
Lunch was taken in the (rotating) restaurant at the 230m tall Television Tower. A rickety old lift got us up to the top but it must have been the slowest lift I’ve ever been in! It took about 3 agonising minutes to get to the top, with the constant fear that the string that was pulling us up could snap and sent us plummeting to our certain doom at any time! But we made it to the top and the views were spectacular. The food was, once again, the best that DPRK had to offer, and our after lunch entertainment was karaoke courtesy of the 2 waitresses who’d been serving us. A smile towards one of them ended up in her holding my hand while she sang her song (I’m sure talking about the greatness and wonderfullness of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il)! I was slightly distressed that I might have unknowingly just joined the Workers Party of Korea, and wouldn’t be allowed to leave!
First stop after lunch was the Arch of Triumph in the middle of Pyongyang. Sound familiar? Well, you might think of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and when you look at this arch you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for the Parisian landmark. This arch was modelled on the one in France, but built bigger so that the claim can be made that this is the largest stone arch in the world. [thumb:701:l]You’ll notice that DPRK likes its world records. The arch was pretty impressive, as was standing in the middle of a 3-lane road for minutes while taking pictures of it, without the slightest fear of a car coming. Try doing that in London! On the photo to the right you can see the Arch of Triumph in the foreground, but I expect many of you are wondering what the triangular-shaped building is in the background. Well that is a secret for now, and all will be revealed in part 3 of this travelogue. Rest assured, it is definitely worth waiting for! Near the Arch of Triumph is another stadium in Pyongyang, and outside the stadium were some people preparing their gymnastic routine for the Mass Games. It was fascinating to see this group activity, and I managed to get quite a nice shot of them walking to practice in front of a huge mural of Kim Il Sung (see below).
We headed back out into the sticks after seeing the arch, and towards a buddhist temple. On the way, we saw loads of people working in the fields, even on a Sunday (their supposed day off during the week). This was real subsistence agriculture though; you saw oxen pulling makeshift ploughs through the soil and in some places it just looked so dry and barren that anything would struggle to grow there. The temple itself was quite interesting, although not as much as the sights I’d seen previously in the day. Apparently, Buddhism was the main religion in DPRK before the Juche idea was put forward. I have read conflicting evidence about this though, & there are many reports that religion is banned in DPRK, despite what we were told by the guides. I can’t report either way though – I’m just stating what I saw and keeping unbiased about everything. After the temple trip we headed back into Pyongyang and it got a little surreal. We were taken to a clothing export exhibition, which showed examples of the garments that they had exported to other countries (mainly sportswear). They gave us examples of the countries they exported to (e.g. UK, Hong Kong, China), and we were then taken to a shop where we could buy some DPRK authentic clothing! Other were skeptical but I just jumped right in and got myself a T-shirt! The whole trip here was as if they were saying, “Look at us! We produce things that other countries want and need!”.
A 30 minute bus journey led us back into the country and over to King Tongmyong’s tomb. The guide at this site wasn’t an English-speaker, but our resident guide translated everything for us. We were shown around the tomb on King Tongmyong, who lived around 5,000 years ago. It was apparently he who set up the nation of Korea, and who founded the first capital city in the country. In the grounds of the temple, there were 3 artists painting the landscape (by chance, or told to be there?). I wanted to think it was the former, and the pictures were pretty good so I bought one. Hopefully not all of that money would go straight to the government. I got the artist’s name on the picture and had it dated, and I gave a present to the guide for showing us around. The result: I had another DPRK girl holding and strokign my arm as we walked back to the bus! So much for being told we would have very little contact with the locals.
In the south of Pyongyang is the Mangyongdae Shrine, which is where Kim Il Sung was born and where he spent his early years. The house he was born in was fairly humble and it sounded like his family was quite poor. The house’s setting was now in a park and was really nice to walk around in; the walk to the viewing area was interrupted only by a couple of squirrels and chipmunks crossing our path. We were told that Koreans didn’t visit the house after KIS’s death because they wanted to keep it in a pristine state. Not sure if that is strictly true, but I just nodded and smiled and took it all in.
And that’s about it for day 2 of my blog. Hope you enjoyed reading it. Once again, post comments and questions, and I’ll get back to you with part 3 in the near future. You can also see a photo gallery of my trip by clicking here.
Last night I was posting a couple of reviews of places I’d visited in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (aka North Korea) online when I got a message asking me if I would be able to write a description of my trip, the places I visited and the experiences I had. I’m always up for fulfilling requests, and so I replied that I’d be happy to recall my DPRK trip. Please take into account that this trip was taken back in June 2005, and so a few of the minor details may be incorrect or information a little incomplete. I do have my travel journal at the side of my computer to help me, and will try to be as descriptive as possible.
First of all, and the question that many people ask me: Why the hell do you go to North Korea?! The answer is simple: I like to do things a little differently. Most people think a great holiday is sitting on a beach in Thailand for a week, burning themselves and getting hammered every night, waking up around midday etc. I would much prefer to see places and do things so that when I come back from my holiday I’ve got a feeling of accomplishment. I wasn’t really looking at holiday destinations when I was browsing the BBC news website and a story about DPRK’s nuclear ambitions when I saw a link entitled, Holidays in North Korea. In that article I read about a company called Koryo Tours and from then my interest rose hugely. This company, run out of a Beijing office by 2 British guys, arranged visas and did regular tours to DPRK throughout the year, during which you had the chance of visiting and seeing things most of the world will never see. This was right up my street, and I exchanged a bunch of emails with one of the guys, getting more information on the trips and what was possible (unfortunately no diving was allowed, by I did ask and they did enquire!). In the end, I settled for a 6-day tour of the country, flying into Pyongyang and coming back by train to Beijing. Not only would this tour include seeing some spectacular and rare sights, but there was also the prospect of going to see the World Cup Qualifying match between DPRK and Japan, to be played at the country’s May Day Stadium. This is the biggest stadium in the world, seating over 150,000 people. To put it into perspective a little, it is over twice the size of the Olympic Stadium in Seoul, South Korea.
did a little research about the country, and although information is fairly limited, I managed to pick up an excellent travel guide and DVD documentary about the country. First of all, the Bradt Travel Guide to North Korea was an excellent resource, both before my trip and during my travels in DPRK. It includes a lot practical travel information and covers almost every area of DPRK that you might want to visit. If you ever manage to go there, this book would be highly recommended. Through Koryo Tours, I also managed to get my hands on a copy of a BBC documentary called A State Of Mind. This is a fascinating documentary, and is one of the best DVDs I have ever bought. It revolves around 2 girls who are preparing for the Mass Games in DPRK. More about these later, but in summary the Mass Games is a huge choreographed gymnastics spectacle involving thousands of gymnasts. In simple terms, it makes the Olympic opening ceremony look like a primary school festival. I will talk a little about this later, but will leave you with a photo of the event itself (unfortunately not mine, I didn’t have chance to see it on my visit as it is usually held in April/May and August/September).
As for currency, we were asked to bring anything, although Euros would be preferred. US$ were accepted, but if you paid for things in Euros you would get a much better price for things. In DPRK they have their own currency, although foreigners are strictly not supposed to have it for some reason. The money situation is a little strange at the best of times, and sometimes downright bizarre. Firstly, very few places will have change, so you should take small denomination notes of your money. Indeed, a number of places will have no money at all! For example, one night we were sat at the bar in our hotel having a beer or two after a hard day of sightseeing. I was about to pay the tab and head off to bed as I was feeling a little weary so I went to the bar with my bill (around 7 Euros) and I gave her a 10 Euro note. I sat around for 5 minutes or so waiting for my change, and then the waitress came back to me, said “No change” and handed me another beer! What an ingenious way of doing things: we won’t give you change, but we’ll just give you more of what you’ve been drinking. I’d have been paralytic if I’d have only had a 50 Euro note to hand! We were also asked to bring small gifts for the guides we would meet, as they would be more appreciated than money. So, as advised, I bought some hand cream for any female guides I would meet (Nivea is favoured by them, if my memory serves me correctly), and some cigarettes and chocolate for the men (the more nicotine, the better).
We had a brief meeting in Beijing 2 days before we travelled, to sort out our passport visas and be given a few guidelines for DPRK. It was all fairly routine stuff (be respectful, ask before taking photos etc) but it had to be said because if not then someone would always go too far. The thing is, in DPRK the foreigner wouldn’t get into much trouble about that, but their tour guide would be severely reprimanded and the company may not get as much chance to tour the country. We were especially told to be respectful and nice to the main guides, because if they like the group then you might see things that not every tour group gets to see. We were also told that, disappointingly, the World Cup Qualifying game between DPRK & Japan had been moved to a neutral location (Thailand) because of crowd trouble in a previous game. Some people were unhappy with this, but there really was nothing we could do. We could complain and be grumpy through the entire trip, or we could make the most of what we would see. Even though the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of Kim Il Sung could not be visited due to renovations, I still knew this would be an unforgettable journey. With that in mind, 2 days later we boarded the twice-weekly Beijing-Pyongyang flight, courtesy of Air Koryo.
Now, when you travel somewhere, there are certain signs that your trip is going to be an eventful one. Being on an flight to one of the most secretive countries in the world, sat inbetween a guy from the World Food Programme an an Ethiopian arms dealer is one such sign! But this was the situation in which I found myself, sat in this plane straight out of the 70s. But to their credit, both guys were very friendly, although the Ethiopian did bend the truth slightly, saying he was visiting DPRK on holiday. It was only later I found out he travels there almost every month, and always says to people he’s going on holiday. I wonder how big the North Korean tourism business is in Ethiopia. The mind boggles. There was also a Spanish guy on the flight in a communist-style suit with a big medal, who told us he was connected to the DPRK government. We were told by one of the tour company guys to steer clear though, so I kept my distance.
The first thing you see when you get off the plane in Pyongyang is a huge picture of Kim Il Sung on the roof of the airport. As I looked back at the plane, I noticed the air crews pouring water on the smoking plane tyres! Think someone might have landed a little too quickly! Other than that, the flight was great. Everyone was slightly confused as to why the landing gear was lowered at about 20,000ft, but who are we to tell the pilot what to do! In the airport, bags were collected and items such as MP3 players and mobile phones were handed in to customs officials as they are not allowed in the country. Contrary to popular opinion though, camera and video cameras were fine to bring in. The guides introduced themselves to us, and our main guide was a woman with perfect English, called Mrs Lee. She was an awesome guide… very friendly and knowledgeable about everything. She was one of the government-appointed guides, but talked about everything with the minimum of bias and the highest amount of information. She’d obviously met quite a few tour groups, and was full of questions about our families and what we did in our home countries. A few people brought photos of our photos and lives from home, and it was a nice feeling to introduce them to her. There were actually 2 guides appointed to our tour group of 20 people. There were 2 reasons for this I think, neither of which was that they could spy on us better! Firstly, the group was quite big and they wanted to manage everyone in the best way. The second reason could be (and I hasten to add that I don’t know this for sure) that the 2 guides could censor each other. If there was only one, then it is possible that they could say something negative about the country or its politics; with 2 people there is always someone else listening. We also had a cameraman walking around with our group, who would make a VCD of our trip that we could purchase at the end of our trip. That was a nifty little idea, and I said I would definitely like a copy of that.
One of the first things that hit me as we entered Pyongyang on our tour bus was how clean it was. There were lots of people, both adults & children, who were pulling up weeds along the streets and paths by hand. Technologically-advanced, this city is not, but it looked friendly enough so far. None of the military parades of huge missiles evident so far, that you usually see in the western media. Our first stop on the tour was Fountain Park. This was a wide open space (Pyongyang has a lot of these) with many very large water fountains, along with some beautiful statues of women dancing. In the photo below, you can see some of the Fountain Park, along with the Grand People’s Study House in the background. There were a few kids walking around and we managed to get some friendly acknowledgments from them by smiling and waving. The power of a smile, even in the so-called Axis of Evil, is immense. A small group of girls were walking across the park and they came over. One of the girls proceeded to give us a 2-minute jamming session on her guitar-like thing (can you tell I don’t play music?!) while her friends looked on. As advised, we asked for permission to take some photos of the girls and the surroundings, and then started snapping away. To be honest, there were not the restrictions on taking photos that you might expect. Of course, nobody tried to take photos of military installations or personnel, but whenever we asked to take shots, the answer was always “Yes”.
From the park, we headed to our next stop (and the most important stop on the tour): the bronze statue of Kim Il Sung at Mansudae. For those of you unfamiliar with DPRK’s history & politics, Kim Il Sung was the leader of the country from 1948 (when the country was founded) until his death in 1994. Following his death, there were 3 years of official mourning. This period of time with Kim Il Sung’s mourning, coupled with bad harvests and declining living conditions, became known as the Arduous March. The statue was said by our guide to weigh as much as all the hearts of the Korean people. Note that the word “Korean” was used to signify both Koreas. In DPRK they still say that Korea is one country, and that they will reunify in time. Around the statue are 2 other monuments, both depicting people fighting in the Korean War (called in DPRK The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War) from 1950 to 1953. As the statue, a few of us bought flowers and laid them at the front of the statue, before walking back and paying our respects by bowing. This was the first occasion I realised that some people might not be suited to a trip to DPRK. You have to go through the bowing to Kim Il Sung, and just accept it, even if you don’t approve of the leadership of the country. It is all about showing respect and politeness for a foreign country in which you are a rare guest. It’s a similar deal with the stories that you are told. Sometimes they seem far fetched, the guides know they sound far fetched, you know they do, and the guides know that you know. But the key is just to play along with it, take it in with interest and use your head a little. A couple on our tour tried to ask questions that were pushy or embarrassing, and all that did was make the guide flustered and upset at us. Nobody benefited and, most likely, everyone lost out. So if you do consider a trip to this fascinating country, bear that in mind.
It looks like this travelogue could get pretty sizeable, so I’ll call it a day for here. In the next entry though, I’ll be describing much more of the tour, as it gets into full swing. If you have any comments or any questions about the country, please let me know. I’m by no means an expert but will try to answer anything I can. You can also see a photo gallery of my trip by clicking here.