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 August, 2007
Well, after a 4 month hiatus, the fifth and final part of this rollercoaster journey through North Korea is here. With more excitement and adventures than a Harry Potter film, we return to the land of Kim Jong Il, The General!
If you recall, when I left you in part 4 of this travelogue, you’ll find me in traditional Korean accommodation with heated floor, lying on a futon and having a back massage from a North Korean masseuse (who was also possibly my waitress earlier in the evening), having previously eaten dog soup that night and lying 10km from the Demilitarized Zone. Even I’ve got to admit it’s going to have to be an eventful day to live up to that! But saying that, a series of events like nothing we could have imagined happened the following day, which made the trip become very interesting indeed. So without further ado, let’s get into it…
The massage, while having more impact in it than I was expecting, was very relaxing. It wasn’t as painful as a Thai massage, but was certainly not like a Japanese one either. I gave the masseuse a tip in the form of some hand cream, which seemed to be appreciated. So I awoke the next morning with a bit of a stiff back, but that soon went away over breakfast. Our first port of call was the Kim Il Sung monument at the top of town, where we could take photos of the surrounding town and countryside. From here we headed off to the Koryo Museum, which showed pieces of history from up to 2,000 years ago, found in and around Kaesong. The museum was OK as far as things like that go, although I’m not so excited by seeing pieces of old pottery. Each to their own though. But as we left the museum shop, one of the museum staff said something to our guide, and she just flipped. She went white as a sheet and you could tell from her expression that something was seriously wrong. We were asked to get back onto the bus quickly and check our bags and belongings. Mine was present, but one of the other guys’ bag had gone. In his bag was money, travellers cheques and return airline tickets to the UK. Our guide was outside in tears, and if you think about it you can understand why. As I said before, the guides are completely responsible for us while we’re in the DPRK. If we do something wrong or something happens like this, it’s on the guide’s watch and they will ultimately take the cop for us. In this kind of situation, you could imagine that at the very least she would lose her job. Being in charge of a group who had been the victims of a theft in DPRK would most likely bring unthinkable consequences. The guy whose bag had been taken went out to comfort the guide, while the rest of us tried to work out what had happened.
We looked around and noticed that the bus driver had gone too. Suddenly it dawned on us that the driver may have done a runner with the bag. It all seemed to add up as our frustrations and conspiracy theories mounted, with us picturing him making a dash for the border with these UK-bound airline tickets and some travllers cheques. This continued for another 10 minutes before the police came and started looking for the culprit. But then the story took another turn: the bus driver appeared out of nowhere with the guy’s bag! The bag was intact but the money and some of the cigarettes had gone. We all got onto the bus and the real story unfolded. Apparently a 16-year old bit had climbed up onto the wheelarch, and snatched the bag from an open window. The bus driver had then taken chase and managed to catch him and get the bag back. Just to make the story even better, our German speaking guide then appeared round the corner, carrying the money… AND all the cigarettes!!! Everyone was stunned. The thief had been caught and taken away by police, and one suspects if he will reach his 17th birthday or not.
It turned out that 2 of the usual suspects had been taking photos of the police and everything that had been happening. Completely unnecessary; say what you like about freedoms, but we’re allowed into a country as guests and should be obeying their rules and wishes. So that delayed us for 15 minutes while it was confirmed that the guilty parties had deleted those particular photos. Once that had been done, we started off again, still a little shell-shocked at what had happened, and made our way to Panmunjon and the DMZ.
The DMZ, if you haven’t visited, is a strange place. It’s a 4km wide strip of land, dividing 2 countries which used to be one on the 38th parallel. It is the most heavily fortified border in the world, with North Korean forces on one side, and American-backed South Korean forces on the other, their guns constantly trained at each other. We were told that we should definitely ask if we wanted to take photos while in the DMZ, but all our requests were accepted. We travelled to the building where the armistice was signed in 1953 in Panmunjon (see photo below), and saw the obligatory photos of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung looking very leaderly! After looking around those buildings for a while, we headed to the border!
When you’re in the DPRK, it is technically possible to go to South Korea, and vice versa. The reason for this are the 6 buildings which straddle the border. Three of them have blue rooms and are officially owned by the UN, the three buildings with white rooms are property of the DPRK. As you can see from the photo below, the border itself is only a small step of concrete. Take one step over the border from each side, and you’d better get ready for a shower of gunfire, as previous defectors may testify to. The soldiers on our side were surprisingly good humoured, smiling to us and acknowledging us if we did the same (this seemed to be a feature of our bus journeys too: we would frequently hang out of the window, school-trip-esque, wave and shout hello to people in Korean. Some of them looked horrified, some of them waved back and some tried to restrain smiles. One of the best cheers received was when one of the “road crossing women” tried but failed to restrain a smile as we all waved and smiled at her as the bus went by). We did notice that across the border on the South Korean side, there was a big pagoda where I believe people can stand so they can get a view into the Communist North. There was a tour group there at the time, which prompted us to wave at them all. Lots of pointing ensued from the people on the pagoda, as they probably thought “Why are white people there – have they been kidnapped? Are they spies?!”, and lots of laughing on our part.
We went into one of the blue buildings which has been used for UN talks in the past, and it’s an interesting feeling. There is a big table in the middle of the room; if you stand on one side of the table you’re in the DPRK, if you’re on the other you’re in South Korea. If you go from the North and start to go near the exit door to the South, you get a nasty look thrown your way! I was chatting with the lieutenant through the translator and it was all very good humoured – he was laughing and joking with us all the time. I was told by him that I look like David Beckham. Hey, I’m white and with blonde hair… similarity starts and ends there! Unless he was looking at a very grainy photo of the LA Galaxy star! He also asked jokingly if I wanted to join the Korean People’s Army! Yes, it was a joke – he wasn’t seriously trying to recruit me!!! It still felt a little eerie there though, knowing that a single gunshot or granade could easily start a full-on war in the Korean peninsula. And seeing the South Korean troops, looking across the border to the North, with their muscles clenched and arms like they were carrying a roll of carpet under each one, was certainly a sight.
Before we left I had a photo taken with the lieutenant, we gave our presents of cigarettes and chocolate and then drove away. As we drove back, we could see mined areas and anti-tank constructions. The road is very narrow and there are grids over huge pits. Large concrete blogs are positioned above the roadway to be dropped incase they need to block the road. Also, driving back you could spot tunnels going into mountains where, presumably, a lot of the military power of DPRK is located. You’d see a farm on a hillside, with a tunnel going into the hill next to it, and then about 400m away, a solitary guard watching over the area.
We had lunch back in Kaesong and then drove 40 minutes to the “concrete wall”, which was about 27km away. This was more impressive than it sounded, so please read on! It is an 8-10m high wall built, we were told, by South Korean and US forces just on their side of the military demarkation line (aka the border). It is rumoured to be hollow, and to contain US tanks and military vehicles (note no South Korean forces!), if a surprise attack on the DPRK was needed. There must have been hundreds of infantry and gun placements in the areas either side of this wall. We were able to see a number of them through some rather sizeable binoculars we were given at the observation post. I was talking to quite a few of the people there, and they all were saying that they wanted reunification with South Korea (a view shared by South Koreans I have talked to also), but if this happened one of the countries would be hit hard, both economically and socially. I personally think it would be the DPRK hit hardest, as East Germany was following the Berlin Wall’s demolition.
We left the concrete wall with a new passenger: a lieutenant colonel who we agreed to give a ride to back to Kaesong. This guy was great – he had a beer with us and was singing Korean karaoke with us on the bus (we had learnt one or 2 songs just about by then). It was another one of those “Is this really happening” moments! After we dropped him off it was a 3-hour ride back to Pyongyang. It was another beautiful day, as they all had been since I arrived from Beijing. On the way we passed a number of villages which didn’t look in the best of shape to be too honest, as you can probably see from the photo above. We also passed mile after mile of rice and crop fields, all lacking sufficient fertilisers, drainage, pesticides and farming techniques. With a bit of technlogy and infroastructure, this country could possibly start to become more self-sufficient. But the recent floods (as shown in the news) have devestated crops once again. Reports of 220 deaths and over 10% of farmland having been destroyed is going to leave another large shortfall of food for DPRK’s civilians. Because of the lack of arable land, they extend their farmland up into the hills, cutting down trees and forests to make way for it. The problem is that the trees offer protection from landslides. The heavy rain (43 inches in 5 days I believe) has resulted in mudslides and much of the crops being completely ravaged. It could be another Arduous March for the people of DPRK.
We arrived back in Pyongyang through a set of rather majestic gates (see above) at around 1815 and had a brief period to freshen up before dinner. We dined in town at a duck restaurant and the cooking style was very similar to a Japanese yakiniku restaurant; you got a central grill and everyone had a plate of duck to cook on it in the way they choose. The food tasted excellent (but always with a few pangs of guilt), and everyone seemed to enjoy the meal. Our guide came up to me after the meal and told me to wait in the hotel room, as she might have got hold of something I would be interested in. I waited for her but she didn’t come up. Then I got a call from her saying that it would be in the morning, and that I should get up at around 6:30am to look a these items, before everyone else was up.
So my final day in the DPRK started a little earlier than everyone else’s, with a look at these goods my guide had got for me. It was real cloak & dagger stuff – the guide came with a big bag. Packed deep in them, wrapped in a tea towel and then under a plain cover were what I had been looking for: some hand-painted socialist realism/revolutionary posters. She told me a friend of her uncle’s used to paint them and had a few left that she had managed to get. They were both excellent quality and this was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so I took them. Not too many people can claim to have socialist realism posters from DPRK in their apartment! Our guide had run a certain risk to get these to me, and I’d like to think it was because of the attitude I showed towards her throughout the entire tour. I tried to be the model tourist, asking interesting but not controversial questions, nodding and smiling at the right times, and being on time for everything. Goes to show that if you make a little effort, others will reciprocate.
Pyongyang railway station was bustling with life, compared to the rest of the city. People were coming and going, moving on the platform, although relatively few getting on the train – a lot of it was cargo, and there was even a little noise. It was here that we said goodbye to our guides and driver. Many photos were taken, and promises made to return at some point. That’s a promise I would love to keep, as I really want to see more of the country. After bidding farewell, we boarded and the long journey back to Beijing began. The journey was (for me, at least) relatively uineventful. I slept through most of it until we reached the border town, Sinuiju. At the border we had the 1st of our customs checks (another would be done at Dandong, on the other side of the Chinese border). This town was the first place we’d seen in DPRK that could be described as remotely dirty. There were some cigarette butts on the floor, and a few other pieces of litter drifting around on the breeze. And no women with home-made bruses making sure every part of the street was kept clean. Going back to the customs check (my mind never works in chronological order!), it was relatively painless. The main guy in chage of it added some amusement to the proceedings in English, intentionally I might add. After the warnings about what we could bring out of the country, I was expecting a pretty thorough search. In fact, I only had one bag checked and managed to slide the North Korean won (the currency, which isn’t allowed to be taken out of the country) down the side of the bed, mid-search!
The leaving procedure took just under 2 hours, and then we slowly crossed the border and left the DPRK. It was strange to think of China as being “freedom”, but it felt a little like that. As we crossed into CHina, my mind looked back at the past 6 days. DPRK is probably the most fascinating, surreal, beautiful and peaceful country I will ever have the privilidge of visiting. I just hope that these stories and photos I’ve provided you can help you see another side to this country, a side you never see in the media. For our main guide, it was probably back to the fields to help with the agricultural effort, for which her salary was about 4 Euros a month. Things like that make you realise how lucky we are. Everyone left her a very generous tip for her efforts in guiding and translating for us during our trip. And that’s about it for this travelogue. I hope you enjoyed reading it and it certainly brought back some fond memories as I was writing it. Let me know what you think. I will leave you with 3 photos of the socialist realism posters I now have proudly displayed in my apartment, as testament to an unforgettable trip. You can also see a photo gallery of my trip by clicking here.