DPRK: Doing the timewarp: Day 2
Trip Start Jul 11, 2006
47Trip End Mar 16, 2007
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Finally we made it into The Room and were divided into groups of four which, in turn, were required to line up next to one of the four sides of the glass coffin, gaze upon the suited, supine and very wax-like remains of Kim Il Sung, bow and then move on to the next side of the coffin. Such a 360 degree perspective makes this particular embalmed communist leader the best of the four available according to those that had now seen the full set (Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Lenin being the others). However, this was actually not the apex of the trip.
We were then herded into the Great Leader's medal room, a showcase for the numerous awards and medals bestowed upon him by what appeared to be almost every enemy of the US during the last 200 years. Included among them were several Order of Lenins and a fantastic, fake honorary degree in international relations, of all subjects, from Kensington University in California. We then had portable audio players thrust into our hands and filed into some form of memorial room whose walls comprised artistic representations of grieving people from all over the world. The audio commentary that emerged from the audio players, however, was an absolute gem.
It was provided by a English man who sounded like he was struggling to hide his northern dialect roots and had adopted a tone so artificially dolorous and melodramatic that it would not have sounded out of place in a pantomime
The mausoleum's opulence provided a stark contrast with the mass housing that lined most of Pyongyang's streets, as did all of the spotless Kim monuments and the state buildings. Monotone in colour and monotonous in design, the majority of the tower blocks in which Pyongyang's citizens lived looked old, neglected and shabby. Some were absolutely filthy and crumbling, looking decidedly dangerous and urgently needing the sort of attention which would probably not come any time soon from a government more concerned about increasing its military arsenal
However, the sight of a depressed, paranoid and downtrodden people that I had partly expected was not to be found. Children played just as they do in other Asian countries, adults stroll the streets (and even a couple of joggers were seen),use public telephones and queue for public transport, couples wander hand in hand, and groups sit engaged in conversation or playing games. They certainly have cause for feeling depressed, downtrodden and paranoid. They live in what is probably the most tightly controlled social environment in the world. There is only one radio station (which, we were told has to be switched on in all occupied households during they day even if the volume is set to minimum) and, during the week, only one TV station too (although two more are switched on at the weekend). All media is controlled by the state including books and journals although films from Russia, China and, most popularly, India are allowed in as are South Korean soap operas which have become immensely popular in the North. Mobile phones were allowed for a short while before the government realised they could not easily track their use and promptly banned them, recalling some 20,000 handsets.
Nor was there any evidence of the starvation reported by western media although that is not to say that North Koreans in areas outside our tour view were not suffering. The people we saw (which would have numbered in the tens of thousands during the course of our tout) were universally slim and healthy-looking and almost no obese people were evident. In fact, only the ubiquitous Kim pins, securely attached over their hearts, and the 60s soviet-style surroundings betray their global geography.
During the course of our tour, we were accompanied by guides for all of our trips outside of our hotel
The day ended with a long bus trip to our destination for the night, a spa hotel near Nampo city. The journey took us through the flatlands seen from the plane the previous day and gave us our first real glimpse of the country's rural life. The landscape was almost entirely converted into farmland, comprising broad expanses of rice and wheat fields most being readied for harvest. Notable during this and every other trip we made outside of the cities was the lack of forests, even on the mountains and hill tops. The state has clearly prioritised the creation of arable land and trees tended to be reserved for lining roads only
On the way we stopped at a long dam, an impressive feat of engineering but a somewhat boring experience compared with the park and mausoleum earlier in the day. The North Koreans are particularly proud of this structure and we had to endure a truly soporific video about its construction. We noticed a few days later that the dam was the image used as the backdrop to the North Korean news' confirmation of their ill-advised intention to conduct nuclear weapon tests.
We arrived at our hotel exhausted and most quickly settled into the spa baths included in every room's bathroom. Unfortunately, the bath in my and my room mate, Canadian web-head and fellow technophile Brendyn's room only seemed to produce dirty, brown water or smelly clear water. It was an unusual and not entirely comfortable place, clearly built, as most of the country's hotels are, for use by visiting communist officials and dignitaries. However a busy schedule was planned for the next day so we accepted its failings and turned in early.