Pyongyang, October 9, 2008, Thursday
Trip Start Sep 26, 2008
31Trip End Oct 18, 2008
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Where I stayed
Yanggakdo Gugje Hotel
I wasn't aware of any particular seats assigned to any of us, so in theory I guess we could sit wherever we pleased. Except that on Air Koryo flights it may not necessarily function that way. Stern-looking and straight-faced flight attendants probably had instructions to keep us westerners from their own nationals at bay at all times. Otherwise I had no way of explaining why it was so important to herd us all into as small a space as possible while most of the aircraft was empty. Not that we were really cramped. We were not. And it really didn't matter much. But it was certainly interesting as a matter of curiosity.
I was seated at an aisle seat with a guy from our group who got the window seat
"Excuse me, hurry up!"
He looked first at her and then at me with a puzzled expression on his face. I kind of smiled and shrugged when the girl repeated:
"Excuse me, hurry up!" and tried to help along. Which to a less than sympathetic individual might look like rushing him up. Almost like pushing. I was inclined to ascribe it to the girl's not exactly perfect English and total unawareness of overtones and nuances of the language. What the guy thought was beyond me. But in any event, he was bemused.
A moment later we took our seats and he said:
"I am Mathew."
He was one of, as would later turn out, four Australians in our group.
Soon after take-off, when things became a routine like on any other flight in the world, everyone seemed to start taking out their cameras, hoping for a good shot. However, being on board an Air Koryo aircraft meant we were technically on North Korean territory
Things were definitely not helped by the fact that all those flight attendants still had face expressions that made them look almost like prison guards. I suppose that here too, just like reputedly in so many other things, North Korean officials simply went against common wisdom and instructed those girls aboard their planes on international flights to look unfriendly and intimidating. Smile was obviously one commodity in short supply up in North Korean sky. An item that clearly hadn't made it through security check back at the BĕijÓng airport. We had to get used to it.
Except that it wasn't easy. Because those girls were outright pretty. By any standards. Much as they did their best to turn water into ice, any of them you looked at was a beauty in her own right. Probably another way on part of North Koreans to try to impress their western visitors. As far as I was concerned, and as far as the flight attendants went, they pulled it impeccably off. Dressed in national colours of North Korea, white blouses, red costumes and blue ties, for all their cold demeanour, they were a sight to see
And even on North Korean territory, human nature gets better of you eventually. So after a while most of us started taking pictures of them in secret anyway. Whenever they noticed it, it was met with frosty looks of disapproval. But this was one battle they were bound to lose. If for no other reason, then because they were simply outnumbered.
North Korean passengers looked at entire show somewhat bemused, but then again, it didn't last forever. The flight was going to take an hour and a half or so, and after ten or fifteen minutes everyone who wanted to have a picture of Air Koryo flight attendants already had some. So cameras were tucked back into the handbags and we all turned to other things.
At one point, one of the flight attendants started going up and down the aisle and dispensing some printed material to whoever wanted to have some. I couldn't know if it was usual stuff they gave out to people or sheer propaganda publications. Judging by what we thought we knew about the North Korea, and by the fact that quite a lot of it was in English, it must have served propaganda purposes. But it also probably worked towards the goal of maintaining the indoctrination level of their own population at desirable degree. I would say we all in the group were clearly fascinated by what was on offer and the tray was shortly cleared of all it contained, as people grabbed everything they could lay their hands on
And then, pretty much on schedule, we landed on North Korean soil, for the first time in my life. However, we saw no airport buildings upon landing or any of the usual stuff you can commonly spot through airplane windows on other airports. Instead, we were taxiing down the runway seemingly forever through what looked like just an unpopulated countryside. Only an occasional rusty vehicle or equally desolate piece of machinery, apparently left by the wayside and coming far and wide in between, let on that we were down where people did live after all.
After what to me felt like ten minutes at least, I said to Mathew:
"This looks like a countryside ride in an airplane."
"Yes," he nodded, probably as much in wonder as I was.
Only at long last we arrived in front of the airport tower and a building with a huge portrait of Kim Il Sung, North Korean father of the nation and deity leader, or "Great Leader" as they still refer to him, flashing a full smile over everything and everybody, his perfect denture still in place
They've got no shuttle buses on the Pyongyang airport. Or if they have any, they were safely hidden when we arrived. So we just walked across to the airport building, under the watchful eye of a number of military or police officials, or maybe both. None of them grew up to be a basketball player, and most of us westerners trumped them in physical stature, but none of us had anything to match those huge parachute-size hats each one of them was wearing. I kept my camera at the ready and took pictures any chance I got, even if it was pretty easy to guess that those guys might feel rubbed in a wrong way if they saw me. However, I didn't do it openly, hoping I wouldn't get too conspicuous in the process. And either I really didn't or they just turned a blind eye. But I had no reason to believe they exercised any particular kindliness towards me. So I assumed I was simply invisible enough.
Airport building was nothing to brag about and I could remember very few I had seen, if any, that were not better equipped and more modern-looking. We went through passport control and some kind of luggage check, but nothing worth mentioning. Not nearly a hassle one would expect in a country called North Korea. In fact, you just hand a filled customs declaration form over to the official processing you, and that's all
I thought that was it. Except it wasn't. It was time to collect some paybacks, in this case the misprinted boarding card from back in BĕijÓng. Due to what had happened in China, I had no card on me. And I had to produce it on my way out at the other end of the airport building. No card, no way out. And no discussion.
And so I was simply stuck. Almost before I arrived. Welcome to North Korea.
I guess, someone must've noticed outside I was not around. So suddenly a tiny and cute lady appeared, not uniformed at all, and started explaining around something in Korean. I realised it was about me. Well, whatever it was, it worked
"Come, it's all right," she said in good English. I collected my luggage and followed her out into a cloudy and frowning afternoon, somehow matching the welcome we were extended by North Korean officials. Outside the airport building, done with the passport and customs control, I was finally in North Korea in full sense of the word.
I followed the lady over to a white, clean-looking, small bus parked outside the building and she ushered me in. This was going to be our vehicle for the next nine days, I realised. It was comfortable, up to any standards in the countries we all came from. By the time I entered, everyone was already on their seats, having taken all the places next to widows. I had to settle for one at the rear, between two guys, which meant I was the only one without a window view, not counting the rear window. But you can't spend all your time in the bus staring through the rear window at the receding landscape or cityscape, can you? Well, nothing could be done about it now.
I took a look at what I could see from the bus. There was not much. A number of cars, a few really, much fewer than is usual around airports in the rest of the world, but none of them any slouch at all. All Mercedes, Toyotas and other big class rides. And only two or three guys whose sense of fashion centred around what might have passed as an outfit in anti-utopian pre-special-effects science fiction movies from the sixties and seventies of the last century
Still strangers, people only slowly started getting to know each other, but in this very gradual, European, pretty introverted way. The guys around me nodded in my direction and said "hi". I nodded back, said "hi" as well, and now we were just waiting for the bus to get going.
"Does anyone know when we return in BĕijÓng?" I asked. I was just thinking about my promise to PingPing to call her as soon as I could, so we could organise my last day there.
"You already want to go back?" the guy to my right laughed. The few of us at the back of the bus joined in and the first ice was broken. Simon and four Koreans, all of them dressed in dark blue, almost black suits got in the bus and we finally got moving. Our visit to North Korea started at last.
One of the four Koreans was this English-speaking lady. She was sitting right behind the driver. Wasting no time, she grabbed the mike and addressed us all:
"Hello everybody and welcome to North Korea. My name is Mrs. Lee and I will be your interpreter during your visit here."
Smiling and nice, she was a stark contrast to all the North Koreans we had in one capacity or another come in touch so far
What we saw was unlike anything any of us had ever seen so far. In the dimming light of the late afternoon or early evening, our bus was gliding down broad avenues almost completely devoid of any cars, past larger-than-life monuments and through ever darker city. As there were almost no cars, there were many pedestrians and a reasonable number of cyclists. And even an ox cart for a good measure. All that in the first decade of the twenty first century in a country which allegedly possessed a capability to launch long-range rockets with nuclear heads. Seeing that ox cart, I knew that before our ride to the hotel was over I would overcome any inhibition instilled in us by the briefings and rumours of unforgiving treatment of transgressors of any sort on the part of North Korean officials, and start taking pictures in secret
The ox cart was gone before I could have it. I was hoping there would be another one. But unfortunately there was not. Instead, what we saw were people. Loads of people. Men dressed in grey or black, but women sometimes in bell-like long dresses of incredibly bright colours, often in the hues of pink, yellow and green. They all appeared to take unhurried strolls along Pyongyang's avenues with all the time of the world on their hands. And they crossed the streets wherever they pleased, never bothering to check for zebra crossings. After all, with no cars in sight, what for?
But for all that, on some of the intersections we were treated to an incredible sight of so-called traffic girls. They belonged to police, as far as I understood. Standing in the designated circle in the middle of her intersection, each one was immaculately dressed in sky-blue uniform, with blouse underneath, gloves, socks and cap in white, and tie and shoes of black. In the right hand she held red-and-white baton, and a whistle in her left, tools to direct non-existent traffic of North Korean capital. They all stood as upright as a lamppost and constantly moved in rigid, but obviously well-rehearsed movements, exerting an unquestionable authority over an odd stray vehicle every once in a long while. Everybody stared as transfixed.
From what we could see from the bus, they were all exceptionally pretty
"They are specially chosen by their beauty and all of them must be at least 1.63 m tall."
It was obvious they were the pride of the city, even if real need for them was not that obvious. But even if the only function they really served was to put some beauty on the face of Pyongyang, their presence in the streets was fully vindicated. Everyone tried to catch them with their cameras. And everyone noticed that. Both Mrs.Lee and Simon warned us:
"You may not take pictures of police and military!"
The bus ride was not too long. But the city got darker. There were hardly any city lights. Evidently, there seemed to be nothing like public or street life in the evening Pyongyang. Once the darkness fell over the city, like it was going to be the case in a matter of half an hour maybe, it seemed that all you could do, if you were a North Korean, was to retreat within the confines of your own home. And they were invariably so dimly lit, in some pale greenish light, whole tower blocks like that, that it all really looked like a different world to all of us, and certainly not the one any of us would gladly live in
As a consequence, much as we tried, none of us managed to take any pictures worth keeping from the moving bus. At least not that I knew.
And then we arrived at the Yanggakdo, or Yanggak Island.
Pyongyang is bisected by the Daedong river that S-curves through it and effectively divides the city in two parts. According to North Korean lore, the water of the river is allegedly so clean that it brought the river two additional names like Ongnyu, which translates as Clear Stream, and Chongnyu, meaning Blue Stream. However, I would have to be heavily sponsored to as much as dip my foot with a sock on into the Daedong. So much about its cleanness. Anyway, only within Pyongyang city limits, there are several islands on the river and one of them is Yanggakdo. And that particular island was of interest to us as our hotel was located there. The "Yanggakdo Gugje" hotel or "Yanggakdo International" hotel, the place where we would stay every night while in Pyongyang.
Of course, the section of the island where the hotel and its premises are is off limit to locals. Not counting those who work there, of course. Likewise, as soon as you pass the gate through the fence to the hotel grounds, you can't go on on your own any more. That was how our routine was going to look like while in Pyongyang
Once out of the bus and inside the lobby, we were told that we were lucky as "Arirang" Mass Games, easily the single most spectacular public event in North Korea, was still on and was in fact closing down for this year with tonight's show. So in short order we would check in, get less than an hour to spend in our rooms and then reassemble in the lobby to go to the Rungnado May Day Stadium for the final night of the spectacle. I got a room at the thirty fifth floor.
The hotel has forty seven floors in all and on the top floor there was allegedly a revolving restaurant. Being on an island, with no other high rises around, basically wherever in the hotel you were, above certain level you could have a splendid view of the city. And definitely so from the floor number thirty five. So I didn't spend much time in the room. I just left my things, checked the lights and if there was hot water in the bathroom - there was - picked the basics and stashed them in my small backpack. That was all. Soon I was in the corridors, looking for the best spots to possibly take my first pictures of the city.
Claudia and Tobias, the young German husband-and-wife couple in our group who were given a room on the same floor, seemed to have the same idea. So we together checked all the windows and tried all the angles for the best possible panorama
I had read reviews on "Yangakdo Gugje" hotel on Internet and I must say, now that I was there myself, I found a great deal of them haughty and snooty. They often went like Soviet-style architecture and uninspired lobby, unimaginative interior colours, slow escalators, "crunchy" pillows, BBC World on TV that wasn't always on, rather dim lights in rooms with a "serious shortage of power outlets to charging camera batteries and laptops" and probably my favourite, a Pulitzer Award material indeed, "rooms are very basic and aren't particularly comfortable but they aren't uncomfortable". Most of it was, I shall openly say, a sheer nonsense. Except for the fact that the lights were clearly dimmer than I'd like them to be, I wondered if everything else wasn't anything else than a sheer petulance. For that's what it looked like to me.
The way I saw the hotel, it was clean, the hot water was there, escalators worked all right and there were two places to plug your battery chargers in. Now, whether the wallpapers were "only" brown and yellow or not, I couldn't care less. I didn't intend to spend my time in the hotel staring at the walls
After all, we were in North Korea and we all had vastly better sleeping quarters than millions of locals would have on any given night. Even if we had had Sheraton or Hilton level of accommodation there, would it have made our trip any more interesting? Maybe to some people. But if so, they come to the wrong place anyway.
It seemed that no one form our group belonged among the likes of such, though. Everyone seemed quite happy with the rooms we had. Nicole, the blonde English lady, seemed so fascinated by what little she had seen so far
"I wrote so much in my diary already!" she exclaimed with shiny eyes.
We gathered all and Simon and Mrs. Lee were collecting money for the "Arirang" entrance tickets. They were divided in four price categories, third, second and first class, and so called VIP tickets.
"I would say that you either buy yourself third class, if you want cheaper seats, or first class, if you want better seats. Second class and VIP's are really not worth the price difference."
The price difference between first and third class tickets was substantial. I was one of the few who had not bought any US dollars in China, so I was paying in euro. That meant I would either give one hundred and twenty euro for a first class ticket or forty for a third class one. I asked Simon what the difference between them was. He wasn't entirely specific. Michael, another Australian from our group drew near, as he seemed to have the same dilemma in his mind. So I asked Simon straight:
"If you were me, what would you do? Is the price difference really worth the difference?"
He thought a bit and said:
"For a first-time visitor, I would say yes
I nodded. That was the clincher, as far as I was concerned. Michael seemed to be persuaded the same way, and we both bought ourselves first class seats for this evening.
Soon we were in the bus again. Streets of Pyongyang were by now completely dark. Pale greenish household lights from those huge residential blocks were just tiny specks which didn't help any and only made the whole outside more eerie. Locals were obviously used to it, maybe not even knowing better, and they walked about - or rode occasional bicycles - quite unfazed. But to us in the bus, used to different outdoors settings, it all looked rather spooky.
However, lights or no lights, driving around Pyongyang cannot really be described as a skill you'd need a diploma for. If you wanted a car accident, I'd think you'd probably have to search for one yourself, and the way it looked to me, the main danger lay in possibly skidding off the road. Unless your vehicle had headlights, that is. And as our bus had them, we safely arrived at another river islands of Pyongyang, Rungnado, where its namesake Rungnado May Day Stadium was looming.
And what a stadium it was. They say when full, it can seat 150000 people
Our bus pulled up almost in front of the main gate and parked in a row of several more buses. Before we got out, Mrs. Lee pointed out a few details on our vehicle for us so we could easily identify it once the Mass Games were over. And then we were out, for the first time outside the Yanggakdo.
We emerged onto a large plateau which you enter the stadium from, and where a few stands, small tents, really, were pitched in order to sell a few souvenirs to us foreigners and maybe distribute some propaganda material to locals. The place wasn't all that crowded. Maybe the sheer scale of the premises dwarfed the crowd, but I had certainly attended football games where you really had to elbow for some space. Here it wasn't a case.
However, the real action, at least in this pre-show stage, seemed to be unfolding below the plateau we were on, on a kind of square you could descend to by way of a broad stairway. Most of local people were still there, strolling around. The square was rather lit, at least by North Korean standards, with water fountains sending jets straight high up but also in arcs aside, and there was music from loudspeakers
"No," he said flatly and motioned for me to join the others. So what could I do? Raise some hell and test the limits the tolerance of our guides could be stretched to? And all that after we had hardly arrived? I decided to drop it and join the group. Not that I had much choice anyway.
And at the entrance, some of my group mates were taking their turns at taking pictures with one of the Korean ladies at one of the souvenir stalls. None of us seemed particularly interested in revolutionary music and some were only mildly attracted to some printed material
Let it be noted that none of the four girls in our group bothered to join in this unscheduled photo op.
And then we were finally given the tickets and were ushered to our seats.
Nine of us opted for first class tickets. Five others took third class seats. Simon and Mr. Lee went with them. Mr. Sung joined us first-classers.
The stadium was huge indeed. It looked even more so from the inside. The seats we had were really great, just a bit down and to the side from the most central seat of all, the one which, as Simon told us, this entire spectacle was choreographed and lined according to
Straight across the pitch, right on the opposite side from us, there was a huge wall of, as some said, at least twenty thousand people who each held their own set of coloured flashcards and were a part of entire show. We still had some fifteen minutes left to go until the kick-off, but there were already constant and monumental murmurs swelling from those flashcards holders, followed by some enthusiastic screams of thousands of women. And then it would all end with a hefty round of applause. Then all over again. And all of that like on a cue, so I had an impression they were just building up tension and rising the atmosphere. Which, if it was the case, they were doing just fine. Because at least all of us in the group were almost like hypnotised.
At seven thirty it all began. The music came out blasting from loudspeakers, lights poured like we were at a space centre and thousands upon thousands of participants started spilling out of numerous pitch-level entrances. And the human wall began flashing those cards, creating huge background mosaics of most improbable pictures as a visual setting the show on the pitch was staged against. Two huge red-white-and-blue North Korean flags were draped from up high in two corners of the stadium, one to the left from us above the number 1948 and the other to the right above 2008
Arirang is the name of the most famous Korean folk song. I heard it many times in the south and I remember that even Hye Seung sang it at the New Year's Eve in Bukhara. I don't know what exactly Arirang means, but I am positive that most of Koreans lost the meaning, too, and over the years it became a word without a true meaning or with a meaning in its own right. Simply Arirang. What I didn't know, but why should it be a surprise, was that they used the word as much in North Korea as they did in the south. After all, why not? They were the same people with same language and same written characters. Even with same history, except for the last sixty years or so.
Arirang Mass Games, a colourful ninety-minute extravaganza of dashing mass gymnastics, some stunning artistic performance and ever-changing flip-cards, sought to recount the story of Korea, it's history, sad partition and hope for eventual reunification. That said, the central figure all the time to it was the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, and everything spun around his "immortal feats". To a somewhat lesser extent, but in no way neglected, there were also exploits of his heir, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, with his hairdo like you plugged him into an electric socket, and it was at times funny, or outright bizarre, to watch this huge personality cult in action
Mr. Sung was sitting close to me. Only Michael was between us, so every now and then I would lean to Mr. Sung and ask him to interpret for me whatever was written on the huge display at that particular point above the terraces occupied by flipping flashcard holders. He was pleased with my ability to read Korean even if at first he didn't quite believe I could do it. But I could, and not only that. I managed to translate a few very basic words like "pyeonghwa" for "peace" and "jayu" for freedom, so eventually he was convinced. My most basic Korean knowledge most certainly didn't do me any harm, that was evident.
Anyway, from what I could gather there, and from what Mr. Sung told me, I came to believe that Arirang in this show symbolised love which went through a lot of hard times but eventually achieved its happy ending. Or in this metaphorical sense, eventual reunification of two Koreas. It was clear right from the word go that Koreans on both sides of the border had one thing in common. They all wanted to unify. What was less clear was under what terms, but that would be finer print anyway.
Our cameras went on clicking incessantly. No matter what you may think about the local regime, and I would suspect that most of us in the group thought the same, and regardless of the fact that they seemed to splash out so much light in an otherwise dark and unlit city on a basically useless show, we had to hand it to Koreans that it was spectacular
"This is fantastic," Pim, who was sitting to my right side, said.
I would say we were all impressed no end. But then again, wasn't it precisely what Koreans wanted to do?
The show went on towards its climax and when it finally ended, we had to admit that our stay in North Korea had begun on a spectacular note indeed. First one out, and already Mass Games.
After we had gathered again at the gate, Gul, an Indian from Singapore, and the oldest member of our group, asked Mr. Lee how they synchronised all those flashing cards to create the images the way they had.
"It's a secret," Mr. Lee said conspiratorially and with a wink, and the way he said it made us all laugh. It looked certain he would let us on on the secret behind this enormous, ever-changing human wallpaper by the time our tour ended. But for now it was enough that we could laugh together and realise that, no matter what some people thought, North Koreans were only people.
Just like us.
After the Mass Games we went back into the bus and through pitch dark streets of Pyongyang went to a restaurant for dinner. I ended up at a table with Pim, Giana and Angela, our two youngest group members, girls from Brazil, who, by the way, spoke flawless American version of English. So little by little, we were all getting to know each other.