Pyongyang, October 10, 2008, Friday (continued)

Trip Start Sep 26, 2008
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Trip End Oct 18, 2008


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Flag of Korea Dem Peoples Rep  ,
Sunday, June 7, 2009

But what increasingly drew attention of us all were ever more frequent groups of local people, same as the first one under that pine tree, sitting around, eating, drinking and, believe it or not, having fun. Of course, why wouldn't they have fun? But then again, we had all arrived in North Korea, each with our own baggage of prejudices, and some of them certainly held that notion that North Koreans were living in such an authoritarian society where everyone possibly spied on everyone else, so much so that at the end of the day entire population ended up scared shitless. Everyone except the Big Brother, Kim Jong Il, that is. And by extension, having fun out in the open would be like letting your guard down and exposing yourself and whatever vulnerabilities you had to whoever might consider exploiting them as opportune. That's what most of us thought. I guess I did, as well, to an extent. Even if I came from what used to be a communist country and knew first-hand that people were people with friends and families, joys and sorrows, jokes and pranks even under such regimes. They were certainly no puppets, much as the regime would like that. And yet, we somehow all felt, each one to their own extent, that public laughter here in North Korea would be an orchestrated thing, well rehearsed and then rendered according to a printed officially sanctioned script.

What we saw in Moran Bong park didn't entirely fit that description. People clearly enjoyed themselves. And in ways that were, perhaps sadly, a rapidly vanishing species in the west, close to the brink of complete extermination. I can't remember when I last saw so many people out in the open, sitting on blankets, with an occasional tape recorder which must have last been used during the times of ancient Rome, with food and drink, and laughing. At the sight of us some got coy, but some didn't. Quite a few were boozed up and booze is famously often an elixir of courage. So those sozzled openly stared at us and many realised along the way that we were neither monsters nor enemies.

We started taking pictures of what suddenly turned into the most interesting thing in North Korea so far, beating even the Arirang Mass Games the night before. And interestingly enough, locals didn't frown at all. Out there in the sun, the tipple dissolving whatever fears and worries they might have otherwise had, they smiled broadly, waved to us and - invited us to join them. I was the first one to break the ranks and step on the grass. A group of young people - the young are the more courageous lot anyway - at least ten of them, were inviting enough that I went up to them, smiling broadly and they smiled back. I shook hands with whoever was ready to shake them, and many were. That brought forth a lot of laughter. The whole atmosphere was very jovial and relaxed, and in this suddenly baking hot early afternoon most of the guys in this particular group were dressed down to simple undershirts. Little effort was spared for formalities here.

Of course, none of them spoke a word of English, but that would have been too much to expect anyway. But we were fast becoming good friends just the same, and so I motioned with my camera, indicating I'd like to take a photo of the group. They couldn't be happier to oblige me. And then the unthinkable happened. The ultimate horror story. The battery in my camera got exhausted and had to be recharged. And the spare one was in the bus. In good faith that we would take only fifteen minutes as Mrs Lee had said, I had left it all there. Precisely at the point when we had this, maybe unique opportunity to see locals from close up. I was devastated.

Mr Sung and Mr Lee tried to get us back into the fold, but by now it was largely too late. Seeing my example, Giana and Angela, Gul the Indian from Singapore, James and Nicole, they were all out, taking pictures and having their close encounter with locals. And others were shedding their apprehensions in short order, as well. I am not entirely sure if our guides had something like that in mind or things simply got out of hand, but it seemed that this was more fun than anyone had anticipated. And locals enjoyed it, too.

I was the only one who would end up without any pictures.

But I tried to enjoy it at least. Suddenly we simply took it for granted that we could contact locals after all. We waved, we smiled, we shook hands and in one group a young guy started shouting after me:

"Hello, I am sorry!"

I waved at him and gave him a thumb-up and he repeated again:

"Hello, I am sorry!"

Everyone around him laughed and I realised it was the only phrase he could say in English. But that was his way of initiating a conversation, and probably more than any of his friends could say. We laughed too. So I went up to the group, shook his hand, and, knowing fully well he wouldn't understand a single word, said:

"Hello, my friend, how are you?"

"Hello, I am sorry!" he repeated and offered me a bite of something. Whatever it was, I took it to a round of applause from around the blanket. Whatever we wanted to think, this was North Korea, too.

We moved on. Almost every group of picnickers we came across, and there were many, drew out at least someone from our group. In one of the groups I was offered a drink in a tiny, white plastic cup. I knew it had to be something strong. And I had not drunk any of the hard stuff for many years. But I wouldn't - couldn't - refuse this one. So I held the cup, followed by tense expectation on the faces of the people who'd offered it to me, took a nip from it, pulled a face with an affectation and, feigning the deadly effect on me, and exclaimed loudly:

"Phew!"

This cheap show on my part, a stupid little acting out indeed, still somehow managed to elicit an enthusiastic response from the people. I suppose I was simply given a credit every friendly local will always give a friendly foreigner, particularly if meeting foreigners doesn't come so easy. So as a reward I was offered another cup. More of the same. To even more laughter. Even Mrs Lee laughed with delight. And Mr Lee and Mr Sung displayed their approval by simply not urging me to leave. But I had not drunk for years, indeed. And I didn't intend to go on a binge in Pyongyang just because I had an improbable opportunity to get pissed with North Koreans. So I politely declined, shook a few more hands and left.

And then, right behind the summit, with crowd thickening, we heard music. Rather basic, with an emphasis on percussion rather than melody, but music nevertheless. It was a breed of something both Korean and revolutionary, pretty unusual to our ears, but when we finally had a chance to see what it was, into our sight came a crowd of people, of all ages, dancing to a tune from creaking loudspeakers on a large, wooded grass slope. Of course, not everyone was dancing. Many were sitting and picnicking here, too. Quite a few strolled around. But this was obviously a spot where the hub of the party was.

We stopped and watched. And those who had their cameras functioning, which meant everyone but me, took pictures. I thought it would be it. We were given another chance to see dancing locals so let's photograph them. But there was more in store. More than one person in the crowd was drunk. And so at one point, an elderly lady dressed in one of those peculiar bell-like pastel-coloured dresses climbed up to the path where we stood, and where a growing crowd of locals considered us as much of a show as we considered them, and she grabbed James's hand and dragged him down to the dance. He first hesitated a bit, but then he just deferred to her. And that was a sign for an all-out grab for dancing partners from our group. Korean guys didn't climb up. I guess they were too shy. But ladies, all of them elderly, were unapologetic. They reached out, each one for her own pick, and soon most of the fourteen of us were down at the grass slope, dancing with locals, finally having an opportunity to get in among them as close as possible.

Just a few of us didn't dance. Our Germans, Claudia and Tobias, stayed up on the paved path only taking pictures. Nicole didn't dance either. And Simon and I joined another group of picnickers for another quick bite. And all along tens of locals gathered up there, watched the show with big smiles and I finally had a feeling that we were all enjoying the same thing, giving it large as one big group. No boundaries between us along any lines any more.

Even our North Korean guides now let us enjoy the whole thing. They patiently waited for a while, not interfering and spoiling the party. Until they finally had to. Because it was time to go. So one by one we gathered, waved the dancing crowd good bye and started climbing down the hill through the park towards our bus. We saw more dancing people everywhere who behaved with such an abandon that it seriously threw into doubt all we had thought we knew about this country. Whatever we thought we knew, we clearly didn't know much yet.

Back in the bus, I grabbed my things, put the spare battery into my camera and asked Mr Lee for five minutes so that I too could have a picture or two of the picnic and park party of my own. He gave me those five minutes and I ran back a bit to catch a few pictures. It was just a consolation prize, but better than nothing.

And then it was time to go.

Next thing on our programme was the May Day Stadium again, Mass Games again, this time titled "Prosper My Country". We came earlier than the first time and interestingly enough, today our bus didn't pull over and park up there in front of the entrance gate, but down on the square where the night before I had been so eager to mingle with people, but Mr Lee wouldn't allow me. Quite inexplicably there were no such restrictions imposed on us today and we could roam and take pictures freely for as long as we were within sight. Many people where there, some even climbing up the stairs to enter the stadium, but many more seemed to enjoy just being around and in the sun. We saw a lot of kids, literally hundreds of them, in coloured sporting outfits who would obviously soon be the part of the show. They were streaming towards the stadium, only towards some of the rear gates. They watched us, we watched them and whenever we took pictures of them they smiled and shied away. Shaking hands obviously worked wonders here and at one point I picked one teenager in a long line of participants who was saying something to his mates after I had photographed them. They all laughed at whatever he had said. I approached them as they were moving by relatively slowly and shook the teen's hand. The kid responded, blushed and everyone around him laughed hilariously. And our guides hardly twitched an eyebrow.

Which made me very curious. So I went up to Mrs Lee and asked:

"Mrs Lee, can you tell me why we are allowed to take pictures freely here today and couldn't do it last night?"

She looked at me puzzled:

"You couldn't?"

"No. I was standing up there by the wall last night and saw people here around the fountain. I asked Mr Lee if I could come down here to take a few pictures. He said no."

"Really?" she seemed genuinely surprised. "He said so?"

"Yes, that's what he said."

She didn't answer. But clearly there was a lot of rules here which were made as we went and no one knew exactly when they would apply and when not. This one must have been the Mr Lee Rule. Not that it mattered now. But it did elicit my curiosity. And shed a tiny ray of light on things here. I suppose our guides were simply gradually warming up to us. And getting more relaxed around us in the process. Whereas at first it had been better being safe than sorry.

And then it was time for the Mass Games again. This time all of us took the cheap seats. The only exception was Gul who again bought a first class ticket. The enormous May Day Stadium again wasn't full and we were again tempted to think there were more participants than spectators. Right below us there was a group of North Korean bigwigs, dressed up in sharp dark blue suits with white shirts and ties, in stark contrast to the drab clothing of vast majority of Korean masses. And among them there was one westerner, clearly enjoying an honourable status. Some of them had digital cameras.

The show was pretty much similar to what we had seen last night. Spectacular for sure, but once you see it, next time is just a repetition. A lot of mass choreography, athletes and gymnasts, ballet dancers and acrobats, flags in tens and hundreds on the pitch, and flip cards in the thousands on the opposite side of the stadium. Add to it a very sunny mid-afternoon weather, lack of sleep and easing of the tension in my body, I suddenly started feeling sleepy like I'd not slept for days. Mass Games or not, right then and there I wished I could have a nap more than anything else in the world. Which obviously proved Simon right. It's justifiable to pay the high price for the ticket only first time. Second time around no way.

Yawning like a croc all along, I barely survived with my eyes open until the end of the show. I guess the thing that woke me up most was the moment of realisation that the Mass Games were over.

On the exit from the stadium a secret bit the dust. Gul came up with an explanation for the perfect sync the flashcard toters worked in:

"Mr Sung says that opposite from them, up there on the roof on our side of the stadium there's a display with a count-down in seconds. They all know the sequence and the display just tells them when to change the card."

Simple and efficient.

Back out on the square in front of the stadium, with all the crowd and young athletes and dancers, I felt alive and alert again. Which also meant that Mass Games in its essence contained less than met the eye at first. Otherwise I couldn't have been that bored today. OK, maybe not bored. Sleepy.

We lingered around a bit more and then it was time to board our bus again and go to the next thing on our schedule for today.

"Now we are going to visit fun fair," Mrs Lee explained. "This is where people of Pyongyang go in their free time or often after a visit to Grand Monument. You will have an opportunity to see people and children enjoy themselves there and also join them if you wish."

Simon took over explaining that there were rides on the fun fair which we might try ourselves if we fancied it. Some of them at least. Each ride would cost us a euro and whoever felt like going up on something or other, like roller-coaster for instance, was welcome to give it a whirl.

It turned out the fun fair was below the Moran Bong Hill, and just off the Square of Triumphal Return where the Arch of Triumph was situated. Fun fair itself was another pretty crowded affair with a lot of locals having fun on old-fashioned attractions which must have been fazed out in most of Europe decades ago. At least in the shape they were in here in Pyongyang. However, precisely for this time-warp quality, as if being plucked out from another era, which in a way they were, they were a real attraction to us too. Only in a different way. As by now a commonplace, our arrival there was an attraction to local visitors in its own right.

First in a row was a combination of a merry-go-round and a saucer. The thing turned around like a merry-go-round, but in its shape was more like a saucer or a bowl. People sat on a long circular bench along the inside of its outer rim, crammed next to each other, each holding tight a kind of railing to keep position. As an added feature, it also went up and down like a shallow vessel tossed around by rough seas. Just so it would make people inside a bit sicker. And those outside a bit happier. Its whole motion and whirl was controlled by a guy in some kind of metal cabin who not only started the thing and stopped it, but could also intensify or reduce its momentum. The queue for this was huge.

However, as a foreign visitors, we had a preferential treatment. A few of us volunteered and, officially sanctioned by everyone around, jumped the queue to board the saucer for the next ride. Never big on fun fair entertainment, I opted to watch from the sidelines. Pim, James, Michael, Tobias, Eddie and Chris went up. They were joined by a fair number of locals, even if this time the saucer was less crowded and no ladies were in for the party. The moment it moved, we all knew why.

Like a colt with a swarm of wasps thrown between its hind legs, the saucer started jumping and whirling madly like you'd never have told just a minute ago. The saucer driver evidently decided to give the western guests the good run for their money and for the proper measure added a few hefty jolts to the already much faster spin. The whole show left no one indifferent. Watching crowd was clearly delighted and everyone laughed as if watching the comedy of a lifetime. Mrs Lee was laughing like a little girl and the few off us wise enough to stay on the solid ground cheered our guys on.

And they, on their part, were even less indifferent, with their stomachs in their throats and their faces showing a richer display of colours than the fast-changing traffic lights. A few of them tried to put on a smile but most of them gave up, focusing instead solely on holding the railing bar tight, particularly when the cavorting saucer sent them jumping inches up from the bench. It was fun. And it was fair, certainly in the view of jumping the queue. Except that it probably seemed neither fun nor fair to them. Nor to those poor local sods who had a bad luck to pitch in with foreigners.

After what seemed too short for everyone outside and like forever to everyone inside, the saucer driver finally found some mercy in his heart and pulled it to a stop. Our heroes came out wobbly and shaking, the locals looking no better. But at least they all now had a story to tell.

The next off was a rickety roller-coaster. Rusty to the point of an eye-sore, looking so dilapidated as if they had recently taken it out after years of being in the sea-water, I wouldn't have gone up there unless heavily sponsored. And probably properly pissed. As neither of it was in the cards, I stayed put again. But our fun-seeking and thrill-chasing members saw it as a joke after being at the mercy of blood-thirsty saucer driver and living to talk about it. A roller-coaster in an advanced state of disrepair could hardly be considered a challenge. So they went up for another ride.

And they were right. After few seconds it was clear that nothing remotely funny was going to happen. The cars on the rails squeaked and rattled, but that was all. And this ride was much longer than the saucer spin a few minutes back. So the rest of us soon turned to other things. I was watching locals queuing up for a huge spinning wheel, looking menacingly rusty and in a need of more than just repainting. It could well do with a complete overhaul and refurbishing. But the people couldn't seem to care less. Was it because they didn't know better or they just saw in it more than we did, I couldn't tell. The thing is, they went up undaunted. There was also a spot where you could pay for an air-rifle and shoot a target. That too seemed popular. Unfortunately, as usual, we were not allowed to wander anywhere far, so I couldn't check what else there was around. I settled for watching people.

Which was always fun. Particularly here in North Korea.

From somewhere we started hearing music. It wasn't on the fun fair grounds. Somewhere from outside, rather. Well, the festivities in Pyongyang seemed to go on.

Our guys finally came down. James immediately took his ball out and we found a grassy clearing, not exactly horizontal and entirely level, but it did fine anyway. So we started kicking the ball, not really playing any game for a scoreline, but rather passing it around. And no one was surprised to discover that local guys spoke the universal language of football as fluently as anyone in the world. A few joined us and the ball was being kicked around, rendering inconsequential any differences that might have existed between us and bridging any gaps created by people who shouldn't have created them in the first place. The crowd gathered all around, just as everywhere where they were allowed to, watching as if they were witnessing final stages of the most recent European Champions League finals. This was again good old football talking, football at its best, a means of striking up friendship. Even our guides felt relaxed by now and none of them seemed particularly perturbed by the fact that their fellow countrymen and the foreigners under their wing shared a game. In fact, even the stern Mr Lee proved not to be stern at all and joined us for a few kicks. This whole tour adopted an increasingly human face. And we all loved it for it.

The music was blaring on somewhere outside. And our guides let us know that it was now time for us to go. There were more things on today's agenda. Simon collected money for the rides from those who had taken them, handed it over to some of our Koreans and we went out.

And then we faced the music.

There on the Square of the Triumphal Return, by the Arch of Triumph, we saw one of the most colourful scenes since our arrival. In what was by now late afternoon, under the gradually sinking sun, literally hundreds of Koreans were dancing to the music from some pre-Deluge loudspeakers mounted on top of a small, rusty van. Against the setting of the Arch itself, numerous red party flags and a huge mural depicting the scene of the Great Leader giving his speech to cheering masses upon his return, people of Pyongyang were dancing now in celebration of their ruling party's day. All the ladies, without exception, were in those peculiar dresses. All the guys were in western-style suits. And all the music was something revolutionary and Korean.

There was no Ella-and-Satchmo dancing cheek to cheek. Nowhere near. There was no tango-style emotional charge in the air. People were on a decent distance and putting one's arm around the partner's waist or neck was definitely off bounds. Holding each other's hands was in order and as far as they could go. There was a fair amount of rhythmic clapping and circling each other. No morally dubious lines were crossed. And the open-air ball was clearly fantastic.

Spellbound, we stopped and watched, cameras clicking like it was the end of the world. People at first pretended they didn't notice us. But they did, of course. And then the miraculous thing happened. Mrs Lee, of her own accord, asked:

"Would someone join the dance?"

We had obviously come a long way indeed. From at first being banned from any contact with people to getting an offer by our guides if we would dance at the end of the day. Everyone was taken aback, not expecting the offer. So no one was prepared to jump into the cold water. But Mrs Lee almost insisted.

Simon decided to break the ice. Mrs Lee went to one of the dancing ladies and said something. One giggled and covered her face with her hands. The next one didn't show readiness straight away, either, but it really didn't take long until one of them was cool with a prospect of dancing with a tall and bulky westerner. And once Simon joined the crowd, many of the guys followed him. First Eddie and Chris, the Brits, then James, Joseph and Mathew, the Australians, and finally Pim.

None of them really caught the drift of the steps being danced. Simon threw in some disco moves to facilitate the whole thing. Others wobbled and hobbled as best as they could. None of them was a study in elegance and dash. But no one cared. The guys were just kicking up their heels and the North Korean ladies loved it. And some of them were stunningly pretty. For all that it was worth.

And then it was time to go. We had not gone fully through our schedule for today yet, so our time was limited. Reluctantly, we left the square and the dancing crowd. We waved, they waved back. We went to our bus and they stayed on the square, under the Arch and the mural and the setting sun.

The big national holiday was gradually drawing to its close.
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