(Photo by Wally.)
After the school visit we had lunch in a hotel dining room a couple of streets over. Again, it was slightly weird as we were the only people there. We were ushered into an empty, echoing lobby, past the (unstaffed) gift shop filled with books about the leaders, stamps, perfume and the like, around a corner and into a smallish dining room. I couldn’t help but wonder what the wait staff and reception people, not to mention the chef, would have done if we weren’t there. Would they even bother coming in to work??
After lunch we were hanging around outside for a while, looking at the locals while they looked back at us. Pyongsong is a large regional city and it was really surprising to see the roads in such disrepair. As James said to me, “You’d think they’d put the soldiers to work repairing the roads rather than building monuments and satellites…”
This impression only deepened as we travelled deeper into the countryside. We were headed to one of the most lavish hotels in the country, where we’d stay overnight and then we’d visit the International Friendship Exhibition House the next day.
I’ve shown you lots of road trip photos, however I haven’t really written about just how many soldiers we saw working on ditches at the side of the road. They weren’t working ON the road, as far as we could see. They were usually out in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, busily digging ditches or working on what may have been irrigation. I don’t know, I’m not a farmer. But the bus would travel for miles without passing anyone except the odd worker in a field, and then all of a sudden there’s be huge clumps of people working on some project or other by the side of the road. Still, I suppose food production is more important than potholes in barely-used roads. We’d go for ages without seeing another car or bus.
It was a long drive. Some of us, including me, took naps. The driver played a Russian movie and then ‘Up” on the screen at the front of the bus. We drove for miles past a river with gold miners standing up to their thighs in water, panning for gold. Reminded me of taking the kids to Sovereign Hill in Ballarat, years ago. At about 3:30, we caught our first glimpse of the hotel we’d be staying in for the night.
The Hyangsan Hotel. This place is built on a lavish scale. Marble is EVERYWHERE, with huge flower arrangements and glass and ornate lighting all over the place. I’ll show you what it looked like at the end of this post. Funny thing was – we were the only guests…
Yes. All this luxury for just 12 tourists, 3 guides and the bus driver. There was probably more staff here than customers. We raced in and received our door keys. We were in a hurry because we were going to go on a hike on the mountain and we wanted to have as much daylight to play with as possible. Unfortunately, the electronic door keys didn’t work. All this glitz and yet this happens… We had to wait for a staff member to come up and let us in before we could get ready to go. However, I’m pleased to report that the underfloor heating in my ensuite was toasty warm.
We met in the foyer and drove off to a place where the bus could be parked and we’d make our way to the summit of Mt Myohyang. We arrived at what looked like a picnic ground, then as we started walking towards a trail, we heard the sound of many marching feet. Mr Pak motioned us back towards the side of a little building. Out from between the trees emerged a long line of soldiers. They were all in uniform with guns as long as I am slung over their shoulders. They marched past us, all with serious faces and all in step and disappeared around the side of the building. Mr Pak wouldn’t let us move to have a look or to keep walking until the soldiers had finished whatever it was they were doing. There was a bit of what sounded like yelling orders, presenting arms and stuff like that, then they moved away.
The first thing we saw after we walked past a few buildings was this ancient Buddhist graveyard. Yes, the grave markers look very much like… they are boys buried there. This was deliberate, according to Un Ha, but I can’t remember the reason for it.
It was about a 5km walk to the summit. I walked it for about 2kms, but then I thought I was going to die. OMG. That hike was not for the unfit and indolent! The 3 guides were bringing up the rear. I was sitting by the side of the track and I asked if I could go back to the bus. Un Ha looked a bit worried, but I knew that she wanted to continue with hike with the others. I didn’t want to have to make her accompany me back down the track, like some selfish fat westerner with no consideration.
So I said, “The bus is still parked at the end of the track, yeah?” They nodded. “There’s only one track in or out, so I can’t get lost. I’ll just walk back and meet you all at the bus. Couldn’t be simpler.”
Famous last words, as it turned out, but we weren’t to know that at the time. They agreed, so I waved goodbye to them and turned to make my way back.
There they go…
So off I went. I decided very early on to walk slowly and take it all in. It’d take them a fair amount of time to reach the summit, look at the view and then get themselves down, so I had all the time in the world.
Mt Myohyang, otherwise known as the Mysterious Fragrant mountain due to the pine trees scenting the air, is one of the 6 sacred mountains of the Korean peninsula. Smallest, cutest pine cones I’ve ever seen.
It didn’t take long for me to start revelling in the peace and quiet. In a whole week, the only times I’d been alone was when I was in my hotel room. Don’t get me wrong, this trip was fantastic and I was having a blast! But for someone who identifies very strongly as an extroverted introvert, the introvert definitely needed some recharging.
I slowly walked back down the track, taking photos along the way. I didn’t rush; I just drank it all in.
The silence. The air.
The ability to notice little things. I truly think this was the only piece of litter I saw during my whole time in North Korea.
These photos are only a few of what I took. It took me ages to go through them and cull them.
But without a word of a lie, I was so happy. It was the Best Decision Ever to pull the pin on the hike and to be able to walk around on my own here.
All I could hear was the sound of running water from the creek nearby. Would it be called a ‘creek’ in North Korea? Maybe it’s a ‘brook’.
Talk about Fortunate Frogdancer! Who would have ever believed that a foreign tourist would be allowed to walk totally on her own in the middle of North Korea? This wasn’t what we hear about when we hear stories in the west.
Isn’t life wonderful? You can never predict what’s going to happen. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that one day I’d be ambling through the woods on a North Korean mountain, totally alone and feeling totally safe and happy.
I liked the way they utilised the natural features along the trail.
It was good that I’m so short. This little hole didn’t allow much headroom.
Well, I HAD to take a selfie. How else could I prove that I was actually here?
A couple of times I heard birdsong, but try as I might I could never see the birds. It’s pretty rare to hear birds in this country. It was nice.
A couple of times something like this would pop up.
I don’t know long I was out there for, but after a while I noticed that the light was beginning to fade. I picked up the pace a bit.
It was beginning to get a little cooler.
As I’m writing this it’s just after wine o’clock. I’ve poured myself a glass of Aldi chardonnay and I’m smiling. All those years of living hand-to-mouth when the boys were small and then all the years of watching every penny – all of those little decisions of where and when to spend my money led me here – to a place where very few people get to see, and even fewer get to see on their own. I love my life!
Oops. Got off track. (Ironic that I said this, as it happens.) The light grew dimmer and I walked faster. I didn’t fancy walking down here in the dark and I DEFINITELY didn’t want to keep the others waiting back at the bus. I’d never hear the end of it.
Where the bloody hell were the buildings and the Buddhist graveyard?
At last! Dusk was definitely setting in. I prowled a little bit around the Buddhist graveyard, taking more photos and then set off down the track again.
No worries. Nearly back at the picnic ground!
I emerged from the track to see this big pavilion. I had absolutely NO recollection of seeing this before. Surely I’d remember it? It’s pretty damned big…
It was getting darker. Not to worry. I’d simply retrace my steps and see if there was any way I could’ve taken another path. I didn’t see how it was possible, but maybe I did. It was all ok. I’d walk back, keeping my eyes peeled for any side tracks and I’d make it back to the bus without anyone being the wiser.
As I walked back along the track, I decided that if I reached the Buddhist graveyard without seeing a viable track, then it meant that I was correct the first time and I’d have to scout around at the whopping-big-pavilion-that-anyone-would-be-sure –to-remember-if-they’d-ever-walked-past-it, and see if I could find my way back to the bus.
The light was really fading now. I held my phone and thought that soon I’d have to switch on the flashlight. I reached the graveyard and sighed. Great. I’d second-guessed myself and I should’ve scouted around instead of coming back. Idiot! I turned and started going back down the path beside the high stone fence.
It was dark. Then out of nowhere, I heard singing. Lots of male voices singing. In Korean. Just a couple of hundred metres away, by the sound of things.
Fuck. I was near the army camp. In the dark. With an iPhone, capable of taking pictures. On my own. Not actually a Korean national.
I rolled my eyes and smiled wryly. This’d be great. Frogdancer, the espionage queen… spying on the DPRK for my mighty blog.
I was never once scared, but I really didn’t want to be hauled away and need the guides to come after me and explain who I was etc, especially after I was the one who said I’d be fine. Now this would be something that I’d DEFINITELY never hear the end of! I kept walking. After a couple of songs it all went quiet and I came out near the pavilion again.
As I walked around, I saw an entrance to the road that I hadn’t noticed before. I walked onto the road and turned right. It seemed like it was the correct way to go. A motorcycle zoomed past me. I kept walking.
A woman walked out of a driveway and I asked her if she knew where the bus would be. The only Korean I knew off by heart was ” Chuk Bae” (Cheers! We were on the soju bus, after all), and she knew no English, but maybe the look of quiet desperation in my eyes transcended all language barriers. She nodded, smiled and pointed in the direction I was already going. I thanked her and soon, I rounded a corner and there it was.
I was the first one back. THANK GOD!!!! I caused no trouble, worry or aggravation. Phew! I climbed into the bus and opened up a couple of sojus for myself and the bus driver. He didn’t speak English either, so he showed me pictures of his wife and kids on his phone and I showed him pictures of my kids and Venice and South Africa walking with the lions in the open on mine. It was really nice.
Then after about 20 minutes the others came back. Guess what? You remember the military singing that I heard? THEY WERE SINGING TO MY GROUP! They encountered each other on the trail and the soldiers gave them a friendly little concert. Bloody hell. They all laughed when I described to them how different it sounded from a couple of hundred metres away, alone and in the dark.
The dining room. So many seats… so few people. It was a little eerie to be the only ones, to be honest. I know that everyone complains when restaurants are too noisy and crowded, but this was echoey and a little cold. Not cold as in temperature, just atmosphere.
But I was hungry. I could hardly wait for the rest of my table to join me.
BREAD! This place has bread! It wasn’t the best bread I’d ever eaten, but it was nice to see it again.
Look at this place. This is looking down into the lobby as we left the dining room to have a bit of a wander around the hotel. The fake flower arrangements were everywhere, along with the gleaming marble.
The Korean workers must hate the way tourists dress. We certainly don’t look as if we fit seamlessly into these glamorous surroundings!
The pool. There were 3 attendants, which matched our Korean guides and Niall, who all decided to pay for a swim.
While we were looking at the pool, Niall emerged.
“Honestly, Niall,” I said. “From one day to the next, I never know how you’re going to be dressed!”
The next 3 photos are pictures that were next to the lifts in the lobby. Again, notice the wording. The Great Leader Kim Jong Il and his father, the Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung were experts at EVERYTHING, it seems.
The 15th floor has a revolving restaurant, but it was closed. Not surprising really – as if they’d run it for just 12 tourists.
And here’s a rather nice bookend from the pool table at the Candy Festival in the morning to this deserted pool room at the end of the same day.
What a day! And there was more to come tomorrow.