China and the DPRK: Day 10 – Dancing in the Park.

After walking a little way up the street after lunch we came to the park entrance. There were very few people around on our walk over, which was a little surprising considering that it was The Big Day and that we’d seen so many people practising the massed dancing all week.

But once we got into the park and headed down a path it all changed. Our guides were walking purposefully down the path and I was bringing up the rear, listening to the sound of music playing from a boombox nearby.

There was a group of people near the path, dancing to some music. They’d finished a picnic lunch and now they were enjoying the day. I stopped to take a photo and a stocky man saw me and gestured for me to come join them.

How could I say no? I raced over and he grabbed my hands and we started dancing. Luckily, someone from our group saw me break off and soon the others were with me. Some of us joined in with the dancing, while others stood around taking photos and drinking and talking with the locals.

Niall seized the opportunity to get into his dress again. Here, one of the ladies is helping him with the tricky bow at the front. Then, once he appeared like this, the party really got started!

It didn’t take long before we gathered quite the crowd around us.

I think this was when a sip of soju went down the wrong way.

Niall was in his element. He was dancing with both the men and the women. We were all either dancing or sharing drinks with some of the locals. Helen gave a little girl a bubble-blower and the little girl was entranced. Just before we left the song Come to Mount Paektu came onto the boom box so we all stood in a circle and sang it together.

The locals were rapt that we knew the words. (Well… I knew the chorus – it’s very rousing. I’m still a little shaky on the verses.)

We were there for at least 20 minutes having a great time when our guides said that we’d better keep moving. We waved goodbye and set off. I made sure to stay next to Niall because I wanted to see the reactions of the ordinary people when they saw him. The dress was a huge hit at the DMZ, but this the middle of Pyongyang, where people are more sheltered and (presumably) conservative.

Men in drag is DEFINITELY not a thing in this country. Niall walking along in his dress, as happy as can be, is not a sight that anyone here is expecting.

It was like being part of a rock star’s entourage. These girls were desperate to have a group photo with him.

8 phones were handed across to Matt and they all got their wish.

The universal sign of the “thumbs up”. It helped that Niall is so genuinely a smiley, happy person who doesn’t take himself too seriously. It was easy for the North Koreans to read his face.

Some people were a little more gobsmacked than most…

… and this gentleman didn’t appear to approve very much at all.

We reached a small square in the middle of the park. Music was playing through loudspeakers and a couple of hundred people were dancing. I think this is where the guides were headed to before I derailed them by dancing with my Duracell man.

There were lots of people standing around on the paved edges and watching. A man with a megaphone was standing on the grass and he’d tell off anyone who stepped on it. We walked up to the people on the path and we were welcomed with open arms – especially Niall.

A quick modesty adjustment of his gown and then he plunged into the crowd and was whisked away to dance. Maria, Marjo, Helen and I raced after him. Well, why wouldn’t you?

A quick spot of refreshment, then our guides were hurrying us along. We took the path out of the park, after a brief stop at seriously the most ammoniacal toilets I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. ‘Pungent’ doesn’t even begin to describe them.

On the way, we walked past this lady and her friends. She was groovin’ and shakin’ with music coming out from her microphone. Very high tech. We wanted to spend a little time dancing with her but Matt and Mr Kim were waving us along.

On the way down the hill to the bus I heard, “Oh God no, Niall!” coming from behind me. I turned around and it was Niall in a ski mask. We all screamed and told him to take it off quickly. He didn’t realise how scary he looked until I took this photo and showed him. Thank God he didn’t put it on in the park – we would’ve had a riot on our hands!

Meanwhile our guides were calling for us to hurry, that we didn’t want to miss out. I didn’t see how anything could be better than what we were just doing, but we picked up the pace and scampered for the bus.

Our wonderful day was going to turn even better.

Fortunate Frogdancer was having the time of her life.

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China and the DPRK: Day 10 – The Art Museum, the Foreign Language bookshop and the Coffee shop.

After we stepped out of the hurly-burly of the Flower Show, we took a short bus ride to Kim Il Sung Square in the centre of Pyongyang. Today was a Saturday and a public holiday, but there weren’t as many people walking around on the streets as I would have thought there’d be. Maybe they’re all having a bit of a sleep-in?

On the other side of the Square there was a group of people outside a government building chanting something-or-other. Funny – in the West you’d see something like this and assume it’s a protest of some kind. Here – especially given that it’s Kim Il Sung’s birthday – it’s clearly a loyal rally. We walked past them and into a building on the same side of the square: The Art Gallery.

We weren’t allowed to take photos in the Gallery and the attendants watched us like hawks, so I’ll be interspersing this account with photos that I took later in the morning.

The gallery itself was empty, with lots of echoing rooms made of marble as we paced around them with our guide. To be honest, she didn’t seem to like us much. She was polite, but severe and she didn’t crack a smile. She led us through rooms, armed with a pointer that she’d use to point to various paintings. She’d rattle off information about it in Korean and Un Ha would translate.

At first we began in the rooms with artworks from the 1100’s – 1500’s. Some of them were huge, taken from tombs of the kings of the era, but all too soon I began to hear the same phrase uttered time and time again from our guide: “This is a copy of…”

My initial reaction was annoyance. Why on earth were we traipsing around seeing COPIES of things? Then someone, I think it might have been Maria from Finland, mentioned that it was probably because the originals were all stolen by the Japanese during their occupation. D’oh! Of course. Then it became much more poignant. The Koreans are so proud of their homeland and their history, so to only have copies of their heritage hanging in the official art gallery in the centre of town would have been galling.

The traditional paintings were FAR removed from the propaganda paintings I bought at the DMZ.

I ended up buying a copy of one of the paintings that I saw. I’ll post a photo of it with the posters that I bought when I reach the end of this saga…

As we were walking, we passed through a room full of sculptures. Tucked away near a corner, a white sculpture of a young Korean girl in traditional dress with a couple of ropes around her caught my eye. She had a resolute gaze and she was looking straight ahead. Un Ha was near me and I said to her, “I love this statue.”

Un Ha brightened up and she told a few of us the story behind the statue. She said that this girl was a hero of the Korean people and her story is told to children to illustrate honour and bravery. I wish I could source a photo of the actual statue, or I could remember the girl’s name, but I’ve already spent far more time than is reasonable trying to track these things down. Anyway, here’s how Un Ha told it:

Josephine Lunchbucket (NOT her real name) was a young 9-year-old girl in a village in the mountains. The Japanese Imperialists were in power and Josephine was involved in helping the heroic Korean resistance by carrying notes for them.

One day she was stopped by Japanese soldiers when she was carrying a note for the brave Korean resistance. Before they could read the note, she cleverly swallowed it. Enraged, the soldiers carried her off to the jail, where they kept her imprisoned. Day after day they would try and get her to tell them what she knew about where the freedom fighters were, but no matter what they said or did she bravely refused to tell them.

So in the end, they put out her eyes and shot her dead.

I have to admit, I got a shock when Un Ha said this. I was expecting a happy ending. I guess I’ve been conditioned by the Western ideas of the stories that are suitable for children.

While I was stuck in the gift shop buying my painting of the ox and the sleeping cowherd, the rest of the group walked across the square and over to the Foreign Language bookshop. Wally had ordered a daily newspaper covering the marathon and it was ready for him to pick up.

I bought some excellent propaganda postcards that sent my kids at school into ecstasies of horror and disbelief when I brought them into class. Again, I’ll post photos of them at the end of this series.

James found this book. How could anyone resist?

We drove to a café to kill some time before lunch. As we drove up I saw one of the few dogs I’d seen in North Korea – it looked exactly like a cross between a Cavalier and a dachshund, just as if Jeff and Scout had had a love child. By the time we were out of the bus he and his owner had gone, but there were a few kids hanging around.

I couldn’t help thinking that this little pink girl must come from an incredibly privileged family. She has roller blades and a watch. Pierre and Olly still had some lollies left to give out, which of course made them very popular with the kids.

There she goes, clutching a chuppa-chup.

Our first indication that this café sold more than coffee was in a fridge near the front door.

We started off with coffee, while some people wrote postcards.

As I was chatting with Niall and Bek, James came up to me and thrust his Kim Jong Il book under my nose.

“Read this,” he said. “It’s comedy gold.”

As I flicked through it, I knew I HAD to get a copy of this book. It’s difficult to imagine how 180 pages could sustain this type of rhetoric, but it certainly seemed to. I hoped the hotel gift shop sold it.

After a while, we moved on to cocktails. I had a gin something-or-other, which, when topped up with some soju, made me feel ready for anything.

We were in this café for around an hour before we left to have lunch. And no, only one of these glasses was mine!

The number plates on this car – the white numbers on a blue background – signify that it’s a diplomatic vehicle.

We ate an excellent lunch and then we set off for the park, where one of the most memorable hours of the whole trip was about to take place…

 

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China and the DPRK: Day 10- The Flower show

At last! The big day had arrived. The anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birthday.

The day that everyone practising their massed dancing all week for was finally here. And we were here to see it.

But first James and I had important business to settle. We were having a propaganda postcard race, from Pyongyang/North Korea, to Melbourne/Australia and Dublin/Ireland. We selected our postcards, wrote a touching message on them, then sent them off.

Writing postcards isn’t as easy as it might appear. The mail sent out to foreign lands is heavily scrutinised, so you can’t say anything uncomplimentary about the country or your card will be binned. You also can’t write “North Korea”, as they prefer for their country to be known as The DPRK, (The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) or simply ‘Korea’. Nothing bad about the leaders, naturally, and any attempt at humour might not be understood, so it’s best to take it seriously.

Roughly 3 or 4 weeks after we got back, James’ card arrived, a day before he got mine. This clearly means that Australia Post is the winner. I can’t remember what I wrote to James on my postcard, but his carefully-worded message was:

I’m glad you loved the red hat. It was an absolute ball partying with you on the bus while travelling around amazing Korea.

The red hat was a reference to the beanie he wore when it was cold for the first few days. I followed that beanie everywhere – it was an eye-bleeding beacon of colour, about as red as the flowers in the poster below.

Our first stop of the day was at a flower show. There are a couple of blooms names after each of the great leaders, so on each leader’s birthday there’s a huge push to produce an abundance of flowers, with people vying for the most eye-catching displays.

For (what to us) is a small fee, you can pay to have your photo taken ‘with’ the Eternal President and the Eternal General Secretary of the Party. I didn’t want one, but some of our group had a shot taken.

This was a huge foyer filled with plants. It would have been impressive enough on its own, but there was another couple of floors waiting for us upstairs.

Lots of families were queuing to get their photos taken. It’s obviously a ‘thing’ here.

I was wading through all my photos for this post, when I noticed Helen lurking in the background. This flower is the Kimilsungia, bred to honour President Kim Il Sung. It’s very pretty. It was bred in Indonesia, where the story goes that when Kim Il Sung was on a tour in Indonesia, President Sukarno took him on a tour to the Botanical Gardens.

“He stopped before a particular flower, its stem stretching straight, its leaves spreading fair, giving a cool appearance, and its pink blossoms showing off their elegance and preciousness; he said the plant looked lovely, speaking highly of the success in raising it. Sukarno said that the plant had not yet been named, and that he would name it after Kim Il Sung. Kim Il Sung declined his offer, but Sukarno insisted earnestly that respected Kim Il Sung was entitled to such a great honour, for he had already performed great exploits for the benefit of mankind.” (From Wikipedia)

Here’s Indonesia’s contribution to this year’s exhibition.

Here is the Kimjongilia. It’s not quite as pretty, being a bit sturdier. Here’s one of the songs written about the flower.

The red flowers that are blossoming over our land
Are like hearts: full of love for the leader
Our hearts follow the young buds of Kimjongilia
Oh! The flower of our loyalty!

Even early in the morning, the hall was crowded. Lots of family groups, school groups and tourist groups like ours.

But it wouldn’t be North Korea without some propaganda and pictures of valiant soldiers.

She looked like a little doll.

Lots of adults and schoolkids in uniform. James even saw a priest!

Many plaques advertising the ties with other countries and companies.

I just love this shot. She plucked the lily out of the display, smelled it, then turned around and carefully tucked it back in again.

Once back home I tracked down what they said was a Kimjongilia. After being dormant for a few weeks it’s now sprouting leaves but I won’t know if it’s actually the same as the North Korean plant until it flowers. 🙂

We were here for almost an hour and then we left to continue what turned out to be a very action-packed day.

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China and the DPRK: Day 10 – The Western Barrage, the mineral water factory and another North Korean delicacy.

With our bellies full of oysters, salads, kimchi, clams, petrol and soju, we set off to see the Western Barrage. James, being an engineer, was really keen to see this. The tour guides were telling us about it on the bus. It sounded impressive, but I was feeling warm and sleepy…

Basically, back in the 1980’s the North Koreans decided to put a massive dam wall between the Taedong River and the Yellow Sea. One side of this wall is sea water, the other is fresh water. It took 5 years or so and was (and still is) a huge achievement.

This was outside the bus as we were driving along the wall to get to the visitors’ centre. I assume this was the sea side as they look like they’re hunting for shellfish while the tide is out.

We hopped out of the bus at the visitors’ centre. It was cold and cheerless and we hurried inside.

Here’s a clearer look at it.

There may be a lot to look askance at with Kim Il Sung, what with the whole totalitarianism and all, but he’s dead right about books.

Not to be outdone, his son has a few wise words about reading too.

This was part of the video that we all had to sit down and watch. Kim Il Sung is here directing the engineers on how to achieve the project properly.


So many resources were pulled together for such a poor country to get this work done. I’m sure that the video was very exciting and instructional, but it was a warm room, I’d had a fair bit of soju with my clams and this is about as far as I got before I had a quick nanna nap in my chair. I wasn’t alone, apparently. Four of us took a revivifying power nap and personally, I think that it was a good use of the time.

Wally snuck out and took photos. On his Facebook page he said, “When I saw the faces of everybody coming out I knew I made the right decision.”

I gave the girls working there the rest of my lollies and trinkets that I’d brought in to share. WHAT a boring place to be stationed at!

This was taken through the bus window on the way out of there. I like the greys and blues. I was feeling bouncy again after my nap and was ready to embrace the rest of the day.

If gridlock is your everyday experience and you want to get away from road rage, then North Korea is definitely the place for you.

We were on our way to the mineral water bottling factory, which was clearly one of the mandatory places for foreign tourists to visit. It was about as exciting as it sounds. Hold onto your hats!!

We were given white lab coats and coverings for our feet, which is fair enough when entering a food processing place. But then we had to go through this weird cupboardy thing that blew hot air over us, supposedly to purify us. We were in a jolly mood, so when we got in we screamed along with the rush of air. Ahhh… good times.

There were bottles. Lots of bottles.

I thought this was a nice, humanising touch.

Notice the photo in the office.

Kim Jong Il had been there. I wonder… do the leaders make a point of going to every factory and resort in the country just so the workers have something to look at forever after?

The leaders must have been fond of mineral water. You can see from this wall that there were quite a few visits over the years.

Kim Jong Un. In nearly every photo we saw of him in North Korea he was laughing and so were the people around him. He’s supposed to have an excellent sense of humour.

He looked about as bored as I was.

There are only so many green bottles you can look at without going crazy, so I looked at the workers instead.

 

Helen, Un Ha and Frogdancer looking at something I’d just taken on my phone. We’re all clutching our complimentary bottles of water. It was good water, fresh and sparkling.

I think my body needed to rehydrate after that memorable lunch.

Then we drove a small way down the road to inspect the actual spring that they get the water from.

Inside the little hut is this sticky-uppy thing, where you can see the water gushing up from underground and beating against the glass. It was… um… fascinating.

I have no idea why a bear would be drinking from a bottle, but here it is.

Here’s the pipe that leads back to the factory.

I snapped this as we were walking back to the bus to get back to Pyongyang.

NOW – here’s the famous North Korean cold noodles that were included on the menu that the two Korean presidents had when they had their meeting at the DMZ a week after we were there. It’s considered a delicacy.

I don’t know why.

Back at the hotel, I saw this dvd for sale. Sounds extremely entertaining, doesn’t it?

After a few hours of playing a drinking game at the bar, my phone was slipped around the table. I discovered these shots the next morning. Helen.

Olly and James.

Wally.

Maria.

Rick.

Niall.

The next day would be our last full day in Pyongyang and it was fantastic. It was the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, which as you can imagine is a hugely important day for the North Korean people. Stay tuned!!

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China and the DPRK: Day 10: The Co-operative farm and cooking with petrol.

After seeing the Palace of the Sun, we leapt back onto the bus and took off into the countryside to see a co-operative farm.

It was yet another empty road stretching out into the distance. Believe me… this wasn’t a staged shot. This population doesn’t appear to be terribly mobile.

Both on the way to the Palace of the Sun and while we were on the road to the farm, Un Ha was on the microphone telling us about different things.

  • Japan owes its development as a world power to Korea’s gold.
  • 200,000Korean sex slaves were taken to the battlefields when Japan was ruling the Korean peninsula.
  • The Korean people were treated like animals and slaves during this time.
  • Kim Il Sung saved them.
  • Kim Il Sung’s motto was: Live for the people, work for the people.
  • Everyone is equal in North Korea – there is no social hierarchy.
  • Kim Il Sung’s official title is ‘Eternal President of the People.’ This was made legal 3 years after he died and he is still the president of the DPRK today.
  • Kim Jong Il’s official title is ‘Eternal Chairman of the National Defence Council.’
  • Kim Jong Un’s title is: ‘First Secretary of the Country.’
  • There are 3 major milestones in a North Korean’s life. For the first 100 days after being born the baby is kept inside and is unnamed. 1. First birthday. 2. Marriage. 3. 60th birthday. On your 60th birthday you can do whatever you want. Everyone has to give you presents and obey your every whim.

When we pulled up into the carpark at the Co-operative farm there was this big sculpture detailing ( I think) one of Kim Il Sung’s speeches when he visited there.

From my reading, I’m VERY sure that this woman wasn’t standing here mopping the speech for our benefit. It’s absolutely mandatory for the sculptures and photos of the Leaders to be kept in an immaculate condition at all times, whether they be outside on a hilltop or inside the humblest house. All the same, I’ll bet she was thinking, “Oh shit! The tourists are here and I’m not finished yet!!”

After a short walk we were led out to see this ENORMOUS statue out in the middle of nowhere, looking out onto fields. There was a huge expanse of concrete pavers in front of it, obviously for people to gather and give their respects to Kim Il Sung.

This statue made me so angry.

Our guide, a lovely woman in a long black coat, (it was pretty cold), was telling us the story of how President Kim Il Sung came to the farm to inspect it. The farmers asked if they could erect a statue in his honour. He refused, telling them that it was unnecessary and that they were already doing important work.

Three years after he died, his son (Kim Jong Il) gave them permission to build it and so here it was. The farm is so proud of it and it depicts actual people who were working there when Kim Il Sung came to visit. This story is all very nice and cosy…

… except if you’ve done your homework and you know that in the 1990’s famine was laying waste to millions of people in North Korea who were literally starving to death. People were eating grass, bark and anything they could to survive. The government had smooth sailing until the USSR collapsed in the early 90’s, when suddenly there were no more food and technology subsidies any more.

The government tried to keep it a secret from the rest of the world, but when they finally relented and asked the UN for aid, the sacks of rice etc from the USA predominantly went onto the black market, so things weren’t much better for the average person at all.

Meanwhile, here’s Kim Jong Il, in the middle of all this in 1997, telling a FARM to give up land and resources to erect a monument to his father. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. But then again, I’m just the silly sort of person who’d assume you’d want food producing businesses to keep producing as much food as they could in the middle of a famine… not less.

But it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow any good – our guide was really proud of it and it undoubtedly brings the tourists.

We didn’t see too many actual farmers around the place.

Not content with the statue and the speech, there was also what looked like the Korean version of a village square. Here’s Kim Il Sung on his famous visit here, giving the farmers the benefit of his instructive wisdom.

Ringing the square were more speech extracts from various dignitaries.

We passed some kids going home to lunch. I would’ve given them some lollies but I’d left my gift bag on the bus.

Here’s how people get around.

Remember when we went to the Grand People’s Study Hall in Pyongyang to look at the English class and I said that post-secondary education is pretty much compulsory? They work until 6PM, then have classes, usually in computer tech or the teachings of the Kim leaders. These courses last for a couple of years, then they sit exams. This building is where the classes take place for the people of this village.

Next we were taken for a tour around the greenhouses. You can see that unless the government wants to put a statue on prime farming land, no space is wasted.

They even utilised the space in between the greenhouses.

Once we left the farm we continued on to a fishing town for lunch. The hotel we arrived at was… interesting. Very full of faded grandeur – it would have been quite the place to stay in the 1960’s.

The foyer was spacious, with the usual portrait of the leaders and the giftshop in the corner with stamp albums, books and postcards for sale.

However the toilets near the dining room weren’t working, which meant that we had to walk through lots of halls and rooms to get to a room that they’d set aside for our group to use. On the way, we passed the billiards room. I’m not sure that the game would be very entertaining. You’d be chasing the balls all over the place.

Even if some of the rooms looked a little down-at-heel, it was all scrupulously clean. The lunch was lovely, with fresh oysters being the main dish.

AFTER the official lunch, though, was when I ate the most memorable meal I’ve ever had.

Petrol clams.

Helen told me about this after she went to North Korea last year and when she described it I recoiled in horror.
“They put clams on the ground, douse them in PETROL, set them alight and then eat them?!? You have GOT to be joking.”

But once I decided to go, this was one of the things I was really looking forward to. Where else would you get to eat a dish cooked with petrol? Besides, one meal (probably) wouldn’t kill me.

Right?

While we were inside having lunch, the cooking crew placed the clams close together, opening-edge side down, upon the concrete of the balcony. When it was time to cook, all they needed was a squeeze bottle full of petrol and a lighter.

All in all, it took around 10 minutes or so for the clams to cook.

It was definitely petrol. The smell was unmistakable and the black smoke was acrid as it drifted away across the lawn. It was probably lucky for us that there was a bit of a wind blowing. Our cook kept adding petrol a little at a time as the flames started to die down, until at last she stepped back and motioned to a couple of helpers who were standing behind us.

They came forward to hand us paper serviettes and small cups of soju. I’m pretty sure the soju was there for antibacterial qualities, just in case!

This was undoubtedly magical – seeing the flames leap over the clams as they slowly cooked. I have a video of it, but the blog won’t let me upload it. We were talking and laughing while the smoke rose and the smell assaulted our noses. Burning petrol is hardly the most aromatic thing you can do.

What did they taste like?

Lovely!

It was crazy fun, taking the clams one by one and cracking them open and eating them. The clams were fresh and delightfully sea-foody, but the paper napkins were definitely needed after a while, as our hands started to smell very ‘petroleum’ as we held more and more clams. The soju kept the hilarity up and the cold wind away.

The petrol doesn’t get into the inside of the clams, because the hinge part of the shells is pointing up, but there’s a smell and the slight hint of a taste from the residue on the hands. But of course, that just adds to the novelty of the whole thing.

Everyone tasted these, but only half the group were hardy enough to keep chowing down after one or two.

We were here for about 20 minutes, steadily attacking the clams. We’d just had a huge lunch, though, so one by one we gradually fell away.

But not Wally. He said in his Hungarian accent, “I will not let them beat me!” and he kept shovelling more and more clams down his throat. But sadly, even Wally had to give up in the end.

All too soon, he was lolling back in his chair, a broken man, and we were gathering up our things to go to the next thing on the list for today. For a secretive hermit nation, they surely allowed us to scamper around a lot!

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China and the DPRK: Day 10- Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.

This place is the most sacred place in all of Korea, according to our guides, whether they be Korean or Western. This is the place where the bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lie in state. Many Koreans don’t want foreigners here at all, so our guides were on tenterhooks lest we do something wrong, whether from youthful high spirits or just simple ignorance, so we had lots of talks about how to behave while we were there.

Un Ha arrived in her traditional dress. She obviously comes from a privileged family, seeing as how she has grown up in Pyongyang with her family. However, privilege is still very different here than it is back home. She only has the one traditional dress and she has owned it for 8 years.

“When I get another one I’d like it to be blue,” she said. She’ll get another one when she gets married, no doubt.

We were told that we had to dress in a formal manner as if we were going to a funeral. Remember these shoes? I bought them a few days before in Beijing because I stupidly took my black flat shoes out of my suitcase the night before we left. They finally saw the light of day. I took my runners with me on the bus because it was raining and we were going to see a farm after this, and I didn’t think these embroidered shoes would stand up to much mud.

This place was definitely one that showcased how upside-down the values of this country are and how blindly the people worship their leaders.

This building was originally built ‘by the people’ in the 1970’s to give Kim Il Sung a place to work. It’s huge… marble walls and floors, ceilings way-way-way high, massive rooms and corridors that go on forever. When his father died in 1994, Kim Jong Il didn’t want to work there, so he gave it back to the people as a mausoleum for his father. When he died, his body was laid to rest here too.

The photo of the swans was taken out of a window as we travelled along a 1.5km travelator from the entrance to where the palace viewings begin. But that wasn’t the first thing we had to get through.

  • The first thing we went through was a machine that wiped our feet and blew air over our shoes.
  • The next thing was the cloakroom. EVERYTHING had to be left there. No handbags, no cameras, no phones, no chewing gum, no drink bottles… no nothing. This is a sacred place and your mouths and your hands must be empty. We’d had to leave things in cloakrooms before, but these white-gloved ladies placing our belongings on the shelves with great care were insistent that we leave everything.
  • Next came the security check. We walked through a normal detector gate, then we had a thorough search. The underwire in my bra had to be looked at, (by a female guard, so no drama), while anyone with a digital/electric watch had to submit it to a thorough inspection.
  • The first travelator moved at a sedate clip, with eye-height tip-toe height windows looking at the moat/river outside, with the majestic swans sailing past. We were on it for 6 or 7 minutes before transferring off to another one, this time inside the building, with huge photos of the leaders on either side, glad-handing the locals and overseas dignitaries. The travelators moved at a slow pace so you could take in the photos – Kim Il Sung on the left and Kim Jong Il on the right.
  • After many minutes and many pictures, the travelator ended and we were in the reception rooms.

(Helen borrowed Niall’s dress for the occasion, but she was too short, so she passed it on to Maria from Finland. That tricky front bow needed assistance from Un Ha before photos.)

Like in the International Friendship Exhibition, there were larger-than-life-size statues that we had to bow to. We had to walk up to them in rows and bow for a prescribed period of time. All of us had our eyes slid sideways watching the guides at the end of each row, taking our cues from them. This is seriously not a place to muck around and risk offending the locals.

When we were milling around in the entry foyer waiting to go in, one of the other guides from our tour company, a rollicking boy from Australia called Ben, was going over how to approach and bow to the embalmed bodies of the Leaders. When he got to the part about NOT bowing behind the head, as it’s very disrespectful, I said to tease him, “OK, challenge accepted!”

He actually went pale. “Anywhere else, Frogdancer, but not here!!”

(Maria and Marjo from Finland, with Un Ha.)

So yeah, funny story about that…

I don’t know if you remember the hurried experience going to see Chairman Mao’s body was in Beijing? This experience was by far more dignified. The Koreans absolutely worship their leaders, particularly the first one, Kim Il Sung, and so going to see their bodies is a hugely significant occasion in their lives. Un Ha said that before she became a tour guide, she’d only been here once in her life, when she turned 16.

We entered the first room in rows of 5, with Un Ha leading, then 4 of us following. We waited in line, then when it was our turn we walked to Kim Il Sung’s feet and bowed. Then we walked to the left, still in a straight line, and bowed again. Then we moved to the back of the body, behind his head and stood. Without a word of a lie, I started bowing. I was in the rhythm of the lining up, the walking, the bowing… I maybe moved a fraction of an inch when I realised no one else in the line beside me was moving. Fortunate Frogdancer strikes again! Usually I’m first in line for anything, but thank goodness I was fourth in line for this! This is one place on Earth where you seriously do NOT want to be noticed as being different from the crowd.

We then walked to the right side of his body – me starting to feel a clammy sweat from almost causing an international incident – then bowed. We repeated the same thing for Kim Jong Il’s body next door, then we were out of there.

Along the way we also saw a few exhibits of planes, boats and train carriages that the Leaders used. We were looking at the boat that Kim Jong Il, (not an enthusiastic flyer), used to take to Russia. Pierre leaned in and said to James and me, “This was the boat that he used to bring his Russian whores to.” Meanwhile the guides were saying about how he only used the boat for negotiations for the good of the people.

The most amazing exhibit, I think, was the train carriage that was set up like an office, where Kim Jong Il supposedly died, at his desk, while working on a report on how to improve the living conditions of the people. They had it set up as if he’d only just stepped out, with his reading glasses and papers there, as if at any moment he’d come back and resume work for the betterment of their nation.

After we’d seen a few more exhibits, including the rooms full of gold medals that countries and universities had given them, we went back the other way along the travelators.

There was a stream of people coming the other way, all Korean, all solemn and all dressed in their best. The women were all, without fail, dressed in their traditional dresses and the men were in their best suits. I felt so desperately sad for them.

They were all so deeply convinced that the leaders were working tirelessly their whole lives to free the people from the shackles of oppression. You could see in their faces that this excursion was a Really Big Thing for them. Of course they had absolutely no idea about the corruption and lies that the regime has been feeding them, along with the incompetence with farming techniques that led to millions starving to death in the famines.

Once we were back on the bus I felt free to discard the chewing gum that I’d had in my mouth the whole time we were going through the Palace. I have a hypersensitive nerve in my throat that makes me cough a lot and chewing gum is one way to suppress it. I thought that coughing in front of the leaders would be less preferable than hiding the gum and staying respectfully silent, so every time we passed soldiers, (which was a lot of the time), I’d keep my jaws still.

Wot a rebel I am.

The toilets were an interesting contrast. Before we went in, at the entry foyer they were European-style thrones with actual toilet paper provided, beautiful, dazzlingly clean stalls and washroom…. everything schmick. After we came out, before we went outside, the toilets were squatty potties, no toilet paper and VERY drab and dingy.

 

The photos in this post were taken outside once we’d emerged. We were still expected to behave in a decorous, sedate way. Maria and Marjo started to pose to take a selfie with arms up in the air and the guides raced over to them. They hastily straightened up.

A woman was mopping the already wet concrete. Everything had to look immaculate. Especially because tomorrow was the biggest day of celebration of the year – the birthday of Kim Il Sung, so there’d be people dancing outside on the large square and there’d be tv cameras broadcasting across the whole country.

It was about 11AM and we were going out into the countryside to see some more sights, along with eating the most memorable seafood dish I’m likely to ever consume in my life…

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China and the DPRK: Day 9: The shooting range, movie studio and the circus.

Lunch was served when we arrived at the shooting range. It was all pretty standard – kimchi, soggy potato “chips”, an egg dish, but something else was a bit special.

Pheasant. I kid you not. I felt like a poacher out of a Roald Dahl story.

We didn’t hang around in the dining room for too long because, hey! There were actual guns to fire.

I’ve never held a gun in my life. James and I decided to go halves in some bullets and we went for 50% pistol and 50% rifle.

After using both types of guns, I have to issue people with a warning.

If ever the zombie apocalypse comes, don’t rely on me to shoot our way out of it. That’s all I’m saying.

James was a lot more accurate than me.

Hard to believe, really. Isn’t it?

Mr Pak and Un Ha were both very good shots.

The army girls were running the place and their well-groomed selves were everywhere. James and I were two of the first to leave the table to go and shoot and I saw a couple of the girls were playing on what looked like old-school video shooting games on massive arcade consoles similar in appearance to the ones below.

There was a gift shop on the bottom floor. After I’d used up my share of the bullets in a futile attempt to hit the target, I popped in to see if there was anything tempting. There were 3 girls rostered on to work in there, but no one else had been anywhere near it. When I walked in, the three girls were busy mucking around and practicing dancing. They didn’t see me at first, so I pretended not to notice them and started browsing the shelves. When they saw me they broke off in a great hurry and proceeded to act very professionally.

I felt for them. It must be a very dull place to be working in, especially during the day. It’s not as if Pyongyang is swarming with tourists, after all.

Our next stop was a drive a little out of town to see the set where a lot of Korean movies used to be shot. It’s not used a lot now, so the guide said. He was a cranky old guy.

To be honest, this was a real fizzer. All we were doing was walking around empty streets looking at fake buildings. It was a bit dull.

Well, it was a bit dull until Un Ha started telling me the plot of her favourite movie. She was doing the translating for our guide, so when he’d talk she’d break off and translate what he was saying, then she’d pick up the thread of the storyline exactly where she’d left off and continued to keep going. I got her to write down the title on my phone and I found it on Youtube after I got back.

You should watch it. It’s deliciously awful.

As we were heading back to the bus I caught a glimpse of the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang. It wasn’t that far away but it seemed like a long way, considering what we drove through to get here. I was sitting on the wrong side of the bus on the way in to capture much, but I took sneaky shots out of the window on the way back.

Apologies for the blurriness of some of the following pictures. I was in a moving bus with a window that has weird glass in it, judging by this shot.

We drove for miles beside what appeared to be a camp where literally hundreds of soldiers were involved in massive building projects. It looked as if they lived by the side of the road in pretty makeshift buildings.

One of only 2 or 3 dogs we saw in the whole of our 10 days in North Korea.

There’s another one!

 

This blue plastic was in front of most of the building works, but every now and then we’d be able to see past it.

And then we came closer to Pyongyang.

OMG! A cow!

Aaaand then we were back in the city of marble and shine, here to see a circus. The 31st International Spring Arts Festival Circus was on. This happens every year at the same time as the marathon, with artists from mainly China and Russia coming to the DPRK to perform.

Fortunate Frogdancer struck again! Front row seats in the middle tier, so we could see everything.

See the backdrop? It’s a picture of Kim Il Sung’s birthplace. All of the backdrops were patriotic in nature, which is what you’d expect here.

The acts were mainly acrobats, jugglers and clowns. The audience applauded rhythmically, like they did in the stadium at the marathon. Clapping in unison isn’t so bad, though. We had to pay an extra 20 euros to see this, so half of the group opted out and went to a bar to have some drinks.

While I was here I realised that I hadn’t yet taken a snap of a squatty potty for you. The bin in the corner is for toilet paper/tissues. The sewer systems in both the DPRK and China aren’t up to handling massive amounts of paper running through them.

You flush by stepping on the pedal thingy on the bottom right. Going to the toilet this way is supposed to be far better for your body… but gee it gives the thigh muscles a workout!

After the circus we picked up the rest of our group and we went to a barbeque duck restaurant where we cooked our own meals on a grill in the middle of each table. It was absolutely delicious. Then we went back to the hotel for yet another alcohol-fueled night at the karaoke bar. I pulled the pin at about midnight but some of the others were carousing until 2 or 3. I don’t know how they do it.

The next day was going to be an interesting one for a few different reasons, one reason being one of the most bizarre things I have ever eaten…

 

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China and the DPRK: Day 9 – Mayday Stadium and Kim Il Sung’s birthplace.

I forgot to mention! The hipster café was next door to what looks suspiciously like a tenpin bowling alley.

We then headed off to view the Mayday Stadium/Rungrado Stadium, which is the biggest stadium in the world. Who knew that Pyongyang could lay claim to this?

(Click on the link and scroll down to the ‘History’ section. There’s a sentence there that’ll make your blood run cold… ) That’s something else I didn’t know about…

If we wanted to go in and gallop around we had to pay for a tour. At first I wasn’t going to go but then I thought Tom26 would kill me. He’s a soccer nut and I thought he might be interested to see what it all looked like.

Un Ha was saying that it seats 150,000 and it has so many gates that the entire crowd can clear in less than half an hour. This place is certainly massive.

There was a soccer match playing when we first arrived. Way over on the other side of the stadium was a small group of school kids watching the match. I tried to get a close-up shot but the iPhone wasn’t up to it. This place really is large.

Just to prove that I was here. 😛

Yet another guide in traditional clothes. The stadium has only recently been opened after having an upgrade.

Every room has the portraits of the leaders – even the rooms which foreign teams would be using.

Ollie used to manage a professional league soccer team in Hamburg, so he signed the guest book. Un Ha is writing a translation of what he said.

This seemed to symbolise the juxtaposition of the old and the new.

A short bus ride later we arrived at Kim Il Sung’s birthplace. As we walked through the parkland surrounding it, I saw some of my colleagues working on excursions. Primary and secondary kids were there in abundance.

I’ve just come from an excursion with my year 7s to the Art Gallery in Melbourne. It’s nice to see that some things are the same, no matter where you go in the world. These kids were FAR better behaved than the kids Scott and I saw in the National Portrait Gallery in London. OMG. My hair still curls when I remember them.

This was our guide, different from the schoolkids’ guides because she spoke English. We joined in line behind some students and she took us around. She was a diligent and thorough guide, who was also responsible for one of the most jarring ‘OMG did I just hear that?!?‘ moments of the trip. But more on that later.

You can see behind her that the exhibit is 3 small buildings with thatched roofs. The story is that Kim Il Sung’s family lived here for around 150 years before he was born. The rest of the village has long gone, as this place is now surrounded by acres of gardens. His grandfather was a gravedigger and farmer and Kim Il Sung lived here with them and his parents until he left Korea when he was 14, vowing never to return until Korea was free from Japanese rule.

It’s all very spick and span, with implements from the time laid out. It’s very clear that the message being drummed into the visitors is that Kim Il Sung came from very humble beginnings.

The roof reminded me of Tudor buildings in England. 🙂

I liked the look of these blinds. Might be something I can use when I build my deck in a couple of months…

This squashed pot is very famous. His great-grandmother needed a new pot to store things in but she couldn’t afford a new one. This squashed one was the only one that she could afford and the family kept using it. It’s now 140 years old. The cult of personality that Kim Il Sung established relies on his humble beginnings to give it credence, as well as his guerrilla activities against the Japanese.

The kitchen. I took a shot of this because I remembered being appalled by the Balinese kitchen that the boys and I saw when we went to Bali back in 2006, before this blog had even begun. It was dark, spartan and utilitarian. This looked very similar, but clearly whitewashed and gussied up to within an inch of its life.

When Kim Il Sung came back to Pyongyang in 1945 and was installed into power by the Soviets, he reportedly spent his first night sleeping here, with his grandparents. Our guide said that his grandmother said to him, “You came back, but without your parents!” Poor woman.

The grandparents refused to leave their house, even though the Great Leader offered them better accommodation. I have a sneaking feeling that I would have been the same. *This is my house and no one is going to make me leave!*

These are photos of the young Kim Il Sung, his brother and (I think) an uncle, before they left to seek their fortunes in China (and later the USSR.) The guide was saying about how both the parents were revolutionaries, with his father dying young at 32 from the aftermaths of getting tortured by the Japanese. I have no idea of the truth of this.

Remember her? We were standing in front of the last room of the exhibit, schoolkids behind us waiting for their turn to view it. She had been talking of the olden days, Kim Il Sung’s bravery in fighting the Japanese and his enormous sacrifices and struggles for the Korean people, with only the people’s betterment in the forefront of his mind.

Then, out of nowhere, she said, “And this is why, under the wise leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un, we have achieved success in our nuclear program which will bring the DPRK to the forefront of world power.”

Um… what?!? One second we’re talking ploughshares and earthenware pots and the next we’re talking nuclear warheads??? It’s a funny old country sometimes…

Un Ha was saying that schoolchildren visit here once a year. It’s considered to be an important part of their education. Honestly though, there’s not much to it. Three small buildings, a gift shop where Matt bought us all icecreams, (I had chocolate… not as sweet as ours but still very nice), and then we went for a walk through the parkland surrounding the site.

To the left of this photo is the famous well that the family got their water from, but I didn’t know of its significance at the time so I didn’t drink from it. Judging from what I’ve since read on Tripadvisor, it’s quite the done thing to taste the water.

Frankly, I was expecting lots of statues and monuments but this was the only thing like that that we saw. He looks young here, so it’s probably a representation of when he was in the mountains fighting the Japanese.

None of us bought flowers to lay at the picture.

I wish I had’ve thought to take some pictures of the parkland. This is the only one that gives even a hint of the area surrounding this place. It’s clearly a site of great significance to the North Koreans.

This was the only vaguely oriental bonsai-looking plant I saw. I liked the look of it. My father used to bonsai trees, back in the day.

Look!!!! A BIRD!

Honestly, this sight was so rare that I think most of us took a photo. It’s weird… I don’t know if Pyongyang is naturally devoid of birds and animals, or if this is the aftermath of the terrible famines they had in the 90’s and 2000’s.

People obviously come here to picnic and enjoy the serenity.

Just before we got back onto the bus, someone noticed the chairlifts over the trees. Turns out there’s a fun park over there. (Tripadvisor again.)

This was a fairly dull part of the trip in itself, but when you look at the how the country as a whole is so in thrall to the Kim family’s cult of personality, particularly around the founder, Kim Il Sung, it’s pretty interesting to see one of the key building blocks used to underpin the whole thing. SO MUCH was made of his humble beginnings, the family loyalty to Korea against the imperialist aggressors (the Japanese this time), and how the family clung to its roots and was proud of where they came from. The family history of fighting against the invaders appears to be somewhat exaggerated from what I can tell since coming home, but then again – now I’m dealing with Western propaganda which is unsympathetic to the regime, so who knows?

This was less than an hour, then…

…it was off for lunch at the Rifle Range!

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China and the DPRK: Day 9- A walk through Pyongyang to the hipster café.

The bus dropped us off the next morning outside the State Theatre which had an impressive array of heroic mosaics on the walls. I liked this one, showing that girls can fight too. We headed off, walking through Pyongyang, heading towards a coffee bar. If we were in Melbourne this would be nothing special – every second shop is a café – but in Pyongyang it’s a sign that things are changing.

I know I keep taking shots that imply we were walking around on our own, but seriously, there’s plenty of DPRKers in Pyongyang! I was interested in the sign. I was walking close to Un Ha and it occurred to my mighty intellect that she can speak Korean and could translate what these signs were saying. I resolved to stick close and ask for info.

Hardly anyone here can afford a car unless they work for the military or Government, in which case one might be supplied, so the buses and trains run at full capacity. The queues for buses were always long. I’m pretty sure that this was an electric bus, a bit like our trams in Melbourne, except they run directly on the road instead of on tracks. You can see the lines above the bus.

Aha! Another sign! I asked Un Ha what it was saying.

“We promise to uphold the leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un with the utmost loyalty.”

Look at her. She could be from just about anywhere.

The bigger intersections had underpasses instead of pedestrian crossings, like in Beijing. However, Beijing had the traffic to warrant it. Here… not so much. There were far more bikes than cars on the roads, though I’m not quite sure why this guy wasn’t riding on the road instead of crossing the street like this. It seemed like a lot of steps to have to carry a bike up.

Ooo! Another sign. This time I couldn’t quite remember the exact wording, but I’ve got it down in my book as being something about the constant fight for reunification with South Korea and how they will never give up.

You can see Niall and James and Bek walking off in the distance, but closer to hand are the people replanting grass. These people are everywhere in Pyongyang, working either singly like this or in large groups. We saw them every day and for a long time we weren’t quite sure what they were doing.

Finally I asked Un Ha and found out that they were replanting any spots of worn grass that they could find. Unlike here, where you just rip up the whole swathe of grass and replant with a roll of turf, they have small clods of earth and grass that they painstakingly replant.

There would have been hundreds of people spread out all over the city doing this.

As we were walking along I asked Un Ha if she’d always lived in Pyongyang. The answer was yes, which means that she and her extended family have presumably never put a foot wrong with the Kim regime.

She started telling me about her year in kindergarten when she was 4. She was dropped off every Monday and was picked up every Friday by her Mum. She hated being there. Some of the things she talked about were the compulsory naptimes after lunch. The kids would lie down until the teachers left, then they’d play like crazy until they heard the teachers’ footsteps coming back. They all had to wash hands and faces together, which she didn’t like. While they were there during the week they learned languages and lots of other lessons.

She has a younger sister like I do, and when they were kids they used to fight all the time. Her mother used to call them “Wolf Sisters.” We laughed when we realised that both our mothers used to say the same things to us when we moaned about how much we hated our sister… “When you grow up you’ll be the best of friends...” Turns out that they both knew what they were talking about.

We made our way across Kim Il Sung Square, which we recognised from all of our racing around over the last few days. See the dots painted on the ground? This is so all of the dancers in the massed dancing know where to stand.

Another 5 or 10 minutes of walking and we reach the coffee house. It’s next to what looks suspiciously like a tenpin bowling alley.

Interior design in the foyer as we entered.

Marjo from Finland getting the lie of the land. It was all very hip and groovy.

Look at this… the signs were all helpfully in English. I’m not sure how a Korean person would navigate their way around the menu if they decided to wander in for a good strong cup of Joe. However, I don’t think coffee is really big in the DPRK.

The toilet was upstairs. Here is the usual reception room, with the grandiose decor that we were coming to expect.

Nothing like a bit of trompe l’oeil to get you in the mood for an espresso!

Just to add a bit of interest to the room, the light fittings over the bar were in the shape of sailing ships. As you do, particularly in an inland city…

And when I opened the door … OMG. A European toilet! No squattie pottie! Marble walls and floor. Gold tapware. Pure luxury.

Except…

… there was also a urinal in there. Women had to walk past it to get to the loo.

WHY?

It all seems a bit too companionable.

Though the chandelier was a lovely touch. A trifle bemused, I headed downstairs again.

Marjo had picked her booth and was writing postcards back home.

When writing these, you have to be careful about what you write, otherwise your postcard won’t make it out of the country. You can’t say ‘North Korea’; it has to be ‘The DPRK’. Naturally, you can’t say anything critical or sarcastic about Kim Jong Un or the other leaders, or indeed of the whole country. It all has to be bland and happy.

James and I decided that we’d send each other a postcard on the same day and see which person got theirs first.

For a non-religious country, there are a fair few Christmas references, such as this mug and all of the Christmas trees in the hotels.

Coffee that looks just like coffee at home.

While people were sipping coffee and taking care of postcards, I was writing about our walk in my book. It’s sitting beside me now as I’m typing, as I make sure that I haven’t forgotten anything. When we got up to leave, it was about 10:30AM.

Next stop was the biggest soccer stadium in the world…

 

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China and the DPRK: Day 8 – Mangyongdae Children’s Palace and a spot of kleptomania.

We headed straight back into Pyongyang without wasting any time, however just as we were setting off from the hotel after lunch a guy came running up to the bus, flagging us down. Helen had left her reading glasses in the room. I have to say, the DPRKers are really honest.

We had to be back in Pyongyang to take a tour and see a performance at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace. Do you remember when I went to see the primary school I wrote about how the talented children in Pyongyang go to classes outside school hours? Well, here is where they come.

There was a real flurry of activity when we got here. Lots of other tour buses and groups of proud parents making their way inside for the performance. We got to have a small tour of the facility before the show.

The decor was a little more vivid than what I was expecting. It was like a Disney princess hooking up with Willy Wonka and this is their love child.

The Children’s Palace runs all sorts of classes, ranging from sport, dance, music, languages, Maths and sciences. Kids stay here until about 6PM on weeknights.

Here is the foyer leading into the academic classrooms, particularly the Science ones. See the ceiling decorations, along with the missile bottom left?

A closer look. The people are all SO proud of the nuclear missile program. It was brought up a fair few times while we were there.

If a business, school or farm has ever been visited by any of the Great leaders, they have massive commemorative photos put up in the foyer. This place had quite a few of them. It appears that this place might be a pet project for Kim Jong Un. Here he is instructing the teachers the correct way to taekwondo.

Or something. (As if I’d know!!)

These kids are obviously considered to be the best of the best. Unlike the other school we went to in the regional city, this place is bright, airy and no expense has been spared.

This was a light fitting in one of the foyers. I think the drop-down bit in the middle is meant to represent the double helix.

This class was doing the most amazing embroidery. It was double-sided. I have no idea how they could do it. This little girl, however, was clearly uncomfortable at being made to sit right in front of the doorway near all of us. She rarely made eye contact and she doggedly kept on sticking that needle into the cloth. She has pretty socks, though.

Remember the teacher at the primary school who was accompanying the singing girls and boy on the piano accordion? This was a big class – the photo only shows a slice – and I wonder if they might be future teachers in the making?

A gayageum class. They were playing a quick song and they were all belting it out with gusto. All girls in this class.

A fellow chalkie at work.

After our tour of the classrooms we were ushered into the Theatre to see the performance. On our way into the Palace we were able to buy bouquets of flowers to give to the performers after the show. I was starting to be slightly concerned about how quickly my cash was disappearing, especially when I factored in leaving a ton of Euros for the guides, so I declined. However, James, Walter, Oliver, Pierre, Helen and probably a couple of other people wanted to do it.

I have a pearler of a video of the performance, but unfortunately WordPress won’t let me put it on. So I’ve found this one for you. Most of it is cutesie performances by singing and dancing kids, but start watching at an hour and two minutes in. The last part of the concert is decidedly NOT what we usually expect to see when we go to a school concert. It’s well worth the watch, especially when you consider that these kids are all below 16 years of age. If we did a music concert like this, our parents would FREAK. (And so would the kids…)

As the performance goes on it just keeps escalating. OMG.

We had a similar experience, but it wasn’t quite so full-on. We just had what seemed like a hundred kids on stage singing a song about Kim Jong Un, while soldiers were marching on the screen behind. Nice and wholesome, in other words.

This thing was huge. The logistics of wrangling that many school kids would be enough to do my head in. Once it was over the people with flowers came up on stage and presented them to various kids.

Then we took a walk in downtown Pyongyang, on the way to do a spot of shopping.

These buildings were in the Teachers’ District. Secondary and Tertiary teachers have apartments here.

I can’t remember if I’ve posted a photo yet of the people replanting the grass. If not, it’ll be coming. This is a little hint to stay on the footpath.

Pyongyang has a Miniso shop! For those who haven’t been to China and Japan, it’s like an ultra-cheap Priceline. Helen was mad for it and we spent up big in Beijing before coming here. I was browsing the shelves when I came across this little beauty. How could I walk past? Particularly as we have Handcream Friday in our staff room every week and I knew Brock, the teacher who buys the handcream and shares the love, would be appalled and delighted in equal measure. Only in North Korea…!

For the record, it’s actually really nice. The perfume is lovely and it makes your hands feel great. The vegans and vegetarians in the staff room wouldn’t have a bar of it!

We weren’t allowed to take any photos of the shop, though. It was far smaller than the one we went to in Beijing, but I suppose there isn’t meant to be any such thing in Pyongyang, due to the sanctions.

Dinner time! By this stage I was starting to get used to the gaudiness of the North Korean restaurants. We were up on the third floor, with what seemed to be a wedding reception on the floor below. See the opulent flower arrangements on the front table?

We were halfway through dinner when there was a power blackout. Before I came on this trip I did a lot of reading and blackouts were mentioned as being not uncommon, even in the heart of Pyongyang. One Tripadvisor review mentioned that someone on their tour was stuck in a lift for a while when one struck. When we were in the Foreign Language bookstore a few days ago in the late afternoon there were no lights, but this was somehow different. It was pitch black.

So we dined by the romantic light from our mobile phone flashlights. After about half an hour the lights came back on and we all cheered.

Then, before we left we took a group photo at the head table. (@pierredepont)

Bloody James! As we were getting up from the table he grabbed one of the flowers, shoved it into my hand and said, “I dare you to take it!” and then ran out of the room and down the stairs, laughing like a crazy man. Yeah, like this is just the country where you want to be stealing things.

However, this photo was taken at home, after I got back to Australia. Frogdancer is up for a risk every now and then.

Still, in all honesty I have to say that I made it down those 3 flights of stairs and onto the bus in record time, before anyone noticed a small gap in the flowers…  I could have killed him!

Ahh, but who can stay mad at the Irish for long? Especially when he offers a soju on the bus. We arrived at our new hotel and then James said that he was off to the hairdressing salon to get a Kim Jong Un haircut. Now this I had to see…

This is halfway through. The rest of the photos are pretty blurry – I was laughing too much. No doubt you’ll see James sporting his new haircut on future posts.

Then it was karaoke, then bed, for another action-packed day tomorrow!

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