China and the DPRK: Day 8 – The Pohyonsa Buddhist Temple and the International Friendship Exhibition.

Early the next morning I woke to hear the sounds of shouting, clapping and cheering floating up from outside. I went to the window and saw that the staff from the hotel were having their morning run. Or gymnastics. Or something. Anyway, if you count them they outnumber us. No wonder the service here is so attentive! They’re probably bored out of their minds most days.

A couple of the guys on our tour wanted to start the day with a run, but they were only allowed to go about 100m in either direction, so they had to run back and forth. I, being a sensible sort, had a couple of cups of coffee in my room and then wandered down to breakfast.

They’ve clearly been told that Westerners like bread, but geeze… nobody could eat that much in one sitting. It’s crazy, the contrasts in this place. I was sitting in my room before breakfast with tears in my eyes, thinking about it all.

But no point in being maudlin on the blog! After breakfast, our first stop was the Pohyonsa Buddhist temple which was nearby. When we got there we saw lots of people practicing their massed dancing for the President’s birthday coming up in a few days. I had no idea what we were going to see on that day, but all of the practicing going on all over the country was making me think that it might be a special kind of day. Still, no point wondering too much about it. We had a temple to see.

The temple complex was founded in 1024 and was inhabited constantly since then. It was extensively bombed by the Americans in the Korean War and over half of its buildings were destroyed. They’ve rebuilt some of them, but all the same, it’s a shame that a place so old and steeped in history was destroyed.

I took this photo to remind my self to get some bells like this when I build my deck in the backyard in a month or two. I really like the look of them.

We had to take our shoes off to go into the main temple. Mr Pak’s socks made me chuckle.

I like how ethereal and other-worldly the girl in yellow looks.


However, it wouldn’t be North Korea without some ‘subtle’ propaganda. In the first building as we came in was this statue of an ancient king and his subjects.

Yes, clearly kings don’t treat their subjects very well…

Aren’t the Koreans so lucky to be living in modern times? No kings are around to treat them like this anymore…

This is the Tabu pagoda, built in 1044. It thankfully survived the bombings and is designated as National Treasure #7.

Inside another courtyard was the Sokka Pagoda. This was erected in the 14th Century.

Here are the bells again.

I know I took a photo of this tree for a reason. I think it’s because it was the only tree in the actual temple complex to survive the bombings… or something like that. Half of it was burnt and the other half struggled on and survived. It’s not difficult to spot the symbolism in that.

It was so quiet up here in the mountains. It wasn’t difficult to imagine how this monastery would have calmly gone about its business, day by peaceful day, for centuries. The guides were talking about how the air under the pine trees is charged with positive ions which enhance health and well-being. And then, what a jarring shock the US airplanes must have been, raining down bombs and fire on them. It was difficult to comprehend what it must have been like, on a day such as this.

Pensive Niall. Maybe those positive ions were starting to have an effect.

All of the buildings, whether they were ancient or reproductions, were decorated on practically every surface. It was incredible how elaborate they were.

Then it was off to the next part of our tour – the world-famous International Friendship Exhibition, which was why we’d come to this part of North Korea. You want crazy? Then this is the place.

Basically, this is a palace built by the North Koreans to house every single gift that people and governments have given to their leaders. This place is beyond gigantic. It is a marble-floored and marble-walled room after room after room of glass cases filled with items ranging from the beautiful, the bizarre and the downright kooky.

The doors were massive, but balanced so well that Helen could open them without a struggle. Once we were inside we had to put everything we had, especially cameras and phones, into a cloakroom. No opportunity for sneaky pics here. We were then searched with a hand detector and had to step through a detector gate, like at the airport. They seriously don’t want anyone messing with this place!

Then we gathered around our guide, Mrs Kim, (no relation I’m sure!) and we set off. She asked after our nationalities and then over the course of the next couple of hours made sure everyone got to see examples of what our respective countries have given. She must have the most amazing memory because this place covers plenty of ground. She’s the head guide and has been working there for 30 years, so I suppose that’d explain it.

James was lucky. Ireland had a glass case with the most gorgeous Waterford crystal. Australia? A couple of boomerangs. I’ve never been so proud.

We followed Mrs Kim as she led us into rooms, past case after case after case, then down halls, around corners and into other rooms. Some of the things we saw were:

  • A stuffed alligator holding a tray with a champagne bottle and glasses, given by the Sandinistas of Nicaragua.
  • An armoured rail carriage given to Kim Il Sung from Mao.
  • A plane that the great Leader used to use to fly to various countries and cities within Korea.
  • A couple of bear skins with the heads still attached. The eyes don’t look too happy.
  • The above picture is the clearest shot I could find on the web. It gives you an idea of how things are displayed – everything is put in a case with no discernable rhyme or reason. Countries are all mixed in together.
  • Lounge suites.
  • Vases. So many vases.
  • Ivory carvings.
  • A basketball signed by Michael Jordan.
  • The list goes on and on, with over 200,000 items on display.

Kim Il Sung said that the gifts he was given were really for the people, so he had this complex built so that the people of North Korea could share. Honestly, most of the gifts were so tacky, I’d build a bloody big shed to store them in so I wouldn’t have to look at them, too. Though when we were looking at the book that Eric Clapton gave to him, Pierre said that the Leader’s brother was mad about Eric Clapton and would presumably have loved to read his autobiography. Instead, it’s in a glass case. I wonder if he got to have a quick flick through before it was put here?

Once we’d finished the tour we were allowed to get our things from the cloakroom and then we went upstairs to the balcony. There was a gift shop there with lots of amazing things, but for me, the best things were these tiger paintings. The expressions on them!

But the best one is this one:

I showed it to Niall and he started laughing. “So you’re drunk again…!”

The balcony had huge green chairs and a magnificent view of the mountainside. Tea and coffee were available for purchase – (I declined, as somehow I don’t think this place was in urgent need of my money), and we all relaxed and took in the view. Mrs Kim came out and we gathered together and we sang that catchy Korean song that I’ve posted links to before. To thank us, she recited a poem that Kim Il Sung recited on this very balcony when he came to visit.

“On the balcony I see the most

glorious scene in the world…
The Exhibition stands here,
its green eaves upturned, to exalt
The dignity of the nation,

and Piro Peak looks higher still.”

Except she said it in Korean. She had a throb in her voice and she recited it with the utmost passion. Seriously, the Koreans worship the Kim family with an adoration akin to religion. They have a totally different attitude to their leaders than we have in the West.

There were huge wax figures of the two leaders. We walked into each room and bowed. The President’s one, in particular, was very life-like. This whole place was designed to impress upon the visitors the fact that the leaders were highly respected by the rest of the world and that they were so gracious in ‘sharing’ the gifts with the people. This is definitely on the official foreign tourists’ tours, but the main area of tourism is the DPRK themselves.

Here’s a group arriving. There was a Chinese tour group galloping through at the same time as we were, but this group looks to be some DPRKers.

Look at me – right where the President probably stood!

Pierre took this shot of Un Ha. I love it – so joyful. (@pierredepont)

While the rest of us were milling around the gift shop, Helen was writing a letter of appreciation to the museum. Mr Pak wrote a Korean translation after she’d finished. I bet it’ll end up in one of the glass cases.

The money and effort that has gone into building and maintaining this place is mind-blowingly big. There are over 150 rooms, all with easily 15 foot high ceilings and marble everywhere. Apparently, they’re in the process of expanding it, as a third Leader is now being given things. Given the poverty of this country, the decisions on where to spend the money are … questionable at times, let’s say.

After lunch, we left the hotel and went back to Pyongyang to see one of the special Children’s Palaces that I wrote about a few posts ago when I was talking about schooling. The last shot of the group in the mountains is one I’ve swiped from Pierre again. Mr Pak and Un Ha enjoying a chat. (@pierredepont)

And then it was back through the countryside again. Lots of workers, lots of bikes…

… though it wasn’t until I got home and I was going through these photos that I noticed that one of these figures is not like the others.

And I’ll end this post with a nice little moped. Wouldn’t mind something like this myself!

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2 Responses to China and the DPRK: Day 8 – The Pohyonsa Buddhist Temple and the International Friendship Exhibition.

  1. Andrew says:

    The tigers are great and the scenery just beautiful. I’d be putting that vast quantity of gifts on Ebay.

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