China and the DPRK: Day 13 – Beijing – The Llama Palace and hittin’ the hutong district!

The next morning Helen and I left the hotel just before lunch. Rick was as sick as a dog, so he was laying low. We were going to the Great Wall of China tomorrow and he wanted to be well for that.

I saw this guy as we were walking along the road towards the shopping centre. Looks pretty relaxed.

After eating the biggest bowl of soup I think I’ve ever seen, we took a train ride to the MONATRTY. Across the road, Helen pointed out a KFC.

This was the entrance to the Llama Temple. The day was pretty warm, but the trees here made the walk up to the gates seem cooler. There were lots of people here – it seemed to be a popular place.

This place was originally built in the 1690’s as a residence for the court’s eunuchs, but soon a guy called Prince Yong took it over. And honestly, why wouldn’t you? It was pretty gorgeous. When he became Emperor a few years later, half of it became a monastery while the other half remained a royal residence.

During the Cultural Revolution it was lucky enough not to be damaged. It’s easy to get to – it even has its own subway station named after it.

Each person was given a bundle of incense to burn as we went in. You are meant to burn it a stick at a time, bowing in all 4 directions before tossing the stick into one of the big containers that you see here.

But that was too slow for me. I burned the whole lot at once.

Helen, on the other hand, did everything she was supposed to.

As we moved further in, there were buildings and courtyards and lots of statues under cover.

A pomegranate tree It reminded me of my old garden back in Malane st.

This looked really impressive.

I liked the way they bent the tree to look like it was blowing back in the wind.

I really like the metal bells. This is to remind myself to get some when my backyard roof over the paving finally gets built.

While Helen was busy using up her incense by bowing at yet another shrine, I saw these monks ahead of us. I picked up the pace and followed them in.

This statue was IMMENSE! It towered over us. It looked like there were 3 floors built around it.

Standing directly under it. I think that hand was almost as big as I am.

I love these next two photos. I don’t know about you, but when I think of monks, I don’t automatically link them with mobile phones.

Yet here they were, doing the same things as all of the other tourists. Of course, they were chanting and praying as well.

I’ve included a couple of photos of some artifacts that I liked, but I’ll link to an article that I read on A Gai Shan Life about the Great Chinese Art Heist.

I have a friend I’ve known for the last 20 odd years who is on the dharmic path. This made me think of him.

Who wouldn’t love this guy?

The buildings were ornate, but not over the top. I loved the shape of them, especially when they were crowded together –

– like this. See the little Bridge of Sighs? That’s not what it’s called but that’s what it reminded me of.

Monks just chillin’.

See how close together some of the buildings were? As we got further towards the back, the closer together some of the buildings got. But look at the gold!

Another bell.

This was at the bottom of the steps leading to the women’s loos.

After we left the monastery, Helen wanted to wander around the neighbourhood so we set off.

I had to get a shot of this. A dog wearing little shoes!

Once we were back on the main drag, one of the red doors was open. Normally they’re closed, so I grabbed this shot of what lies beyond. The reason that there are so many public toilets in Beijing, and why they are usually very clean, is because these old homes don’t have their own loos, so the public toilets are actually everyone’s toilets.

But the little bar that we found to refresh ourselves looked extremely sanitised and homogenised.

Noice!

We met up with people from the tour for dinner. Peking Duck! Well, we couldn’t be in Beijing with trying this, could we?

Maria, Marjo, Matt (who had spent the day doing paperwork so he’d be free to take us to the Great Wall the next day) and James, who was supposed to be flying back to Dublin but his plane was cancelled. I was so happy to see him again. 🙂

We were half-way through our meal when Niall joined us. He and Wally had gone to the Great Wall that day and they’d just got back. Niall told us a harrowing tale of how Wally had insisted that they go past the end of the renovated wall and start climbing the ruined part.

“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Niall said. “We were swinging from one hand-hold to the next over rocks and heights that’d kill you if you fell. I could’ve killed him!”

We were laughing. It was so typical of both of them, but especially Wally, to go where they weren’t supposed to go. Then they hitchhiked back to Beijing when they finally made it down. Wally was exhausted and went back to his hotel to rest, while Niall, who is clearly made of sterner stuff, came out to see us.

Then we all followed Matt as he took us to all of these hip and happening places in the hutong district. We walked down what seemed like miles of anonymous alleys, past lots of red doors with Matt checking his phone and following maps, then he’d open a door like all the others and this is what we’d find.

We had a great time.

The Great Wall tomorrow!!!!

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China and the DPRK: Day 12- Beijing – no oxen here!

This was an astute buy from the supermarket in Pyongyang! The coffee was cold, but it was SO GOOD to get a hit of caffeine when I woke up and crawled down from my top bunk. Those mattresses are very thin.

We pulled in to the station at Beijing and said our goodbyes. Some of us were hanging around Beijing for a few days so we arranged to meet for dinner that night. Matt, our Aussie guide in North Korea who is also Helen’s son, lives in Beijing so he was going to meet us and then take us to some hip and happening places that night.

When we were all in the carpark at the station, Helen and Rick discovered that our Air BnB had cancelled on us. Rock and Matt went into overdrive on their phones and they eventually found us a hotel so we grabbed a taxi, waved our goodbyes and set off to find our new digs.

This is where we discovered the downside of travelling in Asia, where there aren’t that many signs in English and not that many people who speak it. Our taxi driver couldn’t find the exact address. After driving around the block a little while, he dropped us off and left us to it. Thank God it was in the middle of the day and not at midnight, like when we arrived in Beijing the first time!

I snapped this shot as we were wheeling our suitcases around and around the block. NOTHING could have made it clearer that we weren’t in North Korea anymore!

Gold Maserati, anyone?

After around half an hour of trying to find our hotel, Helen and Rick cracked it and went into a phone shop to try and get help. More and more people gathered to help them, while I stayed outside and helpfully guarded the suitcases. Turns out the hotel doesn’t have its own lobby or concierge… it shared the lobby with the phone company. FINALLY we could dump our bags and get some lunch.

We had a relaxing afternoon, just walking and eating, then back to the rooms for a nanna nap.

For dinner we met up with a few people from the tour, and we ate this Chinese hotpot and then went out into the Hutong section to find cute little cocktail bars.

It was a low-key start to our second Beijing experience. The Great Wall was coming up!

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China and the DPRK- Day 11/12: The Train Ride to China.

After I packed my bags I was walking down the hallway to breakfast when I passed by Pierre’s room. He’d managed to open his window, which I’d tried and failed to do in my room, and the view was spectacular. Such a glorious morning and such a pretty way to say my final goodbye to this candy-coloured city.

I perched up on the window ledge and leaned (a little bit) out over the 32nd-floor window, listened to the wind and the quiet and took these photos. I was so glad I saw the door open and popped my head around it to say good morning. I would never have seen the view from here without glass in the way.

Obviously, we couldn’t be late, what with a train to catch and all, but I needed to see if I could find a copy of the book James bought yesterday – “Kim Jong Il – The Great Man.” Fortunate Frogdancer strikes again – the main bookshop in the hotel didn’t have it, but someone remembered seeing it in a little shop a floor below the main lobby. I galloped down the stairs like a fairground pony and found it.

A side-note to that is that for about 6 weeks after my trip, my year 8 kids were fighting over it to get to read it during the 10-minute wide-reading that I start every lesson with. They found it hilarious.

Then it was all in the bus, to the station where we said our goodbyes to Mr Kim and Un Ha. It was sad because we’ll never see them again. With my other tour guides from the UK and Europe, we’re friends on Facebook, but these two lovely people are isolated from us forever.

We found our berths, waved at Mr Kim and Un Ha as the train pulled out from the station and settled in for the ride.

There wasn’t much to do. There was a nice man doing a roaring trade with the drinks cart, coming by every half hour or so. Wally, Olly and Bek stayed in the berth the whole time, listening to Wally’s iPod music and drinking beer.

I was running very short of money, considering that I still had 3 days of Beijing and a Great Wall of China day to pay for, so I was reduced to eating the Pyongyang supermarket snacks and soju from my bag. But some of us had brought more interesting fare.

The North Korean dried fish. To be honest, when I saw Wally waving it around I didn’t think that it was going to end well. It certainly smells… fishy.

When it landed on someone’s pillow I could see bad times ahead. Wally was drinking a lot of beer and I knew that it would only be a matter of time before he hid the fish in someone’s suitcase or something.

After Rick posed for this photo I suggested that when the rubbish man came by next, we’d quietly throw it in the bin. So that’s what happened. No one wants to sleep on a pillow that smells of fish.

Sorry guys, if you’re reading this – it was ME!!!

The train stops at many little stations on the way to the border. When we were visiting people in the dining car, we saw this gathering at one of the stations. I’m not sure what was going on, but it looked like there was a teenage boy getting fêted by either the local media or his large family.

And the train rumbled on. After 10 days of travelling together, we were like family. In fact, Wally and Olly were just like an old married couple by this stage.

After a while I took a few last shots of North Korea.

Probably the last oxen and cart I’ll ever see again.

Then, all too soon, it was time for the train to stop at the border. Considering the cold welcome we received on the way in, we weren’t looking forward to it. At least the weather was a little warmer in case we had to get out onto the platform again.

As we got closer to the border, we started getting a little worried about the photos we had on our phones. As you’ve already seen, after a few days I pretty much ignored the “don’t take photos of the military” rule. I decided to let my phone battery run out so they couldn’t look at what I had. After all, we’d just be crossing the border. Nothing to see here…

Worst mistake I made on the trip.

This was the last photo I was able to take before my phone died. Niall decided to get the dress out.

When that happened, the Chinese and North Korean people on the train lost their shit! They were laughing and pointing. We could see soldiers outside on the platform, moving from carriage to carriage checking people’s papers and passports.

A bundle of papers was handed to Matt – all written in Korean – that we had to fill out. It took a lot of time for everyone to fill theirs in, because we had to pass Matt’s one around to see what to put where.

In the meantime, Niall was dancing with some of the Chinese men in the corridor.

Then the soldiers came in. They were grumpy and sour-faced.

At first.

Then they saw Niall.

At first everyone kept a low profile. The soldiers were brusque and efficient, making people hand over their passports, unzip their cases and go through their clothing to make sure no contraband was hiding. I was one of the first.

Once I was done, I stood with my back to the window in the corridor and watched the frighteningly serious woman who had just finished with me, move onto Niall. He was sitting on one bunk with his suitcase beside him, while she sat on the opposite bunk.

She motioned impatiently for him to open his case and then got him to move things around so she could see under things. Niall was quiet. She was very intimidating. She kept inspecting the innards of his suitcase in great detail, then without warning she leaned over to him…

… and straightened the bow on his dress. We all smiled. She leaned back with just the hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth.

And that was when the party started.

We were out on the platform for at least half an hour, but oh what a difference it was to the border crossing on the way in!

See this Chinese gentleman? He was dancing and dancing with whoever would dance with him, but Niall was his especial favourite. He was like the Duracell bunny. At first Niall was game to keep up with him, but as the time ticked by he got tired.

“Oh not again!” I heard him say as the Chinese gentleman grabbed his hand and whisked him away for another jig.

Then Olly and Wally started to much around, posing with their hands on each other’s bums and lifting each other in the air.

I only want him for his money!!” screamed out Wally and everyone roared.

I’m sure I saw two of the same guards that were so standoffish to us on the way in. They had big smiles on their faces this time.

Before we knew it we were back on the train and heading into border control in China. It was all a bit much for Niall; he had a quick nap while the rest of us queued up.

This is what’s printed on the bags of food at KFC in Dandong.

Hilarious. You can’t fault their honesty…

We had one more night’s sleep on the train getting back into Beijing. Niall had found a couple of bottles of the dreaded snake soju for sale in our hotel and he brought one out to enliven the trip back.

I thought that it couldn’t be as bad as the drink we had with the ancient-looking snake soju in the Juche Tower.

I think it might’ve been worse. Anyway, I downed my capful and refused to drink any more of the stuff. I heard next morning that after we all went to bed, Niall and James went down to the back of the train and were sharing it with the Chinese and North Koreans down there. A great time was had by all, judging from how quiet they were.

But first there was this. Our last night all being together.

We had a very bossy woman in the dining car. When Niall ducked out to the loo she locked the door after him. He was trapped.

While we were getting someone with a key to unlock the door for him, he made a friend.

But the bossy lady had her revenge. A half an hour later, when we wanted to go to bed, the dining car was locked. We couldn’t access the rest of the train to get to our bunks.

Ahh… fun times. We made it back eventually.

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China and the DPRK: Day 10 – “It’s fun to stay in the DPRK!”

Pretty sure this is one of Pierre’s photos. @pierredepont  My iPhone6 certainly didn’t capture shots of this quality! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After the supermarket we were all a little peckish, so dinner was next on the list. Again, we had singing waitresses, with a video screen above them that had all sorts of patriotic things on it, like the Reunification Arch that’s in the picture, shots of crops and blossoms in the country, marching soldiers with tanks and missiles and (of course) shots of Kim Jong Un smiling benignly and waving.

My contribution was this North Korean wine that I picked up in the supermarket. It was pretty much as you’d expect – hideously sweet and like a plum syrup.

Before we could properly savour the sweet, sweet taste, Matt and the other guides were hurrying us up. Apparently, we didn’t want to miss the fireworks. So we jumped into the bus and raced back to the centre of town.

Just as we got there we heard some loud thumps. The fireworks had begun! The bus stopped and Matt rushed us all out, pointing towards the river and saying “Go! Go! Go!”

We joined the throng of North Koreans heading the same way. I got to the walk beside the river and hesitated, looking around for someone else from the group. Then Mr Kim raced up, saying, ” Auntie, to the left is the best.” I saw Niall and Bek going the same way so I followed them and we found a spot on the grass by the river, with the Juche Tower directly in front of us.

We settled in for the show, the 3 of us surrounded by thousands of North Koreans.

Sorry guys. Back to the iPhone shots. The fireworks were spectacular – probably one of the best shows I’ve yet seen. Interestingly, the camera couldn’t pick it up but these red points on the display were actually shaped like red stars, like on the flag.

It was hard to believe that we were leaving in the morning. The people were all around us and we were all ‘oohing and ahhing’ every time there was another big firework. People shared beer and soju around and they were all simply enjoying the moment with their families. Lots of little kids who were beautifully behaved, allowed to stay up as a treat; adults enjoying the evening and looking forward to a sleep-in on Sunday, and us – soaking it all in knowing that it was all coming to an end.

There we were, in the dark, watching the fireworks and exchanging remarks with our neighbours. A couple of them could speak a little English. After about 20 minutes or so the lightshow ended and we made our way back through the crowd to the bus.

James and I thought we’d grab one last look at Kin Il Sung Square, so seeing as not everyone was back at the bus yet, we walked past it and saw the Square at night. Not all that many tourists get to stand here like this, because after dinner is over we’re all meant to stay in our hotel on the island. So we looked around and took in the sights and sounds one last time.

Safety first!

As we drove off I looked back and saw that the ski mask had made a reappearance.

On our way home to the hotel we stopped in at the Diplomatic Club. This is something that by all accounts doesn’t happen that often – I think I remember Pierre, on his 9th trip to the DPRK, saying that he’d never been here before. It was a nightclub/bar. We were the only people there and it was a little dull at first.

But then the karaoke started.

Once we were back at the hotel we agreed to go back to our rooms to freshen up, then meet down in the hotel’s karaoke bar.

Once I got back to my room though, I started writing in my yellow book to get down all the details of the day, then I felt sleepy. It was just before midnight. I thought I’d give any more singing a miss, so I crawled into my PJs and went to bed. There were some noisy Russian girls in a room across the hall, but they quietened down soon after and I went off to sleep.

Until the phone beside my bed rang. Groggy, I picked it up and James’ Irish accent hit my ears. “Lisa, will you get up and answer your door? I’ve been banging on your door for ages.”

I leapt up, went to the door and threw it open. No-one. Nothing. I groaned, thinking that his roommate has hooked up with someone, James needs a spare bed and he’s clearly wandering around on the wrong floor looking for my room. I told him a few days ago that if it happened again I had a spare bed in my room.

I was too sleepy to think that if he was able to dial my room, he’d know which floor I was on.

I went back to bed. I drifted off to sleep…. when the phone rang again. “Hellooo, McDonalds delivery!” said a Scottish voice. I groaned and hung up, rolled over and went back to sleep.

Only to be awakened by a banging on my door. I strode to the door and threw it open, expecting to see James. Instead, I’m greeted by Niall, pants down to his knees, his junk tucked away, saying, “Hellooo Lisa!” James and Wally were behind him, cracking up.

The funniest thing was when the door behind was flung open and the noisy Russian girls looked out indignantly to see what all the noise was about. I’ll bet they got a more interesting view of Niall than I did!

The boys said that Helen had sent them to get me. Everyone else was down at the karaoke bar and she knew I wouldn’t want to miss out. And you know? She was right.

I threw some clothes on and raced downstairs with the guys. I couldn’t miss singing one last raucous rendition of ‘YMCA’ but changing the lyrics to ” It’s fun to stay at the DPRK”.

We were there until around 3 in the morning. Then we dragged our sorry selves up to bed. We had to be at the station bright and early to catch our train out of Pyongyang to the border.

 

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China and the DPRK – Day 10. Dancing and shopping.

This was what we were racing to see. The massed dancing in Kim Il Sung Square to celebrate his birthday. There were hundreds of people all moving in unison, dancing in a mass of colour and it looked spectacular.

I took some videos but WordPress won’t let them on the blog, so here’s a very short clip taken from the same place we were at, but a different celebration. Still, you’ll get the idea. 🙂

As you can see, the steps are very basic, which was fortunate because we were able to jump in and dance with the locals. Our dance had a much more festive vibe than the video. Everyone was smiling and enjoying the sunshine.

Look at the colour! Everyone moving as one, clapping as one, the music, the dresses… it was fantastic.

This looks as if I suddenly turned into a disembodied head… This was taken just before I dumped my bag and leapt like a dainty gazelle into one of the circles.

Maria from Finland was my partner. She’s a lot taller than me, so she played the man’s role and I was the girl. I felt a little sorry for the Koreans in the circles that the foreigners joined. They spend weeks practicing, then we bumble in and wreck the rhythm until we get the hang of it.

James was determined to dance with a local. Here he is counting his steps. After dancing with Maria, I danced with a couple of the local men. No photos – I was too busy being nimble and keeping the honour of Australia alive as a dancing nation.

We were there for maybe half an hour before it came to an end. Everyone gathered in front of the pavilion for a rousing speech. At first we were standing near the back, but then Mr Kim came and moved us away.

And then they left. First the girls…

… and then the boys.

We walked back to our bus and drove to another part of town. I grabbed this shot of the pyramid hotel out of the window. It’s sad to think that after today I’ll never see it again.

Then there was great excitement when Matt announced that we’ve been given permission to go to a supermarket in the centre of Pyongyang. Before we went in, Matt gave us the ground rules.

The big thing about shopping here is that we’ll have to change our money from Euros/Yuan to the actual North Korean currency of won. This is the first time in our whole trip that we’d actually get our hands on some DPRK cash. It’s forbidden for won to leave the country, but there are ways and means…

So I was assuming that we’d all be in a group, being ferried around and being kept separate from the public, but it was nothing like that. We arrived at the supermarket, a large building with 3 floors. We queued at the money changers and clutched our bundles of won when we received them.

(I just checked the conversion rates. For every single Aussie dollar it’s 654 won. By this stage of the trip I was running dangerously low in Yuan, so I think I handed over about $20 worth to get my bundle of won. I had heaps of Euros left but in my head they were already spent – I was going to split them between Mr Kim and Un Ha as a tip.)

Our guides said, “We’ll meet at the front doors at 6PM. Have fun!” OMG. We were going to be left to our own devices.

It was 5:15. We had 45 minutes of unsupervised shopping in front of us. We grabbed the freedom and scattered. We weren’t allowed to take any photos, so there’s only the photo that Wally took, below, as he was going up the escalator. I decided I didn’t want to risk upsetting a local by aiming my phone at them, so I don’t have any more photos from here to show you.

The bottom floor was groceries. That’s where I went.

It was packed. People were there getting their weekly groceries, along with tourists from a few different tour groups. People holding baskets and pushing trolleys, just like at home. We were sneaking sideways glances at each other; they at me, me at them…

I wanted to bring some soju back for the boys to try, so after selecting a few weird-looking snack items for the train trip back, I made my way to the alcohol aisle. Soju in plastic bottles! Nice and light for the plane flight home. I grabbed a couple of bottles and then browsed the shelves.

Interestingly, despite the sanctions, there were bottles of Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal, Veuve Cliquot and the like. Lots of coffee and juices in cans, (I bought a can of black coffee for the morning wake-up on the train), snack foods, lollies and kitchen utensils. There was a couple of big open freezers with ready-made meals on styrofoam packets in them, a bit like Lite n Easy except they were obviously made at the supermarket or a small factory. People were buying them hand over fist – they were very popular. Lots of whole fish, small appliances, a little bit of everything. I made my purchases and tried to arrange it so I’d have at least one of the won notes to smuggle out of the country. Heh heh. I was left with two.

After I got through the register, I went upstairs to have a look around.

The third floor was a food court, with a ball room for toddlers and a lot of plastic play equipment. As I was walking through, a little boy waved at me and said, “Hello!” His big brother shoved him and obviously told him not to talk to me, so when I said “Hello” back, the little boy beamed.

On the second floor they had washing machines, men, women and kids’ clothing, household furniture – everything you could think of. It was like a mini Myers or David Jones. I wandered through, catching sight of the others in our group every now and then, trying on hats, eating in the food court or looking at shoes.

All too soon, it was 6PM and we all rode the escalators down to the front door. Most of us had bought something and we all had big smiles on our faces. Next stop was dinner – and then an action-packed evening for our last night in Pyongyang.

Here’s my souvenir from the shopping trip. I saw it and thought, ‘I need a non-stick spatula! No time like the present.’

I like a souvenir that marries memories with practicality. I think of this trip every time I flip pancakes. 🙂

 

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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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