Want to see what 40K buys nowadays?

When we moved here to The Best House in Melbourne, there were improvements I wanted to make. However, when I had 18 months of bridging finance to get through until the old house was sold, (running at 3K/month- yikes!), things had to go on the back-burner until all of that was sorted.

Last August the deal was finally struck and the money was paid to my account. It was the end of a VERY stressful time – I defy anybody to borrow 750K to buy a house and feel totally ok with it. Seriously – I had to do this to swing the deal, but it was a huge gamble that the property market wouldn’t tank and now that it’s over – I will NEVER go into debt again. It worked beautifully for us, but I don’t want to push my luck.

I invested most of the money I received into my super and the share market, but I’ve kept around 50K to get the backyard landscaping done. It’s a huge job and while most of it has been done, I’m still not finished yet.

The original backyard was so scrappy and awful, I didn’t even take any photos of it the whole time we’ve been here. I took the following ones once work had actually commenced.

The yard is split into 2 zones – an upper and a lower. It was full of weeds; a gall-wasp-ridden lemon tree and a squat fig tree; UGLY pink pavers (why?!?), and a general air of desolation. I only went out there to hang clothes on the line.

But I had big plans for this space.

Half of the lower brick paving will be covered by a roof to make an outdoor room so I can snooze outside during school holiday times in Spring and Autumn. I haven’t built this yet. Here’s what has happened so far:

This was taken after most of the plants had been ripped out. Honestly, look at those pavers… how could anyone have thought they were a beautiful design choice? The house was built in the 80’s, but even so…!

The shed was located in the sunniest corner of the yard, which put it slap-bang into the best spot for veggie growing. It cost an extra 4 or 5K to take it apart, lay a new concrete slab and flip it onto the shady part of the yard, but it was so worth it.

We also recycled the old clothesline. I found some new clothesline cord at the local hardware marked down at $2 for the roll, so Guy, my landscaper, put it up in front of the old shed and restrung it for me.

Some genius planted a massively spiky agave tree right where people walk, so I had Guy get rid of it. It was too big to dig out so I’ll have to keep an eye on it in case it thinks about coming back to life.

One night I came home from work and the pavers were gone and the shed was in pieces. Progress!

About a week further on and things were really moving. On the last day of term 2 I came home and Guy was finishing filling up the wicking beds. He’d never made any before this job. He looked at me and said, “Frogdancer, you’re the first and the lucky last to get wicking beds from me. They take too bloody long to build!”

I laughed. I put the wicking beds together back at the old house and it was a huge job. I knew exactly what he was talking about.

Here’s the bottom level, though now the screening plant, a very old and unlovely Grevillia, has since been cut down. I’m waiting till Francis, my brother-in-law, puts the roof up before I start thinking about planting things down here. I need to see where the shade will go.

This space used to flood when it rained heavily, so Guy has put in a huge drain at the front of the steps. I love it.

The upper level. No weeds for Old Lady Frogdancer to contend with.

A couple of months later and this is what it all looks like at the moment. The screen to the right is hiding the clothesline. I’ve started planting the permanent garden bed to the right, while veggies have been going into the wicking beds. I took a chance and planted my tomatoes before Cup Day weekend – I’m gambling that the frosty mornings have passed.

Against the fence, you can just make out the mini greenhouse that I got David25 to assemble for me.

Here’s the other angle.

You know, I’d forgotten about the excitement of gardening, when things start to reward you by popping up. I put some asparagus against the back fence. Completely forgot that I’d bought purple asparagus until I saw these little beauties a couple of days ago.

I’ve already spent more time in the backyard in 2 months than I spent in 2 years before the yard was remodelled. Once the roof goes in and I can go out there without fearing sunburn, I’ll be spending even more time out there. Christmases, birthdays, Mother’s Days… we’ll be using this space a lot.

I haven’t told you yet about all the little projects I have going on with this space, but I will. My brain is buzzing with ways to make this garden sing.

Forty Thousand dollars is a lot of money. But when it’s contributing to the lifestyle you dream of, then I believe it’s money well spent. 🙂





Posted in Fruit trees, gardening, Independence Days challenge, Quality of life, vegetables, wicking beds | 4 Comments

Skinflint Sunday: on a Monday!

Phew! I finally finished blogging about North Korea on the other blog, so now it’s time to get back to regular programming around here. I’ve missed writing about the day-to-day, and I’ve got so much to tell you!

So, in the 5 months since I returned from North Korea, what’s been going on around here?

Everything. And nothing. I’ve set myself a target on Goodreads to read 80 books this year. As of this morning, I’m 6 books behind schedule. I’m only up to 52. I’ll be having a few ‘Reading Days’ these school holidays.

Did I mention it’s school holidays? if it wasn’t, I’d be in front of my year 9’s at the moment. They’re not my favourite class, if you get my drift, so that makes me sitting on the couch in my PJs at 12:20PM seem even sweeter.

There’s been a HUGE project that I’ve still not finished.

I’ve been getting my hands dirty again.

Life’s been good. Can’t wait to tell you all I’ve been doing.


Posted in backyard beach, balance, books, family., gardening, holidays, knitting, pets, Skinflint, vegetables, wicking beds | 2 Comments

China and the DPRK: Day 15- The last day.

We had a leisurely start to our last day in China. We packed our bags, left them in a room at the hotel and then grabbed some lunch. Matt came and took us for a walk around a lake. I have no idea what it’s called or where it is, but it was a serene, relaxed way to finish off what was at times a very hectic holiday.

I took these shots as we were walking around.




Most people would have been at work, but it was interesting to see that some people used the lake frontage like their own backyard.





This was a very smiley baby.

The pollen from some of the trees was incredibly thick. In one section I had to walk with my open phone in front of my nose to avoid breathing it in. Here’s a clump of pollen that was collected in a doorway.

Lucky little ducks! A duck village totally unconnected to the shore.


It was a warm day. By the river, the sounds from the nearby streets were muted.

We even saw this man swimming. I don’t know how clean the water is, but good luck to him!

Free enterprise is alive and well in Beijing. There were quite a few of these little ‘market stalls’ as we got nearer to the shopping centre.

It wasn’t all beautiful. Just a shot to keep things real.

As we got closer to the main thoroughfare, we started to encounter rickshaws.

Once we were back in town, we stopped for a bevvie in a café.

Then it was over the bridge and into the shopping precinct.

We thought this shop sounded interesting and Helen and I tried to go in to see what they were selling.

Couldn’t see a thing…

We kept seeing parked cars with this in front of the wheels. Apparently, it’s to stop dogs peeing on the tyres.

My last little car before flying home.

And Fortunate Frogdancer strikes again! No one sat next to me on the flight back. I’m short so I could stretch out.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the posts about the trip. Now it’ll be back to regular programming.

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Beijing and the DPRK: Day 14 – The Great Wall of China.

Here’s what awaited us when we got out of our Uber and walked up to the Wall. Free enterprise at its finest! (In China Uber is called something else, but I can’t remember what it is. Ultra-cheap, though.) It was very handy having Matt with us, because being a tour guide AND a Beijing resident all in one meant that he knew what to do and how to organise it.

I had to laugh when I saw a Burger King here. China’s isolation has certainly faded over the years!

Helen and Rick went first on the chairlift; you can see Helen looking back at Matt and I.  It’s a very civilised way to make it up to the Wall.

The Great Wall has a brooding, medieval appearance as we got closer.

And then we were there!

The drainage tracks were a simple yet effective way to ensure that the Wall stayed dry underfoot when it rained.

This was inside one of the guardhouses. There were 14 guardhouses along this stretch of the Wall. The other 3 walked the whole stretch, but I only did 7 before I turned back. I know my limitations, especially after my walk on the mountain in North Korea!

Here’s Rick looking like the epitome of a bronzed Aussie on holidays.

As we walked along we came across a bride having wedding photos taken.

This is pretty much the view I had of the others the whole way along.

There was one thing I noticed pretty quickly about this wall – it wasn’t exactly level.

I’m in China! On the Great Wall! This is one place I never thought I’d see – I’m such a Europhile. Still – never say never. Life’s so exciting.

This set of steps was pretty brutal. They were steep and also shallow, so you end up stepping in ways that aren’t a natural fit.

And the highs and lows go on and on…


Ohhh… glass stairs. 

Looking at that tower, I felt like I was back in Lincoln for a sec.

Tourists posing for a happy snap. Those stairs kept getting steeper and steeper.

But you can’t deny that the view was very spectacular. Look at the way the Wall snakes over the mountains.

Yikes! I still remember this set of stairs. They were steep and HIGH.

This was at the next bit. The staps on the right are leading up to another guardhouse. It was a warm day, but not too hot. Just perfect for walking.

The guardhouses don’t look like they would have been exactly filled with creature comforts. It must have been a miserable place here at times, particularly in the depths of winter and the heights of summer.

But this little teardrop of a window was pretty.

I was ambling along, enjoying myself, when I suddenly caught a glimpse of what lay ahead…

That’s a lot of Wall. A lot of ups and downsy steps. Did I really want to do all of it?

Here was where we stopped so Helen could visit the loo. I’ve never known a woman to need the toilet so often!

The rest of us did a lot of this on this trip. (Hello Helen, if you’re reading this. We all love you!!)

This was the place where I suggested that they go on while I turn back. I’d made it halfway along, so I figured that by the time I walked back it would be as if I’d walked the entire length of this section. That’s Mathematically sound, surely?

So they headed off and I turned around and started back.

I called out to them and gave them a last wave, then we went our separate ways.

These steps are steep. I can’t believe I made it all the way up on the way here. I must be a Superwoman.

Somewhere along the way here I fell into conversation with an American woman and her daughter. They were fascinated to hear that ‘d just come from North Korea, so we stopped and had a break while I told them a bit about it and showed them photos and videos. Unless the political situation changes dramatically it’s a place they’d never be able to see, so they loved seeing the snippets I could show them.

This girl was quietly sitting, catching up on Whatsapp. Couldn’t be FaceBook because it’s not allowed in China. So inconvenient.

After a while, I decided to try and take photos to make it look as if I was the only person on the Wall. It wasn’t totally packed, like some of the pictures you see, but there were certainly enough people around to make it a bit of a challenge. It reminded me of when Scott and I went to Versailles.

We raced ahead of the crowds and got to see The Hall of Mirrors like this. No crowds – just the unobstructed view of this beautiful place. It’s one of my most cherished memories.

So I began to stalk clear views of The Wall.

I’m so sad I didn’t have my phone angled just slightly higher. It would have been a perfect shot.

Look. No people. I was totally alone.

This was fun. The air was still so I could hear when people were approaching. Otherwise, all I could hear was the occasional bird.

I decided to show you that there really were other people around.

Will this Great Wall never end?

As I was walking, I looked down on what I thought was a market. Little did I know that this was the place where the chairlifts came in. I’d made it!

None the wiser, I pressed on.

And on.

I saw this cute little Cavalier-looking dog asleep in a guardhouse. That was nice.

I kept going.

You’d think the lines would be a hint, but they didn’t seem to be attached to a chairlift. I kept walking.

It was when I got to this place that I began to get suspicious. I knew I hadn’t seen this building before.

I retraced my steps and found where I was meant to be. I celebrated with an ice cream cone and sat, enjoying the view and waiting for the others to come and find me.

Here are some of the smartest dogs in China. I sat and watched these French tourists feed them whole plates of food. This must happen every day because they look fat and happy.

The dogs, I mean. Not the tourists.

Once the others got back we went and looked at how we were going to get back down from the Wall.

That’s right – a toboggan. How awesome is that?!?

I was excited.

This is all it is. You just lean forward to slow down and lean back to speed up. Or maybe it was the other way around. I can’t remember now.

The trick is to delay your departure as long as you can, because if you get stuck behind someone scared and slow it’d ruin the whole experience. But we had a dream run down.

Helen and Rick bought this shot. It was such fun!!

Later that night we went to a restaurant that Matt had heard about and wanted to try. It was popular – we had to wait nearly 2 hours before we could get a table.

But get one we did. And the meal was delicious.

We had only one more day in Beijing before our holiday would be over.

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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.


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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