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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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


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

Here are the bells again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the best one is this one:

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

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

“On the balcony I see the most

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

and Piro Peak looks higher still.”

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

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

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

Look at me – right where the President probably stood!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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China and the DPRK: Day 7- Hyangsan Hotel and the hike.

 

(Photo by Wally.)

After the school visit we had lunch in a hotel dining room a couple of streets over. Again, it was slightly weird as we were the only people there. We were ushered into an empty, echoing lobby, past the (unstaffed) gift shop filled with books about the leaders, stamps, perfume and the like, around a corner and into a smallish dining room. I couldn’t help but wonder what the wait staff and reception people, not to mention the chef, would have done if we weren’t there. Would they even bother coming in to work??

After lunch we were hanging around outside for a while, looking at the locals while they looked back at us. Pyongsong is a large regional city and it was really surprising to see the roads in such disrepair. As James said to me, “You’d think they’d put the soldiers to work repairing the roads rather than building monuments and satellites…”

This impression only deepened as we travelled deeper into the countryside. We were headed to one of the most lavish hotels in the country, where we’d stay overnight and then we’d visit the International Friendship Exhibition House the next day.

I’ve shown you lots of road trip photos, however I haven’t really written about just how many soldiers we saw working on ditches at the side of the road. They weren’t working ON the road, as far as we could see. They were usually out in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, busily digging ditches or working on what may have been irrigation. I don’t know, I’m not a farmer. But the bus would travel for miles without passing anyone except the odd worker in a field, and then all of a sudden there’s be huge clumps of people working on some project or other by the side of the road. Still, I suppose food production is more important than potholes in barely-used roads. We’d go for ages without seeing another car or bus.

It was a long drive. Some of us, including me, took naps. The driver played a Russian movie and then ‘Up” on the screen at the front of the bus. We drove for miles past a river with gold miners standing up to their thighs in water, panning for gold. Reminded me of taking the kids to Sovereign Hill in Ballarat, years ago. At about 3:30, we caught our first glimpse of the hotel we’d be staying in for the night.

The Hyangsan Hotel. This place is built on a lavish scale. Marble is EVERYWHERE, with huge flower arrangements and glass and ornate lighting all over the place. I’ll show you what it looked like at the end of this post. Funny thing was – we were the only guests…

Yes. All this luxury for just 12 tourists, 3 guides and the bus driver. There was probably more staff here than customers. We raced in and received our door keys. We were in a hurry because we were going to go on a hike on the mountain and we wanted to have as much daylight to play with as possible. Unfortunately, the electronic door keys didn’t work. All this glitz and yet this happens… We had to wait for a staff member to come up and let us in before we could get ready to go. However, I’m pleased to report that the underfloor heating in my ensuite was toasty warm.

We met in the foyer and drove off to a place where the bus could be parked and we’d make our way to the summit of Mt Myohyang. We arrived at what looked like a picnic ground, then as we started walking towards a trail, we heard the sound of many marching feet. Mr Pak motioned us back towards the side of a little building. Out from between the trees emerged a long line of soldiers. They were all in uniform with guns as long as I am slung over their shoulders. They marched past us, all with serious faces and all in step and disappeared around the side of the building. Mr Pak wouldn’t let us move to have a look or to keep walking until the soldiers had finished whatever it was they were doing. There was a bit of what sounded like yelling orders, presenting arms and stuff like that, then they moved away.

The first thing we saw after we walked past a few buildings was this ancient Buddhist graveyard. Yes, the grave markers look very much like… they are boys buried there. This was deliberate, according to Un Ha, but I can’t remember the reason for it.

It was about a 5km walk to the summit. I walked it for about 2kms, but then I thought I was going to die. OMG. That hike was not for the unfit and indolent! The 3 guides were bringing up the rear. I was sitting by the side of the track and I asked if I could go back to the bus. Un Ha looked a bit worried, but I knew that she wanted to continue with hike with the others. I didn’t want to have to make her accompany me back down the track, like some selfish fat westerner with no consideration.

So I said, “The bus is still parked at the end of the track, yeah?” They nodded. “There’s only one track in or out, so I can’t get lost. I’ll just walk back and meet you all at the bus. Couldn’t be simpler.”

Famous last words, as it turned out, but we weren’t to know that at the time. They agreed, so I waved goodbye to them and turned to make my way back.

There they go…

So off I went. I decided very early on to walk slowly and take it all in. It’d take them a fair amount of time to reach the summit, look at the view and then get themselves down, so I had all the time in the world.

Mt Myohyang, otherwise known as the Mysterious Fragrant mountain due to the pine trees scenting the air, is one of the 6 sacred mountains of the Korean peninsula. Smallest, cutest pine cones I’ve ever seen.

It didn’t take long for me to start revelling in the peace and quiet. In a whole week, the only times I’d been alone was when I was in my hotel room. Don’t get me wrong, this trip was fantastic and I was having a blast! But for someone who identifies very strongly as an extroverted introvert, the introvert definitely needed some recharging.

I slowly walked back down the track, taking photos along the way. I didn’t rush; I just drank it all in.

The silence. The air.

The ability to notice little things. I truly think this was the only piece of litter I saw during my whole time in North Korea.

These photos are only a few of what I took. It took me ages to go through them and cull them.

But without a word of a lie, I was so happy. It was the Best Decision Ever to pull the pin on the hike and to be able to walk around on my own here.

All I could hear was the sound of running water from the creek nearby. Would it be called a ‘creek’ in North Korea? Maybe it’s a ‘brook’.

Talk about Fortunate Frogdancer! Who would have ever believed that a foreign tourist would be allowed to walk totally on her own in the middle of North Korea? This wasn’t what we hear about when we hear stories in the west.

Isn’t life wonderful? You can never predict what’s going to happen. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that one day I’d be ambling through the woods on a North Korean mountain, totally alone and feeling totally safe and happy.

I liked the way they utilised the natural features along the trail.

It was good that I’m so short. This little hole didn’t allow much headroom.

Well, I HAD to take a selfie. How else could I prove that I was actually here?

A couple of times I heard birdsong, but try as I might I could never see the birds. It’s pretty rare to hear birds in this country. It was nice.

Pine foliage.

A couple of times something like this would pop up.

I don’t know long I was out there for, but after a while I noticed that the light was beginning to fade. I picked up the pace a bit.

It was beginning to get a little cooler.

As I’m writing this it’s just after wine o’clock. I’ve poured myself a glass of Aldi chardonnay and I’m smiling. All those years of living hand-to-mouth when the boys were small and then all the years of watching every penny – all of those little decisions of where and when to spend my money led me here – to a place where very few people get to see, and even fewer get to see on their own. I love my life!

Oops. Got off track. (Ironic that I said this, as it happens.) The light grew dimmer and I walked faster. I didn’t fancy walking down here in the dark and I DEFINITELY didn’t want to keep the others waiting back at the bus. I’d never hear the end of it.

Where the bloody hell were the buildings and the Buddhist graveyard?

At last! Dusk was definitely setting in. I prowled a little bit around the Buddhist graveyard, taking more photos and then set off down the track again.

No worries. Nearly back at the picnic ground!

I emerged from the track to see this big pavilion. I had absolutely NO recollection of seeing this before. Surely I’d remember it? It’s pretty damned big…

It was getting darker. Not to worry. I’d simply retrace my steps and see if there was any way I could’ve taken another path. I didn’t see how it was possible, but maybe I did. It was all ok. I’d walk back, keeping my eyes peeled for any side tracks and I’d make it back to the bus without anyone being the wiser.

As I walked back along the track, I decided that if I reached the Buddhist graveyard without seeing a viable track, then it meant that I was correct the first time and I’d have to scout around at the whopping-big-pavilion-that-anyone-would-be-sure –to-remember-if-they’d-ever-walked-past-it, and see if I could find my way back to the bus.

The light was really fading now. I held my phone and thought that soon I’d have to switch on the flashlight. I reached the graveyard and sighed. Great. I’d second-guessed myself and I should’ve scouted around instead of coming back. Idiot! I turned and started going back down the path beside the high stone fence.

It was dark. Then out of nowhere, I heard singing. Lots of male voices singing. In Korean. Just a couple of hundred metres away, by the sound of things.

Fuck. I was near the army camp. In the dark. With an iPhone, capable of taking pictures. On my own. Not actually a Korean national.

I rolled my eyes and smiled wryly. This’d be great. Frogdancer, the espionage queen… spying on the DPRK for my mighty blog.

I was never once scared, but I really didn’t want to be hauled away and need the guides to come after me and explain who I was etc, especially after I was the one who said I’d be fine. Now this would be something that I’d DEFINITELY never hear the end of! I kept walking. After a couple of songs it all went quiet and I came out near the pavilion again.

As I walked around, I saw an entrance to the road that I hadn’t noticed before. I walked onto the road and turned right. It seemed like it was the correct way to go. A motorcycle zoomed past me. I kept walking.

A woman walked out of a driveway and I asked her if she knew where the bus would be. The only Korean I knew off by heart was ” Chuk Bae” (Cheers! We were on the soju bus, after all), and she knew no English, but maybe the look of quiet desperation in my eyes transcended all language barriers. She nodded, smiled and pointed in the direction I was already going. I thanked her and soon, I rounded a corner and there it was.

I was the first one back. THANK GOD!!!! I caused no trouble, worry or aggravation. Phew! I climbed into the bus and opened up a couple of sojus for myself and the bus driver. He didn’t speak English either, so he showed me pictures of his wife and kids on his phone and I showed him pictures of my kids and Venice and South Africa walking with the lions in the open on mine. It was really nice.

Then after about 20 minutes the others came back. Guess what? You remember the military singing that I heard? THEY WERE SINGING TO MY GROUP! They encountered each other on the trail and the soldiers gave them a friendly little concert. Bloody hell. They all laughed when I described to them how different it sounded from a couple of hundred metres away, alone and in the dark.

The dining room. So many seats… so few people. It was a little eerie to be the only ones, to be honest. I know that everyone complains when restaurants are too noisy and crowded, but this was echoey and a little cold. Not cold as in temperature, just atmosphere.

But I was hungry. I could hardly wait for the rest of my table to join me.

BREAD! This place has bread! It wasn’t the best bread I’d ever eaten, but it was nice to see it again.

Look at this place. This is looking down into the lobby as we left the dining room to have a bit of a wander around the hotel. The fake flower arrangements were everywhere, along with the gleaming marble.

The Korean workers must hate the way tourists dress. We certainly don’t look as if we fit seamlessly into these glamorous surroundings!

The pool. There were 3 attendants, which matched our Korean guides and Niall, who all decided to pay for a swim.

While we were looking at the pool, Niall emerged.

“Honestly, Niall,” I said. “From one day to the next, I never know how you’re going to be dressed!”

The next 3 photos are pictures that were next to the lifts in the lobby. Again, notice the wording. The Great Leader Kim Jong Il and his father, the Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung were experts at EVERYTHING, it seems.

The 15th floor has a revolving restaurant, but it was closed. Not surprising really – as if they’d run it for just 12 tourists.

And here’s a rather nice bookend from the pool table at the Candy Festival in the morning to this deserted pool room at the end of the same day.

What a day! And there was more to come tomorrow.

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China and the DPRK: Day 7 – Doksong Primary School, Pyongsong.

 

Today was the day that we were heading out of Pyongyang to see a school and to get out into the country. We’d seen the Planetarium and the Candy Festival and now it was time to head out of town to a smaller city about 35kms away. To get us in the mood Un Ha got up at the front of the bus and told us about the North Korean school system as we drove.

At the end of WWII, when the Japanese pulled out of Korea, North Korea had around 2.5 million illiterate people. Not surprisingly, there was a huge push for education. In 1946 the first University was built and in 1953 compulsory primary schooling was introduced.

Nowadays there are 12 years of compulsory education: 6 years primary; 3 years junior secondary, 3 years senior secondary. Just like us! Schools start at 8:30am with 45 minute periods. After school activities are very important, as families only have 1 or 2 children, so they make their kids study more after school.

‘School Children’s Palaces’ run from 3pm – 6pm and they have classes for kids from 5 – 17 years old. (We visited one later on in the week.) They run classes in music, performing, sport and sciences. This is, of course, convenient babysitting for working parents.

After secondary school, there’s the military, a job or Uni. Unlike South Kora, military service isn’t compulsory, but it’s heavily encouraged. Students who show a facility for languages, for example, are encouraged to become tour guides like our Mr Pak and Un Ha.

If you want to go to Uni you have to pass an exam. Some people study for 2 years to get in, according to Un Ha. Classes start at 8am and there are three 90-minute lectures in the morning, with sport or afternoon study in the afternoon.

There are some secondary schools which are selective. The best and brightest of the kids are scooped up to be taught there, with an eye for them going into the satellite and nuclear industries later on.

Evening classes are offered in every factory and workplace and people are ‘highly encouraged’ to participate. The classes run from 6 – 8PM and run for 4 1/2 years, so you work all day and then study to earn a Bachelors and ‘Expert’ degree. Often these are computer/science classes, but they are also courses specifically about the teachings of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, particularly about the Juche philosophy.

Once you’ve finished that, then there are correspondence courses to enable you to stay current. You study in a class for a month, then you study by yourself via computer for 22 months and then you sit an exam at the end. These remote classes are very popular in farms and factories. The exams are different for each and every student, so there’s no possibility of anyone cheating.

I wrote all this down as the bus was bumping along. My handwriting is really hard to decipher at times! Anyway, that’s how the Korean government has revolutionised education. It’s interesting when you think back to the hugely illiterate population that had only 70 years ago.

As soon as we came into the foyer of the primary school, there was the obligatory picture of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il with smiling and happy children. You can see that someone has left a floral offering underneath it.

The first place we were taken to see was the “Nature Room” that the teachers had built themselves. No doubt due to the sanctions, they didn’t have access to teaching materials that we simply take for granted back home. There were weird things in glass bottles, a diorama of Korea and a mountain that they’d decorated with massively out-of-proportion animals and birds. The principal was so proud of this room, which she said was “built with the hard-work and stern principles of the Juche philosophy of self-reliance.”

This was down one of the side corridors. Again, like the public library we’d seen a day or two before, there seemed to be a conscious frugality in how they used electricity.

This was the first classroom we entered. The computer science room. They were very keen to show us their students working on individual computers, but I was the first one into the room and as I walked to the end I noticed their I.T guy…

I couldn’t believe it. He was trying to get the big screen on the wall to work by using a car battery and some form of transformer. (That was what our I.T guys said when I got back and showed them.) 

I couldn’t help but compare this with the technology we use at home, with interactive whiteboards in every room, every child having a Chromebook supplied to them and if there’s even a 10-minute disruption of the internet, we all carry on as if our throats are cut. All our roll-marking, reporting and communications are done online, so to see something like this was mind-blowing.

One of the kids touch-typing.

See the poster hanging on the wall behind the student? The school had plenty of pictures for the kids to see.

As we were moving up to the third floor, this was on the landing facing the stairs. Keep in mind, this is at a primary school…

When people ask me what going to North Korea was like, I laugh and tell them that it was fantastic. I had the BEST time and it was so interesting. However, just when I’d relax and think that I was in a country pretty much like everywhere else, I’d see or hear something that rocked me back on my heels and I’d think, “OMG! This is a WEIRD place.” Seeing that poster in the school was definitely one of those moments. I took a sneaky shot as we moved past it, because I didn’t want to offend the principal.

This was the only propaganda poster I saw at the school, but Walter from Hungary was extremely good at slipping away when people were busy and he took photos of a few more. They were tucked away in some of the dark corridors where we weren’t likely to go. While we were looking at cute kiddies doing cute things, he was quietly having a walk and seeing posters like these:

Molotov cocktails and tanks…

Bodies and decapitated heads…

Graphic battle scenes…

The date… 25th June 1950 was the start of the Korean War.

I don’t think I can caption this with anything that would add to it. This is in front of primary school kids every day. They might not stand and gaze at these pictures, but they’d certainly seep into their consciousnesses over time.

Notice the exaggerated nose on the attacker? They are taught to call Americans “the long-nosed aggressors” because that’s how they appeared to them in the war.

I was glad that Wally walked around and took these because I wouldn’t otherwise have seen them. However, it’s a double-edged sword. By slipping away all the time, he was putting the guides’ jobs at risk. Mr Pak and Un Ha were doing a brilliant job of looking after us and it would be awful if, because of someone’s curiosity, they ended up losing their jobs. Wally was agreeable and, when discovered, he never argued or created a scene, so I guess he’d be an easy ‘difficult’ tourist, if you know what I mean. But you can imagine how many headaches a really self-entitled person could cause the guides.

Anyway, I digress. Here’s what the rest of us were seeing:

Up on the third floor was a sunny studio where we saw a ‘gymnastics’ class, though just between you and me it was really a dance class. These sweet little girls were practically bursting out of their leotards, they were trying so hard to impress.

They were leaping and pirouetting and smiling ear to ear all the time.

Here’s the rest of the class while the soloist was doing her stuff.

Now that I know what Wally was doing, I notice that I can’t seem to see him in the audience reflected in the mirror. Maybe that’s him – the shadowy figure in the doorway, about to slip away and go and take photos…?

Ahhh… working with bouncy balls. It’s very impressive when it all goes well, but gee my heart bled for the little girl who missed the catch and had to go chasing after hers. Poor kid; they were all trying so hard.

Next door was the music class. Again, it was obvious the kids were waiting for us to turn up. Their singing voices are very different to how we teach. The DPRK kids sing in a high-pitched, almost forced tone that is fairly shrill, whereas we in the West go for a more full-throated sound.

The piano accordion is a big thing in the DPRK. Between this teacher and a little boy on the drums, the girls had a stirring, almost Big Band soundtrack to sing to.

This little boy was having a great time banging away on the drums. After a couple of songs he got down from there and sang a solo. It was all very march-y and he’d do these very militaristic hand signals as he was singing. As I whispered to James, I wasn’t sure if it was just a normal song or if he was threatening to take over our countries and oppress us.

Then Matt, our guide, jumped onto the drums and we all sang ‘Let’s go to Mt Pektu‘. (I’ve posted the link for you before, but it’s worthwhile having a look at if you haven’t seen it. The videos playing behind the band, especially after the 2:20 mark are amazing. Plus the shots of the audience are… um… inspiring, to say the least.)

They were just so gol’durned wholesome. They were singing their little hearts out and doing their little hand gestures and inclining their heads just so and smiling. They were as cute as buttons.

Next stop was the table tennis gym. Those kids were going hell for leather.

I took lots of photos of these two kids. The one on the right had the most expressive face!

Some of the guys on our tour stepped up and played with the kids. I loved the look on this girl’s face as she was watching.

As we were leaving, the kids were dismissed for lunch.

Oliver from Germany had brought small toys, pencils and textas to give away. The kids swarmed around him.

These little girls were walking past Matt and he suddenly pretended to be a bear and ran up to them, growling. The delighted screams and giggles as they ran away, then came back, hoping he’d do it again,(he did), was very funny. One little girl looked a little unsure the first time, but I caught her eye and laughed and she relaxed.

I wish I’d stepped to the left. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t deliberately hiding behind the pole!

After looking for the earlier video, I found this PEARLER of a song. North Korean songs are never about romance and heartbreak. They’re all about love for the country and about striving for victory etc. This one is all about STUDY! It has English subtitles. Watch and enjoy. You can thank me later.

And while we’re talking about schools, here are some Maths problems included in a book written by someone who escaped North Korea. The book is called “This is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood” by Hyok Kang. When I got back from my trip, Phil, another teacher, lent me a few books he had about the DPRK. These Maths problems are meant for primary school kids and were published in the 1990’s. I have no idea if the same things are still being taught now:

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China and the DPRK: Day 7- Road Trippin’ in the DPRK.

We went on two long bus rides out into the countryside on the only night that we slept away from Pyongyang. I thought I may as well show the shots that I took out of the bus window as we were bumping our way there.

The season was coming into Spring. You would have noticed that in Pyongyang the blossoms were out on the street trees. Here, life seems a bit more utilitarian, with every flat piece of land being dug and ploughed for planting.

Matt was saying that in this area, corn was the staple food crop.

Looking up this side street you can see a group of workers/soldiers gathered. Wherever we went there were huge numbers of soldiers working on the roads. Seriously, they needed to. Sometimes even the main roads were in terrible disrepair. I felt sorry for the cyclists we’d pass, as our bus was lurching from pothole to pothole and nicking up all kinds of dust over them.

So many people working with spades. We saw tractors, but not very often. It appears that the DPRK relies on manpower to feed themselves.

I find his expression interesting.

This woman has the stylish Pyongyang skirt, but she’s teamed it with sensible stockings and shoes. Everyone was wearing parkas.

I love this shot. I showed it to Liz at work who exclaimed, “It looks like something out of WWII!” So many pushbikes, only one car and all of the men dressed in their drab clothes…

I wonder if this is a bit of free enterprise at work? They look as if they might be selling fruit from their bikes.

This is when we were pulling into Pyongsong, where we’d see the school and have lunch at a hotel.

This is a typical street scene from Pyongsong, the town about an hour away from Pyongyang, where we visited a primary school. Here, it’s clearly permissible for women to wear trousers, which you can well understand after you’ve passed through the countryside where many of them would come from. The propaganda posters are dotted around the streets here as well.

The woman in the background is cleaning the street outside her building. We saw this a lot in the cities – there was never any litter or rubbish floating around. It was all spotless.

This is the first portable sign that I noticed. I wonder how often they change the signs on this corner?

When you compare the photo above this one, I can’t remember a time when there’s been more wheeled traffic on the footpath than on the road…

This was taken outside the restaurant we went to for lunch. She was the shortest woman I think I’ve ever seen. The ‘puddle’ behind her was in the middle of the street.

She doesn’t look all that pleased about getting a dink.

Look at the open drain at the side of the kiosk.  You could do yourself an injury if you weren’t looking where you were walking!

Kids going home for lunch.

Our first view of the lake on the way into the mountains. We saw people panning for gold further along the river.

He’s got his shovel handy!

Coming straight after the Candy Festival as they did, these scenes from the bus window were fascinating. I couldn’t convey the lurches and bumps that the bus was going through as we went along certain patches of the road – sometimes I wondered if we’d lose a wheel. We passed by group after group of soldiers and other workers all shovelling things by the side of the road, either working in the fields or on the roadway itself. Hundreds of people, mostly men, doing manual labour as we slowly drove past them.

One magical thing I saw: a herd of goats with their goatherd sitting under a tree with them. Talk about a scene from human history! I wish I had’ve had my phone ready, but you can’t take pictures all the time.

 

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China and the DPRK: Day 7 – The Candy Festival.

A mark of a good tour guide is how they can rearrange the itinerary when things come up, so their guests get to experience as much as they can. I saw this in Europe, where Gigi saw the weather report for our boat tour on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland and quietly organised to share a boat a day earlier with another tour group. The next day was POURING with rain – we would’ve been miserable. Instead, we had a glorious experience that I still remember fondly. The tour in North Korea was like this as well. Tour guides have to be flexible and things can change without notice. Matt and Mr Pak were constantly on their phones making things happen. However, this was an added extra. They heard about the Candy Festival opening and so they squeezed it into our day.

This gaudy display is what greeted us as we stepped off the bus, fresh from the Planetarium, and ventured inside the lobby of the Candy Festival. At least, that’s what the guides called it, but it looked to me more like a cake decorating show, a bit like the shows I used to work at when I was a thermomix consultant, back in the day. It seemed to be a weird hybrid of Disney and Japanese anime. All of these figures are edible.

There was a swirl of people around us. Clearly, the Planetarium wasn’t where the cool kids were hanging out – this was where the action was.

We walked into a huge room that had display tables set up with all of the cakes and confectionary set up. Some of them were basic, like the soccer ball on the bottom right, while others were far more elaborate.

The attention to detail in these flowers is incredible. I couldn’t do anything like this in a pink fit!

Maybe it’s just me, but when I think of North Korea my mind doesn’t automatically slide to snooker. But then again, we’re in Pyongyang, where the people lead a far more privileged life than in the country. It was an interesting little window…

There were quite a few people there already. I took some photos of the people who were there, particularly the women. I was noticing the way they dressed and comparing it with the country people who we saw from the train when we were coming in. Lots of conservative skirts, court shoes and hair bling.

I can’t make up my mind as to what emotion is on this guy’s face.

A very pretty display. You can see that there were also a fair few men there.

This was serious business… a news crew was there to show the DPRK the highlights of the exhibition and obviously lighting is everything. Still, as I was watching a couple of late-comers fussing over the placement of their spun sugar creations, I couldn’t help but think of the people we saw from our train windows coming into the country as the snow was falling. They were working in the fields with spades, both men and women, and gathering around open fires lit in the fields, presumably to stay warm. We were rubbing shoulders with the privileged.

Are you noticing the floors? Architecture on a grand scale.

I took a sneaky shot of the woman in blue because she seemed the archetype of the Pyongyang woman: conservative attire but she was still breaking out her individuality with her hair decoration and her shoes.

See?

These were the only dogs I could find. Unfortunately the middle one looks as if she’s suffocating under the plastic dome. But the next exhibit was worth coming to this place to see.

How’s this for a little slice of life in North Korea? This was one of the things that make you widen your eyes slightly and think,”OMG… this really is a crazy country…”

YPT had 2 tours going on at the time. Ours was the 10-day tour and there was a 5-day tour as well. There was a couple of British guys on the other tour who asked whether they could buy any of the exhibits. Apparently, you can. So they bought this one. This was their last day in Pyongyang, so they amused themselves by setting up the truck in their photos. I saw one photo of the truck advancing with the rocket pointing towards the Arch of Triumph. So funny! HOW I wish we’d thought to ask the question!

Men are either in uniform or dressed fairly plainly.

They grabbed Matt, our guide and interviewed him about the exhibition for the TV. Matt said later, “This isn’t the first time I’ve been on ‘Propaganda TV!'” He was speaking in English and Un Ha was translating.

I wish that this shot was more in focus. She had such a dreamy look on her face and the collar on her coat was gorgeous.

In an adjacent room, there was a cooking class going on. I took this shot for my sister. When I was a Group Leader for Thermomix (and my sister still is), I had to run cooking classes set up exactly like this. Well, except we weren’t teaching people how to make strange-looking dancing figures. Still, it was funny to see the exact same thing happening behind the borders of North Korea. People are still people…

Hair bling.

Shoe bling.

Not quite sure about the choice of shoe style with those white tights, but she still has shoe bling happening.

She also has a bow in her hair. 🙂

Our guides came to find us and we went back out to the foyer. We were leaving Pyongyang to go out to the country and a school was expecting us. We were running a bit late because we’d squeezed this Candy Festival in. This was when we discovered that the things out the front were for sale.

James from Ireland felt a bit peckish.

Meanwhile, Matt was buying this for the tour manager’s son.

Marjo from Finland also decided to indulge.

Helen didn’t even wait for the bus before she inhaled hers! She said that it was not as sweet as our cakes. James let me try some of his and it was quite nice… like a cross between bread and cake.

Then, not 10 minutes out of Pyongyang, we were seeing scenes like this. It’s a country of contrasts, that’s for sure. But what I didn’t know was that I was travelling towards an experience that, though slightly unnerving at the time, is one that I will never forget.

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China and the DPRK: Day 7- Pyongyang Planetarium (Three Revolutions Exhibition.)

This was the view through the bus window as we headed off for the first stop on an incredibly action-packed day. I like this shot, not just for the incredibly vibrant colours. Look at that sky! Hard to believe that only 2 days ago we were drinking warm soju in the snow.

I also like this because it shows things that are typical Pyongyang. The colours. The lack of any litter or graffiti. No traffic. And the conservative dress on every woman there. No ripped jeans or mini shirts here! The tiny North Korean flag that you can see flying between the buildings on the street behind. And the white painted tree bottoms.

Most people in Pyongyang, even though they are the most privileged people in the country, are still not rich enough to own their own car. Hence crowds like this at bus stops and trolley stops are pretty common.

First stop – the Planetarium, the central building of the Three Revolutions Exhibition.

I have to say, Pyongyang certainly has more than its fair share of creatively-shaped buildings. Lots of the sports stadiums are shaped like the sport – a shuttlecock for badminton, for example. I didn’t take this shot; I just wanted you to see it.

Anyway, back to Saturn! Thankfully, we didn’t have to tour the bottom floor, which was full of exhibits of all that the DPRK makes, and which looks as dull as ditchwater. All the labels were in Korean so it would’ve been torturous to have to file through them all and pretend to look interested. Being first thing in the morning, we had the place pretty much to ourselves. Only us and an unfortunate school group were here.

I quickly snapped this because there were only 7 people in the lift, there was heaps of room left and yet, “NO ROOM!” snapped the lady in blue.

I stood behind her on the way up. The Pyongyang guides, and indeed the ladies, seem to enjoy a bit of bling. On the next stop I was taking discreet pictures of what the ladies were wearing. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Here’s a spy satellite taking off. According to Un Ha, this was “a project to map stages of the Earth”. Whatever that means. There were lots of the usual dioramas of planets and stars, but there were also things like this:

No comment.

As we were leaving we saw another group of people gathering to practice for the massed dancing for the President’s birthday in a few day’s time. (Kim Il Sung died over 20 years ago but he’s still their president. He was THAT good at the job…)

We were pretty lucky in the timing of this trip. The first day was the marathon and the last day was the anniversary of his birthday, so our trip was sandwiched between two very big days. We were looking forward to seeing what happens on the birthday, as they clearly put a lot of effort into it.

Being so early in the morning, they hadn’t yet begun. You can tell that the temperature was warmer because they didn’t have parkas on over their dresses… always a good look.

You can see some of the elaborate detail on the dresses. Niall’s, even though it was peachy keen, wasn’t as pretty as some of these.

Oooo! Naughty Frogdancer took a sneaky photo of a soldier. To be honest though, there are so many soldiers living and working in Pyongyang that it’s difficult not to take any photos without military personnel in them.

We were driving back to the inner city because Matt, our Aussie guide, had heard that a Candy Festival had just opened, so we were squeezing it into our schedule. I had no idea of what a candy festival was, but I was about to find out.

This is the Pyongyang Traffic School, to educate schoolkids about safe pedestrian and bicycling practices. I grew up near the old East Boundary Road traffic school, which did much the same thing. Looking at this place as we sped past, I knew that we had been ripped off!!! This place was massive compared to ours!

Instead of constant billboards advertising products, Pyongyang has flags and billboards advertising the country, patriotism and the ideas and ideals of the Leaders. We got to be very familiar with the red star – it was everywhere. Slightly ironic that the colours are red, white and blue… remind you of another flag??? A Grand Old Flag…?

This Pyramid hotel is so high that it pops up everywhere.

Here’s a jolly billboard of the nuclear tests, with a proud nation cheering them on. Not at all scary… 😛

Here are a few more street shots before we get to the Candy Festival. Again, it’s very North Korea. I don’t know what the building is behind these men, but you can clearly see the pictures of the leaders. We saw people on bikes everywhere… men in suits, military officers, occasionally women but never children.

This was taken in the centre of town. Look at how few cars there are for 9:30am and how conservatively everyone is dressed. A bit to the right you can see a flagpole with the DPRK flag. Seriously, in Australia, you hardly ever see a flag unless you’re going to a government building. North Korea and (judging by movies) the USA seem to have an inordinate love for their respective flags in common.

 

 

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China and the DPRK- Day 6 continued.

Here’s what we saw as we drove into Kaesong for lunch. It’s a regional city near the DMZ and has clearly been planned to the nth degree for maximum impact. But first – lunch!

Pansangi bronze bowl lunch. An optional extra was dog meat soup, which I didn’t order but a couple of other people did. As the lunch went on I became curious, so I begged a spoonful of the broth from one of the people who was partaking.

OMG… delicious. Poppy, Jeff and Scout had better watch themselves from now on.

This restaurant was yet another one which was weirdly bridal in its decor.

The gift shop attached to the restaurant had this helpful booklet for sale. I bought it, to check how I’ve gone with my upbringing of the boys.

After lunch, we took a brief walk to see the statues of the leaders. This is the view that the statues gaze upon as they look down the hill.

The hill looks a bit “Hollywoodland”, doesn’t it?

It was very quiet up here. The wind was a little cold and it was all we could hear.

The manicured gardens leading up to the statues. As you can see, the lights are powered by solar panels. Not a skerrick of litter or grafitti either.

Originally there was only the one statue of Kim Il Sung, but after Kim Jong Il died another statue of the deceased leader was made and parked beside him. This happened all over North Korea. Kim Jong Il was always pictured wearing his worker’s jacket/parka, so he’s on the right.

A cute little kid we saw as we walked up.

Here is a wedding party returning from making offerings and paying their respects to the leaders.

After we saw the statues, we kept walking to the other side of the hill, where we came across the Old City. This was one of the few places that weren’t flattened during the Korean War.

The contrast between the wide boulevarde we’d just come from and all of these cramped little buildings was huge.

Photo @pierredepont

Mr Pak, our Korean guide, and Wally, our Hungarian. 🙂 Wally was becoming pretty well known for quietly wandering off and taking photos, especially while the rest of us were at dinner. I bet the Korean guides wanted to put a bell on him!

I’m so glad I caught this shot from the bus window. I love the flags.

Koryo Museum. This was founded in the 900’s on Confucianism concepts, so no female students were allowed. Not even female trees!!! This is the Teachers’ door, so Helen and I were able to go in first.

A new university was built next door, so this is just a tourist attraction now.

Yep, all the ginko trees are male. They’re also over 1,000 years old.

To be honest, this was pretty dull. There wasn’t much to see except some broken pottery and a few bits and pieces.

 

hgftft

guyfguyfuy

One is meant to be male and the other female, but I can’t remember how you are meant to tell them apart.

I liked the shape of the spoons.

I actually find this peasant’s dress more appealing than the regular dresses worn by the guides. I like the linen look.

All of the female guides in every tourist place we went to had traditional Korean dresses on.

The gift shop. Lots of ginseng stuff.

Then the fun began on the long bus ride back to Pyongyang.

Matt handed out the lyrics to the song that we’d been hearing a lot since we got here.

Then we started learning the words to the catchiest song ever written. Honestly, all of us had this song playing in our heads for WEEKS after we left this country.


Listen to it at your own risk. (But seriously, have a look at the words. All of the North Korean songs are like this. If the subtitles don’t come up, just click on the CC icon at the bottom of the video.)

Photo @pierredepont

We also had karaoke. I’m pretty sure this was ‘Advance Australia Fair.’ I also sang ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Land Down Under’. It passed the time…

Photo by James. Sariwon City

Yeah… we were pretty happy by the time we got to our last stop before Pyongyang. There was climbing a hill to a lookout over the city – James and I only just made it! – then people hired Korean costumes for photos. There was a lot of fun and laughter, which only stopped when the heavens opened and we had to make a run for the bus.

That night, after dinner, we stayed up till the wee hours at the karaoke bar at the hotel.  I never would have thought that going to North Korea would be like this!

 

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China and the DPRK : Day 6…The DMZ.

Here’s James taking a selfie as we set off on our day trip to the DMZ. I was so looking forward to this. The one thing I really wanted to bring back from the DPRK was at least one propaganda poster and we had been told that the DMZ was the best place to buy them.

As we made our way out of Pyongyang I snapped this shot of one of the many billboards around the city that depicts the two previous leaders. There’s no advertising anywhere to be seen, but they certainly ‘advertise’ Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Just outside the city is the Arch of Reunification. This was built over the road that leads directly from Pyongyang to Seoul, though of course it stops at the DMZ. When we were in the bus, Un Ha got up and gave us a little bit of history as to the Arch and the Korean war and the DMZ.

First up, the road we were on was built by the express orders of Kim Il Sung after the devastation of the Korean War. It’s 6 (I think) lanes wide and it was built so that “when the two halves of Korea are unified, we can be in Seoul as soon as possible.” Is it a little cynical of me to wonder if maybe that news isn’t as welcome to the South Koreans as the North Koreans evidently believe?

Because it’s obvious that the Koreans deeply want to be unified with the South Koreans. The way their peninsula was divided is a deep hurt to them and they talk longingly of the day when the border will be swept away and they will all be one people again. Interestingly, given the DPRK’s deep devotion to the Kim family and Juche (self-reliance) ideas, Un Ha said that in 1993 Kim Il Sung came up with an idea as to how the reunified country would be governed, “as each side likes the way their country is run and neither side wants to give it up.” The link leads to a brief outline of the 10 point plan, which basically lets the two countries continue as usual, with a committee based in the middle to decide things, with equal power given to each side.

Even though we were just outside the city, we saw very few cars. We were scampering around all over the road with no danger of getting knocked down. After a little while, we jumped back into the bus and set off on our 2-hour drive to the DMZ.

Pierre, whose photos you’ve seen every now and then in previous posts, also makes videos. Matt, our Australian tour guide, and I were looking at one of them as we drove. This video below isn’t the exact same one that we were watching, but it gives you an idea. 🙂

 

After a while, we stopped at this roadhouse. People who’ve seen the documentary from Vice about North Korea would recognise this [lace as where the journalist played table tennis with the attendant. I didn’t see any table tennis tables, but we bought some coffee and had a chat with the 3 ladies who were there in the gift shop.

I took a photo of these to remind me of the sight I saw as we were leaving Pyongyang earlier that day. We were driving through the streets at about 8:45AM, with commuters queuing for buses, bicycling through the streets or walking. In a small square, I saw a group of women dressed in blue uniforms, drumming. I asked what was going on. Un Ha explained that they were housewives who volunteer to perform for the workers to help motivate them on their way to work.

I included this shot of a gardener outside the roadhouse to remind me of how the men in North Korea seemed to squat while they were waiting around for things. The thigh muscles of the male population must be incredibly strong!

We spent a fair bit of time on this trip going through the countryside. These garden beds with threes in them were very common, not just in North Korea but also in China too. They’re always ringed with white stones, always painted at the bottom and it seems as if they plant them in ordered rows like this, then periodically re-plant the spots where the trees have died. These garden beds were all done by hand… not with machinery.

And after a long journey, bouncing around on a very poorly-maintained road, we arrived at the DMZ.

Remember how I said in the War Museum post that the Korean War has never officially ended? North and South Korea are still technically at war and the De-Militarised Zone is the place where the 2 armies face off, every day for the last 60-odd years. It’s often touted as being one of the most dangerous places on Earth, with people who visit on the South Korean side being told not to talk to the soldiers, point their cameras (or indeed, their fingers) to the North Korean side and to be careful not to incite any problems.

It was a little different on our side…

When we arrived, the first place we went to was the gift shop. At last! Walter took this shot of me selecting my posters. I bought the 3 that you see in front of me. Aren’t they deliciously blunt?!? No subtle messages here!

As I was shopping, I glanced up and saw Niall.

“What on Earth are you doing?” I asked.

Happily grinning, he said in his Scottish accent, “I bought it. It’s mine.”

This dress was instrumental in making our trip to North Korea one of the best that the tour guides have ever been on. Cross-dressing is definitely NOT a thing in this country at all. Maybe it should be, though. It certainly brought our group closer together!

Once our shopping was finished, we were given a quick talk about the history of the DMZ and then we were told to go out into the courtyard, line up in twos and wait to be told to march onto the bus. So we went out. I had the feeling that the instructions were designed to keep the tourists on edge, but we all walked out stifling the giggles. Niall walked among us, happily striding along, the dress swishing as he walked.

I was at the front of the lines. Trying not to laugh, I looked at the soldiers lining the courtyard. They stood ramrod straight, eyes ahead. Then, one by one, they moved their eyes sidewards to glance at us. They’d do a quick double-take when they saw Niall, then they’d all, without exception, purse their lips together to stop themselves from laughing.

When we marched out of the courtyard and onto the bus, we were all vibrating with suppressed laughter – tourists and soldiers. Two soldiers got on the bus with us and we set off to Panmunjom where the armistice agreements and peace talks were held.

I bought hats for the boys and I. I’ve been wearing mine when I go on yard duty.

Before we reached the actual DMZ, we visited the place where all of the peace talks were negotiated.

There were a lot of displays and things.

Apparently, these are the actual flags and papers that were used, back in the day.

This was the U.N. flag.

My new friend.

Photo by @pierredepont with Wally and Niall.

Photo by @pierredepont  Not exactly scary, is it?

Photo by @pierredepont  I love this shot. A nice moment between the 2 guides, Matt and Un Ha, and the soldier.

Then we were off. The actual border is heavily fortified, with electrified fences, landmines and anti-tank thingamies. The blue bags contain my shopping.

We were led through to the ground level when we first arrived. If you look to my right, you can see where the two Korean leaders met just a week later and set foot into each others’ countries.

The blue buildings belong to South Korea and the grey ones belong to the North.

Here we all are, snapping away. It’s like we’re paparazzi.

After a little while, we were ushered back inside and brought up to the third floor. Here are the images of the leaders, this time with photos. We were getting very familiar with how they looked! There was a rumour floating around a while ago that the building on the North Korean side was only a facade, as the country was too poor to actually afford a building as large as this. Like quite a few things we hear in the West about North Korea, this is total rubbish.

View from the top. This is the usual view that appears to tourists. The two sides co-ordinate the tourists, with one side empty while another side has the tourists. However…

Photo by @pierredepont

I took one like this but Pierre’s camera is SO much better than my iPhone! All of a sudden there were heaps of people on the South Korean side. We could see cameras being aimed at us and I glanced across at Niall. It wasn’t as if he was hard to miss – that dress was pretty gaudy.

I said to him, “They must be thinking that they’ve never seen such an unattractive Korean woman before!!”

South Korea.

Just my usual selfie stance.

 

On our way back I noticed something…

Solar panels were all over North Korea. Apartment blocks were sometimes bristling with them, with a panel on each balcony, or propped up outside windows.

Here’s a North Korean tractor. Seriously. In all the time we were driving through the countryside or riding in trains, we rarely saw tractors or machinery of any kind. All of the ploughed fields – and every skerrick of flat ground was ploughed for crops – was usually being done with a farmer wrestling with a hand-held plough that was being pulled by an ox.

All done by hand. The colours of Australia…

This life looks very different to the city-dwellers in Pyongyang. You can see the raised walkways that edge each field. We often saw people walking or riding their bikes along them to get around.

Then we arrived at a regional city for lunch. To be continued…

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China and the DPRK: Day 5 – Grand People’s Study House, Parks and the Mansudae Grand Monument

After we left the Juche Tower we jumped back in the bus, crossed the river and went to the Grand People’s Study House.  This is another of the ‘showpiece’ buildings that Pyongyang has, a huge library and resource for workers to do further study after leaving school. It’s built in a traditional Korean style, as you can see and it’s strategically positioned to be a backdrop for gatherings in the huge square in the centre of Pyongyang.

We walked into a foyer that was definitely built to impress. Marble everywhere. The ceilings were high and it was echoey.

Another picture of Kim Il Sung. This building was built to honour him on his 70th birthday, so I guess it makes sense that it’d be here. It, too, was built on a grand scale.

Here it is from another angle. Bright lights in the public area, nice shiny clock…

… but I have to say that I was surprised to see these bad boys. You don’t see card catalogues anymore. I’ll have to show this to the librarians at work.

A little bit further in, there was this photo of Kim Il Sung and his son, a young Kim Jong Il, presumably at the opening of the building out on the balcony. This sort of portrait was going to become very familiar over the next few days.

As we got closer to the stairs we eyed them with misgiving. There were a LOT of them and people like Niall and Wally were already walking awkwardly after the marathon. But thankfully, we passed by them and went off to a Reading Room on the right.

Look at the scale of this room. Marble columns, high ceilings, lots of desks available. Our two friends are smiling down from their places high on the wall – always the same pictures.

Our librarian guide showed us a special feature of the desks that she was very proud of. By turning the screw thing at the front of the desk like mad, it angles upwards “to suit every student.”

Here were titles strategically placed to show that the North Koreans are exposed to Western literature. Here are translations of Peter Pan, Robinson Crusoe, The Diary of Anne Frank and something else second from the left that I can’t remember. If anyone has an idea, please put it in the comments.

Sadly, we couldn’t avoid those stairs. See Niall, (bottom left), awkwardly manoeuvring himself up all those steps? It was a shocker.

Upstairs was a room filled with books. This surprised me a bit, as downstairs the librarian told us that the library works by looking up a book on the library’s computer system, then requesting it from the librarians and then it will appear for you. It didn’t sound like there were books available for browsing. However, we were the only people in this room.

Look at me diligently studying a book written in Korean.

At the other end of the room were narrow shelves of books written in English.

Niall only picked this up for the pictures…

The upper floors were dark and cold. Electricity wasn’t wasted at all here.

We went in and watched an adult English class. The teacher sat up the front and projected work onto the screens suspended around the room. The students had workbooks that they wrote in. I went and sat next to a guy and he got me to fill in some of the answers for him.

I’m not too sure about the “I broke my car” thing, but at least it’s clear what they mean. The teacher was actually pretty good – she was making the lesson engaging by doing things like writing sentences about wives wanting expensive shoes, which made the students laugh.

Then she asked if any of us wanted to get up and run the lesson for a while. All eyes looked to me, as everyone in the tour knew by now that I was an English teacher. Not being shy of an audience, I leaped to my feet and raced to the front of the class. Photo by James McArdle.

God knows what I was talking about here when James took this photo!

I gave a bit of a preamble about myself and Australia, then I threw the floor open for questions. The students were really keen to know about my lifestyle, the working hours and conditions in Australia, what I did in my spare time and where else we’d been so far. It was a shame we’d only just started the tour, because all I could talk about was Pyongyang.

Here’s the view from the balcony. When we reached this level there was a small gift shop with a portable tv blaring propaganda of a military march at the entrance to the balcony. I had a quick look but nothing grabbed my interest so I went out with all the others and had a look.

The Juche Tower. They’re strategically placed, as the Grand People’s Study House is where people come to further their knowledge of the Juche principles and ideas that President Kim Il Sung laid down and which his son further developed.

I thought you’d be interested to see the massive portraits and the wildly elaborate landscaping in front of them. In every public space, there are the two dead leaders beaming out at the populace, either as pictures or sculptures.

I got bored after a little while and stepped back into the gift shop. When the ladies noticed me, they hastily turned the tv back on again.

Then we walked to a fountain park across the road. We were mingling with the locals who were also there enjoying the late afternoon sun after the snow of yesterday.

Nothing much to say about this one. It’s a fountain. With water.

I decided to take photos of the locals. I don’t know what was written on this sign, but it appeared to hold their interest for a while.

Older kids all seemed to wear school uniform, but little kids were dressed in whatever their parents fancied. Here’s one little guy out with his grandfather, I assume. I love the hat!

These little kiosks are dotted around all over the place. They sell fast food, such as fried meat balls, soup and noodles, as well as packaged crisps and things like that.

Here they are again. I noticed that people seem pleased when you want to take a photo of their kids.

This woman was one of the few women we saw in Pyongyang who was wearing trousers. Most women wear shirts – usually a black pencil skirt. They appear to take great pride in their shoes and their hair adornments – there’s often a little bling involved in these areas.


Kids doing what kids everywhere do – climb all over the rocks.

I think all of us took photos of this little girl sketching her brother. Helen says that she was holding her pencil incorrectly – that’s something only an art teacher would notice!

Blossom and a street scene. In both China and the DPRK the trees were painted white around their bases. I don’t know why.

We left the park and walked up the hill to the Mansudae Grand Monument to pay our respects. We were encouraged to buy flowers to leave at the feet of the statues, but I chose not to. In one of the books I read before I came, an escapee from North Korea said that she hated for foreigners to leave flowers and bow to the statues, as it simply reinforces the view that the North Koreans are told – namely that the whole world holds the DPRK leaders in the utmost respect.

We were told that we didn’t have to leave flowers, but it makes our guides happy. In the end, only 2 of us chose not to. We were led up to the statues, in rows. Those who bought flowers walked forward and lay them down, then they returned and we all bowed in unison.

This is what the statues are looking out over.

Here’s another tour group. I included this photo so you could see how we were expected to walk up to the monument. The globe of flowers was there to commemerate the anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s appointment to something or other that I wrote about a couple of blog posts ago in the subway. 🙂

Do I look suitably respectful?

While we were there a wedding party came to pay their respects. Un Ha said that this is customary. She said that brides are expected to have 3 different dresses and they get changed throughout the day, though brides usually only buy one and borrow the other two.

Once our civic duty was done, we were back walking the streets of Pyongyang to pop in at the Foreign Language Bookshop. No photos here, because when we went in the power as out. It was pitch black in there.We were looking at the books, newspapers and stamps with the lights on our phones and the girls behind the counter were doing the same thing.

I was happy though – I bought my books, so that was another thing ticked off my list. I was waiting to get my propaganda posters from the DMZ, as that’s the best place to get them.

After dinner we drove back to the hotel, with a stop off to take shots of the newly-renovated pyramid hotel and this building – the Ice Hockey stadium.

After karaoke that night I surveyed my cash stash. Tomorrow is the DMZ – I need those euros for my propaganda posters to decorate the Man-Cave at home.

Onwards to ‘the most dangerous border on Earth’!

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China and the DPRK – Day 5: Monument of the Party Foundation and the Juche Tower.

Our first stop after lunch was The Monument of the Party Foundation. It was HUGE, with a massive expanse of paving around it, which I assume could be used for massed dancing and things like that.

It looms over us – with a hammer and sickle symbolising workers and farmers and a calligraphy pen symbolising the students… all 3 groups which are the foundations of any half-decent revolution.

We stood around for a bit and saw some massed dancing ladies come in, but we left before they started and went to the Cultural Exhibition Hall. Frankly, this place was pretty dull. All it had was heaps of photos of the leaders meeting with dignitaries from around the world, lots of books and a few examples of traditional Korean dress. I mainly remember the stairs… lots of stairs. Niall, Walter and the rest who ran the marathon yesterday were really suffering – even me.

I bought some books though… couldn’t resist these rivetting titles. I was more excited at being in the gift shop on the ground floor – I bought my North Korean Christmas Tree decorations here. Can’t wait to unveil them in December!

Then off we went to the Juche Tower. We had a memorable time here.

Juche is the philosophy espoused by Kim Il Sung and can be basically described as ‘self-reliance’. I don’t know a lot about it yet, but it sounds like the perfect base to run a country which is cut off from the world by its hermit-like inclinations and sanctions. It says that man is at the apex of creation and has total control of his destiny and that only by following one strong leader and remaining self-reliant and strong can a country (ie: Korea) achieve true socialism. It also seems to me to be the perfect vehicle for isolating a population and keeping them only focussed inward. Anyway, I bought a few books while I was here, so I’ll no doubt find out more once I crack the covers open and start reading.

When we arrived there were people in a yard opposite, practising the massed dancing. Their music was loud and jolly and it matched our mood as we went up the steps, some of us more slowly than others. Those stairs were really hurting the marathon guys. On the doorway outside were all these plaques from Juche fans from all over the world. We all started looking for our own countries.

Nice to see Australia was studying this back in the day.

We took the elevator to the 8th floor and emerged to see these views. It was pretty impressive. Whoever thought of painting these concrete buildings was an absolute genius! Imagine how ugly this view would be if it was all a uniform grey?

Here’s a shot of the Ryugyong Hotel, unfinished from when it began construction in 1987. Local gossip confirms that it will soon be open for business, with an Egyptian mobile phone company tipping in money to get it finished, in exchange for being allowed to put a mobile phone tower on the top of it to service Pyongyang. There was great excitement when we were driving along later that night and we saw the new lights on it, which were only switched on a week before we got there.

Beautiful, isn’t it? Photo by Pierre, who can be found on Instagram @pierredepont.

Back to the Juche Tower views. This is a shot of the hotel that we’d soon be moving to. It’s situated on an island. The wind was in our ears and it was so quiet and peaceful.

Another pretty picture. On this side of the tower we could faintly hear the music that was playing when we drove up – it teased our ears as it mixed in with the breeze and made the whole view seem like something out of a movie with its own soundtrack.

There was one thing that we were beginning to notice – the lack of traffic. It was about 3:30PM on a weekday and this is a capital city. The streets were noticeably clear of cars. Most vehicles on the roads in Pyongyang are government, military and diplomatic. They each have different coloured number plates, so that’s how we could tell. It takes a very wealthy person to have a private car. I think we only saw 2 when we were there.

When I got downstairs Niall and Walter approached me.

“Frogdancer, do you want to have a drink at the café here?”

I was unsuspicious until Wally looked at Niall and said, “Will we tell her?”

Snake soju. It was already clear this early into the trip that I’m not afraid of an alcoholic beverage, (except beer), so I was ok to give it a go. But as I looked at the bottle, I felt a twinge of misgiving. The bottle looked old. The snake looked crusty. The soju was a yellow colour… I wasn’t sure if I wanted to buy a whole cup.

I asked James if he’d go halves with me, while Niall and Wally bought one each. 

I took the cup that was poured for me and raised it to my lips. I brought it down again.

“This STINKS!” I said. It smelled like old fish and used socks.

“Don’t smell it… just drink it!!” Niall helpfully said. So I did.

The burning is unlike anything I’ve experienced. It didn’t wait until the soju hit the stomach – it attacked right at the back of the throat and burned a path all the way down.

Then it sat malevolently in our stomachs for the next couple of hours. It didn’t make us sick, but we were definitely conscious that we’d drunk it.  I was SO glad I shared mine with James. I’m not so sure he was though… just picture a Dubliner taking a sip and then saying, “Oh Christ!” Wally apparently had 2 – Hungarians have stamina!

We went outside to keep on going with our sightseeing and saw Helen and Rick dancing a waltz outside to the sound of the music that was still playing. Helen was a bit savage that she wasn’t around to try snake soju, but she was ‘lucky’… this wasn’t the last time that snake soju surfaced on this trip.

And still our day wasn’t over – we were then on to the next sights in Pyongyang, where I revisited my profession…

 

 

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