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.

“Lisa, 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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China and the DPRK- Day 5, Pyongyang – The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

No, this isn’t the War Museum! It’s just an apaertment block. Look at the curvy walls. It reminded me of the artists’ colony we saw in Beijing with the curved walls.

Here’s the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

The space devoted to the public areas and buildings is huge. It’s clearly quite deliberate, as it makes everything look incredibly impressive. I suppose one advantage of being able to rebuild Pyongyang from scratch is that they were able to lay out the city exactly as they wanted it to – a bit like Canberra. Not many capital cities start from nothing like this. Normally they’ve grown and evolved.

You can see the dates of the Korean War on the front of the gates. It’s strange to think that something that was only 3 years in duration was powerful enough to still have a huge hold on a population’s collective psyche. We were about to get schooled…

Lots of military. Lots of sculpture. Lots of pride in their (sometimes re-written) history.

After our guide met us at the front and talked to us about the Korean War, giving a bit of background, she led us around to the side, where there is a huge undercover area with captured US and UN hardware from the war. We were taken from one end to the other, where we saw a huge assortment of jeeps, tanks, planes, helicopters etc, all displayed like trophies.

This was the first time our guide reeled off the list of 15 countries who came to fight with the US in the war, with the implication being that we all ganged up on Korea. Australia was number 3 in the list, in case you’re wondering. Awkward…

You wonder what happened to the guys driving these jeeps and planes and you hope they escaped unscathed.

I never really thought much about the Korean War, apart from watching and loving M*A*S*H, but I’ve got to say that tanks were never in my hazy view of it. It was a little confronting to see them here. I’m not sure why… maybe because when you stand in front of one it seems so invulnerable. How would you fight it?

This line of bombs really affected me. The guide said that in Pyongyang in 1950 the population numbered around 400,000. The US/UN dropped more than one bomb per person over Pyongyang – estimates range from 450,000 – 500,000 bombs. Imagine how awful that would have been?

When I was doing some fact-checking of numbers for this, I found an article written in 2010 that talks about how many people were killed in North Korea over the 3 years of the war. It states that close to 30% of the population was killed as a result of the US bombings. It makes the rhetoric we were hearing about “the American Aggressors” a lot more comprehensible, especially when you compare the numbers lost in WWII:

“After destroying North Korea’s 78 cities and thousands of her villages, and killing countless numbers of her civilians, [General] LeMay remarked, “Over a period of three years or so we killed off – what – twenty percent of the population.” It is now believed that the population north of the imposed 38th Parallel lost nearly a third its population of 8 – 9 million people during the 37-month long “hot” war, 1950 – 1953, perhaps an unprecedented percentage of mortality suffered by one nation due to the belligerance of another.”2

During The Second World War the United Kingdom lost 0.94% of its population, France lost 1.35%, China lost 1.89% and the US lost 0.32%. During the Korean war, North Korea lost close to 30 % of its population.”

(Taken from the article I linked to, above,)

Since getting back and doing a bit of research, I’ve found that these figures appear all over the place, so I’m inclined to believe them. Never forget that our side of the story is also capable of political spin – anyone who believes otherwise would be very naive. After a hellish decimation like that, it would certainly be easy to retreat into the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ and turn to Juche (self-reliance) if you feel the whole world is against you. Especially if you’ve been told from birth that the Americans/South Koreans invaded North Korea… not the other way round, which is what really happened.

I’m not excusing the regime, but its success with the population of the DPRK is certainly more comprehensible if you take all of this “it’s us against the world” into consideration.

Here’s another wreck, with more stretching off into the distance.

A M*A*S*H helicopter!

They took the pilots prisoner. They love photos showing the ‘American Aggressors’ being submissive.

Once we were back, we set off again to see the USS Pueblo. I was looking forward to seeing this ship, as it was one of the things I’d learned about before I came over here. In the late 60’s, the US had sent the USS Pueblo over to North Korea to do a little bit of spying. The US was used to how they did things in Russia, with “fishing boats” being an open secret for spy boats. Russia tolerated them, so the US thought it would be the same deal in the DPRK.

Unfortunately for the navy sailors on board, this wasn’t the case. There was some dispute as to whether the US ship was actually in North Korean waters – the US states that it was in International waters and the North Koreans say the opposite. Anyway, the result was that the ship was captured, resulting in the death of one sailor and the detention of about 80 sailors for a year.

The guide was so proud of the fact that the ship was captured by only 5 soldiers… Another guide from a different tour company was telling his people that the ship was badly retro-fitted by the Americans to become a spy ship – it was too top-heavy and was difficult to manoeuvre. The guns on the deck were covered and tied down for the winter so tightly that when the ship was threatened, the sailors couldn’t untie them and defend themselves.

The Americans weren’t released until the President sent a letter admitting the intrusion into Korean waters and apologising for the spying. The rest of the display board outside the ship, pictured below, shows the actual letter, whereas these pictures show the sailors being taken off the ship and the captain penning a letter of apology.

The whole thing became pretty famous because of what the sailors did when they were photographed for propaganda purposes while they were being held prisoner. You can read about the Digit affair here. Flipping the bird was all fun and games until the Koreans were told by the media what they were doing.

Another interesting thing that the guide told us was about how they moved the Pueblo. It’s only been in the last couple of years that the ship was decommissioned from the US Navy. For years it was the only US warship captured by an enemy force and the US wanted it back.

When the Koreans built the current War Museum, they wanted to exhibit the Pueblo here, but it was moored on the other side of the country. They knew that if they set it going, the US navy would swoop in and take it back as soon as it went outside Korean waters. So what did they do? They disguised it as an ordinary fishing boat, openly sailed it up to Japan, which is exactly the direction that nobody would expect them to go in, then along a river and down to the current spot that it’s in now.

This was the captain’s room. Cosy. Actually, I was expecting the boat to be a lot bigger. It was very compact.

Whenever there were bullet holes from the capture, they were helpfully outlined in red so that they were easily visible.

Even now, nearly 50 years later, they want to show that they mean business when defending their borders.

The map that shows how the US were trespassing onto their waters. Who knows whose story is the correct version? It’s all he said/she said.

Um… yeah. The Americans were definitely spying. They don’t deny it. The display on the ship shows everything from classified documents in glass cases, to uniforms, photos, ancient computers and other machines. They really rub the Americans faces in it – that they were caught doing the wrong thing.

More trophies displayed with pride.

Bek from Germany and Maria from Finland on our way out.

Another bad hair day for Frogdancer. Story of my life. But see me here educating James in the art how to take a brilliant photo/selfie for a blog. Obviously, he’s awestruck at my prowess.

Remember that old story about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire? Where Fred Astaire is always thought of as a brilliant dancer, yet Ginger Rogers had to do the exact same steps backwards, in a long dress AND wearing high heels.

Every female soldier I saw was wearing high heels. Just saying…

Once we went inside we had to check our phones and bags in. No photos allowed.

The foyer was a massive expanse, with a huge statue of Kim Il Sung, dressed as he would have been during the war. It was immense, with magnolias carved around the edge – magnolia being the national flower of the DPRK.

Before we headed off, some of us ducked into the loo. Strangely, only one handbasin had water… the other two didn’t. Not what you expect for a showcase building…

The first thing we were taken to see was this video. It’s well worth the time to watch it, as you can see how letters and facts have been manipulated. The soundtrack alone shows how locked in a time warp this country is. It was made in 2016, but the soundtrack sounds like something out of the 1950’s. This movie was another indication of how their perspective of world events differs from the one that we are usually exposed to.

After this video was over, we were taken on a tour of many rooms depicting the passage of the Korean War. The tour guide was very reverential about the President, giving him his full title all the time and often praising him as well. A frequent phrase was something like: “..this was all due to the wisdom of our great leader, President Kim Il Sung…”, with her voice rising in tone with the ‘Il’ and falling with the ‘Sung’.

We saw replicas of the dugout tunnels they used and models of the camps that the soldiers lived in, with the piece de resistance being a massive diorama that we sat in front of while the whole thing revolved around us. The soundtrack was in English. Helen and Pierre said that they noticed little details in it that weren’t there 6 months before, so I suppose it’s a work in progress. They were very proud of it.

One thing I noticed – nearly all of the escalators we used only turned on when we approached. Some of the bigger displays and models were only brought to life by the guide flicking a switch. I’d read hotel reviews of the places we were staying in on Tripadvisor that mentioned power blackouts even in the centre of Pyongyang. I wondered – was this an environmental decision or is electricity so precious that it cannot be wasted?

One thing was made absolutely clear. While we have been taught that the Korean War was pretty much a waste of time, with the line dividing the 2 countries ending up exactly where it was when the war began and the conflict ending up as pretty much being a draw, the North Koreans have a very different view. To them – the war was a massive victory for their side and they view it as decisive evidence of what an incredibly valuable and brave leader they had in Kim Il Sung.

Every time he’s mentioned… and they mentioned him A LOT… they puff up with pride about him and his achievements, all while he was working tirelessly to improve the lot of the Korean people without regard for his own comfort. For someone coming from a country that has a vastly more cynical view of its politicians, this was a very interesting attitude to witness. It was genuinely whole-hearted and we witnessed this every day of the trip, no matter where we were. The Korean people absolutely adore their leaders, particularly the first one. Kim Il Sung was clearly a master of building a cult of personality that thrives to this day.

We heard lots about the achievements of the North Koreans during the war, particularly in the beginning when they took over around 90% of South Korea before the tide turned against them. I was a bit dubious about whether this was true but James assured me that it was. We also heard how the American Aggressors were only able to defeat their little country after they called in 15 ‘satellite countries’ to help them, meaning the UN. Twice more, the list of shame was recited off by heart by our guide. We were always number 3. The message was that if the US had played fair and not brought in other countries, the Korean peninsula would be unified today under one leader. Even our guide conceded that there was no way one country could withstand a fight against so many others.

When the tour was pretty much finished and we were walking back to the ground floor to pick up our things, the guide asked me if I knew much about the Korean War and if it was much talked about in Australia. Talk about awkward…

I said that the Korean War wasn’t mentioned much in Australia and that the main source of knowledge I had on it was the American TV show called M*A*SH. She’d clearly heard about it; she rolled her eyes and sniffed. I hastily added that this museum had made me want to find out more and that I’d be doing a lot of reading about it once I got back home. This seemed to make her happier.

After this, it was off to lunch!

We went to what turned out to be one of our favourite meals of the trip. Korean Hotpot, modelled after the Korean soldiers during the war, who used to cook their meals in a helmet over an open fire. We were given a selection of meat and vegetables, along with various herbs and spices, and we cooked our own meal in these metal cooking pots. The waitresses lit a gas flame underneath and we sat around, talked and waited for our broth to heat up. Then we all launched into our culinary endeavours. Most, if not all of us, ended up with a very tasty meal. Some people were slightly too adventurous with the chili, though.

Olly, Helen and I waiting for our lunches to cook in the hotpots.

James was about to dump his ingredients into the top part. Such excitement!

After lunch, we were back on the bus and heading through the streets of the city towards our next few targets. We still had 6 more sites to see before dinner!

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China and DPRK: Day 5 – Pyongyang: The Subway.

Our first day in Pyongyang was a busy one. Our first stop was a trip along the Pyongyang Metro, visiting 3 stations. In the bus on the way there, Un Ha gave us a few stats about it, along with a few more hints and tips about etiquette in the city:

  • Don’t screw up and throw out papers/brochures with the Leaders’ faces on them.
  • No walking around by yourself. This was framed as a language issue – if there were any problems, you can’t rely on someone being around that can speak English to get you out of trouble.
  • No close-up photos without getting permission first.
  • No Bibles to be given out and/or “accidentally” left around the place.
  • The metro was built predominately in the 1970’s, with 2 lines and 17 stations. The stations we were about to see were built later, in the 1980’s.
  • It only costs 5 yuan (about half a cent) for unlimited travel. I was slightly envious about THAT!
  • The Metro is the deepest in the world, at 100m deep. Because it’s so deep, the temperature remains at a constant temperature all year round.
  • Trains arrive every 5 minutes and carry 400,000 people a day.
  • The names of the stations we went to are Glory and Triumph stations. I can’t remember the name of the third one.

When we arrived we went down the escalator. It took AGES! On reading up about it after I got home, it takes between 3 and 4 minutes to get down to the subway from the top. It’d be a long time if you were running late for work.

Here is Un Ha showing us the way people can navigate the intricate network. You press the button of the station you want to go to and light show you the way to go. She was very proud of it.

The Metro was definitely built on a grand scale. After coming straight from Beijing, with all of the advertising in the stations everywhere you looked, including moving adverts that travelled along outside the train with you, the decor was vastly different. You can see the tiled mural at the back of the staircase, with the elaborate lights. This was only a hint of what was to come. Marble and propaganda everywhere…

Here is a long shot of Puhung station, the first one on our tour.

I’ll unpack a couple of details. Here are newspapers on display for commuters to read. We got our guides to translate the headlines and we learned that today was the 20th? 30th? anniversary of Kim Jong Il being ‘elected’ to lead some important committee or other. (Apologies. It was an action-packed day and my notes were written early next morning.) Kim Jong Il is the second of the three leaders that have run North Korea since the end of WWII and he was the father of the current leader.

Even though this political appointment in the newspaper happened decades ago, it was still cause for celebration here. The cult of personality that the Kim family has managed to preserve for 70 years was starting to make itself felt as we went around.

This mural is entitled: ‘The Great Leader Kim Il-Sung Among Workers’. They’ve been careful to spread their net wide with the occupations they’ve depicted – nice to see 2 whole women there! It’s not really evident from my photo, but Kim Il Sung’s face is much more realistic and detailed than the workers’ faces around him. This is clearly designed to motivate the commuters on their way to work each day.

When there’s a picture or statue of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il at the end of the platform, the murals have the people enthusiastically facing it. Everywhere we went, the old-style propaganda was everywhere. But the workmanship was beautiful. I can’t begin to imagine how long these murals must have taken to make.

The stations were pretty quiet, especially considering all of the people that were there. The screeching of train brakes and the echoing of sound bouncing off all the hard surfaces all played their part, but in general the commuters didn’t seem to talk a lot among themselves. Then again, we train travellers at 6:30AM in Melbourne aren’t exactly a chatty bunch either!

Our first ride on a train. I wasn’t expecting the pictures of the two leaders in every carriage. From my reading before I came here, I knew that every house, every classroom and every government building has the pictures in them and that they’re always the same. Each homeowner has the responsibility to look after them and make sure the pictures are always clean and unblemished. I didn’t expect to see them on the train, however! Apparently, they’re hung to be angled slightly down, so as to appear to be looking at the passengers. Not creepy at all…

The trains are very old. I was reading that they’re old East German trains that were going to be scrapped until the DPRK bought them.

Just before we pulled out of the station I took this picture. The murals are all constructed with these small tiles. It’s incredible work – some of these murals on the stations are 80 metres long!

The next station – the lights are meant to look like fireworks. The decorations were very different on this station.

These murals were all about the beauty of the reborn Pyongyang. The original city was bombed into oblivion by the US during the Korean War, so this station is a celebration of what they’d been able to achieve since then. The very traditionally-roofed building on the left foreground is the Grand People’s Study House, which we’d be looking at, (and I’d be teaching at!) later that day.

The stations were scrupulously clean. There was no litter here or on the streets and there was absolutely no graffiti anywhere. In 2011, graffiti denouncing General Kim Jong-Il was found in a college not far from the town’s centre. This sent Pyongyang into literal lockdown for 3 days, the Government refusing to sell train tickets until the culprit was found. That’s a pretty stern inducement to keep your spray cans of paint to yourself…

Even the pillars are decorative. The ornate surroundings are a way to bring luxury into the lives of even the lowliest of workers and to make them feel pride in how the country is developing. With all of the murals and sculptures constantly showing the people all pulling together as one, it’s easy to see how this attitude has become engrained in the people’s psyche. It’s been a constant reinforcement for 70 years.

Apologies for the fuzzy shot. I was still trying to perfect my sneaky photo skillz. They didn’t seem to like having their photo taken.

Kim Jong Il was the leader being immortalised at this station. Here’s James, channeling him. This is before he got the Kim Jong Un haircut a few days later.

There’s our two friends, smiling at us over the top of the passengers. The train on this ride was a little more crowded. Sometimes people would smile back at you, other times not. Marjo from Finland is in the red and white top. We were scattered throughout the carriage. Not many people were speaking except for us, and we were trying to take discreet shots of the locals without being offensive.

I really like the expression on the man behind us. (Photo by James McArdle)

Our last station was Victory station, which comes out at the Victory Arch I was walking under the day before on the marathon. This golden man is Kim Il Sung, their first and only President. Even though he’s been dead for nearly 30 years he’s still the President of North Korea and will be in perpetuity. The Koreans absolutely adore him and credit him with bringing them out from virtual slavery to the Japanese, into a country that is free and independent and is a player on the world stage. They get emotional when talking about him – you seriously wouldn’t want to disrespect him. For a country that says it has no religion, the regard the Korean people have for the Kim family is the closest thing to a religion that I’ve ever seen.

Another worker. I like her socks and shoes.

In between trains we had the station briefly to ourselves. Un Ha is in the pink coat, with James and Wally wandering around with their cameras. You can see how large the station is, especially considering that there was quite a bit of space behind me. Our voices and footsteps were echoing.

The banner in this mural reads:“Hurray to our General Kim Il-Sung, the outstandingly wise leader!” Look at the little children running to him, the golden statue, with their flowers…

There are about 2,500 tourists that come to North Korea every year. We have to be on a tour and of course, every tour comes to Pyongyang. But we’re still enough of a novelty on the streets for people to stare at us.

Then we made the long trek upwards again.

As we were leaving, Helen said to me, “See those metal things on the walls? They’re blast doors. If there’s ever a nuclear incident, all of the people can race down here and the doors will shut to protect them.” I had to turn around to take the photo; we were already past them. It makes sense to use the place as a nuclear fallout shelter – the Metro is one of the deepest in the world so you’d assume you’d be pretty safe.

As we got out onto the street, we looked past the Victory Arch and there was a couple of hundred women doing some massed dancing. We walked across the carpark to see them.

Look at the dresses! Some are incredibly ornate. The music was playing from portable speakers and the women were all in big circles, dancing as one. It looked amazing.

Most were wearing high heels or court heels at the very least, but James nudged me and pointed to one woman. “Look!” he said. “She ‘s cheating. She’s got runners on!”

At first we thought they were practicing for the big birthday celebrations for Kim Il Sung that were due to be held on our last day in the city, but it turned out that they were actually celebrating that anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s appointment that I was telling you about earlier. Remember the newspaper report?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never yet put my glad rags on and gone dancing in the middle of the morning to celebrate a political appointment made a couple of decades before. It seems as if there’s a few differences between here and the West. We were about to go to the War Museum, where we were about to get a very clear lesson on the differences in perspective between us all. Stay tuned…


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China and DPRK: Day 4 Part 2: Pyongyang

(Last time we spoke, I had left you in the carpark at the Pyongyang marathon.)

It was definitely time for lunch, so after we swung back past the hotel and left Wally there to have a sleep, we grabbed a huge lunch at a restaurant, then went off to the Munsoo Water Park. I didn’t take many photos here, because if you’ve seen one Water Park you’ve seen them all and this one was just like Waves or GSAC in most respects… but I DID have to take a sneaky shot of the hairdressing salon that you can see in the above photo. It’s something straight out of the 50’s.

The most eye-catching part of the decor was the larger-than-life plaster statue of Kim Jong Il that was waiting for us in the foyer as we entered. We weren’t allowed to take a photo but OMG I wanted to. This photo was lifted from a Washington Post article. He was dressed in his jacket that he used to always wear and he beams in welcome. He was standing on a beach, with the sea and sky behind him and golden sand under his well-shod feet. I was beginning to suspect that the Kim family would be popping up in all sorts of unexpected places.

The pools had lots of water slides and a small wave pool. Most of us elected to swim, but for me? It has to be at least 40C/104F before I’ll go into the water, so I decided to have a massage instead. $30 for an hour… not bad value.

I was escorted to the massage section by one of the pool staff. When I went in I was ushered straight to a table in a side room. I disrobed, lay face down on the table and waited for her to come back in. I didn’t look up… probably should have.

My masseuse came back into the room and the massage went pretty much the same as usual. I relaxed and enjoyed it – after all, I’d walked and skipped a whole 5KM! Then, just as I breathed out in utter relaxation, she started galloping around all over my back. THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP. For such a tiny woman she was packing a lot of weight in those little feet. I couldn’t draw a breath. I’m shallow breathing while she continued to parade all over me, all the while thinking, “I’m going to die right here on this table in the middle of North Korea. I can’t breathe…”

After a while, she got down and she finished with a quick chiropractic session, neck cracking etc, then I got off the table. I thanked her and then turned around to start putting my clothes on. She helpfully did up my bra for me… now that was an unexpected service! When she left the room I glanced at the ceiling and nodded. If I’d noticed those bars on the roof earlier I would’ve been prepared for the back-walking.

Afterwards, I took a little wander through the complex.

(Photo taken by Pierre. If you’re on Instagram, look up pierredepont . You’ll be glad you did.)

I noticed at Tullamarine airport in the shops there that one-piece bathing suits with modesty skirts are apparently back in fashion. In North Korea they never went out. Every single set of bathers in the gift shop was a one-piece with a skirt. Same with the women in the pool. Absolutely no bikinis, except on the Westerners.

My massage finished sooner than the time we had been allotted, so I sat down in the foyer (away from the creepy statue) to fill in time writing in my yellow book. But fortunately, lots of people from our tour kept walking in and so the time passed really pleasantly. I was chatting for a little while with Pierre, who said, “You know that the people here are the really privileged. The entry fees would cost far more what the average family could save in a year.” Thinking back to the people we saw in the countryside on the way here, I didn’t find it hard to believe him.

Next stop was a Microbrewery. Here’s Walter, back from his sleep. Actually, by this time he’d stopped being “Walter’ and was now “Wally”. On the train on the way in when we were all introducing ourselves, Walter’s roommate turned out to be an extremely tall and lovely German man called Oliver. ‘Wally and Olly!” I exclaimed, and over the next couple of days the nicknames spread through to the rest of the group. To hear Oliver talk about “Wally and Olly” in his accent was a scream.

We arrived at about 5Pm and the place was packed with both locals and a couple of other tour groups. We settled at a couple of tables and the terrible truth emerged… any wine that could be ordered was by FAR too expensive to contemplate. It was all beer. Horrible beer. Everyone else happily ordered pints of whichever designer beer they wanted and they all settled in. I was sitting next to James, the Irishman, and opposite Wally. After a lot of convincing, they got me to sample some of James’ rice beer.

OMG. This country has changed me in ways no one would ever have expected. I ordered a pint glass of the stuff and finished it all. Apparently to real beer drinkers, it tastes a bit like water but that’s fine with me. No revolting yeasty aftertaste.

Dinnertime! The interior decorating taste in this country is a tad more flamboyant than I’m used to. What with the ‘Last Supper’ table at the end of the room with the floral arrangement, the disco floor and the bright seats, it was certainly eye-catching.

The arch over the door was very bridal. Almost put me off my dinner… #foreveralone

Mmm. A fine vintage! (For a glorified wine cask.) Pierre saw this and clearly thought it was an abomination. He went hunting and came back with a fine bottle of French Bordeaux.

After dinner, we had an awards ceremony where we received our certificates. I skipped up the disco road to the stage, seeing as how that’s pretty much how I did the marathon. Our waitresses then performed several songs for us, some quite traditional and others more modern. It was an early night. The people who did the full and half marathons were starting to hurt.

I got the librarians at school to laminate this. It’s the only evidence that exists of me being sporty once in my life. It’s a precious memory…

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China and DPRK : Day 4 part 1- The Pyongyang marathon.

This was it – the Pyongyang marathon. To be honest, not something that was ever my dream to compete in, but it was here upon me nonetheless. Life is so interesting – you never know what’s around the corner!

We were given the bad news about the weather the night before. It was going to be the coldest day Pyongyang had had in 20 years. So what was a girl to do except layer up? I knew that the serious runners would warm themselves up, but I was planning on having a sedate stroll around the track, looking at the streets, buildings and people at my leisure, taking the civilised option of taking my time and stopping to smell the roses along the way. So 3 layers of clothes, my lucky cowl and Bali earrings and my duck down coat for after the race was my ensemble of choice.

After an early breakfast, we were loaded onto the bus and taken to the stadium. We got there soon after 8 and it appeared that the stadium was already nearly full. God knows how early the Koreans had been told to turn up. We got out of the bus and immediately saw this woman, so we lined up in front of her.

Seriously, Fortunate Frogdancer strikes again! How else can you explain how the most unfit person in this marathon was in the very first row of people entering the stadium? I saw everything laid out in front of me, with no heads in the way spoiling the view. Amazing!

As you’d expect, I kept my cool and behaved with the utmost decorum.

I asked an older guy standing next to me to take my photo. He took my phone and tried his best, but behind him I could see the 3 guides killing themselves laughing. When I took the phone back they told me to have a look at the photos he took:

*sigh* Some people just can’t drive an iphone…

Then one of the guides offered to take the phone and…

More hilarity before they switched the phone off selfie mode and took the shot. Definitely not a solemn, serious, obey-the-rules-of-the-state vibe going on.

After a while, just before 9AM, we were lined up and told how we were to march around the stadium and them onto the grass to face the Sports Minister and hear his speech. The woman directing us seemed a bit stressed. She kept emphasising that we had to stay together in clean lines and not go wandering off. I whispered to the guy beside me, “She must hate having to deal with foreigners!”

Most of what I took next was videos, as the noise and atmosphere were extraordinary. The Koreans clap in unison, which sounds amazing, and a lot of the people sitting near the front of the stadium tiers also had what looked like wooden clappers, which made the sound even louder. When we were given the nod, we walked out onto the track and the crowd went nuts. It was exhilarating. We walked in our lines 6 across, (because we were good athletes who obeyed our stressed woman’s instructions) around the track while sound that was almost solid, it was so loud, washed over us. We were all waving, holding up our phones and filming, just trying to soak it all in. So much fun.

Then we turned onto the fake grass soccer pitch in the middle of the stadium, listened to the speech which, surprisingly, was also translated into English, and then we split up into our various race categories.

I have a video of these people clapping – I’ve been using it as applause whenever my students do something well. They love it.

Then, one by one, we were off! Peer group pressure is definitely a thing – when the rest of the 5KM group set off at a run, I was with them. I haven’t run so far without someone chasing me for YEARS! I ran around the other half of the stadium, out the gate and halfway down the drive before I realised how stupid I was being. I pulled up, let the others overtake me and I settled down to my stroll.

The Arch of Triumph is directly outside the stadium and we ran underneath it. Well, I skipped. It’s easier than running, I discovered. This is based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, only it’s bigger, as our guide in the bus last night took great joy in telling Pierre.

Here you can see the dates about Kim Il Sung’s fight for an independent Korea… 1925 when he supposedly left Korea, vowing to fight abroad and never return until Korea was free from Japanese rule, and 1945 when WWII finished and he came back with the backing of the Russians to take over the government.

We kept moving. The street grew quieter.

I looked back. Yeah, I was pretty much last. I decided to wear it as a badge of honour and I went on my merry way, taking photos as I went.

I love that the blossom was out in Pyongyang while we were there. Up until now, it’s symbolised Spring and my birthday – now it’ll also remind me of this trip.

There were still people on the streets watching, but most of the crowds seemed to be getting on with their lives.

Then up ahead, I saw this guy. A chubby Asian dude in a floral tracksuit. I had to overtake him. National pride was at stake. I overtook him, skipping at a fast pace, and then continued on.

Haha!! Eat my dust, floral tracksuit! Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!

I skipped merrily on.

In a scarily short space of time, the people taking the 5KM run seriously were coming back. “FROGDANCER!” I looked up and there was Rick, racing along in his DPRK tracksuit, (incidentally fooling nobody. Anyone looking less Korean I have yet to see!) I waved as he swept past and then continued on.

After a while, I got tired of photographing the candy-coloured buildings and I started looking at the people. Here is a traffic cop.


We saw this quite a bit – lots of flags at the street corners. It seems that it’s either flags or propaganda posters. No advertising though. Not a single billboard or neon sign. It makes the streets seem calmer and far less cluttered.

A couple of kids at a bus stop. I have a shot where they’re waving to me but I liked this one better.

I love this shot. It’s so quintessentially Pyongyang. The women are dressed beautifully in pencil skirts, hair done and their overall presentation is spot-on. I didn’t see one young or middle-aged woman in trousers the whole time we were in the city. The little boy is obviously very cherished and well-cared for, but look at his toy. I think this is part of what Helen meant by saying that going to North Korea was like going back to the 1960’s. Kids played with guns then, too.

School uniform. Not sure why he’s in uniform on a Sunday.

This was a much rarer sight. Every now and then I’d see an older person lugging around things like this.

“Wave to the lady!”

They were giggling.

Kids are clearly cherished. Everywhere we went, we saw beautifully dressed kids being looked after by solicitous parents or grandparents.

Then almost before I knew it, I reached the half-way point.

I was still ahead of my floral friend. He was yet to round the turn, whereas I was now on the homeward leg. I knew that all of those early morning walks from the station to school woere good for something!

Then who do I see but Pierre and Mr Pak? Interesting guy, Pierre. This is his 9th trip into North Korea and due to the rules governing tourists here, he has to be on a tour each time. He’s an extremely gifted photographer with a trick of self-effacement, which meant that he quietly walked around the edges of the group, seeing and gathering the shots that we were all missing. He just wandered around taking photos the whole time, because let’s face it – 9 times seeing the museums and statues must be getting pretty old. He takes shots of people and he clearly has the patience to bide his time and wait for the perfect moment to take the shot. We all got used to seeing him with a camera in his hand, but it was after we got back and he posted some of the photos that he took that we fully realised what a great eye he has.

Anyway, he wasn’t enrolled in the marathon, but he wanted to walk around outside and take photos so Mr Pak went with him.

Soon after this my phone battery ran out. Too many videos. So I pocketed it and just walked in silence, waving to people who were waving, occasionally chatting to them but usually just walking. I stopped and shut my eyes. All I could hear was the squeaking of bike wheels; the giggling of a toddler who was running ahead of his Grandpa; the thudding of runners on the road as the quicker marathon runners ran past on the other side of the road; the distant roar from the crowd in the stadium because someone kicked a goal, and distant singing coming from a crowd somewhere behind the buildings. It was a peaceful feeling, standing in the middle of one of the main roads in Pyongyang hearing all of this.

As I got closer to the stadium I picked up the pace on the skipping. People were lining the footpaths, cheering on the runners. When I got up to the stadium I saw James, one of the guys on our tour. He’d run the 10KM and was now hanging around, taking photos of the rest of us coming in.

You can see from this how cut-throat the experience is. Zoë, one of the tour guides from YPT, stopped to take my photo and we were mucking around. It’s a pity James took it from this angle… I’m positive from Zoë’s viewpoint that my running shot would look absolutely realistic. Maybe…

Once I ran through the gate and was near the track, I realised that I had an opportunity I would never have again. A crowd of 50,000 people, all in the palm of my hand. They’d been sitting there since 7ish and it was now around 10:30. It was getting colder and colder, all they had to watch was a soccer game and various people running doggedly around the track… maybe what they needed was some comedy gold…

I decided to test it out. I ran out in front of the first tier of people and began to race around like I was an aeroplane. There was a roar from the crowd and people started laughing and clapping. The rest of the stadium was oblivious but I’d found my audience. I started to skip, then do the moonwalk. Rapturous applause followed. As I moved in front of tier after tier, the applause followed.

I pretended that I was exhausted and bent down, pretending to breathe heavily. They loved it. A runner came up behind me and, not realising that I was taking the piss, said, “Come on! You can do it!” and grabbed my arm. The crowd roared. I took off with her like a rocket… and then once she passed me, I waved my hand in disgust and bent over my knees again. Laughter and furious clapping in unison from the stands. Clearly, slapstick comedy worked with this crowd.

I worked my way around the stadium like that until, just before the very end with the finish line in sight, I looked at the watch, then looked at the finish line and started running full pelt towards it. The crowd yelled encouragement. It was so much fun!

Once we went up to the stands and found our coats, I plugged my phone into my power pack and we went out in search of sustenance. We found the rest of our group in the beer tent. It was absolutely FREEZING by this stage, with some of the guys with faces coloured lavender from cold. They were tucking into lamb skewers and beer, much to my annoyance, as beer is revolting. My hands were icy and I dug them in my pockets.

Incidentally, Walter finished his marathon with 10 minutes to spare before being locked out of the stadium. What an amazing effort! His first marathon with hardly any training. Unbelievable effort.

Then Matt turned up with hot soju from one of the stalls. OMG. When you raise the cup to your mouth, the alcohol in the steam hits your nose and warms the cockles of your heart. I shared my cup with James. “Christ, this is fantastic!” he said. As we stood sipping, snow started falling. We were all having fun and life was good.

Mr Pak came up with a list in his hand and touched Helen on the arm.

“You came third in the women’s 10KM,” he said. “You have to come to the podium and receive a medal from the sports minister.”

Helen was gobsmacked. “No way!” she said. “I stopped 4 times! If I’d known there were only two people ahead of me I’d have tried harder!!” 

Here are the medallists walking onto the field for the award ceremony. You should have seen Rick and Matt – they were so proud.

Helen is the one in the red tracksuit standing on the podium. She was given a medal and a bunch of fake flowers by the North Korean Minister of Sport. What a way to end the marathon!

After we left the stadium to go to lunch, I couldn’t help but notice the stream of Koreans leaving to go home. The poor things must’ve been frozen.

I’ll continue the rest of the day in my next post. I honestly didn’t expect to enjoy the marathon so much but it was a truly memorable way to start our trip to North Korea.

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China and DPRK. Day 3: Beijing, Dandong and Pyongyang.

We began our last day in Beijing by checking out of the hotel and having a walk around the hutong district, to grab some lunch and fill in some time before we met the rest of the North Korean tour group people at a hotel closer into the city.

The number of 3-legged cars is amazing. Ok, I know they’re 3-wheeled cars but that doesn’t sound as interesting. If I lived closer to work I’d get one of these babies and become a legend at school. Or a laughing stock, but I figure it’d all be in the way you hold your head as to whether they laugh with you or at you.

These things are really popular. All they are is a spiralised potato on a skewer, deep fried, but they taste really good. Chips in a row, pretty much.

We wandered around, poking in and out of shops. I wasn’t sure that my yellow leather notebook would last the whole trip, so I popped into a leatherwork shop and bought another notebook. Turns out I was able to make it last, so I have a book for next time.

Then it was time to collect the bags, grab a cab and start the next leg of our trip – the Korean one!

There were 4 guides present at the briefing, coincidentally 2 of them had their Mums with them, Helen and Matt being one. They went through what was going to happen in the next24 hours and gave a few pointers about travelling in North Korea. Basically:

  • Always try to refer to their leaders by using their title, not just their names. So it is President Kim Il Sung, General Kim Jong Il and Marshall (or Supreme Leader) Kim Jong Un. This is surprisingly hard to do – it takes a while to remember which order they’re in. I’ll come back to this in a later blog post.
  • When you take a photo in front of one of their statues or portraits, you must not crop any of them out. This is seen as very disrespectful.
  • They don’t want photos taken of the military, or of any building projects. Seeing as most building projects use the army as the builders, then this often covers both scenarios.
  • The Koreans regard their leaders with a respect verging on actual worship. So please, out of politeness, say any ‘funny’ comments about Kim Jong Un, for example, NOW and get them out of your system.
  • No religious books, such as Bibles and the Koran etc are allowed, along with any books about North Korea, including travel guides. They said that in past years, before Americans were forbidden to enter the country, they used to have a lot of trouble with them deliberately leaving bibles and things in hotel rooms, public toilets, restaurants and the like.
  • There are restrictions placed on your movements within the DPRK, which of course we already knew about. You have to sign a form acknowledging this when you book the trip. Once we have dinner and are back at the hotel, we can’t leave the grounds. (That was ok – we just stayed up really late drinking and singing karaoke. Try singing YMCA but substituting DPRK instead. Much hilarity.) There are ‘staff only’ floors that we aren’t allowed to go on. Personally, I can understand that the Korean guides would like a break from all of us at the end of each day. It must be exhausting to speak in English and translate for others all day, while answering the same questions all the time from each successive tour. I know I’d want to put my feet up at the end of the day!
  • If we’re out and about and we see somewhere we’d like to go, ask the guides. If it’s at all possible, they’ll make it happen. But if the answer is No, then it’s no.
  • Every single time they’ve had trouble with the authorities about a tourist, it’s always been because the tourist deliberately did something that they were told not to do. The message seemed pretty clear to me – don’t be an idiot.

Then we were given our visas:

The visa for the DPRK is a slip of paper that just gets put into your passport, with no stamp being put on the passport. It gets taken back when you leave the country, which is a bit of a shame. Still, considering the photo that on it, which was taken after I bleached my hair away from purple, blue and green, that’s probably a good thing.

I look like my mother…

Here’s Helen settling into the sleeper train to Dandong. There were 6 beds in each compartment and all of the YPT people were together so it was an excellent chance to get to know everyone really quickly. When everyone is sitting on the bottom beds, sharing snacks and booze, the barriers fall pretty quickly.

The accommodation is pretty spartan. Bedding is provided, with a mattress that could be thinner but I don’t actually see how it’s possible. There’s a squat toilet at the end of each carriage, with a hole that leads directly down to the train tracks. Helen told the horrifying tale of something that happened on her last trip 6 months ago – a woman decided that she’d make a quick toilet stop as the train was going back over the Friendship bridge to Dandong after their trip to Nth Korea. As she squatted, her phone fell out, down through the hole and onto the bridge. There went all of her photos of the trip…

(Apologies for the small photos. I think this is because I’m alternating between my work and home computer. These posts take around 3 hours each to do, and I’m juggling madly to get them done.) This photo shows the layout of the carriages, with the lovely Maria from Finland smiling at me. First class cabins are LUXURIOUS by comparison – 4 beds per cabin and they get a door. The dining car was right at the other end of the train, so after a while most of us headed up there to grab a meal and continue the meet and greets.

Here’s most of the group in the dining car before dinner, and before the wine started flowing. At the moment we’re polite, pleasant strangers… by the time 10 days were up we were more like family.

The meal was nothing to write home about, but OMG we drank so much! As the night went on more and more people made their way up here and with most of the crowd being 20-somethings, they were ready to party. The booze was cheap and plentiful and every time we stopped at a station and we saw more cartons of it being brought on, the boys would cheer and we’d keep on ordering.

Most people were on the beer. We ordered a bottle of “Great Wall” red, which tasted like watered-down wine. The usual suspects of vodka and whiskey were flowing, along with Chinese Baijiu, a liquor that Dan Rather once compared to “liquid razor blades.” I think that’s doing it a slight injustice, but I’ll agree that it certainly warms the throat as it’s going down! Some people stayed later, but at 5 to 10 Matt said that the lights would be going out at 10 and I didn’t fancy trying to navigate the train in the dark – especially the squatty potty. So we giggled our way back to our carriage, climbed into bed, put on our sleeping masks and earplugs and rocked off to sleep.

The next morning we were woken at 6 by a woman walking the length of the train calling out “WAKE UP” (I assume) in Chinese. I have to say that I slept like a top, turning over and over all night. That mattress was the thinnest I’ve ever slept on and it was on a metal bed base.

We arrived at Dandong at 7 AM and had a little over an hour to kill before we caught the train across the Friendship bridge to North Korea. We walked down the main road to have a look. And here is our first glimpse of North Korea. Dandong was towering with skyscrapers, while on the other side there was very little to see.

Behind us, there were people with a speaker doing exercises in the park, while the city swirled around us with commuters going to work, breakfast vendors selling food, pedestrians everywhere.

Here’s the current Friendship bridge, which is the one we’d be on in an hour, travelling across to the DPRK. The previous one was bombed by the US in the Korean War back in the 1950’s.

Here’s a shot of where the original Friendship bridge ends. Nowadays it’s a tourist attraction. Excitement was high as we crossed the river and reached the ground. We were here! The first stop was a station, where we’d go through customs. This ended up being a little weird…

Once the train stopped at the station, there followed an hour and a half of the most inefficient bureaucracy I think I’ve ever known. And that includes Centrelink.

We were ‘standing room only’ across the bridge, so the beds were packed with passengers, plus the corridor was packed with passengers and their suitcases. The system was a tad overloaded with all of the tourists flocking in to run in the marathon the next day. Into this sardine tin came around 6 soldiers who collected all our passports and insisted we fill in a form which was written entirely in Korean. We had to wait until Matt filled his in and passed it around, which annoyed the soldiers because it was holding them up. After about 20 minutes we were told to collect our bags and go out onto the platform. The people in the sleeper compartments were allowed to stay on the train. While we were there, they connected another carriage on the train to look after all of the ‘standing room’ people.

Then we had a stringent examination of what we were bringing in. Matt was astounded, saying that in 20+ trips to the DPRK, he’d never seen anything like it. We were asked to submit our cameras for inspection and to turn off any GPS. Our phones were glanced at. Anyone bringing in an iPad (that would be me) had to put up their hand and our names were duly noted. Then any books were very carefully looked at. Very carefully. This was all by one guy looking after 12 people on a station with a very cold wind. Then USBs. Anyone who had one of these had a mark put against their name on a passenger list the guy had. Then the USBs were taken away to be looked at. Then everyone had to open their suitcases to make sure that we weren’t smuggling any books in. I was a bit worried about my little yellow notebook but that was ok.

After that, we had to empty our pockets for inspection. Then we had to wait. And wait. And wait. The wind grew colder and we could see the other passengers on the train looking at us through the windows. The train lurched as they attached the carriage we’d be travelling in. Girls with drink and snack trolleys wheeled onto the platform, but none were allowed to come and look after us. We were watching all the other passengers buying drinks and food, but none for us.

“There’s something about our group they don’t like,” said Niall, a guy from Scotland who was on our tour. I was so glad I had my duck down coat. Even I started to feel a bit nippy as the time dragged on. Anyone who started to wander over to the drinks trolley 20 feet away was sternly told to step back with the rest of the group.

Mr Pak, our Korean guide who had come to meet us at the border, was standing about 100m away in the cold, but he wasn’t allowed to join us. The soldiers, particularly one guy, just didn’t like the cut of our group.

Finally, after an hour or so, we were handed back our passports and were able to board the train. Seeing as how we weren’t going to be sleeping on the train this time, we spent most of our time in the dining car. On the North Korean side, the food was SO much better and we were introduced to Soju, the Korean version of Baijiu, which is only 30% proof. (I had a quick nanna nap before we hit Pyongyang – that soju certainly relaxes you!)

Of course, we were glued to the windows as we were travelling through the countryside. The colours of Australia were everywhere – lots of browns, oranges and faded greens. Ploughed fields were everywhere, usually done by oxen with men manually maneuvering the plough through the earth behind the ox. We saw very few tractors. Lots of chickens, geese and goats in the fields. The fields were extensive, with what seemed like every flat surface being utilised. Rick and Helen kept saying how clean and simple it all was. Helen was saying about what a good life it would be, simple and uncomplicated, and that she wasn’t afraid of hard work and wouldn’t mind a life like that. I, however, begged to differ. It looked like bloody hard work.

Outside the train it was bitterly cold and snow was falling. Regardless, people were still out in the fields working, with some fields having open fires with people gathered around. I watched one guy ploughing as the train slowed down to come into a station. The ox was walking stolidly ahead and the man was wrestling with the plough to keep it in a straight line. It looked like it was being jolted by rocks in the earth – it looked pretty cheerless and very like back-breaking work to me. Lots of people walking and on bicycles – so many bicycles that I couldn’t help but think of Amsterdam.

The buildings in the towns we passed varied. Some villages looked pretty old, with one-storey houses gathered together, grey roofs and garden walls around bare-earth yards with outhouses. Other places had more modern apartment blocks, coloured pink, green and apricot. This was a harbinger of what was to come in Pyongyang.

A group photo at Pyongyang station. A family shot – ‘Auntie’ Frogdancer was included. We met our female Korean tour guide, Un Ha, and we jumped on the bus for a quick drive around on what was the marathon route the next day.

I had signed up for the 5KM run, after being assured that I didn’t actually have to run. The option for people on the tour was to either be in the marathon or to stay in the stands and watch a soccer match. Yuck. One 5KM walk is FAR better than having soccer inflicted upon me, and I’d have the opportunity to really have a good long look at the city.

As the bus drove, it seemed like ages until we reached the 2.5KM ‘turnaround’ spot that I’d be walking. Hmmm…

But my apprehension was nothing as to Walter’s. He was a Hungarian guy who wanted to run just one marathon in his life, so he chose this one. He was doing the full marathon, with only a couple of month’s preparation. I happened to be sitting next to him on the bus, and as the bus kept on driving… and driving… and driving… he started saying, Oh no! What have I done?!?”

Our first hotel was in the sports section of the city, so we arrived, hit the gift shop so Helen and Rick could buy DPRK tracksuits, (there were none in my size), and then we had a late dinner and an early night.

One of the first indications that this country is a little bit different was the Christmas trees on the stairwell leading up to the dining room – in April.

Can’t wait to see what lies in store!

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China and DPRK: Day 2 – Beijing.

After the debacle at breakfast with the concrete buns yesterday, we decided to try a savoury omelette. OMG – so delicious! All our had was a flat, round hotplate and he layered everything up, along with some crunchy flat noodles to provide some crunch. Lots of spring onions… mmm mmm!

I couldn’t help but notice the curved scar on the man’s cheek. It looked like a half-circle with lines drawn across it, as though he’d cut himself when he was young and whoever tried to fix it by sewing the flaps of skin together wasn’t trained as a plastic surgeon Once we’d finished we continued walking down the street to the station. Today we’d finish the quest we started yesterday – we’d ‘do’ Tiananmen Square and see Mao’s mausoleum.

As we were walking, one of the red doors in between the shops was open. It was a quick sneak peek into what lies behind…

This time we chose the other station but it didn’t seem to make much difference. Queues, queues everywhere, but at least we’d made it across the road and we were now able to amble across the Square.

Here is the Square. Not all that exciting, to be honest, but seeing as how the last time this Square was really, really interesting I suppose that’s just as well. This is the view with my back to the Forbidden City, just over the road, facing Mao’s mausoleum.

To Australian eyes, there’s a lot of soldiers around the place. Fair enough, they’re guarding national monuments and there’s an army base a stone’s throw away, but when we were walking around yesterday and today there were lots of military, either at checkpoints are marching around the streets. These guys were doing a ceremonial ‘changing of the guard’ thing at the flagpole.


The first thing we wanted to tick off was to see Chairman Mao. We first had to go and check our bags over the road, where we saw police lose their marbles over people who hopped out of their car at the crossing and attempted to blend in with the rest of us. They hadn’t gone through a checkpoint, so the police weren’t happy.

The people here have bought single yellow flowers wrapped in cellophane and are going to lay them at the feet of the statue of Mao that was in the first room. I hope they recycle them, because the waste would be enormous.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was a little strange. We walked into the first room where a massive statue of Chairman Mao was smiling. People raced forward and placed their flowers on a HUGE pile in front of him and bowed 3 times. Those of us who hadn’t bought flowers proceeded to the next room, which was where Mao’s body lay. It looked like a waxwork effigy but that’s probably not correct. In stark contrast to what we’d experience a week later, we were raced through the room. The crowd was in single file, we were made to walk at a steady pace by a soldier standing at the corner of the display, so we all had a quick look at the body and before we knew it we were out. It was all very quiet, but quick.

Those of you who have read my Europe and UK posts in July and August 2015 know that my friend Scott put me onto the idea of buying Christmas tree decorations as souvenirs. Here’s my Chairman Mao one. Helen and Rick are going to come to my place at Christmas to see my EPIC tree. We’ll drink soju and sing merry songs. It’ll be a great night.

There’s a lot of people in Beijing. Here’s the crowd we encountered on the way to a shoe shop.

I forgot to pack some formal shoes to visit the Palace of the Sun in North Korea, where Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are lying in state. Apparently, you need to be far more formal than in the one we’d just left, so I bought these children’s shoes rather than wear runners.

We then went out to a more suburban area to meet up with Matt, Helen’s son. He’ll be our European guide in North Korea and when he’s not working he’s based in Beijing. This worked out really well for us because he took us to lots of places we’d never have found on our own.

Such as the Artists’ Quarter. Helen was keen to see the exhibitions here, so we spent the afternoon wandering around here.

This is a section of the city that has been reclaimed by the artists. Big old warehouses with excellent light are slowly being turned into studios and galleries.

I love the happiness of this one.

The BEST exhibition was the one devoted to dogs.

Of course, the dachshund ones caught my eye! Not too many spaniel exhibits, which was a bit sad.

I was tempted to get this bag but decided against it.

I took this photo for my muso sons.

This was a gallery and workspace in a newer section of the quarter. Look at how the walls bow in and out like waves. It was really beautiful.

Rick is a civil engineer, so that, combined with being a boy, meant that he notices things like infrastructure much more readily than I do. He made a comment about the wiring. It was pretty free-form when you stop to look at it.

Before dinner, Matt took us to a street called Wangfujing in the centre of Beijing to have a look at the more traditional street food. It was PACKED and we had to make a concentrated effort to stay together. We feasted on lamb skewers and roast ears of corn, but there were other things on offer, such as whole roasted baby pigeons (beaks and all), tarantula legs and these:

Scorpion skewers. The scorpions were still moving. I declined, but I’ve since heard that after they’re deep-fried, they’re crunchy and don’t taste like anything much.

All very festive looking. We searched for a restaurant that would give us an authentic Chinese meal, but the one we chose had items on the menu that I simply HAD to share with you:

We ordered this one and this is what it actually looks like:

It was really tasty.

Then we wandered home after we went to a bar for another cheap cocktail. It’s so different to home. We walked down what seemed like a maze of tiny alleyways with what seems like an abundant array for public toilets. Lots of the old hutongs don’t have toilets, so the neighborhood needs lots of facilities. Matt says the lanes are quite safe, though I wouldn’t want to be walking down them by myself… Lots of red doors, grey walls and paving, then Matt, after a few false starts and backtracking, flings open a door and voila! Warmth, light, and the buzz of people and alcohol. You’d never know it was there. Apparently, it’s hard to keep track because bars and restaurants are constantly shutting down and starting up. It’s an ever-changing scene.

We had a relatively early night to be ready for our meeting tomorrow to meet up with the tour group for North Korea.

DPRK – here we come!



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China and North Korea trip – Day 1: Beijing.

Hello, all! I got back from China and North Korea 5 days ago… still alive, as my students gleefully exclaimed on Monday. WHAT a trip! Unlike when I went to Europe, I couldn’t post each day as it happened, seeing as there’s that little problem of North Korea not having the internet. I’ve had my first digital detox in decades! Fortunately, the old technology of pen and paper still works, so I took this gorgeous leather-bound notebook with me and did the old-fashioned travel diary, just like travellers from times of yore who went to the mysterious ‘Far East’. I’m putting it out there that in these times, going to North Korea is equally as exotic, judging by the eye=popping reaction of most people when they register that you said NORTH, as opposed to SOUTH Korea.

As I was racing out the door, I realised that I didn’t have an identifying decoration on my suitcase. I was driving to Helen and Rick’s place and going in with them, so I didn’t want to be late. In a burst of inspiration, I grabbed a Chux and tied it on. No way anyone else will have one like this! Plus I’ll be ready for any cleaning emergencies that might arise. It may not have been elegant, but it was (somewhat) practical.

Ok, that last sentence was a complete rationalisation.

We got into Beijing pretty late, found our hotel after a slightly unnerving taxi ride. They drive on the wrong side of the road with a gung-ho mentality that leaves your toes curling in your shoes. We agreed that we’d meet in the morning and go to Tiananmen Square. This would have worked perfectly. I changed my watch and my phone’s timezone back 2 hours to Beijing time and climbed into bed. However, I forgot my iPad, which I cleverly placed beside the bed in case I woke up in the middle of the night and wanted to read a book. When I sleepily grabbed it next morning, I thought I was 2 hours ahead of when I really was. I jumped in the shower, wrestled with the stupid controls for getting the water through the shower tap instead of the bath tap – thank goodness for my trip to Europe or I would never have worked it out – and dashed back into the bedroom where I picked up my watch. Ok then. With the adrenalin rush there was no way I was going to go back to sleep. So I was more than ready when Helen and Rick emerged and we were ready to go.

We stopped on the street for a quick breakfast of pork buns. The stall had a huge line of people outside it so we thought we were onto a good thing. We soon discovered that pork buns without the pork filling are a doughy mass that tastes a bit like concrete. Fortified by our concrete, we walked down the street and onto the subway.

Beijing’s subway is even easier and more efficient than London’s Underground and Paris’s Metro. We loved it. Our only difficulty was knowing which station to get off at Tiananmen Square East or West. We chose one, emerged into the chilly morning and discovered a line.

We joined it. We weren’t sure what we were queuing for but it had to be for something touristy. We asked a couple of German people and it turns out we were waiting for the Forbidden City. Ok then.

The queue stretched off into the distance. It wasn’t just tourists – everyone who wanted to walk through the Square had to go through security. The Chinese had to show identity cards, tourists had to show passports and every bag went through a scanner. Fortunate Frogdancer’s luck kicked in early on this one – Helen was only here 6 months ago and she mentioned that we need our passports with us, otherwise I would’ve naturally left mine in the safe in my room. That would’ve put a damper on the day, particularly as my ticket into the Forbidden City was also my passport.

Speaking of Helen and Rick, here they are. I’ve worked with Helen for about 14 years, but we’ve never really been more than friendly sometimes-lunch friends, which in a school where there are over 150 teachers on staff isn’t that uncommon. If you’re not in the same faculty or in the same staff room, it’s really hard to catch up. Last year we were working in the hall while the school’s massive Winter Music Concert was going on and she mentioned that her son works as a tour guide in North Korea and she was about to join him on a tour. I honestly thought she was crazy. Why would you voluntarily put yourself into a country where everyone knows you stand a better-than-average chance of being jailed or blown up in a nuclear accident?


But when she emerged safely, she said a couple of things that piqued my interest. “It’s like stepping back in time to the 1960’s.” When I asked if she was able to take any photos, she laughed and said, “I’ve got over 600 photos on my phone”, before showing me pictures of a candy-coloured city. Then she said, “If you ever want to go, I’ll go back with you.”

How could I nock this one back? It was the sound of opportunity knocking.

She also brought Rick, her husband, while her son Matt was our tour guide. I became ‘Auntie Frogdancer’ as a result.

To be honest, I expected the Forbidden City to be a lot more lush and impressive. There was an awful lot of grey paving and concrete going on. However, inside some of the buildings there was more to see, while the details of painting and gold on the exteriors  were very intricate and pretty.

There were 5 gates to get in, my apologies for the 5th one on the right being hidden behind a tourist’s fat head. The middle gate was only ever used by the Emperor, with the Empress using it only once when she entered the Forbidden City to be married. It was a bit haunting to think of these girls being brought into the city, all pomp and circumstance, knowing that they’d never be able to leave. Talk about a gilded prison! But when we were at the back of the palace complex, we saw a gate that said that the Empress used to go through this gate every 3 years to bless the harvest festivals.

(I think it said every 3 years, but surely they’d want a good harvest EVERY year? This is the downside of writing in a book at the end of the day – I should’ve taken a photo of the sign.)

I think this was taken inside the first or second wall. Although the 3 squares in front of the Forbidden City are huge and grey, the very size of the land used would have been incredibly impressive to anyone entering to deal with the emperor. Considering the size of the dwellings right outside the walls, this would have been a stark contrast. I can imagine that the past emperors would be spinning in their graves at the thought of commoners and foreigners swarming all over the city.

If you jostle for position in front of the doors to the buildings, you can see inside to things like the throne room, (below.)

There’s lots of little eateries and gift shops, including the place where we stopped for lunch. Helen ordered “Eggplant on eggplant”, which turned out to be scrambled eggs on a tomato-based sauce.

Here’s a sneaky snap of Helen and Rick looking for some products to maintain their youthful good looks. Actually, they were looking for a heated room. It was pretty darned cold, though I was wearing my neck-to-knee duck down coat so I was feeling pretty good. Helen and Rick were feeling it, though.

We went through another gate and suddenly there’s what I was expecting to see all along. A beautiful garden. It was formal, with an eye to longevity, with trees and shrubs selected for their long-term appearance, with some being sculpted in weird and unusual shapes. There was no way anyone could walk anywhere but on the paths; it was all very much nature being tamed.

But it wasn’t just the trees that were chosen for their interesting appearance.

They also had natural stone being used as art. I really love this idea.

I got wildly excited when I saw this sign:

Come on – you all saw the Chux on my suitcase. If anyone could benefit from a mountain of elegance, it HAS to be me!

… or maybe not…

As we made our way to the back, we climbed a bell tower and looked out over the city to Beijing beyond. I love how you can see over the ancient tiled roofs to the concrete towers of modern-day.

When we left, we walked around the perimeter to try and get back to Tiananmen Square to see Chairman Mao lying in state. The Forbidden City was surrounded by a moat. It would’ve been hard for anyone to get in (or out) unnoticed. As we walked, I mourned the loss of my Fitbit, which doesn’t work properly anymore. I’m going to miss out on some impressive step numbers!

We got back too late to see Mao, so we decided to cut our losses and go back to the hotel. When we emerged from the subway, Rick and I saw tiny flecks of snow falling. We exchanged a look of pure delight. I’ve only seen snow 3 times in my life, so those little flecks were special.

Fortunate Frogdancer has ended up travelling with people who like a nice alcoholic beverage as much as she does. Before dinner we went to a little bar that Helen’s son Matt recommended. It was lost in the midst of winding laneways which all looked identical, but Rick and his trusty Google Maps, (which only came online a month ago in Beijing, apparently), found the way. I followed behind like a duckling, which I think will be how I’ll spend most of this trip. Helen and Rick are fast walkers. $12 cocktails, here we come! I ordered a Smokey Negrito and a Gin Basil Smash, then we walked through the Hutong district to look for a restaurant.

We found one filled with Chinese people, always a good sign, and as we entered, I could hear Diana Krall playing on their sound system. I was rapt – I haven’t heard that album in ages. We stayed for a couple of hours and when we left we were greeted by SNOW!

See that scrape on the windscreen? Just after taking this shot, I was hit by a flying snowball, courtesy of Helen.

Snow was falling as we walked. I’ve only ever seen snow fall on the top of Mt Wellington in Tasmania and when I was in a car travelling to Ballarat to see friends. Never in a city, at night, with the snow lit by streetlights. It doesn’t fall hard, like rain. It floats down, lightly. Who knew?!?

It was pretty magical.

When we got back I tried my unreliable VPN and it worked. I found out that I won the blog competition!!!! I raced up the hall and banged on Rick and Helen’s door and we celebrated by drinking the complimentary Jasmine teabags in their room. I was stoked. What a great way to end the first day of our trip.


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Big news! Plus I need your vote for the Grand Final.

Jeffrey suspects that something’s up.

First up, before I get into why the blog will be unattended for 3 weeks, even though I’m travelling:

OMG. It’s the Grand Final. Frogdancer, who can’t walk quickly without starting to puff. Whose frame is fairly portly, despite her best endeavours. Who can’t catch a ball to save herself… Frogdancer is in the finals of the blog competition. OMG.

The voting is open for 48 hours, starting from Wednesday midnight Australian time (roughly). HERE IS THE LINK. Keyword: Mistake. Please vote. When the competition started, weeks ago, there were 128 starters. Now there’s 2, and call me competitive and vaguely patriotic, but I’d love it if an Aussie with a tiny blog actually took out the competition. It’s an underdog kind of thing. My competitor in the last round is a well-known blogger who works in the US military. *gulp*

Here’s the link again. I’m (maybe) slightly competitive, so I’m making it easy for you to leap onto it. 🙂 Plus I’m very helpful.

Ok. Now that you’ve (hopefully) voted… here’s why I won’t even know if I’ve won or not for WEEKS after the voting stops.

Ok. Guess where I’m going?

It’s a place that not many people go to. It’s a place with NO INTERNET. It’s a place where there’s one tv station run by the government. It’s a place that is described as ‘The Hermit Kingdom’ and the most isolated country in the world.


I’m going to North Korea.

Yesterday I found the bg I bought t a little market in London, that I used all over the UK and Europe. I found some treasures inside it. my Oyster card from London, my Paris Metro card and the receipt for the entry fee to Kenilworth Castle. Plus some 3-year-old chewing gum.

On the tour we have 2 North Korean guides and an Aussie one. The Aussie one is the son of a woman I work with, which is how I found out about it. The Korean guides apparently love getting gifts of little luxuries that they find it hard to access over there, like hand creams, nail polish, lollies, chewing gum, toys for kids etc. I put together these little pouches full of goodies for them, plus a big bag of Costco trail mix. Apparently they love that.

I also bought other things to give away as we went.

Not having girls, we never had these in the house growing up. Nowadays, Evan21 uses them for his hipster man bun, but he tends to stick to more sombre colours.

I’ve written more about this on the other blog. I really wanted to do a full post on this blog, but it’s nearly midnight and I have to be up in just over 5 hours to drive to the airport. I’m falling asleep. I’m literally sitting up in bed, laptop on my lap, nodding off.

Please read the other blog post if you want to hear more about why I decided to go to such a sealed-off place. I honestly don’t know how much fun it’ll be, but I bet it’ll be interesting.

The blog will be quiet until April 21, when I get home. I can’t blog on my travels, with no internet, but I can blog ABOUT them when I get back.

Looking forward to seeing you then.





Posted in Quality of life, writing | 4 Comments