Finally: Pyongyang!

Trip Start Oct 18, 2007
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Trip End Sep 09, 2010


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Where I stayed

Flag of Korea Dem Peoples Rep  ,
Thursday, February 14, 2008

Even our flight to Korea was interesting, Air Koryo flies an old Tupolev plane that looks like no other plane I had ever seen before. The handluggage compartments are open en the chairs can fold forwards completely. The foodtrays are made of metal and the walls and window shades have an oldfashioned pattern. I had some trouble locating my seatbelt and inside the plane it smelled of exhaust fumes...it was an interesting flight to say the least.

Not only because of the airplane but also because we recognized some of our fellow passengers as famous ice skaters. After my French companion recognized Surya Bonaly, I recognized Gwendal Peizerat and Marina Annisina, an ice dancing couple that have won several Olympic gold and silver medals. We spoke to them and most of them had skated in North Korea before. This time they were going to skate during the ice skating festical in honour of the birthday of Kim Jong Il.

After landing at Pyongyang airport, going through customs was remarkably easy. Our mobile phones were put in one bag that was sealed en had to stay sealed untill customs officials would open it when we left the country by train. You are not allowed to take mobile phones into the country. The reason behind these seemed strange to us as there is no way to connect to a network in N Korea. It did leave most of us without an alarm clock!

We met our guides in the arrival hall. They would stay with us for the whole time we were in Korea and tell us when it was allowed to take pictures and when it was not allowed. The policy on photo taking seemed to make no sense to us at times. But we all managed to take a lot of photos in the short period of time we were there so it wasn't that strict. The main things we were not allowed to take photos of was military and poverty.

One of the things we noticed right away was that traffic is quiet in Pyongyang, there are not many cars and there are no traffic lights but a lot of traffic ladies instead. The way they do their job, turning around on one spot in the middle of the intersection in -10 degrees celsius weather, is amazing. Our guides didn't understand our facination with the traffic ladies at all. Of course there is almost none advertisement in the country we did see some billboard advertisements for cars in the city. Apparently this is a North Korean car that is made together with Fiat.

Because there are not many cars in the city, you see many people walking. I think there is also a shortage of bicycle because we did not see many of these either. Public transport excists of trams, buses and a 2 line metro system. All equipment is old and more than once we saw broken down trams in the streets. Especially at night the qeues for the buses and trams were extremely long because there are just not enough buses and trams going. If this was because they are low on equipment or caused by electricity problems and fuel shortage I don't know, probably a combination of all three.

Arrival at the hotel was surreal, Yanggakdo Hotel is a luxury hotel on an island in one of the rivers of Pyongyang. Knowing what we know about the situation in the country this hotel is a big contradiction to how the Koreans themselves live. In the lobby a turtois tries to swim in an aquarium clearly designed for fish. The tank is the same widt as the animal en we doubted if he can even turn around in it, it turns out he can, but still.

The hotel has about 44 floors with a revolving restaurant on the topfloor. But it was mostly empty and the lift made me think of the Dutch film "De Lift" about the lift going crazy and killing people! The lift in the hotel kept stopping at random floors and the doors were off kilter as well, luckily we all made it out alive!

The basement floor of the hotel has all the entertainment; billiarts, karaoke, bowling (made in the USA!) and a casino, nightclub and massage parlour run completely by Chinese and off limits for North Koreans. For the first time in years I did some bowling and I practiced my singing skills with songs like Hey Jude, Yesterday, Edelweiss and some other golden oldies.

The first night we went over the itinerary for the week, but nothing was certain yet so I decided to just follow the guides and see where we ended up. The conversation was relaxed untill we reached the subject of taking photos and our planned visit to the Mausoleum of Kim Il Sung. Our guide made clear that is was very important to be respectful there and dress your best.
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