Pyongyang, October 10, 2008, Friday
Trip Start Sep 26, 2008
31Trip End Oct 18, 2008
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Where I stayed
Yanggakdo Gugje Hotel
So I slept like a rabbit the whole night and woke up way ahead of when I had planned. That meant that my first attempt in Pyongyang to make up for some sleep lost in Beijing was kind of a bungle. I realised that as soon as I opened the window
The first Pyongyang morning was hazy. Or foggy. Whatever. At any event, it was windy and rather cold. From up here on the thirty fifth floor of the "Yanggakdo Gugje Hotel", however, I had some great view on the still mostly sleeping city below. Pyongyang was still in a low murmur, mumbling softly to itself, as if grumbling upon being woken up against its wish. Through the mist of the river I could see one or two lazy barges on the Daedong river. City road alongside of it, on the right riverbank, whatever its name, was almost devoid of any traffic. I noticed a tall column right by the river to my right and I assumed it was some kind of monument. To my left, on the other side of the river, almost hidden by the hotel wall, I could make out the famous, pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel, still unfinished and vying to one day - if that day ever comes - become the tallest hotel in the world. And that was all. Everything else, at least from my room window, were just faceless tower-blocks and heaps of other rectangular, unimaginative buildings. Morning sky was a dawn mixture of pink and blue, still rather pale through the fog on the river. And yet, a city which in any other spot of the world with the looks from my window as they were would probably elicit only yawns and boredom, here stirred nothing but fascination and excitement
I took a few panorama pictures and when it was time for restaurant to open, I summoned an elevator and went down to have breakfast.
I was the earliest riser of my group. But not nearly by as far as I assumed I would be. I had hardly picked the table to sit, heaped some food from the good and ample buffet alongside one wall, and took my seat, when Nicole, the English lady, popped up.
"Good morning," she said. "Do you mind?"
She meant whether I would mind if she joined me at the table.
"Of course not. Please, be welcome."
"What do we have here?" she sized up my plates with interest and then went to get her own food. While she was at it, Mathew, the Australian, came down and joined me. So even this early, there were already three of us up
Together at the table, we started exchanging our first impressions about the city, the hotel and the Mass Games, the first thing we'd really seen here. At one point, Nicole asked:
"How did you guys sleep?"
I knew she meant the comfort, quality of beds and such things. She talked how she'd had a long and lavish shower the night before. Which we all must have had. But I said:
"I didn't sleep so well."
"My problem is, I don't have an alarm o'clock. The one that I use is my mobile phone, and as we don't have them here, I've got nothing. And as soon as I don't, I just can't sleep well. You know, the fear of sleeping in and so."
"But you've got an alarm in the radio."
"I know," I said. "But anyway. I just didn't know if it was reliable or not."
Nicole seemed to know what I was talking about. She obviously suffered from the same syndrome.
"I have an extra alarm," she said.
"Yes. I could lend it to you if you want."
"You're sure you won't need it yourself?"
"No," she laughed. "This is an extra. I just got it in China and you can really have it while we're here."
Of course, this was too good to pass up, so I said I'd really appreciate it. She promised she would give it to me during the day today. And so already during my first breakfast things started looking up.
After the breakfast I had almost forty five minutes until we were supposed to meet, so I decided to take a walk around the Yanggak island. Well, the section we were allowed to explore by ourselves, anyway
And on my way back to the hotel, I finally saw first locals, all by myself and away from our guides and minders. There was this bus stop, obviously the terminal one, where bus bringing people working on Yanggakdo, which probably meant in our hotel and its premises, came to its final stop. I was passing there exactly when the bus arrived and they started spilling out, not exactly a rock concert crowd, but quite a few. Women in their 1950's fashion style, men in those drab brown-grey or black-white suits, which evidently didn't leave much leeway to creation. There were also two or three guys there, crouching by the curbside, watching new arrivals. None of them seemed to pay any attention to me.
It was my first close encounter of the third kind with locals, unregulated and not previously arranged by our guides. My fingers itched and I wanted to take a few pictures.
In a way it felt so daft
Well, I took those few pics, no matter what. It was not like I was expecting a few broad-shouldered comrades or frowning agents toting guns to jump out of the hedge on me. Also, no minder materialised without as much of a sound to tap me on my back. And yet, I guess the beast is at its most fearsome when you know nothing about it but only have rumours, so I did away with pictures as covertly as I could and as fast as I could, wishing to elicit as little unwanted suspicion as possible. And went back up to the hotel.
Guys from my group started gathering outside, in front of the bus. Nicole was there, too. And kindly gave me a tiny alarm o'clock. I thanked and told her:
"I'll give it back to you on the morning we leave here, if it's OK with you."
She said fine and now I had something that was hopefully going to help me sleep better for the next few days
Around nine o'clock the whole gang was there, including our North Korean crew. The last ones to arrive were James and Joseph, and James carried a bit undersized ball under his arm. Almost everyone was amused, and we could tell that even our guides didn't often handle tourists with a sporting agenda on their minds.
"I thought we might have a kick or two should a chance come up," James explained. Simon enquired about the ball size.
"This is a futsal ball, in fact," James said.
Well, all we now needed was a football pitch downtown. Or any hard surface where they would let us kick it around. Whether that was going to happen, it remained to be seen. Right now, we entered the bus.
Everyone was simply taking the seats which had been spontaneously given - or taken - when we had first got in the bus at the airport. So I started towards the back seat that had been mine. However, Mr Sung told me to take the seat he had had yesterday, and went to occupy the one I had been on
But the thing is, my new place had everything on the back seat. In that respect there was absolutely no discussion.
When the bus started, even before we left the Yanggakdo, Mrs Lee took the mike and said:
"Good morning everyone. I hope you slept well. We have our first full sightseeing day today and we will start it with a visit to Pyongyang metro
We crossed the bridge into the Pyongyang downtown. The city didn't look any more crowded in terms of street traffic than it had yesterday. The only difference was that, as it was broad daylight now, it looked less gloomy than yesterday. Even if so relatively early in the morning it was a tad less crowded than last night.
We were informed that we had been lucky to arrive in North Korea precisely for October 10th, one of two or three biggest national holidays in the country. Which was today. So we might be able to have a glimpse of locals when they were in a festive mood. That might account for the fact that streets were a bit more deserted than one would expect them to be in a capital of any country at nine in the morning. Except that I had no idea yet whether what you expect in other capitals applied to this particular one.
Anyway, October 10th is the day when they celebrate the founding of the local Workers' Party, the party in the saddle of the DPRK, which has been ruling the country ever since its foundation through the reins in the hands of the two Kim father-and-son leaders
Soon the bus pulled to a stop and we were ushered out, finding ourselves for the first time in the open, on a street in Pyongyang during the day. Everybody started turning around, searching for things to take a picture of, but there was neither anything remarkable nor people to see. Almost as if our hosts had made a point of bringing us to a spot where we'd see literally nothing. Nothing worth mentioning, that is. As if you could say we'd been brought to a back door to an underground station. If such a thing existed anywhere. Well, judging by the level of activity and fuss that we were witnessing, that comfortably hovered around zero, anything was possible. After all, this was Pyongyang, a place each one of us had heard a bagful of strange stories about.
Very soon we were taken inside. The station we just entered was called Bu Heung Yeog, which in Korean means Renaissance underground station. I wish I could claim I translated that myself, but it was not the case. Mrs Lee told us so.
Anyway, it was the starting point of one of two Pyongyang underground lines, and our hosts, or whoever had been deciding on what to show their foreign visitors, considered it an appropriate starting point for our acquaintance with the city
And then we descended to a huge underground space which was the station itself, right at the moment when one train arrived and crowd started spilling out. You could clearly tell that everyone in the group was fascinated. First time so close to locals, cameras started flashing left and right. Maybe the crowd was the select one. Maybe those claims and rumours were right. But quite honestly, I doubted it right on the spot. To me the people looked what you would expect from any crowd in any underground station of the world, and just their quirky take on fashion let on that you were in a place you don't exactly go to every week. And just as we expected, almost none of them looked our way. They all made a stiff point of pretending we were not there, minding their own business as hard as they could, which precisely betrayed how aware of us they all were. They didn't even talk much among themselves, as if retreating in frowning silence into a sort of self-conscious reticence. It was clear we were as much of a show for them as they were for us. At that point the line was obviously very blurred as to who was the spectacle for whom
We descended down to the trains. There was one on either side.
"You don't know who's more curious about whom, they about us or we about them," said Chris, the Englishman who had yesterday asked me if I wanted to go back to China already.
"I think we are at least as much of a sight to them as they are to us," I added.
"Maybe we are even more to them," Pim joined in.
The crowd thinned. You couldn't catch anybody's eye and nobody smiled. They all just hurried up and out. But as a stark contrast to the grim crowd, down the station at the far end there was a huge mural depicting a grandiose Kim Il Sung, against the inspiring golden setting of sun-bathed factory chimneys, belching clouds of healthy smoke, flanked by a bunch of engineers and workers, and they all flashed broad Colgate smiles, probably not only as a tribute to North Korean working victories, but also to the glorious accomplishments of local dentists
Very soon we had the station almost only to ourselves. One train left and in its wake it left another mural exposed, this one showing a pack of workers, most of them lightly treading through fields of gold, some of them sporting straw hats, some Mao caps, some bear-headed. Ladies wore headscarves. A few of them flew flags, two rode tractors and they all smiled like they had all just lucked out and hit a national lottery jackpot. OK, not exactly a North Korean lottery, I'd say. They have yet to come up with that one in Pyongyang, I guess. But whatever jackpot they had hit, the mural left the onlooker little doubt. North Korea was most certainly the land of the smiling and happy.
Minus those that had just got off the train and left, that is.
Anyway, according to some mysterious timetable we were soon informed that we were ourselves about to get on one of those trains for a ride. Simon told us that the trains were basically second-hand German cars, shipped in from what had once been East Germany. They didn't use them any more where Claudia and Tobias now lived, but in Pyongyang they obviously still served the purpose quite well, thank you
And then the train moved and we were treated to a one-station ride, getting out a few minutes later at what is called Yeong Gwang Yeog, or Glory underground station. This one was different than the Bu Heung, of course, with a lot of pillars and arches and somewhat different lighting, but they were part of the same thing, so this one was decorated with murals just the same. Yeong Gwang was less crowded, but people were there, waiting for their train. Maybe the crowd was again chosen to double for the genuine crowd away from foreign eyes, but I'd swear they were authentic. If they did just stand in for the real thing, then they had to have best acting academy in the world, and with a massive turn-out of first-rate actors to boot. And whoever tries to convince me of that, they'll be hard pressed to say the least.
Anyway, Giana, one of our two Brazilian girls, was first to break that invisible barrier between us and locals, which we all thought was there, and asked a group of people waiting for the train if she could have their picture taken. After a short hesitation, they nodded, smiled and posed. And then like on a cue, the rest of us started doing the same and it all suddenly turned into a show nobody had really anticipated a minute ago. Our guides were clearly as surprised as everyone else, but even if they had wanted to prevent us from doing that, it was now clearly too late.
When it was my turn to take picture of some teenagers, I noticed that they, same as everyone else, including our guides, had a red pin on. I was wondering what age you started to wear it in North Korea. When is it that you are considered grown-up enough to understand the Kim Il Sung's teachings and expected to put that thing on?
Well, whatever the age, we were not given much time to contemplate that. Instead we were led out in short order. A few waves of the hand both ways, including this time a bonus of quite a few smiles, and we were on our way to the surface. Way out once again led through dark halls and stairways and up a few escalators
And then we were back in the street. Up there we were given scant five minutes to go and we frantically sought to fill them with as many photos taken as possible. On a spot which in any other capital in the world would pass off for what it in reality was - just a downtown street - and no one would pop an eyelid, we were suddenly seeing what we were all hungering for. Real people living their normal outdoors life. You couldn't call it a crowd by any standards, particularly not in terms of Beijing or Seoul where elbow space was a commodity in high demand. But people were there in fair numbers and we were all fascinated. Our guides tried to lay down the rules of not taking pictures of local people but only of ourselves. But try to tell it to a bunch of foreigners on their first visit to North Korea. And try to control them all. I guess they had known it was a futile task even before they had mentioned it
There was a glaring billboard right by the entrance showing a helmeted soldier and a bookish student, staring up into the sunshine with a look as if they had just seen a revelation, jointly waving a red flag with the yellow hammer-pen-and-sickle symbol of North Korean Workers' Party. We all clearly found the setting literally fantastic.
And down there, at the end of the street which opened up into a square, and where we were clearly not allowed to go, there was the only building in sight that didn't look like a box. It sported a hexagonal tower on top. I asked Mr Lee what it was.
"It's a railway station," he said.
And then it was time to go. Back in the bus, back each one of us in their seat, we were again hungrily looking at Pyongyang streets. And inevitably, there were more of those beautiful traffic girls. Cameras went on clicking.
"Don't take pictures of traffic girls!" Mr Lee warned again. Mrs Lee chimed with a warning of her own, too. Then Simon said:
"Don't take pictures of traffic girls now. You'll later have a chance."
"We'll be able to take pictures of traffic girls?" Mathew, who was sitting behind me, asked not quite believing what he had just heard, same as probably the rest of us.
But Simon confirmed:
"Yes, you'll be able to take pictures later. So don't do it now."
We had no reason as yet not to take him up on his word. And he certainly had no reason not to keep it. So the clicking stopped. Except that quite a few of us had already had a picture or two anyway.
The next stop was Mansu Hill. That's where we were again allowed to go out.
The weather was still kind of hazy and undecided which way it would tip, towards sunny or cloudy
Mansudae was obviously a representative spot, a place our guides were proud to show us. Basically it was a huge and spacious clearing, with a healthy number of grandiose buildings around, all in those no-nonsense utilitarian architectural style of soc-realism which would neatly fit on any city square between Warszawa and Vladivostok, provided the space, of course. But among them, as an odd man out, there was also one with numerous multi-levelled green roofs and those unmistakeable upturned eaves of East Asia. Just lest we forget where we were. I had no idea what that particular building was. I knew that this huge clearing was also a spot where two of Pyongyang's Buddhist temples, Sungnyongsa and Sunginsa, were located, but I didn't know if this was any of them. Nobody hinted we might go there, so they offered no information whatsoever. I could have asked, I guess. But we were all so thrilled by the fact that we were finally let off the leash, at least apparently, that we just wanted to indulge in our freedom. So we scattered and dispersed all over the place, to the extent we could - or dared, gawped at people who sometimes shyly glanced back but more often pretended like we were not even there, and took photos of everything in sight.
And I just inferred that Sungnyongsa and Sunginsa were indeed what I was seeing.
The place was immaculately kept and spotlessly clean with an artificial hillock to one side, decorated with some neatly clipped low hedges and dominated by a large mural depicting a portrait of the Great Leader. He was again flashing his trademark Colgate grin, framed by a wreath of white flowers, reassuringly watching over his flock.
And his flock was serenely enjoying the late morning, everyone dressed in their best, with a very high percentage of dark blue suits and ties on men and dark blue costumes on ladies. So, even the fashion style around here looked considerably less stuck up in a time warp than what little we'd been able to see up until then. And on the whole, I had to admit that this particular spot would measure up to any capital in the world and would even improve on what quite a few had to offer. Because the old Kim was not nearly the only thing you could see there.
One of the highlights, and most definitely the sight to see, was the Mansudae Fountain Park. Right behind it there was the Mansudae Art Theatre, a building completed more than thirty years before, which allegedly contained everything from stages to recording studios. As it seemed to be another place we were not going into, though, I could judge it from the outside only. And on the outside, it stood no chance next to the Mansudae Fountain Park.
Actually, the Fountain Park was built at the same time as the Art Theatre, as a part of entire complex. It was a composite of several fountains, the tallest one spewing water jets as high as 80 metres up, of an orderly growth of fir trees on grass parched by relentless Korean summer and of twenty eight white-marble dancers performing the carefully choreographed "Snow Falls" dance. People were strolling around, some were just sitting by the fountains, talking and looking at the water, and an odd loner would keep to himself, reading.
I asked Mr Sung to take a picture of me there. He duly obliged and then we slowly proceeded together in the direction where entire group was gradually headed. Wherever it was.
"Do you travel often?" he asked me.
"Yes," I said. "I like travelling."
"I see. And how many countries did you visit?"
That was a good question. Some people could give a straightforward answer to it. Most could, I guess. Not me. Some of the countries I visited were not independent when I visited them. They became that only later, after I had been there. Do you count them now? Or don't you?
"I don't know," I said. "More than forty."
That was close enough. But Mr Sung was not that interested in those that were bringing confusion into my tally anyway. His interest lay much closer to him.
"And you were in South Korea, too?"
"Yes. Eight times."
"Eight times?!" he was surprised. Well, anyone was, whoever was told. "Why so often?"
"I used to have a girlfriend there. And now I still have some good friends."
"So that's why you can read Korean?"
"Yes, that's why," I smiled. "I learned it with time."
"And? What is it like in South Korea?"
Now this was a slippery ground. Why did he ask that? Because he was genuinely interested to know? Or because he might really be a minder? Even a spy? So he was subtly fishing for an information on me? Or sizing me up? Like they maybe assess every western tourist coming in?
I suppose this is what being in a country like North Korea really brings about. This paranoia, fed by all sorts of stories and tales, probably spun out of proportion and maybe often beyond the real truth, dished out by foreigners who'd had an opportunity to visit here and blown bigger by western media. So you enter the country yourself and suddenly realise that what in any other place in the world would be a perfectly harmless question, here makes you think twice before answering because, hey, is there a hidden meaning there? An angle you may not be aware of?
I decided it was ridiculous. So I made a decision to take the question at its face value and treat Mr Sung as an average human being who was just naturally curious about what the southern half of his own country, currently out of bounds and off-limits for the likes of him, really looked like. After all, did I care if someone of our North Korean hosts checked me out indeed? Not really.
And yet, it was still a slippery ground, if for other reasons. Call them tact and politeness. Diplomacy, maybe. So I sought to avoid a clear-cut answer. Instead, I said:
"It's different. Different than here. I don't say it's better or worse. Just different. Besides, I like it here in the north so far, too."
Which was not an outright lie. I mean, it depended on what you had in mind. Few things they had shown us so far, then the hotel where we were staying, the bus we had, all that was fine. No complaints. What I clearly didn't like were those restrictions, both on our movements and taking pictures. Which evidently indicated they were hiding things. OK, those restrictions were no surprise, but you're just not accustomed to them even if you knew they would be coming. So, it really depended on what you had in mind when you were saying you were liking it.
"Yes, I do. Of course, I didn't see much so far, so I'll be able to tell you more in a few days."
He nodded and didn't say anything for a moment. I had a feeling he was musing on what I had just said. And I was eager to skip this subject. At least the comparison bit. So I hasted with my own question. It was a question everyone knew the answer to, a completely pointless thing to ask, but I needed a way out of this north-south thing. And I needed it on the spot. So I asked:
"And can North Koreans travel abroad?"
A perfectly stupid question, of course.
"Of course," he said.
Was I surprised? Yes and no. Probably no. Had I expected him to flatly deny existence in his own country of one of basic rights every human being possesses, a right to move freely? Not really. He wouldn't do that, no matter what reality on the ground was like. Not in front of me. So, still pursuing this inane line of conversation, just for the sake of good form, I continued:
"They can? Have you ever travelled abroad?"
Now, this was a surprise. It suddenly looked worth the trouble to press him on this one.
"Really? Where have you been?"
"Mozambique," he said.
"Oh. I see. As a tourist?"
I was wondering if this was stupid too. Who had ever heard of North Korean tourists? Even if it was Mozambique?
"No, my father was a doctor there."
It turned out his father had worked as a doctor there. Probably sent by North Korean authorities. And Mr Sung the elder had been able to take his family along for the stint. When our Mr Sung had been twelve. So it all indicated that he probably belonged to a privileged family. He didn't say as much, but it was easy to infer. How far those privileges extended, I had no way of knowing. But his father was a doctor. He was once abroad, which, at least according to what we in the west thought we knew, was next to impossible for most of people here. And now he had a job which regularly brought him in contact with foreign visitors. If that's not a privileged life in a country like North Korea, then what is?
So we chatted on, slowly walking all along. Just a few minutes later we came to one of the most famous monuments of North Korea, the one I had seen on pictures and in documentaries before. It was the bronze, reddish brown Mansudae Grand Monument to Kim Il Sung, who was with a grand and sweeping gesture of his right hand showing the way to his country and people for ages to come.
We stopped there and waited for everyone to gather. When everyone did, Simon took over:
"We are now going to pay our respects to Kim Il Sung. Everyone who comes here is expected to do that. It's usually done so that you lay flowers at his feet and bow in silence for a few moments. Of course, we don't need to all do that. As a group, it's enough if one person goes there with flowers. So I'll do it for all of us and you just stay back. Unless some among you feel a strong need to do it personally," he added in his by now characteristic way of a half-concealed tweak.
Some of us laughed, some giggled, some grinned. And no one stepped forward.
Serious again, Simon added:
"Don't make too much of it. Leave aside your ideological convictions, whatever they are. Just make it a sign of courtesy towards our hosts. We are on their territory, they expect us to do it and that's it. They are well aware that we have our own views and that's fine with them. So they respect ours, we respect theirs and that's it. If you have problems with it, keep in mind that it'd be a massive loss of face for them if you refused. And then who knows what else might happen to them just because you held to principles. So think twice before you do anything of the sort."
And so that's how it was. We formed a line, standing loosely shoulder to shoulder, and after an appropriate clip of ten or so seconds Simon stepped forward and went all the way towards the base of the monument. There he laid the flowers, bowed and returned to us. No one stepped out of the line, no one felt an urge to ideologically educate the locals and our hosts could now safely hope to see another day. A few seconds later, the ritual was over and we were free to roam the space around the monument.
Which, same as everywhere, mostly meant watching the locals. Bearing again in mind the fact that this was no China or South Korea, we had a fairly busy spot there on top of Mansudae. The fact is, everyone in Pyongyang is expected to come here on a day like this. Visiting the old Kim on some of the few select locations within the country is a sacred duty to every self-respecting citizen of the DPR, and there are few occasions that beat October 10th. Now, whether those are private citizens coming as a family, or a group of schoolchildren, all sporting red scarves around their necks, led by their teacher, or groups of grown-ups, probably belonging to same collectives and organisations, police or army personnel, they all at one point or another showed up there, climbing up the broad white stairs from somewhere downtown.
Or newlyweds. There was also this young couple, just married, escorted by two older people, maybe one side's parents. Both ladies were dressed in those colourful, very North Korean, long and bell-like dresses. The young guy had a smart, dark blue suit, white shirt and red tie on, all in line with national colours, while the older guy's outfit was a full military attire, together with this huge parachute-size cap. The ladies smiled with a proper measure and the guys squinted with proud and straight face in the direction of the Father of the Nation. They came looking for the blessing.
Mrs Lee told us they were newlyweds.
"Whoever gets married, they must come here to bow in front of the Monument to Mr Kim Il Sung," she explained.
It remained unclear, at least to me, how and when the blessing was bestowed, but the geezer must've found a way which escaped my attention. For at one point, the whole company swivelled on their heels, evidently satisfied that they had received what they had come for, and left the Mansudae.
But we stayed on. Just in right place to see a unit of uniformed ladies marching with determination and in tight formation up to the hill and the Monument. Four neat columns, all in sync, which for all we knew could be both police and army. Their uniforms in the colour of green-brown, their hair cropped in identical manner, I'd place my bets on the army. They marched right through, people moving aside, opening the passage like the Red Sea in front of the Jews, and stopped at the foot of the monument. Then they gave it a solemn salute and, never breaking the ranks, left.
After that, it was again just local citizens and our group. I asked Mr Lee to take a picture of me and Mr Kim in the background. Of course, he didn't expect any less of any of us. Taking into account all written and unwritten rules, binds and restrictions, he finally found a prefect position placing me between Mr Kim's feet and thus cut me down to size. But then again, why not? I was in North Korea, and it was Kim Il Sung's creation. Regardless of how long it'll last, right now it was only appropriate that he dominated the picture.
Anyway, this giant bronze statue of Kim Il Sung, erected in 1972, is in fact not all there is to the Grand Monument. It is flanked on either side by a jumbled double-row of workers, peasants, intellectuals and soldiers, many of them toting their respective tools, from fruit baskets to pick-axes to machine guns. And each of those double rows is split down the middle by a huge hammer-pen-and-sickle party flag. So the whole thing tells the story of war and revolutionary struggle under the leadership of the perfectly coiffed Mr Kim. And only as a whole does it convey the full message.
I sought to catch a sight of as many things off the scheduled list as possible from the Mansudae. But our hosts knew their job well and from up there there was really not much what you could do and see on your own. I went behind one of those huge flags, to the left and towards the edge of the paved area before and around the Grand Monument. What I could see was a view over the six-lane, but almost deserted Chilsongmun or Seven Stars Gate Street. And a huge, tall statue of a guy riding a winged horse off to my left. Down over the steep park-like slope of the Mansudae I could make out a handful of pedestrians and so few cars that you could number them with the fingers of one hand. And at least half of them were trolley-buses.
Maybe the most intriguing, and least explicable thing to see, was an odd loner, sitting half hidden on the hill slope lawn among the green bushes, each having a nylon bag at hand. I had no idea what they were doing on their own. And I couldn't see them properly from where I stood. I took a photo or two zooming them in, hoping that such a picture would later reveal something. It only added to mystery, instead. It seemed they were picking something in the grass. If so, then what? Maybe Mr Lee or Mr Sung could offer an explanation? You bet. Instead, Mr Sung popped up in sight from behind the flag and column of revolutionary heroes, obviously looking specifically for me, and motioned for me to return to the flock.
Soon afterwards, our visit to the Mansudae ended and we were led back to our bus. But we were aboard just a few minutes. Shortly, the bus pulled over again and we got out for the sight of the monumental Gaeseonmun or the Gate of Triumphal Return. Or the Arch of Triumph, as commonly known in English, at the very Chilsongmun Street. That thing, the Arch of Triumph was erected to commemorate the triumphal return home of Kim Il Sung after the achievement of national liberation from the Japanese. Wherever it was that he had returned from. They erected it on the allegedly exact spot where he had held his first speech after the twenty-year long anti-Japanese struggle. Hence two numbers on it, 1925 and 1945, to mark the beginning and the end of that struggle. The Gaeseonmun was unveiled in 1982, to coincide with his 70th birthday.
Whoever thought they had seen this thing before, they were kind of right. The structure was modelled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, only slightly larger than the original one, as things usually seemed to go in Pyongyang. This North Korean one was said to have dozens of rooms, balustrades, observation platforms and elevators. We were shown none of them. Instead, they just let us wander around, take pictures and that was all.
But in a way it was not all that bad. By the time it reached the Arch of Triumph, huge Chilsongmun Street grew to eight lanes. Four of them went straight through it, coming in and out of two vaulted, twenty-seven-metre high gateways, and the other four went around it, splitting two each on either side. In any capital of the world those eight lanes would be choking with traffic, car exhaust and noise of endless stream of vehicles. In Pyongyang, though, it became our first football pitch. When each one of us took all the photos we wanted, James took his ball out of his knapsack and we had our first few kicks right in front of the Arch of Triumph, with hardly any car in sight. Not far from the Arch of Triumph, maybe half a kilometre away, there was a clearing with a crowd of people and some noise. We were all more than curious to learn what was going on over there. But from what little we had experienced as of yet, where the local crowd was, we could not be. So a few of us settled for the next best thing - a few kicks smack in the middle of the Chilsongmun Street. Our hosts seemed a bit bemused. Mrs Lee laughed. And the only locals who could see us from up close were passengers in occasional city trolley buses, which ran down those lanes swinging around the Gate of Triumphal Return.
A trolley bus stop was there. So they had time to observe us the same way I imagine tourists on safaris observe animals from their vehicles. The only difference was the wildlife doesn't tote digital cameras and take pictures of tourists. Which is exactly what we did as soon as we realised the trolleys would stop close to where we were, full of locals gawking at a bunch of foreign loons. Eventually, some of us waved, some of locals smiled and that was all.
Other than the large open space with the not-too-distant crowd and noise, right next to the Arch of Triumph there was another huge sports stadium, this one being the Kim Il Sung Stadium. Had there not been for the May Day Stadium a few blocks away which was the biggest one in the world, this one would have given a good run for their money to the likes of Barcelona's Nou Camp and London's Wembley in the bid for the title of the biggest one on the planet. Because even if official capacity according to some western sources ran around seventy thousand, it was said to have taken in as many as one hundred thousand on occasions. Whether Pyongyang and North Korea really needed two behemoths like that back-to-back was, of course, another question. But such questions aside, they were both there and right now we could see another three-storey giant adorned with a few revolutionary murals of its own and several white-marble statues in ancient Greek style in front of it, lining the either side of the access to the stadium, each one of them depicting an athlete practicing a different sports discipline. There were a few passers-by basically just loitering around and a generous number of flagpoles flying red North Korean Workers' Party flags.
And then it was time for us to leave again.
Our next stop was a souvenir shop. Somewhere downtown, right at the corner of another large street intersection, it was a place where we were being given an opportunity to shop for some local souvenirs and keepsakes. However, the thing that really made this spot unique was the fact that sparse traffic on this very intersection was regulated by one of those gorgeous traffic girls. Simon and our Korean guides were making good on their promise. We could freely take pictures of the girls and no one was going to stop us.
Nobody went into the shop. Everyone jockeyed for the best camera position and much as it was fun to take pictures of the traffic girl, it was almost as much fun to watch the fourteen of us having fun of it. She was every bit as beautiful as any of them looked from the bus. Only, this one was better as we were given a free hand. Since traffic in Pyongyang, as obvious to any of us by now, was virtually non-existent, at least the kind of traffic as we knew it, even on four-laners as this one, we could freely go out on the carriageway, without any fear of being mashed flat as a fritter by a rolling vehicle. There were simply hardly any. Even pedestrians were just a few. But the girl was there, in full swing, performing her duty as expected of her, sternly directing any moving thing from any direction.
We were clearly all fascinated with her performance and she was apparently oblivious of our presence. Her movements were well-rehearsed and carefully choreographed, with a clear intention to convey authority over traffic participants. Locals hardly paid any attention to her, except for the minimum they had to, when she was allowing or disallowing them to cross the street. They showed much more interest in us, even if they pretended they didn't. On the face of it, those who found ourselves on our side of the street accorded us the same treatment as nearby trees and lamp-posts. But those on the other sides openly stared our way.
And then we were treated to an unexpected bonus. Out of somewhere another traffic girl materialised and in marching step trotted along to the white circle at the intersection, presently starting the ceremony of the shift change. The ceremony was brief, but elaborate and when it finished, the first girl was relieved of her duty, whereas the second one took over.
The first one marched right to our pavement and once she steeped on it, she eased her pace and went off in a normal walking fashion.
The girls were brilliant. If any of them were put on any congested intersection in the world, they would be instant celebrities, I am sure of that. Here I had no idea how much locals were aware of their charms and appeal. Particularly to us foreigners. We just couldn't take our eyes off of them.
Which was something that might impair local export. Souvenir sales, that is. So Mr Sung and Mr Lee strongly urged us to finally enter the shop. I didn't feel like buying any of local trinkets, except one or two keepsakes which I had promised friends back home. So with my interest rather lukewarm, I joined the rest of the group. And there was not much to see, either. OK, there might be some dippy appeal in just having a thing from North Korea back home, no matter what it is. But other than the value of material proof of being there, there was hardly any use in any of our lives for works of the Kim busters. Regardless of the language they were translated in. Monographs on Pyongyang in several languages were slightly better, their main asset some great pictures of assorted city landmarks. But then again, postcards could achieve the same. Also, there was a meagre collection of CDs containing local revolutionary music. Some people in our group expressed a trace of interest in them, but as far as I could tell, not nearly enough to buy any. I was not interested at all. Maybe the most interesting thing of all, generally speaking, were stamps. Their offer was the best and by far the most varied. However, I had last collected them as a kid and that was ages ago. Then a few more souvenirs, most notably flags of North Korea, and that was all.
And yet, I did buy myself something. Among this mostly useless jumble - even if in all fairness, souvenirs everywhere in the world are mostly a useless jumble - I discovered a booklet titled "A Sightseeing Guide to Korea" printed and published "on the order of the National Directorate of Tourism in DPRK". It contained a relatively handy map of downtown Pyongyang, and listed with accompanying pictures and short descriptions a lot of things to see in the country. Some of them, undoubtedly, were going to find themselves in our schedule over the next few days, too. So I took it.
And then went back out into the street to watch the new traffic girl.
On our side of the pavement, right at the street corner, there was a kind of sweets stall where even if apparently nothing was on display, you could buy yourself a candy or an ice-cream or a juice. Kids would stop by occasionally. And adults too. Simon got out and bought himself an ice-cream. Wishing to be a good sport, I asked Mr Sung if I could take a picture of it.
"No," he answered flatly and I regretted asking him in the first place. I didn't see any logic in his flat denial. Even if logic isn't exactly what you are looking for in a place like this. But what harm could there be in taking a picture of a harmless street corner sweets stall? I mean, it was there anyway. No one gave any signs of wishing to hide it from us. Simon was buying his ice-cream there and anyone else could if they wanted it. So in a way it didn't seem to be out of bounds for us. And yet, it was a simple no. Well, Mr Sung, I thought to myself, this is the last time I am asking you a permission for such a thing. From now on I first shoot and we talk later.
So I turned away from the stall and aimed my camera at exactly the same looking one, only across the street. And inexplicably enough, Mr Sung, who was right there, along with some people of our group and a bunch of kids who came to buy themselves some sweets, didn't say a thing. Then I pulled back ten metres or so and took a picture of the same stall I was officially refused. Mr Sung saw all that and again said nothing. Quite honestly, I couldn't get my head around it at all. But it only strengthened my conclusion that it really made no sense to ask. You just did what you decided to do and tested the boundaries as you go.
Then we were back in the hotel and up on the top floor and revolving restaurant for lunch and panorama of the city. By the time we got up there, the sky cleared completely and we finally had, for the first time since our arrival in North Korea, a fabulous sunny day. We took our seats and soon waitresses started flitting around us, bringing all those tiny but numerous dishes, some of them most of us seeing for the first time in our lives. None of them, of course, knew that I was a vegetarian. Same as none of them spoke English. So they just unloaded everything in front of me what others were getting, too. Of course, there was always Mrs Lee around in case we needed an interpreter. After all, that's why we had her. Also, it turned out that Simon, too, had a few Korean words up his sleeve. Not exactly as fluent as Chinese - at least his Chinese had seemed fluent to me back at the Beijing airport - but a few words nevertheless. Which should have come as no surprise considering the fact that he was more often in North Korea then in UK.
As he was sitting next to me, he was preparing to explain to the first waitress who would come around that I didn't consume meat and instead required a slightly different sort of diet. But I too wasn't exactly a novice when it came to things Korean, including the language. It is true, for all sorts of obvious and less obvious reasons, my Korean - never fluent and always merely spotty - had grown rusty. I always needed the help of English to get by in Korea, even at the heyday of my Korean study. But some things were bound to get stuck somewhere at the back of my mind. And I was sure I had known how to say "I don't eat meat" in Korean once upon a time. Now however, it just wouldn't come to the tip of my tongue. I started thinking feverishly. For some reason I wanted to have the phrase ready, if possible, by the time the waitress came back. Even if there'd be plenty of opportunities in the days to come if I would flunk this one. So one by one, I started searching in my mind for Korean words for I, eat and meat. With a lot of mental effort, even after several years of neglecting the language, miraculously I dug them out. Then I tried to remember how to form a negation. When the waitress finally arrived, Simon started to explain in stammering Korean that I was a vegetarian. She didn't quite get him. And then I said:
"Naneun gogireul meogji annaseyo."
She looked at me with surprise, stopped for a moment and then nodded. It seemed I'd hit it home.
Lunch - or every traditional looking meal in Korea, for that matter - is a spicy affair. Way too spicy for my liking. So I just picked through milder stuff, leaving the sharp things aside and practicing my chopstick use a bit more. Two weeks in Beijing had done me good to avoid embarrassing myself totally. Others at my table were less picky, so their lunch lasted longer. At some point I stood up to circle around the revolving restaurant for the full panorama of Pyongyang and then suddenly, and unexpectedly, heard a sound of piano. At first I thought they were playing us some music from hidden loudspeakers to add it all a touch of class and style. But no, it was not that. On the second listen I realised this was a bit below recording standards. Someone was simply playing the piano, and even if not at the studio level, certainly not that bad at all. I became curious both about who was playing and where the piano was. So I circled around the restaurant and sure enough - there it was. A small, upright piano, like they usually have them in smaller bars and restaurants all over the world.
But the real surprise came in the shape of piano player. On the piano chair, her legs not long enough for her feet to touch the floor, a tiny girl was sitting, her age six or seven at most, if at all, and played this piano better than some musicians I knew who aspired to go professional or at least record albums. The proud mother was leaning against the instrument and looking at her daughter with a broad smile. I came up and joined the immediate audience, doubling its number. Two or three tables down the restaurant a few Koreans were having their lunch. This was local elite, obviously.
I listened for a minute or two, while the little girl visibly stiffened and made sure to never look up my way. But it didn't impair her performance in the slightest. Her mother grew up an additional inch or two and her smile beamed a few lux brighter. And then the intrusive foreigner, i.e. me, decided to join in. The kid was playing a three-chord piece in C-major, so it was no problem to jump in in the lower key range and add some stomping rhythm on the spot. To the girl's credit, she never slipped out, never missed a beat. All the Koreans turned their heads in our direction, the mother was inflating like an air-balloon with pride and Mrs Lee materialised to check what the new noise in the restaurant was supposed to be.
And the little girl and I played the piece away.
"Can you play?" Mrs Lee asked me.
"Yes, I can," I answered.
"Are you a musician?"
"Yes, I am."
"Will you play us something?"
Of course, I had no intention to upstage the little girl and showing off there. I was sure the kid was far more interesting for everyone to watch then I would be. So I knew I would decline. But I had to do it in a way that wouldn't be offensive to anyone. At least that's how I saw it. I tried with a joke:
"Sure. How much would you pay?" I said and winked.
"Pay?" Mrs Lee was seeing my wink and smile, but the answer clearly confused her.
"Sure. Everything comes with a price. I paid you guys for all this in North Korea. Now you pay me back a bit for some music," I grinned.
She still didn't know what to say. And I left the piano, adding:
"Think about the price. I'll be there," I showed towards my chair.
Mrs Lee laughed, I winked again, Koreans waved, I waved back and then returned to my chair.
No payment offer ever came until the end of our lunch, so I didn't play the piano any more. When we were leaving the restaurant, in front of the elevator, one beautiful young waitress, smiling broadly - the first real smile meant for any of us foreigners that I saw from the locals - doorstopped me and said in broken English:
"Are you a musician?"
"I am," I nodded.
I told it to her, but she couldn't understand. So I took out one of my business cards and a pen, underlined it and said:
"This is my name."
She nodded vigorously, never letting go of her smile. I believed, maybe wrongly, that the fact that she was now directly talking to a foreigner was an adventure for her. Something to talk back home about. Or maybe not. After all, she was working in a hotel for foreigners so I was definitely not the first one she'd ever seen. It was most likely that she was keen on practicing her scanty English. Well, anyway, I offered her my business card and said:
She accepted it with a bow and a slight bend in her knees and asked:
"Will you come again?"
"I suppose so," I said a bit surprised. "We are staying here in the hotel, so I would guess we'll be back."
Not entirely sure she had caught the entire meaning of my last sentence, I entered the elevator. We said bye and waved to each other and I was on my way down. A kid on the piano, and a friendly, smiling and communicative North Korean, outside the circle of our guides, it was most certainly something that started putting a human face on this so far very reclusive society. I liked that.
Down in the bus, Mrs Lee informed us that our next station was going to be Moran Bong, or Moran Hill. There we would check another monument, this time one dedicated to North Korean-Chinese friendship - according to some unofficial Chinese sources, i.e. an allegedly well-informed PingPing's friend, or as other sources claimed, to Soviet soldiers who had died fighting for the liberation of Korean people from Japanese colonialism. None of our hosts seemed to be bothered to offer any details about it and clear this contradicting claims. Or maybe they had and I had just never heard them. Anyway, after that we were going take a stroll through the Moran Bong park. The whole thing was basically the same spot, or very near the spot where we had earlier seen the Arch of Triumph.
The bus soon pulled over at the foot of the hill, right by a stairway leading up. Mrs Lee gave us a sign to go out. People started leaving the bus. I asked her:
"Mrs Lee, how long shall we be?"
"Fifteen minutes, at most," she answered. I thought that since we'd be out only briefly, I might leave my small knapsack in the bus. What would I need it for fifteen minutes for anyway? I asked her if I could do it.
"Sure," she said and that's what I did.
We started up the hill and soon to our left, in the shade of one of the park trees, on unmowed, weed-like grass noticed a group of locals, sitting on blankets. There were pieces of clothing, hanging off the lowest branches above them and they were apparently picnicking. Most of them didn't look our way, too busy eating and drinking.
"People of Pyongyang very often come to Moran Bong park to have a picnic on national holidays and Sundays," Mrs Lee explained. "So today you will see many people here after they have first visited Grand Monument and bowed in front of Mr Kim Il Sung."
One or two locals passed in the opposite direction, going down from the hill and that was entire traffic we faced on our way up. In just a few minutes we reached the memorial. Maybe for no other reason than my own intuition, I am inclined to believe that those who claim the granite obelisk commemorates Soviet Red Army soldiers are right. But then again, I can read Korean and what I saw on it were three Korean syllables, transcribed as haebangtab. If that's a Liberation Monument, and it is, then there is reference neither to friendship nor to China. And just by chance, I happen to know words for both friendship and China in Korean. There were none of those up there.
The name of Pyongyang in literal translation allegedly means "flat country". The city does boast those two hills, Moran Bong and Mansudae, but in reality they are more like oversize mounds and nothing more. I'd bet that the top of our hotel was at a higher level than the summit of either of them. However, they are both good enough for some nice view of the city and on a suddenly beautiful and sunny day we had a thing or two to see. There was the Deadong river below and also the May Day Stadium. It was nice to see them from up above.
(continued in the next entry)