The (almost) last American in Pyongyang
August 30, 2007
Flight: Beijing to Pyongyang, Air Koryo 152
Hotel: Yaggakdo Hotel, Pyongyang
At last.. today I would be going to the hermit kingdom, North Korea! I’d wanted to go now for a few years since I’d heard about Koryo Tours trips, and DPRK had opened up the past few years to Americans, letting them in for the Mass Games. My wife and I were actually scheduled to go on their Mass Games trip last year when it was canceled due to flooding, I wanted to make another attempt this year. M. couldn’t make it this time and since their non-US citizen tours are cheaper (I am dual citizen US/UK), I signed up for one of the Mass Games tours using my UK passport. Tours to the DPRK are somewhat unpredictable; there had been flooding again this year but so far the Mass Games were still scheduled. The Mass Games are an amazing feat, 50,000 performers doing gymnastics and synchronized movement. One of the more amazing things is a human LCD; thousands of students flash colored cards in unison to make animated images. The Mass Games are held in their own special stadium holding over 100,000 people.
I had a quick breakfast this morning at the Super 8 before checking out and heading over to the KT office. I’d cut it a bit close, it took awhile to find an empty taxi and by the time I arrived at the office they were ready to leave. Our flight was scheduled to leave about noon and KT had a shuttle to take everyone to the airport. I left my US passport, laptop and Xian warrior statue at the office but kept my cell phone. I had met some of the group yesterday during the trip orientation, it seemed like a good group of people, all about my age. And quite a mix, they were 12 of us from Finland, Netherlands, Canada, Germany, France, England, Nepal, Malaysia and Australia! We got the bad news though that the Mass Games had just been canceled, we had missed the last performance by a single day! What a bummer!! But since we had visas and plane tickets the plan was to go to the airport anyway. As we pulled up to the terminal we saw the Air Koryo plane sitting at its gate. It was an Ilyushin-62 with 4 rear mounted engines and a tail wheel. I noticed the Business Class checkin counter for Air Koryo, seemingly out of place for an egalitarian society! Checkin went without a hitch though and we had our boarding passes for flight JS152, but unfortunately these were printed on Air China boarding passes. We had a few hours to kill now, even after clearing departure immigration. Some of us grabbed lunch at the cafeteria and bought last-minute booze and ciggies for the trip, who knew what we would be able to get once in NK?
At last, it was time to board our flight. The flight looked like it was going to be pretty empty; the gate area was mainly our group, another group of Japanese tourists and a few North Koreans. We boarded the plane to the sounds of patriotic music. We were offered an English copy of the Koryo Times, full of glowing references to accomplishments of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il. There were also articles on the recent flooding, and how the population was being mobilized to handle the emergency. The seats on the flight were green cloth with pink headrest. The overhead bins didn’t have doors, just open to the sides like on a bus. The window shares were huge pulldown darkened plastic, not the thin opaque ones like on other aircraft. The seats didn’t recline much, but the seatbacks flip forward almost to horizontal. We giggled a bit to ourselves at how it could be cool and kitschy at the same time. As we lined up on the runway, he quad-turbines spun up to a high-pitched whine and we started our takeoff roll, the IL-62 took quite awhile to get off the ground, and our climb out seemed to take forever! The flight was about 2 hrs, during which the flight attendants served drinks and a piece of cake. I am now a proud owner of an Air Koryo airsick bag, ‘for your refuses’. The flight was only about 1/5 full and towards the back were several boxes of UN food aid. One of the flight attendants came and talked with me for awhile, though her English was limited. But she told me that the Games had been canceled the night before. Damn, foiled two years in a row! One of the guys in our group knew some Korean and was talking with another passenger. Soon enough we began our descent to Pyongyang airport. We landed then taxied for quite some distance before arriving at the terminal, passing by several mothballed Air Koryo planes. Pyongyang is an hour ahead of Beijing, and late afternoon by this point. As we disembarked from the plane we saw ground workers spraying water on the plane’s brakes to cool them down!
Immigration was actually quite quick. We were all on a group visa, and did not get our passports stamped. There was a perfunctory search of our bags, but what took the longest was sealing up the cell phones. There were 12 of us in our group, and between us we had 13 cell phones and crackberries!! Each one had to be sealed up and given to our KT guide, we would get them back once we crossed back into China. Not that we’d have been able to use them anyway, I’d already noticed there wasn’t a signal. We stood around outside waiting for the packaging to be done, then got on our Korea International Travel Company bus for the ride into town. We met our local guide, Mr. Lee here. He would remain with us for the rest of our trip. It was quite a long drive into town past green fields of rice, it was what normally would be rush hour but the road was totally devoid of cars. Most tourists in NK follow the same itinerary, the first stop made when visiting Pyongyang is a visit to the oddly named Mansundae monument, a huge statue of Kim Il-Sung with outstretched arm. Proper respect must be shown here, bowing and placing flowers. We stopped at a nearby square to buy the flowers, then walked up the steps to the statue. It was already sunset and starting to get dark as we bowed and placed the flowers, I was chastised for having my hand in my pocket! Flanking the statue were two huge flaglike structures with patriotic statues of enthusiastic workers and soldiers. They all seemed angry and happy in a hurry to get somewhere nowhere in particular. Similar to one at Mao Zedong mausoleum in Tien An Men Square in Beijing, but bigger. North Korea is like the Texas of the communist world. All the monuments and statues have to be just a little bit bigger! There was a refreshing lack of western style advertising here.. though I guess there is advertising of another kind. We had noticed several propaganda slogan boards and monuments with mosaics of the Dear Leader.
After paying our respects, we head to our hotel, the Yanggakdo Hotel. This 44-story hotel is located on an island in the middle of the river, as a tourist it’s possible to walk around on the island, but not supposed to leave it without your guide. The hotel was quite nice inside, lots of marble and glass chandelier. They have a casino and bowling alley in the basement, and the top floor is a rotating restaurant. I can’t imagine it’s ever even close to being full! Our rooms were all on the highest floor, overlooking the city below. I was sharing a room with the German. I tried opening my window to get a better view of the city, in the process I managed to smash my fingernail quite badly and started bleeding. Nice! Can’t take me anywhere without injuring myself. Pyongyang was probably the darkest city I’d seen, there were streetlights but dim, most other buildings had dim fluorescent lights in windows and that was it. The room itself was fine, we even had a TV with the BBC. We headed down to dinner, our first meal in North Korea. It was quite nice, shaved cucumber, a bowl of rice, fish soup and the obligatory kim chee. The kim chee was quite good, not quite as spicy as I’m used to. And I’m sure this is not what the normal North Korean would get for dinner. After dinner we all headed for the hotel bar to drink a few beers and socialize. We tried some of the local beer, Ryongsong wasn’t bad for 70 euro cents!
August 31, 2007
Hotel: Hangyang Hotel, Mt. Myohang
Today was a busy day of touring. I woke up very early this morning to a gorgeous misty view out over the city. I noticed the Tower of Juche and Ryugyong hotel. The Ryugyong was hard to miss, this unfinished pyramid-shaped hotel dominates the skyline like a derelict spaceship. Originally it was going to be the tallest hotel in the world before construction was halted in the early 90’s when funding ran out. You name it, if it’s big and it’s concrete, North Korea has it. Patriotic music was blaring from a loudspeaker someplace. I headed down to the lobby and walked outside the hotel for a bit before heading to eat. Breakfast was toast and jam, with coffee and an omelet. We finally all get on the bus around 8:45 and head to our first stop, the USS Pueblo. This US navy ship was captured by the North Koreans in the late 1960s, allegedly for spying. The North Koreans claimed it was in their waters at the time. The Pueblo is moored in the Taedong river, next to it is displayed a US ‘spy’ submarine captured by the DPRK in 2001. The Pueblo is still pretty much in the same condition as it was in the 60’s, including typewriters, 1967 almanacs, ‘Top Secret’ ttys and other racks of communications equipment. The ship came under fire when it was taken, there are bullet holes marked all over the deck. The sailors were held captive for some time, being released after the US issued an ‘apology’. We sat through a film that was narrated by none other than Elmer Fudd (Westewen Impewiawists!). Our next stop was the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, documenting the DPRK version of events of the Korean War. Lots of rooms full of military equipment and news articles about the West. One room held a 360 degree diorama of one of the battles, painted background with model tanks and soldiers in the foreground, it made me dizzy as the diorama rotated around. The next place we visited was Kim Il-Sung’s secret base; during WWII and Korean war he conducted the affairs of state from several tunnels dug under the city.
Lunch was next, at a fondue style restaurant on the other side of the river. Again, good food and lots of it; there was kimchee, squid in a tasty sauce and raw meat which we cooked in hot oil. We had seen more people out today, walking around or riding on full buses or trams. Women wore traditional style dresses and men in worker jacket and pants. Everyone we saw had the Kim Il-Sung pin attached over their hearts. There are very few traffic lights in Pyongyang, instead what little traffic exists is directed by smart looking traffic girls. Crews on the street were both sexes. The whole place felt a lot like Beijing did on my first trip to China in 1988… empty roads, no Western companies. What a change in China since then! Our next visits were to an industrial museum, displaying North Korean industrial technology, then an art studio. The arts seem to be highly valued here, most of the embroidery and pottery we had seen was excellent quality and reasonably priced. Since we were going to miss the Mass Games, our guide had arranged for us to see the circus instead. We stopped at a park full of revolutionary statues again before heading to the circus performance. It was quite full, lots of soldiers and other North Koreans, this is the most people we’d seen so far. Not sure if everyone was there for our benefit or not though! The performance was quite good, there was water acrobatics like O in Vegas, there was a swimming pool under the ring floor. Other tumblers and trapeze artists made for a good show, but still quite a letdown compared to what the Mass Games would have been!
It was already quite late in the afternoon before we set out on our drive to Mt. Myohyang, in the interior of the country. The drive took a few hours, passing fields of corn and rice, again on completely empty 4-lane roads. One stretch was impressive, with the road on stilts following a river valley. We arrived at the Hangyang hotel, which looked right out of a 1970’s James Bond film, all pyramid shaped and concrete, and of course with a rotating restaurant. Even the rooms were a throwback to the 70s with rotary style phones! After dinner, several of us went out to sit on the lawn in front of the hotel, our guide joined us and we spent several hours sitting, chatting and drinking beer under the stars! Such a clear sky, no light or pollution meant the air was crystal clear. It was well after midnight before we all went to bed.