North Korea - Reflecting on a week spent travelling around the Hermit Kingdom
POSTED BY Ben Goodwin | February 2, 2015
Label: Adventure Travel, Asia, Competition
I made it across the border and after nearly 24 hours on a train, I'm back in Beijing - and back to a land where I can walk freely along the street, use the Internet and not be presented with spiced cabbage at every meal.
I really don't know where to begin. The last week has been one of the most strange of my entire life - totally eye-opening and thoroughly enjoyable, but very, very weird. It started the moment I stepped on to the plane in Beijing. Air Koryo, the national airline of North Korea - sorry, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea - is clearly a small outfit, as the air stewards on our flight were also the stars of the safety video. Furthermore, this video was set to a Casio keyboard (with Oriental keyboard function-turned-on) remix of Dreams by The Cranberries. The plane itself was a Tupolev and I think had seen better days flying under the Soviet Union.
Most of the week was spent in Pyongyang, the capital city of the DPRK. It is the size of Leeds - and looks a little bit like Leeds, with its endless rows of tower blocks and concrete delights. The first thing that struck me was the lack of advertising. There is only state-approved advert in North Korea and that is for a home-made car called Peace (we saw this only three times during out visit). However, where there is a lack of adverts, they make up for it in propaganda posters, which tower over the streets below crying out messages to encourage people to work harder, grow more crops and generally revel in the fact that their army is the strongest in the world and the enemy will be defeated etc. etc.!
In terms of interacting with locals, we were generally kept very separate and mostly had the run of most restaurants and museums we visited to ourselves. That said, there were opportunities for us to meet 'normal' North Koreans, though at times it felt staged. Although, we stumbled upon a group of people dancing in a park on National Day to some current hits (pop music there is like Eurovision classics from the 1970s) and I got involved, much to the crowd's enjoyment. Despite feeling like that annoying guy on YouTube who dances all around the world afterwards, it was a really touching moment that seemed to transcend our different beliefs and way of life. People we met did seem happy and healthy, but I had to keep reminding myself that we were spending most of our time in the capital city, where elite members of the Workers' Party of Korea are invited to live. Still, in Pyongyang, public transport is made up of mainly old vehicles from the former USSR and new buildings resemble something that would seem more at home in the UK some 30-odd years ago.
Anyways, there are literally so many things that I can tell you about North Korea that will amaze - and bore - you, but, for now, I'll give you a little tour through some of my highlights from my time in the DPRK.
Arirang Mass Games
No words can truly describe one of the most incredible things I have ever seen - 80,000 dancers and acrobats flanked by 20,000 students creating jaw-dropping mosaic patterns from little flipbooks performing to a stadium crowd, all accompanied to songs, fireworks and more synthetic fibres than you can shake a stick at. It's performed every summer for three or four nights a week and volunteers rehearse for up to six months beforehand. People in our group said the spectacle was worth the trip alone and I found it hard to disagree. Although highly political, the sights and sounds made hairs stand up on my neck and the scene at the end featuring most of the performers was breath-taking. If they could enter Eurovision, they would win for sure (and the half-time show would be the best ever). I mean, when you've got ballet dancers dressed as soldiers, what's not to love!?!
National Day Parade
Although we weren't allowed to see the main parade - with all the tanks and bombs and the likes - we did see the secondary parade through Pyongyang, which basically involved 9,000 soldiers (10% of the British army fact fans) driving past in trucks smiling and brandishing various weapons.
Mangyongdae Children's Palace
A huge complex for extra-curricular activities. Clearly there are some talented children in North Korea, but it felt somewhat staged as we passed from room to room seeing another group of child geniuses excelling in dance, art and music. There was a random room with children just typing too. The computers were very old. Afterwards, we were treated to a performance by the children singing about their love for the Kims.
Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)
During our trip we ventured inside the buffer zone between North and South Korea along the 38th Parallel. I thought it was going to be scary, and there was certainly lots of barbed wire and armed guards, but both sides have turned the area in to a tourist attraction. We did get to stare in to South Korea, but the guards on the other side seemed to be having a day off and there wasn't much happening there.
Everywhere in Pyongyang there were massive monuments praising the Kims and their ideologies, including the Arch of Triumph - which is just that little bit taller than the one in Paris.
There were more vehicles in Pyongyang than I thought, but certainly nothing that would rival a small town in the UK. Away from the capital, we would travel along four-lane highways and not see vehicles for miles. Most of the roads were poorly maintained apart from the Youth Hero Motorway, built recently by students and lasting for all of a couple of miles. It was the smoothest ride we had all week.
Although the food generally lacked in quality, it was made up in sheer quantity. Every meal would by a shower of meats (mostly fat), fish, rice, egg (I'd be happy not to see an egg for a while, actually), bracken (really), cucumber, cabbage, broth - and it would just keep coming in all its oily and fried forms. Plus, we'd be plied with local beers and spirits at every sitting. Needless to say, I'm currently enjoying a detox now I'm back in China. Although we did try some 'delicacies' and traditional dishes - dog soup, anyone? - we tended to get separate food to what our minders had and I think they were offering their interpretation of Western food at times. On the last day we were even taken to North Korean's only fried chicken restaurant. It was similar to KFC, although the coleslaw was clearly replaced by the spicy cabbage.
Article by Ben Goodwin