The closed city of Pyongsong

Due to the aforementioned huge number of tourists in Pyongyang at the time, we were informed that all hotels in and around the capital were fully booked and we would have to stay in Pyongsong for the night. The city is about an hours drive NNE from Pyongyang and is closed to foreign tourists, so we were potentially the first tourists to have set foot in the city since before the Korean War (the only photos i’ve found online of the place are by Flickr user “Kernbeisser”, who visited twice in 2007, i’m unsure how/why). The city can be seen on Google Earth – it’s in a W-E valley and has the main road and river running down the centre. Our hotel was between the main square and the sports stadium:

http://maps.google.com/maps?ll=39.25,125.85&spn=0.1,0.1&t=h&q=39.25,125.85

The brilliant “North Korea Uncovered” plugin for Google Earth (stongly recommended – download from the North Korean Economy Watch blog) reveals there is a small palace and leadership compound within a few hundred metres of the road we used to enter Pyongsong, but not much else is labelled in the city.

By the time we arrived it was dark. On the drive in I caught a glimse of some activity happening down a couple of small side alleys – it looked like some kind of night market, perhaps people cooking/selling food on open air grills. The Kim Il Sung statue was brightly lit but we were whisked past everything and straight to the hotel, which seemed to be in a state of chaos: No fewer than 8 buses of tourists arrived that night, at a hotel which probably sees at most a handful of business travellers each week. The checkin took about an hour but the rooms were surprisingly good (well, apart from one of our group who ended up staying in a room with a “bad leak”/waterfall in the bathroom). Capitalism was back in action in Pyongsong. They clearly decided to take advantage of perhaps the only foreign tourists they’ll ever accomodate and charged a surprisingly high €1.50 per beer and €1 per small water bottle. This compares with typical charges elsewhere of €0.50-0.70 per beer and €0.20 per water. But hey, you can’t blame them!! We settled down for a good sleep after a couple of beers for tomorrow would be a big day: The 100th birthday of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung.

View from the hotel in Pyongsong: The light in the distance is from the Kim Il Sung statue in the main square

We were awoken at approx. 5.30am by loud martial music and announcements on the city-wide loudspeaker system. Our guide said this was to “inspire the people”. Sure enough, the streets outside were pretty full of people by 6.30-7am. Many of them seemed to be walking in the direction of the main square to pay their respects to the statue of Kim Il Sung, and most women were wearing their “Hanbok” national dress. After breakfast we were told we’d visit the main square to pay our respects, and furthermore there would be no problem with taking photos around the area. This surprised me greatly as i’d assumed we’d be whisked out of the closed city and back to Pyongyang with no further ado, especially considering our guide’s pretty strict attitude to photography earlier in the trip.

The 45 minutes we spent in the square was perhaps my favourite moment of the whole trip. There was a jovial party atmosphere and lots of kids were practicing small performances in groups all over the square for what was to come later. It’s fair to say that almost nobody in that square had encountered a westerner before – and people seemed much more shy and hesitant than in Pyongyang. We stayed more-or-less together as a group in the square and seemed to have a 5m exclusion zone around us. Some older ladies looked quite fearful, but kids being kids were soon running up to us in groups and saying “HELLO!!”. Some small North Korean girls even gave paper flowers to the female members of our group. Even when language is a total barrier, a smile goes a long way to convey good intent. As we enjoyed the atmosphere, some kind of concert performance was being set up in the square in front of the Kim Il Sung statue. It would have been brilliant to see it, but unfortunately we had an itinerary and our guides were getting nervous again. So we said goodbye to a city that may not see another tourist for many years, and boarded the bus back to Pyongyang.

In front of the Kim Il Sung statue in Pyongsong

 

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Myohyangsan and the Ostrich Farm

By the first morning, I feared that photography restrictions had become more strict since my last visit. In 2008 we were allowed to freely take photos from the bus while it was moving, but it had already been made clear this was now not allowed. On a short walk past Kim Il Sung square on the morning on the 13th, our lead guide Mr Zhou seemed nervous and stopped us from taking photos of the local people congregated for a large practise of the upcoming birthday celebrations. There were hundreds of women making bunches of pink flowers from wire and tissue paper – these are the bunches that form the coloured backdrop of the parades in Kim Il Sung square. I did manage to sneak one photo – a girl with her Mum, who was holding a package that the government supplied to all children in Pyongyang on the occasion of Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday. She will have been presented it in a ceremony nearby, just prior to this.

A girl holding her gift from the North Korean state

We travelled to Myohyangsan in the afternoon, a peaceful mountain area North of Pyongyang including the main attraction, The International Friendship Exhibition, a collection of gifts given to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I’d been to this before, but had only visited the Kim Jong Il hall. This time we were mainly shown the Kim Il Sung hall. “Hall” is actually a rather lacking way of describing it – both collections are housed in massive underground palaces with traditional Korean style facades, the hundreds of rooms and endless coridoors clad with polished marble. Gifts housed vary from the grand and large from fellow dictators to Kim Il Sung (bullet-proof cars from Stalin) to almost laughable gestures from European companies and trade unions to Kim Jong Il (a small model of Big Ben from a UK union).

On my 2008 trip we stopped for lunch at the Hyangsan Hotel, which at the time was tired and had a 1970s feel like most places in the country. However it was renovated in 2010 and now charges a crazy €250/night! After making it back to the free world (well… China) I read about this hotel online and it is apparantly the only hotel in North Korea which can provide internet access for foreign guests – presumably through a satellite link. We stayed at the nearby Chongchon Hotel which has a more interesting town-riverside location in any case.

On the way back South we visited an Ostrich Farm close to Pyongyang, apparantly set up on the orders of Kim Jong Il in the late 90s, towards the end of the famine that killed millions of North Koreans. It was a fairly bizzare addition to the tour! This article mentions the farm as a showcase and that it’s doing no good in helping the countries food shortage problems:
http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/asia-pacific/ostrich-alley-where-a-hungry-north-korea-sticks-its-head-in-the-sand#page1

Misconceptions about North Korea

Now for a little interlude…

Don’t worry, i’m not going to start a rant on how we should all be extolling the virtues of Juche and how North Korea is paradise on Earth – it’s anything but.

However I think the multitude of misconceptions about North Korea deserve a mention. I’m not going to list and debunk them all, but anyone interested in this country should know that most things you read should be taken with a pinch of salt and certainly not taken as gospel… and that’s including this travelogue!

There are of course the usual misconceptions – “How on earth did you get in??” etc. Which I don’t have a problem with. Then there’s the rumours spread by people who should probably know better, for example just before we landed in Pyongyang I heard a young man explaining to some shocked sounding Australians that the North Koreans WILL bug their phone while they’re in the country, and that they should get a new number after they leave. I wonder what his source was for this load of rubbish?!

Then there’s misconceptions arising from an understanding of how society functions in North Korea – depending on who you believe this ranges between the state providing absolutely everything you need, to mass starvation on the streets. My interpretation of the current state of affairs (from reading various up-to-date sources) is that around 30% of the population are provided with basic rations, while the rest of the people are required to look after themselves through private enterprise, backyard farming and trading on the black market. Before the early-90s the state provided everyone with their required rations, which was a major factor as to why so many people died in the famine when the governement could no longer provide: Nobody knew how to look after themselves. But I digress…

Perhaps one of the reasons for the mass of misinformation about the North is that people like to hear about weird places. The North is certainly a weird place but people can’t seem to help embellishing their stories to make it sound even stranger. One of the earliest blogs I read about a trip to the North (in 1998) was convinced that the Pyongyang Metro is a Potemkin-subway with only two stops and lots of actors. Something which is patently not true. Some people’s perceptions may be influenced by what they expect to encounter. The North Korean train carriages that we left the country on were pretty modern (with sealed windows and power points, i’d estimate less than 10 years old) and certainly didn’t look like they were from the 1950s as was suggested by someone on my tour.

Sorry for the rant – but to summarise, basically don’t believe what you’re told unless it’s backed up with evidence. There is a lot of material (from many different sources) on North Korea online if you are interested in researching further.

The Pyongyang Times

The days around 15th April 2012 were busy to an unprecedented scale in Pyongyang. It’s hard to understate the importance of the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung in the country. There were due to be thousands of tourists in the country at this time (this is a country that only caters for ~1500 western tourists per year), as well as many domestic and foreign dignitaries. Air Koryo usually provide around three flights a week between Pyongyang and Beijing – however on the day of our flight, 12th April, there were no fewer than five flights from Beijing to Pyongyang on the state carrier. I counted three Air Koryo planes from one window at Beijing airport T2. An unusual occurance!

I have a slight fear of flying, which is not helped by the fact that the old Tupolev Tu-154 we boarded is specifically blacklisted from EU airspace on safety concerns. However, flying Air Koryo is a great introduction to the country and a chance to catch up with the news from some fairly hilarious English language publications such as The Pyongyang Times and Korea Today. The Pyongyang Times is an 8 page newspaper, the first 5 pages of which were entirely about Kim Jong Il.

Our 15-strong group congrigated at the airport and we were introduced to our guides for the first time – Mr Zhou and Miss Hoh (and Mr Lee the driver). Mr Zhou is an English speaking guide and he explained that due to the large amount of tourists in the country, Miss Hoh would be joining us despite usually being a Chinese speaking guide. She was however keen to practise her basic English with us!

Our change of itinerary to the Ryanggang Hotel was welcomed by myself, as i’ve stayed in the Yanggakdo quite a lot now and am always up for new experiences! The Ryanggang is in the sports district of Pyongyang (built in the late 80’s, around the time that the North Koreans were hoping to share the ’88 olympics with Seoul). It’s not a great hotel, with very hard beds, but as with everything in North Korea it’s best to take it with good humour. Later in the trip I stayed on the 10th floor with a large balcony facing towards the city which gave excellent sunset and nighttime views of the river, monolithic apartment blocks and some of the iconic city centre buildings.

View from the Ryanggyang Hotel

We stayed at this hotel on three separate occasions during our two-week long trip. The most interesting part for me was seeing capitalism in action via the well-stocked bar on the ground floor! On our first night, a 640ml bottle of Ponghak beer was €0.40. By the second night this had increased to €0.50 and by our last short stay at this hotel the price was €0.70 for the same drink. A 75% increase in price in a matter of a week – now that’s inflation!! Such a process of guaging the value of a product through price, supply and demand might seem completely normal but it is striking in North Korea. This is a country which functions on an undercurrent of black market capitalism, yet officially claims to be a socialist paradise. With little access to up-to-date information from the outside world and relatively few visitors, the locals who work in the tourist industry probably do not have much concept of how much something like a bottle of beer is worth.

All media is under strict governement control in this country. All our hotels in North Korea had a TV, and so came our first chance to check out Korean Central Television, the state-run broadcaster. KCTV is a spectacle itself, and probably the most interesting and entertaining foreign TV channel i’ve watched, although not for the reasons you would normally tune into your favourite station! There are lots of rousing, nationalistic music videos and performances between various news reports about the leaders and announcements in a highly emotional and quite unique public speaking style. There is quite a lot of material on youtube (some with subtitles) if you are interested. The following new music video which praises Kim Jong Un was played many, many times while we were in the country:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ifhPzjsw6Q

In-flight entertainment on Air Koryo

A weekly English-language paper from Pyongyang