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.
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: