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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