Trans Pacific Friendship Group Tour – DPRK October 6-12, 2015
October 6 Terminal 2
Leaving China this morning, the desk clerk at Saga Hostel in Beijing returns my deposit of RMB100, a treat da hongse de qian. She calls a cab and gives friendly service, directing the driver to take me to Terminal 2. Once we are out of the Shijia Hutong and up onto the freeway, I see smog has descended over the city. It is so thick the poplar trees we pass are tinged white. Jumbo jets are barely visible as they descend to land.
At baggage check, they remove my small can of turpentine, part of my paint kit. After stressing over the clog at check-in, so many people are coming to DPRK this week because of the holiday in China coinciding with the holiday in DPRK, I arrive at the gate only to wait there an hour.
I slip a ragged 10Y bill into a vending machine to get a cold drink. Sitting on one side of me is a North Korean businessman. He travels to China and has been to Africa once he tells me in competent English. His teeth have had some work resulting in a sweet smile. He is 40 years old and his son is 12. Han’s wife says to him, don’t drink sodas, they will make you fat. He is slim and healthy looking, and tells me he doesn’t smoke or drink.
On my other side is an Italian, Matteo, a university professor of social studies traveling to attend a six day conference in DPRK. He has been here 15 times and to other countries including Libya and had met Gaddafi. Another interesting person I met at baggage check is an Egyptian, Tarek Hassan, an IT professional who lives in Pyongyang and works on mobile communication installation.
Onboard joke: Sorry for the smell in the lavatory. It’s because of UN sanctions, and we hope it gets better in the future.
Dinner at the Koryo Hotel, where I meet up with the Canadians, is sliced cucumber salad, diced tofu with ginger, shoestring potatoes, tempura, half a beer, and chicken soup. By 9pm, gratefully and a little tipsy, I drop into bed. I open the casement window and breathe the cool night air. Tiny moths flutter and cling to the glass. I see the RR station about two blocks away. They’ve installed a large outdoor LED screen in the plaza running a cartoon of a fox and a bird. A distant loudspeaker emits a man’s speech followed by music.
Religion and Barbeque
SangWon valley is where I want to be Writer in Residence. It is in the north and is the location of Mt. Myohyang, 160km from Pyongyang. Here we visit the International Friendship Exhibition House, containing thousands of rare and marvelous gifts received by President Kim Il Sung, Leader Kim Jong Il and Marshal Kim Jong Un, a unique collection of culture from around the world.
Next we visit the Bohyon BuddhistTemple built in the 11th century. People are free to practice religion, as long as it fits into these four categories: Protestant or Catholic Christianity, Buddhism or Korean Taoism called Chondoism.
Here we picnic, Dulnori, on the bank of the Hyangsan Stream. Lindea inspects conglomerate rocks while David prowls for pictures to take of still water reflections. She is ecstatic to find gold flecks imbedded among the other minerals.
The guides and driver spread a large, red, silky cloth over the cobbles and sand. Out of boxes come a portable brazier with wok shaped cooking surface for the barbeque, Bulgogi. While strips of meat cook, pork, Doae ji gogi, lamb, Yang gogi and squid, Nakji, we snack on wraps, Ssam, of lettuce, Buru, bean paste, Gochu jang, and cucumber, Oi. More accompaniments are sushi, Kimbap, with wasabi in vinegar, Chojang, kimchee and cold noodle, Laeng myon. May 1 marks the first picnic of the year and October 10 the last picnic of the season. Chusok holiday or Harvest Moon Festival is the 15th day of the 8th lunar month.
Coming and going to this region, we pass fields of grains already harvested. Sheaves of maize, corn, are arranged in rows alternating with fields of stubble and golden rice. The appearance of the land, dotted with farm villages and buildings with bright blue tile roofs, undulating forested hills and silver rivers, is that of a Van Gogh painting.
Dinner tonight is fried chicken with sweet and spicy catsup, dumplings, spicy rice noodle, French fried potato, kimchee, cold noodle, beer, tea and juice. Whatever the situation used to be for folks here, food security has arrived.
Current stats ─ population
DPRK 20 million
ROK 40 million
+ Overseas 10 million = 70 million
Education is free and compulsory for grades through twelve. Parents can choose to send their children to a school near their home. After secondary graduation, young people may select to join the army—a glorious career the guide tells me—university or work. Most young men sign up for a four or five year stint following that with higher education which is still free. Top students can go to KimIlSung University and the others can go to arts and music or foreign language studies according to their own talent. Kim Ill Sung scholarships are distributed to top students who receive a monthly stipend. Whether students live in the city or in the rural areas, it is the same.
A new program has been instituted giving maternity leave to mothers beginning at two months before and continuing for six months after childbirth. Whereas the government encourages families to have many children, most young people want to have one or two.
In the residential neighborhoods, tall apartment buildings provide balconies for each flat. The ones facing south are crowded with plants: red geraniums, cactus, and other types both familiar and strange.
The Pyongyang subway was completed in three stages. The first stage was completed in September 1973. It comprises two lines of 18 stations and is located in the west Pyongyang district. It is roughly 100m deep and maintains a constant temperature of 18-19C. Every day the metro is used by 3-400,000 people and more than 600,000 people over holidays.
The pace of change is not disconcerting to people. The young ones love it, eagerly moving into their future. The old folks don’t miss the old days. The young leader, Marshall Kim Jong Un, built new rest homes for them to age with comfort and security.
The number of new private cars and taxis on the roads has increased since my first trip in December 2013. The economic sanctions do not restrict the importation of most goods. A new and modern airport, closer to the city and more convenient, has been constructed and the old one destroyed. More hydro-electric dams in the 10 megawatt size have been constructed on the rivers, providing consistent electricity. The people appear to have greater food security and their appearance is healthy, friendly and stylish in new clothing. These observations are in comparison to my first trip two years ago.
Bonsai, Dolphins and the Grand Parade
Early morning I take breakfast without the Canadians who are enjoying sleeping in for our late start of the day. The dining room is a buzz with guests who have arrived for the holiday of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers Party. Our waiter shoos a group of Asian guests from our table next to the buffet, later seating a pair of Korean officials wearing the red badge next to me. They stack their plates with food, smothering it all with a pile of lettuce leaves.
The first example of bonsai that I found was at the International Friendship Exhibition, a large, in-the-ground style. [In Chinese Lu Tian penjing style. See blog post from November 2011.] The next examples were part of exhibits at a flower show in the Kimilsungia&Kimjongilia Exhibition Hall. Inside and at the front, in a prominent spot, I see a potted bonsai Pinus parviflora which sends me into ecstasy. In Korean, bonsai is called Na mu [tree] hwa [flower] Bun. Although I rush past the elaborate display in the foyer crowded with many important guests mingling with tourists, I’m able to get a couple shots.
Inside the hall there are two levels of displays in twenty foot sections or stalls. Each exhibit utilizes the main flowers. ‘Kimjongila’ is an enormous tuberous begonia with a huge, red flower the size of a small cabbage, developed in Japan and given to the DPRK as a gift to their leader. The other flower featured in all the exhibits is a paphiopedilum orchid, developed in Indonesia, magenta with white spots on the petal tips and called ‘Kimilsungia’.
Each space is taken by a group, like a sports club, Taekwondo organization or corporation, whose members grow the plants in their own time and bring them together for this big show. Each group tries to outdo the others with additional plants like potted conifers, bamboo, tropical plants or scale models of monuments and sparkling LED lighting.
At one particularly impressive exhibit comprising the entire end of one level, I discover two Korean red pines, Pinus densiflora, so perfectly manicured they look artificial!! The red twigs shine as though wrapped in silk thread and the tips show pine cones of various stages of opening. One has a trunk 4-5cm diameter and the other a staggering 6cm. They’re potted in matching, decorated celadon green deep pots. Although I am jumping up and down over this discovery, no one seems to notice, and I can’t find anyone who knows about these trees. The important thing is that I found them, and that the ancient art of penjing, the Chinese term, transported through the Korean peninsula during the great culture transfer as Bunjin, translated as Na mu hwa Bun, has survived the Japanese occupation followed by the holocaust of the Korean War. Perhaps on a subsequent visit I will be able to meet their caregivers.
After visiting the flower show, we progress in the chilly, cloudy morning to the Dolphinarium, an aquarium featuring exhibits and aquatic life native to the peninsula. The exhibits demonstrate that many Korean fish follow the chain of fire across the Bering Sea to Alaska and on down the west coast of North America.
The show is fantastic featuring three live streaming LED screens, a troupe of trainers coming and going in costumes to music and of course the trained dolphins. Everyone I see is well dressed for the big celebration day. Behind me is a darling girl baby sitting between her upper echelon parents and decked out with a pearl necklace.
In the afternoon, the weather has improved, turning sunny and warmer and bringing us a change of schedule. We will now go to see the military parade after the ceremony and the young Marshall’s speech. We aren’t on the A list for the ceremony, but we can watch it on the huge LED screen at the plaza in front of the railway station with the locals.
While we mill around waiting for the ceremony to begin, Grace walks me across the boulevard to a hole in the wall shop on the corner. We press through the small door stacked on both sides with boxed inventory. Inside the shop is a plethora of goods, new clothes washers, flat screen TVs and CRTs, Casio, Acer and Dell laptops to name a few of the brands. Windows 10 runs on one screen. I see in glass cases phones, calculators and digital whatnot. Here I purchase a memory stick and pay RMB108, about $20, and squeeze through the customers to return to the plaza.
Lindea and Grace return to the hotel. David, Mr. Kim and I hustle toward the parade route. We find a good corner where they will have to make a turn. Serious looking men in black jackets and trousers and white shirts open at the throat, crowd control monitors, keeping the people, young, old and in between, from pressing forward into the street.
I’m disappointed that I arrive too late to get pictures of the 50s era tanks at the front of the parade. Chery can’t keep up with the men who run ahead. The crowd monitors see us, the only two foreigners, and don’t mind our cameras, even maneuvering us to a good vantage point where we can film the passing brigades without obstructing the people around us.
We blend with the crowd, waving and shouting enthusiastically, taking both still and video pictures. Some of the Koreans, including our guide Mr. Kim, hold up their phones to grab a shot of the passing regiments.
The Russian president, Putin, gifted five horses and their young generations which delight the crowd as the equestrian platoon, in white capes over their uniforms, prance toward us.
I hear a loud sound of heavy equipment approaching. The ground shakes as heavy trucks with big guns pass belching diesel fumes as they gun around the corner. The locals are waving their arms and shouting to the passing troops. It is exciting and leaves a strong impression on us as we walk back to the hotel in the increasing dusk.
Later that night, on the way to dinner, we’re stuck in traffic from people leaving the event, new cars of ordinary folks or diplomatic vehicles. You can tell by the color and shape of the license plate. It starts raining lightly. The drivers cluster in the street, smoking and talking, waiting for the crowds to disperse.
Dinner tonight follows an adrenaline letdown. We order Soju, and I have two shots with a glass of beer while Mr. Kim and the driver barbeque strips of lamb and squid on a circular grill in the center of the table. While we wait for the meat, we assemble wraps with lettuce and cucumber and toss back the mild liquor.
At 1AM, I’m awakened by a magnificent fireworks display not far from the hotel. I rush to paint the effect of black skyscrapers against the lights—a metaphor for the wild feeling still churning in me.
After a few days of drizzle and rain, I leave DPRK on a day breaking sunny with blue, blue sky. These people are so sweet and polite. I kiss on the cheek the guides, they seem in ways like my own son and daughter, turn and wave to them from the security check. Who knows the future, but it is bright for DPRK people.
The department manager Kim Wang Sun, we call the King, is 35, married and has a child. He signed up for two consecutive terms of service in the army before enrolling in Tourism College. Grace is fresh out of college, 22, and lives with her grandparents and parents. They work at the Korean International Taekwondo Tour Company. Anyone wishing for a look at this fascinating country, let me know. I will put you in touch with the Beijing Travel Agent who will take care of your visa and handle the tour for you on this end. Or email Mr. Mark Wang at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Life motto: See the people as the god, make good things for the people.
Magpie, Kkachi Saying: Archime kkachirul bomyon joun sosiji onda. You get good luck whenever you see magpie.
The squirrels, Da ram gee, are very cute here. They have two kinds. The large tree squirrels are about the same size as ours but dark brown with large round ears. The ground squirrels look nearly the same as ours, perhaps are more sleek and furtive than the North American variety.
MSG is Mad NaeGi. Everywhere I go, I learn how to ask, “Please, no MSG.”
The origin of hot pot is the soldier’s meal prepared in his helmet.
Greedy person is Yok seem jaeng i.
Tempura is Gamza twi gi.
Sorry Miya hamnida.
Yi Huir Jian
Thanks to Mr. Kim Wang Sun for editing for correct use of Korean words.