Departure Beijing to Pyongyang
Before leaving my hotel room to go to the airport for my 3-4 day trip to Pyongyang, DPRK, the housekeeper arrives. I explain my short absence and give her a piece of chocolate. Wheeling my tao hongsede, hot pink, bag out the front of the hotel, I see cars-- Mercedes, BMS, etc.-- squeezed in every which way. Police and hotel staff are standing every ten meters in fur hats and overcoats. Risers are set for a group photo beside the grotesque rock in the turn around. Someone important must be arriving this weekend for a conference, dadadada laoban.
After the Beijing Capital Airport Terminal 2 personnel have loaded numerous, huge, boxed parcels, they now start with the luggage. We're already late taking off. I can see my tao hongsede bag on the tarmac. A distinguished Norwegian man and I visit for several minutes. He shows me the DPRK page in his diplomatic passport. I end up sitting between him and a young German man. We chat between us for the hour trip. The Norwegian man, who remains nameless, is met by two ladies from the Swedish Embassy. 19:09 Beijing time, 8:10 Pyongyang time. Max is staying at the same hotel as I am, the Yanggakdo International. I'm on the fortieth floor. We eat dinner together in the mainly deserted dining room. It's a off season for tourism.
Maxamillian is 24 years old and is going to business school in Thailand. He's also going on an independent tour, but with another agency. The menu tonight is beer, kimchee soup, salad of shredded carrot, spinach and potato followed by noodle soup with chicken slivers and green oinion, mifan rice, fish filet, pork cutlet with pickles, baby potato fries and shui water. Vinegar and hot pepper flake seasoning is on the table. The beer is 6Y, $.98, EUR .5.
Early wake up call at 7am followed by fabulous western style breakfast: appetizer of cai green vegetables with sesame seeds, red shred and curly carrot garnish, glass of hot water, cup of delicious kaffei nai he tang, New Zealand butter, Austrian strawberry jam, square toast, buttermilk medallion size pancakes, omelet cooked in butter, and slightly sweetened yogurt. Piping hot. The shy waiter is named Pak.
I'm so relieved. The let down brings tears. This trip is starting out pretty good. Everyone is pleasant and smiling at Chery. On the plane, at the security check at the diminutive airport, the guards couldn't hold back from returning my smile. My two tour guides and driver met me at the airport. The hotel is very nice. My room is huge with lots of closet space, two thick, red wool blankets with a floral design plus the duvet. Forced air heat on a thermostat. Pretty warm, 20C / 68F in the room.
Today is dress up day, so I'm wearing the vintage, blue, North Beach Leather dress with three layers of longies, warm, too warm maybe! and heeled red boots. Leaving the hotel in the early morning, the freezing mist is lifting. Groups of people are on the road, chipping the black ice from the pavement by hand. Before visiting the Kumsusan, Gold Water Mountain Country, Memorial Palace of the Sun, we leave our coats, gloves, hats, everything, even coins in the pocket, in a cloakroom-- I can wear my watch-- before passing through metal detector choke points. The two deceased leaders are laid out in glass cases in almost identical rooms under gloomy red lights. We bow on three sides in groups of four after passing through a series of rooms and corridors faced in polished stone and decorated with stucco moldings, hung with ornamental, crystal chandeliers simulating fireworks. In front of us most of the way are two humorless Russian diplomats, writing their impressions in a book as we pass a state room on the way out.
Large groups, regiments perhaps, of young, twentyish soldiers-- a few girls with smart boots with bows on the side, a few older men with colored ribbons on their uniform-- are visiting the mausoleum with us. I'm getting lots of stares, being the tall woman in the blue dress. They're not used to seeing an American. I look European anyway. My guide is trembling with cold in her stylish dress by the time we pass along the mile long moving sidewalk back to the heated cloakroom. We press together, I grip her ice cold hands in my warm ones.
Afterward, I stroll along the Dandong riverside promenade in the sparkling sun, slightly hazy from evaporating melting snow. It's warm 13C / 55F. The guide, who smokes every chance he gets, has a pack a day habit. While walking arm in arm, it's slippery on the frozen ice covering the stone pavement, we discuss current events in the relative privacy of the open air. He had not heard that China's economy had slowed to 7% growth; he thought it was still booming. I mention the US Federal Reserve had just tightened the monetary policy on Thursday. We compare school experiences. His high school class of 25 was in a class of 5 groups of 25 per grade level, about 1200 in all. He studied Russian at Kim Hyong Jik University of Teaching. After graduating, he taught for a year before transitioning to tourism, getting one year of English training at the School of International Relations and another year at the Foreign Language University in Pyongyang.
The female guide has a masters degree in finance from Stamford International University in Thailand, part of the prestigious ASEAN group. This tourism gig is a good job for these middle class Koreans. Still, they work long hours every day with the tours. Her young daughter sees her mother only a few times a week, although they talk on the phone frequently. Yes, these people have cell phones which they use just like Chinese or Americans or anyone, staying in touch with colleagues and family. The guides stay at the same hotel as I do. She says her daughter misses her and wants chocolate. I haven't chocolate with me, but I brought a package of cute hair clips like butterflies for a gift. Her parents watch the baby. The other guide's twenty one year old daughter is getting married over New Years and works in the Social Security department. She has a laptop which she carries back and forth to work. They wear the red pins, flag or the face of dear leaders.
We walk up a long array of stone stairs at the Revolutionary Martyr's Cemetery honoring the Korean soldiers who fought the Japanese Imperialists who had colonized their country for forty years. At the top is a statue of the mother of the leader. Her birthdate is almost the same as my mother's, December 1917. The date of liberation is August 15, 1945.
The bookstore/gift shop is overpriced. I get a small booklet Echoes of the Korean War, map of Korea, the Pyongyang Times and three small pins for $19 or 116Y. I've got fifty dollars in ones to use, in addition to lots of yuan, but I'm finding this is out of date. Inflation has hit Pyongyang. The two-tier pricing system of one price for locals and one price for tourists hits the pocketbook hard. I imagined a couple of US dollars here and there, I think I read this somewhere before the trip. The reality is that the really beautiful posters and handicrafts cost a lot, and then there's rooms of tea and ginseng and so on. If I purchase something at every gift shop at every monument and also have a drink at the hotel later, I will quickly run out of cash. No ATM! I point this out to the guides, that if I spend all my yuan on nick nacks, I won't have anything for their tip (at least 50Y per guide and driver per day) at the end. This brings some discussion followed by laughter. They stop trying to get the stingy American to buy buy buy.
At hot pot lunch chongol, I share post cards of Dunsmuir and stories of the mountain lion and bears. They seem to really like the pictures of Hedge Creek Falls in summer with water and the frozen image from a few weeks ago.
My guide explains the way to cook hot pot. First add meat to the small, individual kettle of boiling broth fitted over a matching individual, flaming brazier. Add shredded veggies-- Chinese cabbage, potato, onion, carrot-- parsley, rice noodle, green pepper, bean sprouts and tofu. Egg goes in last and the whole is covered with a lid. When it starts bubbling and steaming, it's ready. The guide lifts the kettle onto the table. Somehow nothing burns or melts. He puts out the flame with the butt end of the cold beer bottle. Accompanying this pot is a salad Oi raengche of chicken slivers with sliced cucumber in a mustard viniagrette and finely slivered fried egg; fried fish Mulkogi Tuigu; Korean style KFC Dak Twuigi; tempura Dembwa; rice pap; kimchee and sliced oranges gyul.
The afternoon gets cut a little short when an exhibit hall is unexpectedly locked. My guide and I return to the parked mini bus, catching the guide and driver snoozing in the sun coming through the front windshield. Everyone laughs.
We zoom by the old parents' farmhouse and back to the hotel, passing eye-catching posters of red camellias called Kimjongilia.
Time for a nap and a swim in the basement spa, 30Y or $4.90. They have a basket of bathing suits. The spa attendant finds one for me, although we have to make adjustments. Chinese men I recognize from the mausoleum are lounging in chairs at the deep end. So I just wade in and complete 5/10 laps, climb out and head back to the women's side where women are sitting on small buckets, scrubbing and splashing themselves in hot water, or spraying themselves with a hand held nozzle. Who are these women? They steal shy stares at the big, white woman stripping naked in the steamy room. We are separated by low mirrors, so it's open and private at the same time. From a shampoo dispenser, I get what's needed to wash my hair. They have great hair conditioner. I dress up again in the blue dress for dinner at the Taedonggang Diplomatic Club.
On the way, we stop for a short stroll around the Juche Tower, a little like the Washington Monument, obelisk style, surmounted by a red, flaming light.
It's beautiful there next to the river, the lighted buildings on the other side glowing and reflecting on the water. At the Diplomatic Club, the small, clubby dining room overlooks a huge pool with people swimming below. Some lucky folks down there. The guide orders Taedong River beer and a bottle of the Korean baijiu, 25% alcohol, called So Ju Sul made from maize and glutinous rice. It's not too strong, good with a little tea dribbled in, and didn't give me a headache in the morning!
Breakfast starts with potato salad with pineapple and cherry garnish, mung beans with chopped egg and does an excellent job of waking up my stomach and taste buds. The guide visits me over my second cup of kaffei hui nai he tang, giving me an opportunity to ask him about his background. Then he asks me, why is China's economy slowing down, weishenme? I give it a shot, explaining about the car manufacturers sending factories to China, going bankrupt and laying off thousands and thousands of American workers. The cascade effect of laid off workers curtailing their purchasing of made in China goods, followed by the real estate bubble bursting and the bankruptcy of large banks requiring bailing out by the government. And no, the US government is not in any trouble with money. This caused the Chinese and European economies to contract, laying off workers worldwide, as countries and currencies strive to find balance.
The guide says they haven't got lawyers in DPRK. I tell him we have too many! And China also has too few for the numerous contracts required between Asian and foreign entities wanting to do business together. They need lawyers here, I tell him, if they will forge fair and equal agreements between themselves and others in the future, good advisers who will have the Korean people's benefit in mind while negotiating and hammering out the differences. Otherwise they will be screwed. I ask him, you know this term screwed? He nods yes.
The driver has warmed up the mini bus and we head out for my last day here. It's a bright morning. I buy some flowers, yellow chrysanthemums and one red rose grown under glass this time of year, wrapped in patterned cellophane, from one of several kiosks near the memorial Mansudae Grand Monument. The flower laying and bowing ceremony is a respectful, somewhat personal and informal, ritual, easy to follow the coaching from my guide who is freezing out of respect, not wearing the ear muffs I gave her this morning in the car.
I replace my warm, fur hat and we walk around the corner and get a good look at a monumental bronze sculpture of the mythical horse Chollima on a tall obelisk, a modern legend created in the 50s to spur the development of the steel industry. This horse, symbolizing the Korean people, can cover 1,000 ri in 1 space, she tells me. 400km equals 1,000 ri or 10 ri to 4km. On the grounds, I spy a nicely sculpted evergreen conifer, I'm guessing here something like Tsuga koreana. The fat, twisted trunks are exposed and carry wide pads of trimmed foliage. I'm on the lookout for Korean penjing. This art form is not known by my guides. I hadn't brought any pictures. I try explaining with sketches in the back of my notebook. The guide promises to find for me if it is possible.
In the parking lot on the way out, I spy a row of new cars-- Mercedes, BMW, Nissan, VW. The driver informs us that it costs about EUR 16,000 or $21,000 or RMB 128,405 to buy a new Korean manufacture car here, the Pyeoghwa Motors 'Whistle.' The guide concurs that private citizens can buy cars, and there is no limit to the number of Pyongyang license plates one person can have. They haven't a traffic problem here, yet, although there is such a thing as rush hour. She tells me these cars are probably owned by companies, whatever that means, who have fleets for their VIPS.
Bulletin for international travelers
Myths about DPRK
- Foreigners and Americans CAN BUY 3G sim card ($200 or 1223Y) at the Pyongyang airport, it's expensive but possible, and make international calls or send Instragram photos. I decided to save my cash for something more worthwhile. It's not functional once you leave DPRK, so for a two day trip it seems excessive.
- Does the US discourage tourists from visiting DPRK? I went to the US Embassy website and scoured it for this myth. Although there are warnings for things like religious and anti government actions and they pile on the scary penalties and things that have happened to a FEW American tourists, I DIDN'T find any discouragement for the average visitor like myself who has no plan to subvert anything.
- It is NOT TRUE that visitors are driven through an orchestrated route while traveling in Pyongyang. Naturally the driver takes the most direct route along best-- think wide and fast without potholes-- boulevards. People are not strategically standing around looking like props. There are crowds of people coming and going from work, children coming and going to school, playing, shopping. Just like anywhere else. The traffic control gals and guys are dressed in their winter gear, smart looking teal blue short jackets with fur collar with matching pants. They don't stand around in a mime on an empty street. They are busy directing the bicycles, carts, buses, people and cars at busy intersections where streets converge in a circle or star shape. They have traffic lights, but they are sometimes hard to locate while moving along at the speed of traffic.
- It is TRUE, tourists are not allowed to photograph military personnel or vehicles.
- NO ONE looked at or cared about or deleted the pictures on my two cameras or phone. No one at the airport at entry or exit requested me to open my TSA lock and look inside. My bags and person were not molested. Just the normal security check we are all accustomed to everywhere. Even more lax than in China. We in the US are the most anal in our checking domestically or internationally.
This is a treat-- room after room of exhibits and artifacts. The main deal for the Koreans was the electrification of their entire line and conversion from narrow gauge to standard gauge in the 50s, shown in numerous fantastically detailed dioramas and panoramas.
Just about everywhere we go, we get a local tour guide who speaks in Korean which the guide translates, probably by heart, into English for me. No different here. Our local guide wears her official uniform under her wool overcoat but won't show me, saying it's too cold to take off the coat. Maybe a little modest also. I can see her white shirt collar under the black fur collar of her coat and the tip of a tie. We spend extra time here discussing terms like boxcar, freight car, passenger car, gondola, engineer, conductor, brakeman, maintenance of way, hand car, and speeder. I didn't see any photographs or models of turntables and likewise almost no signals. I suppose they don't need turntables, this is something that spurred a lengthy conversation between the tour guides and the local guide. This might be because they have push/pull style electromotive engines which can go in either direction.
I see a cute, old fashioned coal shovel from the steam era in a glass case with a chrome ball peen style hammer. The shovel has a split wood handle, just like the antique SP (Southern Pacific) coal shovel I have in my garden shed at home. I'm apologizing for the poor quality of my photos here. I completely forgot to switch to my phone camera which takes better indoor pictures in low light.
At lunch, we joke around and make up a story of the handsome Korean spy, our driver, who rescues the American tourist being chased by Russians. The video entertainment on the stage prompts them to start singing along softly in their tuneful voices. What role for the beautiful Korean woman and the nice man who doesn't smile? I'll have to think about that one. The driver strikes a natural Marlon Brando pose while smoking at an adjacent table. I got this whole scenario on my Flip camera. Sometime in the future, my DPRK videos will be available after my return to California. Stay tuned.
We next visit the Mansudae Art Studio, the Pyongyang version of the Beijing 798 Art District. While waiting for our local guide, Mr. Chao and I drift over to a stadium on the art studio premises and watch a soccer game, the teams made up of artisans. I can hear a stamp mill in the background somewhere. This district is where all the sculptures-- with a miraculous non-tarnish finish, mosaic murals, ceramics, needlework and watercolor and oil paintings are created. The fortunate artisans are selected early in life to attend the art academy before working here. I also have videos of these studios.
The watercolor brush painting style is called Chosun hua. We visit a nicely heated, spacious studio with ample floor to ceiling windows across the south side and large enough to hold two complete painting setups. The artist is Mr. Mun Jong Ung. He is an elderly gentleman with a merry, smiling face. He is completing mural sized works on paper in black and color in the traditional brush style of landscape, water, clouds, trees for a one-man show at the Beijing 798 in January. Sadly I will be gone by then. We visit another studio, similarly arranged, of an oil painting U hua artist, a younger man named Mr. Kim Jong Gun. He is putting the final touches on a mural sized work on canvas of a beach in the southern part of Korea with craggy cliffs and gorgeous, transparent waves crashing, sea gulls wheeling in the blue sky with receding puffy white clouds. Made me think of the Laguna Beach artists from the 20s.
The tour guide and I descend the Pyongyang Metro and travel through six stations. The older technology tracks and cars carry commuters in relative comfort throughout the city. The walls are all decorated with meticulous mosaics, created at the Art Studio. In the center are newspaper readers set up for the convenience of the riders who manage to read in the low light while waiting for the next train. I have a video of this also.
The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
The last place on our itinerary is the military museum. This is very emotional for me for some reason. We wait a long time in the late afternoon sun in front of the huge gates for our local guide, a military gal in uniform. The parking lot is full of activity-- large, new buses of army folks, some looking high ranking, coming and going in regiments or small groups. No pictures allowed! By now this rule has been accidentally broken by me numerous times. My guides are somewhere doing things, leaving me alone to try taking pictures of the highly ornamented gate without getting a soldier in the frame.
Once the tour gets underway, we walk about a mile past an outdoor exhibit of captured tanks, helicopters, guns and so on, arranged side by side by country. Beyond that, the Pueblo is moored. The shrapnel and bullet holes are clearly marked. I can't see that it had received much shelling. The local guide points out some antennas on top of the bridge are missing, but I can't see much damage.
I've been interested in the Pueblo incident since I first knew of it a couple years ago. In 1968, at the height of the Viet Nam War hysteria, we sent a small ship filled with the latest in techno spy gear into Korean waters and managed to get caught. The 83 crewmen, officers and captain were held captive for almost a year, suffering gruesomely, before our government signed a paper to get them home. Captain Bucher was dishonorably discharged for not resisting the capture of his ship-- which would have left a lot of dead sailors-- he fought against this in court and lost. The captain's career was ruined, leaving him and his officers broken men. The whole story is a very strange and sad chapter of our paranoid history, buried and covered up. The captain's book is available on Amazon.com.
Inside, I watch and film a ten-minute video of the incident with a lot of good newsreel footage of the captain and his officers, also the various diplomatic exchanges, President Johnson and Major General USA Gilbert Woodward signing the document. Next we tour the first level: the galley and mess hall, really tiny, crypto room, radio room, captain's quarters. I can take pictures of any of this. Again, I forget to use my phone camera, so I am apologizing for the poor quality of the images, but I am including them anyway.
We leave the ship and enter the museum proper, no pictures allowed here. They've arranged fantastic exhibits of their defensive wars against the Japanese and against the Americans. The first floor shows the modern 50s war. We won't have enough time to visit upstairs where the struggle against the Japanese is featured. The gruesome reality of the suffering of war and the asymmetrical nature of the struggle, living in tunnels and shooting at our bombers with machine guns attached to apparatus to turn them as their only defense. Four million of Koreans in the north died compared to one and a half million of the Koreans in the south and allied fighters.
The last exhibit starts serenely enough. We sit on padded benches as the center revolves the 360-degree panorama of a big battle in the south near Seoul which they won after only three days commencing the war. Things were going good for them at first. They penetrated into the south, hemming in our forces. An allied attack near Incheon turn things against them, but they held off the main thrust for 14 days until they could beat a retreat. After three years of pounding an armistice was reached.
The passing scenes, updated with modern visual and audio effects of explosions projected onto the amazingly detailed and lifelike mural and foreground scenes, slide by slowly while the guide asks me eager questions in the privacy of the gigantic theater where we are alone and our voices are submerged under the programmed racket. She asks about us and our current anti-war sentiment in the west. She points out, what about Afghanistan and Iraq? Good points. I can't explain that even to myself. Why do we keep fighting and blowing up things and people? I start remembering the Viet Nam conflict and my cousin Marshall and all the boxes of our boys coming home and the horrid images of villagers running in flames of napalm. Honestly, I started crying. STOP THIS FIGHTING!!!!! The people don't want ANY MORE DEAD OR MANGLED BOYS AND GIRLS, maimed and destroyed lives and their grieving families.
She takes me downstairs. We hug in the elevator and wish good luck to our respective country's efforts to stop the aggression and fear and move on with peace and prosperity. I can't help but point out that if women were running things, things would be going differently. Let's get more women into the top ranks of the military on all sides. We can be tough and kick ass, but we don't have to prove ours is bigger than their's.
After the wrenching farewell to my Korean friends-- hugging, kissing and crying-- it brings hot tears to my cheeks just remembering, and the uneventful passage through the security checkpoint, I wander around the waiting area, trying to keep warm. I meet a Syrian diplomat, like me, waiting to go out. He says, "We don't know how it started," referring to the ongoing conflict in his own country. "Can't stop it!"
I see a European woman. She's French and lives in Pyongyang as a humanitarian worker. As a conversation starter, she shares that there are many spies here. Mentally filing that away for later rumination, I tell her I've been curious about all the smokers and ask what's the leading cause of death. She says alcoholism and smoking for the men. At the hospital where she works, she sees frost bite this time of year so severe it results in death. Aids is mainly in the north border area where Korean women travel back and forth for the prostitution industry. A lousy side of trafficking. She says the disease doesn't seem to be spreading because there is little population mobility.
She observes the same as I have, that the Korean people seem happy and are industrious. On the street or in the subway, they are dressed warmly in coats or padded pants. Their shoes could be better. Even though it's winter, many go around without hats, like my tour guides. Perhaps a scarf wrapped around the head or the occasional ear muff. Everyone has somewhere to go-- no loitering on the street corner in this weather. About prostitution, she says at my hotel, in the basement casino and karaoke bar, is a thriving business... and the massage spa. What a shock! If I had ordered a prostitute for 220Y or $35.98 cost of a massage to come to my room for an hour! I have to admit, it's very low key. The Chinese businessmen keep to themselves. There is nothing overt about the activity. She says there are a few male prostitutes. (Addendum: The basement concession is run by a separate entity from Macau, not part of the Yanggakdo Hotel group. The spa women are probably available at a higher rate than a simple massage.)
On the plane, I fall into deep reflection. I'm thinking, one hundred years ago, in the region where I now live in extreme northern California-- in the mountains north of Redding, near Mt. Shasta and close to the Oregon border-- life in the mining camps was even more primitive than the way people are now living in Pyongyang. When I first arrived in Dunsmuir, I met an old woman named Pat Girard. She told me stories of growing up as a child in one of the camps in the Trinity Alps. Her mother and she had a barrel of sauerkraut, our European version of kimchee, and a sack of dried beans to eat all winter. They lived in a rough canvas tent in the snow. Back then, people lived in harsh conditions. They worked hard everyday. Many lost lives or limbs in accidents cutting trees or working near steam boilers or in childbirth. Settlers acted with aggression toward the native people. Others froze or were hungry. Yet we remember this period of development and struggle fondly: the settling of the west, manifest destiny, the wild west, the good 'ole days, Railroad Days festivals. Our country, America, was young then, only a couple hundred years old.
When developing countries in other parts of the world, also young by the date of their constitution, less than one hundred years: DPRK, ROK, PRC, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Israel to name a few, mark their anniversaries about 60 to 90 years. We regard their early period with criticism. Weishenme? Without getting into the politics of the red scare, 'rather be dead than red,' etc, can we remember our own country's struggle against British colonialism/imperialism? Yet now we are stout allies and friends, barely remembering the enmity, violence and aggression out of which our young country emerged.
It's always hard listening to the other guy's point of view. More so with hearing the Koreans here in DPRK. Although we Americans know very little about these people and their history-- the Korean War in the 50s, what our role was in the conflict and why we took sides-- the small amount of information has colored our view of this country and the people who live here.
I know I'm risking the wrath of the hateful internet trolls who want a bomb to fall on my head because I came here. (Not kidding. I attracted their attention already a few weeks ago.) I'm portraying my visit as faithfully as I can. Some folks will be upset that their cherished misconceptions won't be repeated here.
The patriotic entertainment on the onboard screens-- sweet, sentimental singing over dramatic landscape shots of crashing waves, sunsets, trees, mountains, mist-- is not obtrusive.
It's easy to make quick comparisons or draw fast conclusions. Was I played? Probably. The sequence of the itinerary leading up to the dramatic ending, the sentimental denouement on the plane aside. It's good staging, but they have an uphill trek to attract attention of visitors and focus it on their message... softer and more effective than dropping bombs.
Hou tou jian
Final messages to America from the guides.
I warmly welcome you to visit our country, special customer from United States. On this occasion, I think you had much experience of this country than ever before. The country which is not well known to the world. Proving that to me. You may have either good experience or bad one! Whatever it would be, I hope you'll have good memory. If you go home, I wish you tell your husband and friends about this country and encourage them to visit North Korea sometime after. Then we'll appreciate and warmly welcome you. Thank you so much for your understanding of Korea. I hope to see you again. Good bye.
And from the other guide.
I hope you spend only good time with your family and have a good memory of this country. Good luck all the time. Looking forward to seeing you again.