Visiting North Korea, The Hermit Kingdom
It’s been nearly 60 years since the end of the Korean Conflict, and for many of that point People had been prohibited from visiting North Korea by its authorities. For a few years, I canvassed any contact I may ferret about securing visitation, but all for naught.
Until this 12 months.
I rendezvous with 23 friends in Beijing and the first indication that we are about to fall off the map is when a plastic bag is circulated at the airport earlier than we board the Air Koryo flight. We deposit our cell phones and books about our vacation spot, which aren’t allowed in the DPRK. We are, however, permitted to carry cameras (with lenses less than 200 mms), laptops, Kindles and iPads, as long as they do not have activated GPS. Credit score playing cards can’t be used for internet access, or to buy something. Even with money, there is no such thing as a public internet access in-country. We are abandoning ourselves to the journey.
On board the Russian-built Tupolev Tu-204 instead of Muzak we are soothed by the national anthem, the newspaper distributed is the Pyongyang Times (in English), and on the video displays are dramatic recreations of World Conflict II, as well as a tourist video that evokes Disney documentaries from the 1950s. Immigration and customs are easy, faster than most first-world airports, and they do not stamp our passports, so you just must take my word that we were there.
We’re greeted by guides Mr. Lee and Miss Lee (no relation), who usher us onto a Chinese made luxury bus called King Long, where we roll down spotless extra-broad streets by willow trees and tall condo buildings, past heroic posters and images of Kim Il-sung, the country’s founding leader, and his son Kim Jong-il, who died in December 2011, leaving his third son, 29-year-old Kim Jong-un in charge. We drive through the Arch of Triumph (larger than the Paris version), and into downtown Pyongyang, the capital. Along the best way Mr. Lee, shares, in enunciation occasionally untidy, some information…the country has 24 million folks; 3 million in the capital. It is 80% covered by mountains. From 1905-1945 it was brutally occupied by the Japanese. The Korean Battle (known as the Fatherland Liberation Battle by the DPRK) lasted from 1950-53, and during that point there were 400,000 folks in Pyongyang, and the Individuals dropped 400,000 bombs on the city.
We cross a bridge to an island in the Taedong River, and pull up to the 47-story Yanggakdo International Hotel, with a thousand rooms, a revolving restaurant on high, a foyer bar with Taedonggang, an excellent beer, and room tv with 5 channels of North Korean programming, and one featuring the BBC.
As the day bleeds to night we head to the Rŭngrado May First Stadium, largest on the earth by capacity. We park by a Niagara-sized dancing coloured fountain to which Steve Wynn may only aspire, walk past a line of Mercedes, BMWs, and Hummers, up the steps to prime seats (the place Madeleine Albright as soon as sat) at the Arirang Mass Games. The Games (there is no competition, just spectacle) are a jaw-dropping 90-minute gymnastic extravaganza, with meticulously choreographed dancers, acrobats, trapeze artists, big puppets, and big mosaic footage created by more than 30,000 sharply disciplined college kids holding up colored cards, as though in bleachers at the world’s biggest football game. The London Guardian calls the Mass Games “the greatest, strangest, most awe-inspiring political spectacle on earth.”
The Guinness E-book says there is nothing like it in the universe. One hundred thousand performers in every candy color of the spectrum cavort, whirl, leap and caper in perfectly choreographed unison. A thousand Cirque du Soleils. Ten thousand Busby Berkeleys. It all makes the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics look like the opening of the London Olympics. Finally, we pour from the stadium, previous the vendors selling posters, DVDs and memorabilia, exhausted and in overstimulated wonderment.
As the sun finds us the morning next we head back to the airport, in the course of the world’s quietest rush hour. One estimate is there are fewer than 30,000 autos in the entire of the nation. We move seven vehicles, several hundred single-gear bicycles, and maybe a thousand pedestrians, hunched forward as though carrying invisible sacks, walking the edges of the streets. There are not any fat people in this parade…all look fit, clear and wholesome.
There is no industrial air service to the place we’re headed (and no Lonely Planet Information), so we have chartered an Antonov 24, during which the hostess levels her epicanthic eyes and shares she desires to practice her English with us. Good thing, too, as I discover the sign at the Emergency Exit: “In case of stepped out of cabin, attract handle.”
Ninety minutes later we land at Samjiyon, near the “sacred mountain of the revolution,” Mt. Paektu. At 8898 feet, it is Korea’s highest peak, and legend has it is where Korea’s first founder, the mythical Tangun, is said to have descended 5,000 years ago.
The drive from the airstrip to the bottom of the mountain is an ecologist’s dream, pre-industrial, rice fields cultivated by hand, lush, green landscapes, clear streams, and unlogged forests of white birches. As we rise in elevation, the trees shrink into the soil, until we are in a moonscape, slopes of stones like discolored bone, the flanks of the stirring volcano, Paektu (white topped mountain). This is the sublime hill, the most celebrated in North Korea, and we chevron to the summit in our Chinese bus. From the caldera rim we can look right down to a beautiful blue crater lake, a sapphire in the arms of the volcano, and across the lip… to Manchuria. There we see Chinese language tourists waving back at us. This can be the spot where Kim Il-sung (Dear Chief) and his son Kim Jong-il (Great Leader) stood, with backs to the caldera, looking commandingly at the camera, offering up enlightenment and guidance. The image is recreated in vivid posters all over the country, so it’s a delight to be here, like visiting the setting of an epic movie.
There is a gondola that carries guests right down to Lake Chonji, Heaven Lake, alongside a steep stairway. It is five Euro each for the journey, however I’m tempted by the exercise, and 40 minutes later meet the group by the frigid water. When Kim Jong-il died, it is said the ice on the lake cracked “so loud, it seemed to shake the Heavens and the Earth.”
We take some images, walk the verge of the lake, after which prepared for the gondola experience again the rim. But the cables aren’t shifting. The ability has gone off, and nothing strikes, even us. The prospect of climbing up is too grim for many in our group, including one woman who has shrapnel in her leg from a recent visit to Syria. So, as tempers and temperatures rise, and i consider what it could take to carry someone on my again, the ability lurches back on, and the gondolas open their doors for the experience to heaven.
The afternoon presents a personal surprise… we drive to The secret Camp, where Kim Jong-il, our guides tell us, was born in Japanese-occupied Korea on February sixteen, 1942. His beginning was foretold by a swallow, and heralded by the appearance of a double rainbow across the sky over the mountain, and a new star within the heavens. The simple log cabin (with roebuck deer hooves as door handles) of this auspicious beginning stands near a stream called Sobek, spilling from its eponymous mountain. It turns out Sobek means “small mountain” (compared to Paektu).
Sobek is the identify of the adventure travel company I founded quite a couple of years ago, but it was christened after the crocodile god of the Nile, not a waterway named for a mini-me mountain. Nonetheless, our hosts are excited with the coincidence; I am honored just the same. Stone Island Outlet We take the evening at the cavernous Baegaebong Lodge, which could possibly be the set for The Shinning, though we are the only guests. Nearby are the wide and scenic Rimyongsu Falls, spouting gemlike from a basaltic cliff, and there is a ski slope next door. But this is fall, so the assumption is we are off season, or tourism hasn’t lived up to expectations yet.
The following day is triumphal, the morning enormous as the sky. We visit the Revolutionary Regional Museum, fronted by ectype Siberian tigers, which still roam these mountains, and are traditional symbols of a unified Korea. Inside, the displays have a good time the North Korean victories over Japan and America, including a video of such shown on Toshiba monitor using Windows XP.
Then off to the Samjiyon Grand Monument, featuring a giant bronze statue of a young, stiff-backed Kim Il-sung in military regimentals, flanked by squads of oversized soldiers, back-dropped by Samji Lake, dotted like snowflakes with egrets. Revolutionary music plays from discreetly placed speakers. I am urged to buy a bouquet of flowers to put at the base, and then all of us line up, sans hats, and make a respectful bow. Photos are allowed, but only of the entire statue from the front, not parts or backsides.
After lunch (the food is always hearty, plentiful, and consists of meat of some sort, always kimchi, soup, rice, potatoes and beer, however by no means dog, which is a summer time dish), we make a forty-minute charter flight to the Orang airport, not far from the border with Russia, landing next to a line of MiG-21s. From there we drive three hours to Mount Chilbo, “Seven Treasures,” a national park, and applicant for UNESCO World Heritage standing. Along the way we move tobacco and corn fields, cabbage patches, journeys of goats, and traces of oxcarts carrying goods somewhere. We first stop beneath a 200-12 months-outdated chestnut tree at the Kaesimsa Buddhist temple (“America bombed the churches and Buddhist temples,” Mr. Lee tells us, “but they missed this one.”). It was inbuilt 826, and serves as we speak as a repository for vital Buddhist sculptures, paintings, and scriptures. The monk has us gather in the temple, below photographs of flying apsaras, where he taps a gourd and chants. He says he prays for our good health and happiness, and that we will contribute to the peace of the world. Then he suggests we contribute to the donation jar.
It is a brief hike to Inner Chilbo, an astonishing vista of wind and water sculpted turrets, buttes, mesas, masts, cathedrals and temples, a stunning combination of Yosemite, Bryce and Zion National Parks. Mr. Lee, in a North Face jacket and Prospect running sneakers, plucks some pine mushrooms off the path, and shares them with the group, saying these are delicacies in Japan, sometimes selling for $one hundred a stem.
After a few short hikes, we bus into a box canyon, and examine into the closest thing North Korea has to an eco-lodge, the Outer Chilbo Hotel. The lodging are spartan (plastic buckets filled with washing water outside the doors), but the setting–high cliffs on three sides, wooded grounds, a clear singing creek — is something apropos to an Aman Resort, and may yet someday be.
The day next, as the light struggles into the canyons, we hike to the Sungson Pavilion, a excessive platform that affords 360 diploma views of Outer Chilbo, grand vistas of the serrated mountains and sheer cliffs that encase the park. We can see our eco-lodge from here, which has a miniature look, like something carved by hand and set down out of scale at the base of the mountains. The vantage collapses perspective, creating an illusion of both proximity and depth, as though the hospitality below could possibly be reached in a moment, or not at all.
And then we unwind the highlands, and trundle to Sea Chilbo, a last sigh of igneous rock that decants into the East Sea of Korea (Sea of Japan on most Western maps). The coastal village by means of which we go is dripping with squid, hanging like ornaments kind rooftops, clothes lines, and every exposed surface of houses that look as though they grew out of the ground. The permeating perfume is eau de cephalopod. Past the electronic fences (to eager potential invaders out), on a wide seashore, a protracted white table cloth is unfold, and we settle all the way down to a picnic feast of fresh calamari, crab, yellow corvina, anchovies, seaweed, and beer, just before a bruise of clouds fills the space between earth and sky, and the rain sets in.
The dirt road to Chongjin is lined with magnolias (within the north of North Korea we experience virtually no pavement), and a richness of no billboards or promoting of any type. We pass a whole bunch of soldiers, part of a million man army, in olive drab striding the highway; tractors that appear like Mater from the Cars movies; and smoke-billowing trucks, which have furnaces on the flatbeds where wood is fed for gasoline. At dusk the countryside becomes subdued; shadows soften the hillsides, and there is a blending of lines and stone island overshirt cheap folds. It’s dark as we wheel into the steel and shipbuilding town, generously lit with streaks of neon (Hong Kong with out the manufacturers). We cease on the Fisherman’s Membership, which is taking part in a video of launching rockets and enthusiastically clapping crowds as we order up Lithuanian vodka and something called “Eternal Youth Liquor,” which has a viper curled up inside the bottle, like a monster tequila worm.
We stagger into the Chongjin Hotel, past a pair of Kenwood audio system taking part in a stringed model of “Age of Aquarius,” stumble up the steps beneath a poster of “The Immortal Flower, Kimjongilia,” a hybrid purple begonia designed to bloom every year on Kim Jong-il’s birthday, and into rooms where the bathtubs are considerately pre-filled with water to use to flush the non-flushing Toto toilets.
Motivational marshal music cracks the day. We won’t go away the resort compound (some energy-stroll the driveway for train, wanting like visitors at the Hanoi Hilton), but several of us gather at the gate and watch the beginnings of the day. The street is being swept, folks are walking and biking to work of their shiny artificial fits, youngsters are being hustled to highschool, and a lady in a balcony throughout the way in which is videotaping us as we photograph her.
North Korea’s got expertise. The highlight of the day is a go to to a major school, the place a troupe of pink lip-sticked, costumed youngsters between ages four and 6 sing, dance and play devices as if maestros. They play guitars, drums, a Casio organ, and a gayageum, the standard Korean zither-like string instrument, with one excellent student plucking as though Ravi Shankar.
With the long tapers of afternoon light we’re back in Pyongyang, and on the solution to the resort move the primary billboard we have seen, that includes The Peace Automotive, a handsome SUV the result of a joint-enterprise between Pyonghwa Motors of Seoul, an organization owned by the late Solar Myung Moon’s Unification Church, and a North Korean authorities-owned company that additionally works on nuclear procurement. A number of of the slick autos are lined up within the resort parking lot, alongside Mercedes, BMWs and the occasional Volga.
In the sweet liquid mild of morning, after a breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, potato chips and prompt espresso, noshed to the tune of “Those Were the times, My Good friend,” (it’s initially a Russian track, referred to as “Dorogoi dlinnoyu”) we got down to tour Pyongyang, a metropolis that could be known as Edifice Rex, for its complex of outsized compensation monuments. We take the carry (five Euros each) up the 560-foot tall Juche Tower, named for Kim Il-sung’s blended philosophy of self-reliance, nationalism, and Marxism-Leninism. We wander the bottom of a 98-foot-excessive statue of the holy trinity — a man with a hammer, one with a sickle, and one with a writing brush (a “working intellectual”). We parade by the city’s largest public area, Kim Il-sung Square, akin to Red Square or Tiananmen, that includes large portraits of President Kim Il-sung, in addition to Marx and Lenin. We bow again and place flowers at one other large bronze statue of the nice Leader, president for life even in death. We pay homage to the Tower to Eternal Life, with its stone inscription: “The good Leader, Comrade Kim Il-sung, Will At all times Be With Us.” We admire huge statues in entrance of the Art Museum of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il blazing some battlefield on horseback, and two weddings happening near the hooves. And we cross scores of impressive, oversized buildings, from the library to museums to the notorious 105-story, pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel, the dominant skyline feature, unfinished more than 20 years after development started (it seems, from some angles, to list a bit, just like the Tower of Pisa).
The metro, deepest in the world, seems designed to withstand a nuclear attack. If it were much deeper it would come out within the South Atlantic Ocean near Argentina, its antipode. The stations are named after themes and characteristics from the revolution, and we take a five cease run from Glory Station (festooned with chandelier lights that appear like celebratory fireworks) to Triumph Station, lined with socialist-realist mosaics and murals.
And we finish the day with a step down to the Taedong River and onto the USS Pueblo, or as the North Koreans say with out variation, “the armed American spy ship, Pueblo.” It’s a rusty bucket at this point, 43 years after the incident, and the guides, in navy togs, show us the crypto room packed with teletypes and ancient communications gear, the .50-caliber machine gun on the bow, the bullet holes from the North Korean sub chaser, and the spot where a US sailor was hit and died. We watch a short video that includes Lyndon Johnson alternatively threatening and claiming the ship a fishing vessel (not true), and then his apology, which allowed the release of the 82 crew members exactly 11 months after they were captured.
The final day of the trip we head south, to the DMZ, the 2.5-mile-wide swath near the 38th parallel that separates North and South Korea, a border so tense it could squeeze the breath out of stones. The paved road is large and flat, seeming to stretch the length of the world. It is big enough to land an aircraft in an emergency. And scattered every few miles are ‘tank traps,” concrete pillars that can be pushed over to ensnare an armored car heading north. We move via a number of navy checkpoints alongside the way in which, however by no means with incident.
Once at the DMZ we are ushered into Panmunjom, the Joint Security Area where the armistice was signed July 27, 1953, ending a war in which virtually 900,000 troopers died (together with 37,000 People) — and greater than two million civilians have been killed or wounded.
“We were victorious,” the guide, who wears three stars on his shoulder, shares, and adds: “Now we have very powerful weapons. Although you in America are very far away, you aren’t secure… however do not be nervous.”
Then he factors out a show case with an ax and pictures of an incident in 1976 when two American soldiers tried to cut down an obstructing tree on the wrong side of the line, and were dispatched by the North Koreans.
We step single file by way of a number of gates, and our information factors out a flagpole fifty two tales excessive, heaving a 600-pound purple, white, and blue North Korean flag; beyond is the South Korean version, not practically as excessive. Birds and torn clouds and cigarette smoke cross between the two, and little else.
At the white dividing line, reducing via the middle of three blue negotiation huts, we will look throughout the barbed wire to our doppelgangers, vacationers snapping photos of us snapping shots of them. We’re not allowed to shout, however I make a small wave, and my mirror picture waves back.
On the way again we cease on the Royal Tomb of King Kongmin, a 14th-century mausoleum with twin burial mounds, wanting like large stone gumdrops, surrounded by statues of grinning animals from the Chinese language zodiac. Inside are the stays of Kongmin, 31st king of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), and his spouse, the Mongolian princess Queen Noguk.
Miss Lee, exquisite in high heels and frilly blouse, darkish eyes quiet as a pond, factors to a mountain throughout from the tomb, and says it known as “Oh My God.” She then tells the story in regards to the place. When Kongmin’s wife died, he employed geomancers to seek out the right spot for her tomb. Upset when everybody failed, he ordered that the subsequent to try could be given something desired with success; with failure, he could be killed instantly. When one younger geomancer instructed him to overview a spot in the mountains, Kongmin told advisors that if he waved his handkerchief they should execute the geomancer.
Kongmin climbed up to assessment the site. Upon reaching the top, exhausted and sweaty, he dabbed his brow with his handkerchief, while pronouncing the place good. When he discovered that the geomancer had been executed because of his mistaken handkerchief wave, he exclaimed “Oh, my God!”
Earlier than heading back to Pyongyang our guides take us buying at a souvenir stop in Kaesong, North Korea’s southernmost city, and the ancient capital of Koryo, the first unified state on the Korean Peninsula.
Outdoors we’re greeted by young women in vivid traditional tent-shaped dresses. The glass door sports activities a “DHL Service Out there” sign, and inside is a cornucopia of temptations, from statuary to stamps, oil paintings to jade to silks to pottery, to stacks of books by The great Leader and Dear Leader, to ginseng to cold Coca Cola. I can not resist a series of dinner placemats of North Koreans bayonetting Americans with the saying “Let’s kill the U.S. Imperialists.”
Our guides throughout have been warm, welcoming, gracious, informative, funny and friendly.
On the last night, sharing a beer at the lobby bar, when asked, they insist there isn’t any prostitution in North Korea, no use of illegal medicine, no homosexuality, no homeless, no illiteracy, and no litter. Everything is clean. There is universal health care and education. It’s a perfect society, flawless as a brand new coin. And it is the identical jewel field offered once i visited the Individuals’s Republic of China underneath Mao Tse-tung in 1976.
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