Last of three parts
It’s amazing how we adapted to an alternate reality after a few days, taking for granted that our movements were monitored by benign minders, that the people had a different ideology, that kimchi actually tastes pretty good after you’ve had it more than 15 times.
And it’s just as amazing how sad I felt that our experience of North Korea was about to come to an end, though I think everyone was relieved we would return to our beds, our cheese-stuffed fridges, and our friends and families within 72 hours.
But for the moment, on Feb. 18, we were on the USS Pueblo, an American “spy ship” captured by the DPRK in 1968, and which sat stock-still in frozen waves. The tour was quick, probably because the local guide noticed we were all unfocused and easily distracted, particularly by the gunner on the bow and the smattering of people walking on ice in the distance.
We watched another ancient documentary on how the ship was captured and how the US and North Korea negotiated for the 83 crewmen’s release. The guide was extremely proud to show us the red circles marking where DPRK mortar shells had pierced metal and forced the American surrender, and much later, exactly 18 years to date before I was born, elicited an American apology.
I racked my brain for any succeeding military victories scored against the United States in recent times, and apart from the constant threat of nuclear arms, I couldn’t name any.
We knew Kim Jong-il had a flair for the theatrics — like his father, he liked to bang out scripts and turn them into revolutionary movies — but never imagined the scope of his pet project, a 1 million sq m film studio, replete with entire fake neighborhoods and villages, which the Dear Leader visited 590 times.
Un-hee got a kick out of telling us we were now in China, with dragon-festooned temples and tea shops, and that Europe was just five minutes’ walk away.
There was a fake red-light district distinguished by painted signs that in the DPRK are considered racy: a pair of nice legs under a billowing skirt, a woman swooning. We were told there was exactly one local film that had allowed a kiss, with the rest suggesting eroticism only by the feathery touching of hands.
Hannah says she once accompanied a journalist on a tour of the set and chanced upon a film-in-the-making. She was immediately chatted up by the lead actor — and even landed a bit part — all under the dagger stares of the actor’s North Korean groupies.
I had my 7 minutes of fame when, for 1 euro, I rented a silky princess costume from a small house in the square. Thomas volunteered to be my king. Our “son,” David, appeared soon in a strange Mickey Mouse hat and what looked to me like ninja pajamas. Thomas sat on a gilded chair reserved for this purpose, our Group B comrades snapping photos, and for the rest of the day stayed in his role of monarch by demanding I fetch him meals and his slippers.
Shortly after a stroll along Victory Street, in which everyone remarked how clean and serene the city was, and a standard Korean meal at the hotel’s Chinese restaurant, we were given an unprecedented two-hour break at Yanggakdo.
While everyone else took naps or hung out at the hotel bar, Naden and I explored the bunker-like basement, equipped with a suite of entertainment for well-off locals (though take note this is still supposedly a classless society).
At the end of the maze, I found a place where I could get a “Full Massage” for 27 euros. Naden begged off and said he would just look around the spa, later telling me he’d seen a North Korean girl in a bikini at the underground swimming pool.
So I was the only person in a two-bed room that could be partitioned with curtains, where I got poked, rubbed and kneaded by a lady who smelled of talcum powder. The massage was brisker than any I have tried. I couldn’t quite fall asleep because the woman kept saying, “Pain, pain, pain,” and then muttering a few words in Korean every time she’d press her fingers against my muscles.
At first I thought she was wishing me pain, but after turning over and seeing the concerned expression on her face that mirrored mine, I figured she was asking if what she was doing was painful. It was, but I just said, “Not pain,” and slipped her a US dollar after she was done.
That night, a couple of us returned to the empty basement to play a round of bowling (2.5 euros each) with Mr Pang, Group A’s outgoing male trainee guide who once asked me what my ideal man was (“Do you want him handsome … like me?”), and who made Hannah and I laugh when, touting his cooking skills, said he could make a mean “water soup.”
At least I was relaxed enough to plow through the rest of the day’s itinerary, which involved a stroll at National Park on a trail that ended down an icy slope very near the Kim Il-sung Stadium. We caught some children sledding, using carton mats, makeshift skates or their traction-less shoes. It was very cute.
We also swung by Paradise Department Store, which had a limited selection — but this was a treasure trove of supplies by DPRK standards. We browsed the shelves for snacks to bring on the train home, or just enjoy rare sightings of cognac, condiments, jars of German sausages, Hello Kitty chocolate crackers, Shiseido make-up, fresh fruit and that one box of Vagisil.
There were further treats at Polyo Muri Cafe, which served surprisingly awesome apple pies — the slices so warm and the crust so deliciously crumbly that it would put the US imperialists to shame. Mrs Huang Gum-hee has her kitchen bake it fresh, and in my rapture, I asked Naden if the reason this tasted so good was because we’d been eating middling food thus far.
The locals at the cafe seemed to like their “crowasan” (croissants). The “humburger” and “complex sandwich” (club sandwich) seemed appetizing as well. Somewhere in Pyongyang, there is a Singaporean-DPRK diner that also serves burgers, waffles and beer. Polyo Muri also had nice tea in chintz teapots, and some in the group had stellar gin tonics, with crushed strawberries on the bottom of the glass.
Sandwiched between those activities was a tour of a secondary school for office workers’ children in one of the districts. It was an auspicious sign that their courtyard was blanketed in pigeons — an exciting sight due to the rarity of pets and live animals in the capital. (Un-hee cited “health reasons.”)
The kids had nice classrooms, with portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il above the blackboard (Kim Jong-un has yet to make his mark in imagery), and even a room filled with stuffed animals donated by the Kims so the students could learn about nature.
I saw signs and slogans on the walls that presumably brought each child a renewed revolutionary fervor along with the bright new day.
We were ushered into an auditorium, past stone benches lining a threadbare soccer field, where little girls and boys performed songs and dances for us. Here you can detect the distinct style of DPRK music; children learn to sing in mature voices meant to blend in a chorus, the entire composition sounding like it is pouring out of a gramophone.
There were no soldiers on the South side in sight when we visited the demilitarized zone (DMZ), or Panmunjom, the next day. I was expecting the mood to be tense along the 38th parallel, which divides the two Koreas, but it seemed more routine than anything, even if you do read that the two sides are technically at war.
But the theme of the day would be reunification, “an aspiration of every Korean citizen” that would be repeated by our guides and the soldier who would see us through the sprawling compound. We were asked to approach any gate, guardpost or building in single-file, and requested to obey the soldier’s orders for our safety.
It wasn’t overtly explained what had hindered reunification, though the guides mentioned Lee Myung-bak’s “cancellation” of certain peace agreements and the perennial breakdown in talks with six nations.
|Inside one of the buildings on Conference Row, used for direct talks between the two sides. There were no tourists from the Seoul side on this day, which we were told explained the troop absence.
We were shown the building where armistice talks were held and a more palatial one-story building, constructed in just five days, where the DPRK wanted to make a grand affair of the armistice agreement signing, eschewing the Americans’ suggestion of just signing it without fanfare under a tent.
Kim Il-sung’s last signature, engraved in a massive stone slab, has its home in Panmunjom because his last writing had something to do with reunification. We got to see that strip of concrete that divides the two nations — sand on the DPRK side and gravel on the other — which a New Mexico governor had hopped over once.
I’m sure unseen eyes were looking at us through sniper rifle scopes or binoculars, maybe even the odd gun barrel trained in our direction, but at no point in the DMZ did I feel in danger or distressed, except maybe when they ran out of toilet paper in Panmun Hall’s bathroom.
Kaesong, the home of ginseng and quite close to the DMZ, was billed as one of the most “attractive” cities in the DPRK. It was actually pretty, with pastel-colored buildings and tree-lined drives. It has a grand population of 300,000 people, two cars and maybe about 200 bicycles.
Here, we ducked into the Ginseng Restaurant, which like many of its counterparts in Pyongyang would serve us multiple-course meals.
I finally caved and had dog meat soup (5 euros), much to the disdain of Daniel the elder, who had on prior occasions stressed he could never eat man’s best friend and extolled his own pet’s intelligence. I sympathized, but said, “Pigs are smart too, but they’re delicious.”
Un-hee explained the delicacy is known to locals as “sweet meat soup,” and has aphrodisiac properties for men and for the rest has curative benefits. It is supposed to shield you from colds for an entire year after consumption.
It was stringy and tasted like an oilier roast beef. I shouldn’t complain because the Philippines has a culture of eating dog meat and at one point had actually been derided for this fact at the racially charged 1904 World’s Fair.
The last two points of our day tour examined ancient history. We first went to Koryo Museum, filled with temples built with colorfully patterned wood beams and showed what life was like under the Koryo dynasty, from which Korea got its name.
There were old coins, weapons, a chart showing the prices of slaves and the traditional clothing of the day. The compound had once been a university for children of the elite, training them to be leaders.
Then we went to the Tomb of King Kong-min and his wife, whom he married in old age and loved very deeply. If you have a filthy mind, like me and a couple of boys, the tomb looks like, from below the ice-covered hill, a pair of giant hay mammaries.
Across from this spot is a mountain curiously called “Oh My Mountain.” The legend goes that the king had hired a geomancer to pick the perfect spot for this tomb, and if he failed in this task would be executed. The king climbed the mountain opposite the hill and his soldiers were told to watch for the killing signal — a wave of his white handkerchief — if he was dissatisfied.
The king gazed upon the valley and was happy, but brought out the white handkerchief to wipe his brow. Misinterpreting this, his soldiers beheaded the geomancer. The mountain gets its name from what the king exclaimed when he heard about the debacle. I can think of many other names for it.
The two-hour ride back to the city was very scenic, as the DPRK has vast tracts of yellow, ochre farmland sprinkled with leafless trees and interposed by pale waterways or a dusting of snow on inert fields. There’s something very pretty about red earth, blue sky and agricultural scenes done in the hues of when Van Gogh used to paint potato farmers.
I saw a few goats and chickens being shepherded by soldiers, circles of people having a meal in the hay or random locals in thick jackets pulling weeds or digging soil. We saw some young boys in hunter green uniforms and red-starred hats carrying rifles.
Every now and then, you see a mural of Kim Jong-il in the middle of a field, still reaching out to the countryside in his trademark suit. No doubt, pretty scenes can belie the hard realities of rural life.
I spent my last night in Pyongyang in style (while everyone else was enjoying karaoke downstairs), getting intimate with the toilet as I threw up our farewell dinner — roast duck at a specialty restaurant whose one light bulb and slow gas fires necessitated our use of flashlights to make sure the meat was cooked properly.
We probably failed on quality control, ingesting meat that was still quite pink. I may have also thrown up bits of dog.
A word about North Korean food: it is, to put it diplomatically, very nude and unblemished by flavor, though some of them were actually quite good.
|A 12-course meal, just like royalty used to eat it.|
I got the impression that while we were served a multitude of dishes — yummy cold noodles with hot mustard, rubbery fried sole, garlicky bulgogi beef, chicken curry or donut-like bread twists called kwapegi — resources seemed tight, like when the waitress at Ori Kogi Restaurant obviously wanted to save on butane for our gas fires.
I tried their cheese-and-onion potato chips, which were puzzlingly bone-dry to the touch, but turned oily inside the mouth. We had papery sugar cookies, in heart shapes, which Daniel the German liked.
A quick fix was to order the pungent, vaguely spicy bean paste, a DPRK specialty which can be found in any souvenir shop or hotel grocery. The cuisine may not be what we are used to, but everyone was conscious that in the context of a nation that had been ravaged by mass starvation, this food was the best. And you cannot fault the North Korean staff for serving you the best way they can.
I felt guilty for leaving some plates unfinished, but we were told this was a compliment to the North Koreans, as it proved how their food just overflowed.
Credit goes to Dave Watnick, who first alerted me to the fact that we could sign up for tours with Koryo, particularly during the Mass Games. The idea marinated for two years, impeded only by a brief flare-up in the Korean peninsula in 2010, David’s sudden move back to his homeland and my appalling lack of financial planning. I’m glad I finally made it this year, even if I did leave a bombed-out bank account in my wake.
I spent upwards of 2,200 euros (Php 125,000) on everything (in the preferred small denominations), a steep cost I like to attribute to the trip’s uniqueness and the presumed labor-intensiveness of getting us there and back. I’m confident it’s worth every near-obsolete euro.
|Souvenir won, which are no longer in circulation. Maxime said he had managed to score newer notes from “special sources” during the trip.|
When I was filling out the currency declaration on the DPRK exit form, I kind of wanted a pat on the back for showering Pyongyang with hard currency. I came in with around 350 euros and 400 renminbi, and came out with 5 euros and 80 yuan cents. I’m kind of afraid to acknowledge it mostly went to beer.
Apart from money matters, I felt considerable apprehension before the trip, as my panic-stricken mother said she feared I would be sent to a labor camp or detained for a few months because I work for a newspaper. I was allowed to go on this trip after promising China, DPRK and Koryo that I had been out of commission for over a year and wouldn’t do any gratuitous journalism.
Several people prior to and during the trip asked me why I decided to visit such an offbeat destination. I told Francis the Aussie, who’d asked me this question at the bar, that I did it for the bragging rights. There’s quite a few more motivations: my hatred of Valentine’s with the passion of a thousand burning tampons, the impulse to have a great story to tell and pouncing on the chance to see the other side of the ever-compelling North Korean story.
Heading out of Pyongyang in the early morning of Feb. 20, us non-US citizens (the aggressors would fly) took the sleeper train, which traverses a railway network that links the city with Beijing. (There’s also a line that links to Moscow.)
I read stories from previous travelers of the sudden appearance of armored, bullet-proof coaches, probably carrying the Dear Leader himself, who in December passed away on one of his fondly taken train rides.
Our 23-hour journey, however, was an uninterrupted stream of crop fields, packs of sweets our German-French couple Daniel and Maxime had stocked up on and passed around, and the relentless grating of steel on steel beneath our feet.
|Stuart (left), a cousin of Kate Middleton, had to hop rooms often to escape the cigar smoke of his North Korean cabin roommates. Daniel, a German viola player, slept in the bunk above mine.|
It was a pretty smooth ride at about 40kph, in which I slept off my residual sickness and woke up an hour before we got to Beijing at exactly 8.35am on Feb. 21. We had been cocooned in warm cabins with two bunk beds on each side, a small table with four teacups and faux tigerskin blankets.
At some point in the evening, as Naden and I were incapacitated by flu, Maxime and Daniel joined the others at the dining car — reached by walking down the train through progressively more cramped compartments — where they had a nice meal for 60 renminbi.
There were all of 11 stops between Pyongyang and Beijing, though we barely noticed them except when six people from the tour group stopped at Dandong, a Chinese city quite close to North Korea’s border, for further travails at a reptilian bar.
(Update: Nathan the Aussie surgeon, who had taken the Dandong option on the tour, later e-mailed me to say the “True Love” nightclub “featured midgets in tutus, androgynous pop stars, a magic act, stand-up comedy etc and no cover charge!”)
|Waving goodbye to us at the platform, one of the guides cried.|
There was also the DPRK customs check, when officers with briefcases came onboard and inspected our rooms and luggage. It varied from a caress — in our case, with the friendly officer opting not to look into my carry-on when he saw the cosmetics, and he even admired Maxime’s wooden miniature of the Juche tower and marveled at Naden’s iPad — to full-on penetration of suitcases and mattress linings in the case of Tero, Sammi and David the Indonesian, who are all living in Japan.
Apparently, the officials had confiscated the trio’s travel guide and a few souvenirs, but the boys eventually got it back by negotiating. Our French mother-and-son, Francois and Jean, had a funny encounter with an officer who said, “You’re French? Ah, perfume!” and then sprayed some eau de cologne into his hat and walked away.
Feeling a bit tender and skipping dinner, I was out cold for 11 hours, being gently rocked by the locomotive’s movement. I could still feel the train’s vibrations as I walked, exhausted, out of the station platform in Beijing. And I could still feel the mild frostbite way after I touched down in what suddenly seemed like a more temperate Hong Kong.
It would be interesting to see how the DPRK will fare under the new leadership, and how, as it continues to open its doors to a few thousand foreigners each year, views of life in Pyongyang will become more nuanced.
Our tour was largely confined to Pyongyang, a place of relative abundance and comfort that gave us little idea of what life was like in the rest of the country. We were also in a bubble, with little opportunity or inclination to stay in touch with world affairs, though I’m happy to note there’s a BBC channel at the hotel.
But I was surprised at how much we were able to see, especially at how much latitude we were given to interact with everyday citizens. We can even keep contact with our tour guides far after we’ve exited the border by sending them, through the tour agency, tokens or photos of our excursions.
Though he was generally unfelt and absent while I was there, some stories filtering out of Pyongyang describe Kim Jong-un as warmer than his father, bringing a youthful energy (inexperienced hand?) to his post. One of my favorite articles tells of the Great Successor pinching the cheeks of children, hugging his troops and checking the quality of his constituents’ living conditions up to the point of tasting their bean paste. I have no way of confirming this.
But I sincerely hope only good things lie ahead for the people of North Korea, a few of whom I had the pleasure of interacting with on this trip and who won me over with either their interest or insouciance. And now that I’m standing far, far beyond the fence and chowing down McDonald’s, I perhaps can only hope that the new government’s heart is in the right place.