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Thread: South Korea, DPRK & China (April 2010)

  1. #16

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    The top six floors are all meant to be revolving restaurants. But if the building collapses its definitely a weapon of mass destruction...

  2. #17

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    Day 9, Sunday April 11th 2010: Pyongyang & Kaesong

    First a bit about traveling in the DPRK. Basically, you're not allowed to go anywhere by yourself, you will be accompanied all the time by the two guides. They decide where you go and what you see, and if you're lucky, they might take requests from the group in consideration. After breakfast you get on the bus and be rushed around all day. The first couple of days there were only 25 western tourists in the country, bus since most of them are at the same location all the time, they are still getting in the way for pictures...

    Taking pictures is also restricted, you're not allowed to take pictures during the bus rides, and of course no pictures of poverty or military. However, after the group has earned the trust from the guides, they get much more relaxed about it. Despite the restrictions I was still able to get about 400 pictures a day on average.

    For our first destination we're supposed to dress at our best (well, at least shirt and tie): we're about to visit the Eternal President, Kim Il-sung. Small detail: he died 16 years ago, but still is the official head of state. His former palace has been transformed into a mausoleum, the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. As one might expect, camera's aren't allowed inside. It's a huge complex where you're being moved around for hundreds of meters by moving walkways. In the central room of the building lies the embalmed body of the 'Great Leader', where everybody is supposed to bow three times.

    Next is an exhibition of all of the medals and honorary degrees he got from all over the world, even from the USA. This is followed by another exhibition about his meetings with world leaders and his travels around the world. He did obviously have a certain preference for the countries he visited. As one of the group members very inappropriately mentioned: a lot of socialism and a bit of sex-tourism (Thailand). After we got our camera's we went outside to the huge square in front of the buildings, where we finally were allowed to get a couple of pictures.



    Our next stop was the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, a memorial for the heroes of the resistance against the Japanese occupation. At the center of it is Kim Kim Jong-suk, Kim Il-sung's first wife and mother of Kim Jong-il. From the mountain you have a great view over Pyongyang, with the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the May Day Stadium and the Ryugyong Hotel.



    As we drive back to the hotel for lunch, we pass the May Day Stadium, with 150.000 seats the largest stadium in the world.



    After lunch we first went to the Foreign Language Bookstore. You'll find bookstores at many of the sights, restaurants and also in the hotel, this one is just a bit bigger, and also sells those marvelous propaganda posters. I however buy a book named ”Backstage Manipulations Disclosed”, about all of the plots against the DPRK, mostly by the US Imperialists as they are named at least twice each page...

    Next is the Kim Il-sung Square, the location of most of the military parades. The activities now were a bit more peaceful, children practicing dancing and acrobatics. And maybe, if they're talented enough, one day they can be part of the Arirang Mass Games.



    After this we left Pyongyang for a four hour drive to Kaesong, near the DMZ. Once outside of the city the scenery looks mostly desolate. Farmers are working the land by hand, without any modern equipment. Traffic is scarce, mostly people walking or riding a bike. And of course a lot of military, sometimes in a Jeep or truck, nut most of them just walking.



    When we get closer to Kaesong we have to get through some military checkpoints. At one of them we have a brake malfunction, we crash trough the fence with still some speed. The guards don't have a clue at all how to react, luckily they (at least the few that were actually armed at all) didn't have itchy trigger fingers...

    Since we can't get into our hotel yet (soldiers are renovating the water mains), we first go to the tomb of King Kongmin, ruler over Korea during 1351 to 1374. He was buried together with his wife at a beautiful location on a mountain (we're still in the same bus, with the same brakes...) just outside of Kaesong. They were buried with lots of treasures, over centuries no one found an entry, until the Japanese in 1905 just blasted their way into the tomb.



    We return to the Kaesong Folk Hotel, an traditional hanok style courtyard hotel. Looks nice, but it could use a major renovation, it looks like it's about to collapse. The rooms are equipped with an 'ondol' underfloor heating system, where you sleep on padded mats. Sounds more comfortable than it actually is, the mats are thin, the floor is hard as a rock, and the pillow feels like concrete.



    But of course we first have diner, finally something that seems Korean, and tastes very good. I can't say the same about the beer, which is the same as during our flight into the country. After diner we visit the bar, since there's another blackout this is the only place in the hotel where's still some light. Outside everything is pitch black, everything except the huge statue of Kim Il-sung on a hill near the hotel of course. But it's a great place to enjoy some more horrible beers, and to discuss the North-Korean politics and the things we've seen. What else to talk about in the DPRK?

  3. #18

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    Day 10, Monday April 12th 2010: Kaesong, Panmunjom & Pyongyang

    After a not very comfortable night the blackout still doesn't seem to be solved, no light, no hot water. The breakfast is basically the same we got in Pyongyang, some toast, eggs, and the choice between coffee and tea which both taste about the same. Of course we aren't allowed to leave the hotel premises, but I did get a chance to take a picture of the propaganda picture across the street.



    First we visited the statue of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, on a hill right in middle of the city. Compared to the statue we would visit a couple of days later this one is quite modest.



    Next is the Koryo Museum, a former Confucian school, the current buildings are supposed to date back to 1602. There are lots of objects, dioramas and paintings from the old days, too bad the pace is that fast it's either taking pictures or listening to the stories of the guide. Chollima speed!



    Of course there's a souvenir shop, with lots of postal stamps. I buy a nice collection, and also a lot of postcards with propaganda pictures. Most of them probably aren't that appropriate the send home...



    We take the bus to one of the most interesting parts of the whole tour, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjom, the border with South Korea, which I already visited from the other side three years earlier. Near the border is a road sign to let us know it's only 70 kilometers to Seoul. So close, yet so far away...



    First we visited the building were the peace negotiations were held, with just a table and some chairs, and no problem at all if you would want to take a seat. Next is the actual building were at July 27th 1953 the armistice was signed. It was build specifically for this occasion, in just 2 days. And of course the guide couldn't stop mentioning how impressed the “American Imperialist” were by this feat. The badly worn cover of the treaty might suggest it would be the real thing, but in fact it's just a replica, touched by too many tourist before they but it behind glass.



    Now we went to the actual border, with the typical blue conference rooms, the only spot where you can actually cross the border for a couple of meters. Outside the building that would be out of the question. It feels quite absurd to be this close to a place I've been before, only separated by a concrete slab a couple of inches hight, but not being able to go there.



    Something that surprised me was how laid-back it all seemed, we didn't even see a single South-Korean or American soldier on the other side, and even most of the North-Korean soldiers left the site right after we were gone. Totally different from the extremely tense feeling you get when visiting from the South, when there were tens of soldiers on both sides, seemingly all with itchy trigger fingers. We were also allowed to take pictures anywhere, no limitations whatsoever, whereas on the south side this was limited to just a few specific locations.



    Back to Kaesong for lunch, a proper feast was waiting for us. We also got two extra dishes: samgyetang (ginseng chicken) and “sweet meat soup”. Where this sweet meat comes from? Well, remember this is Korea, so make an educational guess...
    (by the way, it just tastes like terribly overcooked beef)



    After lunch we went to a viewing point for the “concrete wall”. While this might sound very boring, it actually isn't at all. The wall is an allegedly 5 to 8 meter tall anti tank barrier along the south side of the border. According to North Korea this wall runs along the whole length of the border, while South Korea and the USA simply deny its existence. Because of the distance (over 2 kilometers) it's near impossible to get clear pictures, but based on what I saw looking through the binoculars I'm inclined to actually believe the North Koreans at this one.



    Time to head back to Pyongyang, when we enter the city we make a stop at the Arch of Reunification, two women dressed in traditional hanbok clothing, supporting a map of a reunified Korea.


  4. #19

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    Fascinating. What an exotic trip you had! What were the auspices under which you took it?

  5. #20

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    I'm not sure if I understand your question correctly, you want to know how the Koreans were keeping an eye on us? Otherwise please let me know.

    To visit the country you have to get a visa in the first place. For most people not that much of a problem, but they definitely don't like journalists. If they have any reason to believe you are one of any kind, you can probably only get a even more restricted private tour, not a regular group tour. You also have to provide them with information about your employer, as far as I know they haven't checked anyone of our group, but I read from other people on the web their employers did get a phone call from some DPRK government official to confirm the provided information.

    Once you're inside the country you will be accompanied by two guides basically everywhere you go. In fact, they simply decide where you go, when you go, how long you stay. They might listen to preferences, but in the end you have to do as they tell you, whether you like it or not. The only alternative would be that you stay at the hotel all day, but don't even think to get out. At most places you visit would be a local guide. Everything is organized to the last bit, they always know a group of tourists is on the way.

    The two guides play different roles. The first one (ms. Kim, standing on the left in the first picture of the concrete wall) acts like a tour guide like anywhere else in the world: organizing everything, informing us about anything, telling stories and jokes on the bus, learn us some Korean words, and a couple of times she even joined us for a couple of drinks at the bar (ending up telling things she better shouldn't have, though no political stuff of course). She did speak English quite well, and seemed sincerely interested in how we lived back at home, and how we experienced North Korea. Just a fun person to have around, but of course even after a week she never fell out of her role of perfect DPRK citizen, with nothing but respect for the Great Leader and Dear leader.

    The other guide (mr. Oh), was more of a mystery to us. He probably has a military background (and not only because our guide from Koryo Travel referred to him as General Oh), and didn't seem to do a lot. Most of the time he just followed the group, making sure no one kept too far behind. He was also responsible for most of the official stuff, keeping our passports and visas, or handing them over to some even more mysterious guy somewhere on the streets. I tried to have a conversation with him a a couple of times (mostly when I was the one trailing behind), but I'm still not sure how much English he really did understand, most of the time the only response I got was a laugh. He was however of great value at the bowling alley...

    Only at the DMZ we where accompanied by a couple of soldiers (after all, you are entering an more or less active war zone), for the rest of the tour it was just the guides.

    Of course there are rumors of hotel rooms being bugged, could be true, could be utter bullshit, we'll never know for sure. But as our guide from Kory Tours said, why would they? If they want to know your opinion on something, they would just ask. Besides, most people would speak in their native language at their room, for half the group, that wouldn't be English. And I'm not sure how many spies they have that would understand Dutch, Danish, German, Polish, Latvian or Italian...

    Nevertheless he recommended to keep respectful of their culture and political system at all times. And that's quite though, you tend to get very cynical when they mention the many great feats of the Great Leader for the twentieth time a day...

  6. #21
    Senior Member Bob's Avatar
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    North Korea needs to join the party, and get with the 21st century. In other words, lighten up. I suspect the only reason China tolerates its bad boy neighbor to the south is that it would prefer not to have a U.S. puppet government on its border.

  7. #22

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    I think you hit the nail on the head with that one. Not to defend the DPRK government, but the west doesn't really leave them any other option. As long as the US has not only a huge political and economical influence in South Korea, but is even officially in command of the South Korean army, there simply can't be a reunification. North Korea is at war with the US, not with South Korea or any other country.

    That said, we had a couple of Americans in our group (this is the first year Americans can visit the country outside of the Mass Games-season), of which one even had South-Korean origins and did speak the language. But no hostility or whatsoever towards them, not from the guides (of course not), not from soldiers we talked to at a flower exhibition (millions of Kimilsungia's and Kimjongilia's...), not from the local people we talked to. They were actually pretty surprised about Americans visiting their country and interested in their view on the situation.

    As for me as a Dutchman, even in North Korea they are very proud about their fellow Koreans reaching the semi-finals in the 2002 football world cup with Guus Hiddink as head coach. Something most people in South-Korea already seem to have forgotten...
    (remember I visited the country well before this year's world cup...)

  8. #23

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    In three weeks I'll go back to the DPRK, together with some of the group members of last year. Seems like the right time to at least try to complete what I started...

    Day 11, Tuesday April 13th 2010: Pyongyang

    A whole day of museums and monuments in Pyongyang, starting with the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. A huge museum about the Korean war, of course from the North Korean point of view. The first thing we get to see is a video about the most important fact: the US started the war...



    Next are numerous rooms with impressive dioramas, some other videos mostly about the atrocities committed by the US army, and of course lots of photographs and paintings of Kim Il-Sung.



    In the basement of the building is a huge collection of planes, tanks, Jeeps and other military stuff. In fact, the museum was actually build around it. Our visit to the museum ends with an amazing diorama, built all around a revolving floor.



    Outside the museum are the Monuments to Victorious Fatherland Liberation War. Here we also have a nice view at the Ryugyong Hotel, under construction since 1987.



    Next is the Pyongyang Film Studio, which according to the guides is visited by Kim Jong-Il at least once a week. Most of the sets are outdoors, and are actually complete buildings. There's a palace and a traditional village (with the Ryugyong Hotel prominently in the background...), but also whole streets in European, Chinese and Japanese style. And of course there's also a South Korean street, with a STD clinic next to a “gentleman's club”...



    On our way back to the hotel for lunch we pass a billboard for cars produced in the DPRK. Supposedly there are just five billboards in the country, and that's exactly the number we've seen during the week...



    After lunch we visit the shelter from where Kim Il-Sung led his troops through the war. Quite boring, the most interesting was the water well from which the Great Leader himself also drank, of course we could also give it a try.



    Next is probably the largest museum in the country, maybe even the world: the Museum of Metro Construction. Ridiculously large (but no heating so inside was a chilly 8 degrees Celsius...), there are even a couple of rooms about the construction of the museum itself, which our (English) guide appropriately called the Museum of the Construction of the Museum of Metro Construction. According to him this should be the highlight of the museum, but unfortunately we weren't allowed to visit it. Taking pictures was also strictly prohibited, except for the huge painting at the entrance.
    (is Kim Jong-Il trying to look taller by standing on his toes or does it just look that way?)



    The museum itself isn't really about the construction of the metro. It's mostly about the on the “on-the-spot guidance” of Kim Il-Sung: pictures of him picking the right color of marble or inspecting the blueprints, a chair he sat on, a mug he drank from, the scissors he used at the opening ceremony of one of the stations, and lots more. And of course there are a couple of very impressive dioramas, most of them with Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il at the center of it.

    On to the Three-Revolution Exhibition, several museums about the technological and industrial merits of the DPRK. First is a museum about industry, mining, power plants and so on. Most important are the CNC machines, a recent “invention” of the DPRK. Something they are really proud of, since this is what made their space program and of course the atomic bomb possible. That's also why there are signs about CNC at the streets, and there's even a CNC-song...



    After buying an authentic North-Korean travel guidebook we visit the planetarium, a large concrete sphere. Inside we first get to see a couple of videos about their space program. After that it starts to get hilarious: we get a lesson about our Solar System. But since the inside of the sphere consists of unpainted concrete, the projected images are terrible, our blue planet looks just as gray as the red planet or the green planet. And the fact all planets are shown at almost the same size doesn't help either. So they try to make things clear by using a laser pointer, but I got a feeling the guide didn't have a clue either where to point at...



    And finally, the last sight of this long day, the Monument to the Party Founding. Regular communism is often symbolized by a hammer and sickle. The DPRK however has a third item: a brush, symbolizing the “working intellectual”. But from certain angles, it looks like the hand is holding something very different...



    We have dinner at a restaurant in the city, some kind of hotpot, which actually tastes very good. Afterwards we return to our hotel.


  9. #24

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    Day 12, Wednesday April 14th 2010: Mt. Myohyang & Pyongyang

    The view from the hotel, the traffic actually seems busy!



    Today we went to the Mt. Myohyang area. We first visited the Pohyon-sa temple, first built in 1024, partly destroyed during the Korean War, but most of it has been reconstructed since.



    The main reason to visit this area however is the International Friendship Exhibition. Both father and son Kim have a huge treasurehouse here to showcase the presents they received from all over the world. Most of the buildings is actually deep inside the mountains, they are more like a bunker than a museum. Camera's aren't allowed inside, the pictures of the collection are scanned from a book I bought.



    We are first shown the gifts to Kim Il-Sung, supposedly over 200,000. Room after room with the most bizarre items from all over the world, including the US. Paintings, sculptures, vases, swords, guns, cars, a train and about everything else you can or even can't imagine. At the end of the tour there's of course a souvenir shop, and we get our camera's back to take some pictures of the surrounding area.



    On to the other building, with the presents to Kim Jong-Il. Far less than his father got, and also more practical stuff, like an iMac he got from a CEO of Samsung. But still most of it was more of the same.




    After lunch at a nearby restaurant we return to Pyongyang.



    Back in town we visit the Mangyongdae School Children's Palace. This is a huge place for extra-curricular activities for the most talented children. Music and dance, but also arts and crafts like calligraphy and embroidery.



    After visiting some classrooms while trying to keep ahead of a large group of Chinese we go to the auditorium for a phenomenal show.



    After the show we visit the “local pub”, somewhere hidden in an alley in an anonymous office building, probably the last place someone would look for a drink. It's a brewery pub with great beer. Next we have diner in a restaurant nearby, at first mostly very bland stuff, but later also a great bibimbap. The beer at the restaurant was of the kind I hoped not to see for a week...



    At night there was supposed to be a surprise, which actually starts while we're still on our way back to the hotel. Since this is the night before the birthday of president Kim Il-Sung there's a huge fireworks display. There are hundreds of trucks carrying soldiers on the road, causing even some serious traffic congestion, when the fireworks begin they all get out and watch. Too bad we aren't allowed to join them, we first have to get to the hotel. But no problem at all, as the fireworks display goes on for hours...



    After some time we go back inside the hotel, and visit the casino, run by Chinese. It's not that much, some slot machines half of which are out of order, two blackjack tables and two roulette tables, but it still is the main reason for Chinese to visit the DPRK as some sort of cheap alternative for Macau. We end our day again at the hotel bar, where we try their most intriguing drink: a huge bottle with a snake inside. Turned out I was the only one who didn't think it was absolutely disgusting. And that's a good thing, since I never received the pictures someone took, so in a few weeks I'll have to give it another try...


  10. #25

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    Thanks for your hilarious tour.

    How come these bozos don't see how comical they are?

  11. #26
    Disgruntled Optimist lofter1's Avatar
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    Comical?


  12. #27

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    Absolutely. Right down to the cigarette and ashtray.

  13. #28

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    ^That wouldn't happen to be painted on black velvet would it?!

  14. #29

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    Sorry, I don't have the slightest idea.

    And comical? Wait until you see the picture of Kim Jong-Il at the West Sea Barrage visitor centre
    (and remember, you have to be respectful of both the Great Leader and Dear Leader at all times, so don't even dare to laugh...)

    By the way, from the 21st till the 28th of this month I'll again visit the DPRK. This time we'll also visit the Pyongyang Art Studio, the place where most of those paintings, propaganda posters and mosaics are made. Should be pretty interesting.
    Last edited by WizardOfOss; April 7th, 2011 at 04:50 PM.

  15. #30
    Disgruntled Optimist lofter1's Avatar
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    What do you find regarding food and meals in the DPRK?

    Or is drinking snake cocktails the alternative to eating?

    And does everyone have teeth as straight and white as seen in the official images?


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