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

  1. #46


    Day 14, Friday April 16th 2010: Nampo & Pyongyang

    After just a few hours of sleep and way too much alcohol the night before, the day starts with a terrible hangover. There's a very effective cure however, 15 minutes in a hot spring bath and it's gone. At the breakfast it's obvious not everyone tried this. Before we leave I still have to pay the bill, a hefty € 1.90...

    We first visit the West Sea Barrage, an 8km long dam separating the Taedong River from the Yellow Sea. Built in the eighties by the army, of course with on-the-spot guidance of Kim Jong-Il. As a result, the first thing you see upon entering the visitor center is a huge picture of the Dear Leader, which got most of us into trouble not to start laughing. Next is a video about the construction of the dam, praising “only the Koreans could have built a structure like this”. It almost makes me forget there's a similar but 4 times longer Afsluitdijk here in the Netherlands, built half a century earlier...

    Next we head back to Pyongyang, to the Dragon Hill Park just outside of the city. Again old ladies dancing (of course they make us participate), groups singing songs (including the CNC-song, which really is about milling machines...) and having a BBQ in the park. This time however we also have a BBQ, although this isn't half as great as what the locals are eating. But although we have great fun with them, somehow we have a feeling something is wrong. It feels like everything around us is staged, like those people are just sent here because of us. I can't say why and we will never know the truth, but somehow it just doesn't feel right.

    On to the Mangyongdae Funfair, a rather decrepit amusement park. Main attraction is of course the big roller coaster, luckily we can skip the huge line, and to our surprise no one seems to mind, everyone keeps smiling (and some clever guys manage to join our group...). Maybe this has something to do with the fact we pay €4 for the ride, while they are paying just 1 won. According to the official exchange rate we pay 560 times as much, against the more realistic black market rate it's more like a whopping 10,000 times. There should also be a shooting range where you could shoot air guns at American soldiers, but unfortunately our guide leads us to another shooting range where you can fire at wild animals. Not real animals of course, even the DPRK isn't that bizarre...

    Back to the city center, to the Moranbong Theater for an impressive concert. The music is a mixture of the more usual classical pieces, some typical communist works, and as the grand finale again the CNC-song. Unfortunately taking pictures inside wasn't allowed.

    Next is one of the true gems of the city, the Pyongyang Metro. At 110 meters below street level one of the deepest in the world, as it should also serve as a bomb shelter. Like in many other communist cities the stations are regarded as palaces for the people, and as a result are marvelously decorated. The trains however are old Berlin train sets, rather sober, apart from some remaining German graffiti and of course portraits of the leaders. We start at Puhung (“Rehabilitation”) Station, from where we make a short ride in a apart from us empty train to Yonggwang (“Glory”) Station. Next we take another train, together with the locals this time, to Kaesong (“Triumph”) Station, where we take the ridiculously long escalator back to street level.

    Outside we're just near the Arch of Triumph, built to commemorate the end of the Japanese occupation. Inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but of course slightly higher.

    Then a surprise: because of the fireworks earlier this week tourists wouldn't be allowed near the Tower of Juche Idea, but as long as we keep quiet to the other groups, they can make an exception for us. Unfortunately we still aren't allowed to go to the observation platform of this 170 meters tall monument (of course it's a few inches taller than the Washington Monument).

    Next is the Golden Lanes Bowling, the largest bowling alley of the city. It was also visited by Kim Il-Sung, the exact route he walked is clearly marked. But strange: supposedly he also tried his luck (the ball he used is now in a glass cage), but according to the markings, he hasn't been close to the lanes.

    For diner we go the one of the best restaurants of the city, the Pyongyang Number One Duck Restaurant. A typical Korean BBQ with delicious duck, and without a doubt the best meal we had during the week.

    Once back at the hotel I spent my time at buying some last-minute souvenirs, including some DPRK money. I also send some postcards, which is not as straightforward as you might think. We got extremely large stamps with a picture of Kim Jong-Il meeting the South-Korean president. Putting the stamps sideways is regarded disrespectful, the post office simply won't accept the cards...

    Also some bad news however, when we get the news of the volcanic eruption in Iceland, which disrupted most of the air traffic in Europe. Luckily we can watch BBC World at the hotel room, but with no internet access or other sources of information, it remains to be seen what consequences this would have for us.

  2. #47


    Day 15, Saturday April 17th 2010: Leaving North Korea by train

    Unfortunately, our stay in the DPRK has to come to an end. After breakfast we go to the Pyongyang Railway Station, where we have to say goodbye to our guides. We also get our cell phones, nicely wrapped with lots of tape, not to be unwrapped before the border.

    Our part of the trains consists of two Chinese and a couple of Russian carriages coupled to a local train, the Korean part of the train is inaccessible to us. One of Russian carriages is a dining car, but all they sell is dried fish, vodka and Heineken(!), luckily during the ride we can get a pretty good meal from a cart. Quite annoying however is the guide from another group, long before we reach the border he's completely wasted, wandering around with a bottle of vodka.

    After a long and slow ride we stop at Sinuiju, the last station on the Korean side of the border. A couple of customs officers board the train, no X-ray here, so they have to search everything by hand, and also check our camera's for possibly offensive pictures. Luckily we get a quite easy going guy, he doesn't search our bags that thorough, and none of the maybe 50 pictures he watched on my camera have to be removed. He also thought the picture of the wrapped up cell phones was very funny, while one of his more grumpy colleagues in the other carriage had all similar pictures deleted. We also have a good laugh when he congratulates me with my birthday a day early, something he blames on his watch which is showing the wrong date: “stupid Chinese rubbish”...

    Next we cross the Yalu river to Dandong. A bigger contrast is hard to imagine: from the extreme poverty of North Korea to China at its most decadent. Shiny modern high-rise buildings, neon lighting, huge billboards everywhere, and more cars than we have seen all week. Customs at the Chinese side of the river is mostly a matter of waiting, they hardly look at our passports and visa, let alone our luggage. After all, we just passed Korean customs, so what possibly could they find?

    We continue our way to Beijing as part of a Chinese overnight train, which also means a decent dining car. The beer they serve also is of the kind you won't find at the other side of the border...

  3. #48


    Day 16, Sunday April 18th 2010: arrival in Beijing, flight back home...or not.

    Early in the morning we arrive at Beijing Railway Station. Although the experience isn't new to me, the chaos at the station feels like a culture shock.

    After saying goodbye to the other people on our group we take a cab to our hotel. We're supposed to fly back home just after midnight, but we nevertheless booked a cheap hotel to store our luggage and to freshen up after the long train ride. Of course we also have a look for the latest news about the volcanic eruption in Iceland, there's some hope the flights will be resumed.

    So what better to do than play tourist? Near our hotel are the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, even with the smog the view is pretty nice.

    Next we take the subway to Wangfujing, the main shopping street of Beijing.

    Back at the hotel there's some bad news: all flights to Europe are canceled. We still go to the airport for information about how to get home. The first available flight Air China can offer us to Frankfurt right now is at the May 6th, a delay of 2½ weeks. After some discussion we opt for a flight to Munich a few days earlier.

    Back at our hotel I'll try to find some alternatives. Flights to southern Europe, northern Africa, Turkey, basically every place from where we could get back home by train or ferry. No luck however, only very few tickets are still available at ridiculous cost. Think about €7,800 to Istanbul, and no, that isn't Business Class. We also have a look at the Trans-Siberian Railway, but considering we would have to arrange Mongolian and Russian visa first and then will be in a train for over a week, that's not really an alternative either. Seems like we'll be stuck in China for some time...
    Last edited by WizardOfOss; August 21st, 2011 at 06:44 PM.

  4. #49


    Day 17, Monday April 19th 2010: Beijing

    After a very, very slow start we visited the Forbidden City. I've been there before in 2006, but at the time the most important building, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, was covered in scaffolding. By now most of the palace has been restored to its original glory. Unfortunately, because of our slow start we simply don't have enough time to make it all the way through the palace.

  5. #50


    Day 18, Tuesday April 20th 2010: Beijing

    An early start at the Temple of Heaven. If you want to see the locals do their morning rituals in the park surrounding the stunning temple buildings, be there at 7...

    After visiting the nearby Hongqiao Pearl Market (where about everything you could think of is being sold, not just pearls) we go once more to the airport, trying to get an earlier flight home. Again, no luck.

    Back in the city, we spent the evening at Sanlitun, a modern shopping and nightlife district.

  6. #51
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
    Join Date
    Oct 2002


    Sublimely gorgeous.

    On a lakefront site, the White Block Gallery in Heyri, South Korea [Courtesy SsD]


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