Thursday, 9 March 2017

Arrival in North Korea and Phil's birthday in Pyongyang!

PHIL: Mar 10/Day 24

Flight on Air Koryo to Pyongyang
My 60th birthday – one of the reasons we indulged ourselves in this long itinerary. Allie has created a small bag of ‘presents’, mainly aimed at providing sustinence in luxury-deprived Korea

No time for much else before our flight with Air Koryo – blacklisted by most western tour companies and banned from European airspace due to its ancient Russian aeroplanes and allegedly low safety standards. For a combination of political and economic reasons no other airline presently serves Pyongyang , so unless you are prepared for rail journeys in and out Air Koryo is Hobson’s Choice.

The Il-62 airliner, probably at least 30 years old and the last in service anywhere, arrives promptly. At first we only see a handful fellow passengers – all westerners including a lady working with Save The Children and an Englishman from very near Bristol who is re-planting Korean forests with UNDP. We assume, therefore, that the aircraft will be almost empty. About ten minutes before departure, however, about 80 dark-suited Koreans, all sporting Kim Jung Il party badges, scramble onboard. My idea of photographing the antediluvian cabin interior and the Stalinist-style hospitality is snuffed out as Koreans, all allegedly charged with reporting on our every action, filled the empty seats.

Monument in Pyongyang
The flight is extremely turbulent though weather conditions appear clear, and arrival in Pyongyang uneventful until I am asked if I have a mobile phone. We had already been advised that laptops were a prohibited import and that cellphones would be removed from us pending our final departure – despite the fact that western phones do not work in DPRK. 

Our principal guide, Mr Kim, looks worried and repeatedly says “problem, problem” before announcing that he would be custodian of the offending item until we stepped on the train to return to China. He emerges from Customs with the phone tightly sealed (and signed) in a brown paper envelope. Ms Ong Min, the second ‘minder’, and Mr Lee, our driver, are apparently there to watch each other.

View from our hotel across the city
En route from the airport we are shown the Triumph Arch, a rip-off of the Arc de Triomph in architecture as well as name, and a massive statue of ‘you-know-who’ flanked by 100m friezes of struggling heroes cast in bronze and bearing the flag representing the hammer, sickle and paintbrush, the latter being the Korean communists’ concession to culture. 

This must be one of the last places on earth where the Soviet realist style persists. We are specifically forbidden to photograph masses of ordinary citizens practising for the forthcoming annual Airang Mass Games, a peculiarly North Korean form of subservient idolatry represented as a sporting event.

The downtown Yanggagkdo Hotel allocates us to a room on the 38th floor, though there is little evidence of other guests except a few Chinese. Maybe we are the only Westerners in Pyongyang today?  Built on an islet in the river it is obviously well situated to discourage unaccompanied forays into the city. 

Somebody in the tour organisation has noted it is my 60th birthday today so at dinner, exceptionally accompanied by comrades Lee, Kim & Ong Min, a suitably-inscribed cake is presented and copious quantities of ginseng schnapps consumed.

ALLIE: DAY 24: Saturday, 10th of March

Special flight to Pyongyang, welcome to the DPRK and a birthday cake for Phil

Feel terrible in the morning after a bad night. But it’s Phils birthday and I mustn’t spoil it. Alas no time for running, we have to be at the airport by 8.30. It’s a lovely sunny day and the visibility is stunning. I even see the northern mountains for the first time in probably 20 years of coming to this city.

A first glimpse of North Korean landscape
As we check in for our flight JS 152 to Pyongyang we meet Michael, an reforestation specialist from Bristol! He has been working in North Korea for the past 5 years and tells us a few stories about life in the country. All we hear makes us even more curious and eager to see one of the last remaining socialist strongholds in the world. Both Phil and I had wished to see this country and it was a definite MUST on our list of countries to visit. 

The trip we are about to start now was organized through the specialist tour agent Koryo Tours who also helped us to get our visas. It wasn’t very difficult indeed to be admitted eligible for a visa, but we had to proof that we weren’t journalists or photographers. So each of us had to produce a letter from our employers – which was a bit of a struggle since we both work self-employed. Anyway, all seems in hand as we finally board the ancient 30 years old aircraft IL 62. Phil had gone a bit mad earlier on when I tried to catch a shot of this rare aircraft on taxi, but obviously just missed it.

Arrival in Pyongyang
Phil and I must be the only tourists on this plane but we spot a few other foreigners like Michael, people working for NGO’s or being Russian or Chinese businessmen. The rest are Koreans, mostly men and all dressed in black suits with ties. We look rather under-dressed. 

The aircraft really looks ancient to me: the seats are quite comfortable and with lots of leg room, but the overhead luggage has no shutters to secure it from falling down, the interior design is clearly from the 70ies and the lavatories also show a distinct air of nostalgic aircraft history. But the best are the north Korean stewardesses with their white gloves and embroidered aprons.

We are reminded again that we are on board of an aircraft that wouldn’t be allowed into any European airport for safety and environmental reasons when the engines are started and ear straining noise drowns the rest of our conversation.

We take off at 11.49 for our 2 hours flight and 1200km to the capital of the DPRK.
In order to be permitted to the country we have to confirm that we don’t take ‘weapons, killing devices and excitets (whatever that is!)’! We tick NO and hope that’s ok.

Accompanied by heroic sounding Korean opera music we are soon served cold Sausage, Gulasch and Beer. Beer being the best of all. The views are spectacular: we fly right over the Great wall and the mountain ranges continue for most of the flight. Then a high pitched female voice announces that we are soon to arrive in the country of the ‘Great leader’ Kim Jong Il.

A stroll around downtown Pyongyang
All the men in the aircraft stiffen their ties and adjust their badges with the portrait of Kim. The landing is not as bad as take off was (the aircraft had terrible turbulence and I was really frightened that this would be my last flight!) and then we roll into Pyongyang airport. My first impression of the countryside: symmetrically arranged farmhouses, empty fields and empty roads.

Immigration is surprisingly efficient and smooth. They check our visa (alas its on a spare piece of paper and we don’t get the desired stamp in our passports) and declaration form and then we are officially in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As I learn, the North Koreans don’t like being called North Korea and insist they are the DPRK. Phil has to say a temporary good-bye to his mobile phone as cellular phones along with computers are not allowed into the country. But you wonder why? We couldn’t use it anyway since there is no network, and on our train journey towards to border, we suddenly can have it back. All very odd.

View to the Taedong river in Pyongyang
We are greeted by a tall guy who’s name is Kim and a slender and very pretty looking girl called Ong Min. Both of them will be our guides (and guards!) for the next 5 days. We wonder who is what and decide that Kim is probably more the political guardian, whilst Ong Min is training to be a guide. We are taken into the city by our private driver Mr. Li, a friendly smiling slender man. 

Catching a first glimpse of rural life in NK reinforces what I have seen from the air: lots of people walking along the roadside, hardly any busses, cars or even bicycles, some farmers out in the fields ploughing with cows, a few pretty looking pine trees and pear plantations, but most of the countryside looks barren and just about to recover from a harsh winter. I’d love to ask a thousand questions but I dare not, not right now in these first critical hours of entering this closed country. I try to listen to Ong Min who welcomes us to the ‘great country of our dear leader’ and continues with a bit of history.

As we enter the city we stop at our first monument (I have to count how many we had seen in the end!). It’s the Arc d’Triomphe built in 1925-1945 by Kim Il Song (in short now just KIS – may he forgive me being a lazy writer). The dates mark the time that Kim left his home to fight for the liberation of his country and the time he returned. As we have read and were told always to ask before taking pictures we do so and are told that we may take photographs of this splendid monument. But more interesting to us are actually the many hundred of schoolchildren rehearsing something at a square just opposite of us. 

We request to have a look. Yes, we may, but no photographs. The rules of ‘do’s and don’ts’ of photography in this country seem to be quite difficult to understand as we realize later. Funnily we are often allowed to take pictures of military places, even officers quite proudly pose for our pictures and the heavily guarded zone of Panmunjom also turns out to be ok for photography. But ordinary life cows, people on the street, bus queues, the police girls in town or any picture in the countryside or downtown area is taboo.    

It is freezing. A icy cold wind straight our of Siberia makes our first sightseeing endeavors quite a challenge. Our next stop is in front of the peoples library and the children’s palace. I am advised by Ong Min (Kim decided to stay in the car, it’s too cold) to buy a posy of flowers because we are about to pay our reverence to the great statue of Kim Il Song at Mansudae. The flowers are rather expensive, 3 € or 30 Yuan.

As we discover later, about everything a foreigner wants or has to buy here is very expensive and the most favorable currency is the Euro. But if you may also pay in Renminbi or Dollars and amazingly the change is always in exactly the currency you choose to pay in. As we walk across the concrete park we see a wedding couple posing for their photographs. We ask and are allowed to get a shot. The bride is dressed in a traditional Korean dress but the groom in a military army suit. That is very popular, Ong Min explains. I feel sorry for the couple because these freezing – 10 degrees winds are nearly unbearable. But love seems to make up for that.

Ong Min and myself offering flowers
As we stand in front of Kim’s huge 30 meters high statue, Ong Min asks us to make a bow and place the flowers. A strange feeling, because of course Mr. Kim is not MY great leader so why should I do that? But as we know, you better behave or it would be a great offence and that’s of course something I don’t want. I try to remember whether I have in my life had to bow before somebody or something. I can’t remember.

By now my bladder is screaming for release. But the only toilets that deem acceptable for foreigners are in the hotel. So we drive across the bridge over the Taedong river to the island of Yanggakdo where we check in our hotel, the “Yanggakdo Hotel”. Our room is on 38th floor and we seem to be the only guests! The rooms is very nice and rends fantastic views over the city. The cold winds at least have the advantage of allowing great views (and photographs!) over the city of Pyongyang.

At 6pm we meet our guides in the lounge and over a cold draft beer (home brewed!) we are told about the programme for the next couple of days. It seems to be a very tight schedule, meticulously planned. Kim excuses the likely power shortage in our hotel in Kaesong with the fact that the States wouldn’t allow the DPRK to have its own nuclear power. Interesting explanation! The chairman of the United Nations security council international atomic energy authority (what a word!) Muhammed Al Baradai is indeed about to visit North Korea to resume talks about the nuclear threat that the DPRK had just posed. Not even the Chinese were pleased with what their neighbour was trying to do there. My question as to whether we could visit a market, is answered with strict silence. That of course means: definitely NOT!

Happy birthday Phil!
Then it’s time for dinner at the hotel restaurant where the chef greets me “Willkommen! Wie geht es Ihnen?”. Kim, Ong Min and the driver also take their seats with us, since it’s Phils special birthday. 

My Schatz is becoming 60 today. What a place to celebrate such an event! After tasting some Kimpchi and a good broth of seafood soup we are invited to toast with Songak schnaps “Chuckbe!” (cheers!). And then there is Phils birthday cake! Indeed a nice sponge cake that we all share even with the staff.

After our little celebration I need a digestive walk, but where can we go? Maybe check out the basement. But all we find is a gambling room, a disco, a karaoke bar and a dubious looking massage parlour. We retreat to our room and think of other ways to end this remarkable day.

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