Sunday, 12 March 2017

The great Exhibition Hall and an old monastery, war museum and war Memorial

ALLIE:DAY 26: Monday, 12th of March

The great Exhibition Hall and an old monastery, war museum and war Memorial

snow capped mountain peak in Myohangsan
There is snow all around us! What a beautiful clear, sunny morning. I would love to go out hiking, but we scheduled to visit the great Exhibition Hall of… of course of the Great Leader. 

Again we are equipped with a third guide to show us around. Two huge buildings are set against the mountain rocks with most of it actually disappearing into the rocks. As we later hear, this is all part of a gigantic escape and refuge plan of Kim.

When I ask Ong about the residential place of the Dear Leader she can’t answer this question. Nobody seems to know, or nobody is allowed to know. Anyway, the massive gates open by a special lock and we wander along some endless corridors with also an endless amount of doors. I do now understand why we need another guide. 

The Great Exhibition Hall
She tells us that there are 200 rooms and if you stay only one minute in each of them, you’d still need more then one year to see all the exhibits. The girl knows exactly what is hidden behind each door whether it be room 94 or 185. These rooms contain an incredible collection of gifts from various countries, societies, political parties or national leaders. 

There are cars, clocks, paintings, angling and golfing equipment, buffalo horn, a huge television set and whatever you can think of. The curious thing is, why doesn’t he use for example the car or the TV? Because it’s from the ‘enemy’ Japan or South Korea?

A lot of the gifts seem to be rather bribery from smallish companies then a gift in everlasting memory or gratefulness to the Kims. But of course you wouldn’t say so. So we just say the usual ‘ahs’ and ‘ohs’ and fulfill our duty in bowing twice.

After two hours in dark rooms (although equipped with a very sophisticated automatic lightning system) we are glad to be outside in the beautiful sunshine again. Huge icicles drop down from the roofs. Spring is coming. We drive a short bit up the valley and visit one of the most famous temples in North Korea, the Botten-Temple.

The scenic Botten Temple in winter snow
This is one of the very few remaining wooden structures in the DPRK dating back to 1242. The surrounding landscape, the snow and the lovely old wooden roofs and wood-carvings make this visit a highlight of traditional Korean culture. 

Ong Min proudly shows us the room where 80.000 Buddhist scrolls are kept amongst them the earliest printed letters. Earlier then Gutenberg in Germany, she points out, these date back to 1371 A.D.

Lunch time. The same food as yesterday evening, a deliciously cooked fish, but cold, a soup and rice. After that, we drive back to Pyongyang. 

Everybody except the driver and me asleep.I dare to take a shot through the windscreen of the empty motorway ahead of us. 
Empty highway to Pyongyan

Countryside on our way back to Pyongyang
It’s 4pm and we are now visiting the War Museum, escorted again by the same girl in uniform as on our visit to the ‘Pueblo’. The War Museum is dreadful. 

Not really because of its contents, more because it’s so deadly cold. These huge rooms with no heating seem to be even colder then anywhere outside and I can barely keep concentrated. 

We hear the old stories about the Korean War and how bravely the army fought against the Imperialist invaders e.g. the Japanese and Americans and are shown a diorama on how the army trucks managed to evade bombardments by driving up the mountain passes and brave civilians supported the pillars of a broken bridge in order to let the trucks pass. (We later see many such dodgy looking bridges where we secretly smile and think, those would also need human support!).

huge dioramas in the war museum
How wonderful to be out the in the fresh open air cold again. We are dragged into another handicraft store and buy some ginseng schnapps, tea and cookies. 

But we’d much rather watch the practice for the Airag games in the streets. Thousands of people are out there with paper torches marching up and down, raising their arms and following the instructions of their group leader. One, two, three and up. 

But Kim doesn’t like that and photographs are out of discussion anyway. So I try to smile into the group of people and indeed, they smile back, some are shyly giggling, some are waving back or saying ‘hello’. That’s nice. Why aren’t we allowed to get in touch with the local people? It’s really sad.

War memorial downtown Pyongyang
Another War Memorial. Huge bronze figures document and honour all the brave hearts of the wars. This time Kim is with us (he evaded the cold museum and left that job to poor Ong Min). Then a short visit to the post office where we get stamps for our non-descript postcards that unfortunately probably never arrive anywhere.     

Finally a short walk around downtown. Phil has chatted Kim into the idea of drinking Gin Tonic. So he leads us to a small café that looks rather cosy and nice to me, but alas, out of stock. We end up in the posh tourist hotel Koryo, where we still don’t get GnT but at least very good local draft beer. 

Huge mural paintings in the Pyongyang metro
We talk about the Korean war and watch the running show in TV about a children’s music and dance performance. Finally it’s time to go out to our Duck Barbeque dinner.(yes all very vegetarian!). Very fatty and tough duck’s meat is laid out in front of us and we are supposed to grill it. 

Our team seems to love it, but alas this is really not for us. We are glad when some other dishes arrive and stick to lots of local schnapps. Kim seems to be in a really good mood – alas  for the last time of this tour.

Later in our hotel rooms we discover that we can even watch BBC news and hear about the arrival of the nuclear commissioner to North Korea.

PHIL: Day 26/12 March

This is our chance to see the ‘treasures’ given to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il, housed in separate museums which, set largely beneath massive limestone mountains, can only be described as bunkers. 
Each looks like a country house or palace built on a slope, but after we had entered and walked for 10 minutes I commented that we must be far underground, a fact Mr Kim does not deny. 

There is snow on the ground outside and the setting is splendidly surrounded by pine-covered mountains. Access is through 15m wide bronze doors reputed to weigh 4 tonnes each, which belies not only the nature of the contents but perhaps the true purpose of the ‘sanctuary’.

Hundreds of thousands of ‘gifts’ fill over 150 rooms in each museum, arranged by geographical area and country of origin. A lot are predictable, mostly from the now-distant Soviet era when acolytes of Communism sought to out-do each other’s tastelessness. 

Soldier infront of the Great Exhibition Hall
The Union of Soviet Silkworm Breeders (or some such) presents a ghastly collage of silk-worm cocoons. There are a few more recent items attributed to Vladimir Putin. 

Larger-than-life horrors such as Emperor Bokassa and Idi Amin did their bit to show how much they too loved the Great Leader. More cynically there is a complete suite of hand-made wood and silk furniture given by the President of ….the Hyundai Motor Corporation.

Blinking in the bright sunlight reflected off the snow we emerge to visit a monastery complex nearby where a lone Buddhist monk delights in Allie’s interest in the recent history of worship in DPRK. It appears that a few novices each year are still inducted into priesthood and, curiously, that the monastery had to be largely re-built following heavy bombing by the ‘American Agressors’ during the early ‘50s. 

The Buddhist monastery
Now I may be poorly educated in military tactics and the US Air Force might have been even more inaccurate in restricting collateral damage than in 21st century Iraq, but to my mind the only reason for carpet-bombing these desolate mountain slopes just might have been that the man-made caves were filled with men and munitions.

After returning to Pyongyang there is again a full programme starting at the War Museum where room after freezing room is filled with dioramas, weapons, uniforms and photographs. 

Political cant is evident in all the captions which seem incapable of just stating a ‘fact’ without elaboration in Cold War style. 

War museum in Pyongyang: Russian built Yak
After viewing more statues of heroes we are ‘treated’ to a duck barbecue at a ‘famous’ restaurant among towering suburban residential blocks.

The food is awful and we are the only customers.

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