Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Kumsunsan Mausoleum, a revolutionary Cemetery, the Kwang pop temple, the birthplace at Manyongdae, a mass concert and drive into the Myohangsan Mountains.

PHIL: Day 25/11 March

An important day today on which we are requested to ‘dress smartly’ (though we have brought nothing in the way of jacket-and-tie attire).First stop is the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader. I have never bothered to visit such places before – Ho Chi Min in Hanoi and, before the collapse of the USSR, Lenin in Red Square. There is nothing optional about this journey of respect, however.

infrront of the Kumsusan Mausoleum
On the way we are informed that the lack of traffic on the city streets is due to a desire to avoid pollution. This kind of self-delusion or deception seems commonplace and we encounter it daily in DPRK.

The Great Leader is preserved on display in what was once a palace whose windows have been bricked up since its change of role. A neat and modern-looking tram system brings the revering populace from downtown in a continuous stream – a contrast to the decrepit and infrequent public transport on the streets. We, along with a Finnish group who look like they could be UN- or government-related, are injected into the queue ahead of the masses. They all look solemn, though not unhappy, men in their dark suits with Party pins, women in pretty and elaborate traditional dresses.

Security is tight with detector arches and sprays. Our shoes are cleaned by a moving mat and all loose items removed from us, even cameras. We proceed in silence along what seems like endless moving walkways inside marble corridors. At each corner or change of level there are be-suited ‘stewards’ watching every individual as they pass for signs of unseemly behaviour or dress. Passing first into a pastel-lit room with a larger-than-life statue of ‘himself’ there is solemn martial music. Then, after a final set of escalators we are in ‘the presence’. The DPRK National Anthem plays dirge-like and we enter a marbled hall with lighting concentrated on the glass-encased figure complete with slicked-back black hair and brown formal suit. As we circulate past each quadrant (except the head) we approach to within 3m and are briefed to bow our heads before moving on. Soldiers with silver-plated rifles guard the chamber.

view to downtown Pyongyang
 After this climax we are ushered into a series of rooms which dispel any genuine sense of grief or solemnity that one might have felt. The adjoining memorial chambers are filled with gifts, letters of appreciation, and awards, clearly, to our Western minds, originating from people or organisations who are either of little account (The Kim Il Jung Juche Idea Society of, for example, Wolverhampton), or who sought military or commercial favours (the Sandinista Front of Nicaragua; the Yangtze Steel Company of China). It would have been easy – though not adviseable – to laugh out loud. Later comes a room somewhat implausibly filled by luxurious private carriages supplied as gifts by Mao and Stalin, no doubt vying for Korea’s favour in the ‘50s.Uncle Joe’s is, perhaps predictably, heavily armoured.
It is a relief to be on the ‘down’ elevator back to collect our belongings, but the endless masses on the ‘up’ side continue unabated.

visiting groups at the Kim Il Song birthplace
In contrast our re-education continues with a visit to Kim Il Sung’s birthplace, a well-preserved traditional Korean farmstead which is also being visited by organised groups of the ‘faithful’, but with less solemnity than the mausoleum. A war cemetery follows – deserted except by a lady selling obligatory flowers to lay against the memorial to the Great Leader’s wife. It is bitterly cold so, in truly egalitarian Communist style, Miss Ong gets the job of explaining all whilst Mr Kim shelters in the car for a smoke.

Next is a name which rings loud bells in my ‘60s-educated mind – ‘Pueblo’. This former US Navy intelligence-gathering vessel, which hit the headlines in 1968 when what appears to be a piece of American incompetence put it in the hands of the North Korean Navy, still languishes by the riverbank in Pyongyang as first-hand evidence of US mendacity. 
The Pueblo
Rather more poignantly sited beside it is a remote-controlled spy torpedo/submarine the US are alleged to have used as recently as 2004.We are shown around Pueblo by a rather starchy lady sergeant in the DPRK Army. Her English is execrable and punctuated with many references to ‘imperialist aggressors’ and ‘glorious People’s freedom forces’. 

We are shown a very shaky (but probably genuine) black and white movie of the US Marines confessing their guilt. 

It is hard for me to believe that I am now in the bowels of the ship which made banner headlines in worldwide press during my final term at university.

As an ‘extra’ (in money as well as time) we are told Mr Kim could arrange a visit that evening to a national concert with 1000 participants. The thought of an afternoon as prisoners amongst the delights of the Yanggakdo Hotel makes the decision easy, so we agree. After a short wait in a thronging mezzanine, where photography of soldiers and performers seems permitted, we are hustled into a separate, privileged, entrance of the National Opera House and ushered to seats amongst massed ranks of soldiery and official-looking ‘suits’. 

A large civilian orchestra and choir is soon in place, joined as the performance proceeds by a military choir who appear from the wings on rolling staging. The choreography is certainly impressive and the music, played partly on Western instruments and partly on Chinese-style variants, is reminiscent of the Revolutionary Ballet commonplace in Mao’s China. We try to count the performers and they are certainly not far short of the promised 1000.

Our first opportunity to see the Korean countryside as we are driven by the faithful team to Mt. Myohang, location of the International Friendship Exhibition. Overnight accommodation after the long drive on completely deserted, but well maintained, roads is in a concrete monstrosity similar to those in some Alpine ski resorts.

As we pull up in darkness lights are switched on by reception staff in a building clearly devoid of visitors.

our hotel in Myohangsan
ALLIE: DAY 25: Sunday, 11th of March

The Kumsusan Mausoleum, a revolutionary Cemetery, the Kwang pop temple, the birthplace at Manyongdae, a mass concert and drive into the Myohangsan Mountains.

The day starts with a great worry: What to wear today? We are supposed to put on our finest kit, that means Phil should nominally wear his suit and a tie and I should put on a dress and tights and nice shoes.

But neither of us posses any of that sort. We try our best to dress up, but I still feel rather awkward wearing my shirt and tights but then my big trekking boots! 

The Kumsusan Mausoleum
The reason for all this is Kumsusan – the great memorial place of Kim Il Song, the great leader. We are driving through the city and head out to the east. I ask about the relations between Korea and Vietnam, Hoh Chi Min and Kim Il Song. Silence. “Don’t really know. Who was he by the way?” Change of subject: Why are there so few bicycles in the city?

People seem to queue forever for a bus, there are no cars and so people just walk for miles. The answer is: “Riding a bike is dangerous. Maybe in the countryside…” hm, doesn’t make sense to me, but that’s North Korea. I rather wonder whether they are too expensive for people to afford.

We arrive at the Great Leaders Memorial Hall. As foreigners we are fist led to a first class waiting hall (with heating!). Outside the queues are lining up. Everybody is neatly dressed. The men in black suits with ties, the women in their traditional dresses, the Chokori. I look a bit stupid with my knee long skirt, tights and my big boots. On the other hand I see that many women are also wearing some trainers underneath their skirts. It’s freezing cold. Eventually we proceed. Not by walking but by standing on long escalators. Then a few strange check points: leave your coats and handbags, walk through a metal detector, then across a foot and shoe wash and get your hair blown messy by walking through a dust-cleaning door. 

After being as clean and prepared as anybody could we finally enter the Great Hall where a white marble statue set in pink background of Kim Il Song resides. We gradually move up in rows of four and when we reach the line, we have to bow, then quickly move on. Wardens supervise every step you take and guide you to the next room. Very solemn and heroic music accompanies the visitor, it’s the North Korean national hymn. Up an escalator and towards the holiest room, his mummified body. Dark lights, the body illuminated in white, tears-rising music. Again we move in rows of four, this time bending three times at either side, but not on the northern back side.

Phil with Mr. Kim and Ms Ong

Shuffled on to the next room: The Hall of national grief. We are equipped with head sets and may listen to the lamentation of how the country fell into national grief after the Dear Leader has passed away. North Korean groups receive their explanations from smartly dressed tour guides. The next room proudly shows us all the rewards and medals that Kim has received – even after his demise (a word always used by our guides). We notice many Arab and middle eastern countries. Why would that be, I wonder. The answer I read later in my guide book. It’s because of the weapon trading between the DPRK and those countries.

The next rooms display his private train and his Mercedes and show us how many miles he has traveled around the world. Finally we are asked to sign the visitors book and give our comments. Well, what to say? I write something like: ‘This was an amazing experience and I wish the Korean Nation happiness’ and hope that’s ok because Kim and Ong Min immediately translate our comments into Korean.
Then we are done. Wow, what an amazing experience. Out for a photo in front of the building. The wind is biting. This had been his governing palace but after his death the windows were blocked off and it was transformed to be his memorial hall.

We drive on to the Revolutionary 120 Martyrs cemetery. Kim decides to stay in the warm car and sends little Ong Min out into the freezing cold to show us around. Kim being the senior in age and experience - we guess he is in his early 30s whilst Ong Min is only 23 - turns out to be quite a macho. When he doesn’t feel like doing anything he just leaves the job to her.

Revolutionary Martyrs cemetery
Most of the graves are from young heroes that died for the revolutionary cause. There are four dates on their graves: the first being the date of birth, the second the year of joining the party, the third of going into war and the last their date of their heroic death. A few women are amongst the heroes, so is Kim’s mother. We have to buy some flowers and offer it to her in honour. The cemetery is up on a hill and we have a great view towards the city. We are surrounded by hills with pine trees and enjoy a brief view down to the recreation park.

A temple is next on the programme. It’s called Kwangpop and according to Ong Min dates back to 387 A.D. Six monks live here and keep up the temple compounds. Today they are having a special meditation meeting with other monks from some of the surrounding temples. An old monk greets us and seems to be quite happy to see us. 

Buddhist monk at the temple
He starts to tell the story of his temple and I try to ask him a few questions. This temple was destroyed in the 17th century but the government helped to restore it in the early 90s. It’s beautifully repainted and inside we find the Buddha trilogy of the medicine Buddha, Maitreya and Amitabha. The temple reminds me of temples that I have seen in Japan and the custom of taking off shoes before entering also resemble more the Japanese then the Chinese traditions. 

The monk is so friendly and talkative I really regret not being able to communicate better with him then through Ong Min (who clearly has no understanding of religious matters) or with hands and feet. But it seems at least, that the government allows these monks to lead their religious lives. But it doesn’t look like many young Koreans are interested in religious matters. When I ask Ong Min about Confucianism or Taoism, she just looks at me with big eyes and clearly doesn’t understand a word.

It’s lunch time and we eat at the hotel (what a pity!). The menu is: lengmin noddles.

At Manyongdae
Afternoon programme: we drive 20min to Manyongdae, the Great Leaders Birthplace. Set in a large green garden are two thatched huts. We are guided by yet another local guide around the historic site – ahead of a crowed of Koreans. We curiously watch them, they us. 

We are proudly been shown the pictures of the Great Leaders mother, father and brother and sisters, and some of the cooking utensils and other farming gear that the family had used. I buy a pack of crappie looking postcards for 2 € mainly because there is nothing else worth buying.

The espionage ship ‘Pueblo’ is next. Moored along the river she sits there ever since she was captured by the Koreans in 1968 nearly leading to (yet another!) war between the USA and the DPRK. A round faced girl in uniform greets us and shows us a video about the incident: The army ship had illegally entered North Korean waters in order to spy, was seized and the soldiers released after a year in prison and writing a letter of confession.

Inside the Pueblo
It’s freezing cold. We are glad to have finished the official sightseeing tour of day and are now looking forward to a great special event of this tour: a mass concert in the big Auditorium hall. We are the only foreigners amongst at least 800 people in the audience all watching us as we take our seats. Punctually at 4pm the curtain lifts up and a girl dressed in the traditional dress announces that the Dear Leader Kim Yong Il has watched this performance just 3 days ago and liked it very much. So we better like it too. And indeed we do. 

posing with the performers
The sheer size of the orchestra with more then 300 members and the choir with at least 200 singers is overwhelming. The choreography - with a military choir zooming in and out of the stage – and the various sound and light effects are astonishing. I notice that the orchestra is a mix between western and European instruments. I discover some two stringed violins (er-hu type), the traditional zither called ongkum, and harpsichords and harmonicas. The performance includes various short pieces. 

The favourite being a winter scene with Kim’s body raising out of falling snow and the choir singing a very pathetic song. I look around the audience trying to trace the thoughts and feelings from their faces. They are all mixed ages, some looking bored, some enthusiastic and some just stoic like they have seen this many times before. 

The performance finishes exactly after 90mins with a clapping orchestra and a clapping audience. Even though the tickets were quite expensive with 20 € each (everything for foreigners seems to be outrageous), it definitely was worth the experience.

Full with so many impressions we now set off to drive 130km towards the north east to the famous mountains of Myohangsan. We follow the dead empty motorway and I try to ask a few more questions. What about the health system here? The answer is, everything is free, (but if you have serious problems you probably won’t get very far.).

view to the countryside in the Myohangsan mountains
And what about your farm land? We see many rice paddies, but it’s off season now. Here in the north they only get one harvest. The water is irrigated from the hills. The other crops being sweet corn, corn, barely and other grains or potatoes. There a state farms or co operations.

We pass a large river and then follow a snow white mountain ridge. It’s getting dark. I’d love to take pictures of the farm houses but that’s strictly not allowed. After passing a few check points we arrive 2hrs later at the triangular looking Hengshan Hotel set at the end of a deep valley. The hotel is dead empty. We must be the only guests. Dinner tonight is set for us in a separee. The menu is cold fish, jiaozi soup, kimchi, spicy ginseng, rice and chicken (we had asked for vegetarian food, but that message doesn’t seem to come across even though Kim always understandingly nods  and says ‘no problem’).

Later in the room we try to watch Korean television and indeed find a programme that is sort of interesting since it’s the story of a local farmer. Here we get an insight into rural life at least. A good sip of Chinese baijui guarantees us sound sleep.

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