Pyongyang #1: City Sights and the Mass Games

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October 3rd 2018
Published: October 23rd 2018
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The view from the Yanggakdo Hotel
A good night's sleep in a comfortable bed made me feel more human today. I headed down to the breakfast room and a few others from the tour were already there. The room can only be described as very pink. It would definitely fulfil a young child's dream of a princess room. The breakfast was a buffet and there was a good selection of stuff. I also liked the egg station, where you could get eggs fried or omelettes made as you wanted. We all assembled in the lobby at 9 am and headed out for the day to explore Pyongyang. It was going to be a long day as we were going to the Mass Games that evening too. We drove through the streets of Pyongyang and I tried to take in as much as I could. The streets were just so quiet and empty. After living in China for a couple of years, this felt like bliss. I always say after China, I'm going to move somewhere with no people and no noise, maybe Pyongyang fits the bill?

Our first stop of the day was the Grand People's Study Hall. This huge building is a library where local citizens can come to read, study, take classes and listen to lectures. It was built in 1982 to celebrate Kim Il Sung's 70th birthday. In addition to our two North Korean guides and our Western one, we were assigned a guide from the Grand People's Study Hall to show us around. This would happen at every place we went to, we would be given a local guide, always a female and always dressed in a hanbok (traditional Korean clothing). Sometimes these guides spoke English, other times our North Korean guides interpreted for them. We were shown around the library. We were shown room with books and people studying in them, always under the gaze of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, whose portraits hung in the rooms. There didn't seem to be many people there. We saw typical North Korean books and foreign books that had been translated into Korean such as Harry Potter. These foreign books were kept in a special section, so I feel that only certain, i.e. read the right, people would have access to them. We also the selection of foreign language books. Most looked a little dated. We went into a big lecture theatre, where a lot of the group got their pictures taken sitting at the desk on the stage with the huge portraits of the two elder Kims above them. Definitely Facebook profile picture material. We also got to watch an English class going on, which was quite interesting.

From the Grand People's Study Hall, we drove around the corner to Kim Il Sung Square. It was so quiet, there were so few people walking around. It was a beautiful, sunny day, where were all the people? It's times like this when I can understand why people say Pyongyang is a fake, showcase city as it doesn't feel like a 'real' city. But maybe we are just projecting our Western ideals of what a city should be like on the place. Maybe people don't generally walk around there. Who knows? Not I, and since we are restricted in what we see and do, I will never know. Kim Il Sung Square is often the place shown in the news as it is the gathering place for rallies and military parades. I would love to see a military parade there. We spent a while taking photos of the square and the various buildings that line the edges of it. I really liked the massive North Korean flag, that was on the top of one of the buildings.

Next, we headed to the bookstore. However, just outside the bookstore there was one of the infamous North Korean traffic women. These women direct the traffic in Pyongyang and I think they have them in other cities, too. They are always very smartly dressed in their turquoise uniforms and to be a traffic woman is regarded as a good job. A few of us stopped to try and get her picture, but she had our back to us. We were lucky enough to see another traffic woman come along and they were changing over. I snapped a picture of the new traffic woman and she was not happy about that. She blew her whistle and scowled at me. So much for staying out of trouble, getting the evil eye off a North Korean traffic woman on my first proper day in the city. Eventually, I headed into the bookstore and had a look around. I was going to try and be good on this trip and not buy anything. Well, I totally failed at that on the first day. The bookstore had some really cool hand painted posters and I ended up buying one of those. I also ended up with a few books as where else would I be able to buy North Korean literature. Our bus was parked up about a 15 minute walk away, so we got to wander the streets of downtown Pyongyang for a bit. I was really happy we got to do this as when I travel, I normally do a lot of walking and like exploring that way. The streets were still very quiet and there wasn't a whole to see, but still it felt good to just wander for a bit and soak in the normal sights. Everything seems so dated here, it is like stepping back in time. However, I do love the whole retro thing, so I think it is really cool. Saying that, I probably wouldn't want to live there as I love my modern conveniences. Also, the people that I did see in the city were all very smartly dressed. The men in the dark suits that most of them wear and the women in darkly coloured office wear. The men definitely seemed to have a swagger in their step, which I liked. Our bus was parked up next to a large building, which I have completely forgotten the name of and its purpose. I am annoyed with myself as I even asked the guide what it was called as I really wanted to try and remember it. The building had two large banners on the front, which depicted a united Korea. The image of a united Korea generally tends to be the Korean peninsula in light blue on a white background. I think maybe the building had been used when Moon Jae In, the South Korean president, had visited North Korea a few weeks earlier. This building also had some really propaganda art on it. I really love the retro style of it. It was also nice to see the city itself, the painted apartment blocks, some of which were only a few storeys high and others that reminded me of the generic large apartment buildings that you see in the South.

We headed to Buheung Station, where we would ride the Pyongyang Metro. After everywhere being so quiet, so far on the trip, the metro station was full of life. I saw plenty of people coming and going. We were ushered in and led through the ticket area. We didn't get any ticket, so I think this was all pre-arranged with the station staff. I say ordinary people queuing at a window to buy tickets, no ticket vending machines here. We headed down on the escalator to the tracks. The escalator ride took a quite a long time and was very steep. It reminded me of the Moscow Metro, and I felt the same feeling that I was journeying to the Earth's core. We headed towards the platform and checked out the little lighty up map of the Pyongyang Metro Line. The platform area was very fancy as it had big, beautiful lights hanging from the ceiling and there was a massive mural of Kim Il Sung with ordinary workers at the end of the platform. We had quite a bit of free time to wander up and down the platform. I watched a few metro trains come and go on both sides of the tracks. I also saw something that I really liked that I would see again in other places in North Korea, there were stands on the platform that contained sheet of what I presumed to be that day's newspaper for the people to read as they waited for the train. I also liked that there were no smartphone zombies around. There was quite a lot of artwork in the station all very patriotic and socialist. We got on the metro train and I think we had the carriage to ourselves, I did see some people look like they were going to get on in our carriage and then when they saw it was full of foreigners, swerve and get in the one after instead. The subway car was pretty retro and had the pictures of the two most senior Kims up on the wall. The journey didn't take too long and we were soon at Yeonggwang Station. I was surprised to see a really new metro train on the other side of the patform, seeing that surprised me. One of our guides told us that they have quite a few new trains. There was a massive mural of Kim Jong Il at the end of this station and there were some beautiful mosaic on the walls depicting Pyongyang in the spring/summer time. This subway station is connected to Pyongyang Railway Station and as we exited we were greeted with the familiar sight of where we had arrived the evening before.

What a morning! We had already packed in so much and it was only just lunchtime. We headed to a restaurant for lunch. We were not the only people at the restaurant as there was a group of locals celebrating a 60th birthday there. They all looked like they were having a lot of fun as some of them were up dancing and singing along Noraebang style with the music. Also, the waitresses got up and did a few numbers, which I hadn't expected. It was definitely a fun lunch and it was good to actually see some local people. While I doubt that this group of people are representative of the population as a whole, it did confirm what I have read and been told, that Pyongyang has a growing middle class, who can afford to do such activities. The lunch food was pretty decent, it was another banquet style meal with different dishes been served to the table and we finished with the classic North Korean dish if Naengmyeon (냉면), which is cold noodles. I really like Naengmyeon so was happy to have them and we also got to drink some makgeolli with lunch, which was a nice change from all the beer I had consumed so far on this trip.

Back on the bus, we headed to the Juche Tower, which dominates the Pyongyang skyline. The Juche Tower was built to commemorate Kim Il Sung's 70th birthday and was completed in 1982. It is 170 metres high. A local guide met us at the entrance and the entrance we were shown the different bricks from the different Juche study groups around the world. Were they real or fake? Who knows, but there does seem to be an awful lot of Juche study groups. I think a lot of the tiles were quite old, so maybe when the regime had seemed successful in the past people could have been more inclined to study the Juche ideology. Juche is roughly translated into self-reliance and is the official state ideology of North Korea. It purports that 'man is the master of his destiny' and that the Korean populace can achieve true socialism by becoming self reliant mainly through the idea of sustainability through agricultural independence. We headed into the tower and were greeted by a woman making coffee. This was just what I needed after lunch and the strong coffee was the perfect pick me up. We had to pay extra to go up the tower, I think it was around 5 euro. Inside the lift, there was a woman whose job it is to press the button to take you to the top. Nice bit of job creation there. The ride to the top didn't take too long and stepping outside and seeing the whole of Pyongyang was awesome. It was cool to see all the different buildings and I spotted our hotel, all on its lonesome jutting out into the sky. While, there are a few skyscrapers in Pyongyang, they cannot compare to other cities which are packed with them. Still, I loved the view, seeing all the other buildings, especially the coloured apartment buildings. Also, it was nice to see that the urban sprawl did not go on forever and that it gave way to the countryside. I was surprised at how flat the land was around the city, too, it just went on for miles and miles. Back at the bottom, we had a bit of free time to explore around the base. There was a bronze statue depicting a trio of figures each one holding either a hammer, sickle, or writing brush. The statue was cool, but I preferred to wander off and look at the other stone statues that were in the park next to the Juche Tower. In these monuments, the figures symbolise aspects of Juche ideology.

It was a short drive to our next stop, the Monument to Party Founding. This monument was designed by Mansudae Art Studio and was complete on 10th October 1995, which was the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Workers' Party of Korea. Once again, a local guide was there to meet us and she described the monument as we walked around it. I also noticed that there was a bloke in a dark suit and sunglasses loitering around. I don't know if he was watching us, the local guide, our guides or all of us. This would also be a regular feature of the trip. A shady looking bloke making sure that everyone was being good. The monument is very interesting as the central part that juts out into the sky is made up of three clenched fists, each one holding a different object. The hands holding the hammer and the sickle symbolise the workers and the farmers and the fist holding the calligraphy brush represents the intellectuals. The monument is 50 metres high, which is also symbolic as it represents the 50 years since the Workers' Party was founded. The belt that runs around the monument features three beautiful reliefs documenting the history of the party. We then headed over to the culture centre, which was a short walk from the back of the monument. Here, there was some really nice artwork on display and also a couple of rooms with pictures of the three leaders doing their duties.

Back on the bus, we headed to the Kimilsungia-Kimjongilia Flower Exhibition Centre. This centre houses the two species of plants that are named after the two former leaders. Once again, a guide explained a little about the plants to us. The Kimilsungia is hybrid orchid and a clone of a plant that was created in Indonesia by the orchid breeder C. L. Bundt. However, according to the guide, the first Indonesian president, Sukarno named the plant after Kim Il Sung as it was an unnamed plant that Kim Il Sung had taken a shine to. The orchid was a beautiful purple colour. The Kimjongilia flower is a type of Begonia. It was cultivated by the Japanese botanist, Kamo Mototeru, to commemorate Kim Jong Il's 46th birthday in 1988. It represents the Juche revolutionary cause and was presented as a token of friendship between Korea and Japan. The flower was designed to bloom on Kim Jong Il's birthday each year. The flower was a lovely, vivid red colour. This was a very short stop as we just literally walked quickly around the ground floor of the centre, which wasn't too big. Then it was time for some fun. We headed to Pyongyang Bowling Alley, which was just across the road from the flower hall. The bowling alley was quite busy and it was a chance for us to see normal people at leisure. It was only a couple of euros to have a game, pretty cheap. The bowling alley was quite retro, which seems to be the theme in Pyongyang. We saw quite a few people having a game, I think some were part of the national team as they were wearing jackets with the DPRK flag on them. I surprised myself as I didn't do as badly as I thought I would and even managed to hit a few pins.

We headed to a very nice hotel restaurant for dinner. This place looked pretty fancy and had really nice views across the Taedonggang River. We were given another feast for dinner. This is only the second day of my trip, but I already know that I am going to eat so much. If there is food on the table, I will take it. After dinner, we headed to the Rungrado May Day Stadium for the Mass Games. When I booked this trip, I was a bit gutted that I was just missing the Mass Games as they were to originally end before my trip. The Mass Games hadn't taken place since 2013 either, so when I saw on Facebook that it had been extended and I would now have the opportunity to see it, I was totally ecstatic and happy danced around my apartment. It must be a good money spinner for the DPRK, too as the cheapest ticket for a foreigner is 100 euros. I think one of our guides said that the re-introduction of the Mass Games has also helped increase tourism, which had been dwindling. We had been given our tickets on the bus and they were pretty fancy, none of this paper malarkey, instead we got fancy plastic, little credit card sized tickets which had a USB key in it. Definitely something to take home and keep. Local people also pay a lot less for their tickets an are often given them through work. We entered the stadium, which was rammed, found our seats and settled in to watch the performance. The Mass Games had previously been called the Arirang Festival and now this year, it had beem given a new name 'The Glorious Country'. 150,000 people take part in the Mass Games and the show lasts for 90 minutes.

What a spectacle! I loved every single minute of it. I sat there, totally entranced for the whole ninety minutes. I was really having to try and stop myself from taking a million pictures and to just sit and watch and take it all in. It was truly amazing, I have never seen anything like it before and I doubt I will again unless I return to the DPRK. There were many different performances and the floor of the stadium was awash with people, running, dancing, doing gymnastics, and performing musical instruments. The show is heavily propagandarised and shows Korea in a very good light, still it was interesting to watch and after seeing that I can understand why people drink the nationalist kool-aid. It is so splendid, how could you not feel proud of your country. For me though, the highlight of the Mass Games is the pictures made by the children holding up and turning the coloured pieces of card. It is just so hypnotic. I could just watch it forever, waiting to see what picture or slogan is revealed next. I loved seeing all the different pictures and it is amazing how good they all looked. A more recent addition to the show was some video footage of Kim Jon Un and Moon Jae In, shaking hands and hugging at their recent summit. The crowd definitely went wild seeing the footage and seeing it makes me hope one day reunification can happen. By the time the show was over I was on a total high, as was, I think, everyone else in the stadium. We filed out of the stadium and the area was just awash with people. Everyone was just so jubliant. We got to see a lot of the performers and soliders walking out in their troupes. I asked our guides how long it took the performers to prepare for the show, thinking it must take them forever, but thry told me that it only takes them 2 or 3 months to prepare.

The bus ride to the hotel took ages as the roads were filled with people exiting the stadium both on foot and on tour buses. As we got closer to our hotel, there was a traffic jam as there were roadworks going on that meant there was only one lane available for traffic. Since it was going to take forever to get back if we stayed on the bus, our guides let us off and we were allowed to walk back as it would only take about ten minutes. Since it was dark and there wasn't a lot of streetlights, there wasn't much to see, but it did feel nice to stretch my legs as we had spent a lot of the day on the bus. Back at the hotel, I was ready to relax and catch up on some more sleep.

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