Pyongyang #2: Paying our Respects


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Asia » North Korea » Pyongyang
October 4th 2018
Published: October 25th 2018
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It was an earlier start today because we had another big planned. After breakfast in the delightfully pink room again, we headed out to the tour bus. Since we would be visiting some very important sights in Pyongyang today, we had to be well dressed, no jeans, trainers or just generally looking like plebs, we all had to be suited and booted. We drove to Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and were briefed on the dos and donts. We headed into the waiting room where we sat around for about twenty minutes. There were lots of magazines about North Korea on the tables, so I had a look through some of those. More people arrived and then we were led out towards the main building. After going through security, we were made to line up in lines of four people and then we headed onto the escalators. There were so many escalators and we were not allowed to walk on them. You just had to stand there patiently, which was torture for impatient me. Our guide said it is done to recreate a funeral procession. On the walls there were lots of pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Un looks so much like his grandfather, they could almost be twins. Once we were in the building proper, we were led up to see Kim Il Sung's body. We had to bow three times at different points around the body. To be honest, you are pretty far away from the body so it is hard to get a good look and you are constantly moving. The atmosphere is very sombre and tense. After paying our respects we headed out to see the train carriage that he used to travel around North Korea and into neighbouring countries. Then went into a room, which displayed some of the gifts that he had been given by foreign countries, when he ruled North Korea. Then we repeated the whole process and paid our respects to Kim Jong Il. We then took a look at his train carriage, which looked a lot more modern and more comfortable inside than his father's. Then we saw the gifts he had been given. It was a very strict and intense experience as our group were constantly being corrected on our ettiquette. No coughing, sneezing, or placing your hand in front or behind you. Also, when we walked past a group of Korean soldiers getting a tour, their guide was so full of emotion as sounded as if she was about to burst into tears. In my head I did question whether this was an authentic display of emotions. We headed outside and were able to take some photos of the outside of the masoleum. Since we had all had to leave our sunglasses on the bus, we were all squinting away. What a first stop of the day!

The next stop on our itinerary was Mansudae Fountain Park. It was nice to be somewhere more relaxing and to be in a place without such a tense atmosphere. We had a quick wander around the park. I liked the fountain with all the women/goddesses, it was very pretty. At the park, you could also buy flowers to take and place at the statues that we would be visiting next. It was a very short drive up the hill and we reached the carpark for the Mansudae Grand Monument. Once again, there was a no sunglasses policy, but only when we were at the actual statues so that wasn't too bad. We made our way over to the two 20 metre high statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and queued up behind the other people, who were paying their respects. Our group had to form two lines I think and we took turns bowing at the statues. Those, who had bought flowers also got to lay them there. Then we could move back and put on our sunglasses. The statues do look pretty cool, like benevolent fathers looking down on their people. Originally, there had only been a statue of Kim Il Sung there, which was erected in honour of his 60th birthday in 1972. The statue if Kim Jong Il was added in 2012, after his death in 2011. The monument was very busy with lots of locals making their pilgrimage and having their photos taken there. There were also quite a few wedding parties and I loved seeing all the women in their brightly coloured hanboks. As well as the two huge statues of former leaders, there were also other statues that depicted Korean history. We could also see the Chollima statue, which symbolises speed as the winged Chollima horse is said to have travelled 1,000 ri (400 kilometres) each day according to legend.

We headed over to the Arch of Triumph. We have spent ages driving around the streets of Pyongyang on this trip and although we go past places and stuff looks familiar, I have no grasp of what is where in the city. We were situated across the road from thearch, so that we could get some good pictures. Visiting the arch was optional and since it was only a few euros I decided to do it, I may as well while I'm here. We took an underground path to reach the monument. The Arch of Triumph was built in 1982 to commemorate the Korean resistance to the Japanese from 1925 to 1945. The arch is 60 metres high and 50 metres wide. We headed inside and took the lift up. We came out into a large room that doubled as a gift shop and I think also some kind of meeting room. We paid the entrance fee and then a local guide escorted us up to the roof. We had to walk up a few flights of stairs to reach the viewing deck of the arch. While it is no where near as tall as the Juche Tower, I enjoyed seeing the views from the arch. It was another clear sunny day and I walked around soaking in the views of Pyongyang. I think because the arch is shorter the views were different and I felt closer to the city. I could see the Ryugyong Hotel a lot more clearly. This hotel is pretty infamous as it is 330 metres high and is a landmark in the Pyongyang skyline. The hotel was meant to be one of the best in the world I think, when construction started in the 1980s, but money ran out in the early 1990s, so the shell of the hotel sat there as a constant reminder and embarrassment to Pyongyang officials. The Egyptian telecoms company that runs the North Korean mobile phone network are now updating the building. They have given the outside a facelift but the inside still remains unopened and off limits for tourists. Once again the streets of Pyongyang looked very quiet.

As we were heading to the next place my sunglasses broke, but I was told I could easily find a pair in the shop that we were going to. The store was pretty big and it was where you could by a DPRK Olympic tracksuit. The only thing I wanted was sunglasses and I quickly found a pair. They weren't great and were very expensive (for cheap old me), but considering I can't go outside in daylight without sunglasses they were very much a neccessity. Once again, we had crammed a lot into the morning. We headed to a restaurant for lunch. This place definitely didn't look as nice as the other ones we had been to, and some of the group members warned us off visiting the toilets as they were particularly bad. However, the food was good. There was a large selection of dishes and we had some very tasty barbecued duck. This was the first time, we'd had some sort of BBQ on the trip, and I really hoped that we would have had it more.

We drove to the War Museum, which I had been looking forward to visiting. We waited outside and a guide came to collect us. Here, there was a break with tradition as the guide was kitted out in a soldier's uniform instead of a hanbok. Was she a real soldier? I don't know nor did I really want to ask. The Korean War Museum or how it is also known the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum is a museum dedicated to the Korean War. The museum was set up just after the war, but the current buildings were renovated in 2014. The grounds of the museum are very impressive and immaculately maintained. We looked at some of the sculptures before heading to the Capture Weapons Exhibition. Here, we got to see a variety of the different weapons and modes of transportation that the North Korean soldiers had captured from the US. Then we headed over to see the USS Pueblo, which is a captured US spy ship. The ship was captured in 1968 after entering North Korean territorial waters. The guide explained to us a bot about the ship and we were shown the poster board, which had a copy of the letter written by the US to admit their fault in the matter. The letter was rather strangely worded and we were all left wondering about its authenticity. We headed onto the USS Pueblo and watched a video about the incident. I was surprised that we didn't hear the phrase 'Imperiaist pigs' more often. Then we got to wander around the ship and see the communications room. It was very interesting and the North Koreans obviously use it as a huge propaganda tool.

We headed over to the main building and as we did so we passed a large group of soldiers who were also visiting the museum. We definitely got the stink eye off them and could feel the hostility coming from them. With all the anti-American rhetoric that was floating around, I think we all wanted to tell them that we weren't American and that Americans aren't allowed to visit North Korea at the time being. Inside the museu, we were able to purchase a coffee. I definitely needed a pick me up as I was really flagging. Some guys on another tour had proper cups of coffee, but our group had to make do with cans of cold coffee. Not really enough caffeine for me, so I was hoping to get a sugar hit, too. We were then lead into a room to watch a video. I can't really remember much about it as I wasn't really paying any attention. Then the guide showed us around some parts of the museum. To be honest, I was totally over the tour at this point. I just wanted it to end as it was too restrictive. Being fed th party line by the guide was also starting to annoy me. The museum was huge and we were only shown a small section, I would have loved to have wandered around myself, seeing some different exhibits, but it just not an option. Also we weren't allowed to take pictures inside. I had been really looking forward to visiting the museum, but left disappointed. It had been a rather intense experience that I would not be in a rush to experience again.

The Children's Palace was our next venue. Apparantly, each city in the DPRK has one and I think our guides said Pyongyang has two, or possibly more, as it is the capital city. A Children's Palace is basically the equivalent of the South Korean hagwon system, where young people go for special lessons after school. That is a bit of a broad comparison, as there are many differences. First of all, I presume this is free as the state provides it and only the most gifted children go. It is totally different from the South in that anyone, who pays, can receive extra tutition. Also in the South, children can attend a variety of classes (as long as they or rather their parents can afford it), but here each child specialised in just one area. Is that better or worse for them? We were met at the entrance by a guide, she was a middle school student, who was attending the Children's Palace to hone her public speaking skills. I wondered if, one day, she would be like the guide we had seen earlier at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, her voice dripping with emotion. The Children's Palace was absolutely huge and immaculately kept. Everything was gleaming and there was not a thing out of place. I was impressed as it was filled with kids and teenagers. We toured some of the different rooms in the building and saw the children and teenagers practising their specialties. We saw the volleyballers and the power that they had getting the ball across the net was impressive. We also saw some computer and maths/science classes. I had expected the students to all be rather studious, so it was good to see them not paying attention to the teacher and covertly chatting to their mates, kids are kids the world over. We also saw some students practising embroidery and playing traditional instruments such as the gayageum. I liked listening to the students playing their gayageums. Then we saw some students practising dance routines. I think we were all a little disturbed by this as the students, while being very good, had these really fixed expressions on their faces. It was like they were totally devoid of feeling, I really didn't like it. However, once their routine was over, one of them gave me a genuine smile, which relieved me some what. I couldn't help thinking were these talented young beauties being trained up to eventually join the Pleasure Squad. My scepticism was definitely growing. After watching the students practice, we were taken to the large auditorium and watched a performance. The performance was very good, lots of singing, dancing, and musical instruments, but after seeing the Mass Games the night before, it was just a little lacking. We should have visited the Children's Palace before the Mass Games. The whole thing was also very heavily propagandarised. One funny thing did happen during the performance though. Before the performance, you could buy flowers to give to the children. Obviously, the unwritten understanding is that the flowers will be presented to the students at the end of the performance. One woman didn't get the memo, as when one very cute and talented girl was performing, the woman got up, made her way down to the stage, and tried to give the girl the flowers. I was cringing hard watching it. She left the flowers on the stage and eventually someone came to take them away during the next performance.

We headed to Gwangbok Supermarket, which is a local supermarket that is open to tourists. It was also our only chance to get our hands on some North Korean cash because as foreigners we have to use euros or RMB to pay for everything. Foreigners are also not allowed to take the local currency out of the country. Also we were not allowed to take any photos inside the supermarket. First, we headed to the exchange booth and I changed about 150 RMB for which I was given a stack of notes in return. We headed up to the top floor to check that out first. This floor has a food court on it, so there was lots of snacks and meals to try. I wasn't hungry, so just got a juice from one of the stalls. Then we headed down to the middle floor. This sold household goods and clothes. There is even a mini IKEA in there, whether it is real or fake, who knows. Then we headed down to the ground floor, which was a regular supermarket. I had fun wandering the aisles seeing what was available. I ended up buying some stuff, just snacks like sweets and crisps. The supermarket looked quite dated, but they had a good selection of stuff. It was mainly local stuff and stuff imported from China, but there were other international goods, such as a lot of expensive liquer. I wonder if people can actually afford to buy them or if they are just for show. Another thing, that was unusual for me is that there was an aisle filled with cigarettes, that felt more like a duty-free shop, than a supermarket, as cigarettes are usually kept under lock and key. Anyway, the supermarket was busy and the queues at the till meant that we had gone over our allotted time there. I liked that our guides were chill about it and no one seemed to mind. Also, the supermarket didn't feel staged, I mean could/would you really stage a supermarket full of a couple of hundred people, just for the benefit of a small group of foreigners. I highly doubt it. Since I like going to supermarkets when I travel to see what local people buy, I enjoyed this part of the tour.

We headed out of the supermarket and down some steps to the basement area, where the restaurant that we would be eating dinner was at. We had a dining room to ourselves and as usual, plate after plate of food appeared. It was all really good. At this restaurant, the staff got up and performed a few songs like at the restaurant the previous day. However, these songs were for our benefit and they got a few of the guys in the group up dancing with them. It looked like good fun. We got back to the hotel around 8:30 pm and all headed to the bar. It had been a strange old day, so different to the day before and I think we all needed some alcohol to cope with how things and our opinions of the DPRK had changed. It felt like we had been eased in gently yesterday and been on a high after the Mass Games, today had definitely been a comedown as it was hardcore DPRK. It was nice to unwind in the bar and I got to sample a couple of the cocktails that the bar offered. The 'Pyongyang Lime' seemed to be a hit with most of our group. Who knows what the next day would bring as we were off to the DMZ.


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