Anxious Times at the Border

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September 12th 2009
Published: October 26th 2009
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The spectacular Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance - Pyongyang, North KoreaThe spectacular Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance - Pyongyang, North KoreaThe spectacular Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance - Pyongyang, North Korea

The cabin represents the birthplace of the Great Leader on Mount Paektu.
After being awakened to many aspects of North Korea - the passionate pursuit of a military policy and panegyrics about the Great Leader being two examples - there were more revelations as we concluded our North Korean odyssey. One was the extremely proud nature of the North Korean people. This extended to a great pride about their history, and they make great efforts to preserve and display their historical sites. These places were always attended to by a local guide - most were women dressed in traditional flowing gowns in pastel colours, but sometimes they were men - including one who bore a striking resemblance to the Dear Leader.

Some of these sites were impressive, including the 14th century Tomb of Kongmin near Kaesong, where the 31st ruler of the Koryo dynasty is buried with his wife. Situated on a hill that overlooks a splendid valley, the view from this vantage on a late afternoon was beautiful as we looked across the peaceful valley as the last shafts of light cast a deep amber glow across the peaks.

Another favourite was the Pohyon Temple near Mt Myhongyang. Set in yet another gorgeous valley called the Sangwon - it was a collection of disparate buildings, some dating back 600 years, but other reconstructed due their destruction by US imperialist aggressors during the Korean War. I would have loved to linger here for hours, but our Korean hosts were always rushing us between sites - and so one of travel’s greatest pleasures - quietly sitting in a shaded spot absorbing the ambience of a place - was repeatedly denied to me.

Souvenirs were sold at each location, and they consisted of books by the Great Leader, CDs of Korean music, traditional Korean dolls, and plenty of stamps. Foreigners could not use local currency, but instead were forced to use Euros or Chinese Yuan at ludicrously inflated prices. At one site, I witnessed a remarkable event when Fi decided not to purchase a booklet of stamps after hearing the price; at which time the softly spoken attendant replied with a cheaper price. In a country where the cost of every item is fixed by the government, this genteel haggling was a slither of capitalism intruding upon a command economy. In a market economy, an oversupply of stamps and undersupply of tourists would mean a reduction in price - but to witness this practice in a command economy was astonishing to say the least.

There were many enduring memories from the country - the Great Leader, the military, our isolation - but the most surprising was North Korean’s passion for the arts - particularly music and dance. In a society where external forms of entertainment, such as computer games, television, or internet are rare or nonexistent - people turn to more traditional pastimes. I deduced that if North Korea is to be placated in the world arena, then it lies in closer cultural goals. An acceptance of the North Korean music and culture will go a long way to soothing the antagonism that nation displays to other countries. For example, when our Guide told us about the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's visit to Pyongyang in 2008, it was the only time I heard the US referred to with any warmth.

The pinnacle of artistic achievement is the Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance spectacle - known as Arirang (the same word used for traditional folk songs). This is a 90 minute spectacular performed by 100,000 people, of which 90%!a(MISSING)re amateurs. Against a backdrop that constantly shifted as schoolchildren changed coloured cards, the choreography and disciplined moves of the performers was mesmerising as it recounted the birth and rise of the North Korean nation. Our Guide wanted to know if it surpassed the Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony, and we had to concede that it did not - Beijing’s show displayed a greater extravagance and a scintillating atmosphere. However, Arirang was much more graceful; how all these performers synchronised their moves was nothing short of stunning - it was an exhibition of precision, poise and perfection. But this synchronisation subtly expressed the highly regarded belief in the collective effort; the individual and their hopes and dreams mean little in this society, for their greatest value is what they contribute to the collective good.

We saw another example of artistic talent at the embroidery factory in Pyongyang and it contained the most exquisite example of this art I have ever seen. As was usual, pictures of the Great Leader and Dear Leader hung in every room - and a tally showing the productive output of the factory in reaching its target in the “150 days of Supreme Effort” campaign was displayed. We saw similar tallies everywhere, especially on the streets in smaller towns where output of agricultural produce was measured.

Arguably my highlight in North Korea was visiting the stupendous Mangyongdae Children’s Palace in Pyongyang. Of all the ideas the Great Leader conceived, this is perhaps his finest. Dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, this monumental building of marble enables children to excel in areas such as dance, music, calligraphy, embroidery, and even the game of paduk (known as go in Japan). To highlight the talent within this building, we witnessed a tremendous musical and dance concert. The tireless work these children had put into their chosen fields was nothing short of stunning - there are not many countries in the world countries where children would be so dedicated to their art.

Seeing the North Korean’s love of culture provided one of the strongest contradictions of this country - how can a nation so intent on pursuing a military agenda possess such a great reverence for the classical arts? Similar, one may say, to the Soviet Union, where the same society that produced Stalin also produced Shostakovich. This question still remains unanswered in my mind.

On our last full day in the country was visited the International Friendship Exhibition, a massive building containing thousands of gifts bestowed upon Kim Il Song from around the world, thus demonstrating the universal love for the Great Leader. After placing cloth slippers over our shoes in order to preserve the immaculately glossy polished floors, we sampled only a glimpse of the 200 spacious rooms. The most profuse contributors being the Soviet Union and China - including a bullet-proof black limousine from Stalin.

We also toured the offerings for Kim Jong Il in a nearby building, a more humbling structure of 50 rooms. We were shown a photograph given to the Dear Leader by the former Foreign Minister of Australia, Alexander Downer. It was an image from the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where the two Koreas marched under one flag. I commented to the Official that I was at the Olympic Stadium that night, and when the Koreans emerged, one athlete from the south and one from the north both holding a blue and white flag depicting a united Korea, many people stood and cheered, and a loud applause erupted across the arena. The Official was truly surprised that Australians were so supportive of a peaceful Korean peninsula, and seemed touched by my recollection of this event. The Official and local female guide continued to discuss my story, even asking me further questions and writing down my answers, perhaps for their own memory, or perhaps to inform future visitors that Australians also support a peaceful Korea. Either way, I am certain that their opinion of Australia increased by a noticeable degree. Just goes to show what a touch of validation can do for people of an ostracised nation.
We checked into a hotel for our last night - Pyongyang’s Pothoggang Hotel, run by a joint Japanese-North Korean consortium. I turned on the television and if my eyes did not deceive me, it was CNN! After seeing the BBC in the Yanggakdo Hotel, I thought that nothing more would surprise me - but unexpected surprises seem to know no end in North Korea.

The next morning we returned to the Pyongyang train station. In the daylight, it did not appear as gloomy as it did for our evening arrival nine days earlier, but it still wore an austere air. After an emotional farewell to our Driver, Guide and Official, we boarded the train, which soon rattled its way away from the capital. Knowing that there was no Guide or Official to hinder my photography, I happily snapped at the countryside from the moving train - the joy of such a simple freedom! Because my camera would be checked at the border, I downloaded the photos into a folder on my netbook called “Goodbye” - this name chosen because if this folder was found, it was goodbye to my images!

Not long after deleting any suspect photos from my camera we pulled into the North Korean border town of Shinichi for the obligatory customs check. A horde of border officials boarded the train to search cameras and bags. Many people had photos deleted, including those images given approval by the Guide, and anything taken at the DMZ in Panmunjom was erased. In response to this, I deleted all DMZ photos from my memory cards before they were deleted for me.

The same pretty customs official I encountered on the inwards journey strode into my cabin to conduct the search. She remembered my two travel mascots, Lenny the Curious Lemur and Blu the Travel ‘Roo, for she immediately picked them up from their window location and said “These are your friends” as I discerned a slight smile crossing her mouth. I quickly replied “Yes they are” in order to maximise this moment of levity. Her serious countenance quickly returned as she proceeded to check the photos on my memory cards, and not finding any offending images, handed it back to me. Things were going well so far, but it was about to change.

Upon looking at my customs declaration form which we were required to fill in, she noticed the word “Netbook” and asked me what it was. “A computer,” I replied. “A computer!?” was her startled retort, “What is on it?” “Nothing!” I immediately replied.

She looked at me and asked the question again in a more deliberate voice, “What is on it?”, this time emphasising every word.

I thought of all my images laying in wait on the netbook - those of the DMZ and from the moving train, but knew I had the confidence to carry this charade off, so I answered in a firm yet calm voice, “Nothing.”

As we looked directly into each other’s eyes in that awkward silence, I knew that the next few moments were either going to be an exhilarating triumph or the whole situation was going to turn into an absolute shambles.

She paused and looked at me intently.

Finally, she uttered the word “Okay”, and after a cursory glance through my books, she moved onto the next person.

Despite having the only laptop and DSLR in my cabin of four people, I was the only person not to have their bags searched. In hindsight, lying to a North Korean customs official was fairly daft, but by using all the charm I could muster (and those of my mascots) I left the country with every one of my 2,000 photos intact.

After one hour of anxiously following the movements of this customs officer in case she decided to return, the train heaved forth as we chugged across the Yalu River into China. It was only upon arriving in China that I realised the latent pressure I had been harbouring whilst in North Korea. I suddenly felt relaxed and free, and was so excited at this revelation that I almost knelt and kissed the platform at the Dandong railway station. I had been so mindful to say the correct words, photograph acceptable subjects and behave in a certain way that it had not occurred to me the stress associated with travelling, let alone living under such a regime.

After a holiday filled with unusual experiences, the final night’s journey to Beijing produced one more. The adjoining carriage was filled with an impromptu party of fellow adventurers into the hermit kingdom. It was here that a drunk Swedish tourist dressed in the olive uniform garb usually worn by the Dear Leader (a strange thing of itself), introduced me to a young communist-loving Japanese lad on his fifth journey to North Korea. He sat in the corner of a smoke-filled cabin playing cards with Chinese visitors, whilst playing revolutionary songs lauding the Dear Leader through the speaker on his iPhone. In a holiday filled with surreal experiences, this was perhaps the most surreal of them all.

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


Embroidery factory in Pyongyang - North KoreaEmbroidery factory in Pyongyang - North Korea
Embroidery factory in Pyongyang - North Korea

Pictures of the Great Leader and Dear Leader hang on the wall.
Tally board at the embroidery factory - Pyongyang, North KoreaTally board at the embroidery factory - Pyongyang, North Korea
Tally board at the embroidery factory - Pyongyang, North Korea

Measuring the output of the factory in the 150 Days of Supreme Effort campaign (of which only 6 days were left).
Music classes at the Mangyongdae Children's Palace - Pyongyang, North KoreaMusic classes at the Mangyongdae Children's Palace - Pyongyang, North Korea
Music classes at the Mangyongdae Children's Palace - Pyongyang, North Korea

For some reason, the accordion was a popular instrument.
The opening concert song - Mangyongdae Children’s Palace, Pyongyang, North KoreaThe opening concert song - Mangyongdae Children’s Palace, Pyongyang, North Korea
The opening concert song - Mangyongdae Children’s Palace, Pyongyang, North Korea

Note the picture of the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace at the back. Its shape represents a mother's arms embracing those who enter.
My mascots admire the North Korean sceneryMy mascots admire the North Korean scenery
My mascots admire the North Korean scenery

Lenny the Curious Lemur and Blu the Travel 'Roo.
My final photo of North KoreaMy final photo of North Korea
My final photo of North Korea

A dilapidated amusement area in Shinichi.

27th October 2009

Anxious Times at the Border
Hi Shane, anxious times at the border, also anxious times for us in Market Drayton. Deep down I wondered whether you may get yourself into some sort of pickle while there, but you somehow managed to charm again and wriggle out of it, and still managing to get some beautiful photos. I am glad you are not going anywhere like that anymore, it isn't good for my health! Like all explorers from the past it's there so you have to do it. This is another very exciting blog, thanks Shane, hope Lenny and Blue like all this travelling. Bye for now. Dor.
28th October 2009

Fascinating trip
Thank you for sharing this experience - surreal indeed. I wonder, though, about those children in the Children's Palace. I would assume that they have little choice in their artistic exploits, and the pressure to represent the country must be considerable. While you describe it as a positive experience, I can't help but feel there must be a heavy sadness associated with it. Alas, I can only travel there vicariously through people like you - U.S. passports need not apply.
28th October 2009

(Sorry, I just had an afterthought) I wonder if your hotel room was the only place to see BBC and CNN. Considering that not even newsprint is allowed, it is possible this was intentionally available for you in order to give the illusion of a more open-minded regime.
28th October 2009

BBC, CNN and visas for US Passport holders.
Thanks for the comments! I believe that embassy staff have access to BBC and CNN, but the only North Koreans would be the very privileged, and maybe not even them. I have little doubt that our access to CNN/BBC was to give us a positive impression of the country. US Passport holders can enter for only 3 days during Arirang (August/September). However, my Guide told me of a US citizen who wanted to visit for 7 days, and so he flew out to Beijing in the morning, and returned that afternoon to continue his tour.
30th October 2009

You outdid yourself, Shane
Very well-written, full of revelations, superb photos and what courage!!! I would rather just travel vicariously through your blogs, than lie through my teeth the way you so bravely did. I'd shake like a leaf doing what you did. So glad you are out of there now. But please don't do it again ;-) scary....
17th November 2009

All your travels so far.
Your "Living Letters" spring to life. Your descriptive style of writing on your travels do come alive where I can actually visualise the places and people you meet. You humanise the people with their various traditions and cultures and in this way we can share in the compassion, friendliness and humour. Hopefully one day you will consider a book of your journeys. Looking forward to more of the same. Love the photographs.
7th January 2010

Blog of the year 2009 in the Asia/adventure cathegory
Check this out :)
21st January 2010

you are very brave, shane, to travel to north korea. i didn't think it was possible. very interesting blog! renate.
2nd April 2010

Hello I've just read all of your blog entries about your visit to North Korea. It's by far the best account of visiting North Korea I've read on the net, intelligently and eloquently done. All the others just say what they did and not a great deal else but you go into a lot of detail on the politics of the country and how your experiences of North Korea reflect on it.
29th May 2010

Thankyou so much for writing this, it was a great insight into what is normally a closed world! i hope i will be able to undertake this journey one day!

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