North Korea Day 1

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October 24th 2011
Published: October 31st 2011
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North Korea. I am going to fucking North Korea. It immediately dawns on me that had I not paid the 1000 dollars for this trip, there would have been a lot of regretting to do. The feeling of being in North Korea is just fantastic. Sure I contribute money to some people, who will probably not do any good with those money, but don't we all sometimes, when we buy all our burgers and bananas n'shit? This is my conclusion for now as the train rolls over Yalu river from the Chinese border city of Dandong to its North Korean sister city Sinouji on the other side of the river.

There is propaganda, there is brown uniformed soldiers with AK-47's stopping people to check their documents. There is buildings, not in the best shape, but not falling apart either. And people walking determent in each direction to mind their business, whatever that might be in a country like North Korea. I feel like being in the USSR, whatever that must be like. And for some reason I feel special, because I am the only person that I know, who have been in North Korea.

Now I know two more. Johanna from Sweden and her Chinese boyfriend Yunjun. This is a very friendly and easy-going couple, whom I immediately took a liking to and the three of us had a non-stop inside-North Korea-inside-joke thing going on. For those four days we together were prisoners in firstly the North Korean tour with all its itinearies and rules, but worstly we were prisoners in a Chinese tour group, which is the worst prison of all.

The border soldiers in Sinouji worked through our wagon searching roughly through our stuff. They wanted to see the pictures on the camera. I had a backup memory card, which I inserted with little finesse in front of the soldier. He browsed through the pictures of Chinese landscapes and turned to Johanna, whose Chinese fashion magazines he found ever so interesting. After flicking through a few times, he found a good page to memorize the image for later, it seemed.

We started our trip by waiting three hours in Sinouji train station like prisoners locked in a building with a souvenir shop and a tax-free shop. I bought a stick of NK cigarettes and a book by Kim Jung Il about maintaining a big socialist prison. We also took pictures of us with the cute train stewardesses, who watched over us, with the dear leaders watching over us from above on the wall. There we had a cold platter comprising of fish, tofu, pork, beef, eggs, rice and some very chewy pickle. Cold-ass prison food.

The trainride to Pyongyang I will never forget. I started to take pirate pix of the land passing our carriage outside even though there was nothing special to take pictures off. It was just special to take pirate pix in North Korea.

As I glanced on the NK part of our carriage I noticed a sight, which surprised me very much. A woman speaking into a mobile phone. Throughout that nine hour train ride, she clutched that phone like it was her baby. Apparently around 200.000 North Koreans, mainly those in the capital, has mobile phones. I knew that, but it just felt strange to see a North Korean blabbering on the phone.

There was a restaurant in the next wagon and this needed to be checked out. At first I thought I could not buy anything as someone told me that we could only use North Korean currency on the train. And North Korean currency is illegal to use as a foreigner. But a guide helped me to understand that it infact was possible to buy something, and soon I was surprised to sit at a table with North Koreans drinking an Argentinian beer.

Even more surprised was I when the NK gentleman across the table grabs my beer and pours it in my glass. He was dressed in a fake leather jacket from China and brown tinted sunglasses from China.
A dried fish was served at the table and shredded into smaller pieces. I was handed a big shred and I gnawed through it, proud like ever before that I was sharing a meal with a North Korean person. When I finished the first shred I was handed another.
I gave him my nodepad to write his name on it. Instead he wrote in Korean characters "thank you for sharing the table." (I of course found that out later on, and then I was really proud)
While all this happened, a group of NK soldiers sat indifferently chilling at the next table.

Back at my designated window seat, I decide that it is time for more pirate pix, but this time I am stopped by a young man with a striking appearance sitting opposite me telling me "No photos". His short black hair was well trimmed, his suit was tailor-made and his sunglasses perfected his young-tiger businessman-look. Well actually the constant usage of his cellphone perfected this look. Only one thing in his appearance stole the idea that he was a Shanghai real-estate-shark and that was the small Kim Il Sung-pin stuck in his suit over his chest. Those pins are on all North Korean chests. That's mandatory, folks.
So he was not a businessman, but he was a member of the NK elite of government officials. He was of that branch they in NK call tourist guides. But I would rather call them watchmen or agent-spies.

So no more pirate pix. For now.

The electrical train rolled slowly, too slowly, towards the NK capital of Pyongyang where our warm hotel beds awaited us. When the train was not rolling slowly it was not moving. Due to power shortages, we were waiting in several rounds of 20 and 30 minutes in darkness, before we could move on.
My back hurted, my immune defence was running on a low as the autumn had finally kicked in for real and I was wearing only a long-sleaved shirt and some thin pants, while all my other clothes was stashed in China. So I was longing for that warm overpriced hotel bed.
In the end we were some five hours late. The whole 200 kilometers had taken 13 hours to proceed. Very impressive. A Chinese guide told us that we were lucky, as she once had been sitting in the dark until three in the morning.

At Pyongyang train station I saw the face of a woman I will not forget soon. Our very own young cute North Korean guide. I had not expected to have a cute North Korean guide. She was our to mess around with, ask the most ridiculous questions and she could with a flick of a finger have us locked up in a real NK prison. What a marvelous contract!

I was too tired from the excruciating train ride to even remember what I talked about with our guide. Oh yeah, we talked about my Chinese visa that I had to obtain in NK in order to get back into China. At this point I was actually stuck in NK. Yunjun started joking that I could stay and become an NK movie star like a desertee from the American army during the Korean war.

We had Chinese food for dinner, which was a bit disappointing at this point. But because we were in the Chinese prison tour group, we had to eat Chinese prison dinner. After dinner, I filled out the Chinese visa application form and went to the hotel room, which I had to share with a Chinese man from a whole other Chinese tour group.
I was flabbergasted that I would not have my own room. Angrily flabbergasted. For a 1000 dollar four-day Chinese prison-tour I would expect at least my own room. At least I got my own bed. And at least the shower was never-ending sprouting streams of massaging hot water on my sore back.

From my hotel room on the 37th floor of the 47-storage Yanggak Hotal the Pyongyang skyline was impressive. Impressive because it reaked of socialist mystery. At midnight it was mysteriously dark though. Only a few lights in this three-million citizen capital was on and from my window I could see four cars driving in the streets.
I was a little bit worried that someone had found out that I was a reporter, and that they had sent someone to push me out of the window. Granted that NK is a paranoid state, it is only fair to be a little bit paranoid your-reporter-self.


6th November 2011

as good as it gets
I was in Dandong some 10 days ago, but I gave up the idea of crossing the border. Instead, i went to the top of Hushan great Wall, right at the border line. There was a Chinese guy with a telescope on a tripod, for only 10rmb you can take a look into socialist paradise. The only proper comparison is a post-nuclear war landscape from SF movies. People wearing rags , working in the corn field. Oxes harnessed to single axis cars. Vast emptyness. Complete deforestation. The only color thing: few red propaganda posters. The only modern thing: fast motor boats patrolling the river. I wonder whether I could see much more of true NK reality, had I purchased the trip inside... cheers Andrzej

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