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Published: February 4th 2014
Monument to the workers' party
Everybody deserves a happy lunar new year of the horse. Even one of the most suspiciously enigmatic countries in the world, namely the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (known by us commoners as North Korea). I do believe that all of you readers will be sufficiently aware of the political situation in the country and so I can skip this part. There are plenty of websites discussing issues related to North Korea and I think I should just focus on my personal experience in Pyongyang.. politics aside as far as this is possible.
I was curious about the "land of whispers" since quite some time and finally I got over my inner demons and just booked a new years tour to North Korea (group travels are the most common way of visiting the country, as you can not go anywhere without a local "minder"). I have spent a total of 6 days in the DPRK and have visited several places, which I will discuss in another entry later on. This will only deal with the DPRK's most famous tourist spot, namely its showcase capital Pyongyang. Now the first impression of Pyongyang, if you fly in with the national Koryo Airlines
as I did, is the surrounding landscape and local airport. The local airport is actually nothing but a concrete block terminal at the end of a long, dusty landing strip. A new building is currently being built next to the old one, as we could see soldiers in their uniforms hammering away on the construction site. This, so our local tour guide told us, has been undertaken as "Marshall" Kim Jong Un has recently mentioned the importance of tourism for the economic well-being of the country. So this might mean more flights into Pyongyang and maybe less restrictions on future tourists? Who knows. I will anyhow discuss the restrictions of traveling to the DPRK in my next entry.
The winter landscape surrounding Pyongyang and the airport, is what one could describe a kind of desert-like steppe. Dusty, rocky sandstones paint the plains along the capital in a sandy brown and give the impression that nothing edible can be reclaimed from this land. By a closer look I have anyhow discovered that most of the "fields" are actually rice paddies, hopefully turning greener in summer times, even if this is hard to imagine considering the consistency of the soil. More
The propaganda machine is working
one nears Pyongyang, more one notices the impressive large and fairly empty streets, as well as the cubic architecture reminding of other totalitarian buildings found in other former dictatorships, such as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. Actually seeing Pyongyang passing by, I was reminded of Adolf Hitler's vision for a National Socialist Berlin through his personal architect Albert Speer. If you have never seen the prototype for this, look it up and you will get a pretty good idea.
There are several monuments in the city, of course all of them at least partly addressing the greatness of one of the DPRK's great leaders (Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un... confused?). The most impressive of all is the so called Juche Tower, which at this point is the tallest stone building in the world. It is a tribute to the "Juche philosophy", i.e. the plan for total self reliance of North Korea. On top of the tower there is a slightly cheesy flickering red flame, towering high over the dark and electricity-missing streets of Pyongyang. Quite impressive are also the large statues of the two deceased Kim's, benevolently smiling down on the city. We were
Two men strolling along the monumental streets
lucky and caught a couple taking their wedding pictures there, which is impressive in its own way as politics and love are a curious mix.
Another thing noteworthy about Pyongyang (and the whole of the DPRK) are the people of this country. You would hardly see cars in Pyongyang and most people are constantly walking or cycling to different places in the city. The impressive socialist subway/ bunker is also an increasingly popular means of transport. I was allowed to take 6 stops with it and actually saw lots of locals (no, they are not actors. I saw an old woman getting pushed back by a soldier and the smell of some of the locals was also not actor-like). We are also allowed to celebrate the Lunar New Year under the fireworks of Pyongyang in Kim Il Sung Square with a refreshing 15 minutes of freedom from our minders! This I have to say was one of the greatest experiences of my life. The people anyhow are, as said before, mostly moving by feet or bicycle and all dressed in shades of grey and black. I haven't figured out why this is the case in the DPRK and if
Kim Il Sung Square
somebody knows, you are welcome to let me know!
Interestingly, there are a lot of micro breweries in Pyongyang, producing a wide array of (non-pasteurized) beers. Some of them are actually pretty decent, even if they can give you a huge headache. We were allowed to visit a couple of bars and a bowling alley where also plenty of locals were hanging out. This was pretty fun as you could almost freely get into any conversation with anybody you want. I did not really expect this, as the DPRK is extremely protective when it comes to foreign influences. Same as in this blog anyhow, it seemed that if you don't touch politics you would be fine!
Last, I want to mention what several other travelers have mentioned before. If you visit Pyongyang, you are likely to stay in the Janggakdo Hotel. This is a humongous multi-store building where only our approximately 15 group mates stayed on the 37th floor. Why is that? Who knows... Anyway, the hotel is actually right in the middle of the city, right in the center of the river, cutting the capital in half. The trick is that you are stuck on a little
island from which you are not allowed to move without guides. This anyhow is a fact that every DPRK traveler has to face for now. The hotel offers anyhow various leisure options such as karaoke, bowling and a bar... Makes it feel a little less like a prison, or maybe more like a high class Bo Xi Lai like institution.
That was pretty much all about Pyongyang. Feels a little less ironic and more descriptive than my normal posts, doesn't it? Well, so much has been said and told about the problems of the DPRK that I do not want to go into it, partly because I would have nothing new to say, partly because I do not want to put salt on the wounds of this already crippled country. In my next entry I will anyhow discuss some "different" things I have noticed in the DPRK and try to play mythbuster with some of the things you commonly hear from travel forums on the internet. Don't forget, I just have been there for 7 days and just came back yesterday so the information is fresh 😊 Happy new year of the horse to all of you!
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