Travel on the Edge: North Korea Part 2

North Korea Travel Guide

By: Barbara Friedell

If you missed Travel on the Edge: North Korea Part 1, click here

An afternoon visit started at The People’s Study House which we were told cost 100 million dollars to build. An enormous, cavernous structure it is supposed to house 30 million books, 70% natural science, 30% social science. There were computers being used but only for what is called the “intranet,” local internal browsing, not outside the country which doesn’t exist for the majority of the population. We were shown the most popular books checked out and of course the book featuring Michael Jordan was the most prominent one, along with Huckleberry Finn. You have to take all this with a huge dose of skepticism of course.

Driving on a ten lane highway out of town, there were almost no cars of any kind, just bicycles and few people walking. One of the most interesting conveyances that did appear on the road was the dump trucks powered by wood burning stoves. The steam generated from the wood fire makes the engine run, like a steam locomotive. That was something I had never seen before. The pavement goes from smooth in the city to heavily patched and rough outside the capital and the side roads are unpaved, hard packed earth.  But the main roads around the capital are wide enough to use as an airplane runway. All road repairs are done by hand, back breaking labor for both men and women.

At a showplace collective farm of 2,000 people, the small homes we saw were well maintained but again no machinery of any kind was in use. There were tractors but all of them were housed in a large run down garage area and none looked like they could possibly be operational. What was working was the single horse and cart. But the head of the collective proudly showed us the inside of his home with two flat screen TVs modestly cloaked in dust covers. Each collective maintains it’s own meagerly supplied store, school and cultural center. We were treated to a musical performance here with the country’s favorite instrument, the accordion.

Another day’s journey was to be overnight at a hot springs spa where one could enjoy a mineral bath experience with a deep soaking tub in every room and the dinner a scheduled clam bake. I skipped the clams and opted for a good night’s sleep. The spa hotel facility had an electrified fence around it (no idea if it actually worked but I wasn’t about to find out). I didn’t have to worry about missing the dinner clams; they were on the plate for breakfast too.

Every village home we passed and in fact every building in North Koreahas two displayed photographs, one of Kim Il-sung and the other of Kim Jong-Il on a wall in the main space of the unit. The photos are placed at a specific height and a specific distance apart from each other and nothing else can be displayed on that wall. A representative in each apartment block or office building sees to it that this is properly maintained.   

Onward then to the Western Sea of Korea and the huge dam that keepsPyongyang from flooding. Afterwards was the horrific Atrocities Museumwhere no detail is spared relating the USA’s treatment of the North Koreans during the Korean War. The seating in the arena remains stationary and the stage revolves going from a bad to worse scenario until finally the Koreans are liberated by Kim Il-sung. The signage states “Don’t Forget Bestial US Imperialists.” Less difficult to see was walking through the Pyongyang Feature Film Studios where hundreds of socialist films are shot and produced; a definite mood lightener.

From one side of the country to the other, to the Eastern Sea of Korea and a remote  beach hotel, completely silent at night with a full moon shining on the water. But here was trouble, the kind you never want to experience; one group member drunk and crazed, running into the water in the middle of the night and disappearing. Thank goodness he appeared hours later, wandering naked on the road and not shot by the guard at the gated hotel. From then on he was the pariah of the group.

Less drama filled trips included overnights to Mt. Paekdu, a one hour flight from Pyongyang. This is the tallest mountain in North Korea at 2750 meters with Lake Chon, the highest crater lake in the world at the top. The options were hike via the steep road or take an incline railway car to the top with the locals. We all opted for the railway. While waiting to return to the bus and seated in the railway car, a group of locals began singing, not realizing I was sitting in the back. It was the first time I had seen North Koreans at ease and actually seeming to enjoy themselves. That all stopped immediately when one of them finally realized a westerner was there.

Of course we were taken to the DMZ. I had been on the south side looking north many years before and at that time I was able to walk around the conference table which is placed half in South Korea, half inNorth Korea. On this visit, the blue hut that held the table was closed and the USA/South Korean overlook building had been demolished, a much more imposing structure replacing it. This obviously was done to match the size of the North Korean building, each side trying to keep up or outdo the other.

One of the major attractions for taking this trip to the DPRK was the opportunity to see the Ariyang Mass Games and the National Day parade. September 9, National Day, was the anniversary of the founding of the DPRK. Because things started a bit later in the morning and we were early, we went bowling! Yes, AMF pinspotters, very old balls with quarter size gauges in them, but brand new red, white and black Chinese bowling shoes…there we all were in the same place as the Pyongyang residents, having a good time. Of course no one spoke to us and it appeared that people kept slowly edging away from us, moving to different lanes. I got a strike on my first ball but my game was all downhill from there.

Outside the crowds were gathering for the huge National Day parade. Thousands of people lined the streets while hundreds of floats and army trucks with male and female soldiers, some furiously waving flowers and others holding grenade launchers and other weaponry, drove by. Joining the North Korean army, one of the largest in the world, gives these soldiers an opportunity for better food and more ration cards which can be sent to their families. There are no overweight North Koreans. The military is a way to escape from village life and ensure a more upwardly mobile position which otherwise would never be open to them.

Along the crowded sidewalks we walked freely with the North Koreans but again it was though we were invisible. It was the same when we walked down the main streets of Pyongyang or rode the immaculate Pyongyangsubway on various occasions. Instant invisibility. No eye contact of any kind and no attempt by anyone to speak to us; too many eyes watching and waiting to report if anyone tried to get close.

The Ariyang Mass Games was held that evening. Here in an enormous outdoor stadium, 100,000 performers rehearse for a year to create perfection.  I can’t imagine the pressure put on these individuals to achieve this, but they did. 50,000 people are in the card section; remember those from college football games? The card section at the Mass Games is spectacular. After a laser and fireworks display, an image of Kim Jong-un appeared and the games began. Actually the games are a series of tableau's featuring thousands of individuals, amazing to watch. It is their Olympics.

Photographs of the events were permitted but we were asked not to photograph the audience. Of course no one checked our shots. We were able to buy DVDs of last year’s Mass Games after the performance using euros as the only accepted currency.

Because we were so well behaved as a group from the onset of our arrival in North Korea, the minders had loosened up. We were able to photograph from the minibus windows and except for check points and army encampments which were well hidden, we could take whatever photos we wanted albeit unobtrusively. It had been suggested that we bring gifts for the minders and the guide. Candy, especially chocolates from the west was preferred. These were passed around quietly on the second day and from then on, with our good behavior, things went easily. On the bus I knitted at times as we drove along and the guide, a lovely woman who actually went to high school in Europe, came over and sat next to me. Her mother had passed away a year before and had always knitted in red yarn, as I was doing. It was definitely a bonding moment and I was able to find out some personal information about her family, sharing photos of my family with her and she did the same.  When I returned home, I knitted a heavy red scarf and headband and sent it to her via the tour agency who personally delivered it. I knew I would never hear from her again, but this was a small way to show that Americans aren’t as bad as the propaganda depicts us.

Stay tuned for Part 3 in the North Korea travel series! 

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Barbara Heller Friedell has been traveling the world in unconventional ways to unconventional places for the past thirty-five years. Although born in New York, she considers herself a Chicagoan since her parents moved there when she was five. As a "senior citizen," Barbara moved to London England in 1997 to achieve her dream of a Master's Degree in "The Art History of India and Tibet" two of her favorite countries to visit. After receiving her degree, she has continued traveling the world to places most people only read about. A wife, mother and grandmother, Barbara loves sharing her adventures.