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Archive for the ‘2010 China & North Korea’ Category

Travelling to Beijing

October 6th, 2010 No comments

So I’m finally here in Beijing on the start of my trip to China and North Korea and it feels like I’ve had an adventure already.

Yesterday I got up prompt at my hotel near Gatwick airport and, after final checks of my hand luggage, drove up to the Airparks car park at the airport to park my car and transfer to North Terminal for my flight. I decided to fly Emirates to Beijing via Dubai as it was one of the cheapest and definitely more desirable than Aeroflot, Air China or the risk of a British Airways strike.

After some last minute research to double check how the Beijing Subway worked I boarded my flight on an Emirates 777 on time. The flight was smooth and the on-board entertainment was amazing. More music, TV and films than you knew what to do with plus a sky map and cameras looking forward / downwards.

There was a long queue for transit in Dubai but the departure lounge was amazing… so many shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, a Starbucks and free wi-fi which helped pass the time.

Dubai Airport

Dubai Airport

Flying over Tibet en route to Beijing

Flying over Tibet en route to Beijing

My flight to Beijing was on an A380 in the early hours of this morning. After what seemed like an eternally long take-off due to the size of the plane we flew towards Beijing – passing over Iran, Pakistan, Tibet and China along the way.

Immigration in Beijing was so informal. The person in front of me didn’t look like his passport photo so they let him in on his driving license, before greeting me with “hi mate”. After clearing immigration, health screening and collecting my bags I made my way to the Airtrain terminal for my ride to Beijing.

I managed to get my Airtrain ticket ok but trying to get my subway ticket for the main subway was a whole different game. I read online that the best thing to get was a “Yikatong” charge card and put as much money on it as you needed for your visit so asked for one of those… she sold me a ticket back to the airport which I didn’t need. I tried buying a single ticket from the machine but it wouldn’t let me as I didn’t have any money small enough. Eventually a woman at another desk sold me a single ticket so I decided to just give up and buy singles from the machines during my time in Beijing… It doesn’t cost any more just make sure you have 10Yuan notes or less ready.

Smog over Beijing as seen from the Air Train

Smog over Beijing as seen from the Air Train

My room in my Beijing Hotel

My room in my Beijing Hotel

After finding my way to my hotel I relaxed for a bit before heading to Tiananmen Square for some night-time photo opportunities. I couldn’t stay long as I need to catch up on some sleep ready for a long day tomorrow, however while I was in the square taking self-photos of myself to try to save time an old Chinese man came up to me and offered to take my photo outside The Forbidden City which was really nice – it seems the people of Beijing are quite friendly compared to some of the reviews I have read.

The Forbidden City as seen from Tiananmen Square

The Forbidden City as seen from Tiananmen Square

Me outside The Forbidden City

Me outside The Forbidden City

Tiananmen Square by Night

Tiananmen Square by Night

Here is a video of the Forbidden City / Tiananmen Square water show that I saw of which there is a photo earlier in this blog. It also contains a sweeping panorama of Tiananmen Square:

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Forbidden City / Olympic Park

October 7th, 2010 No comments

I read that you needed to leave enough time while in Beijing to be able to explore the Forbidden City (aka Palace Museum) properly so decided to make this my first stop during my time in Beijing.

The Forbidden City was the residence of the Chinese Emperors during Imperial times from the middle ages all the way through to modern times when Emperor PuYi abdicated as the last emperor in 1912. It is definitely worth a visit to see the grandeur, history and intimate detail in all of the buildings and you can easily spend 4 hours here depending on how long you take to look around and whether you decide to see everything or not.

There are two types of ticket you can get… the first one is just a basic entry ticket or you can buy an all-inclusive “Tao Piao” ticket which allows you entry to all of the additional exhibits such as the Hall of Clocks – but unless you have an urge to visit them this probably isn’t worth it.

I decided to rent a self-guided audio tour to explore the Forbidden City at my own pace. Basically it’s a map of the city with LED lights on them showing you where you have been and where you still need to visit. The light flashes when you reach each location and the machine then explains in detail about the place you’re in through the attached earphones. They’re definitely worth using as you’ll hear a lot more information this way than if you take a guided tour, and it allows you to go at your own pace. They cost 40Yuan to rent plus a 100Yuan deposit which you get back when you return the unit.

To find the entrance to The Forbidden City follow the tourists or look for Mao

To find the entrance to The Forbidden City follow the tourists or look for Mao

Inside The Forbidden City

Inside The Forbidden City

A bucket used for holding fire for extinguishing fires in The Forbidden City

A bucket used for holding water for extinguishing fires in The Forbidden City

Dragons on the roof of a building in The Forbidden City

Dragons on the roof of a building in The Forbidden City

Walls inside The Forbidden City

Walls inside The Forbidden City

Lion statue inside The Forbidden City

Lion statue inside The Forbidden City

Gardens in The Forbidden City

Gardens in The Forbidden City

I spent just under 4 hours exploring the city via my audio guide and still didn’t see everything but I saw so many amazing sights during my time here. These included all of the former palaces, temples, residences of the emperor and his court. There were also banquet halls, statues, gardens and so much more. I took so many photos!

On my way out of the city I saw what was probably my most disturbing scene of the whole holiday – a kid decided to tip his own pants open, squat, and empty his bowels right in the middle of the exit courtyard right next to me… so i quickly made my way to my next stop which was Jingshan Park – a Buddhist temple overlooking the north gate of the Forbidden City.

The moat on the North side of The Forbidden City

The moat on the North side of The Forbidden City

Jingshan Park only costs 2 Yuan to enter and is a beautiful park built around a large hill that was created when the Forbidden City’s moat was dug. You can walk all the way to the top to see a Buddhist Temple and, weather permitting, have magnificent views over the Forbidden city.

Unfortunately there was too much smog in the air when I visited so I decided to make my way out of the park, past the spot where Emperor Chongzhen hanged himself, and explore the city for a bit. I wandered past the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, snacked on some street food before deciding to make my way to the Olympic Park.

Jingshan Park

Jingshan Park

View of The Forbidden City from Jingshan Park

View of The Forbidden City from Jingshan Park

The location where The Emperor hanged himself

The location where The Emperor hanged himself

London is hosting the next Olympics in 2 years time so I felt it was almost my duty to visit the Beijing Olympic Site. I took the subway there and probably spent an hour in the area taking photos, looking at the Water Cube, Bird’s Nest Stadium and a few other places before coming back to my hotel. I need an early night tonight as I’m getting up early for the flag raising ceremony tomorrow.

The Water Cube

The Water Cube

Me in front of The Bird's Nest Stadium

Me in front of The Bird's Nest Stadium

Here are a couple more photos from today I thought I’d include..

Me in The Forbidden City

Me in The Forbidden City

The rather large road that I had to cross every day near my hotel

The rather large road that I had to cross every day near my hotel

The view from my hotel room in Beijing

The view from my hotel room in Beijing

Finally for today a video showing one of the two main courtyards of the Forbidden City:

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A long day in Beijing

October 8th, 2010 No comments

Today ended up being a very long day but definitely worth it as I was able to visit Tiananmen Square, Mao’s Mausoleum, The Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven and the Night Market all in one day.

I woke up at 5am ready to leave for Tiananmen Square’s Flag Raising Ceremony, which I had read was worth seeing. Basically if you’re there on time you’ll see a large number of soldiers escorting the national flag out of The Forbidden City where it’ll be raised while the National Anthem plays in the background.

I arrived at the square just as the ceremony was starting and took my place lining the road around the square to watch. The whole ceremony was over in 5 minutes but it was a great atmosphere and it was interesting to see about 10,000 Chinese people get confused about why I was there.

Soldiers with the Chinese Flag

Soldiers with the Chinese Flag

The end of the Flag Raising Ceremony

The end of the Flag Raising Ceremony

After returning to my hotel for breakfast it was back to Tiananmen Square to visit the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao before the queues built up. You’re allowed to take mobile phones into the hall but all bags and cameras must be deposited in the luggage store across the road for 10Yuan.

The queue for the Mausoleum only took me about 2 minutes and, after passing through security, it was straight into the hall. We passed by a statue of Mao where you could leave flowers if you wish before passing into the room where his body lays in state. After passing by his body at a rather fast pace you’re ushered out of the building and can pick up your bags again.

Mausoleum of Mao

Mausoleum of Mao

Next stop The Summer Palace, the place which the emperors used as their summer retreat during imperial times. Most guide books tell you to get there using a local bus but there’s a new subway line that goes directly to the palace – Beigonmen station which helped.

There aren’t any signs for the entrance when you leave the station so I had to Google Map the directions… but it’s about 2 minutes walk west -just look for the bus station and then it’s down the old road next to that.

I bought an all-inclusive “Tao Piao” ticket on this occasion as there are a lot of buildings you can’t get into without it – some of which give amazing views of the surrounding area… and it’s only a little bit more expensive.

A temple inside The Summer Palace

A temple inside The Summer Palace

One of the buildings of The Summer Palace

One of the buildings of The Summer Palace

Inside The Summer Palace

Inside The Summer Palace

I spent probably 3 hours exploring the palace and its grounds, again with the help of the automated audio-guide. It’s a beautiful location with beautiful surroundings, as you can see in the photos below.

While I was walking around the gardens to the west of the palace these Chinese teenagers came up to me and said “My friend he very much likes foreign people. May he have a photo with you?”… so I said of course and we chatted for a little bit and took photos of each other, and together. They were really nice people.

Some of the gardens at The Summer Palace

Some of the gardens at The Summer Palace

The lake next to The Summer Palace

The lake next to The Summer Palace

The Stone Boat at The Summer Palace

The Stone Boat at The Summer Palace

I was aching by this point so was glad of the long subway ride back into the city to see the Temple of Heaven. I managed to get a seat but after 2 stops this old lady got on so I gave up my seat for her. She thanked me, and when the seat next to her became available she wouldn’t let anybody else sit there and beckoned for me to sit there. There are some really nice people in this city, but unfortunately some annoying people that keep trying to sell me fake watches and con me into various things too.

While I’m on the subject I’ll give you a few tips about how to survive some of the people that pester you in Beijing. In general I encountered really nice people in Beijing but you’ll find a lot of people pestering you to buy fake watches, be conned into “free” tours but who will then charge you a fortune, beg for money and a few other things. Just say no thank you, ignore them and walk away is the best way to deal with them. The subway is a different matter – it’s every man for himself so be prepared to barge through to get on and off, and get along the platforms. A final piece of advice if you’re near any of the shopping areas and have any young women come to you saying they want to practice their English and want to have a coffee with you politely decline – they will take you to a cafe their friend owns and leave you with a very large bill. However as I said the majority of Beijing is really nice and the people are really friendly!

Anyway 90 minutes later, after a few changes, I arrived at Tiantandongmen station – which is at the east gate of the Temple of Heaven. After purchasing my tickets I rented another self-guided audio tour to look around the Temple of Heaven.

The Temple is where sacrifices, prayers and other offerings were made to God by the various Emperors and is well worth a visit. You will need to buy an all inclusive ticket here otherwise you won’t be allowed to get close to any of the buildings.

Temple of Heaven - The Emperor's Walkway

Temple of Heaven - The Emperor's Walkway

One of the Pagodas in the Temple of Heaven

One of the Pagodas in the Temple of Heaven

Temple of Heaven Gardens

Temple of Heaven Gardens

Me at the Temple of Heaven

Me at the Temple of Heaven

I’d say allow 90 minutes – 2 hours at the Temple of Heaven if you want to see everything and not have to rush. It’ll also give you a chance to enjoy the beautiful gardens the temple is situated in.

After looking around the temple for a while and taking lots of photos I made my way back to my hotel for a rest as my feet were aching by this point. However it would only be a short rest as I planned to visit the Night Food Market near Wanfujing street to see all the creepy crawlies being cooked.

Sunset from The Temple of Heaven

Sunset from The Temple of Heaven

Walking through the Temple of Heaven gardens on the way out

Walking through the Temple of Heaven gardens on the way out

The Night Market was a different experience. I’ve never seen so many weird things being cooked before – including Sheep Penis Kebabs, Silkworm, Snake, Cows Pancreas and much more. I decided to stick to the reasonably safe choices of Chicken Dumplings and Beef in a Roll although even they were an adventure!

I’m back in my hotel now as I need to make sure I’m awake in time for my flight to North Korea in the morning. It’s getting close now, and I’m a little nervous but very excited.

Walking back to my hotel from The Temple of Heaven

Walking back to my hotel from The Temple of Heaven

Beijing shopping by night

Beijing shopping by night

The stalls at the Night Food Market

The stalls at the Night Food Market

"Chicken Dumplings" at the Night Food Market

"Chicken Dumplings" at the Night Food Market

More Night Market food - this time "Beef in a roll"

More Night Market food - this time "Beef in a roll"

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Into North Korea

October 9th, 2010 No comments

Today was the day I had been waiting for, when I would arrive in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (aka DPRK / North Korea). I’ve always been a person that likes travelling to unique destinations where I feel I can learn a lot so when I saw this holiday advertised I had to do it!

After a quick breakfast in the hotel, which was really busy as usual, I caught the subway and Airport Train to Beijing Airport ready for my flight. The Airtrain ticket I was sold didn’t work, so it seems I was sold the wrong ticket again, but I eventually arrived at the airport and passed through security to the check-in area.

In the check-in queue I met some of the others from my tour group but when it was our turn to be checked in they couldn’t find us on the system. We thought something had gone wrong but it turns out that we had been moved onto another flight to DPRK that was leaving 30 minutes later. Panic over! After checking in for our new flight we proceeded through to the departure lounge for some last minute shopping and a chance to get to know each other before arriving in Korea.

Next to where we were sitting was a brand new Russian built Air Koryo jet, but this was the flight we were removed from. I remembered that only one of the new planes had been delivered so went to see what was at our departure gate and, to my excitement, it was one of the really old Tupolev jets that had been taken out of service recently but the news didn’t go down well with Celia, who was afraid of flying, but I was rather excited.

My Air Koryo boarding pass

My Air Koryo boarding pass

The Tupolev 154 plane at Beijing Airport

The Tupolev 154 plane at Beijing Airport

This is the newer Air Koryo plane

This is the newer Air Koryo plane

Our flight to Pyongyang was a new experience. I had to duck to get into the cabin, photos weren’t allowed in the plane even when it was in Beijing, there were no doors on the luggage racks, there was a minimal safety demonstration, the panels of the plane had gaps in them, water dripped on me, there was a card with instructions on how to put our lifejacket on without there being any lifejackets under our seats and the seats did this when you touched them…

The seats folder forward as soon as you leaned on them

The seats folder forward as soon as you leaned on them

Presumably this is why they have begun replacing the old fleet with brand new jets. During the flight we were served a basic meal but it was a showcase of what was to come – basic and generally cold but tasted nice. We had salmon cakes, salad, potato curry, rice and fruit cake. I was sat at the window so could see all of the scenery go past – we flew pretty across the West Sea and over the North Korean coast but we seemed to take a big loop around to get to Pyongyang considering how little air traffic there was so maybe they wanted to avoid flying over something sensitive like a military base.

Our flight went without a hitch and after landing at Pyongyang we made what seemed like a very long taxi to the terminal. On the way we passed a lot of old Soviet-era planes which made the kid next to me and Celia very excited. His name is Oli and he’s from a school group that was visiting from Hong Kong and wants to train to be an Air Force Pilot so it was, in his words, “like being in a 1960s cold war film”. Time for a few photos by the plane before buses arrived to take us to the terminal.

The Tupolev 154 which flew us to Pyongyang

The Tupolev 154 which flew us to Pyongyang

Some of the older planes at Pyongyang Airport

Some of the older planes at Pyongyang Airport

My first photo in DPRK

My first photo in DPRK

Immigration and customs went very smoothly considering we were the back of a queue containing people from three different flights. During the queue there were a few kids waving at us from the departure lounge above although they were quickly moved away by some guards. Between Immigration and Customs we met our guides who took our phones away to be kept locked up for our duration in DPRK (there is a mobile phone network in the country but foreigners aren’t allowed access to it, or even to keep their phones on them).

By the time our entire group made their way to the coach it was too late for the planned city tour so we made our way straight to the Yanggakdo Hotel where we would be staying for a few nights on an island in the middle of the Taedong River – presumably so we didn’t wander off. On the way to the hotel the roads were rather quiet but we did see a few people cycling around on bikes being directed by the infamous Traffic Ladies. We were given a brief introduction to our week and the things we would see as well as being given a few facts about North Korea.

The rules of the tour were simple – no wandering off, no leaving the hotel without a guide, no taking photos from the bus while it was moving, do not take possession of North Korean Won (only pay in foreign currency) and follow any instructions the guides give you.

After checking into the hotel, which had a very impressive lobby I must add, we were given 30 minutes to relax in our rooms before dinner would be served. I was assigned a room on the 40th floor overlooking the river as were a few other people but two of our group had rooms on the 33rd floor which I was told these had equally impressive views. Dinner was simple – kimchi (pickled spicy cold cabbage), veg, fish, rice, a few meats, soup, noodles plus a variety of drinks both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.

The lobby of the Yanggakdo Hotel

The lobby of the Yanggakdo Hotel

My room at the Yanggakdo Hotel

My room at the Yanggakdo Hotel

The view from my room in Pyongyang

The view from my room in Pyongyang

I’m back in my room now but after dinner I browsed the hotel shop and had beers in the bar with some of our fellow guests the Moncktons. It feels so surreal to be in North Korea but I’m really happy to have made it. My room has a lovely view over the city and river and it’s so quiet – there are almost no noises in the city other than the occasional generator, car horn and police whistle.

 

(Please note – I have been given permission to include details of my trip on my blog by the tour company but the names of my guides as well as photos of them have left out to respect their privacy. It is forbidden for journalists to visit The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on a tourist visa and it is forbidden for us to publish information about our trip in any capacity without permission. As a result I do NOT give permission for anything I write about North Korea in this blog, or any photos I upload of North Korea, to be used anywhere for any purpose other than reading directly on my blog if you are considering travelling to North Korea as a tourist. In addition I do NOT give permission for my name, my blog’s address, or any photos of me to be used or quoted anywhere for any purpose related to The DPRK. If you breach this notice you will be subject to legal action from the tour company. Thank you for your understanding.

If you feel that the post / page containing this notice breaches any regulations or if it contains any information or photos which should be changed or removed to respect the rules of the tour company or the traditions of The DPRK please let me know ASAP so I can fix the problem.)

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North Korean Festivities

October 10th, 2010 No comments

Today is the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party of Korea and we were told we would be in store for something special, which they were definitely right about. I’ve just finished watching probably the biggest fireworks display I’ve ever seen from my hotel room which I only happened to see because I was looking out the window at the time.

It was a fairly leisurely start today and after a nice buffet breakfast that consisted of meat, bread, bracken, kimchi, rice, freshly cooked eggs, toast and various drinks we met in the lobby at 9am ready for a long day in the city.

It was a bit foggy this morning

It was a bit foggy this morning

The dining room in the Hotel Yanggakdo

The dining room in the Hotel Yanggakdo

Our first stop was the Pyongyang metro system which is apparently the deepest system in the world as it doubles up as a system of bomb shelters in the event of an attack. We were told some facts about the system before being escorted down to a long escalator to the platform which, unlike the London Underground or NYC subway, is clean, spacious and has murals on all the walls. We only went one stop along the line in a cordoned off section of the carriage before getting off again where we were shown another station which was even more impressive – chandeliers, bigger platforms, newspaper stands showing what Kim Jong-il has been up to that week and even a lady walking around selling guide books to the system for tourists. I bought a couple of souvenir guides for friends and expected to be shown back up to the surface soon as I had read in previous blogs we were only allowed to see those two stations – however this was false. We were shown back onto the subway after a few minutes – this time in a carriage full of very confused looking locals and Army soldiers who were very curious about why we were travelling but it was nice to be able to travel normally without the token 1 stop journey that I was expecting.

The foyer of a Pyongyang Metro station

The foyer of a Pyongyang Metro station

The escalator down to the platform

The escalator down to the platform

The metro station platform

The metro station platform

Catching up on recent news

Catching up on recent news

Next on the itinerary was the Arch of Triumph which is similar to the counterpart in Paris but bigger. We took some photos in front of the arch before being shown to the Kim il-Sung stadium where there is a mural depicting a speech that he gave there one day. There were lots of flowers below the mural as this is presumably one of the locations where Koreans are able to pay respect to the late Great Leader. However there wasn’t much time to relax as we were soon off to our next location.

Me at the Arch of Triumph

Me at the Arch of Triumph

The surroundings of the Arch of Triumph

The surroundings of the Arch of Triumph

The Mangyongdae Revolutionary Site is the house that Kim il-Sung used to live in as a child when his family were groundskeepers to a local park and, apparently, is the location where he left to fight the Japanese. It’s a small collection of thatched cottages at the base of a hill which we were given a tour of before being lead through some nice woodland to an outcrop overlooking Pyongyang. This is apparently where Kim il-Sung liked to wrestle with other kids when he was young and also look out over the city. The views were impressive but it was fairly misty this morning so we didn’t see as much as we might have otherwise.

After lunch in a local restaurant we made a detour back to the hotel as Helen wasn’t feeling very well and wanted to catch up on sleep. As time was limited we had to take a shortcut through the suburbs of Pyongyang which were a lot less well maintained than the rest of the city and included several crumbling older buildings which, as we were on the bus, we were not allowed to take photos of.

This is the location Kim il-Sung used to live

This is the location Kim il-Sung used to live

Me overlooking Pyongyang

Me overlooking Pyongyang

Bim Bim Bap for Lunch

Bim Bim Bap for Lunch

Today's Lunch

Today’s Lunch

Our first stop of the afternoon was another revolutionary sight in the city containing lots of fountains and we were given freedom to wander around as much as we liked here as long as we stayed in view of the guides. We wandered round for a bit taking photos and saying hello some kids (who ran away screaming when they saw us) before being asked if we would like to buy some flowers for 4 Euros to pay our respect to Kim il-Sung at his statue which was to be our next destination. I accepted the invitation along with two or three others from the group.

When we arrived at the statue protocol said that we all had to first stand beside each other in a line. Those of us who had bought flowers then walked forward to place them before rejoining the line so we could all bow in unison. It may seem a bit over the top but in North Korea they take respect of Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il very seriously and it’s something you’ll accept and get used to if you visit.

After paying our respects and having some free time to take photos we were taken on a 20 minute walk through the centre of Pyongyang by our guides past the Parliament building, part of the old city wall, a castle and some large apartment blocks. One thing we noticed is how open and airy the city is compared to many in the west – I guess they have a lot of space and not many cars which helps but it’s a nice city.

Me at the fountains

Me at the fountains

The Kim il-Sung Statue

The Kim il-Sung Statue

North Korean Parliament

North Korean Parliament

The Streets of Pyongyang

The Streets of Pyongyang

The Revolutionary Martyr Cemetary was our next stop and is the location where 25 years ago today Kim il-Sung made an important speech to the people of Korea. It is also the place where many of North Korea’s freedom fighters are buried, including the mother of Kim il-Sung. We placed flowers at her grave before having a chance to relax and enjoy the view of Pyongyang and its surrounding valleys.

Next stop the USS Pueblo which is a spy ship that the Koreans captured from the Americans and is now moored along the Taedong River as a trophy. We were shown around by a guide from the Korean People’s Navy who told us the history of the ship and how it was captured, as well as telling us a few details about her family. It was interesting to see the communications room and the letter of apology that was issued to the DPRK by the USA over the incident. There was time for photos on the deck but not before being shown a video showing the DPRK version of events which we had to take with a pinch of salt due to some of the names they used for the Americans although there is still a sense of anger towards the American Government who are still seen as Imperialists by Pyongyang.

A small portion of the Revolutionary Martyr Cemetary

A small portion of the Revolutionary Martyr Cemetary

USS Pueblo Spy Ship

USS Pueblo Spy Ship

The apology from the American Government

The apology from the American Government

Me on the deck of the USS Pueblo

Me on the deck of the USS Pueblo

There was just time for a quick freshen up in the hotel before heading out to dinner in a restaurant with attached gift show in Pyongyang city centre. Dinner was more of the same but it was this gift shop where I finally understood how the system worked when buying things in the DPRK. First you tell the person behind the desk what you want, or take it to her if it’s a self-service shop, and she issues an invoice with all of your items listed. You take this invoice to the cash desk in the shop who take payment in whatever currency you wish to pay, Euros are best, before stamping your invoice which can then be exchanged for the items you have purchased. It’s an unusual system compared to in the west but it works in the DPRK when you get used to it.

Upon returning to the hotel I decided to take a few photos of the city as Kim il-Sung Square was lit up due to the Anniversary parade that was taking place. Literally the moment I turned my camera on the fireworks started so I was able to get a video of the whole show which, although it only lasted a few minutes, was one of the loudest and most intense fireworks displays I have ever seen. After the fireworks had finished I watched the parade live on TV for a bit and noticed the Kim Jong-il himself was in the square over the river watching the festivities.

Kim Jong-il being shown live on DPRK TV

Kim Jong-il being shown live on DPRK TV

We have an early start tomorrow so I’m going to catch up on sleep now. It has been a long day today but we have seen so many things – it looks like tomorrow will be just as intense.

 

(Please note – I have been given permission to include details of my trip on my blog by the tour company but the names of my guides as well as photos of them have left out to respect their privacy. It is forbidden for journalists to visit The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on a tourist visa and it is forbidden for us to publish information about our trip in any capacity without permission. As a result I do NOT give permission for anything I write about North Korea in this blog, or any photos I upload of North Korea, to be used anywhere for any purpose other than reading directly on my blog if you are considering travelling to North Korea as a tourist. In addition I do NOT give permission for my name, my blog’s address, or any photos of me to be used or quoted anywhere for any purpose related to The DPRK. If you breach this notice you will be subject to legal action from the tour company. Thank you for your understanding.

If you feel that the post / page containing this notice breaches any regulations or if it contains any information or photos which should be changed or removed to respect the rules of the tour company or the traditions of The DPRK please let me know ASAP so I can fix the problem.)

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The Demilitarised Zone

October 11th, 2010 No comments

Today was a day that I had been looking forward to all year and it was pretty much everything I hoped it would be. Today we visited the demilitarised zone (DMZ) which is the border between North Korea and South Korea and, ironically, one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world as it’s still technically an active warzone due to the fact the Korean War has never officially ended with a peace treaty.

A fairly early start today – a quick 7am breakfast followed by stocking up on bottled water for the journey which, at 85 cents for 4 bottles was very cheap, then it’s onto the coach for the trip to Panmunjom. On the way out of the city the landscape changed quickly from high-rise buildings, to soviet-style breeze block apartments, to tin shacks and finally to open road through the middle of farm land. Compared to the UK this highway was almost empty – we only really passed a few cars, military trucks and buses plus farmers pulling carts until we reached the next major town. On the way we passed several military checkpoints manned by soldiers armed with AK-47s who were stopping every vehicle. In North Korea you need a permit to travel outside of your town / city so they were checking that we had permission to leave Pyongyang and enter each zone we went through.

When we arrived at the DMZ there was time for shopping before we joined a tour group from Finland who were also there at the same time for our trip down to the border with South Korea. First there was a brief introduction to the DMZ, which was translated into English by one of our guides and then to Finnish by their guide, before we were shown to the armistice hall where the treaty was signed. The hall contained the original signing desks plus exhibits detailing the history of the DMZ.

Me in the hut where peace talks took place

Me in the hut where peace talks took place

The desks which were used to sign the Korean War Armistice

The desks which were used to sign the Korean War Armistice

Artifacts in the armistice hall

Artifacts in the armistice hall

Then it was down to the MDL (Military Demarcation Line) which is the official border between North and South Korea. Every time I’ve seen the border on TV there have been soldiers from both the North and the South staring at each other over the border and staring at tourists on the other side so I was expecting a lot of tension, however except for one truck moving up a hill in the distance there was no activity in the south. There were no soldiers, no vehicles, nothing! We asked our guides and they said the border is only manned on both sides at the same time when there has been recent cross-border tension. Other than that people are only visible in the North in the morning when tour groups from the North arrive and then in the South when their tour groups arrive. Despite this there was still tension in the air.

We were allowed into one of the huts that cross the border between North Korea and South Korea and is the location that both sides meet for talks when needed. This was the part I had been looking forward to the most as you’re able to pass freely backwards and forwards across the border while in the hut – effectively crossing the only active war zone line in the world. I decided to get a photo taken straddling the line.

Everything behind the soldiers is in South Korea

Everything behind the soldiers is in South Korea

Inside the hut from inside the South looking towards the North

Inside the hut from inside the South looking towards the North

Me standing across the border between North and South Korea

Me standing across the border between North and South Korea

After a short time in the hut we were taken to the roof of the building overlooking the border which, I’ve read online, when you visit from the South you are told is only a shell of a building and not an actual building as they can’t afford it. This bit was wrong and I can assure you that it is a real building – this is also presumably why we were shown it by the North Koreans, and they even allowed us to have a photo with one of their border guards on top of it. Overall they weren’t as strict as I imagined they would be at the border – one lady accidentally stepped onto the line near the huts which is supposed to show where only the military can go but other than asking her to move there were no problems.

Me with an officer from the DPRK Army

Me with an officer from the DPRK Army

Our group at the DMZ

Our group at the DMZ

Onwards to Kaesong and lunch at the Folkcustoms hotel. The hotel consisted of numerous traditional Korean buildings set in wooded grounds along a stream and lunch was just as traditional in that we all sat around on mats and ate a lunch containing numerous small dishes most of which we had seen before but there were also some interesting additions. We had a chance to relax and let our food sink down but we were running late so our next stop at the Koryo Museum was only brief – we had a short tour of the exhibits and grounds before being taken into Kaesong itself to see a statue of the Great Leader.

It was at the statue overlooking Kaesong where we had our most surreal experience of the trip so far and, even though it felt completely set up, was interesting nonetheless. After we had finished looking around and taking photos our guides walked us around the corner to where there was a group of Koreans in traditional clothing playing music and dancing. We started taking photos but within a few minutes we all got roped into dancing with the group – most of us tried to escape but were unsuccessful but looking back it was an experience I can talk about so it was worth it.

The Folkcustoms Hotel

The Folkcustoms Hotel

A traditional Korean lunch

A traditional Korean lunch

Sitting down to a traditional Korean lunch

Sitting down to a traditional Korean lunch

Me in Kaesong

Me in Kaesong

Dancing with the locals in Kaesong

Dancing with the locals in Kaesong

Locals dancing in Kaesong

Locals dancing in Kaesong

King Kongmin’s tomb was the next stop of the day and after walking up the steep flight of steps to the tomb we were given an introduction to King Kongmin and told various stories about his time as leader of Korea. Our guides then gave us a test to see if we could discover where the entrance to the tomb was as when the Japanese tried to raid it during the war they couldn’t find it so blew a hole in the side. I won’t say where it is but it’s fairly obvious for anybody that has played video games. During our free time walking around the tomb we saw the Finnish tour group who had also been persuaded to join in dancing with another group of dancers adding more weight to the theory it was a set up, although I still find it funny.

King Kongmin's Tomb

King Kongmin’s Tomb

We were originally going to see the concrete Wall along the border but we were told we had run out of time so it was back to Pyongyang for dinner. After passing through a few checkpoints and a brief stop at the National Reunification Monument who should we see again at the restaurant but the Finns! They were rather amused by the fact I was wearing a t-shirt of a band from Finland and after joking about it we sat down to some BimBim Bap for dinner – basically a hot pot with rice you cook and mix yourself in a little pot in front of you. It was rather spicy but nice food, except for the cabbage the waitressed insisted we mixed in with it (I’m not a fan of cabbage).

The National Reunification Monument

The National Reunification Monument

Dinner back in Pyongyang

Dinner back in Pyongyang

I’m relaxing back in my room in the Yanggakdo Hotel now but will be catching an early night soon. Tomorrow we are required to dress smart as we will be visiting the Mausoleum of President Kim il-Sung.

 

(Please note – I have been given permission to include details of my trip on my blog by the tour company but the names of my guides as well as photos of them have left out to respect their privacy. It is forbidden for journalists to visit The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on a tourist visa and it is forbidden for us to publish information about our trip in any capacity without permission. As a result I do NOT give permission for anything I write about North Korea in this blog, or any photos I upload of North Korea, to be used anywhere for any purpose other than reading directly on my blog if you are considering travelling to North Korea as a tourist. In addition I do NOT give permission for my name, my blog’s address, or any photos of me to be used or quoted anywhere for any purpose related to The DPRK. If you breach this notice you will be subject to legal action from the tour company. Thank you for your understanding.

If you feel that the post / page containing this notice breaches any regulations or if it contains any information or photos which should be changed or removed to respect the rules of the tour company or the traditions of The DPRK please let me know ASAP so I can fix the problem.)

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Kumsusan Memorial Palace

October 12th, 2010 No comments

A fairly leisurely start today. After breakfast and a fairly scary ride in one of the two lifts that went up the outside of the hotel we convened in the hotel lobby ready for our trip to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace – the former residence and now Mausoleum of President Kim il-Sung. For this visit we were required to dress smartly. I wore a short sleeved shirt and tie while some decided to go with full suit and tie and the women among us were dressed in smart female attire.

At the Palace we left all our bags, coats, phones, cameras and everything except our wallet in the bag check and proceeded through security to join a long queue that snaked through several corridors and down several long travelators before reaching the main building where we were greeted by the Finnish group again. After entering the building we were required to bow in unison at a statue of Kim il-sung before being given an audio guide detailing the mourning of the North Korean people in 1994 when the President passed away which we could listen to at our leisure while looking around the second grand hall. Then it was time to get in the lift up to the top floor to see Kim il-Sung laying in state.

Kumsusan Memorial Palace - resting place of Kim il-Sung

Kumsusan Memorial Palace – resting place of Kim il-Sung

Me outside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace

Me outside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace

We were escorted to the front of the queue past the locals and entered a dark room where Kim il-Sung laying in a glass casket guarded by armed officers. Protocol said we bowed at his head, then at his feet, then at his right side before leaving the room in silence. It was a very moving experience due to how serious they took things compared to when I visited Mao’s Mausoleum in Beijing. In Beijing they rush you through very quickly just to get the numbers through but here they take their time to allow everybody to experience the mourning in a respectful manner. Surreal doesn’t do the place justice though – this palace is huge and they take a lot of pride in it so if you’re going to visit North Korea and want to see Mao while in Beijing I recommend you see Mao first although they’re both worth seeing in their own right.

We had some free time to take photos outside and were allowed to wander around as long as we stayed in view of the guides before our next stop of the day, the Grand People’s Study House which is a library, archive and school all merged into one. We were given a tour of the building and shown several of the computer rooms, reading rooms and the borrowing system where the books come out from their storage room on trolleys like at the airport. We then spent a few minutes listening in on a lecture where some children were being taught English, or when we visited how to make excuses in English such as “It wasn’t me” and “I didn’t do it on purpose” before being shown one of the music rooms where they took pride in playing us western music (Yellow submarine) and talking about Michael Jackson.

Lobby of the Grand People's Study House

Lobby of the Grand People’s Study House

A teaching room at the Grand People's Study House

A teaching room at the Grand People’s Study House

Kim il-Sung Square as seen from the Grand People's Study House

Kim il-Sung Square as seen from the Grand People’s Study House

After the tour we had coffee on the roof to look out over the city while our bus was being repaired, however it still wasn’t ready when we finished so we walked with our guides to the Foreign Languages bookshop to stock up on souvenirs. This shop seemed a little expensive compared to the others we had been in so far as it’s the main one for foreigners but it has most things you could want in there. A quick bit of advice here – one of our group had to walk barefoot at this point as her feet were hurting in her smart shoes due to all the walking we were doing so if you go to North Korea put a comfortable pair of shoes in your bag on the day you visit the Kumsusan Memorial Palace just in case.

After the bookshop it was a short walk to the Kim il-Sung square where were told a new bus was and driver would be waiting for us as the other one could not be repaired quickly enough. I’m going to miss the friendly smile the old driver gave every time he saw us but it was nice to know we had a bus on which to finish our tour.

The Grand People's Study House as seen from Kim il-Sung Square

The Grand People’s Study House as seen from Kim il-Sung Square

Lunch was at a restaurant near the Koryo Hotel and was where we tried the infamous Pyongyang cold noodles. They definitely weren’t to my taste but they did allow me to learn how to use chopsticks properly as one of our guides decided to teach us (our knitting technique was apparently offensive). Then after lunch we visited the Stamp Shop for some unique souvenirs before being taken to the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital.

The Pyongyang Maternity Hospital is the main maternity hospital in North Korea and is where most people in Pyongyang are born. We changed into lab coats and croc shoes for the tour before being shown around. Some of the things we saw included the diagnosis rooms, treatment rooms, labs, wards, intensive care, private rooms in which there were some newborn babies with their mothers and also the visiting room which was where people could sit away from the wards and talk to their friends and family via video phone so they didn’t bring infections into the hospital. The hospital wasn’t up to the standard of some hospitals in the west but in North Korea they take pride in being able to do everything themselves so are proud of the fact they built this hospital and run it without any outside interference.

Pyongyang Cold Noodles

Pyongyang Cold Noodles

The visiting room of the maternity hospital

The visiting room of the maternity hospital

The labs at the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital

The labs at the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital

We made our way back to the Yanggakdo to collect our bags before being driven 2 hours north to the Chong Chon hotel at Mount Myohyang. On the way the scenery changed to how we were expecting North Korea to looks – Soviet style villages, less maintained roads and small isolated farm houses but the mountains our hotel is situated in are beautiful!

I was going to have a bath tonight but the hot water isn’t working so after dinner I joined some of our group for a few games of table tennis and snooker before calling it a night. Tomorrow we visit the International Friendship Exhibition which I’m looking forward to.

My room at Mt Myohyang

My room at Mt Myohyang

Me inside the hotel at Mt Myohyang

Me inside the hotel at Mt Myohyang

 

(Please note – I have been given permission to include details of my trip on my blog by the tour company but the names of my guides as well as photos of them have left out to respect their privacy. It is forbidden for journalists to visit The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on a tourist visa and it is forbidden for us to publish information about our trip in any capacity without permission. As a result I do NOT give permission for anything I write about North Korea in this blog, or any photos I upload of North Korea, to be used anywhere for any purpose other than reading directly on my blog if you are considering travelling to North Korea as a tourist. In addition I do NOT give permission for my name, my blog’s address, or any photos of me to be used or quoted anywhere for any purpose related to The DPRK. If you breach this notice you will be subject to legal action from the tour company. Thank you for your understanding.

If you feel that the post / page containing this notice breaches any regulations or if it contains any information or photos which should be changed or removed to respect the rules of the tour company or the traditions of The DPRK please let me know ASAP so I can fix the problem.)

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International Friendship Exhibition

October 13th, 2010 No comments

I had a bit of a restless night last night as the beds were very hard but luckily today wasn’t as rushed as the last few days so I was able to take it easy.

The first stop was the Pohyon Temple which is a Buddhist temple located in a lovely mountain woodland setting. We were shown around by our guides and were told how much of the complex had been destroyed during the Korean War so a few buildings we could see were reconstructions but that many of the buildings were still originals. We had a chance to meet one of the Monks and ask questions before being shown the monastic archives which were so fragile they were being kept in argon gas to preserve them. I’m definitely glad this was part of our itinerary as it’s beautiful, however we met some of the tour groups from other tour companies while here (notably Koryo group) and the groups were so large and the people so loud and annoying that I feel we definitely had the better group – word of advice tour with Regent Holidays if you go to North Korea.

Pohyon Temple

Pohyon Temple

Me at the Pohyon Temple

Me at the Pohyon Temple

After the temple we were taken further up into the mountains to visit the International Friendship Exhibition which is a series of huge bunkers built into the mountainside containing presents given to both Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il. To tour the facility we were required to put shoe covers on to avoid scuffing the extremely well polished floor – in fact it was so well polished that even with the shoe covers you could easily have skated along them.

The gifts included everything from Ming vases and an ornamental sabre to a crocodile and even a bulletproof train that was given to Kim il-Sung by Josef Stalin. All trip we had been trying to guess what gift had been given by Regent Holidays but we were wrong – I won’t say what the gift was see if you can guess it but you probably won’t. The last room we were shown contained some of Kim il-Sung’s favourite gifts and also a waxwork of the late president. In this room we were required to act respectfully as the National Anthem was playing in the background, and then to bow at the waxwork as we walked past.

Overall we were only able to see maybe 20 of the 200+ rooms filled with gifts before being shown to the roof of the building for a coffee overlooking the stunning mountain scenery, and due to time restrictions we were only able to see one of the rooms in Kim Jong-il’s section which was a bit disappointing but it was getting close to lunch so after the brief tour of the second section we returned to our hotel for lunch. Although the less said about this particular lunch the better.

The mountains behind the International Friendship Exhibition

The mountains behind the International Friendship Exhibition

Me relaxing with a coffee at the International Friendship Exhibition

Me relaxing with a coffee at the International Friendship Exhibition

Me at the International Friendship Exhibition

Me at the International Friendship Exhibition

International Friendship Exhibition

International Friendship Exhibition

After lunch our guides walked outside the hotel compound with us for a few minutes so we were able to see some of the town before getting back on the bus to return to Pyongyang and see the Military Circus. The journey back to Pyongyang was everything I expected North Korea to be, in addition to the beautiful mountains we saw rice fields, coal powered factories, hay carts, people cutting crops by hand and a road repair crew that consisted of nothing more than two men with a shovel and a bucket of cement. It’s a shame we weren’t allowed to take pictures from the bus as we would have got some really good photos but rules are rules.

Our hotel at Mt Myohyang

Our hotel at Mt Myohyang

Going for a walk with our guides

Going for a walk with our guides

We arrived at the Pyongyang Military Circus a little early so asked our guides if we were able to step outside and take a few pictures of the building before the performance started. They agreed but initially one of the ticket collectors stopped us saying we weren’t allowed back outside. I’m not sure if we were using the wrong entrance, or if having foreigners leave before the performance would have been a bad image, but our guides smoothed it over for us and we were able to walk around outside with our guides for 5 minutes or so before going back into the building to take our seats.

The circus wasn’t part of our itinerary but all I can say is wow. It’s a performance you have to see to believe as it was so good – perfect performance, stunts that they would never try in the west and overall very impressive. We weren’t allowed to take photos during the performance which was a shame but it was genuinely the best circus performance I have ever seen even beating the Moscow State Circus and other famous European ones. There was a high trapeze, juggling, comedy acts, acrobatics and much more all without safety nets. If you visit Pyongyang definitely enquire if you are able to visit the Military Circus as you won’t be disappointed.

Apartment buildings behind the Pyongyang Military Circus

Apartment buildings behind the Pyongyang Military Circus

Pyongyang Military Circus

Pyongyang Military Circus

The end of the Pyongyang Military Circus

The end of the Pyongyang Military Circus

After the circus it was out of Pyongyang along a 5 lane highway with no traffic to the city of Nampo where we would be staying the night at a hot spring resort. We had to ask directions to find the hotel as we were running slightly late so took a shortcut and got lost but we found it in the end. After dinner I decided to head straight back to my room to relax rather than go to the games room with the others as I’m starting to get weary after not sleeping much last night. I’ve just had a bath in the natural salted hot spa bath in my room which was a new experience but hopefully it’ll let me sleep better tonight as I need to be up early for breakfast.

We’ve been told we will definitely have a chance to see the Arirang Mass Games tomorrow and this has made me very excited.

My hotel room outside Nampo

My hotel room outside Nampo

The hot spa in our hotel outside Nampo

The hot spa in our hotel outside Nampo

 

(Please note – I have been given permission to include details of my trip on my blog by the tour company but the names of my guides as well as photos of them have left out to respect their privacy. It is forbidden for journalists to visit The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on a tourist visa and it is forbidden for us to publish information about our trip in any capacity without permission. As a result I do NOT give permission for anything I write about North Korea in this blog, or any photos I upload of North Korea, to be used anywhere for any purpose other than reading directly on my blog if you are considering travelling to North Korea as a tourist. In addition I do NOT give permission for my name, my blog’s address, or any photos of me to be used or quoted anywhere for any purpose related to The DPRK. If you breach this notice you will be subject to legal action from the tour company. Thank you for your understanding.

If you feel that the post / page containing this notice breaches any regulations or if it contains any information or photos which should be changed or removed to respect the rules of the tour company or the traditions of The DPRK please let me know ASAP so I can fix the problem.)

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Nampo & The Mass Games

October 14th, 2010 No comments

I’m sat back at the Yanggakdo hotel right now after what has been a long but amazing day we saw so many things today and were finally able to see the Mass Games. I’m still in awe about the show, but more about that later.

I got up at 6 this morning so I would have time to have a shower and re-pack my bags before breakfast although the hot water hadn’t been turned on yet so it was a very brief cold shower followed by a struggle to get everything back into my bag. I’ve been buying far more souvenirs than I expected so I’m definitely going to have to leave stuff behind in North Korea.

After packing my bags I made my way down to breakfast. We were told to leave our bags outside our building and they would be picked up by our driver but I decided it would be easier to walk town to breakfast with them and give them to the driver directly. He was still cleaning the coach but I said hello to him in Korean which made him smile and he was happy to take my bag so I didn’t have to leave it unattended.

First stop of the day was the West Sea Barrage which is an 8km long dam that the Koreans built across the estuary of the Taedong River to allow irrigation of the surrounding farmland and it is of great pride to the North Korean people. As well as the road across the top it has lochs, sluice gates, irrigation channels and also a few small undersea tunnels to allow fish to pass backwards and forwards freely. Our stay here was only short and after having photos taken outside in the location where President Kim il-Sung and President Jimmy Carter posed for photos in the 90’s we were shown a video about the dam before the obligatory visit to the gift shop. Next it was on to the Nampo Orphanage.

The West Sea Barrage

The West Sea Barrage

Estuary of the Taedong River

Estuary of the Taedong River

The orphanage felt a bit like a showcase for us but it was nice to be able to see smiling happy faces on the kids when we were shown around by the principal. The facility houses kids between the ages of 1 and 5 and is where kids without parents are able to play and have fun before joining the schooling system. We were treated to a song and dance performance by a group of 4 year old kids who, considering their age, were very talented. We said thank you to the principal and some of the group donated supplies before we moved onto our next location – the mineral water bottling plant.

The orphanage in Nampo

The orphanage in Nampo

Our guides allowed us to take a photo of this field

Our guides allowed us to take a photo of this field

We had been asking our guides if it would be possible to take photos of some of the local fields for a couple of days and they said at some point they would see if it could be arranged, and on the way to the mineral water plant the coach stopped and we were allowed to take some photos although they didn’t allow us to get out this had to be done from inside the coach.

At the mineral water bottling plant we were explained the bottling process by their manager before being shown to the area where the water is bottled. We were all given a bottle of lightly sparking water each and it tasted really good – I guess you can’t get much fresher than straight out of the ground. Next we were shown the source of water which was a short walk away through the fields.

Mineral Water Bottling Plant

Mineral Water Bottling Plant

Me tasting freshly bottled mineral water

Me tasting freshly bottled mineral water

Ten green bottles standing on the wall

Ten green bottles standing on the wall

Patience is good while in North Korea and if you wait and follow the rules you will get more freedom than you expected as the guides know they can trust you. You will also have opportunities to see / take photos of things that you might not have normally. On the way to Nampo yesterday we asked our guides if it would be possible to take a photo of the Youth Hero Highway (the huge but empty road between Pyongyang and Nampo) as it was so big compared to highways in the west and also very quiet which is something we would love in the UK. We were told it would not be possible that day but if it was possible on the way back we would be allowed to take photos on the way back. We were given an opportunity on the way back – the coach slowed down in the middle of the road and we were given permission to take photos out the front window. This may not seem like much but North Korea is a country where photography is usually quite restricted so we thanked our guides for allowing us to take photos of the open road.

The Youth Hero Highway on the way back to Pyongyang

The Youth Hero Highway on the way back to Pyongyang

After lunch back in Pyongyang in the revolving restaurant of the Yanggakdo hotel we were taken to the Korean War Museum (aka the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum). We were shown a video detailing the North Korean view of the build-up to the war before being taken around the museum to see the exhibits which included Yak and Mig planes, tanks and all sorts of military equipment from both the North/Russian and South/American sides and it was a great place to just browse around if you’re into this sort of thing. Our final stop in the museum was a diorama room which had a 360 degree rotating display depicting one of the iconic battles of the Korean War.

Pyongyang as seen from the revolving restaurant

Pyongyang as seen from the revolving restaurant

Seeing who could hold onto the revolving restaurant the longest

Seeing who could hold onto the revolving restaurant the longest

A Mig at the War Museum

A Mig at the War Museum

Military equipment at the War Museum

Military equipment at the War Museum

Walking through the War Memorial

Walking through the War Memorial

We walked through the war memorial park and back to our coach before being taken to the Schoolchildren’s Palace which is an afterschool club for talented children from the Pyongyang area. The Schoolchildren’s Palace is a building shaped like a “hug from a mother” according to our guide and inside we were able to see the children taking part in various activities such as gymnastics, dance, calligraphy, musical performances, drawing, singing and drama. This was all showcased on a grand scale in the auditorium which we were taken into at the end of our tour. I definitely feel untalented after seeing the performance as the kids put so much effort into the show and it was impressive enough for me to buy a DVD of their performance.

Playing music at the Schoolchildren's Palace

Playing music at the Schoolchildren’s Palace

Drawing at the Schoolchildren's Palace

Drawing at the Schoolchildren’s Palace

Performance at the Schoolchildren's Palace

Performance at the Schoolchildren’s Palace

Schoolchildren's Palace performance

Schoolchildren’s Palace performance

Part of the performance at the Schoolchildren's Palace

Part of the performance at the Schoolchildren’s Palace

We had a quick pit stop at the hotel to grab anything we needed from our rooms and it was straight up to the Mayday Stadium to see the Mass Games – we arrived at the stadium with only 5 minutes to spare so were rushed straight to our seats. The stadium is huge and apparently one of the biggest in the world which is good as the Mass Games contain anything up to 100,000 performers each evening in addition to the audience members. For those of you that don’t know the Mass Games are a mass gymnastics performance that combines music, singing, dance and gymnastics into a spectacular show that is supported by 30,000 schoolchildren creating the various backdrops by holding up different coloured cards. Most of our group chose 2nd class tickets which, at 100 Euros, weren’t cheap but we were sat right beside the VIP area so had a good view anyway.

There is no way to really describe the Mass Games they are something you have to experience them but I was very impressed with the performance and very glad we were able to see the show. After a quick hello to Oli from the plane we stocked up on souvenirs before heading back to the Yanggakdo Hotel for a Chinese meal in one of the hotel’s restaurants.

Arirang Mass Games

Arirang Mass Games

Arirang Mass Games

Arirang Mass Games

Arirang Mass Games

Arirang Mass Games

The finale of the Arirang Mass Games

The finale of the Arirang Mass Games

Me outside the May Day Stadium after the Mass Games

Me outside the May Day Stadium after the Mass Games

I played pool for a little while with the others before heading up to my room where I was able to make a phone call home to the UK. I can’t sleep at the moment as I’ve had too many sugary drinks so I’m just relaxing in my room watching TV and looking out over the Pyongyang skyline at the moment. I still can’t believe I’m here but I’m enjoying every moment – we have seen lots of interesting sights, the hotels are good, the people I’m travelling with are great and the guides are very good!

The pool hall of the Yanggakdo Hotel

The pool hall of the Yanggakdo Hotel

Here is a 5 minute video showing highlights of today’s 90 minute Arirang Mass Games performance.

(Please note – I have been given permission to include details of my trip on my blog by the tour company but the names of my guides as well as photos of them have left out to respect their privacy. It is forbidden for journalists to visit The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on a tourist visa and it is forbidden for us to publish information about our trip in any capacity without permission. As a result I do NOT give permission for anything I write about North Korea in this blog, or any photos I upload of North Korea, to be used anywhere for any purpose other than reading directly on my blog if you are considering travelling to North Korea as a tourist. In addition I do NOT give permission for my name, my blog’s address, or any photos of me to be used or quoted anywhere for any purpose related to The DPRK. If you breach this notice you will be subject to legal action from the tour company. Thank you for your understanding.

If you feel that the post / page containing this notice breaches any regulations or if it contains any information or photos which should be changed or removed to respect the rules of the tour company or the traditions of The DPRK please let me know ASAP so I can fix the problem.)

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Last full day in the DPRK

October 15th, 2010 No comments

Today was long and packed with activities but fairly relaxed as everything we saw was in Pyongyang so there wasn’t as much travelling. When I woke up the daily mist had finally lifted and there were clear views all the way across Pyongyang which gave me a chance to take some good photos.

Looking out over the island which the Yanggakdo Hotel was on

Looking out over the island which the Yanggakdo Hotel was on

Good views over Pyongyang this morning

Good views over Pyongyang this morning

The Ryugyong Hotel is currently under construction

The Ryugyong Hotel is currently under construction

The first stop of the day was the Pyongyang Film Studios which is where the majority of North Korea’s films are made. We were shown around the main square containing several murals of Kim il-Sung and a speaker playing the National Anthem before being taken to the sets where the films themselves are usually set. They had sets depicting Korea, America, Japan during the 1940s and also rural Europe which we were able to tour and, in the case of the Korean set, get into costume and depict a battle scene if we wanted.

Helen and Lukman in traditional Korean dress

Helen and Lukman in traditional Korean dress

One of the sets at the Korean Film Studios

One of the sets at the Korean Film Studios

Another set at the Korean Film Studios

Another set at the Korean Film Studios

After a fairly relaxed visit to the studio we paid a brief visit to the Embroidery Institute where we toured the facility and bought some embroidery in the gift shop which ranged in price from 5 Euros to over 200 Euros depending on what we wanted. Then it was on to the Juche Tower which is a monument to the Juche ideal of self-reliance penned by President Kim il-Sung. Usually you are able to pay a small fee to take an elevator to the top for a panoramic view of the city but unfortunately we were informed the tower was closed for repairs today so we would only be able to walk around outside. Considering how good the weather and visibility are today this is a shame but we were still able to take some good photos of the tower from the ground.

We had one more stop this morning and that was the Party Foundation Monument which is the Hammer and Sickle construction you see in all of the photos. After being given a tour by one of the wardens, who gave us lots of facts about the monument which I can’t remember right now, we were told it was time for lunch.

Pyongyang Embroidery Institute

Pyongyang Embroidery Institute

Me overlooking the Taedong River looking towards Kim il-Sung Square

Me overlooking the Taedong River looking towards Kim il-Sung Square

The Juche Tower

The Juche Tower

The Party Foundation Monument

The Party Foundation Monument

Lunch today was on board a boat on the Taedong River and consisted of most of the usual dishes plus some sort of sweet and sour beef dish. Most of the people on my table didn’t like the taste of the beef but I did so stuffed myself ready for the long day tomorrow. When lunch was finished we were asked if we would like to walk to Moran Hill Park which was our next stop or take the coach and we decided to walk to give ourselves a chance to take in more of the sights of Pyongyang.

Moran Hill Park is a tranquil retreat in the middle of Pyongyang which is where locals go to relax, have a picnic and take part in recreational activities such as painting, playing music or just catching up with friends. It is also a popular place for wedding photos and kids playing as we found out during our time here. The walk up to the summer of Moran Hill Park was fairly steep but the views we were provided were worth it to make up for not being able to ascend the Juche Tower earlier.

We spent some time relaxing, enjoying the views and taking photos before making a slow descent down the hill to an open green where we congratulated a couple who had got married that day and took some group photos. Apparently it was not time for our next visit yet so our guides took us on a bit of a walk around the local area where we saw, among other things, the Chollima Statue which depicts a legendary winged horse. Overall we probably spent just over an hour just relaxing and taking in the scenery of Moran Hill Park before being told it was time for us to visit a local Secondary School (High School).

The Taedong River as seen from the lunch boat

The Taedong River as seen from the lunch boat

The May Day Stadium where the Mass Games were held

The May Day Stadium where the Mass Games were held

A photo of our tour group in Moran Hill Park

A photo of our tour group in Moran Hill Park

Moran Hill Park

Moran Hill Park

The school was to be our last proper visit of week in North Korea and was quite an experience. We met some of the teachers and were shown around a few classrooms including those dedicated to science, maths and the study of Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il before being shown into the school hall where we met up with some of the other tours currently in North Korea to be shown a song and dance performance that the kids had prepared for us. The performance was on a small scale compared to the one we saw at the Schoolchildren’s Palace the other day but you could tell they were doing their best to put on a show for us. Near the end of the performance several of our group, including me, were picked by some of the girls to join them up front for a dance. I’m not a good dancer or familiar with any Korean dances so let her lead, including deciding we were going to be the bridge when a conga-style line started forming among the students and people from our group. I wasn’t sure what was going on for most of the time I was dancing but I had fun, as it looked like the kids did, although I was surprised by how cold their hands felt considering it has been quite warm today.

The Kim il-Sung / Kim Jong-il learning Room

The Kim il-Sung / Kim Jong-il learning Room

Me and some kids from the secondary school

Me and some kids from the secondary school

There was time for one final souvenir hunt before our final evening meal in North Korea, this time at the Craft Shop. The shop was fairly large and contained most things you could want to buy in the country so I stocked up on a few last minute souvenirs and a few gifts for our guides before heading to the checkout. If you do visit North Korea make sure you take plenty of Euro coins with you in addition to notes – the price of everything is low compared to the west and they will be glad of the change as I found out while in this particular shop when the lady behind the counter asked for all of my coins (I had about 40 Euros worth of coins still remaining) and exchanged them for notes from the till.

Dinner was a traditional Korean meal at one of Pyongyang’s finest restaurants and consisted of a lovely mean of various meats that were cooked for us by waitresses in little barbecue grills in the middle of the table. We took our time over the meal as it was our final chance to sit down with our guides and also to reflect on the week we had spent in this unique country before returning to the hotel. Although the ride back to the hotel was memorable as the guides sang us some traditional Korean folk songs and we reciprocated by singing “The wheels on the bus go round and round” which made the guides laugh.

A few of us and two of our guides didn’t want things to end so decided to finish the night off with a few games of ten-pin bowling and pool. It was a great opportunity to socialise with our guides as I’ve really got on well with them over the past week, and I wish I was still down there with the last few survivors, but I’m starting to get tired so am back in my room about to pack my bag ready for our journey back to Beijing in the morning.

Korean BBQ in one of Pyongyang's finest restaurants

Korean BBQ in one of Pyongyang’s finest restaurants

In one of Pyongyang's finest Restaurants

In one of Pyongyang’s finest Restaurants

Bowling in the Yanggakdo Hotel

Bowling in the Yanggakdo Hotel

Playing pool in the Yanggakdo Hotel

Playing pool in the Yanggakdo Hotel

Here is a panorama of Pyongyang I made after returning home from photos I took in my room this morning with the great visibility.

A panorama of Pyongyang

A panorama of Pyongyang

Also finally a couple of videos that I took while in Pyongyang today. The first shows the view from my room this morning, similar to the above panorama photo, and the second is a 360 degree view of the area near the Juche Tower overlooking the Taedong River and Kim il-Sung Square.

 

(Please note – I have been given permission to include details of my trip on my blog by the tour company but the names of my guides as well as photos of them have left out to respect their privacy. It is forbidden for journalists to visit The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on a tourist visa and it is forbidden for us to publish information about our trip in any capacity without permission. As a result I do NOT give permission for anything I write about North Korea in this blog, or any photos I upload of North Korea, to be used anywhere for any purpose other than reading directly on my blog if you are considering travelling to North Korea as a tourist. In addition I do NOT give permission for my name, my blog’s address, or any photos of me to be used or quoted anywhere for any purpose related to The DPRK. If you breach this notice you will be subject to legal action from the tour company. Thank you for your understanding.

If you feel that the post / page containing this notice breaches any regulations or if it contains any information or photos which should be changed or removed to respect the rules of the tour company or the traditions of The DPRK please let me know ASAP so I can fix the problem.)

 

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