Travelling Hopefully

Visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is unlike any other country I’ve been to. You have to have a guide with you at all times except when you’re in your hotel. There is much of paying respect to their great leaders, and intermittent lectures about the Imperialist Americans and the Korean War. I have also been cautious in what I’ve written for the sake of our guides.

11 August

I’d stayed in a hotel very near Heathrow overnight. The room was clean but very much in the low cost range. I paid to leave my car in their car park, and discovered that they did not want my keys. Plus side: No one will be driving my car while I’m away. Down side: Now I have to carry my keys with me all holiday.

As ever I was over cautious. I took the hotel’s free shuttle to the terminal, where I booked in for my flight from Helsinki to Beijing. (For some reason I’d only been able to book the London to Helsinki on line.) I was worried when my check in was 23.8kg against the 23kg limit. The woman was more concerned that my booking was showing no check in bag! She sorted that, and paid no attention to the slight overweight.

Went through security and had three hours to spend wandering the shops and eating a bacon roll (plus coffee). At Helsinki, changing planes couldn’t have been easier. Disembark the plane, bus ride to terminal, up escalator, and there was the gate for my next flight. So I went off to have a proper meal—lovely slow roasted beef rib. Not cheap, but it meant I could ignore the stuff offered by the airline.

No photos from today.

12 August

It was around 8 hours in the air to Beijing. We landed at 6.20am local time. I’d been advised that I wouldn’t need a visa as I was staying for less than 72 hours. This proved to be the case, but the queue to get said immigration approval was very slow moving. By the time I could collect my case, it was looking forlorn alongside a number of other cases which had been taken off the belt and deposited to one side.

Through customs (strangely enough no form to fill) and out into the oven of Beijing. A combination of clouds and smog coated the city. I sweated as I tried to find where the hotel shuttle buses stopped, then went to the help desk for directions. I went to where I was told, and waited for over ninety minutes before decided a taxi would be a better option.

A woman taxi driver pulled up and let out a passenger. I waved my hotel reservation at the driver and asked if she could take me. She motioned that I should put my luggage into the boot. The car was blissfully air conditioned. We set out, and it was only several minutes into the journey that the woman (who spoke no English and I don’t speak any Chinese dialect) made it clear that she couldn’t understand the hotel address which was, of course, in English. I felt a bit of guilt that I hadn’t looked up the address in Chinese, but then on the other hand, why had she taken me on board if she couldn’t work out where I needed to go?

She tried to phone the hotel (whilst driving) but received no answer. We stopped at a different hotel, and she went inside for help. When she came out again, we were finally on our way. I believe that the journey was twice as long as it needed to be, but I paid the metered amount of around £4.00. For the sake of £2.00 I wasn’t going to try to argue about it.

I’d gone for a budget hotel, a local Ibis. Room is clean, but worn, and doesn’t have air conditioning. Blow. But it was a relief just able to dump my bags and take a shower. I stayed in my room until evening meal. A rain shower came through, which cooled things down. I took a nap and discovered that although I could pick up emails, of course I couldn’t get onto Facebook or do any Google searches—the Chinese government prevents that. 

I ventured down the restaurant around 7pm. The English menu offered me intriguing items such as ‘Hutong explodes the lamb’ and ‘Keeping in good health sheep hoof stewed radish.’ I ordered the mutton and noodle soup, and made the mistake of also ordering fried mutton. The former was quite tasty, and I discovered that it is quite easy to eat noodles with chopsticks. The latter was greasy and the meat was pink, so I ate only a few bits which were better cooked. Had a Chinese beer with it which also disappointed me with its lack of flavour.

Did last preparations for tomorrow’s flight and had an early night.

13 August

Slept well, despite the warm room. Had coffee and a breakfast bar in my room. I took my Kindle to reception to leave in the hotel’s safe deposit—there are books on there which I shouldn’t take into the DPRK (the name North Koreans prefer to use for their country).

I took the hotel’s shuttle to the airport. I went through Chinese customs before getting to the Koryo Airline check in desk. This took awhile. The check in bags were scanned at the desk, and various people were called through to discuss whatever was found inside. I wasn’t one of them.

I met one of my fellow travellers, Roy, and after security we went to Starbucks. Then to our plane. The flight was short, and I declined the strange burger thing offered as a snack. 

Immigration at the other end was straightforward. Customs was a strange experience. After all my worry about what might be on my iPhone and laptop, neither was checked. All of my cameras were taken away, but I don’t think they were even switched on.

Our group met up on the other side, greeted by our local guides. There are fourteen of us, plus a guide from Regent Travel. We were taken by coach (air conditioned, lovely!) into Pyongyang. I was fascinated by the green fields, the cows tethered by the roadside, and the people who squatted on their haunches—a position which would have me in pain after only a few minutes.

Once in the city, we were taken to view the outside of the Grand People’s Study House (National Library) and then on to the 20 metre tall statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il—the Mansudae Grand Monument. I paid the 4 Euros to buy flowers. We laid the flowers at the feet of the statutes, then lined up to bow in unison—hands strictly at our sides, clutched neither in front nor behind us. The light was dreadful (sun setting behind) but the setting was magnificent. The city was on our opposite side, music was playing, and many Koreans were coming to pay their respects. We posed for a group photo (charge was 3 Euros per copy, to be delivered to our hotel).

We stopped at a microbrewery (no advertising outside!) and had a very tasty beer. Afterwards a bit of a driving tour through the city on the way to our hotel. I delighted in the lack of advertising, the fact that there isn’t a MacDonald’s or Starbucks around every corner. There were traffic lights (I had heard there weren’t) but few cars. Lots of bicycles.

What did make me ache was the sight of children, no more than eight or nine, walking unaccompanied by adults at 7.30pm. Some were in groups, many alone, all unconcerned. How many Western parents would allow their children to be out that time of night and be unconcerned? I thought it spoke volumes about a level of trust that many parts of the world has lost.

Then over the river to our magnificent hotel, the Yanggakdo. All of our group are on the same floor, number 23. I got out my tripod to take photos of the city lights from my hotel window. 

Dinner was kimchi, noodles in a clear broth, fried fish pieces with rice, and a battered piece of chicken with three pickles and five chips. With water and beer. Our local guide ran through the programme for the days ahead.

I returned to my room, took a few more photos, and prepared myself for the next day. Which includes needing smart clothes for our first stop in the morning.

14 August

Up at 6am. I stayed in my room rather than go to breakfast. My room boasted a kettle (obviously made abroad, as it came with a converter for the plug) so I was able to make coffee using the bags and dried milk I’d brought with me. I also munched through some dried fruit.

We assembled in the lobby at 7.30am. The trip instructions had made it very clear that for this morning’s trip, to the Kumsusan Sun’s Palace, we must dress smartly. We were to visit the holy of holies, the mausoleum which holds the preserved bodies of the two great leaders. I had packed a suit jacket and dress shoes (flat) for the occasion, and I was relived to pass muster. However, one of our party presented himself in jogging bottoms and old trainers. He was told to go and change, but as he had nothing more formal he wasn’t allowed to join us. There is a family on this tour, and the daughter was only 16 so she wasn’t allowed to go either (seems you have to be at least 17).

We drove the short way to the Palace. As we went along, we were told of the strict rules for entry. No cameras, phones, or memory cards. No metal. We would be permitted to keep our wallets and watches. At the reception area, the guide borrowed a plastic bag from one of our group and we deposited our items inside. I had my camera in a zoomster pouch, and various people asked to have memory cards, change, and even a set of house keys to be zipped inside to prevent loss.

We waited for 45 minutes, whilst other groups also came. There were a number of Korean groups, but also many of us foreigners. Finally we started down the walkway. We left our items in the cloakroom, then had to go through a metal detector and be patted down. I had to remove my wallet and allow the guard to look through it. I also was told to button up my suit jacket. 

We proceeded to a moving walkway. As we trundled slowly through the long corridor, we passed views of a large number of white carved blocks lining a waterway. The carvings were of cranes, and our guide explained that cranes are thought to live a long time, and there were one thousand of these blocks to wish long lives to the two leaders. Beyond, running up a hill, were grapevines. Kim Il Sung had planted these himself, and the grapes were given to children. Patriotic music, by the way, was pumped into the air throughout this entire experience.

We stepped off one moving belt and onto another. Now we were passing paintings and photos of Kim Il Sung, following the stages of his adult life. He was always smiling as he addressed generals, peasants, and workers. In later portraits, he was joined by his son and heir, Kim Jung Il. The two were always smiling, the son often pointing something out and the father looking proud and pleased.

Then pictures of Kim Jung Il on his own. By the time we’d reached near the end of his life, we’d finally reached the actual building itself. 

We walked on past marbled walls, the rooms bright from wall lights and large chandeliers. One huge chamber early on had statues (wax?) of the two great leaders. In groups of four, lined up abreast, we approached the statues and bowed low. Our instructions had been very precise. As with the statues yesterday, we had to keep our arms at our sides, neither in front nor behind us, and never ever put our hands in our trouser pockets. At one point, when we were merely standing in a corridor, I crossed my arms, and our guide reached out to pull my arms straight again.

We entered the first of the tombs. Subdued music and low, red lighting. Soldiers stood guard in the room. Again in rows of four abreast, we walked forward to bow to Kim Il Sung, then to his right to bow again, past the back of his head (where we were not to bow), then to his left to bow one more time. You could see his head, but his body was covered by a shroud.

Out into a museum which laid out the various awards given to Kim Il Sung in his lifetime. Most were from countries such as the USSR, Nicaragua, and Peru. There was one medal which simply stated ‘County of Derbyshire’ and looked like something you’d buy in a souvenir shop. 

Then to the next tomb. This was of Kim Jung Il, and we did the same bowing procedure. Similar somber music and lighting. And on to a second exhibition of awards. I particularly liked the tribal costumes of the two Nicaraguan tribes of which Kim Jung Il had been made an honorary member.

After this, we walked on to see the train carriage in which Kim Il Sung had travelled. An electronic map traced glowing lines to show his travels by train and plane, the first in red, the second in blue. It has to be said, he stuck mostly to socialist countries in Europe and Asia. We saw a similar train carriage and map for his son, who seemed to travel even less. Kim Jung Il’s office area had been preserved as he had used it, and there was a MacBook Pro on his desk. The carriage in which he travelled was actually the place in which he died, which made seeing the carriage rather sad. 

Another room had the large ship which Kim Il Sung had used. This was more of a functional military type vessel than a yacht, and we all wondered how on earth it had been brought into the building. Or perhaps the hall had been built around it?

Then we were out, and collected our belongings from the cloakroom. We exited from the air conditioning and the humidity struck our bodies and made our camera lenses mist up. We took photos of the outside of the main building. People were working on the lawns, taking out any imperfect grasses or weeds, and planting new grass in their stead. I’ve seen a number of people grubbing in the grass in Pyongyang, and I wonder if they’re doing the same. Only perfection will do.

Back on the bus, I changed from formal shoes to much more comfortable trainers, and I dumped my suit jacket into a bag. We drove back to the city. Our next stop was Kim Il Sung Square, where students were preparing for tomorrow’s celebrations (Liberation Day). Although many of us would have preferred to look around, we were taken into a coffee shop. Afterwards, we walked up to the Foreign Language Bookshop. Hand painted propaganda posters were brought out. I bought one, at 56 Euros, as I had always planned to bring one back. (In fact, I brought an empty poster tube from England for this very reason. As I had suspected, the shop couldn’t offer any, so good planning on my part.) I also bought two books about Kim Il Sung written in English.

Rain was falling. We went back to the bus, and to the hotel, to dump formal clothes and to collect those who had not been with us for the morning. We were taken into the city for lunch. The restaurant was on the second floor, and as we walked through the clothes shop on the ground floor, the staff looked startled to see us. 

Lunch was a succession of small dishes. Cucumber seems to be a regular feature, and it’s very challenging to eat the slices with chopsticks. Seafood, which I would have liked to have eaten but I was concerned about digestive upsets. Pork in a nice sauce, with more fat than we would eat in England. Dumplings in a clear broth. I’d ordered juice to drink, but one sip of the unique flavour convinced me to have water instead.

After lunch, we went to Mangyondae Native House, the birthplace of Kim Il Sung. Throughout this visit, we were told time and again of how poor his family had been. We walked through the hot air, heavy with humidity. Never have I heard so many cicadas, nor so loud. The sound was intense and unremitting. 

The buildings were of traditional Korean build, looking remarkably well preserved for their age. At the small gift shop, I bought a hand made tapestry of the birth house for 27 Euros. 

Back to the bus, and the marvel which is air conditioning. We went down a very long escalator to the metro. The walls were bare of either advertising or graffiti, and the ride was so long that Koreans were turning around to sit on the moving stairs for a rest. 

At the bottom, we were amazed by the beautiful lights adorning the ceiling, and the murals on the walls. Most of the trains were old, but a few modern ones also pulled in. The carriages were packed. I’ve read accounts of people surmising that the underground was all for show, but there were too many people of all ages getting off and on for that to be true.

We got on, and a Korean man insisted that we had seats instead of him. Patriotic music played, and we were watched over by the usual portraits of the two great leaders. The locals mostly ignored us, or gave us smiles. I sensed no awkwardness or concern.

Four stops later and we climbed out. The murals here were stunning, as was a statue if Kim Jong Il. I watched one of the metro guards stand in front of that statue for awhile, then bow her head before returning to the platform. The days’ newspapers were in containers on the platform, and people crowded around to read the pages. Two young children giggled at us, then hid behind some adults when I turned to smile at them.

Back up into the heat. We viewed the Arch of Triumph, walked past the (seemingly closed) athletics stadium, and back to the bus. Now it was on to the Fatherland Liberation War Museum. Stunning statues lined the broad walkway leading up to the museum. We first viewed pieces of wreckage from USA tanks, planes, and helicopters from the Korean War. Then on to the USS Pueblo, the spy ship captured by the Koreans. We watched a video, in English, about the capture of the ship and crew, and the negotiations for an apology from the US government. Throughout the USA servicemen were called ‘the enemies.’

Then to the museum itself, which was blissfully air conditioned. No photos allowed inside, which was a shame, because it was well worth documenting. We bowed to a statue (wax?) of the Great Marshall Kim Jung Un, before visiting the loos and then watching a film about the Korean War. The Americans, stated the film, had started the whole thing. The horrors of war were spelled out, with plenty of photos of crying and dead children.

Our tour concentrated on the Korean War. We walked through a well thought out series of displays which put us into a jungle setting, and then what a camp would have been like in winter. The last one was of a sole American soldier, standing on the battlefield surrounded by his dead troops. I think the guide gave his name as ‘John Smith,’ that well known figure.

I bought a DVD of the USS Pueblo video, at the high price of 9 Euros. Back on the bus, we were asked whether we wanted to go straight to dinner, or have a walk first. I wanted dinner, but was outvoted. So we walked in the dimming light through what was, admittedly, quite a lovely park. We saw several families and couples. At the top of the hill, we had (tree-blocked) views over the city, both to the tall statues and the stadium.

Now on to dinner. The air conditioning at the restaurant wasn’t working, so fans were brought over. The dinner was ‘hot pot.’ You are brought the raw ingredients on a plate (pork or fish). A pot of water is brought to the boil on a heater in front of you, and when the water is ready you put in the pork. When the water has returned to the boil, you add the potatoes and vegetables. Then you top it off with a raw egg. Stir until cooked. 

It was delicious, but on a hot evening in a restaurant without air conditioning it was a bit much. More European tour groups came in, and all of the fans were turned to face their tables instead of ours. Our guides had disappeared. We’d finished for a little while, then some of us decided to get up and go. That, of course, brought out our guides. We headed back to the hotel, arriving at 9pm.

I downloaded photos, wrote into my journal, and headed off to bed. It had been a long day!

15 August

I slept well, waking up just before the 6am alarm. Again I decided to have coffee and bits of dried fruit in my room rather than head down to breakfast. I also did a bit of packing, and washed two shirts in the hopes that they’ll dry before we leave tomorrow morning.

At 7.30am we assembled for our trip to the Demilitarised Zone. I visited this from the South Korean side several years ago. We were told that the trip would take three hours, so I packed my laptop to do some catching up. Also, when I asked, I was told that it’s okay to take photos from the bus, except of soldiers/military outposts. 

We drove through green countryside. There appear to be plenty of crops, and regular groups of buildings for the farmers. I also like the Korean hills, which emerge with regularity from the land. Short trees lined their sides and tops. 

We stopped for a loo and tea break half way. There were two souvenir tables laid out. I bought a t-shirt promising (pleading?) ‘Come back to Pyongyang’ for 100 Yuan (about £10.00) which, according to my guide, was over priced and I should have waited for the souvenir shop near the DMZ.

Through more crops and countryside. We passed the large city of Panmunjom, and I noted that solar panels seemed to be hung on each balcony of the flats of the tall buildings. The roads had very few cars, mostly bicycles and a few motorbikes.

The souvenir shop, near the DMZ, was crammed with ginseng products, some intriguing bottles of alcohol (including snake wine and, yes, there was a snake inside), as well as paintings and propaganda posters. I bought another two posters, which were smaller and therefore cheaper at 30 Euros each. I also bought a small painting.

We had a military guide, whom we shared with a couple of other groups. So there were around forty of us, each clustered around our guide who translated what the soldier was telling us. We visited the buildings in which the ceasefire was negotiated, and some people shook hands across the table as if they had been part of the negotiations. At the next building, our guide told us that the when the Americans signed the treaty, thus surrendering to the North Koreans, they were so embarrassed to have lost the war that they left their own flag behind when they ran away. Copies of the ceasefire were in cases, one with the DPRK flag behind, the other with the UN. 

On to the border. When I visited from the South Korean side, we had full briefings, we had to leave our original bus (and most of our bags) behind and go into a special transfer bus, we had to sign a document absolving the UN should things turn hostile, and we were given strict instructions. Don’t laugh, don’t point at the North Korean guards, only take photos facing North Korea, do not turn around and take photos of the South Korean buildings.

So different from this side. No briefing, no worries about baggage, and our military guide plus a soldier on duty were very happy to pose for photos with us. The whole trip was very relaxed, quite a contrast from the stress inducing visit from the other side. 

We didn’t get to go down to the buildings further down. Instead, back to bus and Panmunjom. There we visited a stamp shop, where I bought stamps, postcards, a poster of a stamp, and a collection of the old DPRK currency. Then we went on to a set of historic buildings nearby, which caught most of us unprepared as we’d expected to go back to the bus. I had my compact camera on me, so I could take photos. The buildings were interesting, and it was good to have a break from hearing about the American imperialist aggressors and the Korean War.

Lunch was at a restaurant which, yet again, seemed to be full of tourists and no locals. We had a traditional Korean meal, many small dishes of various foodstuffs. Less kimchi than I would have expected. The meat tasted like duck, but it could have been dog. We were told that today was the last day in which dog is eaten, as it’s considered to be a summer dish (eating dog meat is supposed to cool you down on hot days—can’t see this catching on at home).

The skies had clouded over by the time we started the long drive back to Pyongyang. I’d been assured that it was okay to take photos from the coach, so I tried to catch the scenes of daily life. And all the crops which seem to be growing everywhere. I had a brief glimpse of two young girls herding geese, and several herds of goats with goatherds.

We stopped for our loo break, then pressed on to Pyongyang. Outside the city, we paused to photograph the Reunification Monument. Then back into the city.

Sadly, events for the 15 August Liberation Day celebrations had finished. By 5.30pm? We went to the Juche Tower, and took the lift up to the top level for the views over Pyongyang. We walked around outside to admire the tower more fully. Next stop was the monument celebrating the Foundation of the Workers Party of Korea. The stone fists holding stone objects was quite impressive. Last visit was to the Cultural Centre, where we admired paintings and publications in various languages of the works of the great leaders.

Dinner was at a Korean BBQ restaurant. I came to love Korean BBQ when I visited South Korea. I sat at a table for four with three teenagers, all of whom seemed rather unenthusiastic about a meal at which you grilled your own raw meat. One lad refused to take any, worried that it might make him unwell. I tucked in with great gusto. Duck, yum.

As it was our last night in Pyongyang for a time, I concentrated on packing.

16 August

An early rise, 5.30am. As I yet again had breakfast in my room, the guide phoned me at 6.45am because she hadn’t seen me at breakfast. I assured her that I was up and well.

At 7am we departed for the airport. We had a chartered flight to Samjiyon. Although we shared the plane with another group, there were many unoccupied seats. One of the air stewardesses took a seat next to me during the flight and we had a conversation as far as her English and my caution would allow. I didn’t mind talking about the fact that I have no children (she wants a son), but I was bit uneasy when she wanted to know what I knew about their leader and when she declared ‘I love my country.’ I gave general responses in return.

We landed at a very small airport. I found the loos (the squatting type, of course). When I returned, I couldn’t find my group. As always happens on my holidays, I came across a group of Germans, and they were able to point me on my way. We were on a small bus, and our luggage had to be carried on board. Most bags went into the back, but mine went onto the window seat and I sat next to it for the entire day.

We had a 90 minute drive to Mount Paekdu. At first we were in pine forest. Then the woods cleared to give us views of the stark mountainsides. A funicular railway is built into the side of the mountain, but can only operate where there’s sufficient electric supply. Which, today, there wasn’t.

Our guide began to work out what we could do. Several of us visited the very smelly toilets (a hole leading to the ground below). The bus, it was decided, would take us up. Then there was the concern that we, with all our luggage, meant that the bus carried too much weight. Finally, negotiations with another guide led to seven of us travelling up on another bus, our own following behind.

We had excellent weather at the top. All of us walked up to the first viewpoint. I didn’t join the group which went to the top, as I wanted time to do proper photography with tripod and filters. Which I did. The volcanic crater is filled with a bright blue lake, and the setting was magnificent. I can see why the Korean people view this as a sacred site.

As I worked, around a hundred secondary schoolchildren came up to the viewpoint. They sang a song, and then mobbed the small souvenir stand when they were set loose. 

All of us went down in our own bus. Another loo trip to smelly holes in the ground before we headed off to have a late lunch. The first site chosen for our picnic was, several people decided, not clean enough. We went on to a second one, with lovely views of a gorge. The Germans joined us, and I conversed with them in my second language. I declined the lunch, however, falling back on my own supplies rather than eat a burger which had gone through a plane flight and hours in a box on the bus.

We went on to the Paekdu Secret Camps. It was from here that Kim Il Sung carried out his campaign against the Japanese. This is also the official birthplace of Kim Jong Il. A lovely mosaic commemorated the family. We saw the well which Kim Jong Il’s mother had built, and from which he’d drunk, as well as the buildings in which his father made his plans, the one which Kim Jong Il was officially born, and the one in which soldiers were educated. It must be said, the buildings were very well preserved, and there was no sign of how they were heated (no stove nor any chimney).

Final stop was at the lovely Rimyongsu Falls. These were in shade, so I set up my tripod. This quite amused one of the Korean soldiers at the site. He was even more amused when I pulled out my traveling companion, my dachshund Gunther, and took a photo of him with the falls in the background.

We arrived at our hotel around 6.30pm. My room is very odd. The lights in the entranceway and the bathroom work, but not in the bedroom. However, I have an office annex (desk and two chairs) and as the light works in here, that’s where I’m currently sitting!

At 7pm we had a ‘traditional potato BBQ’ outside. I bought beer at the shop before going to the cooking fires. The guide tried to tell me that the tradition was thousands of years old. I told her that wasn’t possible, as potatoes were a New World crop and only brought to Europe about 500 years ago.

There was only emergency lighting on in the hotel when we went back inside. No light in the lobby, although there was full light on the painting of the two leaders at Mount Paekdu. Very dim in the dining room. Food was on a lazy susan, and we spun it around, trying to work out what everything was. The fried pork was tasty. 

We were told that there would be hot water at 9pm and 6am. So just after 9pm I turned on the hot water tap. Cold and very brown water came out. I decided to try again in the morning.

17 August

Somehow I managed to sleep, although I don’t know how. The bed was nothing more than a thin mattress on a hard platform. There was no hot water when I checked at 6.30am, so I did my best with water and a towel. Nor would my toilet flush this morning.

There was no kettle in the room, so I went to the ‘Banqueting Hall’ in search of hot water. I couldn’t see our group, so I joined the Germans and we conversed in my second language. At my request, hot water was poured into the mug containing my coffee bag, and I added powdered milk. Seems powdered coffee was on offer—blurgh is all I can say. I ate two pieces of bread, but declined the sliced potato in white sauce and also the scrambled eggs. 

We left at 8am. The itinerary had stated that we’d have a ‘pleasant walk’ through the local town. Well, what happened instead is that we drove past the museum (dedicated to the life of Kim Il Sung) and the local school. We stopped for some time at the Samjiyon Grand Monument, which has the second highest statue of Kim Il Sung in the country. A party of secondary schoolchildren, in military uniforms, were being given some sort of instruction as we looked around. 

One of our party bought some flowers to lay at the statue’s feet. But then his own feet were a problem. He was wearing flip-flops, which were not acceptable for this task. Nor were any the rest of us able to do the deed for him. So he ran back to the bus, changed his shoes, and then was able to lay the flowers. We lined up and bowed.

A local guide told us about the monuments, our own guide translating into English. The schoolchildren did their own flower laying and bowing as we looked around. The temperature was quite cool, and low lying clouds made us glad that we went up to Mount Paekdu yesterday rather than today.

Then on to the airport. Our carry ons were scanned, but I couldn’t see any evidence that our check in was. Check in bags were weighed on an old fashioned, manual scale before being put onto a cart to be taken to the plane. 

We waited for around an hour before boarding the plane. The flight was only around 40 minutes. We left behind forests and mountains (I tried to take photos out of my window, but was told to stop by one of the cabin crew) and flew over towns and fields green with crops. Then the sea was in sight. 

We landed at an airport which was little more than a landing strip. Our bus drove up to the plane to meet us. The crew pulled the bags out of the hold, and we rolled them over to the bus. Easy.

The hotel in which we’re staying, the Majon, is considered to be one of the best in Korea. We drove past the sea and inlets, more fields and cows grazing by the roadside, to go through a guarded checkpoint into the hotel compound. 

The interior is stunning. As it’s an International Hotel, there’s no portraits up of the great leaders. We had time to go to our rooms before lunch. There was a slight delay when neither lift would work. A member of hotel staff scurried off, and a minute later one lift worked (the other has yet to show any signs of life). My room has a beautiful working shower (hot water on demand!) and a view over the seafront. As we’re in a compound, we’re free to wander the grounds and the seafront.

I spent some time in my room after lunch, catching up with photos and taking some time for myself. Around 4pm I wandered out. To my delight, several of our younger members were playing beach football with the Korean hotel guests. I sat under an awning and wrote postcards. 

Around 5.30pm some of us went to a ‘seafood BBQ’. Petrol was sprayed from a plastic water bottle onto a pile of wood, and then the wood was lit. A metal tray of mussels, covered by a wet cloth, was placed on a bracket above the small fire. Around ten minutes later we were tucking into the fresh seafood. It had been taken from the sea that morning, we were told, and from the freshness of the seaweed clinging to some of the shells, that must have been the case. Rice wine was offered, but I remember well how easily it goes down, and how badly it hits the head, so I had only a small amount.

Dinner was edible but unappealing. A pattern is setting in, of being offered a bowl of kimchi (spiced with chillies), a form of egg, fried fish, thin sliced meat in some form of crumbed batter, raw salad of some form, and rice and broth to finish. I ate the cabbage salad, and the bread, but not much else.

A number of us went to the bar afterwards. The bartender had to phone somewhere to find out the price of our orders in the various currencies we carried. It is confusing that some places want dollars, others euros, and still others Chinese yuan. But I finally had a whisky. Well, Johnny Black Label, which cost US$8.40. Not bad, really. A number of us chatted over our drinks whilst others played pool or table tennis.

18 August

A late start—we weren’t leaving until 8.30am. I did my usual coffee and dried fruit in my room. 

One of our group had to haul his bag back out of the bus and hand back the pair of scissors and the glue stick he had taken from his room. Amazing how quickly the staff had spotted what was missing. Another member broke a glass, and he had to pay 10 Euros to the hotel in recompense.

Our first stop was at the Hungnam Fertiliser Factory. Yes, you read that correctly. We drove through the town, spotting many more posters exhorting the populace to work hard and to defend their country. There was also a very nice mural of not only Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, but of a woman whom I assume was Kim Jong Il’s mother. 

At the fertiliser factory we were taken into a production room. I liked the workers’ bicycles all lined up at one side. Then to the control room, where impressive monitors covered the wall and a couple of men were having urgent conversations on various phones. It was hard to work out if the monitors actually told the men anything, or how they fit in with the run down condition of the buildings, but they looked fancy.

Lastly we walked down to where we saw bags of fertiliser, and workmen eyeing us as we walked around. Every bit of land around these buildings was planted with crops. And a woman walked around one building, herding geese with a long stick. 

On to Hamhung Bongung Palace, where Ri Song Gye, founder of the Ri dynasty, had lived centuries ago. The original buildings had been destroyed by the Japanese, so the buildings had been reconstructed some while later. The local guide told us a story about the king and the fight between his sons as to whom would ascend the throne. Our own guide translated, and somewhere along the way the story took a confusing turn. None of us are sure that we really understood it. 

As we drove the city streets, we saw several groups of soldiers marching along. Someone on the bus began to whistle the ‘Dad’s Army’ theme.

Next stop was, of course, to the monument of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il for this city. There was an impressive sweep of stone up to the statues. A couple of people laid flowers, and then we lined up and bowed. We walked from the statues to a pavilion, which gave us views over the city. The local guide gave us a potted history of what the Imperialist Americans had done to the city and how it had been rebuilt. I was intrigued by the road bridge with no motor traffic, and the number of ox drawn carts which I saw on the city pavements.

Lunch was in a hotel. We were placed in a room and given cold chips, a cold fried egg, a plate of cold fried onions, fried fish, meat in batter, and finally the rice and broth. I ate the chips, a bit of the fish, and a bit of the rice. The vegetarian in our group was given an apple, and I caused consternation in the waitress when I asked whether I could also have an apple. Said fruit was eventually produced, a half offered to each of us. I ate two portions, avoiding the skin. It was great to have a piece of fresh fruit!

We finished eating, and didn’t know what to do next. As ever, our guides had gone elsewhere. So we wandered around the hotel, looking into the ‘Sing Song Room’ and the shop. I bought some water. When we went back to the lobby, our guides took us to ‘the famous book shop’ at the hotel. I bought a guide to Korea (a small thing with a red cover), a couple of books, and another edition of ‘The Pyongyang Times.’

We drove for about thirty minutes to the Dongbong Co-operative Farm. Our guide explained to us that there are two types of farms, state owned and co-operative. On the state owned, the farmers get a salary and the crop belongs to the state. On co-operative farms, the crop belongs to the farmers and they sell whatever they don’t need for themselves to the state.

We exited the bus and walked over to the mosaic of the two leaders. Seems both of them visited this farm several times. At the shop, we bought sweets to present to the children we were going to meet at their kindergarten.

As we entered the school playground, two groups of around twenty children burst into song, accompanied by the accordion. They performed several numbers. We gave the teachers the sweets, then went into the school entrance hall. Ahead was a mural of the two leaders. On one wall was a painting of the birthplace of Kim Il Song., on the opposite wall the military camp in which Kim Jong Il had been born.

The classrooms had wooden desks and chairs. There was a separate room for their naps. Upstairs were three instruction rooms. One had a model of Kim Il Sung’s birthplace, and posters of stories of his life. The other room had a model of Kim Jong Il’s birthplace and posters showing stories from his childhood. Both rooms had small upright pianos. One of our party sat down and played the British National Anthem for us all. 

Then back on to the bus. We had a three hour drive to Wonsan, stopping at a restaurant for a toilet break. I shall eventually forget the state of the single women’s toilet. 

The drive was very interesting. Hills and forests, then lots of agricultural land. We didn’t see any tractors. Several times we saw oxen pulling ploughs, and people planting by hand. And yet, no matter how small the hamlet, still there were posters up and larger places always had portraits of the two great leaders.

Somewhere around the half way mark my Apple MacBook Air suddenly quit on me. I had wondered about the battery. Although I’d left the computer on to charge overnight, it had not done so. I closed it down and tried not to panic. 

Around 5.30pm we arrived at our hotel. We were back again to 1960’s style of accommodation. The landing was hot, but the air conditioning was full on in my room and there were no controls to adjust it. I plugged my laptop into the mains, and found that it will (currently at least) run on mains but not on battery. If that continues to be the case, I’ll survive until I’m back in England. Considering how many countries this laptop has travelled and how many electrical systems it’s been plugged into, I’m not surprised if something has affected the battery.

We met in the lobby at 6.30pm—then went back up the lifts to pick up umbrellas. We walked out over a sea break. Locals were fishing, or buying seafood which they were then cooking and eating at the side of the sea break. I wished we’d gone out earlier, when the light was better, as the atmosphere and the sight of the city was fascinating. And it was very muggy, and indeed did start to rain later on. We also had to swing bridges to cross. The planks looked like they’d seen better days.

Dinner was in a fish restaurant. Again I faced chips (at least warm this time), spicy kimchi, and fried fish. Then catfish came out (complete with fried head) and that was very tasty. No one ate the head. Rice to finish, of course, and a soup of spinach which would have been nice if it hadn’t been so salty.

Back at the hotel, a couple of people played table tennis with the Korean guides. I watched for awhile before going to my room.

19 August

Another late start, 8.30am. I popped into the book shop to buy another ‘Pyongyang Times’, a pamphlet, and a map of the DPRK (which shows a united peninsula). 

We had a three hour drive to Mount Kumgang. The day was rather grey and murky. It was pleasant enough, in an air conditioned coach, to watch fields and hills slide by. More ox carts, more people working on the land, and every so often another poster or a portrait of the two great leaders.

We arrived at our hotel in time for lunch. The entire building was dark inside when we entered, and we were told that there was no electricity or water. But then it came on, hurrah! 

Lunch was more to my taste. Something like a gravy-less Lancashire hot pot, cabbage with mayonnaise and ketchup, and rice. 

Half an hour later, we headed off for our walk. This was billed as a pleasant 90 minute stroll past pools to the falls. And that, for the fit, the option for a further climb to a peak in order to view the nine ‘fairy pools’.

I found myself struggling. I had cut my equipment down to one camera, two lenses, and travel tripod. The path was up and down, and the weather very muggy, but I’ve faced worse. Then, perhaps two miles in, my stomach decided that lunch might have gone down nicely, but I was in danger of the food not staying down. So I decided not to press on. Another couple of people had also decided to stop. We turned around, and took photos of the pools on the way down.

Rain started, and became rather heavy. We covered up and tried not to slip on the rocks. Although there is a nice pavilion structure at the start of the walk, this was firmly shut. So we headed down to the bus to wait for the others. One person had some stomach tablets, which I took and found myself somewhat improved.

Later on I viewed photos others took of the waterfall, which does look nice. The path was far from being an easy stroll. The last bit, I was told, was very steep and slippery. But all made it down easily, although several gained bug bites. We all saw various frogs.

After a break, we were taken by bus (due to rain) to a local restaurant. The main meal was a variety of foodstuffs cooked in a pot in the middle of the table. I do quite like that dish, but due to the earlier stomach problems I stuck to the plain rice. 

Partway through dinner, there was a performance by some women in costume. They dragged up various members of our group and had them going around the room. Then two Koreans got up for some karaoke. When there was a pause in proceedings, I suggested to our group that we get up and leave before another overly loud musical performance started up.

We couldn’t find the bus driver, so we walked back to the hotel. There was a stop at the souvenir store, which had all sorts of alcohol, teas, and cheap cloth items. The final bit of the walk was rather dark, but a couple of us had brought torches in case the electricity in the hotel was out when we returned. Happy to report that the electricity worked all night, and the water in the shower was hot and plentiful.

20 August

Another late start, 8.30am. A lack of kettle in my room sent me off to find the breakfast room. I was the only one there! I managed to explain that I wanted hot water poured into the mug which held my coffee bag. I was offered an omelette and French bread. I ate one slice of the latter, had another round of hot water on a fresh coffee bag, and carried the drink back to my room.

Our first visit was to Samil Lake. We walked up to the viewpoint, then down and across a bridge for a short round trip walk. On to the coastline, which is within the DMZ and several people were able to receive and send text messages through the South Korean transmitter. We stayed for some time here, sitting and listening to the cicadas and each other. 

The reason for the long sit and do nothing became clear when we headed back to the holiday complex for an early lunch—at 11.15am. Same sort of food yet again. Then the waitresses started singing to us, at which point I decided to go outside for some fresh air. I understand more dancing happened as well. I took some photos, and went back into the shop we visited last night for another nose around.

Then the long drive back to Wonsan. There we made two stops which had not been on the itinerary. One was to an art gallery, which had lovely paintings which were not for sale on the wall. Much less appealing ones were spread out on tables for us to purchase, but none of us found anything to our tastes.

As we came out, we discovered a number of children marching and singing through the city streets. We stopped to watch.

Next stop was at the International Children’s Camp. We drove past a guarded gate to a large complex. On one side was a lake, and children were having fun messing about in boats. Beyond them were a number of water slides. To our left was the large dormitory building. There was a statue of the two great leaders surrounded by children, and one of our group bought the flowers and we did the respectful bow.

The facilities inside were amazing. We saw one dorm room (for girls, done up in garishly bright pink), the dining hall, a separate dining area for birthday parties, a row of displays showing photos of visits from the three great leaders to the camp (strangely enough, often at wintertime), a theatre, and a video games room (the children were cleared after we came in). We walked to the aquarium and aviary, then to the athletics/football area and the swimming complex. We were told that children from all over Korea come here, and also a number of children from Russia.

Children were marching and singing as they went between areas for the various activities. I asked what the words were of their tune, and was told that it was in honour of Marshall Kim Jong Un.

It was about an hour’s drive to the Masikrong Ski Resort. This ski area has only recently been carved out from one of the mountains. A video in the lobby showed soldiers toiling to pull out trees by hand, urged on by the waving of flags and beating of drums. The complex is impressive, and I love my room. Nicely lit, working air conditioning, hot water, and a balcony. 

Dinner was again the usual pattern. I just can’t bring myself to eat the fried fish anymore, and the thin chicken patty had been fried in egg and had some strange brown sauce dribbled over the top. So I tucked into lightly pickled green stuff which I couldn’t identify but was vegetable matter of some description.

Afterwards a number of us hit the bar. We went for the more expensive German beer, and I splashed out on two whiskies, a Johnny Black Label and something called ‘House of Peers’ which had a drawing of Parliament on the label. 

21 August

I woke up with a clearer head than I deserved. Breakfast wasn’t going to be served until 9am, so I pottered around in my room. 

After breakfast, we went up in the gondola to the top of the mountain. The views were rather misty, but it was still a spectacular ride. Then we had the option of going back down by chair lift, which most of us took. The slopes look quite frightening, actually. I don’t think I’d like to try to ski them.

We had some free time before a late lunch. Then at 3pm we set off on a very long drive back to Pyongyang. The mountain scenery was stunning, the almost pyramidal hills covered with trees. Clouds wisped around the taller peaks. We had two rest stops, one at a lake with a rest area, the other was the ‘men go to one side, women the other’ for those who were desperate.

We rolled into Pyongyang at 7.30pm. Our guide told us, ‘You will get off the bus and enjoy a walk down Scientist Street.’ And it was an enjoyable walk. The futuristic buildings of Scientist Street are lovely enough during the day, but at night the light effects are stunning. 

We had dinner in a pizzeria. The only problem was that only one oven was being used, so only a couple of pizzas were delivered at a time, with a ten minute gap between deliveries. A number of people had finished before the last ones even started.

It was the birthday of one of our party. He was given a cake, and we sang ‘Happy birthday’ to him. We were all rather tired, but rather than going back to the bus, our guides got up one by one to sing a karaoke song to us. I wanted to get and go, but my companions were frozen in place by the British code of conduct which requires that we always be polite. 

We finally returned to the hotel around 9.30pm. I have the same room as before. In fact, the bed is made up as I left it, with three pillows and a blanket on top. So I assume no one has stayed in the room during my absence.

22 August

A full on day in Pyongyang, but at least with a late start of 8.30am.

Our first excursion was on a tram through part of the city. Ours was a private tram—only us as passengers. In fact, after we’d got off to wander around at one point, a couple of Koreans were disappointed to be turned away when they too tried to board. It was very hot on board, particularly if you were sitting in the sun, so I wasn’t surprised that Koreans on other trams had opened umbrellas inside to protect themselves from the sun.

We took the bus to the Grand People’s Learning House (the National Library). The entry lobby was stunning, the ladies’ loos less so. We saw rooms where several people were reading, dropped in on an English lesson, and saw a row of boom boxes. A CD with different artists singing ‘romantic songs’ was pulled out for us, and we listened politely to ABBA’s ‘I believe in Angels.’ 

We reported to the lending desk. Supposedly any of the library’s books can be requested here, and the book will come out on a conveyor belt. However, the librarian had avoided that necessity by pulling out five English language books for us. I asked if we could request a book and was told no, that to make things easier for us these books had already been sent out.

From a balcony on the upper level we had good views across Kim Il Sung Square to the Juche tower. 

Our next visit was to Kim Il Sung Square. The sun had come out, giving us a bright day. What was very noticeable was the lack of smog on a hot August day. I can’t think of any other city with so little air pollution. We admired the square, then walked up to the Foreign Language Bookshop where I bought another poster and a CD of the musical composition ‘Bumper Harvest in the Chongsan Plain.’

Some of our group wanted ice creams. We wandered back to the square. Many children were there, practicing for the day’s celebrations. Today was National Youth Day, and various events were taking place with young people in celebration. Several schoolchildren watched us buy ice creams, obviously wishing they could have one themselves. I waved at my camera, they nodded, and I took a photo. I then showed them the photo on the back screen, which entranced them. I think they might never have seen the back screen of a digital camera before. We did this a couple of more times, me taking a photo, then letting them see the rear screen. It was a moment of interaction which I’ll always treasure.

On to lunch. The food has returned to being more Korean and less what they think Westerners eat, so it was far more edible. We had ‘cold noodle soup’, a mixture of long, dark noodles with bits of spice which you mix into the cold water. Our guide told us that this is a dish traditionally sold at weddings. In fact, when a woman is asking her boyfriend to propose to her, she’ll ask, ‘When shall I have your noodle?’ Those of us with less than innocent minds chortled at the expression.

Our first afternoon visit was to a needlework institution. We started off in a room which celebrated visits from the three great leaders. Then we went on to the workshops, where women carefully created intricate works from needle and thread. The detail was impressive. Several works were very large, and from a distance looked like a finely detailed painting. I bought a small one, but was the only person to spend any money on the shop.

Then to a catfish factory. We saw many aspects of the area, starting with two rooms celebrating visits from the three great leaders. There were instruction rooms (complete with computers whose keyboards needed dusting), a control room which follows progress in each of the catfish pools, and bathing and games rooms for the workers. Some sort of ground up substance was spread outside the various buildings, drying in the sun. We watched catfish being fed in one pond, and went from hot day to freezing temperatures to see the frozen catfish piled up like bricks in the freezer.

By this time it was 5pm, and time to go to the circus. Sadly no photography permitted. I was impressed when the stage rolled away to reveal a water pool, in which various acrobatics were performed. We had juggling, high wire, and trapeze artists perform. All very entertaining. And a nearly full theatre. I saw many students and a number of people in military uniforms.

Dinner at a local restaurant. Our last stop was at the beer festival. The atmosphere was a warm and happy one. We couldn’t find a table (our guide tried to convince a courting couple to give up their table for us, but they refused) but we did find a place to stand. I ordered the ‘dark beer with chocolate’ which was nice but tasted nothing like a chocolate stout. We admired the reflections of the buildings and the moon on the river. Most of the group were leaving the next morning, so it was also a goodbye of sorts. I must admit, I had never expected to be enjoying a beer festival in Pyongyang when I booked the trip.

23 August

Most of the group had to leave at 6.30am for their flight back to Beijing. There’s only two of us, me and Roy, on the extended tour. We were told to report to reception at 10am, so I had time to work out how to pack the various posters and books which I’ve purchased.

I asked one of our guides if it would be possible, upon our return, to have a room facing the other direction so I could see the other side of the city. I really wanted to take some photos of Scientist Street at night. She took me to the receptionist and there was some discussion. ‘Buy her a coffee,’ the guide said, so she took me over to a small shop in the lobby. The guide picked out a can of something called ‘rose milk’ for the receptionist and a bottle of water for me. I paid over the 1 Euro, and the can was taken to the receptionist. We’ll see what happens about the room!

Of course, there was no need for a large air conditioned bus for just five of us (two tourists, two guides, and a driver). Our bags were loaded into the back of a small van, one guide sat at the front, Roy took the next row, and the other guide sat next to me. Air conditioning consisted of opening a window. There were no curtains or blinds, so later on when the sun beat down, I opened up my umbrella and propped it against the window to provide shade. So this part of Korea was treated to the sight of a black umbrella plastered with the words ‘Norway’ as we drove down the road.

Our first stop was in the satellite city to Pyongyang, called Pyongsong. We visited a secondary school which specialises in teaching maths. And who joined us but the Germans we’d met in the Mount Paekdu area! We shown around the school display rooms, then taken upstairs.

A class of around twenty children were waiting for us. They are studying English, and the topic on the blackboard (and the computer screen near the teacher) was ‘Making and responding to apologies.’ We two Brits were asked to come to the front to explain this to the class.

I improvised a few skits. I showed how, if I bumped into Roy, he would automatically apologise. The children giggled at our playacting. Then I pretended to be angry at him for not buying me a drink, so he apologised and offered to buy me one that night. And we shook hands on it. 

One of the girls stood up to welcome us and to tell us about the beauties of her country. She asked where we’d visited, and we gave a quick run down. Her English was excellent.

Afterwards a couple of Germans took a turn. We also heard from more students. One wants to be a botanist, and the other wants to work at combating climate change.

The vice principal, who had been showing us around, was very pleased with the skits I’d invented. I managed, through our guide, to tell him that I used to be a governor at a secondary school in England. So I’m used to working with children this age.

The Germans were at the same restaurant as we were for lunch, but at a separate table. With Roy’s agreement, I told our guide that we’d be quite happy to share a table with the Germans, if they’d be happy for this. 

Then we set off on our bumpy ride to Mount Myohyang. The guide was very tired (she’d got up at 5.30am to take the others to the airport) and she fell asleep, at one point her head resting on my shoulder. I admired the scenery. For the latter part, the road paralleled a river. A number of hydroelectric dams have been constructed along the length. With the water and hills, we could almost have been in the English Lake District.

At 4pm we arrived at the hotel. And it was obvious that our guides wanted to leave us to our own devices. So Roy and I looked at each other, shrugged, and went to our rooms. 

I managed to catch up on some photo work before dinner. Roy decided not to eat that night, so it was just me at the same table as the Germans. On the whole I could follow (and occasionally contribute) to the conversation in my second language. I did find some of their accents difficult to follow. 

24 August

We went up to the International Friendship Exhibition for their opening time of 9am. The Exhibition consists of two large buildings, built into the side of the mountain, which have on display the gifts given to the great leaders.

Security was tight. No metal or cameras allowed in. A local guide met us, and took us first to the main room. There we bowed to a marble statue of Kim Jong Il sitting on a grand chair. Here there were gifts on display from Billy Graham and Jimmy Carter. Our local guide said that Jimmy Carter, after he’d met Kim Jong Il, had said that he was a greater leader ‘than Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington combined.’ I plan to check this out when I’m back in the UK.

There are so many rooms that we had to make a choice which direction to go. Did we want to see the gifts from Africa, or those from Europe and the Americas? I asked for the latter, as we would be able to read some of the inscriptions (instead of relying on the English translation provided). 

The gifts were varied and many. As could be expected, a large number came from countries as China, the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Romania. Tito and Ceaușescu had presented gifts. I mentioned casually that, as far as I could remember, both had been executed by their own people. That caused a bit of a discussion between the guides.

Some of the ones from the USA were a bit strange. The engraving on one stated that ‘congraduations’ were offered to Kim Jung Il—yes, there was a ‘d’ rather than a ‘t’. Another from ‘the oppressed black people of the USA’ had very odd grammar. 

There were a couple of icons, presented by Russians, which seemed out of keeping in such a place. Cameras and binoculars, never used. Lots of paintings and vases. A plaque from ‘The County of Derbyshire’.

We finished our corridor, and collected our belongings before going up in the lift to the ‘rest area.’ This was a balcony with nice chairs and some drinks for sale. I avoided the powdered coffee and bought a bottle of water. As I placed filters on my lens to take some photos of the scenery, a Korean man wandered over to admire my camera. He’s a videographer for the Korean travel company, and he was intrigued with my neutral density filters. 

We walked over to the second building, again leaving belongings behind before going inside. Here we saw gifts presented to Kim Jung Un, including those given in condolence after the death of his father. The final room made me laugh in surprise. A small passenger plane rested inside a large chamber. The plane had been built by the Russians and presented to Kim Il Sung. We were able to go up a set of stairs to peek inside.

Next stop was at Pohyon Temple. The buildings were originally constructed by Buddhist monks over a thousand  years ago, but sadly most were destroyed during the Korean War. The complex has been rebuilt. The Temple is original, and there was a monk in attendance. There were a number of Chinese tourists also visiting, and some knelt to pray inside. 

I bought a hand carved Buddha at the gift shop. Our guide told me that this Buddha was the one in charge of morality. I joked that I’d better behave myself for the rest of the holiday! And I taught her the gesture for ‘I’m watching you’—two fingers pointing at the eyes, then one at the person. 

A bumpy ride back to Pyongyang. We stopped at the city’s main supermarket for a break. I tried to take a photo, but was told that this wasn’t permitted. There was a small but decent selection of wines and spirits. Two huge rows of crisps, and lots of sweets. It was rather like a small and badly lit Tesco’s. 

Then an even bumpier journey to our hotel for the night, the Ryangang Hot Spa Hotel near Nampo. We shut the van windows and the air conditioning was turned on due to the amount of dust. Our driver dodged around people pushing bikes heavily laden with sacks. At one point, we saw two lads hanging off the back of a truck, obviously trying to hide from the driver as they caught a lift.

We arrived at the hotel at 6pm. The complex has a series of villas spread out across the grounds. My room does indeed have a spa bath, which I decided to fill. It took ages for the hot salt water to fill it, and I had to abandon it due to a commitment to a clam BBQ at 7pm.

Roy and I met our guides and drivers outside for the BBQ. The driver had lined the clams up on a concrete surface which has obviously been used for such events before. He had petrol in a plastic bottle, which he sprayed over the clams and then set the lot ablaze. After the flames had died down, we ate our way through the outside circle. The clams were still rather raw, so the driver had a second go. This lot were better cooked. There was a technique to cracking them open against the concrete, and I got the hang of it by the end. I went up to my room to scrub black ash and petrol smell from my fingers.

On to dinner, walking from our villa to the main building. The broiled fish was nice, the rest was the usual, albeit no egg for once. Roy and I got slightly lost making our way back to our villa. There was little light, and the skies were clear, so we could see the Milky Way above us. Roy had never seen the Milky Way before, which is a reminder about what we’ve lost with the amount of light we aim into the night sky.

25 August

The van collected us and our belongings at 8am to take us to the main building for breakfast. The driver likes to make a big show of how heavy my main bag is to take in and out of the van. He flexes his muscles and loosens his back before heaving it in or out, to all of our laughter.

Rain started whilst we ate breakfast, and settled in for the day. We drove to and then over the West Sea Barrage, an 8km long construction built in the 1980’s. The barrage separates the river from the sea. This prevents sea tides from going up river and salting the land, so that more crops could be grown. Sluices allow water to be released, and there is an area for ships to pass through. We saw a scale model in the visitors’ centre, and watched an excellent documentary (in English) about the construction. The rain held off for a few minutes while we went up to the observation area to have a better look. 

Next stop was at a mineral water bottling factory. We had to put on white coats and coverings over our shoes before going onto the factory floor. The local manager brought out glass bottles of the product, which was slightly fizzy (naturally sparkling, we were told) and very drinkable. I asked if I could have one of the labels from the production line for my journal. The manager fetched one. I told our guide, ‘When you go home, you’ll tell your husband all about this strange Englishwoman who wanted a bottle label.’ She passed this on to the manager, who laughed and said I was very funny!

We headed back to Pyongyang and to the usual hotel where we had lunch. Lunch was again the predictable items. Cucumber salad, fried fish, a very thin slice of pork in a huge amount of fried coating, fried egg, rice, and thin soup. It’s all very edible, but I’m finding it harder and harder to stomach after being served this so many times. 

Our guides gave us 90 minutes for lunch. We finished in about 45 minutes. So we visited the various shops in the hotel before climbing back into the van at 2pm.

We were due to visit a Buddhist temple. After bouncing along for some time on the wet roads, we turned off to the area. After going through an imposing stone gateway, we drove through what was obviously a place for people to enjoy the outdoors. There were a large number of picnic tables (empty due to rain). 

At one large building we stopped for a loo break. Today was a national holiday, marking the anniversary of Kim Jung Il’s founding of the Songon policy—‘Army first.’ Families had taken shelter from the rain under the balcony of the building. Loud music was playing (what I would call ‘house’ style) and picnics had been spread out across the floor. My guide and I were greeted with smiles. I was asked (through my guide) whether I’d ever had ‘kimbab.’ I took a portion of the long roll. This turned out to be rice, boiled egg, meat, and some salad wrapped in seaweed. Very tasty, and they cheered when I ate it. I was also given a bunch of grapes.

Then one woman decided I needed to do some dancing. She pulled me into the clear area, and we boogied for awhile before I ducked out for my toilet stop.

When we walked back up to the van, the driver was having a cigarette. So the guide suggested that we grab Roy and go back for some more dancing. Which we did. She used my camera to capture the action. I showed them some new moves, which they tried to copy. I did try to get children to join in, but they seemed a bit frightened of me.

The Buddhist temple, it turned out, was shut for the national holiday. We drove on to the Sariwon Migok Co-operative Farm, where we picked up a local guide. At a viewpoint (built for the visits by the great leaders), we admired the layout of the farm and land. The farm grows rice, grain, apricots, and raises pigs, chickens, goats, rabbits and, yes, dogs for eating. 

We were taken by van back down to the houses, and visited one which had hosted a visit from Kim Il Sung. I was delighted to see kimchi pots in the kitchen. Then down to the building which held displays regarding the great leaders’ visits, including the chairs and tables which they’d used and the rice bundles they’d pointed out.

We had been due to see the kindergarten, but of course the children were with their parents for the national holiday. Our guide apologised as it was only 4pm and there was little more to do than go to the hotel. Roy and I assured her that this was fine. We drove through the Sariwon Folkcustoms Street, which was full of traditional buildings. In any other country, I would walk out from the hotel to visit this on my own, even in the rain. Sadly, of course, here I cannot. We’re not permitted to go anywhere without a guide.

Dinner was the usual, which meant I picked at it rather than ate well. Our guide joined us and had bought us some rice cakes to try. These were rather nice, and I had two after the meal. I also splurged and bought myself a Becks (imported from Germany!). 

26 August

I left the patio door open all night, so I could hear the night sounds of the city. In the morning, at 6.30am, children marched past two by two, singing a song as they headed off to school. Around 7am I heard a marching band, but they didn’t come down my street. 

Our first stop was at the Folkcustoms Street. A lovely sunny day, but thankfully cooler than we’ve been having. We were shown the replicas of two tombs and tower designed for astronomy. Mosaics had been created to show the history of Korea and of the local area. According to our guide, human culture originated in Korea. But that might have been something lost in translation. 

We were offered a cold, slightly fizzy drink made from rice. Tasted a bit like lemonade. Afterwards we firmly declined the opportunity to dress up in traditional costumes to have our photos taken.

Back to Pyongyang to visit the immense May Day Stadium. Work was being done on some seats and the ground, although I couldn’t see than any work was needed. Our local guide walked us across the pitch to the rooms and corridors on the other side. The walls were decorated with photos of award winning Korean athletes. We saw players’ rooms and the media centre. I used the loo in one of the coaches’ offices—fantastic facilities. Afterwards we signed their visitors’ book.

Roy wanted Korean currency. There was hope that he could obtain current notes at the supermarket. So we headed across the city—only to find that it was shut. Seems that the supermarket was open for the national holiday, so today it was shut. We went down a few more streets to a stamp shop, where he was able to buy the old currency.

We headed to the hotel, and were told that we wouldn’t be heading off again until 3.50pm. Due to my request for a change of room (for a view of Scientist Street) we couldn’t immediately go to our rooms. So we went to lunch. We had slightly different things today. The kimchi, rice, and thin soup of course, but also hot noodles and a pork dish which I found to be very tasty. I ate a few pieces of the sautéed squid. 

My room does indeed have a view of Scientist Street, although the angle might be challenging when I try to take a photo this evening. I went to the book store to buy a few last things before doing some packing ready for tomorrow’s flight. 

I was five minutes late going back down, for which I was quite rightly ribbed. We drove the short distance to the Sci-Tech Building. The Germans had visited this, and enjoyed the experience, so I’d asked if we could go there. The building was only opened last year, and from the outside was very impressive. 

First impressions inside were also great. After we’d paid our usual respects to the great leaders, we were were taken to the central atrium. A copy of the rocket which had taken the DPRK’s first satellite into space filled the space from floor to high ceiling. There were computer stations everywhere around the atrium, and displays off from the central area. 

Our next stop was at what our guide had described as a ‘5D experience.’ We went into a theatre to watch three 3D animations. Our armchairs juddered, blasted air and water at us, and brushed something against our feet as we first watched dinosaurs killing each other, then had an underwater adventure, and finally went on a rollercoaster ride. Our guides in particular seemed to be enjoying themselves. 

We then wandered through the complex. Children were at the central computers. That’s when I began to wonder how much of what I saw was to impress tourists rather than to serve the local population. The children seemed to be doing nothing more than listening to something on the headphones whilst staring at the Windows desktop screen. I saw a similar lack of any real work on the computers at other areas in the complex. People just seemed to be staring at the screen, their hands in their laps rather than using the keyboard or the mouse. 

The displays were heavily based around scale models of various energy (coal station) or production processes (a fertiliser factory!) with simple boards providing explanations. The local guide tried to impress us with a telephone which had a video screen, as this would mean ‘you can see who you’re talking to.’ I couldn’t help myself—I told her that this technology wouldn’t be of interest to people anymore, as we used cameras on our computers to talk to people face to face over the internet—‘Skype.’

In the area devoted to astronomy, I was intrigued to learn that Koreans name the planets after days of the week. And that Pluto was not included as a planet in any of their displays. 

We passed around a concrete dinosaur skeleton, looked at a model brain which flashed lights, and displays about acupuncture. In the children’s activity area there was a library with untouched workbooks, and items to play on like bicycles and mock planes. I was finding it harder and harder to be polite. So far on the trip I’d taken most things on face value. But now I found myself wondering exactly how many of these computers actually worked, and even whether people had been dragged in to sit at them in order to impress foreign tourists. 

After a couple of hours we wandered out. We had hoped to go to the funfair, but since yesterday had been a national holiday it was closed today. So we went on to dinner. I’d put in a request for Korean BBQ, and we enjoyed a real treat. The duck was cooked over a charcoal fire in the middle of the table. I also tucked into the salad. 

Karaoke started up. I was pulled up for one song. After a couple more, Roy and I suggested that we leave since we have an early start tomorrow. We took the short walk to take photos of the train station at night (Roy’s request) and then returned to the hotel. Where I took photos of Scientist Street at night from my hotel room. Hurrah!

27 August

Got up at 5am to do the final packing and to stuff back up drives into various parts of my luggage. At 6.30am we headed off to the airport, and I tried not to fret about going through security. We’d been told that our cameras might be searched for images which we shouldn’t have taken, and I wondered if that might mean my laptop as well.

I’d decided not to worry about the 23kg check in limit on the Air Koryo flight and so I’d put all my book purchases into the large bag. It weighed in at 27kg, but my local guide smiled a lot to the check in woman and I got away with it. Roy and I said goodbye to our two guides, and breezed through security. Nothing was checked.

I only found myself breathing easily when we’d exited the plane and were striding through Beijing airport. I’d never expected to view China as a country of freedom. But everything is relative.

I’d hoped to check in for tomorrow’s flight home before leaving the airport, but I was in the wrong terminal. So I decided to have lunch at the airport and buy snacks for my evening meal rather than scout out a restaurant for the evening. I went to an ‘Irish Pub’, had German bratwurst and a Budweiser. An American beer seemed just the right thing in the circumstances.

Made a major mistake with the taxi. I climbed into one, and the chap did try to tell me that there was a fixed cost regardless of distance. Only when we were on the ten minute trip to the hotel did I realise that I was going to have to pay nearly £30.00 for the journey, rather than the £4.00 or so I’d paid last time. Lesson to self, there are two different types of taxi in Beijing, and next time look for the one which charges by the kilometre rather than a fixed rate.

Took it easy in the hotel. Had a nap and then returned to work on photos and blog. And also sent emails and texts to people to let them know that I was out of North Korea. It’s good to be back in a world where I can wander around on my own!

28 August

Not much left to report. I did find that security at Beijing was the tightest I’ve ever come across. I had to remove my camera lenses from my backpack so that there could be X-rayed and studied with great intensity. Otherwise, the flights home passed without incident. Perhaps the comment of my taxi driver, who took me to my hotel near Heathrow, will sum up most people’s opinion of my trip. ‘North Korea? Why would anyone want to go on holiday there? I go on holiday to relax.’

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