Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Seven days in the DPRK - Day 1

Note: These posts provide a summary of one tourist’s experience in North Korea in summer 2012. This trip was conducted without external financial support, and nothing herein should be construed as condoning or supporting the actions or policies of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

I arrive at the airport and hand my cell phone over to an unsmiling customs agent (I’ll get it back in a week - I hope). Three hours later, I’m standing on a quiet road, pissing in a cornfield under a full moon. Tonight I will join a group of fellow travelers to watch a pile of clams get doused with gasoline and set on fire. We'll smash the shells against cobblestone, gobble up the innards, and swap swigs of Soju to kill any bugs that survive the flames. Reeling crazily along an unlit road, I will somehow get into bed and prepare for the days to come. I’m in North Korea, spending a week in the so-called Hermit Kingdom, and I have no idea what to expect.

In this blog I’ll sketch out some details about our week in this fascinating, frustrating, odd, and strangely familiar place. These notes reflect one tourist’s experience and must be understood as being shaped by the strict limitations that North Korea places upon what visitors can see and experience. My notes cannot reflect meaningfully upon issues related to human rights or famine or the proclivities of North Korea’s leaders. All I can do is share something about what I saw and heard, offering a perspective on how North Korea works to define its image by carefully crafting what it shows to outsiders.

Mural beside Kim Il Sung stadium
So here’s what happened…

We arrived in Pyongyang in late afternoon via Air Koryo, an airline whose planes aren’t considered safe enough to fly in Europe. Ours was OK though. It’s one of the newer ones. While we taxied on the runway, the cabin swelled with a florid combination of jingo march and ‘80s synth you might hear in Hell’s karaoke lounge. People in uniform stood at attention around the tarmac. Some stared at us. Some stared at the runway. And across wide expanses, some stared at each other.

Arriving via Air Koryo
Exiting the plane and entering the terminal, I’d already gotten used to calling this place the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or, more simply, the DPRK) and even felt reasonably sure I could pass through customs without too much hassle. The agent wasn’t so sure. I’d brought two cell phones and two cameras; I’d earned special attention.

The guy scrutinized my paperwork and then told me to stand nearby, not here but somewhere over there. Yes, there. Well, no. Actually, there. Getting past this guy wouldn’t be easy. Other uniformed officials gathered closer as tiny drops of sweat began to pop on the back of my neck. That’s when a young woman approached and began to chat with the agent. A moment later he was bagging my phones and preparing a receipt. 

“I’m your guide,” the woman explained. 

I smiled with relief, thinking to myself, "You point; I’ll walk."

Dragonflies coasted on humid currents as I joined my group – 19 tourists, including two other Americans – visiting this country for the first time. Ours was a convivial, eclectic community, including a British couple and their two impossibly well-behaved children (aged 4 and 6), a 19-year-old college student working in Hong Kong, and a married couple who travel the world consulting national governments on procurement strategies.

We’d selected Koryo Tours, an outfit with two decades of experience bringing tourists to the DPRK, to guide us. We all performed our identities as seasoned travelers (I uttered banalities like, “Oh, you’ve got to drive along the Australian coast” and “We just loved Prague. It’s our favorite Central European city!”). 

We all talked like that, trying to affect an air of experience, but our group was universally and frankly excited. Just a few more minutes and we’d be driving through Pyongyang toward Nampho. 30 miles away we’d be cracking those gas-fire clams and taking mineral baths. Our North Korean adventure was so close!

Poster for Sea of Blood, a revolutionary opera
It’d take three more hours to get there.

We began by rattling down a long stretch of cracked pavement that led us to a network of rocky traces and dirt paths stretching away from the DPRK’s showcase capital. For nearly an hour and a half, we had the roads pretty much to ourselves. We passed a handful of other buses, a few trucks too. Once we saw a loudspeaker-van broken down by the roadside, but we saw almost no cars. Mostly we saw farmers and children, sometimes walking, sometimes squatting alongside the road. A few waved and smiled at us. Some scowled. Most just stared.

We’d been on the road for nearly an hour and a half when, mere minutes from our destination, we learned that the bridge up ahead had been washed out. It was monsoon season and the rains had been brutal. We’d have to turn around and retrace much of our route, driving once more through Pyongyang. That meant another hour and a half on that rutted road. Few of us cared about Nampho’s famed mineral baths at this point; we were getting cranky. That’s when someone asked about taking a potty break.

A few of us got off the bus, milling around out of boredom more than anything. We saw rolling hills and distant mountains, muted browns and drab greens, and nothing that looked like a bathroom. A guide offered a sensible enough solution, diverting our attention to the nearby cornfield. “You can use nature!” A few of us laughed nervously, but she wasn’t kidding. The sun had set and we had no other options.

I trudged through mucky earth to stand by David Terry, a pal who’d traveled with me from California to Beijing to here, overhauling his finances to pay for this trip. I wondered if he was beginning to regret his decision, but the time for doubt had passed. 

"We’re in the DPRK now, dude!"

I looked around, unzipped my fly, and sprinkled my greetings.

Pissing in a North Korean cornfield was certainly not on anyone’s itinerary, but the moment offered us a glimpse into just how complex this trip would get. For all of the stories we’d heard about the DPRK’s obsession with managing the movement of outsiders, we were going to see at least a few cracks in that country’s carefully staged façade.

Back stage and front stage
There are rules; God knows this place has rules. Rules for travel, rules for photography, rules for throwing away newspapers with pictures of the Great Leader, the Dear Leader, and the new Respected Marshal Kim Jong Un (also called “Great Successor,” and “Young General” - never “Lil Kim”). But there would also be moments of unexpected laughter, opportunities for heroic teamwork, and even a shared secret or two.

I could not imagine what was coming. I only knew that David and I would travel with our group until Saturday, seeing Pyongyang and visiting a few more distant sites; then we’d continue independently for another three days (always with North Korean guides, of course), with an itinerary that had never been formally completed. Seven days in the DPRK: Anything could happen.

Sharing petrol clams in North Korea
Forward to Day 2

All photographs © Andrew Wood

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Beijing CCTV Building

While in Beijing to teach a three-week class earlier this summer, I made sure to visit some of that city's remarkable contemporary architecture. Naturally my first stop was the China Central Television Headquarters [Jintaixizhao Station, Exit C].

The 44-story CCTV Headquarters was opened this past May (groundbreaking was in 2004). The adjacent Television Cultural Center, which was torched by wayward fireworks in 2009, remains under construction. There are, as yet, no public tours.

Writing in Newsweek, July 23/30, 2012, Christopher Dickey quotes Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas's thoughts on how his "loop" structure [supposedly nicknamed "Big Boxer Shorts" by locals] fits into the Beijing skyline: "All earlier conditions of the city coexist in Beijing -- successive waves of modernization in the '60s, '70s, and '80s -- CCTV amalgamates them in a new substance, not quite old, not quite new" (p. 50). 

Though the CCTV Headquarters is closed to visitors, I plan one day to stroll across that crooked bridge and its stunning view of the city. China is aiming to become the capital of the 21st Century, and I want to see more of how this place represents that vision.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Three Weeks in Beijing!

Having finally beaten an epic bout of jet lag, I've managed to organize a few stories and pictures from my recent adventures in China. I hope these recollections convey the experience of teaching a three-week course in Beijing. The days were hot, crowded, and packed. In these pages you'll master the metro, search for the Hero Chicken, discover the secrets of the Silk Market, and recognize the pleasures of getting purposefully lost in a city of 20 million people. Ready? 

Start Here

PS: Over the next few weeks I'll post more pages about street-art clusters and architectural essentials. There's so much more to see!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Beijing 2012 - Day 21 (Last day, Peking duck)

Our last night in Beijing: It's been quite a journey from that initial transcontinental flight to this point. Following our final week of class we commenced upon a four-day weekend of travels, both in and outside of Beijing. Now everyone is back together (including one student who battled some unexpected visa delays in Hong Kong) and we're just about done with class. 

Students delivered their final presentations this morning, demonstrating their mastery over a rich tapestry of theories, arguments, and insights about contemporary urban culture. Then we celebrated with a "Peking Duck experience" at Dadong Restaurant, savoring the fanciest meal we've had this entire trip [Of course a few of us gathered once more at "The Italian Place" later in the evening]. A gentle rain is falling now and we're all settling in for some much needed rest.

We just have to pack and prepare for one more bus ride to the airport tomorrow afternoon, our last one in China before we head home. It's been a quite an adventure, one filled with unforgettable sights, sounds (and a few memorable smells and tastes). China is now part of the personal narrative for each one of these SJSU students. No doubt, many will be returning soon. We've spent three weeks here, but there is still so much to learn and do!

Back to Day 20 | Return to Day 1

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Beijing 2012 - Day 20 (Grading day)

Teaching this class has been an exhausting experience. Fun but exhausting. I feel lucky to be here, but I've got to admit how demanding these days have been. Add the heat and the crowds and the endless sea of unexpected adjustments - and something's got to give. So today I hunkered down in my hotel room to evaluate student participation and grade papers. No, it was not an exciting day, but I needed the rest. Class is wrapping up, and I'm dreaming of home.

Day 19 | Day 21

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Beijing 2012 - Day 19 (Songzhuang)

Throughout my stay in Beijing, I've hoped to check out G-Dot gallery's "Do Not Erase" street art exhibit, but its distance from the metro intimated me. Heck, I couldn't even find the place on Google Maps. No matter, today would be the day: I would visit G-Dot! So I met with Ian, our local 14-year old Beijing guru, and plotted a course to Songzhuang, a capital of Beijing's avant-garde.

After more than an hour onboard a crowded, bumpy bus, I found myself standing on a dusty intersection of galleries and construction sites. I studied my hand-written maps, double-checked my directions, and - yes, once more - promptly got lost. Fortunately a nice gallery owner was willing to lend a hand; he even insisted that I accept a ride. A few minutes later I commenced my G-Dot tour [Check out more pix].

Sometimes you've just got to trust folks.

Day 18 | Day 20

Friday, July 6, 2012

Beijing 2012 - Day 18 (Panjiayuan and 3.3 Underground)

Friday morning begins with a couple hours spent strolling the Panjiayuan Antiques Market, a must-visit stop for anyone seeking rows and rows of Mao-morabilia, stacks of books, piles of knickknacks, and a seemingly endless array of scrolls and signature "chops." I purchase a knock-off print that mashes up Cultural Revolution-era idealism with post-Deng "To Be Rich is Glorious" capitalist excess [Wang Guangyi's 1993 Great Castigation Series: Coca-Cola]. I can only hope this thing will survive the trip from China to my SJSU office!

Later, I look for the 3.3 Building's collection of underground parking lot street art - once more getting hopelessly lost in the process. When I finally reach my destination, I spot an amazing assortment of graffiti [More pix here]. I also meet an inquisitive fellow who sports a red armband and gentle amazement at my presence. He asks question after question and announces his plans to follow me throughout his underground domain. My new friend asks for my mobile phone number but settles for my work number. I snap some final photos and begin the search for a gracious exit.

The evening ends with a follow-up journey to the Silk Market to hunt for more t-shirts. That's when I learn the value of having small bills Trying to wrap up one especially brutal haggling session, I face a young woman willing to batter me into submission. Barely suppressing a smile, she slaps my arm, repeatedly assuring me, "You crazy! You crazy!" when I'm foolish enough to ask for my change. She even grabs something I'd bought from someone else and adds that purchase to our new "negotiation." Her playful theatrics are worth every Yuan I've spent. 

Day 17 | Day 19

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Beijing 2012 - Day 17 (Pearl and Silk Markets, Sihui street art)

This morning I met with some students for brunch at "Grandma's Kitchen." Several of them had searched for days to find this bastion of American-style food. Finally they spotted "Grandma's" Jianwai Soho location near Guomao station [Here's a map]. This place is pricey, serving up Denny's-quality pancakes and burgers. Nonetheless students gorged on their meals, bundling two or three orders apiece to produce their own personal feasts.

Later a few of us journeyed to the Pearl Market for some shopping and a chance to practice our haggling skills. The game is rigged at this kind of tourist trap, with westerners inevitably singled out for high prices. But it's a fun encounter nonetheless. You learn to react with shock at the opening bid, responding with a much lower counter-offer. You trade a few friendly jabs, and you might even walk away, knowing that the seller will generally chase you down if your price is remotely reasonable, offering one last "absolute best deal." At my best, I could buy a t-shirt for 20 Yuan, bargaining the price down from 150 [spending about three bucks for something that may or may not endure a few washings]. As ever, you get what you pay for.

Heading back to the hotel, I got off early at the Sihui station for one more street art excursion. I'd seen a "Garfield" sprayed on a wall there and had to grab a quick photo. Of course, the barriers that seem invisible while riding a train become vividly apparent when walking outside. Still, despite the blistering heat, I had enough time and patience - and a sufficient willingness to squeeze past some barriers - to get my shot.

At night I visited the Silk Market, which offers a much wider selection of clothes than the Pearl. Some of the stuff I'd packed had gotten pretty well trashed on this trip, and I was ready to complete my search for an "ObaMao" shirt (that clever mashup of Barack Obama and Chairman Mao that was briefly banned by the Chinese government during a presidential visit [CSM]). By now I'd learned to double-check the sizes before buying anything. China's version of "large" is clearly not designed with Americans in mind.

Day 16 | Day 18

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Beijing 2012 - Day 16 (Temple of Heaven, Kungfu Show)

Independence Day in China! Many of us enjoyed the rare opportunity to sleep in, meeting in the afternoon for a Temple of Heaven excursion, followed by an early evening "Kung Fu Experience." Yeah, it was cool, but our group is plainly exhausted. Really, there's not much more to say.

Day 15 | Day 17

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Beijing 2012 - Day 15 (Chaoyang Road)

Today's classroom conversations were productive, but I can tell that students are starting to wind down. Heck, I am too. Yet it's worthwhile to see them learning to bypass the touristic gaze, the blasé perspective that yields plenty of surface while revealing little real depth. These folks are beginning to see Beijing in more interesting, more nuanced ways [at least I hope they are!]

After class, I joined a small group of students determined to investigate a nearby abandoned housing complex. Two of our especially adventurous students had already visited this place (stepping over broken glass and climbing narrow ladders on their first night in Beijing!), and they brought back photos of some amazing graffiti [Check out the pix]. There was no way I would miss this!

Day 14 | Day 16

Monday, July 2, 2012

Beijing 2012 - Day 14 (CCTV, NCPA)

Our third week in China, and SJSU students have clearly become confident in their mastery of the complexities of big city transportation, even as they've survived their wanderings through some dense course material. Class began with student summaries of their weekend activities, including stories shared by our two nomads who spent 48 hours in Shanghai. I was glad to hear of their adventures, but mostly I was thrilled that they made it back to us!

After our initial weekend "show and tell," we spent some time summarizing key ideas related to panopticism and the flâneur gaze, using those theoretical lenses to read and interpret some of Beijing's practical realities. The conversation got thick mighty quick, particularly when we considered whether premodern, modern, and postmodern culture might reside simultaneously in China.

We could have spent another hour in class, but the weather was simply too nice to stay inside. Those blue skies called us all to hit the metros in search of new experiences. For me, that meant an opportunity to check out Rem Koolhaas's China Central Television Headquarters [More pix here], followed by a trip to Paul Andreu's "Bird's Egg" (a.k.a. the National Centre for the Performing Arts). Studying these outlandish examples of contemporary architecture, I am perpetually awestruck and alarmed. It'll take months to process some of these days.

Day 13 | Day 15

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Beijing 2012 - Day 13 (Xihuan Square and CJFH)

Today revealed more blue skies, which meant more opportunities to explore Beijing. I started with a quick metro ride to Xihuan Square, a trio of oval towers whose remarkable design inspired Yi Feng to write an essay entitled, "Tradition and Postmodernism: The Xihuan Plaza and the Ancient City Gate," and having visited this site, I have to agree: Anyone interested in Beijing's most memorable contemporary architecture should come to Xihuan Square at least once.

Later on I headed to Huixinxijie Nankou Station [Exit C] where I stumbled around for a couple hours, searching for a collection of street art supposedly near
 the China-Japan Friendship Hospital. As usual, I got lost, and the burning heat seemed to dull my navigation sense. But I found a few folks willing to tolerate my clueless inquiries and, little by little, I found my destination [Check out the pix]. A quiet and focused day: Just what I needed!

Day 12 | Day 14