Our hotel room cleaners left that greeting a couple days back. Apparently they didn’t approve of David’s travel-kit laundry line. Things have only gotten worse since then, and now a relentless stench permeates our room. David and I aren’t slobs, but we’re not especially fastidious either. The real problem, though, is the utter lack of circulating air. We hand-wash many of our clothes, hanging them up to dry. Yet the dampness never quite goes away. Now all those stagnant smells, and others too, have curdled into something foul.
|Pyongyang mass transit|
Of course, one thing has changed: most of our fellow tourists are now gone.
Many were scheduled to take the train from Pyongyang to the Chinese border town of Dandong, but monsoon rains wiped out several key roads and bridges, forcing Koryo Tours to patch together a raft of flight options. Throughout the last evening, guides negotiated with folks in our group, offering options and accommodating concerns. Now we were alone. I don’t know how David felt, but I was a little nervous at the prospect of being stuck in a van with two guides and a driver.
Supposedly we were set to drive six hours toward the coast. There we’d visit a nice beach and relax a bit. Then we heard about those wrecked roads, meaning that we’d have to stay near Pyongyang. I could only laugh. Months before, I remember being so stressed about our itinerary. In long email threads I asked questions and double-checked details, hoping to scrape away any stains of ambiguity from this trip. Now I understood how futile that was. Despite the best efforts of Koryo and our guides, touring the DPRK means learning to roll with what you can’t control.
|Pyongyang subway escalator|
“Sorry, we’re going to the Pyongyang Circus instead of Mt. Myohyang.”
“Sorry, the Kim Il Sung mausoleum is closed. How about a tour of a model farm?”
What we really wanted, just for a little while, was nothing. Really. Just a few hours of nothing to do. The heat, the pace, and the push of this trip, the inexorable slog of stops and starts, had begun to weigh heavily; David and I were bushed. At breakfast I cradled my head and whispered, “I’d pay them extra just to leave us alone for a while.”
At the same time I had to appreciate our guides’ efforts to keep us occupied. When one would report, with some appearance of regret, the addition of an unscheduled hours to our itinerary, asking, “perhaps you wouldn’t mind staying late for lunch?,” we’d offer the same sunny reply.
|Three Revolutions Exhibition|
We walked into the first pavilion, gazing upward at its soaring chasm of walkways and a cornucopia of gadgets, and we noticed one thing over all others: David and I were the only people here. The building could have packed hundreds of people - thousands maybe - and we didn’t see another tourist in the whole place. Our docent didn’t seem to mind. She marched with conviction, showing us miniature power plants and river locks and manufacturing processes.
|Pyongyang tiny town|
The docent smiled and sped up her talk. Naturally we could see the model Ryugyong. We’d just have to push through these other exhibits first. Each and every one of them. Our guides kept up the pace. We’d see everything, no matter what. Only, one of the guides seemed to be making a lot of phone calls.
Then it happened, without so much as a jolt. While learning about North Korea’s ambitious plans to pump more electricity to its thousands of factories and farms and workers’ paradise apartments -
The power went out.
No one said a word. We just walked and waited; we were all committed to making this thing work. With such spirit, our group visited the second exhibit to receive the good news about the DPRK’s agricultural bounty. Again, there were models and photos and statistics. But, as ever, the key role in this drama is played by the Great Leader and Dear Leader.
|Model farm mural|
A model of North Korea’s concept of “Progressive Democracy,” Kim Jong Il - inspired by his father’s example - walked among the people, learned from them, and then delivered their collective brilliance back in the form of aphorisms. The people listened and commenced to their Great Tasks, coining revolutionary slogans, hoisting propaganda posters, and building model farms. That’s why North Koreans are now so well-fed. We smiled, took notes, and kept walking.
|Night of the Volunteers|
At Moranbong Senior Middle School we learned what those calls were all about.
David and I figured this would be another standard tour, this time dedicated to DPRK-style education. And sure enough, an English teacher dutifully marched us through exhibits and classrooms (each graced with twin portraits of the Great Leader and Dear Leader). I was especially drawn to the hallways, showcases for colorful murals depicting the revolutionary potential of North Korean children. We appreciated the teacher’s time; it was summer, after all, and Saturday too. Just one last quick tour and we’d be on our way.
Then our guides led us to an auditorium where a large group of children were waiting. Dozens of kids had been roused from whatever they’d been doing that day to perform for us. For over a half hour, they sang, danced, and played instruments (folks go big for accordions around here). I took a few pictures, but mostly I sat, jaw agape at the idea of all those kids gathered just for the two of us. That’s why our guide had been glued to the phone all day. She’d been working to pull this event together! David and I clapped as loudly as we could after each performance. And we accepted the kids’ invitation to dance. How could we not?
|Moranbong Senior Middle School children|
Our visit with the school children had brought David to tears. He’d come to the DPRK for largely academic reasons: a chance to subject the Mass Games to the rigors of scholarly examination. Already he was casting lines of theory into a sea of ideas about one of the world’s most awe-inspiring performances. Yet the sight of those kids sweating through a show on a Saturday afternoon - in summer, no less! - was real and meaningful to him. I envied David, the day he’d experienced.
I just couldn’t quite shake the sense that it was all a little too perfect.