Saturday, August 4, 2012

Seven days in the DPRK - Day 5

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.
“Welcome to the DPRK! It would be best for you to use the hangers.”

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
What’s worse, that mildewy smell isn’t confined to our room. It’s everywhere we’ve visited. Air conditioning demands more power than the DPRK can generate these days. So most places do without. Add late summer rains to the fact that some buildings seem custom-built to trap hot air and you’ve got a recipe for endless funk. Every day: New things to see; same smell.

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 
David and I were determined to stay positive, which earned high praise from our guides. “Germans are different,” one explained. “Swedes too. They don’t like too many changes. They complain.” We Americans, on the other hand, had developed a reputation for being more easy-going. Thus whenever we’d learn that our schedule had been changed once more, we’d hoist up that same determined smile.

“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
Suitably optimistic, we motored to Pyongyang’s Three Revolutions Exhibition this morning. There we could choose from a menu featuring three options: Heavy Industry, Light Industry, and Agriculture. Actually the “three revolutions” refers to Ideology, Technology, and Culture - ideas found throughout the entire Exhibition. I just like the idea of a guide saying, “We celebrate three revolutions. Choose two.” Anyway, we selected Heavy Industry and Agriculture and committed to never regret our decision to skip Light Industry.

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
David was thrilled, amazed that designers could create such an immersive and arresting museum. I was impressed with the vastness of this performance too, but mostly I just couldn’t stop staring at all those tiny towns. There was a mock-up industrial town, a scale-model of Pyongyang, and - oh my goodness... 

Ryugyong Hotel
“Is that a miniature Ryugyong Hotel?”

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
Model farm mural
When the Arduous March began to kill its way through the population, it was, after all, the Dear Leader who hurtled bolts of wisdom from the top of Mount Paekdu. I can imagine his words: “What you need to do is plant more crops! And you people need to start eating potatoes! Those things will grow almost anywhere. And use more scientific methods! I can’t stress that last part enough...”

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
Our afternoon was packed with visits to the Korean Central Art Gallery and the Pyongyang Circus. At both stops we saw paintings and acrobats, all portraying that same Socialist Realist blur of precision and sweat. Only once did we wince, dreading the sad spectacle of circus bears forced to perform jerky pantomimes of intentional behavior. Otherwise we laughed and clapped - no less docile than the bears, I guess. And while we sometimes wondered why one of our guides was always making phone calls, neither of us would dare ask.

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
That evening, David and I ate dinner at our hotel’s revolving restaurant. Again, we were the only people in the place. While Pyongyang glowed in sunset, we compared our responses to the day. As far as I was concerned, we’d witnessed a masterwork of persuasion, an artfully crafted drama designed to evoke emotional response. David, no less analytical than I, was convinced we’d seen something real. Our guide’s phone calls weren’t part of a script, he said. Those children’s sacrifices weren’t part of a script either.

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.

Day 4 | Day 6 All photographs - except for "Ryugyong Hotel" - © Andrew Wood


Jimio said...

This tour is amazing and such great photos. Your story is told so wonderfully also. Did anyone get any video? And is there a flickr or picasa photo site of more photos?

highway163 said...

So glad you like the stories! For some video I shot, check out my YouTube video - and for more pix, visit my Facebook album.

Jeff K. said...

Great writing and images man! You have a great skill for taking all these little chips of information and turning them into a story. You have completed my trip. Thanks!