Sunday, August 5, 2012

Seven days in the DPRK - Day 6

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.

Some of Buddha’s students laugh in North Korea’s Songbul Buddhist Temple. A few cast inquisitive glances; some look troubled; others just stare blankly. Our guides drove us here this morning, partially to get us out of Pyongyang - and partially to make a point about the DPRK’s tolerance for difference. 

Buddha's students
Turns out that North Korea boasts three independent parties. Along with the Workers' Party of Korea, there’s the Social Democratic Party: once an independent coalition of business interests, now an organ of the WPK. Then there’s the Chondoist Chongu Party: adherents to a Korean brand of Confucianism who also recognize the authority of the WPK. Still, our guides insisted: three parties.

And freedom of religion too!

Songbul Buddhist Temple
That’s why we came to Mount Jongbang, to see proof of North Korea’s thriving Buddhist community and to experience something softer about the DPRK. In this green, leafy place, we met a monk wearing saffron robes who spoke of Songbul’s history, telling of the many times it has been built and rebuilt since 898. He directed our eyes to a tree whose fruit would allow us to live for a thousand years. Then he invited us to pray before the Buddha.

As the monk lit incense and chanted the incantation, I closed my eyes and repeated a mantra. Breathing slowly, I rolled each syllable words like a log on water. I could hear cicadas outside, screeching from the pines, and I could feel sweat drip down my back. Over and over I repeated a tight loop of words. Then David and I stopped and returned to our feet. The monk radiated calm as we left offerings in the tip jar.

Buddha's students
We then walked to another pagoda where we saw Buddha’s students. There were 500 of them, each a painted clay figure expressing a different personality. Each student conveyed one of the multitudes of ways in which people encounter wisdom. Some get it; most don’t. The Buddha has patience for them all. David and I picked out faces we recognized, some from our own classrooms and some from people we’d met. We saw our guides among those faces, too, and they saw us.

We said our goodbyes and started down the mountain. During one of our conversations, a guide said that the North Korean people revere Kim Il Sung as God. This confused me, as Juche philosophy is explicitly atheistic. “How could that be so?” I asked, trying my best to be courteous. “No, we don’t believe in God,” the guide clarified. “We respect him as you Christians respect God.”

Our guides were surprised to learn that David and I don’t consider ourselves to be Christians, at least not in the organized sense of the word. We took turns sharing our individual stories of departure from formal modes of faith. David was once an evangelical; I was once a Mormon. One of the guides couldn’t believe that we abandon our collectives so easily.

“Did you have to fill out forms?”

Sariwon Folk Village
Our next stop was the Sariwon Folk Village, a traditional assemblage of homes, workplaces, and street markets. To the untrained eye, this place might appear as a well-maintained relic. It’s actually a simulacrum, opened in 2008. For the country’s youth, the Village presents a sweep of epic wars and ancient dynasties, a reminder of heritage. For tourists, the Village is a great place to snap photos.

The sun glared overhead as our guides marched us along an array of mosaics. “He was a famous general... This is how families would make kimchi... Here is another famous general.” We covered about 4,000 years in roughly a half hour and then ducked into a tiny restaurant to sip bowls of Makgeolli.

I peered into the milky concoction and thought back to that first night’s encounter with Soju. I remembered that next morning and wasn’t sure I wanted to try any rice wine today. And then there’s the smell. Served at a precise moment of fermentation, Makgeolli stinks like stale cheese. The children sitting nearby were barely suppressing giggles. I took a small sip. And then another.

As we left the restaurant, I slurred something like, “We’ve got to get some more of this stuff!”

Sariwon AK-47 monument
On the edge of town we passed three cool murals and, incredibly, a stone monument shaped like a bayonet-tipped AK-47. I had to take some pictures! “Sorry,” one of the guides said, “The people here aren’t used to foreigners with cameras.” But they were willing to bend the rules a little, asking the driver to stop long enough for me to snap shots through the window.

Our next stop was a model farm, more evidence that North Koreans have marshalled Juche wisdom to solve their hunger problem. Mostly our visit involved waiting for the docent to arrive. One of my guides surveyed the empty parking lot and smiled at me. 

“Feel free to take pictures.” 

I ambled here and there, photographing stalks of corn and wondering if any other tourists would show up. I hoped there’d be air-conditioning inside. Eventually the docent arrived, and we commenced our tour. 

Bas-relief sculpture at farm (click for better view, and check out the TV!)
We learned more about potatoes and apples, but mostly we learned about the blessings of the Kim dynasty. There it was, the obligatory poster detailing each visit through the years. And there were photos, plenty of photos, especially of the Dear Leader staring thoughtfully through dark glasses at mounds of millet and sacks of rice. 

I flashed back to that snarky website Kim Jong Il Looking at Things, and I began to understand something about those images. In nearly each one, the workers and managers standing nearby are awestruck, perhaps a little terrified, that the Dear Leader is staring at all their stuff. In the DPRK, that kind of focused attention is a big, big deal.

Farmhouse interior
We watched and listened, asking a few polite questions, grooving on the cool air, and then we drove to a nearby model home. There we met a family who seemed perfectly delighted to show us their abundant lives: There was a kitchen and a living room, and there was a portrait of the proud family gathered around Kim Jong Il. We gazed at the image and then turned our attention to the television set. David was excited to see that new North Korean musical group that’s got everyone buzzing. I noticed a uniform hanging nearby. The old man who lived here had been a soldier once; he’d earned many medals. Now he was a farmer, content as could be.

Moranbong Park
The afternoon was draining us all. It was time for a break at Moranbong Park. The four of us, David and I and our guides, walked together as if on a double-date. Families were picnicking under trees and folks were splashing in waterfalls. One had stripped off his clothes. Nearby I spotted two dudes beating the shit out of a third guy, kicking his ribs while he rolled on the ground. I snatched a quick peek at one of the guides. She’d noticed too.

“Many people drink Soju here.”

We turned a corner and heard music. An extended group of people were gathered under the trees for a midday party. They were eating and drinking, and dancing to pop versions of Korean folk and patriotic songs that blared from a speaker. I remembered something one of our guides said hours ago, “... and at the park, maybe we’ll dance with the locals!” And there they were. Two or three of them were waving us over. Of course we danced.

Dancing in Moranbong Park
An older woman had chosen me; a younger woman picked David. Both guided us through steps and movements, teaching by repetition (and an occasional wrenching grasp). David seemed to pick up the nonverbal nuances easily enough. My partner gave up on me, though. We settled to take turns mimicking each other. I dredged up my best Pulp Fiction moves, but I could never summon the necessary cool to pull them off. She didn’t seem to mind.

Andy tries to make a friend
One of our guides had taken my camera and was snapping pictures. Establishing shots, two-shots, close-ups. Negotiating sunlight from those dappled leaves. Right then all of Pyongyang seemed to stretch below us, everything aglow under the afternoon sun. I could almost see the Great Leader and Dear Leaders standing at the Mansudae Grand Monument, their red flags transformed into ocean liners plowing through the haze, guiding us to this place. 

Distant leaders
Nightfall drew us to Pyongyang’s “New Street” for dinner, followed by a quick stop at Rungna People's Pleasure Ground. It was a strange thing, being invited to cut the line for bumper cars at this wildly popular new “fun fair” [people were still talking about pictures they’d seen of Respected Marshal Kim Jong Un visiting just a few days ago]. David and I were the only Americans around, so the operator poured more power into the cars and allowed us to ride twice. Our seatbelts worked no better than decorations and we got banged up pretty good.

David at the fun fair
Afterward, grateful we were heading back to our hotel, I momentarily lost sight of the others. I stood by myself for a few moments, surrounded by soldiers and children, and realized that this was the first time I’d ever been alone outside in North Korea. All I could think was, “Where is my guide?”
Day 5 | Day 7 All photographs - except for dancing pix - © Andrew Wood

No comments: