The quick and dirty version

Since our main travel story is in Dutch, and quite long, this is the shortened English version. The start will not be Beijing, but the day we travel from Dandong to Pyongyang by train.

Niels30 oktober 2013 talk back     TOP

Thursday, October 10 2013

Today we leave from China to the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. As advides by our travel agent we enter by train.
We are fully ready for the angry man from Korea's border patrol. We have read countless stories on how rude they are and how frustrating the wait is going to be. So as the border guy enters our cabin we sit still, don't move and speak not, unless spoken to. The man turns out to be one of the nicest border agents we have ever met. He jokes (in Korean) and seems almost embarresed he has to search our luggage. So within 5 minutes of arriving in the DPRK the first internet myth is debunked: DPRK customs are a proffesional, courteous organisation. We are kindly requested to exit the cabin while the man searches our fellow passengers luggage and within 15 minutes after arriving we are done. We still have to wait almost 2 hours before we leave the station, but nobody gives us even a second look.

2 Hours later the train rolls into action. There are now 3 people left in our part of the train. A Chinese trader and us 2. The Chinese guy leaves for lunch and we are all alone. From the corridor we can see all compartment doors are closed so we close ours too and have our first looks into the country. We look upon a barren country. Every flat part seems to be filled with crops of all kinds. Rice fields are dominant but we also recognize corn and cole. The people we see are looking poor, but not half as bad as we have seen in parts of Africa. Clothes look complete and matching. What we do notice almost right away is that everything seems to be done by manual labour. Ox-carts are just about the only things with wheels we see. Town are not the most modern buildings, but definately a whole lot better than the slums of Nairobi or Djakarta. What I personally find the strangest things is the sound the train makes. It sounds as if right and left rails are welded unevenly and at very, very short distances from each other. The familiar click-clack of steel on steel is more a cli-cli-cla-clack...

Before we know it the train grinds to its final halt. We have arrived in Pyongyang central. We gather our belongings, exit the train and wait on the platform. We don't want to make immidiate fools out of our selves, so we stay where we are. The guides will know we are coming and the secret service will have given them pictures by now. So, we wait. After 15 minutes we are approached by a man who asks politely if we are maybe the guests from the Netherlands. We say we are, and he is honoustly relieved. And, for the second time an internet story dies a quick death. There was not a platoon of secret agents waiting for us at the patform. It turns out we were expected to exit the station ourselves. The 2 guides, the driver and our minibus were waiting outside. We exit through the main exit of the station, and bingo: three internet stories debunked within a single day: there is no special tourist exit and we were absolutely not kept away from locals. This is going to be a very interesting vacation...

We greet the second (senior) guide, meet the driver and are whisked away to the Yankgakdo hotel. Our home base for the next 16 (!) days. It is a 5 minute drive from the station, so we have just enough time to memorize the names. The driver is Mr. Kim, the senior guide is Mrs. Chae and the second guide is Mr. Ri.
Once at the hotel we are in our room within 5 minutes after walking thru the front door. We are assigned a modern room, with two seperate beds on the 38th floor of this 47 floor buiding.
By 19:00 we are expected in the restaurant "number 1". Dinner is way too big for the two of us, so we leave the table feeling guilty we are leaving so much behind. By 23:00 we sleep.

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Friday, October 11 2013: Pyongyang

Today we will be be seeing a bit of the city. We start of with an Asian breakfast buffet. How these people eat noodles for breakfast is beyond us, so we stick with bread, jam and a fried egg.

We are brought to "Mansudae fountain park", where we were supposed to be met by a flower sales person. We are supposed to pay our respects to the great leaders by putting flowers in front of their statues and bow together with the guides. When we arrive at the park, there is no flower seller in sight. Chae walks across the street to find one, thus leaving us behind with the second guide. Inge and I look at each other and decide not to take advantage of this. We stay together and do not wander in different directions.
After a few minutes Chae returns with the flower lady. We can buy a bouquet for 4 euro. We walk around the park and we have our first bump with the system . I take a picture of a propaganda billboard next to a building. A man jumps up and starts whisteling and shouting at me. I don't know whats wrong so Chae meets the man to talk. After a few minutes she returns and asks me to delete the picture I just made. She says the man told her there may be worksman (construction) on it, and those people should not be photographed. I look at her, she pulls up her shoulders and litteraly says "I don't understand why you should delete the photo. I will leave it up to you to delete it". She seems serious in her not understanding so I delete the picture.

We go over to Mansu Hill where we are met by a local guide two gigantic statues of Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il. The statues are flanked by even larger panels with war scenes. Inge walks towards the statues, lies down our flowers and the two guides, the local guide and us bow for half a second. Than ther local guide starts her routine. She explains (in Korean) the sizes and the signifgicance of the leaders, the statues and the mural scenes. Mr. Ri translates. Since his English is less than perfect we miss out on the details of the tour.
Our next stop is the "foreign language bookstore" where we buy 2 books with anacdotes from the life of Kim Il-Sung. Because the international friendship exhibition in Mount Myohyang is still unavailable to visitors because a bridge is out for a year now, we today will visit the national friendship exhibition center right here in Pyongyang. In this center all the gifts that were given by Koreans to the leaders are on display. We thought it would be one of the lesser parts of our tour, but as it turns out it is one of the more interisting locations we have ever visited. Especially the handcrafted items are gorgeous. Mosaics and embroidery item are absolutely the highest quality we have ever seen. Unfortunately camera's are not allowed in the exhibition, so we leave with only memories.
Lunchtime brings us to a real Korean tourist restaurant. After a warm lunch (fish...) we seem to have some time left before we are supposed to move on. We walk to the outside of the restaurant to enjoy the sun and get talking with Mr. Ri. I try to take pictures of a trolley bus nearby using the zoom of my camera. Inge decides to just go for it and asks if we can walk to the bus in person. "Ofcourse you can" is the surprising answer. Goodbye internet storie 4: we are allowed to walk on the street even on non sanctioned locations. We walk a few hundred meters to the trolleybus stop and learn this is the newest addition to the fleet. It even has a TV for the travelers !

We return to the bus and are brought to the Juche tower. Ths is a 170 meter high tower full of symbolic parts. It was built for the 70th birthday of Kim Il-Sung, so then height is 100 + 70 meter. On two sides there are 17 "steps" and on the other two there are 18 steps, making the total amount of steps... 70.
We take the elevator to the top, snap a ton of pictures and return to ground level. The winds are pretty high today so Chae takes shelter behind a large statue. Mr. Ri is talking to the local guide and we wander off. After 5 minutes we look around and notice we have wandered rather far away from the tower itself. None of the guides is in sight, we are unwatched. So, not to abuse the trust we were given, we return to Mr. Ri who is still chatting away with the local guide and seems to have not missed us at all.

We make a speed stop at Park Mangyongdae, where according to the guides Kim Il-sung was born. The local guide speaks both English and Chinese. Since there is a group of Chinese waiting for a tour, we are rushed thru in less than 5 minutes.

Next stop is metro stop Revival station. The guides know the stories on the internet where it is claimed the entire metro network is fake and consists only of 2 stations and a bunch of actors pretending to be passengers. So the visit to the metro is now 6 stops long. We enter the station and receive a ticket as souvenir. We make a ton of pictures on the platform, take the train one stop, take a ton more pictures and take yet another metro for the last 4 stops. All in all we visit Revival station, Glory station, Torch station, Victory station, Reunification station and finally Triumph station. We can say 100% sure this metro is fully operational. A train leaves every 3 minutes and all trains we see are full of people. there is no way the Pyongyang metro is a tourist setup. Throw internet storie 5 in the trash.
We take another one of those terribly long escalators and end up right next to the Arche of triumphe. Because we took almost 30 minutes more than expected in the metro, we are a bit in a hurry, so the story of the arche is left untold.

Today we took 315 photos... Some sort of sorting is badly required, so before dinner we start checking photos. We finish the renaming and sorting out after dinner and are sound asleep by 23:00. This has been a very interesting day. We did not damage the trust the guides have put in us.

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Saturday, October 12 2013 -> Another day in Pyongyang

Today we start with a visit to "the grand peoples study house". Our timing seems to be wrong, because when we enter, all the lights are off. After a few minutes somebody comes runnig down the escalator to swith on the lights.
We visit a bunch of rooms, have a really nice chat with some students who are learning German and can not find one book in Dutch in the entire library. Goodbye internet BS #6: we were not expected, so nothing was prepared for us. Otherwise they would have ha a Dutch book waitig for us.
Staff does locate a casette tape (!) with Dutch music. Dutch folksinger André Hazes sings a song, just when a group of Finnishg people enters the auditorium.

Our next stop is at "Mansutae art studio" where the most beautifull embroideries are made. They also make mosaiecs. Unfortunately we are only allowed to look at their shop. How the art is made and by whom remains a mysterie. We are done with the store by 11:00. Way to early for lunch, but there are no further plans till than. So we are stuck in the compound for a while. We walk around a bit and make better acquaintences with Chae while we watch the football training of the childeren of the employees of the plant.

We are transfered to one of the other tourist restaurants ran by our tour company (KITC). And after lunch we visit the film studios of Kim Il-Sung. A rather disapointing visit. The houses that are supposed to be German, look nothing like real German houses and we don not recognize the difference between Korean houses and Japanese...

Our last stop is the "Victoriuos Fatherland Liberation museum" combined with a visit to the USS Pueblo. The museum has recently been renovated and made larger. Now the spyship Pueblo is one of the center pieces of the museum.
In the outside part of the museum the Koreans have collected broken and damaged US military loot. We learn the story about the USS Pueblo. The ship was caught in Korean territorial waters and the navy was able to capture 8 out of the 9 crew members. After the visit we walk into the museum itself. A local guide leads us around the museum where the Korean version of the Korean war is told. Than we are taken to the old building where on the top floor a huge panorama is built. It shows in 2 and 3d the battle that was fought against the UN between 1950 and 1953. Unfortunately cameras are not allowed inside the museum, so we leave frustrated without pictures of this beautifull piece of art.

We return to the hotel, have dinner at 19:30 and are sound asleep by 23:00

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Sunday, October 13 2013 Pyongyang -> Nampo

Chae wants us up early today. We are expected to visit the mausoleum of the Kim family. We both dress smartly and arrive at "Kamsusan memorial palace". We are early so we have to wait till the palace opens. All tourists are led thru the corridors as a group. Koreans are but a few. We are transported on long rolling sidewalks where walking is not allowed. Our first visit is to Kim Il-Sung. We pass a windtunnel and enter a rather large room. The president lies in the semi dark. Only a couple of red lights throw a dim light on the scene. We bow three times: on his left side, at his feet and once again at his right side. Next we visit a room where all medals and awards are on display. Most of the material is from shady African and Asian countries.
We descent a flight of stairs and the same routine is repeated. This time for Kim Jong-Il. He also collected a huge amount of titels and medals. After this we may walk a bit in the gardens, but since the temperature has dropped quite a bit, we cut the walk short.

After the palace we make a visit to the "Rrevolutionary Martyrs Monument". Here lie the remains of the heroes from the fathersland liberation war. Everyone of the graves has a bust of the person who rests underneath. For some of the soldiers there were no photos, but fortunately Kim Il-Sung knew all the people, so all the bustes look perfectly like the soldiers that died. The president hand picked this specific spot because from here the martyrs would have the best view over the city they liberated: Pyongyang.

After the cemetary Chae has a surprise. The city's zoo is right next to the cemetary and we are invited to visit. Unfortunately the zoo is under construction, and we are short in time. Chae and Mr. Ri lead the way. Our first stop is the aquarium. The building is small, dark and extremely busy. Within a few seconds we are out of sight of both Mr. Ri and Chae. In the dark we enjoy this moment of being unwatched. Only when we exit the building we see our guides again.
We remain for another 30 minutes inside the zoo. The thing that strikes us most is that it seems normal for visitors to feed the animals. The bears are on their hindlegs and the hippo sits close to the edge with its mouth wide open.

Lunch is served in a small restaurant on the edge of Pyongyang. After lunch we drive along a highway. On our side are 4 lanes of crisp asphalt while the opposing direction looks like swiss cheese cement road. It is no surprise we encounter a few cars going the other way on our half of the road... Within 15 minutes we stop at a cooperative farm where we are again asked to buy flowers and bow in front of the statues of the dear leaders.
We comply and are shown around the farm. All that remains in our memory is dat all three leaders are regular visitors to this farm.

Almost immediately after re-entering the highway the asphalt stops. Now both sides are swiss cheese cement roads. We shake and roll from side to side while bumping on ledges and diving in holes. And just when we are a bit used to this new reality the car turns off the highway. Only to show us that it can get worse. This road is hardened. With loose stones. So the bumping and hole diving continues. At an even worse raste than on the highyway. Tons and tons of compliments for the driver who takes us thru without hitting anything large. Both our guides fall into a deep sleep, thus giving us the option to take all the pictures we like and discuss what we see. We don't get it. Korea is able to launch their own satelite yet the roads are, with a distance, the worst ones in the world.

By the time it is 15:30 we enter the "Ryonggang Hot Spring House Hotel". This complex is supposed to look like Switserland. We know Switserland and this is not looking like Switserland. There are a couple of bungalows with rooms in them, plus a central building. We do however have a hot spa in our room. We fill up the tub as soon as we can, only to discover the water is way too hot to bath in. We decide to go for a walk instead. The entire area of the hotel is free for us to walk, because there is a huge fence around it.
After our walk Inge is joining in in a "seashell barbeque". I pass. I don't like seafood. The driver has a plastic bottle with gasoline which he sprays in short bursts on the burning shells. After 20 minutes he seems satisfied, and Chae shows how to open the seafood. The trick seems to be to pick up a shell and drop it on the ground so you can open the clam and eat what is inside. Inge tells me she did not taste the gasoline.

We return to the room and check the bath temperature. It is reasonably cool now. We get in bath and enjoy the salt water. One tiny problem occurs right after this: there is no warm water to flush the salt from our bodies. We only get cold water from the shower. We make some inquiries and as it turns out hot water will be availabe again tomoorow morning. Welcome to the countryside...

Despite the seafood barbeque there is still dinner to be served. Unfortunately this kitchen is absolutely not prepared for a westerners taste. We don't like almost all dishes. Fortunately we have a ton of dutch "koek" with us. For these occasions.

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Monday, October 14 2013

We drive towards the "West Sea Barrage". This is a dyke that is built in the river so salt water does not spoil the fresh water from the river, and now the river can be used better for irrigation. Note worthy: there are locks (for boats) in the system, but raising or lowering a boat costs 45 minutes each way. Add to this there is only one bridge that crosses the lock and you can understand why we really really really had to be off off the Barrage before 10.00. At 10.00 an opening of the locks is forseen...

We again drive over a partially hardened sandroad. Bumps, ridges, holes and other users of the road should have slowed us down, but this is Korea, so the driver still manages to get us up to an average speed of 50 km/h. We pass Kwail - Songhwa - Sinchon and reach Sokdamgugok after 2 1/2 hour rumbling on the roads. Here we will have a picknick lunch.

After lunch we go on a walk with Mr. Ri. He is the more active one of the guides and he seems to enjoy the walks we take him on. Mr. Ri has been reading a lot about our home country and is bursting with questions. When he asks about how we feel about the seperation of the two Koreas the conversation turns a bit a uncomfortable. Fortunately I spot a cement boat and thus avoid giving an answer to his questions.
After this enjoyable walk a local guide shows up. It turns out in Sokdamhgugok lived a famous teacher of filosofy.

The bumping and dipping and shaking starts again as soon as we drive off. At some checkpoint along the way we are held for a couple of minutes. Normally as soon as the military spot the white faces in our bus we are waved along. This time everybody has to hand over everything to the guard. We are being ignored and may keep our pasports safely in our pockets.

We drive to Haeju making a stop at Mount Suyang where stone crafts man have carved a mountain side fill of texts with propaganda. Once in Haeju we stop at a local park. Chae mentions we are waiting for a local guide, but somehow we seem to have missed her. It does not matter because we have to much fun with a swing where some local kids are playing. Inge pushes the most brave girl and immideately all the other kids want to be pushed along by Inge. The local hguide never shows up and we move a few hundred meters to the hotel which lies right on the central square of haeju.
When we enter the hotel the first question is when we want hot water in our room. The power is low, so they wil only give us one hour of hot water per day. We decide for a shower between 17:00 and 18:00. Upon entering our room we discover the bathtub os already filled with warm water. In the bedroom we discover an airconditioning unit that is not working and has no remote control. The TV shows one channel with almost as much static as image. We have to flush the toilet using a bucket because the toilet has no water reservoir. In short: we are in the country side...
From our room we have a view at the central square and we are surprised as we witness a schoolclass of roughly 14 year old's who are cleaning the square. We, we drink a cup of coffee and work on the vacation-report

During dinner the power is dropped at least 4 times, but that is not the worst thing. Our dinner consists of a whole fish, with head and tail still on it... After dinner we have light in our room but no power from the sockets. Charging telephones and laptop is impossible...Internet storie 7 debunked: tourists are treated exactly the same as locals. No power means you eat in the dark.

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Tuesday, October 15 2013 Haeju -> Sariwon

At 06:15 the Korean wake up call shakes us out of our beds. This is the time the government needs its people most, so thru out the entire country loudspeakers are placed that will start blaring and shouting and playing music at maximum volume. And when there is no loudspeaker, there will be cars dispatched that carry a gigantic set of speakers on top. Long live socialism. Long live our beloved leaders. Short shalt thou sleep.

We drop our laptop at the reception for charging and go for breakfast.

After breakfast we drive on another one of the roads with as many holes as the moon, towards Mount Jangsu. This is sort of a miniature Grand Canyon with a road on the bottom. We decide to walk the canyon when we are given a choice: drive or walk.
The weather is perfect. Not cold, not hot. And since we are in a canyon, almost no wind. We walk for about 2 km acompanied by Mr. Ri. Along the way we encounter different stone figures.

They are brightly coloured, and all come with their own special story. Mr. Ri tries to tell as many of the stories as he can, and we recognize some Grimm Brothers stories from Europe. The stories have been adapted for use in Asia, but all in all we have a very pleasant walk.
40 Minutes into the walk we see the car waiting for us. We drive off. We pass Umpa and drive over a water reservoir where the closing dyke has one way traffic. Again we notice how much agriculture is going on in the country. Everywhere we come we see people working in the fields.

At noon we arrive at the next hotel in Sariwon. Again we have no power, nor hot water. Lunch consists of another complete fish. Upon returning to our room we discover we have a litle bit of power so carefully we charge at least the camera batteries.

I do some things on the laptop while Inge takes a well deserved nap. The beds in the hotel have some sort of mattress on them, so no sleeping directly on the hard wooden bottom.

At 15:30 we report at the reception. We drive the 5 minutes to the "Sariwon Folklore Street". We thought this would be some sort of fair complex, but it turns out it is an open-air museum that tells the history of the old country. Our local guide tells us some interesting facts about the early days of the Korean peninsula, and ofcourse we learn the great leaders have visisted here many times and have given great pleasure to the people of this town.
The Folklore street also consists of a couple of pavillions that are built high up the mountain, so the old rulers would have a great view over their domain. We ask and Mr. Ri is wiling to accompany us on a walk uphill to visit a few of these pavilions. The higher we get, the better our view, so we push on to the top of the hill. Mr. Ri follows and we chat away.

After this interesting visit we have some nature waiting for us. Just outside of town is Jongban Mountain. Translated this means "square mountain" and turns out to be a valley that is surrounded on 4 sides by mountains. In the early days in this valley there were a couple of castles and to protect themselves from outsiders they built a wall around the mountains. Only part of the wall remains, but we get a good impression of the challenges these people faced when builkding this Chinese Great Wall in Korea...
The local guide tells a story about mountains falling in love with each other. The mountain we visited this morning also stars in the story. That mountain was crying becaise she had lost her husband to these montains. This explains why many days of the year the top of these mountains are cloaked in fog. The mist are the evaporated tears of a cryng mountain.

We enjoy the walk and continue on to the Sonbul Temple. This is supposedly one of the budhist temples in the country. We are greeted by a monk who is our local guide for this section. He tells about the bombardements that the Americans did and shows us what parts where rescued and what parts had to be rebuilt after te war.
In the main building is a budha statue that was donated by a JApanese guy to Kim Il-Sung. He donated the statue to this monestary for which the people where so gratefull they built the great leader yet another statue in town.
We are handed a miniature incense stick and the monk leads us into the main room. He recites a poem. The entire thing makes a great impression on us. After the poem we are invited to look around the temple and take as many pictures as we like. When it is time to say goodbey we wish each other a good and happy and long life and walk back to the bus.

Dinner in the hotel is again abundant. There is fried sweet potato, a very spicy salad, some tofu with hot sauce, pieces of fish (with bones), some sticks with meat and ofcourse rice and soup. As usual, way to much food for the two of us.

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Wednesday, October 16 2013 Sariwon -> Kaesong

For breakfast we are served potatoes with garlic, some bread and jam and a fried egg.

We leave the hotel by 9:00 and drive thru town. Sariwon has no traffic lights so at every crossroads is a police man regulating the almost non excisting traffic. We learn pedestrians have to yield to cars, even when they are walking on so called zebra-crossings. When we notice a police officer on a motorbike following us we warn the driver to watch his speed. Mr. Ri smiles and notes "this is a special car"... Speed limits are not for foreigners it seems. The horn of the car is used a lot and we make it out of town without hitting a single pedestrian or ox-cart.

We enter the "Kaesong-Pyongyang highway" which used to be called reunification highway. Chae takes the opportunity to prepare of for our visit to the demilitarized zone. We are told both Koreas want to reunify as soon as possible, but there are some foreign forces (the "imperialist" United States) that are not cooperating.
Since 2000 there have been talks between both Koreas. Two South-Korean presidents even visited the North. But since 2008 the "puppet regime" in the south has yet again yielded its head to the US and has put the talks on hold. Since then the 2 countries are again at the brink of conflict.
Once we arrive at the demilitarized zone we have to wait till there are more tourists available for the tour. Once we have 10 people together we are shown a map of the area and are told which buildings are North and which are South.
We walk ast the first barier and are met by our own bus. We are accompanied by 2 militaries who are not allowed to carry weapons but still come along for protection.
Our first stop is the "signing of the treaty" building and the "North Korea peace museum". 2 Wooden buildings where we are told this is where the cease fire was signed. And ofcourse we get the story of the Amrican general singing in the wrong location. He signed in the box for the UN. One of our fellow visitors does not understand so we take it upon us to explain. The North-Koreans were at war with the US, not the UN. The North-Koreans beat the US. They were ofcourse not sponsored by the Chinese and they were ofcourse only at war with the US. Or at least thats what they say. And since we are guests of the North-Koreans, we agree with them by mouth, but not by heart.
We drive to the actual border and are shown up the stairs. Since march of 2013 it is no longer possible to visit the (blue) houses and the border itself, so we look from afar. Also the looking at the wall the South-Koreans are said to have built is no longer part of the tour.

All in all the entire DMZ-tour is disapointing. There are no South soldiers to be seen, and ofcourse no Americans. We only get to look at the blue buildings and the border and we think we have seen far worse borders in the world.

Our driver and guides are handed their papers back and we leave the scene. We drive the 15 minutes back to Kaesong and have lunch. We are shown the Sonjuk bridge where in the 13th century a murder was commited. The bloodstains remain till today...
We also visit the "Koryo museum". The only interesting part of that is the stamp shop where we discover a Dutch train on a North-Korean stamp. We drive into the country side and visit the tomb of king Kongmin. With a local guide we look around at the two round hills before returning to Kaesong to the hotel.

The hotel is a "folklore hotel". We are invited to sleep on a thin mattras on a heated cement floor. The doors are sliding doors and the wind is blowing full thru the living room. Fortunately the sleeping room is better insulated so no wind in there. Just one bed. The second bed is made and we settle in for the remainder of the day. I am less than happy. I have a sore throat and am battling a cold and now I have to sleep on the ground...
Dinner is served the traditional way. We sit on the floor and are served a pile of small portions of food. Top of the dish is "Dogsoup". The meat is supposedly dogmeat, but we clasify it as fat horse- or cow-meat.

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Thursday, October 17 2013 Kaesong -> Pyongsong

After an almost continental breakfast on the floor we return to Pyongyang. Today we were supposed to go to the "International Friendship center", but this is not available so Chae has made some other arrangments to get us thru the day.

We arrive in Pyongyang just in time for lunch. As a special surprise we are brought to the "Museum of the Metro'. As usual the entire museum is dedicated to the good deads and the incredible help the workers received from the beloved leaders. After one room we are already bored beyond believe.

Since no pictures are allowed we walk in silence. Until we reach room 7 that is. We are led into a gigantic "diorama" of the building of the metro. I decide on the spot to go against orders. I take out my camera and start taking pictures. The museum guide begins a sentence but Chae picks my side. I can take as many pictures as I like inside this area.
Again the scene is made out of two parts. A wall painting with 3d effects and real items in front. We enter thru a corridor that is made to look like a mine shaft and are greeted by flowing water from the ceiling, symbolizing the struggle against the water.

The scene is built up in three parts: On the right are the workers in their strugle against the water. On the left are the people supporting the workers, and in the middle are the great leaders overseeing the entire operation. Only with their advices were the workers able to complete the project...

We learn about the plans for the extension of the metro (another 38 stations are planned) and are happy as litle children in a candy store for being able to snap the pictures of the panorama. We absolutely LOVE these things.

But thats not all for today. We are rushed to the "Mangyongdae Schoolchildrens Palace". In this building children with exceptional talents are encouraged to grow even better. We walk thru embroiderie class, the sports arena and are shown just about every other classroom on the first floor.

Than we are suddenly in a hurry. The children are putting up a show and we are "invited" to see the show. There is much singing and dancing but we are also entertained by a 6 year old juggler. We are flabbergasted. This are not children; they must be genetically manipulated adults. The skills they show are unbelievable. We are hapy with our digital camera's that are able to capture almost everything.

We are in Pyongyang but we will spent the night in a satelite town called Pyongsong. So at 18:00 we set off. Driving in the dark outside of Pyongyang is an adventure by itself. Since there are no streetlights nobody carries any light themselves. Pedestrians and bicylists have gone bonkers. They manouvre the roads like blind rabbits. Jumping from left to right and back without a single care. We manage to miss all the idiots and arrive in Pyongsong unharmed. Looking back at this drive it is clear to us. Driving licenses are voluntarely in this country.

We are led into a suite. With 4 rooms for just the two of us. I don't know if this is making up for sleeping on the floor yesterday or a planned thing; we like it anyway.
We think the budget for today was spent fully on the room. Dinner is made up of 4 slices of concrete that may or may not have been bread in a previous life. We also see a few slices of cucumber a cold microscopic Wienerschnitzel and a bowl of rice with potato. We dig into our private stash of emergency food once again.

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Friday, October 18 2013 Pyongsong -> Pyongyang

Today is another surprise day. We have no idea what we are going to do.

After breakfast we are taken to "Kim Jong-Suk Secondary School number 1". We are shown along the building and visit an English class where I am asked to step in fronmt of the class and tell something about ourselves and our country. I must have done a good job because the headmaster has a smile from ear to ear on his face when we leave the class after 10 minutes.
We visit a room that is filled with stuffed animals. Most are in horrible state, but we get the idea. The students can learn about an animal and have a look at it "in real live". Not our piece of cake, but this is not Europe, so we continue our conversation with the head master.

After an hour in the shool we are brought to Pyongsong's central square where we have a nice walk in the morning sun. We conclude the morning program with yet another bow before the presidents statue.

Lunch is in the hotel we slept in last night. After that we depart for Pyongyang driving the same road we took yesterday in the dark by daylight now. Traffic is busy. We encounter at least 100 red trucks along the way. We learn these are used to transport coal from the mines of Pyongsong to the capital Pyongyang. Everybody is preparing for winter now.

We go to a building next to the empty triangular hotel in Pyongyang (hotel name Ryogyong hotel) where an embroiderie factory is located. We are shown the rooms where ladies and girls are working on this magnificent pieces of art and wonder how long they will last with no lighting and no magnifying glasses...

This is also where we get a new guide. Chae has fallen ill and has to leave us. We meet up with Han. An experienced guide with 6 years of experience... We worry a bit. After all, with Chae we knew what we could and could not do. She gave us quite some freedom to do as we please outside, and we had come to an arangment on the photos. A sort of "don't ask, don't tell" deal. She woulkd not check our photos and we would try to not only make negative pictures. Now all this is out of the window with a fresh guide.
As it turns out Han is not the least bit interested in what we do and what we don't. It seems it is pretty hard for her to take over and enforce her rules on us.

We drive to the "Peoples Palace of Culture", and walk along the statues to the Koryo hotel where we are met by our bus that takes us to the Yanggakdo hotel. We check into the same room again: 38-16 is homebase for tonight.

Inge wants to go for a run and leaves for the parking lot where she is going to run in circles, and I follow her. I want to investigate something I saw from the bus when we arrived. I discover at the south end of the parking deck are some stairs leading down. There seems to be another entrance to the hotel here. I chat some with the doorman who speak a few words English and are shown another set of stairs leading to the banks of the river.
I race back up and call Inge. We both descend to the river bank where Inge has much more space to run and we both have a good view of the river. for future reference: just before the parking deck starts you will see some stairs leading down. Go down and walk right (=away from the hotel entrance) for about 10 meters past the building. In the bushes is another stairway leading down. This path is fully legal for visitors, as long as you stay within the borders of the hotel.

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Saturday, October 19 2013 Pyongyang -> Wonsan -> Lake Sijung

Today we are in for a long drive. The east coast is our next destination.

Along the way we notice that almost all the rice has been harvested. Now the task is to get the rice from the land to the next stage. Everything and everybody is used to bring the rice to their destination.

Halfway the road we stop at the "State Rest House". An hour and a half after that we reach Wonsan where we have lunch in a hotel.
After finishing our lunch we have 45 minutes left before we have to leave again, so we decide to go look for Mr. Ri and ask if he wants to go on a litle walk with us. We can not locate him or Han, so we decide to go walking by ourselves. We stay close to the hotel, but had we wanted we could have walked into town as well. Lets kill number 8 internet story: guides are not guards.

By 14:00 we walk, with guides this time, to an art studio nearby. Than we continue south towards Lake Sijung. The road follows the coastline. After a few kilometers we notice the beach is inaccesible. There is a fence in between te road and the beach. When we get a better look at the fence we can see it is actually electrified. This sinister image makes a far worse impression on us than the show at the demilitarized zone. We have a break at a building that in the summer is a restaurant of some sorts, but now seems vacant. Inge and I want to take a walk along the beach but neither Han nor Mr. Ri feels like accompanying us. So we walk alone. For half an hour or so we walk the beach. We spot a bunker that seems abandoned and we find ourselves behind the electric fence we saw earlier.
When we return we ask no questions and just state we enjoyed the walk.

About a kilometer away is our hotel for the night. It turns out to be the most primitive hotel we will encounter. There is no hot water, the room is cramped and tight and everything seems stuck in the fifties. Power on the sockets is so low that our water boiling device can not get the tea-water warm. They do however have mudbaths that Inge would like to try. She makes an appointment for 18:00 o'clock.

By 18:00 we are told the mudbath will have to wait till after dinner. They were unable to heat up the mud in time. Inge returns to the room, and I go for a walk. The hotel is located at a peninsula and only accesible by a single road. I follow the road and find myself on the edge of a nearby village. Nobody has seen me, nobody has tried to stop me. I hesitate and decide not to get in to trouble by entering the village. I return to the hotel and sit at the side of the lake for a while. Nobody even noticed I was missing...

After dinner Inge reports in for her "bath". The mud is hot and it feels as if you are lying in a bathtub filled with faeces... I am glad I don't like mudbaths...

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Sunday, October 20 2013 Sijung lake -> Kumgang

Today we head for Mount Kumgang, about an hour away from our hotel. We pass 4 (!) checkpoints and receive a permit to enter the area.
We first go to our hotel for tonight which is situated inside the zone where North and South Koreans would have re-unifications of families. The area is abandoned since the president of the southern part refuses to cooperate with the north. No family reunions have taken place for quite a long time here.

We are dropped off at the begining of the path that leads to the Kuryongyon waterfall, one of three important waterfalls on the Korean peninsula. Han walks a lot faster than we do, so she is out of sight within half an hour. After almost 2 hours we reach the waterfall where Han is waiting for us. She wants to return right away but we refuse. We want to sit and rest for a while.

Soon wqe notice other visitors who seem to be very interesed in us and after we make clear we have seen them, the Koreans do everything they can to get us on a picture. Children are placed beside us, people sit and stand as close to us as they can and we are one-day celebraties. Even on the way back everybody seems to want to have their picture taken with the two of us. Everybody has a good time, including us. The walk back seems a lot shorter with all this attention we are drawing.
Lunch is served in the restaurant at the entrance of the path to the waterfall, so we wave goodbey to all our new friends and enjoy a relaxed meal.

Our next stop is the "lagoon of three days". Han stays with the car but Mr. Ri is always happy to walk with us. We enjoy the walk, but after 20 minutes or so I am nackered. I sit and enjoy the views while Inge and Mr. Ri continue the walk. Once those two reach the lake itself Inge wants to go up to another viewpoint. Mr. Ri is also nackered now, so Inge walks to the pagoda on her own. see statement on guides being no guards.

When we have gathered everybody together we buy drinks from a stall that is conveniently located where the car is parked. We buy 5 softdrinks and are charged the outrageous amount of 6 euro 60 cents... Tourists are free game here apparantly...

Back in the hotel I see a sign advertising massages and I manage to convince Inge she deserves one.

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Monday, October 21 2013 Kumgang -> Wonsan

Like the day before yesterday we drive along the coastline back to Wonsan. We pass Tongchon en Chigyong and arrive in Wonsan before lunch.

First order of the day is a visit to the "station" in Wonsan where the great leader Kim Il-Sung doctered out his plans during the fatherland liberation war. The fact he was in Russia in those years we leave unmentioned.
The local guide shows us around the "Oriental hotel" where the president has slept. To finalize our visit we are shown the train the dear leader came back on. Ofcourse he used the third class carriage because if third class is good enough for the people, it is good enough for him. Today the seat he used is covered with a white shrine cloth and a red sign telling everybody He (with a capital H) sat here.

We are delivered to the hotel and have lunch and an argument with Han. On our schedule it says today we will visit the stalagmites at Chongsokjong. When we asked her this morning Han said we were going there, yet we are now 100km away from them while this morning we were at 10... Han looses the argument, appologizes, but has no way to get us to Chongsokjong because the military have taken over the area. Yeah right.

At 15:30 we go to visit the "Wonsan Agricultural University" where the highlight is an automated greenhouse that was donated by the president. The greenhouse is 20 meters long and everybody is extremely proud of the building. The fact we have had those greenhouses for a few decades in the Netherlands covering acres per roof, we leave unmentioned. Why should we want to show them that their technology is ancient and has been overtaken long time ago by the rest of the world?

Han has a problem she wants to discuss with us. We have paid an extra fee for the Pyongyang circus, but there is no way we can cram that visit into the remaining time we have. The only sollution is to drive to Pyongyang tomorrow (5 hours) and back to the east coast (6 hours) the day after that. We decide we really want to see the circus and we will endure the driving back and forth. Hoppa. 9 internet myths gone: North-Korean touroperators are only human. They make mistakes like the rest of the world does.

As a pre-dinner walk, we are invited to walk the Wonsan pier. Nobody pays an entrance fee, but we have to pay 1 euro per person to enter. Ah well... We walk the length of the pier (2 km one way) with Mr. Ri on our side. He is bursting with questions about the internet. What it is, how it works, what is on it. He is very curious. We try to explain the workings of the internet while still remaining within his frame of knowledge. Turns out the internet is pretty darn difficult to explain to somebody who has absolutely no idea. We hope he understood a bit more than before...

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Tuesday, October 22 2013 Wonsan -> Pyongyang

We return to Pyngyang for a day. Again we drive the "Wonsan-Pyongyang highway". After crossing 18 tunnels in 2 hours we reach the plains of Pyongyang. Another 2 hours and we hit Pyongyang, where Han has a few surprises for us.
Lunch is served in the revolving restaurant on top of the Yanggakdo hotel, and this afternoon we have been invited to the railway museum.

Upon arriving at the railway museum I immidiately take matters into my own hands. Before anybody can say photographs are not allowed I start clicking. Protests we waive away. And 10 seconds later we have permission to take photos inside the museum. Hoppa. Myth number 10: power to the customer ;) ;) He who pays, decides what is allowed and what not.

Again, the entire museum (23 rooms we are told) is dedicated to the leaders. Who visited where and when and for what occassion. The president's deads are displayed in great detail. With white carpet and red sighns everything he touched is marked. It is more a propaganda museum than a train museum.
The local guide senses we are fading away and skips some 15 rooms to take us back to a room she had passed earlier. In amazement we are led into yet another diorama. This one is 16 meters high and 60 meters wide. The depth is 13 meters. Again 3d drawings flow into real items. And like in the metro museums panorama the great leader is a center piece of the display. The entire display shows how the people of Korea rebuilt the railways after the war.

The only way for the local guide to get us out of here is for the local guide to promise something even better... Like a second panorama in the museum. This one is a bit smaller (15 meter high and 50 meter wide, but still 13 meter deep), and a lot darker. It shows the destruction of the railway during the war. We see broken rails, burning trains and so much more. Every time we look away and look again we spot something new. These things are extremely beautiful!

There is no way they are going to drag me out of here! Unless... they have some real trains!
We are led to a side building where there are 4 trains on display. A narrow-gauge steam engine with wagons, is my personal favorite but when they allow me to actually climb the centerpiece locomotive I am hooked. I will sleep here tonight!

Unfortunately we have to leave the museum, and we are rushed towards the circus. Rushed for a couple of minutes that is untill we get stuck in a traffic jam of epic proportions... Myth 11 goes down: there are many, many, many, many and than some more, cars in Pyongyang.
Our driver manages to squeeze us thru and we make it to the circus just in time. We are shown to the best seats in the house: straight in the center of the seats and one row in front of the presidents seat...

The circus is what you would expect from an Asian circus: acrobats and juglers and balancing artists are the main atraction. With one, major, difference to for example Cirque du Soleil and such.

When a Korean artist fails in his act he or she will do it again and again and when needed again. Until they get it right. Audiance or not: failure is not an option. This is painfully visible when a group of performers who throw and catch reet hats, takes the stage. One of the guys in the group makes a mistake so the girl is left withoiut a hat to continue the act. It looks as if it is her fault, but we have proof on cam she was not to blame. The other guy lashes out to her. He gets in het face and shouts something Korean to her. The girl is closer to crying than she is to lauhging. But the second time no errors are made so she can smile a bit.
Untill the last part of the show. All three artists throw up their hats (15? in total) and the girl is supposed to catch them all in the center of the ring. First time she fails. Second time she fails again. The guys are all over her shouting and yelling how a horrible partner she is. It looks as if she will burst into tears any minute now. On the fourth (!!) try the girl finally succeeds in catching all hats. The audience clearly roots for her. She receives the largest applause of the evening.

After the circus we are still not done. We are to go to the "Kaeson Youth Park". A funfair. Opened only to tourists on this tuesday evening. We walk thru the abandoned park and try the "tower" and a neat lo`oking rollercoaster. The tower is pretty standard. Bouncing up and down and than leaving you on top for a full 2 minutes after which you drop down again. The rollercoaster is a pretty nifty piece of technique. Without getting too technical there are 6 trains than can be in the ride at the same time at different positions (thus, it is called a mouse coaster). That by itself is nothing special. What is special is, is that in this coaster you ride lying face down... And the ride is smoother than a babies below. You can hardly hear the wheels, there are no sudden jerks to the riders, it is smooth all the way around. A completely unexpected atraction in this part of the world.

We have dinner in the hotel again and are so fed up with the rice and soup arriving last, we dig thru the food and have left the restaurant before they could even bring the (cold) rice and (non apetizing) soup. For us this is internet myth 12 down the drain: tourists do not get the best food in the country. The food is a bad as everybody else's.

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Wednesday, October 23 2013 Pyongyang -> Hamhung

We will be heading back to the eastcoast today. I make a request with the driver. We saw the (in-)famous ski-resort along the way yesterday and I would really like to take a picture of that. No problem. We drive to the entrance, and I can take as many pictures as I want. From within the car...

When we continue the thing we have been waiting for the whole time, happens. A tire goes "pff" and we are stranded in the midle óf the road.

After a quick tire change we continue on our way to the "Ullim waterfall". The second important waterfall in the peninsula. To get there we have to drive a, new, road that ranks within the top 10 of most beautiful mountain roads in the world. I don't understand how anybody can glue a road to a mountain side but they sure as hell did just that here. It is breathtaking. And it makes me wonder what this road will look like after 5 years of use and frost... It might end up in the top 10 of most dangerous mountain roads...

We reach the falls without a hitch and have a picknick lunch with a view.

Somewhere along the way we bump into a monetary problem. We stop at a litle rest place along the road and spot a stall selling bananas. Since we are not allowed to have Won (local currency) we try if the seller will accept euros. She does not. And we are stuck. We want the bananas but have no way to pay for them. Han seems unable to assist, she probarbly has no money on her. Fortunately a driver (?) guide (?) from another group is willing to help. We hand him 5 euros, he changes this into Won, and pays the girl the equivalent of 5 euro in Won for 5 bananas. Yep, thats 1 euro for 1 banana...

When we finally hit the town of Hamhung we are brought to a fertilizer plant. To be honoust, neither Inge nor me are the least bit interested in fertilizer, but "so where the plans", so we sit and wait.

And as it turns out this is one of the best visits we have had in the entire vacation. The local guide and I make a click and we start exchanging chemical formulas leaving al the others with open mouths. I dig deep to chemistry from highschool, and the man and I have a ball. The H's and the O2's are flying back and forth and nobody else understands the fun we are having with just the two of us.
Once we have seen part of the production process we are guided to the packaging hall and I surprise everybody, apart from my new friend, by asking if we can actually taste the finished fertilizer. Everybody looks at each other, but the local guide bursts into a laugh and says sure we can. There is nothing dangerous in the finished product (as I knew all the time)!

On the way to the hotel we stop at the palace of a king of the Ri-dynastie. It is a nice place, but we are almost too tired to enjoy it to the fuillest.

At 19:30 we have dinner in the hotel. By the time we almost finished the first part of the meal the air sirens start going. We think it must be some sort of test, but they keep screaming and staff is suddenly all but disappeared. When after 5 minutes the sirens are still at it, we decide to go and find out what the heck is going on. We exit the restaurant to find ourselves in a dark corridor. Fortunately we carry a flashlight so we find our way to the reception. We try to peak outside, but our path is blocked by a giant black curtain. We see another guy pulling the curtain aside to enter, so we decide we might as well pull the curtain aside to exit.
Once outside an eary scene awaits us. We still hear the sirens, and they are now emphasized by cars with giant loudspeakers on the roof that blare patriotic music. Suddenly the sirens stop and the streetlights are turned off. We are left in darkness.
We retreat to the reception and ask what the hell is going on. The guy at the reception understands no English, but he does know where Han is. He dials a few numbers on the phone and hands the horn to Inge. It turns out we are in the midle of an excersise. Sort of a blackout test. As if the "enemy' has no GPS. No modern army needs a city to have lights on to locate it when they want to bomb it... Since we are foreigners the lights in our room will remain on. The entire darkness situation makes my funny side pop up. I go upstairs to our room and start flipping the light switch up and down. After I am tired of that I stick my flashlight out of the window and help the passing walkers and bicyclists along the road. All lights, except ours, are forbidden so nobody sees anything. I help out by lighting the way. When the police (?) starts blowing their whistles as if to tell me to stop, I switch to stroboscopic light. The whistling continues for a while, but I don't give a rats diddlee, so eventualy it stops, and I play on.

The drill is over by 21:00, but the streetlights remain off for the rest of the night. What stops not is the loudspeaker cars. They continue their shouting and music all thru the night.

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Thursday, October 24 2013 Hamhung -> Pyongyang

Inge has had a bad night. It turns out she is pretty shaken by the whole drill thing. On top of that our toilet is broken, we get 2 coffee with milk for breakfast instead of one tea and one black coffe. In short: we are not happy. We try to explain things to Han and Mr. Ri, but they completely don't understand what we are feeling.
Only after both of us get pretty angry at them for not warning us beforehand (Han knew 15 minutes ahead the excersise was coming) they appear to understand a bit of our worries. I even threat we will walk at the next checkpoint just to see how the military and our guides will respond. We try to get it into their heads it was pretty scary what has happened, and Han seems to get her head around it after a while. Or she was too scared we would really walk out of the car. We will never know for sure.

Our visit to the Hamhung theater is a complete miss. We exit the vehicle angry and frustrated and both Mr. Ri and Han seem afraid to come after us. Inge and I take a stroll around the square, alone, to cool our heads. After a few minutes we return to the car.

Our next stop is a cooperative farm.

We visit the local kindergarten and are surprised by the propaganda posters in the hallway and the way the children respond to adults.
As soon as the children spot an adult looking at them they will bow. And not just a quick bow; no. It looks as if they are actually trying to touch the ground with their noses. Talking and making noise in the hallway is forbidden, so when the children walk the hallway they hold their finger on their lips as if to remind themselves making sound is prohibited.
While we visit the children are playing outside like every child in the world should be playing. As soon as we leave the schoolbell is rung and in an intense silence they report back in their classrooms.

We have another picknick lunch along the way and arrive at the tomb of King Tongmyong. This tomb and the surrounding area was bombarded completely by the Americans, but has since been rebuilt and is now even on Unescos world heritage list. To us it is just another restored location. With concrete where there should be wood. It hits us we are actually glad this vacation is almost over. We have seen and done and adapted too much.

We arrive in Pyongyang by 17:00 where we are recognized by the doorman. He does not try to drag our luggage inside, he holds up the backpack Inge is carrying around. Its good to get home ;)

We have some time left so we decide to go for the riverside walk again. This gives us some time to get to myth number 13. The well talked about 5th floor of the hotel. The floor that is missing from the elevators. The floor where the secret service resides. When you simply ask whats on the fifth floor staff will respond it is a technical floor. And guess what? the fifth floor of the Yanggakdo hotel is a technical floor. This is where the bateries and voltage converters and heating equipment lives. And thats why it is not in the elevator. Try for yourself. Go to the 6th and take the stairs down. The doors are not even locked. Enjoy your tour.

And while you are browsing the hotel, try to locate the entrance to the pool... It is in the main lobby somewhere...

This evening we have our farewell dinner. We are brought to a Korean barbeque restaurant where you barbeque your food on the table. Unfortunately Han refuses to sit in with us, so it is not really a farewell dinner; it is a nice dinner with good food, but without company.

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Friday, October 25 2013 Pyongyang -> Beijing

Today we leave the country. And not a day too soon. We are both tired. The last days have been very, very busy.
Our plane leaves at 9:00, so we are prepared for an extremely early wakeup alarm. But, this is North-Korea and things are different here. At 7:20 we are ready to get into the car for the last time. Along the way we hand out gifts; Mr. Ri we sallute with an enveloppe and a botle of perfume for his daughter. Our driver Mr. Kim is also in for an enveloppe and a bottle of Dutch liquor. Mrs. Han only gets an enveloppe. With less money than the guys. She only had to cope with us for half the time...And to say she did a "not good" job is some sort of understatement.

Once we arrive at the airport everything is done very quickly. Within 10 minutes after arriving (8:05) we have dropped our luggage, have been thru security and have checked in. Nobody seems interested in our camera's, my laptop or even the USB-stick I carry around. Let alone the 4 SD-cards we have hidden all thru our luggage just in case we bump into trouble with photos. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Any US airport takes about two hours more to clear than Pyongyang.

So we do what you do on an international airport. We search for the coffee bar. Which does not excist here. Than tax free shopping maybe? There is one point. And they sell absolutely nothing. Thus we wait. Till we are loaded in the plane and leave.

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