One of the few downsides of travelling to an off-the-beaten-track place is the apprehension that might come packaged with it due to possible negative coverage about the destination – or absolute lack of it. And sometimes the trepidation might get amplified by active discouragement from friends and family, even pushing you to wonder why you even thought of going there in the first place! Never had I received so many notes and messages from friends – out of concern- wishing me good luck and safe return from a place I was about to visit! The only other destination which extracted this kind of concern before was Johannesburg – but that doesn’t even come close to this. So, the interesting question is - where was I going……? My final part in the trilogy of what former American president Mr. George W infamously labelled as the Axis of Evil – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a.k.a the ‘Hermit Kingdom’
The Flight into the Hermit Kingdom
The flight to Pyongyang departed from Beijing in the morning and the first signs of uniqueness of this trip started showing up right at the check-in desk. Usually, I get a good feel for how the natives of a new country that I am visiting would look, behave and operate by observing the passengers at the check-in counter or boarding gate. But the crowd lined up to collect their boarding pass - which by itself seemed like a souvenir to a lot of folks - was overwhelmingly Caucasian foreigner heavy. There were barely any Korean travelers. This was quite odd and I have never come across a ratio like this ever before. And these tourists did behave every bit like a typical travelling-for-a-cocktail-story ‘explorer’ would do – clicking pictures of themselves under the flight departure screen at the boarding gate!
If the experience on the ground - at the point of departure - was unusual, the experience on-board the Air Koryo flight was even more peculiar. The aircraft that flew us across Korea Bay was a Tupolev TU-204, a machine you rarely get to see outside the former Soviet states. And the fact that it was probably older than a lot of passengers on board didn’t come as a surprise to me, as I had become immune to this kind of shock ever since my trip to Cuba in another rickety Old Russian built air-plane! The age and the condition of the aircraft notwithstanding, some passengers attempted to click a few pictures inside the flight – but were very promptly requested by the flight attendants to abort!
Next surprise was the very unique meal combo that was served mid-flight. The main course was a burger (yes, they did serve a burger in economy class) with a very interesting meat/patty inside! But then, that didn’t stop anyone from gobbling this up very quickly – after all we’ve been infected by the curiosity virus and on our way to a destination that most people don’t dare to even attempt, so a little burger filled with strange meat is not going to affect us right!?! But even as I tried to look at the positive side of this experience, the drink the crew offered to wash down this tripper burger was a bit too much. First of all it was a juice with an identity crisis - an apple juice packaged like an orange juice, which my neighbour felt was a peach juice. But that was not what got to me, it was the fact that it was well past its expiry date is what I couldn’t stomach – literally!
After almost an entire flight of absolutely no announcements (security or information) by either the captain or the crew, we were treated to our first propaganda message(not taking into the perfectly packaged patriotic musical performance that was being piped through the fixed television screens that most of us had no way of diverting our attention from!). Normally, the in-flight announcements would be about a geographical or natural point of interest we were flying past or about some travel oriented factoid. But this announcement – as we were flying over the Korean border - was all about the Revolution and sacrifices made by the great leaders for the freedom & independence of this glorious country. In any case, the flight itself didn’t last too long and we landed at Pyong Yang International airport – safe and sound in our old and wise Tupolev - much ahead of the scheduled arrival time.
Based on all the pre-trip buildup I had gotten from the tour operator, I was prepared for a very demanding security check and the kind of probing into belongings like I have never seen before. In fact, I deleted all the pics I took inside the flight and stashed them away in a hidden folder. But much to my surprise the security check was almost a breeze. Of course, there were multiple levels of checks involved – like listing all the electronic devices I had and asking me to turn on the smart phone/computer. But what they looked for in the devices were very cursory and the searches were not very intrusive and unsettling – like the ones I had faced in Abu Dhabi, Israel or Uzbekistan. In fact the security checks at Beijing airport that I departed from and most of the Indian airports are a lot more vexing!
We were greeted and warmly welcomed by our guides at the arrival hall. The first question that one of my co-travelers asked was about the restrictions around photography. And what the guides told us quite surprised me. The only limitations were to not click any pictures of military service men or any sites that were under construction. Absolutely fair and totally understandable. In fact, the restrictions in places like Bombay or Delhi in a safe-for-tourists country like India impose more restrictions! So not sure what all the humbug about uber tight security and restrictions were all about.
On our way to the hotel we were treated to our first major attraction of the city – the Arch of Triumph. Not surprisingly, more than talking about why and how it was built the guides laid all the emphasis on fact that it was much bigger than the ‘other’ one which is in the city of love J And more interestingly, one of the guides decided to prefix his responses to all our questions that inquired if DPRK had something similar to what was already there in a western country with ‘Of course we have that!”. So after a point, I decided not to offend him anymore by asking what I could already figure out was not available or possible in this country-in-a-bubble.
The hotel we stayed in was a very interesting place. It was draped in Communistic ‘chic’ and had a very odd vibe going on around it. We felt like we were in a setting like the one in the movie Truman show or I am Legend. Most of the times the hotel and its facilities seemed quite empty – with a graveyard vibe. The Front desk had no crowd (at any point of time), The Bars had no customers, the restaurants were closed and a part of the building/elevators didn’t even seem operational! But at other times, we spotted ‘guests’ who seemed to have been put into place - like the ‘atmosphere people’ in movie scenes or clubs in Shanghai/Singapore! IN fact the names of the facilities were so generic, the hotel was playing host to ‘The Shop’, ‘The Karaoke’, ‘Korean Food’, ‘Coffee Shop’, and ‘Draft Beer’ etc.! But it didn’t bother me too much as I was more than happy to spend the best part of the night at the Draft Beer bar. And of course I had the luxury of being able to choose from a wide variety of 2 beers – which were not so unpredictably named ‘Yellow beer’ and ‘Black Beer’!
While one of my biggest grievances on this trip was that everything was fixed on the itinerary and we couldn’t do too much of tailoring to suit our interests, eventually I didn’t have too many complaints about what I got to see, snap and savor. It was a well-rounded, but very packed day of sightseeing. We started off the day with a visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the sun – an attraction that I would label as the single most potentially annoying part of the tour, especially to a DIY traveler. No arguments that it had all the grandeur and exorbitant display of communistic power, but the fact it had no significant historical mileage attached to it(it was constructed in later part of 20th century) and that we were organized into a highly controlled ‘excursion’ like kindergarten kids made it almost unbearable after a certain point.
After losing 2 hours of our precious day in this city to this painful - albeit interesting - tour around the palace, we dropped by at local recreational & amusement park to check out how the locals spent their May Day holiday. Finally we got our first glimpse of real locals and how they operated – without any sugarcoating – at this park. The way the domestic tourists were staring at all of us reminded me so much of my first trip to China back in 2006 and I was lucky enough to capture a great shot of some local kids who were a personification of naivety and innocence you don’t get to easily see in already evolved cities in this region.
After yet another fixed course lunch, we were taken to check out the Pyongyang Metro rail system that’s known for its marvelous murals in the stations that rival the ones in Moscow. While the murals lived up to every bit of the expectation, it was the depth of the tunnels – through which the vintage trains were plumbing through – that sent some chills down our spines as we descended down the escalator. Apparently, the network is the deepest underground rail system in the world. And the eerie communist-sounding tunes – that we never seemed to escape easily from - getting piped down the train audio channel made the ride a tad bit eerie and exciting at the same time. We stared at the Puhung (Rehabilitation) station, then took the train to next station Yonggwang (Glory). Here we got off to take some pictures and behave like ugly tourists who annoy locals before getting back on the train and going through 3 stops to get off at Kaeson (Triumphant Return)
An interesting observation one of my co-travelers made during this metro rail experience was about the absolute lack of any kind of ads/commercials in the trains or metro stations. And that’s when it sunk in to all our heads, that it was not just in the trains – but we had not spotted (and probably never will even if we try hard) any kind of ads/billboards pitching any kind of products anywhere across the city. When asked about this, our guide mentioned that they didn’t need any of those because ‘they were a planned economy and not a market economy’. I am not sure what exactly he tried to imply, but we could all smell the essence of socialism in its very basic form. After a short but sweet ride through 5 stations, we got out near the Arch of triumph to checkout a local park which was smothered with small groups of local families enjoying their Sunday afternoon making Bulgogi (Korean barbeque) and downing warm beers/soju. Some of the locals were more than happy to invite us to join their impromptu dancing sessions – which so resembled the Chinese tai-chi I had witnessed in the parks of Beijing and Shanghai.
From here we drove to the outskirts to check out the Mangyongdae Native House, Birthplace of Kim Il Sung -which in my opinion was not a stop worth including at all – especially in such a short and packed itinerary, but then again we were not on a historic pub crawl tour in Ireland are we?! J Next on the lineup was the quite famous Mansudae Grand Monument – A venue where you can easily get overwhelmed by the colossal statues of the leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il flanked by powerful sculptures telling the story of anti-Japanese war, the rebuilding of the country and finally the Korean war. And of course like in all other places of importance for Koreans, visitors are ‘requested’ (read: expected) to follow the local custom by bowing in front of the statues after placing down a bouquet of flowers.
From there we moved on to the more popular Kim Il Sung Square- The third largest public square in the world. Just like it’s counterparts in Russia and China it was an enormous display of power and socialism and you could easily get drowned in the sheer size of this place. In fact, that was the main objective – make you feel small and humble in front of the size and power of the community. The penultimate stop was at the Tower of Juche: which in my opinion was the highlight of the tour! Especially the spectacular sunset over the Taedong River that you can get to savor from the top of the tower. The final stop on the tour was at the Party Foundation Monument - where we were allowed to click some pictures from outside but not allowed to go inside.
While the rest of my tour group were starting to feel a bit down as the day came to an end, I was starting to get excited since what was up next was what I was looking forward to the most(and reckoned as a hidden and less stereotypical of an attraction in DPRK) – the Taedonggang Microbrewery. Regrettably the experience turned out to be an anticlimax! While they had around 7 varieties of beers on tap that were freshly brewed in the premises, they weren’t anything more than variations on the ratio of barley and rice used in the beer. Also, all of them almost tasted the same and didn’t do any justice to what I had read about in world class magazines like Travel + Leisure and Conde Naste Traveler. I felt the less advertised draft beers at our hotel from the previous day can take on these confused little liquids any day and beat them hands down. Finally, while all the meals we were provided weren’t too bad, it was a bit frustrating to be served a fixed course meal every time with no option to choose what we wanted to eat or how we wanted it prepared.
To be Social or not to be…
I had read and heard a lot about various opinions on the concept of Socialism and how it impacts and influences the lifestyle of people who have been subscribed to it. But today, I had a chance to witness in person a simple display of that. I am referring to the folks having their barbecue in the park earlier in the afternoon. There was clearly no sign of either affluence or lack of it, with no room for any disparity. Everyone seemed to be enjoying their bulgogi by barbecuing their favorite meat (which they probably bought from the same outlets) in very similar compact grills (almost exact same model and dimension!). This was so different from what you get to witness in a place like America or India – where disparity of wealth, richness and affordability is in shameless display all around. This actually reminded more of my college days back in the desert town of Pilani in India where everyone’s status was normalized down to a small worn out room, and required to eat at the same table in a mess hall - neutralizing most of the disparity that could have been otherwise expressed.
Though the trip had started off with a quick impression that everything that we were seeing was being showcased for foreign tourists , this gradually changed over the course of the day as we started getting more and more into environments heavily filled with locals – like the park where everyone seemed to be enjoying their holiday barbecue or the super charged lady who was manning the traffic at an intersection while lighting up everyone with her infectious smile and fiery salutes – that would put any kind of energy drink like red bull to shame! And of course, how can I forget the dude who was spending his time off inside the tour bus – while the tourists were out exploring an attraction – by having his own Karaoke J There were enough signs to show that the locals – despite any inner gripes they may have – seemed to be content with what they were getting, doing and experiencing. This is probably not the expression one would get looking into DPRK from outside. Of course, the disclaimer I have is that this opinion is purely based on my personal observation in the capital city and no venturing beyond that.
Just like the anxiety that was built up before arrival, each of us in our group were even more apprehensive as we got ready for the departure process. We were expecting a painful scanning process of all our possessions as well as a lot of questioning. But astonishingly, the exit process was smooth & seamless and we breezed through check-in, immigration and security faster than what I have experienced in a beach destination in Asia. Talk about travel surprises and breaking the stereotypes!
The departure lounge was pretty swanky with all the shops that you would expect to find in a world class airport, selling everything one might hope to buy on the way out of a destination. The highlight was the cool coffee shop that provided an experience that can easily compete with the finest in this part of the world – every kind of coffee drink that you can think of was on the menu which claimed itself to be a ‘coffee lab’. What I didn’t get through my entire stay, I got treated to on my way out - like almost tempting me to return to this less discovered destination. And even if had remotely considered a potential return visit, that mischievous little burger and still expired peach-pear-orange-apple-like juice that was served on the return flight reminded me why I probably should not J