Pyongyang is often perceived as a city in black and white, populated by automatons devoid of life. While the socialist architecture, somewhat regimented lifestyle and dim lights are real and contribute to this perception, there are still plenty of colors and life to be found. Families enjoy a day by the river or a picnic at the park. Kids love to fool around, and teenagers enjoy dressing in the latest available fashion. People, while distant at a first glance, are always happy to respond to smiles and waves, and foreigners can pretty easily join the locals for dances and celebrations. There is even the occasional traffic jam.
The city is evolving fast, and a recent blog sheds light on modern living in Pyongyang with a distinctively western flair. Of course, the blog, which some have labeled a propaganda tool, describes the lifestyle of a minority, but overall enhancements to infrastructure, advances in architecture, and improvements to leisure facilities and transportation benefit all. Beyond the buildings, beyond the regime, there are people, who, probably better than us westerners, can often find happiness and pleasure in the little things in life.
Perhaps the first hour in Pyongyang best summarizes the entire trip: a constant rush interrupted by lengthy lulls; a genuine concern about appearances tampered by gushing reality that shatters it all; carefully crafted plans that break apart; and this awkward feeling of not being free anymore.
Our small group quickly gathers amongst the crowds on the station platform, where our guides have been awaiting us. There is light, energy and motion all around—despite tales of a dead, sleepy city, the place seems very much alive, in the noise and chaos of people, bags and boxes that keep spewing off the train.
Our main guide is accompanied by our tour manager—a higher ranking fellow at KITC (Korea International Travel Company, the government’s arm that manages tourism) who makes it clear that he’s graduated from the lower ranks into management—as well as a junior guide. That’s three guides plus a driver to accompany all twenty on us on a planned ten minute ride to the hotel. We’re certainly well taken care of; it’s unlikely we’ll get lost. Continue reading
It took me a while to write this post—in addition to shifting through over 20 gigabytes worth of pictures and videos taken in under 10 hours I had to figure out how to best organize my thoughts. Should I make this post linear, and recount my experience hour by hour? Should I emphasize my interactions with North Korean passengers or the striking scenery that we rode through? How could I select just a few representative pictures that would do the experience justice? I’m not sure I’ve found the perfect solution, but I’ve resolved to write a single semi-linear post covering the whole ride from Sinuju, the DPRK’s border town with China to Pyongyang, the capital—a single post narrating some of the shortest 10 hours of my life. It will be long yet cursory and there are topics that I will cover in greater details down the road. I’ve illustrated the text with videos to preserve the dynamic nature of the experience, and I have included at the bottom a series of pictures which tells more than words.
Traveling from Beijing to Pyongyang by train is a privilege. The sinuous line goes through the “real” DPRK and remote parts of the country, places that tourists would never be allowed to visit, far from the showcase capital of Pyongyang. Embarking on this long journey is only possible for non-US citizens, and is a unique opportunity to mingle with North Koreans without a government minder.
While the location of the tracks is well-known (the tracks even appear on Bing Maps, although, strangely, not Google) I left my GPS running to build a continuous trail. While some points are slightly off, due to reception issues and to the need to hide this illegal device, I have been able to map the entire route and geo-tag my pictures, hopefully adding to the pool of knowledge about the DPRK.
Children lining up at Pyongyang’s No. 69 middle school. Visiting a school provides a glimpse into the early propaganda that children are subject to. That being said, the 11 (soon 12) year education is free and compulsory for all, and children have opportunities to engage in extra-curricular activities. They also have to perform “volunteer” work, such as cleaning and maintenance duties.
I made it back from the DPRK a bit over a week ago, having enjoyed another couple of days in the capital, as well as a day out in Kaesong and at the DMZ. With this, I suppose I have officially joined to the odd group of travelers who have been to the Northern side of the DMZ more than they’ve been to the South.
The Mass Games – “Arirang”, a stunning display
The main goal of this trip was to attend the Mass Games “Arirang” show before its likely demise next year. The Mass Games succeed in drawing relatively large crowds, filling May Day stadium—the biggest stadium in the world—many weeks in a row. Granted, Chinese visitors largely outnumber westerners, but there is something almost a little “touristy” about attending a performance, with DVDs and t-shirts on sale inside and outside the stadium. Itineraries built around the Mass Games are therefore often pretty standard, featuring “safe” attractions such as a visit to the statues of the Leaders, a one-stop metro ride, and a children’s show. While I did have a more enthralling experience back in April, it was interesting to witness the execution of a well-oiled itinerary where things typically “just work” (which was definitely not the case in April.) Visitors who fly in and out, and therefore don’t get a peek at the countryside, might almost leave with the feeling that they visited a slightly odd, but overall quite normal place, except perhaps for the fact that there’s no WiFi at the hotel.
One particularly interesting aspect of traveling to the DPRK twice in less than six months, though, is the ability to witness changes. “Change” seems to be a keyword in all recent news surrounding the DPRK—some speculate about it, some hope for it, some bet on it, some deny it—but most observers agree that something is happening. While it is difficult for the naked eye to draw a concise, scientific or objective picture of what change entails, I observed the following: Continue reading