I am not the kind of person to write a ‘travel blog’. They usually appear to me as gushing and self-centred vehicles to show how interesting and cultured you are. You’ll not find here any admissions that “I’ve found myself” or “felt spiritual.” I won’t be the first person and certainly won’t be the last to hash together a click baity title about how daring I was to visit one of the most vilified and secretive nations on the planet. A lot of you reading this will already have formed the opinion of me as some form of scumbag who has just handed fistfuls of money to a rogue dictator. To this view, I sympathise, the regime has caused and will continue to cause unimaginable suffering to its people and the wider world. In some places, I may seem to be contradicting what you may have seen in the media. Do not mistake this for a defence of this tyranny, it is merely an attempt to illustrate the other side of a complex story. I am not here to comment on the regime as I have a whole shelf of literature that can do a far better job than me (to interested readers I point you to an excellent study by Andrei Lankov). To those people I say this: the tourism industry loses the regime money hand over fist every year as will become apparent. Perhaps the only way to begin to thaw the grip of the regime will be to interact with the outside world. For the people to see the truth in their propaganda: we’re not trying to kill them and steal their country but are actually quite friendly. I was undoubtedly the first Scotsman they will ever have seen or at the very least the first one wearing our national dress. What follows is, hopefully, a vaguely entertaining but honest account of my short visit. It’s a bit long but hell at least it’ll be somewhat more interesting than mindlessly scrolling down a facebook timeline loaded with nightclub pictures and Donald Trump…
Our trip began in the hazy smog of Beijing. I had always been amused back in Glasgow at the students from China dawning their masks at the first sign of winter fog in the city. Now I knew why it was instinct. I can liken it only to the sensation of breathing in fine sand. It left you for several days with a claggy taste of pollutants in your mouth, you can only imagine the long term health effects on the people of the city . Save for one robbery, where Daniel had been taken in by a tourist scam involving a scooter ride, our stay in the city had been an enjoyable one, exploring Tiananmen Square and the huge expanse of the Forbidden City. It was incredible to see such stunning intricate detail and the enormous array of exhibits on offer. There was so much to explore and rumour says there are 9,999 rooms. However, it felt anything but a vast empty expanse as it was in the Emperor’s day. It was crammed to bursting with ignorant tourists ramming selfie sticks at holy shrines. In fact, the local government had limited it to 60,000 visitors per day.
We had been pre-warned to be on our best behaviour. Looking at the British media you’d be convinced that you’ll be dragged away just for sneezing in the wrong direction. In fact, one of the Americans had pre-recorded a video to his family in case of his capture. In short this was all overstated. The best way I could describe the country was that of a heavily religious state. The leaders were ‘Gods’, and anything that was done to insult their name would be severely frowned upon. This included folding, crumpling or even disposing of a newspaper, or indeed any other materials, featuring pictures of the leaders and being nothing but respectful and serious at the monuments. I had watched numerous documentaries where fearful journalists had made a big deal about how daring they were to sneak a camera into the country. In short, they didn’t care. You were allowed to photograph what you liked when you liked as long as it wasn’t of the military. I would love to have, like so many, embellished things here about how I have smuggled these photos out covertly but it simply isn’t true. This all seemed fair enough to me. In your travels, you wouldn’t march up to a priest and lecture about how much you hated Jesus or swan up to the local nuclear base with your long-range camera, this was just an extension of that etiquette. We were told the story about how some Australians (what other nationality could it be) had got roaring drunk the night before a visit to the resting place of the country’s former leaders. In their hungover state, they had been sick in the mausoleum. You’d be expecting at this point for the story to end there with some stern men in dark suits emerging to drag them to a lifetime in a labour camp. But no, although very upset they were understanding that it had been an accident. In short, we were warned: don’t be a d*ck and you’ll be fine.
We boarded a sleeper train to the border town of Dandong. This gave me a real impression of the sheer scale of China’s economic explosion. The scenery for the journey consisted upon mile after mile of high rise housing complexes and factories. Picture someone copying and pasting the red road flats into paddy fields a million times and you’ll be about there. Over some beers in the buffet car we were told the story of the infamous American tourist who was currently doing 15 years of hard labour. He had in fact travelled with the same company and had been accompanied by our guide. The Western media had portrayed this innocent soul who had been chosen at random. In fact, he had been paid by a local church group to steal a propaganda poster to fund a new car and was found with a poster roll to keep it in. They were angry not so much about the theft but that the poster had been placed on the ground. Thinking back to what we said about the nature of the relationship the people had with their leader, such a theft is a desecration of the word of ‘God.’ We were also told that he was not breaking rocks in some gulag but imprisoned in a hotel on the other side of Pyongyang with the American government being invoiced for his laundry bills!
Arriving in Dandong the following morning we searched the city for some authentic cuisine for breakfast. I had come to the conclusion that what we call ‘Chinese food’ isn’t really what is eaten in China. Like the ignorant Western tourists we are we settled on a KFC behind an imposing bronze statue of Chairman Mao. This felt like the methadone to wean the recent North Korean defectors off the multitude of shrines to the leaders back in their home country. We boarded the train to the border crossing. The trip was suddenly very real as I spotted several people at the station with little red badges of the leaders. These are to be worn at all times on the left breast to symbolise that the leaders are always close to their hearts. I managed to pick one of these up from a Chinese vendor, undeniably a fake, which now incredulously sits astride my Barrack Obama Bobble-head…The train then began to crawl over the ‘friendship bridge’ which ironically had half been destroyed with laser precision right up to the Chinese border on the Korean side by the Americans during the 1950-53 War. The stump had become a quasi-tourist attraction with brave tourists daring to poke an arm across the border. We could see on the bank ahead our first glimpse of the “Hermit Kingdom” in the form of an eerie theme park. Presumably this had been built to show off to the Chinese what they were missing. Sadly, the tides had turned and the shiny skyscrapers of Dandong behind us served as a grim reminder of the gulf between the two countries.
I had always been nervous about border crossings ever since an experience upon entering ‘the land of the free,’ on a trip to California. It had been an unseasonably hot day in Scotland and my sun-cream had set off an alarm. A word of warning to any traveller, some sun-creams have the same ingredients that can be found in explosives which doesn’t play well with the TSA. I was promptly led away to a darkened room to be examined by men who worryingly had rubber gloves. I will forever remember the line, ‘I’m just going to brush your penis with the back of my hand, sir.’ Suffice it to say they only found one large package down there…Smut aside, back in Dandong you got the impression this was all for show. Anyone wanting to sneak anything malicious could do so quite easily. In fact, on the return trip after a long stint at the Karaoke bar I slept through the whole thing without even a passport check. It took an age with soldiers boarding the train and randomly pointing thermometers and searching bags. My phone was searched in a rather awkward exchange where a North Korean soldier was laughing at selfies we’d taken on a night out in Mallorca with him concluding that I ‘liked the look of myself’. The customs form was also a very interesting read. It enquired whether I had an ‘exciter’ on my person. Not really knowing what this was I replied in the negative feeling very nervous about the packet of Chinese skittles secreted in my bag. After what seemed like an age and several cans of cheap Chinese beer, which strangely tasted like fairy liquid, we were in.