The train clattered along the track, steaming towards Pyongyang. We had chosen this rather cumbersome journey to the nation’s capital under good reason. Air Koryo (the nation’s only airline) had a notoriously bad safety record. It was one of the few airlines banned from operating within the European Union, and recent sanctions made spare parts increasingly hard to find. Glasgow University students are notoriously fans of ‘vintage’ but when it comes to aircraft the Ex-Soviet passenger planes seemed like a risk too far. We had known that what we were going to experience within the country was a pre-packaged highlight of the country centred around the capital. This would be a great opportunity to have a glimpse of the provincial lifestyle.
As we pulled out of the border town of Sinuiju we were greeted with the incongruous sight of colourful tower blocks. The dingy concrete pre-fab housing had been painted with bright primary colours so that they resembled a childhood creation of lego bricks. In front lay huge murals depicting the leaders: Kim Jong il, Kim il Sung and his wife Kim Jong-Suk. Interestingly, in any picture of Kim il Sung he is always facing to the left to hide a massive tumour that had developed on the back of his neck. Their lush surroundings and smiling faces contrasted grimly with the bare landscape. You noticed immediately the lack of natural vegetation. The ground was a bland mix of dusty earth and rock. For this there was good reason. In the 1990s an estimated 3.5 million people had died as a result of Famine brought about by a collapse in the inflexible public food distribution system. I had read the fantastic book by Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy depicting the harrowing stories of the people affected by this humanitarian crisis. Grass was torn up for boiling soup and trees removed for firewood. The famine precipitated rampant deforestation, land erosion, pillaging of forests, pollution, and water supply contamination, and these seemingly intractable problems still haunt the country today.
Food insecurity was evident everywhere you looked along our journey. Every inch of useable land was devoted to growing sustenance. Geography had dealt North Korea a cruel hand with the fertile land and agriculture concentrated in the South. The towering mountains in the distance looked all but impassable. Much had been done to tame this harsh terrain with terraces of earth built up the steep mountain face. However, as I later learned this practise had done much to wash away the nation’s scarce nutritional soil. Even the gaps between the rails had been neatly planted. As the train thundered along, intermittently the horn would bare and a group of huddled farmers would scatter out the path of the oncoming train. Farmers hunched in the mid-day sun were waist deep in water in militaristic lines planting rice for the next harvest. During this time of year, it was common practise for urban workers to be drafted out to the provinces to aid with food production. The pillars of a modern Chinese suspension bridge that led to the glistening skyscrapers of Dandong were visible, shimmering like diamonds in the distance. I could only imagine what these people felt with this prosperity so visible. A bridge to the ‘free world’ that they would never be able to cross. The nation’s isolationist policies were working them to death. You could see the need for the oversized propaganda, it would need to work overtime to convince them that this was for the best.
The journey continued along the same lines. The monotony was interrupted only by a steward straight out of the 1950s with a trolley full of North Korean beer and instant noodles (did she know students were on the train?). Without the skills of a seasoned beer connoisseur I can only describe it as bloody delicious. It was so good that upon our return to Glasgow we enquired about importing it into the UK as we’d surely make a killing. Unfortunately, those pesky UN sanctions wouldn’t allow it so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
We arrived in Pyongyang later that evening. The central station was a hive of activity with a mass of soldiers barking orders and people scurrying about everywhere. We were whisked away on to our tour bus to be greeted by Korean guides: Sim, Yang and Kim. We drove through the streets of Pyongyang. The most striking thing was how quiet it was for a city of 3 million people. The only sign of life was peering through the windows of the trams and busses. People were rammed like sardines into these rickety trams straight from the 1950s. A star was placed on each vehicle for every 100,000 miles it had completed. Suffice it to say this tram was more festooned that a senior general. Abellio must be going international…
We were re-united as a tour group over dinner in the dining room of the hotel. It was a real international bunch with travellers from the UK, America, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, Germany and even Iran. They were a brilliant group and seemed to have visited between them every corner of the globe. The Americans been denied the luxury of the train. I didn’t really see why this was the case. What would the budding Imperialist spy report unless Langley were fascinated by poorly run agriculture?
The hotel was a fascinating place and lived up to its imposing communist façade inside. We were chaperoned around the entertainment complex. It was unmistakably designed as a nuclear bunker as it was totally underground and accessed through a secret heavy metal door. It had the appearance of a communist millionaire’s crib with a Karaoke bar, games room, bowling alley and pool. There was also the famous revolving restaurant at the top of the building which revolved with the technical integrity and smoothness of an old fairground ride. Our room was on the 35th floor of the huge hotel. The rumours were true, the button for floor number 5 was missing! My fear was quickly put to rest. Nothing in the room worked, not even the 1950s radiogram in the corner. I was convinced that any bugging equipment would surely be out of action. We had an incredible view of the city. The sun streamed through the smog of factories in the distance. The pyramidal hotel (one of the largest buildings in the world) could be seen punching through the skyline. It is estimated the cost of construction was $750 million, consuming 2 percent of North Korea’s GDP. After years of lying unfinished it had been completed by an Egyptian telecoms company in return for allowances to operate the country’s 3G mobile network. However once construction had been completing the company’s merger profits were considered anti-communist and their assets seized.
The next morning, we were up early. We had spent a night in the bar in the foyer sampling the hotel’s ‘craft beer’. The beer had tasted strangely metallic and I worryingly recalled the fact that the city’s drinking water was heavily contaminated with Industrial waste. This was followed by a rather long stint in the Karaoke bar. It had an impressive repertoire of songs but we were devastated to discover that ‘500 miles’ was also a Chinese folk song and instead rather despondently attempted a glorious rendition of the Gloria Gaynor classic, I Will Survive, which had a group of Chinese businessmen in the corner in fits of laughter. It seemed apt as a promise to the North Koreans watching on for the upcoming trip.
(I know I am being rather creepy zooming in but the video doesn’t convey how far away they were)
We were wakened by a rather different kind of music. The eerie tones were blasting over the city’s broadcast system. Down below on the banks of the river hundreds of people were performing what seemed like a ritual dance to begin their day. At the local college across the river a brass band were welcoming students into their morning lessons.
Today we were heading toward the heavily militarised border with South Korea.With a quick stop at a fascinating re-unification monument of two women (each representing a nation) outstretched over the deserted motorway. It was in fact so unstable that vehicles were forbidden from driving under it. We sheepishly posed for a cheesy photograph re-creating the pose in the middle of the road.
The state of the road was appalling and we were thrashed about in our seats like some perverse North Korean torture method. We stopped for morning coffee at a garish pink service station where a welcome party was setting up a ‘pop-up’ gift shop. There I purchased the wonderful book “Kim Jong il: The Great Man.” I spent the rest of the holiday reading endless passages from this masterpiece. I especially enjoyed the passages that overstated to biblical proportions the extent of his “manliness.” It was full of understated claims such as: “His unusual thinking and energy astonish geniuses in the world.” Feeling suitably inspired we re-joined the highway.
As we approached the border the military presence was more evident. Our tour guides stressed the importance of not taking pictures at the many military checkpoints, a solemn reminder that not everyone can move freely throughout the country. The road was lined with imposing concrete statues that I later learned were designed to be toppled in the event of an American invasion to act as tank traps. At the border itself we were shown around by a high ranking North Korean general.
There was a fascinating museum including the desk where the armistice had been signed. In a rather bizarre photo opportunity where we were invited to re-create the signing by a Chinese tour group. I put on my best aggressive face and proceeded to stare down the menacing Chinese oppressors. There was also an axe that had resulted in the death of two American soldiers. They had cut down a tree on the North Korean side as it was blocking the view from their guard post. In a rather gruesome act of violence the North Koreans had proceeded to hack the soldiers to death with their own axe. We also entered the famous blue huts which straddled the border. I tentatively set one foot over the border only to be ushered away by an angry looking border guard.
We then explored a museum of ancient Korean history. During the Korean war, more bombs had been dropped on this tiny country than in the entirety of World War II. As such this was one of the few buildings that pre-dated the 1950s. This was followed by a lunch in a traditional Korean restaurant. The food was served in hundreds of tiny gold dishes. The highlight of the meal was the option ‘dog soup.’ I didn’t order any (€5 was beyond my budget) but managed to scrounge a spoonful of Fido from someone else. I am no Gordon Ramsay but the meat was surprisingly good. On the bus back we were treated to a rousing rendition of the Korean national anthem by our guides. The microphone was then offered to anyone wishing to share a song of their people. Sheepishly we took to the front: “When I wake up…” I even got our Korean minders to muster a “da na nut na” during the infamous chorus! After a quick stop at the service station it was back to Pyongyang where the madness of “Children’s Day” celebrations awaited us…