There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Beijng to Pyongyang: Part 3 of Beijing, North Korea and Shanxi

After a leisurely breakfast, we made our way back to Beijing airport. There are many things I like and admire about China and the Chinese, but there are also things that irritate me. Their tendency to rebuild instead of restore is one we met yesterday; today we had to confront the Chinese love of over-strict adherence to rigid and nonsensical rules, particularly where security is concerned. Slow, but apparently inexorably, liberalisation has deprived the government of much of its control of people’s everyday lives. Western governments know they can get away with almost anything in the name of security (‘well you can’t be too safe’ as people meekly say instead of railing against another loss of freedom), so it would be surprising if the Chinese government did not try to claw back some sense of their waning omnipotence by imposing ‘security’ anywhere and everywhere they can.

I had already been mildly irritated by the need to manhandle our baggage though the X-ray scanners on metro stations, but then we got to the airport. All airports are security conscious; they all want laptops X-rayed separately, but only in Beijing does the same apply to umbrellas. Everybody received a full pat-down search regardless of what the metal detector said, and our bag was closely examined, emptied and X-rayed again with everything containing any metal - coins, sunglasses, cameras – being re-X-rayed separately. A great deal of patience was required, but eventually we got through with everything we started with, unlike our Hotan experience in 2008.

The inhabitants of the economy class cabin in our Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang – one of two that day – were all foreigners, mainly British and German. The small business class section was stuffed with important Koreans.

Air Koryo were banned from flying into the EU in 2006 because of maintenance irregularities, and I have a (not totally unfounded) prejudice against Russian built aircraft, but the relatively new Tupolev took us the short journey from Beijing to Pyongyang without incident.

TV screens showed a performance by the Moranbong Band, sometimes described as ‘North Korea’s Spice Girls’, the members being personally selected by Kim Jong-Un himself. Like the Spice Girls they deal in instantly forgettable pop melodies, but with titles like 'Let's Study' and 'Our Dear Leader'. The black clad musicians behind are also band members and the camera lingered on them as much as on the singers, so they could show the back-projection of soldiers parading, rockets being launched and war being prepared for.
The Moranbong  Band, North Koreas 'Spice Girls'
Copyright probably DPRKMusicChannel

In-flight catering was a bun containing a pork patty. We were unsure if this is what Koreans eat or a nod towards perceived western preferences [09/09/13 we saw similar buns being eaten as part of Korean picnics, which probably answers the question]. Beer was poured from a 750ml bottle. A darkish lager with a definite flavour of malted barley, it was surprisingly good and noticeably better than most Chinese brews (which is not setting the bar that high).

Except for asking our race - I wanted to put ‘human’ but after some discussion we both left the space blank - the landing cards were standard. The customs form, though, was a work of art. After the usual currency declaration we were asked to list our belongings. ‘What, every sock and knicker?’ we asked ourselves but settled for admitting the possession of three cameras. In another space we were required to list all publications we had brought with us. I admitted to one novel. On the plane from England I had been reading Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim’.  L realised just before leaving the hotel that this was probably not the most tactful book to take into North Korea. Kipling’s Kim could hardly be confused with the Eternal President (Kim Il-Sung 1912-94) or his son the Dear Leader (Kim Jong-Il 1941-2011) or grandson The Marshall (Kim Jong-Un, born 1983) but you cannot expect a Korean Customs Officer to have an in-depth knowledge of British imperialist fiction. I took another book and left Kim in Beijing.

Pyongyang airport is tiny (2 baggage carousels, though only one was needed) and the passport and customs checks less fearsome than expected. The immigration officer did not like the unanswered race question and handed L’s card back to be completed. Behind her, I tried to write ‘Caucasian’ in the tiny space, with the card balanced on my hand and without bothering to put on my glasses. What I actually wrote could have been anything - chimpanzee, chestnut, chaffinch - but as long as the space was filled he was happy.

The customs official was brought up sharply by ‘three cameras’ and fearing he might be faced with something as dangerous as a journalist, he demanded to see them. When three very modest digital cameras emerged from L’s handbag, he laughed and waved us through. I did not know whether to be relieved or insulted.

We had been told that mobile phones would be confiscated for the duration, so we had left ours in Beijing. That was, though, not the case; they contented themselves with merely noting numbers.

We attached ourselves to the appropriate group and were led to a bus for the 20-minute drive in to Pyongyang.

A smart new tractor was working in a field beside the airport access road. The highway into Pyongyang was wide and in good condition, but virtually empty. We saw three more tractors before we reached the city, half our total for the whole week.
A Working Tractor near Pyongyang Airport

We also passed an advertisement. Pyeonghwa [Peace] Motors, a joint venture between the North Koreans and a Seoul-based company owned by Sun Myung Moon (he of the ‘Moonies’), is the only company to advertise in North Korea. They have several billboards and run television ads – though I never managed to watch North Korean television long enough to see one. As the number of people who can afford cars is vanishingly small we wondered who these ads were aimed at. The factory, in Nampo, opened in 2002 and can produce 10 000 cars a year. In 2009 it sold 650 vehicles. 

Peace Motors Advertisement
The Only Ad in North Korea

We reached Pyongyang at 5.30 pm, which anywhere else would be rush hour. Where is the traffic? Where are the people? The guides had no answers to these questions. As Pyongyang was the only city they had ever seen, they saw nothing strange in the wide, empty streets.
Rush hour, Pyongyang

Foreigners are corralled in the Yanggakkdo Hotel, a tower at one end of an island in the Taedong River - a safe place to put us. At the other end is a half built sports stadium and the vast and extremely ugly concrete cinema used for the Pyongyang Film Festival, a nine-day extravaganza held every two years. We were permitted to walk out of the hotel and down to the tip of the island without a minder. There hardly seemed any point.
The Yanggakdo Hotel, Pyongyang

Our room could have been in any mid-range international hotel anywhere in the world. We switched on the TV and found there was the one North Korean channel, several Chinese channels, the BBC World service with the sound (deliberately?) blurred and an English language Japanese channel. The guides stayed in the same hotel, but with only one channel on their TVs.
The Taedong River from the Yanggakdo Hotel, Pyongyang

We went down to the bar for a beer and joined some other members of our group. I wanted to know what sort of people go to North Korea on holiday. The answer started to emerge that evening and by the end of the week was clear – normal people (at least in so far as L and I are normal). In some ways our group was varied, ages ranged from twenties to seventies, some couples, some singles and a sprinkling of people tacking a North Korean jaunt onto the end of a Chinese business trip. What we all had in common was a lively curiosity about the world in general and, at least for that week, about North Korea in particular. Well travelled, well educated and well informed is not, I think, too flattering a summary.


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