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…..

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Panmunjom and the DMZ: Part 6 of Beijing, North Korea and Shanxi

I was excited at the prospect of seeing some of the country beyond Pyongyang, but first we had to leave the hotel.

Returning to our room after breakfast we picked up our cases and headed for the lifts. The hotel had a bank of eight lifts but at any one time three would be out of order and at peak times the rest would be overloaded. A man with an armband stopped overcrowding on the way up, but there was no such person on the higher floors and Chinese tour groups have a cavalier one in, all in approach to elevators. The lifts bounced alarmingly when they halted and sometimes inserted worrying little extra stops between floors.

The Yanggakdo Hotel, Pyongyang
47 storeys of scary lifts
Being on the 8th floor we found all the descending lifts packed. Eventually we stopped an ascending lift, rose all the way to the 47th floor and came down again. It was crammed and groaning audibly by the time we reached the ground and we were very glad to disembark. Getting downstairs had taken twenty minutes. L hates being late and it was, of course, my fault because I had dismissed the idea of allowing half an hour for what should have been a 30sec journey. I was happy to point out, when eventually we joined the group, that we were not the last to arrive.

By contrast leaving Pyongyang was quick and easy. Swiftly crossing the traffic free city, we were bowling down the four-lane Unification Highway shortly after 8 o’clock. It was slightly less busy than the M6. In two hours we saw several busloads of tourists, but counting cars required the fingers of only one hand.

Heavy traffic on the Unification Highway south of Pyongyang
We glimpsed towns and villages across fields full of rice, maize and, occasionally, grazing cattle. The few people we saw were either cycling or walking at a steady pace. North Koreans do this a lot, but we rarely spotted anyone actually working.

A town hides behind the trees and maize
Unification Highway South of Pyongyan
We paused at a service station for a break. Tea, coffee and souvenirs stalls – obviously there for our benefit as they accepted only euros - were set up in the car park rather than the buildings.

Beside the highway, near Kaesong
Reaching the Kaesong area, we left the highway and for twenty minutes followed an un-tarmacked but well made road winding gently through low hills. Our bus struggled painfully with the relatively mild gradients.

The road to King Kongmin's tomb

Our destination was the tomb of King Kongmin (1330-1374) the 31st ruler of the Koryo dynasty. A rising path led to two grassy domes under which lie the remains of the king and his Mongolian queen.
The path up to King Kongmin's tomb
Guarded by two Confucian sages and two warriors on each side ......

Confucian sages and warriors, King Kongmin's tomb
...the graves lie behind large stone altars.....
Large stone altar, King Kongmin's tomb, Kaesong
flanked by statues of tigers for strength and sheep for generosity (not the first sheepy attribute that comes to mind).

Tigers for strength? Was someone having a laugh?
King Kongmin's tomb, Kaesong
The best preserved of the Koryo tombs, it was intact until the Japanese dynamited the entrance in 1905 and looted the contents, which they took to Japan and subsequently lost. Only Kongmin’s coffin remains; we saw it later in Kaesong’s Koryo museum.

The mountain opposite is known as ‘Oh My’ mountain. The story goes that King Kongmin was having difficulty finding a location for his tomb that combined good feng shui with the sort of view he was prepared to spend eternity studying. Fed up with the failure of his geomancers (in one version he had them all killed) he struck a death or riches deal with a young hopeful who recommended the very spot where the king now lies. Kongmin climbed the mountain opposite to get a good view, telling his soldiers that if he was dissatisfied he would wave a white cloth and they should lop off the young man’s head. He reached the top and liked what he saw, but it had been a stiff climb and he took out a cloth to wipe the sweat from his brow. Misinterpreting the signal, the soldiers carried out their orders. When the king returned ready to bestow riches on the young man he found him a headless corpse. ‘Oh My!’ he said and the name stuck.

'Oh My' Mountain from King Kongmin's tomb, Kaesong
Whether the force of his reaction loses something in translation or whether life was cheap in medieval Korea (as it often still is in the modern DPRK) I can only speculate.

We drove down the mountain and followed a tarmac road to the Demilitarised Zone on a route that afforded some glimpses of ordinary Korean life.
Ordinary life in the DPRK?

We had enjoyed these more normal tourist activities, but arriving at the DMZ we were jolted back into the alternative reality of the DPRK. The poster apparently says ‘One Korea’ not ‘Up Yours’.

One Korea (apparently)
Leaving the bus, which was taken away to be searched (I have no idea what they expected to find) we joined several other busloads in the gift shop which sold exactly the same items as everywhere else. We bought a Panmunjom tee-shirt for our grandson - Koreans are small people and none came near fitting me. [update: it looked fine but the seams unravelled the first time it was washed.]

Eventually we were called through into the next room where a North Korean officer briefed us on the geography of the site before sending us outside to walk in single file back to our buses. The roadway was in a trench of sorts and as we passed a gap in the wall it seemed natural to suggest we dash across at irregular intervals in case of snipers. We didn’t, and there weren’t any, but the DPRK plants strange ideas in your head.
Briefing from a DPRK officer, Kaesong

It was a very short ride to the room where the armistice was negotiated and an assortment of people from several tour groups arranged themselves around the very table used during the talks.

The table used for the armistice negotiations, Panmunjom

We then moved across to the room where the armistice was signed – it was only an armistice, there has not yet been a peace treaty and the war is still active (very much so in the North Korean mind). We saw the table where the Koreans signed, with their flag and their copy…

Where the North Korean signed the armistice, Panmunjom
…and the table where the Americans signed. The cowardly Americans, having been soundly defeated for the first time in their history, did not even have the courage to bring their own flag but hid behind the banner of the United Nations. That is what they told us, but it was, technically a UN not an American operation - and who (if anybody) won is another matter. Around the room a display of pictures expounded North Korea’s somewhat idiosyncratic narrative of the war (see the war museum for details).

Where the Americans signed the armistice, Panmunjom

They would have liked to have lined us up in fours and marched us to the border, but the randomly assembled group of tourists was having none of it. As we walked a Korean guide a little behind me said, ‘Of course we should be changing the peace talks into victory talks very soon,’ at which a quiet English voice asked ‘To which side?’ The reply was a slightly baffled but very firm ‘To us.’ North Koreans don’t do irony

We paused to examine a monumental signature of Kim Il Sung and listen to a lengthy lecture about the stone’s dimensions, all of which have some sort of significance (it is 7.7 metres long Kim as visited on the 7th of July etc). ‘Who cares?’ was my response; mathematicians love numerology like astronomers revel in the complexities of astrology.

Monumental signature of Kim Il Sung, Panmunjom
We looked down on the border from the balcony of a building specially constructed for the purpose. Five huts, the blue belonging to the north, the grey to the south (or perhaps the other way round?) straddle the concrete threshold that marks the great divide. Beyond is South Korea but, disappointingly, there was no one there to wave to. The North Korean soldiers on guard are unarmed (this is a demilitarised zone) and Wikipedia tells me the South Korean guards (and we saw none) wear sunglasses so as not to provoke their DPRK counterparts by making eye contact. I found it a strangely exciting and deeply weird place to be.

The border runs through the middle of the huts (the grey ones are just out of shot),

Nothing remains of the old village of Panmunjom, but the building where the currently suspended peace talks take place is now referred to as Panmunjom.

Returning to our bus, we drove a short distance to a restaurant inside the DMZ where we were to have lunch. The food in North Korea had not so far been memorable, but this was by far the best meal we were to have.

Restaurant in the DMZ

Chicken soup with noodles was a modest start but then we turned out attention to the brass bowls laid out before us. They contained mushrooms, a vegetable referred to as ‘mountain herbs’, bellflower root (a new one to us and very good) with chilli, cucumbers, beansprouts, fish and rice balls in a sweet sauce, beef and a fried egg. There were also extras we had ordered the day before, €30 for a ginseng chicken for as many as chose to chip in or €5 for a portion of ‘sweet meat’. Suspecting (correctly as it turned out) that ‘ginseng chicken’ would be an expensive way of eating ordinary chicken, we were among the minority opting for the rich spicy stew containing strips of what the Koreans coyly call ‘sweet meat’ which is actually dog. I must confess this was not the first time we had eaten dog – that was in a Korean restaurant in China in 2004. After that we said ‘never again’ but it was the local speciality and Kaesong cuisine is said to be the finest in Korea. There is, once you move beyond the psychological hang-up, nothing very special about the meat, nor was there a lot of it, but it was in an excellent sauce. The meal was accompanied by rice wine drunk from a small brass receptacle that was regularly refilled.
'Sweet meat' and other goodies, Panmunjom

Well fed, we took a short trip back into Kaesong to Seonggyungwan, founded in 992 as a Confucian educational institution and now the Koryo Museum. It was burned down by the Japanese in the 1590s so the oldest buildings we saw are sixteenth century.  It is considered Kaesong’s first university and outside we were able to watch students from the current Kaesong University cycling past.

Kaesong University students

Some old buildings have interesting painted beams….

Painted beams, Koryo Museum, Kaesong
…and there is a mock-up of the tomb of King Kongmin, but overall it is rather short on artefacts from the Koryo period (918 – 1392).

Mock-up of King Kongmin's tomb, Koryo Museum, Kaesong
Kaesong is also the home of the Kaesong Industrial Region – recently reopened after a Kim Jung Un inspired spat – where North Koreans work in South Korean owned factories. There was no chance they would let us near that and instead we went to Sun Hill.

Sun Hill (‘Sun,’ as ever refers to Kim Il Sung) overlooks Kaesong’s main street. I am not sure why we went there, did we really need to see another statue of Kim Il Sung or were the guides just killing time? (Sometimes I am ashamed at my own cynicism, what could be more uplifting than another heroic statue of the Eternal Leader?). None of us opted to walk up the steps to the statue and bow, but a truckload of soldiers arrived carrying floral tributes and did it for us.

Kim Il Sung on Sun Hill, Kaesong
The hill opposite is said to resemble a pregnant woman lying on her back and has inspired several folk tales. The outline is moderately convincing, but I wonder who thought it a good idea to plant a communications tower in her navel.

The main street of Kaesong from Sun Hill
with the pregnant woman and her communication mast in the mist beyond
Our next visit was to Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel, a hotel built like a traditional Korean village. It was newish, but empty and showing signs of becoming run down. We were not entirely sure what it was for or what we were doing there, but we were entirely at the mercy of the guides and by now it was becoming obvious that filling time was important to them. We started to edge out of the gate, take pictures of the streets outside and observe the ordinary citizens of Kaesong. The imminent danger of mingling soon persuaded them that it was time to move on.
Kaesong from the 'Folk Custom Hotel'

We drove back towards Pyongyang, re-joining the still empty Unification Highway and again pausing at the service station. Since the morning the stalls hade been dragged across the road to the car park on the other side. This time cold beer was an offer – though not to me, I arrived as the last was sold. Still, we were thirsty and €0.50 seemed a reasonable price for a warmish beer, which we shared.

Is this woman setting a good example?

Emboldened by drink I persuaded Lynne to pose in the middle of the road beneath the service station bridge, just like you don’t at Newport Pagnell.

Under the service station bridge, Unification Highway

A little further north we turned off and entered the city of Sariwan. The tower blocks were more rundown than in Pyongyang, yet it still had the same wide, empty streets. The few people we saw walked at a steady pace, or rode or pushed bicycles. I was surprised by how many people we had seen pushing their bikes, not just here but in Pyongyang, too. Kim Il Sung had once said that to be healthy a person should walk ten thousand paces a day. Someone suggested that the only way for bike owners to make their ten thousand is to push it. It was said partly as a joke, but in the DPRK you sometimes wonder. If there were any private cars on the streets would we see their owners pushing them?

We arrived at the March the 6th Hotel in Sariwan.

The foyer boasted a magnificent mural of Kim Il Sung receiving visitors of all nationalities and ethnicities. In another time and another place we might have seen Queen Victoria greeting representatives from the nations of the empire.
Kim Il Sung is thanked by the people of the world

Our room was on the 3rd floor. There was no lift so I lugged our suitcase up the stairs – which was better than waiting 20 minutes for one of the dangerously overcrowded lifts at the Yanggakdok.

The room was a good size, clean enough and with the softest beds we had met on the trip (including China). There was a thermos of hot water so we hauled a couple of seats onto the balcony and had a cup of tea. Other members of our group ventured onto their balcony to find it filled with empty beer bottles.

The bathroom was cunningly designed with a solid plastic shower screen placed so that the toilet could only be sat on sideways. There was no hot water, but after a group request was met with a surprised response (‘What do you want that for?’) we were promised it would be available for an hour in the morning. [They delivered on the promise, which was when I noticed that the drain had been placed on the opposite side of the room from the shower head, so the whole bathroom flooded. At the end of the hour the hot water went off – and so did the cold.]

We had better draw a veil over dinner, but the beer was excellent and only €0.60 for a 75ml bottle, so the quality of the food could be tolerated.

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