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…..

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Sariwon to Nampho: Part 7 of Beijing, North Korea and Shanxi

After a regrettable breakfast (whose idea was it to cook the omelettes the previous evening and leave them in the fridge overnight? Why was there no tea or coffee?) we prepared for departure.

Milling about in front of the hotel waiting to leave, some of us walked out onto the street to observe the rush hour. Then B crossed the road for a better view. Like schoolchildren we were testing the boundaries, and the far side of the road, we soon discovered, was a step too far. Once established we had to accept the limits. Short of doing something spectacularly stupid, the worst that could happen to us was swift deportation back to China, but for the guides the consequences could be unimaginably awful. They were decent people in their way and none of us wanted that on our conscience.

Morning rush hour, Sariwon

Last night’s barmaid left the hotel on her bicycle. We waved and said ‘Good morning’ and she waved back. As she peddled away we could see that strapped to her back was a Kalashnikov. The rifle, I am sure, was wooden and she was presumably off to her home guard drill - invasion is expected imminently and all citizens are ready to defend their country. It is fortunate that the threat exists primarily in the fantasy world created by the country’s leaders; defending the DPRK with wooden rifles would be a poor idea.

Leaving Sariwon we passed the Mt Kyongyam Folk Village, a street of traditional houses constructed so that school children can learn about their heritage – and no doubt see how bad life was before the current golden age. In theory it is open to foreigners, but either theory does not match practice, or it was considered too dull.

A few minutes drive from town brought us to Mi Gok Collective Farm. The buildings clustered at the foot of a low hill with fields of vegetables and rice stretching across the flatlands into the misty distance.

Mi Gok Collective Farm, Sariwon
We were met by a woman in traditional costume who was the guide to the farm museum.

I have been to agricultural museums before, but this was the first I had seen without a single agricultural implement, ancient or modern. The museum was entirely dedicated to cataloguing the 12 visits of Kim Il Sung and the 8 visits of Kim Jong Il (Kim Jong Un has yet to put in an appearance).

The exhibits at Mi Gok museum were almost entirely pictures of the visits of
Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il

Thanks to the guidance of the Dear Leader, Mi Gok has become North Korea’s model farm producing a staggering 10t of rice per hectare [I cannot comment on the veracity of this claim, but I read that the Philippines are pleased to have increased their national production to over 3.5t/ha]. A crucial part of his advice was to ‘use better seed and tend it more carefully,’ which is great wisdom indeed. Presumably he is also in favour of motherhood and kimchi (apple pie being un-Korean).

After the museum, we were to visit the residential area which had been much praised by the Dear Leader, but they were not quite ready. While waiting we started to drift down the drive to the public road, partly to look at the fields, partly to see how far we would get. We reached the road before a minder came racing after us. Several people were working in the field opposite and I was among those who took photographs. ‘No photos.’ we were told very firmly. ‘Why not?’ That was one of those irritating questions that westerners will ask. ‘You should not photograph people without their permission, it is rude,’ was the glib response. In general I agree but not when they have their backs to you or are 200m away with their heads down in the crops. Perhaps it was the slogans they did not want photographed; nobody was ever prepared to offer a translation of any of them.

The picture I should not have taken, Mi Gok Collective Farm
We were shepherded towards the nearest cottage, its front garden neatly planted with rows of lettuce, beans and chilli.

Cottage Garden, Mi Gok Collective Farm, Sariwon

A man appeared and removed the fearsome dog guarding the door. Stepping over the pungent reminders of its presence, we were greeted by the lady of the house who told us it accommodated 6 people from 3 generations.

The living room was empty except for two televisions (one more than there are channels), some crackers drying on the floor and a grim faced family photograph, featuring Kim Jong Il.

Our host in her living room, Mi Gok Collective Farm, Sariwon
In the kitchen, our host squatted down and lit the gas burner to prove that it worked. N asked whether she cooked all the meals – did she see the kitchen as ‘hers’ or did she let her daughter-in-law cook? It was an artful question which might have been expected to produce a wry smile and a spirited response. A brief but earnest conversation between host and interpreter was followed by an answer of studied vagueness. I cannot know for certain, but I strongly suspect that no meals had ever been cooked in that kitchen. There was no dirt, no grease, no lingering cooking smells, no sign of it ever having been used.

Spotless kitchen, Mi Gok Collective Farm, Sariwon
There was no sign of a child in the house either, and although we were only shown the living room and kitchen, L stole a glance through a window into another completely empty room. We were, I am certain, in a show-house and there was absolutely no chance of us being allowed to wander through the lanes among peoples' real homes.

We drove to a viewpoint overlooking the farm, the flat fields stretching away into the misty distance. Sariwon is reputed to have a large tractor factory and in most pictures of the Dear Leader’s visits there were tractors behind him, but we saw none, nor any evidence of their existence.

Flat fields stretching away into the misty distance,
Mi Gok Collective Farm, Sariwon

Songbul Monastery is also just outside Sariwon. It is located within the castle (of which little more than this gate remains) on Mt Jongbang (more a knoll than a mountain)

Castle gate, Mt Jongbang, Sariwon

Founded in 898 the monastery has five halls, two of which date from the 14th century as does the little stone pagoda in front of the oldest hall.
Ancient Hall and small pagoda, Songbul Monastery, Sariwon
The abbot assured us there is complete freedom of religion and Songbul remains a functioning monastery. The monks, we were told, do not live here, but are ‘nearby’.

L and the Abbot, Songbul Monastery, Sariwon

There were actually plenty of monks – and brigands – but they were actors as the monastery was being used as a film location. I am not sure how convincing the wooden rifles and swords would look on screen, but at least here it was honest pretence.
'Brigands' resting on their wooden weapons, Songbul Monastery,  Sariwon

I became engrossed in watching rehearsal after rehearsal of a scene where a young woman in period costume unwrapped a knife, looked at it in horror and dashed out. I failed to notice that everyone else was ready to leave and a minder had to be sent to fetch me. I did finally see the scene filmed and discovered that even in North Korea directors actually say ‘action’ and ‘cut’.
A scene is filmed, Songbul Monastery, Sariwon

The bus took us the 70km back to Pyongyang passing under the Reunification Monument as we entered the city. Reunification is the official aim of the governments in both north and south, and there are occasional talks (when the north is in one of its less intransigent moods). Negotiations in 2000 produced a joint communiqué and the monument was built to commemorate this accord, though there has been no progress since. In reality, reunification is unlikely until something cataclysmic happens in the north, but even then South Korean heads may be wary, whatever their hearts might say. West Germany found the economic absorption of the DDR problematic. West Germans were four times more numerous, but East Germans were only one third as wealthy. By comparison South Korea would be taking on a country which is relatively larger (half the population of the south) but considerably poorer (per capita GDP in the DPRK is one fiftieth of that in South Korea).

The Reunification Monument, Pyongyang
Driving through Pyongyang takes less time than driving through any city of (allegedly) comparable size I have ever visited. On the western edge we stopped at a park where picnic areas had been laid out amid the trees. A huge concrete dragon writhed between them.

Each table was equipped with a small barbecue and a Korean girl stood by to fetch beer (at a reasonable €1 for a large bottle) and ensure our skewers of lamb and pieces of duck and squid were properly cooked. The food was good and as we finished along came the by now expected bowl of rice. This time it was covered in a thick yellow sauce that promised turmeric and perhaps other spices, but turned out to be uncompromisingly bland.

Barbecue in the park, Pyongyang
A girl band arrived to provide music, a song and a dance for those who wished to.

A song and a dance in the park, Pyongyang

Lunch over, we travelled west along the ‘Youth Hero Highway’, so called as it was built in a very short time by several thousand young volunteers. Four lanes of smooth black tarmac led west while the equally wide eastbound carriageway had a rough surface and no road markings. After a few miles the smooth surface ran out and we bumped slowly and carefully towards the coast. Why so much of the country’s youth had been directed into building this road is a mystery. An eight-lane highway is all very well, but a single track road with passing places would have been ample for the traffic and with a proper surface would have taken us to Nampho quicker and in greater comfort

We just saw enough of Nampho to realise it was a port before heading north across more countryside, largely rice growing. Occasionally we were told that we must not take photographs, and then a few miles later photography was permitted again. We could see no reason for this restriction coming and going. ‘The local people do not want you to take photographs here,’ was the less than convincing explanation. We saw only a handful of people between Nampho and our hotel and I doubt any of them had been asked.

We reached our destination, a spa formerly for the exclusive use of those more equal than others, at 4.30. The reception area was spacious and well equipped but there were no other guests. The accommodation was in two-storey blocks in the wooded grounds. Our room was on the first floor and again I carried our case up the stairs. Though only four years old, the hotel was no longer deemed suitable for VIPs but was fine for itinerant foreigners. I suppose a real VIP would have a minion to carry his case, but I am my own minion.

Our room was large with two vast beds – as hard as stone – an empty fridge, a flat-screen TV which said ‘no signal’ on whatever mode you set it, an air-conditioning unit and remote control which would not speak to each other, a water boiler (it would have been quicker to rub two sticks together) and a spa.

Spa with a blue mosaic, like a downmarket Roman bath, Nampho
The spa was of blue mosaic like a downmarket Roman bath, the cracked tile surround ingeniously fashioned to deposit all surplus water on the floor. The water from the thermal spring gushed out hot, with a slightly metallic tang and a distinct saltiness. I enjoyed my wallow and felt duly relaxed as I dried myself with the paper-thin oversized handkerchief that passed for a towel before donning the bathrobe, which was within four sizes of being a perfect fit.

Dressed again we headed outside for a promised clam bake.

Some of the tall trees in the garden were used as roosts by white cranes who were arriving in their hundreds, they would set off again around dawn. The big white birds flapping slowly towards the trees were an impressive sight. The grounds were also frequented by small jet-black squirrels who scampered back and forth across our path.

Firing up the clams

While we had been splashing in the spa our guides had been busy acquiring clams and setting them out on a large metal griddle. Sake bottles were handed round and I was interested to see they had found some at 45% rather than the 22% I had been buying, making the otherwise rather bland drink slightly more interesting. As we sipped, the driver poured fuel over the clams, set it alight and kept pouring. Several bottles of fuel were used and several glasses had to be downed before the clams were cooked to his satisfaction, but when they were they were very good indeed.

B and S get stuck into the clams
After that dinner was something of an anti-climax, but did involve our first brush with kimchi, a Korean staple much loved in north and south. Spiced fermented cabbage may sound resistible, but is strangely moreish.

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