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…..



Friday, 13 September 2013

Last Day in Pyongyang (1) Gifts and the Metro: Part 9 of Beijing, North Korea and Shanxi

There is so much to say about our last day in Pyongyang that I have split the post into two.

Back on Day One, after bowing to the corpses of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il we had been permitted to marvel at the medals bestowed on the two great leaders by the awestruck chiefs of other countries, provinces, municipalities and counties - including Derbyshire (though no one there seems to know how our when - or even if - that came about.) During their lifetimes they were also showered with gifts by the grateful people of Korea, the envious ordinary citizens of lesser countries not fortunate enough to be blessed with such great leaders and by those leaders themselves in recognition of their own inadequacy.

Two palaces have been built to house these gifts so the toiling masses can see the high regard in which their leaders are held. Both were on our itinerary, but the palace of foreign gifts has been closed for months. It is some way from the city and, allegedly, the road has been blocked by a landslide. Why it has taken so long to clear a landslide is not a question we were expected to ask.

The palace of gifts from loyal Koreans is closer and, after a leisurely breakfast, that was where we started our last full day in the DPRK.

We arrived at yet another of the country’s monumental buildings. 'You can take photographs,' we were told as we got off the bus, 'but not of the soldiers.' A soldier was barely visible, guarding the entrance of the building a hundred metres away, and any photo of the building had to include him. This resulted in much blowing of whistles and shouting from the guards near at hand. We had been in the DPRK long enough to know that the appropriate response is to smile, shrug and lower your camera – but not before you have taken the picture.
 
The palace of gifts from loyal Koreans, near Pyongyang

A local guide turned up to escort us. We lined up behind her and she set off towards the palace. We followed in single file. For some reason she did not take a straight route and we followed her, turn for turn, twist for twist, sniggering like naughty schoolchildren. About half way she turned round, realised what was happening and burst out laughing. It was one of the few times when the shell of professional reserve cracked and we made fleeting contact with the person beneath. Such levity was ruthlessly stamped on by shouts and whistles from the soldiers on guard.


No photographs were allowed inside the palace, so here is a nice picture of
the North Korean countryside to break up this big slab of print
The marble halls resembled an overcrowded museum. Some gifts, like the exquisite double-sided embroidered screens and delicate porcelain vases were impressive. Others, like a set of intricately carved wooden three-dimensional battle scenes were in doubtful taste while yet more were just weird - a lacquerware combined air conditioner and CD player and a huge vase decorated with hundreds of thousands of melon seeds, mustard seeds, corn kernels, grains of rice and lentils all individually painted and stuck on by hand. There were more mundane gifts, too, including several televisions, still in their wrappings, which had been there long enough to look dated, and a couple of sets of golf clubs.

Kim Jong Il reportedly took up golf in 1994, played one round in 38 under par, including 11 holes-in-one, and then - with nothing left to prove - retired from the game. His feat was reported by, among others, the Daily Telegraph. They did not suggest the report was fact – even the Telegraph is not that stupid - but that it had been reported as fact by the North Korean media. The problem with such stories is that they are not always what they seem. For a probably reliable version of the origin of this myth, click this link to the (South) Korea Times.

[Update 1.Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Sung Taek was executed (probably by firing squad) in Dec 2013. The widely reported story that Kim had him torn apart by a pack of wild dogs originated from a satirical post on Weibo – China’s homegrown twitter service.

Update 2 The April 2014 story that all North Korean men must have their hair cut like Kim Jong Un came not from Korea but from 'Radio Free Asia' based in Washington - not actually part of Asia, the last time I looked at a map.]


...and here's a Pyongyang cityscape, for much the same reason
Finally we were led into a central room containing white plaster statutes of the two dead Kims several times life size. You can imagine our elation when we were asked to line up and bow to them.

Back on the bus we headed into the city for a ride on the metro. L and I have used the metros of a dozen cities in Europe, Asia and Africa, largely because it is a cheap and convenient way of getting about. Only in Moscow, where some of the stations really are works of art, has travelling on the metro been an end in itself and the Pyongyang metro likes to think it is in the same league. We had been promised a ride of six stops, though persistent rumours said there were only two, or at least only two they were prepared to show us, and the guides would change their minds at the last minute.

We arrived at Puhung (Revitalisation) station, the terminus of the Chollima line, and waited while our guides bought the tickets; we could not buy our own, of course, as the ticket office only accepted local currency and we were not allowed any.

The tickets were tiny, by far the smallest I have seen on any mode of transport. They also only cost 5 won (2p) making the metro affordable to most local residents.

The Moscow metro specialises in long steep escalators which move unnervingly quickly. Pyongyang’s were equally steep and if they were rather slower, they made up for it by being even longer. Pyongyang has the world’s deepest metro system, most stations being around 100m below ground; according to rumour it was designed to double as a shelter in the event of a nuclear attack


Down into the bowels of the earth, Puhung Station
Pyongyang
The platform was one of the few places in Pyongyang where we saw a crowd.
Crowded platform, Puhung Station
Pyongyang
 It was interesting, but hardly compared with the best of Moscow’s, though we were greeted onto the platform by none other than Kim Il Sung himself. Well, that was a surprise.


Kim Il Sung leads the welcoming party, Puhung Station, Pyongyang
We were informed that we would travel one stop, get off to see Yonggwang (Glory) station, the finest on the network, then continue for another four stops. That scotched some of the rumours.

Despite the crowd on the platform there was plenty of space in the carriage and the guides had little difficulty corralling us at one end and snuffing out the danger of our coming into contact with ordinary people. The doors closed with a whack fierce enough to amputate any limb left in the way, then bounced half open again before finally slapping closed.

If the Koreans had some reason to be proud of their stations, there was nothing special about the trains* and we found ourselves rattling along in a flimsy formica box, though at least the seating was soft. At the end of every carriage was the usual portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, though the younger Kim is hidden in my photo by the hand rail (I should probably go to prison for that).

 
A flimsy formica box, Pyongyang metro

We alighted at Yanggwang and had a good look round. It was impressive, I thought, but hardly a threat to Moscow.
 
Yanggwang Station, Pyongyang metro

Back on the train, the next carriage was more crowded and L found herself seated between a middle aged woman, who sat motionless staring straight ahead, and a young soldier who was nodding off when she sat down and eventually fell asleep on her shoulder.

We stopped at Ponghwa (Beacon), Sungri (Victory) and Tongil (Reunification) before getting off at Kaeson (Triumph). The station names give absolutely no idea of where you are in the city.

At Kaeson, L disentangled herself from the sleeping soldier without waking him and we had time to admire this mural before making for the surface. There is something about socialist realism painting that appeals to me. My inner cynic (never very deeply buried) squeaks with delight at the hopeless mismatch between the people portrayed and everyday reality, and yet it is called ‘realism’. We saw a splendid display of such posters in Tallinn (though there was space for only one in the Tallinn blogpost, click here and scroll down). In Tallinn the posters are in a museum and the people no longer have to pretend to believe in them, which is, I think, the best way to enjoy them.


Mural, Kaeson Station, Pyongyang metro
We emerged by the Arch of Triumph, which proves that at least one station name is related to what is above it. See Pyongyang (2): A Day for Waving for the story of the arch.


We emerged by the Arch of Triumph, Pyongyang

We were within walking distance of our designated lunchtime restaurant which was touted as the North Korean version of KFC – not a description that thrilled me**. The meal started with vegetables and pasta in a nondescript sauce, then a huge pile of chips arrived which for once were hot, followed by a small hillock of fried chicken which may have been a little greasy but was also hot. So much of what we had been fed in the previous week had been tepid or cold that I had forgotten how good hot food can be. Washed down with a couple of glasses of draught beer, this plentiful heap of comfort food somehow transformed itself into a delight.


*I am no railway buff and I have no idea where or when the train we travelled in was built, however, I read that the Pyongyang metro rolling stock largely consists of pensioned off trains from the Berlin U-Bahn. We were probably travelling in D series carriages built in West Berlin between 1957 and 1965.


**I last ate KFC in 1983 at a picnic in a park on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington (the western state, not the eastern city). I still regret it.


  


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