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…..

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Nampho Barrage and back to Pyongyang: Part 8 of Beijing, North Korea and Shanxi

Waking to a cool and misty morning we marched to breakfast in sprightly style urged on by the martial music from the nearby collective farm.

Breakfast was not exciting, but it was the first time we had eaten in the same room as the Korean guides. Only as we left did we see their breakfast and it looked much more interesting than ours. Not for the first time (and not only in Korea), we were disappointed by being offered what people thought we wanted.

Back on the bus we set off for the Nampho barrage. The huge dam, 15km outside the city of Nampho, was built in the 1980s at the cost of some 4 billion US dollars to close off the Taedong River from the Yellow Sea.

Kim Jong Il welcomes us to the Nampho Barrage

We drove along six kilometres of barrage to the visitor centre on Pi Do Island, beside the sluice gates and ship locks.  The viewpoint on top of the building was dominated by a large concrete anchor.

Huge concrete anchor (and lighthouse?)
Pi Do Island, Nampho Barrage
Despite the poor weather we could see ships waiting out at sea while one was making its way through the locks, of which there are three, the largest capable of taking vessels up to 50,000t. According to Wikipedia it is a capital offence to photograph the dam. Below is my picture of the lock. Not everything you read on Wikipedia is the absolute truth (well who knew that?).

A ship goes through the lock, Nampho Barrage
We shared our visit with another group. On the roof we overheard two of their number giving their guide a hard time. In reply she said that she could not understand why some westerners had such a good time in Korea and then went home and told terrible lies about her country. North Korea is, of course, a paradise where, as our guides had told us, there are no taxes, health care is free, housing is free and everybody is equal. I have no wish to tell lies and I accept that (almost) all of the above is true. There are no taxes because the government is the only employer, they pay all the salaries and it would be perverse to give it out with one hand and collect it back with the other. In Britain we also have ‘free’ health care, though nothing is really free; we pay through our taxes, they pay by having lower salaries than they otherwise would. Free housing sounds wonderful until you realise it means the government decides where everybody lives; loyalty is rewarded and the gleaming tower blocks of central Pyongyang are much more attractive than the stained concrete of Sariwon. Everybody is, of course, equal, but as a man who was often in our thoughts in the DPRK once wrote, ‘some …are more equal than others.’

Inside the visitor centre we should have watched a film about the dam, but they could not make the machine work so instead we had a lecture from a nice young lady in traditional costume. The dam was designed to improve navigation to the port of Nampho and control flooding, so allowing more land to be used for agriculture. There is a third benefit: people living on the south side of the estuary who could see the city of Nampho over the water, but had to make an 80km journey to get there, could now make the 8km trip across the dam instead. This (I would have thought) minor benefit, was talked up as though it was the dam’s main raison d’etre.  This seemed odd - we had seen no one else on the roadway as we had driven across, and the rail lines were coated with rust.
If you have to listen to a lecture, have a comfy seat
Nampho Barrage

Leaving the barrage, we drove back to Pyongyang, soon picking up the Youth Hero Highway again and bumping uncomfortably along for many miles. On the final section the westbound carriageway has smooth tarmac. In the absence of other traffic there seemed no reason for us not to use it, but the policemen on guard waved their flags emphatically to ensure we stayed on the bumpy side. As we rattled along two or three private cars with tinted windows sped past us on the other side. These were clearly people who were more equal than us. Indeed I got the impression they were very equal indeed.

We turned off the highway before reaching the city and after a short trip through the countryside and then round the urban periphery we reached the restaurant set aside for our use. Not for the first time we wondered what damage we could do by eating alongside ordinary people.

We started with the usual regrettable cold fried fish. Small and bony with a tough batter, it was almost impossible to find anything to eat on it. The cold chips were no more appetizing. It improved after that, chicken drumsticks, salad with mayonnaise, kimchi (I was beginning to develop a taste for this spicy fermented cabbage), a plate of warm vegetables and a helping of what can best be described as ‘granny's beef stew’. When we felt we could eat no more, along came the expected bowl of rice, this time accompanied by noodles, beansprouts, mountain herbs and bellflower root. It was the best dish of the meal, but few were capable of doing it justice.

The Yanggakdo, again
After driving into central Pyongyang and checking back into the Yanggakdo (the same room, the same sheets on the bed), we set out on a short trip to the city’s railway museum. Not part of the normal tourist itinerary, this was the result of a special request made some days before by one of our number who had once worked in a railway museum.

We parked in the courtyard of another of Pyongyang’s huge monumental buildings. The railway museum occupied three rooms inside and an engine shed outside. We had the museum to ourselves and I suspect the few days that had passed since the request were to schedule a temporary closure – of course they could not risk our meeting any ordinary citizen-railway enthusiasts.

The two downstairs rooms, to nobody’s surprise, concentrated on when, where and how often the Kims caught a train.

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il welcome us to the Railway Museum
We saw the trolley that Kim Il Sung’s wife used to escape the Japanese during the war – or was it a trolley like the one she escaped on? I may have lost concentration – or perhaps they blurred that point.

The trolley on which Mrs Kim escaped from the Japanese (or not)
Railway Museum, Pyongyang
The museum guide was very proud of the ticket printing machine, designed in North Korea, that Kim Il Sung alone had realised would be necessary for the proper running of a railway. What a guy. They only had a picture, but it looked antiquated enough to be in a museum.

Upstairs we entered an end room where a huge diorama of the building of a railway bridge filled two storeys of wall. The curved, trompe l’oeil painting was extraordinary. The trucks, rails and some of the equipment nearest us were real, but at what point reality became painting was the subject of much discussion.

What is real? What is painted?
Outside in the engine shed were three real engines. Two were remarkable only because of their Kim connections but the third, a narrow gauge, Glasgow built steam engine was the only artefact we had seen that merited a place on a museum in its own right. Sadly, there was no information about it.
A genuine museum piece
Railway Museum, Pyongyang

When we left the shed we found the previously empty courtyard crammed with teenagers all chattering excitedly about the prospect of finding out exactly how often Kim Il Sung caught a train. We were ushered away before they could be tarnished by our cynicism.

We moved on to the Temple of Youth, another huge building shining brightly in the sunshine. Here the most talented of Pyongyang’s - indeed the country’s – youth gather for extra-curricular activities. Having a child selected to attend the Temple of Youth can win a family that most prized of assets, an apartment in the capital.

The Temple of Youth, Pyongyang
With a lot of other foreigners we wandered the wide corridors, here and there being ushered into spacious, carpeted rooms. We saw embroidery and calligraphy.....

Calligraphy class, Temple of Youth, Pyongyang

...a room full of computers where fourteen-year-olds were being taught to touch-type and several music and dance lessons where the boring stuff halted as we arrived so they could give a brief, and always very polished performance.

The central atrium display involved a rocket heading for the moon. North Korea did put a satellite in orbit in 2012 (at the fifth attempt) and has ambitions towards manned space flight (they are a very ambitious nation) but this display looked very much like an American space shuttle (but don’t tell the students).

The space shuttle of the hated Americans
Atrium, Temple of Youth, Pyongyang
All visitors were then directed to the vast auditorium, where a packed audience sat through an hour long show. There was some acrobatics, some magic and much singing and dancing in small groups and in large ensembles. You do not have to be a parent to enjoy such things, but it does help, even when they are as professional as this.

And they were remarkably professional given that some were only seven or eight while the oldest were thirteen or fourteen, though the high-pitched voices of some of the younger children did tend to grate. The music involved the usual pastiche of western tunes and further along the row a guide was translating some of the words. ‘Ardent Desire’ sounded an inappropriate title for a song by a pre-pubescent girl, but the song turned out to be about the ardent desire of the Korean people that Kim Jong Un should be healthy, happy and wealthy. Come to think of it, that is inappropriate, but not in the way I had first thought.

Dinner that evening was a choice between eating in the Yanggakdo or going out for a pizza. I like Italian pizza, but it is virtually impossible to find (outside Italy, of course). What most of the rest of the world knows as pizza is American pizza which, in my humble opinion (and I am only pretending to be humble) is an abomination. We went with the minority view that dinner at the Yanggakdo was the lesser of two evils. In the event maybe it was, but not by much.

1 comment:

  1. What a weird and wonderful(?) place!!! Kimchi is very tasty though. Hilary