Hey you guys!
I’m sorry this post has taken so long to write. First off, I’ve been super busy settling into life in Indonesia. This has been much more stressful and scary than Hong Kong, so I haven’t had much time to write. I’ll be updating you on Indonesia soon since everything has calmed down. Secondly, I finally had this post almost completely written and my computer decided it wanted to ruin my day and it deleted the whole thing. So, this may not be quite as in-depth as I want it to be because, frankly, I want to get onto posts about Indonesia and Singapore, but I hope it will still walk you through what I consider the most interesting times I had in North Korea.The first few days were really focused on monuments, military, and history in the DPRK and the last few days were more about the cultures and daily life of the Korean people. We started off by visiting the Grand People’s Study House located in Kim Il Sung Square. You have probably seen the square in pictures of North Korea before. This is where they hold their military parades and the ground was littered with little white markings obviously for positioning purposes during demonstrations. The Study House has two huge photos of the leaders and a statue of Kim when you walk inside. We had to bow, yet again. We bowed so much on this tour. We even bowed to a wax figure of Kim in one of the museums. It’s very odd but a sign of respect.Inside the Study House, which is essentially a huge library and place for classes, we were taken to view “students studying” as the website stated. Kind of weird, but being an English teacher I enjoyed getting to view an English class if only for a few minutes. They also showed us all of their state of the art equipment including adjustable desks (which Kim Jong Il made them remake from the already built tables so that the people could move the top up and down) and their computer lab filled with ancient machines using Windows ’95. We all pulled out our cameras because we hadn’t seen tech like this since we were children. But, it gets the job done. They also showed us their vast book collection and claimed to have any book we could want. I secretly thought to myself, “Oh yeah, doubt you’ve got Huckleberry Fin,” and like the mind readers that they are, the one English book the pulled was the novel by Mark Twain. What. Just. Happened?We then went up on the balcony which overlooks the square and the surrounding monuments. They discouraged us from taking photos of the shanty town that could be seen, but otherwise it was quite impressive. We then went to a souvenir bookshop and stocked up if we so chose. It was then time to head to the Grand Theatre. We sadly didn’t get to see a show but we were shown the posters for the current season and why these shows were important to the DPRK. I got my degree in theatre, so I thoroughly enjoyed this and desperately wanted to see the inside.Next, it was time for one of my favorite things we did all week. In all the main cities in North Korea there is one or two after school centers where the children go to learn music and dance. They value the arts heavily. About once a month there is a performance of sorts and we were able to go view one! I was so impressed, even though the bathrooms seemed to be having a major plumbing problem and leaking pee all over the floors. Gross. Anyway, the show was very impressive and showcased impressive musical ability from piano to accordion and acrobatics and ballet. The children and parents all seemed to be truly enjoying themselves. We sat way up front and relished this time to spend in a truly local experience.
Afterwords, we had dinner at this crazy, disco-type restaurant with blaring music and tons of food. I had traditional Korean cold noodle, but since it was so cold outside they actually heated it up for me! I also drank a Fanta, because if you don’t know, I drink Fanta in every country I visit because it’s almost always different. I didn’t expect to find it in the DPRK, but was pleasantly surprised. It’s obviously shipped in from China, but it totally still counts! Fanta, you need a spokesperson?
The next day we headed out east, out of Pyongyang to a local farm. Before we arrived, we stopped at a mineral water factory. It was a very brief stop, just to see the machines, but we got free mineral water out of it. Inside the building we were greeted by photos showing the leaders when they had visited. Any building of any significance has photos like this. A place hasn’t really “made it” until a leader has visited. Inside, we were dressed as mad scientists with our lab coats and shoe covers. Inside the factory were conveyor belts filled with hundreds of the green, glass bottles that the water is packaged in. They showed us the massive tanks that filter the water in order to give it it’s unique taste. We were all given a bottle to take with us on the road ahead.
We drove through the countryside for an hour or two until we made it to our destination: the corporate farm. It was explained to us that there are two types of farms in the DPRK. A state farm, where workers work about 8 hours a day, 5 days a week and are paid at the end of the month based on a salary. There are only a few state farms in the nation. The majority of the farms are what they call Corporate farms. The workers choose how much they want to work and are paid accordingly to the hours. But, they are only paid once a year. Once a year! I’m sure the wage is probably minuscule which makes the workers work all the more.
The farms mainly grow kimchi and many families in the cities spend a few weeks a year on a farm in order to collect enough kimchi for the year. There was a huge statue, which we bowed to, at the front of the farm. Kim Il-Sung and a few workers gazing off into a bright future. As we walked along a path next to fields of kimchi, we came upon an engagement photoshoot. The woman was dressed in a gorgeous, yellow, traditional Korean gown and her hair was pristine. Neither looked particularly happy, but it was probably due to a bunch a westerners boggling after them and the cold. She handed the man a watched and listened to it as the photographer snapped away. We asked what the significance was for this and our guide said that it is always done but she didn’t recall the reasoning behind it.
Now, this next bit of our trip was really the only thing that happened that really agreed with all the stereotypes that westerners believe about North Korea. We were taken inside of the kindergarten in the farm village. As we walked in, we were greeted by a painting of the two Kims surrounded by a flock of children, very reminiscent of Jesus and the little children. We walked through the halls decorated with little bunnies and flowers. But suddenly those bunnies and flowers had turned into missiles and tanks. There were paintings of young Korean children in full military regalia stopping on dead US soldiers. There were guns and explosions and blood all painted in the style of cute, little children’s artwork. I didn’t take many photos (although I have some clips on the video above) because I was afraid I could have been yelled at and told to delete the footage. We all snapped frantic shots before anyone caught us. The worst was yet to come, however. There was an entire wall dedicated to the hatred of the Japanese (the only country they hate even more than American it would seem.) There were actual photographs, though black and white and faded, of victims of acid bombs with skin falling off and of decapitated heads, and of a man being tied to a tree that would be set on fire. This was truly horrific, nightmare inducing stuff, my friends. I was dumbfounded that this was found in a kindergarten. Not to mention, later I saw that the playground equipment were tanks and missiles for the children to crawl upon. I don’t really believe that these sorts of images are in modern day schools, seeing as this was quite an old, country school. However, if these images have been around for ages, then the current generations are being raised by people who grew up around them. You can understand where the thought process and prejudice comes from, I guess.
After that, we were lead into a room where the students were practicing their songs for an upcoming “Mother’s Day” celebration. They did a beautiful job and reminded me so much of my students back in Hong Kong. They sang and played the drums for us. It was wonderful to see their faces and brightened everyone’s spirits after what we had just seen.As we left the farm we were taken to the West Sea Barrage. It is a long barrage that separates the Taedong River from the West Sea of Korea. It was very impressive and offered lovely views of the Korean Sea and beyond. We were taken to the top of a small mountain and heard a talk about the construction and purpose of the barrage. On the drive back we were met with gorgeous, countryside views of salt fields. The water was so calm that it offered perfect reflections of the surrounding mountains. Sadly, photos just didn’t do it justice.
Once we were back in Pyongyang we were informed that the film studios that we were meant to visit were closed (bummer!) but instead we would be taken shooting! Grand! The range was in a sports area where all the buildings were shaped like the sports it housed. Y’all, I’m both a Southern belle and a military kid. I didn’t mention the whole military thing, but that was ok, since I was the only American, everyone expected me to do well anyway. I know my way around a shooting range and I ended up getting the best score out of our whole tour! Even the attendants at the shooting range were impressed with me. Well, until our guide who was ex-military got up and demolished my score…but, does that really count, anyway? Just let me have this one thing!
We then went to a small coffee shop for some lattes and ended our day at the bowling alley. Typically I suck at bowling. Getting above a 30 is a great game for me, but I must have been on a high from the shooting range and I won my game! What?! I even got a strike! The evidence is in the video above – I swear! This was a wonderful way to end our trip, full of laughs and jokes. On the bus ride back to the hotel our guides sang for us again and taught us a popular song in Korean. We had drinks one last time in the restaurant and went to bed. I flew out the next morning with a fellow traveller. We were picked up by two new guides and a huge tour bus to take us to the airport. Everything went smoothly and overall I had a splendid time in the DPRK.
If you have any questions about my trip or tour, please comment down below!