Sunday, September 2, 2012: Leaving a tour of Jeju Island, Korea, our Advantage Travel & Tours group flew to Beijing to obtain our visas for North Korea. Our group of eleven led by Cathy and Bob Parda included Lynn Bishop (my ex-roommate on many trips), Linda Marshall and Terry Wharton from our Antarctica South Georgia aborted cruise. In addition, Edna Erspamer, Bill Boyd and Edith Ann Pazmino from many previous trips and two new comers: Mary Alice Warren, Lynn’s high school girlfriend and Carla De Went. At Jeju Island, Mike Bidwell, who had been with the group on the Jeju Island tour left the group to tour Seoul. He had visited North Korea the previous year.
From Jeju Island we flew to Pusan, Korea and changed planes for our flight to Beijing. At the Beijing Airport we had to wait for Carla to arrive from Chicago. David, our guide didn’t have printed sign welcoming Advantage Travel at the Customs exit. Cathy and I left Customs first and found David holding a sign for Cathy. Since Carla was new to the group she didn’t know what we looked like nor did we know what she looked like so the wait was a little longer than planned. She had not keyed on the sign for Cathy and had exited Customs and wandered around the terminal. Eventually she spotted our group of American tourists sitting together and she introduced herself to the group.
The ride to the hotel took almost two hours in the Beijing traffic at evening rush hour. We were booked into the Crown Plaza Beijing hotel in the center of the city. It was a 5 Star hotel but only had free Wi-Fi in the lobby. The room was very good and there was an outlet near the bed for my CPAP. The bedside console had a separate switch for floor outlets so I was able to control the lights and still have power for my CPAP.
Dinner was on our own. After catching up on my email in the lobby I set out to find some place to eat. As I wandered the streets near the hotel I saw Lynn and Mary ordering in a MacDonald’s and decided to join them.
Monday, September 3, 2012: While Cathy and Bob obtained our North Korean visas. David took the rest of the group on a tour of Beijing. We started out at 09:00 and drove to the “798 Art Zone” located in the Dashanzi area, to the northeast of central Beijing. It was the site of state-owned factories including Factory 798, which originally produced electronics. Beginning in 2002, artists and cultural organizations began to divide, rent out, and re-make the factory spaces, gradually developing them into galleries, art centers, artists' studios, design companies, restaurants, and bars.
When Judy and I toured Beijing in 2007 with OAT they did not take us there so I enjoyed the new experience and hope that my daughter, Robin, can visit it someday to see the many sculptures and art galleries. Some of the sculptures were very large and quite impressive.
There was a lot of slow walking around the complex and Edna was not happy because the guide didn't understand that she can't walk a lot. From there we drove to the Olympic Center and had to walk to the "Birdcage" stadium. Edna paid for a tram to give her a ride around the exterior while the rest of the group walked to the top and were able to see the most amazing group of performers hanging from cables practicing for a big show this evening. From the top of the Bird Cage we had great views of the surrounding area. Across a plaza was the practice track, still in great condition.
From the "Birdcage" we walked across a very wide plaza to the "Water Cube" which contains the swimming pools. (I hope Christine can see it someday - it is very impressive). There were a number of tourists in the plaza and touring the Stadium and Water Cube. Overlooking the complex was a large building shaped like a Lion with IBM on the top.
The Water Cube is also called the Magic Water Place and the Holy Palace of Swimming. Twenty four world records and 66 Olympic records were set during the 2008 Games. We had a little difficulty finding doors open to get into the seating area next to the pools. In addition to swimming pool there was another pool for diving and a water park for kids. A display of a London Bus and Telephone booth were set up near the Gift Shop.
Our bus was parked next to the National Jade Hotel where we were scheduled to have lunch. The hotel was across from the center so we had a long walk back to that hotel to eat lunch.
The lunch had a lot of Chinese dishes, not any spicy ones. Everyone liked it. I had a strange experience at the hotel toilets. I was the first one up the stairs to the toilets and down a dark hall to a wide open door way with the doors to the Men and Women's room doors open. Next to the large open doorway was a sign with a figure of a man in black on the left and a figure of a woman in red on the right, so I went in the room on the left and into a stall. When I emerged from the stall the ladies from the group were standing at the sink. I had entered the women's room. We had a little laugh and I was kidded at lunch.
After lunch we had a long drive back to Tiananmen Square where our bus stopped at the National Theater for a tour. It is an impressive looking building in the shape of a large egg. Edna stayed in the bus and we walked to the theater and discovered it closed for an event. We then walked to the Tiananmen Square and back. The square had changed since I was last there in 2007. There is a long wall in the middle of the square with a large screen that displays a Panoramic Vision of China in English. The wall of the Forbidden Palace facing the square was draped in cloth which I think was to cover some renovation work. Without the wall as a background the groups of tourists that I observed in 2007 having their picture taken with the wall in the background were not in the square. It was not as crowded as it was in 2007.
We had to walk back to the National Theater to board our bus and return to the hotel at 15:30 and have our North Korea briefing at 17:30. Bob gave us a briefing on the does and don’ts in North Korea and we were dismissed to eat dinner on our own.
I lugged my laptop down to the lobby and caught up on my emails and sent out some messages. After a while I got hungry and set out in another direction from the night before to get a quick bit to eat. This time I came upon a large shopping mall and noticed a sign for a Subway which I soon found and had my quick dinner. On my way out of the building I passed a Pizza Hut and saw several of our group eating there. They were the ones that asked for forks at each meal so I guess they aren’t accustomed to Asian food.
Tuesday, September 4, 2012: We had a good breakfast at the Crown Plaza and got ready for our flight to Pyongyang on Air Koryo in a Russian Tu-204-100B aircraft. The tour guide taking us to the airport suggested we remove all luggage tags from our bags so as not to flag us as Americans. We found out later that only about 100 Americans visit North Korea every year.
The flight left on time, the aircraft was very clean and in good condition. There were drop down TV monitors but the seats had no headset plugs and the sound of the TV was broadcast over speakers above each row. The show was a musical performance. The flight was full and we discovered later had a group of Italian Parliamentarians on board. They sat in first class and their aids in the front seats of coach. When we landed we had to wait to exit while the dignitaries were greeted on the ramp and driven away.
When we picked up our luggage in Pyongyang we had to pass it through x-ray and at that point I had to hand over my cell phone. They gave me the 3rd degree on my laptop but let me keep it. Our assigned guide for the duration of our stay in the country was Mr. Kim, a young man that spoke excellent English. He was assisted by Ginny, a young intern who had just graduated from university. Our bus and bus driver was assigned to us for the duration.
On the drive to the hotel we found the streets to be very wide with few cars and people on the sidewalks. We saw very few trucks. There were rows of five-story buildings along the route and then grounds around the buildings very clean. As we entered the center of the city we stopped at the Arch of Triumph celebrating the struggle between 1925 and 1945 when Korea was finally free of Japanese occupation. It is modeled after the Arch in Paris but does not have the traffic Paris has. After taking our photos we continued on through the city, past massive buildings with wide plazas, void of any crowds. As we passed the sports complex we saw a number of school children in the plaza. When we reached a bridge over a river we exited onto an island in the middle of the river and drove to a 47 story hotel at the tip of the island.
The hotel is a 5 star and was busy with tourists. Bob and Cathy invited me down for a draft beer in a Pub off the lobby. For dinner we left the hotel and drove to a restaurant in the city. It was dark and there were few street lights, very few neon signs and few cars on the streets. The restaurant was well lit and the food delicious – especially if you like kimchee flavoring. The beer was good.
Wednesday, September 5, 2012: We were asked to wear a tie for the special places were were scheduled to visit. Our first stop was the newly opened “Gift House” not to be confused with Kim Il’s International Friendship Exhibition Hall. It has 11,000 gifts in which 8,000 gifts from 155 countries around the world were on display. The International Friendship Exhibition Hall reportedly contains 90,000 gifts. It was not clear if the new “Gift House” contains new gifts or gifts transferred from the International Friendship Exhibition Hall.
We were told we were the first Americans to visit the new hall. No cameras were allowed inside and we had to wear a cover over our shoes. The first room contained a large statue of Kim Jong Il the “Great Leader” which we had to bow before entering the exhibit rooms. The gifts were impressive including several Remington sculptures presented by the Korean-American Business Association. Since we were dressed up with ties on we took group pictures outside the building.
From the “Gift House” we drove to the Mansudae Fountain Park and a visit to the Grand Peoples Study House which is a huge marble library. The library contains large rooms with adjustable desk where people can check out books from computers lining the hall and read the books at the desks. Other rooms contain classrooms where students can take extracurricular classes or obtain extra study on the subjects they are studying in their school. We observed classrooms teaching Russian and English. Every room had pictures of the “Great Leader” and the “Supreme Leader” on the walls. On the top of the building we had great views of the city. Down below we observed wedding couples having their pictures taken in Mansudae Park.
Leaving the building we walked through the park to the Mansudae Grand Monument on Mansu Hill with two 65 foot high statues in bronze of the “Great Leader” and the “Supreme Leader”. We paid our respects and Cathy laid flowers below the statues. On each side of the statues are monuments of the struggle with Japan on one side and the Korean War on the other side. It was a beautiful clear day and the views of the city and monuments were outstanding.
Also on Mansu Hill is The 150 foot high Chollima statue on Mansu Hill was completed in 1961. It was built to honor the heroism and invincible fighting spirit of the Korean people like the legendary winged horse Chollima that is said to cover a thousand li (or 250,000 miles) in a day. Mounted on the winged horse is a worker holding high the "Red Letter" of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and a young peasant woman holding a sheaf of rice.
After the Korean War, the country was devastated and the Korean people had to rebuild everything, starting from ashes. In order to expedite the construction, President Kim Il Sung devised the slogan “rush as the speed of Chollima.” It is said that ten steps were needed when others took one, and one hundred needed when others took only ten. Every building and monument we visited we were told was built in an exaggerated short time because the workers followed the speed of Chollima.
Next stop was lunch. This time each person had a pot over a Sterno flame to cook meat and vegetables. Again there were dishes of vegetables and sauces around the pot.
After lunch we drove to the Heavy Industry Exhibit Hall in the Three Revolutions Exhibition Park. The Park is similar to the Washington DC Mall with Exhibit halls lining the edge of the Park. Inside the Hall we saw diorama displays of mines and power plants, North Korean automobiles and motorcycles plus other heavy machinery. They were very proud of their computer controlled milling machine.
We returned to our hotel and shed our ties, had dinner and prepared for the Mass Gymnastic Games and Arirang Festival. We arrived at the Pyongyang May Day Stadium, one of the biggest sport arenas in the world, to find the parking lot full of tour buses, solders and students practicing their routines. The show is held four times a week in 2012 from August 1 to October 10th. We made our way through the crowd to the beautiful stadium and were ushered to our seats in the VIP section; about 10 rows up on the 50 yard line in US Football stadium speak. Our seats were stand business conference seats with arm rests facing a long green velvet top table. Below us was a similar row seating the Italian Parliamentarians who rode in on our flight from Beijing. The end zone seats were empty and we were told not to take pictures in that direction since they are often filled by the military. The area from the end zone to about the 30 yard line was full of spectators in normal stadium seating. When I tried to look behind me an Usher told me to not turn around and to look straight ahead. I did see that the stadium had three decks. Across the field sat 20,000 students with a book of 170 color cards that they used to make beautiful pictures like we saw at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Fifteen minutes before the 20:00 show start a column of performers carrying blue flags trotted into the area and lined the back and sides. Above the card flippers a sign displayed 1912 – 100 – 2012 and below a sign board displayed the time and the performance in Korean. Right on time the show started with a colorful display of precision marchers which soon blended in to displays of gymnastics, dance, acrobatics, and dramatic performance, accompanied by music and other effects. The impressive other effects included high wire acrobatics, light shows and fireworks. In the background was the ever changing mosaic of colorful scenes
Our assistant guide, Ginny, told us that the students start practice in January after school and each student practices just one routine. She was in the Games two years ago dressed as a soldier beating a drum. She politicked for two years to be accepted for the position. 80,000 students participate every year.
Arirang is a Korean folk song. The song supports an old Korean fable about a boy and girl from a poor village. They are in love but the boy leaves to fight with the rebels and the landlord makes passes on the girl. The boy returns and observes the girl with the landlord so leaves again. The Mass Games performances loosely follow the story with happy, fighting and sad scenes and ended with a happy ending. Some Western observers describe the performance as Communist Propaganda but I found it a well-executed display of precision talent based on the same theme of boy and girl fall in love, boy goes to war and returns to find girl associated with another man that is the basis of so many operas and plays.
After the show we encountered a mob scene in the parking lot with our bus hemmed in by other buses but our driver was able to skillfully weave the bus out of the jam and back to the hotel.
Thursday, September 6, 2012: After breakfast we boarded our bus and drove 40 miles south out of the city to the city of Sariwon, capital of North Hwanghae Province, North Korea. There we got out of the bus and walked along Sariwon Folk Street, a beautiful landscaped area below a mountain called Folk Village. We exited our bus just as a group of school children walked by all dressed in white shirts with red bandanas. The boys had black slacks and the girls black skirts or slacks. I did see some girls in other colored slacks.
Sariwon is known to produce the country's tastiest Maccoli, a well known Korean alcoholic beverage. Kim had a bottle and we all tasted a bit.
The Folk Village had an ancient gate with two ponds on either side. One pond had a concrete boat in the center. On the opposite side of the walkway past the gate was a recreation center with beautiful mosaic murals and inside game rooms with Yut-nori the Korean form of checkers and chess boards on the floor. In a cabinet were the games pieces colored sticks and tokens shaped like bottle tops. Yut-nori is played by throwing the sticks in the air and the way they land indicates how many places you can move your token. Outside the building were concrete tables with the game pattern on top surrounded by concrete stools. In back of the building was the larger of the two ponds and boats of kids were rowing around. Large sculptures of animals (including elephants and tigers) ringed the area.
Back through the gate we visited a compound which had a series of maps in colorful mosaic tiles on walls that describe Korea’s cultural ruins and historical relics. Also in the compound we visited the Provincial History Museum, various pavilions and houses in the style of the Ancient and Middle era of Korea.
From the Folk Village we visited the base of Mt. Jongbang where we were entertained by a musical group practicing in an open pagoda perched on the side of the mountain. The director sat in back and the singers performed and he critiqued them. It was an interesting scene and performance.
Back on the bus we rode up the mountain to Songbul Buddhist Temple.
Founded in 848, Songbul Temple encompasses some of the oldest wooden buildings in the country Rebuilt in 1374, the pavilion sits on a raised stone platform and features delicate paintings, cow-tongue eaves, and doors with carved flower grilles. A Koryo period five-story stone pagoda stands in front of it. Ungjin Shrine, rebuilt in 1327 is one of the oldest wooden buildings in North Korea. The long, spacious hall sits on a raised platform, and is a paradigm of Koryo architecture. One of the unusual features of the Temple is the small figures of heads that boarded each side of three Buddhas. The Japanese destroyed the heads but they have been recreated.
We rode back to the city and on the way stopped for photos at the Arch of Reunification or Monument to Three Charters for National Reunification. Erected in 2001, the arch is sited on the Tongil expressway which leads straight from Pyongyang to Panmunjom and eventually, Seoul. The three principles (formalized by Kim Il Sung during a meeting with the South in 1972) are independence, peaceful reunification and national unity. The monument depicts two Korean women in traditional dress, with their arms stretched out trying to embrace one another and shout ‘long live reunification.’ Each woman represents the idea that the North and South are the same nation living in the same territory with the same mind, but are unfortunately divided. The upper part of the tower body depicts letters reading ‘three charters’, a map of 'one' Korea, and magnolia designs. Both sides of each platform display group sculptures based on the themes of the three principles of national reunification, the proposal for founding a federal republic, and the concept of Korean national unity. Both sides also have the slogan: “Long Live Reunified Korea.”
After another great Korean lunch (for a man who normally just eats a salad for lunch these meals were not helping my waist line) we rode to the Mansudae Art Studio where the bronze castings, sculptures and paintings of the Great Leader and Supreme Leader are crafted plus other art work. We visited the studio of one of the full time landscape artist. In the courtyard was the 18 foot tall statue of the Kims riding side by side on horseback for Pyongyang's first public sculpture of the late leader. It was cast before Kim Jong Il died to be unvalued on his 70th birthday. During Kim Jong Il’s reign he resisted any proposals to erect bronze statues of himself. Now they are being cast to stand alongside his father
From the studio we rode to the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace. Dedicated in 1989, it is a huge marble multi story building that includes escalators from the ground floor of a large round center of the building to the first floor. Ringing the wide open area were classrooms where students attend extracurricular classes after school. We observed music instrument, needlepoint, calligraphy, and painting classes. There was a gift shop where the student’s projects are on sale.
After our tour of the building we were ushered into an auditorium where the students gave us an impressive performance of their talents in musical instruments, singing, dancing, jumping rope and performing gymnastics. We were impressed!
Our dinner that night was in a private room in a fancy restaurant. Delicious! When we returned to the hotel we were offered the opportunity to visit the Rungna People's Pleasure Ground, a new amusement park in the capital. It is the location of the first public sighting of Kim Jong-un’s wife. Only Bob and I accepted the offer.
The Rungna People's Pleasure Ground is located near the Arch of Triumph and was surprisingly crowded for a week night. We were given the VIP treatment and offered to buck the lines on any ride of our choosing, but first we toured the grounds and were intrigued by the snack bar where American style hamburgers, hotdogs, corn dogs, onion rings French fries and chocolate chip cookies were on sale. The trash bins were just like you would find in an American fast food restaurant.
The first ride Bob and I selected was a twisting roller-coaster. We were ushered to the head of the line and climbed a ladder with our hands holding two arms. A cage was then closed on us and the device tilted so we were parallel to the ground and away we went rolling through 360 degrees in our cage at the same time we were looping along and up and down on the roller-coaster. I survived without losing my dinner. Next we picked the vertical drop ride. We again were seated ahead of the crowd and our seats were raised 12 stories high and sat there for forty seconds admiring the view of the Arch and the city before we dropped and were eventually braked to a gentle stop to let our body parts realign themselves. When I left my seat Kim pointed out that we had sat in seats with a red star which indicated that there were seats that Kim Jong-un and his wife had sat in.
After that ride we decided to call it a night and returned to our hotel.
Friday, September 7, 2012: We checked out of the hotel and rode south to the DMZ. There was a steady stream of tour busses on the highway and about an hour and one half out we stopped along with other busses at a rest stop that crossed over the highway. Vendors had set up tables selling tourist items, coffee and snacks. Kim told us we had a scheduled time to tour the DMZ. We were allowed to take pictures of the countryside along the highway. We saw a lot of rice fields and soon arrived at Kaesong and then stopped at Panmunjom. There were about twenty buses in two columns in front of our bus. We walked to the Panmun Souvenir Shop which was packed with tourists. Eventually it was our turn for Kim to give us a briefing on the DMZ and the buildings we would see. It was the first time since we entered the country that we saw maps that had the dividing line drawn. Before this point all maps showed the complete country with no mark that there were two countries.
On the wall was a map and depiction of the buildings we would see. Each side of the DMZ line was a three story building set back from the line. Between the three story buildings there was a row of seven one story buildings with the line running through the middle of each building. Three of the buildings were painted blue (the shade of the UN flag blue) and the others were white. After Kim’s briefing our bus arrived and we boarded it for a short ride through tank traps to the complex. We were directed to stand on the steps of the three story building and await our turn to enter the middle blue building. There we were given five minutes to cross back and forth in the room, sit at the table and shake hands with someone one the other side of the table and take pictures.
Next we rode to the building where the Armistice was sign on July 27, 1953. Again we sat and shook hands across the table where a copy of the Armistice Agreement resided in a Plexiglas box. Since this building is in North Korea it also serves as a museum with extensive displays of the war on its walls. Include in the displays were pictures of the capture of the USS Pueblo and the Navy EC-121 that the DPRK shot down.
From the Armistice building we rode into Kaesong and were greeted by a very wide boulevard leading to a bronze statue of Kim Il sung. We stopped for the renowned Kaesong cuisine which is served in over a dozen brass cups of various sauces, hardboiled egg, soups, casseroles and vegetables. The utensils were a brass spoon with a very long handle and brass chop sticks. Each cup had a brass lid. It was delicious.
After lunch we toured the area and some of us walked up to the base of Kim Il sung’s statue. We then visited the Koryo Museum which has replicas of the Koryo king’s tombs. The museum resides in the city’s old Confucian academy. We toured an Art Gallery and visited the Sonjuk Bridge, site of the murder of loyal official Jong Mong-Ju in 1392. We rode to the Nam Gate and stopped to walk around and take pictures. We also stopped at a Kaesong Folk Hotel were Kim was able to find a store that sold Coke Zero, the first diet soda we had come across in the country. Edith Ann stocked up for the rest of the trip.
We then rode to Hyonjongrung Royal Tomb or the Tomb of King Kongmin, nominated for World Heritage status, it is one of the best preserved royal tombs in North Korea which remains in its original state, having avoided extensive "restoration" under the Communist government. Kim told us the following story:
A local tale related how the mountain opposite that on which the tombs sit got its name; When Kongmin's wife died, he hired geomancers to find a perfect location for which to place her tomb. Becoming upset when everyone failed to please him, he ordered that the next one to try would be given anything they desired if they succeeded; however, if they failed him he would kill them on the spot. When one young geomancer told him to review a spot outside Kaesong, Kongmin secretly told his advisors that if he waved his handkerchief they should execute the geomancer.
While the geomancer took the king's subjects to the spot where the tomb is now located, Kongmin climbed the one opposite to review the site. When he reached the top of the mountain, exhausted, he dabbed his brow and surveyed the area; delightedly, he found it to be perfect and prepared to personally congratulate the young man. However, upon climbing down the mountain he found that the man had been executed; the subjects had seen him wipe his brow and thought that he had wanted the man executed. Hearing of his foolishness, the King exclaimed "Oh, my!"; his subjects then named the mountain “Oh,my” as a memorial to the story.
We returned to Pyongyang and checked in to the Pyongyang Koryo Hotel. Built in 1985, it has two towers with orange-bronze exterior and a revolving restaurant on the top of each tower. It is located in the center of the city. Dinner that evening was in a local restaurant with a propane grill in the center of the table for four of us and we could cook our own meat and again there were small dishes of sauces and vegetables. My room was a small suite with a bed room an anti-room and a small alcove with two window seats and a small table.
Saturday, September 8, 2012: Breakfast was in a large room on the 3rd floor of tower two which was the 2nd floor of tower 1 where our rooms were. Got that – two towers with different numbering systems! Several of our group rode down to the lobby and crossed over to the tower 2 elevators and rode up to the 3rd floor and discovered that if they had gotten off on the second floor in tower 1 they would be on the same level. To further confuse us they charged for coffee and tea.
The weather had finally turned on us and a light rain was falling. Our first stop was the book store. Buses could not park near the store so we had to walk two blocks in the light rain. The store was not very big and another tour group was already there which made it very crowded. They soon left and I bought some books on the history of the Korean war from the DPRK view point.
Our next stop was a ride in the Metro. It was not a long walk from the bus drop off to the Metro entrance. It is one if not the deepest Metro line in the world, 360 feet below ground. It seemed like one of the longest escalators I have ever ridden. It had beautiful murals and sculptures but the cars were not beautiful looking. They were very clean but plain with a 1950’s style design. Since it was Saturday there was not a rush of workers. The patrons did not look at us but just went about their business. We only rode to one stop which had an interesting set of chandeliers that looked like fireworks bursts.
Our bus was waiting for us at the Metro stop and drove us to the USS Pueblo, DPRK’s major trophy. The ship is fitted just as it was when it was captured in January 1968. The ship was an American ELINT and SIGINT Banner-class technical research ship which was boarded and captured by North Korean forces. The DPRK claimed it was in their territorial waters which reported positions showed that it was outside the 12 mile range of the coast but could have been within 12 miles of a small island. The crew was eventually released in December 1968 after the United States admitted the ship's intrusion into North Korean territory, apologized for the action, and pledged to cease any future such action. A female DPRK Naval Officer guided us through the ship. The ELINT and SIGINT equipment was still as it was in 1968.
When the incident happened I had recently been assign to a Top Secret position at SAC Headquarters in a Joint Service unit. The Navy officers in my unit were surprised that the crew had not destroyed the “spy” equipment on board. The incident was followed in April 1969 with the DPRK shooting down a US Navy EC-121.
After the tour of the ship we rode out of the city to visit the Chongsan-Ri Collective Farm. Along the way we stopped for lunch at a park on a reservoir. The lunch was served in an outdoor pavilion where we sat on mats and the food was cooked on small charcoal fired grills. The entrance to the pavilion was through a decorative arch gate and across a short bridge to a very small island with a pretty structure and then to another bridge to the pavilion. It was very picturesque but not comfortable in the cold rainy weather. The food was good.
At the Collective Farm the rain had stopped and we saw corn kernels spread on the concrete to dry. Overlooking the farm’s plaza was a statue of the “Great Leader” surrounded by farmers. He reportedly visited this farm many times. In some books it is refer to the site as the Chongsan-ri Revolutionary Monument and Museum. We were allowed to take pictures around the sight which is interesting because Google Earth shows a Surface to Air Missile (SAM) site not far (about 2,000 feet) from the areas we toured on top of a hill overlooking the farm.
We toured the farm and visited one of the farmers who showed us with his mother-in-law his twin babies and his modest house. It was very clean and neat. The yard around the house was planted with vegetables and the roof had watermelon growing on it. In the back his wife was harvesting lettuce.
A short walk from the farmers house we entered a tomato hot house. It was a very neat farm. Back on the bus we rode to the Kangso Three Tombs registered as a World Cultural Heritage site in 2004. They were charging $US 150 to enter the tomb to see the drawing on the wall that we had seen replicated earlier in the week during the tour in Kaesong so we passed on the fee.
The rain had completely stopped so Kim decided to have the driver take country roads to the Ryonggang Hot Spring Hotel where we were scheduled to spend the night. The roads were not paved and the going was slow but we were seeing a lot of the small villages and farmland along the way. About forty five minutes after we left the tombs we encountered a washed-out bridge from the Typhoon that had passed through the previous week. The river was shallow and the locals were piling rocks across the river so people, vehicles and bicycles could ford the river.
The bus driver turned around and we back drove back to the last fork in the road and started up the the other road which lead to an Army base. A lengthy discussion took place with first the guard at the gate and then an officer. Finally the bus was turned around and we returned to the washed-out bridge. We got off the bus to lighten the load and it was able to get across. We had to walk across stones where in some spots about two inches of water was flowing over the stones. About twenty five minutes later we encountered a washout of the road in a gully. Kim got out and directed the driver to steer the best course but the bus rode low to the ground and at one point nosed into rocks that bent an arm on the door making it impossible to open. The driver crawled out the window and was able to use a tire tool to bend the arm back so he and Kim could enter the bus. The same thing happened twice more and then we reached a stretch of road with deep ruts filled with water and the bus came to a stop with the wheels spinning.
We exited the bus and with the assistance of a couple of local farmers started to pile stones under the wheels. It was now three hours since we left the tombs and we were not having any luck. Kim and the driver went into the village down the hill from our bus and returned with several shovels and a local farmer who started to dig out the mud and fill in rocks in front of the right rear tire. The main problem appeared to me to that the undercarriage of the bus was hung-up on the crown of the road.
The sun set and we boarded the bus and snacked on power bars and other snacks that Carla and Cathy had and then tried to sleep. I had a pinched nerve in my leg which caused a lot of pain and prevented me from falling asleep. Soon a group of about a dozen men arrived wearing yellow hard hats and Jeanie told us they were engineers from a local mine. They were able to jack the frame up and pile enough rocks under the tire so we were able to move forward. The told the driver that there was more bad road ahead so he turned the bus around and we retreated back the way we came having problems at the washed-out points and washed-out bridge. The bend arm on the door was removed to stop it from allowing the door to open. Once past the washed-out bridge the engine emitted a warning tone. We stopped and discovered a big pool of oil leaking from the engine. The drive got a pail and caught a lot of it and after a while he and Kim were able to stop the leak and on he drove until the warning tone came on again. By then it was after mid-night but there were people on the road. The driver and Kim got in a conversation with one of the men walking along the road and soon the three of them disappeared. They were gone a long time as we tried to sleep in the bus. Around two in the morning a large truck appeared heading straight for us blinking his lights and blowing his horn. He stopped just a few feet in front and started yelling, I guess wanting us to move. Ginny engaged him in a heated discussion and finally got the point across that we had a broken engine. Then an Army truck came up behind us blowing his horn until the driver from the truck in front was able to calm him down. The Army truck then was able to squeeze past our bus. Kim and the driver returned and proceeded to repair the leak and we were able to continue to the hotel. We found out later that the leak was a cracked oil pipe and they had gone into a village and were able to get some epoxy cement which they applied to close the leak.
Sunday, September 9, 2012: We didn’t arrive at the Ryonggang Hot Spring Hotel until after 05:00. We were greeted by boxes of Korean food in Styrofoam containers. We were not in the mood or that hungry to eat. Each room had a large deep tub with in addition to the normal faucets for filling the tub or taking a shower, had a faucet that delivered hot spring water. They informed us the hot spring water would not be turned on until 07:00. Breakfast was scheduled for 09:00. I got a couple of hours sleep, took a hot spring bath which was salty, and then showered and packed by bags and left the room for breakfast on time.
Ryonggang Hot Springs is on the outskirts of Nampo, the west coast sea port. After breakfast we drove to The West Sea Barrage which is located 10 miles from Nampo. The barrage, or dike, stretches for 5 miles across the Taedong River estuary separating the salt water from the fresh water.
Completed on June 24, 1986 after five years of construction by soldiers of the Korean People’s Army, the barrage has three locks capable of handling 2,000 to 50,000 ton ships, 36 sluice gates, a swing bridge, a railway and a highway. The barrage provides water for irrigation, industrial uses and drinking. Prior to the construction of the barrage the river was subject tidal changes all the way to Pyongyang and was salty. Now the river is fresh water and stable in Pyongyang.
The main dam also has three fish ladders to permit the movement of fish between the fresh and salt water. There is also a hydrologic and oceanographic research center. An 82 mile long West Sea Barrage-Sinchon-Kangryong-Ongjin waterway has also been completed to provide much needed irrigation water to tens of thousands of acres of farmland and reclaimed tideland.
We stopped at an observation center where we were able to take photos of the barrage. On display was a model of the complex and pictures on the walls. Kim informed us that former US President Jimmy Carter visited the site during his June, 1994 visit to North Korea.
Leaving the complex we rode through the city of Nampo and past a 65 foot bronze statue of Kim Il Sung with a cap and long coat. A little different than the other bronze statues we had seen around the country. Back on the highway to Pyongyang we stopped at the Pyongyang Golf Course for lunch. The exit for the Golf Course was not marked on the highway and the road leading to the club house was not paved. It seemed like they were hiding its existence from the general public. The greens and fairways were lined by dense woods. The club house was at the top of a hill overlooking very little of the course. We noticed that the caddies were young pretty women. (I wonder of Tiger Woods has played the course).
The lunch was roasted clams – very unusual but delicious. I had to assist the non-New Englanders in our group open their clams. We noticed that the bus was still leaking oil. I wondered what the “big wigs” that were members of the club thought when they saw a large oil stain in the club parking area.
Back on the highway we made a mad dash to reach the Pyongyang Circus Theater for the 15:00 performance. What a show we were treated to. After the Mass Games and the children’s performance I thought we had seen the best talent in North Korea but I was wrong.
The show is similar to Cirque de Soleil. It started with ice skaters, skating in precision maneuvers, performing gymnastic routines and then having a bear and two baboons skating through tricks like jumping rope, jumping through hoops, shooting basket balls through a hoop and performing other tricks. We were not allowed to take photos. I discovered after I returned to the US that PETA has taped the show and has been very critical of the treatment of animals.
The ice skating act ended with doves performing tricks. Having trained dogs a good period of my life I saw the animals performing similar to obedience dogs, rewarded with food after every stunt. The doves were something else. How they are trained to fly a performance and return to the skater mystified me.
The ice was covered and roller skaters performed as did dogs performing as I have seen in Las Vegas. Next were performers including young kids jumping rope inside jumping rope inside jumping rope! There also were jugglers, acrobats and gymnasts.
After the Circus we were greeted by a different bus and driver. Our bus was in the shop to replace the cracked oil pipe. We rode on the new bus to Mangyongdae, the birth place of Kim Il Sung. His birth house is located only 7 miles away from the center of Pyongyang and Kim Il Sung's grandparents apparently lived there until the 1950s.
This rural house shows how Kim Il Sung spent his childhood years with family members and has photos of this period of his life thus are an important scenic spot in North Korea. The humble, restored thatched house is now surrounded by well-trimmed bushes, neatly mowed yards and an entrance more similar to that of a palace. The mudded wall house is divided into a barn and several living rooms. Several objects used by the "Great Leader" and his family during their lives remain there.
From Mangyongdae we rode back to the center of the city to see the massive dance party held in Pyongyang's central square to celebrate the 64th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK on September 9, 1948. Hundreds of students and others danced to music blearing from the top of the steps overlooking the square. A number of the tourists we crossed paths with during the week were also observing the dancing and in some instances were taking part in the dancing. It was an impressive sight. But I noticed that the men seemed happy and were smiling as the dance, the women did not smile and seemed serious about correctly executing the dance steps. When I mentioned this observation to Jeanie she told me Korean woman are trained to not show emotion.
From the square we rode to back to the Pyongyang Koryo Hotel and checked back into the same room I was in two nights ago. At 19:00 we left for the same restaurant we had eaten in on Thursday night. Again we were seated in a private room. At the end of the dinner we were treated to a surprise birthday cake for Carla and Terry who both had birthdays on the 9th.
Monday, September 10, 2012: We rode to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, and walked up 530 steps to the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, located on Mount Taesong overlooking the city. Flanking the steps were large white sculptures of revolutionary fighters. The cemetery is the final resting place of Koreans who died fighting the Japanese during their occupation of the Korean peninsula. Each martyrs head stone was topped with a bronze bust of the martyr. At the top of Cemetery were the busts of Kim Jong-suk, Kim Il-sung’s first wife and Kim Jong-il’s mother. Behind their graves was a large reddish monument in the shape of a DPRK party flag with a large fan shape white structure that provides the impression of a sun burst behind the flag.
Next stop was a visit to the Tomb of King Tongmyong and the Chongrŭngsa Buddhist Temple. We were met by the resident monk who explained the history of the site. From there we rode back to city and a visit to the Monument to Victory in the Fatherland Liberation War. The sculptures reflect the different battles of the war, one for the solders (“The Battle of Taejon Liberation”), one for the air force (“Defending the Sky of the Country), one for the families of solders (“Home Front’s Support for the Front”), one for the woman, one for army artillery (Defenders of Height 1211”), one for the navy (“Defending the Territorial Waters”), one for the tanks, one for machine gunners, and the Victory Sculpture as the centerpiece.
After our tour of the Monument to Victory in the Fatherland Liberation War we returned to our hotel for lunch and then visited the Chollima movie studios. Inside the gate to the studio we passed a large broze statue of Kim Il Sung surrounded by actors and directors in a court yard. In the back lot we toured mock-up sets of various countries and periods. First stop was the ancient Korean village where one of the buildings contained costumes we could try on and have our picture taken. Next was a street with more modern looking building, past that street was a thatched roof village on a side street and then a Chinese street. At the end of the street we were welcomed by one of the actors who were on a break with a group of support personnel. We walked on past a European house, and an English Pub.
The next tour was the Handicrafts Exhibition Hall which featured embroidery which was a favorite activity of Kim Il Sung’s wife. There we saw young women producing fine embroidery pictures and saw them hung on the walls throughout the building.
Next stop was Juche Tower. Located directly across the Taedong River from Kim Il Sung Square. It is a tapering, four-sided, 560-foot tall monument built of one stone for each day of Kim Il Sung’s life, and is topped with a giant red flame, illuminated at night. It is taller than the Washington Monument – upon which it is supposedly modeled – by merely a few feet. The tower serves as a chance for the North to begin educating visitors not just on the greatness of Kim Il-sung, but also on Kim Il-sungism, as Juche is sometimes called.
This "leading light of world philosophy" extolls the virtues of the independent North Korean way of socialism. By stressing strength through independence and self-reliance its thought the people of the North can be inoculated against the evil material temptations of the outside world. "We may be poor but at least we have our dignity. Unlike those money grubbing sellouts in the South."
The tower offers great views of the city and surrounding area. We had an interesting guide that spoke excellent English trying to explain Juche to us.
We took numerous pictures of the city and then back down at the base we took pictures of the sculptures surrounding the tower. Boarding the bus we rode on to the 164 foot high Monument to the Founding of the North Korean Worker’s Party (WPK). It is a three fisted monument with one fist holding a hammer, one holding a sickle and a third fist holding a brush which symbolizes the success of intellectuals. We walked to the center of the monument where there is a ring with the inscription on the outside “Long live the Workers’ Party of Korea which organizes and guides all victories for the Korean people!” and carved in relief in the inside of the circular band are three large sculptures showing the historical root of the WPK, the might of the single-minded unity of the leader, party and masses and the fighting feature of the Korean people to carry out the human cause of independence.
Kim decided to move the mood away from the heavy propaganda of the last two monuments and had the bus stop at the Pyongyang Gold Lane bowling alley and pool hall where we could see the locals relaxing.
We stopped at the Rakwon Department Store. On the first floor, there was a supermarket selling food and other daily requirements, while electronics and clothes were found on the second floor. It was not very well stocked and I don’t think anyone in our group purchased anything. The hotels had similar merchandise in their shops so the souvenirs had already been purchased.
The next stop was for our last dinner in North Korea. We were scheduled to eat at the Diplomatic Club, a swank restaurant but found that it was closed in observance of the DPRK Founding Day which had fallen on a Sunday so Monday was a holiday. Instead we went to a pizza and spaghetti restaurant. That was an interesting experience. We sat at one long table and ordered from a menu with pictures of the various pizzas and other dishes and loosely translated into English. Bill wanted a Pepperoni Pizza and what he got was a pizza with sliced green peppers. He turned it down and I had a piece and they said my face turned bright red when I ate the hot spice seeds of the pepper. The place also had karaoke and we were able to hear Ginny play the piano. She played several tunes including “You are the sunshine of my life” and finished with a very good version of “Danny Boy”. It was a fitting end to our adventure.
In summary: Our English speaking guide estimated only about 100 Americans visit the country per year. I did not see any starving people but we only traveled in the area between Pyongyang and the DMZ. We were supposed to visit the mountains to the northeast but due to the Typhoon there was too much damage and many roads were washed out. The vehicle traffic was light. I didn’t see very many trucks moving goods to or from the villages. We did not see any farmers markets so I am not sure where the people obtain their food. Even in Pyongyang we did not see a lot of people, even on the Metro. The people we did see did not show curiosity and didn’t look at us or attempt to talk to us. The guides had a good command of the English language and had a good knowledge of the sites we were being shown. We saw a lot of men and women in Army uniforms but they often were doing work like construction and clean-up. Our guides did not preach or spout a “Party line” – they just gave us facts (lots of technical facts like size, the number of times one of the leaders visited a site and the time it took to construct a site). There was no attempt to convince us that they lived in a superior system. All explanations and maps (except at the DMZ) referred to one country with South Korea having a different type of government. The books I read that were published in North Korea referred to the southern provinces as puppets of the “Imperialist US”, but that wasn’t emphasized by the guides. At no time did I see any hostility toward Americans or any Westerners.
Tuesday, September 11, 2012: We got up early and checked out of the hotel for the ride to the airport. My cell phone was returned and we departed at 09:15 on the same plane that we had flown in from Beijing. The group broke up in Beijing with Edna and Carla returning to the states. Lynn, Mary, Terry, Linda and I spent the night in Beijing and flew to Mongolia the next morning.