Day 7 of the tour. As became routine, we boarded our bus right after finishing breakfast at the hotel, this time heading to Myohyangsan mountain some 170Km from Pyongyang. In the bone rattler we pressed on, until, finally after over half a day, we arrived in the Myohyangsan mountain area. First was lunch at NKâ€™s premier hotel, the Hotel Myohyangsan. Here again can be found the regulation rotating restaurant. We were spared that, however, and dined in the cavernous restaurant on the second floor. Our severs were also all to-the-letter beautiful, young things. These waitresses even poured our beer for us, and at the correct angle and everything. The particular treatment we received here had all of our tongues wagging.
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Check out the pouring method
Anyway, after lunch it was off to the bizarrely named (that is, until you enter) â€œInternational Friendship Exhibition Buildingâ€, which we were helpfully informed was built in 1978. This is a whole complex devoted entirely to showcasing every gift ever received from abroad by the never-ending President Kim Il Sung or the other guy, Kim Jong Il. There are actually two buildings: one for each Kim. It goes without saying that they are both of a gigantic scale, and both are done in style of oriental castles. As is only appropriate, we visited the elderâ€™s castle first. The entrance featured huge, bronze doors, doors which apparently are not to be opened by anyone not wearing white gloves such as those of the women who let us in. By the doors were also two armed soldiers. Clearly, we were to understand the big fuss being made over security. Upon entering we were greeted by an all marble (coated?) interior. After depositing all belongings, including our cameras, we were led before a gargantuan statue of Kim Il Sung and beckoned to pray or something, and then to a seemingly endless corridor. The gifts are arranged in glass cases and divided by country of origin, but after being dragged about for more than an hour, patience was wearing thin. How disheartening then only to learn that we were in for yet another hour of being paraded before the gifts of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il.
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International Friendship Exhibition Building/å›½éš›è¦ªå–„å±•è¦§é¤¨
In the main the gifts were either frustrating commonplace or simply confounding. Lots of paintings, china, objet dâ€™art, furniture, etc., and all of such a cheapness that calls into question the need for protective glass cases. Tops was the gift from Nicaragua: a stuffed alligator holding out a dish, as if a servant. Gifts â€œfrom Japanâ€ were mostly things sent from Japanese Communist Party members of Diet, big wigs of companies with ties to NK, and persons connected with the Japan-Korea Friendship Association. Other trinkets include a camera from Antonio Inoki (former pro wrestler), and a piece of china from former Prime Minister Koizumi during the 2002 summit. It is said that the former Prime Minister was put in a difficult position when presenting the very duty-free-looking gift since Kim Jong Il, in accepting same, sought confirmation of the status of the piece as a Japanese National Treasure. Copy machines, cell phones and other devices sent by South Korean companies were also on display, despite being desperately needed items here. That was about it. All this notwithstanding, though, there were not a few domestic visitors here, and many who seemed to have come apparently on purpose. In the end, this place too is little more than a poorly veiled propaganda effort; this one intending to evidence (i) just how respected the eternal President and his son are throughout the world; and (ii) the magnanimity of rulers who rather than keep for themselves such treasures prefer to make same available to the People. Fail.
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Even the hairstyles are uniform
Next on the agenda something we figured would not be otherwise easily found in the Democratic Peopleâ€™s Republic of Korea: a Buddhist temple, Bohyon Temple. It is a fantastic temple with a magnificent gate, huge main hall, 13 stone pagodas, and very well appointed grounds. There was also a priest on hand to explain features of daily life and practice within the temple. According to the guide, there is freedom of religion in NK, and of those who practice, followers of Buddhism are greatest in number. Surprising for a socialist totalitarian state, but then this empty temple devoid of any apparent of worshippers and just conveniently on the foreign tourist trail was the only evidence of such alleged freedom. I donâ€™t know, but somehow I found it unconvincing that a one party, one ruler, one thought state would be such an enthusiastic supporter of ideas revolving around higher powers. Oh well, when in doubt trust the Party I guess.
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After that it was off to break a sweat whilst hiking about a mountain with a waterfall before returning to Pyongyang by bus. The last NK supper was grilled duck at a Pyongyang restaurant. The beef was really quite good, and so we topped it off with a last drinking session with the two guides and the other members at the hotel. The draft flowing, things were boisterous. And the more we imbibed the more we came to want to discuss, what else, NK. It was our chance to ask all the questions we up until then couldnâ€™t bring ourselves to ask, and, in the end, to appeal to the rational side of the debate concerning the pros and cons of totalitarian socialism (assuming, for sake of argument, that there can really be any other kind) and democratic capitalism. The guide was having none of it, though, and made an early night of it. But then we didnâ€™t need him because it wasnâ€™t really a debate anyway. We continued and made a great night of it.
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The last supper/æœ€å¾Œã®æ™©é¤ï¼šã‚¢ãƒ’ãƒ«è‚‰ã®ãƒ—ãƒ«ã‚³ã‚®
Guides, cameraman, and driver
Last night at the hotel/æœ€å¾Œã®å®´
By way of nothing, did you know that in the elevators for the Yanggakdo International Hotel there is no 5th Floor? Mysterious, no? I and a couple other members thought so and aided only slightly by alcohol we decided to check out the missing floor by the stairs as there simply had to be something to it. Esshie was somewhat concerned that we might be caught and then permitted by the authorities to make true our dreams of staying permanently in the DPRK. No such luck thoughâ€”we made it back without incident. Well, thatâ€™s to say we werenâ€™t caught. What we did find was very interesting indeed. First, the 5th floor is unlike any floor of the hotel, it is all concrete, like a bunker, complete with steel doors. There are no decorations of any kind; instead there are propaganda posters. At that time all the strange doors were shut tight, but we were still able to stumble upon the most intriguing off all: in a corner there was a large pile of what appeared to be miniature cameras, as if awaiting repair. Cameras, lots of them, and well enough for each room of the hotel. I donâ€™t think I need to spell it out for you, word for word anyway. Oh, and another member of our group reported that when he went at a different time one door was open and there appeared to be official-looking men before computers or machines of some kind and listening to something with headphones. Add it up and its chills down the spine.
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Day 8: last day of the tour. We said good-byeÂ to the Yanggakdo International Hotel, and made our way by bus to the â€œMansdeâ€ Memorial. We already came here on our first day and so just decided to hang back in the bus. After that the whole troupe made for Pyongyang Station, where we parted with the guides. By the way, since we were advised to do so by the travel agency that arranged this trip, we did dispense tips to both of the guides, the driver, and the camera man before leaving, after collecting equal amounts and wrapping the tips up so that they could not confirm the amount before we left. Why? Because the English guide, Mr Chang would just not stop pestering the leader by default of our group, Sofia, not to â€œforgetâ€ to tip, even going so far as to indicate the â€œproperâ€ amounts for everyone. Contrast the German-speaking guide, Mr Kim, who, at least by the accounts of the member from German-speaking countries, in addition to having a superb command of the language was a very easy-going person.
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The flowers-for-foreign-Imperialist-Aggressors racket
Foreign Imperialist Aggressors buying flowers
Locals laughing at foreign Imperialist Aggressors buying flowers
We then all piled into the train bound for Beijing. Until the border we had a mini banquet of sorts in the NK â€œdiningâ€ car. After 5 hours we arrived at the station near the border, where exit and inspection formalities were carried out for several hours, just as when we entered. But when we entered we hadnâ€™t just before been downing NK brews like there was no tomorrow, and we must have forgotten that use of the facilities is a no-no during border formalities. Esshie had it really bad in particular, but all pleas to the female official fell on deaf ears. With the next male official to come, we all joined in and he eventually caved, allowing Esshie to use the toilet in the station. Not so inflexible after all, nice even.
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The lucky ones/æ—…äººã‚’è¦‹é€ã‚‹äººã€…
The NK dining car/åŒ—æœé®®å´è»Šä¸¡ã®é£Ÿå ‚è»Š
After, yes it bears repeating, several hours formalities we completed, the NK cars decoupled, and we were off. And there it was, a shocking sight just before leaving NK territory and crossing the Yalu River: the emancipated bodies of two children squatting in a pile of rubbish between some dilapidated buildings and the tracks. They were in absolute squalor, seemingly unable to move and on what seemed to be on the verge of death by starvation. From the passing train is must have been but an instant, and yet it seared in our minds, as clear today as it was thenâ€”unforgettable. And just two kilometers away from, relatively speaking, a world of freedom and prosperity, all too clearly visible. We can only wonder if this last sight of NK was the one that more than any of the other reflects the true state of NK. What an end.
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Our train then crossed the bridge over the Yalu River and stopped at Dandong Station for now Chinese border formalities. After this it was in earnest off to Beijing, but as our destination was Tianjin, we got off there in the early morning hours, and made our final parting with the other members of the group.
To sum up, NK really is a different world, and our tour seemed like something from out of a dream. Everything from the ever-present and grossly oversized bronze statutes, the lack of a single advertisement anywhere, the ubiquitous, empty, purpose-built for propaganda buildings, the plastic smiles of children, the wide avenues devoid of any automobiles, and on and on, all totally removed from our sense of â€œnormalâ€. A country so close and at the same time so distantâ€”fascinating. It also served to help us appreciate the wealth and freedom of the world we know. By far the best part of our trip, hands down. In fact, we hope to have the chance to visit again, this time for what is perhaps the largest propaganda stunt still going in the world, the Arirang Festival.
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And to Civilization, to a degree
And with NK done, itâ€™s back to Japan and the end of our trip.