Taking a train is the only way to go to DPRK from Dandong. It took only 7 or 8 minutes to cross Yalu River Bridge on Dandong – Pyongyang train. However, the border inspection took us nearly 2 hours. Apart from checking our luggage one by one, the customs officers also asked us if we had books, mobile phones and cameras with us. Bring these was allowed. They needed to make sure the books were not Bibles, the cameras were without GPS function and were not for interview purpose. When checking my DSLR, the female officer seemed not to know how to use it. She had to give up on it after failing switching it on.
Apart from customs officers, there were also platelayers. Even the female workers did makeups. Every other 30 meters, two or three girls in red shirts, black trousers and high-heal sandals stood there chatting. Their responsibility was simply being beautiful.
When waiting for the inspection to be finished, we made the acquaintance of a scholar from Beijing specializing in the research of DPRK-US Relationship. He can speak South Korean, but he couldn’t speak it in DPRK because North Koreans would feel offended. These two languages now become so different as South Korean has borrowed words mainly from the US while North Korean introduces new words mainly from China. “Many North Koreans who has fled to the South don’t have a sense of belonging and social identity because they are used to finding themselves a place in a group while their counterparts in the South are more self-centered. They feel excluded and lost when South Korean youngsters are buried in their hi-tech devices. Hence many North Koreans abroad choose to go back home once finishing their missions.” He told us. The presumption that North Koreans all want to flee their country doesn’t seem to be true. Their Government has taken so much from them that there’s nothing left for them and they have to rely on the Government. Without the Government, or rather the Kims, there are no Them. “I had some North Korean friends who were also scholars in Beijing back then. I cannot get in contact with them once they go back home. Their only correspondence with outside world is writing letters, but that will cause them a lot of trouble as they cannot have any foreign friends.” When they went back to DPRK, he lost them forever.
The train finally started again after 2-hour inspection. On our train, there were many North Korean businessmen. They all wore badges of their Supreme Leaders. They sat in the same compartments with foreigners but never talked to us. Their expressions were numb when they saw us. According to the scholar, they have their own missions – to earn certain amount of money. Without reaching the standard set by the government, they cannot go back home. “There are also some North Korean students learning Chinese in Beijing. Many of them become waiters and waitresses after graduation. They make money for their country.” That’s ironically touching – to fight for the powerful and prosperous nation by handing in what they have earned from hard work. The scenery from Sinuiju to Pyongyang was appealing at the beginning. I was curious to see the shabby houses, farmers digging land, passers-by walking or riding bikes, primary school students in ugly school uniforms, workers sleeping like dead in the field without covering any blankets, etc. I was excited to wave back when people waved to us. However, it became boring soon as the only landscape was farmland.
5 hours never seemed to be so long. Finally we were at Pyongyang Railway Station. Compared with Chinese railway stations, there were not so many people at Pyongyang Station, most of them being visitors. There our Chinese travel operator handed us over to our North Korean guides – a pretty girl, a treacherous-looking guy and a candide-looking guy. The candide-looking guy called John was an English guide especially for my German friend. The pretty girl called Park and the treacherous-looking guy called Lee were Chinese guides for the rest of our group. They took us to dinner on our private bus, where we spent most of our time during our stay in DPRK except for hotels.
Different from my imagination, Pyongyang was very clean and serene. I thought it to be dirty and messy because before departure, our Chinese travel operator reminded us not to take photos of bad scenes. The scholar said Pyongyang now was so different from what it was like in 2010 when he came for the first time. Back then, it was not as modernized, there were very few cars and photos were no way allowed. Now the avenues are wide, the buildings look new and there are buses and taxies running on the streets. Passing by a square, I saw female soldiers at drill. They were preparing for the upcoming Workers Party Congress. Actually the whole country was in preparation: nuclear test, launching of satellite, “work hard for 70 days before the Congress” slogan, school children rehearsing in Pyongyang Children’s Palace, the construction of modern avenues and hi-tech complex, etc. Talking about the resent nuclear test and launching of satellite, Lee was very proud. He said: “As you all know from the news, we had a nuclear test and launched a satellite this year. We are gonna launch more satellites and carry out more nuclear tests. Our country is gonna be more and more powerful.” Fingers crossed for them. While people are still starving, the government spends 1/4 of its GDP on military.
I had known that North Koreans worship their leaders as if they were Gods, but it was in Pyongyang that I truly sensed their belief. On almost every public building, there are portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il. Adults wear badges of the head portraits near their hearts. Even many places and objects are named after them: Kim Il-sung Square, Kim Il-sung University, Kim Il-sung Flower, Kim Jong-il Flower, etc. The biggest festivals are Bright Star Festival and Sun Festival, respectively being Kim Il-Sung’s and Kim Jong-il’s birthdays. Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il are dead, but they are everywhere, watching their people. There is no way that North Koreans can avoid the influence of these two dead Leaders. In DPRK, visitors have to be careful with the terminology of addressing three Leaders: President Kim Il-Sung (the dead grandfather), General Kim Jong-il (the dead father) and Marshal Kim Jong-un (the son). If you address wrongly, the guides will always correct you. When saying something, our guides always started with “the Great/ Supreme Leader President Kim Il-Sung/ General Kim Jong-il said/ taught us…” I can hardly imagine if Chinese people believed in Mao, Jiang, Hu, Xi, etc. as much as North Koreans believe in the Kims, what China would be like.
After 10 minutes or so, the bus stopped in front of a building, where we had our first meal in DPRK. From outside, it was hard to recognize the construction as a restaurant. Inside, it was nicely decorated. The restaurant was full of Europeans. I guess it was a restaurant for visitors only. The food was quite good, enough to feed ourselves. They must have offered the best they had.
After dinner, we were taken to Yanggakdo Hotel, the best hotel in DPRK. The hotel is on the island in Taedong River. Most foreign visitors are arranged there so that unsupervised evening strolls on streets are out of the question. We were told if we wanted to take a walk, we could not go farther than the parking lot. That said, were could not leave the island. “If you want to go farther, just call me. I’ll accompany you.” The guides reminded us sweetly. I had planned to sneak out of the hotel at night, but it didn’t work in the end. One of the visitors in our group told me over breakfast the next day that when he went to the lobby at midnight, one of our guides were still there. That assured us he was more of a watcher than a guide.
The next day we were taken sight-seeing in Pyongyang. We were routinely taken to Mansudae Grand Monument to pay our respects to their late leaders. It’s also a frequently visited spot by Pyongyang citizens. It was International Labor Day that day. We encountered many young people visiting Korean Revolution Museum behind the statues. Each man in Pyongyang wear formal suites, ties and leather shoes while women wear high-heals with smart casual dresses. Even un-grown-up girls like to wear shoes with a little heals. Young women are all pretty, while men – I’m just sorry for the women having them as boyfriends or husbands. However, North Korean women think differently. There are three essential aspects when looking for a future husband: firstly whether he has served the army or not, secondly whether he’s a member of the party or not and thirdly whether he’s a university graduate or not. If a man meets all three aspects, he’s a perfect candidate. At least compared with the general Chinese standard of having at least one apartment and one car, they look for something else other than from the surface.
Another landmark where every single visitor is taken to is Kim Il-sung Square. It’s located at the west bank of the Taedong River, directly opposite the Juche Tower. It is similar in form and design to the Tian’anmen Square in Beijing. Juche Tower is the symbol of Juche Idea, which the whole country deeply believes in. Every day at 7 am and 4 pm, North Koreans study Juche Idea. In china we are also supposed to know the guiding ideology of the Communist Party of China. However, many people not even know what “China dream” really stands for, not to mention the ideology of CCP. As long as people lead a comfortable and well off life, they don’t really care much. Here in DPRK, I can tell people’ true pieties. As Lee said scornfully: ”We don’t have any religions. We only believe in Juche Idea.”
Surprisingly, we were also taken to experience Pyongyang metro. In DPRK, visitors are not allowed to take public transportation. It is to prevent them from interacting with citizens. However, the metro is an exception because as far as I’m concerned, the magnificent metro system is a way to show off their construction achievements to visitors.
“Pyongyang metro is the deepest in the world, with an average depth of 100 meters.” Park proudly told us.
“As far as know, Pyongyang metro station is not the deepest. I don’t remember where, but there is a deeper one.” One of the visitors teased.
“You are wrong, I take metro every day. How can I not know? There is no doubt that I know more about our metro than you.” She argued in an anxious voice.
Park was 24-year-old simple girl, an absolute adherent of what the Great Leaders said and what the government taught them. If anyone exposed their government’s lie, she would stand out to protect her belief.
John told us that the Pyongyang metro used former German rolling stock and some electronic devices imported from China. However, he didn’t say the construction was under the support of China and other countries, either because he didn’t know, or because he didn’t want to admit it. I knew immediately why taking metro was in our schedule upon entering the station: resplendent lights on the ceiling, nicely sculptured columns, huge mural at the end of the platform… There were newspaper stands to convey the message of government as well as for citizens to kill time when waiting for the metro to come. Huge propagandas were hung on both walls. Quite a lot of people took the metro. When we got into the carriage, the metro seemingly stopped for quite a long time. When seeing us, many citizens chose to wait for the next metro, as though we were carrying cholera plague. I stood at the door and tried to say “Hello” in North Korean I had just learned when a few people hurried in, but no one replied. We only took one station, but this experience was enough.
“How did you and your German friend know each other?” Park asked me on the way to another tourist attraction.
I explained to her the idea of Couchsurfing.
“So you knew on the Internet?” She felt very shocked.
“You may say so. Couchsurfing is a very cool way to know people from all over the world and exchange cultures.” I knew it was difficult for her to understand the concept of Courchsurfing because except for visitors, she didn’t have any other chances to meet foreigners, not to mention having a foreign friend could be guilty. However, I tried my best to explain to her because I thought it good for her to be exposed to some ideas from outside DPRK.
Interestingly, John also asked my friend how we knew each other. My friend told him the same story.
“How did you and your German friend know each other?” John asked me exactly the same question the next day. It seemed he didn’t believe what my friend told him and wanted to double confirm with me. I didn’t realize the idea was so difficult for them to understand and accept.
I had to tell the story again. “Don’t you think it cool?” I asked.
“Yeah.” I knew it meant “Might be but I’m not sure.”
Being a tourist guide was not John’s first occupation. He worked as a translator before. After four years, he got fed up. “I didn’t like the job because every day I did routine work. I even got depressed. I like to interact with people face to face. So I applied to government to be a tourist guide. After going through my qualifications, I got my current job.”
“So you enjoy your job now?”
“Yes, but I miss my families from time to time.”
“You are from Pyongyang, aren’t you? You can go back home when visitors return to the hotel.”
“I have to be in the hotel with you. It is my responsibility to make you happy.” Come on John, I liked you the most among three guides and I appreciated your interpretation, but I would definitely be happier without your company.
“Oh I’m sorry to hear that. I wish you a nice reunion with your family after our trip is over.”
Apart from Pyongyang city, we also visited Mt. Kumgang. Mt. Kumgang lies at the border of both Koreas. It was mostly visited by South Koreans years ago when the relationship between two Koreas were not so tense. Most of the facilities including restaurants and a theater were built by South Koreans. However, now it’s open for all visitors except for South Koreans.
People in the countryside seemed to be less vigilant. They waved to us when they saw our bus passing by and kids looked at us as if we were animals, just like us looking at them. In contrast, in Pyongyang three kids playing on the street hid immediately behind the bushes upon spotting me raising my camera in the bus.
We were all exhausted after 7 hours upside down bus trip and were arranged to stay in Mt. Kumgang Hotel. Mt. Kumgang Hotel turned out to be better than Yanggakdo Hotel except for the breakfast. It was not buffet breakfast like in Yanggakdo. When I asked for a second glass of milk, the waitress looked very unwilling but she couldn’t say no. I realized they were indeed in lack of food.
We started climbing on the third day. John was still in formal suits. He only changed his leather shoes into sports shoes while other two guides had changed to leisure wears before.
“Don’t you feel uncomfortable climbing the mountain in formal suits?” I was curious.
“It’s ok. It is our job to make guests happy.” I suppose he meant it was a respect for us when he wore formal suits.
“John, it’s not what you wear that makes us happy. I appreciate your company.”
“I like to wear formal suits. We don’t wear jeans.” I was in jeans that day. I had to smile awkwardly and quickly walk away.
“Many Chinese visitors say Mt. Kumgang is like the Yellow Mountain.” Park said when I passed by her.
“I have the same feeling. The Yellow Mountain is famous for pines, rocks of all shapes and sea cloud. There are five most famous mountains in China, but the Yellow Mountain is over them.” I told her.
“Is that so? But I think Mt. Kumgang is more beautiful than the Yellow Mountain.” She said, determined. Genius! She could compare these two mountains and made a conclusion even though she knew nothing about the other one. She had such firm belief in what the government taught her. And I knew everyone else in the country was like her. This is the most terrible thing: people absolutely believe the government. I know Chinese government also tells lies and hides some truth from its people. However, we are not cut off with the outside world, which means to some extent we can inevitably discover some lies. Banning Facebook, Google, etc. isn’t a way to stop Chinese people from knowing outside world because it is an era of globalization. In one moment I felt like shaking our guides and telling them: “Wake up! You are living in lies!”
The best mountain turned out to take us only 3 hours to climb up and go down. It was still better than taking a bus or cable car (if they ever had one) to the peak, taking a photo and going back. In DPRK I learned to be satisfied easily and be grateful for what I have now.
We had to spend another 7 hours going back to Pyongyang. I believe the country is indeed developing fast these years, especially the capital. However, the benefits of the development cannot be felt by everyone of course. In the countryside there is still deep poverty and malnutrition. People I saw working in the field were like slaves. When other totalitarian states have been forced to reform to survive, or swept by the tide of history, DPRK has remained resolute, defying the law of historical development and condemn of the rest of the world. It’s ironic that on the one hand, the government tries its best to present the best of the country to visitors; on the other hand, visitors also inevitably see the bad aspect of the country when traveling to the countryside.
In order to make us less bored, the guides started to sing. Park and Lee sang Chinese songs to cater to Chinese visitors. The songs they sang were all composed long before I was born, most of them being used during Mao’s era. I suppose DPRK imports these songs to remind its people they should be ready for battles at any time.
“They can sing Chinese songs because they majored in Chinese. Can you sing any English Songs?” I grabbed the opportunity to ask John when he was sitting next to me.
“Yes, I like to sing when I go to karaoke with my families and friends.”
“Oh that’s cool. What songs and singers do you like?”
“My favorite English song is My Heart Will Go On.”
“Oh you’ve watched Titanic!” I thought American movies were not allowed to be imported.
“Of course.” Maybe it was approved because this story was a tragedy in which their enemies died.
Among the three guides, I liked John most because he was most talkative. Park did her own duty well – She spoke perfect Chinese, entertained visitors with her beautiful songs, took care of our daily lives, etc. Lee, on the other hand, was more of a supervisor and messenger of his government. Whenever I asked some questions, he gave some perfunctory answers and never wanted to talk more. Only when talking about the goodness of the Supreme Leaders and the government, his held forth with great enthusiasm. Usually bus trip time from one place to another was his “teaching time”. “Do you know about our social welfare system?” Classes began. “We enjoy free medical care, free education and free houses.”
“I understand free medical care and education, but how does your government decide which houses should be allocated to which person?” I chose to discuss with John because I knew Lee would be very scornful.
“It depends on our contribution to the country.”
“How does your government recognize the contribution one makes to the country? That is to say, what are the essentials when defining one’s contribution? Is it the money you earn for the country?” Perhaps as tourist guides, they are paid by the number of groups they receive?
“It’s hard to explain. Money is not the most important aspect.” He didn’t say more. Maybe it was indeed hard to explain to a foreigner.
On the fourth day, we had the chance to travel outside Pyongyang again – we were taken to Kaesong, where Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is located in. DMZ, despite its name, is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Inside the DMZ, Panmunjom is the home of the Joint Security Area (JSA). According to the guides, three blue buildings are under control of the US military. Ordinarily there are no soldiers on either side. Only when there are visitors, soldiers are on guard here.
Back in downtown Pyongyang in the afternoon, we watched performances by pupils in Children’s Palace. The performances were all emotional and patriotic. The songs were all structurally and rhythmically similar to those used in China during Mao’s time. Singing was far from everything that can be seen here. Children playing instruments, performing opusculum and acrobatics, one would not really expect to see children carrying out activities with such perfection. I guess this is the advantage of not having internet.
There is a lot more that is unseen. However, it’s always better to have some information than nothing.