Day 201: September 29, 2018
Our last morning in Beijing we had breakfast in the hotel then we walked up the street to a bus hired by the tour company to take us to the Beijing airport for the start of our tour to the DPRK. We left at 9:00 am as they weren’t sure how long it would take to get to the airport. It was a long weekend for China National Day. We arrived early to check in so we hung out in the airport for a bit.
We went through the Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and other International departures area. Standing in line with the board saying, “Pyongyang,” was a bit surreal. Danny was all sorts of nerves. Our flight was with Air Koryo and we were given a mystery meat burger and beverage. The travel time was about two hours. On board we were given a form to fill out about our health, then an arrival card and customs declaration form. The tour company had pre-arranged our visas into the country.
In customs at the Pyongyang airport they took our phones and passports, scanned our bags and then we went through the metal detector. On the forms we had to declare phones, cameras and books. They asked me to take out my books then they were brought to another table. The lady looked at the covers then handed them back to me. Our bags were not searched although other people’s were checked. Our luggage tags were confirmed then we exited to meet our tour guides and group.
Our tour group had 14 people (only two females), a tour guide from the tour company in China named Jessica and three Korean guides: Miss Chang, Miss Rim and Mr. Ri.
The tour started right away with a stop at the Arch of Triumph. It was built to recognize the Korean resistance to Japan. The President started the revolution in 1925 and returned home in 1945. These are the years marked on the arch. To one side was the Kim Il Sung Stadium where the Pyongyang marathon takes place. We also got our first taste of the murals of their leaders with one right next to the stadium.
Next we went over to Kim Il Sung Square. The Grand People’s Study House stands in the centre with the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il displayed on the outside. A military parade had recently taken place and you could see the markings showing where each person would stand. Just down from the square was the Taedong River with a view to the Juche Tower across. The river view was beautiful at sunset.
It was almost supper time, but our day was not over. We were driven to the May Day Stadium to attend the Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance Arirang or Mass Games. The Mass Games were held annually between 2002 and 2013 and then returned this year. We paid 100 euros each for a third class ticket. A VIP ticket was 800 euros and was not really that much better than where we sat. One thing I found odd was that we were ushered in before the locals and given what seemed like better seats than them.
Over 50,000 people starting at age five participate in the incredible show. There are dancers, gymnasts, martial artists and singers. The show included images of Kim Il Sung, the struggle of the Korean War and the move towards reunification and better foreign relations. The seats straight across from us were filled with school children flipping coloured cards to make a huge, colourful image. I felt overwhelmed watching it all. The amount of people involved was crazy. It was hard to know where to watch.
Seeing the Mass Games was a once in a lifetime opportunity. When we first booked our trip a year ago, the Mass Games hadn’t yet been announced. It was a very nice surprise.
The performance was 1.5 hours long. When it concluded we were ushered to our bus then taken to our hotel. We were taken to a dining room for dinner. After, we returned to our room exhausted after a very busy day.
Day 202: September 30, 2018
Mausoleum day! We were told to wear our fancy clothes for the day. Danny had to wear a tie, dark trousers and nice shoes. I had to have my shoulder, knees and toes covered. At breakfast everyone looked different all dressed up.
We drove to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. The palace was built in 1976 and was Kim Il Sung’s official residence. When he passed away his son turned it into his father’s mausoleum.
We stood in a waiting room and then were taken to the palace. All of our bags, cameras and phones were placed in a cloak room. We then moved along travelators passing photos of the two leaders.
We were lined up in groups of four and moved into a large, dimly lit room with Kim Il Sung in the middle. We approached bowing at his feet, moved clockwise to bow at his right then around again to bow at his left. We exited and entered a room with Kim Il Sung’s awards. His car was displayed in another room and his train car in another. We repeated the same process for Kim Jong Il. His train car was actually where he passed away in 2011.
No pictures were allowed inside the mausoleum. Afterwards we were able to go to the square of the palace and take pictures. The two leaders faces were pictured on the outside of the building.
We returned the way we had come and exited the mausoleum. The idea of a mausoleum I find odd, but seeing the bodies of the two infamous leaders was a bit momentous. How often do you get to actually see a dictator?
After the mausoleum we travelled to Mount Teasong to view the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery. There were busts of over 300 martyrs from the war to liberate Korea from Japanese rule. Many included Kim Il Sung’s family.
At the top we placed flowers and showed our respects by bowing. In the middle was the bust of Kim Il Sung’s wife, Kim Jong Suk, who died from the hardships of the war. Beside her are two of Kim Il Sung’s closest generals.
After lunch we went for a short walk to see some newer apartment buildings built for teachers and scientists of the nearby university. Housing is provided by the government free of charge. We have heard that the free items from the government mean that the citizens’ wages are significantly lower than Western standards. According to the article “15 Fascinating Facts About North Korea” published by the Independent, the average estimated annual income in North Korea is $1,000 to $2,000 (Pfeiffer, 2016).
People in Pyongyang work six days a week with Sunday as a rest day. They work from 8:30 am to 6:00 pm typically with a lunch hour from 12:00 pm to 2:00 pm. During lunch, they eat their meal then have a nap, read or play sports.
Next we drove to Kim Il Sung’s birth home. His great grandfather had settled in the area as a grave keeper. We were told of Kim Il Sung’s humble beginnings. The first pot his mother bought was warped because it was all she could afford. Inside the building was a picture of Kim Il Sung’s parents. We were able to drink the revolutionary water from the well near the house.
Next stop was the shooting range. Some people, including Danny, shot the Korean pistols. Danny and I have been to the shooting range back home a couple of times. The last time I decided it was not my thing. I don’t like the power.
After we went for a ride on the metro. We started in Rehabilitation Station where there were murals showing the rebuilding of Korea following the Japanese occupation. We took the metro to the next stop, Glory Station, which had beautiful murals of Pyongyang. In the metro, we were stared at a lot by the locals, but I think we were all staring back equally. I think both sides are fascinated with how the other lives.
We moved on to Juche Tower which had a statue of a worker with a hammer, a farmer with a sickle and an intellectual with a writing brush at the front. You could pay extra to take an elevator to the top. Danny and I chose to sit and relax for a bit while the others in our group went up. The others said that it didn’t seem like the city was large enough to hold the 3.2 million people we were told lived in Pyongyang.
We drove out of Pyongyang around 4:00 pm to Mount Myohyang three hours away. We were upgraded to a seven star hotel as the one they usually stay in was under renovation. The hotel was fancier than the one we stayed at in Pyongyang, but not even a three star hotel by Western standards.
At supper our server tested her Chinese with another female on our trip from China. She asked very cute questions like how old she was, if she was married, etc. When the server found out that her boyfriend was there she was really excited. She asked to take a picture of them together with their camera. Our table was really enjoying the conversation. After supper, we went to bed.
Day 203: October 1, 2018
We had breakfast in the hotel then drove to Pohyon Buddhist Temple. The air was crisp in the morning. The temple was built in 1042 and originally had 30 buildings, but 15 burned down in the war. The area was known for gold mining when the Japanese were present. After liberation Kim Il Sung wanted to preserve the area so he shut down the mines. The area was very beautiful. There was a bit of fog hanging on the hills that created a mystic ambience.
On our drive to our next stop we were taught some Korean: hello is annyong-hassi-mnigga and thank you is khamsa-ham-nida.
Next was the International Friendship Museum where all the gifts to the leaders from other nations are stored. The place has over 150 rooms. There is no way to visit all of them in a day. We were shown some of the rooms of gifts from Russia. There was a train and even a plane inside. Our guide was very enthusiastic and had been working there for 20 years. She took us to the gifts from each of our countries. Canada’s was very small. There were a couple of gifts from private people and organizations, but none from the government. Our guide was very happy to see us so interested. She knew so much about the items and she could answer your question without looking at the item.
On the top floor there was a balcony where Kim Il Sung had recited a poem he wrote in 1979.
We rested there for a bit then took our bus to Mount Myohyang for a hike. We were told the hike was 2.5 km and we had an hour before we would need to turn back. This gave us all the idea that we were going to reach the top. We were told afterwards that we were the first group to make it as far as we did.
The climb was quite strenuous. We passed some Korean characters carved into the rocks that looked very mystical. There were also numerous waterfalls on the way up.
Two guys and Mr. Ri went ahead and made it to the top. Miss Chang was calling for us to return when we were near the top so we pretended not to hear and kept climbing. Danny was literally dragging me up at the end. It was very steep. At the top there was a pagoda where we took some pictures, but with all the trees around you couldn’t see far.
We hurried down so Miss Chang wouldn’t be upset and we all caught up. I realized just how steep the steps were on the climb back down.
Our drive back to Pyongyang gave us a glimpse of the countryside. There are two types of farms in the DPRK: state where workers are paid a wage based on an eight hour work day and cooperative where workers are paid based on the amount they produce. Farmers are also able to have their own small plot of land to grow vegetables and raise small animals. They can eat or sell these items for money.
In May/June school children and white collar workers travel to the countryside to help the farmers cultivate rice. With the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the DPRK lost many trading partners and was unable to import needed food. There were also many floods and droughts in the DPRK around that time which made the situation worse. Kim Il Sung introduced potato crops in the north mountainous regions and the crops flourished.
We arrived at a restaurant in Pyongyang for supper. We had the choice of bibimbap (a mixed rice dish in a clay pot) or cold noodles. Cold noodles are typically served at weddings. People will ask, “When will I eat your cold noodles?” to find out when a person plans to get married.
After dinner our servers became a band. They played music, sang and pulled up audience members to dance with them. Danny was pulled up which I laughed at, but then I had to go up too. We danced in the middle of a ring of people with bubbles blowing around us.
After the performance, we returned to the hotel and went to bed. We have been kept so busy on this tour. From breakfast until bed time we are on the go. When we are set free all I want to do is go to bed. They must plan it that way to keep us as busy as possible so we don’t get into any trouble.
Day 204: October 2, 2018
We had breakfast in the hotel and then drove to Mansudae Fountain Park. It is a popular spot for people to go after work or meet up for a date. There were lots of couples there taking photos for their wedding.
Miss Rim and I started talking about Korean weddings. In Korea, there is a bit of matchmaking by friends and family, but couples decide if they want to get married. For the engagement the groom and his family will bring gifts to the bride’s house. This is also a chance for the families to size each other up. The parents will decide a wedding date. The man prepares a ring for his bride and the woman prepares a watch for her groom. Women typically get married around 25 and men around 28 nowadays. People live with their parents until they are married. Traditionally, a couple would move in with the husband’s parents, but now couples are starting to apply to get their own place. Miss Rim talked about how her parents still scold her when she is out late with her friends and she is in her mid-20s.
Weddings will also visit the bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill to show their respects. This was also our next stop. Flowers were placed for our group then we all stood in a line and bowed to show our respects. I find the bowing for us was about respecting their culture and where we were.
The bronze statues are 20 m tall. The Kim Il Sung statue was built in 1972 to honour his 60th birthday. The Kim Jong Il statue was built in 2011 following his death. To the right was a statue with 190 images of workers and farmers stating, “Long live Kim Il Sung”. To the left was a statue with 120 images of anti-Japanese sentiment stating, “Down with imperialism”.
Next we drove to the Grand People’s Study House which has over 30 million books and 600 rooms. It was built in 1982 and 3,000 people visit it every day to study or take classes.
Children in the DPRK have compulsory free education from 5 to 17 years of age. The months of August and December are holidays. The students’ afternoons are filled with activity clubs: musical instruments, dance and sciences. University is free, but not compulsory. Military service is not compulsory either, but people feel honoured to join.
We visited one of the reading rooms where we were shown some English books including Harry Potter and The Diary of Anne Frank. One lecture room had an English class going on. One of the guys from our tour went to the front and talked a bit about himself. The class asked him some questions including his age, job and what he eats for breakfast.
We left and went on a trolley bus ride. It was a bus from the 1950s. For every 50,000 km a driver goes without an accident they get a star on their bus. The one we took had 160 stars. The seat Danny took was the exact one Kim Il Sung sat in when he road the same bus.
We then visited the Party Foundation Monument built in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the party founding. It was a round circle to represent single party unity with a hammer, sickle and writing brush sticking up to represent the worker, farmer and intellectual. Inside the ring were reliefs showing the history of the party, the unity of the people under the party and the party’s vision for the future.
For lunch we had Korean hot pot. We were each given our own little pot to cook our pork, vegetables and egg. We spiced it ourselves and mine tasted very good. One of the ingredients provided was MSG which was a white crystal that looked like salt or sugar.
Next was the Korean War Museum. Outside was captured American military equipment as well as the USS Puebla, a US navy ship captured when it entered North Korean waters in 1968. Inside we saw top secret documents explaining the US mission.
We entered the museum and were shown a video explaining why the Americans started the Korean War. The opinion in North Korea is that the USA are evil and the enemy. South Korea is seen as a puppet state and no blame is put on them. They explained the Korean War as a victory for the DPRK with the US suffering a miserable defeat.
Next stop was a local department store. Coupons for necessities are given by the government. If more is required, money is needed for the purchase. There are two different types of stores in the DPRK: ones for coupons and ones for money. We visited one for money.
After we drove south to Kaesong which took three hours on a bumpy road. We were shown to our rooms in a traditional Korean style home. Some people only had mats on the floor, but our room had two beds with hard mattresses. After a late supper in the hotel on a low table with cushions for seats we went to bed.
Tomorrow we travel to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and then head back to Pyongyang.