Ten Pin Bowling in Pyongyang
Readers of North Korean pages (including my own) on VT and elsewhere might be forgiven for concluding that a visit to North Korea is all about Kim Il-Sung and his successors, grand buildings and monuments set in a sea of poverty, empty roads, berating the United States, lists of what you can do and what you can’t, electricity shortages, the sporting prowess of North Koreans, its military might and such like.
It is indeed about all of the above but there is more. People sing, people dance, people eat and drink (some more than others!), people go for picnics and sit in the park and of course people play bowls otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this review.
The title of the review is very accurate to the degree that Pyongyang is the only place in North Korea that you, or indeed anyone, can indulge in this pastime.
There are two bowling alleys in Pyongyang. The first, a three lane facility, was located in the basement of our hotel, the Yanggakdo International Hotel (picture 4) which no one really had time to used.
The second one is the very busy, public, multi lane Pyongyang Gold Lane bowling alley which is the subject of this review.
The first very notable thing about this place was the fact that it had a sign written in English – something I saw nowhere else in North Korea. Clearly this says something of its clientele which appeared to be predominately tourists, Pyongyang expatriates (?) and more well heeled citizens (lots of them).
Some people contend that this bowling alley is a stage managed event (like everything else in North Korea!) just to impress foreigners – they point to the high quality of bowling by locals (all actors of course!) and the fact that lanes suddenly become free when foreigners arrive. Have such negative doomsayers never heard of booking lanes (especially when you arrive in a group of 20!) and indeed have they never been to anywhere outside North Korea where those with express passes or who pay more take precedence over others? Why should North Korea be any different? The quality of the bowling may have something to do with the fact that this is the only public ten pin bowling alley in a country of 25 million of sports crazed people. The few who can afford it perhaps play regularly and become good - hardly rocket science!
I digress, back to the reality of what I saw.
While a little dated the bowling lanes were in excellent repair and facilities were on a par with what one finds in Australia or elsewhere. In addition to ten pin bowling one can partake of a limited number of arcade type games or have a drink at the small bar.
Bowling costs 3 euro per person, including shoe hire. One thing to watch here is the price of drinks – while everywhere else a soft drink or beer cost around 1 euro, here it cost 2.5 euro.
I personally did not partake of the bowling. This gave me an unplanned opportunity for a one on one chat with our main guide allowing us to broach topics which could not be discussed at a group level. There was no question of the guide letting down her guard and it wasn’t my intention to achieve this but we did have a fairly open conversation on topics such as poverty and the military with no need for either of us to score points.
All in all a very enjoyable break from the monuments and political rhetoric at the end of a very busy day, though an unscheduled and unexpected opportunity to see Kim Il-sungs birthday fireworks display from Kim Il-sung Square brought about an impromptu end to the bowling and a race for the bus such that we could get to the square before the roads were closed for the fireworks.
Tired though we were, having woken up in Nampo at 6am this morning, we now headed for the Kim Il-Sung’s 102nd Birthday Fireworks display.
Equipment: Everything is provided.
Soccer in Kim Il-sung Stadium
I have written a separate review on the Stadium itself – Kim Il-sung Stadium. This review relates to a couple of soccer matches I watched (or more to the point didn’t watch) in the Stadium.
I have to say first up that I am not a soccer fan – to be honest, I hate it. Imagine the sense of disgust on my brothers faces, one an ardent Liverpool fan and the other a Manchester United fanatic when I told them that I had seen both teams play each other in Wembley Stadium years before either of them made it to a first (now premier, I think) division match. They were in total disbelief when I told them that, for the duration of the game, I didn’t even know which team was which. That said I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
I am a great fan of people watching and where better to do it than Wembley Stadium or indeed in Kim Il-sung Stadium, in Pyongyang.
My being in Kim Il-Sung Stadium was occasioned by the fact that I was there to watch the opening and closing ceremonies for the Pyongyang Marathon upon which I have written a separate review. While waiting for and watching the runners return to the Stadium at the end of their run and waiting for the prize-giving to commence we were ‘entertained’ by not one, but two soccer matches. I have no idea who the teams were or who won as I watched the soccer no more than five or ten minutes. Apart from the half hour our so I spent in a special visitors lounge drinking the most vile coffee I have tasted for a long time and scoffing some rather dry biscuits and cakes, I was there to watch the crowd and what a treat that was.
While we waited outside to enter the stadium local spectators were arriving, many coming out of the adjacent subway station, many arriving by bus and many walking. There was hardly a car to be seen - though, to be fair, some people may have parked a distance from the stadium and walked in.
Very few people arrived in family units, everyone seemed to come as part of a work, school or other group. Women arrived with women and men with men. School kids arrived in school uniforms, workers arrived in work uniforms and, of course, the army arrived in army uniform. While the male attire was almost universally dull and drab many of the women turned up in colourful national dress. No-one was dressed in team colours and flags and banners were noticeably absent in a country not afraid to wave the odd flag or million.
Spectators filed into the stadium with military precision (picture 2) and a sense of great seriousness. This process was reversed at the end when everyone obediently filed out again in their work groups, back to their bus, the subway station or headed off on foot as they had arrived. The Stadium emptied in around half an hour and not a traffic jam in sight. Amazing to watch and compare to the bedlum many of us are more accustomed to at large events.
Inside the stadium, rather than the usual singing, taunting, cheering and general merriment one sees elsewhere, good passes or tackles and indeed goals were met by the subdued applause of 50,000 people. A very strange experience - were all 50,000 spectators bored and only there because they were told to be there? Certainly the ladies in my last picture don’t look overly excited.
Embedded in the crowd were four brass bands which played one at a time for the duration of the football matches – this I quite enjoyed.
The only note of disharmony (read that as difference) in the stadium was one small section containing around 150 people - the tourists. We (and I have to admit being one of them) stood out in our varied coloured attire, our standing up, our ongoing loud chatting and our cheering. Nothing unusual for a football match in the UK or elsewhere but in Pyongyang it was very unusual. What was rather stark and very depressing was the amount of rubbish 150 people left behind. I suspect we left more behind that the remaining 49,850 spectators!
Certainly a very different and most enjoyable experience – so if you do make it to North Korea do go to a soccer match or other large scale sporting activity should the opportunity arise. Whether you like the sport or not is not really important - perhaps best if you don't as you can concentrate on other more interesting things, as i did.
When the Marathon was over we returned to the hotel for lunch and to check-out as that afternoon we were headed for Kaesong and Panmunjom (the DMZ). I have written a separate page on both places which I invite you to visit later. But for now, please stay with me in Pyongyang while we visit the Reunification Monument located on the outskirts of Pyongyang and marking the start of the Reunification Highway which runs south to the border with South Korea.
The Pyongyang Marathon
Pyongyang’s 27th Marathon (officially the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon) was held on 13 April 2014 – the same day as the London Marathon - and for the first time in its history, amateurs were permitted to take part.
About a month or so before our trip the North Korea our tour company contacted us to see if we wanted to take part in the marathon as the date coincided with our already booked tour. Three options were available, a full marathon, a half marathon and a 10km fun run. I decided not to run – a decision I came to regret (even though run would have translated into walk).
Though the race is recognised as a bronze level road race by the International Association of Athletics Federations the major appeal for foreign runners was that it is held in Pyongyang as opposed to the fact that is is a marathon. It offered a very rare opportunity to be in the streets of Pyongyang as opposed to driving along them in a tour bus. While runners got away from their guides for a short time there were ample officials along the course such that runners did not deviate from the course and see something they should not have seen.
In all about 200 amateur runners signed up for the event including nearly half our tour group. This brought the total number of runners on the day to around 800 with the vast majority of the balance being North Koreans. Overseas professional runners, around 20, came mainly from African countries, though China, Russia, Ukraine, Spain and a few more were represented (picture 5).
The actual running course, which we got to drive around the day before the run, is 10km long. All runs begin and end in the Kim Il-sung Stadium (except that the 10km run ends just outside the stadium). Full marathon runners run four laps of the course; half marathon runners, two laps; and 10km runners, one lap.
Rules around the marathon, covering things like what you could wear and not wear were very confusing and changed right to the last minute. This, while frustrating, added to the fun.
One of the last minute rule changes that upset many was that full marathon runners would not be allowed to finish if they did not do so in four hours - up from the earlier announced five hours. To 'ease concern' officials thoughtfully explained that slower runners could simply complete the marathon in one of the buses they had laid on! Sorta not quite the same as running into a stadium of 50,000 applauding people so many who had signed up for the full marathon downgraded to the half marathon to ensure that they would be able to finish.
One of the rules which didn’t change related to toilets. Runners were, in no uncertain terms, told not to urinate in the streets, and that running off the course was a definite no-no. Instead of the banks of porta-loos seen in other places, Pyongyang had a small number of toilets available in public buildings and restaurants with one, incredibly, on the second floor of a building.
We (runners and non runners) arrived at the stadium about an hour before the start time and mingled around outside crowd-watching for about half an hour before those of us not running were asked to go inside and assume our seats in the area set aside especially for tourists and affording excellent views. There were about 150 foreign spectators in a capacity crowd of around 50,000. I refer to the crowd and the atmosphere inside the stadium in a separate tip on the soccer matches we watched while awaiting the runners' return.
After one false start the runners left the stadium to very moderate applause from the Korean spectators and cheers from the tourists.
Shortly after some of the half marathon runners started arriving back in the stadium, North Korean, Pak Song-chol, won the full marathon with a personal best time of 2:12:27 hours – his third win in recent years. The arrival, into the stadium of overseas amateurs caused great excitement especially so for those who decided to engage with the crowd. Waving, running backwards, bum wiggling and cartwheels were especially well received – mainly with nervous laughter. Was all this hijinks and, heavens above, laughter in the stadium too much for the authorities? Will amateurs be allowed to run again in 2015.
From the amateurs perspective, based on accounts from fellow travellers who ran, the experience of running through the streets, watched by inquisitive locals (tourists were restricted to inside the stadium) was a truly amazing experience, hence my regret that I didn’t run. Besides, where else in the world do you get to run a lap of a stadium, alone and to the applause of 50,000 people?
Reading some overseas media reports post the event (many of which were grossly distorted accounts of what actually happened and really annoyed me) I have to give it to the Guardian (noting that runners were not permitted to carry camera’s – actually consistent with the rules of most road races around the world) which wrote:
"Don't worry about not having photos, we have men to shoot you," instructed a poker-faced official to a stunned set of tourists.
While we awaited the return of runners to the Stadium we were forced to endure two back to back soccer matches. I used the time for some quality crowd-watching.
- Arts and Culture
Rungnado May Day Stadium - Mass Games
While we did not have the opportunity to go inside the Rungnado May Day Stadium it would be remiss of me not to mention it on a review of a visit to Pyongyang and we did pass reasonably close by many times.
The stadium was completed on May Day 1989 and is the world’s largest stadium in terms of seating capacity. It has a capacity of 150,000 persons. The 207,000 square metres, eight story stadium with its trademark scalloped roof (best seen from above in picture 2 courtesy of Google Earth) resembling a magnolia is located on the Rungnado Island in the Taedong River which runs through the centre of Pyongyang.
While it is used for soccer matches it does not host a home team. The North Korean football team’s home ground is the nearby Kim Il-sung Stadium (capacity 50,000). In addition to being used for soccer it also hosts athletics but it is best known, and known world wide, for its spectacular Mass Games or Mass Gymnastic and Artistic Performances hosted during August and September each year. Like most other public events in North Korea the games primary purpose is the glorification of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, the Workers’ Party of Korea together with other state organs, especially the army. In recent years the Mass Games have had an Arirang (traditional love story) theme.
On a less savoury note, in the late 1990s it is alleged that a number of North Korean army generals were executed by being burned alive inside the stadium for their role in a failed attempt to assassinate, former Leader, Kim Jong-il.
At the time of my visit the stadium was closed for refurbishment because Kim Jong-un, on a September 2013 site visit, ordered that it be refurbished.
The current Leader decreed that new seating be installed, rubber mats be fitted on the running track, grass on the soccer pitch be replaced with artificial turf and that the lighting be upgraded. Everyone took notes as they always do when the Leader gives on the spot guidance and advice! (picture 3 - AFP/Getty Images).
Due to the refurbishment (being carried out by around 10,000 soldiers) there will be no Mass Games in 2014.
Lets return now (in reality the next morning) to the Kim Il-sung Stadium for the Pyongyang Marathon.
- Arts and Culture
Mini-golf at the Yanggakdo Hotel
This was another surreal moment whilst in Pyongyang - playing mini-golf at our hotel - the Yanggakdo. Even though I don't play golf, a few of my fellow tour members did and were itching to play a round on a lovely summer's evening. Don't ask me how much things were but they hired golf clubs, tees and a trolley and the price also including a caddie in the shape of a young girl. I was their 'official' photographer whilst they played a round over the 9 hole course.
Kim Il Sung Stadium
This large stadium overlooks the Arch of Triumph and was built on the site of a Japanese baseball field during their occupation of Korea. It was then rebuilt in 1969 when it was renamed the Moranbong Stadium, but its name was changed, in 1982, to its current name in honour of Kim Il Sung. The stadium can accommodate up to 100,000 people and is mainly used for football matches, one of which we went to as part of our tour. We watched the FIFA World Cup 2010 qualifying match between the DPRK and Turkmenistan - two of the most repressive nations on earth. The crowd were pretty quiet throughout the match instead of us cheering on the DPRK (I bought a DPRK flag and was the only person with one out of a crowd of about 50,000!) DPRK won the game 1-0 so the crowd went home slightly happier than before the match. I happened to find a few of the Turkmenistan player outside the front of the stadium beside their bus and they allowed me to take a group photo of them!
Golf at Yanggakdo Hotel
With the exception of maybe extremely limited work-out facilities in a hotel, the only physical activity that you will have time or permission to do is golf at the 9-hole course at the Yanggakdo Hotel.
Depending on how watchful your guides are, they may or may not accompany you to the course, but rest assured, they will know where you are.
You may have to play early in order to finish your round prior to the day's tour. But that will not be too hard because there is no night life to distract you from staying out too late.
Equipment: All equipment will be provided. Cost of one round is approximately $30USD.
Your guides and/or hotel reception will make a reservation for you.