A certain maritime incident
Moored on the north bank of the Taedong River, is the only US Navy currently being held captive. The DPRK are inordinately proud of the capture of this small vessel, caught spying in the DPRKs territorial waters on 23 January 1968. Two US sailors were killed during the capture of the vessel, but the remaining 82 were taken prisoner. The crew had been unable to destroy much of the classified material on board the vessel before being subdued.
The US sailors endured 11 months in captivity before being released, and the DPRK gained notoriety abroad, and acclaim at home for its little victory over the USA. Of course, the Pueblo incident certainly did not stop the USA spying on friend and foe alike. Just ask Angela Merkel (and the ROK).
The Pueblo is a very small ship, with though spartan accommodation for its crew. Bullet holes were visible in the thick steel bulkheads. Much of the equipment had been stripped from the vessel. We were treated to a propaganda video in the bowels of the ship, whilst our two guides lounged on the riverbank, having handed our group over to the care of a young soldier.
- Historical Travel
- Museum Visits
Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetary
The glorious fallen of the struggle against Japanese occupation, and of the Korean war are commemorated at the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery, on Taesong Hill, just a short drive from downtown P'yongyang.
Korean visitors enter through a large ceremonial gate, and proceed up a wide stairway. Our trusty tour bus takes us up a winding road to a carpark halfway up the hill. One of our group is nominated to lay the wreath bought for the group. Because it is Party Foundation Day, many wreaths are already laid. Our wreath duly joins them.
We continue walking up the central stairway, flanked by memorials, each crowned with a bronze bust in the familiar style of the Mansudae Art Centre. At the top of the hill, a massive red granite flag flies proudly. In pride of place is the memorial of Kim Jong-suk, first wife of Kim Il-sung. Wreaths laid earlier we are told by the Dear Leader himself are in front of us.
From this high place, we can see the city of P'yongyang spread out below us. At the foot of the hill to the south is an amusement park and funfair, to the north, the P'yongyang Zoo.
- Museum Visits
- Historical Travel
Source of all those Bronzes
All around P'yongyang one sees the distinctive bronzes. And the Mansudae Art Centre is the place that artisans are trained in the style, and produce their work.
There are also celedon workshops, painting studios (lots of heroic workers and beaming Leaders, great and dear).
We were introduced to some painters, and watched girls making pottery for the celadon process.
There is also a shop where visitors can buy products of the centre. Hard currency only of course. The guy holding the celadon vase was nearly as talkative and the other folk we'd met at the centre.
Outside, the gardens are immaculately maintained. With scissors.
- Arts and Culture
Bright College Days
On our tour we went to the older, less grand 'P'yongyang Schoolchildren's Palace' to be entertained by the children of P'yongyang's elite.
The massive Mangyongdae Children's Palace is located on the outskirts of the city, whilst our destination was right in the heart of town, between Kim il-Sung Square and Mansu Hill (upon which stand the Grand Monuments of the 2 Kims now stand).
We were led through 4 or 5 rooms by our local guide (a student, who spoke perfect English), and observed groups of children performing calligraphy, playing accordions, doing dance classes, playing piano, or traditional korean instruments. Rather like a little factory, where each room showcased a different product. We were given to understand that the activities were 'after school' ones.
- Arts and Culture
Arch of Triumph
The Arch of Triumph, in Triumph Return Square was built in 1982, to commemorate the Korean Resistance to Japan from 1925 to 1945. Naturally, 'Great Leader' Kim il-Sung had much to do thee resistance, and the grand mosaic mural in the square at the foot of Moran Hill depicts his triumphant speech to adoring masses on just this spot.
We were visiting the arch on Party Foundation Day, after the great military parade, so the square was thronged with locals letting their hair down.
Oh, and the Arch is 10m taller than the one in Paris. So there!
- Historical Travel
If you behave yourselves you will be allowed to visit the funfair where you can interact with locals which is quite refreshing and liberating after being herded around by guides for a while. You WILL still be with your guides and you will have to have a special funfair guide because you are not permitted to meander around independently!
It costs about €3 to get into the funfair. Once in you are taken to each ride in turn and you must make a decision there and then as to whether you want to go on it! As with the usual DPRK ruthless efficiency that you will have become used to, there is no time for dithering about whether or not you will go on! Rides cost between €2 and €4 (your guide will pay with local currency and you will pay your guide in euros). Whilst I am more than positive the local people do not pay anywhere near this amount, the fee will ensure you queue hop (and the queues can be horrendous) and literally walk straight onto the ride. If you are in a larger group of people, they will limit how many of you can queue hop in one go. I am not sure if this is because a) you are paying that little extra more and queue hopping is a perk, b) you are foreign visitors and you should experience no inconveniences such as having to queue, or c) to limit the time you can communicate/interact with the local people.
The rides are all perfectly safe (no! not because they are mostly all Italian built but because the dear Great Leaders, themselves, in person, were overseers of the whole funfair development and even tested out all of the rides, themselves, to ensure they were safe for the children! - Having just been on a rollercoaster where I was locked into a cage, laying down, I asked if the dear dead men had tried that particular ride out. Apparently they had not. Nor had they tried out the ride that shoots up into the sky... I did not want to further embarrass the guide by making enquiries about the other larger rides and the Great Leaders... maybe they had tested out the dodgem cars ... although the sparks that were flying around underneath the cars were a little concerning and then when the pedal caught fire... so, perhaps not that ride either...). It was a very pleasant and fun evening until the Great Leaders cropped up again to take all the glory!
On one ride I did wonder what happened if Pyongyang experienced one of its famous power cuts... but there were not any and, in fact, the whole time I was in Pyongyang I was spared this otherwise apparent inconvenience!
So, it is rather strange being on rides with soldiers and members of the military with varying degrees of seniority and as I am screaming f**k they are screaming like girls and we are giggling together!!!
I would really have liked to have had more time here... but I felt that we had 'done' the funfair and then even been humoured as we re-did parts of the funfair... I then got the opinion that it really was time to be taken back to the hotel!!! NB At the start of the trip, despite our itinerary stating that we would go to the funfair, they really did not want to take us there. I believe it is because we used our children to put pressure on them and because we nagged and nagged them... that we finally wore them down and they caved in. There were other visitors at the funfair... but not many.
NB: Those travelling with children. On rides there are height restrictions. Please look out for them and use them because the health and safety care with regards to height is lax to say the least... and some of these rides have a height restriction for a reason! I am not suggesting anybody would not use them... but be aware that they are there and they exist, irrespective to what the guides tell you and don't allow your child on until you are happy that they are not going to fall out!!!
- Family Travel
Moran's Hill and Choesung Pavillion
On Liberation Day, under the blazing heat of the sun, where better to go than the park for a picnic? Only this park is a hill with many stairs to climb in the zapping temperatures! Up and up and up and then eventually you will arrive at the top where the Choesung Pavillion (with wonderful views of the city) nestles. The Choesung Pavillion perches on the highest peak of Moran Hill. Unlike the other buildings in Pyongyang this one is actually really old! It was originally built in the 6th century and was later rebuilt in the early 1700s.
A sojourn here is a nice way to interact with locals.
Revolutionary Martyr's Cemetary
Situated on Mount Taesong it is a cemetary and memorial to those (men and women) who died in the Korean War. The mother of Kim Il Sung is buried here, as is his first wife. It is typical to lay flowers at the entrance of the cemetary and/or at the grave of Kim Jong-Suk (Kim Il Sung's mother).
It covers a vast area and every grave has a bronze bust.
Kim Il Sung Stadium
Built by the Japanese it used to be called Moranbong Stadium. It was made bigger and renamed after the Great Leader in honour of his 70th birthday! It is used for football games and the Mass Games have been held here in the past.
It was built after the war to celebrate the DPRK's alliance with the Chinese and to remember all those Chinese who lost their lives fighting. It is now, however, more about the friendship between China and the DPRK.
Arch of Triumph
Of course it is bigger than the Arch de triomphe, Paris!!!
It is 60 meters, made of white granite and celebrate the Great Leader on liberating the people from the imperialist enemies - the Japanese.
As with what seems like most things in Pyongyang, the arch was erected in the space of a mere year.
May Day Stadium
Seating 150,000 (because North Korea really knows how to draw in the crowds....), the May Day Stadium is considered the largest in the world. Called May Day after labour day, it is meant to represent a magnolia (the national flower of DPRK), however, I think it looks more like a spaceship!
The May Day Stadium is now home to the Arirang of Mass Games but is also used for football matches and in the late 1990s was the stage for executions by burning (of military officials)...
Mass Games (Arirang Festival)
Surely, as it has been dubbed, this is the greatest show on earth. Mind blowingly spectacular and mind bogglingly choreographed! The Mass Games comprises of 100,000 dancers, martial arts experts, gymnasts, acrobats, soldiers, children,,, who are able to move and perform in perfect unison; as one. It is simply staggering to watch as one scene unfolds into another scene seamlessly.
Hundreds of school children sit, tirelessly, flicking coloured pages in their books, on cue, to make an amazing back drop that surely nowhere else would ever be able to manage! Children as young as 4 years old display their discipline to unicycle onto the arena floor whilst balancing poles on their chins and juggling hoops!!!
The performance follows a love story but is also the history of Korea, so expect those Imperialist Japanese and American enemies to get a raw deal as the brave people led conscientiously by The Great Leaders are victorious, powerful and strong... You may not be able to follow every part of the story but you will soon get the general idea that life was bad before the Great Leaders made it all wonderful and perfect...
The dates for the games are confirmed each year but they usually start mid July and continue until September. THIS is the perfect time to visit the DPRK as it is an extraordinary show and you will not see anything of its like anywhere else in the world!
Guides organise tickets to the Mass Games. There are 3 classes of seats.
1st class cost €150 per ticket (children are half price). These are the very best seats in the house. Seats are in rows along green tables. I sat in the 2nd row which meant the only people in front of me were senior officials of the party, high ranking military officials and a lady who seemed to be a VIP. They are pricey but I highly recommend these seats - they are slap-bang central to the stadium and the action. I am SO pleased I got 1st class... guides will be shocked if you want anything other than 1st class! 1st class was full of tourists. They are the perfect seats for taking photographs - Yes! you are allowed to take your camera in. Despite recent media reports on the games where the camera has been sensationally smuggled in... you can very openly take your camera... after all this is a fabulous spectacle... just the kind of good PR coverage the DPRK are eager for every visitor to return home with!
2nd class seats and off to the left and right of the 1st class section. Tickets are €100 (children are half price).
3rd class are to the outside of 2nd class. They were mostly empty. I do not know how much 3rd class tickets are but you really don't want to sit here!
Drinks are available to buy outside the stadium. There was an attendant who hovered around our line of chairs but I think she was on water-duty. If you want drinks you must get them before entering the stadium.
At the stadium fans, posters, t. shirts and other Arirang Games merchandise is available to buy.
Hundreds of people watch the games and the atmosphere is friendly, exciting and lively. It was something special to walk through the thonging masses of the audience.
At various moments in the performance the crowd will burst into applause - important moments such as defeating the imperialist enemies etc... you are expected to join in with the clapping. There are also moments when the crowd burst into applause and give a standing ovation - no this is not to the performers who have worked endless and tirelessly until they are perfect down to the tiny hairs on their arms... this is down to the Great Leaders featuring in the performance. Again, it is expected that you will follow suit!
- Arts and Culture
Chollima is a winged horse.
Chollima can fly 400km a day.
Chollima is 46 meters in height.
Chollima symbolises heroism, unwavering spirit (of the people) & tireless efforts in the rehabilitation of the land (the DPRK), after the war.
(the rebuilding of Pyongyang happened at Chollima speed).
There is symbolism about the workers party & the work and efforts of the people...
Got your flowers?
Are you in line?
Then you are ready to bow!
Originally The Grand Monument was one large, 20 meter tall, bronze figure of the Great Leader (Kim Il Sung), standing in front of a 70 meter wide mosaic of Mount Paektu. However, upon the death of the Great Leader's son, the people of the DPRK had nowhere to mourn, nowhere to remember and so they decided the son should stand, for all of time, next to the father. They therefore added a second overbearing, bronze statue (Kim Jong Il) to the first, although it is of note that the statue of Kimg Jong Il is marginally shorter than the statue of Kim Il Sung.
On either side of the two Kim's are enormous stone KWP (Korean Workers Party) flags, each with, apparently, 228 bronze figures, depicting the struggle against the imperialist enemies (the Japanese), anti-American slogans (the other imperialist enemy) and symbolism of revolution and construction. The site of the Great Monument is the stuff of communist dreams - huge & powerful!
It is a highly sacred place - quite possibly the most important site in the DPRK and the people flock here in their hundreds to pay their respect and show their faithfulness to the Great Leaders who stand, like caricatures, arms outstretched, still ruling, still dictating, despite their deaths!
Before visiting here you will have to stop to buy flowers. Everybody who visits this monument must lay flowers, stand in army-like lines and then bow, low.
I found it interesting that, despite the serious food shortage in Korea (the World Food Agency having just increased its aid), despite the monsoon floods that had (yet again) devastated crops, homes, lives,,,, despite all this, there was no shortage of flowers being grown and picked to lay at the feet of two statues...
It was an utterly surreal experience to find myself standing at this monument, amongst hundreds of people who seemed totally consumed (and perhaps a little blinded?) by they love and unquestioning devotion to these men; the Kims.
There is an official KITC photographer at the great monument who, for a couple of euros will ensure you have a memorable photograph with your guides and the two, large, bronze Kims! It will be dated, placed in an envelope and given to you the next day by the guides.