Day 1 (14 April 2016)
Yes, I went to Beijing because I needed to catch a flight from there to Pyongyang. I had booked myself on a 10-day tour of North Korea. I was finally going to see the country that continually baffles the rest of world and appears in the news for the wrong reasons every time.
But first I had to collect my visa and get checked in for my flight at the airport.
The tour company I had booked with had sent someone to hand out the visa of every tour group member at the Beijing airport. The lady recognised me instantly when I appeared and I got my visa quickly.
The North Korean visa was a simple piece of paper folded in half and contained a photograph of me and my personal information. I had to provide all of those things to the tour company at the time of booking. What I found strange was that the North Korean authorities had requested for my name written in Chinese as well even though this does not appear in my passport.
The check in counters looked like they were in a quieter part of the airport. I noticed several foreigners (i.e. Caucasians) in the queues and wondered how many of them would be in my group.
I felt a tinge of panic during check in when I realised that the check in lady seemed to be having some issue with my air ticket. Now if only she would tell me what the problem was. I really wanted to get to North Korea!
After some checks through the papers and consultations with her supervisor however, and then a bit more checking, I was through. From what I could gather, the lady was puzzled because the name given to them by the tour company for my air ticket was not exactly the same as the one on my passport. I wish she had spoken to me about the issue. And then I realised that she was exhibiting very typical traditional East Asian behaviour: keep quiet, try to solve the problem without bothering anyone if possible and always defer to a supervisor.
That was indeed an interesting first encounter with a North Korean person.
I started paying attention to my would be fellow passengers once I sat down at the waiting area. There were a number of people who looked North Korean and indeed I could hear some of them speaking Korean. I wondered what they might have been up to in China. Business? Politics? Who have they met? Who are they?
Soon it was time to board. Even that was super exciting to me. It must have been the idea of taking a plane belonging to North Korea but I felt like I was going to take a flight for the first time in my life. The only way to get to Pyongyang is to fly with Air Koryo, the national carrier, from either Beijing or Shanghai. I am not sure if there are flights from Russia but I think in general people fly in from China and especially from Beijing.
The plane was not a big one. The flight attendants looked really professional and well groomed. There was one who was quite goodlooking. And oh yes, it was a full flight.
I had read about the food served on Air Koryo flights while going through some of the stories of past travellers to the country on the internet. The impression that I had formed about the food was that it was weird. When the food was finally served to me, I found that it was exactly the same as described in the online stories: a meat sandwich and a juice box.
I was surprisingly able to finish the whole sandwich although I could not tell what sort of meat I was ingesting. It was really not as bad as described! But I would not go back for seconds. As for the juice, it was not bad at all.
The North Korean love of their motherland was made obvious during the flight. An announcement was made when the plane crossed the Yalu River into the motherland. For me it was more the idea that I was then crossing into North Korean territory that filled my mind. That was really it!
We landed about one and a half hours, or maybe closer to two, after take off. The weather was clear and the airport looked new and clean.
I had to clear immigration and customs first and this made me a little nervous. God knows what might arouse the officers’ attention! In any case, immigration was really the easy part, since I already had a genuine visa. It was customs that was scary.
I did think that customs checks might be quite thorough. It was just that I did not realise it would be that thorough. I knew that they might want to look for possible offensive items or publications among my things, but they actually went through every single photograph in my camera, phone and iPad as well. They even carried out a proper check of the Beijing city map that I had absentmindedly left in my bag and totally forgotten about! Thank God I had deleted all the pictures in my phone that I thought might be considered even mildly “sensitive” to the North Koreans!
But I was cleared and allowed into the country. Surprisingly there was no one standing around in the arrival hall with a sign either of my name or the tour company I had booked with. I had to ask around a little but eventually found my guides.
There were two guides taking the group. I realised later that it was standard for each tour group to North Korea to be accompanied by a male guide and a female guide. The leader of the group was evidently going to be the female guide (I will just call her A) in this case who was in her 40s and the elder of the two. The male guide (I will call him B) was in his mid 20s and seemingly new to guiding work.
The group I was in comprised mostly of Americans. Most of them were already waiting with the guides when I arrived, except for three. They were held up for some strange reason, and we waited so long for them that not only had all the other tour groups left the building, they were starting to shut down the airport!
Apparently the airport is shut down after the last flight has landed and its passengers cleared. But since we were still left in there they could only manage to dim the lights in the arrival hall.
After a puzzlingly long wait, the last three members of the group appeared. One of them had some problems at customs. I found out later that it was all because he had a Hollywood movie in his laptop that showed scenes of Pyongyang. After being questioned, the offender was made to sign a statement written in Korean, ostensibly translated by an officer from his English verbal statement. I should point out that the offender did not understand Korean.
The ride into Pyongyang was most exciting. I had seen plenty of pictures of the city, but seeing it for myself finally was an experience those pictures could not have prepared me for.
A was obviously the one who was going to tell us about the sights. This she did whenever we came across some monument along the way.
I was surprised though when A actually pointed out on her own accord the Ryugyong Hotel, the white elephant of an unfinished hotel standing in the middle of central Pyongyang. I had read that North Korean guides would always pretend the building did not exist. Maybe the policy had changed recently because of all the overwhelming interest in it by visitors.
I was particularly interested in what she had to say about the Ryugyong because its construction allegedly had something to do with Singapore. The tallest hotel in the world in the mid 1980s was the Westin Stamford at home. This was built by a South Korean engineering company. The North Koreans, resenting the South Koreans’ achievement, decided to build the tallest hotel in the world themselves.
However the building was never finished. There were plenty of problems along the way but I should think it was mostly because the country simply could not afford it. And so the structure has been lying there in the same place for the last 30 years.
A said that maybe the hotel would be “finished next year”. I told her with all the sincerity I could muster that I hoped they would finish it soon and once that happened I would return and stay there. A gave me a look that seemed like surprise but I could not know what exactly she was thinking.
We had to make an obligatory stop at Mansudae. There is a grand monument there commemorating the nation’s revolutionary struggles. However all attention is inevitably drawn to the two 20-metre bronze statues of the first two Kims.
We were brought there to pay homage to the two Kims. This was something that all tourists to the country were made to do. And we were asked to buy flowers to place at their feet. Each little bouquet cost 5 euros. I did not buy one. Neither did this elderly American gentleman M. But the rest of the group bought one each. I guess that kind of allowed the two of us to avoid questions about not buying flowers.
I have to say that I found bowing to statutes, especially of mere mortals, quite disagreeable. I was raised Catholic and, although I am not very religious anymore, the story of the golden calf at the foot of Mt Sinai definitely had some effect on me. Furthermore, I will not even bow to statues of my own country leaders (not that we would even think of doing that), much less those of people who had no relevance to me at all whatsoever.
I think the consensus outside of North Korea is that this is all part of the country’s perpetual propaganda exercise. It does look mighty impressive to locals to see foreigners coming to the statues to pay homage every day several times a day.
Thankfully I had done my research and knew that Mansudae was something that had to happen. I had already more than prepared myself mentally for it by the time I reached the place. It was something I had to do if I wanted to see North Korea. I guess my urge to see the country was far stronger than any personal aversion to any enforced ‘pilgrimage’.
Before we went up to the monument, A had warned us to keep our hands either at our sides or in front of us without crossing our arms and never in our pockets. Obviously pointing at any image of either of the Kims with a finger would be unthinkable. This was a lesson that we would be expected to remember when we visited any ‘holy’ site or come across any ‘holy’ relic in the country. The guides would always be looking out for hands in pockets and there would be an immediate reminder if they ever found any.
The homage paying was done with in a flash and it was time to see the site although it was already almost dark by then. I had obviously enjoyed freedom of movement too much elsewhere and thought nothing of wandering about the monument on my own and taking pictures. What a bad idea. B called me back and told me in no uncertain terms, though still nicely, that “we always walk together as a group.”
Now I have to mention a little about M the elderly American gentleman because he was proving to be something of a character even on that first short day. He was the most curious among the group and most daring with questions and requests. He kept trying to tease out hopefully forbidden information from the guides although I think they were much too well trained for him.
It was M who convinced B to take him to see Pyongyang Station that night, the city’s central railway station, which was just a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. But I think B was himself quite eager to do some guiding of his own as well. I tagged along just to snap a picture which was actually all that we could do anyway. B seemed to have to ask A for permission to take us. A was reluctant at first but eventually relented.
On the way back to the hotel M asked B about Otto Warmbier, the American student who had at the time just been sentenced to hard labour in North Korea for having allegedly stolen a poster. We were of the opinion that the sentence was too harsh. From the conversation, M was convinced that B agreed that Warmbier had merely done the sort of stupid thing any other boy his age might have. M therefore decided with some excitement that North Koreans were allowed to have personal opinion that was different from the official stance after all.
I am not so sure about that. B might be saying that Warmbier was stupid to have allowed himself to be manipulated into committing the heinous crime by those imperialist swines. I doubt that B would share any personal opinion so freely with an American he had just met that afternoon. In any case I sensed that B was just trying to be agreeable with us, especially with M who was a much older man and therefore to be respected in accordance with East Asian tradition.
With that, and a buffet dinner in the hotel, my first day in North Korea ended.