Day 2 (15 April 2016)
I woke up that morning in a strange room. It took me a few moments to remember that I was in North Korea. For some reason I had never felt more weird about being where I was and I had travelled to quite a few different countries in my life by then.
The room I had was in the Koryo Hotel, one of the best in the country. It was not exactly the Ritz Carlton. It looked more like some business hotel from the 1950s. But it was clean and liveable.
The hotel has two towers. Interestingly, and I was really bewildered by it at first, I was given a room in a different tower from the rest of the group. The fact that I was in North Korea made me suspicious about the possible reasons behind this. But I later found out that I was the only one in the group who had booked an extension tour. I decided that that must be the reason for the separation.
But I had no time to enjoy the hotel that morning. It was a very big day that day for North Koreans and we were to be guests in some of the celebrations.
The day was 15 April and dubbed the Day of the Sun by North Koreans. This was the birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, conferred the title of the Eternal President by his people, and the biggest national holiday for the country. Why is it called the Day of the Sun? Well, the Eternal President is like the sun to North Koreans.
The first order of the day was to make a special trip to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and pay our respects to the bodies of the first two Kims. We had been told to dress nicely for the occasion, i.e. proper collared shirt, trousers and shoes. No tee shirt, jeans, shorts, sneakers or sandals.
A, our female guide, had come to fetch us all dressed up in her lovely pink jeogori. B, our young male guide, was dressed in his standard black suit. I do not remember seeing any North Korean man in traditional Korean costume on this trip.
It was a jovial ride through the city to reach the palace. I have to say that I had expected a lot less traffic on the road. I had come to North Korea with the impression that the wide avenues of the city were mostly for show. But they had a lot more cars on the road than I imagined. And they did not look like they were on the road for our benefit.
The jovial ride turned solemn upon reaching our destination. We had to be respectful. As we had been taught, being respectful meant placing our hands either at our sides or in front of us and never in our pockets. We could not cross our arms. We were also not to smile or look pleased in any way since this was where the two gods were interred. And we had to try to remain as quiet as possible.
There was already a huge crowd comprising both locals and foreigners queuing to get into the holy of holies. We joined the queue four astride and were careful not to do anything offensive with our hands or show any teeth.
The journey to the holy of holies was a long one. Yes I call it a journey even though there was not much walking involved but a seemingly endless ride on a series of long travellators. The palace did look huge as with most important buildings in the city but the journey felt like we were in fact being brought around the building a few times. Maybe this had indeed been the case and was a security feature to confuse potential enemies of the state.
But just as my mind was zoning out from the journey, the travellator journey ended. We then took a lift to another floor, although I am not sure if we had gone up or down. Before we could see the body of the Eternal Present, we had to walk through this contraption to blow away any dust on our persons. Finally we walked into this high security room and there in the middle of the large red dim space was an illuminated glass box with a body inside. This was the Eternal President. We had to go around the body clockwise and bow once on either side of him and at his feet.
Obviously I was not given time to carefully examine the body. But the feeling of seeing the body of a man who had died so many years ago still intact was nothing short of incredible. I even wonder if maybe the body was not the real one but some Madame Tussauds-standard wax figure.
After we were done worshipping the sun god, we were taken on a short walk in the building and then through another contraption to blow away any dust on our persons. I had actually thought that we were going to pay homage to the Eternal President a second time. But no, we were going to pay homage to the son this time. His really well-preserved body was kept in a room much like his father’s and in the same layout. The same bowing ritual applied to him too.
After we had completed the necessary rituals, we went on the series of travellators again in the opposite direction and returned into the sun. We had some time to look around the square in front of the palace and all of us regained our joyful selves. Indeed even the locals at the square looked pretty joyful. The sun does do wonders for a person’s mood.
The gargantuan Kumsusan Palace of the Sun used to be the residence of the Eternal President. After his death the palace was turned into his mausoleum. When his son, the Eternal Chairman, passed on his body was placed in the palace-mausoleum too.
We made a quick trip to the foreign language bookshop in central Pyongyang. M and I decided that the same books in the hotel bookshop were cheaper and so decided to wait till we got back to the hotel to get whatever we wanted. What was more interesting to me however were the mundane scenes of the city outside the bookshop.
Public transport in Pyongyang appeared extensive, especially with its army of trolleybuses going about the city. Pyongyang also has its own two-line subway system.
The Pyongyang Metro is a nostalgic place. Most of the stations were completed in the 1970s except for the two we got to see which were completed in 1987. Nevertheless, the two newest stations still looked like part of a bygone era.
We went on a joy ride from Puhung Station to Yonggwang Station just one stop away. According to Wikipedia these two were the most grandiose of the lot. I suppose it was unnecessary to show us any station apart from those two. But that I understand has caused at least some foreigners to believe that the entire Pyongyang subway system consists only of those two stations and the line in between and all the passengers on the train were there just for show.
Now despite the tight schedule that we had, our very obliging guides still squeezed in time to take us back to Mansudae upon M’s request. M was an elderly American gentleman who was the most curious person in the group. He had wanted to see the place in the day since we had reached there in the night yesterday.
I had naively expected that we were done with the bowing last night. But of course Mansudae being Mansudae we had to complete another round of statue veneration before we could do anything else. However we were not expected to buy flowers this time.
I soon forgot about the bowing though when a wedding party came walking towards the monument. The couple had come to pay homage to their great late leaders on their wedding day. I understand that this is a common practice in North Korea. The people obviously hold said late leaders in the highest of regards.
Next on our itinerary was a visit to the Juche Tower. First, a little about the tower. This 170 metre structure was built in 1972 to commemorate Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday. The structure comprises a 150-metre granite spire and a 20-metre metal torch that can be lit up. The spire has 70 dividers and contains 25,550 blocks, one for each day of Kim’s 70 years excluding extra days for leap years. Around the entrance in the tower are many tribute plaques donated by foreign supporters of the Juche ideology. I did notice that at least two of them were from Singaporean companies.
So what is Juche? This word is usually translated as meaning “self-reliance” and is the name of an ideology created by the ever brilliant Kim Il Sung. It teaches that (as written in Wikipedia) “man is the master of his destiny”, that the people are to act as the “masters of the revolution and construction”, and that by becoming self-reliant and strong a nation can achieve true socialism.
I think I can agree with the idea everyone must learn to be self-reliant.
Ideology aside, I think the best selling point of a visit to this tower is the fantastic view of Pyongyang from the top. Access is by a lift, thank god for that, and entrance costs 5 euros.
I should make special mention of the local guide who tended to us at the Juche Tower. At just about every point of interest we would get a local guide who was nearly always an ajuma (i.e. an auntie, although someone from the tour company insisted that she should be more properly addressed as “tongjee” or comrade) dressed in a dark blue jeogori.
Our ajuma or tongjee at the Juche Tower was a stern one. We took a very long time at the top of the tower and she was very visibly displeased with that. I was definitely scared of her!
No one crosses an ajuma. One may annoy a tiger. But never an ajuma.
The next item on our itinerary was definitely quite a treat. The one thing that most tourists go to see in North Korea is one of the mass dances that take place around Pyongyang on special days. So of course we went to see one. And I do consider the programme a treat for me even though B kept encouraging me to join in the dance and nothing short of a threat to my life was going to make me dance.
I must say that I had seldom seen anything that fulfilled so well the definition of “good clean fun.” And the best part of it all was that the dancers really looked like they were having fun. But I suspect that for many the most fun came from watching a number of foreigners trying to dance awkwardly with them while not knowing the steps.
Our guides next brought us to a flower show at the Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia Exhibition Hall. There was a whole lot of kimilsungias everywhere, ostensibly because it was the man’s birth anniversary. And it looked as if the whole city of Pyongyang was at the show.
The kimilsungia is a purple dendrobium orchid hybrid that was created in Indonesia in the 1960s. According to official sources, it was Sukarno who had insisted that the flower be named after the Eternal President because his valuable contributions to mankind made him most deserving of the honour.
I have to say that the kimilsungia was nice. But I cannot say that I was any enthusiastic about it. The problem is that we have heaps of orchids back home, and Singapore regularly creates orchid hybrids. It will take a lot more for me to be impressed when it comes to orchids. However I think it was supposed to be a great honour for me to be able to see the revered flower.
I was much more enthusiastic about dinner though. We were brought to the revolving restaurant at the top of our own hotel which was really interesting. But curiously we were told that taking pictures of the city from the restaurant was forbidden. Now how is the view from there different from the top of the Juche Tower?
M’s enthusiasm on the other hand never once waned throughout the day. He was determined to get a grasp of the geography of the city and he came prepared with a printout of some map created by the tour company for a tour organised to take part in the Pyongyang Marathon held earlier that month. He decided to consult A on this. Everything sounds innocent enough except that a silhouette of the two statues on Mansudae was on the map.
The result was that A took a good long look at the map and then had a good long consultation over the map with her superior who happened to be around that day. The superior then had a good long chat with the representative of the tour company who was also with us.
We would never know what was discussed between the two but the whole incident was definitely awkward for some of us. The incident was also a warning to us that our guides really meant business when they said that all photographs taken of any image of either of their great leaders must contain the image in full and as it appears. Doing otherwise than as warned is considered offensive.
I have to add that all images of any of the great leaders had to be treated with nothing but absolute reverence. Both our guides were members of the communist party and wore badges that often had the image of the Eternal President on their collars. They were offended whenever someone, always a foreigner I am sure, pointed a finger at their badges. No one ever points a finger at a great leader.
These badges were of course not available to foreigners, much to M’s deep regret and disappointment, in the fear that they would not be treated with sufficient reverence.
The wonderful day ended with a fireworks display over the Juche Tower and a trip to an amusement park although none of us wanted to go on any of the rides.
I was more interested in the gigantic Arch of Triumph which could be clearly seen lit up against the night sky outside the amusement park. The triumphal arch, modelled after Paris’ arch but 10 metres taller, was built to commemorate Kim Il Sung’s role in the resistance against the Japanese for Korea’s independence. It was completed in time for his 70th birthday and yes it has 25,500 blocks of granite.
I just love monuments, especially if they were built for the sake of one person.
Going to watch the fireworks display by the Taedong River was a memorable experience for me because it was probably the only time in the whole trip that we got to mingle and jostle about with so many ordinary folks. It was dark and crowded and I stepped on a local lady’s coat which she had placed on the floor next to herself. She was quite apologetic about it (I knew because I could recognise “sorry” in Korean) and that made me feel rather bad. I suspect that had the same thing happened in some other country the lady might have smacked me instead.
The fireworks display was simply gorgeous and everyone loved it. All the locals cheered whenever some display appeared in the sky. It was this that made me recognise more strongly than before that despite the different circumstances that we live in the North Koreans are not all that unlike us after all. We find the same things beautiful and are made happy by the same things. We have the same needs and want the same things for ourselves and our loved ones.
I do wish for all the good and right things to happen to the ordinary people of North Korea.