A Day on the Mysterious Fragrant Mountain

Day 3 (16 April 2016)

After the very eye-opening and exciting day yesterday, I was actually hoping that today might be less stimulating. It was therefore a good idea to head off into the mountains for a more relaxing day.

In the middle of the hotel lobby was a display of kimilsungias and kimjongilias. The latter is a type of begonia, big and bright red. It was cultivated by a Japanese botanist in 1988 and presented to Kim Jong Il for his 46th birthday. The second Kim’s birthday by the way is on 16 February and this day is dubbed the Day of the Shining Star by his people. It is a big holiday for the country too like the Day of the Sun.

Kimilsungias and kimjongilias

Speaking of the second Kim, the people’s Eternal Chairman, I remember our female guide A telling us that even though he had passed away he would forever live on in her heart. I believe her.

We left Pyongyang and drove towards Myohyangsan, the mysterious fragrant mountain. We know that we had left Pyongyang well and good when we arrived at a security checkpoint along the highway and the Koreans on the bus had to present their IDs.

Pyongyang as we know is like a showroom of progress and prosperity for North Korea. Outside of the city however is more often than not a different matter. For example, upon leaving Pyongyang, the road became a lot bumpier.

At a brief rest stop along the highway, I noticed a lady cycling towards us in the distance. I turned my head away for a few moments and when I turned back she was no longer where I expected her to be. The lady had gone over to the other side of the road, as if to avoid us.

I shared my observation with M who excitedly persuaded me to ask A about it. I was not so sure that I should. Nevertheless, to ensure that I did ask A, he went to tell A later on the bus that I wanted to ask her about something I had discovered at the stop and kept goading me to do it. I can admit that I myself was also interested in hearing A’s response to why the lady had seemed to be avoiding us but I thought that M was being an ass.

A’s response was a no response. There was a long awkward silence and she appeared to not know what to say. In the end we could only diplomatically agree that maybe the lady was heading off to ‘somewhere else’. But I thought the awkward silence itself spoke volumes.

Along the highway to Myohyangsan

Along the highway to Myohyangsan

A third guide C joined us today. I was wondering why we needed a third guide and guessed that maybe they wanted an extra pair of hands to keep us in line. And their supervisor was still hanging around with the group too. Had we been that unruly yesterday? Maybe it was all because of M, ever curious and enthusiastic and ever trying to get the guides to say something they were not supposed to and in general pushing the boundaries as far as he could.

However, I wonder how effective C might be against M since she was a young lady with still little experience with guiding and foreigners and he was an elderly man hardened and made shrewd by the circles he had moved in since young.

A’s plan this morning, while on the 2-hour drive to Myohyangsan, was to introduce us to the classic Korean folk song Arirang and the story behind it. The song is probably the most important song to the Korean race, both north and south of the DMZ. It  apparently represents and expresses the collective soul and psyche of the Korean people.

I had heard of the song since young and even had to sing it in music class at least once in primary school but had not heard of the back story. It was apparently the lamentation of a star-crossed lover and A’s explanation did make the song even more beautiful for me. But this explanation had a twist. A North Korean twist. Her explanation ended with an emphatic statement about how no one would be star-crossed in modern socialist progressive free North Korea under the leadership of the Kims.

As the most junior of all the guides, C was made to sing the song for us. I thought she looked reluctant but she could not possibly have said no because firstly juniors must usually comply with their seniors’ wishes and secondly by refusing she would make her organisation, in this case maybe the entire nation as well, lose face in front of us foreigners.

M later out of the blue asked C about the North Korean national anthem. He was probably really just curious. But C had to sing it as well. And then everyone was asked to sing their country’s national anthem in return. So I had to sing mine since everyone else did. One of the things I really hate is to be made to sing in front of people. Moreover I was the only Singaporean around whereas there were quite a few  Americans in the group besides M. What is worse than having to sing in front of people for me? Having to sing alone in front of people.

I wished with all my might that M would stop being so curious. Or at least not when I was around. In this case, his curiosity did not kill the cat, himself, but the cat next to him!

After all the fun singing, we arrived at the International Friendship Exhibition on Myohyangsan. I had read about this museum complex and was rather excited about visiting it. The museum was built for one purpose only: to put on display all the gifts presented to the Kims by foreign governments. And may I say that it was an enormous museum! The size of the collection, kept in two palatial traditional style buildings, was a lot bigger than I had thought. And I doubt that we got to see all of it.

International Friendship Exhibition

International Friendship Exhibition

The majority of the gifts seem to be from China and Russia although there were gifts from a lot more other countries than I had imagined. Even the US had presented gifts to the Kims. The Chinese gifts were mostly works of art. The Russians on the other hand seem to love their bears, so much so that they kept sharing their love with the Kims by giving them their hide. I saw two gifts from two Singaporean companies and wondered if maybe my government had presented one but I was not shown it.

I am sure the locals must be really impressed with all the gifts, and medals, on display. They do make the Kims appear to be loved and respected all around the world. I would not be surprised if the locals believed the gifts to be tributes to their god-kings.

Having been sufficiently convinced that the world worshipped the North Korean leaders, we checked into Hyangsan Hotel. Here was a hotel that was newer and better than the one in Pyongyang.

Hyangsan Hotel

Hotel lobby

My room

Only some of the items in the room that apparently came from Shangri-la. I wonder where they got them from

After lunch at the hotel it was time to visit a Buddhist temple. Now this I really wanted to see: a place of worship in North Korea and apparently still functioning as one.

The plaque of the Gate of Nirvana. Name of gate is translated online as such but in ordinary parlance simply means to be freed from intangible bondage

Pohyon Temple was founded in the early 11th century during the Koryo Dynasty. It was once one of the most important centres of Buddhism in all of Korea and a place of pilgrimage. During the Korean War however, the temple was bombed and more than half of its original buildings were destroyed. Many of these buildings have however since been reconstructed. The temple is today one of the most popular tourist destinations in North Korea.

A very benign looking temple guardian

There is a resident monk in the temple who came to meet us. The smiling kindly man seemed to be another big fan of the nation’s great leaders and sounded like he was really grateful to them for restoring and preserving the temple and allowing him to be there.

The main hall of the temple reconstructed in 1976

Inside the main hall

I was surprised to see a Jewish member of the group deciding to try his hand at offering incense to Buddha. The only problem is that none of the guides knew how to offer incense being atheists themselves. A turned to me assuming that being of Chinese origin I would know. I wonder why she had not thought of asking the monk for help but all I could do was look really helpless and tell her, “I don’t know. I’m Catholic.” I was not lying by the way. In the end it was the monk who came to the rescue.

A copy of the Tripitaka Koreana is kept in Pohyon Temple. This is so precious to the North Koreans that pictures are not allowed to be taken in the building housing the wooden printing blocks. These are not the original however. The original copy is kept in Haeinsa in South Korea.

There was an open book, ostensibly containing the Tripitaka sutra. It was all in classical Chinese of course. A then asked M to help with translating what was written. Although M could speak Mandarin well, I did wonder why A would choose to ask an American instead of an ethnic Chinese person. But in any event I could not understand classical Chinese anyway.

It was amusing though to see M trying to ‘translate’ the sutra. He did not even seem to know that it was written in classical Chinese. Come to think of it I am not sure that he  knew what classical Chinese looked like.

The Jewish guy who had offered incense then asked why the Koreans wrote in Chinese and if they were to recite the sutra from the text did they do it in Korean or Chinese. M again tried to be helpful but I was distracted by some other group member and did not hear M’s theories. I doubt that he knew the answer.

Kwanum Hall, oldest existing building in the compound

In the temple gardens

The main event of the day happened in the late afternoon. We were taken on a hike up Myohyangsan. It was then that we realised why C was with us. Since everyone was expected to walk at different speeds along the narrow trail, they needed an extra person around to handle the group.

On the mountain trail

I had the chance to walk with A and spoke with her a little. A had a typical Type A personality, all strong and efficient. But beneath that tough exterior was a woman curious about the world beyond the borders of her country. She asked me questions about my country and other countries that I might have been to. She also asked me about gay people and looked surprised when I told her about my support for gay rights. She thought that if everyone were gay then the human species would become extinct.

In the mountains

Despite her curiosity, A was still a hardcore supporter of everything her country stood for. She was utterly proud of and loyal to her nation, party and leaders. And it did not seem to me that her loyalty had stemmed from fear, or at least not entirely.

Stone inscription in the mountains praising Kim Jong Il

Kim Il Sung praising Myohyangsan that it is the greatest mountain in the world

A toed the official line to the letter. I asked her where her favourite place in Korea was. She then went into a discourse on what was special about various places in the country. I asked her which one of those was her favourite. She started thinking really hard. I thought that maybe she was trying to pick one but I realised soon enough that she was actually not sure how to respond appropriately. She was not going to pick a favourite. I wonder if she is allowed to have one.

I did not make it to the top of the mountain. Despite the awful overcast weather that day, I did enjoy my time on the mountain trail. However, after a while I felt like my lungs were going to cave in. Fortunately I was not the only unfit one. Most of us who went on this hike (not all did) stopped midway like me.

All except M of course. The man might have been elderly, but he was a lot fitter than all of us who were much younger. And determined too I would say. C had to walk with him and they both hiked so quickly that they threw us far behind from the start. We were all pretty sure that poor C was interrogated by M the whole way, especially when he had her all to himself on the lonely mountain trail.

As the sky got darker, we started shouting M’s name to try to get him to come back. A was starting to get worried and, although as knackered as we were, decided to go up the trail to look for him and C. Her supervisor in the end went up instead as he, though older too than the rest of us, was also a lot fitter.

I think M and C made it to the highest point of the trail before they turned back. We all felt quite sorry for C and offered her our commiserations.

One of the many waterfalls on Myohyangsan


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