Archive | September, 2009
September 28, 2009

North Korea: Arirang Festival Mass Games

“Developing mass gymnastics is important in training children to be fully developed communist people. To be fully developed communist man, one must acquire a revolutionary ideology, the knowledge of many fields, rich cultural attainments and a healthy and strong physique. These are the basic qualities required of a man of the communist type. Mass gymnastics play an important role in training schoolchildren to acquire these communist qualities. Mass gymnastics foster particularly healthy and strong physiques, a high degree of organization, discipline and collectivism in schoolchildren, The schoolchildren, conscious that a single slip in their action may spoil their mass gymnastic performance, make every effort to subordinate all their thoughts and actions to the collective.” – Kim Jong-Il

What are the mass games, exactly? Well, it’s really just a continuation of the “everything’s bigger in the DPRK” theme I previously mentioned. Take 100,000 North Koreans, place them in the largest stadium in the world, add some perfectly choreographed gymnastics, dancing, singing, a heavy dose of propaganda, and the end result is a massive show glorifying the achievements of North Korea and its eternal President, Kim Il-Sung. With their Mass Games, the North Koreans have succeeded in making the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony look like my elementary school’s Christmas plays.

The Mass Games usually run from August to October, but they aren’t held every year. Sometimes they are canceled when, for instance, massive flooding plagues the country and the government decides that the 100,000 performers could be better put to use working on flood alleviation and infrastructure repairs. The Mass Games period is also the only time when U.S. citizens are allowed to visit the country and hand over their hard-earned dollars to the regime. No Mass Games = no visas for U.S. Imperialists.

We saw the mass games our first night in Pyongyang. We were extremely rushed that evening (which, as we would later find out, is par for the course when touring the DPRK). We had 30 minutes for dinner, and then 30 minutes to make it to the Rungrado May Day Stadium. Thankfully, there isn’t much traffic in Pyongyang.

As we pulled into the parking lot, thousands of people streamed into the stadium while groups of gymnasts participated in last minute rehearsals. Two inebriated North Koreans got into a fistfight, which was promptly broken up by a large group of police officers.

The largest gymnastics performance in the world is held in the largest stadium in the world, naturally.

We were divided into groups of three depending on the type of tickets we purchased (first class, second class, or third class). I opted for the cheapest third class tickets, which were a not so cheap 80 euros ($115). As tempting as it was to sit where all the high government officials do, no one in our group went for the 300 euro ($430) VIP tickets.

Our guide led us through the tunnel and to our seats. The massive stadium loomed over us, and on the side opposite us sat 20,000 schoolchildren, each holding a flip-book that contained 170 different colored panels. Together they formed a gigantic mosaic that changed according to the choreographer’s instructions. They were doing a few practice runs before the show started, stamping their feet and shouting in unison. Myself and my fellow tourists were in awe.

“This is just…insane.”

And then the stadium lights were cut, plunging us into darkness. It was 8pm. Time for the most bizarre show on earth.

Instead of giving a blow by blow account of what happened, though, (and to be honest, most of the time I had no clue what was unfolding before me) I will just post a ton of photos to give you an idea of what goes on during the Mass Games.

And the show begins

Beach resort?

When I saw the rabbit mosaic, all I could think of was this.

Hatching eggs

North Koreans like bacon too!

This frightened me

North Korea definitely keeps hula hoop producers in business

Leading up to the finale…

All photos from the Mass Games are here.

If you are interested in learning more about the Mass Games, I would highly recommend watching the documentary “A State of Mind”, which follows two North Korean gymnasts who are training for the Mass Games.

September 25, 2009

North Korea: Cheating death at the Mangyongdae Fun Fair (the Disneyland of Pyongyang)

The happiest place in Pyongyang

Thankfully, a tour of the DPRK doesn’t consist solely of bowing before Kim Il-Sung monuments. That would get incredibly boring, very quickly. Sometimes you get to do things like ride old, rusting roller coasters at a Pyongyang amusement park. That is what we ended up doing one afternoon when our guides took us to the Mangyongdae Fun Fair. Since it was a DPRK national holiday, there were a lot of locals there enjoying their day off. I think many of them were quite shocked to see 16 U.S. Imperialists walk into their amusement park.

As with everywhere in the DPRK, you couldn’t just wander away from your guide and ride whatever you wanted. One of the guides would say “Who wants to ride the roller coaster?” and those of us fools who obviously had a deathwish would raise our hands. Half the group wanted to ride the roller coaster, so one guide took us there while the other guides watched the other group members. When he took us straight to the front of the very long line, we protested, pointing out that it wasn’t fair for us to cut in front of all the people who were waiting in line, and that we would gladly go to the end of the line. But the guide and one of the park employees would have none of this and herded us onto the stairs leading up to the roller coaster platform. We all felt pretty bad. The North Koreans are fed enough anti-U.S. propaganda, and then here comes a group of us cutting in front of them on one of their few days off.

Once we got to the ride’s platform we surveyed the half yellow/half rust track that lay before us.

“Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“It sounds like a bunch of bolts just fell off.”

“Well, I’m sure they do regular safety checks…”

The amusement park employees wouldn’t allow any of the North Koreans onto the platform or let them fill in the ten or so seats that were left empty as we climbed into the roller coaster. Perhaps the ride operators feared that their countrymen’s ideological purity might be corrupted while riding with a bunch of U.S. Imperialists. Or maybe they were just planning to flip a switch and kill us. As the roller coaster began to climb upwards, I realized that the latter was a definite possibility.

Are you sure you want to do this?

I noticed that my shoulder harness wasn’t locked. I could basically just raise and lower it at will. Some people had harnesses that locked, and some didn’t. Hmm…that was a bit odd, but whatever, this seemed like a pretty tame coaster.

Until I saw that there was a loop on this roller coaster, which, for whatever reason, none of us had seen until now. Now, I actually love upside down roller coasters, but that is usually when there are, you know, working safety harnesses.

As we slowly made the uphill climb, a series of thoughts began to flash through my mind. “Well, Lindsay, this is it. You’re going to plummet to your death on a North Korean roller coaster. Your friends and family will file past your coffin, muttering, ‘We told her not to go, but she just had to.’ Hmmm…at least my death will make CNN: ‘American tourist killed on North Korean roller coaster after harness failure.’ What a way to go. Thankfully my travel insurance policy covers the repatriation of my remains.

When we entered the loop I held on for dear life and somehow managed to not fall out and die or lose my camera (oh yes, I filmed the entire thing). Later, when I got back to the United States I discovered that this had something to do with physics and not pure luck, but whatever, I’m a political science major, remember?

Dude, where did that come from?

The rest of the roller coaster ride was spent leaning as far into the car as possible so as to avoid decapitation by the rusty steel poles that you fly by when turning. I would not recommend riding this roller coaster if you are very tall.

Keep your arms and legs inside the ride at all times. Seriously.

We were all quite relieved once the roller coaster pulled into the platform, as we felt like we had cheated death. After we got off the coaster, three of the guys in our group went over to a woman selling ice cream bars from a cart, purchased every single one of them, and then handed them out to the North Koreans who were still waiting in line to ride the roller coaster. This “ice cream diplomacy”, as we called it, was meant to make amends for cutting in front of them.

The U.S. Imperialists bought all the ice cream!

We’re sorry.

Our group went on a few more rides, including this one:

The military cadets loved us

And played some games:

We attracted quite an audience:

As with any amusement park, you can buy souvenirs:

So Jason went and bought a bunch of toys and handed them out to the kids. I think he still felt guilty for cutting in line.

This place is so much better than Disneyland

We skipped this one

We rode on the carousel. Haven’t been on one of these in ages. Oh, wait…I mean 2004, in London, after a few pints of Strongbow.

The last ride we went on was the ferris wheel. The cars were really rusty and I was certain some bolts would pop off and the car would plummet to the ground. It didn’t.

See, just like Disneyland

View of the coaster

As far as amusement parks go, the Mangyongdae Fun Fair can’t really compare to, say, Cedar Point, but it’s a nice break from the Kim Il-Sung monuments and is one of the few opportunities you will have to interact with the locals while you are in Pyongyang.

More Fun Fair photos are here.

September 23, 2009

North Korea: The Arch of Triumph (because everything’s bigger in the DPRK)

There are a lot of monuments in Pyongyang, and as you soon learn, all revolve around the achievements of Kim Il-Sung. The first monument we visited was the Arch of Triumph. You probably think that this arch looks quite similar to that one in Paris, and you would be right, EXCEPT THIS ONE IS BIGGER AND TALLER! This “bigger and taller” obsession is something you become quite accustomed to when touring the DPRK, as there are plenty of buildings and monuments around Pyongyang that were built to shatter world records while simultaneously devouring a significant amount of the country’s GDP.

As for the history behind the Arch of Triumph, I found this Korean Central News Agency (the DPRK’s state news agency) article which perfectly summarizes its significance:

The stone monument was unveiled in April of Juche 71 (1982) in reflection of the deep desire of the whole Korean people to convey to the posterity the revolutionary feats of President Kim Il Sung, who had successfully achieved the historic cause of the liberation of the country and returned to Pyongyang in triumph.

The Arch of Triumph with 60m in height and 50.1m in facade width and 36.2m in side width has four stories. The first and second stories are separated with a balcony and the second, third and fourth stories have diminishing flat roofs.

The words of the revolutionary paean “Song of General Kim Il Sung” are carved in the middle of the arch. Also engraved there are Mt. Paektu, the ancestral mountain of Korea, and “Buglers of Guerilla Army”. Beneath them there are the words “1925” and “1945” reflecting the revolutionary history of the President shining along with the liberation of the country and sculptures on subsidiary themes are embossed.

The Arch of Triumph encourages the Korean people to the efforts to shine the immortal exploits of the President in the liberation of the country through generations and build at an early date a great, prosperous and powerful nation of Juche under the Songun revolutionary leadership of Kim Jong Il.


September 21, 2009

North Korea: Ryongjin, the preferred soft drink of the proletariat

This is a bottle of Ryongjin, which I believe is North Korea’s attempt to produce a beverage somewhat similar to Coca-Cola. Although you could buy Coke at our hotel and various other places in Pyongyang (I was a bit surprised to see an old lady selling cans of it in Moranbong Park, for instance) I really wanted to try this North Korean soda. I picked up a large bottle at the Yanggakdo Hotel gift shop for a little less than 50 cents. What a deal!

But the taste? Ugh. It was like a flat version of Coke that had stayed out in the sunlight for several hours. Even Pepsi tastes better than this stuff!

Perhaps I should have expected this, though, if only I had bothered to read the label more carefully before consuming it.

Ah, that explains everything. It’s a cocoa crabonated, not carbonated, drink. No wonder there wasn’t any fizz.

September 20, 2009

North Korea: There’s no escape from the Yanggakdo Hotel, Communist Resort, and Casino

Much like your choice of air carrier, there aren’t many hotels to choose from when planning a trip to Pyongyang. You can’t exactly go to and put in a bid for a non-smoking room at a four star hotel with a great view and no covert listening devices hidden in the light fixtures. Perhaps in a few decades you will be able to do so, but for now you will find yourself at whatever hotel the tour company assigns you to. Ours was the Yanggakdo Hotel, a 47 story, 1,000 room behemoth conveniently located on Yanggak Island in the middle of the Taedong River. Since, as a tourist in North Korea, you are not allowed to wander around without a guide, the hotel’s island location certainly makes it easier for the North Koreans to prevent you from doing so.

Our hotel, as seen from the Juche Tower

Thankfully, the North Koreans have filled the Yanggakdo Hotel with a wide variety of diversions to keep tourists occupied during those late nights when you would rather be out exploring the city. There is, of course, a bar (bizarrely called a tea room) that served delicious draft beer. We inevitably found ourselves here late at night (luckily, as to be explained later, our guides were very cool and did not take us back to the hotel right after our dinner/touring was finished but rather took us to bars and cafes so we could stay in the city for a bit longer. As such, we did not have hours and hours of free time at the hotel).

Hotel bar

Surprisingly good beer

Sometimes, at 1am, we would go bowling. Of course, the North Korean guides (who also stay in the hotel while they are leading our tours, and thus have plenty of opportunity to hone their bowling skills) thoroughly schooled us.

In the basement of the hotel you can find the Egyptian themed “Casino Pyongyang”, which is owned and operated by a Chinese company, with North Koreans barred from entering. The casino was practically empty each time we ventured down there, and everything, from the faux Egyptian decor, to the old slot machines (you still pull the handle!) seemed to have been imported from 1980s Vegas, or at least a casino that had gone bankrupt and needed to liquidate everything. I am not a gambler at all, but did hand over 10 euros ($14) to try my hand at the slot machines and sic bo, which is like a Chinese version of craps. I actually won a few times, nothing big, but promptly lost all my winnings. I was ready to file a complaint with the North Korean Gaming Commission until two members from our tour group won $80 on the slots and $160 playing blackjack. I guess it was just me, then. Nevertheless, it was definitely a weird experience. While I was at the casino, I couldn’t help but think, “It’s 2am, and I’m sitting in a casino in North Korea playing the slots. This is so…fucking…bizarre.” Also, I’m certain that the casino was also the only place in North Korea where you could buy Pringles, which were behind a glass display case alongside cans of Coke and Sprite.

Unfortunately photography was not allowed in the actual casino.

I kept one of the chips as a souvenir

In addition to the hotel bar, bowling alley, and casino, there were billiards and ping pong rooms, several stores and restaurants (including one that revolved!), a barber and salon, banquet halls, business center (where you could place those 8 euro per minute phone calls!), a sauna, and karaoke room. Per tradition, we spent our last night in the karaoke room drinking beer and singing “Hotel California” and Dancing Queen” until 2am with our North Korean guides (and then went to the casino).

Outside the hotel was a nine hole golf course which cost 20 euros to play a round on. Our guide also told us that there was a driving range where you could hit balls into the river. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to do this since we had hardly any free time, but I would have liked to. Maybe next time.

Yes, there is DHL service in Pyongyang

Decorations for the national holiday on September 9

The business center

Obligatory Kim Jong-Il photos

Poor turtle in a tiny aquarium

North Korea is obsessed with revolving restaurants. I have no idea why.

I was on the 33rd floor of the hotel. Could use some interior decorating, eh? Usually the hallway lights weren’t on (or sometimes just a few were) in order to save electricity, which North Korea has very little of.

As for the room, I had no complaints, and it certainly seemed better than some of the hotels I have stayed at in the past (A certain Wyndham in Houston comes to mind. Ugh). When I first entered my room I threw my bags on the ground and ran over to the window (which you could actually open, whoa) to check out the view. I was not disappointed.

That bizarre pyramidal structure is the Ryugyong Hotel.

Tower of the Juche Idea on the right.

I then proceeded to go over every square inch of the room. I opened up all the drawers, hoping to find a copy of a book by Kim Il-Sung, which would be the equivalent of the Bible over in North Korea. I was a bit disappointed when I didn’t find one. Perhaps us foreigners just can’t be trusted with such a thing.

Hello, 1970s

Prior to departing for Pyongyang, we were also told that our hotel rooms were possibly bugged, but it was unlikely that anyone was listening. I guess, then, it was unnecessary to turn on the shower and TV full blast when I had the sudden urge to sing “God Bless America” or recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

How about we play a game of “Where are the bugs hidden”?

This calendar conveniently lists all important dates in North Korean history

Some sort of contraption

The 1970s called and wants its telephone back

I was surprised that they had the BBC, but nevertheless preferred to watch the DPRK’s channels, which had some awesome music videos at 6:30am.

I really hope I never have to consult this

Overall, the Yanggakdo was a good hotel, especially considering the location. Sure, it was a bit shabby and in need of some updated decor, but that was part of its charm, I suppose. The hotel staff was incredibly pleasant and helpful, always greeting you with a “good morning” and holding the doors open. Apparently, this was somewhat new, as we were told that the customer service was definitely lacking in the years prior. Maybe they hired Marriott to come out and train all of the staff members? What’s next, wireless internet and room service? (Yeah, right).

September 17, 2009

North Korea: Schoolchildren marching on Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang

Here’s a short video I shot of some schoolchildren marching and singing their way through Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang. As I don’t speak Korean, I haven’t the slightest idea what they are singing, so if anyone out there does, let me know.

September 16, 2009

North Korea: Now boarding Air Koryo flight 222 to Pyongyang

When booking a flight to Pyongyang, your options are rather limited. Unless you can catch one of the few Air China flights that fly to Pyongyang, you will be flying on Air Koryo, the North Korean state owned airline. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however, as long as you ignore the fact that Air Koryo is banned from operating in the EU due to “serious safety deficiencies”.

Check-in at the Beijing airport. Comrades, what is this division of classes? Business class on a North Korean state owned airline? Nevertheless, I was in economy class with the proles.

Our flight (JS222) that day was on a trusty Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-154. This particular aircraft had been involved in a few mishaps, but no fatalities!

An Air Koryo flight is unlike any I have been on. Revolutionary music is played over the loudspeakers before takeoff, and instead of the considerably long safety spiel about oxygen masks and water landings that we are used to in Europe and the U.S., the flight attendant (or hostess, as the call buttons still refer to them as) gives a short political speech praising the Great Leader and expressing the DPRK’s desire for a unified Korea. Rather than handing out copies of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, you are given a copy of the English language Pyongyang Times, which includes such thrilling articles as “Kim Jong Il provides field guidance to different sectors”, “World praises Kim Il Sung”, and the editorial “US military presence unjustifiable”. During our pre-tour briefing at the tour company’s offices, we were given explicit instructions on how to treat anything with an image of Kim Jong Il, such as your copy of the Pyongyang Times. You are not to defile it in anyway, as this is a very serious offense. “Defiling” would include throwing it in the trash can, wrapping your fish and chips in it, or even creasing the photo of the Dear Leader. If you do so, and are caught, at the very least you might be forced to stand in front of the group and engage in self-criticism, a standard feature at communist party meetings. As such, we were all very careful when folding our copy of the Pyongyang Times.

Although the flight from Beijing to Pyongyang is only an hour and a half, the good folks at Air Koryo serve you a full meal and free beer, unlike those capitalist pig American carriers who have ceased to provide the proletariat with even a mere snack of pretzels. The meal we were served was not particularly edible, however, and was probably the worst airline food I have ever eaten. It consisted of fish that was kinda fried, yet cold, and sitting in some sort of greyish sauce, rice, canned fruit, kimchi, and spongecake. I managed to eat the rice and spongecake, but just couldn’t choke down more than one bite of the fish.

Welcome to Pyongyang

The flight itself was rather smooth, and we arrived at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport on time. As we disembarked the plane, several officers in olive drab uniforms directed us onto a bus that would take us to the terminal. Once there, another officer wearing a surgical mask collected our health declaration forms and waved us towards the immigration officers. After some initial confusion, we managed to be admitted into the country, collect our luggage, and then hand it over to the customs officers to be X-rayed for weapons, explosives, “killing devices”, drugs, “exciters” (?!), poison, “publishings of all kinds”, GPS devices, and cellphones. Those of us with cellphones had them confiscated, and all of our passports were collected for whatever reason, and would not be returned to us until we left the country.

After we had finished this whole process, we were divided into our different tour groups and directed to our buses. The American tour group, which I was obviously a part of (there are different restrictions for American tourists, so all of us imperialists are placed in the same group) consisted of 16 Yankees, one Koryo Tour guide, and two (later to be three) North Korean tour guides who would be accompanying us at all times. And with that, we were finally off to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.

September 14, 2009

I have returned from the People’s Republics

I arrived back in Arlington last night (and two hours early, thanks to a very nice Continental Airlines representative) from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the People’s Republic of China. I’m still trying to process everything, but this was definitely the most bizarre and interesting trip I have ever taken. It will take me awhile to sort through the 1,500 pictures and assorted videos I shot while over there, but I should have plenty of stuff to blog about (finally!).

Here’s a short overview of some things I did in each country and will expand on later.

China: Impressed Chinese tourists with my command of their People’s Liberation Army light machine gun, climbed the Great Wall, walked across Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City, visited various other touristy sites, saw Chairman Mao lying in state, and bought Mao kitsch right after doing so (like Disneyland!).

North Korea: Listened to our flight attendant deliver a political speech before takeoff, ate the worst airline food in the history of mankind, had my iPhone confiscated, watched the Arirang Mass Games performed by 100,000 North Koreans, woke up to air raid sirens followed by snappy revolutionary music, played the slots in the Egyptian-themed “Casino Pyongyang”, got my ass kicked in bowling by one of the North Korean guides, ruined any chance of a future career in politics by being filmed by the North Korean propaganda, uh, I mean, news channel, danced with a bunch of locals in a park on their national holiday, cheated death by riding a corroding roller coaster, saw Kim Il-Sung lying in state, attempted to reclaim the USS Pueblo, sat through a lot of propaganda about the “U.S. Imperialists”, drank fruit beer at a microbrewery, visited the demilitarized zone and stood with one foot in North Korea and one foot in South Korea, sang “Dancing Queen” during a 1am karaoke session with two of our guides…etc, etc.

September 3, 2009

Off to Beijing

I’m catching a flight from DCA to Newark tomorrow morning and then a direct flight to Beijing, which is going to be a hellish 14-15 hours. I’m sure I’ll be sitting next to several screaming children as well. Arrive in Beijing on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday I plan to shoot AK-47s and other communist firearms and then hike part of the Great Wall (one of the steepest parts, which I’m sure is awesome when you are jet-lagged). If my visa is approved for North Korea I will be there September 8-12 and then back to DC late night on September 13. I have a 10 day supply of cipro and plenty of imperialist Yankee candy, beef jerky, and trail mix. Should be an interesting trip.