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July 8, 2012

North Korea: Departing Pyongyang

On the morning of our fifth day in Pyongyang, we were back on the bus headed to the Pyongyang Airport to catch our return flight to Beijing. Of course, we were running late. The majority of our group was typically on time but there were always a few laggards, so we arrived at Sunan International Airport shortly before 8:30am for a 9:00am flight.

Despite the fact that there were only three flights that day, check-in was a bit chaotic; we hurriedly filled out the customs forms and waited for the guards to return our cell phones, which had been kept under lock and key at the airport since we had arrived in Pyongyang. We also waited for our guides to return our passports, which we were required to surrender to them when we arrived in North Korea.

After finally checking-in and receiving our boarding passes, we headed straight to the security check, which meant we had zero time to enjoy the airport’s only restaurant or make last minute purchases of books by the Dear Leader and Great Leader (basically the only souvenirs for sale) at the small gift shop. As to be expected, there was a long line at security and 9am was quickly approaching. Surely our plane wouldn’t leave without our group and leave us stranded in Pyongyang for a few more days?




The Kims are, of course, inescapable.

The security check actually went by rather quickly, as the North Koreans don’t make you take your shoes off or put all of your liquids in a little baggie like the TSA does. I guess if you are a member of the “Axis of Evil” you don’t really have to worry about all that stuff.

After the security check came passport control. Typically, if you enter a country on a visa, this is when you would receive an exit stamp, but we were on a group visa that was in the possession of our tour leader, so there was no visa in our passport to stamp, and thus no coveted DPRK passport stamp. Some of our group members politely asked, or begged the officers to stamp their passport, but their pleas were met by a head shake. So, I exited North Korea with absolutely no official record of having visited the country, just 1,500 photos and a copy of “The Eternal Sun of Mankind”.


Our ride back to Beijing


Air Koryo fleet


Heading to the runway


The in-flight meal – the infamous Air Koryo burger. Yes, it tastes as awful as it looks.

The flight back was uneventful, although quite uncomfortable. The seating was incredibly cramped and the cabin temperature seemed to be 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I dozed off intermittently, glad to be back in possession of my iPhone so that I could listen to music that had nothing to do with the Great Leader.


Goodbye, North Korea!

The rest of the photos are here.

July 4, 2012

North Korea: The Streets of Pyongyang, Part VII

Taken September 2009 while driving through Pyongyang in a bus (hence the poor photo quality)


I believe this is the entrance to a factory


I thought the style of these trams looked very familiar. They are Czech made, and likely the same style as the ones I rode in Prague several years ago.


Koryo Hotel on the left


Propaganda vehicle (notice the speakers on the top)


Student group


Top of the Ryugyong Hotel


The only gas station I saw in North Korea


A Nissan Paladin aka Nissan Xterra. The only reason I really took this photo was because I own an Xterra.


Another Xterra


A very crowded tram


The Mansudae Grand Monument to Kim Il-Sung. After Kim Jong-il’s death they added a statue of him as well.

And that is the end of the Pyongyang street photos. All of them can be found here.

July 3, 2012

North Korea: The Streets of Pyongyang, Part VI

More photos from Pyongyang in September 2009.


Traffic Girl (because who needs stoplights?)


City beautification project


City park with playground


Metro station


More propaganda


Apartment buildings and propaganda


Taedongmun (Taedong Gate). This is the eastern gate of the inner castle of the walled city of Pyongyang and one of the National Treasures of North Korea. The gate was originally built in the sixth century however the present construction dates from 1635 (the original was burnt to the ground during in the late 16th century).


Surprise, more propaganda


The elusive male traffic control officer


Pyongyang high rises

July 2, 2012

North Korea: The Streets of Pyongyang, Part V

More random photos taken while driving through Pyongyang, North Korea in September 2009.


More propaganda. It is literally everywhere.


Mangyongdae Children’s Palace


Ryugyong Hotel under construction.


Decorations for the September 9th “Independence Day” holiday


Tram


Portrait of Kim Il-Sung on a building


Approaching Kim Il-Sung’s Mausoleum (Kumsusan Memorial Palace)


Another view of Kumsusan Memorial Palace

July 1, 2012

North Korea: The Tomb of King Kongmin (Hyonjongrung Royal Tomb)

Note: I’m trying to play catch up here; there was a moment in 2010 when I stopped really blogging about my travels. I was laid off from my job with Big Oil in December 2009, and as the months progressed I felt guilty actually taking the time to blog when that time could have been spent more productively, i.e., writing cover letters or taking paid writing jobs (and let’s face it, after writing all day, the last thing you want to do is write in the evening). As a result, this blog fell by the wayside and I failed to finish blogging about my travels to North Korea and China in 2009, and barely mentioned my trips to Central Europe and the UK in December 2009/January 2010 and Costa Rica in February 2010. Then came a multitude of temp jobs, the move across country from DC to Seattle, a full time job in the travel industry, etc, and before I knew it almost three years had passed since I had completed these trips. So this is my attempt to finish writing about these places in time for a tour of Southeast Asia in December.

After touring Kaesong, we departed for Pyongyang, stopping enroute at the Tomb of King Kongmin which is located just outside Kaesong. I found this drive to be particularly interesting because we passed a lot of small farming villages along the way, all with the requisite propaganda paintings of the Dear Leader and Great Leader. Strangely, we weren’t allowed to take any photos during our drive to the tomb, which was unusual because our guides had not previously imposed any photo restrictions (aside from the DMZ, of course).

I was actually a bit surprised we even visited the Tomb of King Kongmin, as it was one of the few sights on our itinerary that wasn’t strictly “North Korean”. By that I mean there was no propaganda or lectures extolling the heroic feats of Kim Il-Sung, so visiting the tomb felt a bit out of place. It just seemed like a typical historical sight that you could visit in any number of “normal” countries. Our guide didn’t talk at length about it and actually seemed pretty indifferent about it.

Also known as the Hyonjongrung Royal Tomb, these 14th-century mausoleums contains the remains of Kongmin, the 31st king of the Koryo Dynasty, and his wife, the Mongolian princess Queen Noguk. Construction of the tomb was completed in 1372, six years after Queen Noguk’s death in 1365. Kongmin was interred here two years later after being killed by one of his court eunuchs. Apparently Kongmin had gone insane, threatening to kill several members of the court and subjecting them to depraved sexual acts, so the court members decided to kill him first (of course, they would later be executed for the crime). The whole incident was quite tawdry and would likely make an excellent script for a Hollywood film.


Steps leading up to the tomb area


One of the tombs


The “spirit road” lined with statues of military officers and Confucian officials.



Statues of sheep and tigers surround the tomb. The tigers represent fierceness and the sheep represent gentleness.


Surrounding area

All photos of the tome are here.

June 3, 2012

Kim Jong Un tours the Mangyongdae Funfair


Mangyongdae Funfair, September 2009

And apparently he wasn’t very impressed:

On Wednesday, KCNA reported that newly anointed leader Kim Jong Un had visited an amusement park where he scolded park officials for poor upkeep of the park, according to the Yonhap News Agency in South Korea.

The criticism from the young leader was the first publicly reported rebuke since he inherited leadership of the country in December, and a rare occurrence in the history of the normally laudatory “inspection tours” taken by his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather Kim Il Sung, who ruled before him.

Kim’s criticism of the Mangyongdae Funfair in Pyongyang was strong and detailed, going so far as to describe the state of the grounds by the Viking ride as “pathetic,” Yonhap said.

He found problems with the roller coaster, the paint on the rides and the safety of the waterpark, the report said, and instructed officials to draw a lesson from touring the site and take it as a warning of the need for a “proper spirit of serving the people.”

No mention if Kim actually rode the roller coaster of death itself, however, or just observed the falling screws from the safety of the platform. If he did, he probably would have mentioned the non-functioning safety restraints (then again, it is likely his handlers didn’t recommend a ride on it for that very reason).

December 20, 2011

POTD: Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung

This portrait of “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung and “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il was hanging in a Pyongyang souvenir shop when I visited North Korea in September 2009. The pervasive cult of personality that surrounded the Kims ensured that every building you set foot in prominently displayed portraits of the two leaders. Now that Kim Jong-il is dead, it will be interesting to see if 28 year old Kim Jong Un, Kim’s youngest son, is able to consolidate power and take the helm of the state. I do not have much faith that he will be any less cruel or dictatorial than his father and grandfather, but regardless I wish the North Korean people the best of luck.

December 5, 2011

North Korea: Arch of Reunification

The Arch of Reunification (or, Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification as I’ve also seen it called) is your typical North Korean monument: large, not particularly beautiful, and glorifying some event that either didn’t happen, or will likely never happen (according to the plan North Korea has devised, anyway). And, of course, there are some statues of soldiers and workers strategically placed around or on the monument.

The Arch of Reunification was built in 2001 to commemorate the Korean reunification proposals put forth by Kim Il-Sung. The two women symbolize the two Koreas, and together they are holding a map of a reunified Korea. Of course, reunification is just a pipe dream right now, and will, when it eventually happens, be according to the wishes of South Korea more so than North Korea’s, especially considering South Korea’s economic power.

The monument is located on the outskirts of Pyongyang and straddles the Reunification Highway that begins in Pyongyang and ends at the DMZ.

Since this particular highway, and really any road in North Korea, isn’t known for its traffic jams, you can easily have your photo taken (with an “American pose”, of course) while standing in the middle of the highway. Don’t try this in LA.

All photos are here.

November 8, 2011

North Korean dance party at Moranbong Park

And finally, here is the last of the footage I shot in North Korea. This was taken at Moranbong Park during North Korea’s national independence holiday. With plenty of beer and meat on the grill, it’s not that far off from an American 4th of July celebration (except for, you know, that whole notion of freedom and liberty).

Still, this can’t compare to this North Korean dance party, perhaps the greatest YouTube video ever produced:

November 2, 2011

Pyongyang through a tour bus window

Here is the last of the footage shot while we were driving around Pyongyang. Not many recognizable landmarks in this video, but there are some large portraits of Kim Il-Sung and other propaganda.