DPRK (and Beijing) Day seven, part one
06.09.2019 - 06.09.2019
I slept well, grateful for the slightly softer bed at the Janamsan hotel, although the groaning noise it made every time I turned over was a slight downside. Breakfast was served in the same room as dinner last night and included good scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. The coffee appeared already with milk in, and there was no way I could explain to the waitress what I meant by ‘no milk’, nor were either of our guides anywhere to be seen to translate. Luckily I had already made a cup of the instant coffee I had brought with me from home to enjoy in our room, and also one of the group offered me some from her supply which she had thought to bring to breakfast, so I was fuelled up for the day.
The Janamsan Hotel
Waved off by the staff!
As a pleasant change we were able to walk to our first sight from the hotel, so we set off together, waved on our way by some of the staff.
Kaesong is unusual among North Korean cities in having not been largely destroyed during the Korean War, and consequently retains more sites of historical interest than you find elsewhere in the country. It is also noteworthy as the only city to have changed hands as a result of the armistice agreement, having been part of South Korea from 1945 to 1950 until the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement brought it under North Korean control. Because it didn’t become part of the DPRK until after the war it was spared the heavy bombing inflicted on the country by US and South Korean forces, and thus more of its historical sites survived – in contrast to Pyongyang, for instance, which was so badly destroyed that today’s city was almost entirely built after 1953.
The Sonjuk Bridge is one of those historical sites. Built in 1290 (or possibly 1216 – sources disagree on this point), it is famous as the place where a renowned Confucian scholar and statesman, Jong Mong Ju, was assassinated. Jong was a loyal advisor to the Koryo Dynasty and was murdered by the orders of Ri Song Gye, who was striving to usher in a new dynasty – something he succeeded in doing that same year (the Joseon Dynasty). Jong’s death came to symbolise unwavering loyalty.
Stone markers by the Sonjuk Bridge
Nearby is the Pyochung Pavilion, built to protect the two stone turtles that were erected here to commemorate the assassination – one in 1740 and the other in 1872. It is clear from these that later rulers prized Jong Mong Ju's loyalty too.
The Pyochung Pavilion
Detail of the Pyochung Pavilion
Rubbing the turtle's nose
We were told that rubbing the nose of a turtle is though by the Koreans to guarantee a long life, so of course we all had a go!
Both Sonjuk Bridge and Pyochung Pavilion are included in a group of historic sites and monuments in Kaesong that were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2013. The citation says that:
‘The site testifies to the transition from Buddhism to neo-Confucianism in East Asia and to the assimilation of the cultural spiritual and political values of the states that existed prior to Korea’s unification under the Koryo Dynasty.’
A short walk in Kaesong
Our bus had driven the short distance from the hotel to pick us up at the bridge. We drove into the town centre to the foot of the hill where the statues of the Great Leaders stand, Mount Janam. The plan was to walk up there for views of the old city, but the statues were being cleaned so we weren’t allowed to go up. Our guide thought they would probably be finished later this afternoon – we would have to wait until then.
But I was able to get a photo here of the view down Tongil Street (Tongil by the way means Reunification, a word we were to hear a lot today). This is a much-photographed (by tourists) view – mainly because of what it doesn’t contain, i.e. traffic. As you can see, one vehicle did creep into my shot from a side street, and there is a car half-hidden by trees near the top of the hill, but these two hardly justify the need for a traffic policeman at the junction below!
From here we had another short walk. As in Pyongyang we saw women cleaning up the streets after last night’s rain. One of them appears to be wearing a bucket on her head (!) but this is actually a rather nifty type of cycling helmet that we saw a lot of Koreans wearing – the plastic visor helps to protect their faces from flying insects, just like a car windshield. Although why she is wearing it to sweep the streets I am not sure – perhaps she simply forgot to take it off!
On the streets of Kaesong
Our walk took us past the Nam Gate, one of the original seven citadel gates of the inner castle of Kaesong. It was built between 1391-1393 and restored after the Korean War. It houses a 14 tonne bell, the Yonbok Bell, cast in 1346 – we didn’t cross over to the gate to visit but you can just see it in my second photo below.
Kaesong stamp shop
In the stamp shop entrance
~ Korea is one!
Back in the bus again we drove to the Koryo Museum on the edge of the town. It had started to rain quite heavily so our guide proposed that instead of following the plan of a visit to the museum (which is largely out of doors) followed by the stamp shop next door, we should switch the order, go in the shop, and hope that the rain stopped while we were there. Good plan!
Both Chris and I used to collect stamps as children but neither of us does so now, so we were slightly surprised to find the shop as interesting as we did. Photos weren’t allowed inside, unfortunately, so I can’t share here the wonderful variety and colours of the stamps, but a quick search online will bring up plenty of images to show you what I mean.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the most popular topics covered are all patriotic in some way – marking significant anniversaries of one of the Great Leaders, illustrating developments in industrial production, celebrating sporting success. But there were also some surprises – stamps featuring Donald Trump and his recent summit meetings with Kim Jong Un, for instance. And some were more conventional perhaps, featuring national costume, landscapes, flowers.
We had already bought a small selection of stamps in the Pyongyang Foreign Languages Bookshop and had no plans to buy more. But then I found something rather different, among the glossy ‘stamp books’. These present a selection of stamps on a specific theme, with descriptions in English as well as Korean. The one I had found was called ‘Accomplishment of the Historic Cause of Perfecting the National Nuclear Forces’. Perhaps it was an odd choice of souvenir, but I had to have it, despite the €18 price tag! And clearly others in our group felt the same because once I had bought it and shown it around, several of them asked the sales assistant for a copy. Maybe I should have been on commission!
The Koryo History Museum
When we left the stamp shop the rain had just about stopped, which was really good news as the next-door Koryo History Museum (also known as Songgyungwan) was for me very atmospheric and photogenic.
Entrance gate, Koryo History Museum
It is housed in a group of buildings that once formed the Sungyun Academy, which was the highest institute of Confucian learning during the Koryo and Choson Ri dynasties. Here the children of the higher echelons of society studied to enter the civil service
It was largely destroyed during the late 16th century invasion by Japan and rebuilt in 1602-10 in the original Koryo style; most of the structures which stand today date from that period, having (like much of Kaesong) come through the Korean War unscathed. Koryo buildings are distinguished by having gently sloping roofs with fairly minimal decoration, supported by squat pillars which bulge slightly in the centre. I found the whole place very appealing, and (in the parts where weren’t caught up in a large Chinese tour group) rather peaceful.
We went through the attractive outer gate, its wood painted in places but quite faded, into an open area with some beautiful old trees which we were told were two 500-year-old ginkgo trees and a 900-year-old Keyaki or Japanese Zelkova. I asked about another tree and was told it was a magnolia, the Korean national tree, although it seemed rather different from the magnolias we have at home in England.
Courtyard with ginkgo and other trees
Is this a magnolia?
There were buildings to either side, one of which was having its roof repaired with traditional tiles. Ahead of us, along a path shiny with the recent rain, were the Myongrun Hall and Inner Gate. The Myongrun Hall was where students traditionally received lectures. Today, appropriately, a group of what seemed to be Chinese visitors were sitting there being addressed at some length by their guide.
Beyond these we came to the buildings which house the museum’s artefacts – the Memorial Services rooms on either side and the Taesong Hall (the former Confucian shrine) facing the gate.
In the grounds
The buildings themselves were very attractive and for me were the main draw of the museum, but I also found many of the objects on display very interesting. Here are just a few that caught my eye:
A model of the Royal Palace that we were to visit later in the day, Manwoldae
A Japanese chart from the early 1900s
This illustrates the monetary value placed by them on Korean men, women, children and oxen – interesting because, while oxen were more valuable than any human, women were worth more than men. Why? Because they would have babies who would grow up to also serve as slaves to the occupiers.
Celadon vase and duck
A beautiful Koryo Celadon vase decorated with cranes and dating from the 13th century. Carl told us that a friend of his, an expert in ceramics, had estimated its value at c £2M, yet here it was in a simple display case with no apparent security in place!
And a pair of ducks in the same style and even older – dated to the 11th or 12th century.
A reconstruction of the interior of King Kongmin’s tomb which we had visited yesterday.
We were told that the small rectangular hole visible in my second photo was to enable the king and queen to communicate with each other between their adjacent tombs.
Some lovely items from a former Buddhist temple, including this Buddha
Outside in the grounds we saw a number of monuments and pagodas, relocated from elsewhere, including a seven-storeyed stone pagoda from Hyonhwa Temple, dating back to 1020, and the pagoda of Hungguk Temple from 1021.
Stone pagoda and turtle stela
There was also a stela mounted on the back of a turtle. Again we were told how the turtle is considered lucky in Korea, symbolising longevity, and were invited to rub its nose. But having already rubbed one turtle nose today, at the Pyochung Pavilion, I decided not to seem too greedy to the ‘turtle gods’ by having a second go in one day!
After visiting the museum it was time for the big event of the day, the visit to the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone) but as that was such a unique experience I’m going to devote a separate entry to it, to follow after this one. Meanwhile I’ll continue here with the sights we visited on our return to the city later in the afternoon.
After our visit to the DMZ we returned to Kaesong and to Mount Janamansan, the hill with the Great Leaders’ statues which we had been unable to climb this morning. We started to make our way up and Carl explained that we were not going to pay our respects as we had in Pyongyang, as we weren’t dressed appropriately. The point of going up the hill was for the view it affords of the old town of Kaesong. But one member of the group was walking a bit ahead as he often did, and I think didn’t hear this explanation. Suddenly our usually smiling and amenable lead Korean guide was shouting at him to stop. Misunderstanding the plan, he had started to climb the steps up to the statues and take photos. When the rest of us caught up our guide asked to see the photos he had taken and requested that he delete one. He refused at first, which we all knew could cause some unpleasantness, so several of us urged him to comply and he did (I believe) albeit grudgingly.
Later our guide rather sweetly apologised, saying that she should have explained before we left the bus that we were not to go up the steps. Our companion was still a bit disgruntled, but even though I wasn’t 100% clear what was wrong about that one photo (I later heard something about it portraying the Leaders from the side) I felt he should have agreed to the request to delete it immediately and with good grace - and accepted her apology in the same manner. We had been given far more leeway for photography on this trip than I had anticipated, and it seemed a real shame to abuse that trust for the sake of one photo. Hopefully the incident wouldn’t sour things for the remaining days (spoiler: it did, rather, for some days at least).
The Great Leaders on Mount Janamansan
~ these photos were approved by our guide
As a result of this I showed my own photos, taken from further down the hill, to our guide and she deemed them fine to keep, for which I was grateful. I found it interesting to note the differences in the poses between these and the Mansudae statues in Pyongyang, as I had wrongly assumed that the various Great Leader statues around the country would all be to the same design.
I also had another shot at photographing the view down almost traffic-less Tongil Street but again a couple of vehicles did creep into the shot!
From the Kwandok Pavillion
Anyway, we were here to see the view and it was worth the effort of the climb even though many of us were pretty weary by now (it had been another long day, as is the norm when visiting the DPRK). We could look directly down on the rooftops of part of the old town. It was interesting to see this jumble of small houses, so different from the modern apartment blocks of Pyongyang or the slightly less modern ones I had observed in other parts of Kaesong.
The view from Mount Janamansan
We were told that this is one of the oldest continuously inhabited group of dwellings in both the Koreas – I don’t know if that’s the case, but it is almost certainly the best preserved old town area in North Korea. I was interested to see how the locals use the roof to grow crops, maximising space.
View of the old town
This part of the city is largely off-limits to tourists (the exception being the Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel, a block of the old town converted to tourist accommodation) so this was the closest we could get to observing its extent and the style of architecture – although we did drive along the outskirts a couple of times. It would have been interesting to be able to walk among the houses to see them in better detail, but I suspect that although I would have found them photogenic their condition isn’t great and wouldn’t fit the image the authorities are keen to show their visitors.
Old town houses
We were almost all tiring, as I said, but there was still one more sight on our itinerary, the former Royal Palace of the Koryo Dynasty, Manwoldae. The palace was established in 918/9 when Wang Kon (877 - 943), founder of the Koryo dynasty, established his capital at his hometown of Kaesong. It was destroyed in 1361 by a group that the Koreans call the ‘Red Kerchiefed Rebel Army’. This group is better known elsewhere as the Red Turban Army who originated in part of China and invaded Koryo in the 14th century, when it had already lost its power, becoming a vassal state of Mongolia under Kublai Khan and his successors.
The steps up to Manwoldae
We were faced with another climb to reach the top of the site, and two people in the group dropped out (I noticed that our young male guide was deputed to stay with them rather than trust them to wait for the rest of us on their own), but I made it up to the top level.
I am not sure my resting companions missed a lot as it is one of those places where you have to make heavy use of your imagination to visualise what once stood where now there are only lines of stone in the grass. Having seen the model at the museum this morning did help a bit, but the best thing for me about the palace was the view of Mount Songak beyond. This mountain influenced the location of the palace, as the beliefs of geomancy determined that a ruler should face south and should have a mountain at his back to the north.
Remains of the Royal Palace at Manwoldae
View of Mount Songak from Manwoldae
Our guide to the palace did do his best to bring the site to life, describing how the various rooms would have been used – living quarters for the king and queen, audience rooms, shrines etc.
I understand that Manwoldae isn’t usually on the tourist trail and I can sort of see why, as there’s relatively little to see there. On the other hand, the setting is attractive and the stories associated with the palace interesting so on balance I would say that we were fortunate that our guide added it to our tour in her keenness to show us as much as possible of Kaesong.
A royal dinner
We had an hour back at the hotel to freshen up, but no hot water, so I had to pass on washing my hair even though it needed it quite badly. We met up in the lobby to walk to dinner at a restaurant near the Sonjuk Bridge. Everything was set out for us in individual place settings, which our guide explained was a traditional style of meal known as a royal dinner. The number of different dishes signifies your level of importance – we had 11, second only to a king!
How the dishes looked when we arrived
The contents revealed!
Most of it was very tasty – I especially enjoyed the various pickled vegetables. As always, we had beer to drink which was very welcome after the tiring day. As we ate Carl explained about a change of plans for tomorrow. We were due to drive to Mount Myohyong for two nights, but a tropical storm was on its way and the government would very likely close the mountain roads. So instead we would return to Pyongyang for three nights, complete all our sightseeing there, fly north as planned and save our visit to Mount Myohyong for the end of the trip.
By the time we finished our meal the forecast rain had started, so our guide went back to the hotel to get the bus and driver to save us walking back in the rain – very thoughtful of her from our perspective but less so for the driver, who must have assumed he was off duty for the evening! We arrived to the welcome news that the hot water was back on so the remainder of the evening was occupied with showers etc. and packing for tomorrow’s departure.
I travelled to North Korea with Regent Holidays on their Pioneering Group tour, which takes visitors to the parts that most other tours don’t reach!
Note: when you visit North Korea you do so at the invitation of the DPRK government, and the itinerary you follow is approved by them, as are the sights you see and the information you are given. That information often differs from that disseminated outside the country - there are, as always, two (or more) sides to every story.
This blog should not be seen as a fully balanced picture of the country as it will focus primarily on what I personally saw and heard while there. I will do my best to reflect the experiences I had as presented to me by our Korean guides, although I may touch from time to time on other perspectives. In writing it I hope always to remain respectful of my hosts, and to tempt my readers not to take my word for anything, but to visit and make up their minds for themselves.
Having said that, all views expressed above and in the following entries are my own, and I alone am responsible for the content.