DPRK (and Beijing) Day nineteen
18.09.2019 - 18.09.2019
Sunrise from our room at the Hyangsan Hotel
Today we followed the Yellow Brick Road back to Oz, aka Pyongyang - although that fabled road was surely never as bumpy as the roads of North Korea.
Talking of bumpy roads, several of us discovered while in North Korea that the step-tracking apps on our smart phones were registering sometimes thousands of steps while we sat almost unmoving on our bus – unmoving that is apart from the regular buffeting of the potholes!
We followed the same route as on our way here two days ago, along the river where, I had now been told, people were dredging for gold. From the scale of the operation we saw, it must be worth their while.
On the road back to Pyongyang
Riding a Pyongyang tram
We stopped briefly at a tea house for cold drinks and loos, and arrived in the city mid-morning.
At a tram depot on the west side of the city, near Mangyongdae, we switched from our bus to an historic tram to experience a ride. Of course this wasn’t really travelling as the locals do (unlike our Metro ride earlier in the trip), as we were the only passengers - not for us the sardine-can crush that I observed on other trams.
At the West Tram Depot, Pyongyang
Our guide pointed out the 21 red stars painted on the side of the tram. Each star denotes 50,000km of driving without an accident, so this is a tram that has been around for quite some time. Indeed, we were also shown the plaque at the front which declares that President Kim Il Sung and Chairman Kim Jong Il rode this tram on 13.4.91 (Juche year 80). As the tram system first opened in that year or rather, re-opened, as there had been trams in use here prior to the Korean War) I imagine their ride was to mark that opening.
Stars on the tram
Commemorative plaque inside the tram
Riding the tram
There are three regular tram lines in the city, all using Czech-built Tatra trams, although recently North Korea has started to manufacture its own trams and put them into service.. There is also a fourth short line which serves the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun alone, using more modern Swiss-built trams. Our short ride followed part of the route served by line 1, along Kwangbok Street.
Seen from the tram on Kwangbok Street
The slower speed of our tram as compared with the bus made photography out of the window fairly easy. I was surprised to see what looked like an advertising billboard, looking very out of place in a country without brands or commerce. When I checked later with Carl he told me that it was an advert of sorts, promoting the nearby car showroom, but of course the showroom, like the car factory, are state-owned, and there is no choice of where to buy. Added to which fact, almost no cars in North Korea are privately owned, so I had to question the purpose of this billboard. Perhaps it was for the benefit of visitors as well as locals, to assure us of the modern styling and wide availability of DPRK-made vehicles?
Billboard 'advertising' cars
We stopped halfway along the route, near the Pyongyang Circus building, to take photos of the tram from outside.
The Pyongyang Circus Theatre
Our tram parked at the Pyongyang Circus, Kwangbok Street
We finished our ride at Pyongyang’s main station. Unfortunately tourists are not allowed inside (I gather that if catching a train you are kept in a separate waiting room, away from the locals) but it was at least a chance to get some decent photos of the building’s impressive exterior. It dates from 1958 and is a great example of the socialist architecture of that decade, with a clock tower, two bronze statues (a worker and a farmer), and of course the essential portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
Pyongyang Central Station
Sculptures on the station
Buildings near the station
Last afternoon in the city
Our bus met us here and took us to a restaurant back on the western fringes of the city (we must have driven along Kwangbok Street at least four times today, counting both bus and tram!) We had a good lunch which included bibimbap, a very good stone pot of piping hot (a rarity here) rice mixed with a variety of vegetables.
From the bus on the way to lunch
Driving back into the centre of the city after lunch we stopped at an art shop run by the famous Mansudae Art Studio, for some last-minute souvenir shopping. Several of us in the group made purchases – my choice was a small pottery dish painted with cranes which reminded me of the £2M vase we had seen in Kaesong, although at around £8 it cost very considerably less!
My souvenir from the Mansudae Art Studio shop
From here we drove to the Pyongyang Grand Theatre where we were dropped off to walk the rest of the way to the Koryo Hotel. This stroll along Yonggwang Street was a final opportunity to soak up some Pyongyang atmosphere on foot, although it was short on landmarks and photo opportunities. I couldn’t help feeling that our guides had run out of ideas on how to occupy us this afternoon after our enforced longer stay in the capital earlier in the trip (see my entry, Storm number thirteen) meant that we had already covered most of the sights.
Propaganda posters on Yonggwang Street
Modern buildings on Yonggwang Street, and back at the Koryo for the last time
Arriving at the hotel we checked in, finding ourselves back in the same rooms we had occupied on our previous stays. We had a couple of hours free to get organised for the journey home.
Banks of the Taedong River, early evening
Our farewell dinner was in a restaurant on a boat on the Taedong River - unimaginatively but accurately named the Taedonggang Restaurant Boat. Carl told us that this is the only one of the several on the river that actually leaves its moorings. I had expected therefore to be taken on a bit of a cruise, but as the boat is too large to pass under the nearby bridges we simply drifted around in the immediate area – although that in itself was fun!
Arriving at the Taedonggang Restaurant Boat
The food was good and we had a particularly large selection of dishes. It was lovely seeing the lights of Pyongyang from the water, especially the Juche Tower with its flame flickering. Those lights, though, only served to emphasise the ‘otherness’ of this city – North Korea’s Shangri-La, its Oz.
Juche Tower at night from the boat
Pyongyang at night
Another of the restaurant boats
Juche Tower at night
Part way through the evening there was live entertainment, Korean style, with some enthusiastic young singers and good musicians, but rather too loud for conversation. I recognised the welcome song, Pangapsumnida, which we had heard the children sing in the kindergarten in Chongjin.
Singers and musician
On board the Taedonggang
After taking a few photos and videos of the acts I retreated outside onto the deck with my beer, as did most of the others. There was some reminiscing about the trip, and exchanging of contact details, but quite soon it was time to leave and drive back to the hotel for our last night in the DPRK.
Leaving the Taedonggang
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.