DPRK (and Beijing) Day seventeen
16.09.2019 - 16.09.2019
We were slightly sorry to leave our luxurious accommodation at Masikryong Ski Resort, but we did so with the promise of a similar standard of hotel this evening. Today we faced the longest drive of the tour, with much of the day to be spent on the road, although a few stops were scheduled. Carl told us that although there was a much more direct road to our destination it was a such a poor state of repair it would actually take longer to go that way. But in any case, this being North Korea, there would be plenty to see on the way, and some wonderful scenery too.
Our route this morning took us west to Pyongyang, through some dramatic mountain landscapes. We stopped at a viewpoint not long after leaving Masikryong but to be honest the views were better at other points along the road, although those photos had to be snatched from the bus.
At a viewpoint on the road back to Pyongyang
Views from the bus
We also stopped at a tea-house by a small lake, where we could get cold drinks and a chance for more photos.
Tea-house stop on the way to Pyongyang
Soon after we left the tea-house the mountains began to be left behind us and we were back into the fertile plains covered in paddy fields and dotted with small villages.
Views along the road
Arriving back in Pyongyang
As we neared Pyongyang we could see the city appear on the horizon, looking much like Oz at the end of the Yellow Brick Road - and for many North Koreans, just as unattainable. This was emphasised when we passed through checkpoints where the papers of our Korean guides and the driver were checked to ascertain that they had the required permit to enter the city.
We passed the Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification, not stopping this time. I say 'passed', as although the road goes under the arch all traffic is directed along slip roads on either side.
Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification
Lunch in Pyongyang
Arriving back in the city felt a bit like coming home, as we spotted many of the landmarks we had learned to recognise earlier in the trip, but also something of a culture shock after our time in the north and east of the country.
Yanggakdo International Hotel, and lobby
We had lunch in the Korean restaurant of the Yanggakdo International Hotel, which also gave us a chance to look around Pyongyang’s other popular tourist hotel. Its lobby seemed more glitzy than the Koryo (it was refurbished earlier this year), but one member of the group who managed to peer into a couple of bedrooms corroborated Carl’s comment that these are less good. Before lunch we went up to the revolving restaurant to admire the views over the city and take lots of photos.
View north west from the Yanggakdo International Hotel
~ you can see the Koryo Hotel left of centre, and the unfinished Ryugyong Hotel on the right horizon
Juche Tower and May Day Stadium
View south west
~ Mirae Scientists Street on the right
~ they were still clearing weed from the river after the typhoon
Grand People's Study House
As a pleasant surprise, the fried fish at lunch was served warm rather than cold, which excited several of us! We also visited the bookshop and Chris and I found, and bought, a programme for the Mass Games.
Back to the mountains
Then it was back in the bus for the drive to Mount Myohyang. We drove north out of the city, spotting more familiar landmarks as we did so.
Tower of Eternal Life, and propaganda poster
~ we had eaten lunch here a few days previously
The planetarium at the Three Revolution Exhibition
~ the first building I had photographed in the city on our arrival!
Our road went through more agricultural areas and for a while followed a wide river which was being dredged by rather elderly and rusty looking machines - for stones for road-building, I guessed, until someone the next day told me they were looking for something far less prosaic - gold!
On the road to Mount Myohyang
Again we stopped at a tea-house for drinks and a toilet break, albeit in a less scenic location. Arriving in the Mount Myohyang area we drove straight past our hotel as before checking in we had one sight to visit.
The Pohyon Temple is considered the best preserved in the country. We were told that 20 Buddhist monks live here, and that there are 200 altogether in the DPRK. However, we only saw two monks during the course of our visit, and I have seen low numbers also mentioned by some other tourists, leading to speculation that they are merely actors. If so, they are pretty convincing ones and while it would be much easier to populate a temple with fake monks than do the same with commuters on the Pyongyang subway (as some commentators have alleged) I saw nothing to make me suspect that this was the case other than these small numbers.
That said, I was quite surprised to be visiting a still-working temple of any religion, as North Korea is of course a completely atheist state. If they have anything approaching a religion it is, as I have mentioned in previous entries, the Juche philosophy of self-reliance coupled with extreme respect for the Great Leaders. And, while it is true that under their constitution there is freedom of religion for all, the promotion of religion is absolutely prohibited. But, as we were to hear, they have found a way to accommodate the concept of prayer into their ideology.
The temple is named after the Bodhisattva of Samantabhadra (known as Pohyon Posal in Korea). It was built in 1042 but has been repaired and reconstructed numerous times since. There were once 24 buildings and pagodas here, but unfortunately more than half were destroyed in 1951 during the Korean War, although some of these have since been reconstructed.
Pohyon Temple - view of the grounds
At the start of our tour with the inevitable local guide I felt we were being rushed – it was a lovely tranquil spot and I wanted to be able to take everything in, take lots of photos and appreciate the beautiful grounds and surroundings. It seemed that with so many groups visiting the guides were working on a strict schedule to make sure each had its own space and the pressure was on at the start to keep us moving. But after a bit the pace slowed, thankfully – I got the impression that not all the groups visited the entire site so we could take our time moving between the different buildings.
Unusually the layout of Pohyon isn’t linear, as is the norm for Buddhist temples. Instead the buildings are grouped around an attractive lawn dotted with trees. The setting is very attractive and the atmosphere was relatively peaceful once we got further into the complex – I loved it here!
Tours seem to skip the first gate, Jogye, which was built in 1644 – I have no idea why unless it is considered too frail? So we started at the middle gate, Haetal, the Gate of Nirvana, which contains statues of monks (I think) riding a white elephant and a black and red … er, tiger maybe?
Haetal Gate ~ black and red tiger?
Haetal Gate ~ white elephant
The inner gate is Chonwang, the Gate of the Four Heavenly Kings, with four statues of the Kings – reminding me of our visit at the start of this trip (it seemed so long ago now but was less than three weeks) to Tianwang Temple in Beijing’s Bei Hai Park.
Our guide at Chonwang Gate
Beyond this is the nine-storey stone Tabo Pagoda – the name means Pagoda of Many Treasures and it was erected in 1044. It stands in front of the Manse Pavilion, one of the buildings destroyed in 1951 – this is a stone replica built in 1979. Another pagoda stands on the far side of the Manse Pavilion – the 13-storey Sokka Pagoda which was erected in the 14th century.
The Tabo Pagoda (Manse Pavilion beyond), and Sokka Pagoda (Taeung Hall beyond)
Manse Pavilion ceiling
The Sokka Pagoda and Manse Pavilion
The main hall of the temple, Taeung, lies beyond this. It too was destroyed in the 1951 bombing but its 1976 replacement is a faithful replica of the 1765 original.
Taeung Hall - a guide and a monk
We were permitted to enter (with shoes removed) and to take photos of the several Buddhas here. It was here that we met the first of the two monks I saw in the temple grounds, who was happy to pose for us. Our guide translated his greeting; he told us that all the monks of Korea, North and South, pray for peace in the world and the reunification of their country, so that they will be able to travel freely across the whole land. They are praying for the realisation of the peace treaty which Kim Jong Un and President Moon Jae In of South Korea agreed to work on at their summit in 2018.
In Taeung Hall
Taeung Hall - Buddha, and window detail
Taeung Hall - decorative details
Carvings in Taeung Hall
On the right of Taeung Hall is one of the temple’s original structures, Kwanum Hall, which was built in 1449 and is the oldest building in the complex. It was here that we saw a second monk, although he wasn’t introduced to us as the first had been. Being so much older the paint colours here are more mellowed and I found it the most attractive of all the buildings we saw here.
Kwanum Hall - monk and Buddha
Kwanum Hall details
To the east of this is Ryongsan Hall, which also looked to me to be one of the original temple buildings, based on the paintwork, although I haven’t been able to find a date for its construction online. Inside was another golden Buddha.
In Ryongsan Hall
A gate leads to the last building on this row, the walled Suchung Shrine or ‘Shrine of Rewarding Loyalty’. This was built in 1794 and honours the priests who led bands of warrior monks to repel the Japanese invasions of 1592-1598, including one of Pohyon’s own monks, Seosan.
Suchung Shrine details
To the south of the shrine is an attractive but relatively modern building, the Changgyong Pavilion, built in 1974 to house the temple archive. We couldn’t go in but could peer at some of the collection through a window, although when a couple of us raised our cameras to take photos we were told that wasn’t allowed.
The most significant item in the archive is a copy of the Tripitaka Koreana, a UNESCO-designated cultural relic printed on over 80,000 wooden tablets. Our guide talked proudly about this but of course didn’t mention that the original wooden printing blocks used in producing the Tripitaka Koreana are housed at Haeinsa in South Korea!
Changgyong Pavilion roof details
She also told us that the world’s first metal type was produced here in Korea, under the Koryo Dynasty in the 13th century. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person muttering ‘Gutenberg’ under my breath! But on returning home and digging around online I have found plenty of references to this. A Buddhist website, Tricycle, explains that a Koryo minister, Choe Yun-ui, was commissioned to produce another Buddhist text so long that it would have required far more wooden tablets. So he adapted a method used for minting bronze coins to cast individual characters in metal. These were arranged in a frame, coated with ink, and used to press many sheets of paper (or animal skin) in succession— like the woodblock process, but faster. By 1250, the project was completed. It was the first book ever printed in movable metal type—and it happened 200 years before Gutenberg. Unfortunately, no copies of this work have survived, but a later one printed in 1377using the same technique, ‘The Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Zen Teachings’ or ‘Jikji’,does pre-dating the Gutenberg Bible by nearly a hundred years. That the Koryo methodology didn’t take off in the way that Gutenberg’s did could be due to its slower speed of production. Unlike Gutenberg, who adapted wine or oil presses to lower his metal frame over the top of the paper, the Koryo printers laid the paper on to the typeface by hand. But it’s also the case that, as in China, the Korean language didn’t lend itself to speedy printing as thousands of pieces of movable type were necessary to produce each text. European languages, with their relatively few separate letters, were particularly well-suited to moveable type printing.
If you are as intrigued by this as I was you can read much more here: https://tricycle.org/magazine/buddhist-history-moveable-type/ - including a theory proposed by some scholars (but disputed by others) that the Mongols introduced the invention to the West.
At the end of our tour we arrived inevitably at the small gift shop. Some of the group shopped for souvenirs while Chris and I enjoyed a welcome ice lolly - the second in two days!
At the Hyangsan Hotel
The Hyangsan Hotel
Then we drove the short distance to our hotel, the dramatic and impressive Hyangsan Hotel. This indeed lived up to the expectations Carl had raised, being very similar in many respects (including room and bathroom layout) to Masikryong, but with the bonus of a super view of the mountains.
View from our room, just before and during sunset
The dining room - sorry, ‘banqueting hall’ - was very glitzy and decorated in Wedgewood blue and white. Dinner was an odd combination of Korean (pickles, rice) and Western (beef burger) but OK. Afterwards we had a drink with some of our travelling companions in the pleasant bar downstairs.
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.