DPRK (and Beijing) Day twelve
11.09.2019 - 11.09.2019
View from our bedroom, with 'arty' edit
A favourite phrase of our North Korean guides was ‘In our country …’, and perhaps nowhere more so than here in the northern part of the DPRK. One thing we were to find out today was that ‘in our country’ logic means little when it comes to applying the rules.
We had been told yesterday that we shouldn’t take photos of the scene outside the hotel windows so we didn’t – although a photo of the bedroom window itself seemed just about within the rules, and was it my fault if the view beyond was in the shot?! The window was so grubby, however, that only a very 'artistic' edit could make for an interesting photo of the view.
Corridor leading to our room
The unedited version of the above image
The hotel lobby
Gathering in the lobby after one of the more ‘interesting’ breakfasts of the trip (cold but prettily decorated fried egg, kimchee, fried fish etc.) we were all regretting that we couldn’t go outside to take photos – except suddenly we were told ‘Of course, why not?’
Chongjin Foreigners’ Lodgings
Heading to work in Chongjin, passing the Chongjin Foreigners’ Lodgings
The day continued in a similar vein: we could include larger ships in our photos of a view of the coastline but not small fishing boats; we could take photos from the trolley bus we rode on around Chongjin, but not from our tour bus; one person was stopped from taking a photo of a cart being pulled by an oxen, but not of one being pulled by a man; and so on.
‘In our country’ we have to accept that some things are just not permitted, without necessarily having a clear rationale for the prohibition. And when you step out of line you will most likely be pulled up …
But I get ahead of myself. We checked out after breakfast, loaded our small bags on to the bus and drove to our first sight. The conversation this morning was all about the rooms in which we had spent the night. A few lucky people had had a shower (of sorts) in the bathroom, one even with hot water, but most of us had not. The plumbing arrangements in general seemed to vary from room to room, but running water was a scarcity and hard beds an issue for many. There was one moaner, as there so often is ('I wouldn't ask a dog to spend a night in this place!'), but most of us took it all in our stride, as we had been warned a few of the hotels used on the tour would be pretty basic. Nothing was unacceptably poor (certainly any dog would have been happy here!) and it made for a good story, after all.
On Komalsan Hill
We started the day with a visit to a viewpoint on Komalsan Hill, overlooking the city's East Port. It was here that we were told we must compose our photos to exclude the small fishing boats in the foreground – a shame, as their blue awnings made a good splash of colour, but we all complied.
The view from Komalsan Hill
~ the small boats are cut off from the foreground
View from Komalsan Hill
~ showing the industrial complexes beyond the port wasn't a problem
View from Komalsan Hill
~ small traditional houses on the other side of the viewing area
Monument to the Soviet Soldiers
Also on this hill is the Monument to the Soviet Soldiers killed while fighting with the Koreans against the Japanese. This is interesting because it is one of the relatively few places in the country where the Soviet effort in that fight is acknowledged (another is the Liberation Monument in Pyongyang which we only ever saw in passing).
The light here wasn’t great for photos (the sun was low and coming from an awkward direction) but I got a few of the brutalist style sculptures that I love, and also the gold bust which our local guide said was a memorial to a young doctor, just sixteen years old, who treated many of the Soviet soldiers.
Statues at the Monument to the Soviet Soldiers
Monument with Cyrillic lettering, and bust of the young doctor
We spent a bit of time trying to figure out the Cyrillic lettering on the main monument and between us managed to make out ‘Moscow’, ‘battalion’ and a couple of other words without, however, being able to translate the full inscription.
Trolley bus tour
Trolleybus in Chongjin
We drove back into the city centre for a tour on one of the old trolley buses that provide the main form of public transport here. We were told that although we couldn’t take photos of the city from our tour bus, we could from this one - without any reason for the difference in rules being given.
In the trolleybus
~ (taken by accompanying photographer from the tour company)
Most of us took advantage of this relaxation to take plenty of photos. I certainly did, as everything was fascinating - views of the steelworks, propaganda posters and mosaics, different building styles and more. So I apologise for the following flood of images!
Chonjin's mosaic tributes to the Great Leaders
Propaganda posters on the streets of Chongjin
There were noticeably fewer cars on the street than in Pyongyang, but loads of bicycles - it reminded me of Beijing when we first visited in the 1990s.
On the streets of Chongjin
One rule we had been given was not to photograph any military (naturally) and not to photograph any people who looked obviously poor or doing manual labour. But this is arguably a grey area, and certainly the temptation to interpret it quite loosely was strong, so the odd photo of an ox cart perhaps slipped in (more on that anon), as did some of the women employed in hand-painting the yellow lines along the middle of the road. Those ones, however, didn't make the final cut, as you will hear ...
Chongjin is a city of two halves, divided by the Sosong River, near which can be found much of the heavy industry that characterises the city.
Bridge over the Sosong
Industrial complexes near the river
We got off the trolley bus at one point to cross the road and take a different one back to our starting point near Chongjin’s main square, Pohanng Square.
Paying our respects
Once we were back in the square, we went to pay our respects to the Great Leaders before being permitted to take photos of the 25 foot high bronze statues – full length and from the front, as always.
The Chongjin leaders' statues
A bridal couple were there and were happy to let us take photos. We also watched a toddler being taken by her parents to lay flowers in front of the statues on her first birthday – a typically North Korean rite of passage, filmed by an accompanying photographer. All went well until the point when she realised that she had to leave the flowers behind and couldn’t keep them for herself, which rather upset her!
The bridal couple
The toddler's first time
Chongjin Steelworks Kindergarten
From a one year old we went on to meet some of Chongjin’s five and six year olds at a local kindergarten, the Chongjin Steelworks Kindergarten.
The Chongjin Steelworks Kindergarten
This was, we were told, the best in the city, and visiting it was an amazing experience. We were welcomed by a teacher who would serve as our local guide, and asked to remove our shoes and put on a pair of what seemed to be a North Korean take on Crocs. I am not sure why this is thought necessary but was happy to comply – although I didn't feel exactly safe climbing the stairs in such ill-fitting shoes!
Our guide led us up those stairs which were decorated with plastic flowers, Disney-like animal paintings and incongruously alongside these, other paintings depicting ballistic missiles.
On the stairs
Firstly we went into one of the classrooms where a group of small children, all immaculately dressed and equally immaculately behaved, were learning about the traditional Korean turtle ships. These are generally recognised as the first armoured ships in the world and are therefore an historical achievement of which the North Koreans remain proud, even though their focus is mainly on more recent history. They were developed in the 15th century and used for several centuries in battles against the Japanese in particular. The name comes from the protective shell-like covering. The children repeated the teacher’s statements about the ships in chorus, learning by rote. It seemed a far cry indeed from the organised chaos of a UK infants class!
In the classroom
~ I felt sorry for the child with no stars
Our group in the classroom
~ (taken by accompanying photographer from the tour company)
But the main event of our visit was a performance by some of the children. Most of those attending the kindergarten do so because they have been identified as having a particular talent and they are taught intensively to maximise these talents. The results are both impressive and slightly unnerving.
At the start of the performance
The opening number was Pangapsumnida, a very popular (and annoyingly infectious) North Korean ditty which we were to hear again on the last night of our trip - but more of that later.
We then watched a succession of perfectly drilled dancers, singers, and musicians in a series of ‘turns’.
Singers and dancers
Violinist and pianist
Playing the gayageum, a traditional Korean instrument
I hope my video gives some idea at least of the skill levels of all the performers - it's long, but I hope you'll take the time to watch at least some. I couldn’t help recalling the various primary school nativity plays I have seen at home in England which didn’t have even a fraction of the slickness we saw here.
I didn’t know whether to be impressed or slightly horrified, that children so young were trained so intensely. Did they enjoy it, I wondered? Some, such as the drummers, certainly appeared to do so, and I hoped all did, although some of the smiles seemed forced at times. But so cute!
‘Ox cart gate’
After the performance it was lunch time, and as we were by the coast there was a tasty seafood tortilla-style cake among the choices. But after the meal our lead Korean guide made an announcement, looking unusually solemn. A local person had reported seeing someone on our trolley bus, a man described as ‘over 60’, which covered most of those in our group, taking photos of an ox cart. There was a chance all our cameras could be searched at the airport so we should check and delete any photos like that, or others that might be considered disrespectful. Of course, we all (I think) immediately began to search through our photos for possible offenders, but it was hard to be sure in some cases what would or would not contravene the regulations. Some were easy – an ox cart was clearly out, as were any military personnel. But what about a street scene that included someone obviously not comfortably off? And did painting the yellow line on the road count as manual labour? Anyway, we did our best, while hoping not to be searched at the airport. And in the event we were not searched - maybe it was sufficient that our guides could tell the authorities that we had checked and deleted any forbidden shots?
After lunch, for a complete contrast, we went to a mushroom production facility! We saw the control room where temperature etc. is monitored to ensure the highest production levels; the small team of women inserting the spores into plastic bags of compost; and mushrooms at various stages of growth.
The control room
Inserting spores into the bags
Bags of compost with their spores
Starting to grow
We learned that it takes 45 days to grow the mushrooms and that they can get seven yields out of each bag of compost before discarding it. While not being wildly exciting the visit was moderately interesting, and the sculptural shapes of the fully-grown mushrooms were rather photogenic.
Our group by one of the sheds
~ (taken by accompanying photographer from the tour company)
Mushrooms in a climate controlled shed
It's surprising how beautiful mushrooms can be!
I later read in an old BBC news article [https://tinyurl.com/v4d2d5z] that in 2015 the DPRK introduced a large number of new slogans focused on food production, including the catchy:
'Let us turn ours into a country of mushrooms by making mushroom cultivation scientific, intensive and industrialised!'
The onsite kindergarten, with giant mushrooms!
In the air again
Once our tour had finished it was time to head back to Orang airport for our flight to the Mount Paektu region. We stopped off at the hotel en route to make use of their toilets, but with another group doing the same and only a couple of toilets available it took quite a while, so the drive to the airport became a bit of a mad dash along bumpy roads.
We checked our belongings through security, and as I mentioned above, didn’t have any cameras searched as we had expected they might be. We boarded the same plane (formerly used by Kim Il Sung) as we had flown here on yesterday, and made the short 30 minute flight to Samjiyon. No photos were allowed while in the air but we were told it was fine to take them after landing.
Arrival at Samjiyon Airport
Samjiyon Grand Monument
There was plenty of confusion as the several groups on board sorted out which bus was theirs, and we had a tight squeeze to fit ourselves and our luggage into the one allocated to our group. Then we were off, driving through pine forests as the sun started to set behind the trees. We were looking forward to reaching the hotel but as so often in North Korea we had one more stop to make, at Samjiyon Grand Monument.
Statue of Kim Il Sung, Samjiyon Grand Monument
And despite the fading light it was well worth it. The monument was built in May 1979 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a nearby battle with Japanese forces. Its centrepiece is a 15 metre tall bronze statue of Kim Il Sung, depicted as he would have been at that time, in his 20s. To his right stands a 50m-tall ‘torch tower’, and he is flanked on both sides with bronze and stone statues, primarily depicting the war.
After the obligatory bow at the foot of the statue we had a short time to take photos before it got really dark. The sun was setting over the lake behind the statue, so we didn’t see this impressive monument at its best, nor was it very easy to take photos. Kim Il Sung himself would have been better lit photographed from behind, with the setting sun making the bronze really glow, but that would be against the DPRK rules on photography of the Great Leaders (always front on and in full). I had to settle for images showing him in silhouette – although several of us spotted the German tourists, who’d been on our flight and also stopped here, taking photos from the side and rear in clear violation of those rules!
Sculpture detail, and torch tower
After taking what photos I could of the statue and other monuments (boosted later in post-editing to bring out the details that had been lost in the gloom), I followed some of the others down to the lakeshore. The colours of the sunset were at their best here and we could see Mt Paektu on the far side – our first sight of the mountain held so sacred by all Koreans, North and South.
Sunset and view of Mount Paektu
Statue of Kim Il Sung after sunset
From here we drove the short remaining distance to our hotel, the Pegaebong. This was large and quite basic but an improvement on previous night – our room was larger, there was hot water for 30 minutes morning and evening, we had a proper shower, but on the downside the usual too hard beds. Unusually for me, with my Virtual Tourist tip-writing 'training', I seem to have omitted to take any photos in our room!
The dining room at the Pegaebong Hotel
The dining room was rather grand, as in many of even the more basic hotels we stayed in (and indeed the not so basic), but the dinner wasn’t great, in fact the worst we’d had on the trip, so we supplemented it with snacks from the shop before an early night.
I travelled to North Korea with Regent Travels 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 all my entries are my own, and I alone am responsible for the content.