DPRK (and Beijing) Day ten
09.09.2019 - 09.09.2019
Only in North Korea, we thought, could you have a day of sightseeing like this! It was the country’s national day, celebrating the 71st anniversary of the founding of the DPRK, and our itinerary for the day was carefully planned by Carl and our Korean guide to allow us to see how Pyongyangites celebrated the occasion.
Michael's bear in the bus!
But we started our day with more conventional sightseeing – a visit to the birthplace of Kim Il Sung in Mangyongdae. Boarding the bus I was amused to see that Michael had donated his prize teddy bear from yesterday's visit to the shooting gallery to our driver, and it was now sitting proudly at the front of the bus, where it remained for the rest of the trip. It became a sort of unofficial mascot for our group as well as helping us to pick out the bus in a crowded car park!
Mangyongdae Native House
Kim Il Sung's birthplace on a misty morning
Kim Il Sung (not at that point President, naturally) was born in this small house twelve kilometres outside the city centre on April 15, 1912. If that date sounds familiar, it was the same day that the Titanic famously struck an iceberg and sank. Back then this house was part of a rural village, but all the other houses have long since been cleared to leave this one standing as a form of shrine in the middle of manicured grounds.
Needless to say, a visit here is a pilgrimage for North Koreans; for the rest of us it is perhaps more interesting as a spot in which to try to understand their feelings for him than as a historical site. The house has clearly been restored to a point where it seems more like a model than an original peasant home, and the stone platforms around it, on which we were instructed to not set foot, add to the impression of a museum piece. But locals’ respect for the site is not in question.
Flower tributes at Mangyongdae
To reach the house we followed a path that led between bushes from which appropriately reverential music emerged, piped through hidden speakers. We passed the mosaic showing a young Kim Il Sung leaving Mangyongdae with his parents when they decided to seek a new life in Manchuria, away from the oppression of the Japanese occupiers.
Kim Il Sung with his parents
At the house a guide told us more about his early life. She described how at the age of eleven he returned here to live for a while with his grandparents, leaving his parents behind in Manchuria. He then returned to China to join the guerrilla fight against the Japanese and led a group of fighters based on the slopes of Mount Paektu. Following the usual North Korean version of this period of history, she extolled his fighting ability and his role in overthrowing the Japanese, aided by the Soviet Union, and his triumphant return to Pyongyang in 1945 to become the new nation’s leader.
Kim Il Sung's birthplace
The alternative non-Korean version of his life would downplay the extent of his role in fighting the Japanese, while not denying that he indeed had some successes as a guerrilla fighter, and would mention that it was at the instigation of the Soviet Union that he was installed as leader – at first just a puppet figure but later assuming real power. But it is widely accepted that he was indeed born here, the son of a Christian family (his maternal grandfather was, according to Kim himself, a Presbyterian minister).
Our guide pointed out the family photos on the wall and cooking pots used by his mother. She told us that the family were so poor that even damaged pots had to be put to use.
A room at Mangyongdae
On our way back to the bus we stopped by a well that was used by Kim Il Sung’s family, where we were invited to taste how fresh was the water. I had no qualms about trying the water but I was less sure about the communal gourds we drank out of, although Chris happily had a few sips in order to pose for my camera!
The visit to Mangyongdae had, I suspect, just been a way of passing the time until the National Day celebrations would begin, as most of the rest of the day was devoted to them. Our next stop was possibly the highlight for me – mass dancing outside the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium, on Chollima Street back in the city centre.
We were able to watch the colourful spectacle from the steps of the nearby building, and I took loads of photos - I just loved the bright dresses and graceful moves of the dancers!
Many tourists were invited to join in too, and I had one dance with our young guide Che – I have a feeling I rather disappointed him in my slowness to pick up the steps, but as they were quite repetitive I did get the hang of them and got into the rhythm of the dance, which reminded me a lot of our Regency era line dancing.
The local participants were uniformly (or so it seemed to my untrained eye) in command of the steps and proficient at dancing. They seemed to me to be enjoying it, while taking the accurate performance of the different dances quite seriously.
Some of the dancers
As with so many things here, I couldn't tell if they genuinely wanted to be here, dancing together, or if this was something they did because it was expected of them, like keeping the streets clean and the grass and flowers well-tended. North Korea tends to have that effect on you, making you question things you would take for granted anywhere else.
Munsu Water Park
The next visit was perhaps the most bizarre of the day, but enjoyable enough – the Munsu Water Park, where again we could see Pyongyangites at play – and here for sure they were genuinely enjoying themselves!
Munsu Water Park
We had a guided tour which took in the indoor and outdoor pool areas, tennis courts and other facilities.
There was also a barbershop, with a wall chart of available haircuts - giving the lie to the often-stated rumour that all men have to sport the same hairstyle as Kim Jong Un!
Choose your style!
Photos were allowed throughout except, frustratingly, in the entrance hall which had the most dramatically realistic waxwork of Kim Jong Il standing in front of a mural of a beach, welcoming his people to the complex. If you want to see it there’s a photo in this article about the opening of the water park: https://nkleadershipwatch.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/munsu-water-park-opens/
I asked our guide if she and her family ever visited the water park and she told me that she regularly brings her young daughter – it’s a favourite family outing. I suspect that, like her, most of those using the park are among the more elite of Pyongyang residents, as although entry isn’t expensive it would perhaps be beyond many workers.
In the indoor pool
One thing that struck me was the relatively modest swimwear worn by all the women – no bikinis here, and most costumes sporting a little skirt at hip level.
We were told that if we wanted to, we could join the locals for a swim, but in practice that would have been difficult as after the tour we only had about 20 minutes free time. In any case, all of us seemed happy to pass on that opportunity and instead to relax in the rather swish coffee shop (which I suspect may have been only open for tourists, with locals drinking and eating elsewhere). Chris and I ordered smoothies, which were delicious, although the service was so slow that drinks had to be consumed in a hurry as our Korean guide chivvied the staff into serving and taking payment with more alacrity.
After our visit to the water park it was time for lunch, which we had in a hot pot restaurant. This made a change from the usual fare but wasn’t my favourite of the meals we had eaten, being a little bland no matter how much chilli pepper I added to my broth!
Picnicking in Moranbong Park
Our first stop of the afternoon was in Moranbong Park. Moranbong means Peony Hill and the park occupies the slopes of the Moran Hill. It has a network of paths leading up and around clumps of trees interspersed with grassy areas and a number of shady pavilions. According to my Bradt guidebook it is home to over 180 varieties of tree and 120 species of flower.
This is a favourite spot for the locals to visit on Sundays and holidays, and they were here in force - barbecuing, picnicking, dancing, boating.
Boating in Moranbong Park
There were a number of young couples having wedding photos taken, and most people were very relaxed about having their photo taken by our gaggle of tourists!
Bride having her hair fixed, and general scene in the park
~ the deer aren't real, by the way!
We watched a group dancing for a while and some tourists, including I think one or two from our group, went down to join in, but it was very hot by now and I preferred to stay in the shade of the trees, shooting some video footage. Besides, I had already done my bit to cement UK/DPRK relations through dance! Elsewhere another more organised group were giving some sort of demonstration to an interested audience of locals.
Our guide told me that although the large number of dancers was due to the national holiday, retired people would come here on most days to meet and dance together. She also mentioned that men here retire at 60 and women at 55.
Revolutionary opera in the DPRK
Carl had told us a few days ago that if we were interested (and of course we were) we could have the relatively rare chance to attend a revolutionary opera at the Grand Theatre today. It was a matinee performance and we arrived just in time for the 3.00 pm start.
Lobby of the Pyongyang Grand Theatre
~ no photos were allowed in the auditorium
We were ushered in to good seats around the middle of the stalls, near another group of tourists. For some reason that wasn’t clear to me, this group left during the interval and some of us were pressed to occupy their seats – perhaps they were thought to be better, as they were a couple of rows further forwards, but I ended up behind some smartly dressed local men who talked all through the remaining acts which was very distracting. At home I would ask anyone doing that to please be quiet but a) I didn’t know the protocol here, b) I wasn’t able to say that in Korean, and c) I thought they might be senior party members who would consider themselves above such petty ‘rules’! So I just did my best to ignore them and focus on the performance. I later learned from Carl that this was indeed the right thing to do – our Korean guide had recognised the main culprit from TV as a politician or government minister, and wasn’t sure whether to be more amused or horrified at the idea that we had even considered shushing him!
Poster for the opera we saw
The so-called Revolutionary Operas are a big deal in North Korea. The plots for the most part revolve around the guerrilla revolution against Japanese occupation, or other similarly patriotic themes, and most are said to have been written by one of the Kims. We had already learned that the Great Leaders were experts in so many fields: agriculture, weaponry, industries of various kinds … Now we were to admire their more creative skills. According to Wikipedia:
‘In September 1974, Kim Jong-Il gave a "Talk to Creative Workers in the Field of Art and Literature" entitled "On the Art of Opera", in which he described the most important principles of North Korean opera according to the regime. According to Kim, because opera combines music, dance, poetry, and theatre, it "constitutes a criterion for evaluating the level of a country". A good revolutionary opera must reflect the time it was produced in, and be guided "strictly by revolutionary principles". Revolutionary opera must also be emotionally affecting to the audience and be composed of beautifully poetic words and music.’
There are five particularly famous operas: Sea of Blood, The Flower Girl, Tell O' The Forest, A True Daughter of the Party and The Song of Mount Kumgang. To my slight disappointment the opera we saw was not one of these, but it was still a fascinating glimpse into this aspect of North Korean culture. It was called something like The Story of the Iron Works, and was last performed in the 1970s. I’ve unfortunately not been able to find anything about it online so can share only my own somewhat confused interpretation of the plot, supplemented during the interval by some pointers from our guide.
It was quite hard to follow but seemed to have two storylines. One was about a young girl who lost her mother in the revolutionary fighting and also her hearing (this was what our guide explained to me at the interval, as it wasn’t at all clear). Kim Il Sung came to her aid, sending her for treatment in a Pyongyang hospital (by train, with a very effective ‘departing train’ set). The second storyline came to the fore in the later acts and was a bit more obvious from the action on stage. I believe it involved a saboteur at the ironworks and a worker who saved the day by repairing the damage rather than worry his Leader Kim Il Sung. But I could be completely wrong about this!
Whatever the narrative, it was a spectacular performance in terms of staging, with realistic rain, a convincing bird in flight, numerous set changes and the aforementioned train. The singing was excellent and surprisingly western in its style (much of it performed by a choir in the pit supplementing the main characters on stage), the costumes at times lovely, and I enjoyed the well-choreographed dancing in places, although the acting seemed a little staged and stiff compared to a Western play, for instance.
Seen on the way to the bar
~ flowers left for the Dear Leaders on National Day
Drinks in a local bar
After the opera we went to a typical local bar, Mansugyo, where we had expected to meet some locals enjoying a beer. But we found that we had it to ourselves. Either the locals had other things to do on this holiday or they had been put off visiting while tourists were there. The latter explanation seems possible, as Carl had told us that it had only recently reopened to tourists after being closed for a period owing to complaints by local drinkers that they were feeling uncomfortable with the level of interest shown by the visitors and their cameras – understandably.
Beers being poured
Just the same we had a good time here sampling the seven beers on offer, including dark beers with coffee or chocolate overtones, and several with a varying percentage of rice to wheat in the mix. Rather than have a distinguishing name, the beers were numbered, prosaically, one to seven. I decided to try one with quite a high percentage of rice, as that would be something a bit different for me, so went for #4 with 70% rice, and really enjoyed it. Meanwhile Chris chose the strong #6, with coffee overtones - I had a few sips, it was delicious.
After our drinks it was time for dinner, which tonight was at the National Restaurant near our hotel. We had Korean barbecue, appropriately for today a national favourite, prepared for us by our waitresses at the table. For some reason we all had to wear bibs, although it wasn't a messy meal! Chris and I enjoyed a good chat with Carl over the meal and sampled some of the local rice wine, soju, that he ordered.
It had been proposed that we round off the evening with a visit to a funfair, but during the day our guides had learned that restrictions had been imposed on our baggage for our flights to the north of the country tomorrow, and we would only be able to take a minimal amount. Needing to sort belongings and repack, most (possibly all) of us elected to go straight back to the hotel after dinner to get organised, skipping the funfair to do so. We had certainly seen quite a bit of how the locals were celebrating the holiday, so it was no real hardship, and such changes of plans are after all par for the course in the DPRK.
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 all my entries are my own, and I alone am responsible for the content.