Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Thursday, June 21, 2012 04:48:14|
CHINA 2012: 8 - Shenyang & North Korea
Saturday, June 16, 2012
Shenyang has 34 minority groups, including Muslims. Each area seems very proud of the number of ethnic groups. Shenyang was the capital of the Qing Dynasty. We visited Beiling Park in the morning. Inside are castle like walls enclosing buildings and the Zhaoling Tomb from the Qing Dynasty. There is a moat around it the width of a good size river where boats are paddled in summer and people skate in the winter. It is a large, beautiful park although we saw it in pouring rain.. The next stop was the Imperial Palace, built in 1621 for the Qing emperors. It covers 60.000 m2 (14.84 sq. ft) & includes 114 buildings. After hiking through the palace ground we had a great lunch with Adi, Brooklyn & the driver. We were surprised to find that little rice is consumed, and they don't drink tea in this part of China. At the airport after some last minute gate changes we boarded the Koyo Airlines Russian built Il 62 for the flight to Pyongyang. Even though the flight was almost full the stewardess managed to get us a row with an empty seat for my legs. The overhead bins are tiny, but the seats lift up to put large luggage under them so I sat above Marilynn's suitcase with my legs in front of the empty seat between us. On the plane were a large group of students from the International University in Hong Kong, all speaking English. The fellow across the aisle surprised me when he said the university language is English, and that the second language is Cantonese, not Mandarin. Pongyang is a city of 3 million people. There are no privately owned cars, all are used by government officials or appointees, so there is little traffic. Our minders are two single young ladies ages 26 and 30 named Kim & Lee, who took us to the 47 story Yanggakdo International Hotel. The 17th floor room was basic but OK - of the three classes of room we are in the lowest. Dinner was so bad we didn't eat it; we chose peanuts and beer in the 47th floor revolving restaurant instead. Propaganda for the military and Kim Yong Un played continually in the restaurant on a large screen TV. The advertised revolving restaurant revolved about 6 feet, shut down, slid back to where it was then revolve 6 feet again. Not quite the expected 360 degree view! 2 large beer & 2 bowls of peanuts cost $US 5. Everything in the hotel must be paid cash when purchased in $US, Euros or RMB (Yuan). Bottled water in the shop was 3 for $1. Maintenance isn't high on the agenda. We have lights out in our room, the toilet doesn't flush and carpets in the room and hallways are filthy. The beds are comfortable, though. and the room has most basic items including a fridge, but there are no pictures on the walls or ornaments, just a large calendar with photos of North Korean scenery.
Sunday, June 17, 2012
Breakfast was pretty good - it included New Zealand butter and Austrian jam, so the trade embargo on North Korea is not total! The continual propaganda played on. We met up with out minders and the driver and headed for the border with South Korea. The 120 kph (75 mph) divided highway is almost straight, tunnelling through hills, but without painted lanes and full of potholes and patches. We pressed Kim & Lee for information, but as soon as any fixed belief was challenged they switched to the memorized party line immediately. The tirades against the US are non-stop. After one toilet stop we turned into Kaesong City to see the 1,000 year old Buddhist university built in the time of the Koryo Songgun Karan Dynasty who united Korea and ruled from 918 until 1392. Lunch was at a city restaurant. There are very wide streets with no cars - only bicycles. At the demilitarized zone we were first briefed by the army information officer. He stuck to the facts and the layout of the area quite well. Although we didn't speak each other's language we hit it off and from then on were always positioned in front of a large Chinese tour group, much to the disgust of a couple of Chinese. We visited buildings where there were negotiations, and then to the building straddles the North and South Korean border where the treaty was signed. I was last here with a group from South Korea, so it was interesting to the other side. Our new friend's speech at the conference table, where he had arranged prime seats for us, was based on the US risking nuclear war. The differences from my last visit were interesting - we were taken through the North Korean building for photos from the third floor balcony. When there before we were not permitted photos or to enter a similar three story building on the south side. The two levels of balconies were filled with soldiers at that time - now they have surveillance cameras. There was little visible military presence on either side. On the return trip we visited the mausoleum of the first of the Koryo Songgun Karan Dynasty kings, built for he and his wife. The name "Korea" comes from the Koryo in the name of the Dynasty. Our complaint about last night's dinner was taken seriously, so we went to a restaurant away from the hotel where we had an excellent meal in the company of a large, loud, friendly Chinese tour group.
Monday, June 18, 2012
It was off to Mt. Myohyang, two hours each way on divided 4 lane road with serious bumps. I'd guess these roads were built for rapid military movement, as there are extra wide straight stretches with no dividing median that would serve as emergency landing strips. The first 1 ½ hours were through flat farmland growing mainly rice. Agriculture is primitive, masses of people assisted by the odd ox pulling a plough or a cart. There are few tractors. Farmers get their land free, but must sell all their production to the government before they can buy necessities for their families. Apartments for city dwellers and quite decent houses for farmers are provided at no cost by the government. Education and medical are also free. We left farmland to drive through increasingly high hills, following clear rivers. There was little sign of habitation in the forested mountains. Our destination was the International Exhibition Hall, a towering humidity and temperature controlled marble palace housing every gift received by the 3 leaders. The area for each leader is sub-divided into geographic area, where each country is named above a display of their gifts. The US section was a bit sparse; it included a gift from the US Communist party and one other item. Nearby is a 1043 Buddhist Temple where about 20 of the 20,000 practicing Buddhist monks who live in North Korea are located. Most North Koreans follow the Stalinist principal of no religion, only worship the leader. Originally there were 30 buildings in the complex, but a number were destroyed during the Korean War - some have been restored and the main temples escaped damage. The government pays for food and basic expenses for the monks. We interviewed one to see what they do, and the answer was read, walk, and study. On our return to Pyongyang we went to the largest children's palace - most areas have a smaller one. We were shown some of the dozens of rooms where children up to late teens were playing chess, basketball, doing embroidery, learning musical instruments and so on. We were ushered into the best seats in the comfortable theatre they have - it is better equipped than most theatres I've seen. The seats are wide and comfortable with good legroom. The orchestra pit raises or lowers hydraulically. Large sections of stage move to either side, so a band with 20 or more members can be moved into position after being assembled offstage. There were many hidden microphones that rose up from the stage floor in various locations, plus wireless mikes. The performance was amazing; with very young children playing instruments better than paid performers I've seen. The hour long show was fast moving, with act following act in rapid sequence, each astounding us with the ability of these kids. Marilynn bought flowers to give to one of the young girl singers so with others was taken onto the stage by the girl to participate in the grand finale. Dinner was at a different restaurant in the city, this time a hot pot place. It is much like a fondue, where a pot of stock is placed on a burner in front of each person. The meat is put in to cook, then a wide variety of vegetables, spices and an egg, then left to boil until done. It was delicious. For the first time we were joined by the guides and driver.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
This morning the power was off and on several times. It makes riding in an elevator a daunting thought, but in a 47 story building the alternative is not great either. Water is turned off at night, and for most of the night electricity is turned off throughout the country to be directed to factories - which explains why North Korea shows totally dark in world satellite photos at night. It took us 25 minutes to get to the lobby, as every elevator coming down was full. We eventually took an elevator up to the 46th floor and came back down a floor at a time as it picked up people. There are 8 elevators, but turn only 4 are in service at a time. Our destination this morning was Nampo and the Great Sea Barrage. This was a huge construction project of an 8 km (5 mi) long causeway for a breakwater, road and railway, spillways for fish and a set of gates to control tide so the level of the Taedong River, which flows through Pyongyang, is maintained at the same level. There are three locks for shipping - one for ships up to 2,000 tons, one up to 20,000 tons and one to 50,000 tons. The area was covered with dense fog, so we could see little from the observation area, but we did watch a movie on the construction, laced with the obligatory large dose of propaganda. Once down at dam level we could see three freighters going through the locks in line. We arrived here on the worst road yet, even though it was 8 lanes wide. With almost no cars what a waste of money - obviously it is for show. It would have been more sensible to build one lane each way and keep it repaired There seems to be little concern for others. We passed a person lying in the middle of the highway, likely hit by a car that didn't stick around. Four pedestrians had come to help and were desperately trying to flag a vehicle down, likely to get the injured person to hospital. We saw half a dozen vehicles go out of their way to avoid stopping. Our driver and guides had no intention of stopping either - not their problem. There are a lot of broken down locally made army vehicles along all the highways, and armies of women sweeping both highways & city streets with twig brooms. .It is impossible to take photos as the driver pounds the vehicle over roads at high speed. Perhaps this is why there is little restriction on photography! They are apparently not permitted to stop for photos. We made the compulsory visit to Kim Il Sung square where we were informed we were to bow to the 20 meter (66 foot) bronze statues of Kim Il & son Kim Un. Not bloody likely - I informed them we don't bow to statues. If they took the money they spend on statues, posters, and billboards that are everywhere they would have more than enough to repair the roads. It was interesting to ride the subway (Metro). It is billed as the deepest in the world at 100 meters (328 ft) below ground level. It is reached by the longest escalator I've ridden on. They modelled stations on the Moscow subway, with beautiful chandeliers and lots of huge paintings of the propaganda type. The trains are older but spotlessly clean. The 35 km long subway system was started in 1968 and finished in 1973. We wanted to see some regular stores and markets where the residents shop, but that that is prohibited. If it is like other Stalinist countries they likely have little in them, and thus the prohibition. The library was interesting. It is a massive marble building with main floor rooms several stories high. It has an electronic book cataloguing system and banks of computers where people look for books. Once found one goes to a counter with the number of the book and it is delivered by conveyor belt. They claim to have over 30 million books including over a million foreign titles stored on 260 km (162 miles) of shelves. There are also rooms for listening to music, and 7 rooms with computer screens for digital books. The library employs 157 lecturers and has an average of 6,000 users per day. It is 10 stories high and is humidity and temperature controlled. A stop was made at the Worker's Party Foundation Monument, a 50 meter high monstrosity done in the Soviet style with fists holding hammer and sickle. It is the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the party. Hundreds of women in colourful full length national dresses were gathered for the occasion. The grand finale for the day was the circus, held in a building built for the purpose. The stages move one on top of the other, the lower one being an ice rink where early performances included figure skating, acrobatics on skates and a bear plus two baboons skating. The show went on with spectacular trampoline and acrobatic acts, ending with breathtaking high wire and trapeze acts. We sat in the same area as the Hong Kong University group we met on the plane. They also leave by train tomorrow, except from the US students. US citizens are not permitted to ride by train, they must fly to Beijing. Dinner was a BBQ where we also sampled the high test Korean alcohol - possibly their answer to vodka
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Our minders took us to the train station for our 10:10 AM departure back to China. We were settled into a waiting room with rows of overstuffed armchairs with lace doilies. This is the type of waiting room we have experienced in other places in the DPRK as well. The train was a big surprise - spotlessly clean inside and out, including the windows and toilets. We have a 6 bunk sleeper cabin that is so high I could not reach the ceiling by standing on my toes and stretching upwards. We have the cabin to ourselves. Good blankets and pillows were provided, and there is a table near the window for use while sitting on the bunks. There is also a small table across the passageway with fold down seats on either side allowing viewing from that side of the train and still permitting people to pass by. There is no door on any of the compartments, which we found a bit odd. I guess they like to keep an eye on everyone. The train left and arrived exactly on time. It travelled fairly slowly, and the ride was smooth, making it an excellent platform for photos we'd not been able to take from the speeding, bucking van on the highway. There was a dining car serving full meals, plus selling drinks including Heineken beer in quart bottles and the local alcohol. The other occupants of our car were North Koreans, and the next car was all Chinese. When walking through their car on the way to get another beer they greeted me, so I held the empty bottle up and said in Mandarin "cold beer." The immediately sat me down and dug out a bag of quarts of beer from under their bunk, presenting me with two of them. I tried to take only one, but they insisted on two. On my next beer run I got through them, bought three beer and sat with them to drink. We couldn't speak each other's language but had a great time anyhow. It took some time to clear North Korean customs and immigration at the border. They collected passports & visas, and then came to each compartment checking luggage. They went through the photos in our cameras to ensure none were of forbidden subjects. Eventually the train crossed the Yalu River into China at Dandong. Brooklyn was there to take us to our river view room in the Crown Plaza. We are certainly glad to be back in the land of internet, and away from propaganda which comes not by the spoonful, but by the shovel full all day every day. We were originally hoping for a trip, but for us 4 days was plenty. DEMOCRATIC PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF KOREA OVERVIEW Have you ever noticed that the more democratic the name of a country is, the less democratic the country is? * International news is available to North Korean's once per week in a 30 minute heavily edited and propagandized state TV program * Huge bronze statues are in all cities of the grandfather, they call the President and founder of the hierarchy, the son who died recently and the grandson Kim Sung Un who has inherited the leadership position. These statues are to be bowed to by the residents. There are also giant colour pictures, billboards, and posters everywhere of faces smiling down at their subjects. * Huge TV screens display continuous propaganda - in our hotel they were in the restaurants, in the streets at some major intersections. * At any tourist site there is a local guide in colourful national costume. The speech includes much information on the President or his son having visited, where he sat, every word he said, and how monuments, monasteries, or other points of interested existed through his benevolence. In between were some historical facts. * The US is slammed at every opportunity. The tirade at the armistice location at Panmunjom was about how the DPRK is ready for the nuclear the US is going to start and how the army of North Korea will defeat them. Sounds a bit like Saddam of Iraq? * The government owns everything. All cars are government, except those given as gifts to top artists or national hero, so there is little traffic. The trams, buses, and subway are well used and the cost tiny. * Medical, housing and education are all free. Most people seemed in good health, and there is no obesity. The claim a very high life expectancy. There are no beggars, and they claim no crime. * Farming methods are primitive, with swarms of people working the fields using the odd ox to pull ploughs or carts. Most carts are pulled by people. There is the odd old style tractor shared by many. * Highways are wide and straight, but in very poor repair. * It is likely that there is little in the way of consumer goods available, judging by the fact that local markets and shops used by the local people are strictly forbidden to foreigners. The won, the country's currency, cannot be used in stores available to tourists and cannot be exchanged sold to tourists. The euro is the most favoured currency in tourist places, with the US dollar and Chinese RMB also accepted. * All tourists are accompanied by a minimum of two guides, larger groups have more. The guides are with you at all times, and stay in the same hotels. They are able to communicate pre-programmed information, but understand very little English so questions are difficult. This is a problem we also have found in China. If a question is asked that touches on one of the many taboo topics it will be greeted with a stony silence. * Everyone over the age of 14 is required to wear a pin on their left chest with a photo of one or more of the leaders on a red background. * Attempted escape from North Korea is punishable by death, or a long sentence in one of the concentration camps. * We were told a couple of times that the North Koreans are the happiest people in the world. No one told me on what that observation was based. * Every aspect of life in this closed society is controlled by the government, from childhood on.