(Barely) Backpacking North Korea – Part 4
Backpacking North Korea.
June 25, 2017.
(Perhaps that is a little misleading. I am hardly backpacking North Korea right now, but I did show up in this country with a small backpack. I would love to backpack North Korea, but regulations against that are the stickiest of any country in the world.)
* (For the previous, click here: Travel North Korea – Pyongyang – Part 3)
I received three wake-up calls this morning from 06:30 onwards. No one wanted to let me to sleep in. Last night I noticed there was a phone right next to the toilet in the bathroom. I found that peculiar but I would find that to come in very hand when my third wake-up came in while I was showering and I could just grab the phone from the bathroom in one step from the shower. Thanks special-class Yanggakdo International Hotel!
Through the window I had opened on the 40th floor of my apartment, classical music from outside was coming in from somewhere.
Kim would later tell me that the train station begins broadcasting music through the city from 06:00.
After breakfast, we loaded onto the bus and drove through Pyongyang on our way to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). We passed by Mirae Scientists Street, a street in the city that was built entirely in 2016.
When I say built entirely, I am not just talking about the pavement… I am talking about the buildings as well!
There were at least forty brand new, colorful, massive apartment buildings lining the giant street to house the intellects, lecturers and teachers close to one of the universities. All built in 2016. All built by soldiers. It is an impressive feat to construct something on such a grand scale so quickly.
The North Koreans love to talk about how much they can get done in a short amount of time. I asked my guide Kim how fast it went up and how many soldiers he thought were probably be involved. Kim told me that there were major changes to the street every single day and if he was to guess, there were probably 50,000 soldiers working on the construction. Once it was completed, the soldiers went back to their regular roles in the military.
As we drove along, 100’s of military soldiers in yellow hard hats walking in a row were on their way to work, heading to construct something.
The road from Pyongyang to Kaesong, at the bottom of North Korea, was incredibly rough. You might think you know rough roads, but you do not know ‘North Korea Rough.’ It was tricky business to try to get photos through the bus window that did not turn out to be incredibly blurry.
The bus bounced and launched itself through dips, holes and cracks for the next three hours to get us to the DMZ.
My guide, Kim, told me that I could have a sleep if I wanted on some of the journey through the country. I am not sure how he was expecting me to do that though. I was having a hard enough time concentrating on staying in my seat without being bounced off the side windows. Maybe I am strange, but I have always found it difficult to fall asleep on a roller-coaster track camouflaged as a highway.
On top of that, a North Koran Chinese-speaking lady-guide had the microphone and for about an house straight she was nearly yelling and going on and on about North Korean/Chinese relations. It was a horrible ride. I am certain that the front tires of the bus came off the highway on at least three occasions.
There are essentially no other cars on the roads. There are many bicycles around, and the occasional motorcycle, but for the most part, the roads are empty save for locals walking along them. It is quite likely that many people in the country have never actually been in an automobile in their lives.
Subsequently, it is bizarre when suddenly, in the middle of the sparse countryside, there will be infrastructure in the form or a clover-leaf overpass to change from the main road to a smaller road heading off in another direction. If you just stopped and turned left across the oncoming traffic lane onto another road, the odds of you having to deal with other traffic is essentially non-existent. There are no other cars to get out of the way for, so this infrastructure is wasted money on something unnecessary unless North Korea is expecting a population boom in the next couple of years where they octuple. Or maybe North Korea was thinking about bringing in several million Syrian refugees….
The infrastructure sure looks nice though!
After a visit to the DMZ (article on that coming) we eventually bounced our way back to Pyongyang, went into the metro station that we were told it is the deepest in the world. The metro system was built from 1968 to 1973 and the 70 stops average 100 meters of depth. The metro costs the equivalent of $0.05 to ride.
We rode the metro underground from one station to another. Each station is elaborately different with gorgeous paintings of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, as well mosaics, bright colors and fancy chandeliers. Classical music plays through speakers of the entire metro system.
There was a plaque from 1987 inside of one of the metro stations to commemorate the time Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il visited that particular station.
From the metro we were bused to the original home of Kim Il Sung. It was pouring rain and tough to want to explore, but we put bags on our feet and doubled up on umbrellas. Kim Il Sung’s parents were keepers of a graveyard, but all of the graves have been moved today so that they house sits alone in the forest.
We went for dinner and Wu Zheng Yu ended up sitting at my table again, so it was a lot of the same as last night and I made him keep up and drink and lot of beer with me. The poor guy… It all seems to be more than he can chew off.
Dinner was a lot of fun though and I talked a lot of nonsense with the Chinese to the point where one older man told me, “I love you!” and another told me in broken English that his wife was going to find a nice Chinese girl for me. That sounds nice…
Back at the hotel, I met up with Jo, the Chinese girl I was hanging around with last night and we explored the Yanggakdo International Hotel. I am sure there were not more than 50 people staying in the entire 47 storey building, but what a place it would be if it was full.
There is an area downstairs in the hotel where there is a swimming pool with a bar. There is a pingpong table with a bar. A karaoke room. There is a massage room. A billiards bar. The North Korean women running all of these areas of the hotel were so sweet. I asked to get a photo with the ping-pong room lady. She shook her head to tell me no, but then nodded yes and said, “…Play ping-pong.” It was unbelievably cute. There was also a bowling alley downstairs. Jo had never been bowling before, so we went there. It was a lot of fun.
Kim showed up at the bowling alley in the hotel to find me as I guess he thought we had been apart for too long. Kim tried his fist hand at bowling as well which proved to be a gutter-ball, but he seemed to really enjoy that one throw.
At the end of the night, Jo and I were sitting at the bowling alley bar, drinking water and talking through picture drawing with the North Korean girl running the space. It was a lot of laughs and Jo and I were quite touchy. but when we took the elevator to head to our rooms, she said she was tired and going home. Typical scared and shy Chinese. We could have had a 40th storey hotel room special-star blast…