Travel North Korea – Pyongyang – Part 3
Travel North Korea – Pyongyang.
Pyongyang, North Korea.
24 June, 2017 (cont’d).
* (For the previous part, click here: Crossing from China to North Korea – Part 2)
After I met my North Korean guide Kim at the train station, the first thing he did was take my passport away from me. Since I was the only English speaker on the trip, I would have my own personal guide while the Chinese would share theirs.
My guide Kim would be by my side during the day no matter what I was doing for the next five days from morning until evening as I would travel North Korea.
Kim was the last face I would see before I went to bed and the first person I would greet in the morning when I headed downstairs for breakfast. He would provide information and an explanation for everything.
We were loaded onto a bus and driven around the city. I was amazed by the appearance of Pyongyang. When I decided to travel North Korea, I was expecting a typical grey and communist looking city. It is not that at all. The city is full of very tall apartment flats, and all of them are painted. The skyline of tall buildings comes in blue, yellow, green, red, pink, orange… Everything has a color. Pyongyang is the most colorful city I have seen in the world outside of Latin America.
Our first stop was Fountain Park where two children walking along were smiling at me. I said, “Hello!” to them. One of the boys asked, “Hello, how are you?” The other asked, “What is your name?” I was amazed they spoke English. Kim told me that English is now the second language of North Korea. English is more important than Chinese or Russian.
We made a stop at Kim Il Sung Square where important functions take place. There were slogans on the tops of the buildings saying in Korean, ‘Long Live the Worker’s Party of Korea’ and ‘Long Live DPRK.’ Our next visit was to the Grand People’s Study House where Kim told me inside of the building exists a book from every language in the world.
Finally, we made our way to the Tower of Juche Idea. My guide told me that ideology of ‘Juche’ is, “The capacity to shape our destiny.” That is nice. I was told that the Tower of Juche Idea is tallest stone structure in the world at 170 meters, 20 meters of which are the flame on the top.
Once Kim and I had been together for about an hour I began to ask him about his life.
He told me that in DPRK:
– The government gives a couple free housing once they are married. There are never bills or rent to pay.
– The bigger the family, the bigger the house. Should you want a bigger home to live in, have another child and expand your whole life. A bigger family equals a better house.
– Education is all free in DPRK. Want to be a doctor? Want to be a plumber? It is all free to study.
– All healthcare is free for life. DPRK healthcare includes dentistry.
– Tickets given allotted for the meat, rice, eggs and cloth they are given.
– Kim told me everyone is also allotted tickets that entitle them to one free liter a beer each day.
I asked Kim if anyone has long hair like mine. He told me, “No. It is not our tradition. Short haired people are called ‘smart.’ People with long hair, not smart.” I could see where this was going. I decided I would play the fool for the tour. Smart people end up getting themselves into trouble anyhow…
Everyone loaded into the bus and we were taken to a restaurant where there were two big beer bottles on each table for every four seats. We had been combined with another Chinese tour group and there was another young guy in our group named Wu Zheng Yu. Wu Zheng Yu and I drank all of the beer at the table. All of the beer…
I am not sure if Wu Zheng Yu knew what he was getting into when he decided that he would be my partner in crime, but we put back a lot of beer. Wu Zheng Yu eventually stopped cheers-ing me when he realized I would drink my entire glass after the ‘cling.’
Somewhere along the way through dinner he realized that I was mischief…
I made a lot of friends quickly at the dinner table. Perhaps that was in part because of the effort I made to give a shit about everyone that I was sitting with. I made all of the Chinese around me write down their names in my notebook and tried hard to remember how to pronounce them. It made me shine in their eyes.
People in other cultures really appreciate it when you make a genuine effort to know who they are.
As dinner finished, a North Korean guide approached me and asked me in Spanish where I am from. I had told Kim earlier that my second best language is Spanish, but I speak similar to a three-year-old…a young three year old.
Kim mentioned this to a Spanish speaking North Korea guide, and when the Spanish words of that guide came at me, I had a hard time putting my brain into Spanish gear. The language sort of blindsided me and I was extremely unprepared to try to speak it. I was in North Korea and a local was speaking Spanish to me… It was so strange that it took me a moment to even be able to respond. The guide told me that he gets about 10 Spanish tourists a year. He learned the language in university, just as Kim had learned English with thoughts of working with international business before the idea of being a tour guide entered his mind.
The bus took us to our home for three of the next four nights: the Yanggakdo International Hotel. Kim told me it was not just a five star hotel or a Michelin star…it was in a ‘special class’ of hotel on its own. There were two special classes of hotel in Pyongyang, and we would be staying at the best on in the city!
The Yanggakdo International Hotel is 47 stories tall, and it had a revolving restaurant and bar at the top for a panoramic view of Pyongyang. I was given a room on the 40th floor to take in the city and the sights.
The hotel had a beautiful entrance and I realized it was the kind of hotel that I never stay in. Fancy chandeliers and giant fish tanks are not important to me. I am generally happy enough with a mattress which I will not catch crabs from, a door that locks, a shower with hot water, and a floor attached to the walls so that the cockroaches do not come around so much. That enough for me…
I took Kim and a Chinese girl named Jo to the revolving restaurant on the 47th floor where I bought them beer. The big-beer were a reasonable $4.50, and I smoked a cigar in celebration of my arrival.* The restaurant was the epitome of 1980’s brown décor. It was awesome. When I went for a walk around inside of the restaurant, I found all of the staff gathered around a television watching a North Korean drama from the 1970’s, though it is also possible that the drama was actually filmed last year. There is just no way to measure what is what with advancements in technology in North Korea…
* Of course I could smoke a cigar inside of a North Korean the revolving restaurant!
We were the last people to leave the revolving restaurant and I could not help but notice that Wu Zheng Yu did not make it up for a drink after I had asked him…
Eventually I made my way to my room and found that only four of the eight elevators of the best hotel in Pyongyang were in working order. When I realized I was going to need water for the morning, I headed back up to the restaurant and the revolving part of it had already been shut down rendering it only ‘a restaurant,’ and one that was about to close. Power saving thriftiness!
I tried to get back to my room by taking the stairs and ended up in a strange corridor where I know I was not allowed to be. There seemed to be costumes hanging on the walls. I had promised my friend Rhett that I would behave when I was in North Korea, but I it is hard to control my wandering spirit… I knew enough to get out of the corridor and headed back to my room where I wanted to see what was on North Korean television.
There were two TV channels and both were very snowy. The first snowy channel was all about the hotel. The second channel was an English channel with news that us foreigners are allowed to see in North Korea.
The best hotel in Pyongyang, I knew this was going to be interesting…