Exiting North Korea – Part 9

Exiting North Korea
Summer swimming in a waterhole alongside the railroad line.

Exiting North Korea.
Pyongyang, North Korea. 
28 June 2017.

* (For the previous part, click here: Travelling Pyongyang North Korea – Part 8)

I awoke this morning to realize that my Chinese roommate did not snore last night! How fortunate!

I was in the shower in my room at the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, when the phone ran as a wake-up call from Kim, my guide.

“Meester Beavers,” as he has taken to calling me lately, “It is time to get up.”

A telephone extension right next to the toilet in a hotel bathroom seemed to be a silly concept at first, but it sure got easy to appreciate in time. To answer the room-phone requires only one step from the shower…

And you know you are in a far-out country when you are using a phone rather and a mobile/cell today…

Exiting North Korea

Colorful Pyongyang, North Korea.

The wake-up call had come earlier than I expected.  Kim told me it was because we were exiting North Korea today and the hotel staff would come and inspect the room to make sure there was nothing broken or missing before we moved out.  I have only been in the room for a few hours a night to catch a few winks and to shower.

There had not had enough time to break anything at the hotel. 

North Korea Notes:
– The Korean War is referred to as ‘The Fatherland Liberation War’ by North Koreans.
– Korea used to be spelled Corea before 1905 when the Japanese decided to colonize the land.  The Japanese changed the spelling from a ‘C’ to a ‘K’ because they did not want Corea to be ahead of Japan in the Roman alphabet.
– Korea was a Japanese colony for 40 years from 1905-1945.

More North Korea, According to Kim:
– Kim said that conditions in North Korea have improved since he was a child.  He told me that the life standards are better though he was not sure of the exact reason.  He guessed some of it was attributed to North Korean coal exportation to China.
– I asked Kim about work and he told me that the salary of a bus driver, a doctor, and a tour guide are all very similar.  With free housing, free healthcare, free dental, free beer, free rice, free cloth, free eggs and free meat, he is able to save some of his salary every month in a bank account.  I asked him what he does with the money.  He said that he saves it for occasions like a birthday party, when he can pay for a big celebration.
– North Korean weddings often take place in a restaurant.


The tour group checked out and we got on the bus to have one last look around Pyongyang before boarding our train for China at 10:10.  We were taken to the Arch of Triumph, which is over-top of a road in Pyongyang and it is 11 meters taller than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  The North Korean Arch was built in 1982 by President Kim Il Sung to commemorate his 70th birthday.  There are sculptures of 70 magnolias that align the inside of the arch.

Exiting North Korea

Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang, North Korea. The ‘1925’ and ‘1945’ in gold represents the years Kim Il Sung fought to liberate Korea.

As mentioned in an article before, the magnolia was the favorite flower of Kim Il Sung, and consequently became the national flower of DPRK.

Along the top of the arch, inscribed are the words to the ‘Song of General Kim Il Sung.’

What a birthday… Can you imagine that conversation in your head as you are having a shave (face or legs, depending on your sex) in the morning?

‘I have decided that as a gift to my people for my 70th birthday, I will construct a huge arch across a road in honour of myself, and on the top of it I will have the words of my own song written!’

It is pretty amazing to think that someone would indulge in themselves so much.

‘Happy birthday me, Kim Il Sung!’


Exiting North Korea

The main square of Pyongyang, just outside of the train station.

I asked Kim about the tombs of Eternal President Kim Il Sung and Chairman Kim Jong Il.  He told me that they are both lying in state.

What!?

Yes, it is true.  Kim Il Sung is on display in a building in one room and Kim Jong Il is in another.  Kim told me that he has seen the bodies, and that it is considered an honour to see them.  He told me the bodies can be visited on special occasions: the birthday of Kim Il Sung, the birthday of Kim Jong Il, the DPRK founding day, and the founding day if the Workers Party.  I asked Kim how they look.  He said that both bodies look normal, as they did in their everyday lives.  He told me that they are both wearing normal clothes that they would ordinarily wear.

…Wow…

Exiting North Korea

A patriotic roundabout, just across the road from the Pyongyang train station.

We were taken to the train station so that we could catch ours back across the country and into China.  Outside of the station were some cars driving around.  Kim told me that it is the busiest street in North Korea.  I told him that the same street would be considered a quiet one in Beijing.  I would love to take Kim with me somewhere like Bangkok to see his reaction to the traffic there and watch him cross the street. Just to see his face in such a moment would be pretty incredible to witness…

Exiting North Korea

Look at that bus! I can not even put a year-guess to that gorgeous machine!

I still had some money in my pocket, so before leaving Pyongyang and exiting North Korea, I bought a bottle of North Korean Soju and a carton of cigarettes to give away to my friends.  I think as a smoker, it would probably be pretty cool to have a package of North Korean cigarettes…  So, the only souvenirs I have from North Korea are a carton of cigarettes, a bottle of Soju, and a bottle of crazy liquor with a snake inside of it.  I guess it says a lot about my lifestyle at the moment…

North Koreans are proud to talk about their nuclear weapons.  Maybe it is a defensive conversation and a warning to others.  A North Korean initiated discussion about nuclear weapons came up a couple of times during the trip, thought it is difficult to know if the guides brought it up because they like to talk about it, or because they know that foreigners love to ask about the whole nuclear weapon situation.  Nevertheless, in the waiting lounge (for foreigners only) of the train station, there are photos of missiles being launched.  It is all pretty in your face.
Exiting North Korea

Pyongyang Train Station. Atop the station are the images of the Great Leader (Kim Il Sung) and the Dear Leader (Kim Jong Il).

I gave Kim 300 Chinese Yuan as a tip.  I had been told by the manager of Explore North Korea tours before I left that if I gave him 100, it would be a lot.  In the end, 300 Yuan is only $44.  And for the information that Kim gave me, and for the fact that he just spend five days by my side, $44 was a pretty good deal.  He was very grateful though I am not sure what he will use the money for as he does not have to pay bills, pay for beer, pay for food or pay for housing…

Later, I would find out that a guide’s salary for a month is about 500 yuan ($74), so I gave him more than half of a month of pay for five days of work.

Perhaps that makes Kim one of the richest people he knows right now.  Imagine the birthday party he will be able to throw now!  I could be outrageous, in a restaurant! I gave Kim a hug just before we got on the train as I knew that would make him very uncomfortable, and it did. That human contact was awful for him!

Exiting North Korea

Exiting North Korea from the Pyongyang train station platform.

Once again, I was the only white person on the train as we headed on the five hour journey to China.  I was thinking about the trip and about the lives of the North Koreans.  Maybe they have it better than us in some ways.  They do not have to worry about stress from their jobs.  They do not have to worry about money.  They do not have to worry about paying rent.  They are oblivious to all of the fear mongering media we are force fed in the rest of the world.  I never say any starving people in North Korea.  Never did I see any homeless in North Korea.  I was told that kids are free there to get themselves to school and to piano lessons as there are not the creeps that parents have to worry about in the rest of the world.

There are, however, constant thoughts in the backs of their minds of potential war.  But they do not have the everyday stresses nearly everyone in the rest of the world has to deal with.  I do not want to trade my life for theirs, but their life is nothing like I expected it to be.  Take your ‘Oh but Propaganda…’ arguments and beat it.

The world is full of inexperienced experts in everything and laptop Mother Teresa’s.

Everyone who watches Fox news seems to have a well educated opinion about North Korea country who can tell me more than I might ever know by feeling it for myself…

Of course there was propaganda!  But, I came to see the country the way they wanted to present it to me.

Do not forget, if you are reading this it is likely that you are from the west and you are a part of the propaganda machine from that part of the world.

It is certain that I was intentionally shown and not shown much about North Korea, but there is only so much that can be totally hidden from your view and so much that can be so in-your-face in a presentation.

In North Korea I saw some of the most honest eyes and most innocent looks that I have ever come across.  I also saw dark terror in the eyes of a North Korean soldier, but that was an isolated incident and I never saw anything of the sort again.  The entire trip through North Korea was not anything like I thought it was going to be.

Nothing in DPRK, and I truly mean nothing, was like I had assumed it would be in my mind before I arrived.

Exiting North Korea

The mysterious looking Ryugayong Hotel. The 105 storey 330 meter pyramid shaped unfinished structure. For 30 years it has held the title of the tallest unoccupied building in the world.

The train journey was over quickly because I was so stressed and thinking about the $1.05 worth of North Korean money I had managed to get my hands on through trade with locals.  I wanted those notes as my own souvenirs of North Korea.  But the idea of going to jail over $1.05 was truly a frightening concept.  So, I spent a couple of hours wracking my brain, plotting, planning and scheming how to get those two North Korean bills out of their country and safely into China, trying to think of a secure plan…

the Ryugayong Hotel, the 105 storey 330 meter pyramid shaped unfinished hotel in Pyongyang that you have probably seen in photos. Construction on the building began in 1987, but North Korea ran out of money and it is still uncompleted. At the time when construction began on the building, it would have been the tallest hotel in the world. The exterior of the building has since been completed, but the rest of the hotel remains unfinished. Today it holds the title of the tallest unoccupied building in the world.

Summer swimming in a waterhole alongside the railroad line. There are no telephones in North Korea, so is this a power-line in the swimming-hole that is not being used?

Suddenly the train pulled into Sinuiji, the border town just across the river from Dandong, China, immigration got onto the train.  The same immigration officer as the one who had taken my passport when I arrived saw me and said to me with a smile, “Ah, Canada.”  He was not my immigration officer this time as he was taking care of another section of the train car I was on.

Instead we got an immigration officer in his late 40’s, wearing a higher ranking uniform and hat.  He was smiling at one of the tour guides on the train who he has obviously dealt with many times before.  When he got to us to search our bags, he had a pleasant demeanor.  He asked a Chinese girl to open her luggage for him to inspect.  As another girl behind him went to move her luggage, it bumped against the immigration officer’s leg.

He was playful and embellished on the moment, pretended to fall, let out a yell, and turned around laughing. 

It was good natured and it was hysterical because it seemed so out of place.  When he went to search my backpack, he barely looked inside, nodded his head and moved on to the next person.  He did not even check my camera.

Exiting NOrth Korea

My exiting North Korea form. It asked about currency. It also asked, do you have any:
– weapon, ammunition, explosives, killing device?
– drug, exciter, narcotics, poison?

After we had all completed immigration for exiting North Korea, the train took off again and carried us across the bridge to Dandong, China, where I cleared Chinese immigration with a bottle of liquor with a snake in it that a Chinese girl on the train had earlier told me would not be allowed into China.  I exited the train station to find Sabrina from Explore North Korea waiting for me to ask about the journey and to get her camera back.  She wanted to take me out for dinner before my next train would take me overnight from Dandong to Beijing.

It is funny how life works.  China seemed so strange to me before because of its peculiarities that I am not used to, but after a trip to North Korea, China suddenly felt very familiar.

Everything in China felt a lot brighter somehow.  Even standing in the sun felt warmer in China.  I guess that was my subconscious doing in regards to the media I am accustomed to about North Korea.  However, moments later when Sabrina and I walked past a Starbucks, I nearly vomited into my mouth.  What have I come back to?  Every system seems to be seriously flawed.  I am not sure who has got it right…I have yet to find it anywhere…

A trip through North Korea though, it was an experience nothing short of fascinating…

(*For everyone who has followed along on this seven-part, nine article journey with me, thanks a lot!  I hope it came across even partially as intriguing to read as it was mesmerizing to actually see.)  



A few more photos from Exiting North Korea:

Kim Il Sung Square.

Kim Il Sung Square.

Exiting North Korea

Pyongyang, atypically being busy with traffic.

Exiting North Korea

Arch of Triumph. Kim Il Sung’s gift to his people on his birthday, a massive arch in commemoration of his 70 years of life. Somehow, it is a birthday present from the dictator to himself for the people to see and celebrate.

Exiting North Korea

Girls practicing dance in front of the Arch of Triumph.

Exiting North Korea

TV tower in Pyongyang.

Exiting North Korea

This bus quit working, so the driver’s assistant had to get out and move the electrical lines for better contact.

Exiting North Korea

The Monument to the Achievement of China. This monument is in memory of the Chinese who fought with the Korean’s in the war from 1950-1953.

Exiting North Korea

Locals waiting for buses in a busy area next to the Monument to the Achievement of China.

Exiting North Korea

This flame on top is in resemblance to the one on top of the stone Tower of Juche Idea. I wanted to ask Kim if this was an ice cream shop, but I did not think he would find me funny.

Exiting North Korea

Inside of the foreigner’s waiting lounge in the Pyongyang train station. After I took this photo Kim told me I was not allowed to use a camera in the building. On the wall in this room was a photo of North Korea shooting off missiles. The photos were either to mark an achievement, or they were as a reminder to foreigners.

Exiting North Korea

I love the old vehicles in DPRK.

Exiting North Korea

These trolleys are identical to the ones in Prague, Czech Republic.

Exiting North Korea

A North Korea made three-ton truck.

Exiting North Korea

Welcome/Farewell North Koreans dressed in traditional clothes at the Pyongyang train station.

Exiting North Korea

Saying goodbye to Kim, my North Korean guide.

Exiting North Korea

I am not sure what that building is, but we saw it on the exit out of North Korea. Had they wanted us to see it, they would have shown it to us for sure.

Exiting North Korea

Farmers out working the rice paddies.

Exiting North Korea

Busy North Koreans. These people work hard and there are always people everywhere in the countryside.

Exiting North Korea

Storage huts in the ride paddies.

Exiting North Korea

I love the wear on the train cars in North Korea. USED EXTENSIVELY. All of them.


For the entire series, here are the links:

The North Korea Decision – Part 1

Crossing from China to North Korea – Part 2

Travel North Korea – Pyongyang – Part 3

(Barely) Backpacking North Korea – Part 4

A Visit to the North Korea DMZ – Part 5

Mt. Kumgang North Korea – Part 6

Life in North Korea – Part 7

Travelling Pyongyang North Korea – Part 8

Exiting North Korea – Part 9

 

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