March 09, 2018

Pyongyang. Shopping, Communists and Beer.

Pyongyang is small city, easy to get around, and has very little traffic or pollution. An ideal place to wander the streets, look at local students marching in uniform and very much in step while having a look into the small shops dotted around. Except that you are not allowed to. Each group of tourists had a set of guides/minders and a driver and a set program which is hard to deviate from.

The shops we were allowed to visit were usually just for tourists. But not full of the tat you would get in other countries. There were no fluffy animals, but tables full of propaganda items showing off the strength of the military, in particular, on postcards, flags, badges and posters.

Early one morning we were taken to a large department store. This was the only place on the trip that we could use North Korean Won, and the store helpfully had a currency exchange booth inside. Even more helpfully they offered the black market rate, 8500 Won to 1 US dollar, which was much more generous than the official rate of 80 Won to the dollar. 

One of our guides, a Mr. Lee, made sure I understood that it was illegal to take the currency out of the country and that we must change it back before we left. I nodded my compliance while secretly thinking of the best place to hide the banknotes in our luggage when we left the country.

None of the local shoppers paid attention to the tourists loading up their baskets with beer and chocolate, they were far too interested in all the foreign goodies that somehow had evaded the extensive sanctions placed against the country. Nescafe coffee, Johnny Walker Whisky, Australian Wine, and Heinz soup vied for space amongst Chinese brands, and a few local offerings. 

I stayed at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, an island in the middle of the Taedong River, which it nicely secure and isolated. You were not allowed to leave without your guides.  Essentially you were a prisoner there, but at least it had a bar with its own cheap and delicious beer made in the on-site micro brewery for USD$2 a pint. And it boasted a large karaoke room, a bowling alley, revolving restaurant and swimming pool.  There are worst places to be stuck in.

The hotel recently was in the news for being the place where the American student Otto Warmbier made the dangerous decision to explore it, entering a restricted area and rip down a poster celebrating the leadership of Kim Il-sung. I stayed in the bar. 

Allegedly all the rooms are bugged. If so, anyone listening in would have been bored stupid with  snoring or the drunken ramblings after six pints of the hotels beer with my Irish roommate. There must be better jobs to be had, even in North Korea.

Dominating the city from every one of the hotel's rooms was the still unfinished pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel. 105 floors and 330 metres in height, it was a victim of the Soviet Unions collapse and the loss of its major investors. 

The building would be an easy way to navigate in Pyongyang if you were allowed to wander, as there is not one place where it is not visible. Unfortunately, visits are not permitted to what remains a building site, as well as being the record holder of the worlds largest unoccupied building.

I stayed in the hotel for almost a week. Toward the end it filled up dramatically.  Instead of just one or two people milling about the lobby it was totally packed.  I had timed my visit to coincide with the Fifth International Festival in Praise of the Great Persons of Mount Paektu. A little bit of work could be done on making the conference title a bit more snappy, but it was basically a celebration that was held every five years to lavish praise on the leaders of North Korea.

Mount Paektu is a volcano in the north where allegedly the founder of the country, Kim Il-sung was born, and also from where he had led heroic attacks against the Japanese occupiers. All the following leaders have a bloodline that can be traced back to the volcano, a bit like a Korean version of the House of Windsor tracing its lineage back to the German House of Saxe-Coburg.

The attendees were a ragtag group of mainly European Stalinists, Maoists, communists, and others from a bygone age. They were here to salute North Korea as the best and purest nation on earth. Even our North Korean guides thought they were a little strange. The attendees travelled in VIP buses with police escorts and with the side streets closed, as they were shuttled from monument to monument. 

Long white beards, suits and lapel badges of the leaders were the typical uniform. Some had brought their wives and extremely bored looking children with them - there is no internet in North Korea, at least, not an internet which takes you to places that do not venerate the leadership, which makes for a very small amount of pages that you can visit.

One evening I was disturbed by them as they sang The Red Flag and an unknown, at least by me, hymn to North Korea in the hotel lobby. This was too big a scoop, I needed to know more. I wandered up to one of the singers after they had finished.

Olaf (not his real name) was from Scandinavia. Was he having fun?  “Oh yes. We are treated like royalty, this is such a wonderful place”.

What were his travelling companions like ? “Well”, he awkwardly looked at his shoes, “umm, I think some of them are very ‘fringe'".

Fringe clearly was his codeword for a tad bit loopy. He expanded further.

“We have a guy from Romania, who was wearing a hat like the dictator Ceausescu used to wear. I said that to him, and he stood up, raised his arm, and shouted ‘Ceausescu was the best thing that happened to Romania, it has all gone to shit now he is dead’. He was definitely fringe. 

"And then there is this guy from Guinea Bissau who went into this long and over-the-top speech about how he loves the Kim Dynasty and how they will save the world, while we were at the top of Mount Paektu, and the North Korean TV crew, who are following us around, they really loved that.

"I think some of the group are seriously weird”.

What was the best bit of his trip so far?

"Well, there have been many boring speeches, but, my god, the beer is good!"

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