Archive for October, 2005

North Korea – Day Two – afternoon

It’s 160km from Pyongyang to Kaesong and the DMZ, but it’s an easy route to follow: just turn into Thongil Street and drive for an hour and a half. Simple. There’s barely any other traffic on the road, and the only major attraction passed is the Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification. This is a 30-metre granite statue showing two women representing the divided Korean peninsular leaning towards each other in a gesture of reunification, a scene also acted out at the previous day’s Mass Games. Interesting, the figures shown at the foot of the ‘South’ side of the statue are portrayed as cowed, pleading for help, while those to the North are strong, healthy specimens offering assistance to their beleaguered southern cousins.

The journey is otherwise uneventful, and soon we arrive at Panmunjom, a few kilometres beyond Kaesong, home to the most intense concentration of military personnel on the planet. US troops used to be based here, but withdrew in 2004, leaving the Southern soldiers face to face with those from the North. Despite all of this, the atmosphere is surprisingly carefree, the military guide showing a scale model of the area before clambering on board our bus to guide us further into the DMZ. It’s here we learn how the two sides are still officially at war – an armistice was agreed in 1953 bringing a temporary halt the the bloodshed, but a peace treaty was never signed. Outside the Armistice Hut I have my picture taken.

My new trousers are too tight, they don’t match my tie, and I could only have this photo taken if I stood two steps below the military guide. These factors combine to make me look like a twat.

Another kilometre into the DMZ finds us at the Joint Security Area, where North Korea comes face-to-face with America and the southern ‘puppet army’. Until recently tourists could enter one of the three small blue huts that straddle the demarcation line, circling a table and technically crossing into the Republic of Korea, but we’re disappointed to learn that the Americans have apparently put a stop to this, simply by putting a padlock on the door to the hut. Never let it be said that warfare in 2005 isn’t a high-tech affair.

The border.

Elsewhere in the DMZ we’re walked through a series of climbing bunkers to a place where a rather jolly, gold-toothed officer from the DPRK army relates the story of one of the true oddities of this half-century stand-off, the Korean Wall. For northerners this is their version of the Berlin Wall, an eight-metre high concrete barrier segmenting and humiliating the nation, cleverly constructed to appear invisible to viewers from the South and devised as a springboard for attacks from the ROK. The southern version of events is that it’s a basic anti-tank barrier hindering invasion from the north, and although we’re given high-powered binoculars to focus across the rather hazy valley to where the wall sits, it’s difficult to confirm exactly what’s going on. It might as well be made of custard.

The officer takes us into a hall where we watch a film reinforcing the North Korean perspective, the two Kims gazing down on us as usual. When the video brakes down for the second time, the show is over.

Kim & Kim.

Evening beckons and it’s getting dark, so we drive back to Kaesong, where we check into the Folk Hotel, a genuinely beguiling, rather lovely place where our beds are rough mattresses lying directly on a heated, mat covered floor.

Kaesong Folk Hotel.

And so to dinner. It’s the usual fayre of kim’chi and cold egg, but there is one treat awaiting. Earlier, our guide Mr Lee had asked if anyone would be interested in sampling a bowl of the local delicacy, dog meat soup. He tells us how Koreans will eat this dish twice a year – once in winter to ward off the cold weather, and again in summer to protect from heat stroke. While half our party recoil at the very suggestion, the rest of us are keen to try this fabled broth and cough up the requisite €5.

The soup itself is a very spicy affair, and quite delicious, while the meat, hoisted from the hot liquid with chopsticks, is most reminiscent of lamb. At least it doesn’t taste like chicken.

Quite literally dog food.

After dinner we settle down with a few bottles of (excellent) RyongSong beer, and get our first taste of karaoke, North Korean style. We’ve been trying to get our waitresses to show us how it’s done, but they seem a little shy, despite the obviously well-used karaoke machine in the corner of the room. A disc is inserted, the microphone plugged in, and after much whispering and tittering and several false starts, a number is finally selected by the younger of the two girls. She chooses a love song, and the results are staggering. Within 15 seconds every man watching is transfixed. By the end of the song we’re all completely besotted. There’s a brief moment’s silence before the applause rolls around the room, while she giggles and trots off to the kitchen. It’s a remarkable, surreal end to a quite amazing day.


Read on (day three).

North Korea – Day Two – Morning

Good Morning Pyongyang.

I’m not looking forward to the next few hours. Ever since Air France decided to send my luggage on a different holiday to my own, I’ve wasted a great deal of time attempting to replace items I need for the trip, basic essentials such as socks, shoes and shirts. Today we’ve been requested to wear more formal attire, and locating clothes that fit comfortably hasn’t been easy for a man of my sporting bulk, especially in the trouser department. Even Beijing’s finest department stores were little help, and I finally had to settle for a pair of brown strides that, despite an eye-catching XXL tag, would much better fit a man of less magnificent girth. Lying on the floor of the hotel and struggling to jostle my thighs into these pants to achieve something approaching comfort isn’t easy. It’s not going to be an aggreably snug day.

And the reason for all this dressing up? We’re being taken to the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung. I’ve seen Lenin’s and Mao’s tombs previously (if I ever get to see Ho Chi Min’s embalmed remains I’ll have completed the set), and they’re not terribly impressive affairs – you queue, you stroll past, you exit, you buy the cheap ceramic mug. Kim’s promises to be an altogether more grand episode. For a start, his final place of rest isn’t some drab concrete block, but the gigantic and lavish Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where the Fatherly Leader spent much of his working life.

A photo op outsisde the palace.

We quickly learn that this isn’t going to be a straightforward visit. We’re asked to leave anything in our pockets on the bus – wallet, keys, cigarettes, lighters, pens etc – and check our cameras at the cloakroom before passing, one by one, over a short conveyor belt that brushes the soles of our shoes. Then it’s through a metal detector and up an escalator, joining an airport-style travelator at the top that slowly and gravely carries us towards whatever’s next. Pyschologically speaking (there’s something I’ve never said before) it’s a brilliant piece of design, moving hundreds of people about the palace in complete silence, helping to maintain the eerie, reverential atmosphere. After 500 metres, we turn a corner to finally be confronted with whatever’s next: another travelator, another 500 metres. The tension builds further.

Finally deposited at the end of the walkway, it’s up a red escalator, around a corner, and into a vast white marble hall, completely empty apart from a colossal statue of Kim Il-sung bathed in peach and purple light. We stand in lines, four across, and solemnly march the length of the room to stand briefly in front of the sculpture before being beckoned into another room. Inside are a series of pods, one of which we step through, cold air blowing onto our clothes to remove, one presumes, dirt and germs from outside.

Another corner, and there he is. The Eternal Leader. The atmosphere snaps with near-religious intensity as we circle the glass casket, awkwardly bowing on each side as custom dictates, armed soldiers keeping a close eye on our behaviour, muffled sobs from some of the visitors disturbing the silence. Within a minute we’re in the next annex, the walls covered in a three dimensional panorama showing the Korean people’s reaction to Kim’s passing in 1994. There’s an audio commentary accompanying the exhibit, with an increasingly hysterical British voice relating how ‘the tears of the people fell to the ground and turned to stone’ on hearing the terrible news, etc. Next up is a room where thousands of diplomas, doctorates and medals awarded to Kim during his lifetime are kept on display, generally from tinpot regimes and cowboy governments in Africa, South America and The Middle East. Oh, and France.

And that’s it. This afternoon we’ll be heading south to the DMZ, the somewhat heavily-militirized demilitirized zone, the area Bill Clinton referred to as “the scariest place on Earth.”

Bill got lucky. He didn’t have to wear these trousers.

Read on: Day Two (afternoon).

North Korea – Day One

The plane is a slightly battered, rear-engined Ilyushin with bus-style overhead racks, shrieking jets, and a carpet that appears to have been purloined from a Leicester curry house in 1973. On board we’re served the largest airline meal I’ve ever seen, our trays overflowing with typically mediocre airborne slop, but the flight itself is smooth, the stewardesses are attentive and friendly, and copies of the English-language Pyongyang Times bring us news of Kim Jong-il’s latest exploits, offering on-the-spot guidance to the faithful. It’s gripping stuff.

Air traffic control at Pyongyang International is not a full-time job.

After passing through customs and immigration without fuss, we’re separated into groups and meet our guides. Ours is Mr Lee, an elegant North Korean with a sharp suit and extravagant nasal hair, assisted by the pretty but prim Miss O, a language student obviously nervous at the prospect of spending the best part of a week ferrying irresponsible foreigners about. We clamber aboard the bus, driven by another local, this one with a big smile, negligible knowledge of English, and a peculiar resemblance to Christopher Walken. On the short drive into the city centre Mr Lee gives us the welcome speech, telling us about Pyongyang and how global warming has led to a ten-degree increase in the average summer temperature. We all nod our heads politely in deference to this particular revelation, and get used to the idea that not everything we get told on tour will tally with what we’re led to believe by meteorologists back home.

Our first stop is The Grand Monument, a 20-metre high bronze statue of Kim Il-sung that sits proudly atop Mansu Hill. Kim stands in front of a mural of Mount Pektu, his arm outstretched to show the way forward for the Korean nation, most of whom appear to be queuing up to pay their respects at the foot of the statue.

Waiting for God.

It’s an operation of near-military precision. Each immaculately attired group takes it in turn to pay their respects, moving forward on some unseen signal, depositing a bunch of flowers at the Great Leader’s feet, then bowing in unison before exiting stage-right to leave room for another batch to do the same. Soon it’s our turn, and we find ourselves gazing up at the Eternal President in all his bronzed glory, revolutionary music wafting across the dusk, and pay our respects. It’s an uncomfortable moment given the Kims’ reputation in the West, but most of us seem quite happy to do as expected, not wanting to cause offence in a place obviously considered sacred by the locals. When in Rome, etc.

Kilburn comes to Kim Il Sung

Next up we’re taken to our hotel, the Pyongyang Koryo, 45 floors of once-luxurious splendour that’ve seen slightly better days. It feels a bit moth-eaten, a little stale, but the rooms are large and comfortable, the views are spectacular, and the restaurant makes up in kitsch appeal for what it might lack in culinary innovation, adorned with models and cutouts celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Workers Revolutionary Party. It’s a big deal in these parts.

That slightly bewildered ‘we’re in North Korea!’ look.

Highlights of dinner include kim’chi, a spiced cabbage dish we’ll be served at every meal throughout the trip and gradually come to loathe, and a slightly suspicious looking battered fish creation.

Whaddya mean, no chips?

Very quickly we’re ushered back on the bus for one of the highlights of the tour, the Arirang Mass Games, taking place this year for the first time since 2002.

It’s extraordinary, an Orwellian wet dream choreographed by Walt Disney, a festival of brilliant colour, outrageous gymnastic skill and breath-taking discipline. Thousands of school children cartwheel, tens of thousands more control an ever-shifting mosaic stretching from one side of the 150,000 capacity May Day Stadium to the other, motorcyclists ride tightropes across the sky, soldiers parachute in from the roof, and athletes perform extraordinary acrobatic feats across the arena floor.

You put your left leg in…

You take your left leg out…

In out, in, out, Shake it all about.

You do the hokey-cokey and you turn around…

That’s what it’s all about!

After ninety minutes it’s over, and we’re hurried out of the stadium and back to the hotel. We visit the shop (among the items on sale are North Korean biscuits and a motorbike) then retire to the bar to sample the local draught, an almost black, malty affair served in proper pint pots. Everyone is breathless with excitement, discussing the first day’s events and the following day’s plans. It’s difficult to believe that we’re really here – it genuinely feels like we’ve landed on another planet – but the beer tastes good, the group is beginning to gel, and I’m not even bothered when the girl drinking next to me starts rattling on about Sting’s charity work.

Well, maybe a little.

Not actually Guinness.

Read about Day Two (morning).

korean poster art

Anyone here speak Korean? I managed to pick up some nice social-realist paintings while in the DPRK, and I’d like the text translated. I imagine the top one says something along the lines of “Our brave, ever-victorious bunnies will resist the US imperialist aggressors and their puppet army”.

one last drink

And I promised myself I wouldn’t fly home with a hangover…

There’s been no adverse reaction to the previous night’s scorpion and seahorse supper, so it’s a day spent wandering round the Summer Palace and Lama Temple, before meeting with some fellow travellers for Singapore slings at the Red Moon Bar in Beijing’s Grand Hyatt hotel. After a couple of rounds, we head out to locate some Peking duck, returning to the hotel after gorging ourselves on the succulent, fatty meat. Several glasses of Grand Havana rum later I find myself glassy-eyed and on stage, sharing the mic with a stunning Indonesian cabaret singer, the backing band made up of equally blessed Chinese musicians who look like they’ve walked straight off the set of a Robert Palmer video, wheezing my way through Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ to an audience of expensively attired, stoney-faced Chinese businessmen. I think it’s probably time to leave, so we drink up and stumble into the night to hail cabs.

That’s it. I’m off to the airport. My head hurts.

back to china

And… safely back in Beijing. I’m not sure how to precisely relate the experiences of the last few days in North Korea, except to say that I doubt I’ll ever spend time again so removed from reality as I understand it, at least until Easyjet start offering cheap flights to Mars. The place is extraordinary; brilliantly colourful, often moving, and utterly, utterly bonkers. Highlights included a night spectating at the country’s largest ever Mass Games, a deeply solemn procession through giant marble corridors to the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung, and the weirdest three minutes of karaoke you’re ever likely to stumble across. On any continent. It’s just nuts. Oh, and dog meat soup.

Photographs and full story will follow my return to Blighty, assuming I can figure out a way to do the experience justice.

off again

A word of advice for anyone wanting to travel to Beijing: if you want to see the sites, don’t come during the first week of October. The 1st is a national holiday, and many of the locals take the following week off work to relax and visit all of the places that I’m trying to see. So the Forbidden City is massively oversubscribed, the queue for Mao’s mausoleum stretches into the hazy distance, and the buses heading out to the Great Wall are all fully booked.

So instead I spent yesterday wandering round the Hutongs, the alleyways and passages where many locals live. Having seen the more touristy selections on my last visit here in 2001, it’s a good choice.

Today will mostly be spent trying to replace the stuff that Air France buggered up.

And tomorrow? Well, I’m getting restless again. Time to move on. Where to next?

Hmmm. This looks interesting…

So I’ll be offline for the next week. If I haven’t posted again by the 16th, can someone please call the New Zealand Embassy? Thanks.


I’ve arrived in China. The train journey was uneventful, 2032 kilometres spent staring at corn fields in the company of Sharon, an ER technician from Guam. Nice lady.

Found my hotel OK, but they’d lost (there’s that word again) the details of my booking. Luckily a spare room is found, and I’m free to wander off to a nearby tibetan restaurant to sample yak-butter tea, spiced rooster and ‘bittern sinew of oxen’, whatever that was. All very nice, although the rooster was quite gristly.

Tomorrow, the Forbidden City. Assuming they let me in, of course.

Hong Kong

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter ‘b’.

Bizarre: Waiting in the departure lounge at Heathrow, and my name is called over the PA system. Can I contact a member of staff? So I wander over to check-in, and am told that, due to a ‘weight distribution problem’, I’m going to have to change seats. What the hell is that about? I may be a few pounds overweight, but surely not to the point where the Boeing engineers need to be called in…

Bastards: Air France managed to lose my luggage, so I have no clothes to wear over the next two weeks, aside from what I’m standing in. Luckily, this is Hong Kong, where a man can nip out at 11pm on a Sunday night and purchase several pairs of Jockey-brand 5% spandex boxer briefs for a very reasonable price.

Broken: Why don’t they do something about the air-conditioning here? I mean, it works just fine, filling every shop and lobby with lovely gusts of sub-arctic air, but it drips. Everywhere. On every street. It’s a genuine hazard for pedestrians, avoiding the seeping coolant. Incidentally, the aircon unit in my room comes with four settings: low, medium, high and ‘chaos’. I’m too scared to try the latter.

Big: At six-foot-one, I am a giant here.

Building: There’s building sites and cranes everywhere. They’re either knocking up a ferry terminal or a skyscraper wherever you look. My question is this: why don’t they fix the bastard air-conditioning problem while they’re at it?

So what’s it like, this Hong Kong? Well, it stinks. Of MSG and exhaust fumes. It’s overcrowded – some parts of Kowloon are the most densely packed on Earth. It’s noisy. It’s humid. And it’s great. It has that wonderful mix of pandemonium and tumult that the best cities have, only much louder and with extra neon. I feel right at home.

Which is just as well, ’cause I’m off tomorrow. I’m catching the three o’clock express train (if a journey taking 24 hours can be considered an express) to Beijing.

Another ‘b’, see?


Let’s see: I have two weeks off work.

I’ve pre-programmed a fortnight’s worth of Daily Kitten content.

I’ve approved the most recent batch of uploads to Kittenwar.

I’ve uploaded a couple of hundred new images to Cats In Sinks.

What shall I do now?


Bollocks to this. I’m off to Hong Kong. That seems as good a place as any to start a holiday.