28th Aug 2013
|The Grand People's Study House|
Off at 8.45am this morning in our bus after a good breakfast ( but a bit of a struggle to get enough tea. I ordered five cups at the same time which seemed to work ) Our driver, whose name I never found out, was an admirable chap who, over the next couple of weeks would drive us faultlessly, and safely, hundreds of miles, often doing 12 hour days. He religiously polished and cleaned his vehicle before the start of each day. We learnt a new Korean word from the delightful Song Sim this morning; "balli balli", which means "quick quick" or possibly "hurry up you lazy loafing idle foreign tourists".
First stop was the Mansudae Fountain Park ( left ). A pleasant enough rocky grassy area which features various ponds and fountains. Apparently some of them spout 80ft up. Unfortunately, today, which was National Youth Day and a day out for students, the fountains weren't working. We were told they were undergoing maintenance.
There did not seem to be many people in evidence.
Right: Another view across one of the fountain ponds to the Grand People's Study House, of which more later.
At this point it may be helpful, if in danger of boring you, to explain a bit about the North Korean philosophy, behaviour and traditions. One quickly learns that the ( late ) Great Leader, Kim Il Sung ( and President for eternity ) is not just highly respected; he is revered. He is modern day North Korea, and his son, the ( late ) Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il ( who died in December 2011 ) only just less so. Not so much mention is made, yet, of Kim Jong Un although he is elaborately feted wherever he goes. The worship of Kim Il Sung reminded me, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, of the Buddhist's worship of the Lord Buddha. Large bronze statues of the Kims dominate the centres of all North Korean cities, and their portraits hang outside all major buildings. There are also portraits inside all main rooms, and every private household or apartment has to hang the Kims' portraits on their living room walls, and to use a specially dedicated duster to keep them clean.
Kim Il Sung embraced two main philosophies; 'Juche' ( pronounced Ju-Chay ) meaning, literally, 'master of oneself' and 'Songsun' meaning 'army first'. You can look up Juche on the internet if you are that interested, but it accounts in large part for the North Korean intense nationalistic pride, extreme socialist dogma and unshakable determination to remain isolated and, as far as possible, self sufficient. Children, from kindergarten upwards are well educated ( perhaps a touche cerebrally purified? ) in both Kims' histories, achievements and teachings. This history might occasionally be slightly manicured to enhance their standing.
Any newspaper, banknote or document carrying a picture of the Kims must also be treated with respect. We were told these should not be folded, crumpled up or thrown away. It was also not permitted to take a photo of a statue which did not show the whole figure, or from the side, or back.
Then a walk up Mansu Hill towards the most sacred spot in North Korea; the Mansudae Grand Monument, 70ft high bronze statues of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. It was relatively recently that Kim Il Sung had to step two paces to the right to make room for his son, Kim Jong Il. In the background is a mosaic of Mount Paekdu, the highest peak on the Korean peninsular and place of spiritual importance for North Koreans.
We were 'encouraged' to buy a bunch of flowers to present at the monument. A lady was selling these at 4 Euros a go. If this wasn't a socialist country I thought, and if she was allowed to keep the money, she would probably be driving a Ferrari and holidaying in Gstaad for the winter. Amongst many contingents of soldiers ( almost equal numbers of male and female ) and students we walked up to the monument and dutifully placed our flowers on the shelf in front. Then we stepped back and were asked to stand in line and bow, in unison, respectfully. This is a holy place. I began to wonder if the flowers were recirculated.
Another short walk to view the grand Chollima statue ( left ). This, similar to Pegasus, was adopted as the symbol for massive national development after the Korean war; The Chollima Movement. Are there two people riding it? Reminded me of a horse jumping Bechers Brook before the emasculation of Aintree. The jockey, as you can see, is 'calling a cab'. Ma is the Korean word for horse.
On to the Grand People's Study House, an eight storey traditionally built edifice overlooking Kim Il Sung Square ( thats the one where all the grand parades take place ). It houses the national library and is open to all citizens to promote reading, computer studies ( on the 'intra-net' ) and language courses. ( photo at top ).
There is a fine statue of Kim Il Sung in the vast foyer ( right ) and we were met by a local guide to escort us around and explain. Escalators and elevators took us to various floors.
The reading rooms were devoted to different subjects and purposes.
At the back of these rooms were libraries full of interesting technical, literary and scientific tomes....
....which were being assiduously studied by the local population ( right ). It was National Youth Day holiday, don't forget.
Further upstairs there was a music room where those interested could take out and listen to western music. We were played some Beatles tunes, the Yellow Submarine in particular. There was also a class being taught English by the innovative method of repeating after the teacher, verbatim, a random selection of English words.
Also a display at another floor, of how you could go to the counter and order any book you liked, which was then sent out from a back room on a conveyor belt. They demonstrated this for us by conveying out, by magic, copies of Gone with the Wind, Stories by Shakespeare and Introduction to Home Computer Programmes. One of our team asked for a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. This request was met with a rather blank look.
Up near the top there is a balcony from which the parades on Kim Il Sung Square are monitored and controlled. It provided a good viewpoint. The building in the foreground is from where the leaders take the salute.
Other grand buildings such as the Korean Central History Museum and the Korean Art Gallery surround the square. The tall monument in the distance across the river is the Juche Tower. We went up it, later.
Another view, to the north, over the Fountain Park, looking towards the vast monolithic Mansudae Assemby Hall ( the National Parliament building, or Supreme People's Assembly ) at the far left.
Doesn't the place look clean and tidy and pleasantly uncrowded and devoid of traffic. I bet Boris and TFL would appreciate this. Makes commuting less stressful.
A bookshop at the top was selling DVDs ( many of the Arirang Mass games of which you will hear more later ) and some fascinating books. A selection of which ( left ). Click to enlarge and make sure you get your order in soon.
It also sold soft drinks, but no coffee ( too expensive ) for which, by now, I was gagging.
Right: A bit of the square where you can see, maybe, an array of marks and numbers painted on the ground. These are part of the highly complex parade and display markings which enable such impressive performances which take place on several occasions. If there's one thing the North Koreans do brilliantly, and in vast numbers, flawlessly, it is parades and displays.
Nothing we do here, in the west, holds a candle to them. Not even our Trooping of the Colour ( sorry Guardsmen ) or, dare I say it, the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Except I doubt if they could manage parachuting their Leader into the square or finding someone like Mr Bean to entertain the crowd. Laughs is not what it is all about. Having said that, they don't have to feel obliged to dig up the likes of Paul McCartney to embarrass the audience.
Off to lunch at a restaurant which specialised in chicken dishes. I won't bang on too much about our dining venues, except to say that we were very well fed and watered. The food was healthy and delicious, often in smart restaurants where we were given a private room or table and excellent service. I have no doubt that we were very specially looked after.
After lunch it was on to the Juche Tower on the south bank of the river. In front of which is this monument depicting the North Korean emblem of the Hammer ( Industry ), Sickle ( Agriculture ) and Writing Brush ( Intellectuals ). A slightly alternative take on the mere Soviet Hammer and Sickle.
For 5 Euros we went up, by lift, to the top for more good views of the city. It was a bit hazy.
A view north showing the enormous Mayday stadium in which we were later to see the famed Arirang Massed Games.
In the hall at the bottom were hundreds of plaques donated ( left ) by many nations and organisations sympathetic to, and offering their support for, the Juche system. The UK contribution was notably lacking but, surprisingly, there were many from French organisations and lots from African countries and Peru. I couldn't work it out. The US and Japan definitely did not feature.
Onwards to the Korean Workers Party Monument ( right ). Another local guide was there to tell us all about it ( this was all magnificently organised ). Many vital statistics of measurements were painstakingly described which pertained to years and dates concerning Kim Il Sung and the history of the Peoples Workers' Party. I have no recollection, sadly.
Off next in our bus, which had followed us around like a loyal gundog, to the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Site, about 10 miles south of the city. This is another holy place where The Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, was born ( in 1912 ) and spent his first few years. His father was a small time farmer. This is another place of pilgrimage for North Koreans. It consists of a very 'refurbished' collection of huts and shows the 'original' tools and domestic implements used by Kim Il Sung's family. There is a well nearby from which we were encouraged ( I did ) to pull and drink some water which would make us 10 years younger. As it transpired this was one of many water sources connected to Kim Il Sung which, if drunk, would make you 10 years younger. By now, if true, I should be looking about 12 years old. I am still eagerly awaiting the results.
Can't remember what this 'street' is but it was on our way back into the city. One of several large and ostentatious roads which put the M25 to shame and yet to experience a traffic jam. Or road works. Or cars.
Next stop on the agenda was a Middle School in the south of the city. We were guided around it by the headmistress. Lots of children ( 12 to 16 yr olds ) were playing sports outside. We arrived at about 5pm and general school had finished ( school hours are, I think, 9am to 2pm with extra-curriculum activities afterwards; sports, music, dancing etc. ). The classrooms were impeccable and each boasting portraits of The Leaders. There are special classrooms for the teachings and history of Kim Il Sung, and Kim Jong Il.
We were then treated to a song, music and dance performance by the pupils lasting a full hour. They were brilliant! Incredibly jolly and immaculately, skilfully, performed. All in rather elaborate costumes and at a standard that would be inconceivable in UK schools. OK, it was done to impress us foreigners, but seriously impressive nevertheless. As mentioned before, it maybe somewhat robotic, but the North Koreans can certainly put on a show, even at this level. I have some video film of this, and of subsequent performances, but they don't seem to work on this blogsite, more's the pity.
Back to the hotel and another magnificent dinner. Pool and bar afterwards. This was a very busy first day of touristing. Non-stop and a full programme. Many other sites were seen and explained to us but I have exhausted myself describing the main ones. It continues like this, have no fear, and I will do my best to keep up the record ( primarily for my benefit I hasten to add ).
Impressions from day 2:
1. Again, everything so immaculately clean and tidy.
2. Impressive lack of traffic.
3. Impressive lack of shop fronts and any form of advertising.
4. Extraordinary influence and reverence of Kim Il Sung.
5. Good food.
6. Extraordinary organisation. Like clockwork.
Another packed programme for tomorrow... this is going to keep me busy.