Tuesday, 24 September 2013


The Great and Dear Leaders

24th - 27th Aug 2013

Off by tube to Heathrow to catch a BA flight to Helsinki and onwards with Finnair to Beijing. Naturally the only parts of this trip ( written in retrospect as there is no internet in North Korea ) which did not run like clockwork were the bits in England. Of course I gave myself tons of time to get to Heathrow and just as well because the tube, graunching and grinding reluctantly down the Piccadilly Line with the normal bossy, often unintelligible, overlapping and entirely unnecessary 'announcements' ( why on earth, if they have nothing else to pester you with, do they have to announce "there is a good service on all Underground lines"? I always think "Let me be the judge of that" and it is meaningless anyway because a signal failure or someone flinging themselves under a train can, and often does, happen the next minute ) juddered to a halt somewhere near Turnham Green. After about 5 minutes waiting we were informed by the driver that "there is a tree branch hanging over the line somewhere"!! Well there's a surprise. We got going again after about 15 minutes. Of course I had no need to worry about being late ( which I wasn't ) because the BA flight, in true tradition, was delayed 45 minutes. I did worry, however, that I might miss my connection in Helsinki. Heathrow airport is on a par with the London Underground system; chaotic, antiquated, noisy, uncomfortable and unreliable. In short, a dump. After sacrificing the 'K' in my emergency 'KFS' set which I had inadvertently carried in my small bag, we departed.

Fortunately, due to many other pax attempting to catch the Finnair flight onwards from Helsinki, the transit through was quick and the gate held open until all had got there ( otherwise they would have had the problem of having to off-load our checked through hold baggage ).

The 7 hour flight to Beijing T3 arrived at 6.50am. Things now became more civilised. There is a  shiny new hi-tech 'Airport Express' which takes you effortlessly, comfortably and cheaply ( £2.50 ) into the city centre ( 40 mins ) and the only announcements were to tell you, in Chinese and English  "you are now approaching Yingtongtiddleyepo", or wherever, and "Please prepare for your revel". I think they mean "arrival". It connects after only two stops to the Beijing Metro; another example of hi-tech efficiency, and so cheap! 2 Yuan ( 20p ) for any one journey of whatever length.

I booked into the charming little YoYo Hotel in Sanlitun ( highly recommended at £35 per night ). and spent the next couple of days visiting a few old haunts and a few new ones in the area which boasts many amusing shops, bars. pubs and restaurants including 'Paddy's Irish Bar' which does a fairly respectable 'bangers and mash' for the jaded western palate. 

So now, morning of 27th, back to the airport ( T2 ) to meet up with our group due to leave for Pyongyang.

From here on, and with genuine respect for our excellent tour guides and travel agent, I shall  resist writing this journal in my usual somewhat 'piss-taking' fashion. To do so would cause 'umm' and possibly serious consequences for them if, in the unlikely event, this is read in certain quarters. I must be careful and uncontroversial. You might have to read between the lines a bit.

Left: Our Air Koryo Yakolov 124-100 aircraft, a Russian Airbus A320 equivalent, which took us on the 90 minute flight to Pyongyang. Comfortable enough with in-flight refreshment of beer and a roll containing a substance which tasted fine but caused much inconclusive discussion about what it actually was. All this accompanied by a patriotic video with soothing marshal music.
Literature provided included the admirable 'Korea Today' magazine containing fascinating articles on 'Story of a Tank Division', 'Victorious Anti-Japanese Armed Struggle' and 'Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism'. Most revealing.

Our group was 15 strong, led by the charming, efficient and unflappable agency rep, Carl. Other than he, I couldn't help feel that our party somewhat resembled a Derby & Joan Club outing. Mostly retired people with considerable travelling experience including a retired French professor/businessman for whom this was his 6th trip to North Korea in 8 years ( he was fascinated by, and very knowledgeable about, the place ), a retired engineer and his wife ( a luminary of the Frampton-on-Severn WI ), two professional American ladies, a retired American businessman and a retired couple from North London. As it turned out they were a most amusing and, indeed, adventurous bunch. We got along with each other remarkably well. This at times became a sort of 'team building' exercise.

On arrival at Pyongyang 'Sunan' International, about the same size as George Best ( City ) airport, Belfast. Our passage through immigration and customs was relatively swift and trouble free. The only things the customs seemed interested in were our mobile phones. When I showed my antediluvian model I sensed he felt rather sorry for me.

We met our chief guide, Miss Kim Song Sim and her oppo' Mr Lee. They were well known to Carl, our agency man, and he rated them highly. As it turned out he was proved correct. Kim Song although only 31 years old had been doing this job for 8 years, spoke perfect English ( and now a bit more due to some helpful and polite slang which we taught her ) and was understandably quite knowledgeable about 'The West'. They did, however, have to conform strictly to various protocols concerning do's and don'ts, mostly involving photography. We had been well briefed on this previously. As it turned out, provided you asked, she was remarkably easy-going and flexible about this. They were to be with us for the full 18 days. The only no-nos on photos were of the military personnel and establishments, and of people working ( not sure why ), and we should ask other locals if they mind before photographing them ( only polite, really ).
Right: Kim Song Sim on the mike.

Onto the bus and before heading to the hotel we stopped at the 'Arch of Triumph' ( looks familiar? ) in the city centre.
This is dedicated to the 'home return of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung' who, as you are no doubt aware, liberated Korea from the hated Japanese Colonialists in 1945.
All the statues and monuments to Kim Il Sung, and his son Kim Jong Il, of which there are more than you can shake a stick at, are constructed with dimensions or ornaments which symbolise some date relating to their birth or achievements. These dimensions are all painstakingly described by a guide at every monument/stature. Forgive me if I can't remember them all or, to be precise, none of them.

We then wandered across the road to where a large ladies' choir was singing some jolly songs ( all choirs and performances, as I came to discover, are 'large' in this country ) in front of an engraved monument extolling the virtues of The Great Leader and his achievements. Lots of guitars and accordions. As well as jolly songs there were also some rousing military ones. This was the equivalent of the Army Wives' Choir.

We had only been in the country for a couple of hours and already seen a few of the Pyongyang sights. Also instructed by Song Sim on our first word of Korean "Anh nyuhng hah se myko" which means "hello". Even by the end of the tour not many of us could remember this. Seemed a rather complicated way of just saying 'hello' if you ask me.

Then on to our hotel, the Yanggakdo, on Yanggak Island in the Taedong river which runs through the city. A 47 storey job with a ( sometimes ) revolving restaurant on the top.  It was very comfortable. Contrary to warnings the lights ( on our floor ) and hot water all worked. There was even BBC 24 TV in rooms occupied by foreigners, if you can call that a bonus.

We were fed delicious and plentiful dinners, (with beer courtesy of our 'package') and breakfasts while here. Most Korean meals feature their local delicacy 'Kimchi' which is a sort of pickled spicy cabbage. I rather liked it. The only thing they seemed to skimp on was tea ( Liptons ) where one tea bag was used to make several cups, each individually. Coffee and tea ( imported ) are very expensive. There were a surprising number of tourists in the hotel from many different countries. This, according to our French professor, was a big and positive change from even a year ago.

 The Yanggakdo ( right ) has a extensive basement area which boasts a casino, ping-pong room ( at which the Koreans are ace ), a pool/billiards room, additional restaurant, ten-pin bowling alley, swimming pool. sauna and massage facility amongst other things probably.
Once in the hotel for the night we were not permitted to leave it. No problem because there was not much to go to or see at night, and we were on an island, and the beer in the pleasant ground floor bar ( local lager and very good too ) cost 1 Euro per large 640ml bottle. A cup of coffee cost 3 Euros. Most foreign spending was done in Euros but it was sometimes problematical to get change. The local currency, the Won, could not be used by foreigners.

First impressions on a busy first half day ( and it got much busier ) were:
1. Pyongyang is spotlessly clean.
2. Remarkably uncrowded and very few cars.
3. Our tour 'guides' seemed  charming and helpful.
4.  The nosh, so far, is good and beer is cheap. I was hoping to continue my rigorous diet here but this might have to be shelved.

....onwards tomorrow on a tour of the city.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds interesting. I used to find the South very refreshing after the equatorial miasma of Singapore.
    Amazed they let you keep your F & S, I have had nail-clippers confiscated and you would have to be a real artist to nibble the crew into submission with those.