Thursday, 31 October 2013


10th Sept 2013

The lake at Sinphyong

Early start and 'everybody back on the bus' for a four hour journey west, initially to Pyongyang. Our bus driver was back outside even earlier washing down his vehicle. The man is clearly a devoted and indefatigable worker who likes a shiny bus. 
The initial part of the route took us through mountainous country and involved passing through many long dimly lit tunnels. As always, we had the road, a good one, almost entirely to ourselves. Even so, at various junctions, there were the smartly dressed traffic police standing on duty. I expect they had to be there in case a high-ranking official passed by and required a salute.
About 30 miles west, towards Yangdok, we were told we were about to pass the new 'top world class' ski resort which had been instigated on the instructions of the Dear Leader. This is a project which had been estimated to take several years to complete but now, due to the diligence and enthusiasm of the People's Working Parties and despite a Swiss company refusing to provide ski lifts, is due to be completed this year, well under time and budget. We all looked out and saw......not very much. Of course at this time of year there is no snow, but it crossed our minds that perhaps this ski resort might not be on quite the same social and sporting level as the likes of St Moritz, Gstaad, Val d'Isére or even Cairngorm. I suspect that they will have not really grasped the concept of 'aprés ski', and the thought of skiing down a mountainside accompanied by two Korean 'guides' in case a tourist might venture 'off piste' does not bear thinking about. I expect some intrepid tourists will go, if only out of curiosity. Book now to avoid disappointment.

Left: We stopped for a coffee en-route at the Sinphyong Tea House situated on a pretty lake with impressive views and some boats.

Further along the road, and for miles, we saw hundreds of workers painstakingly cutting the grass verges by hand using small sickles and clippers. I suppose it keeps the people busy and the place clean and tidy.

Today in Pyongyang was another public holiday to allow the populace to relax after the excitement of the festivities and parades yesterday. We were taken for lunch at the only Pizza Restaurant in the country. This was set up to demonstrate that Pyongyang is indeed a modern and swinging place. The chefs had all been trained in the traditional pizza making art and ingredients were specially imported from Italy. 
It was a large establishment and despite the holiday, we were the only customers. There was a vast, empty, main restaurant but we were given our own private room tastefully decorated with green plastic padding on the walls ( right ). The menu was enormous but several of the items were unfortunately 'off'. The 'salami' pizza was 'on', but without salami. There was a piano ( and TV ) at the back of the room and we were entertained to a recital by a lady on the joanna while we waited to be served. Just as well because the service took rather a long time. Perhaps they had to fly ingredients in from Rome. Some of us took the opportunity to have a snooze. OK, the pizzas eventually arrived and they were very 'thick crust' but perfectly edible nevertheless. It was the only meal we had where kimchi was lacking. We all signed the visitors book after the meal adding such pithy comments as 'best pizza I've ever had in DPRK'

Right: The bus on the main road outside the pizza restaurant. I expect the holidaying citizens were all busy tucking in at other establishments.

Next on to the Metro. Left: the entrance at 'Revival'. There are two Metro lines under the city. The stations are all named with nationalistic slogans which might sound impressive but it doesn't give you much of a clue as to where you are. Not sure how much a ticket costs; we got in free.

Right: The escalators descend 300ft ( 100m ) below ground. The stations make good air-raid shelters.

The platforms below, or at least the ones we saw, are cavernous and beautifully decorated in a classical style. Left: This is the one at Revival.

There are elaborate mosaic murals depicting various rural, urban and military scenes and, of course, the Great Leader. They are lit by extravagant chandeliers.

Left: Another typical mural.

We weren't travelling at rush hour and the carriages were not exactly packed. Having started at 'Revival' we stopped and got off at 'Glory' before re-boarding and passed through 'Reunification', 'Victory' and 'Torch' before emerging at 'Triumphant Return' which happens to be at the Arch of Triumph monument in the city centre ( which featured earlier ).
At least, unlike the London Underground, there are no constant pestilential 'announcements' to tell us to 'make sure we take enough water to drink' and to 'use all available doors' ( never have understood that one; I normally find it necessary to use only one ).
Left: The platform at 'Glory'........

....which features a gleaming staue of the Great Leader.

Onwards to the Fun Fair and Amusement Park ( left ) to the east of the city. 5 Euros to get in and extra for the rides.

Lots of rather tame 'rides' and roundabouts featured. The only ride of note being quite a decent roller-coaster which some of us tried. We were kindly allowed ( to our embarrassment ) to jump the long queue to get on.

Left: Looking back at the top of the climb. 

We also ventured into the large hall which housed lots of screen games and computerised car/motor-bike driving simulators. It was a most popular venue. It was apparent that as we entered the light levels went up and the air-conditioning magically started. I began to suspect we were being specially treated!

The park is spread over a large area involving much walking and, frankly, most of the 'entertainments' were not exactly a threat to Alton Towers. Ice cream was on sale. We rather vainly tried to explain to Song Sim and Mr Lee the concept of toffee apples, candy floss and hamburgers, which most certainly didn't feature. Possibly because of their provenance in the Imperialist US. Having said that, the children are undoubtedly healthier without.

'Everybody back on the bus' and off towards a hotel near Nampo, a port city on the south west coast of the West Sea ( or to non-N.Koreans, the Yellow Sea ). It was an hour and a half's drive through a mainly agricultural area. Leaving the outskirts of Pyongyang there is a vast runway of a 6 lane motorway, the biggest I've seen yet. This ( the Freedom Highway or some such ) was constructed on the orders of the People's Workers' Party in the 1990s. As with most of these big projects the army and civil pioneers built it mostly by hand. These are constructions of pure vanity as, in this case, the road is still only half completed in places and it peters out before Nampo. Nobody seems to use it anyway. Maybe the intention was to connect it to the Nampo seaport. We then branched off onto some B roads which took us through what seemed very drab and poor countryside and many derelict looking buildings and dilapidated housing. Quite a lot of workers were bicycling or walking from work in the fields. My overriding impression is that these people must live remarkably repetitive and dull lives. No pubs.

We arrived at the Ryonngan Spa Hotel, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a venue frequented by visiting VIPs ( we were told ). This features quite a smart central reception and dining building surrounded by outlying chalets in the woods which are, in some cases, a bit of a walk along a maze of roads. The chalets all look the same and are indistinctly marked. There was no hot water but, we were promised, the hot spa water jacuzzis in each room would 'activate' between set hours. Seems strange that hot spa water should only be hot, or operate, at certain times. Another peculiar feature here is that the trees surrounding the place are roosting sites for thousands of egrets. They came swarming in at dusk ( together with lots of magpies which kept me saluting madly ). The trees were totally blossomed-out in white by all the egrets, and they made quite a noise. This was by far the biggest ( indeed the only ) collection of birds that I had seen so far. At least I think they were egrets; white heron-like things with long bendy necks. I rather conform to the 'Geordie' Ornithological School which only recognises three types of birds; Spuggies ( small birds ), Craas ( crows ) and Shitehawks, or sometimes Fookin' Shitehawks, ( anything else ). 

After another good supper, and other tourists were here including a particularly raucous group of what turned out to be Belgians led by a loud and aggressive man who looked and sounded like Mr Hitler, we retired to the billiards room for a few games of pool. This proved amusing and involved drinking a fair amount of beer and the remnants of a rather disgusting bottle of ginseng spirit which one of our party had been trying to get rid of for some time. Then back to the chalets in the woods; we were in several different ones. That's when the problem started. It was of course pitch dark by now. There were lamp-posts on the surrounding maze of roads which we had spotted during daylight and assumed they would gaily illuminate our way home but, of course, no lights worked. Noone had thought to bring a torch. We split up and staggered off, slightly the worse for wear, in varying directions. I seem to remember passing several of our group, on many occasions, all in the same predicament; totally disorientated and lost, and some perhaps a touch the worse for wine. There was the occasional shout of glee from a distant part of the forest as someone actually found their chalet. It was a question of slowly 'quartering' the area and putting your key hopefully into the door of any unmarked chalet you stumbled across. I had visions of spending the night with the egrets as, by now, the main building was also dark and closed. I can't remember how long I, and others, spent blundering around before eventually, and by shear luck, finding refuge. Perhaps some never did. We hadn't been taught the Korean for 'HELP'!

Another day of cultural and industrial excitements to look forward to on the morrow. 

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