Thursday, 3 October 2013


31st Aug 2013
"Bye bye" from the Janamsan Hotel staff  

We had an hour of hot water and a good breakfast before leaving the hotel. The electric power to the lift was restored to get our baggage downstairs, this is a five story hotel, and the lights were all working. It was noticeable that only a single very low wattage bulb was fitted in my bathroom. I have heard of 10 watt bulbs, maybe even 5 watt, but the wattage of this was such that when you switched it on the room got noticeably darker. Power, due to fuel shortages, is a constant problem. It was apparent that special efforts were made to give us hot water and electrics wherever we went ( sort of ), but I'm sure it was all switched off when we left. Fuel shortages, hence power shortages, are the result of embargoes and sanctions imposed on the country and, of course, mainly affect the local people. I don't suppose the 'leaders' cars, mansions and heated swimming pools go short.

The staff paraded outside to see us off. The lady in red ( above ) was our hotel 'meeter greeter' and wears the traditional North Korean dress. I don't know how long they had to wait before the next guests arrived. At least their bar should have made a good profit over the last two nights. Another Korean word was learnt here and deployed often; "Chuc Bay!", meaning "Cheers!" They looked after us very well.

On towards the town of Sariwon ( 50 miles north-west ). We stopped on the way at a famous ancient site, King Kongmin's tomb. He was the 31st King of Koryo. Built in 1372 to house his dearly beloved dead wife, in the one on the right, he was put in the one on the left on his death in 1374. Same principle as the Taj Mahal if on a smaller scale. A sad fate met the architect. A panjandrum was sent off up the hills facing the tombs to check that they were correctly aligned. If they weren't he was to raise a white handkerchief and the architect, held below, would be executed. Climbing the hill and sweating, the servant got his handkerchief out to mop his brow and...whoops, deceased architect. Sorreey!

Passing through what appeared a very fertile landscape with miles of rice fields and other crops, we arrived at the largeish town of Sariwon ( farming country and some light industry ). Right: Some indication of the countryside, and a village en-route.
We were told by the knowledgeable French 'professor', our fellow tourist, who had been here regularly, that the crops were much more abundant than before, and improving annually. We were also comprehensively briefed on how the 'state' and 'cooperative' farming systems worked. In outline State farms, owned by the State, paid their workers with vouchers ( to exchange for food and other essentials ), and a small amount of cash. Cooperative farms were 'owned' and worked by a large collection of local farmers and their families and 'points' were awarded to the workers depending on how many days they worked. With the points earned they get a pro-rata share of the crops, plus some money.  Something like that, and I don't suppose they could afford too many luxuries. I expect there is a thriving black market somewhere.

The Folkcustoms Village in Sariwon was quite picturesque. We climbed up to the building, half on the rock, for a good view of the town. 

Right: The view down towards the town

We were due to visit a place which sold a potent local brew before lunch, but it was closed, so we went to another fine restaurant for yet another feast. They were undoubtedly pushing the boat out for us.

Then on north, via the same 'service station' as previously on the Reunification Highway for a brief pit-stop before arriving back in Pyongyang.

On the outskirts of Pyongyang we passed under this magnificent monument. Can't remember what it is called, but it signified some epic occurence concerning liberation, or unification, or war and peace, or some such. No doubt built with a eulogy to Kim Il Sung inscribed.
Back to the Yanggakdo Hotel.

Next on the agenda was a trip to the circus. There are two permanent circus buildings in Pyongyang, one civilian; the other military. We went to the civilian one which is a very large modern recently refurbished indoor emporium. The stands were packed. Lots of schoolchildren were in boisterous mood and we were sitting next to a very jolly girls volleyball team who insisted on having their photo taken.

The performance was excellent. A most impressive selection of acts; juggling, tightrope walking ( where a very brave lady fell off twice doing a remarkably ambitious double back somersault before getting up again to do it successfully at the third attempt. The crowd were in raptures ), comedy acts,  balancing acts, acrobatics and probably the most daring and elaborate flying trapeze performance that I have ever seen. Plus dancing bears ( right ). Whatever your views on dancing bears, these two were very amusing.

Then, via a souvenir and painting shop, on to supper in one of those places where you cooked your own stuff on a charcoal barbecue. Good nosh again and plenty of beer to go with it.

Now for the main event; the Arirang Massed Games in the vast Mayday Stadium, a venue which seats 150,000. These 'games' are an annual event which celebrate the North Korean history from pre-history to modern day. 'Arirang' is an old legend which involved a couple of lovers and a complex story. Needless to say the main thrust of the displays is a glorification of Kim Il Sung and the heroic North Koreans liberating their country from the Colonialist Japanese and the Imperialist US Aggressors. This performance is done,  three days a week, from July until early October. Rehearsals start in May. This is a special year as it celebrates the 65th anniversary of the formation of an independent North Korea.

It is quite extraordinary in that it involves a cast of a hundred thousand performers. Twenty thousand of these are students, drawn from the nine Pyongyang districts, who skilfully operate the large 'backdrop' of continually changing patterns, slogans and elaborate scenery. This is done using coloured boards with such precision that it looks like an electronic computerised display. Each 'operator' holds a unique folder of many numbered boards which, on a countdown, are flicked open simultaneously. The organisation and artistic design to achieve this effect is difficult to fathom. Before the show proper starts, the backdrop kids do a kind of warm up act ( as above ) which involves showing their district logos and a sort of 'test card' which often breaks up with lots of cheering, laughing and joshing of their rival districts. When the lights go down and the performance starts they go serious and produce a constantly changing array of complex scenery, and not one board is out of place for the full hour and a half. It shows quite some stamina apart from anything else.

There are four acts of several scenes and is non-stop for an hour and a half. The floor is filled at any one time with ( I guess ) up to two thousand performers. There is never a foot out of place and the choreography and synchronisation is amazing in it's complexity. When one scene is complete, the lights go out for about five seconds during which all the performers invisibly leave and are miraculously replaced by another batch of similar number in perfect position, often including young children. It is simply jaw-dropping in scale and mass precision.  To be honest, if only for the numbers and discipline involved, it made the Olympic opening ceremony in London look rather modest and chaotic in comparison. OK, the sense of humour, Mr Bean and Paul McCartney were a bit lacking, but it was truly gob-smacking nevertheless.

Highlights included a mass 'unicycle' display, spectacular fireworks, high wire and trapeze acts and a serious bit of 'human cannonballing' when a series of  blokes ( volunteers? or were they the ones who put a foot wrong in a previous performance? ) were fired across the area, all of 200 yards, crossing in the middle, into nets. Says a lot for the accuracy of their artillery.

Photos and even my attempts to 'video' cannot do justice to what we witnessed but I show a few photos to try to give you taste.

I've just discovered that you can see extracts of the Arirang Massed Games on Youtube. It's worth a look.

They may have many problems and shortages in various areas but, by the cringe, they can put on a good performance!

It is worth going to North Korea if only to see this .
"Everybody back on the bus!" That was it for today, apart from a few refreshing libations in the hotel.....

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