Tuesday, 1 October 2013


30th Aug 2013

View over the old part of Kaesong

Kaesong was the capital city of the Koryo empire in the 10th century. On leaving the Janamsan Hotel we walked to the nearby ancient stone Sonjuk bridge ( right ) built in 1215 by some emperor or another, a relic from the old Koryo empire days. There is a long story about it concerning some bloody feud and murder and how a subsequent emperor fenced it off in 1780.  Blood is still supposed to stain some of the stonework, but Song Sim rather gave up trying to find it.

There is quite a long and involved ancient history to many sites in North Korea, but not many original buildings or structures left standing ( US bombs often to blame ). There are are several reconstructions and the occasional ancient engraved rock or statue.  We called in at another, the Nam Gate, the original southern gate to the inner city, which houses a large 14 ton ( original ) bell made in 1346. To be honest, I was rather more interested in modern day life so won't bore you with old dynastic legends which I found rather long-winded and confusing.

Of course we walked up to the mandatory bronze statue of Kim Il Sung on a small hill south of the centre where, as is becoming the norm, one of us volunteered ( only one from now on ) to present some flowers before we all stood in line and bowed. It would be unthinkable to do otherwise. Despite a lack of electricity in general, this statue is always floodlit at night, or so we were told because we could not go out at night.

Immediately at the bottom of this small grassy knoll is a T junction ( left to right in the photo ). The locals on bicycles all dismounted and walked, to show respect, when they passed abeam the statue. The hill in the distance is supposed to resemble a pregnant woman.

There were a lot of bicyclists, and even the odd wood burning powered truck, presumably going to work, but I seem to have developed a knack of taking photos with nobody in them. There were lots of bicyclists about, honestly.

We walked up another sharp little hill to get a view over the old part of the city ( as per photo at top ). Neat and tidy little pointy-roofed houses in the traditional Korean style, all with metal chimneys. This place gets cold in the winter and most Korean houses are heated by underfloor hot water pipes fuelled by wood-burning stoves.

Left: A traffic cop on duty, and very smart he was too. This is a common site in all cities. Big roads, big roundabouts and junctions, mostly manned by similar traffic police who, frankly, are not exactly overworked. If a smart car does happen to pass by ( BMWs and Mercs were seen in Pyongyang ) then he/she will throw up a snappy salute.

I still found the apparent lack of any shop fronts or markets somewhat bemusing. More about this and the reasons later. Suffice to say it is decreed in the Juche Socialist system that there should be no  overt capitalist selling of things for profit. The State provides. I read about this in a chapter of that best selling little booklet written by The Dear Leader, snappily entitled 'Let Us Brilliantly Accomplish The Revolutionary Cause Of The Juche, Holding Kim Jong Il In High Esteem As The Eternal General Secretary Of Our Party'. I have a spare copy if anyone is interested.

Next on the agenda ( a packed one ) was a visit to the Historic Koryo Museum on the outskirts of the city. Many  rather dull relics and pottery were on display in several buildings which, of course, had been visited by The Great Leader at some point. It is the first and foremost thing you are told by the local guides at every venue; how many times the places have been visited by Kim Il Sung, his wife and Kim Jong Il. Lots of ginseng products ( not cheap ) were on sale at the museum shop. Much ginseng seems to be produced in N.Korea. It is good for you.
There were also some very ancient recently reconstructed houses and pagodas, plus a new Technology University which was notable, as with many other large buildings, for the lack of people going in and out of it. A holiday no doubt.

Then on to the De-Militarized Zone ( DMZ ) at Panmunjom, about 12 miles east. ( I will post a simple map later on to orient you ). This is a regular tourist spot. As you may be aware the DMZ is a 'no-man's-land' 4 kms wide, straddling the Military Demarcation Line ( MDL )  and follows, roughly, the 38th parallel across the peninsular. It was at Panmunjom, on the MDL, that the Imperialist US Aggressors signed, on bended knee, the armistice in front of the Korean People after 'giving up' in 1953. The DMZ is anything but demilitarised, and we had fun spotting all the pill-boxes, tank traps, disguised sentry posts, machine gun nests and artillery emplacements approaching the northern DMZ fence. Understandably, no photography was allowed. After a stop at the smartly guarded military entry point, de-busing to make use of a souvenir shop and much filling in of forms, we re-boarded and with military escort and in convoy with several other buses ( mostly filled with Singaporeans and Chinese as it turned out ) we made our way to the MDL. I recall that tourist visits from the North are timed so as not to coincide with tourist visits from the South ( to avoid a shouting match at the MDL I suppose ).

Here we visited the room where the armistice talks were held, which included a museum, mostly photos, of the main protagonists. Also the room ( in another building ) where the armistice was actually signed ( left ).  They did actually display a UN flag alongside the North Korean one, but that is the only hint of 'UN' involvement that I recall seeing or hearing. There were some photos of British officers.

Right: A copy of the armistice agreement. 

Then on to the 'viewing' platform which overlooks the three blue sheds straddling the actual 'line', and towards the equivalent viewing building on the Southern side. Lots of viewing and listening devices were in evidence, although there didn't appear to be much activity on the other side. It was all rather low key if you ask me.

On most occasions it is permitted to enter the central blue shed and walk across the actual 'line', but, for some unexplained political reason, this was off limits during our visit.

I had been rather hoping for some 'action' here such as a good bit of haranguing between one side and the other. It was very quiet. Perhaps a holiday.

Of course, to formally mark the place, there was a plaque commemorating a visit by the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, on 7th July 1994, and displaying his signature ( right ). If that date is correct, it must be one of the last visits he made anywhere as he died of a heart attack on 8th July 1994 ( maybe I've got that wrong! ).

After a 13 ( yes, thirteen! ) course lunch at a restaurant somewhere in Kaesong we set off again for an hour's journey north-east along the DMZ to a viewing site, equipped with some high powered binoculars and telescopes, to look across the DMZ at the US/S.Korean defensive wall on the southern side. This wall is 30ft high, punctuated by defences and guard-posts ( a bit like the old Soviet East/West Germany fence ) and stretching for 274 kms across the peninsular. We were first given a briefing on this ( history and current tensions with the South ) by a very charming and smiley ( genuinely! ) army Colonel.

My camera is not up to much, but you might be able to make out the distant wall and a guard-post / watchtower in the photo here ( right ).

The gallant Colonel was keen to have his photo taken ( he was the only military guy we met at the site and perhaps appreciated the attention ), so I display it again for his benefit in the unlikely event that he ever visits this blogsite. 

The officers do wear such impressive hats, don't you think?

Not content with this, he hitched a lift with us back to Kaesong and proceeded to sing us some rousing patriotic Korean songs over the bus PA system. We cheered him. The North Koreans enjoy their singing, as we were to discover.

One of our party was subsequently encouraged to respond ( I had slid very low in my seat at this point ). The brave volunteer whacked out fine and word perfect renditions of 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary' and 'Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag' ( sort of demonstrates the average age of our group ), and our reputation was saved. 

We weren't finished yet. A detour took us to a Buddhist monastery up on a hill to the west of Kaesong. The walls on the side of the road ( quite a narrow mountainous one ) for many miles were painstakingly and artistically decorated with well laid stonework, white paint and colourful statues of bears and tigers etc. The labour and imagination that had gone into this was impressive. Left and below: a couple of pics to give you an idea of the countryside on the way.

Right: More countryside. We passed locals fishing and swimming in the rivers, and farming. All very bucolic.

The Ryonton Monastery ( left ), was largely a reconstruction. There were a few original engraved stones and statues from it's  construction in the 14th century ( I think ). As with many of these structures, the Imperialist US Aggressors were blamed for bombing the originals flat during the Korean War.

Those in the know reckoned that the three Buddhist 'monks' in residence ( albeit admitting that they actually lived in Kaesong ) were perhaps not quite the real McCoy. We asked how many Buddhists lived in the area and came to worship here. "Five hundred" was the answer. I think.

Finally back to the hotel in Kaesong at 6.30pm. It had been a long day but, as it turned out, a fairly average one in scope and variety of sights visited.

Dog and Ginseng Chicken were specialities on the menu tonight. The dog ( special ones are bred for eating ) was OK and the chicken a bit watery, but we ate well again nevertheless.

I seem to remember several of us stayed up rather late in the bar that night drinking cheap ( but surprisingly good ) beer and polishing off a bottle or two of some ginseng spirit. Ginseng is supposed to be good for you, but does leave you with one hell of a headache in the morning.  I suspect we had doubled their takings for the past year. 

Our schedule continues, non-stop, tomorrow....phew! Balli-balli

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