Sunday, 20 October 2013


6th Sept 2013

Hammer, sickle and writing brush 'flag' at Wonsan

Everybody back on the bus for the long drive to Wonsan and then on to Mt Kumgang. We stopped en-route to visit the Dongbong cooperative farm ( the type that is notionally owned and worked by a large collection of local farmers ) about 30 miles south of Hamhung. As with all these visits the first place we were guided around was the farm museum. Again, many photos of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il plus various ex-farmers and stories of their valiant efforts to increase the agricultural output in face of great difficulties imposed by the Japanese Colonialists, Imperialist US Aggressors and the weather ( floods and droughts ). This has, of course, been achieved thanks to the inspired leadership and sound advice from the Great and Dear Leaders.

Rice fields at the collective farm
The country did, and they freely admit it, suffer from an appalling famine in the 1990s. Song Sim told us how she and her family had suffered personally ( even in Pyongyang ), and the terrible diet and small rations they had to survive on. Things are much better now, and improving year by year due to a comprehensive government effort to make agriculture more efficient. This information was supported by our French 'professor' who, as previously mentioned, has visited several times over the past ten years and is certainly no 'supporter' of the regime. Much of the countryside that we passed through looked well cultivated and we saw no evidence of malnutrition. OK, we were 'guided'  but it would have been difficult to hide all signs of deprivation from us. Put it this way, there is certainly no obvious poverty, squalor, disease or deprivation on the scale that I witnessed in parts of India. The locals may not have much disposable income, but I think they are at least given enough food.
After the museum we were shown the big machinery yard ( right ) which housed many implements including tractors and trailers. Some of the rice planting and harvesting machines ( there were two ) looked quite modern and in good nick. The tractors ( and trailers ), of which there were about twenty of each, were not in good condition. 

Left: One of the few tractors, with the 'professor' on the step, which had four more or less inflated and serviceable tyres.

The remainder were in various states of disrepair. All the tyres were either punctured or severely damaged ( as per right ) and often various bits of engine and suspension were missing or broken.
The harvest ( only one a year ) was due to start in the middle of October ( 5 weeks away ) and they had a lot of repair work to do. I suspect that much of the harvest is still done by hand.

We were then taken to inspect a 'typical' farm worker's house. It was in pristine condition with TV, radio and comfortable chairs in the sitting room. I didn't examine the book on the table. I suspect it was not exactly light reading and just may have contained wise words and advice from one of the Leaders.

....with, of course, the mandatory portraits on the wall.

Left: The kitchen. The cookers are fuelled by methane gas produced from ( human ) manure.

Right: A room in which potatoes ( I think ) are drying.

We then spent some time in the farm shop. Song Sim bought a load of apples which she subsequently peeled and gave us to eat on the bus.
Very thoughtful.

Onwards, onwards for a two hour drive to Wonsan for lunch. The road ( left) was fairly typical. Not much danger of a traffic jam ( or speed checks ).

DVDs were shown on the bus TV screen to pass the time. These were Korean, rather 'nationalistic' films of romance or war and sub-titled in English. I had brought an i-pod which kept me amused.

This was only a 'pit-stop' in Wonsan. The authorities are trying to make Wonsan a popular tourist destination. We are due to return here later for a night. It is a seaport and moored in the harbour is a large and seemingly well appointed passenger ship which used to take people to Japan and back. I believe it hasn't seen service for over 15 years!
Right: The main Square in Wonsan.

After another sumptuous lunch in a local restaurant ( other tourists were in ) we were taken to the 'Old Station and Railway Museum'. This consisted of a small annex in which Kim Il Sung stayed for a couple of nights i.e. a refurbished bed-sitting room, a now defunct but immaculately re-painted ticket office and, on rails where the platform used to be, the train and 3rd Class carriage in which Kim Il Sung arrived and/or departed. The carriage had wooden bench seats and spittoons on the floor. One of us made the mistake of leaning in to take a photo and then discovered that he was covered in wet paint. They must have been expecting us.

Then to the Provincial Art Gallery. It contained, I thought, some remarkably decent and amusing paintings of local and national scenes and portraits. It was, surprisingly, one of the few places that I did not see a picture of any Great or Dear Leader. Of course I know bugger all about 'art', but I was really quite impressed. I believe some of our group bought pictures which were carefully unframed, rolled up and put in plastic tubes for transport.

On again south with another leg stretch and coffee at a beach house ( right ) at Sijun. We were offered the chance to have a dip. I believe someone did.

Left: There were some locals ( I presume ) frolicking in the sea.

Then on again south for another couple of hours to the 'resort' of Mt Kumgang. This is situated on the eastern end of the DMZ. It has an interesting history. The place was designed and build by the South Koreans ( paid for by Hyundai ) and was part of a plan to allow South Koreans to holiday in a luxury resort during a period of political rapprochement. It was, and still is, a restricted and fenced in zone. You pass through military check-points on the way in. After a bit of paperwork ( by our guides ) the soldiers salute as you go through. The area contains a couple of decent hotels, chalets, shops, restaurants, a spa and mountain walks. Unfortunately, in 2009 a South Korean tourist ( a woman ) left her hotel and did a runner into the North. They had been specifically told never to leave the area and had to wear special ID tags at all times. Anyway, the story is a bit confused but she, apparently, got through the fence and after being challenged by a North Korean guard was shot and killed. Subsequently the North Koreans put a stop to South Korean ( ROK ) visitors and took the place over. The resort still has the buildings but has become, in effect, a ghost town. The ROK lost all their investment and the DPRK has not been able to keep it going in the same style. Indeed the shops, restaurants and other facilities are either closed or totally lacking in customers, even if some are relatively well stocked. The hotels still do attract tourists ( Western and Chinese mostly it seemed ) and are well appointed even if the service is somewhat lacking.

We stayed in the comparatively lavish Oekumgang Hotel ( right ) which only re-opened to tourists in late 2012. It had all the facilities you would expect of a 4 star hotel ( including, may I add, loos in the hotel suites with a complex control panel. I tried pushing some of the buttons with often most alarming results ), but although there were quite a few guests it was impossible to get a drink from the bar, or much else, until after 6.00pm. Service, other than a lady who's sole responsibility was to open and close the front door, was pretty dire.

Left: The main bar. Quite luxurious but not so cheap and difficult to get anything from it, or the hotel shops, or anywhere before 6.00pm. The problem, I suspect, stems from the ingrained socialist system which does not give any form of financial encouragement to sell things. Staff work 'by the book' and there is no incentive to be flexible.
At least all the lights and hot water functioned well.

We had arrived early evening and had a leisurely evening before what promised to be a strenuous day, on foot, tomorrow.

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