North Korea, July 2013: Day 5

I wake up, still sick. Turns out, lots of us aren’t feeling well. Thankfully we have a lie in and don’t have to go out for a while, and I’m thankful to be able to catch up on sleep from my broken night, and to be near running water and a clean bathroom.

We are being forced to check out, and so it takes ages to leave the hotel, either they or KITC (Korea International Tour Company) are chronically disorganised. Since 80% of foreign guests (apparently) come with KITC, and everyone basically has to stay at the same hotel, you would think they would have a better relationship!

We drive past Peony Hill, so called because (wait for it!) it looks like a Peony (actually, seems like it is named after the peonies that grow on it). It is a public park where people go to hang out on national holidays. We also drive past the newspaper building, which has pictures of the “Dear Leaders” on it – there is not even the pretence of free press here!

Women wear the traditional dress on the national holiday, and she will also wear traditional dress on her wedding day – but a more decorative version, with more accessories (interesting article about an “anti-socialist” wedding in NK).

Our guide tells us how “boys and girls” meet and get married in the DPRK. A long time ago, when Korea was a strict feudal state there was very strict regulation in the family. Marriage was arranged by the family, and was mostly about social status and the girl’s ability to take care of the boy’s parents than personality. The marriage might be arranged even before the children are born, and was a long way away from populist ideals of love and desire. If people went away from their parents desires, they would be punished by society.

Now, boy and girl meet freely at university, or in the same working unit, company, or unexpectedly at the study house, or in the rain – if the boy has no umbrella, he can use this opportunity to meet a pretty girl (who says romance is dead?). They can date, and decide to get married, then tell the parents. Parents might not be happy, but will try and change their mind (come around to it, I guess this means). Alternatively, young people can use matchmakers – the introduction of family, friends, and other people, Before they get married they have an engagement ceremony. No exchanges of shoes in case the bride runs away, but exchange gifts.

After the wedding, the couple goes on a “Wedding Tour”, they go and see the statues, go to the restaurant, and have a big ceremony. Then they have a honeymoon, then they start a new life.

We are at the Juche tower, which is 170m high and in the elevator ride up we discover that our group is called Australia #15 because we have the largest number of Aussies. The back of the tower has plaques from (Juche) study groups – 252 in total. The idea (of course!) came from the leader (Kim Il-sung). The communist tried to rise up, but the Great Leader say truth – that popular masses the driving force of a revolution. How they fought against the Japanese for 20 years and were liberated in 1945. They built this monument for Kim Il-sung’s 70th birthday, in 1982. The tower is 170m high, the torch is 20m of that. The front and side each have 70 tiers, for 70th birthday. There are 35 flowers on each side.

Next to the tower, a statue shows the worker, the farmer, and the intellectual. They all carry books written by Kim, it is a sign to carry on the ideas. It is bronze, and 30m high, and on the same plane as the Kim Il-sung square and study house. It took 2 years to complete. This is the Workers Monument, for the Worker’s Party of Korea – the Korean socialist party, and traditional religion. It was founded on October 10th, 1945 (Wikipedia gives July 30th, 1949), by Kim. Being a member of the Worker’s Party is the highest honour (it is not clear to me as this is being explained that this is the political party, it was instead described as a “religion” – I wonder if our guide actually understands the meaning of this, or if it is a way of expressing things taught to her by a foreigner).

We move on to the Monument to the Foundation of the Worker’s Party – which was built October 10th, 1995, the 50th anniversary of the workers party. It symbolises 3 main parts – one column for the worker (hammer), one for the farmer, one for the intellectual (writing brush), each column is 50m high for the 50th anniversary. The single column structure is enclosed, symbolising unity. The monument is 42m in diameter, and there are 216 lines in the granite – symbolising February 16th, 1942 – Kim Jong-il’s birthday. Standing in line with Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il’s statues we can see three parts of the pictures – first part, left, showing cooperation to found party in the struggle against the Japanese. Second part shows the unity of the Worker’s Party of Korea. This has party flag as backdrop, and all the people – soldier, student, worker, farmer, intellectual, and shows all the Korean people’s army and people upholding the leadership of Kim Jong-un (my notes say Jong-un, but feel I must be mistaken?) The third part shows people’s struggle for sovereignty, and shows support for all the world’s people in their struggles for independence, peace, and sovereignty.

There are Korean characters saying 100 battles 100 victories, and various trees from the palace of the sun. Also planting out 38 trees from the garden of the president. The Korean people are memorising (I don’t understand what she means by this – remembering? memorialising?) the exploits of the Kim’s, who devoted everything to the people. The monument was supposed to be done in 3 years, but took only one – Kim came to see it and highly praised the builders who did it in a short time.

We get to see the Pyongyang culture exhibition which is in a building near the monument. There are more pictures of the Moranbong band, and praise of a Juche-oriented education.

The tour guide at the culture exhibition was holding flowers in the parade, and so tells us practise was one hour after work, for one month prior to the parade.  Sometimes they practised in the square. The signal is given from the study house to change the flowers. She was 5 when Kim Il-Sung died, and remembers people crying – it was very sad.

Before we can leave the monument, an international incident has to be averted, because one of the guys on our tour has vomited on the monument – well, mostly water, over a grate, so it’s not as bad as it could have been. However, this is still a Huge Crisis, the guides are very upset, one is on the phone to the head of the tour company, and the other guide is negotiating hardcore. I’m a little amused by it, to be honest, but of course there is the perception of drunken westerners (and there has been a lot of liquor on offer), but our western guide points out that two of us haven’t drank at all, and are also sick (5 people really sick in total), at which point fear of poisoning tourists takes over and everything is settled.

Factoid: In NK, people drive on the right.

We have lunch at the KITC (tour company) restaurant. As ever, the bathrooms are gross – given this is a restaurant for westerners, you’d think it would be better. There is always beer with lunch, maybe this is a helpful disinfectant. I’ve decided that I will eat when I get back to China, and just pick at some hot dishes – just enough to keep me upright is the goal, and I’m not eating any more unpackaged cold food here!

We go to the park, where we are told we will be allowed to hang out unsupervised, but no. Instead we are taken on a lengthy walk up hill, and there is dancing – people look so happy. It is unbearably hot, and I’m wearing long sleeves and two t-shirts as I caught the sun at the military parade, so it’s unbearable. At least when we reach the top there are ice lollies.

We go to the bowling alley, and I get some much needed quiet time, and then for dinner.  During dinner, a guide tells us about another tour companies’ worst tour ever – guys snuck out the hotel and wondered about in Kaesong, and a drunken eastern-european guy had a humdinger of an argument with his girlfriend, which some Koreans described as the “worst thing they had ever seen”. It makes our guy vomiting look tame, apparently, although in retrospect that worries me – wondering around unsupervised worse than vomiting on a religious monument?

Our last stop of the day is a theme park! I love roller coaster rides, so this is super fun, although many people are opting out because they still feel sick. Barely eating is working pretty well for me though, and I would hate to miss out on this! The rides seem new and safe, and we get to jump the queue – which is cool. And we ride next to locals; at one point I’m sitting on a spinner thing with a military dude. There’s an odd system of payment, we are accompanied by a park employee who takes note of what rides we go on, and at the end we settle up. My total is around 20 euro for 5-6 rides (I guess the queue jumping is extra).

After the park, we drive for an hour to the out-of-town hotel, where we are “so lucky to go to this nice place”. But we will leave at 7am tomorrow, so why are we here? The story now is that the Yanggakdo is full. I’m super irked by this – constantly changing stories. I thought the benefit of a western guide is that they wouldn’t lie to you, even when the official guides do – but our guide seems to lie with the best of them. This annoys me more than his constant drinking. But lesson learned – when the Korean guide says “you are so lucky”… expect bad news. Apparently our guide is the strictest. How incredibly lucky for us.

I “shower” by dumping buckets of water over my head.

Tomorrow, we will go to the mausoleum. We are required to wear nice clothes – no slippers, sandals, or short pants.

 

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