I’m sat back at the Yanggakdo hotel right now after what has been a long but amazing day we saw so many things today and were finally able to see the Mass Games. I’m still in awe about the show, but more about that later.
I got up at 6 this morning so I would have time to have a shower and re-pack my bags before breakfast although the hot water hadn’t been turned on yet so it was a very brief cold shower followed by a struggle to get everything back into my bag. I’ve been buying far more souvenirs than I expected so I’m definitely going to have to leave stuff behind in North Korea.
After packing my bags I made my way down to breakfast. We were told to leave our bags outside our building and they would be picked up by our driver but I decided it would be easier to walk town to breakfast with them and give them to the driver directly. He was still cleaning the coach but I said hello to him in Korean which made him smile and he was happy to take my bag so I didn’t have to leave it unattended.
First stop of the day was the West Sea Barrage which is an 8km long dam that the Koreans built across the estuary of the Taedong River to allow irrigation of the surrounding farmland and it is of great pride to the North Korean people. As well as the road across the top it has lochs, sluice gates, irrigation channels and also a few small undersea tunnels to allow fish to pass backwards and forwards freely. Our stay here was only short and after having photos taken outside in the location where President Kim il-Sung and President Jimmy Carter posed for photos in the 90’s we were shown a video about the dam before the obligatory visit to the gift shop. Next it was on to the Nampo Orphanage.
The orphanage felt a bit like a showcase for us but it was nice to be able to see smiling happy faces on the kids when we were shown around by the principal. The facility houses kids between the ages of 1 and 5 and is where kids without parents are able to play and have fun before joining the schooling system. We were treated to a song and dance performance by a group of 4 year old kids who, considering their age, were very talented. We said thank you to the principal and some of the group donated supplies before we moved onto our next location – the mineral water bottling plant.
We had been asking our guides if it would be possible to take photos of some of the local fields for a couple of days and they said at some point they would see if it could be arranged, and on the way to the mineral water plant the coach stopped and we were allowed to take some photos although they didn’t allow us to get out this had to be done from inside the coach.
At the mineral water bottling plant we were explained the bottling process by their manager before being shown to the area where the water is bottled. We were all given a bottle of lightly sparking water each and it tasted really good – I guess you can’t get much fresher than straight out of the ground. Next we were shown the source of water which was a short walk away through the fields.
Patience is good while in North Korea and if you wait and follow the rules you will get more freedom than you expected as the guides know they can trust you. You will also have opportunities to see / take photos of things that you might not have normally. On the way to Nampo yesterday we asked our guides if it would be possible to take a photo of the Youth Hero Highway (the huge but empty road between Pyongyang and Nampo) as it was so big compared to highways in the west and also very quiet which is something we would love in the UK. We were told it would not be possible that day but if it was possible on the way back we would be allowed to take photos on the way back. We were given an opportunity on the way back – the coach slowed down in the middle of the road and we were given permission to take photos out the front window. This may not seem like much but North Korea is a country where photography is usually quite restricted so we thanked our guides for allowing us to take photos of the open road.
After lunch back in Pyongyang in the revolving restaurant of the Yanggakdo hotel we were taken to the Korean War Museum (aka the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum). We were shown a video detailing the North Korean view of the build-up to the war before being taken around the museum to see the exhibits which included Yak and Mig planes, tanks and all sorts of military equipment from both the North/Russian and South/American sides and it was a great place to just browse around if you’re into this sort of thing. Our final stop in the museum was a diorama room which had a 360 degree rotating display depicting one of the iconic battles of the Korean War.
We walked through the war memorial park and back to our coach before being taken to the Schoolchildren’s Palace which is an afterschool club for talented children from the Pyongyang area. The Schoolchildren’s Palace is a building shaped like a “hug from a mother” according to our guide and inside we were able to see the children taking part in various activities such as gymnastics, dance, calligraphy, musical performances, drawing, singing and drama. This was all showcased on a grand scale in the auditorium which we were taken into at the end of our tour. I definitely feel untalented after seeing the performance as the kids put so much effort into the show and it was impressive enough for me to buy a DVD of their performance.
We had a quick pit stop at the hotel to grab anything we needed from our rooms and it was straight up to the Mayday Stadium to see the Mass Games – we arrived at the stadium with only 5 minutes to spare so were rushed straight to our seats. The stadium is huge and apparently one of the biggest in the world which is good as the Mass Games contain anything up to 100,000 performers each evening in addition to the audience members. For those of you that don’t know the Mass Games are a mass gymnastics performance that combines music, singing, dance and gymnastics into a spectacular show that is supported by 30,000 schoolchildren creating the various backdrops by holding up different coloured cards. Most of our group chose 2nd class tickets which, at 100 Euros, weren’t cheap but we were sat right beside the VIP area so had a good view anyway.
There is no way to really describe the Mass Games they are something you have to experience them but I was very impressed with the performance and very glad we were able to see the show. After a quick hello to Oli from the plane we stocked up on souvenirs before heading back to the Yanggakdo Hotel for a Chinese meal in one of the hotel’s restaurants.
I played pool for a little while with the others before heading up to my room where I was able to make a phone call home to the UK. I can’t sleep at the moment as I’ve had too many sugary drinks so I’m just relaxing in my room watching TV and looking out over the Pyongyang skyline at the moment. I still can’t believe I’m here but I’m enjoying every moment – we have seen lots of interesting sights, the hotels are good, the people I’m travelling with are great and the guides are very good!
Here is a 5 minute video showing highlights of today’s 90 minute Arirang Mass Games performance.
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