Today is the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party of Korea and we were told we would be in store for something special, which they were definitely right about. I’ve just finished watching probably the biggest fireworks display I’ve ever seen from my hotel room which I only happened to see because I was looking out the window at the time.
It was a fairly leisurely start today and after a nice buffet breakfast that consisted of meat, bread, bracken, kimchi, rice, freshly cooked eggs, toast and various drinks we met in the lobby at 9am ready for a long day in the city.
Our first stop was the Pyongyang metro system which is apparently the deepest system in the world as it doubles up as a system of bomb shelters in the event of an attack. We were told some facts about the system before being escorted down to a long escalator to the platform which, unlike the London Underground or NYC subway, is clean, spacious and has murals on all the walls. We only went one stop along the line in a cordoned off section of the carriage before getting off again where we were shown another station which was even more impressive – chandeliers, bigger platforms, newspaper stands showing what Kim Jong-il has been up to that week and even a lady walking around selling guide books to the system for tourists. I bought a couple of souvenir guides for friends and expected to be shown back up to the surface soon as I had read in previous blogs we were only allowed to see those two stations – however this was false. We were shown back onto the subway after a few minutes – this time in a carriage full of very confused looking locals and Army soldiers who were very curious about why we were travelling but it was nice to be able to travel normally without the token 1 stop journey that I was expecting.
Next on the itinerary was the Arch of Triumph which is similar to the counterpart in Paris but bigger. We took some photos in front of the arch before being shown to the Kim il-Sung stadium where there is a mural depicting a speech that he gave there one day. There were lots of flowers below the mural as this is presumably one of the locations where Koreans are able to pay respect to the late Great Leader. However there wasn’t much time to relax as we were soon off to our next location.
The Mangyongdae Revolutionary Site is the house that Kim il-Sung used to live in as a child when his family were groundskeepers to a local park and, apparently, is the location where he left to fight the Japanese. It’s a small collection of thatched cottages at the base of a hill which we were given a tour of before being lead through some nice woodland to an outcrop overlooking Pyongyang. This is apparently where Kim il-Sung liked to wrestle with other kids when he was young and also look out over the city. The views were impressive but it was fairly misty this morning so we didn’t see as much as we might have otherwise.
After lunch in a local restaurant we made a detour back to the hotel as Helen wasn’t feeling very well and wanted to catch up on sleep. As time was limited we had to take a shortcut through the suburbs of Pyongyang which were a lot less well maintained than the rest of the city and included several crumbling older buildings which, as we were on the bus, we were not allowed to take photos of.
Our first stop of the afternoon was another revolutionary sight in the city containing lots of fountains and we were given freedom to wander around as much as we liked here as long as we stayed in view of the guides. We wandered round for a bit taking photos and saying hello some kids (who ran away screaming when they saw us) before being asked if we would like to buy some flowers for 4 Euros to pay our respect to Kim il-Sung at his statue which was to be our next destination. I accepted the invitation along with two or three others from the group.
When we arrived at the statue protocol said that we all had to first stand beside each other in a line. Those of us who had bought flowers then walked forward to place them before rejoining the line so we could all bow in unison. It may seem a bit over the top but in North Korea they take respect of Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il very seriously and it’s something you’ll accept and get used to if you visit.
After paying our respects and having some free time to take photos we were taken on a 20 minute walk through the centre of Pyongyang by our guides past the Parliament building, part of the old city wall, a castle and some large apartment blocks. One thing we noticed is how open and airy the city is compared to many in the west – I guess they have a lot of space and not many cars which helps but it’s a nice city.
The Revolutionary Martyr Cemetary was our next stop and is the location where 25 years ago today Kim il-Sung made an important speech to the people of Korea. It is also the place where many of North Korea’s freedom fighters are buried, including the mother of Kim il-Sung. We placed flowers at her grave before having a chance to relax and enjoy the view of Pyongyang and its surrounding valleys.
Next stop the USS Pueblo which is a spy ship that the Koreans captured from the Americans and is now moored along the Taedong River as a trophy. We were shown around by a guide from the Korean People’s Navy who told us the history of the ship and how it was captured, as well as telling us a few details about her family. It was interesting to see the communications room and the letter of apology that was issued to the DPRK by the USA over the incident. There was time for photos on the deck but not before being shown a video showing the DPRK version of events which we had to take with a pinch of salt due to some of the names they used for the Americans although there is still a sense of anger towards the American Government who are still seen as Imperialists by Pyongyang.
There was just time for a quick freshen up in the hotel before heading out to dinner in a restaurant with attached gift show in Pyongyang city centre. Dinner was more of the same but it was this gift shop where I finally understood how the system worked when buying things in the DPRK. First you tell the person behind the desk what you want, or take it to her if it’s a self-service shop, and she issues an invoice with all of your items listed. You take this invoice to the cash desk in the shop who take payment in whatever currency you wish to pay, Euros are best, before stamping your invoice which can then be exchanged for the items you have purchased. It’s an unusual system compared to in the west but it works in the DPRK when you get used to it.
Upon returning to the hotel I decided to take a few photos of the city as Kim il-Sung Square was lit up due to the Anniversary parade that was taking place. Literally the moment I turned my camera on the fireworks started so I was able to get a video of the whole show which, although it only lasted a few minutes, was one of the loudest and most intense fireworks displays I have ever seen. After the fireworks had finished I watched the parade live on TV for a bit and noticed the Kim Jong-il himself was in the square over the river watching the festivities.
(I found out after returning to the UK that this was the first time that Kim Jong-Un, who is due to be Kimg Jong-Il’s successor, was seen in public at such an event).
We have an early start tomorrow so I’m going to catch up on sleep now. It has been a long day today but we have seen so many things – it looks like tomorrow will be just as intense.
(Please note – I have been given permission to include details of my trip on my blog by the tour company but the names of my guides as well as photos of them have left out to respect their privacy. It is forbidden for journalists to visit The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on a tourist visa and it is forbidden for us to publish information about our trip in any capacity without permission. As a result I do NOT give permission for anything I write about North Korea in this blog, or any photos I upload of North Korea, to be used anywhere for any purpose other than reading directly on my blog if you are considering travelling to North Korea as a tourist. In addition I do NOT give permission for my name, my blog’s address, or any photos of me to be used or quoted anywhere for any purpose related to The DPRK. If you breach this notice you will be subject to legal action from the tour company. Thank you for your understanding.
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