Sunday, August 26, 2018

Pyongyang: Kumsusan, Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, Tomb of King Tongmyong, Mirim riding club

For our first visit of the second day in Pyongyang we have to wear formal clothes, no jeans are allowed and we have to leave all our camera gear and cellphones behind. A slowmoving autowalk is bringing us from the entrance to the actual building itself, giving us good time to look at what first served as the official residence of Kim Il-Sung. Kumsusan Palace of the Sun is now the mausoleum of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il.

Mass Games rehearsal in the streets of Pyongyang.

Fountain outside Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.

While there are not any autowalks inside the building, the tour through the Palace of the Sun certainly bears the feeling of being on one. We go in a rather quick succession on a supervised invisible line, soldiers watching our every step. Before we are allowed into the proper mausoleum we have to go through a gate that uses air to blow away dust and dead particles from us. Many will probably have problems doing this, but at the sarcophagus containing Kim Il-Sung it is expected of the visitors to bow at his feet and left and right side. The same goes for the sarcophagus of Kim Jong-Il. I feel no need to create a fuss about it and make my bows.

Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.

The sequence are the same for both the former leaders of DPRK. First we are to show our respects at the remains, then we are taken to a room containing honours and awards that the leader has received from around the world. I look for something from Norway, but I cannot find anything. What is more astonishing is the fact that they have chosen to build in one set of the leaders personal train inside the building. We can see the different styles of the age separating the two trains. One a wall is a huge, slightly interactive, board displaying the travels by train and plane that each leader did. When finishing the tour, we can retrieve our electronic equipment and walk in the park outside the palace.

Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

A captured plane on display at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

Yesterday, we were to visit the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, but it was closed due to a public holiday (Day of Songun). Today, we can walk through its tall gate. This museum is dedicated to the Korean War. A wide open space is the first we come to, almost forming a large alley with several large statues of fighting soldiers on each side. Leaving the statues, we go into a section containing a lot of war equipment that was captured during the war. Large skeletons of planes, truck, tanks and helicopters among others, with gaping holes in them. The gem in the collection is most likely the USS Pueblo, an US Navy vessel that was captured in January 1968 (hence not during the Korean War itself).

Patriotic statue in front of the main museum building at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

The USS Pueblo.

It is an interesting museum, but it is undeniably showing the history of the Korean War from their point of view (not that they are alone in doing this). The most impressive feature of the museum is the 360 degrees diorama of one of the major battles in the Korean War, the Battle of Taejon. Here we sit down on a rotating floor while both artifacts on the floor and visuals on the wall come alive as we pass by. With a voice telling us about the events that unfolds, and sounds from the various scenes. Here and there sections are lit up, we see planes fly and fall across the sky, fires in buildings, smoke rising, bombs go off and so on.

Almost everywhere you are in Pyongyang, is the ghost hotel Ryuguong visible.

Another scene from the streets of Pyongyang.

Next up is a stamp, poster and postcard shop and museum. It is the place where we can send postcards back home. Unsurprisingly, the woman from our hotel that we also met at the Arch of Triumph is also here, that figures. North Korean stamps are actually very nice. I am really not the person buying a lot of souvenirs, but I do bring back with me a set of stamps from the area around Paektusan secret camp. Here, you can also take a picture of yourself and put it on a postcard to send. We take a picture of us and sends it to Jo, hopefully he will get it.

North Korean stamps with scenery from the area around Paektusan secret camp that we visited.

The ornamented gate to the Tomb of King Tongmyŏng.

For our next stop we leave Pyongyang for another mausoleum. The Tomb of King Tongmyŏng, who was the founder of the ancient Goguryeo kingdom, now an UNESCO world heritage site. The quiet, but uneven, ride from Pyongyang has taken us back in time. The tomb itself is of the type I have seen before, only in a much larger scale. It is a 11.5m high tumulus, or barrow mound. Two rows of statues leads up to the tumulus. At the tomb there is also a Cheon-Ji-In monument, which symbolizes the basic oriental trinity of East Asian Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist thought comprising Heaven (dragon), Earth (turtle) and Humanity (standing stone). An ornamented building resembling a Buddhist temple contains paintings from the life and era of Kong Tongmyŏng.

The Tomb of King Tongmyŏng.

Ornamented building at the Tomb of King Tongmyŏng.

Also at the compound is a Buddhist monastery with a Buddhist temple, Chongrŭngsa. Many Buddhist temples was destroyed during the Korean War, but some are still standing. Although, religious services are only allowed in a few of them. While we visit the temple, there are even some Buddhists coming to pray there. Think my pilgrimage on Shikoku is still vivid in my mind, I bowed upon entering the temple. Some of us felt that, even though it was nice, it would be more interesting to see more things related to modern day DPRK, as this looks more similar to what we may see outside the country. I partially agree to this, but I felt it was good to get out into a more natural landscape again. The Tomb of King Tongmyŏng and Chongrŭngsa lies in a more rural area outside Pyongyang.

A Cheon-Ji-In monument.

Late afternoon is approaching as take place in the minibus for the last stop of the day. This visit is maybe less interesting to me, but I feel glad that we do it. Paula did not get to climb Soyeonjibong or Ganbaeksan while we were hiking due to her knee. She races horses back home in Australia, so a visit to Mirim Riding Club is probably right up her alley. Me, being allergic to some animals, quickly finds out that I have to keep a little distance to the horses.

Chongrŭngsa Buddhist temple at the Tomb of King Tongmyŏng.

Mirim Riding Club.

We have dinner at the restaurant at the hotel. In addition to all the sidedishes we eat, I eat a big plate with a kind of pajeon dish, which is a sort of a potato pancake. It is good, but takes its place in the stomach. Roger is keen to taste the North Korean makgeolli, comparing it to the ones the South Koreans make. Mr. Kim is having a dish of Pyongyang naengmyeon, a sort of speciality here, a noodle dish that you have to lift up the noodles from the soup to dry off before you eat it.

Kim Il-Sung square in the afternoon.

Pyongyang naengmyeon, a traditional dish in North Korea.

The second day of our tourist 'hike' ebbs out, it was another interesting day.

<- Pyongyang (day 1)

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Pyongyang: Mangyongdae, Pyongyang Metro, Tower of Juche Idea, Arch of Triumph

An adventure is over, another begins. We have finished our hike in North Korea and now we are moving on to become proper tourists. Jo left early this morning, the rest of us will have three days here in Pyongyang. As foreigners cannot walk freely around in North Korea, the norm for travel companies operating here is to keep as tight a program as possible. Often too tight and too much to see packed in a short time, so some people feel overly tired when finished with a day. With that in mind, I am curious to what the day will bring.

Close look at one of the small huts at Mangyongdae.

The group at Mangyongdae.

The first stop on our program is the birthplace of Kim Il-Sung, Mangyongdae, located in the outskirts of Pyongyang. We drive to the place, but in the future it may be possible to take the metro out. There are plans to expand the two existing lines of Pyongyang Metro with a line to Mangyongdae. We park next to a theme park about to open for the day, Mangyongdae Fun Fair. There is no one in line outside waiting to get in, except me maybe. I would be thrilled to see how a North Korean theme park would be like. It appear run-down and far from merry, even with the merry-go-round. Kim Jong-un has, according to Wikipedia, ordered it to be updated so to make it more lively.

View of Pyongyang from the park at Mangyongdae.

The entrance to the Mangyongdae Fun Fair.

It was here in Mangyongdae that Kim Il-Sung was born on the 15th of April 1912. Here, his parents lived in a earthen hut with a thatched roof, now restored. It appear more like a replica than an actual home, but it serves its purpose. Everything is in order, neatly arranged, from the tools, utensils to the personal belongings on display. Then again, it is a museum. As customs go, we bow before the home. It was a humble home we are told by the guide, but it is difficult to see how it must have looked like in its restored form. While we are drinking the cold water from the well outside, proclaimed to be the well used by Kim Il-Sungs family, a group of Korean students arrive to behold the childhome of the former president.

Inside Mangyongdae Fun Fair.

In Pyongyang there are several of these small street vendors.

Before we return to Pyongyang, we go out to a pavilion with views over the city. A haze is situated around the buildings in the distance. Between us and the capital lies a river and green acres with small farm buildings. The theme park is open when we leave, appearing just as empty as before it was open.

Puhŭng Metro Station.

Mural at Puhŭng Station.

Next post on the program is the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, but closed doors greets us when we arrives. Today is a public holiday in North Korea, the Day of Songun, to commemorate the beginning of Kim Jong-il's leadership in 1960. Songun stands for military-first, and is the North Korean policy for giving the army priority in the affairs of state and allocation of resources. No guide to meet us as was the plan, so we are shuffled back to the hotel.

Female official at Puhŭng Station.

Mural of Kim Jong-Il at Yŏnggwang Station.

Not on the program, but a sight requested by the group to see, is Pyongyang Metro. With the gap in the program left behind by the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, we get to pay a visit to two of the stations. Some of the metro stations in Pyongyang are reported to be beautiful, in a similar way as those in Moscow. The metro system is on the other hand less developed than there, the Pyongyang Metro consists of two lines, the Chollima and Hyŏksin lines. Before, tourists only got to visit the same two stations as we do, Puhŭng Station and Yŏnggwang Station, but now apparently all stations are opened for tourists (this does not mean that you can enter metro alone though). It is one of the deepest metro systems in the world, with the lines running about 110 metres underground. At this depth and with no lines or stations above the ground, they can also be used as bomb-shelters.

Yŏnggwang Metro Station.

Pyongyang from the square around the Tower of the Juche Ideology, Kim Il-Sung square to the left, with Ryuguong hotel clearly visible.

That tourists only got to see two stations was probably the reason why many believed that those two stations were the only ones and that the other passengers were actors. I would be impressed if it were so, they had to muster a lot of actors then while we was there. People were coming and going, both by the trains and by the entrances and exits. It is true that the stations are beautiful, although I find the ceiling lights a little bit kitsch. Murals adorns the walls behind the tracks, and the ever-present mosaics of the supreme leaders. We drive the train (in an old West German U-Bahn car) from Puhŭng Station to Yŏnggwang Station. They appear quite similar, but Yŏnggwang has a taller ceiling supported by columns. Also notable is the news-stands in the middle of the platforms, so the people can read the latest news from the government while waiting for the train.

Tribute plaques at the Tower of the Juche Ideology.

View of the Taedong river and Kim Il-Sung square.

Driving around in Pyongyang is interesting, but I wish we could have had more time walking around. That is always the best way to experience a city, in my eyes. Driving also means a lot of missed photo opportunities, I would be happy to be able to catch a good picture of daily life here, but in a slightly shaking minibus it is difficult getting a straight picture.

The colered apartment buildings of Pyongyang.

Pyongyang with the Monument to Party Founding.

Self-reliance is what the official state ideology of DPRK is based on, called Juche. Built to celebrate Kim Il-Sung's 70th birthday is the Tower of the Juche Ideology. This granite tower is standing 170 metres tall, thus visible from multiple locations in Pyongyang. The four-sided pagoda-inspired spire is built up by 25 550 blocks of granite, one for each day of Kim Il-Sung's life (365x70, excluding the additional days from a leap year). On top of the tower is an illuminated metal torch (always lit) weighing 45 ton. Standing tall in front of the tower facing Kim Il-Sung square is a statue of three idealist people, the worker (carrying a hammer), the peasant (carrying a sickle) and the intellectual (carrying a brush). At the entrance to the tower is a wall of tribute plaques, there is even two from Norway here, from study-groups in Bergen (1976) and Arendal (1975).

View towards our hotel, Pyongyang Hotel, and the Pyongyang Theatre.

The view from the top of the tower is great. It is a beautiful day, so we can see far, but it is what is closest to us that is the most interesting. Not surprisingly is it the other truly towering structure in the capital that catches my eye first, the Ryuguong ghost hotel (330m). I quickly let that building be, however. The colorful apartment buildings are what really gets to me. They remind me of some of the works of a Norwegian contemporary artist, Pushwagner. On the river below, a tiny boat is frantically trying to evade one of the large cruiseboats.

The Tower of the Juche Ideology.

The North Korean version of the Arc de Triomphe is up next, Arch of Triumph. This triumphal arch stands 10 metres taller than its counterpart in Paris, which it is modeled after, at 60m (they are appearing fond of making things taller). Above the arch on two sides is an engraving of Paektusan. Inside there is a large hall with marble walls, where we watch an infomercial. There is another tourist here too, who is also staying at the same hotel as we do and have been seeing at other sights too. I guess that is the way around here for tourists. After watching the infomercial, we take the elevator up to the observation platform. It provides good views of a sports stadium (Kim Il-Sung stadium), and with the sounds coming from it, it appear to be some sports event taking place there. From our viewpoint, however, we cannot see any spectators. Also below the tower, we can see a cinema, more of the apartment buildings in various colors, and the Moranbong public park. Leaving the structure, we get to walk on the road for taking photos of the arch.

Ryuguong Hotel seen from the observation platform of the Arch of Triumph, notice the azalea engraving.

The Arch of Triumph.

Before the tour ends, we visit an exhibition, Walhyang Handcraft Exhibition. It has lots of paintings and other artworks on display, but appear mostly like a shop. I am tempted to buy one of the paintings too. There were paintings at sale at the Paegaebong Hotel in Samjiyon also. Word is that the North Korean artists are good. In the end, I end up buying a white cloth with a landscape scene from Kumgangsan on it. I had hoped to find something with Paektusan on it, but was unable too.

The Mansudae Monument.

We end the day with a dinner at a restaurant near Pyongyang train station. At the square next to the train station there is a big screen with a lot of people sitting in front of, it appear to be screening something from a local tv company. I eat a dinner consisting of fried noodles, eggs, meat, cabbage and more. It is a lot to eat, but good.

Restaurant in Pyongyang.

<- return to PyongyangPyongyang (day 2) ->

Friday, August 24, 2018

Return to Pyongyang

Today is an intermediary day, so this will also be just a short and intermediary post. The only plan for the day is the flight back from Samjiyon to Pyongyang. We have some time before the fly leaves the simple airport here, so when we have finished eating breakfast, we get into the minibus for a short excursion.

Fog encloses the café building at the top of Samjiyon ski resort, as the ski lifts disappear in the clouds.

Observation deck on Samjiyon hill, providing good views of the area if the weather is good.

Samjiyon county is now a focus point for developing tourism in North Korea. Located above the township itself, lies Samjiyon hill, which houses a ski resort. It is not much in use these days, as another ski resort is more popular, but with the ongoing development it just might. From the top of the ski resort, you will get a good view of Samjiyon if the weather is clear. Today, it is far from clear.

One of the bars at Paegaebong Hotel in Samjiyon.

Paula and Sinead playing pool in the sparetime before we drive back to the airport in Samjiyon for our flight to Pyongyang.

After a short and bumpy ride, we can walk out into a grey emptiness. A lookout point, in an architecture you would not be surprised to find in any East block country, we can look farther out into the emptiness. The ski lifts hangs quietly and dormant, disappearing in the fog. However, it is not quiet in Samjiyon, we can hear a lot of sounds coming up from the low clouds. Still grateful for something to do, though. Back at the hotel, we have even some time for a short round of pool too.

Scenery from the streets of Pyongyang.

Driving back to the airport, one thing is certain. They have been busy while we were out hiking. The road is far more flatter and less bumpy now. At the airport it is time to say farewell to our local guides accompanying us on the hike, Mr. Choi and Mr. Hwang. You can maybe say a lot of the customs here regarding the need to have a guide with you, but repeating myself, it is something you just need to be become accustomed to. For me, it has actually been nice spending the time with them. Especially Mr. Choi has gotten along well with the group.

Life in Pyongyang.

The weather in Pyongyang is no better, it actually looks worse. The surrounding landscape is barely visible when we go in for landing. Driving through the city in this weather is far from cheerful. There are people out in the streets, but it does look a little bit more deserted today. Apparently, today is also a free day from the training for the Mass Games. Not much on the plan for today in Pyongyang, so we are confined to what we can do at the hotel.

Small kiosk near the Mansudae Monument in Pyongyang.

Kim Il Sung square.

For dinner we go out to a barbeque restaurant. A small celebration perhaps. This is the last evening together as the whole group, as Jo will travel back home tomorrow morning. It is done in the same way here as in the south. We get a barbecue in the table in front of us and plates with raw meat that we barbecue ourselves. A lot of food, and quite delicious, but apparently not enough. For after eating our bellies full, our guides asks us for what we wants as main dish. We believe it to be a joke, but they appear to be serious. No room for more though, so no main dish.

Celebrating our hike in Pyongyang at a barbeque restaurant. From left: Mr. Kim, Jo, Roger, Paula, Sinead, me and Mr. Hwang.

It is a little bit weird to think that it is actually just one country between North Korea and Norway.

Tomorrow, we will be regular tourists in Pyongyang. I look forward to it, although I do miss being out in the outdoors.

Pyongyang Grand Theatre in the evening.

<- SamjiyonPyongyang (day 1) ->

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