Thursday, May 10, 2007

DPRK, Day 2

Day 2. Mausoleum, Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, Pyongyang Metro, Mangyongdae, Mt. Myohyang.

The visit to Kumsusan Memorial Palace (Mausoleum of Kim Il Sung) had to be the most surreal experience of my life. The place is massive, like all other monuments and palaces in DPRK. There is even a canal full of fish and swans right in front. But as you can see here no one is allowed to walk too close to the building itself and therefore it has this deserted feel to it. Public access to the building is through a small building on the side and a long series of tunnels (some underground), all equipped with travelators. (And guess what: the travelators are all made in Shanghai!)
We had to go through a number of security and cleansing procedures before we got to meet Kim. First we had to surrender all personal belongings and cameras. We then walked through a metal detector. OK. Then we had to step on a meter-long conveyor belt with brushes/scrubs and water (like a horizontal car wash) to have our soles cleaned. Towels were handed out for cleaning our hands. Then came another 3-meter conveyor belt where we got X-rayed. I hope that didn't do us too many harm. And last and the wackiest of all: the wind tunnel! Allegedly it's there to blow all the dust and dandruff off us common people.

When we finally got to Kim's resting place 25 mins later, I was a little freaked out. The embalmed body of Kim was in the middle of the room in full view. There was this music playing continuously at the background and we had to line up and bow to him at his 3 sides. The atmosphere was just bizarre and eerie. My stomach felt knotted and somehow the memories of all the dead bodies I had seen came rushing in - it was the weirdest thing.

I was relieved to be out of the room. Next we were shown a room with the Leader's medals and achievements, then electronic maps with the time and distance of the trips he made visiting the people in the country. We also got to see his bullet-proof train (a gift from Stalin), his S500, now resting on porcelain stands and polished squeaky clean. With a trembled and near sobbing voice the guide recounted the Leader's magnificent history.

To exit the building we had to go through the long tunnels again (no cleansing this time). It was nice to finally see sunlight. The gigantic front gates of the Mausoleum were impressive too.
Next we were taken to the Revolutionary Martys Cemetery, totalling 30 hectares in size. View from top of the cemetery's entrance.The park was build in memories of the comrades who died in the Korean revolution. I assume it is referring to the transition from Japanese occupation in 1911 to the Nation Liberation in 1945. The part which confuses me is that this year is Juche Year 96, which implies Juche started in 1911?

Truck-loads of soldiers were there to pay their respect and to visit the Mausoleum. Note on the background May Day Stadium.

Next the Metro. Never before we were so hyped about going on the subway - just because we were told tourists aren't allowed to use it (unless accompanied by guides). Human nature eh. A typical subway entrance:

There are two lines and the stops all have revolutionary names such as Victory, Reunification, Liberation. My favourite has to be Hwanggumbol, which means Fields Billowing with Golden Ears of Crops. Poetic. We were allowed to travel one stop from Puhung (Reconstruction) to Yonggwang (Glory). Rumor has it more lines are there but they are available only to the officials and elites. Who knows?
The escalator down was unusually long! Some say the stations are also being used as bomb shelters.
They even had a little man sitting on the bottom of the escalator (I assumed he's there for safety reasons?).
Each station is decorated differently (at least the two we've been to). Below is Puhung Station.
Yonggwang Station is also quite a showcase. I wonder if the rest of the stations are as grand as these two?
The station walls are decorated with huge mosaic paintings, some depict famous scenes and buildings in North Korea, but most are revolutionary paintings.
Happy workers going to work.
Kim and people rebuilding the country.
The "retro" train. With pictures of Kims overlooking us the ride was pretty smooth. Some say there are German graffiti on the windows because the trains came from the former East Germany.
If you are interested in learning more about the north Korean Metro and transportation system, you may visit this very detailed unofficial site, completed with music clips on the the patriotic songs they play in the stations.

After an excellent lunch we had a brief look at Mangyongdae, the birth place of Kim Il Sung, and we got to hear stories of his humble beginning.

And off we went to Mt Myohyang. It was almost 6pm when we got there. Our guide H: You can hike up to the top if you wish. Us: How long will it take? H: An hour or two. Us: What time does it get dark here? H: 7pm. Us: WTF....... and we began running.
There are 5 valleys in the area all dotted with waterfalls. The one we walked up is called Manpok. The scenery on the way up was quite pleasant.
With the time constraint the hike was rather strenuous. Funny that this was the only time we were left alone unescorted. Our guide H, watcher-dudes and Leisure Suit Larry all waited at the bottom of the valley.
At 6:45pm we finally got to Kuchung (9-tiered) Falls. My husband climbed half way up and discovered one more waterfall beyond Kuchung! Dang. Our legs were shaking and we were short of daylight so we started the descend. A bit of a shame really. In retrospect it was probably not a bad idea because my calves hurt so badly for the next 4 days I could hardly hop up and down the tour bus.

On the way back to the hotel our guide H informed us that we would have showers before dinner. We laughed. Since there was not much going on we decided to hit the hotel karaoke after the unsatisfying meal. It turned out to be the most entertaining karaoke night in my life. The place is straight out of the 70s, completed with a mirror disco ball. There we sang oldies and drank soju. The boys picked We are the Champions but it's not what we had in mind. This version is instead a Japanese World Cup song with entertaining lines. And it goes on for about 8 mins with lines like ole ole ole ole. Nippon! Nippon! Nippon! Soccer! Soccer! Soccer! Classic!

Our hotel. I like the cunning attempt to blend the building with its mountainous surrounding. Why not have cottages if electricity supply might be a problem? (At least half the wing had the lights off - rather creepy.) Oh no we must have somewhere to put the mandatory revolving restaurant!

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