Pyongyang Inside Out
After showing respect to every monument in Pyongyang, it is now time to inspect some of the impressive facilities North Korea beholds. Our first adventure is a ride on the Pyongyang subway. The fact that Pyongyang subway might be the deepest in the world really excited us. Saying it is a ride, there is but only 1 stop, from Puhung station to Yonggwang station. In fact I have never heard of any non-North Koreans went beyond the two stations; so if anyone did, please raise your hand!
Standing on the escalator going down, I cannot help but feeling a bit nervous, knowing the fact that Pyongyang subway is build with military purpose, and there are many secret government only lines. There are two public lines heavily used by commuters.
Below you can see the map of the two lines; Chollima (千里马, the Korean Pegasus) and Hyoksin (Renovation). If you want to know a bit more about the detailed figures for Pyongyang subway, here is an excellent website for that . Greatly different from the subway maps Tokyo, everything is simple and straight forward here. Just press the button of your destination, it will light up the route for you.
Not surprisingly, the trains used here were purchased from China, made by Changchun car company (长春汽车厂). As we Chinese are never as discrete as North Koreans, the probability of secrete lines built in Pyongyang were soon known by the whole world, but the details of those lines remained a mystery.
On top of the government lines, military usage is also under calculation for the construction of Pyongyang metro. The fact that it is around 100 meters deep already made it a great shelter shall any mass destruction take place. Although, as a general rule, everything in DPRK are put into perspectives by numbers, you need to learn not to trust them 100%. Thus we can only guess the real length and depth of the metro.
Furthermore it is said that Pyongyang subway has an underground square even a road connecting the stations. Military weapons and communication command centers are equipped in the underground square. Imagine doing urban exploration in Pyongyang underground maze!!
After the mysterious gloomy trip in the dark tunnel, we are back on the surface, rejoicing with North Korean people and some luxurious leisure facilities. Below was photos taken in the Changgwang Health Complex, where you can get a haircut and swim at the same time. The hair dressers’ for men and women are separate.
Here are some fashionable hair styles you can choose from. Very easy and straight forward. I wonder what would happen if you want something that is not on the picture. I do not know what kind of people can have the honor of coming here for haircut, but we did not see any young people.
But we soon found out where all the youngsters go; the swimming pool. Here many young kids are practicing hard for either diving or synchronized swimming. Apparently they will be performing on the 100 years birthday of dear leader Kim Il Sung. A group of teenager girls were dancing mechanically in the water with a coach counting the beats with a stick and shouting at the same time.
Even super young girls are determined to contribute to the grand celebration. Here you can see a picture of the little ones getting ready for a dance with their colourful swim rings. Good job girls, I remember president Kim Jung Il specifically mentioned that swimming and shower is very good for the health of youth. As we were driving away from the place, there were many people queuing outside for swimming, the queue was quite long. I wonder where they swim because the part we went is obviously not open to public.
Later on that day we went for a swim in the swimming pool of the our hotel. We had to use the public swimwear they gave us. The North Korean staff thus chose me some pink flowery swimsuit that is completely wet. During the time we are in the pool, a guard was sitting next to the water watching us intensely. Obviously he is not here to save us in case of emergency as he is nicely tugged in his winter jacket.
Time for something serious. We are now back in the famous Grand People’s Study House, which appeared countless times in the previous post. The inside of it is as grand as the outside, with people actually studying.
We were shown to many similar bright classrooms or study rooms with people working silently facing the pictures of two greatest leaders of all times. Each room decorated with some flowers. No one turned around when we enter the room, must all be caught in something really interesting.
It is said that this place is open to public, any one can come and study here as they wish. There are even public lectures and classes given, for the benefits of North Korean people. Many language courses are given: German, English, Russian .etc, but not French. We attended a English lecture, one of those free lectures I suppose. The classroom was full and everyone was very tense listening to the teacher in the front with a Microphone. The ambiance of the class look exactly like those ‘New Oriental’ lessons in China.
Another classic scene was the computer room. As shown above, there were people practising computer skills in this pure white room. Our guide was proudly announcing how people can freely browse the internet if they chose. She even went one step further as to show us the internet connection they have, but was failed ruthlessly and the conversation thus ended abruptly in the middle of no where.
There were even a music room, with nobody inside, left only lines of CD players. The young and energetic guide has now recovered from the previous failure of the internet incident, and is promptly calling other staff to fetch us French and Chinese CD, both are songs. The French one, surprisingly, was something completely normal. The singer, Babara was quite liked by Jordy, although he does not know this particular CD, otherwise we could have got some good Karaoke. The Chinese one was not so convincing. It was a North Korean lady singing some old communist Chinese songs. I could barely recognize my own language.
In the end we went on the roof for a better view of the city. Everything looks so lively. People are walking in the middle of the street as usual, due to the lack of cars. For us who are used to concrete roads full of cars, you always feel that something dramatic is happening, because people are all moving towards the middle of the road. There is only one scenario when that happens: Zombie games!
The next stop: Pyongyang Maternity Hospital! I have always wondered why a maternity hospital are open to public instead of some more general ones. But I forgot that North Koreans do not get sick much, and the weak and ill ones are sent to the remote island already.
On arriving the hospital, we saw many people waiting outside with flowers. Our guides happily told us that they are the family waiting to pick up the mother and new born babies.
And for some reason, our male guide was chosen to accompany us in this maternity hospital. He is a shy and young lad, probably without a girl friend. Translating and explaining everything thus really made him blush. But luckily he had a very cute North Korean Nurse helping him out. Greatly gratified as he is, he asked or her phone number in the elevator (at least it will be less hustle if she gets pregnant.)!!
On entering the hospital, we had to change into sleepers (same with Japan) and put on the doctors white jacket. Our very first time in such a uniform. And as a matter of fact, this hospital is baby friendly….better be I guess?
The hospital looks nice and clean, not many people rushing to emergency room or anything. The women staying here seem comfortable and happy. And as in all Asian countries, they encourage breast-feeding, which probably was instructed by the two great leaders we are dear to.
And part of Kim Il Sung’s super power must have told him, having twins and triplets are good luck for the country, below are a list of gifts you get when you give birth to triplets.
Towards the end of our visit we had the chance to sit down with one of the principles of the hospital and talk over our inspection. The real goal purpose is actually to sell the introduction CD of the hospital. He told us that 80% of North Korean women can give birth naturally without any help.
The principle also invited us to give birth here in this hospital when we have a baby. I am very much obliged to such a warm invitation. But not wanting to buy the CD, we retreated and went on with our tour.
Now you can see a sun bed, apparently it is for mothers who are a bit weak…We even got the chance to visit one of the patient’s room, where two new mothers and their babies stayed. They are to get out of the hospital today, very content they look.
Only recently China opened a supermarket in Pyongyang, but it does not seem to be open when we drove pass. We are now at a famous department store, inside there is this super market. You can tell by the look of the mall that people do not normally shop here. The layout of the different departments are really like that from the 70 or 80th.
Not surprisingly, most things are imported from China. But apparently the rich once only use things imported from Europe. I was trying to look for a rubber band to tie my hair up…but the wish did not prevail. This part of mall really reminded me of the 100 yen shops in Japan. The only difference is that everything is 3 or 4 time the price.
Our lunch was arranged at a hot pot place across the street from the UN office. Seeing some capitalists’ flag flying outside the window, I feel a weird sense of relief. For some reason I assumed that the food must be safe and tasty here. As you can see the dishes are not so different from the normal hotpot in China or Japan. You boil the water, put the Korean sauce in and then throw all the food in the pot. The funny part is that the hot pot is served with many soft cakes and bread. I did not venture touching them. Fusion food is indeed the global trend.
In the afternoon, according to Jordy’s request, we went for a acrobatic show in Pyongyang circus. Small as Pyongyang is, there are more than one circus entertaining the locals (especially the soldiers). Grew up in China, I am not so curious about acrobatic shows. But this one is different; it is the first time I see actors/actresses fail (so many times) on the stage, thus in the end I even began to feel sorry for those young girls and guys.
The circus was in a very new and modern looking building, but it was cold as hell. The show started late, and while we were waiting for it to start, the hall was filled up with only soldiers and young kids; everyone was turning their heads to look at us. During the show, I was at first trying to count the mistakes they make, but soon decided to give up as the success became the rare ones.
Feeling very nervous all the way for the actors and actresses, I really enjoyed it when a small black bear and some dogs came onto the stage. They are probably our favorite part of the show. When everything finally finished, everyone had to wait for us to exit first. Because otherwise we will be taken over and pushed around by the young and energetic North Koreans. Think back about it, we did pay 20 Euros per person to watch the show, they sure have the obligation to let us pass first. 😛
Coming out of the cold theater, we are once more enjoying the sun. Our little van soon took us to a movie studio for a nice afternoon walk. This is the place where our dear leader Kim Jung Il frequented (more than 100 times, according to North Korean numbers). This is quite understandable given the fact that he is a movie fan. According to CNN, president Kim Jung Il’s favorite movie is ‘Gone With the Wind’, and favorite actress Elizabeth Taylor. After all he like cognac and foie gras as well, sounds like a very normal person indeed.
As we walk pass the block of Japan in the 1950-60s, our guide was asking us our favorite type of movies. I aimed for something surely they do not have: romantic love stories. He then proudly pronounced that in North Korea, there are no movies that children and adult cannot enjoy together. No embarrassing or improper contents at all. His favorite type is apparently historical movies.
After a Japanese town of the 50s, there is old Korean town, European town and China town along the road. Everything looks too normal to be taken on the picture. Apparently they can build up new buildings anytime according to requirements. Probably the same way as they pile up new buildings for the 100 anniversary of our dear leader.
Here we are standing at a historical spot. President Km Jung Il used to stand here personally to appreciate the scenery and imagine the length of this road. He even personally named it the ‘ostrich’ road. Watch out, there are ostriches everywhere on both side of the road. Yes, we are inside the famous ostrich farm! Where the meat of the ostriches feed North Korean people (never did us foreigners have the chance to taste it), and the feathers and expensive skins goes abroad to bring some more money in.
Our guide was proudly telling us about the technology they developed in raising the ostriches. At the beginning, the ostriches were not so healthy and happy under the cold weather of Pyongyang. But soon the president gave instructions, pointing out the need for them to develop the right technology for such exotic birds. With this instruction, new technology was soon developed to save the birds from the coldness.
So here is a close up shot of those birds, can you figure out what technology was used to keep them warm? It is invisible it seems. We should have asked the ostriches…
Ah, finally, time for some patriotism lesson, like those we had in China when I was little. You are now looking at an American spy ship named Pueblo. It was captured by the brave North Korean Army on 23 January 1968. From here on there are two sides of the story, for the American version, visit the official site here.
We are now in no position of choosing sides, trapped inside the pitch dark hatch of the ship, under the guard of some armed North Korean soldiers. We then were sat in a freezing cold room to watch a video for the history of Pueblo. I was too cold to concentrate, but the main story was that the American spy ship was captured under operation. The shameless American government kept lying and said it was merely a research ship, and in the end had to agree it being a spy ship, to be able to get the imprisoned Americans back home.
At night we had the last chance to take some pictures of this eerily illuminated city. After de-freezing the windows in our hotel room. We actually had some pretty good shots from up there.
Last night, laying in bed with my upset stomach, worrying not being able to get on the plane but at the same time starting to realize that I will probably miss this expedition in Pyongyang soon. After all, no nation is as closed or as naive as North Korea.
In the morning. with the thought that I will be home on my warm and soft bed with some clean food my mom prepares within an hour, I gathered up all my spirit and dragged our suitcases downstairs. The drive towards the airport was not so long, I gulped my toast down, trying to calm my stomach. The usual procedure of filling up different declaration forms in the airport was cut short here, after all the whole airport is the size of a school playground.
Below you can see us so happy to escape with our pictures un-checked, and some North Korean propaganda posters in my hand. The other two? They are our famous guide, probably happy to get rid of us at this point.
Sitting on the very tiny Russian plane, we are still under the power of Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il. But he does not seem so powerful anymore. We are leaving his grace behind.
You cannot imagine the shock I experienced when landed in Beijing. The 50-years-back time travel is much more shocking when standing outside to look back.
The first thing we did on arrival, is to get some nice chicken burger from KFC. After 4 days, it is very good to be empowered by the imperialism again. Seeing the advertisements everywhere in Beijing, it is impossible to understand how North Koreans can travel abroad and go back to their country afterwards. Long live the DPRK! If it is to still stand after 30 years, we will surely go visit again!