Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Report from North Korea (I) 去北朝鲜旅游:报告(I)

No eagles in the sky of Democratic Korea

Why I decided to go to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? Hard to say. Let me first tell you two things:

- I was planning it since 2005 when I suddenly had the idea to write my MA thesis about North Korean refugees in China and started to collect material and getting information about it. At the end I changed my idea and turned topic about economic development in Tibet;

- “Why are you going to North Korea?” is the question I heard more often recently. There could be still many reasons for me to visit DPRK, but for now I cannot figure out a precise one.

My tour began in Beijing, central train station. Everything is organized by a Chinese travel agency based in DanDong, on the border line with DPRK. I found their contact on the net and had a long conversation by e-mail with Sabrina, a Chinese girl who works with them. Later, I realized DanDong is full of travel agencies which organize tour to DPRK. What I had to do is just to bring my ass to DanDong (14 hours by train from Beijing, 143 RMB, “hard seat”), my passport, two pictures and 5.600 RMB cash (around 500 euro). It is an everything included price (four days tour, visa, train to Pyongyang, bus, accommodation, food, tickets for museums and other places. What is not included is “shopping”. But “Shopping in North Korea” sounds more like a cult movie or the title for a best seller). It’s not cheap at all, but cheap enough if compared with other prices set out by other companies in Beijing who work with DPRK. For the same programme of travel, the price for Chinese tourists is almost the half. I think it’s due to China-DPRK economic and politic agreements. China is the first trade partner of North Korea, and send them huge amount of cereals and other grass materials to supply DPRK’s economic difficulties. To get visa and permission to visit DPRK for U.S., South Korea and Japan citizens is harder and more expensive. Should be easier for Cambodians, Vietnamese, Laotians and Australians. Almost impossible for journalists, reporters and professional photographers.

The long way from Beijing to DanDong passed pretty fast. I had long conversation with some Chinese guys sitting in front of me, we talked about DPRK, Chinese and Italian labor and social conditions, Falungong, Dalai Lama, Chinese economic development, migrants, beer. Not, it wasn’t me asking or pointing out those issues, but them. Later an old Chinese came and never stop talking until the morning; he was a kind of high educated member of the CCP and retired teacher, he knows a lot about political issues and tried to convince the other Chinese travelers on the good wishes of the CCP and next coming social and economic successes and accomplishments. He talked eve about Tibet, Xinjiang, ethnic minorities, corruption. Recently, I’m more and more well surprised about the “hot issues” Chinese young and old people I heard to point out daily, in subway, restaurants, University campus.

While smoking a couple of packs of cigarettes in front of the window, I was thinking of how can be DPRK smashed up, never ending landscape of “nothing”, only poor farmlands and grey tall building in Pyongyang… What I am going to see? Something even worse than what I saw in Kenya? And while wondering as above, I suddenly realized that the countryside in front of me was exactly like this! Hebei and Liaoning provinces of China, kilometers and kilometers of nothing, rocks and bare lands, only a few villages of short houses made of red bricks and soil, grey sky, coal smog, broken glasses, farmers dressing like people in Zhang Yimou 1980’s movies. Well, nothing shocking at all actually, that’s only the China we know. But leaving in Beijing for long time this is exactly the kind of China you’re going to remove from your brain. By the way…

I couldn’t sleep for all the trip, red and talked a lot, arrived in DanDng pretty fucked up.
7.17 a.m. I met Sabrina, she showed me their travel agency (that open at 9 a.m.) and suggested me to take a look around. DanDong is a “small village” of two millions of inhabitants, one of the “most Chinese city” I’ve never seen in China. If not for cartel in both Chinese and Korean language. I couldn’t see any foreigners during the 24 hours I spent in DanDong. On the south you can easily find Yalu Jiang (or Amnok River). And in front of you, here you are, North Korea. Grey the sky, grey and muddy the water, “Friendship’s Bridge” which linked the two parts of lands and formal customs in DanDong for DPRK. Built up in 1910 by Japanese army, fucked up by American bombs in 1950, re-built up by Chinese and Korean workers.
It was snowing and raining for all the day, I had the good idea to have a never ending walk all along the river and spent the night in a internet café. Couldn’t sleep even that night, my personal “sleep strike” was keeping on, the night in DanDong ran fast away, with cigarettes, videos and articles about DPRK.
7 a. m., I left the internet café and join the other travelers who were going to North Korea at the train station. They’re eight, all Chinese. Finally a good news. Between them there is a forty something worker from Beijing, he has two daughters who are studying in South Africa; we will call him Mr. Bei. A 18 years old guy from Haerbin (north east China) who is studying in Canada; we will call him Tom. A 28 years old guy from Dalian (not far from DanDong), married, with a daughter of seven months; we will call him Wu. And an old business man from Guangdong (south China), who can’t speak a good Mandarin; we will call him Mr. Guang.

On the train to Pyongyang I am in a cabin with four/five guys from DPRK. They dress all the same, bring many bags with them. One of them can speak a little bit of Chinese, he asked me where I am from, questions about Italy and about my studies in Beijing. I remember them 1966’s Italy-North Korea 0:1 football match and we are immediately friends. They offered me cigarettes, mandarins and cakes, helped me during the boring praxis at the customs. Later, my Chinese friends told me the way from DanDong took seven hours (three hours only for the customs!) but I don’t remember much about that cause I slept for all the trip.

What I remember is one of the most shocking scene of all my life: as we arrived at Pyongyang railway station we came out of the train and there was not any light at all, we could just see people running and screaming in any direction, soldiers and guys in uniform, men and women with big bags on their shoulder bringing children with them. And no light. No fucking light. Everything dark I mean. The only light was that of the moon. We all were a little bit scared. No guide with us, just people screaming and pushing us. Wu tried to ask something but no one could speak Chinese. Finally the light suddenly came back and we could recognize the exit. Pyongyang station looks like Sophia’s railway station (Bulgaria) when I saw it ten years ago. Simply “Stalinist”. Once outside, we finally found our two guides: one 64 years old Korean man, we will call him Mr. Jin, and a young Korean lady, we will call her Miss Ki. Both of them could speak a perfect Chinese, but Mr. Jin’s one has a really strong south China accent. They brought us to the bus for the hotel, apologizing for the delay and the shortage of light in the station.

Shortage of electricity is really common in DPRK. During my four days it happened many times that the light suddenly disappeared, coming back after ten / twenty minutes. Trains always delay because of this. You can easily notice it even because at night the city is almost completely in darkness, no light in the streets, only in some buildings and for great monuments of DPRK’s leaders. The second big shortage is oil. There are no cars in the streets, not even during the day. Really a few one. No oil means no fuel, no fuel means no cars. And no cars no pollution. It’s amazing the silence and tranquility you can feel in a capital city of three millions inhabitants like Pyongyang. Never seen before.

The bus brought us to Yanggakdo Hotel, one of the most tall and luxurious of the city. It’s not far from the center of the city, in the middle of a little island in Datong River. The are no bus or cars in front of the hotel, the parking place is empty. No lights outside of the hotel, no light in the city. As we arrived Mr. Jin and Miss Ki showed us the restaurant and let us have dinner, while they disappeared.
North Korean food is not bad at all: as a western I could say that it is really similar to Chinese and South Korean food, but of course it is not. No matter if breakfast, lunch or dinner time, in these days we have always been eating kimchi (the traditional spicy cabbage, I love it!), eggs, fish, vegetables, omelette, few chicken and pork meat (really few), Korean beer (sweet, I like it), cold water (Chinese people use to drink hot or boiled water, but Koreans do not). Of course my Chinese fellows have never been satisfied with this kind of food, cause of quality and quantity. But Chinese people are never satisfied with any kind of food that is not “their food”, so I think it’s not strange at all.
“3” is the lucky and warmly welcome number in Korea. In China it is “8” or “7”, “4” is the worst one. “Gaomasmida” (or something like that) means “Thank you”, and “Agnonasmida” means “Hey, what’s up dude?!” (in a more polite way).
They have holiday just on Sunday; they celebrate Women’s International Day and Workers’ Day, but not Valentine’s Day; the most important festivity is on April the 15th, Kim Il-sung birth day. There are holidays on Summer and Winter, too.

After the dinner Mr. Jin showed us the rest of the hotel: on the first floor there were barber shops, souvenir shop, bookshop, bars, karaoke, Chinese restaurant, Russian restaurant, ping pong and pool room, swimming pool, sauna, and all this kind of things that are not so common for North Korean people. We asked Mr. Jin if we could go out of the hotel for a walk and he said “better no, it’s dark and dangerous outside”. Mr. Jin is one of the best diplomatic person I have never met, always smiling, always helpful: he knows his job and knows how to not allow you to do something. He asked us to not take pictures of soldiers and military stuff, don’t asked political questions and do not behave disrespectful. At the same time he invited us to ask as many questions as we want and to feel free to take pictures of what we are going to see during the tour. Miss Ki didn’t talk much, she only worked as interpreter for us when visiting monuments or museums.
The hotel was pretty empty, but there were some other customers, Russian, North Koreans, and some British guys I saw in Beijing.
There was shortage of light even in many grounds of the hotel, but our rooms were really clean and had any kind of commodity. Shopping inside the hotel was not that expensive in comparison with hotels in Europe or China: 0.5 euro for a beer, 1 euro for a book written by Kim Jong-il, 2 euro for an hour at ping pong room, 2 euro for cold noodles. You can pay in euro, dollars or renminbi (Chinese currency). You cannot use any international card, but you can change money in the lobby, even if Mr. Jin told us to don’t do that (Korean currency is useless out of DPRK). Tom changed 20 renminbi (about 1.8 euro) for 500 Korean money, only once back in China we have discovered that the change should be 1 renminbi for 400 Korean money. Maybe that’s why Mr. Jin told us to do not change money in the lobby.
The TV inside our room had many channels, most of them from Chinese TV, but even in Russian and Korean. Korean TV has no commercials at all, just broadcast news about their leader and Workers’ Party, TV serials about history of their revolution and life in the countryside. Not so different from the first time I watched TV in China, on February 2004.


Post a Comment

<< Home