Monthly Archives: October 2010

Kinmen, Republic of China

 ROC Stamp

After the typhoon moved inland, I had a chance to see some more of Xiamen. I went to Gulangyu, an island just a few minutes from the coast. If you had the place to yourself, it would be stunning with its crumbling colonial architecture, well-kept churches and piano music wafting out of windows. But on the day I went, so did dozens of tour groups led by guides barking into loudhailers. It was about as tranquil and relaxing as a day at Alton Towers, so I got out of there after a cursory look around.

The next day, I left the People’s Republic of China and took the ferry one hour away to Kinmen, an island administered by the Republic of China (Taiwan).

Taiwan, along with Tibet and Tiananmen Square, is one of ‘the 3 Ts’ – taboo topics in mainland China. In the official Chinese narrative, Taiwan is a renegade province that must return to the motherland. Actually, in writing this, I realise how much I’ve internalised these taboos – I’m not sure how to approach the Taiwan subject. In the back of my mind there are jackbooted storm troopers about to take me away and cattle prod my testicles if I say the wrong thing.

Anyway, Kinmen was the frontline of the war between the Kuomintang (国民党) and the Communists after the former retreated from the mainland and took control of Taiwan.

ROC vs PRC

The painting above – from one of several war museums on the island – shows communist troops surrendering after a botched attempt to take back the island. It’s amazing that the communists never succeeded in taking the territory given its size and proximity to the mainland. The military are still a big part of life on Kinmen, and soldiers and current and former military installations are everywhere.

Kinmen Look Out

On my first day on the island, I followed the map to a coastal tunnel built to give cover to military vessels. There are few things I can do well, but reading a map is one of them – and this map took me the wrong way. I found myself walking down a dirt path to the fortified gates of an army barracks. I was about to turn away but the sentry looked friendly, so I walked up and asked – in my awful Chinese – for directions. Sensing that I wouldn’t understand his response, he made a phone call, and a couple of minutes later another soldier came running up and gave me directions in English.

I walked down the road for ten minutes and then heard someone running up behind me. It was the English-speaking soldier – he’d written down the name of the tunnel for me in Chinese so I could recognise it when I got there. Everyone I met on Kinmen was friendly – the taxi driver who told me not to take a taxi but to save money by taking the bus, the shopkeeper who gave me a discount after telling me how much he loved England.

The villages on the island are very well-preserved, with one-storey houses with swallow-tail roofs:   

Kinmen House Swallow Tail

Not since Bali have I seen a place with so many temples:

Kinmen Temple

Religion and military history combine in a temple built to commemorate soldiers who died during the war against the communists. A soldier sits beside Buddha on the alter and troops guard the entrance:

Kinmen Soldier

The island suffers very strong winds which this Wind Lion God helps to keep at bay:

Kinmen Wind Lion God

Kinmen Wind Lion God 2 

The year in Taiwan is ‘99’ because it’s ninety-nine years since the founding of the Republic of China. They do use the Western system as well, but the Taiwanese system is used on public buildings like the island’s prison:

Kinmen Prison Date

I spent just two days on the island and then returned to the mainland.

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A Typhoon of Boredom

Right now I should be on Gulangyu, a small island just off the coast of Xiamen. A foreign concession during the late Qing Dynasty, it still has many colonial buildings including a gothic Catholic church. Cars and motorbikes are prohibited, making it a peaceful place to stroll around.

In my pocket, I should have my ticket to another island, Kinmen, for tomorrow morning. Kinmen is just an hour’s ferry journey from Xiamen but is administered by the Republic of China (Taiwan). It was the site of fierce battles between the PRC and ROC and still has a heavy military presence.

I am not on Gulangyu. I do not have a ticket to Kinmen. I am in a shabby hotel near Xiamen train station waiting for Typhoon Megi to stop being a twat. Over the past couple of days, the typhoon hit the Philippines and Taiwan causing damage to coastal roads and killing several people. It’s hitting Xiamen at the moment.

That sounds quite exciting, doesn’t it? It’s not – thankfully the typhoon is not as strong now and there’s nothing to see except heavy rain and waving trees. It’s not Hollywood bad weather, with severed limbs and flaming petrol tankers flying through the air. It’s just rain, rain, rain, rain and wind.

Naturally, when I woke up this morning and saw Xiamen and swirling weather graphics all over the TV, I went to the beach to see if there were any tsunamis but all I saw was angry grey water and lashing rain. I went to a former German fort on the seafront. It was locked up and had this sign on the door:

Xiamen Fort Closed

I translated it and it says:

Are you a moron? There’s a typhoon coming so why have you crossed the city and climbed a hill in the pouring rain to see an open-air fort that would obviously be closed? Piss off.

By this time, my sponge-like shoes had sucked up puddles of filthy water, my jeans were also soaked and I couldn’t think of anywhere dry to go. I took some pictures of the clouds then went back to the hotel where I have nothing to do but wait.

Xiamen Typhoon Megi Is Coming

Since leaving Pyongyang, I’ve done very little. I spent two nights on trains then one night in Fuzhou. I had a quick look around the city yesterday morning but there was nothing to see. I never wanted to go to Fuzhou – it just happened to be the closest city to Xiamen that still had train tickets available when I got to Beijing. Then I took a coach to Xiamen, walked around for an hour until it got dark and then went to Tesco.

The typhoon should have passed by tomorrow so hopefully I’ll get to see more of Xiamen than a fleapit hotel, Tesco and a closed fort.

North Korea: Day 4

 Pyongyang Train Station

My four day tour was really a two day tour with two days spent going back and forwards to Pyongyang. As with the first day, most of day four was spent travelling.

We went to Pyongyang station at about 9am. The Chinese-Korean guide told me that he paid the required tip to the tour guides. The tip should be 20RMB per person – for our group of seventeen, 340RMB. This is to be split three ways between the driver and two guides. But one of the guides told him to only give 60 yuan to the driver, so that she could have the rest of his share. Very money focused.

Kim Il Sung Slogan

Sitting opposite me on the train was the guide of a different tour group. She gave tours in Chinese but was learning English. I looked at the North Korean English book she was studying – a seemingly random list of words with ‘Ku Klux Klan’, ‘prostitution’ and ‘United Nations’ on the same page.

I spoke to her and she seemed keen to practice her English. She said she’d been studying for a year. I was shocked because her English was excellent. Her pronunciation was a little off but her vocabulary was extraordinary for a student of one year.

She told me that her father is an army officer and her mother a music teacher. She always brought the conversation round to relationships – was I married? did I have a girlfriend? what kinds of girls did I like? would I marry a Chinese girl? It was hard to be honest with my answers. Other than a few mentions of the leaders, she seemed just like a young Chinese or South Korean woman.

Back at Sinuiju station, we had another bag check, again with some people getting thorough checks with every picture on their camera being looked at and others, including me, getting just a cursory check. We said goodbye to the guides. As the train pulled out of the station to return to China, people shouted and applauded. There was a palpable feeling of a weight being lifted, of a return to some kind of freedom.

I said goodbye to the Chinese-Korean guide. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I’d have enjoyed the trip as much as I did. He always did his best to help me out.

After the five hour train journey from Pyongyang to Dandong, I had two hours to negotiate a partial refund with the tour agent (a measly 400RMB) then I took a train to Beijing (14 hours) and, after another two hour wait, a train to Fuzhou (34 hours). So I’ve spent 53 hours on trains over the past three days and travelled around 3,680km. My back aches and my stomach is very uncomfortable but, after a shower and a shave, I feel OK and I’m sure the trip was worth the cost and time, despite its flaws.

North Korea: Day 3

Kim Il Sung Statue 2

The third day started with a trip to Pyongyang’s most important landmark – the Kim Il Sung statue above. The guides told us to line up in front of it and together we bowed. Some people bought flowers to place at his feet. We could only take full-length photographs.

We got back on the coach to see the International Friendship Exhibition – two buildings full of gifts given to the Kims. No cameras were allowed inside, we wore shoe covers to protect the floor, guards carried silver machine guns. It felt more like a place of worship than a museum.

International Friendship Exhibition

Inside was room after room of gaudy tat. If Saddam Hussein had had a jumble sale, it would look like that. There was a clock with elephant tusks from Mugabe, cars from Stalin and several rooms of bric-a-brac and luxury goods from China. Chinese tax payers should be angry to know that public money is being spent on buying a Buick and rooms of gold booty for Kim Jong Il. 

We were taken to a room with a hilariously bad waxwork of Kim Il Sung – he looked like Mr. Toad. We lined up again and were told to bow three times. Bowing to a statue seemed strange, but not much more strange than laying flowers on a grave or holding a minute’s silence. Bowing to a shit Mr. Toad waxwork was nuts.

International Friendship Exhibition 2

The museum was one of the few places where we saw large numbers of North Koreans close-up. Groups of soldiers and women in traditional dress were guided through. They bowed to various statues and portraits and looked around reverentially.

In the picture above, you can see two groups of North Koreans heading towards the museum. Even civilians walked together like soldiers on parade.

We went to a Buddhist temple nearby and I picked up a piece of paper off the floor. It was half written in Korean and half in English:

‘What’s the eclipse of the moon. When the moon goes between the earth and the sun them stops the light from the sun.

‘What’s the eclipse of the moon? When the earth goes between the moon and the sun the moon goes in the shadow and it disappears for a few minutes’

I assume it’s someone’s schoolwork. Because the trip was so inauthentic – we never touched Korean money, ate imported snacks from Singapore and Japan, and went to tourist shops, hotels and restaurants – it was interesting to see that little authentic piece of paper. I don’t usually make a habit of picking up rubbish from the floor.

We ate lunch in a hotel with a huge Kim mural. Unusually, there were North Korean guests at the hotel, though they ate in a separate room.

Hotel Mural

I don’t even really want to write about the next thing because I hated it so much. We went to a school in Pyongyang – the parts that we saw were so clearly not used by students – and watched some heavily made-up little girls dance and lip-sync Korean songs. After they performed, the girls dragged the guests – apart from me, the only non-Asian – up to the front to dance with them in a circle. The guide seemed annoyed that they had left me out. He roughly separated two of the girls and made them hold my hands. They looked scared and I could feel them shaking.

Look at their faces in the picture below. I’ve never felt so much like a Catholic priest – watching terrified little children degrade themselves for my enjoyment.

Frightened North Korean Girls

Pyongyang Arch

After visiting the Arch of Triumph, we went on to the highlight of the trip – The Arirang Mass Games. Kim Jong Il visited with his son and heir about a week ago. We were lucky to have the chance to see it – usually it runs for about two months from August 1st. But this year the run was extended for a few weeks. 

Arrirang Stadium

Arrirang Kim Il Sung

All of the performers in the picture below are children. At one point, when they were standing in rows, I counted 560 children – then, several hundred more joined them. Apparently, when Kim Jong Il visits, he always stands when the children perform.

Arrirang Children Arrirang Rabbits

The mosaic picture at the back is made up of hundreds of people holding coloured cards and changing them at the exact same time.

This year, for the first time, the performance includes a celebration of China and North Korea’s relationship.

Arrirang China

We went back to the hotel. I was surprised that we had BBC World News in the room in addition to several Chinese and Russian channels and the two North Korean channels which seemed to show little more than patriotic music.

North Korea: Day 2

Yanggakdo Hotel

The first revelation of day two was that there would be no English speaking guide. The North Koreans said that nobody had requested the guide for me. I didn’t know who to blame but there was clearly nothing I could do about it.

I missed out on a lot. I never got to hear the North Korean versions of events and I never got to ask questions. I sometimes felt like a child, never totally understanding what was going on. Fortunately, the Chinese-Korean man I was sharing a room with spoke English and was very kind. But he didn’t have the specialised vocabulary to translate for me.

He told me about his dealings with the North Korean guides. He said they cared only about money. This was confirmed to me when I spoke, in Chinese, to the female guide. Her first question was “how much money do you earn?”.

She had memorised the names of all the members of the tour group and remembered my full name with both middle names. Not an easy thing to do if you aren’t an English speaker.

PyongyangTraditional Dress

We left Pyongyang early in the morning and travelled by coach to Panmunjom, the truce village in the DMZ and the border between North and South.

I visited the DMZ from the South last year. It was an unnerving experience. We signed waivers saying that neither the UN or South Korea could be held responsible in the event of our deaths. We passed tank blockers, kilometres of barbed wire and rapid response vehicles with soldiers waiting to be deployed in the event of gunfire.

From the North it wasn’t so intimidating because the military is everywhere anyway. To the casual observer, the DMZ didn’t look much more fortified than a provincial train station. We went through five roadblocks and were strictly told not to take pictures of soldiers or anything military-related except at the frontline.

DMZ

After the DMZ, we went to Kaesong, a city most famous for having the only North-South joint business venture, a factory complex that employs South Korean managers and North Korean workers. We didn’t see that. We sped through the more decrepit parts of the city to leafy boulevards and a museum in a 500 year old university complex.

Kaesong Street

After lunch we went back to Pyongyang.

Kim Il Sung

A vast amount of time on this trip was spent in trains and coaches. There was never a single occasion when we  walked down a street – just trains, coaches and, after lunch on day two, the subway. Pyongyang subway is incredibly deep below ground allowing it to double as a nuclear bomb shelter. I have never been on a longer escalator.

Pyongyang Subway Platform

Pyongyang Subway Kim Il Sung Mural

As we got on the train, I saw a cleaner quickly finish cleaning the carriage which had been left empty for us. This is the kind of stage-management that seemed to go on at every stage of our trip. Tickets, we were told, cost about 3-4pence depending on distance.

Pyongyang Subway Train Pyongyang Subway Escalator

Pyongyang Subway Map

Other modes of transportation were not so relaxing and refined.

Cramped Pyongyang

Most people rode bicycles or walked, leaving streets empty save for a few buses, trams, military vehicles and the occasional car.

Pyongyang Empty Street

Back on the coach and travelling to the next destination in Pyongyang, you could see hints of extreme income disparity. This boy, wearing Western-style clothes and talking into his mobile phone, is an example. Our guides had mobile phones, presumably a necessity for their job, but we rarely saw mobiles amongst the civilian population. This boy must have a very powerful father to be allowed to behave like that.

Pyongyang Mobile Phone

Most shops in Pyongyang have illustrations of the products they sell on blue signs above the door. I never saw more than a couple of customers in these shops and we certainly weren’t allowed inside.

Pyongyang Stationary Shop  Juche

At the ‘Tower of the Juche Idea’ (above) I saw another privileged boy carrying a toy gun with sound effects. When his father saw me, he spoke to the boy, who then pointed the gun in my direction and fired.

Boy with Gun 

The last place we visited that day was the (alleged) birthplace of Kim Il Sung. It felt like visiting Jesus’ (alleged) birthplace in Bethlehem as we were shown round by a soft speaking guide and saw the tools made by Kim Il Sung’s grandfather and the small rooms where the leader apparently spent his youth.

Kim Il Sung's Birth Place

That evening, another guest in our group, one of a party of five doctors, knocked on our door. He wanted to treat us to some drinks and food. We went down to the basement restaurant, next to a casino staffed by Chinese, and he spent, for three of us, 690RMB – almost £70 – on food and drink that would have cost less than one-tenth of that price in most Chinese restaurants.

He and his companions – doctors remember – spent the whole four days smoking, drinking, farting, hacking up phlegm and belching. They shouted at each other at the tops of their voices and tried to outdo each other by wasting the most money. They had infinite quantities of vacuum-packed boiled eggs and chicken’s feet that they pressured others to eat at every meal. At lunch and supper times, they poured me glasses of 56% proof baijiu and shouted at me until I drank some.

The doctor who treated us chain-smoked 60RMB-a-packet cigarettes and told us about how much money he made – just 5,000RMB salary but a hell of a lot more on kickbacks. The Chinese-Korean man told me that Chinese doctors used to be referred to as ‘white angels’. Now they are known as ‘black angels’ because they won’t treat you unless you put some money under the table.

North Korea: Day 1

Pyongyang Skyline

I went to North Korea as a tourist with a camera. I seem to have come back as Leni Riefenstahl. The North Korea in my pictures is the official version. I stayed in a 43-storey tourist hotel, shopped in tourist shops (with prices in Chinese RMB and Euros), and visited the Kim regime’s choice of tourist attractions, all the time accompanied by government guides.

The Pyongyang I saw was the manicured, immaculately clean city centre with neat little shops, beer kiosks, a beautifully decorated subway and smartly dressed, well-fed citizens. The electricity was always on and there was food on every table.

A photograph of a Kim Il Sung statue in Pyongyang looks no more sinister than one of a Mao statue in Beijing. A camera can’t capture the distinctions. The personality cult of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il looks eccentric rather than brutal.

Kim Il Sung Statue

By showing these pictures, I’m doing my very, very small part to disseminate the messages of the Pyongyang propaganda machine. These are my best photographs of the best parts of a country that does everything in its power to hide its secrets.  As you would expect, these are more like Berlin Olympics pictures than Auschwitz gas chamber pictures.

I do have a few pictures taken discreetly through the windows of the fast-moving coach, but blurred photographs of people on bicycles and glimpses of poverty don’t really add much to the story.

Sinuiju

After handing in my mobile phone at the travel agency, I met the sixteen other people in my tour group at Dandong station. All of them were Chinese but I was assured that the English-speaking guide I had paid for would be waiting in Pyongyang. We were ushered up to Chinese immigration control and boarded an unheated, hard-seat train.

We crossed the bridge into North Korea. Directly opposite Dandong is the small industrial city of Sinuiju. From the Chinese side of the river, trees hide most of the city, with only smoke stacks, a vacant funfair and limited dockside activity visible. 

Sinuiju Riverside

Sinuiju Lorries

We passed the decaying riverfront and lorries waiting to cross the bridge and almost immediately stopped at Sunuiju station.

Sinuiju Station

Soldiers and guards with stern expressions and poorly fitting uniforms entered the carriage. We were told to open our bags. A guard with an electronic temperature reader checked each of us. Soldiers on the platform carried machine guns.

A guard lifted some clothes out of my bag, rooted around for a couple of seconds and moved on. The man on the other side of the aisle, however, was given a thorough check – everything was taken out of his bag, pictures on his camera were checked, his books were flicked through, and he was patted down and scanned with an electric wand.

We handed in our passports (we wouldn’t get them back until we left North Korea) and were taken to a waiting room with covered windows and Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il portraits on the wall.

Sinuiju Waiting Room 

UN sanctions haven’t stopped luxury goods from finding their way to the train station duty free – bottles of Hennessey cognac were on sale for up to 1880RMB.

We had to wait two hours for the train to Pyongyang. Our Chinese-speaking North Korean guides arrived. The woman was twenty-seven years old, had plump cheeks, powdered white skin, wore a knee-length yellow leather coat and smelt of perfume. The man, around forty, wore a trench coat that he flicked around like Chow Yun Fat in a Hong Kong action movie.

It later became clear that neither of them were typical North Koreans. Whenever we walked through crowds, they stood out from their countrymen – they were taller, stronger, had clearer complexions and fuller faces. They wouldn’t have looked out of place on the streets of Seoul or Beijing. They were fine physical specimens chosen to represent their country.

Some other tour groups crossed at the same time and I recognised one of their guides from a hidden camera documentary about North Korea from a few years ago.

The guides instructed us not to take photographs while on the train and not to use MP3 players while in North Korea. We boarded another train – again with Kim portraits on the wall, and started the five hour journey to Pyongyang.

From Sinuiju to Pyongyang, most of the view looked like this:

North Korean Countryside 

Slightly scorched-looking farmland set against a backdrop of mountains. There were few sealed roads, almost no vehicles, and only occasionally farming machinery. Men, women and children harvested with scythes. There were small villages of white-washed single-storey buildings each with a Kim Jong Il slogan or Kim Il Sung statue.

Kim Jong Il Slogan

We passed through small cities that had identical stations with Kim Il Sung portraits above the entrance. A couple of times some of us got out and stood on the platform while passengers were getting on and off the train. There were armed guards at every station. More than half of every crowd wore military uniforms.

In similarly sized rural locations in China, I would have had a lot of attention paid to me. People would have pointed me out to their children, others would have giggled, there would have been shouts of ‘laowai!’ (foreigner), old men would have stared. This didn’t happen at the North Korean stations. People glanced and very quickly looked away. Nobody made eye contact.

It was dark by the time we arrived in Pyongyang. We left the station through a special exit and got on to a coach. It was a short journey to the hotel, a tall building on an island in the river. It seemed to be almost empty. The lobby reminded me of Brunei airport with its faded attempts at grandeur.

 Pyongyang Hotel Lobby

I shared a room with a young Chinese-Korean man who was a representative of the Chinese travel agency and liked Britpop. We had a beer, looked around the hotel and the day was over.

Waiting for North Korea

I expected the first few days of this trip to be difficult. I was right. I’ve come a very long way, more than 1000 kilometres from Beijing, in order to do little more than wait for my trip to North Korea. It’s not the best way to start my middle-class backpacking cliché, but it’s necessary.

I went to Dalian first. It’s clean, modern and developed, but there’s very little to do. I walked around the coast from Xinghai Square (below) and got a little sunburnt. My skin, pale and fragile after a summer of hiding behind closed curtains in air-conditioned rooms, couldn’t handle a few hours of mild sunshine. I didn’t feel happy that day.

Xinghai Square

Leaving Beijing marked an abrupt change to my lifestyle, which has mostly revolved around work since the beginning of the summer.

When I had a routine and work to go to, being alone so much of the time seemed less troublesome, but take those things away and life gets lonely. I’m haunted by the ghosts of my previous travelling companions – Alex, with whom I visited this province last year, and H, a screaming, chain-rattling poltergeist. I haven’t travelled by myself for a long time.

Then there’s the problem of my body – perfectly adequate when I’m taking the subway, walking to the supermarket or sitting in front of a computer – but far less suited to the rigours of hill climbing, long walks and overnight travel in a narrow train berth. In other words, I can’t ignore how overweight I got over the last year. It’s no longer just an aesthetic problem.

I don’t want to dwell on these things so I’ll feign optimism and say I’m sure it’ll all be OK.

Anyway, I was less than enthusiastic during those first couple of days. After one night in Dalian, I was happy to leave and had a very civilized bus ride along almost empty highways to Dandong, a city twinned with Doncaster, where I checked into my bargain basement hotel in the grubbiest part of town. Emblazoned across the back of the uniforms of the local middle school students is the English word ‘Struggling’. Not ‘Striving’ or ‘Endeavouring’, but ‘Struggling’. It aptly describes this part of the city.

I went to the travel agency that will take me to North Korea tomorrow. If it wasn’t for the fact that I haven’t given them any money yet, I’d be convinced that it’s a scam. I’m not totally sure that it’s all going to happen – expect an angry rant this time tomorrow if it doesn’t work out.

I like Dandong a lot. As they develop, Chinese cities tend to reach a point where developers bulldoze towerblocks and replace them with an incongruous mix of Disney-fied, faux-European castles and glass-and-steel UFO buildings. That hasn’t happened too much to Dandong, and it’s all the better for it. It’s relatively quiet but the proximity to North Korea gives it an edge.

This afternoon I walked to a hillside park in the northwest of the city.

Dandong park 

I was too late to go up the tower at the peak but, even from the foot of it, the views were sensational and well worth the heart attack, stroke and complete physical and mental breakdown induced by the hill climb. Just look at the difference between Dandong and the North Korean city Sinuiju on the other side of the Yalu river.

Dandong Sinuiju

I had a good afternoon and it got me excited about tomorrow. If all goes as planned, expect my next update in about six days, after North Korea and after I move on to my next destination.