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.
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.
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.
After lunch we went back to Pyongyang.
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.
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.
Other modes of transportation were not so relaxing and refined.
Most people rode bicycles or walked, leaving streets empty save for a few buses, trams, military vehicles and the occasional car.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.