Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pyongyang, North Korea: Day 126 - Entering a time warp

Everyone on the Air Koryo flight is a little on edge and there is barely any of the usual pre-boarding chaos that ensues before take-off. Clearly, everyone has taken the pre-tour orientation seriously.

Last evening, at the Koryo Tours office briefing in Beijing we have been instructed on dos and don'ts while in North Korea. Don't fold anything that may have the image of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong-il; This includes in-flight magazines, brochures, books and posters. Don't take pictures of North Korean citizens or monuments without first asking permission from the official tour guides. Don't venture away from the tour group. North Korea is to be referred to as 'DPRK' - the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Do not question their version of history. "And above all", we are told, "show the greatest respect for the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and the Eternal President Kim Il Sung". We are reminded over and over again that it isn't a free country.

At Pyongyang airport, we are greeted by the smiling portrait of Kim Il Sung perched atop a one storey structure, an image that will be ubiquitous for the next 4 days. We are asked to deposit our cell phones at immigration and laptops are subject to a great deal of scrutiny. Once outside, our group of 19 is assigned to 3 official guides - Ms. Song Sim, Mr.'O' and Mr. Kim who seem casual, eager to please and surprisingly very chatty.
En route to the hotel, we stop at the Arch of Triumph built to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan that ended in 1945. They proudly claim that it is higher than the one in Paris. But everyone in the tour group seems more interested in getting a glimpse of street life - whatever little there is of it.

A lot of old trolley buses and perhaps 2 or 3 vans on the entire road. There is absolutely no visible signs of commerce - no neon signage, no advertisements and no billboards. There is a clinical emptiness to everything, as if the uniform gray buildings lining the streets are just a stage set.

We check into the 40 something storey Yanggakdo Hotel located on a little island in the middle of the city. We joke that it's like Alcatraz - virtually impossible to escape from. No kidding, tourists can roam the island but we aren't allowed to venture out of it. The city's premiere 5 star hotel is decorated like a 1960's motel but we love the vistas of the city at dusk.By evening the city looks straight out of a science fiction novel. The imposing Ryugyŏng Hotel pierces through the skyline dwarfing everything around it. The city stays lit till 10pm but then abruptly plunges into complete darkness for the rest of the night.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Beijing-Pyongyang - Day 125: Headed to the least understood country

Tomorrow we leave for North Korea - an alien communist country that has fascinated my husband for years. It's a peculiar travel destination and perhaps a little dangerous, but a once in a lifetime opportunity at venturing into a secluded and secretive country that lets in only a handful of tourists every year.

US citizens are currently only permitted to travel to the DPRK (North Korea) when the mass games are held which is from August 10th until the end of September this year. The Mass Games involves over 100,000 performers and is the largest choreographed human spectacle.

We will be traveling with Koryo Tours - a UK based tour group that has been taking tourists in since 1982. They are considered experts on DPRK, have hosted friendship football matches and produced the first travel program on North Korea. The team at Koryo have been very supportive of letting us travel with Isaac and assuaged any fear that we had about his safety.

To prep for our trip, we watched 'A State of Mind' - a documentary that follows two North Korean schoolgirls and their families in the lead up to the Mass Games. Here's a clip of the trailer -

More when we come back.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Beijing, China- Day 119 : A place to call home

Ever since we left India on May 6th, we haven't stayed in any one city for more than 5 nights. So it has been a welcome break to finally have an apartment in Beijing for 2 whole weeks. Its given us the opportunity to explore and appreciate this immense city without rushing ourselves. Immersing ourselves in Beijing has already helped Isaac pick up more Chinese than I have, and is constantly saying "Ni-hao"(Hello) and "Shaeshae"(Thank you).

Perhaps most disappointing has been the extent of urban pollution which Beijing got such a bad rap for during the Olympics. We haven't seen a blue sky and the city is always clouded under a gray smog. Pollution apart, Beijing has blown me away with not just its palatial temples and palaces but also its new urban identity. Anyone who visits will agree the metro and bus systems are among the best in the world and its futuristic skyscrapers are architectural marvels.

I will be posting more pictures on my FB album in a few days. In the meantime here's a video of Isaac at the Lama Temple -

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