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.

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