Pyongyang | Travels in the Surreal

Waking up in North Korea turns out to be equally surreal as falling asleep. At 6 am sharp, the sinister music that prevented me from falling asleep the previous evening fills the streets. Once again I find myself nervously perched by the worryingly unsecured window in my room on the 34th floor, observing Pyongyang from above. In contrast to the eerie silence from the night before, the music is accompanied by marching boots and soldiers chanting as they perform their perfectly synchronized morning exercise between the matte pastel coloured apartment blocks. This is how the relentlessly monumental capital city of the world’s least known country wakes up. It’s simultaneously an oddly enthralling, yet bone-chillingly unsettling sight. As people start emerging from their homes I get ready for breakfast and meet my tour group and the enthusiastically smiling guides in the hotel reception. Anxious to discover its secrets, I begin my carefully choreographed tour of North Korea.

Kim Il Sung Square

Kim Il Sung Square Photo: Christian Nilsen

Kim Il Sung Square

Kim Il Sung Square Photo: Christian Nilsen

It may come as no surprise that sightseeing in North Korea is quite an unrelenting operation conducted with military precision, and a visit here is definitely not suited for everyone. If its dire reputation as an oppressive totalitarian state doesn’t put you off, then the rules and regulations you have to abide by while you’re there might. Independent travel is strictly forbidden, and the only way to enter the country is as part of a government approved tour group that is escorted by a driver and two tour guides for the duration of your stay. You will under no circumstances be allowed to wander off by yourself unescorted, and the only time you will be left alone is in the (relative) privacy of your own hotel room. There is only one version of events here, the one the government wants you to hear, and questioning it is futile. If you can’t accept this, it’s best to stay away. If you can however, you are in for a most unusual and unforgettable trip to a bizarre reality, and rewarded with glimpses of a place so surreal, and mesmerizingly weird after decades of isolation that the formal head of state has been dead for 20 years.

Mansudae Monument

Mansudae Monument Photo: Christian Nilsen

Unusual experiences are many and frequent in the DPRK. An early morning’s somber visit to the truly bizarre museum of gifts the three Kims have received over the years (they have received so many gifts and tokens of gratitude they need museums to house them all!) coincides with a hangover of apocalyptic qualities. Our guides, who helped us take over the hotel bar the evening before are inexplicably chirpy and display a worrying lack of sympathy for the rest of us. There is a schedule to keep after all. At the museum, it is a truly painful experience to bend down to cover my shoes with blue protective covers, but thankfully there is an unexpected, and most welcome win as the perfectly polished marble floors become ideal for gliding, relieving us of the burden of having to walk. Everyone in the group, heads hung low, quietly glide in to a grotesquely bright hall, and with one eye squinting and the other desperately trying to focus, we are faced with two enormous and gleaming white statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the pink backlight adding a grim glow to the proceedings. When our guide quietly but firmly encourages us to respectfully bow before the statues, I nervously foresee potential for causing grave offence, as the combination of this nauseating place and my spectacular hangover might result in a projectile expulsion of my breakfast. I manage to slide over to the end of the single file, and as we start bowing my equally hung over fellow traveller reaches out for help, and leaning on each other for support we manage to pull off a decent bow accompanied by a muted wretch and quiet snigger.

The first item in the museum the guide proudly presents to us is a Disney coloured painting of Kim Jong Il hinged on an ivory baroque-esque frame. He is wearing a full historical (accuracy disputed) Korean warrior costume, his trademark frizzy hair crowning his head, square glasses and the same stern expression as all other public portraits, holding a lit cigarette in one hand and most curiously, riding an ornately saddled and growling tiger. Teeth and claws on display. The image is gently flipped over to reveal an accompanying painting of Kim Jong Il, this time in his regular green overalls, frizzy hair, glasses, expression and cigarette, but this time standing with one leg triumphantly placed on the now slain and dead tiger. This is too much for a hung over brain to take in, and I am too weak to laugh. Thankfully.

Dentist without patients

Dentist without patients Photo: Christian Nilsen

The day continues in a similar vein. During a visit to a Buddhist monastery, the sole resident ‘soldier dressed up as a monk’ (if his robes that didn’t quite cover his uniform hadn’t given him away, the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth would have) points to three polished Buddha statues and casually informs us they are Buddha and his… ‘two assistants’. We respond with politely pretended interest. At the ostrich farm we are told how Kim Jong Il personally talked to the birds to prepare them for the cold Korean winters and prevent them from freezing to death like the first batch of imported African ostriches inconveniently had done the winter before. Next up and ranking high on the surreality scale is the Pyongyang maternity hospital. The first thing that immediately strikes you at this state of the art hospital is the very obvious lack of patients. There are however plenty of loitering people in white coats that suddenly become very busy when we walk past, and every time we enter the elevator, the guide will telephone ahead to the next ward, I suspect to alert them of our imminent arrival. At the dentist’s office, the dentist stands to attention next to 3 chairs, each with a rusty spittoon and covered in half an inch of dust. Those chairs have not seen a patient in years! Next door a consultant is analyzing a baby scan, using a still photo. Further down the hall, mild amusement turns to heart piercing horror as we’re faced with rows upon rows of newborn babies. Considering the lack of pregnant women, let alone any other patient, any speculation about who these babies belong to, leads to very dark and uncomfortable thoughts and it becomes very difficult to judge and understand the emotional responses to this sight.

Pyongyang Maternity Hospital

Pyongyang Maternity Hospital Photo: Christian Nilsen

Babies at Pyongyang Maternity Hospital

Babies at Pyongyang Maternity Hospital Photo: Christian Nilsen

“Anyone ready for some fun”? Miss Kim shouts in to the microphone on the tour bus, “we’re going to the circus!” Although the hangover is still going strong and all I want is to go to bed, anything that will take my mind off the hospital is welcome. We take our seats at the circus just as the lights are dimmed. The rousing revolutionary music kicks in and a man dressed as a very thin bear wearing a blue lycra wrestling costume and ice skates, slowly pushes a sledge across the ice. It is however, not a man dressed as a bear. This emaciated creature is an actual bear. Almost simultaneously we cover our gasps with our hands, but before we get the chance to process this vision, the poor bear is joined by two baboons. Each dressed in pink Santa costumes and tutu skirts. Also on skates. Again my hung over brain struggles to gage what the appropriate emotional response should be. Admittedly, what these animals do is quite impressive, and the locals are beside themselves with joy at their acrobatics, yet I cannot help thinking the theme of this circus should be ‘Animal Cruelty on Ice’.

The cruelty theme continues over dinner served at one of the city’s swankiest places serving famous cold buckwheat noodles. As we tuck in, and battle with a bottle of beer, a van from the World Food Programme pulls up outside. Another reality check hits with brutal force. Noticing our downbeat and frankly guilty mood, our guides try to liven up the evening by excitedly reminding us we’re off to the fun fair to ride roller coasters after desert.

The beer takes some of the edge of the hang over, still the thought of a roller coaster ride does not appeal too much. For better or worse, we all knew what we signed up for, and resistance is not inly futile, but downright impossible. The one ride I go on is a superman style roller coaster where four of us are locked up in a cage, no safety belt, just holding on to a bar and then horizontally flung out, flipped and looped. All at the mercy of North Korean fun fair technology and health and safety standards. The only thought that concerns me for the duration of the ride is whether or not my insurance will cover North Korean roller coaster incidents.

Back at the hotel room, comprehensively exhausted, broken and trying to process it all, I collapse on the bed and switch on the TV just in time for a thunderously dramatic news reader to wish me good night (I think that’s what she says), marking the end of a sufficiently surreal day in North Korea. Five minutes later I switch off the lights and close my eyes.

*cue sinister music*


(September 2012)

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