For the final installment on North Korea, we turn to my travel companion, Lottie, for her perspective on the experience.
Guest column on TLOS
What a great honour to feature on TLOS – but with honour comes responsibilities, of course. It is now upon me to not alienate Shaun's reader base, which is going to be hard as a married female heterosexual. Perhaps I should start with a warning. WARNING!! The following features flora & fauna, food and, whilst alliterating, f-ing children. Proceed at your peril.
Flora & fauna
Flora – I have left the country none the wiser as Shaun answered any "What tree do you think that is?" with: "Well, that's not a palm tree. And that's all I have to say about that."
As for fauna, there were no cattle, there were no pets, we pretty much saw no animals at all in North Korea, which seemed very unusual. Anyone we asked what their favourite food was, said it was meat. The books that we read mentioned meat isn't abundant in North Korea. A large part of the country is covered in mountains (78.5% our guide repeatedly told us) and therefore not useful for agriculture. The land that remains is fully used to grow crops. By hand. We saw one tractor which was so unusual that we pointed it out to each other.
Lottie not under a palm tree.
Needless to say people were astonished upon hearing Shaun was a vegetarian, especially our driver who, after we expressed our surprise at the sheer amount he ate*, explained that all Koreans have at least three stomachs. Which brings me to the second aspect of the trip that I know Shaun is unlikely to comment on: food.
We were pleased at us being seated in breakfast room two in our hotel, which was the Western breakfast room. In the Western breakfast room there was something stale resembling toast, something gooey resembling jam and something powdery resembling coffee. Of course, in order to reach breakfast room two, we had to go through breakfast room one. This was an almost religious "grin and bear it" British-style experience. Asian breakfast was served in breakfast room one. A typical morning meal in room one seemed to consist of soup, an array of vegetables, and what I can only describe as the smelliest fish dish I have ever come across. How anyone would happily be able to smell it on a sober stomach, let alone eat it, is a complete mystery to me.
Surprisingly enough though, we invariably had amazing meals in North Korea. The cuisine was varied, spiced with many tasty herbs and of course, the kimchi didn't hurt. It would be great if I could include a picture of our lunch in the revolving restaurant on the 44th floor of the (for North Korea) luxurious Koryo hotel. Apparently though the pine nut mushroom dish we ordered there is not only an authentic North Korean recipe, it's also a state secret. And so we weren't allowed to take pictures in the restaurant at all.
On the morning of our departure, I took my children to their nursery. Unfortunately, I was silly enough to tell one of the teachers that I was going to North Korea for a week. On a non-essential holiday trip. Let's just assume I will not make it in the top three of our nursery's super mom 2015 ranking. So perhaps it's not odd that I went to North Korea being extra sensitive towards encounters with children as I felt biased about leaving my kids. I found it interesting to see how a country that we in the West percieve as a harsh, perhaps even non-emotional state, interacts socially. And so I was thrilled when our guide Kim took us to a middle school, called Kim Jong-suk (after Kim Il-sung's wife and Kim Jong-il's mother, of course). The school was in a lovely building with red ivy covering part of the brick walls, amidst extensive sports grounds. We were first taken to a ballroom size chamber containing all the prizes this school won, followed immediately by a room twice the size containing taxidermy exotic animals. At this point we wondered: is this school the best in the country? To which the head mistress answered: "Oh no, this is just an average school".
At the entrance of the school.
We were then pushed inside a classroom. There were about 40 fourteen-year-olds in the room and they were very eager to test their English on us. Before we knew it, they fired questions at us. They asked us simple questions, wanting to know what our favourite colour was, what hobbies we had, where we were from, what our ages were. The questions weren't odd – they were the usual questions we all learn when we learn a new language. But what was unusual was the enthusiasm with which the questions were fired at us. They had been taught to stand up when they spoke and they were probably also told to speak up, they were overeager – it was the exact opposite of the typical behaviour you will see in any Western classroom. But just when I thought that this was a perfect example of a charade, of these children being told that they had to impress the foreigners, I noticed that there was a boy sitting in the second row who kept trying to ask me a question. But others beat him to it, time and time again. With body language I tried to help him, but it still took a little while until he managed to speak up. He stammered a little and I didn't quite catch what he said right away, he had to repeat his question. It was a question that had been asked before – probably what my favourite colour is, which I said is blue by the way – and then I saw him sitting down again and he looked truly disappointed at his performance. He even made a little universal hand gesture, moving his fist from his right hip up towards his left shoulder.
Our class waving good-bye.
After teaching "our" class English, we were taken to a room where the talented children of this school – remember each school is as accomplished as this one, it really wasn't anything special – were showing off their skills. As any North Korean school, this school has their own band, complete with singers, guitars, a really cool girl on the drums and several dancers. In order to showcase this very average group there was an auditorium with over a hundred seats.
Performers at Kim Jong-suk school
This picture was taken on Kim Il-sung square. I was a bit nervous about taking it as we weren't supposed to take pictures of any army personnel, but I took it secretly from the car and my phone wasn't searched when we left as it was when we entered the country. If I had to pick one picture showing the schizophrenia I experienced when visiting North Korea, this would be it:
*I have serious concerns that the guides and (especially) the driver ate so much as they may not be used to having abundant food, or perhaps they don't get some types of food regularly, such as meat. The driver also took any leftovers with him. I sincerely hope this is me being paranoid.
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