The first thing you see when you cross into North Korea is a rather sad little amusement park, obviously not used in years, workers in grey suits, some propaganda as you pull into the station, and then you stop. For another two hours, the North Korean border guards come onto the train, collect your passports, and then, one-by-one, interview everyone on the train about what they're bringing into the country. They have you unlock your phones so they can look through them, and any pictures they don't approve of get deleted. Eventually the train pulls out and you begin the seven-hour journey through the Korean provinces.
There's no idle countryside along the route. North Korea is a mountainous country, with only about 17% of its land being arable; where the land is flat enough for a railway, it's also flat enough for crops, so the scene rotates between cooperative farms, gardens, villages and towns, all quite obviously poorer than China, but busy with activity. What is striking is that, in these massive fields, absolutely everything is being done by hand - no tractors, no plows, not even work animals, just mile after mile of people hunched over in fields.
It's not quite Disneyland...
Three ladies laughing on the road next to the tracks; the city of Dandong in China rises in the background. We saw people walking everywhere in North Korea, often along startlingly long stretches between any possible origin and destination, and in the countryside in far greater numbers than you would think a rural density could produce.
At semiregular intervals, we'd pass larger hardscrabble population centres.
But you are never far away from some motivational words!
The arrival into Pyongyang is sudden. In the planned state, there's no gradual buildup in density or urban sprawl to warn you that you're getting close; one minute you're riding through fields, the next you're between tower blocks. The first buildings were very similar to the rural towns in aesthetic, just better maintained, but soon the blocks of flats got taller and grander, and the distinctive monuments and edifices of the capital passed by the windows. We disembarked onto a large, modern platform with patriotic, but soothing, piped music, where we met our guides. When visiting North Korea, you always have two guides, no matter the size of your party; this is so each guide can make sure the other doesn't say or do anything they shouldn't. We left the station to meet our driver, a giant screen outside beamed stories with pride over the latest doings of the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, and the scene was set for our stay in North Korea.
From the station we went immediately to the first of many monuments to the Kims, two giant bronze statues of Kim Il-sung (the founder of modern North Korea, referred to only ever as the Great Leader) and his son, Kim Jong-il (the Eternal General) on a bluff overlooking the city, where we paid our respect with flowers paid for in euros (only euros, US dollars and Chinese renminbi are accepted from foreign visitors). While we admired the statues and the view, there was a steady stream of locals adding to the already enormous collection of flowers surrounding the Leaders. From there we went to our first of many excellent Korean meals, and then to our hotel - where our guides, though locals, stayed as well - and Lottie and I got acquainted with the bar.
Pyongyang is meant to impress, and inspire fervent pride, patriotism and loyalty. You are never far from a monument, stadium or tower built to the glory of the Leaders, the WPK, the eternal victory over the imperialist aggressors, or the anniversary of some historical event or another. There is some truly stunning architecture, if you're of a certain bent, set out along bustling (with people, if not cars) boulevards and squares radiating out from the Taedong River. A post-modernist socialist Paris of sorts, I was immediately taken with it. The city was destroyed in the war of imperialist aggression, so it's not classically beautiful (it's a "useful city", residents say), but it certainly is kitsch.
Lottie and I, laying flowers at the feet of the Leaders. North Koreans show great respect to the Leaders, often with flowers, always with a bow. You cannot take a picture that cuts them off, it must be only their faces or their whole bodies. A local once noticed on my iPhone screen that I'd inadvertently cut off Kim Jong-il's legs in a portrait across the room, and she made sure I deleted it from my phone.
Kim Il-sung Square; when you see North Korea on TV, this is what you see. The marks on the ground are for the coordination of the parade and spectacle for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Worker's Party of Korea (WPK).
Great People's Study House at the head of Kim Il-sung Square. Its balcony is where the Leaders stand when parades are passing in front of them. Notice the twin portraits of the Great Leader and the Eternal General. Notice them again a block away, just in case you had forgotten about them.
The Tower of the Juche Idea, in alignment with the Great People's Study House across the river from the square. The Juche Idea encapsulates the philosophy of North Korea. We asked several guides what it meant, but we're not at all clearer.
Pyongyang's own Arch of Triumph
The elegant Arch of Reunification, two ladies in traditional Korean dress joining hands at the Southern entrance to Pyongyang
Lottie and I outside the Kim mausoleum, where the Great Leader and Eternal General lie in state.
The Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery, North Korea's Arlington Cemetary, is built on a hillside overlooking the city. Each bust has four dates: when they were born, when they joined the WPK, when they went into war, and when they died.
May Day Stadium
Inside the May Day Stadium. Home of the now-discontinued Arirang Festival, the stadium holds 150,000 people and has just undergone a massive renovation to bring it up to international standards. It was at this point I said to Lottie "I wonder how many tractors that could have bought."
The Ryugyong Hotel, named after a previous name for Pyongyang, towers over the city at 105 stories. Construction began in 1987, but was halted when money ran out. For more than a decade it remained a giant concrete shell on the skyline. In 2008, Egypt's Orascom Group finished off the exterior and added communications equipment to the top. Unrelated, Orascom Group was awarded a $400m contract to build and run North Korea's 3G mobile network. I asked one of our guides when the hotel would open, but she wasn't sure - it's a very big project, you see.
The Ryugyong Hotel even towers over the Leaders, creating a modern peak to the mural of Mt. Paektu, the sacred mountain of North Korea.
The delightfully brutalist monument to the WPK, with flats behind designed to look like a waving Korean flag. Like the Soviet emblem, the WPK's has a hammer and sickle, representing workers and farmers; unlike the Soviet emblem, it also has a calligraphist's brush to symbolise the student/intellectual. The brush is always higher that the other two at the insistence of the Great Leader, who believed that the worker and farmer must look to the intellectual, who endeavours to constantly improve the lives of the people.
Inside the monument
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