to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea. I am not sure
there are a lot of people who can say so and I might have pissed off a few
people just by saying this, as I am sure I will the few North Koreans with
access to Internet who probably will read this sometime. And oh, it wasn’t easy
or cheap but it was, I say with pride, worth it.
n Beijing, the day before departure the entire lot of tourists had read the rules and signed on the dotted lines, but as the coordinators explained the rules, some twice, following them up with examples, North Korea seemed more sinister than the media made it out to be. “These five days are going to change your lives forever”, said the tour coordinator. “Grab your last Starbucks coffee at the airport, eat your muffins and croissants, get enough money for the trip, in small change if possible, and never try to speak to the locals.”
She touched upon every possible subject connected to the trip—from flight meals to taking photographs, bowing at statues, staying “in-line”, always checking with the guide about the repercussions of folding or damaging a newspaper containing pictures of the ruler.
“If there is anything that will get you arrested or deported, it is damaging the picture of the Great Leaders,” they told us over and over again. “Always keep any piece of paper with the Great Leader intact.”
Arrest was the solution to everything in North Korea.
Much of North Korean animosity, it appeared, was directed at Americans, so there was a good half hour dedicated to American behaviour. The tour coordinators worried about the American temper upon hearing the Korean version of The War and the subsequent surrender of America and the general slandering of the rest of the world. India did not fall into this category. I happened to know India shared a good relationship with DPRK and shipped food grains to contain the famine from time to time.
As a parting shot—“Guys, please get yourself a tie or a pant if you will—and a shirt. One of our itinerary demands it…and ladies, a below-the-knee dress. And preferably no exposing the shoulders or, umm, too much of the neck.”
ad I been airdropped without the knowledge of where, I’d have found the scenery captivating. Endless fields of rice, peaceful rivers and green hills all the way to the horizon and if it weren’t for the mountains ruining the picture perfect scenery, I’d have given the scenery a huge thumbs up.
But I knew where I was. I did however make a brave attempt to block out that knowledge so I could enjoy what was really a magical stretch of green.
The ugly, uneaten burger sitting on my pull-out table was a reminder that I was indeed in Korean airspace so I alternated between glancing outside and peering over the shoulder of my co-passenger and trip-mate, at the Pyongyang Times he was reading.
The front page was devoted to the Beloved Leader Kim Jong-Un and his visit to the orphanage and a large picture of happy children. The inside had a few interesting bits—it was enlightening to know of the technological advancements the country had made and how they were ready to take on the world, namely America, Japan and South Korea.
I hissed into my neighbour’s ear.
“What the hell is all that?”
He had the good sense to look over his shoulders before whispering back—
“Damned if I know what to make of it.”
I was posing as a kindergarten teacher and kindergarten teachers had a certain behavioural pattern that did not include showing outright agitation.
n the fringes of the runway three old Air Koryo planes sat motionless, secured to the ground with thick ropes. Grass grew around their wheels. It was the first indication that something was not right.
Between getting off the plane and walking towards the old, functional airport, Katarzyna caught up with me. We had spoken briefly at Beijing airport and hurriedly exchanged names but I had a feeling we were going to get along very well.
“I am feeling weird, you know,” she said, “I cannot believe I am here.”
That somehow heightened the discomfort I was feeling.
“Breathe,” I said, more to myself than to her. “Breathe.”
We entered the small building. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-Il or simply The Kims smiled at us from across the immigration desk.
I have been through small and very small airports before. In fact, I love airports. This airport was smallish, yes, but it was also in a state of chaos.
There were no real lines, only a large number of unsure people jumping queues. We had filled out our details on two pieces of paper listing all of our personal belongings, including books, radios, mobile phones and cameras. It was funny how our baggage was scanned on the way out of the containment area.
rom here on, I will refer to our local guides with different names and offer muted opinions or omit details that might put others, particularly the locals we deal with, in any kind of risk.
Our local guides, aka, minders were waiting on the other side.
We were introduced to Miss Deer. She had flawless skin. She wore a knee length skirt. And she spoke excellent English. She was beautiful. She would have to be, I learnt later, because she lived in Pyongyang and for that one had to be beautiful. Living in Pyongyang was an honour given to the selected two million. She was beautiful and fit the bill in every way.
Miss Deer was to be our guide, along with Li the driver, Li the-other-guide and Li the-minder-of-Miss Deer and Li the-other-guide. I will call Li the-other-guide Giraffe because he was too tall for a Korean.
We snapped pictures of the airport behind us and a few buildings around that were under construction. Miss Deer quickly stopped us.
“It is forbidden to take pictures of building under construction,” she said in her beautiful voice. “We Koreans see it as something unfinished, so no photos please.”
It would have been hilarious at this point, but that was also when we were asked to hand over our passports “for your own safety”—and nothing was funny any more.
In the minutes following this, everyone was quiet—perhaps all of us, the Americans, Germans, Poles (Katarzyna or Kate as I called her), a Slovenian, Dutch, Singaporean, Australian and I, the odd Indian, had the same thought. Hence, with my fear of going hungry came another fear.
What if they lost my passport and I was stuck here forever?
Soon we were joined by another, unexpected man. Let’s call him Mr Videoman, a short man with unsmiling eyes who carried a big, outdated video camera on his shoulder, like the ones you see in village weddings. We were told that he would record our trip so that in the end we could purchase a DVD from him as a present.
he ride to the city was smooth and from the air-conditioned tour bus Pyongyang looked like any other city. And clean—with the exception of soldiers with guns, watching over local people who attended to lawns, trimmed hedges, crawled on their knees to cut grass with small knives and swept streets. Briefly my mind went back to my home country—a sight like this would have been a welcome change. Pyongyang could be a good example of cleanliness.
In the short ride to Arch of Triumph, our first stop, we formed a fair opinion on who was going to get along with whom. Under the Arch, new friendships were formed and while the minders and guides blurred history with stories of the Great Leader and his conquests I got acquainted with Larry, the tall American and his partner Valerie Menenberg.
Larry had travelled a lot. In fact, he was on a world trip with Valerie and you could see from his manner that he had seen much. He also knew about monuments. He pointed at the one I was photographing and said, “Did you know this is the exact replica of the Arch of Triumph in Paris, this one is definitely taller, but it’s otherwise the same, only less impressive?”
While the guides continued to educate “interested” members about the importance of the Arch, Kate and I walked around the bus, trying to get away from the minders as much as possible, sneaking in pictures of the landscape and locals with lapel pins bent over the grassy sidewalk. No one looked up at us.
It was absolutely important not to irk the guides if we intended to enjoy the rest of the trip. But really we didn’t have to worry that much—Miss Deer, Giraffe and Li were really friendly and didn’t object to our unauthorised pictures at the Arch. Clearly, we were being watched.
As we drove through the city, things got easier inside the bus.
The enormous silhouette of a pyramid-shaped hotel loomed in the background. Come to think of it, it was visible from everywhere, an ominous ghostly presence watching over the city. However, I’d seen pictures of it on Google when looking up Pyongyang, like most of the others. The ghostly pyramid was the Ryugyong Hotel, DPRK’s biggest embarrassment. Apparently, the government ran out of money before the completion, so it continues to stand there, like a forgotten shell of something that could have been.
e proceeded to the Mansudae Hill to pay our respects to the Great Leader and Dear Leader. It was hard not to be impressed by the monuments.
“You may buy flowers if you wish,” the guide called out. “It is not compulsory, but they will definitely appreciate it.”
Then he proceeded to fix his tie, bought a bunch of flowers and walked stiffly uphill to pay the mandatory respects to the Great Leader and Dear Leader.
I didn’t buy any. Neither did Kate or Larry.
At the monuments, crying, not laughing, was appreciated. The flower-bearing locals politely stepped away from the camera, turned their heads and plodded up the hill solemnly in absolute indifference to everything around. Giraffe marched us to the statue and signalled for us to form a straight line.
“We will now bow to the Great Leaders. This is a one-time-bow. Then we offer the flowers. Please, no laughing or shouting here.”
Mr Videoman had his camera in place. Moments like this were precious in DPRK. Footage of tourists bowing at the statues makes it to prime time television to impress the locals about the greatness of their country, the proof of which was the thousands of tourists who arrived to pay respects to their Great Leader. It helped that the tourists bowed at the feet of the Great Leader and smiled in awe at the sheer size of the monuments.
As if on cue, everyone bowed. I have seen big statues and monuments. But even to my monument-hating mind, this was humbling. The figures were so lifelike, so ethereal. So human. It was eerie.
Pyongyang was like a Potemkin Village built to dazzle the few tourists permitted to visit the country. It was a city that looked great in photographs. What it did not have was people. And life. And colour.
away from the group when Giraffe launched into a passionate explanation of
Korean history. He had a tendency to start with the defeat of Americans before
going on to fictionalise and glorify the great power of the Great Leader Kim Il
Sung who single-handedly thwarted the Japanese to secure freedom for Korea. And
suddenly, as if to add to the drama, it started to rain. Just like that.
It was a typical Bollywood setting—grey clouds, gently falling rain, smiling statues, mountain of flowers, happy and curious visitors… and in such a Bollywood-type setting, the thing to do is dance. Because in Bollywood, rains make an appearance in two extreme cases—one, when you are full of joy and want to dance and two, when you are invoking a deity and start to dance.
I was full of joy. And I wanted to dance. Well, I really mean swirl, smile and throw my arms about, to inject a little drama into this make-believe setting so devoid of life and colour. I think it was when I put away my camera lenses and was going to throw my arms about, Mr Videoman held up an umbrella and I had no choice but follow him back to the bus in silence.
number of unfinished buildings dotted the city, waiting for time to breathe life into it. Pyongyang was like a Potemkin Village built to dazzle the few tourists permitted to visit the country. It was a city that looked great in photographs. What it did not have was people. And life. And colour. Traffic jam. Noise.
But you have to give it to the Koreans or the Regime to be precise—they had mastered the art of creating an entire city for impression’s sake. If you looked carefully enough, meaning, if you had great camera lens and zoomed in close, you could notice the absence of glass on the windows or electric bulbs or people in those drab apartment blocks. Pyongyang was more like a city built to be seen and toured, not lived in.
During our first meal, along with the rice cakes, duck, chicken, fish, potatoes, cold noodles, salads and soups, I made my first contact with the Kimchi. Korea’s national dish was essentially fermented cabbage and spiced up according to taste. I like cabbage, mind you. I really do, but not kimchi.
While we dined, the guides had disappeared. When I called for Miss Deer to enquire about buying a silver chopstick like the one I was eating with, she appeared from somewhere else.
Kate whispered, “I thought she was eating with us?”
Chopsticks forgotten, the first thing I asked was, “Why aren’t you eating with us? There is so much food here, join us?”
Miss Deer looked embarrassed and a little sad, “No, we eat inside.”
Only later I learnt that the guides, minders or whoever else accompanied us were bound by rules—the tourists indulged in the best DPRK had to offer, the locals ate rice with kimchi. It was a requirement of the regime.
I had known this about North Korea, DPRK was in the grip of a severe famine and their diet remained inadequate—restricted mostly to cabbage and rice provided by the government. The only exception to this food was the occasional cold noodles, cucumber salad or potatoes, and the yearly quota of pork, fish and butter. I think at this point, I began to hate kimchi altogether.
ur first night at Changgwangsan Hotel, Kate asked me a question. I knew we would be friends for life. “Let’s check if the room is bugged.”
I loved the girl. She had the kind of romantic spirit that makes even a bleak and bare hotel room in DPRK seem interesting and important. It was the way she spoke that took the edge off a reality we faced.
We were not good at it, but we searched the room as quietly and thoroughly as possible, including the lampshade and curtain folds and inside the kettle. Satisfied with the results of our amateur search, she asked me another question.
“Say, you aren’t a school teacher, are you? You don’t look it, you know.”
Thus Kate became the first person on the trip to know the truth about me. I didn’t even ask her what gave me away. When I told her the whole story, she was excited.
“You know, I write also. I like to write.”
Kate, it turned out, was also a published author and lived in constant fear that her Polish book about China might get translated into Mandarin and all hell would break loose.
“I am a translator, you know, Chinese translator, so I don’t want to lock horns with China.”
The more she told me about herself, the more I liked her. Kate had lived in Taiwan for a year before moving to China for two years to do her PhD in Social Sciences, spoke fluent Chinese, loved travelling and had a great sense of humour.
And humour we definitely needed to get through our short and expensive trip to North Korea.
We stepped out on the unfinished, dusty balcony to face sheer darkness around broken only by a few flickering street lights. The drab concrete structures lining the streets were dark.
“It looks spooky, eerie. Like a big ghost town…”
That gap, between two worlds, one of the visitors and the other real one for the locals, had become even more noticeable after sunset. While we sat in a well-lit restaurant for dinner the city outside turned pitch-black.
North Korea has acute shortage of electricity and the capital city is not an exception. Apartment dwellers often trudged up the stairs to their homes and shivered in the harsh winters for lack of heating. There were hardly any street lights. The grey apartment blocks became black shapes that loomed like barren mountains in the background. Only a few isolated pinpricks of lights—perhaps one or two windows in a vast apartment block—gave any indication of the life within.
he route to the demilitarised zone, the DMZ, took us through the Reunification Highway where we had our first glimpse of the countryside. DMZ was the highlight of the trip—naturally, we were going to visit the world’s most heavily guarded border.
When we arrived at the entrance to the DMZ, there was a brief stop at the parking lot where we had to get off the bus, listen to an officer who briefed us about the layout of DMZ, then lined up, army style and watched over by tall soldiers with automatic rifles as we marched through a gate to board the bus again.
And it was hot. Here I might add that when we were being lined up, Miss Deer and Giraffe constantly pleaded with us not to get out of line or take photographs.
But what Miss Deer said after this shocked us. “Do not laugh very loudly here, okay? For your own safety.”
“Will they shoot us?” That was me.
“Oh, I want to laugh so hard you know,” Kate whispered. “But I will not—for my own safety. You know, this is like some horror movie.”
I waited till we re-boarded to offer my own opinion.
“I am sure they must be very bored with cleaning their guns without the chance of ever shooting anyone. I guess they want us to laugh so they could shoot us,” is what I said.
We were led through a building where the armistice had been signed in 1953. It was of course historically interesting but uneventful. The real border was still some distance away. We eventually arrived at the border.
When the Dear Leader was inspecting this site, a cloud of smoke covered the place so his enemies could not see him. But the Great Leader could easily see the other side. He inspected the site and left unharmed.
opposite the marbled, futuristic building we were standing on, was a similar
building which at the moment was empty.
“That is South Korea,” Giraffe pointed out not too happily. “You see that line? Yes, that separates us. But one day we hope there will be no borders.”
I asked Giraffe an innocent question. “What if one of us ran across the line?”
“You’ll be shot,” he said.
We entered one of the blue huts and took seats around the tables inside. I was on the far side, on the South Korean side as informed by the guides. In the excitement of taking a memorable picture “between the enemy lines” I did not pay attention to the exact number of times Americans breached the armistice. I vaguely remember 88,000 times, but I could have been mistaken.
I loved my first time on South Korean soil. Let’s leave it at that.
Safely back on the soil of the Fatherland Giraffe told us another story, a little more fantastic one this time. As he rattled off a story about Kim Jong-Il’s visit to Panmunjom, his expression changed.
Larry was about to explode. “I don’t believe he ever actually went there. Why would he have put himself in the enemy’s firing line?” Larry whispered.
Unmindful of hurting the sentiments of Imperialist Bastards (aka, the Americans), Giraffe continued to enlighten us with his tale.
“When the Dear Leader was inspecting this site, a cloud of smoke came down and covered the place so his enemies could not see him. But,” here he paused importantly, “but, the Great Leader could easily see the other side. The enemy could not. He easily inspected the site and left unharmed.”
In North Korea, you had to believe a story like that.
We broke for lunch in Kaesong, the city closest to DMZ and home to a big industrial park where South Korean companies have been allowed to set up cross-border factories, which sadly was not on our itinerary. We were not done. There was more evidence of North Korean greatness to be seen and understood and the Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetery was one such place. Under skies steadily turning dangerous grey, we trudged up the hill and continued past a sea of lifelike busts of brave people who lost their lives securing freedom for their country.
I was more interested in the far-off view of the Pyongyang cityscape, with its enormous pyramid hotel. That strange black pyramid—that heartless shell—would begin to show up in more and more of my photographs. It mesmerised me. It was slowly becoming an obsession.
At the top of the hill was a surprise—the grave of Kim Jong-Il’s mother, who, according to the recent version of history was also a revolutionary hero. Locals had lined up to pay their respects, some wept real tears. And while we lined up to perform the mandatory “one-time-bow”—just one of the prices we paid for being here—it started to rain.
I succumbed to the moment. I whooped in joy. Spreading out my arms, I swirled before realising that I had become the focus of scorn and hate. If anything was likely to get me arrested, it was this—but at that moment I couldn’t have cared less.
It was improper to dance at a cemetery, of course, but it was also blissful. It was worth being arrested for, if I might add. Kate, bless her, somehow managed to snap me doing just that. So I have a picture to prove my claim.
That night we stayed at Yanggakdo, DPRK’s four-star hotel. But it didn’t happen just like that. Like everything else, there was a lot of drama about a simple act of moving into a new hotel. We were returning from the various monument-visits when suddenly Miss Deer picked up the mike and announced.
“Today we will stay at the best hotel in Korea. Yes, today we will stay at Yanggakdo Hotel. We have been upgraded.”
We cheered. No one however explained how the upgrade came about or why.
otel Yanggakdo was impressive. And secluded. It stood all by itself on an island in the Taedong river which divides the city. Perfect place to keep the foreign tourists, away from trouble they were likely to cause if allowed to come in contact with the locals. There was a lone turtle in the hotel and a small store, besides the mandatory giant pictures of the Kims. It was self-contained if you wanted to include the casino and the golf course.
Hotel Yanggakdo was special in many ways. If you didn’t mind someone listening in to your phone conversation that cost you six dollars a minute, then you were welcome to use the facility. It was the only place in the whole of Pyongyang where you could do that.
Kate, who had been hovering about the telephone booth, looked excited.
‘There is a casino somewhere, let’s go check it out.’
We set out.
Here, I beg to digress. I am a big fan of Casablanca. I am equally or more fond of the song of the same name. I dream of visiting Rick’s in Morocco one day soon. But somehow, here in Yanggakdo, looking at the hotel lobby, I felt as though I was living the Casablanca dream. The lobby was sort of a meeting point for people—tourists, diplomats, aid workers, businessmen, mainly Chinese. Here for a moment you could forget that you were being watched, at least briefly, and let your hair down at the bar. Here, the guides also became human. Over beers, they happily chatted about their families and education and tried to understand lives outside Korea.
We were on the thirty-second floor but it was possible to fully open the windows, just in case you wanted to jump out and escape that way. And there was a TV. And BBC. Kate and I went down to the casino, only to notice that the lifts did not stop on the fifth floor. We didn’t make too much of it, until someone else brought it up with Giraffe over dinner.
It was like walking back in time. Not a James Bond-style casino this, it was more like the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon-style, from ancient China, and while I am not an authority on casinos, the absence of life and pulse bothered me somehow. It was also musty and like everything else, old and spooky. We retired for dinner.
Over dinner when the question of the fifth floor came up, Giraffe’s transformation from a happy-go-lucky guide to a stern-faced patriot was swift. He at once became curt and businesslike and muttered under his breath, trying to slip away without offering an explanation.
he morning was grey, a grand setting for the sombre event we were about to embark upon—a visit to the Mausoleum, Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. In North Korea, it was a big deal. The tour coordinators had stressed the need to wear pants, shirts and tie during the briefing in Beijing and again at dinner. I suppose, if you were going to a mausoleum to see bodies of two of the greatest men that walked the earth, it was absolutely necessary to wear a tie and a shirt.
There was much joy despite the solemnity of the upcoming visit, but we were a happy bunch like that. Miss Deer, Giraffe, Li-the-minder and Mr Videoman were unsmiling and businesslike as though leading us to our execution but not quite sure how to tell us about it.
The mausoleum of Kim Il-Sung, DPRK’s founder and his son Kim Jong-Il, is the most sacred spot in all of DPRK. Given its divine status, it was necessary to observe proper courtesies. Nothing could go wrong here. The slightest lapse could lead to grave consequences. Arrest and deportation, but you know that about DPRK already.
In those painfully long minutes, you see the make-believe world of peace and contentment in North Korea in the thousands of photographs adorning the walls. Every face in those pictures is happy.
general undertake this pilgrimage at least twice a year as part of the required
duty of their work unit. To see the Great Leader, a virtual god among men, the
epitome of human perfection in all respects defines their afterlife. The
occasion was of National Importance and it was the birthright of every Korean
to be allowed to visit the tomb, although they had to get the permission of
their work units first.
We arrived at the grand monument. Miss Deer picked up the mike.
“This is the largest and the grandest mausoleum ever built for a Communist Leader. This was once upon a time Kim Il-Sung’s official residence.” We entered the hallowed hallway.
“At the time this fantastic mausoleum was being rebuilt, thousands were starving to death here,” Larry explained to us.
Through the marbled corridors we marched steadily and grimly, as the occasion demanded. Outside the rains had filled up the moats surrounding Kumsusan. It was a little spooky all right, but it could have been just the weather. Then the security checks began.
The cameras went first, followed by the wallets and just about everything else in our pockets. Nothing could be taken into the sacred interiors. Once past the security gate, observe complete silence. Keep pace with the guides, show proper respect towards the thousands of pictures hanging on the walls as you walk through ridiculously long hallways to descend into the bowels of the earth.
Once you have reached deep inside the marbled earth, step on to a series of moving walkways that would put Dubai International Airport to shame. The length of the walkway is several kilometres and you must not walk on them. You are required to stand and let yourself be carried along. But in those painfully long minutes, you see the make-believe world of peace and contentment in North Korea in the thousands of framed photographs adorning the walls, each picture outdoing the other in terms of greatness. Every face in those pictures is happy, every frame itself reflecting deemed prosperity—not for a moment can you allow yourself to think that DPRK is one of the poorest countries in the world.
At the end of this long journey is a marble foyer. Here you line up and march forward, army-style, with hands on your side, into another hall where a pure white marble statue of Kim Il-Sung towers over you. It is hard not to get carried away by the grandeur. I mean, yes, I have seen Taj Mahal, but this was something else. It reduces you to tears. On a screen behind the great marble statue is a warm pink glow of sunrise below a clear blue sky. The guide will tell you that in Korea, the sun always rose with the Kims. It was beautiful, yes, but it was also eerie.
After this visual overkill, you march down a hall through a narrow doorway that blows air at passersby. This is meant to remove every speck of dust and dirt from your mortal bodies. Only when you have passed this cleaning ritual, can you enter the next hall.
n a vast, glowing red chamber, Kim Il-Sung lay peacefully asleep inside a glass sarcophagus. The Red Chamber buzzes with energy that is as emotional as it is real—easily the first real thing you will see in DPRK. Groups of local women in hanbok, the traditional Korean dress worn by women, silently shed tears. Men try hard not to, while soldiers on their mandatory visit know exactly when to bow, where to look and how to behave.
We formed three rows. At a slight nod, we walked respectfully ahead, with hands at our sides, one step at a time towards the open casket, lined up again and waited for the signal to bow. Here it is mandatory to bow thrice and as soon as you are done, you are required to leave the hall. If you are a quick observer, you’d notice armed guards strategically installed behind pillars watching your moves. Any sign of trouble, namely the slightest change of expression from anguish to joy or relief is quickly noticed. And perhaps punished. The same procedure is repeated for Kim Jong-Il in another chamber.
We returned the way we’d come; only this time, no one had anything to say, not even Larry or Kate. Each of us was lost somewhere—inside the Red Chamber perhaps, because only the absurdity of the Red Chamber could shock us into silence.
Outside, the locals returning from their visit to the tombs were laughing and waving, like holiday-makers out in their Sunday best. No longer in the immediate presence of the Great Leader, the tension had dissipated for them as well, and they had resumed their role as regular human beings.
Pyongsung, DPRK’s University City came as a relief, a welcome escape from the fake glamour and the monuments of Pyongyang. We went to a school. It is universally known that The Kims love children. No one explained this obsession with happy children, but children, it appeared, were clearly much loved.
It was a very quiet and well-behaved school—no running feet, no girls whispering in corners, no boys sliding down railings. If we hadn’t been talking to each other or breathing, perhaps we could hear pins drop.
But it was a school all right, with real children in uniforms and teachers with the proper “teacher-face”. The classrooms were real too with prim and proper unsmiling students facing stern-faced teachers, dwarfed by the mandatory picture of the Kims.
We broke into the class for a “pre-arranged” lecture by the tourists; students shifted their expressions to resemble a smile and teachers respectfully stood aside to let the foreign tourists help the beloved students brush up their English-speaking skills.
Giraffe sidled up to me. “Your turn next. You are a teacher. I am sure you will enjoy this very much. Our children are very bright. First time they will learn from an Indian teacher. Come on, next. Please.”
That shook me up. I’d never taught a class and it didn’t help that the children looked scary in their stiff uniforms. I thought quickly.
“Oh no…I have had enough of kids to be honest, and, phew, I am glad to be on a break and not have to teach them. So, no, I will pass. Thanks for the offer though.”
Giraffe didn’t understand. He persisted. “Really, you must. First time our children have an Indian teacher. Please.” And before Giraffe could say something, I slipped out of the room and into the bathroom.
Giraffe may have begun to suspect something then, but I had left the scene and hence missed, as Kate told me later, a tour of the children’s playroom that consisted entirely of stuffed animals and paintings by the children depicting gruesome deaths of American soldiers at the hands of Korean loyalists.
“You should have spoken to the kids, you know,” she winked. “I am sure you would be good at it, you know. Tell them about your travels.” I shuddered.
Back on the bus heading to a clothing factory, my tour coordinator whispered hushed warnings in my ear asking me to watch out for Li-the-minder who was good at sniffing out a rat anywhere.
We became the first ever tourist group to visit the Pyongsong Taedonggang Clothing Factory. The factory has been in operation since 1961 when it used to manufacture work clothes for export to Russia and later to Vietnam, then baby clothes to Japan and currently, ski-wear for the popular brand Ripcurl. This was what real people did. These workers who created things with their own hands were real.
There was a strange realism about the factory women in their multicoloured uniforms, bent over aging machines under slow-moving fans, stitching materials for a brand which would eventually carry a “Made in China” label and be sold at an exorbitant price in a shopping mall somewhere. But here there was no extolling the greatness of Korea. These women formed an important part of the working society that kept the economic mills running, yet to see them like that was painful. They were so unquestioning, toiling hard—only to receive food coupons or a very meagre salary at the end of a long hard month of labour.
I asked Giraffe what the women received in return. “Free food, free house, free medicine and free education. Here in Korea, everything is free. The Great Leader provides everything.”
yongyang’s underground metro is an interesting piece of art. I recorded the slow descent into the earth’s core—two minutes and 22 seconds. I felt we were being taken into some secret underground bomb shelter. But when we finally stepped on to the marble platform and were greeted by the smiling Kims under the sheer brilliance of the giant chandeliers, all doubts about North Koreans disappeared. Miss Deer and Giraffe looked particularly proud. The subway system is fantastic. It is about 45 years old and impressive as a replica of a Russian subway that sometimes looks like a miniature cathedral.
Our unscheduled stop at one of the local breweries pretty much signalled the end of our tour. This was time to bond—and over Beers No. 3, 4 and 5 everyone had become friends. Some, including me and Kate, said how we would miss DPRK but I am not sure we convinced anyone, least of all Li-the-minder who had stuck to my side ever since we left the metro.
It was during this beer-drinking binge, when Li-the-minder had one too many, that I got my first chance to walk around a little. Kate stayed back to catch up with the rest of the tour members. No one came after me. I stood by the road and watched people getting in and out of the beer parlour, into their homes, on the trams passing by.
In that hour I saw real people. I wondered if they would ever be able to cope with the outside world, if they would ever know the Internet or BBC or CNN, iPhones or tablets, Adidas, Nike or even KFC, Starbucks or pizza.
If you took a random moment and framed it, life here would seem like that in any other country—people walking back home, people riding trams, buildings, trees, roads—but life in North Korea did not exist in picture frames. The reality was different. Each of these people lived in constant fear. Saying a wrong word, failure to wear the lapel pin, a spying neighbour, speaking or making eye contact with a foreign tourist, everything was a threat. The more you know about North Korea, the less it makes sense.
That night, which was also our last, after an excellent barbeque dinner, we gathered around a TV screen to watch the handiwork of Mr Videoman. There was, however, one condition to this.
“You buy a copy if you like the video,” Giraffe told us good naturedly. “You take back the wonderful memories of this great country.”
The DVD was worth its weight in gold. Or diamond, whichever way you wanted to look at it. No one backed out of the deal. The video was hilarious and amateurish and we were laughing so hard that we forgot we had very little time left in the country. Mr Videoman had made us all look like we loved being here, he showed us on our best behaviour, solemn where we needed to be and happy where the occasion demanded. It was a good round-up of the trip to DPRK.
was looking forward to the train ride. I love trains and 23 hours on a slow train between Pyongyang and Beijing was just the thing that made travel so fascinating. The countryside would be real. I was looking forward to those slices of reality.
The station was not quite busy, with only one platform from which trains to four different places left at different intervals. Kate and I were on different coaches—she was getting off at Sinuiju and I was going to Beijing and onwards to Mongolia. I bid her goodbye sometime before she got off at her destination at about 3:30 pm.
I knew someday I would see her again.
The Customs ritual at Sinuiju was something. It took us over two hours. We were not allowed to leave our cabin and officers took away our passports for scrutiny while a few others went through our luggage thoroughly. Also, they went through pictures in your cameras, deleting what they thought was “anti-Korean” pictures of soldiers, people cleaning streets or cutting grass, school-going children, buildings under construction, any shanty or slum you may have secretly photographed.
Finally, we crossed the Yalu into Dandong, China. The clearance at the Chinese customs was easily done.
I didn’t realise until I got back to Beijing the constant pressure we’d been under. Always having to be careful about what we said, the awareness that we were permanently under surveillance, every conversation listened in to, and the seriousness of the North Korean guides with their relentless badgering propaganda.
As I left the station in Beijing, the tour coordinator singled me out: “We cannot stop you from writing anything or publishing any photos you may have taken. We would of course ask you not to without our permission. But every time you have the urge to do something that would put us under the scanner remember Miss Deer’s face.”
I remember Miss Deer’s face all the time. I remember her voice, her smile, her laughter. I remember the look in her eyes and the hope that sprang in it. Yet, I do not know what to wish for her.
For the world, North Korea is as elusive as Narnia or Atlantis and you really cannot blame them because of its fictionalised history, but from what I have seen or heard DPRK is definitely not a great place to live in. My lasting memory about Pyongyang, though, is the total darkness that descends at night. When you look down from the revolving restaurant on the 47th floor of Hotel Yanggakdo—there is nothing. The entire city is swallowed up by darkness. Only the morning sun brings it to life.