Thursday, 31 October 2013


10th Sept 2013

The lake at Sinphyong

Early start and 'everybody back on the bus' for a four hour journey west, initially to Pyongyang. Our bus driver was back outside even earlier washing down his vehicle. The man is clearly a devoted and indefatigable worker who likes a shiny bus. 
The initial part of the route took us through mountainous country and involved passing through many long dimly lit tunnels. As always, we had the road, a good one, almost entirely to ourselves. Even so, at various junctions, there were the smartly dressed traffic police standing on duty. I expect they had to be there in case a high-ranking official passed by and required a salute.
About 30 miles west, towards Yangdok, we were told we were about to pass the new 'top world class' ski resort which had been instigated on the instructions of the Dear Leader. This is a project which had been estimated to take several years to complete but now, due to the diligence and enthusiasm of the People's Working Parties and despite a Swiss company refusing to provide ski lifts, is due to be completed this year, well under time and budget. We all looked out and saw......not very much. Of course at this time of year there is no snow, but it crossed our minds that perhaps this ski resort might not be on quite the same social and sporting level as the likes of St Moritz, Gstaad, Val d'Isére or even Cairngorm. I suspect that they will have not really grasped the concept of 'aprés ski', and the thought of skiing down a mountainside accompanied by two Korean 'guides' in case a tourist might venture 'off piste' does not bear thinking about. I expect some intrepid tourists will go, if only out of curiosity. Book now to avoid disappointment.

Left: We stopped for a coffee en-route at the Sinphyong Tea House situated on a pretty lake with impressive views and some boats.

Further along the road, and for miles, we saw hundreds of workers painstakingly cutting the grass verges by hand using small sickles and clippers. I suppose it keeps the people busy and the place clean and tidy.

Today in Pyongyang was another public holiday to allow the populace to relax after the excitement of the festivities and parades yesterday. We were taken for lunch at the only Pizza Restaurant in the country. This was set up to demonstrate that Pyongyang is indeed a modern and swinging place. The chefs had all been trained in the traditional pizza making art and ingredients were specially imported from Italy. 
It was a large establishment and despite the holiday, we were the only customers. There was a vast, empty, main restaurant but we were given our own private room tastefully decorated with green plastic padding on the walls ( right ). The menu was enormous but several of the items were unfortunately 'off'. The 'salami' pizza was 'on', but without salami. There was a piano ( and TV ) at the back of the room and we were entertained to a recital by a lady on the joanna while we waited to be served. Just as well because the service took rather a long time. Perhaps they had to fly ingredients in from Rome. Some of us took the opportunity to have a snooze. OK, the pizzas eventually arrived and they were very 'thick crust' but perfectly edible nevertheless. It was the only meal we had where kimchi was lacking. We all signed the visitors book after the meal adding such pithy comments as 'best pizza I've ever had in DPRK'

Right: The bus on the main road outside the pizza restaurant. I expect the holidaying citizens were all busy tucking in at other establishments.

Next on to the Metro. Left: the entrance at 'Revival'. There are two Metro lines under the city. The stations are all named with nationalistic slogans which might sound impressive but it doesn't give you much of a clue as to where you are. Not sure how much a ticket costs; we got in free.

Right: The escalators descend 300ft ( 100m ) below ground. The stations make good air-raid shelters.

The platforms below, or at least the ones we saw, are cavernous and beautifully decorated in a classical style. Left: This is the one at Revival.

There are elaborate mosaic murals depicting various rural, urban and military scenes and, of course, the Great Leader. They are lit by extravagant chandeliers.

Left: Another typical mural.

We weren't travelling at rush hour and the carriages were not exactly packed. Having started at 'Revival' we stopped and got off at 'Glory' before re-boarding and passed through 'Reunification', 'Victory' and 'Torch' before emerging at 'Triumphant Return' which happens to be at the Arch of Triumph monument in the city centre ( which featured earlier ).
At least, unlike the London Underground, there are no constant pestilential 'announcements' to tell us to 'make sure we take enough water to drink' and to 'use all available doors' ( never have understood that one; I normally find it necessary to use only one ).
Left: The platform at 'Glory'........

....which features a gleaming staue of the Great Leader.

Onwards to the Fun Fair and Amusement Park ( left ) to the east of the city. 5 Euros to get in and extra for the rides.

Lots of rather tame 'rides' and roundabouts featured. The only ride of note being quite a decent roller-coaster which some of us tried. We were kindly allowed ( to our embarrassment ) to jump the long queue to get on.

Left: Looking back at the top of the climb. 

We also ventured into the large hall which housed lots of screen games and computerised car/motor-bike driving simulators. It was a most popular venue. It was apparent that as we entered the light levels went up and the air-conditioning magically started. I began to suspect we were being specially treated!

The park is spread over a large area involving much walking and, frankly, most of the 'entertainments' were not exactly a threat to Alton Towers. Ice cream was on sale. We rather vainly tried to explain to Song Sim and Mr Lee the concept of toffee apples, candy floss and hamburgers, which most certainly didn't feature. Possibly because of their provenance in the Imperialist US. Having said that, the children are undoubtedly healthier without.

'Everybody back on the bus' and off towards a hotel near Nampo, a port city on the south west coast of the West Sea ( or to non-N.Koreans, the Yellow Sea ). It was an hour and a half's drive through a mainly agricultural area. Leaving the outskirts of Pyongyang there is a vast runway of a 6 lane motorway, the biggest I've seen yet. This ( the Freedom Highway or some such ) was constructed on the orders of the People's Workers' Party in the 1990s. As with most of these big projects the army and civil pioneers built it mostly by hand. These are constructions of pure vanity as, in this case, the road is still only half completed in places and it peters out before Nampo. Nobody seems to use it anyway. Maybe the intention was to connect it to the Nampo seaport. We then branched off onto some B roads which took us through what seemed very drab and poor countryside and many derelict looking buildings and dilapidated housing. Quite a lot of workers were bicycling or walking from work in the fields. My overriding impression is that these people must live remarkably repetitive and dull lives. No pubs.

We arrived at the Ryonngan Spa Hotel, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a venue frequented by visiting VIPs ( we were told ). This features quite a smart central reception and dining building surrounded by outlying chalets in the woods which are, in some cases, a bit of a walk along a maze of roads. The chalets all look the same and are indistinctly marked. There was no hot water but, we were promised, the hot spa water jacuzzis in each room would 'activate' between set hours. Seems strange that hot spa water should only be hot, or operate, at certain times. Another peculiar feature here is that the trees surrounding the place are roosting sites for thousands of egrets. They came swarming in at dusk ( together with lots of magpies which kept me saluting madly ). The trees were totally blossomed-out in white by all the egrets, and they made quite a noise. This was by far the biggest ( indeed the only ) collection of birds that I had seen so far. At least I think they were egrets; white heron-like things with long bendy necks. I rather conform to the 'Geordie' Ornithological School which only recognises three types of birds; Spuggies ( small birds ), Craas ( crows ) and Shitehawks, or sometimes Fookin' Shitehawks, ( anything else ). 

After another good supper, and other tourists were here including a particularly raucous group of what turned out to be Belgians led by a loud and aggressive man who looked and sounded like Mr Hitler, we retired to the billiards room for a few games of pool. This proved amusing and involved drinking a fair amount of beer and the remnants of a rather disgusting bottle of ginseng spirit which one of our party had been trying to get rid of for some time. Then back to the chalets in the woods; we were in several different ones. That's when the problem started. It was of course pitch dark by now. There were lamp-posts on the surrounding maze of roads which we had spotted during daylight and assumed they would gaily illuminate our way home but, of course, no lights worked. Noone had thought to bring a torch. We split up and staggered off, slightly the worse for wear, in varying directions. I seem to remember passing several of our group, on many occasions, all in the same predicament; totally disorientated and lost, and some perhaps a touch the worse for wine. There was the occasional shout of glee from a distant part of the forest as someone actually found their chalet. It was a question of slowly 'quartering' the area and putting your key hopefully into the door of any unmarked chalet you stumbled across. I had visions of spending the night with the egrets as, by now, the main building was also dark and closed. I can't remember how long I, and others, spent blundering around before eventually, and by shear luck, finding refuge. Perhaps some never did. We hadn't been taught the Korean for 'HELP'!

Another day of cultural and industrial excitements to look forward to on the morrow. 

Monday, 28 October 2013


9th Sept 2013

The causeway at Wonsan
Today ( 9th Sept ) is the 65th Anniversary of the foundation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea ( DPRK ), i.e. North Korea, and a public holiday. Parades and celebrations everywhere no doubt. By far the biggest is in Pyongyang where one of their spectacular parades is to be held in Kim Il Sung Square. Attendance here is by invitation only and for some inexplicable reason we were not invited ( must have been an oversight ). Instead we are on the road again back up the coast to Wonsan which we visited briefly en-route south a few days ago. The three hour bus journey was broken again for a leg-stretch and coffee at the beach-side cafe at Sijun beach. 
After booking in and lunch at the Tongmyong Hotel; not a bad place at all by the looks of it, we walked to the main square ( left ) where the assembled company was preparing for an open-air concert. 

I estimated the band and choir on parade numbered 1300 ( I spent a long time counting ), mostly made up of students, and different 'acts' came on to sing or dance in front. Lots of very 'patriotic' songs and also some rather jolly ones.

The performance lasted for an hour and a half with no breaks. Two conductors took shifts to wave their batons and got very sweaty in the process. The ranks of choir, mainly girls at the front, showed remarkable stamina. They waved things and swayed from side to side, but I never saw even one move their feet for the entire performance.

The most impressive act was a group of drummers ( right ), who really did do rather spectacular things with their drums and sticks.

....and we were subjected at one point to a long, loud rabble-rousing speech, no doubt highlighting the importance of the occasion and their eternal gratitude to the Great Leader.

Right: A photo of one of the pictures in the gallery visited a few days previously. I thought at the time it was the only place I hadn't seen a picture of a Leader, but I found this and was obviously mistaken. It features the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, being entertained to nosh in the field ( range stew? ) by his devoted soldiers. Big chips on offer by the look of them. Might account for the Dear Leader's strapping figure.

Left: A bad photo of the passenger ship which has apparently not set sail for decades.

Later that afternoon we took a stroll along the causeway ( right ) which led out to a small lighthouse. Being a public holiday there were lots of families sitting on the rocks cooking on barbecues. Many, children mainly, were fishing and catching small crabs using ingenious methods. Some were amusing themselves with 'crab races' ( which I last witnessed in the Green Tortoise hostel in San Francisco ). Several groups of lads and lasses were dancing fuelled, I suspect, by a few bottles of beer. They were enjoying their short holiday.

Sitting out under the trees around the lighthouse one got covered in small hairy caterpillars which seemed to drop relentlessly from above. Some of us climbed up inside the lighthouse for a good view, and to avoid the caterpillars.

On the way back down the causeway Song Sim and Mr Lee had organised an impromtu barbecue for us. It involved sitting around a small charcoal stove precariously balanced on tiny stools toasting fresh clams and some recently caught little fish with a delicious spicy sauce. It involved lots of eating things that had dropped on the ground and several burnt fingers. This scoff was accompanied by lashings of that vodka/rice wine which we had grown to enjoy. I suspect it helps disinfect the food and aids the digestion . Very good it all was too.

In the far distance on the peninsular, is a vast hotel built to entertain wealthy visitors. As with many other such grandiose projects it is still awaiting completion after several years.

Wonsan is trying to develop itself as a tourist area. It is the only city we visited that did not have a statue of the Leader(s). In fact we saw them in the initial process of building one, on the harbour next to the static ship. We were not allowed to take photos of them at work. As previously mentioned, we were never allowed to take photos of people working, for whatever reason.

Another curious feature of the seaside here; I never saw a single seabird.

This evening a mass 'dance' was held in the square. Hundreds of locals, mostly in traditional costume, were formed up in circles of about 50 people each doing various kinds of elaborate eightsome reel type folk-dances to rather loud music. Other tourists were present and we were encouraged to join in. Some did, to their great embarrassment and to the amusement of the locals. I most certainly did not, I'm ashamed to say.

Back to the hotel for scran and drinks afterwards in an intriguing bar on the top floor which had great views over the sea and causeway and was furnished as a pine forest. As usual, we were the only people in. There were more trees than customers.

Off on another long drive tomorrow back to Pyongyang.

Friday, 25 October 2013


8th Sep 2013

Final day in the Mt Kumgang district. Another short drive to a start point for a longish climb to the top of  another peak. A three hour trek up well prepared paths and steps. OK, nothing exciting but magnificent scenery and great exercise. This bit of the diary just shows a few views on the way up.

The weather was sunny and not too warm. The environment here is remarkably clean and unpolluted with crystal clear rivers and pools. Not sure what the fishing is like.

Right: Just another view upwards.

Left: Towards the top is the fairly impressive Kuryong Waterfall. This is not the 'wet' season, so it wasn't in full spate.

On reaching this stand at the falls ( over two hours march ), there was a couple of girls who had set up a stall selling cold drinks and snacks. Presumably they carried their goods up here, and back, every day and I can't think they made a lot of money out of it; after all, they could only sell what they could carry. I bought a bottle of water for $1 ( iniquitous ), but happy to do so. They deserved the custom. Who says that there is no 'free enterprise' alive and well in N.Korea. It goes on everywhere, I'm sure, but denied by the PC dogma.

After the falls another very steep climb ( 45 min ) up more steps and ladders to the peak top for a dramatic and vertiginous view below ( right ).

Left: Down to the rock pools below called the Fairies Pools. Not sure what 'fairies' they are referring to.

Right: The platform at the peak.

Left: Viewed opposite were many deeply carved inscriptions in the cliff faces. These were done in the 'dynastic' era when these mountains were of great religious importance to the Buddhist community.

Right: Cliff face inscriptions.

Left: ...and more. For once, this rock face graffiti pre-dated Kim Il Sung.

Another sweaty walk back down, and passing groups of giggling young Chinese tourists on the way up, we arrived back at 'Base Camp' ( i.e. near where we left the bus ) for much appreciated refreshment. There was a bar with draught beer. We actually waited quite a long time here because one of our party was overdue. I mused, given the many opportunities to fall off rock-face ladders on the steep bits, what would have happened if someone had done so. There was no rescue service at hand. We were beginning to draw straws ( a new concept to Song Sim ) to decide who would go back up to search when, fortuitously, he arrived. Lunch followed at a very pleasant 'pavilion' style restaurant nearby. Again, as far as food and drink was concerned, we were seriously spoilt.

Back to the 'resort' where, for the first and only time on this tour, we had the rest of the afternoon 'off'. We could explore at leisure the shops and facilities in the small resort area. Most of these were closed, but there was one quite large shop selling 'duty free' drink and stuff. Local honey was much on display plus a vast array of 'genuine' Rayban sunglasses. I went inside and there were many staff hanging about who greeted me like a long-lost friend. I happened to be the only customer, and I didn't want to buy anything. 

A visit to the local spa was then muted. Four of us went along for a massage to soothe our aching limbs. On arrival ( with our guides in tow because it was at least half a mile from the hotel ) the place was open, but there were no masseuses. It took another hour for the one guy in charge to round up a collection of muscle-beating volunteers to look after us. We all suspected that they had been gathered in from the surrounding fields at short notice. We got our massages, of sorts, and it was quite expensive. As always, we were the only customers. The place was, incidentally, infested by flies.

One of the things that was notable, here as elsewhere, was the almost total lack of visible wild-life. Few, if any, birds and the only wild animals which showed themselves were curious little 'chipmunks'. These endearing creatures were quite common, but I never managed to get one to sit still long enough for a photograph.

The bar opened to much acclaim at 6.00pm. 

Wednesday, 23 October 2013


7th Sep 2013

General rocky view
Today started with a trek up a mountain peak, in the Kumgang range, about 40 mins bus drive to the base. The trails in this, the Mamulsang Park, are well laid out with steps cut into the rock and metal ladders with handrails towards the top. Just as well. Spectacular scenery and, luckily, good weather. It is a very steep climb nevertheless and much sweat was expended. I think six of us, including Song Sim, completed it. It took about 2 hours to get to the top which involved a climb of about 2000' if memory serves me right. Lots of streams and waterfalls. OK, not exactly Mt Everest, but still pretty knackering.
The highest peak in the district, Piro, is at 5400'.

Left and below: Views on the way up.

Left: Song Sim at the summit with a plaque which I'm sure said something along the lines of 'Kim Il Sung was 'ere'. This whole area is covered in plaques and inscriptions in the rock. In the far gone days it was a very spiritual part of the country for Buddhist monks. 
It took half the time to get down. We met  several Chinese, or maybe Taiwanese, tourists up here.

Then on to Seakumgang which is on the coast and actually inside the DMZ. We had to pass though 'border' guard posts  ( a bit more paperwork ) at which the soldiers saluted us smartly. They are very polite. This seaside area has only recently been opened up to tourists and has a few 'trails' mapped out.

Left: A sign board showing the trails.

Right: Looking south. The land in the distance is South Korea.

A couple of Northern artillery positions were spotted in emplacements along the cliff.

Left: Some brave souls went for a swim.
Given the opportunity and resources this area would make a great seaside resort.

Right: Song Sim negotiating a good price for sacks of enormous mussels from some local fishermen which we had for supper that night. Delicious. They go well with a rather good rice wine/spirit which we had come to enjoy.
We were also given fresh sea-urchins to eat here which tasted surprisingly good once you had picked the spikes out of your hand.

Another short drive back over the DMZ crossing to Samil Lake ( left ). We were standing on the balcony of a shelter which, apparently, N.Korean soldiers use as a small arms firing point to shoot at targets on the lake. Not while we were here they didn't.

Right: And a suspension bridge on the way back down.

Back to the 'resort' where the local fire station was pointed out, and very smart it was too. The only things it appeared to lack were fire engines and firemen. Presumably they were all away putting out fires? We got back at 5.15pm for a well deserved drink. No! Despite trying to persuade the staff behind the bar that we were thirsty, no service until 6.00pm.

Another Korean phrase learnt today: 'Ul-mah-immika?' for 'How much'?