Day 2: Worshipping the Leader
I didn't really expect to go to the DPRK without being forced to participate in their rituals. When in Rome, do as the Romans do right? Well, today is the day to bow to all things Kim family related. I was instructed to dress nicely in a collared shirt and closed toe shoes.
After a very bland breakfast of strange pickled veggies and fried egg, I was on my way for day 2. Unfortunately, no photos allowed during breakfast.
First stop, the Palace of the Sun. This was originally a palace for the country's leader, similar to the White House. When Kim Il Sung passed away, it was converted to a memorial and both him and Kim Jong Il rest here. It is also one of the few places where it was air conditioned throughout. No photos allowed, but I will try to describe everything with words. Here it goes.
Upon arriving at the compound, we were directed to a room where we had to leave all our small loose objects behind. Cell phones, cameras, wallets, even my Fitbit! We then pass through a series of very very long hallways with the airport style people-movers going in both directions. On both sides of the hallways were lots of giant framed photos of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung looking at things. Each photo had a small plaque in Korean and English with the date and significance the photo. My tour guides probably been through the hall a million times by now but I've never seen them so serious. For the few moments we were at the palace, it seemed like they were swept away by sorrow. Fake or not, it was impressive.
There must have been at least a mile of hallways before we got to the exhibition rooms. In front and behind us were huge groups of North Koreans dressed in their best. Most of them looked like they were peasants from the countryside, bused in for the special trip. All of them were teary eyed, some even started weeping and crying. I did get a sense that these were genuine feelings people had. Poor brainwashed souls.
At the end of the long network of hallways was a great hall with a floor to ceiling 3D picture of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung in front of Mt. Paektu. There was white columns surrounding the entire open space and felt like Roman monument more than a North Korean mausoleum.
We then entered an empty room where there was bronze busts of grieving people and sound recordings of people weeping playing in the background. It was extremely uncomfortable to be in the room. This room had two side passages, one to Kim Il Sung's area and the other to Kim Jong Il's.
Upon entering the Kim Il Sung side, I was greeted with a giant floor to ceiling statue of him in white marble in front of a soft red background. We had to bow three times before making our way over to the actual resting place. We walked through this wind tunnel, supposedly to remove dust and impurities, before entering a pitch dark room with a crystal sarcophagus at the center. Here lies Kim Il Sung. We bow three times at each side before exiting. The process and layout is almost the same as the ones at the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in Beijing.
Next, I arrive at a room full of diplomas, metals, awards, and credentials belonging to Kim Il Sung. Most of them were from Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union. There was another room connected to it that had Kim's private train segment, personal Mercedes-Benz S series, among many smaller personal belongings. My guides meticulously explained the significance of every one of them.
There was another side of the palace that holds Kim Jong Il's body, awards, and belongings laid out in the exact same format. I pointed out to my guide that he had an Apple Macbook and they were uncomfortable discussing it.
We exit through the same long network of halls that we entered and collected out belongings. We then walk around the garden and take photos.
Next stop, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum. It tells the Korean War from their perspective.
A military guide took us around the entire place and starting lecturing me about how terrible the Americans were and how much atrocities we commit to their people. Americans are now referred to as the "American aggressors". Such technical terms they use. It's amazing they collected all these destroyed wartime artifacts and gathered them in a museum to showcase.
The captured USS Pueblo is docked right next to the museum as an exhibit as well. It's fully furnished with propaganda materials and very well preserved too.
A visit to the actual museum was next. We skipped a good majority of it since it looked like the museum was closed except for small private showings to tourists like me. There were a few exhibits about the battles fought during the Korean War and a few very realistic recreations of the jungle. The guides babble on and on about the so-called "American aggressors" and the "heroic defenders".
We went back to the hotel for lunch. Again, I ate by myself and I was told I'd be having barbecue for lunch. It's a plate of some really awesome fried rice with some not so awesome bulbogi and delicious medicinal chicken soup. The salad was the same from last night, the dumplings were a bit stale, and the eggs and tomatoes were just like what I'd expect.
After lunch, we paid a visit to the historic home of Kim Il Sung which is now a memorial park.
I think this ancestral home is designed to show how the leader came from poverty and is a man of the people. His family farmed just like everyone else and used deformed barrels to store water because they were cheaper than regular ones. It's actually a really gorgeous park with the most perfect grass I've ever seen.
We had to bow to some old photos of Kim and his family.
It was getting really hot and my guide bought me a popsicle. It was strawberry and cream flavored and was quite artificial tasting, just like the cheap ones we have in America.
After a short car ride, we were at the Juche Tower.
Here, I was introduced to a docent who spoke impeccable English in the most perfect British accent ever. The Juche Ideals, as it was explained to me, can be summarized as self-sufficiency and national pride. The belief is that North Korea will be a better country as a whole when they don't need to rely on anyone else for anything. She went on and on about examples where globalization and international influence was harming North Korea. Sure whatever, I'm here for the view.
The view here is absolutely breathtaking. As one of the tallest buildings around, it's not hard to see the symbolism here that the idea stands taller than everything in Pyongyang.
As if I haven't been brainwashed enough, we go to yet another monument built with the communist ideals, the Party Foundation Monument.
Yet another lady joined joined us to tell me about communism. They all speak the most amazing British English. Supposedly, they learned it from watching and listening to Harry Potter. Go figure.
There are three groups of people that make up the party - workers, farmers, and intellectuals. The workers are represented by the hammer, the farmers by the sickle, and the intellectuals by the brush. The brush is a bit higher because of the importance intellectuals play on advancing technology and improving society. There's a lot of symbolism everywhere in respects to how the stones were laid out and how many people are on the bronze mural on the inner ring but I forgot them all.
There's a very cute cable car running next to the memorial.
After a good long lecture, we were on our way again. This time, Grand People's Study House.
It's an interesting set up for a study house. There's lots of tables everywhere but no students. I was told that it was because this is the weekend and no lectures were held during this time. Funny thing, behind the librarian's desk is supposedly this 1 million volume storage system where the librarian can request a book to be brought automatically. When she demonstrated it, she walked behind the door and manually gave a push to the cart that then delivered the Harry Potter.
There's a lot more foreign materials than I expected. They have copies of Shakespeare and Harry Potter in English but why is nobody reading them? They have casettes of Celine Dion and Marvin Gaye too. Perhaps few people actually read English or maybe these books are forbidden and used for show only? Who knows.
Take a look at these two girls studying. My guess is that this place is reserved for the upper middle class or above. They seem to be dressed fairly well for North Korea and heels are definitely less common. I was told by the guides that all people can come and study here. This seems very empty for a public study house.
We went to the top of the roof for one last look at the city. I was told that people here loved to talk while waiting for the bus which is why the lines are so long. Yeah, whatever. If everyone can just take a taxi waiting out there right?
Fortunately, there's also two subway lines in the city. We then head over to the subway line.
I have to say, these two stations are definitely up there as the most beautiful subway stations I've been to. There's something about the grandeur that is quite breathtaking. The stations are situated very far underground because of the soft soil and protection from atomic bombs but somehow the air didn't feel stagnant or stuffy. I was told these subway cars were built in Czechoslovakia.
The subway ride wasn't anything unexpected. The trains themselves were old, but comparable to the older trains we have in New York City. The ride was a bit jerky and the brakes were a bit squeaky. Just imagine yourself riding the 1 train in New York City full of North Koreans reading newspapers or staring at their phones.
At the end of our ride, we had a bit of time to kill so the guides decided to take me to the theme park to see the roller coaster rides. This is one of two parks, both of which open during the evening hours.
Here, it seems that only the elite have an opportunity to come here. It's still very easy to tell that the people here aren't your average people walking on the streets of Pyongyang. Even though people wear similar colored shirts and pants, the watches on the men and the shoes and purses on the women do stand out.
My guides asked me if I wanted to try any of the rides, so I did. As a foreigner, I got to cut everyone else in line and of course everyone was staring at me. This was my guide, Kim's first time riding a roller coaster so he was scared to death. The ride wasn't too scary, nothing like the ones we have at Six Flags. I was more concerned about their ride's safety records than the actual drops. Guess I checked that off the bucket list.
I get to dine alone at a strange restaurant next to the hotel. It has a Japanese izakaya feel to the decor although they were blasting some British magic show on TV. The fish was alright, the best part of the meal was probably the kimchi and the rice.
Today is party night and my guides are taking me out to their first ever Taedonggang Beer Festival.
When I first stepped into this area, I immediately thought of Oktoberfest and German biergartens. The festival is set up at a dock and the area is joined by a river cruise that's used for dining and events as well. The river cruise itself looks like a banquet or wedding facility.
There's lots of food on offer with more variety than I expected. They had Western food like fries, chicken wings, and burgers along with more Asian varieties like lamb skewers and cold soba noodles.
There's something like 10 different varieties of the Taedonggang Beer. It's considered the best beer in North Korea and is pretty damn good. It's not a craft beer by any means but it beats out Budweiser and Coors any day.
The people at this festival were definitely not your average working class North Koreans. I think a good 10% of the people were tourists, many who spoke Chinese or English. The rest looked like high ranking military officials out with their families or having fun with some of the most beautiful ladies I've seen in Pyongyang thus far.
I had no idea who these 5 ladies were and I had no idea what they were singing. Turns out, this is one of the top women's ensemble in North Korea. They were part of the inflight entertainment on my way back from Pyongyang to Beijing.
As the night drew to a close, my guides took me back to the hotel. There's a long day ahead of me tomorrow so I needed to get some rest.