Day 3: Road Trip to the DMZ
I got up at 6AM to catch breakfast at 6:30AM so we can depart by 6:45AM. Most of the tourists were still asleep so the hotel restaurant with the breakfast buffet was empty. Food was still being brought out and there were no wait staff to watch over me. I took a picture of my breakfast. It's been this more or less every day.
The fruit juice is absolutely disgusting. It tastes like chemicals mixed in with sugar. The pickles were strange and I've had plenty of experience with Korean food. I really liked the apples they have though. Unlike the apples we have, somehow these were much more aromatic and smelled much more floral than our American store bought apples. Perhaps we would consider them heirloom varieties.
I've noticed that everything is very punctual in North Korea. When the guides say 6:45AM, I better be there at 6:45AM. When dinner is scheduled at 7PM, they will get me there exactly 7PM, not 5 minutes early, not 5 minutes late.
Anyways, we drive out to Kaesong, a town in the southern part of North Korea near the DMZ. The drive itself took about two hours through the countryside with a rest stop in between. The road was pretty straight for a highway through areas with a lot of hills but the road condition was very poor. My driver was skilled enough to avoid the of potholes and patchwork that dot the highway. Supposedly, Kim Jong Il wanted this road to be very straight because he wanted a direct road linking Seoul for the potential reunification of Korea. Reunification is the topic of the day today.
In Pyongyang city, it's hard to see the poverty and rundown infrastructure. For the most part, the guides hide it well and a lot of government buildings are built quite nicely. I would imagine that the country dedicates more of its resources to the city than the rural areas around the countryside and that could be said for most governments around the world.
At the rest stop, the toilets weren't working and there was no running water even though faucets and plumbing was installed. We had to scoop our own water from the bucket to wash our hands. Luckily, there weren't many travelers on the road so the restroom and rest stop was used very sparingly.
We took about a 15 minute break here to stretch and walk around. There was only one other group that stopped during our time there. A group of old men from Northern China talked to us and pointed out that he has the same car as the one I was riding. It was an orange Geely Emgrand GT SUV and had lots of room for the 4 of us. One of the guys asked how much the car costs in North Korea and our guides had no idea. Gas was about $1.50 a liter which is similar to how much it costs in Asia.
While we're on the topic of cars, I notice that most cars in North Korea were either older Mercedes Benz luxury models or newer Chinese brand cars. Since private ownership isn't allowed, most "private" cars are given by the state for important people to use. Important people can be high ranking government officials or someone who made a significant contribution to the country. Examples of that would be like winning an Olympic medal or discovering a breakthrough in science.
During the car ride, the guides shared a bit more about their personal life and I shared mine. I showed them some photos of my family and told them about the lives of Americans. We all actually need a car to survive and it is actually common to own a car. They wanted to hear about the nightlife and the entertainment options we have. They wanted to know what the actual internet was like and why the government would allow wrongful content to be published. They also wanted to hear about other news that's going on around the world that they don't hear about in North Korea. I even brought up some news about North Korea's missile tests and they were in denial of everything.
Needless to say, it was a hard conversation to have because of our political backgrounds. It's really hard to describe what freedom is to someone who's never experienced it. I came to the realization that this false alternate reality is all they genuinely know and the only glimpse of the outside world is through the words of travelers like me. It is still important to be respectful of other's opinions, whether they've been brainwashed by propaganda or not. After all, isn't our media brainwashing us too? As Westerners, our actions aren't influenced by the government, but by the media through celebrities and corporate messages.
After two hours, we arrive at Panmunjom, the military installation next to the DMZ. Photography here was strictly forbidden except for a few tourist spots. We stopped at a military checkpoint and a military personnel joined us in the short car ride over to the Panmunjom complex.
Here we visited two houses, both of which are of extreme significance. They first one is a small meeting room with long tables where the armistice treaty was brokered and agreed upon. I actually got to sit down in the chair at the exact table where the discussion was held. Where else would I ever have that opportunity?
I will say that the North Korean account is vastly different from the American account we learn in school. We are vilified to the point that I would hate myself if everything they mentioned was true. Their story seemed like a huge stretch, but again, I wanted to respect my guides and move on with our discussion.
Next up, the actual border in the demilitarized zone.
No photos before this point but there are two large buildings facing each other with some smaller buildings on the actual border itself. The North Korean side is staffed with a dozen or so soldiers on guard at all times while the South Korean side has a good 50 cameras pointed at the North. Freedom felt so close, yet so far away. I even had South Korean cell service for a brief second while roaming on T-Mobile.
My guides introduced me to the officer in charge of overseeing the DMZ as an Chinese American engineer from IBM. The officer gave me an extremely firm handshake and told me "we will defeat you" in the most threatening way possible. I still asked to take a picture with him anyway.
The small buildings in the middle were used for negotiations and family reunions and they sit on the actual border, with half the building on the North and the other half on the South side. There's a cement bar that designates the actual border between the North and the South. Amidst the tension in the Korean Peninsula in recent years, almost all cross border activities including joint industrial zones, family visits, and relief aid have stopped. Nowadays, it's just for tourists on both sides. Unfortunately, I was there on a Sunday and they weren't open for the tour.
We left the Panmunjom complex and headed back to Kaesong. At the inspection point, we had to get off the car and have the car inspected while I went souvenir shopping. There were some very interesting propaganda posters for sale. I would have bought some as gifts if they weren't so expensive. At $40 USD for a hand painted propaganda the size of our normal movie posters, it is a bit steep. I bought one with a bunch of soldiers pointing a missile at the US and left.
It's finally lunch time.
We went to some restaurant near Kaesong about half an hour away from the DMZ. Lunch was pansanggi, basically a whole bunch of small dishes with rice. The guides told me that this is how the king used to eat. It was amazingly delicious, absolutely loved it. The Sprite definitely helped too. I was a bit tired of the weird neon colored juices they had in North Korea.
After lunch, we headed over to a famous King's Tomb and the Koryo History Museum.
This site was the burial site of one of the famous kings of Korean history. He united the people of the Korean peninsula and controlled land extending to China and Manchuria. As such, the North Korean propaganda boasts that this king is their great ancestor and they hope to revive his vision of one Korea for all Korean people.
There's not much historical things to see anymore. Everything has been rebuilt and restored. The only original things left are the actual burial mound and the yellowing pillars at the top. It would cost me an extra $100 USD to enter the actual burial tomb. No thanks.
We then visit the Korean Heritage Museum.
This museum is the most cultural stop on my entire tour. It houses a few thousand objects dating back to the Koryo era. Things include pottery, weapons, manuscripts, and other artifacts housed in an ancient academy that dates back 1000 years. According to the guides, most artifacts have been looted or destroyed by the Japanese.
I found it interesting that a couple was shooting their wedding photos there. It must be of great privilege to have that. The man looked a bit older and seemed to be from a military background and the woman was a beautiful young lady probably no older than 20. Their wedding photos are shot with a Japanese Canon DSLR at a place looted by the Japanese. They love Japanese and American products but hate Japanese and American people, what irony.
At the gift shop inside, I bought a piece of wild red ginseng for my grandparents. The prices seemed pretty decent. ¥50 CNY for a piece in a nice decorative box.
Right outside the Koryo History Museum is this strange bridge. It was said that one of the great Confucian scholars of the Koryo dynasty was assassinated here and a red spot on the bridge is his blood. Legend has it that he was an extremely loyal servant and a bamboo grew where he was killed, hence the name Sonjuk which means bamboo in Korean.
This wraps up the short day trip to Kaesong and the DMZ. We drive back on the same highway for two hours, stopping at the same rest area. We debated a little bit about the merits of a democracy vs. oligarchy and why Trump would make a bad president. It's really funny how authoritarian regimes all broadcast the presidential debates this year as proof that democracy doesn't work. This gave North Koreans even more reasons to hate us. At the time of my trip, Trump won the Republican Party nomination and my guides in North Korea and also everyone I've met in China wonder how it is possible that Trump can be nominated. It's really hard to go to North Korea and not talk about politics.
We entered the city of Pyongyang the same way we came from the airport. This time, we stopped at another arch, the Arch of Unification.
The idea behind this arch is that through this gate and this road, we could potentially go to Seoul and reunify the Korean people under a single country and government. Obviously, that is quite a stretch.
The last stop on my tour is a visit to the Pyongyang Science and Technology Complex. I'm not sure if the center had any practical use other than to house the many volumes of scientific books they had. Many of the demos seemed interesting, but rather useless for actual research. It's like going to the California Science Center in Los Angeles or the Exploratorium in San Francisco.
When I was there on a Sunday, there were a great deal of school kids and not many adult. It's strange to me that they have books on quantum physics and computer programming, but that adults weren't making use of it. These books are probably too high level to be of any use to most people. It seems that most elites in North Korea are fluent in Chinese and that is the language of commerce and science over there. Some of the adults on the computers were reading materials in Chinese. They use a library card system where you check books in and out and reserve computer time.
I was told that this complex is open to anybody but again, why wouldn't people come here on a weekend? There's free air conditioning, books to read, and nice chairs to sit on. I did see certain visitors get turned away from areas like the electronics demos and the foreign language book sections so perhaps there is access restrictions the guides didn't mention.
This concludes my last day of tours. We had a family style dinner at a restaurant with the tour guides and the driver together. The main course was cold soba noodle and the dishes to share consisted of a lot of veggies with some pork and chicken as well. I definitely loved the soba noodle, that was great. We had a lot of food left over at the end and its sad to see it go to waste, especially knowing that there are people who are probably starving nearby.
We drove past the future science street on our way back to the hotel. This is definitely one of the more popular places at night in Pyongyang. There were a lot of storefronts lit up at night and many of them were massage parlors, karaoke places, and shopping centers.
I got back to the hotel a bit early and packed for my early morning flight out of Pyongyang. 3 days in Pyongyang and I was really sick of being escorted everywhere and constantly brainwashed. Chao.