Posts

Showing posts from February, 2005

The ego of the Kims

Image
North Koreans seem to have an intense fascination with their leaders. As NK's founding president, Kim Il Sung was adored and celebrated by his people... or at least that's the impression left my the endless pictures and monuments in honour of the man. Such was his impact on NK that he was enshrined in the country's constitition as a permanent president, meaning that his death in 1994 had no impact on the status of his presidency. He is often affectionly referred to by NKers as the "Great Leader". His son, Kim Jong Il fought of a number of contenders before being announced as successor, and has earnt himself the honorific title of "Dear Leader". Despite the fact that he has yet to break his duck in giving a speech in his time as national leader, he is revered in the same spirit as his father was.

It is difficult to appreciate just how central these two figures are to North Korean life. Their images are omnipresent, and their auro worshipped. A few …

Streets of Pyongyang

Image
The most interesting part of the trip was the time spent travelling between sites, where we could watch outside the bus and see what life was like for ordinary Pyongyangers.

The first thing that you notice is that there are so few cars on the road. Most of the traffic is on foot or on pedal, with a constant stream of pedestrians dominating some streets. People seem to be much like the denizens of any other Asian developing world capital - dressed in basic but adequate clothing, generally walking in small groups, often avoiding eye-contact, and slightly hunched over as if to remain as unnoticed as possible. There is no particular urgency to movement in Pyongyang - I guess there are few places worth rushing to. Oddly, there is a large collection of newly minted 'Pedestrian Crossing' signs, black and white on a blue background, which are placed anywhere that a pedestrian might be moderately interested in crossing the road.

Another strange pedestrian quirk is the proliferation o…

North Korea as a tourist

Image
Travel to North Korea is very heavily resticted. You cannot travel on passports from the US, South Korea or Israel. You cannot travel on a tourist visa if you are a journalist. Most painfully of all, you cannot travel around freely within North Korea, but must at all times be accompanied by two North Korean government officials (the second one, presumably, to keep an eye on the first). For me, I went with a group organised by Simon and Nick at Koryo Tours, a British company based in Beijing who help curious westerners like myself settle their North Korean fetish. As we had just past the depths of winter and this was the first tour for the year, there were only four in the group, with John, Tom and Aruna my travel partners.

Our guides for the trip met us at Pyongyang airport when we first arrived. Mr Ri was in his late 40s and had been a tour guide for many a year. He also spent time serving in the Korean People's Army, and so is one of the few NKoreans to have travelled abro…

Welcome to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

North Korea is a place that is shrouded in mystery and conjecture, much of it of its own creation. For so long it has chosen to close itself off from the rest of the world that little information flows in or out of the place. In the absense of hard facts, rumour and speculation run rife. I plead guilty as one who has engaged in plenty of rumour-mongering in the past (and, let's be honest, will probably try my hand at it in the future), but to really come to grips with the place it is necessary to see it first hand. Much of the speculation is not meant in a harsh, negative way - although there are elements of that - but is instead meant in the same way that people watch the bearded lady at the circus. Curious, but not necessarily critical. Perhaps they could but those on the number plates - DPRK: The Bearded Lady of Asia.

Since there are so few who have seen the place but so many who speculate, I think it is worth publishing a few thoughts after my trip. It's important to…

Back in town

Landed in Melbourne this morning, tired and worn-out, but otherwise happy to be home. Will be uploading photos in the next couple of days, and also writing plenty on the North Korean trip. Please feel free to post any questions about NK, and I'll have a go at answering, or at least making up a convincing lie. To save face, you see.

Homeward bound

It's just past eight-thirty on Thursday evening in Beijing, and so in less than twelve hours my flight home will leave Beijing bound for Hong Kong, and with any luck I'll be on board. Just after sunrise on Saturday, I'll arrive home in Melbourne, and so my three-month adventure through Asia will be over.

Without getting too sentimental about the past couple of months, for my own self-indulgence (and for what my psychotherapist, if I had one, would call 'closure') I think it's worth reflecting on the good, the bad and the ugly from the trip.

When I look back at how much ground I covered in such a short space of time, I wonder how I did it. 9 countries (more or less, depending on your take on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, North and South Korea) in about 12 weeks doesn't leave a lot of time for smaller towns, quiet wandering or time consuming distractions. After a while, travel at that speed becomes rather manic, with much of your time spent in transit, mentally …

Easy come, easy go

A fortnight ago in Beijing I had to farewell a pair of pants. They had served me well, through half a year back in Australia plus almost the entire length of the trip. But they were ragged, full of awkwardly position holes right around the crotch area, and worst of all they smelt funny. Reluctantly I threw them out, and headed out to one of Beijing's classiest stores, The Henderson Centre, to buy a replacement.

Unfortunately for me, I'm a big guy. There's no escaping the fact that my size is at the extreme end of the spectrum for most clothing stores. You can chose whichever euphemism you like - large, generously proportioned, weighty, voluptuous (okay, I haven't heard that one directed personally at me, but you get my drift). Buying good clothes is tough in Australia, but here in China it is almost impossible. As I entered The Henderson Centre, a Myers-esque department store in the city, I browsed from outlet to outlet, with everything looking far to slim for my…

A few thoughts on North Korea

Okay, I'm back in China, alive and well, and much much wiser for my five days in North Korea. There is so much I want to write about the trip, that I'm best of waiting until I get back to Oz, where I can spend all the time I like tap tap tapping away, rather that at the dingy internet cafe I'm currently stuck at in Beijing Railway Station. For all the detail and the photos, check the site out after 27 February, and all will be revealed.

For now, though, a few quick thoughts. North Korea is a poverty stricken place, but no more poverty stricken than other 'developing world' countries I've visited on the trip, such as Burma and Cambodia. Contrary to my expectations, the streets of Pyongyang do have some traffic, there is some commercial activity, people look reasonably healthy and adequately dressed, kids do smile and laugh and be kids, food is available if not plentiful. The one day spent outside of Pyongyang revealed that life is significantly tougher away …

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off the the Worker's Paradise we go

Well, today might be Valentines Day, but it's tomorrow that I've been looking forward to for a long while. At 11:30am, I'll be on the flight out of Beijing, bound for Pyongyang, and from there my great North Korean adventure will begin.

Today was a briefing session with Simon at Koryo Tours, and the three other participants on the trip. Most of the practicalities seem to be taken care of, so there's nothing to worry about. I have my plane ticket in hand and the visa (a removable slip of paper, unfortunately) in the passport.

For the next five days, I can absolutely guarantee I'll be offline, so to keep you all amused (and also to satisfy the curiousity of all those NK spies who are sick of reading "Y'all listen up, dis is how you speak English good" by Charles Jenkins and want something else to do), here's a blow-by-blow itinerary. Of course, things often change once you hit the ground, but here tis anyhow:

Itinerary

Tues Feb 15th - Flight FNJ-PEK…

Only in China...

The United States is famous (rather unfairly, really) for housing its fair share of simple minded country folk, but these couple of 'round the grounds' reports published in the Shanghai Star should surely put the China up there with the best and dumbest.

Verbatim...:

GUANGXI: Greedy for tourists
A SUPER restaurant capable of accommodating 10,000 diners is expected to be completed this year in the Qingxiu Mountain Scenic Spot located in Nanning, capital of South China's Guangxi Xhuang Autonomous Region. The building covers an ara of 20 hectares and has cost 120 million yuan (US$14.4 million). Jia Yuchen, director of the nanning Tourism Bureau, said the unfinished restaurant would be the largest in the world. It will feature decorative landscapes and cuisine from a variety of Southeast Asian countries. In comments that could be of concern to owners of the new dining spot, two employees of another restaurant located nearby said few people came to visit Qingxiu Mountain and r…

Beijing Flu... well, cough and cold at least

Since trecking along the Great Wall of China (as the song says, 'Goodness, gracious, Great Wall of China'... or something like that) on Thursday, I've been feeling rather sick. Thankfully, it's all above the neck and none of it involves digestion, since I'm not keen on the squat toilets, but nose, ears, throat and head have all been receiving a fair bit of punishment. Glumly I've spent a couple of days wandering aimlessly through the hostel I'm staying at, sleeping, reading, eating, typing and shitting, sometimes several of them at once. If it's any guide, I managed to knock off the entire The Da Vinci Code in less than 2 days - not something I'm proud of, but then again... who would have guessed Robert Langdon was really a woman?

Nothing really interesting of note from the past couple of days, although yesterday there was a slightly odd experience. In preparation for my great North Korean adventure (departing Tuesday!) I've been told to stoc…

Chinese Meeja

Even though the Chinese economy is slowly becoming free and open, the Chinese media is still firmly in the grasp of its Beijing masters.

Flick on a TV anywhere in China, and you'll no doubt be confronted by the omnipresent CCTV logo winking at you from the top left hand corner. It's a strange but appropriate coincidence that those four letters stand for 'Closed Circuit TV' in the rest of the world, but here they represent the 'Chinese Central TV'. Either way, you can't help but feel paranoid. CCTV is TV is China. There are 9 - yep, count 'em - NINE CCTV channels, each of them looking to the casual observer to be as turgid and boring as the next. The only one I've given any time to - CCTV 9 (aka, CCTV International, aka CCTV in English) is an unconvincing mix of propaganda-as-news, Chinese arts and culture, and painfully inoffensive nature documentaries.

One long-termer in China explained that CCTV International is watched by almost no one - the C…

Shana Tova, Beijing

Chinese New Year has come and gone, and it was a strangely low-key event. Rather than being like a western New Year celebration, CNY (or Spring Festival, as this mid-winter celebration has come to be known) is more like Christmas. There are plenty of public displays leading up to the occassion, but come the day itself, the streets are abandonded, the cities are quiet, and everyone worth their dim-sum is at home with their family.

For a truly odd little twist to things, a group of fellow travellers and I headed out on New Years Eve to Tianenmin Square to soak up some of the excitement. When we arrived, we found that the entire square had been blocked off from the public, and there were humourless PLA soldiers patrolling this big people's square, lest any people attempt to enter. In the end, a bunch of shiverring westerners was the biggest tourist attraction that the Chinese people who were there could find, and so they lined up to take their photos with us and practice their En…

What's the plan?

It looks like Kim Jong-il is back on the front foot in DPRK, playing a firm shot to some increasingly fast bowling. The latest moves in Pyongyang seem to be a deliberate attempt to keep the issue front and centre in the international relations game, presumably to maximise the concessions to the DPRK if and when an agreement is reached. CNN for the details:

North Korea claims nuclear weapons
Pyongyang pulls out of six-nation talks
Thursday, February 10, 2005 Posted: 10:01 AM EST (1501 GMT)

(CNN) -- Citing what it calls U.S. threats to topple its political system, North Korea says it is dropping out of six-party nuclear talks and will "bolster its nuclear weapons arsenal," North Korea's official news agency KCNA reported.

Thursday's report was the first public claim by North Korea to actually possess nuclear weapons.

The other possibility is that the latest move reflects the internal conflict taking place within DPRK. KJ-I may be trying to demonstrate that he is stil…

I bet they're jealous in Cannes...

Look what will be showing when I hit town next week (straight from KCNA - this stuff is funny enough without any smartarse tops or tails):

Ten-day Film Show Opens
Pyongyang, February 9 (KCNA) -- A ten-day film show opened to celebrate the birthday of leader Kim Jong Il (February 16). Shown in this period will be Korean documentary films including "February 16, Greatest Holiday of Nation" and "Holding Great Brilliant Commander in High Esteem", which tell about the feats performed by Kim Jong Il leading the Songun revolution. To be screened also are feature films depicting the indomitable struggle of the Korean army and people such as "Battalion Commander of Ridge Chol," "People of Jagang Province" and "Ten Party Members Today."
An opening ceremony was held at the People's Palace of Culture Tuesday.
Minister of Culture Choe Ik Gyu made an address at the ceremony.
At the end of the ceremony the participants watched …

Hit, Bluz and Hotpot!

Life in Harbin aint pretty, particularly during the coldest days of winter when the mercury hits -25, the wind is up, the nightlife shuts down, and there's nothing to do over Chinese New Year because every local person is heading back to their home town to get drunk on Pieju with their family and long lost Uncle Le.

Social life for many of the expats of Harbin revolves around two funky little places at opposite ends of the good taste spectrum. At Hit 1098 bar (HIT is the Harbin Institute of Technology, but you knew that already) you can drink 4 kwai beer (about 0.70AUD) and eat greasy snackfoods and talk and smoke the night away. It has just the right vibe for cold, homesick expats, and the bar is filled most nights with the crazy characters who are strange enough to call the city home. Flags draped on the walls, bizarre graffiti, a glorious Bob Marley poster peering in on the Smokers Den... this is the sort of place I'd be a regular at, if it wasn't 6,000km from home.

Harbin a great time

Sorry about the lack of posting of late. I've been up to all sorts of strange things in the supercold ex-Soviet Chinese city of Harbin. A fascinating history to this place, which leaves a lingering hatred of the Russians and the Japanese, as well as the shell of a large Jewish community. Thesedays, the place is famous (well, these things are all relative really, given that few people have ever heard of the place anyway) for its magnificent ice festival, which sees snow and ice sculptures dot the city and fill a large park. The sculptures truly are breathtaking, even if the weather makes the taking of breath a rather perilous task.

Anyhow, am bound for Beijing tonight (Monday) and will write some more soon. Tuesday is Chinese New Year, and this place is expected to be something to behold. I look forward to sleeping and drinking my way through it.