When TOILETS are SOLEMN PLACES…

SOUR PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

FAR MORE I resented the political system of the KIMS for having effectively established a paranoid, all encompassing power structure with the purpose  to dehumanise contact and treat emotional exchange and empathy as forbidden acts. This state of mind obliged our guides to twist contact making and enforce restrictions on us.

Toilets were solemn places...

Whenever this got to me and threatened my well-being and my mood turned dark, I asked for the toilet.

Toilet at Mount Kuhol...space to myself...

Not so much because I wanted to vomit but for the sake of  having space to myself. Though the stench often was unbearable  the reality of the system was far worse.

...the reality outside was far worse...

Under circumstances like  these toilets were solemn places and offered a rest for my agitated and angry mind in turmoil.

DEAD POOR SHE WAS but CLOSE to the PULSE OF LIFE

RICH PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.-21. April 2011

At the ascent to Mount Kuwol...

AT THE ASCENT to Mount Kuwol we had to stop at a cordon of police

...cordon of police...

and our male guide

Our male guide shows his papers

had to show his travel permit from the central tourist office in Pyongyang to the woman police officer in charge. On the way up to the pass I managed briefly to sit beside the driver – there were no cars nor humans far and wide.

On our way to Kaeseong City...

Down the steep slopes on our way to Kaeseong City we entered a very beautiful garden like area that looked like the bottom of an ancient crater.

...we enter a garden like area.

Two Girls from a nearby cooperative carried buckets of water from a nearby draw well. An old woman, bowed down by age, was working bent forward in the field. Ursula made the driver stop and, for a moment unattended, we got out of the car to the dismay of our two guides.

I hasten to the field not knowing that my guide is hard on my heels

I hastened to the field to watch the woman. She was hacking and collecting some roots. I managed to take a shot or two but Yong Hui was already beside me.

My guide was exasperated: "You are not allowed to take photos of her.“

As I took a Schwenk she got between my Sony-video and the old farmworker lady and shouted: “You are not allowed to take fotos of her.“

In the meantime, Ursula had joined us. The old lady was laughing and talking to her, enjoying herself like a teenager though she was most likely in her early eighties. The old farmworker lady seemed perfectly happy with our company. She did not give the impression to be disturbed or feel dishonored by me.

"Look what I have in my bag!" - Her grace inspired me with awe

She radiated kindness and sympathy, strong life-impulses. Dead poor she was but close to the pulse of life. Her background and lifestyle were ages apart from that of our guides, she was collecting roots in the field to have something for supper.

She specially took her hat of: "Look how beautiful I am!"

While I had an argument with my guide the old woman offered Ursula  her bag, proudly showing her what she had collected. It inspired me with awe how this gentle woman could strike up a friendship with Ursula in a second talking to her like to an old friend. This made Yong Hui even more furious. She called for help from our second guide. As I tried to side step her, she was shifting desperately from one foot to the other to block me from taking a foto of the old lady.

I felt sorry for Yong Hui, she was a city girl and didn’t want to make her shoes dirty. She probably dreaded the countryside.

SOVIET-style METRO stations

PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11. – 21. April 2011

The same escalator like in the Moscow Metro

Metro in Pyongyang – soviet style splendor

We enter the 37km long Metro. There are 17 stations.

Metro pomp of UDSSR-times

Guide Tung Hui in discussion with Jürg

Metro passengers

From other travelers I heard that 3 stations are finished in old soviet Metro-luxury, the escalator is  soviet-style too. The ticket costs 5 wong (new exchange rate: 140 wong = 1 Euro), about 3.5 Cents Euro.

Metro readers show great interest in the latest news

We are not allowed to travel more than 2 stations. Are the other stations not finished? I get no answer from my guide.

Stationmaster

A NO! NO! made possible…!

Rich PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

I would have to lie if I pretend it took me no courage to sit down to them.

Getting the soldiers in line...

...some confusion...

...I took my chance...Military photoshooting with Jürg

 … had my chance because it was the 99th birthday of THE ETERNAL PRESIDENT KIM IL SUNG.

MY MOTHER KNOWS BEST

harsh PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.-21. April 2011

I ask our guide as often as possible about personal issues: When do you marry? We get married between 25 and 28 years. So you are 24? You will marry soon? Yes. Who will choose your husband, you or your parents? My mother knows best she will recommend the right partner to me.

You live with your parents? Yes, my mom is cooking for me. Will you move out when you get married? Maybe not, certainly not in the beginning. Is it difficult to find an apartment? No, not so difficult. I write to the district officer and he will allocate one to me. How much does it cost? Nothing. I repeat: “NOTHING“? Why do you ask? Apartments are free. So you cannot buy an apartment? Why should I buy one? This is not necessary! I only pay for electricity, water and heating. How much is that per month? In Euro it is 20 cents. Did I hear right?

My Dear Leader KIM JONG IL

Everything belongs to the government, we don’t have to worry. And what about healthcare? It is free. Sometimes the hospitals have too many patients and we have to wait to get treatment some weeks. So you have to pay the doctor extra money to get good treatment? She doesn’t understand. Extra money? No! We wait till it’s our turn.

I hear from another source that people in Pyongyang have to pay around 3 Euro/month for an apartment. My guide told me that he paid 7 Euro for his suit made by a tailor. He said it was expensive. As I calculate the numbers I collect, I figure out that monthly income in the capital Pyongyang is probably between 20-50 Euro. High earners make 200 to 300 Euro. In the countryside it’s ten times less if they get money at all, most likely they get food, a place to sleep and clothing.

It’s difficult to get real numbers and impossible to verify them. Job, income, living conditions – it all depends on communist party connections and on people with a link to the inner power circle of “My Dear Leader“ Kim Jong Il.



KIMILSUNGIA – CURIOSITY NEVER DIES

BLOSSOM-PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11. – 21. April 2011

WHEREVER we move, the system tries to infect relations with the virus of distrust. Our two guides, who have the job to separate us from any spontaneous contact with people, are especially under pressure in the capital Pyongyang where the state travel agency is located and they feel under observation.

DPRK army soldiers pose with Ursula for a fellow army soldier

But people are not molecules. Whenever I manage to have more than 15 to 20 meters between me and our two guides I manage to establish spoken contact. Three girls on a park bench giggle when I pass by. “How do you do?“ they ask me and we exchange a few words till the guide is back on my side. I make this experience many times, a laugh, an eye contact…curiosity never dies.

Three children want a photo with Ursula

Two female soldiers take Ursula in their midst

KIMILSUNGIA – Flower of Reverence. In 1965, President Sukarno of Indonesia offered this Orchid to President Kim Il Sung as a present and proposed the name "KIMILSUNGIA".

At the National Flower Exhibition for the 99th birthday of KIM IL SUNG, The Eternal President, emotional contacts are flooding us. Control and separation tactics don’t work any more and we mix freely with children, couples, military personnel. We make photos and they ask us to make photos with them: soldiers, children, couples.

Ursula with Chinese student studying North Korean for 9 months in the capital Pyongyang

“Our North Korean teachers are very strict with us“

They look like from a different star...

We also meet a group of Chinese students, they study Korean at the local university for 9 months. They look like a bunch of extraterrestrials from a different star: well dressed, laughing and joking, talking to us as if we were sisters and brothers, taking us into their midst. My questions: “And how is life in Pyongyang?“ they answer with: “Living conditions are very poor.“ I follow up with: „How are your teachers?“ Their mood darkens: “They are very hard on us, the professors are very strict.“ (Imagine what it takes till a Chinese student complains about “discipline“ after all the exams she or he had to pass in his hometown to get selected by the Chinese government for studying abroad).

The Chinese student said: "Living conditions at the University in Pyongyang are very poor"

TOUCH of HEART

RICH PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.-21. April 2011

WE VISIT the PALACE of the CHILDREN called MANGYONGDAE. Everywhere we go, a local guide is waiting for us. This time it is a 13 year old schoolgirl who is leading us through the Palace of the Children, stretching over 300’000 square meters of marble on six floors.

We start with the:I want to stay longer and enjoy the “Lightness of Being Young“ so beautifully performed with the greatest ease.  But we move to:

The piano practice studio is next with 10 pianos being played by girls and boys at the same time with works from different composers – it sounds like cat-cries in the dead of night – but if you listen and watch carefully each child is playing exactly his own piece, the discipline is amazing:

Then we enter the DRAWING ROOM and I experience a flash: 52! years back I was sitting on my desk in the drawing room at the “Humanistische Gymnasium” nervously chewing on my pencil because the perspective of my flower-still-life was false… .In a cloud of dust old memories appear… The drawing experience at the “Children’s Palace“ in Pyongyang, North Korea, is truly refreshing.

Back in 1953, my desk neighbour in primary school was a big accordion talent. I tried it too, took two classes but had no talent. Though it was half a century later, visiting an accordion class in North Korea at the other end of the Eurasian continent feels like back home in the Palace of my Childhood.

The DRAMA VOICES give me an uneasy chill-down-the-spine feeling like high winds blowing over mountain ranges make me feel to be in haunted places. This traditional female voice training contains an eerie mastery of timeless female suffering passion.

The CONCERT ZITHER, a plucked musical instrument of folk music origin is next. As I work my camera into what begins to look like an orchestra of spyderwebs, I get fascinated by the fingers dance and how the are stringing beads of sound.

The GIRL’S CHOIR is practising a full anthem with reference to the Eternal President Kim Il Sung.

TRADITIONAL DANCE is the last class we visit at the Children’s Palace in Pyongyang.

Amazing flute player

Then we listened to the amazing wooden flute player accompanied by 12 mandolines. Leaving the practise area, we were led to the orchestra hall for a performance of all studios: a  seven year old boy played the drums like a whirling dervish…

At the end of the show in the orchestra hall the girl who was guiding us is waiting at the aisle. She takes Ursula’s arm into hers and walks with her to the exit. She doesn’t let go even as her teacher, waiting outside, is giving her clear signs she should return. The girl says “no“ she wants to bring Ursula to the car. There she hugs her several times and shakes hands with us. As we are driving away, she stays glued to the ground waiving, she stays put, waves with both hands, she doesn’t move. Tears don’t come easily to me, but here in Pyongyang, the Capital of North Korea,  under circumstances hard to describe, I’m deeply moved.