37th floor

“facade” PICKINGS from my DPRK DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

Pyongyang is a FACADE city. The Yanggakdo Hotel where we stay, is built to impress – like much of Pyongyang’s architecture. Oversize constructions in DPRK are a sign of quality while the inside of the monumental buildings is often less striking.

Our room is on 37th floor, facing the Taedong river with the city panorama. On my elevator rides I realize that a couple of the lower floors have the corridor lights turned off day and night. I find out that on these floors only “insiders” live like Russian circus artists, gymnasts, tourist guides (they always have to stay in the same hotel like their foreign guests). To my big surprise the button for the 5th floor is missing in the elevator. I try to stop and enter the 5th floor but I can’t.

No button for the 5th floor

Breakfast is very convenient to exchange information with fellow travelers. I’m told that the 5th floor is occupied by the secret service monitoring the hotel. My question, why I can only get Chinese CCTV channels and NHK international from Japan in our room but not one North Korean TV program which I would like to watch, nobody can answer. Even our guides seem to be puzzled because they get North Korean channels but no NHK international in their rooms. It turns out that tourist floors are assigned different channels than “insider” floors…

It doesn’t matter where we stay, we cannot leave the hotel on our own. Tourist Travel DPRK has no program for “Strolling, Walking, Hiking unattended”. Travelers who stayed at the Koryo Hotel in the center of Pyongyang were not allowed to leave the lobby on their own. When they tried, the receptionist immediately called their guide who came down from his room and stopped them.

The Yanggakdo Hotel is on a little island. We couldn’t cross the bridge on our own to go downtown or to the nearby railway station. To keep us from doing that our guide told us the following story: Not long ago a Chinese visitor had crossed the bridge, gone to the railway station and taken the train. He ended up in the province, hopelessly lost because he couldn’t communicate with the locals. As he didn’t find his way back he panicked. The travel agency had to pick up the completely confused Chinese tourist.

It was quite obvious that the story was imaginary. Restrictions are so rigorous that not even a Chinese can leave the Yanggakdo Hotel, cross the bridge and go downtown on his own. To enter the railway station without a guide and ticket in hand is even more impossible. To buy a ticket – no tourist can get Won, the North Korean currency – is a mission impossible without the DPRK travel agency’s permission. Nevertheless if that Chinese would have overcome these insurmountable obstacles the conductor on the train would have definitely called the police and had arrested him.

OVERLAND in DPRK

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

“entering DPRK” by rail from China was still very much on my mind when I pressed my movie camera to the car window trying to find a stable position for shooting. Traveling from Beijing to Pyongyang by train had made a lasting impression on me. But moving overland by car through DPRK was different. Though my guides wouldn’t allow our driver to stop or even to slow down when I asked for, I still got in closer in contact to land, buildings and people.

On the Panmunjom – Pyongyang highway I got the permission from my two guides to shoot through the window. This highway is the direct access road to South Korea.

Like other highways we have passed, this one looked like an airstrip or a tank corridor too.

Fire wood - The man following on the side, the woman pulling...

Though the road was in poor condition, the car windows dirty and the circumstances very shaky, I was elated to get that chance. No cars were in sight. Sometimes people were walking on the highway.

Female farmworker

As it always happened day after day, the two guides discussed every move of us over lunch and talked daily to the main travel office in Pyongyang to get instruction.

tête-à-tête

After arrival in Pyongyang that evening, they must have discussed the filming with their superior because next day all shooting from the car window was forbidden…

“KINGDOM of KIM“

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

Film City – "rea"l street cleaners

The film sites have a 1930’s Chinese street, a Japanese street, a US corner, a South Korean quarter and a bizarre selection of European architecture. They have three focuses: against the American Aggressor, the anti-Japanese struggle and the fight against the occupied capitalist and decadent South Korea. Watch out for signs of Massage Parlors that illustrate their South Korean compatriots’ decadence.

KIM IL SUNG visited Cinema City about 20 times in his lifetime to give on-the-spot advice to North Korean filmmakers. KIM JONG IL has a passion for cinema, thanks to his lifelong interest, the film industry is well financed. He dropped in over 600 times to give direction to the film studios.

Film City – American street corner, against the US-aggressor

But the North Korean filmmakers could not satisfy his vision. When their performance did not improve, KIM JONG IL didn’t hesitate to take other steps, orchestrated by himself.

Film City – Lactogen – Prepared in Austr...

Massage Parlors that illustrate their South Korean compatriots' decadence

Choe Eun-hui, a South Korean movie actress, was the first being kidnapped in HongKong by KIM JONG IL’S secret agents in 1978. Her husband, the South Korean film director Shin Sang-kowho flew immediately from Seoul to Hongkong to look for his wife, was soon after kidnapped and brought to Pyongyang too. The fanatic movie buff KIM JONG IL, who likes Rambo and James Bond movies, wanted the South Korean film director to make “good“ movies for North Korea. After almost five years in the Gulag for trying to escape twice, Shin Sang-ko made several movies. One of them is probably the most famous North Korean film called “Pulgasari“, a socialist version of “Godzilla“, though the North Koreans deny that he was involved.

In 1986, the couple were given the permission to travel for the first time abroad. They went to a film festival in Vienna and though they were followed by North Korean secret agents they managed to enter the US embassy and asked for asylum eight years after having been abducted.

Film City – Bizarre selection of European architecture

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.

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.

DOTOK DOTOK DOTOK…

engine driver with teapot

PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21.

Girls dig in the trenches - heads on the rim

April 2011

Dining car - What is flashing through her mind?

THE TRAIN  is moving at a leisurely pace through the hills and fields, crossing large riverbeds, some carry only a trickle of water.

...passing by - men with shovels...

Repairing the trenches

View from my sleeper bed

Workers head to the field

The railway track-sills need repair, some are broken.

We travel at 30-50km/h

We head to the restaurant wagon over luggage and people in the gangway.

Goods for Pyongyang

...sleeping...

Passengers are playing, eating, talking, sleeping.

Dining car – we are in good company

The supper we had ordered is ready and we mix with the Chinese who bring their goods to Pyongyang. It takes us 26 hours to travel from Beijing to Pyongyang at a speed of 30-50km. The heart and mind has time to adjust – from China to North Korea we travel back in time. Sometimes it looks like the Middle Ages but more often the horrible Stalin area comes to my mind.