SWISS YODELING over Pyongyang

“Appenzöller”- PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

“If you act from the heart, you can’t make a mistake.” And DPRK is no exception.

Grand People's Palace – The Chinese enjoy KIM IL SUNG'S pet – The the largest selection of folk music in the world

Our guides didn’t like alcohol and went to bed early every night...

No easy task – Not for her and not for me...

Guides usually relax after some late nights with a lot of beer and wine but ours were different. They didn’t like alcohol and went to bed early every night. What was I going to do? How could I establish contact with “True Children of the Red Spirit”? How could I break the deadlock of professional suspicion without a lot of beer and wine?

Professional suspicion - Visiting the house of the local guide at the farm cooperative outside Wonsan, on the left: my "permanent" guide

Walking to the Lighthouse with my male "permanent guide

How could I avoid being made into a capitalist monster?

Film City – US corner – Capitalist Monster

Sometimes I felt like that when people reacted to me as if I had an infectious disease when our guides forbid me to make contact. Relating to someone looking at something not on the official itinerary was like spying for them. Our two permanent guides were true red spirit children of the the North Korean Communist Party.

I realized that Korean names were difficult to remember, I didn’t relate to the people by their name. So got myself to pronounce the name of my female guide – she was very surprised when I called her the first time by her name – it went some way but wasn’t quite enough.

Then, traveling through the North Korean Peninsula to the East Coast of Wonsan, walking from the port to the lighthouse, I bought a big bag of sea shells from divers on a rudimentary black market – not for her! but to make her mother a present. My spontaneous act turned out to be a useful gesture. Over her mother I could relate personally to her, she told me the next morning that her mother never got such beautiful shells before, that she would prepare them and the whole family would get together – but it was no ice-braker either.

Some time later we visited the Grand People’s Palace, the National Library. This enormous marble palace, a reading and learning center of North Korea, also had a audio department containing the largest collection of folk music from all over the world – KIM IL SUNG’S favorite pet project. The audio room was filled with dozens of desks and radio sets. From the vast selection of  Swiss songs we chose the yodel “Min Vatr isch en Appezöller…”.

Grand People's Palace – audio department

Ursula – surprised to hear Swiss folk music – immediately started to yodel too. Her voice was so catching that our female guide began to yodel too. This finally turned the page – Tung Hui was still yodeling the next day… . Swiss yodel finally broke the ice.

How to remove the sting of being a spy?

It didn’t mean that from this day on I could do what I wanted but it removed the dangerous sting of being a spy, a snake in the grass. Something in the emotional fabric had changed for the better as I found out when we departed from Pyongyang airport.

Signs of Things to Come?

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

Nestle products

Having in mind that in November 2009, North Korea had devalued its old bank notes with virtually no advance notice by 100 to 1.  The old denomination of 1,000 won was replaced by the new 10 won. North Koreans were only allowed to exchange up to 100,000 won approximately US$25 to US$30 according to the then-market exchange rate of the old currency for the new bills. Many people saw their entire private savings wiped out overnight. North Korean Supreme Military Authority issued shoot-to-kill orders on the Chinese-DPRK border. Authorities were afraid of a massive exodus by middle class North Koreans with god.

I was looking for the old won and found prices in old won in Sariwon City at an ice cream seller.

Shell fishers refused to be photographed

I was also keen to find signs of private enterprise in this classic stalinist regime of KIM JONG IL. At the beach in Wonsan I met shell fishers selling their catch in small portions.

Apples from China

One day, traveling overland, our guides allowed us to make a toilet stop. We sat at the stairs of a closed down highway restaurant beside the road, bought a cup of tea, a brochure with the thoughts of “My Dear Leader“ and some apples (probably from China).

The dishes, tea and coffee they had brought in cardboard boxes. This stop was well organized and run by a group of women and men which must have had the support of the local bureaucrats (and our guides too) looking for Euros. It was the first and only time I saw Nestlé products in North Korea.

She was serving tea

Private traders selling their goods - Is this a sign of things to come?

Private enterprise dies last or as we say in German “Die Hoffnung stirbt zuletzt”. Are these traces of things to come?

When I look at the girl – she was quite a lady – who served us tea and coffee with Coffee Mate from Nestlé, I think these are indeed hidden signs of change, of “Big-Brother-influence” creeping up on North Korea from over the border, “brotherly touches” not even “My Dear Leader” KIM JONG IL, the last Gate-Keeper of Stalinism, can avoid…

But most astonishing to me were the North Koreans who sold and traded their goods in a remote area on the South coast 30km outside of Wonsan. I was able to take a snapshot while driving by at 08:30 in the morning after we had stayed overnight at an old Soviet-type sanatorium (with cold Fango) outside Wonsan .

The MEANING of “SPY” – electric fence, DPRK

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

...fence and concrete more isolated places...

When we go to a beachfront, we have the urge to put our feet in the water and take a swim.

On closer examination...

But there were two things we hadn’t reckoned with: We were on the road in North Korea, we couldn’t stop when WE wanted…

I could not verify my suspicion...

…and the beach outside of Wonsan had a fence in more remote places and concrete blocks that made the access to or from the sea impossible. The concrete pillars were bent towards the sea, giving the impression that some hostile foreign action had to be prevented like keeping out South Korean spies from landing. But a second look at the fortification triggered the idea that it was the other way around.

Concrete blocks against a South Korean invasion - Could it be the other way around?

Could government propaganda about the imminent danger of a “barbaric invasion“ by South Korean spies not camouflage the real threat that North Koreans could flee their homeland in small boats at the dead of night? I could not verify my suspicion… . I saw soldiers repairing holes in the fence but missed to make the photo. In some areas there was a inner fence too.

FAST HAIRCUT in a Cooperative Farm

The tools: 1 comb and 1 scissors


My hairdresser at the Cooperative Model-Farm

A visit at a hairdresser is a travel experience to me I’m always looking forward to. I enjoy the special attention that comes with a hair cut or a shaving. There is also a difference in style from country to country.

Hair Salon, Cooperative Farm, Wonsan area, North Korea.

AFTER SEVERAL UNSUCCESSFUL attempts to get a haircut in Pyongyang, I got one at a Cooperative Model-Farm in the Wonsan area on the East Coast of North Korea.

Tong Hui, our female guide told me I could get a haircut at the hotel in Pyongyang but I wanted one in the City, a local one. She refused. Due to the fact that I could not leave the hotel in Pyongyang (nor in any other City we stayed overnight) and was not allowed to go for a walk on my own I saw no possibility to find a local hairdresser.

I told Tong Hui that I could move freely in China and could go to the hairdresser as I wished. She was sort of surprised. She wore Chinese cloths and had a Chinese handbag but could not grasp how worlds apart China and North Korea are. I don’t know if my China-remark helped.

North Korea exists like a hermit. In our interconnected world it looks like a proto-hermit country, totally sealed up to the outside world and tightly controlled within.

But where there are people there is flexibility! Two days later, my guide Tong Hui surprised me with a haircut offer in a very special location!

Haircut in progress

She was elated when she received the Go-ahead! from the woman in charge at the Cooperative Farm and even made some photos in the salon herself.

She was in charge of the hairdressing salon at the Cooperative Farm in the Wonsan area

It was the first haircut  she had organized for a foreigner 250km outside of the hotel in Pyongyang. She took good care, asked me if I felt satisfied and instructed the hairdresser girl. Yes, I had not expected that!

On the way out, the hair salon had a romantic bar

The salon had a romantic bar with liquor, beer, candies and dried fruit from the Cooperative Farm. Ursula bought some dried fruit, they tasted delicious.

One of my "permanent" guides together with the local guide are waiting at the bar. Who has an eye on whom? The Guides on me or the guides on each other?