“Chinese made.”

A roar of laughter and much nodding in amusement from our Korean comrades as Max pointed at the designer tear in his jeans. The smiles and laughter of our carriage were far removed from the drab greyness that was passing by our train window. The contrast was as stark as the landscape outside. The contrast summed up my trip to North Korea, a mix of depressing stereotypes and wonderful revelations.

Flying into Pyongyang the land looked bleak. Perhaps this was exacerbated by the dullness of the skies but there really was little down there. There was no movement on the roads; this was not due to traffic gridlock as with most capital cities in the world but rather the opposite, namely that there were no cars on the road.

The gruff manner of the immigration and customs officials did little to lighten my mood; not least when they deprived me of my phone and
blackberry. North Korea is hugely controlled and one of the easiest ways of doing so is to deprive people of the means of communication: there is no internet access in North Korea.

Meeting our guides, Mr A and Miss B, things quickly took a turn for the better and I realised the dangers of preconceptions and the foolhardiness of judging a country on airport officialdom. They were all smiles and politeness. But more than that, they broke the mould. Whilst waiting for the paperwork that would enable us to retrieve our phones as we left the country, Mr A shook his head and was derogatory about the attitude and efficiency of the officials.

“Is it the same in your country?” he asked. I nodded. “What are your perceptions of North Korea?” he continued. I found it difficult to answer. I kidded myself that this was because I did not want to cause offence but in reality it was that I too was wary of being stereotyped.

En route from the airport to the city, Miss B commented that, “There’s only one liar in this country.”

My interest was piqued at the possibility of some real political insight. “He is the weatherman.”

I nodded quietly recognising the fact that weathermen are the same the world over but also at her acuity. Her English was faultless – as was Mr A’s – and rather than spouting facts and figures, the mantra of the party line, she was showing real intellect and personality. That is not to say that she had liberal thoughts – you have to understand the extent to which North Korea is controlled, even conditioned.

It is not just the Koreans that are controlled. As a tourist you have to be accompanied by two guides, your schedule is a script that cannot be deviated from and you are restricted as to where you go and what you are allowed to take photographs of. Indeed, our hotel was situated on an island in the Taedong River that flows through Pyongyang and Mr A explained that we could walk around the island but under no circumstances could we cross the bridge.

“The bridge is the like the DMZ,” quipped Max. Mr A guffawed with laughter.

Driving into Pyongyang I was struck by the space and size of the city. Built within the last fifty years – it was largely destroyed during the Korean War – it is well laid out, spacious and green. Memorials and monuments to the people and the workers party are omnipresent. The
buildings are austere even drab – architecture is not a seven year university course here – the streets empty of both people and colour. There are no shop signs or advertising bill boards, although I suppose that the bombast of the revolutionary posters is North Korea’s equivalent.

Uniform is de rigueur, whether school or military, ancient costume or the ubiquitous Kim Jong Il jumpsuits. There is also uniformity of colour, with muted dark tones being prevalent (with the colourful exception of the ancient costume of the women, which are not worn as an everyday item). There is little no self-expression or sense of individuality with the exception of women’s shoes, the one concession to fashion.

The metro system is functional. Some bright mosaics illustrating industrious workers and the rousing lilt of revolutionary tunes do not
alleviate the sense of normality and daily routine. There are no smiles in evidence; but then to be fair there are few underground systems in the world that make one want to smile.

Kim Il Song is deity. Although he died some fifteen years ago he is still considered president and referred to as the ‘Great Leader’ (confusingly his son Kim Jong Il is referred to as the ‘Dear Leader’). His smiling charismatic face adorns walls, posters, buildings and the pledge pins worn by every man and woman. His statues occupy pride of place in vast squares and the impressive entrance halls of cavernous buildings.

One of the largest of such statues is the imposing twenty metre bronze statue at Mansudae Grand Monument. A place of pilgrimage for most Koreans and a key sight to be photographed in front of on your wedding day, millions of Koreans visit annually to pay their respects to the leader, laying a wreath of flowers at the foot of the statue and bowing. ‘When in Pyongyang,’ I thought to myself as I walked forward to place my flowers at the base of the statue. Unexpectedly, rather than just going through the motions for form’s sake, I found myself awed, humbled by the size of the statue and the scale of my surrounds. It was the closet that I have come to a ‘religious moment’ for many a year.

I did not feel quite so reverent the following day when we went to visit the Mausoleum where Kim Il Sung lies in state. The immaculate turn out of the North Koreans was testament to the esteem in which they held such a visit; I definitely felt self-conscious and under dressed just wearing a tie. I am not sure if this was the reason for my unease or rather that it was so stage managed, so processed as to be painful.

We walked along corridors and escalators for some twenty minutes in solemn procession, North Koreans from the countryside scrupulously avoiding my gaze as they passed in the other direction. Eventually we entered a hall to see a kitsch white statue of the ‘Great Leader’ backlit with pink and blue. The incongruity of the scene brought a wry smile to my lips. The cant of cult from the audio guide as we moved into the Hall of Mourning made me shake my head in wry amusement.

Finally it was into the hall itself where Kim Il Song’s body lies in state. Solemnly, seriously, in groups of four we walked around his body in an anti-clockwise direction, bowing deeply at both of his sides and also at his feet. Then it was the long walk back to where we had come from and out into the sunshine for the obligatory group photograph to commemorate the event.

The next day we drove to the DMZ some one hundred and sixty kilometres south from Pyongyang. The road was relentlessly straight, a homage to the Romans. The landscape was denuded; every inch of land is under cultivation, only a vestigial crown of trees lines the very top of the hills.

En route we stopped off to have coffee. Three uniformed ladies were in attendance of their trestle tables crammed full of tea, coffee, soft drinks and early signs of tourist tat. As we started joking and laughing with the ladies this became far more than just a prescribed stop but rather an opportunity to break down prejudices and barriers. Travel with laughter and you will derive so much more from a country but especially its people.

Arriving at the DMZ we were given the party line as we entered the hall where America and North Korea came to an agreement to end the Korean War. The spin was consummate: Alastair Campbell eat your heart out. Yet I am sure that the South Korean view of events was no less full of propaganda.

The view as I looked out over the South Korean side seemed to reinforce that: an American soldier barked at his troop of tourists ordering them around with ruthless efficiency and at the limit of his vocal chords. There was little such orchestration on the North Korean side. The irony was not lost on our guides.

Driving back at night allowed the briefest of glimpses into some apartments. No such luxuries as curtains to keep prying eyes out, no such luxury as a lampshade to dull the brightness of the single light bulb.

Mr A had mentioned several times that Mount Myohyang was very beautiful but for some reason I doubted him – perhaps due to the hitherto uninspiring scenery that we had seen – and felt that the two hour journey north and the overnight stop would not be worth it. It was a shock but a surprising and very pleasant one.

The water in the streams and rivers was crystal-clear, there were waterfalls, scenic views out across the forest. The concrete steps and path were a clear indication of traffic and sure enough as we were on our way back down we came across several large groups of locals being cajoled onwards and upwards by a leader spouting poetry through a megaphone. Whilst thankful that the group did not blight our peace and serenity at the top they did afford us yet more and different contact with the people of this extraordinary country. Again laughter and smiles was the order of the day.

The nearby Buddhist temple of Pohyon was exquisite. Remote, in the foothills, the soughing of the wind through the fir trees, the tinkle of wind chimes, it had atmosphere, character and peace. A charming refuge, this temple is a hidden treasure both literally and metaphorically.

Taking the train to Beijing we were reminded that the Buddhist temple and Mount Myohyang were the exception as opposed to the rule. Uninviting was the only word that I could use to describe the scenery and the people toiling out in the fields; not so their fellow countrymen on the train. With his new-found vocabulary, Max broke the ice with words such as ‘tongji’ (comrade), ‘agassi’ (young lady) and ‘sarung hasimika’ (I love you) and before we knew it we were sharing a couchette, cigarettes, beers and stories with four Koreans travelling to Beijing to work.

This was the most contact we had had with North Koreans. With the help of alcohol and a card trick, we discussed subjects ranging from the imminent football World Cup to the wonderfully polite Korean custom that you do not pour your own glass. We discovered that one man of sixty had played on the wing in rugby when younger, not a sport that I would have associated with North Korea. We discovered that another had been born in Japan. Above all we discovered a mischievous and infectious sense of humour.

At the border, a guard entered our couchette. He smiled politely. “Anjung hasimika,” he greeted us warmly. He motioned for me to open my bag and then my camera. As warned he was checking to see what photographs I had taken. Spinning through the images he suddenly stopped, wagged his finger and said “Delete.” The photo was of a man ploughing a field with an ox. “Delete.” This time it was an image of a train in the station. Whilst I was disappointed to lose some photographs I suppose that he was right: North Korea has enough image problems as it is without me adding to the stereotypes.

Next he turned to Max who was smiling nervously, like a naughty schoolboy awaiting punishment. Max was concerned that an image of him standing under a giant statue of Kim Il Song mimicking his pose with arm held aloft in salute would cause offence. Unexpectedly when the guard found this image he burst out laughing and showed it to the two Koreans sharing the couchette with us. Once again, when least expected, the unexpected.

Bizarrely in spite of its problems and lack of freedom, laughter is how I will remember North Korea. It might not be high up on your holiday list but it is the one holiday you will never forget. Go now before it changes.

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