North Korea – A story about ice cream, mountains and a missing guide

Dear Traveler,

When I told some friends I am going to North Korea, I got the same question from everyone: What can be interesting in this country? I laughed, explaining that this is the last authentic communist regime. We have to grab the opportunity to see it before it disappears in history books. But there is a deeper reason. My curiosity always pushes me to look for beauty in everything. I was sure there would be something genuinely beautiful behind the mass media clichés about North Korea. Was I right? Let me tell you the whole story.

Pyongyang and river Taedong

Pyongyang and river Taedong

It was a hot summer day in Pyongyang. I was dying for ice cream. And just few yards away next to the International Book Store there was a trolley with a lady selling popsicles and mineral water. Buying ice cream on the street is a common thing in North Korea, but not for a foreigner. Even though ice cream costs something like 40 Euro Cents, you are not allowed to have Korean Wons. As a tourist you are restricted to special foreign currency stores.  I asked comrade Kim, one of the guides to help me.  It is difficult to describe the pain and terror in the eyes of the poor man provoked by my words. Comrade Kim, a 30-something man, was one of our guides from the National tourist agency. It was also too obvious that he was at least captain or major at another authority. Here comes the first discovery. The guy was struggling with the natural human reaction to help me and the understanding of the dramatic consequences this may cause. The kind and gentle person, almost every Korean is, won the battle. I am not getting into details, but he bought ice cream for one of the other Koreans and for both of us. When I proposed to give him some money, he pretended not to hear or understand what I am saying.

Ice cream on the street
Ice cream on the street

To my surprise in the next morning comrade Kim was missing. I asked the other guide, a lady whose name was… comrade Kim, where her colleague is. With stone cold eyes she said, that he has family problems and will not join us. Can you even imagine the guilt I felt? In my thoughts poor Kim was already in a labor camp or at least in front of a military tribunal because of my ice cream. Later I understood that two Norwegians from the group tried to go for an unescorted the previous night. Without their passports police patrol stopped them just few hundred meters from the hotel. So, it wasn't my fault. But we never saw again comrade Kim.

Comrades Kim and Kim
Comrades Kim and Kim

You will ask me what the Norwegians were doing without passports. Well, this is part of the game. At the airport your guides kindly ask you to give them your passports and your cell phones. In a friendly gesture they insist to keep safe your passport, because “it would be so embarrassing if you loose it somehow”. So, you are in the hands of your guides. There are four of them. You already know the two Kim’s – the official guides. There is also a cameraman and a driver. The cameraman is recording every step of your trip and in the end you are able to buy an edited copy of a DVD with the best moments of your journey.  The other two don’t bear the name Kim – something quite unusual as statistical balance, since Kim is the name of 70% of Koreans.

Our cameraman
Our cameraman

The hosts pick you from the airport after the two-hour flight from Beijing. But before reaching the hotel you start a tour of Pyongyang landmarks, starting with the Arch of Triumph. After the welcome diner, when we reached our hotel rooms everyone was so tired that we fell asleep immediately. This was a good technique to keep us in the hotel. By the way, our guides were staying in the hotel as well. Their main job during the journey was to keep us occupied so we don’t have the idea to sneak uncontrolled to the city. Well, they failed with the Norwegians.

Our hotel in Pyongyang – Yanggakdo Hotel
Our hotel in Pyongyang – Yanggakdo Hotel

Don’t get me wrong – Koreans are extremely polite and nobody is forcing you to this or that. After all, you are a guest in a country with specific rules and opinions about democracy. If you respect the rules and keep your conclusions to yourself until you leave, everything will be fine. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Just smile and let go the things you find absurd or embarrassing.

Policewoman
Policewoman

Pyongyang is a strange city. In the days when we were sightseeing it there were curious incidents like the story with the ice cream. But what you see is a big city with large six-lane empty boulevards with almost no traffic. People appearing from nowhere and acting like movie props upon your arrival at one or another place. You have the feeling from time to time to be inside of a movie filmed and projected simultaneously just for you. Even the quite pleasant trip with a boat along the river Taedong running through the city leaves you with the impression that you are on a film set. Well, on top of all this you have your cameraman running around, adding to this feeling. Is it embarrassing? No. But that was not what I was looking for.

Korean countryside
Korean countryside

Modern North Korea neither scares, nor impresses me too much. Yet on the fifth day, after visiting the immense West Sea Barrage I finally got what I was looking for. On our way to the medieval Korean capital Kaesong, a border town with South Korea and the biggest producer of ginseng, we stopped for picnic at Mount Kuwol. The beautiful mountain and National Park is beloved tourist destination for locals.

Picnic
Picnic

It was during this picnic I saw the real face of ordinary Koreans – kind and warmhearted. We were sitting with a group of local tourists who were having picnic as well. It is in the country and out of the museums you realize during such rare encounters, that this nation is alive. In the curious and sincere eyes of these people you can see the different future of Korea.

A family having picnic
A family having picnic

The next day was dedicated to a visit of the Demilitarized Zone and the Military Museum on the 38-th parallel. Surrounded by the beauty of the mountain you sense the absurd of keeping a nation divided. The set itself, with the barracks and the soldiers you can see on both sides just adds to the feeling you are inside a motion picture.

Panmunjom - the 38th parallel
Panmunjom - the 38th parallel

Speaking about moviemaking, there is a visit to the National film studios, which is not to be missed. The Korean Film Studio is built with the ambition to fight Hollywood. Entire streets and blocks of old Korean and Chinese towns are reproduced in details. These are the sets for the tales of the heroic life of Kim Il-Sung, his wife, comrade Kim Jong-Suk and his glorious ancestors.

The Korean Film Studio
The Korean Film Studio

We have seen many Revolution museums and much of the 800 statues of the Eternal President Kim and his son, the Great Leader Kim Jong-Il. Yet, it is on the last day that I finally got impressed by one of these temples of the dynasty.

International Friendship Exhibition
International Friendship Exhibition

The International Friendship Exhibition or the National Treasure Museum is a beautiful building showing different presents to Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il by whomever you can imagine. It was not the exhibition that impressed me so much, but the magnificent park around the museum and the beautiful Manpok Waterfall Valley.

Manpok Valley
Manpok Valley

To end the day and the journey, the last visit was to the Buddhist temple Pohyon nearby.  Almost destroyed by American bombings during the war, the monastery has been restored in the 70’s. It is the shrine of calmness and serene beauty I was hoping to discover in this trip.

Inside Pohyon temple
Inside Pohyon temple
The Buddhist temple Pohyon
The Buddhist temple Pohyon
Inside the temple
Inside the temple

That's it. I will keep two things in my mind as a souvenir from this journey - the magical images of the mountain around Manpok Valley and the smiles of the family with their kids at the picnic site. Did the scary Orwellian atmosphere of the communist monuments impress me? Not really. To me they are curious, but much more insignificant from historic point of view, compared with the Buddhist temple hidden up in the Myohyangsan Mountain.

The Penguin

Myohyangsan Mountain
Myohyangsan Mountain
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