This story about my visit to North Korea made it into The Sun:
I'm full of trepidation about visiting North Korea or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (as they misleadingly call it). It’s on the news every day and there’s an ongoing standoff with Donald Trump. It will be very isolated - there is no internet access - and you may not enter, other than on an approved tour. Everyone I’ve told thinks I’m very brave (or mad) for coming.
It seems like a huge group of us setting off from Beijing. There are two main tours, of about 15 people each. The short May Day Tour and the long May Day Tour. I'm on the latter. An Australian, a Kiwi, Brits, two Croatians, an Italian, two young Finns, a young German who doesn’t really speak English and one very nervous American - nearly all male. Several of the guys are gay. This is likely to be a very intolerant society so I'm a little surprised at the potential for a stressful holiday choice. Brave people!
At least we would set off, if the bus had turned up. But it hasn’t. Apparently, it has gone to the airport instead. We are hastily bundled into taxis. But it’s very slow going up the expressway. The world and his wife are on the road for the May Day weekend.
When we do finally arrive at Beijing Airport I resign myself to another day of queuing. The queue to check in for Air Koryo, the North Korean national airline, moves exceeding slow – it’s all done manually, even though we are already very late. And the queue for security and immigration is even slower. We are ‘fast tracked' twice, as our plane is due to leave whilst we are still navigating the throngs and having all our belongings removed and microscopically examined. Eventually, the plane takes off, an hour late.
The livery is seventies, red and white. We fight for a copy of the famous monthly propaganda journal Korea Today and we are fed the famous Koryo burgers (they feature in newspapers regularly - the only inflight refreshment on offer.) The meat’s origin is unidentifiable and the vegetarian option is to remove the ‘meat’ – or don’t eat. The burgers are cold and chewy and don’t really taste of anything. So I'm told. I just take photos of mine.
And it’s a really bumpy ride. The plane judders - it’s an old Tupolev, one of only two that are allowed into China. They aren’t allowed into Europe at all. It's explained that they are designed for flying, rather than comfort - I wish I hadn’t packed my Rescue Remedy in the hold. The rest of Air Koryo doesn’t seem to do much except sit on the tarmac at Pyongyang Airport, swathed in bibs, giving the illusion of a fleet.
I have spent ages purging my laptop of anything that I think may not be permitted - videos, photos of South Korea, the American flag. In the event North Korean customs procedures are not too tortuous at all and my laptop is not examined. Much friendlier than Chinese security.
We are met by our guides, who confiscate our passports and visas. Time for a quick tour in the capital of North Korea, Pyongyang, after speeding past paddy fields and pastel pink apartments. We enter via the Arch of Triumph, built to celebrate victory against the Americans, as are most memorials here. It’s more rectangular than the French one and a third bigger – of course.
There is little traffic in the way of cars, though there are six lane highways. Four cars is a traffic jam. There is a steady stream of cyclists in the bicycle lanes. The city itself is modern and colourful, (it was virtually razed to the ground during the Korean War) with wide streets and pop art meets art deco scrapers. There are numerous splendid buildings, stadia and halls, civic, cultural and sporting. and time for the group to pose in front of the National Reunification Arch.
Uniform is common in North Korea, though I haven’t yet worked out which colours signify what and we’re not allowed to take photos of the military (or buildings being constructed, as they are ’imperfect’, or ox carts as they make the country look poor) so I'm being ultra-cautious. The peaked hats have high brims and the crowns are padded, so they appear large and distinctive. On a corner a traffic officer in blue systemically performs a robotic sequence of movements, which involves moving her head from side to side and wielding an illuminated baton. She also has flashing lights on her hi-vis jacket.
We stop by the river to photograph squares and columns and towers. There are white crosses in lines on the main square, to indicate where soldiers will stand for the main parades. My group has one leader from our tour company and three Korean guides. They keep us moving around quickly. The guides are constantly on the phone to their directors – national security regularly updates edicts on what we are and are not allowed to do. The latest directive states that tourists may no longer visit the statues of the two deceased members of the familial dynasty which runs the country.
Find more background information on North Korea here.
Giant statues of Kim Il Sung (referred to as eternal president) and Kim Jong Il (referred to as eternal chairman) are a feature of every town and large photographs or paintings of the duo adorn most buildings and streets. We are expected to pay our respects by lining up and bowing formally when we enter the buildings. The current ruler of North Korea, the supreme leader, or chairman, Kim Jong Un is ‘too humble’ to be deified as a statue, except occasionally as a child, in this atheist state. But he features in numerous photographs.
We are told that leadership is very sensitive. The people certainly seem to venerate their leaders, even if they look a little anxious as they do so. One of our long list of instructions is clear that, should we get near enough to photograph a picture of a statue, we must include the whole figure - absolutely no cropping. We are observed with great vigilance to ensure that we comply.
We are allowed to peer at central Kim Il Sung Square from across the street as dusk falls. We are forbidden to take photos of the shops lining the main road here. There are goods in the windows but very little inside. Then to our tourist hotel, located on an island, where we are exhorted not to leave the grounds unaccompanied. It is 47 floors high, reminiscent of Soviet Russia, and has a revolving bar on the top.
The lift doesn’t have a button for the fifth floor though the information adjacent to the controls says that this is the communications floor. My guide book to North Korea (which I’ve not been allowed to bring into the country) has already told me that the lift is bugged. I wonder what else is wired if a whole floor of the hotel is taken over for listening. Perhaps I should run the tap in my room if I have any visitors.
My room is a sixties throwback. It has a safe and a fridge that don’t work and great views over the city to the supreme leader’s pride and joy - the rocket shaped Ryugyong Hotel dominates the skyline. It’s huge. I'm also already beginning to learn that everything of importance in the DPRK features a missile/rocket. Buffet dinner is in the pink and white banqueting hall and we are not allowed to enter without our guides. The best description of the food is probably ‘adequate’: fried rice, chicken, pork, sardines and a bit of salad. There’s beer too if you want it. I'm told it’s good.
We are woken by martial music blaring from speakers at 6 am. A group of workers is jogging and chanting along the river embankment – I can hear all this from 22 floors up. I wanted to ignore the media reports of fakery and make up my own mind about ‘the most secretive country in the world’. But it already feels as if I'm participating in The Truman Show. There are folk going about their everyday business, cycling, walking, but very little feels purposeful. It’s easy to see all these people as playing bit parts, wandering on and off the set to calming piped music. If not in uniform, the city women are very smartly dressed in tailored suits and high heels. There is a board with suggested hair styles on the salon wall. The men wear jackets.
We have brought smart clothes ourselves, as these have to be worn to visit The Kamsusan Memorial palace, burial place of the two dead leaders. However, the visit is off, along with the statues. Instead, we visit a cooperative farm run by working teams from several villages. We’re told they receive food in quantities dependant on the work points they have accrued for effort. This farm seems to consist of some plastic covered greenhouses containing tomatoes and cucumbers. I’ve seen these at most meals already. Other vegetables seem to be in short supply. There’s nobody working at the farm, though locals appear to show us round and a worker conducts a tour of his tiny house. A head keeps popping above a parapet and then disappearing - organisation or surveillance? Either feels weird.
Next is the Hall of Gifts – four floors of glass cases displaying presents to the leaders from North Koreans and other nations. (photos only allowed facing away from the building and definitely not inside). Much of the symbolism involves the leaders riding tigers or alludes to their heroism in other ways and I might have had difficulty concealing my amusement at the vulgarity and ridiculousness if there had not been so much ivory, tortoiseshell and other endangered species involved and if the many gifts had not been described in quite so much detail.
I’ve opted for a helicopter ride, over the city, which I booked before leaving the UK. I'm not so keen now I’ve seen the air fleet and I blag a Valium from Kiwi Steve. Steve has bought a camera rig in Beijing and films absolutely everything we do in North Korea - and I mean everything. Naturally, this is attracting some attention from the authorities.
Our flight is preceded by a lavish banquet of five courses and the ride itself is actually very comfortable. True, it is a converted military helicopter, but it seats a dozen or so and has been fitted out with plush seats. There is a steward who sits and dozes, as does the guide who accompanies us. Free to take pictures of whatever we want, despite previous strictures not to photograph outside the urban area, disappointingly there doesn’t seem to be anything too unusual to report. The city is impressive and modern. There are several stadia and arenas and we get a good view of the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium, almost the biggest in the world. We also see two enormous power stations belching smoke into the air. No wonder it gets a little hazy at times. Even so, the pollution is never truly awful - there are so few cars.
Back in the city we get another view of the many apartment blocks and scrapers from the viewing platform at the top of the Juche Tower. Juche is the (at times incomprehensible) ideology expounded by Kim Il Sung, but the word literally means self-reliance and the tower has an illuminated torch at the top. There are gardens and fountains - very pleasant as long as you stay near the guides.
The subsequent stop is Kim Il Sung’s birthplace at Mangyongdae. This is a venerated, but frankly not very exciting, traditional house. Next door is a Fun Fair – you will enjoy yourselves - though it seems very quiet. There are only tourists on the rides here, the usual dodgems, roller-coaster and big wheel. The centrepiece of the chair carousel is a missile.
Our final activity before dinner is a visit to Kwangbok Supermarket. It has three floors of goods - some bright clothes, aisles full of crisp type snacks and mineral water and some frozen goods. Whole fish thrown into freezers unwrapped and a few decapitated turtles in a tank.
Even though there are several tourist groups and other companies it seems that we are all corralled together for activities (so much for it being a small group tour). Because it’s simpler to organise or to keep an eye on us more easily or because everything we see is rigged, it’s hard to know. Do the locals really go out to eat or are just a few sent to fill up the empty tables where we go to prove that everyone has a good time in the DPRK?
Whatever, it seems that ability to do karaoke is a prerequisite for a waitressing job. They are very slim (as are nearly all North Koreans), wear short skirts and, at a given signal, abandon their waitress duties at every meal, to go onstage and mime and dance to songs that we quickly come to recognise. The DPRK version of the Spice Girls often features. The food hasn’t improved. There’s the usual rice and kimchi (pickles- most commonly cabbage); much of it is cold – chicken, fried fish.
Today, we are joining in with the local May Day celebrations. We visit another Fun Fair in Taesongsan Park (what a jolly time the locals have here) and today there are organised games. It’s like a school sports day, with sack races, hoops and balloons. These finish with a tug of war. Mass dancing is promised on the programme - like a huge line dance - but it doesn’t materialise. Apparently it happens spontaneously, pop up style, and this is proof that these events are not put on just for tourists. I'm not convinced by this logic.
We have criss-crossed the city countless times already. This has the double advantage of making Pyongyang appear much larger than it actually is and of being disorientating. We do get to see dancing in this park, however, as groups of ladies sway in a colourful group round large speakers. Later, there is additional karaoke on the steps of the monument.
We climb another hill for views. The area is jam-packed with picnickers, all apparently, having a riotous time. This is where events really do appear choreographed. I'm not suggesting that a hundred thousand people have been organised to come out and perform (am I?), but it is clear that the parties along our path have been orchestrated. Everyone has very similar food and accoutrements: barbecue with squid, fish and meat laid out in the same way. We can see the people signalling to each other that we are coming and as we approach they leap up and sing and dance to their sound boxes, smiling broadly, even encouraging us to join in. It's like a Mexican Wave. Koreans on the street are polite but much more wary, especially the schoolchildren.
Our next treat is a trolley bus ride. Only tourists allowed on this one. We travel down the street we have just come up in our coach. Then we go to the circus. (Every moment is ‘fun filled’ and we don’t get to stop at all. It’s pretty exhausting). The trapeze artistes, acrobats and jugglers are impressive and the arena is full of clapping military men.
It’s almost dark when we drive south to the ancient city of Kaesong (at one time the national capital in the Goryeo era) near the border with South Korea and the road surface, though wide, is truly appalling. Full of potholes, our own free roller coaster ride, with just glimpses of villages and workers in the paddy fields. It's virtually impossible to take photos outside Pyongyang, even when we are allowed to. (No military check points please). Much of our travel is done at dusk and when we can see anything the bus is jolting so much that all I end up with are blurred pictures and a bruised nose.
The Minsok Folk Hotel is off. It’s being ‘refurbished’. This is one of several excuses that gets recycled. I'm not heartbroken. We were promised traditional style sleeping on the floor. But the replacement is the sort of hotel you don’t want to inspect too closely. There’s no shower, just a bowl in the tub, and hot water for two hours a day. However, it has heated floors under the tatami matting. And we are staying in the most luxurious places. No-one, other than tourists, utilises these hotels. At dinner we are offered sweet green bean paste pancakes, which are rather good. Dog meat soup is a spicy optional extra. I draw the line at that one.
I'm woken by more early morning music. Out of the window a group of yellow uniformed men squat round some bushes. I'm not sure if they are supposed to be gardening, but they are not accomplishing much. One of their group is parading up and down watching the hotel. He turns away when he sees me looking.
We're off to visit the Koryo Museum, housed in the city's old Confucian academy, which is reputed to house many priceless Goryeo arts and cultural relics. (Although many it seems are copies, with the originals held in the vaults of the Korean Central History Museum in Pyongyang).
As the former capital of Goryeo, the tombs of almost all of the Goryeo kings are located in the area, though most are sadly, not accessible;. After some negotiation, however, we are allowed to walk past, but not visit, the huge bronze statues of the ex leaders of North Korea at Kaesong and there are good views over the tiled city roofs.
We make two visits to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ),which separates North and South Korea. These broken up by a lunch that is served tapas style in about twenty small gold dishes, with soju, the local rice wine. It’s interesting viewing the DMZ from the other side and hearing the conflicting stories.
The first visit is to the UN buildings at Panmunjom where the armistice was signed. There are photographs of worried looking American officials at talks, heads in hands. The second is to a viewing platform where we get to look through binoculars at what the North Koreans say is a concrete wall demarcating the whole of the border. The South Koreans swear it doesn’t exist and our guide has trouble locating it. She asks the guard.. I can make out bits of something through the lens. I couldn’t swear it was a concrete wall, and there only seems to be a small section of whatever it is.
There is enforced karaoke on the bus going back to Pyongyang. I feign sleep. Back at the Pyongyang hotel, we are given the same rooms as before - apparently we always get the same room. It doesn’t look as if anyone else has used it. And I suppose it makes it easier for the men in the communications room to operate.
It is now very clear that Pyongyang is very different to the rest of the country. It is far more affluent and privileged and is being developed as a show piece. We are being kept well away from poorer areas. The people are very restricted in their own movement and stay where they are born, and with the lifestyle into which they are born, unless they show some talent – in which case they might be brought to Pyongyang to be educated and to work.
Today, we begin with the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum (interesting historical hark back here.) There are numerous soviet style statues commemorating the war and a female member of the military tells us all about how America sneakily started the war, but was quickly repulsed. The U.S. they say, dropped 484,000 bombs on Pyongyang - more than one bomb per head of population. One of our guides adds that some of the bombs contained bacteria and insects. Mosquitoes and cockroaches were unknown in the DPRK before the war. Even the other guides look a little uncomfortable about this particular piece of propaganda.
We are shown rows of tanks, guns and bits of American planes. I'm no expert, but at least some of these look more like World War II vintage than early fifties to me. Next we tour the USS Pueblo, where the account of the ship's activity, capture and handling of the crew in 1968 is very different to the American version. It is moored on the river bank here and officially remains a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy. We are then marched in by twos, to bow to the painting in the doorway of the main museum. The diorama and simulations in the museum are well done and very lifelike, if somewhat gory and jingoistic.
Next, an art studio which is mainly a sales exercise for uninspiring landscapes and flowers, before a ride on the metro. This does seem to be utilised by real passengers, and is busy. We visit three ornate stations - like Moscow, but deeper and gaudier - with the obligatory statues and paintings of the leaders. Apparently, it’s really deep so it can double as a nuclear bunker.
The fun event today is a visit to a water park (like the fairs there are several of these in Pyongyang) complete with water slides and wave machines. This is crammed with locals having a good time. Though (as is the case with most of the facilities we have visited) there is no running water in the toilets.
An extra is a visit to kindergarten, clearly for very privileged children. It’s full of very expensive and unsuitable equipment, arcade games, electric horses and swings and themed areas with animals and seaside. There is little sign of any material to support language development or any teaching going on. But there are small rooms in which children are practising calligraphy, sewing, dance and music. There’s also a picture on the wall of small children smiling as a missile whistles overhead. Then we are treated to a very slick and well rehearsed performance of singing, dancing and instrumental work. The little girls give excellent Shirley Temple performances and both sexes are wearing make up.
Another bumpy dusk journey to Nampo, on the western coast. Here we have a hot springs hotel. This again doesn’t bear close inspection. The villa rooms are roasting. I think they are heated by the thermal springs, and in the evening, for an hour, the water is diverted to tubs in the rooms, so I can have my own private spa.I have six lights in my room - one of them works so I suppose I should be thankful. And yet again there’s a faulty cistern that won’t stop running. Plenty of pillows are necessary to mitigate the rock hard beds and block out the sound from the toilet.
Dinner is preceded by a clam barbecue. The clams are prettily arranged in concentric circles on a large metal tray. Then the driver drizzles kerosene over them and lights it. The clams unsurprisingly burn your fingers and taste rather too much of spirit. Six is plenty. One of our number and the driver are happy to eat the rest.
We admire Kim Il Sung’s project – the western barrage - an intricate system of dams which provides the necessary water to irrigate the fields and watch a film telling the story of how it was constructed. At least half the group fall asleep.
Onto a mineral water bottling factory. Unfortunately, it’s lunch time and it’s not operating. After much protest on our part half a dozen workers are rounded up and they try to remember how to switch it all on. Eventually, the conveyor belt rattles into operation and we watch a few bottles being filled and labelled. There don’t seem to be any storage or delivery facilities and the only mineral water we have seen in the shops was in blue plastic bottles. These are green glass.
Back to Pyongyang for a picnic lunch on picturesque Mount Ryonggak. Except that it’s really just some sort of terracing with waitresses who set up Korean barbecue for us. The tourist who ate all the clams yesterday sits at our table looking very green and making dives into the undergrowth. Georgio, the gay Italian, who is usually great fun, is pouting and having a grand tantrum because it’s not a proper picnic and all the other tourists are sitting on the same terrace with us. The squid is good and there’s plenty of it with all these abstentions.
The afternoon is spent in Pyongyang visiting a film studio. No-one is making any films, but there are sets to wander around and you can pay and dress up. If you want to.
Then we visit a Children's Palace - for extra curricular activity - which is just like the kindergarten but for older children. There are missile shaped toys here to ride on and play in and another extremely polished performance in a large auditorium with a West End standard equipped stage, attended by most of the school. Again, most of the performing is karaoke style with videos playing on the back drop. Quite a few of these feature planes, boats and – you guessed it- missiles. Some of the tourists have paid for artificial flower bouquets to present to the students, who just recycle them. There are disapproving looks if we don’t bring presents ‘for the children’. We were also encouraged to bring presents for the guides, in addition to the very strongly worded statement that there is an expectation of a very large tip.
Today's fun event is a beer bar. Again, crammed with locals having a good time. But the bar staff manage to find a gin and tonic, so all is well with the world. Now we’re off again and out of Pyongyang to a satellite city called Pyongsong. The newly renovated hotel here hasn’t got any lifts.
In Pyongsong the conservatory of performing arts is off, but we do visit yet another school. This one is for gifted and talented science students. They are nearly all male. The vice headteacher (sic) informs us that unfortunately there aren’t many talented girls in Korea. Here at least we do get to visit what look like proper lessons, even if they are very directed and didactic. The students are clearly very patriotic, compliant, and respectful to their teachers and work hard. The boys say that their ambition is to help their country get strong. There are quotes from the sayings of Kim Il Sung on the walls. I'm not sure that they actually make sense. Perhaps they’ve been badly translated.
A late addition to the schedule is a visit to a food factory. There is a shop with a variety of products on display, but it’s unclear whether they are all made here. They vary from crisps to bottled drinks. Nothing is operating. They say it is closed for maintenance today. More protests and more rounding up of workers. We watch biscuits being made and get to sample them hot. They are stamped with WFP - World Food Programme. Other glazed production areas look unused, dusty and deserted.
We are not allowed to visit the statues in the central square as per the programme, but we do go to Kim Il Sung’s early workplace ( I think that's what it was, I lost track during the explanation)), where there is a group statue we are allowed to bow in front of. There are a proliferation of weddings here and queues of school children on an outing. One of them is brandishing a full size plastic AK-47.
We return to our Pyongsong hotel for lunch, which is virtually identical to breakfast and dinner. All feature cold fried eggs. Then back to Pyongyang to see the science and technology centre built around a central ‘rocket’. There are banks and banks of unused computers, well monitors, I can't actually see any CPUs, and some interactive maths and science games, some of which involve guns and missiles.
Fun for today is a visit to the tenpin bowling alley. The lanes are a little shorter than the ones at home. Finally, a walk up newly built Future Street for a close-up look at some of the more stylish high-rise buildings. Our last meal is in a pizza parlour off here. Predictably, the pizza is not very nice. It’s baked in an electric oven and production is interrupted by the karaoke call. I’ve opted for Korean rice and barbecue. It’s very good. The group assembles for a last karaoke performance of our own in the hotel basement. There are four microphones, so if anyone can actually sing they get drowned out. There is soju and sparkling water and the room increasingly fills with cigarette smoke. It’s a fitting end to a unique experience.
Five and nine day tours were on offer. Here’s the account of my visit to North Korea.
This story about my visit to North Korea made it into The Sun:
South Korea is supposedly 'The Land of the Morning Calm'. but, someone has a sense of the ridiculous - ludicrous planning. Didn't get to bed in Seoul till after one, after being met at the airport, from Taiwan and am picked up at 7.30 in the morning to go the Demilitarised Zone (DeeEmZee).
Japan occupied the whole of Korea during the Second World War. After the Japanese surrender, the Korean Peninsula was divided into two zones along the 38th parallel. The northern half of the peninsula was occupied by the Soviet Union and the southern half by the United States. Negotiations on reunification failed. Eventually, the Russians imposed the Soviet Civil Authority in October 1945, leading to the establishment of The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, on 9 September 1948, with Kim Il Sung as premier.
Soviet forces withdrew from the North in 1948, and most American forces withdrew from the South in 1949. The Soviets suspected South Korea of planning to invade the North and were sympathetic to Kim's goal of Korean unification under socialism. They supported an invasion of the South on 25 June 1950, beginning the Korean War. A United Nations force, led by the United States, intervened to defend the South, and pushed the North Koreans back, at which point China became anxious and joined in the fighting.
Roughly three million people died in the Korean War. The armistice approximately restored the original boundaries between North and South Korea. No peace treaty was ever signed. so the two countries are still technically at war and the DMZ separates them.
The tour of the DMZ, approached from South Korea is brimming with tourists, a total propaganda exercise and you don't actually get to see much. Nevertheless, it is important to visit as a crucial part of what Korea is today. We begin at the Imjingak resort, a park located with many statues and monuments, commemorating the Korean War. There is also a restaurant, and a small amusement park, so basically its a toilet break. But there's also a view of the "Freedom Bridge" This is a former railroad bridge used by repatriated POWs/soldiers returning from the North. There's the very rusty remains of a train - the last locomotive to leave North Korea.. And a sad fence covered in ribbon streamers representing families that are seeking to be reunified.
More rewarding, in that I can actually see things, is the visit to one of the four 'aggression tunnels' discovered (so far), that the North Koreans have dug, in a bid to invade South Korea. There's a steep slippy climb down in an interception tunnel, followed by an exhausting clamber back up. The tunnel itself is low enough for me to bang my head several times (helmets are thoughtfully provided) and it was camouflaged as a coal mine by painting it black, (though the logic of this escapes me). No pictures allowed inside. I suppose we might report beck to the North Koreans. But don't they already know about them?
Third stop, an observation post where the DMZ itself, either side of the 38th parallel,, can be viewed through telescopes, but it is very foggy and little can be seen except for a stretch of greenery. It suits the sombre mood of the visit. This is the most militarized area in the world. Ironically, (I'm told) this area is full of endangered fauna that can escape persecution here.
There was a 'build the tallest flagpole' and 'hoist the biggest flag' competition between North Korea and South Korea, but South Korea gave up in the end. The flag on the north's pole is so large that it only flaps if there's a gale blowing. In between is the world's most dangerous golf course and a couple of villages. Unsurprisingly few people want to live there, especially at this moment when politics in the north is so unpredictable. Another residential area in the north is completely empty - dubbed Propaganda Village by the Americans
The last attraction is at the sad, brand new station building, which South Korea intended to use, as a tentative initial link with Pyongyang. It cost billions to build, but permission to use the line was refused at the last moment. You can see the signpost to the track and use the spanking new toilets, complete with paintings hung on the doors and piped music (Moon-river). There are Ministry of Unification posters everywhere and an enthralling (if somewhat biased) documentary film, on the history of the conflict and the continuing Cold War.
As well as being politically frustrating, it must be difficult being an isolated peninsula on the Asian land mass. South Korea claims to be the sole legitimate government of the entire peninsula and adjacent islands..They say the north is very poor, with the average salary assessed at 20 dollars. They have tours from the north too, at different times of the day, to avoid 'misunderstandings'.
On the way back, we drive through Gangnam, the affluent neighbourhood famous for its 'style'. It's the Seoul equivalent of Beverley Hills. Lunch here is my first attempt at Korean food. It's beef hotpot (bulgogi) and rice with side dishes. The legendary kimchi (pickled cabbage) is spicy, but just about edible. My main issue is with the chopsticks. In Taiwan I was fine. However, in South Korea the sticks are made of metal and not at all forgiving. I keep persevering, but the table (and I) are spattered by the end of the meal.
Just time to have a manicure and pedicure (one lady on each foot and one doing my hands) before catching the train south to Gyeongju. A stream of emerald paddy fields and low limestone mountains unfolds as we whizz by. This is another relatively wealthy country, with excellent infrastructure. It's the home of Samsung and Hyundai. (Hyundai was a North Korean defector.). It's a fast, reliable KTX bullet train. The station is also very modern, though about as far away from town as the average airport.
Gyeongju is a very historic town known as The Museum Without Walls, as it is peppered with historical monuments. Most of them are UNESCO sites, which date from the fifth century, when this was the capital of the Shilla dynasty, and they have been heavily reconstructed.
It's still hot and hazy. This area is prettily green and has a slower pace of life.. We visit a delightfully painted Mahayana Buddhist temple and grotto with views across to the mountains. There is chanting in several of the halls, the rhythm being maintained using a beater on a wooden fish. In South Korea, the lotus is especially revered, so supplications are made by hanging lanterns to represent these (in China it's wind chimes). Electric bulbs have now replaced the rows of candles. It's not quite the same. Luckily, it's lotus season and the enchanting lakes are covered with the huge pink and white blooms.
Hurray. Two nights in one place in South Korea. Time to sort things out and sleep. Except that I keep dreaming about loud phone calls, till I finally awake to answer my mobile. It is an irate taxi driver who has arrived at Heathrow to pick me up a month too early. It seems there are plenty of children around, school holidays have just begun - and Little Emperor syndrome persists. I had the back of my train seat kicked the whole of the two hour journey by a pair of little darlings yesterday.
There have been screams and thumps, coming continually from several rooms in the hotel. I changed my room once, but it was a definite case of frying pans and fires. Nevertheless, the children are cute as buttons, with their spiked up hair and big brown eyes. There are a lot of very beautiful men and the young women are slim and elegant. My guide, Lae, covers her arms with separate pull on sleeves and carries an umbrella to protect her skin.
Silla, one of the three ancient Korean kingdoms, dates back to just before the first century AD. It was a prosperous and wealthy country, and its metropolitan capital of Gyeongju, was the fourth largest city in the world. The Silla kings and queens were buried with their treasures under mounds of granite beneath softly undulating grass covered tumuli . There's also a (slightly) leaning royal observatory tower.
Lae informs me that she is buying me a proper Korean lunch. We stir fry our own pork with herbs, on a hot plate in the centre of the table. This is surrounded by so many side dishes, mezze style, that the table would be groaning if this were the Middle Ages. I suspect that my stomach will be groaning later at the amount I eat. Most of the plates contain different types of vegetables and soups (and pickles of course), but there is also fish and chicken gizzards. I am instructed to use large assorted lettuce and cabbage leaves to eat the pork taco style, wrapping the rice and meat with spicy sauces inside the leaves. Delicious. (Except for the chicken gizzards.)
.I'm embarrassed to confess that the only Korean word I know is kimchi (other than the word Korea of course), so that won't help my manners. It doesn't help that there are about twenty different ways to say thank you. The people of South Korea are a reserved and very etiquette conscious people. They (like the Chinese) don't generally tip. In South Korea they don't even attempt to take your luggage up to your room for you either. Or maybe it's the miserly hotel I'm staying in. They even charge to use the swimming pool. Breakfast euphemisms abound - canned fruit is labelled compote.
Electronics also abound. In addition to the fancy toilets (I've decided I'm not sure I enjoy baking hot loo seats that ping when I sit down - how hygienic is a heated loo seat anyway?) there is an electronic bedside panel in the Korean hotels allowing you to control everything, from lighting, to TV, to air con. It would be very clever if I could read it. The pictures don't always correspond very well. And I'm wary after the Mongolian toilet incident. There's a power socket bar by the desk too with a bewildering array of possible outlets. I've not a clue what most of them are for.
The Koreans also like their fun and kitsch. There are several neon lit mini Vegas strips and a tacky fun fair in town. Despite this I'm even more impressed with Korea so far, than I was with Korean Airlines.
Finally, a visit to a restored folk village. It has traditional houses for the more affluent, with typical curved tiled roofs and an old school established by a philanthropist. A party of school girls are role-playing traditional ceremonies such as tea making. Nearly all of them wear glasses. Lae says this is because the apartments where they live are so dark and they all work so hard, reading most of the time.
Adjacent to the village is a very new looking smallish wooden carved bridge across a small inlet. It is still under construction on the site of a historical king's bridge. Lae assures me that, because the workmanship is so fine and intricate and the materials so expensive it has cost 25 billion dollars so far. Yes that is a 'b'. Everywhere is beautifully maintained. I'm not surprised if the investment has been so lavish. Piped music is also installed everywhere, the sounds, fortunately are relatively in harmony with their surroundings.
There was Karaoke coming through the ceiling last night. There are five events rooms to rent. Today, the road leads me to Busan, the second city of South Korea. En route, I visit the country's most famous temple, Tongdosa. Tongdosa adtes abck tot eh evneth century AD, is the largest temple in the country and is considered as one of the Three Jewel Temples of Korea. It's famous for its lack of statues and so is often called ‘The Temple Without a Buddha’. Instead, the courtyards in the temple are structured around several pagodas and a Buddhist altar. Some of the Buddha's relics are apparently secreted in the small stupa here. This is why statues are not required - they have the real thing.
Then, onto Busan itself. There are malls to stroll through, a beautifully manicured international cemetery and the fish market. Unlike other markets I have visited, there is no ice in sight - all the fish are sold live. You never saw so many squirming bodies squashed into a glass tank. And all shapes and sizes. Crab and lobster, sea squirts, sea slugs ( I can't begin to tell you what they remind me of - a very weird pornographic movie), sea cucumbers, flat fish, ribbon fish, belt fish, lots of eel and octopus. One of the latter makes a bid for freedom and is squashed back into his bowl. You buy what you want to eat and take it upstairs to the restaurants, where they cook it.
Lunch is - not fish but chicken - stewed in a hotpot with ginseng and rice. I also have ginseng liquor to drink - rather like sake. I'm still waiting for all this ginseng to take effect. Busan has vibe. It has the most famous beaches in Korea and they are packed with umbrellas and sunbeds. There are rafts of restaurants and bars, a different beat emanating from each of them. A voice over a tannoy continually exhorts the sun bed occupiers to behave well and stay safe. I sit in a beachfront cafe and take it all in. Those of you who are regular readers of this column will know that an ant attack is featured on every trip. Today is the day. Big black ones. They even bite my back - and I am sitting upright.
I'm staying traditional at breakfast time and sticking with eggs. When I can find them. Most of the Asians seem to indulge in what looks like lunch to me, meat soup, rice. Today's hotel has a noodle and tempura bar, with a long queue. I can't face that first thing in the morning. Fruit is not much in favour, (although there is plenty in the shops) and yogurt is rare. Lots of sweet sticky pastries. I have to keep reminding myself that's it's considered very rude to blow your nose at the table, especially when I'm eating spicy food.
Today is a lazy catch up day. I've taken all my clothes to the laundry, I've done my ironing and I'm joining the masses on the beach. Most of the Koreans don't actually sun bathe. They are swathed in towels from head to foot. When they swim many of them wear body suits or tops with hoods. The children are completely covered as well, being further swamped by Hello Kitty buoyancy jackets. It's a mixture of modesty and a reluctance to expose skin for both health and beauty reasons. Light skin is considered far more attractive. . The main beach occupation seems to be taking group family photos.
Jeju Do (Jeju Island) is a honeymoon island, which was the intended destination for the ill fated ferry full of school children earlier on this year. I am flying over from Busan. That is, if I can get to the airport. The traffic is terrible, worse than London. It takes an hour and a quarter, creeping across huge spaghetti loop suspension bridges and through endless tunnels. When I finally leap out of the van it doesn't help that the name of the airline is only written in Korean script on my ticket. However, I am eventually checked in and waiting to depart. I'm going right off flying after all these latest crashes. And the departure lounge is full of wailing cuties.
My new guide is called Kim Mae. And she's lovely, but I can't decide if I like Jeju or not. It's cloudy to the point of being foggy and places always look better in the sun. It lacks the curved tiled roofs of the mainland, very country club, partly wild and partly agricultural. The roads are lined with tangerine stalls.
I'm touring the west side today, working south to north. The whole of Jeju is an inactive shield volcano and there are 365 small volcanic peaks. But I can't see much of them or the large volcano in the centre that spawned the whole island. I was expecting dramatic scenery from a destination billed as the alternative Hawaii but I'm still searching. By the sea there are volcanic outcrops and a few formations. It gets more lively on the south coast at Seogwipo (Soggy-po) where there is a miniature Giants' Causeway with basalt pillars.
Nevertheless, the island is trying hard to keep the tourists happy. The coast is edged with resort areas and coffee shops and there are a plethora of museums and attractions for all tastes. The bonsai garden is pretty. I pass on the Teddy Bear Museum, Hello Kitty Island and the Greek Mythology Museum, dip into the folklore museum and decide at the last minute to sample the Alive Museum. It's full of paintings and 3-D scenarios where you include yourself for dramatic, quirky or plain ribald amusement and take a photograph. It's really good fun.
Lunch is Korean BBQ. Marinaded pork is grilled on charcoal, under a swinging ventilation shaft. Very tasty - definitely one to repeat.
A great hotel, really elegant with every facility you could think of: opera soloist cabaret and a TV in the outside jacuzzi. Such a huge breakfast buffet that I have to sample some of the less usual offerings. Sweet potato soup. And scones with cream and black currant preserve. Then scrambled egg and bacon.
First stop today is a waterfall, cascading into the sea. It's still restricted viewing - the fog won't lift. Then a rural folk village. This one is partially inhabited and the house are much more spartan, with thatched roofs. The toilets are in the pigsties - it helps feed the animals! Two old ladies feed us buckwheat pancakes with daikon radish and millet balls. There is also fermented millet to drink. I don't recommend it. I've had so many odd things to eat this morning I'm now feeling decidedly queasy.
Exercise is called for. Today, we get to see more of the volcanoes and the next stop is one of the longest lava tubes in the world at Manjanggul. This one is significant because it was formed thousands of years ago, and it is very well preserved. The lava tube is about eighteen metres wide at its largest and 7.4 kilometres long. But we are only allowed in for one kilometre to admire the stalactites, stalagmites, flowstones, lava tubes, lava shelves, and lava rafts. The lava column that marks the end of the permitted route is the highest known lava column in the world at about 7.6 metres.
The lava tube is part of a UNESCO heritage site, along with the central peak and crater at Mount Halla, (the highest mountain in Korea) and the fortress like tuff volcanic cone called Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak). So now we're off to attempt the stiff climb of Sunrise Peak for a view that was probably amazing. if it was clear. We need to fortify ourselves for the expected altercations with the Chinese tourists, who don't take any prisoners. The Koreans feel the same way about the Chinese and Japanese as we do about the French. So - street food. Twisty fried potato on long sticks and sweet tangerine juice.
Below the peak the famous female divers are performing. They sing and dance, as well as demonstrating their fishing, to bring in the punters, who will hopefully buy their catch. They date from the time when Confucian philosophy was adopted; women were expected to stay at home and keep house and the men did the work. The tax on the sea cucumbers, abalone and sea snails that they fetched in was so exorbitant that the women started to do the diving instead of the men. Confucius he say ' don't tax women - they don't work'. (Well that's the male version of the story - the women just say the men found it too exhausting).
The tradition has gone on over the centuries, except that the women, who are mostly elderly and wrinkly, now wear wet suits. The Korean interpretation of Confucianism still prevails in many areas, however, as women are still mostly expected to cook and clean, even if they have a job.
A very late lunch, due to over indulgence earlier in the day. Korean food is turning out to be the most interesting aspect of the country. A sea food restaurant - the aroma of fermented fish sauce hits you as soon as you go in - and I have to ask for a side room. It's possibly the most nauseating smell on the planet. Grilled snapper, which looks vaguely western, but is cut in half longitudinally, with the head at the top of the plate. Abalone soup with whole crab and prawns. Very spicy, but not too bad once you get past the mouth like appearance of the abalone. Whole anchovies and slightly fatter small fish rolled in soy and honey. Nice. But the sticking point is the dish of raw crabs cut up (still in their shell) and soaked in vinegar. You suck the flesh out of the carcass.
There's no one to meet me at Seoul Airport as arranged, but I finally make it into the city. Half of South Korea's population of about 52 million, live in the Seoul Capital Area, the fourth most populous metropolitan area in the world. A self-guided walking tour in which, exhaustingly, I manage to take in some more of Korea's history and incorporate three palaces. First, there's the Deoksugung Palace complex, which has a modern neo classical mansion and an assortment of older, some mediaeval, some decorated other buildings to wander round. Though I think they are mostly reconstructions. The Japanese destroyed all the originals, during various invasions.
Next, Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty. This was established in 1392, by General Yi Seong-gye, who had been ordered to attack China, but instead, turned his army around and staged a coup. Yi Seong-gye renamed the country Korea as "Joseon" in deference to the first ancient kingdom here (Gojoseon), and moved the capital to Hanseong (one of the old names of Seoul.)
Gyeongbokgung is considered to be the most beautiful, largest and grandest of all the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon dynasty in Seoul. Built in 1395, it was home to the government too. At one time the place had 7,700 rooms which were destroyed in wars and rebuilt - again much of the (original) restoration was demolished by the Japanese in the twentieth century, so it actually only dates from 1990 in the main.
Last, Changdeokgung, which is the second oldest of the five main palaces and is the only one to have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is because it has more surviving older structures and because this palace was also has a 'Secret Garden' which you're only allowed to access on a tour, with a guide. Secret because it was for the royal family only to use. It's a little gloomy, but has some potentially pretty pools, pagodas and rockeries and is a pleasant wander.
There's still the King Sejong The Great statue in a huge square, Mae-dong, the main arts and craft tourist street (think Portobello Road meets Brighton) and the big Lotte Department Store (slightly downmarket Selfridges) to pack in. I am footsore to say the least, but I think it fair to say I have experienced the frenzy that is Seoul. Other than the palaces and temples, the capital of South Korea is overwhelmingly modern, full of skyscrapers and high tech and teeming with street markets and cafés on main streets and up little alleys. The futuristic City Hall is hosting some sort of peace demonstration. Puns on the name proliferate - Soul of Asia is possibly the nicest.
I try street food for lunch and end up with a sweet doughnut flavoured with onion. It's typical that the most engaging part of the day is totally unexpected. I encounter the changing of the guard twice - at two different palaces - and the spectacle, traditional costumes (known as hanbok), moustaches, big wide hats, solemn faces, is highly entertaining.
Next stop Uzbekistan.
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