Thursday, April 4, 2013

[PYONGYANG] Touchdown North Korea

In some interesting twist which further proves that you could find a Filipino in any part of the world, I was not the only one to land in Pyongyang that day. I already suspected that the two of them were Filipino based on their looks, except that basing it on looks alone does not really prove anything given how generic and ambiguous we Southeast Asians look like. My suspicion intensified when my 20-20 ninja (or stalker) vision found out that one of them was named Miguel Garcia through his boarding pass. My doubts were laid to rest when I finally got to talk to them after crossing North Korean immigration.

Miguel Garcia told me that he is Filipino indeed after I tapped his shoulder and asked. He didn't, however, expound on what he was doing there after he negatively answered my question if they were also in a group tour. His companion seemed to be Fil-Am because he responded to me with an American accent as I asked him in Tagalog if he was also Pinoy. I didn't really catch his answer quite well, except for some bits about meeting his father there. The guy that met them on the other side, who I suppose was his dad after they exchanged some man hugs, told me in Tagalog that Pyongyang is a safe place and that I should not believe what I hear in the news.

That little gem of advice came at an opportune time because I was trembling the whole time I was at the airport for no apparent reason. Wait, scrap that. Of course there was a reason. I think I had been bombarding Koryo Tours with emails days leading to the actual tour. I have been monitoring the situation online every hour since the Wednesday before I flew to China. If the country is technically at war, then I really have no business going there. But Koryo Tours was firm in reassuring me that everything was normal. Koryo Tours, I think, is a British company. According to them, as long as the British Embassy in Pyongyang does not issue out a warning that it is unsafe to go, the tours proceed as scheduled.

It took us quite a while to finish all the immigration formalities, neither because immigration counters were lacking nor was there a big crowd of tourists in there. In fact, there was only one other flight, originating from Vladivostok, which landed that day. It was rather because of the nature of the visa. The group visa was in several sheets of paper containing the passport photos and numbers of the participants. What was done to speed up the process was for an immigration official to call out our names one by one, mark us as checked on the visa, and disperse us to the many free immigration counters waiting for us.

We were divided into two tour buses. One was headed by Richard, a British guy who has been leading tours in different parts of the globe for some decades now. If memory serves me right, he has been with Koryo Tours for six or seven years already. Group A is led by Amanda, who I remember best for her characteristic dark fringes, and who has also been with Koryo Tours for a couple of years now. While our tour only consisted two short nights, I believe none of us would argue if one says that we felt totally safe with Richard and Amanda. Call it shameless plugging if you might but those two would suffice as reasons as to why you should choose Koryo Tours if ever you decide to visit North Korea. They know what they are doing and their insightful anecdotes will always leave you wanting more.

The nervousness at the airport started to fade away as we were treated to our first glimpse of everyday life in Pyongyang. The first area where we passed by after the airport seemed to be their version of suburbia where people in bicycles were as common as pedestrians in the street. A group of children were rollerblading at an open court. People were tilling rice fields. We were not yet allowed to take photos at this point, and the reason was probably the presence of the military. They were not patrolling the area though. Instead, they were also farming, with their khaki coats off and the sight of their powder blue shirts flooding the foreground.

Miss Jong, our female tour guide, explained as the bus rolled that it was common for everyone to till the lands at the start of spring, hence the presence of the military. Many of them were also visible at construction sites, some young and some not so, doing some manual labor. We were not permitted to take either their photos or those of the buildings under renovation. It was only when we arrived in Pyongyang itself, half an hour after our departure from the airport, that we were allowed to use our cameras. The restrictions in terms of camera use ended there. After that, asking permission before snapping a photo would no longer be the norm. In fact, it was the other way around, with us shooting videos and photos by default and being advised not to do so only when needed be.

I had more than 200 photos all in all after the trip, and some half an hour more worth of video clips. It would be interesting to note that we were only around for two nights. I guess the sheer number is out of the mix of curiosity and surprise. Kim Il Sung Square was our only stop for the afternoon owing to the rather lackluster itinerary for the first day. I do not have an idea if Air Koryo plies the Beijing - Pyongyang route on a daily basis, but even if they did I would think they only do so once a day.

Arriving late in the afternoon, there really is nothing much left to see, even when excitement evidently trumped fear during our first day. It was quite funny imagining all of us running around the square after the tour bus parked by the river side. As a Filipino saying goes: Parang mga nakawala sa kural (Like animals freed from confinement). Could you really blame us? I had been worrying about this trip for weeks and even considered canceling altogether, but there we were running around on North Korean soil like crazy.

Nevertheless, there were still some restrictions. On the other side of the street from Kim Il Sung Square is a traditional Korean building that is said to be some sort of educational institution, with the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il emblazoned on the façade. We were not allowed to cross that street, or the two streets adjacent to it surrounding the square. Separated from us by those narrow strips of concrete, the locals curiously stared at us as they waited for their tram.

That stop was short but eventful. Not having any clue regarding the itinerary for the next day, most of us took advantage of the situation by camwhoring as if it was the last chance we were ever going to get. The Tower of Juche Idea stood tall on the other side of the river amidst the fog and was a favorite spot. Locals walking in a leisurely pace looked at us in different ways; some with curiosity; others with indifference. Across the street, Kim Il Sung Square doubled as a roller blade park with kids rolling on those wheels like they were born with it.

Yes, that would be the observation of the day. The kids of Pyongyang are crazy about roller blades. I had been seeing a kid or two on wheels on every other block since we left the airport, making it all seem so effortless. Those kids easily became the center of attention after the euphoria over taking photos around the square died down. Most of the children gamely posed for the camera, with several of them even greeting us with a playful smile and "안녕하십니까". Although some of the adults seemed to be the opposite in terms of warm reception, I do not remember any incident in which they hurriedly ushered their kids away from us when we started interacting with them.

It was an eye opener indeed. For many years I have envisioned the people of North Korea to be quite different, robotic, and naïve, if the media is to be asked. As it turns out, they are normal people trying to survive each day just like you and me. Rather sporty. Just the right kind of curious. Enjoy having a stroll by the riverside. And crazy for roller blades.

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