Friday, April 5, 2013

[PYONGYANG] Seven Before Noon

I wouldn't know if Mister Lim was just joking around but he kept on telling us that we broke the record for most attractions seen before noon. Seven before lunch. That never happened before according to him, and then he'd crack a joke that seemed to be lifted directly from an Erap joke book, except that the former president was replaced by an American or a South Korean.

It was a bit hard for him to elicit laughter at first, not because the jokes were particularly offensive (depends on your nationality, onion-skinned Filipino trolls online would have been the first to flinch) but because he did not have the proper comic timing. However, he got most of us chuckling after half a dozen more attempts because of his awkward delivery. Five South Koreans fell into the Han River. Why did they save the politician first? Because they did not want the river to be polluted. Haha. Hahaha. Hahahahaha. Okay...

But more than his jokes, I guess what the group welcomed most was his change of heart, if that is even the right term for it. I could not help but observe how obnoxiously worried he was during our first day, but on the second day he started opening up to us, laughing with us, chatting with us. He was noticeably less uptight, and that gave the group some sort of rapport that held us together.

Miss Jong has always been the bubbly one, always giggling while giving us brief history lessons on the bus. The driver, who I think was Mister Kim, was always smiling but never really got the opportunity to sit down with us. I observed that he felt a little taken aback when I spoke to him in Korean, but that was just momentary because he was all smiles again later that day.

The first stop of the day was Mansundae Fountain Park, a grandiose display of jets of water forever showering a group of what seemed to be marble white statues of women in the middle of a performance or something. The backdrop, depending on which side of the park you are on, would be a traditional Korean palace of sorts or a building that seemed to subscribe to a different type of architecture. Some of our companions bought flowers to be offered to the bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansundae Hill, which is not really required, but they would be expecting that at least one of you would do so.

The decorum where the the two statues were became a bit stringent again, and Mister Lim seemed to be worried more than ever. From what I have read before, there are venues in the itinerary wherein you have to wear something formal, even a tie required for men. We got advised earlier though that we needed no formal attire for the day. Even a simple gesture such as keeping our hands inside our coat pockets was discouraged, which I found a bit annoying because I did not bring mittens or gloves and my fingers were freezing. On both sides of the hill are war-themed murals displaying the North Korean flag, a theme that seems to be the common template followed in Pyongyang.

It's noteworthy to point out that commercial advertisements such as billboards and the like are absent in Pyongyang; so do not expect to see a Starbucks or an Apple poster. Instead, various displays encouraging patriotism can be seen aside from the common paintings and portraits of their leaders. On one hand, it seems so refreshing to not be bombarded by anything that reminds you of capitalism, but on the contrary it all seems surreal especially if you have been accustomed to it. A tour of Pyongyang makes you want to think as though you had been caught in a time warp somewhere in the 1990’s. Or 1980’s, even. Take your pick.

The next stop involved a challenging uphill climb. When I say “challenging” that actually translates to “easy”, at least for most people. I'm not really the fittest guy you'll encounter in this lifetime. The place is a war veterans’ cemetery littered with busts of many generals considered as North Korean war heroes. There were several military men paying their respects when we arrived. I would not say that they were intimidating, though. It was more of a mind-your-own-business kind of thing. We were there as tourists; they were there as generals. Neither interaction nor altercation was needed as long as everyone behaved properly.

Since it is considered as an important place, Miss Jong’s history lesson was longer than usual, introducing us to various North Korean historical figures including the wife of the late Kim Jong Il whose bust is located at the topmost area of the hill accessible to tourists. After some of us in the group offered flowers, we then went to one side of the cliff and enjoyed the view of some old gates down below. After that, we went down to catch our bus going to the capital’s own version of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe.

They will make it a point to tell you that their version is way bigger. Needless to say, they are really proud of it. As for any other tourist, though, it will be remembered more as that cool structure that served as an impressive background for your Pyongyang souvenir photo. This was, however, just a temporary stop because the real destination was the hill on the opposite side of the street, next to a stadium and close to one of the underground metro stations. The name of the hill is Boran.

I hate hiking, but I can tell you that Boran Hill was the highlight of that morning. Why? Well, simply because it showcased the normal day-to-day activities of the local populace. There you can see grandmothers on a hike with their grandchildren, families enjoying a picnic, ordinary people paying respects to their departed loved ones by virtue of some traditional ritual, etc. Being able to greet them with a simple “안녕 하세요” and watch them accompany their look of curiosity with a smile is something that you could easily get in another East Asian country, but since this is North Korea, it seems to be something special. Before, you only heard about them in the news; now, you are exchanging greetings with them. Again, surreal!

The foreign language bookshop next to Kim Il Sung Square is where you'll be getting most of your souvenirs. Would you like to guess what kind of goods you'll be buying in there for everyone back home? What about “Books” for 800, Alex? Right you are! Aside from those books, though, many of which have something to do with politics and ideology, you can also get pins of different designs. Yes, you can  get those tiny and shiny North Korean flags, which I think you could also get in some flea market somewhere in China. I decided to stick with books, in particular those little ones about folktales printed in English, Spanish, and French. Others settled for propaganda posters. Some bought broadsheets and magazines a couple of months old. Whatever you decide to buy, make sure you have enough Euro and Yuan at hand.

The Worker’s Party Monument became the seventh stop before lunch. What exactly is the Worker’s Party Monument? You know how communism is symbolized by a hammer and a sickle? North Korea added its own unique touch: a brush, which has something to do with the Juche Idea. Do not ask me to elaborate on this because I am not well-versed in it. All I understood is that the education of the people should also be valued, and this is what the brush supposedly represents. All these three symbols, along with the hands holding them, crown the Worker’s Party Monument.

What I found rather amusing, though, is how it reminded me of Ulan Bator, particularly that monument with a similar motif atop Zaisan Hill. Perhaps it is because of the war-themed circular memorial painting that depicts various scenes from the nation’s history. After that, we were ready for lunch. Hot pot!

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