Friday, April 5, 2013

[PYONGYANG] Arirang, Duck Barbecue, and Westlife



We asked Miss Jong to sing a song for us. If those waitresses in pink managed to belt out a chilling rendition of Arirang during dinner, we were pretty sure that Miss Jong could, too. What we did not expect, though, was her preference for Irish boy bands: “An empty street, an empty house, a hole inside my heart.” And I was, like, “Westlife! That is Westlife!” as the rest of the guys only responded with a confused look, as if asking, “What the hell is Westlife?” More than the discovery that Miss Jong and I kind of grooved to the same beat, what made me more curious was how she actually gained access to Western pop culture. Or, perhaps, it comes as a perk for being a tourist guide in Pyongyang? I could only guess. In any case, her English pronunciation sort of caught her off-guard, resulting in something that Simon Cowell would not be very happy about. That is so not the end of the story, though, because Miss Jong proved to everyone on that bus that every North Korean girl could sing Arirang in a way that would give you goose bumps, as she redeemed herself with a performance that could have given her a wild card for another round of North Korean Idol.


But before all the post-dinner merrymaking activities, we still had to see the other tourist attractions around the city, starting with the Tower of Juche Idea after having our lunch at the hot pot restaurant. This tower is popular for the elevator you ride to get to the top, for which you have to pay another 5 euros. If you are at Kim Il Sung Memorial Square busy watching the Pyongyang kids on their roller blades, then you only have to set your gaze on the other side of the river. The first tall structure that meets the eye would be the said tower, unmistakable thanks to that flame on top of it.


Once you get off the bus, there would be another impromptu history lesson, but you could always choose to just take a stroll by the river and appreciate the view if you are not into some information overload. The wall by the entrance of the tower is replete with tiles from different countries said to be sent by foreigners who subscribe to the whole Juche ideology. What most tourists do is try to find a tile from their home countries. I was not able to find anything from the Philippines, though.


That elevator ride must have been one of the longest and most crowded I have experienced in this lifetime. I wish I could say that the view from above is amazing, but that would be an obvious exaggeration. This is Pyongyang, after all. What kind of skyline are you expecting to see? Nonetheless, it still offers a bird’s-eye view of the city, reminding you that it will take a really long time for it to produce something really jaw-dropping. Did I mention that it was foggy too? So no, I would not really recommend spending five more euros on top of the hundreds you have already spent, but if you have some spare cash, then by all means, do it just for the experience. Oh, one funny thing: toilet break. There are toilets at the basement of the tower, and the trip down there is an experience in itself. We were led down some labyrinthine hallways. A part of me thought that those halls would be connected to some tunnel leading all the way back to the hotel; another part thought that we were being led to the Chamber of Secrets to meet Voldemort’s basilisk.


What was supposed to be a short stop at the Stamp Museum took a while because most of us just needed another round of souvenir shopping. It was funny but kind of strange at the same time because most of those stamps were war-themed. I mean, most of us get those boring flora and fauna stamps in our countries when we send mail. These North Koreans, on the other hand, would always see nukes and anti-American propaganda every time they try to send a package or two. Aside from stamps, you could also get postcards and posters, but the themes do not vary that much. Most of them involve warfare. I did manage to get my mother a hologram postcard of a North Korean lady holding some root crop. That postcard never reached Malaysia.


It started to drizzle when we reached Mangyeongdae, which is the birthplace of the dear leader. There, a tour guide would elaborate on the humble beginnings of their beloved leaders, complete with props such as huts, photos, and some farm tools. What follows is a rather long walk back to the bus, along with more murals depicting traditional North Korean life. We also stopped by a well, which Mister Lim claimed to be magical. Whoever drinks the water derived from there is said to gain wisdom or something to that effect. Mister Lim even went as far as to proclaim our Japanese friend as the next prime minister of Japan, all thanks to this magical North Korean well. Come to think of it, this must be the first time in the last day or two that something neutral was said about the land of the rising sun.


The highlight of the afternoon was the Pyongyang Metro ride. Fun fact: this is the deepest rail system in the world. Do not panic! There is an escalator. Despite having only two lines, each station seems to be decorated with such grandiose display of murals and chandeliers that would put any other MRT station to shame. If most MRT stations were like this, then you would probably want to loiter around for a bit. For this particular one, however, that does not seem to be allowed. And come on, you ride the MRT to get somewhere fast. If you want to appreciate art, go to a museum. But yeah, Pyongyang’s MRT stations look really fancy. There, I said it.


The platforms have these stands displaying the day’s newspaper, which means standing in line if you want to read them. The trains are old, and are said to be donated by East Germany. I just said East Germany! Gee, this is so 80’s. The interior of the train has a glossy wood finish. The people in it are not zombies; some of them actually smile at you, while some just opt for indifference. To each his own, I guess.


And the penultimate stop before dinner: Bowling Alley. Yes, I watched the other tourists play bowling. Sorry, I am not a fan of this sport so I chose to just sit down and go people-watching. I guess it is safe to assume that North Korean teenagers also know how to have fun. Who knew that not having Facebook had its advantages? Those teens actually talked to each other, and perhaps behaved the same way we did back in the early 90’s when social media was still an alien concept. It makes you want to miss the good old days, but then you remember that certain freedoms are curtailed for such a scenario to occur. Whatever. For now, just appreciate the simplicity.


And then we, or rather they, had some drinks at a local brewery which hosts an okay bar where some of us tried to push the boundaries and ask questions regarding the more delicate issues at hand, and settled with whatever honesty or semblance of it that we got in return for daring to do so. As for me, I appreciated the tour guides’ view on things. This is the part where you realize that everyone subscribes to his own belief system that could differ to yours. In the end, you do not have to force each other to change perspectives, but at least you get to understand where the other one is coming from.


For dinner, we had some traditional Korean barbecue. The ladies in pink sung Arirang and several other traditional songs that are not K-Pop. For one moment there I was wondering what the reaction would be if we requested them to sing Gangnam Style, but would you really risk dinner for such a trivial deed? It seems as though everyone wanted their barbecue that bad. Well, who could really blame us? That was a whole day of running around Pyongyang! Dinner had to be served, no matter what. The night ended after all the dancing and display of musical talents. We were done with Pyongyang.


I would say that the trip back to Beijing was fine. Pyongyang’s airport is so small and there are less than five flights a day. Aside from a bottle of wine that was accidentally dropped, I could not recall any other incident that morning. I was just relieved that I was going back to China, not as a converter believer of the Dear Leader, but as someone who has experienced this reclusive country first-hand, and with a better understanding of what makes the people there tick.

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