My general impressions of North Korea: North Korea 1, Emeline 0.

North Korea - mass dance
Mass dance under the Party monument on the Party Foundation day

I have spent the past 33 years ignoring as much as I could what was being told or shown about North Korea. As I was dreaming of getting the chance to get there some day, I didn’t want to be influenced by any other view beforehand – this is true of every place I travel into, and is what gives me this appearance of not knowing much of what is going on in the world.

It seemed to me particularly important in the case of North Korea, most isolated country in the world and by definition living in a totally different version of the world than us. Obviously, I had some awareness of what I should expect there. But I also had my own fantasies and question marks.

In this first post of a series related to my travel to North Korea in October 2014, I will focus on these general impressions, starting from those in line with expectations, which turn out to be no more than the surprises.


1. The propaganda and personality cult. Being as well-travelled in totalitarian regimes as I can, I already had elaborated experiences in this field – but there is so much to tell about it that I will dedicate a complete story in a later post.

Propaganda posters are spread around the cities.
Propaganda posters are spread around the cities.
The portraits of the Kims can be seen everywhere.
The portraits of the Kims can be seen everywhere.

2. The mass uniformity. North Korea is not only a totalitarian regime but also one of the very collective Asian cultures – obviously Geert Hofstede was not able to screen North Korea in his huge IBM survey in the sixties, but he did South Korea which turned out having a collectivism index comparable to Asian and South-Asian countries such as China or Indonesia, where in-group belonging primes in a tightly-knit society. Building on that, not surprising that the regimes organises mass events, where everyone is dressed the same and acts the same, as support of the national psyche and propaganda.

North Korea - well ranked
Observe how well lined the locals can be during mass events.
Locals like to pose as a group in front of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace (where the bodies of the Kims are kept)
Locals like to pose as a group in front of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace (where the bodies of the Kims are kept)

???????????????????????????????3. The traffic ladies are a well-known phenomenon of North Korea that even I was aware of, and they are not a legend! Slowly being replaced by automatic 3-colour traffic lights, and therefore endangered species, traffic officers are yet still there in many intersections. They are not just girls though, but also pretty boys!

North Korea - why
I will never know why these guys were hiding behind big boards during the mass dance.

4. Dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity was something that I did expect I would have to face during and after my stay, and I have not been disappointed. Guides do vomit the national propaganda to you and there is never a way to verify or even challenge what is being said. The non-said part is even more substantial and many questions remain unanswered. Why is our guide suddenly telling about something insignificant whereas there seems to be a mass reunion on a big square at the other side of the road? Is she hiding something or not? Another typical example is our visit to the Pyongyang metro, which comprises of 17 stations but where we were allowed to visit only 2, “because the other ones are being renovated”. Is this the true reason or not? Will we ever know?

North Korea - arch
I had to admit that almost all of my photos would feature fellow travellers from my group.

5. Finally, the lack of freedom was completely on track. Not only because you cannot walk around freely without having a couple of “guides” watching you, but also because visits are in a group and always sticking to it. It is a bit sad and funny at the same time, but all my fellow travellers and me ended up having the exact same photos. And since we had plenty of discussions to exchange our impressions, many of our comments post-travel are also the same…


North Korea - haze
View from my window in Koryo Hotel, Pyongyang.

1. Haze in the morning. Funny but in all my fantasies about North Korea, I had never been thinking of the weather conditions. Turns out that there is a very strong haze every morning – and since they make you stay on high floors in some of these big 50-storey hotel buildings, I woke up every morning rushing to the window with goose bumps and excitation to look over surrealistic Pyongyang. The fact that very often there would be music being played on the street from loud speakers only added to the bizarre effect.

North Korea - Pyongyang big2
View over Pyongyang from the Martyrs Cemetery hill.

2. Pyongyang itself surprised me most. It is huge, or at least much bigger than anything I could have imagined, with enormous buildings spread over the city. It made for very nice views from the surrounding hills and from the tall buildings such as the big hotels but also the Juche tower.

North Korea - Pyongyang big
This neighbourhood has been recently built in the centre of Pyongyang.
North Korea - Pyongyang big3
Panoramic view from the Juche Tower. The 3 tallest buildings are all hotels for foreigners.

North Korea - honbok3. The nation is the fundament of the Korean dictatorship. Frankly speaking, I had not captured this at all and I was convinced the regime had started in a socialist revolution like in Russia. But I was wrong, the initial and deep motivation of Kim Il-Sung was patriotic and it was liberation from the Japanese feudal colonialism. This has a significant impact on many visible aspects of daily life in North Korea, as there is no such strong rupture between national folklore and socialist culture. For example, many women wear the traditional hanbok on important days; some of the arts are still partially influenced by tradition; a lot of national psyche and animism from the Northern mountains has been incorporated in the official biographies of the Supreme Leaders. And of course, all North Koreans dream of a reunification with the South (by North Korean terms).

4. North Korea is not a consumerist society, and I was dying of seeing what this looks like. I was expecting something like a Russian new city of the Far-East Siberia minus the big brands billboards. Actually, it was more complex than this. No consumerism also means less of the excesses and decadence of the West. There is no traffic congestion, there is no litter of packaged goods anywhere on the streets, people are well disciplined. Everyone tries to be dressed smartly and to act smartly, which was very revealing versus a number of ridiculously casually dressed tourists giggling about sex jokes, some of whom you constantly have to remind about their potentially disrespectful behaviour.

Beyond this, there is a true enthusiasm for the society’s achievements: where in the West most accomplishments are private and punctuated by a disillusioned shrug, North Korea does celebrate as a nation and for example builds a huge Metro Construction Museum to tell you everything about the construction of the metro (denigrators would say they were so proud of the Metro Construction Museum that they also built a Museum of the construction of the Metro Construction Museum!).

North Korea - ad and LCD
Ad for cars and big LCD screen in front of the train station.

5. North Korea is modern. It is not a mass consumerist society, but there is modernity. Many apartments have solar panels (again, denigrators will say that’s because it helps during power cuts, but I invite them to also think of the positive of it), we have seen some advertisement billboards for a locally-produced car and some LCD screens around in the city. That all seems pretty healthy to me and makes me say – why not?

North Koreans leaving the supermarket with a trolley full of consumer goods.

Under the pressure of China though, North Korea is expected to further develop as China wants, and it is not impossible that this is how North Korea’s exception will slowly disappear. Recently, China managed to impose to North Korea to open a joint-venture supermarket which is a quite incongruous thing to see in such a place.

6. People are just normal people. People raise families, walk on the streets, go to work, put flower on their balconies and go out for a pick nick in the park on Sundays. We tend to forget that. School kids wear uniforms, but try to distinguish themselves by wearing different accessories, as normal kids.

North Korea - normal kids
Normal school kids.
North Korea - normal street
Normal streets with normal people.

7. The last, most surprising thing is that I could go crazy in North Korea. I was afraid I would have to contain myself at all times. It is true that I really had to in certain circumstances – such as visiting the mausoleum where they keep the taxidermy Kims (no idea why I suddenly fantasized about Kim Il-sung’s mommy winking at me, but it made me close to bursting into laughter which could have been a reason enough to kick me out of the country if not controlled).

But I was also given moments of pure hilarity in contact with the locals, and while I kept checking on my guides to make sure I was not doing anything inappropriate, I was amazed that they nodded at me with a benevolent smile. On several occasions, I thus found myself dancing with locals on the streets, in parks, under the Party monument, blending with them and exchanging smiles, proving that politics is just politics and who cares about all these governments – what we all are is just one race of humans.

North Korea - me with football team
Joining the celebrations for the victorious football team.
North Korea - me in park
Joining dances in the park
North Korea - me in mass dance
joining the mass dance on Party Foundation day.

Kadyrov & Putin: the bromance of the Caucasus

It was Kadyrov’s way to end terrible wars and contain religious fundamentalism.

It was Putin’s way to wreck, once and for all, Chechnya’s aspiration for independence.

They had to become close friends. They had to work together. They had to support and legitimate each other.

Chechnya would remain part of the Russian Federation, led by a man chosen by Putin, in exchange for peace and the illusion of autonomy.

This resulted in a strange dual patriotism and dual personnality cult in Chechnya, with Russian and Chechen flags everywhere, and Kadyrov and Putin’s portraits omnipresent in the public space.

There is a strong personality cult around the previous leader Kadyrov, assassinated by fundamentalists in 2004. This personality cult was probably very necessary, to keep working on the unification of the Chechen people behind a project of peace.
Rather than celebrating just Kadyrov, Chechnya however has a dual personality cult, with portraits of Putin along with the former leader everywhere in the country.
Putin and Kadyrov are everywhere together. On the big buildings, like that of the Mayor of Grozny here…
And they are together, virtually on every official building in the country.
It’s an intricate mixture of personality cult and patriotism. Two flags (Russian and Chechen), two portraits (Putin and Kadyrov). Here a group of men posing in front of Kadyrov’s memorial are carrying flags with Putin’s portrait.
They were each other’s strength. Here a reconstitution of Kadyrov’s office, with on the wall, of course, a portrait of Putin.
The museums tell the common history of the two statesmen…
…insisting a lot on the complicity between the two fellows!

Propaganda, ruins of war, and beach holidays: my first impressions from Abkhazia

Abkhazia was one of the territories on my Caucasian route this summer. Self-declared independent with Russian support after an atrocious war with Georgia in the 90s, Abkhazia is a land of contrasts. And not just the contrasts of high mountains and endless coastlines; but those of beach holiday makers enjoying their summertime in the middle of war ruins.

The war ended 24 years ago, but the first impressions are that of a country that just got out of it.

Many buildings still wear the scars of war or are even demolished. Abkhazia lost more than half of its population (killed or exiled) so many houses are abandoned and the country feels strangely quiet and empty. The roads are in a terrible state, and there were power cuts the whole day when we were there.

Many houses are in ruins even in the centre of the capital, Sukhumi. The red signs says (in Russian) FOR SALE, so if you’re tempted, just give them a call.

And yet, Abkhazia has always been an important holiday destination for Russians and still is, as it offers cheaper accomodation than elsewhere by the Black Sea, plus a few beautiful sights. So you’ll find all the mass tourism cliches, from people taking selfies, street vendors selling beach accessories, tourists parading on the promenade in Segways…

Sukhumi beach looks like a typical holiday beach, and yet, one street away you’re in the post-war zone…

What I think holds Abkhazia together, along with the support from Russia, is the propaganda. How else could you justify living in such isolation and desolation? There are a few propaganda posters; with flags of Abkhazia, and with messages reminding that the war was worth it. Abkhazia is beautiful, that’s why we had to fight for it. We died in order to live.

Beautiful sunset with view on the Novy Afon monastery and the Black Sea.

Oh, it’s not mass tourism; there’s no airport and the only way to reach is from Russia, but Sochi airport is just a few hours away, and trains run, including a direct from Moscow. So quite a few Russian families choose to spend their well deserved summer break there.

A typical photo of Russian holiday makers by a waterfall. This is Abkhazia!

What is funny, is that Russian is the default language, even amongst locals. Unless people know each other, they address each other in Russian until they find out that they both can speak Abkhaz. Why is this happening, if the country is independent?

But as a matter of fact, Russian by default is not just the language. The currency is the ruble, dispensed in the few ATMs the country has, the only train left (as connections to Georgia are broken) is fully operated by the Russian company RZD with the same Russian agent at both sides of the “border”, and regarding the “border”, well, they won’t stamp your passport, so is it really a border anyway?

There’s only a handful of countries that have recognised Abkhazia as independent, and their flags are regularly displayed across the country: Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and the equally self-declared independent yet not internationally recognised Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Transnistria.

A deadly war full of atrocities, followed by 24 years of peace in ruins, all of that to get rid of the Georgian domination, and get vassalised by Russia instead? Abkhazian logic eludes me.

The importance of not being earnest, and why I love English humour

I had a bit of a cultural shock last night, as I attended a French event in London, and we started the evening with a minute’s silence for the Manchester victims. In France, people love solemn manifestations and hold minutes’ silence at every opportunity.

This is however very rare in England, which is probably why I lost the habit. In England, as Kate Fox explains in her fascinating book Watching the English, “seriousness is acceptable, solemnity is prohibited. Sincerity is allowed; earnestness is strictly forbidden”.

Therefore, after the country performing a minute’s silence yesterday, today, in a true illustration of the importance of not being earnest rule, normal English service has resumed; and the Guardian has helped spread the wonderful English irony with a compilation of the funniest tweets:

#BritishThreatLevels hashtag delivers stoical humour in the face of terror

In her book, Kate Fox was also telling about the immediate reactions to the 7/7 terrorist bombings in London in 2005, which occurred just a day after London had been chosen for the Olympic Games for 2012.

One of the survivors, who had been trapped in one of the bombed trains, reported that after the explosion, as the train filled with thick smoke, ‘Silence descended on the carriage apart from people choking and coughing. Then someone near me quipped, “Well, at least we got the Olympics!”‘

Other jokes also heard at that occasion, as a response to the over-solemn forum set up by a few well-meaning Americans entitled ‘Today I am a Londoner and Today I Hurt’:

Today I am a Londoner and Today I Got a Day Off

If you’re all Londoners today, that’s eight quid each for the congestion charge

The English are always in a state of readiness for humour, and today is no exception. Go England!

How I realised, by a sunny afternoon in Tbilisi, that I may be a travel snob

It was a tough and rewarding day travelling, and I was over the moon. So proud of myself – this was exactly what travel is to me:

  • A journey out of the beaten track
  • Where experience is as important than the destination itself
  • Travelling by my own means
  • And suffering a little bit on the way, real travel shouldn’t be too easy

After breakfast that morning, I had only a vague idea of what the day would bring to me: my goal was to wander around, into the non touristic Northern neighbourhoods of the Georgian capital, to potentially check out a few landmarks I found about in Google, and see what else I would find on the way.

I love these days spent walking, with a broad objective in mind, and letting encounters distract me and my plans. I spend the whole day observing, experiencing, analysing; getting to new insights about the place and its people. It really makes me high.

Serendipity and using my flair brought me to this cemetery, Didube Pantheon, and I am so glad I got to make this picture.

That day, I walked during 8 hours, including a 45-minute detour just to check a building that looked interesting at the other side of the river.

This bizarre building was the Ministry of Highways in Soviet times. Later abandoned, it’s been recently renovated and is now the HQ of the Bank of Georgia. It was worth the detour, wasn’t it?

That day, I also took a bushrutka – OK that’s a word I made up, because it was a vehicle of a size between a proper bus and a marshrutka (a van in Russia). And guess what: the journey was horrific.

The bushrutka was 45 minutes late. It was so incredibly crowded that it felt it was going to explode. It was too heavy to go uphill, and incredibly slow. It was incredibly hot inside. I was feeling privileged but cheating because I had a seat.

When we reached a bus stop and I saw a man stand with 2 children, I didn’t believe my eyes: they did actually try and get in. I sensed the trap, and immediately grabbed someone’s bag to put it on my lap; good choice, as just a second later my neighbour had a child on his. Tap on my own shoulder: oh yes I’m an experienced traveller.

There’s no tourist landmark in the Northern suburbs of Tbilisi, but if you’re a travel snob like me 😉 you are likely to find it interesting to explore them anyway!

At the top of the hill, I gave the man by the door a heads up that I was planning to get off at the next stop, so he would let me pass. His severe face expression confused me and I jabbered and didn’t express me really well. He said no and looked away.

That day, I learned the difference between hospitable and friendly. Georgians are incredibly friendly with tourists because they are incredibly hospitable – they love having you there in their country and want you to experience all what’s great about it. But that doesn’t mean they are particularly friendly outside the beaten track, especially if they don’t know you’re a tourist.

I had to fight a little, but I did eventually manage to extract myself from the overcrowded van.

I was starving, as it was Easter Monday and Georgians are serious about Christian holidays: all shops and restaurants were closed and I didn’t find a single thing to eat or drink the whole day.

I was happy and proud: it was a real day travelling, outside the beaten track, experiencing the real life and its daily struggles, just for the sake of it. A bit of a painful process at times, hence even more rewarding.

And the next day, I came across this article posted by a fellow traveller in a Facebook community I belong to: 22 Reasons You Are A Travel Snob.

Reason 1, tick. Reason 2, tick. Reason 11 obviously, and 13, and 17 perhaps, 20 possibly, and certainly, oh yes, reason 5:

You equate pain, suffering, long and arduous journeys and doing without as more authentic than traveling without pain, suffering, long and arduous journeys and doing with.

My heart skipped a bit: I may actually really be a travel snob!

Traveller On A Mission is now on Instagram

Following the advice of a few friends, I have now opened an Instagram account for Traveller on a Mission. You can expect to find there a number of my favourite pictures, old and new.

Expect some overlap with this blog in terms of photography, but also some originals on Instagram.

I plan to post a series of pictures around my favourite photography themes:

  • Lenin statues
  • Soviet brutalist architecture / Soviet ghosts
  • Church and mosques domes & minarets
  • Various around propaganda, ideologies and religions…
  • And maybe some food & drinks and other joys of travelling around the world!

There is a widget in my sidebar with the few first pictures I have uploaded on Instagram… (scroll down, it’s lower) –>>

And you can follow me:

Bear with me whilst I’m learning to speak in #hashtaglanguage and enjoy my photos!

How I climbed on top of an Iranian minaret to dance the boogie woogie

If you have been in Iran like me, you know that the country, seen from the inside, has not much to do with the axis of evil Western propaganda tells us about.

The friendly and hospitable people of Iran have to comply with the rules, but it doesn’t take long to spot a nice touch of rebellion in a portion of them.

The duo – uncle and niece – who took us to the ancient village of Kharanagh were masters of joyful irreverence. How they were having fun and were flirting with the norms gave me a delightful flavour of this part of Iran.

The village of Karanagh (85 km of Yazd) is now abandoned but there were women picking the fresh pistacchios at the time we visited. You can see the minaret standing in the village.

They told me I should climb to the top of the village’s minaret mosque, which was very old and very narrow.

“Stand with one feet on each side”, they told me. I found this a funny order, but I complied.

“And now, dance the boogie woogie”. What? “Yes, shake from one leg to another”. Really?

The minaret is 15 meter tall; the stairs inside to get to the top are not broader than 50-60 cm; in th efinal two meters, there is no stairs, so it’s proper climbing . I was standing there, shaking it!

I must have looked very puzzled, because they laughed a lot, but I did what they told me, and the minaret started shaking, making the whole mosque tremble and gently roar.

It’s only after a few seconds that I realized what they made me do: I was dancing the boogie woogie on top of a minaret! I also like to flirt with the norms and the rules, but this went much beyond what I had hoped for myself in Iran.

Not only did this seem rather dangerous – how many more times until the poor mosque will actually collapse? – but it made my travel companion, standing at the bottom of the minaret with no clue of my endeavours, freak out and believe he was trapped in an antique mosque during an earthquake.

View from the top of the minaret!

But I was so exhilarated! I am not one who expresses political opinions or signs up for ideological debates; but I did manifest my outlook on life: I danced the boogie woogie on a top of an Iranian minaret!

This post is a response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: Climbing

Teaching Iranians how to cook vegetables in Masuleh

Iran is the land of kebab; particularly if people are going to bother and go out to a restaurant, then it’s a festive meal and kebab is on the menu. Not the most exciting perspective for a non meat eater like me.

During my trip in Iran, tired to eat rice and bread after a while, I decided to try and make them grill vegetables. I bought a few onions, aubergines and courgettes on a food market and brought them to a street food restaurant.

The men were puzzled at first. It had never occurred to any of them that they actually could grill vegetables, it seems. But they gave it a go; and I enjoyed a fantastic dinner of grilled veggies with lime, garlic yoghurt, and Iran’s fantastic flatbread.

Seeing aubergines on a food market prompted me: why should I stay on a rice and bread diet, when there are so lovely veggies around?

This week, Ailsa‘s photo challenge theme was Cook.