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 said about North Korea. I was dreaming of getting the chance to get there some day, and I didn’t want to be influenced beforehand – this is true of every place I travel into, and is what gives me this air of not knowing much about 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, 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 kept many open question marks.

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


1. The propaganda and cult of personality. Being as well-travelled in totalitarian regimes as I can, I already had elaborated experiences in this field – but the North Korean version is quite uniquely overwhelming.

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 has a collectivism index comparable to Asian and South-Asian countries such as China or Indonesia.

In these cultures, 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, and they are not a legend! Slowly being replaced by automatic 3-colour traffic lights, and therefore endangered species, traffic officers are still there in many intersections. They are not just girls though, some are 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 my stay, and I have not been disappointed. Guides recite the national propaganda and there is never a way to verify or even challenge what is being said. A lot is non-said, too, and many questions remain unanswered. Why is our guide suddenly telling something insignificant when there seems to be a group reunion at the opposite side of the road? Is she hiding something or not? When we visited the Pyongyang metro, which comprises of 17 stations, 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 as expected. You cannot walk around freely without having a couple of “guides” watching you, and all visits are with the group you belong to. Iad and funny at the same time: all my fellow travellers and I ended up having the exact same photos. And since we had plenty of time 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. 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 tourists stay on elevated floors in 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 or 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 with a socialist revolution like in Russia. But I was wrong: the initial and deep motivation of Kim Il-Sung was patriotic, 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 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 into 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 to see what this looks like. I was expecting something like a Russian new city of the Far-East Siberia minus the big ad billboards. In reality 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 anywhere, people are well disciplined. Everyone dresses smartly and acts smartly, which is very revealing versus a number of ridiculously casually dressed tourists giggling about sex jokes, a few of whom you regularly have to remind to watch out their potentially disrespectful behaviour.

Beyond this, there is a true enthusiasm for the society’s achievements: when in the West, most accomplishments are private and punctuated by a disillusioned shrug, North Korea does celebrate as a nation by, for example, building a great 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 think also of the positives), there were some advertisement billboards for a locally produced car, and a few LCD screens around in the city.

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 the way China wants, and it is not impossible that 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 Pyongyang.

6. People are normal humans. 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 sunny Sundays. We tend to forget that. School kids wear uniforms, but they try to distinguish themselves with distinctive accessories, as normal kids do.

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 was able to go a bit crazy in North Korea. Afraid I would have to contain myself at all times, it is true that I really had to in most circumstances – such as visiting the mausoleum where they keep the bodies of the Kims. No idea how the fantasy of Kim Il-sung’s mommy winking at me came about, but I was 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.

5 bizarre feelings I’ve had during my travel in Saudi Arabia

What is it like in Saudi Arabia? My week-long business trip to Saudi Arabia has been an emotional rollercoaster. I’ve experienced so many feelings, often mixed feelings. I’ve had bizarre dreams many nights, a sign that my brain had a lot to process during the day.

A few (bizarre) impressions from Saudi Arabia:

  1. The plane to Jeddah: a 40,000 feet high changing room

An international flight to Jeddah is hilarious because almost the entire plane changes outfit halfway. Men dress down, women dress up.

Men flying to Jeddah are often pilgrims on the way to Mecca; at some point during the flight, they swap their shirt and trousers for the ihram, a sort of big white towel they wear as a toga.

For women, arriving in Saudi means adding layers, and in particular an abaya, a dark, plain, loose, full-length over-garment, which it is recommended you get before you board the plane so you can arrive in a Saudi airport wearing the perfect attire.

And whilst this means, as a female, that your body is completely hidden, I’ve seen quite a few men really embarrassed that the ihram was showing their bellies and love handles, and were constantly trying to pull the towel down to mask their forms.

What a bizarre feeling, to see pilgrim males embarrassed to show their curves!

  1. The rhythms of daily life

Navigating opening hours in Saudi Arabia is a real struggle. Places like museums typically have different opening days for women and men, so you really need to plan ahead to make sure you arrive somewhere at the correct moment.

Al Masmak fort is a museum that celebrates the exploits of King Abdulaziz, founder of Saudi Arabia. And because it would be really, really terrible if women entered in contact with unrelated men whilst absorbing the country’s national propaganda, the fort is open on different days for each gender.

Another challenge is the regular interruption that prayer time represents. Five times a day, life pauses for up to 30 minutes. I was in Saudi Arabia for market research, and we had to offer a break in the middle of the group discussions for the ladies to pray.

Many shops and restaurants close, but interestingly, they won’t kick you out if you’re already in; so the challenge is to arrive at least 10-15 minutes before prayer time.

I was in a supermarket during the afternoon prayer; the music and some of the lights were shut off, the staff completely ignored me, the store went quiet. It felt as if I had been locked inside the supermarket after hours.

What a bizarre feeling, to be left alone inside a supermarket several times a day!

  1. The femininity and nuisances of the abaya

Life in Saudi Arabia for a woman means wearing the abaya all the time, which is a pain in the neck, really. The weather is way too hot to add an additional layer, the abaya prevents you from enjoying the refreshing breeze of the wind, and the fact it is constantly touching the floor, in a desert country, means that it’s getting dirty pretty quick.

When the wind blows hard, the abaya gets trapped between your legs and makes it difficult to walk. In escalators, I’m always worried that the abaya will get stuck and tear apart.

But indoors, what a feminine feel to wear a long robe, which is large enough to flow around you as you walk and turn. It sometimes gave me the feeling of being a princess from another era, when women used to wear petticoats under their long dresses.

What a bizarre feeling, to experience a boost of femininity whilst hidden under an oppressive garment!

  1. The constant segregation of the genders

If you want to freak out a conservative Saudi cleric, just mention the possibility that a woman may have speak to, or even see, an unrelated man.

Layout, architecture, operations, everything is designed to maintain a precise segregation of genders.

The hotel lobby; all males.

Businesses typically have a backdoor (I call it a shame door) for women and families to enter and stay in a space that is hidden away from the public, so men cannot see them.

But all service-related jobs, including waiters and shop assistants, are male, so the opportunity for women to enjoy full privacy are really scarce.

Many restaurants even separate booths closed by a curtain or screen, so women can uncover their face when enjoying a meal; and the waiter has to knock and ask permission every time he enters with a new dish, meaning women can have the time to put their niqab back in place.

I crossed the terrace to enter the store. What a mistake… Females are only allowed through the separate door, on the left.

Two days ago in Riyadh, spotting a Starbucks right when I was in need of WiFi, I made a terrible mistake and entered the coffeeshop through the main door. I didn’t realise it immediately, because as a female in Saudi Arabia you are used to be surrounded by nothing but males.

But as a female, I was supposed to use the other door, the one that’s on the side, the one that’s reserved for women.

What a bizarre feeling, to be told off for entering a store through the main door!

  1. More than ever, my white privilege

I am a white European person; all my life, I’ve been witnessing what white privilege is about. I grew up in a multicultural environment, and the concept of white privilege made me really, really angry when I was younger.

Over the years, I’ve learned to admit it, if not accept it; but it’s still something I am really not proud of.

Many women wonder what it’s like to travel as a female in Saudi Arabia; is it even safe to travel to Saudi Arabia? And the answer is, it depends on your religion.

Time to debunk some of the myths: many of the rules and restrictions don’t apply to non Muslims like me. I didn’t need a male guardian, I didn’t need a male to pick me up at the airport, I didn’t need a male permission to leave my hotel, I didn’t even need to cover my face and hair.

A snapshot of daily life: 29 men, 1 female who is accompanied.

And as a white European, none would question whether I am Muslim or not.

There is a lot I’ve been doing in the past week, such as walking around, visiting restaurants alone, having a conversation with a male shop assistant, shaking hands with a local man, exchanging a laugh and a high five with a male taxi driver, etc., that no local, Muslim woman would even dream to be able to do.

My white privilege means I can do that… (Al Masmak Fort, Riyadh)

I have travelled in other Islamic, conservative countries before, and was typically experiencing the same treatment as local women, which was extremely tough. Nowhere like in Saudi have I had the chance to enjoy a different treatment than the locals, for not being Muslim myself.

What a bizarre feeling, to enjoy my white privilege to make my travel richer…

24 hours as a solo female traveller in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

I’ve done it; took the opportunity of a business trip to Jeddah to spend a free day here. I came once last year already, but for a 15-hour long working day. Now, finally, came the occasion to take the time and explore a little.

That’s me by the old mosque of Al-Balad historical district

My impressions:

No, it’s not North Korea

Saudi Arabia doesn’t have the reputation to be female-friendly, as confirmed by the reaction of my two female collaborators last year, when I told them at the end of the day that I would go to a shopping mall to find a restaurant for dinner. “No, no, no” they shouted, one looking puzzled (a Syrian), the other properly terrified (a Saudi).

They made me go back to my hotel and order room service. Was this a sort of North Korea for women? Was I going to be stranded in my room all weekend?

View from Jeddah just before landing. I was flying from Dubai.

No, no, no, I assure you. I’ve been absolutely fine. Partly because things are not as strict as we might think; partly because Jeddah is “liberal” by Saudi standards; partly because some of the rules and restrictions don’t apply to non Muslim women.

I still can’t drive a car, although this will soon change, but I have been free to walk and move around (I’ved used Uber), enjoy a meal out, admire sights, and do some shopping.

Having a melon and mint juice at a shopping mall’s food court.

I didn’t have to be escorted from the airport by a male guardian, unlike what some websites still say, but instead found a taxi ride to my hotel, like the big girl that I am.

I was often the only woman on the streets, except at the family-friendly areas of the corniche, but never received any unwanted attention.

At the North Cornich by sunset. Can you see me? I stand between the two Ds!

No, it’s not Dubai either

I thought oil had made Saudi a rich country. Surely, it has made some families rich – but the overall impression from Jeddah is rather that of an emerging city, like one could see in India or Egypt.

Views of Jaffali Mosque and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, seen from across a lake.

There are a lot of palaces and luxury shops in Jeddah, but also a lot of ruins, wastelands, and abandoned sites. I saw beggars, litter, and quite some misery on the streets. Traffic is dense and chaotic, accidents are common, cars are typically covered with dents.

Jeddah is not a town for pedestrians. Sometimes there was a sidewalk, yay, but it was usually in a bad shape. Locals don’t seem to ever walk.
A common sight in Jeddah.

Navigating around prayer times

The first thing you do when you arrive in Jeddah, is to check the prayers timetable. Shops and restaurants close during prayers, and that’s five times a day, so it’s better to know in advance what to expect.

8.20 pm, dinner time? No, prayer time! But there’s still some people inside, and as soon as prayer time is finished, it re-opens.

What’s good to know is that some restaurants actually have a back door for families (and as a woman, that’s where you belong) and they can let you in. You still have to wait until the end of prayer time to order food, but at least you don’t have to wait outside in the heat!

That being said, not all shops stop during prayer. Cars still drive, strollers stil walk; life keeps going.

Gender segretation is a true part of Saudi life, and as a female you’ll always be stuck in the “Family” section of restaurants and public places. But this also means privacy and being able to get rid of men sometimes, such as in these Family Only shops…

What to wear as a female in Saudi?

First, imagine it’s very hot. With almost 40 degrees Celsius at this time of the year (that’s over 100 in Fahrenheit), I prefer a fluid and light dress, but I still suffer from the heat.

But it doesn’t matter anyway, because you have to cover it all with an abaya. The abaya is a long, dark robe with long sleeves that goes down until the floor (and sweeps all the dust, yes), and I have never seen a woman in Saudi not wear it, apart from Michelle Obama on pictures.

This is me, in my abaya, on the Jeddah corniche. I bought it before I came, in a souq in Abu Dhabi.

There is no obligation for non Muslim women to cover their heads however, and, unlike when I travelled in Iran where I had to be covered, this time I enjoyed the refreshing feel of the wind in my neck.

If you see me with a headscarf on some pictures, it’s nothing religious, it’s rather to protect my head from the sun.

The Arab hospitality

Ah, the Arab hospitality; overwhelming by Western standards, and yet so delighfully cheerful.

It started at the airport already. Seeing that I am French, the immigration officer said a few warm words in my native language. Searching for my visa, he spotted that I’ve been in Russia and also spoke some Russian. Once my passport was stamped, he gave me a large smile and said “Welcome in Saudi Arabia”.

Many more people have greeted me this past day. Regularly, someone comes my way and says “Welcome”. Those amongst the Uber drivers who speak some English wished me to enjoy my stay; one even called me “sister”.

Local man taking selfie on the corniche.

The Arab hospitality primary rule is to take care of guests. Even a policeman did it: seeing that I was struggling to cross a busy road, he simply stopped the cars to let me go.

The Arab hospitality is also wat Muhammad demonstrated, a friendly Yemeni (although born and raised in Saudi) whom I met Saturday afternoon and insisted to take care of me, driving and showing me around, and even buying me a meal and ice cream.

Well educated, speaking perfect English, Muhammad is a soft and warm man who dreams to move out to the West (which isn’t easy with a passport from Yemen) and claims he prefers the company of Westerners than Arabs.

From our conversations, I learned a lot of insightful details about daily life in Saudi, and people’s struggles and aspirations, which made my stay so much richer.

His overwhelming sense of hospitality also meant that I’ve had to slightly adjust my plans to what he thought it to be a good host, which frustrated me a little – but hey, if I’m all about living and doing like locals, then why should I admire a sunset contemplatively walking on a sea promenade, when I can do the same driving around in a car…

My Jeddah pick: Al-Balad historical district

Jeddah has a few sights that guidebooks can tell you about, and a newly renovated North corniche that’s pedestrian and family friendly, but my favourite place has been the old district of Al-Balad, so full of Oriental charm.

Alas, with the exception of a few restaured houses, the neighbourhood is not in a good shape, with many decrepit facades and unsanitary ruins.

The renovated houses are beautiful. You can see the mashrabiyas, key element of traditional Arabic architecture.

Saudis, please don’t demolish them! They are your heart and your soul. And plus, they’re the authenticity we seek when travelling in your country.

But I guess Saudis prefer to build new stuff elsewhere, and abandon the old, rather than renovate it.

Luckily, some of Al-Balad is still there, and I enjoyed a lot to aimlessly stroll amongst the narrow streets filled with smells of cardamom and patchouli.

The Russian butcher who moonlighted as a dentist in a Tatar food market

This week, the WordPress photo challenge theme is Unlikely.

Unlikely, like this snapshot of daily life in the food market of Kazan, in Tatarstan (Russia).

Many of us enjoy visiting and taking pictures of markets, I know, and whilst it can be interesting to make colourful shots, it is far more challenging to create pictures with a narrative.

I’m still not entirely sure what this one’s story is…

I am a black belt in travelling

I was approached by a Japanese man tonight, in the Shinagawa station, who seemed to fancy a chat in English.

He wanted to know if I live in Tokyo.

No, I said, I’m just here for a few days, for work. What made you think I may live in Tokyo?

The fact that you look very much at ease, as if you’d been here for a long time, he said.

I smiled.

I explained that I am well-travelled, visit many countries, and do all I can to understand rules and behave like a local.

In that case, he said, you are a black belt in travelling!

Made my day… 🙂

Why travelling is an anthropologist’s job

I just arrived in Japan!

I don’t like knowing too much about places before visiting them, so I don’t get a distorted view before setting foot there. And thus, my knowledge of the Japanese life and culture is fairly virgin, and now is the time to figure it all out.

How do things work? What am I expected to do? What do people want? I have absolutely no idea. But as a well-travelled person, I want to know, so I can do the same as locals – to experience life as a local.

It is all about observing behaviours, and understanding the rules and codes. It is the work of an anthropologist!

No matter where I am in the world; in Mumbai I’ll use the local railways to commute to work, in Kazakhstan I’ll mingle in the crowd of a busy passenger train, in Caucasus I’ll spend a day exploring Tbilisi’s residential suburbs.

Always with the same goal: playing anthropologist, to become a good traveller. Understanding the codes so I can conform to them.

I haven’t seen much written in Latin alphabet in my first 24 hours. Everywhere shops and restaurants that give me absolutely no clue whatsoever as to what they are all about! I wonder how much time I would need to be able to seamlessly navigate in them 🙂

In the few hours that I’ve been here, Japan has already been a fabulous experience for the anthropologist in me. I have absolutely no idea of what I’m doing and what’s going on, which is baffling and hilarious at the same time!

A man told me to go to the second floor, but I don’t know the floor numbering conventions here. I also don’t know why I need to stay here, and am not entirely sure I’m queueing at the right place.

I was looking for an ATM this morning. I can’t say that this sign helped me a lot!

I smile politely at people but I have no idea what they’re telling me or want me to do!

The train system seems quite complex and doing a bit of research would have been a good idea. Without any prep, I did take the Shinkansen bullet train, Nozomi variant, from Osaka to Hiroshima as soon as I landed in Japan. Haven’t understood if Shinkansen and Nozomi refer to company names, brands, technology types, etc. If you travel in Japan, you’re better off getting a JR rail pass, which you can only buy abroad apparently, and is valid on all Shinkansen, except Nozomi. Go figure out!

But I’m making progress. I’m mingling with locals at the bar of tiny restaurants, I’ve figured out that I should stand on the left in escalators, and I take a nonchalant look, as if I’d been doing this for years, when paying my streetcar fare as I get off.

Even using the toilet can be a puzzling experience. Try pressing buttons and wait to feel the effect!


The three most candid smiles I have received around the world

This week, the WordPress photo challenge theme is Smile.

If you travel, and are friendly to people, it is not difficult to receive a lot of heart-warming smiles. More effortful is to get a visual memory of them: I am not so good at asking people for a photo.

If I do have a photo of them, it’s often because the encounter was so emotionally rewarding that it was worth pushing my limits to get the shot.

Fergana, Uzbekistan, September 2012

I have rarely seen friendlier people than the Uzbeks. And many have these golden teeth which makes their smiles not only uplifting, but also delightfully exotic. This woman, who was selling cucurbits of all sorts in the Fergana market, was clearly enjoying her day.

Guča festival, Serbia, August 2010

Guča’s festival of Balkan trumpet madness is the opportunity to go crazy, and I love walking around and watching the happy and feverish people in the streets of the village.

There is quite some post-war testosteron in this festival, but a lot of Balkan-style human conviviality too. That year, it was the third or fourth time that I bumped into this guy, and that we’d shared a laugh, so I thought I should take a visual memory of him.

Guča festival is such a cheerful affair that I have a lot of photographic smiles; and although I thought this man with orange witch hat (and beer belly, perhaps worth noting) was the one for this post, I couldn’t resist but add this picture of a man who was building a pyramid of local beer cans, because his I’m-having-such-a-great-time smile is so communicative.

I’ve already used this pic in this post about Guca. I loved this dude who was in my campsite in 2014.

Somewhere not far from Dunhuang, Gansu (China), June 2007

I hesitated before choosing this picture. It’s one of the best and worst travel memories of my life.

We were in Western China, in Central Asia, and wanted to enter in contact with the autochthonous population. A local Chinese travel agency arranged a driver and a “guide”; this turned into a disturbing, if insightful, experience.

Our “guide” knew nothing about the local Kazakh, Muslim people. He hardly knew where to find them, and to say the least, he didn’t have much interest or respect for them.

I have been the witness of racism, discrimination, and cultural arrogance too often in my life, and this has been one of those many occurrences. Since our “guide” was feeling uncomfortable amongst this ethnic population, behaving contemptuously and clearly unable to make contact, we decided to take a step ahead.

When we came close to a house, we left the car, asked the “guide” to stay in, and approached a family, with a cordial smile.

And what happened was such a humanly rewarding experience. This family had no reason to meet us, they were busy with their lives. But they welcomed us, invited us in their small shelter, offered us a drink and a snack, and shared a moment with us.

A friend came by and played a song with a guitar-style string instrument. We sang a French song in return. A kid was playing outside with the baby goats.


They were a displaced family: originally nomads, who had been settled, then converted to semi-nomads by the Chinese authorities who now found it best for them to herd in winter and farm in summer. This was their summer home.

We had to use our narrow-minded Chinese “guide” as an interpret, who was feeling awkward in this Kazakh home, which made the situation a bit uneasy, but we made the best of it.

I didn’t write a blog at the time, so was not paying attention to details as I am now, and I regret that I don’t remember their names nor where exactly we found them.

We had a lovely time, and it was hard to leave, knowing we’d probably never see these people ever again. The picture I took of the father and son was spontaneous and authentic; and if you ever see this family during your travels, please, hoping that they may remember us too, give them a very warm hug from me.


Happy Easter! Here’s a Lenin statue disguised as Easter bunny.

First of all, why on earth is there a Lenin statue in Seattle?

Welcome in Fremont, a Northern neighbourhood of Seattle, described by Lonely Planet as “long known for its wry contrarianism” and “does bizarre like the rest of the world does normal”.

There are art installations scattered all over Fremont, and Lenin is one of them. The ingenuous local artists like to decorate some of the statues in celebration of every occasion, hence the bunny ears today – what little regard to the dignity of a dead dictator like Lenin!

It is a real Lenin statue, made of bronze in Slovakia in the 1980s.

Wait – how and why did a 7-ton bronze Lenin statue travel all the way to Seattle, Pacific West? Well, that’s quite a story, and it’s all explained in the storytelling stand by the statue.

In a nutshell: the statue was rescued and brought to America to save it from being destroyed, a gesture primarily motivated by its great value as piece of political art.

Indeed: seen from the front, this looks like just another Soviet-compliant statue which exhibits all the standard Lenin statue traits. But look at the back, and you will see that Lenin arises from a savage scene of guns and flames.

The sculptor, while fulfilling the requirements of his state commission, was nevertheless able to express his vision of Lenin as a violent Revolutionary, not just as an intellectual and theoretician.

Proletarians of all countries, happy Easter!