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.

5 BIG THINGS THAT WERE JUST AS EXPECTED

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…

7 BIG THINGS THAT SURPRISED ME MOST

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.
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Just people’s kindness is worth the travel

The taxi driver who picked me up from the airport offered me a cigarette. I don’t smoke but I thanked him.

This man sitting opposite me on the train had a food box with two spoons. The second spoon was for me. I don’t eat meat so I had to refuse, but I smiled.

There was a group of young people in the restaurant last night who were drinking vodka, and invited me to join for a glass or two.

When I was on the plane on the way here, I was lucky to get three seats just for myself and got a good night sleep. When I woke up, I realized that someone had put a blanket on me.

This had happened also on the night train a few days later. It wasn’t cold on the train, but I was thankful a stranger had thought of me.

I’m now travelling in an absurdly overcrowded mini-van. It’s not comfortable at all, but I’m so happy I’m smiling. The woman next to me smiles back, showing a range of golden teeth.

My well-travelled suitcase has a broken wheel. I’m struggling moving it on the streets, and I see locals make fun at me. I smile back.

Just these smiles, just this kindness of strangers; it is totally worth the travel.

Notes taken on a day travelling in Kazakhstan, December 2016.

I’ve found the worst hotel ever, it is in New York

Research about office layouts shows that workers in cubicles with high partitions are the most miserable. Good news: there are now hotels applying the same principle.

I realized this during a recent trip in New York, where I stayed at a place called Chelsea Cabins. It was outrageous.

The technique is simple: use a large space and divide it into cubicles which you call “cabins” and advertise as “private rooms” with shared facilities.

As you see, they’ve added sorts of containers within the large space and these are the “cubicles”.

The catch: the cabins don’t have a ceiling; they’re technically merely cubicles. And everything else is in the same space: cubicles, reception, showers, kitchen, all of that is cramped together in one big room with no sound isolation.

And this is how, when I expected and paid for a tiny private room, I realized all I was getting was a cubicle in a 25-person dormitory. Cramped like a chicken in a battery cage.

This is the “ceiling” of the “cubicle”: as you can see, it’s not closed, so there is absolutely no sound isolation.

Oh they’re lovely cubicles, they’re tiny of course but the bed is clean and comfortable, there’s also a tiny table, a socket so you can charge your phone, and a mirror. But they’re just cubicles and you can hear everything what’s going on in the same space.

So I spent the night listening through my earplugs to people’s body noises and zippers from their bags. I woke up at 7 am because that’s when one guest’s alarm went off, and then listened to people’s conversations whilst they were having a bagel.

And yet here I was, having paid a hundred dollars for a private room but technically sleeping in a 25-man dorm. Feeling speechless, and hopeless too, for I have a feeling that this is not really legal and yet I have no idea where to complain.

If that is the price to pay for visiting New York, thanks New York, I’ll pass.

For these Chelsea cabins are not cabins good grief, they’re cubicles!

Stalin’s Seven Sisters

Unmistakably Soviet symbols of Stalin’s megalomania… Visible proof of Stalin propaganda’s shift to nationalistic patriotism after the Second World War… And maybe even phallic metaphors of Stalin’s quest for recognition…

The Seven Sisters are seven skyscrapers that were built just after the war (when the Soviet Union in ruins had nothing better to do…) as a response to Stalin’s concern that foreign visitors would not be too impressed when visiting the Soviet capital.

They are still standing there, glorious and pompous. More tall buildings have grown around them including the super modern towers of Moscow City, but they are still a key part of Moscow’s urban landscape.

KOTELNICHESKAYA EMBANKMENT BUILDING (halfway between Kitay Gorod and Taganskaya)

This is my favourite Stalin Sister, perhaps because it’s so central and clear. It’s an appartment building and I’m dreaming of living on one of the top floors!

Photo September 2017

MOSCOW UNIVERSITY (metro Universitet)

This one is iconic, with its giant star at the top. Non less stereotypical is that gulag labourers were involved in its construction…

Picture February 2010

UKRAINA HOTEL (metro Kievskaya)

Now a Radisson hotel, this one is open to visitors and the entrance hall is really impressive, with a fabulous Revolution painting on the ceiling. Radisson has a ship that sails the Moskva river which can be a great way to see more of Moscow.

Photo July 2016
Ceiling painting inside the hall. Photo July 2016

LENINGRADSKAYA HOTEL (metro Komsomolskaya)

Another hotel, a Hilton this time but the Soviet name is still written on its top, this one has a distinguished, more feminine look because of its pinkish colours.

Photo July 2016

KUNDRINSKAYA SQUARE (metro Barrikadnaya)

What I love about this one is the grace of its decorations and spires. Unlike all other Sisters, it also has a little garden with a fontain at its foot, which makes it a pleasant place to stop for ice cream.

 

Photo July 2016

KRASNYE VOROTA BUILDING (metro Krasnye Vorota)

White and inmaculate like the Soviet regime, this one has a beautiful hammer and sickle sign at the top of its base.

Photo July 2016
Photo July 2016

MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS (metro Smolenskaya)

And last but not least, this wonderful building inspired by the big American skyscrapers of the 20th century is not so delicately decorated, but so massive that it makes the Empire State Building look quite skinny. That’s Soviet generosity…

Photo September 2017

100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution… The authorities have closed Red Square

The October Revolution took place on 7 November 1917, exactly a hundred years ago, but the anniversary won’t be celebrated in Russia.

There has been a lot of discussions in the past few days whether this is right or not, published in media of all sorts like these vox pops from the Moscow Times, and Russians don’t seem to agree on the question.

Red Square this morning. Closed.

Well, the authorities have made it easier for all: this morning in Moscow, Red Square is closed, and surrounded by a whole lot of regular police, riot police, and horse police.

The message is clear.

Disappointed locals and tourists.

I had decided today would be a good day to finally take the time and go to Red Square to pay homage to Vladimir Ilitch Lenin whose dead body has been kept here for 93 years. But the Russian authorities didn’t let me in.

So I did what is always allowed in Russia, and even recommended: I went to the underground shopping mall underneath Red Square, and got my nails done. In Red, of course.

100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution D-1… craft beer with KGB view

The October Revolution took place on 7 November 1917, exactly a hundred years ago in 3 days, but the anniversary won’t be celebrated in Russia.

At this occasion, I’m showing you how much Russia has moved on. Whilst there are still tired Soviet symbols everywhere in the country, clearly the grass has regrown and these symbols have lost all meaning, becoming just a background for a new society.

This is how recently a craft beer place opened its doors in a 6th floor on Lubyanka square with outdoor terrace just across the haunted KGB headquarters.

This place where endless innocent soups were tortured and forced to confess uncommitted crimes before disappearing to hundreds of prisons and gulag camps under Stalin times, is now just a pretty building you can admire whilst you sip your double IPA. Cheers!

Craft beer from local Jaws brewery with KGB headquarters in the background.

100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution D-2… They’ve replaced Lenin by Jesus!

The October Revolution took place on 7 November 1917, exactly a hundred years ago in 2 days, but the anniversary won’t be celebrated in Russia.

At this occasion, I’m showing you how much Russia has moved on. Whilst there are still tired Soviet symbols everywhere in the country, clearly the grass has regrown and these symbols have lost all meaning, becoming just a background for a new society.

In Magadan, in Far-East Russia, there used to be a square with a big Lenin statue, like in every town of the USSR. It was at the heart of Magadan, in its most central neighbourhood.

Things started to change in 1985 when a huge Orthodox Cathedral was built.

A big Lenin statue looking towards an Orthodox Cathedral, that was a bit funny, wasn’t it?

Lenin has to be removed and this took a while but finally happened in 2010. And they replaced it by a statue of Saint Innocent of Alaska.

In Russia, you can’t just remove a Lenin and make it disappear; this is a delicate subject. Best case scenario, you move Lenin to a further spot somewhere in town; and in Magadan, they chose to place him… by the KGB headquarters.

Poor Lenin…!

The Orthodox Cathedral in Magadan. During 25 years, Lenin was standing here and forced to look at this religious building.
Lenin is now somewhere else in town, just by the KGB building (the one you can see on this photo)
Instead of Lenin now stands this statue of an Orthodox saint, Innocent of Alaska.

This is how a religion slowly replaced another!