This is part two of a mini-series. Click here for part 1: All Aboard the Juche Express
In a second hand bookshop sometime in the 1990s, I happened upon an old copy of the Golden Guide to South East Asia, published by the Far Eastern Economic Review. Even then the book would have been of little use in my travels: it was dated 1969. But it contained some interesting historical analysis, some lovely photographs and cost next to nothing so I snapped it up.
The guide book’s account of North Korea came into my mind during my return trip to the Chinese border earlier this year. Outside the windows, the land was mustard-on-mud, broken by clusters of ‘harmonica’ houses. On the roads running between them, figures in black overalls were bent under the weight of huge bundles of firewood, tied to their backs.
I was heading for China in relative comfort this time. This is a destination that tens of thousands of North Koreans have risked (and often lost) their lives attempting to reach in recent years.
And yet it wasn’t always so. In the Sixties, foreigners taking the train in the opposite direction reported immediate improvements, paved roads, electrified farms, cleaner buildings and healthier looking people, on the Korean side of the border. During the catastrophic ‘Great Leap Forward,’ unleashed by Mao during 1958-61, tens of thousands of ethnic Koreans living in China escaped famine by fleeing into the North Korea of Kim Il-sung.
The 1969 Golden Guide to South East Asia illustrated the extent to which travel in Asia was a far more arduous endeavour back then. But perhaps a more interesting one. With the end of the Cold War and the rise of Asia’s ‘Tiger’ economies, it can seem that the likes of Thailand, Indo-China and Bali have grown tame, offering a bit of sunshine and exotica to middle class youngsters from The West, before the demands of mortgages and children kick in.
Tame was not a word applicable to most of the destinations in the 1969 Golden Guide to South East Asia. The chapters on war-torn Laos and Vietnam (then partitioned into North and South) came with travel advisories. Indonesia was marked by a recent and very bloody purge in the name of anti-communism (some of the worst massacres took place on Bali). Portuguese Timor was a mouldering relic of European colonialism and Singapore still seemed more Somerset Maugham than Lee Kuan Yew. In 1969, it was theoretically possible to sample The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution up close and personal, but any ‘useful idiots’ could have expected constant supervision by aphorism-spouting Red Guards, not to mention the expectation they make themselves useful swinging a hoe or shovel. A particularly poignant chapter on Cambodia contained photographs taken by a young Swiss journalist who was later killed by the Khmer Rouge.
But there was one chapter that would read little differently today. Four and a half decades ago, independent travel in North Korea was a non-starter.
“Visas may be applied for at the North Korean Embassies in Peking or Moscow, but the application will probably remain unanswered.”
Only groups with proven communist credentials could expect to be let in: this was just after the capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo and the detention of her crew for nearly a year. Renewed clashes had been taking place along the southern DMZ since October 1966. The regime was thus in no mood to accommodate ‘imperialist’ visitors. Nevertheless, if the armour-plated doors did swing open, there was the chance to visit many of the same places on today’s itineraries: the Pohyun-sa Buddhist temple or the Kumgangsan Mountains. Only fifteen years before, Pyongyang had been little more than ashes and rubble and in 1969, the city was not quite the giant Kim dynasty shrine it later became.
The guidebook noted that there were twice weekly flights between rail and air links between Pyongyang and Peking, a weekly air connection with Irukutsk and that “occasional ships at Chongjin and ports on the Sea of Japan.”
So little change there: the prospect of gap year students, rucksacks over their shoulders, spending a few weeks meandering at will across North Korea, is still a remote one. Even if such travel was permitted, the hefty costs of flights into Pyongyang would to be a disincentive to the cash strapped student, one of the reasons it is more cost effective for the few companies operating in North Korea to utilise the rail links.
Air Koryo maintains a fleet of 31 aircraft, running routes to 21 destinations with Antonov, Tupolev and Illyushin models. Air Koryo is technically banned from flying to EU destinations, owing to safety maintenance issues, although in March 2010 approval was granted to its newly purchased Tupolev Tu-204 aircraft.
I was glad not to be flying out of Sunan Airport, 24 km from the centre of Pyongyang, is not terribly interesting; bar the inevitable Kim Il-sung portrait it has the feel of a provincial Soviet Airport from the 1970s. I had flown into Sunan in 2003 with Air Koryo and like many visitors found conditions on the planes rather mediocre. The cabins puffed out vapour from the air-conditioning vents, condensing into droplets that were hastily wiped off plastic and metal surfaces by the stewardesses. These petite ladies granted first time visitors their first glimpses of the omnipresent Kim Il-sung badges, proof that, literally as well as figuratively, the Great Leader is close to the heart of every North Korean. Copies of the Pyongyang Times were distributed amongst the passengers, for the most part diplomats and aid workers.
But nearly a week after spending 13-hours in an unheated carriage with temperatures outside at -18 C, I was even less than keen on taking the train. Pyongyang was still snowbound. The international hotels, of course, had their own power. But at dusk, when the sun was sinking across the solid whiteness of the River Teadong, the cityscape began to resemble a cold volcanic causeway. Pyongyang’s concrete cliffs and towers were dark, lit by an occasional candle or oil lamp. And looming in the freezing sky, the Tower of Sauron made real, was the luminous scarlet beacon of the Juche Tower. Even so, memories of the countryside made the capital seem positively cosy.
As it happened, I did not reach Sinuiju and the border by train. The next morning our guides gathered us in the hotel lobby. One member of the party arrived pallid and glassy eyed. Showing flu-like symptoms since the first train journey, she had spent most of the previous day in bed while the rest of us were taken to the West Sea Barrage and Chongsan Co-operative Farm. Two extra guides materialised and spent several hours in the lobby in order to “make sure she was alright.”
Their concern was surely genuine. Only a cynic would surmise they were there lest the poor woman was faking her symptoms, waiting for the chance to whip out a concealed video camera once we were gone, and head into the city in search of an exposé.
News came back from the central station: the train that had wobbled out of Sinuiju at 2.15 the previous afternoon had still not arrived into the capital. So the luckless souls abroad that mobile icebox would have already endured nineteen hours on the rails. A tour bus was laid on for us. Given the icy conditions, we would take a circuitous route that afforded glimpses of the countryside that few westerners saw.
By 9.00 a.m. we were crawling the slushy roads of the capital, passing the central train station, grateful not be stopping. As the entrance to the Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War passed, I saw lines of children, carrying flags or bundles of flowers. With the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth ahead, work details had been a relatively common sight over the past few days. Hemmed in within billowing red flags, steel helmets on their heads, they hauled away rubble at various sites. Other crews appeared on the roads, hacking and pounding on the black ice.
Once beyond Pyongyang’s suburbs, we wound up through South Pyongan province, passing towns with pastel coloured apartment blocks, Korean posters or obelisks extolling the ‘Juche’ or ‘Songun’ concepts and no shops. The walls of the buildings were usually grimy and the balconies stocked with potted plants and decomposing furniture. Window panes were generally unwashed and sometimes held together with tape. On several occasions, I noticed the same type of truck I had spied from my train carriage in 2003, plying the roads. The streets of Pyongyang had been thick with private vehicles even taxis, to the extent that traffic jams formed. Hurtling down Kwangbok Street, home to the most privileged of the haeksim (Core Class), we had even caught a glimpse of cars being advertised on a billboard. But all that seemed far away here.
Somewhere beyond Anju, we wound up into hills thick with pine trees. The snow had clearly been less heavy here and caramel coloured earth was re-emerging from the white blanket. We stopped for snacks and admired the spectacular sweep of the valley. I was even allowed wander up one hillside to answer nature’s call beneath the pines.
Our vehicle was soon driving through lowland again. Farmland slide past, often studded with red flags and slabs bearing State slogans. In the fields oxen pulled upon wooden ploughs. The archetypal ‘harmonica’ houses looked muddy and close to collapse.
We stopped at a junction on one of the main highways and I looked out. Two boys, aged about seven, wandered up and peered into our vehicle. Their faces were sunburned and caked in grime but they did not look malnourished. At the sight of our white faces, their eyes widened in astonishment.
The talk of ‘Army First’ politics a.k.a. Songun was no rhetorical flourish during the years of Kim Jong-il’s rule and sure enough, Korean People’s Army (KPA) troops were in abundance on the road to Sinuiju. Our vehicle stopped at three checkpoints during which, a KPA officer with a fur hat on his head and a Kalashnikov around his shoulders, would wave us through with a stiff salute.
By the time the outskirts of Sinuiju were ahead of us, so too were the towers of Dandong, visible across the border. In the early afternoon, seen through the mist, they had a spectral appearance. But it was easy to imagine how they would glitter with millions of lights once it got dark.
By 3.00 p.m. we were back at the same cold and gloomy hotel where we had dined days before, in between power outages. Ahead of us was the less than pleasant ritual of border controls. Our bags would be opened, possessions manhandled and everyone’s digital camera lined up for a perusal of the contents of their memory cards. Any images deemed ‘sensitive’ or ‘derogatory’ to North Korea (in my case pictures of a Kaesong woman balancing a sack on her head and a truck full of KPA troops) were deleted.
Two hours later, I reflected on why the trip had called up the memory of that ancient guidebook. We were now on the Dandong side of the ‘Friendship’ Bridge and gratefully unloosening scarves and coats in the delicious warmth of a well heated hotel lobby. For one feverish member of the group, this could not have come soon enough. Our mobiles and any ‘politically incorrect’ literature, held for us in reception over the previous week, were returned.
The world of 1969 is long vanished. In Asia at least, westerners no longer make pilgrimages to societies they imagine to be more equal and just than their home countries. But ‘independent’ travel, behind the exotic sights and smells, can actually be pretty soft and anodyne these days. However repellent the regime, that could never be said of a trip to North Korea. Which is why foreigners are drawn there, vicariously sampling this throwback to when the world was a much larger place.
This is part two of a mini-series. Click here for part 1: All Aboard the Juche Express