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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
In early 2010 Ashen posted about the infamous Pyongyang Metro, one of the deepest functioning systems in the world. Because of restrictions on where tourists can visit, visitors to Pyongyang normally only see two stations of the system. This has led to suggestions that the metro system is in fact merely a two station loop, populated by actors at the exact time of tourists visits. However, this is far from the truth, and Ashen’s post chimes with what other long-term inhabitants have said, that in fact the system is indeed more or less fully active.
“The metro opens early in the morning and closes at about 9.30 PM. The interval between trains during peak time in the day is about 2-3 minutes, but more in the evenings. To travel, riders must use paper tickets which must be shown at the entrance to the system. One card costs 5 won and its roughly the same size as the tickets used on buses and trolley buses. You can also buy long-term passes – 270 trip carnets, right up to 2000 trips! After a few calculations it’s clear that there are big savings; the 270 trip tickets cost just 1350 won.”
“At each station there are typically three escalators, with lighting on either side. It is noteworthy that compared to Moscow, where people stand on the right side of the escalator and pass on the left, in Pyongyang, everyone just stands still and lets the escalator take them up in an orderly fashion. In fact, it is actually forbidden to walk on the escalator or to sit on it…Central radio broadcasts over the loudspeakers at all times, and in the middle of platforms travellers can read the days paper (Rodong Sinmu). There are even free toilets to use in the stations (!), and there is an interactive subway map!“
“Now the trains – all of them have semi-automatic doors. But what does this mean? i.e, that the doors can be opened manually, but must then be closed by a the driver. After stopping, the conductor (usually a beautiful military woman) sends a signal to the driver and then the train departs. In the cars themselves there is no announcement of the next station, nor any signal that the doors are ever about to close. The time between stops is usually about five minutes. In all the cars are also two portraits (of the Kims). Passengers usually give up their seats to the elderly or mothers with children – and interestingly, to foreigners too. Two times for me something happened – the seats were full and when I got on, the conductor asked the local passengers to give me a place – which was rather uncomfortable…”
If you’ve ever been interested by the Pyongyang metro, NK News thoroughly recommends the site Pyongyang Metro, where you can learn more about the system and its stock of East German trains. Interestingly, Andrei Lankov writes in North of the DMZ that the trains are in fact Chinese, but these were allegedly replaced in the late 1990s by the German stock. Graffiti found scribed into windows in the current batch of German cars confirms this.
Not long after his metro post, Ashen wrote about a trip to an Ostrich farm, which he seemed to reveal his being family of Russian Embassy employees.
“The trip was organized by the DPRK Foreign Ministry for Embassy employees and their families. During the visit they showed us the farm, hatchery, and meat processing plant. A few words about how the tour took place: All the action took place inside the bus – actually getting out to see the ostriches was forbidden, and on entering the farm the wheels of the bus were disinfected with a special solution. After entering we drove slowly, sometimes stopping to take a closer look at the birds. I must say that the birds were frightened by us tourists and began to run away any time we got close!”
“At the end of the visit we were shown samples of finished products, as well as products made from ostrich eggs and feathers. I don’t know if everyone knows, but one ostrich egg is roughly the size of 30 chicken eggs, and it weighs a lot. At the farm, some of the eggs are converted into true works of art (see photo). Also many raw ostrich eggs are sold and ostrich meat too (which is popular in some of the restaurants).”
Another interesting post of Ashen’s in early 2010 was on the subject of smoking. As we know, North Koreans smoke a lot – but who would have thought that so many brands could exist in a country where advertising is almost non-existent?
“Here is my collection of North Korean cigarette packs which I picked up around Pyongyang.
In total, there are 120 packs and I have selected the most interesting ones to show you. Of these, packet designs include:
As you can see from the packs, many of the brand names are also included in English. Ashen explains that the price of a packet used to be around 30-50 cents per pack, but after the December economic reforms a pack of “내고향 “ brand was worth ten times more.
“Nearly every male smokes in North Korea – I only ever met one person (a teacher) to say he didn’t understand why people smoked. As for women, smoking is seen negatively, so its rare to see them smoking on the streets and in restaurants. Men start smoking from about 18.”