Today I wake up earlier than usual, because we are all going to Hamhung.
Hamhung is located on the east coast, in the province called South Hamgyong. It is the second city of North Korea, in terms of population and industry, they say.
The story goes that, after the Korean War, East Germany sent a contingent of bricklayers and builders to help in the reconstruction of the city, to such an extent that for a long time the inhabitants of Hamhung have been called “Hamhungers.“
Hamhung is six hours by car from Pyongyang, and it looks like a different world. Every time I go there I think it is the most beautiful place in Korea.
We leave together. Driver, interpreter, my personal Korean and I depart in the festive mood of a school trip, with the trunk full of water bottles and the dream of a strawberry ice cream on the road.
The first three hours and a half are the best. The road is a sort of highway, the rare cars run at 100 km per hour, just beside old overcrowded buses, carts dragged by oxen which look too thin to do the job, and old men, but above all old women, carrying surreal loads on their bicycles, one with a living goat wrapped behind the seat.
Uniforms overflow from an aged military truck. Workers in t-shirts look at me, their expressions stuck between shyness and curiosity, from the rear of their van. After the statue of the two Koreas joining their hands into a gesture of reunification, the landscape turns into countryside.
Steep mountains, green this time of year, streams, and every now and then a sign indicating a village nearby. Suddenly, a small town appears. Buildings in light colors, five or six stories. Blue roofs.
The periphery is still crowded with old neighborhoods of traditional houses, each one with a yard and a low wall. The latrines are outside. What is surprising for me, however, is the number of solar panels I see hanging from the windows. Every house has one. It seems that many were able, in this way, to compensate the chronic lack of electricity of the provinces.
After three hours or so, we stop in the only rest area in this zone where foreigners are allowed. As this way leads also to Wonsan, in the south-east of the country, this resting area is especially lively and some days almost crowded.
Hamhung is six hours by car from Pyongyang, and it looks like a different world
There is a small dam, and last year they even renovated the restrooms in a lateral building. On good days one can have a Nescafé. Sometimes we meet minivans full of Japanese tourists, going to Wonsan to see the relic of the ferry that in the good old days sailed to Japan from Korea. But above all, we meet colleagues working for other agencies.
Some go to Hamhung, some to Wonsan, some come back. We exchange a few words: how was the road, how was the visit, how was the food? Our drivers exchange looks and comments on their respective vehicles. Busy waitresses try to warm up water for the coffee. My personal Korean buys ice cream for all, and we devour it while looking at fish in a pond.
We get back in the car and depart. In front of us lies some twenty kilometers of good road. On both sides of the path, there are men and women stooping in the rice fields. Oxen drag large wooden combs in the paddies.
Sometimes, I see a red tractor, like the ones depicted in the postcards. Some boys are squatting on the edge of the path, together with few elderly people smoking tobacco. The most complicated part of the trip begins: the many curves that will bring us up and down until we reach the city of Hamhung.
There is always a great number of red trucks made in China, transporting, I believe, goods, as this is the only accessible road in this part of the country. On the sides of the road there are many women with plastic basins in their hands full of pears, apples, and radishes.
When they see a diplomatic plate they quickly turn their backs to protect their goods from sight: this kind of sale, apparently, is not altogether legal. I learned with the time to pretend I don’t see anything, so as to avoid embarrassing my personal Korean with questions that wouldn’t have an answer.
Calling Pyongyang to say that I am fine is impossible
After two hours of all these curves, we finally start descending and we go through the final bit of straight road that will lead us to Hamhung. At the gate of the city there is the usual check-point, always sided by a car washing position. Decency, I learned in this country, is political. If the vehicle is not clean enough, it will not be allowed to enter the city. Around the checkpoint, there are numerous stalls managed by ladies of all ages, selling local sweets and cigarettes. A little further up, a man offers his pump to inflate the tires of the bicycles for a modest contribution.
Decency, I learned in this country, is political: if the vehicle is not clean enough, it will not be allowed to enter the city. Around the checkpoint, there are numerous stalls managed by ladies of all ages, selling local sweets and cigarettes. A little further up, a man offers his pump to inflate the tires of the bicycles for a modest contribution.
This city surprises me every time for its very special vibrancy. There are no lighted signs, and no maxi-screens – contrary to Pyongyang. Still, all the roads swarm with small shops, each of them with its own painted sign indicating the kind of good or service provided. One can feel real life here, in Hamhung. Teenagers in uniform walk hand in hand leaving school.
Workers in big flocks enter into the factory through the huge open gates. Massive chimneys smoke and large banners indicate production records and the goals to be reached by the end of the month.
When we reach the factory with our car, I know that we have passed the center of the city and we are directed towards the old resort of Majong (not to be confused with the new luxurious hotel recently built, which hosts young tourists planning to practice surf in the DPRK, and also called Majong), where we will be lodged.
Like every time, I am exhausted by the trip, and I feel relieved when I see the old gate, with the small sign indicating the restaurant on the right. In front of us, the sea. Beyond it, perhaps, Japan.
The resort was built, they say, by the Russians in the 70s, and was meant to be a sort of leisure place for Russian families willing to spend their holidays in Korea. Semi-detached bungalows unravel discretely through the woods, few dozens of meters from the sea, and a big, round, two-stories building, almost a forgotten futuristic dream, hosts the reception. In this place, my local colleagues give me a great deal of freedom.
This is, indeed, the only place where I am free to run about the beach without needing to report my steps. Sometimes I think it must be due to the trust we built in our time together, but most probably it is because the only thing I could do would be swim to Japan.
Calling Pyongyang to say that I am fine is impossible. In fact, in Majong, the network dedicated to foreigners does not work. Hence I go and seek for my translator, and I ask her to call her colleague (Korean) in the capital, and to tell him to report to my other colleague (non-Korean) that I have arrived and all is good.
In any other country in the world, I could simply ask her to lend me her mobile. But in the DPRK, Koreans and foreigners access two different mobile networks.
For a long time the inhabitants of Hamhung have been called “Hamhungers”
The only time I dialed a local number from my rudimental mobile, the voice of a lady told me in English that I was not allowed to make that phone call. We frequently perform these exercises of patience and creativity.
In the evening we dine together and, exceptionally for me, we drink a few beers sitting around the barbecue organized by my personal Korean and the driver. We sing songs, we make jokes. One more beer, one more song, one more joke.
I know that this magic feeling of brotherhood will be over as soon as we pass the check-point at the entrance of Pyongyang, so I try to make it last as long as possible. But it’s already late, we return to our bungalows.
I enter in my room (I am always given the same.)
I have been to Hamhung several times in these years, and I have never, ever had running water in the bungalow. In the bathroom, there is a tub filled with ice water. Beside it is a red bucket, also full of water. On top of the bucket, there is an electric socket, connected to a resistance heater.
If I want hot water, I need to throw the resistance heater (connected to the electricity) into the red bucket and wait for it to heat the water. As I am not really eager to find out how it feels to be electrocuted, I have never had hot water in Hamhung.
Hamhung is also the sight of the old Skoda cars which you cannot find in Pyongyang anymore. The new generation of Mercedes has not yet arrived in Hamhung, and ladies here do not have the shiny and colored handbags that ladies wear in the capital. When the sun sets, there are no other lights than the ones from the occasional car, and the torches of those who return home.
Every day, after working in the city, we go back to Majong. There is still some time before sunset, and I take advantage of my freedom to take small walks on the beach. Some locals collect pebbles, others swim. Some say hello.
I try to keep these images in my memory, together with the unexpected laughter of a colleague during the coffee break. Once I’ll be gone, none of this will exist anymore. I will be immediately projected into a different country, a different mission, a different story.
I’ll leave without having any answers to my questions, without understanding any of the things I’ve witnessed all these years. I will leave, and it will be like forgetting a book in a hotel room without having finished it. I’ll be sorry for a while, but life will go on.
I will take off from the magnificent Terminal 1 of the newly built Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, so different from the little hangar that welcomed me four years ago. Perhaps I’ll look back, perhaps I won’t.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: Hamhung by uritours on 2014-05-26 01:24:05