In mid April this year I booked myself in for a 3-day tour of Pyongyang, the capital of the secluded and misunderstood state of North Korea. During this time tensions were at a recent high following discouraging shows of force by the DPRK, the trip was held also while the late Otto Warmbier was still held following his drunken incident. My motivations for going there were based around adventure and my own inquisitiveness, as well as the thrill of running a half-marathon a little off the beaten track.
The journey started with an overnight train to Dandong, a Chinese border city, where I arrived in the morning and spent the day walking around. North Korea here was very much a novelty- memorabilia of bank notes and totalitarian-rule items like badges were on sale. A DPRK restaurant I visited for lunch also had a stream of TV showing past celebrations in DPRK, served by watchful waitresses.
In this border city the main sight to see was a half-blasted bridge where visitors could get an eerie look in on the city’s cross river neighbours.
I was the first to arrive at the meeting point. A gigantic imposing statue of Mao. The tour was filled with young professionals, mainly male, culturally interested, respectful types who were after a good time.
Initial sights of DPRK was of the customs check. We were asked to remove all electronics. Quite the bagful collected of kindles, phones, cameras etc. I find it hard to believe that they went through all of it within the time that they returned the bag. I’d heard stories of people finding pictures of Team America style King Jong Il photos and had their phone confiscated. Not on this trip though, even a copy of George Orwell’s classic 1984 got in.
Never have a tour group I’ve been on been so obsessed with what was happening outside. Through the bus window you could see pastel coloured block housing and everyone, man, child or woman working- hoeing the field. All with badges on marking their famed leader Kim Il Sun. Were these people’s movements rehearsed?
We took a domestic flight to the capital. The plane was a bit dated but the experience was nice. The airport on arrival was shiny but completely empty.
We met our North Korean tour guides who were nice but clearly tense and had a strained sense of humour.
The first couple of days were a whirlwind of sights: the National Science Museum, Kim Il Sung’s birth place, the Torch tower, the War Museum, the Kim Il Sung/ Kim Jong Il statue, the Square, we even had time to go to a local brewery for a local pint. One thing that was apparent was that it felt like the Korean War happened yesterday, there is such a victim approach to this war and they cannot stand the imperialist Americans. There is also a huge want for a One Korea. Also the leaders are absolutely adorned in every single way here.
The big day was Sunday 6:30am, we woke up from the hard bed and I prepped for the half-marathon with a packet of skittles.
The 20-30 minutes when we arrived into the stadium were quite extraordinary; we arrived and paraded around the track. This was a complete novelty to almost all 600 odd runners who had phones out and ran up to the crowd to receive large cheers. There was one Chinese guy who had kahuna style balls to go for a run off from the pack towards the other crowd who were down the other end. Dealt with swiftly.
One of the great images was of the North Korean young athletes impeccably lined up, next to this great swath of foreign runners who were not in a straight line but more a big mass of seemingly chaos.
And then we were off! What an experience running through the streets of Pyongyang. The public who had been so reticent to us in the previous days, were a lot more welcoming, cheering us on our way. We as runners felt like the frackles of a tour group had been taken off, and we were interacting gleefully with the Pyongyang locals.
I got to 10K with no qualms, 15K was manageable but the last 5K my internet bought running shoes had given way and the pain shuddering up my legs left me almost crawling my way to the finish line. Alas I made it and the great cheer of the gathered crowd was one to behold.
After we had some post run celebrations in the capital that involved Karaoke, beer and some sake like drink that was quite fiery. I remember meeting one Chinese guy who worked in importing goods to DPRK- he was off his trolley. Infact most of the Chinese on this trip were all also adventurous, thinking this was as bat sh*t crazy as the Westerners do too. So Monday morning we left the crazed state and reflected on the the train ride to the border. A sense of freedom, is something I would not label North Korea with having. The question I think is, is whether they actually want it or whether the concept they have of freedom is different. From my time there I got the sense it was a painfully disillusioned family run-totalitarian playground, but that people were perhaps trying to make it work.