Pyongyang – Day 2

Saturday 7th April 2018 –

There was no chance of a lie in the next morning.  By 9am we had had our breakfast, been reunited with the guides in the lobby and were already back on the bus.

The first item on our itinerary was a ride on the Metro system.   We were driven through the streets of Pyongyang for about 20 minutes until we got to Puhung station: the terminus of one of the two short lines.



The System

The Pyongyang metro is one of the world’s deepest and in this way it is quite reminiscent of the Moscow system.  The depth of the lines means that the escalator ride down to the platforms takes over 3 minutes.


Whilst we were descending the escalator we had our first proper interaction with the locals.  Our group leader started saying hello in Korean to the people ascending the escalator on the opposite side.  Soon we were all doing it and to my surprise most of the local people were not only saying hello back, but were waving and smiling at us.


We made it down to the bottom and emerged from the escalator shaft into the station box.  It was very impressive in scale and it was decorated in mosaics celebrating the industrial achievements of the DPRK.





There were also little stands for reading newspapers in the middle of the island platform and people were reading them as they waited for their trains.  This reminded me of similar scenes I had seen back in 1988 in Moscow.


There were also young women armed with red and white wands who seemed to take their work as train dispatchers very seriously.





After spending a few minutes photographing the station we boarded a train.  The trains are ex-West Berlin U-Bahn “D-Sets” and date from the 1960s. It is said they retain some of the German graffiti etched on the windows, but I didn’t see any.


They are quite dark inside and there is no advertising anywhere in the cars (or anywhere on the system). The only relief are the portraits of the two leaders that hang over the doors.

We alighted at the next station, Yonggwang, which is famous for its firework-inspired lights. After a few more photographs we caught another train.



Next we alighted at Kaeson Station and had look around its platforms too.





Finally we spent another 3 minutes on the escalator whilst greeting the locals on the opposite side as we rose to the surface.


We emerged from the station to find that we were back at the Arch of Triumph again. The bus was waiting there for us.



Back on the bus….

Now we headed for the Korean War museum.  The official name: “Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum” gave us a pretty good idea of what to expect.


At the gates of the very extensive complex (it was renovated in 2014) we were searched and then handed over to one of the resident female guides who was dressed in full military uniform.

She welcomed us and, speaking impeccable English, began to explain a bit of the background to the conflict. It was basically explained as the success of North Korea fighting against the Americans and the puppet state of South Korea.


First she took us past a lot of captured “enemy” (mostly US) material.  I think the impression we were supposed to get was that the North Koreans had vanquished the US completely and captured everything.





Someone asked her if she acknowledged that the conflict hadn’t really been the outstanding victory for the North she was making out. Wouldn’t she acknowledge that it had ended more in a kind of stalemate? The question was met with a simple nod and a smile and I was left with the impression that it wasn’t the first time she had been asked that and it wasn’t the first time she hadn’t answered it either.


Next we boarded the USS Pueblo, a US Navy vessel that was captured in 1968 because it was allegedly in North Korean territorial waters.  The brief walk through the ship was the most fascinating part of the whole museum and we were given detailed explanations of what exactly the Pueblo was doing and then shown all the CIA spying equipment on board.






Before we entered the main auditorium we were handed over to another lady guide who told us to put our cameras away before we went inside.  We got a cup of coffee and were then treated to a 10 minute film (in English) about how the US conspired to invade North Korea and start the Korean War.  We were then led through a series of tableaux that showed the fighting and finally to a very impressive 360 degree diorama of the Battle of Taejon.


Certainly the museum was impressive, yet one thing that struck me was the lack of any other visitors. We met one other foreign tour group but otherwise there seemed to be no one wandering around inside or out. It was a Saturday and this seemed strange.  I asked if any of the locals actually ever visited and I was met with a nod and a smile.



Back on the bus….

Another 15 minutes on board and we arrived at the next stop: Mangyongdae.  We pulled up next to an amusement park.  The amusement park gates were shuttered and bared and we were told that the park hasn’t been in operation recently.



Mangyongdae was announced as Kim Il-sung’s birthplace, although apparently it is actually only the birthplace of his father.


We walked up through woods to reach the preserved cottage where Kim’s family lived.


Young Kim leaves home to fight the Japanese.

We had a little tour around the house and then we watched a lot of local ladies resplendent in their traditional costumes queuing up to lay flowers at the site and have their photographs taken.






Back on the bus….

It was announced that we were running ahead of time so we would have chance to visit a local supermarket before lunch.


I wasn’t surprised we were running early.  I imagined that because there was so little traffic it must be very easy to plan a full day’s bus trip around the city.  You could obviously cram in a lot more sites than any other city of a similar size


We were warned strongly that cameras would not be allowed in the supermarket.  We then were led in and, for the first time, we were encouraged to change money (Chinese and USD) to local currency.  Tourists are not normally allowed to use the local currency or to remove it from the country, but they seemed to make an exception for visitors to the supermarket.


The shop was the size of a medium-sized supermarket at home and the shelves were full of produce of varying kinds and origin.  I saw Japanese products and stuff from Russia and I wondered how some of the items managed to get there given the sanctions.  It was almost a normal shopping experience except there were not that many shoppers.  It seemed likely that only a certain type of citizen got to shop at this particular place.


I picked up some chocolates and biscuits for souvenirs and took them to the checkout.  The girl on the checkout giggled as she put my stuff in a bag. She asked me if I was taking part in the marathon and then she asked me if I was professional runner.  I left with a big smile on my face.


Whilst I was waiting for the others to come out of the shop I had a little wander, not too far, and took a few photographs of the passing trams and the general street scenes. It all seemed reminiscent of Eastern Europe or Russia and was typical of all the areas we had driven around.


We had lunch in a restaurant across the road from the supermarket.  It was another mini-feast which, I was pleased to see, featured some Bibimbap and delicious black pudding. 




Back on the bus….

The first stop of the afternoon was a gift shop.  It wasn’t the first time I had been taken to a gift shop on a group tour in my life, but the odd thing about this visit was that it seemed they were just showing us the shop as if it were just another tourist site.  No one seemed to think we would buy any of the stuff in the cases or the paintings on the walls – it was a case of “this is a gift shop and we need to leave now”

Back on the bus….

The stamp museum was next.  Normally I don’t think I would have found a stamp museum that interesting but the designs of the DRPK stamps were absolutely fascinating in themselves.  The ballistic missile stamps certainly got all our attention.  There was also an opportunity to buy post cards and send them home.  I bought a couple and addressed them with a very neutral greeting (apparently they are all read) and posted them.  (They arrived in the UK two weeks later)






 Back on the bus….

Just around the corner from the stamp museum was Kim Il-sung Square.  This is the largest square in the city and it can accommodate a rally of about 100,000 people. It is often featured on the international news with its well-choreographed military parades.



We were surprised to see the floor covered in painted dots, a sign, perhaps, of how they manage to choreograph things so well.

Cleaning up


From the square we walked up to the main foreign language book shop.  An array of posters and books was on display and we browsed in there for a while.



For many of us though, the sight of the traffic lady standing just outside the shop was of equal interest.  The traffic ladies (and there are some men) in their distinctive blue uniforms stand on many of the busy street corners in the city and direct the traffic.  With their whistling and robotic movements they are quite mesmerizing to watch.





Back on the bus….

We headed over the Taedong River for the first time and made our next stop at the Juche Tower. The tower, formally “the Tower of the Juche ideology”, is named for the ideology of Juche (basically self-reliance or independence) introduced by President Kim Il-sung.


The tower is located directly opposite Kim Il-Sung square across the river. The area near the entrance is lined with names of different International supporters of Juche.  We went into the reception rooms at the foot of the tower and boarded the elevator to the top.

Our hotel on the island in the centre

It was a slow ride in the jerky elevator to the top of the 560foot (170 metres) tower. Out on the small viewing platform it was blowing an absolute gale. It was difficult to stand up and almost impossible to hold the camera on the river-facing side.  The other side was a little more sheltered and offered views of the suburbs of the city with their tower blocks painted in pastel shades.



Up on top we encountered a Russian Orthodox Priest in full robes. He was alone but still accompanied by two Korean guides.   Given the search for bibles and the warnings about religion we had received on entering the country, I was quite surprised by this. I asked one of our guides and they explained there was no issue about a religious person visiting the country. It was the attempts to convert anyone that they were so keen to prevent.  In fact, Pyongyang has four churches – two protestant churches, a roman catholic and a Russian orthodox church.

Back on the bus….

It was a short ride to the next stop; the “Monument to the Party Founding”.  Once again our guide handed over to a local who, as we stood there in the cold biting wind, told us all about the monument for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Workers Party.


The guide explained, not too convincingly, that whilst there are many political parties in the country most people chose to join the Workers Party.


She explained that the monument is full of symbols, it is 50 metres high and features the three elements of the symbols of the workers party – the hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush (workers, farmers and intellectuals)    There was an outer belt featuring murals telling the story of the foundation of the party.



It was interesting enough but I think most people were glad that this was the last stop of the day. We were getting a little tired of the constant propaganda spiel.

The unfinished Ryugyong Hotel can be seen in the distance

We were then led into a building close by that had Korean national dress for sale and lots of pictures on the walls.






Back on the bus….

With a bit more time to spare we were taken on the bus to preview the Marathon course.  It was to be an “out and back” course so the ride was just 13 miles out of the city.  Generally, I don’t like to see courses in advance but it was actually quite useful to see where exactly the hilly bits would be.  The turnaround for the full marathon was quite a way out into the countryside and it looked quite a lonely place to run.  One could imagine there wouldn’t be too many spectators out there to encourage you to carry on.


Back in the city we went to a boiled beef restaurant for dinner and then back to the hotel to “prepare” for the marathon.

In the evening Koryo offered a chance to see the film “Comrade Kim goes Flying” in the international cinema adjacent to the hotel.  It is a UK-Belgium-DPRK joint venture and was actually co-produced by Nick Bonner who founded Koryo tours. It tells the story of a female coal miner who wants to be a gymnast.

Nick Bonner and his Korean co-producer Ryom Mi Hwa were on hand to introduce the film and told us the fascinating story of how they came to make it. We then sat back to watch. Sadly we only got about a quarter of the way through as there were sound problems so the viewing was postponed.

Back at the hotel I briefly explored the vast basement with its Karaoke bars, spa, billiard rooms and all sorts of other strange stuff before heading off to bed.

Pyongyang Day 3