Oh my God, it’s the last day in Pyongyang.
How time flies!
It’s amazing how much we’ve already seen and experienced including exploring the city and doing a day trip to the DMZ.
Well, today was no different as our schedule was packed tight with different things around the city of Pyongyang.
Our first stop was again to pay respect to the leaders. We were told to dress smartly and be ready at 7:40 for a trip to the Mausoleum where the bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lay.
What used to be the Royal Palace or Palace of the Sun known locally as Kumsusan is now a much visited Mausoleum where locals pay respect to their past leaders.
Today was a special day as it was the late Kim Jong Il’s birthday so there were thousands of people here to pay their respects.
So many in fact that we only saw the floor dedicated to Kim Jong Il as it was just too busy to tour both floors.
The procedure and rules for visiting were very structured and tight.
Along with the regular rules regarding respecting the leaders you also had to check in your coat and weren’t allowed to have anything in your pockets when you entered the Mausoleum.
After going through a metal detector, having our shoes cleaned by an automatic walkway, and going through a wind tunnel, we were lined up in rows of 4 with an official tour guide as our fifth.
We kept in those rows of 5 as we bowed three times in front of the late Kim Jong Il lying in state.
We also toured the awards room that was proudly displaying over 400 medals, certificates, and doctorates from many of the nations around the world.
There was also a sampling of the late leader’s different vehicles on display including a couple of cars, his yacht, and the train car he used to travel.
The train car was actually where the Kim Jong Il passed away and you can still see the work papers on his desk and the newspaper from that day.
After a couple of hours at the Mausoleum we were on our way to visit a flower exhibition.
This being the late leader’s birthday there were people everywhere out in the city including here were there was a line stretching at least 5 blocks to enter.
Probably not helping with the local/foreigner relationship, we just showed up on our bus and entered the building straight away bypassing that ridiculously long line.
Holy preferential treatment!
As we entered the exhibition hall we were surrounded by thousands of locals admiring the different floral displays.
Now honestly, I could really care less about flowers but the fact that we were immersed among the locals was the highlight for me.
I always thought a tour of North Korea would be so structured that you’d only come across locals in structure environments like tours and stores and never actually get to interact with actual real people.
Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I tried mightily to sneak some photos of kids with my zoom lens which I say it sounds kinda creepy but there’s something about a photo of kids that showcases the beauty of a country.
Anyway, the photos were all blurry or grainy so I eventually just gave up.
No big deal, though, as our next stop literally dropped us off in the middle of hundreds of school kids.
The Party Foundation Monument
Our next stop was the view the grand Party Foundation Monument.
The bus stopped just outside the monument where hundreds of school kids were playing games that included duck, duck, goose and skipping rope.
I kind of laughed at how ironic it was that I had literally just spent 15 minutes trying to get a photo of a kid and now here I was witness to hundreds of them happy and playing games just like kids back home would play.
This was the highlight of my trip which is a crazy thing to say considering all the things we saw and experienced but being here among the local kids was it for me.
As for the monument, it’s three giant hands holding three tools – a hammer, a sickle and a brush.
One representing the worker, one for the soldier and one for the teacher.
The monument was built in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the party and behind the monument there are two building displaying tall Korean characters on top reading “100 battles” and “100 victories”.
After lunch we went to the Juche Tower which was built in 1982 for the 70th birthday of the late Kim Il Sung.
Juche is the philosophy that man is the master of everything and that you are the master of your own destiny.
The tower is 170m tall and it’s also amazing way to see the view of the city down below.
Not until you get to the top and see an overview of the city do you really get a sense of big and vast the city of Pyongyang actually is.
The mass dancing was another thing I was really looking forward to seeing and was actually at the top of my list.
These outdoor dances in the public square only happen about 4 times a year and only on special occasions like the one today celebrating the birthday of the late Kim Jong Il.
At exactly 3pm and for 40 minutes, over 3000 university students gather to dance multiple perfectly choreographed dances.
For them it’s a means to celebrate but also a great way to mix and mingle with others of the opposite sex.
Ah, romance is alive and well…
North Korean bowling
Oh, did I hear someone say we’re going bowling?
I warned my group that I, in fact, really sucked at bowling but that I was also very cocky about it.
Yes it’s a weird juxtaposition but I truly excel at it.
My image of sucking at bowling was briefly shattered when I actually bowled a strike but I had 10 gutter balls as well to put me back in the good graces of suckitude (hmmm, this word didn’t pass spellcheck, weird)
Time for beer…
Okay, I don’t drink beer.
I hate the taste and, frankly, I’m past that age where I can fold to the time honored peer pressure of “c’mon Todd, have a beer!”
Or so I thought.
They had 7 samples to try and decided to go with what I thought would be the least “beer-tasty” of them with the coffee and chocolate beers.
Nope, still tastes like beer.
I sipped away keeping some of my manhood intact but eventually just gave away my beers as, hey, nobody likes wasted beer.
This being a special celebratory occasion we were treated to a fireworks display as well.
Once again, smack dab in the middle of thousands of locals we oohed and ahhhed at the grand spectacle in the sky.
After the 20 minute show was over we quickly made our way back to the bus to get past the droves of people leaving the event.
Another great communal meal of many courses topped with a show on the nearby stage by the waitresses singing and playing assorted instruments.
Wow, a waitress band in a restaurant.
Giving me some ideas…
Sadly, this dinner would be remembered for something else a few hours later but I’ll get into that in the next blog.
We arrived back at the hostel at 10pm and since I had a relatively late start tomorrow of 9am I decided to pop downstairs to join some of the group at karaoke.
Yeah, I suck at it but I do it proudly and loudly.
Coincidence or not, soon after the three Korean waitresses looking after the room started singing traditional Korean songs.
Wow, they are so, so, so much better.
Only problem was I couldn’t leave to go back up to my room as each time they would finish a song a new one would come on right away.
At midnight I finally made my way out and back up to room.
It was a great last day in North Korea!
Tomorrow is a 24 hour train ride back to Beijing followed by a 5 hour train down to Shanghai where I’ll be spending the next few days.
See you there…