Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Travels to North Korea - retrospect

Apart from the travelogue of the last three entries, what is really significant about such travel to Geumgangsan? Of course the scenery is spectacular. The hotel is comfortable (despite the absence of knives, see the previous entry) and really just like a South Korean tourist hotel. It's the bits in between which were most memorable for me. The bits we were not allowed to photograph. The drab, unpainted, open-window classrooms. The soldiers in their soviet-style hats in the guard posts at every junction. The farmers pretending not to see 10 bus-loads of waving South Koreans going down the road. The hotel compound, dropped in from the South, and as sealed off from the outside world as if a lunar base surrounded by vacuum.

Then the bizarre juxtapositions. Looking out the hotel window, where South Korean television is showing the news and South Korean beer is in the refrigerator, and seeing a squad of North Korean soldiers marching in formation.

The strange flashes of humour. This is communist water we are drinking. Those who fought the cold war would not approve of this. These people are communists. Recalling a time when that word alone was enough to send a shudder of fear down the spines of the "right" thinking.

Then to thinking, what do people here (i.e. the North) feel about opening up part of their fierce and proud independence to let us in with our American dollars? Is it a little like the "stately homes" of England, forced by financial circumstances to open up to the paying unwashed masses? If North Korea had a strong economy would they tolerate such tourism?

Of course we can say that all we are doing is seeing beautiful, and indeed the most renowned, scenery in all of Korea. But it's those parts in between the scenery and the hotel which are really the most fascinating. It feels strange, even voyeuristic, being this kind of tourist - pretending we are there only for the mountains, but with more than passing glances at the signs of a communist state in decline. As if visiting some ancient and decaying amusement park, where the interest is not so much in the rides but as in the crumbling edifice.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Travels to North Korea - day 3

Saturday August 11 is our final day here and it stops raining at last.

In the morning the passing mist reveals some of the mountains lit by the rising sun. This was a moment worth waiting through days of rain and cloud for.

Breakfast is provided by the hotel. The Korean food is good but I settle on the comfort of Western: cornflakes, toast and jam. Coffee is not provided. (That's later and in the hotel lobby at two dollars a cup). There's nothing to spread the jam on the toast. I ask for a knife. (In Korean and in English and with my best miming). The waiter looks frightened and scuttles off. A second waiter comes. I repeat my request. The same response. A third one appears. He returns, 5 minutes later, with a knife. My Korean table-mates told me they had already tried to get a knife but were told to use their spoon instead. What's going on?

We quickly check out and depart on the final climb. Our bus is once again No. 1 in the convey. It helps that we have a high official in the Hyundai Asan company with us. About ten other buses follow us up a narrow mountain road with hairpin bends. The driver is good and very careful. (He is not South Korean but Chinese ethnic Korean). We continue walking up the road and see the damaged bridges on the path; concrete slabs pushed metres out of position by the force of the water and culverts blocked by boulders. Our track is also an overflow from the river, so once again it's wet feet.

Now we are once again in a situation remarkably similar to South Korean hiking. Too many people (about 10 bus loads) pushing past each other up and down narrow paths. There was a spectacular rock at the end of our course, except that it was covered in people.

Some of the wildlife!

After returning there's time for a quick lunch (neng-myeon - the cold noodle soup - a staple dish of the North). One of my favourites.

Group photo outside the restaurant where we had lunch - photo shooting is organised here - just stand on the white line!

Our buses line up in convoy order for the trip back across to the South. The hotel staff are lined up outside the hotel to wave us off. "Ready, one, two, three - WAVE" in a wonderfully spontaneous display.

The soldiers do not wave.

Soon we are back in the south, where although the soldiers do not wave either, they do look a lot friendlier.

We get our mobile phones back. How could we all have survived for so long without? The absence of silly phone talk is one of the good things in the North. Perhaps it's not so bad after all!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Travels to North Korea - day 2

This is yet another day of rain. Our planned hiking course has to be abandoned. Floods a few days previously have washed out a lot of bridges and roads. (The news of this emerges into the western media somewhat later on August 14 - e.g. BBC News.) Instead we do a shorter course in the morning, walking up a mountain valley anxiously crossing rather dodgy looking bridges over a torrential stream. The track is also a watercourse and it's impossible to keep our feet dry. If the weather had been better we could have reached Guryong Waterfall - one of the most impressive waterfalls and a tourist "must-see" but we had to be content with the mountain torrent and other waterfalls.

One of the features of North Korea is the adulation accorded the Great Leader, Comrade Kim Il-sung and his son and successor, the Dear Leader, Comrade Kim Jong-Il. As we walked through the forest we passed a number of plaques recording the teachings of Kim Il-sung. There is a prolific industry in creating these plaques and in calligraphic carving into stone.

This was the first occasion we had to mix with our North Korean tour guides. One came and asked me in English if I spoke any of the North Korean language. Only a little of the South language I replied. (The language of South and North is the same but 50 years of separation and of ideological differences have created substantial variation). He asked me where I was from, I told him New Zealand and he replied that he was from Gangwon Province, North Korea. I also live in Gangwon Province I told him - the part of the Province in the South. (Our province is divided by the DMZ). It was a strange point of connection.

We then saw the re-construction site of the Shingyesa Temple. The original temple here, dating from 519 was destroyed in the Korean War, but is now being rebuilt with South Korean finance. Geumgansan is important in Korean Buddhist history and has many Buddhist sites, some still extant.

After walking round the temple construction site, our shoes, which had been wet but clean are now muddy as well.

We continue to Samilpo - a seaside lake - with a rather tatty concrete pavillion. The rock faces around are again inscribed, "Long Life to the Great Leader". The interesting thing about the travel is getting from one place to another by bus. We are not allowed to take photos along the way because we have to pass outside our special tourist-only areas and (almost) mix with the locals. Well - at least we can look from the bus and see the ubiquitous soldiers with their red flags ready to stop anything untoward. We also see propaganda billboards, villages and schools. Buildings are universally dull concrete with fading paint. Schools have small holes for windows but no glass. The local farmers ignore us completely.

Later that afternoon we see the harbour where South Korean tourism to the North began. The bus ride over the DMZ was not available then so everyone had to come in and out by ship and stay in a "floating hotel" moored in the harbour.

We finish in a luxuriously appointed spa enjoying a variety of indoor and outdoor hot and cold pools, a walk through a jade pebble pool and different saunas. After spending the day getting wetter and dirtier it was a relief to enjoy getting wet and clean.

And the farmers in the villages we saw perhaps had to draw water by buckets from the river and had only the dimmest of lights at night.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Travels to North Korea - day 1

Thursday August 9th and I am about to have three days travel / sightseeing in North Korea. Ten years ago that statement would have been surprising since it was virtually impossible to do such a thing. However since 1998 Geumgangsan in North Korea has been available as a special tourist region for anyone.

We travel by bus from Seoul to Hwajinpo (in the far north-east of the South), where we complete our check-in. We surrender mobile phones and South Korean magazines and newspapers and are issued with a tourist pass to wear round our neck at all times. By now the rain is heavy and the previous patches of blue sky are completely left behind. After lunch we board our bus again and continue further north. We have free time so we stop to jump out of the bus and run through the rain to see the new Jejin railway station. (The next station after this is in North Korea). The station includes full facilities for immigration and quarantine checking. None of this has been used yet since the only train to run along this line was a single test run. Back in our bus we drive through rain, lashing more and more heavily, to the road border station where we complete departure checks.

Our bus and driver are now different. The bus is from the Geumgangsan tourist resort and the driver is a Korean Chinese. The tension mounts as we approach the DMZ. We wait at the gates on the south as the convoy of delivery trucks, fuel tankers, and construction machinery (all Hyundai) drive south. Running a hotel at Geumgangsan is like running one on the moon. Almost everything has to be trucked in and out. There's no reliable or sufficient electricity supply in the north so the daily convey includes diesel for the generators. The gates on the south remain open to let our convoy through to the north.

We are now in that 4 km wide strip, the Demilitarized Zone, across which some millions of soldiers point their guns to the enemy on the other side. But in between there is nothing except mine fields and an ecological paradise of undisturbed nature. Half way across we are now in the north side, and another 2 km is the guard post and gate and our first glimpse of North Korean soldier. Our tour leader encourages us to wave to him. The response here and every other time is a stone faced glare. What is he thinking I wonder?

We drive through a bizarre landscape of enormous granite boulders. Every hundred meters or so a solitary soldier stands on duty, immune to our waving. We now come to the northern side border check and go through the same procedure once again.

Back on the bus again it's only about 10 minutes before the Geumgangsan tourist complex and our hotel. We watch the acrobatic troupe perform. It's fast-paced, high-skilled, and there's not a moment when the performers drop their smiles. The banner unfurled part way through with the word "Hana" (One) and the shape of the Korean peninsula may be propaganda but it's all feel-good stuff.

The hotel is like a South Korean tourist hotel but with North Korean staff . The television channels available are South Korean only (the North uses a different system anyway). I had been looking forward to watching the Dear Leader and other propaganda forbidden in the south.

In the evening we eat dinner at a North Korean restaurant. The food is good, the liquor too although the decor rather dated.

And still it's raining.

The Blogger Returns

After three months of inactivity the Friar is back in blog-land. I've been busy developing the website for the Worldwide Anglican Peace Conference to be held in Seoul in November. After weeks of struggle with that I haven't had any interest in blogging as well. However I'm back adn will try to start again.
Firstly with the news of a recent trip to Geumgangsan in North Korea.