Day 1 - 12 April 2014 (Juche 103)

Beijing, before the departure

Beijing. Yesterday, I landed for the sixth time in my life in Beijing. However, this trip is special: I do not even stay for 24 hours in the imperial city and am just stopping over. There is actually no direct flight between Hong Kong and Pyongyang. Yes, Pyongyang, Democratic People's Republic of Korea ( I have to get used to not talk about North Korea, because this great country of Korea is one).

Why the DPRK? I remember that, a year ago, I had dinner with a Chinese friend in Beijing and he told me that he went as a tourist to North Korea , and how he had struggled to leave the country because his photo was came of its paper visa; I remember distinctly thinking, but what the hell were you doing is this country ? Since I heard that the man whom I succeeded in my shared apartment in Hong Kong went there too, I regularly hear about this country by Yann Moix, a French writer that I use to listen at in a radio humour show, I began to remember more what I heard about the new Hermit Kingdom, the idea germinated in me and the idea to go to that country, the last State away from the current globalization, before it no longer exists like this became bigger and bigger.

I know that the decision may seem preposterous.

People may think it is dangerous, but unless you go totally crazy, the worst a foreigner can risk is to be thrown out of the country before the end of the trip and never be granted a VISA again.

Arguably the money I spend for the trip supports a totalitarian regime: I am well aware that this money is not used to feed the needy in the country, but it is a drop in the ocean compared with in the money from the NGOs and private donation that might be taken for some privileged, and I am sure that at least some of it will reach the people who deserve it. Furthermore, I am convinced that the more the foreigners are interested and open to the DPRK, the more the DPRK will open to foreigners, and thus to the outside world.

One can argue that in this regard I will see only Potemkin buildings and hand-picked actors, but I think that even if this is the case, thousands of people we will see will have an opportunity to look at human beings different from themselves (with different language, dress, size, weight, equipment, etc.), and this can only participate (at least slightly) to give them a picture of the world outside their borders.

In addition, going to this country made me know it better, because I've read books that I would probably never have read otherwise, as Escape for camp 14, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, and North Korea undercover. These books are fascinating, and I recommend to everyone the few hours necessary to read the first one (and the last one is by far the worse and doesn’t need to be read unless you really want to lose some time).

The DPRK appears to me as one of the last Sociology laboratory, because, fortunately, such things are hard to build. That said, it would be interesting to talk with North Koreans who live inside this country to have the results of this experiment (the only testimonies we get from DPRK’s people thought and living conditions are only from the Regime or fugitives, and are thus necessarily biased if we want to have an idea about the majority). Are the concepts of Freedom, Universal Good or Love deep in our DNA, or otherwise wholly produced by our education? Can we be happy being basically brain-washed? How is it still possible to completely enclave 25 Million people from the rest of humans? I am aware that I might not be able to speak a lot with the locals, and that even if I could the language barrier would drastically limit my investigation (I'm not journalist!), but this trip can at least made me think more about these questions.

So I do not really know what to expect. I will see, I will follow the guide trying to widen my eyes as much as possible.

Additional fun to the trip: I am also taking part the Pyongyang half marathon tomorrow, organized to commemorate the birth of Kim Il Sung and opened for the first time to non-professional foreign tourists. It is not the main purpose of the trip, but I received an email last month from the travel agency that organizes my journey asking travellers if they wished to register to the marathon or half marathon. As I had to join a Triathlon club in HK end of January (where I’m mainly swimming), and I had seen lots of pictures of friends on Facebook showing off after their half marathon in Paris, I thought that it was a good opportunity to try to finish the first half marathon of my life. I thought that by increasing a little my training intensity and trying to lose some weight it might be feasible. I could not train enough for various reasons (HK thunderstorms, 2 returns to Europe for family reasons, blisters, etc.) And have not lost an ounce despite discontinuation of junk food eating (I wasn’t eating that much junk food before though)... so I do not go with a time target but rather to visit Pyongyang by foot, in a particular context, with the only constraint to finish it in less than 2:30, which should still be easy if I do not get injured.

I used my sixth visit in the Chinese capital to get up early and go for the first time Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. I tried to go last October but arrived a little later (around 8am) and they required to live our phones and bags in the lockers before the beginning of the line, since I did not want to wait for two hours without doing anything, I gave up that time. So I went back there and came a little before 7am at Tian’an men Square, waited in the line for slightly more than 45 minutes, reading the last pages of North Korea undercover, which I did not expect to bring with me to Pyongyang, without phone or camera on me (although ultimately it was apparently not necessary this time because they were only controlling this at the end of the line). I entered the first room, one could put flowers sold just before entering the building in front of a statue of Mao sitting, in front of which some Chinese were bowing three times with respect; I then continued to follow the crowd made of old nostalgic Chinese nostalgic, parents explaining to their children who was the person they were about to see, and one lao wai(foreigner), me. We then finally entered in the second room, were guards urged us and were forbidding us to stop, Mao was lying under a communist flag covering him up the shoulders, under a glass coffin itself in a large transparent cage about 7 meters wide. A few seconds after entering the room, one get outside. I will now be able to compare the Mausoleum of Kim with that of Mao and Ho Chi Minh, I saw in Ha Noi last February.


I then headed to the airport. The JS222 flight was on the board, and I was even surprised to see that there were two flights to Pyongyang planned today, twice more than usual! It is fun to see all the tourists (including myself) taking any picture they could take: the check-in counter, the airfare, the luggage tag, the aircraft itself, other tourists taking these photos, etc ... We could distinguish several groups of tourists and some locals, recognizable by their badges emblazoned with pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Un and even several carrying duty free shopping bags. Our Tupolev aircraft took off with an almost two hours delay, and I think that the Korean who arrived late and installed at the front of the plane are one of the main reason for this…

The aircraft was a 204-100 Air Koryo Tupolev. We were welcomed by charming hostesses, pretty and smiling, confirming the reputation of North-Korean women among this part of the world. I took a North-Korean newspaper, with the Juche calendar date (the only thing I can decipher) and sat by the window while traditional songs are played by the speakers of the aircraft. Oh My Kim Il Sung! Our in-flight snack is a burger: an imperialist meal!

First impressions

While landing, I saw a brown country. Completely brown. All crops are dry in this season and give the landscape all variations of that color. I saw two goats, a swan and then we landed at an airport in the middle of fields. We drove and walked past some camouflaged helicopters, brown them too, before joining the arrival terminal. We left the plane here and came out of it in the middle of a crowd of uniforms waiting for us, all wearing the badge of Kim Il Sung. The airport uses a treadmill to distribute luggage: This is quite advanced technology! After at least one hour while the suitcases were searched (they checked everything carefully but their ignorance of most technological objects let pass everything: my GPS Polar and my Gopro became battery for my camera and thus caused no problem; the only object that seemed to bother them were mobile phones, but they just registered it with the VISA and passport number of the holder in a scholar notebook). We then drove with the group bus for about 30 minutes, towards the city center. I had been told that the roads were going to be empty and full of holes, but it seemed better than expected, although it was still far from the usual bustle and confusion of usual major Asian cities. The shock was thus less violent than I had imagined: people were smiling in the street, kids were playing badminton or basketball. I am aware that Pyongyang may not be representative of the rest of the country, but if this is a façade, it is a pretty well done one! Our first visit was a nice fountain representing the unity of the nation or something approaching (I don’t recall the name) and we went after this to the huge bronze statues of the great Leaders, President Kim Il Sung and General Kim Jong Il. Two massive bronze statues about 7 meters high, well lit at night in this quite dark city. We are asked to form a line and bow all at the same time to show our respect for the leaders, in order to respect the tradition of the country and its people. Our group is made of French , Norwegian , Swedish , American and Dutch, and is ruled by three local guides, the chief Ri , and two assistant Kim and Ho ; a foreign guide, Igor , is here too to represent the European travel company.

I also had my first problem tonight ... I had sent dozens of emails to the travel company, stating that I wanted to take part in the HALF MARATHON, but these bloody @#*@!12*$2 of Korea Konsult enrolled me in the 10 km race. I'm pretty angry. They made me hope that a change would be possible but less than 12 hours from the kickoff it woul have been quite surprising and Ri finally confirmed to me that it would not be possible. I'm furious.

I then settled in one of the 1001 rooms of Yanggakdo Hotel, that has a pretty good comfort standard, with the BBC on the TV, no picture of leaders inside the rooms and a revolving restaurant on the top floor. After a quick dinner, I went to bed, it was more than 11 p.m., and then the alarm was set at 6am tomorrow...

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Tupolev 204-100

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dernière mise à jour le 23/04/2014