There’s Something About… Pyongyang City, DPRK!

During this 2021 moment, I am going to rewind the time back to February 2019. After arriving into Pyongyang, DPRK, we, the tour group had been immigration cleared into the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to then find ourselves on a coach that was bound for Pyongyang's city centre. This transfer will be narrated in two parts, post-flight and pre-evening meal.빨리, 빨리! 

Let's go to Paektu San? My coach from Pyongyang's Sunan Airport was not heading towards that famous Paektu Mountain, no! I would be hearing that Moranbong North Korean pop anthem mostly everyday throughout my DPRK week of adventure. Back in Beijing at the Young Pioneer Tours pre-tour briefing, we had been informed that all photos taken of the Kim Leaders had to capture their whole presence, the photo above had to follow that brief as set by the Korean International Travel Company (KITC). Pardon me because even now I cannot understand that blue Korean script, during that 2019 moment it was a really surreal feeling to see Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on a mural in Pyongyang for real! I had watched countless documentaries about the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, to be on that coach from the airport put me into one of those documentaries but for real! Seeing the mural, being on that coach, both factors cemented the reality of that moment. It was all very real, I was in Pyongyang, DPRK! 그래, 그래

Just three months previous to that Pyongyang arrival, I had made another Korean arrival but into Seoul's Gimpo Airport. Gimpo's experience had me greeted with baby blue coloured Korean Air aircrafts, billboards that displayed cosmetic hospitals in the city and before I knew it I was on the Airport Express line. In that North Korean moment, the coach became the metro airport train, the countryside leading to Pyongyang became my backdrop but where were the billboards that advertised cosmetic surgery at? The mural depicted above was the advertising, the Kim's showed the way to the people with their slogans of prosperity and wisdom with the Korean Worker's Party in mind. I was down for both, it was purely what I had wanted to see. I did see a few hurried passersby walk past the mural, some had their motorbikes and other just ordinary bicycles. I had a feeling that the Kim focussed mural was their way of greeting us, welcoming us to Pyongyang and the DPRK as a whole? Listening to the advice, I continued to take my photos. 

Memories of my Korean Visitors Card being stamped by those official looking airport customs staff felt like a distant memory as my KITC coach entered the city limits of Pyongyang, DPRK. Those concrete apartment buildings all had their own colours, I captured the green and white ones by utter chance. With the movement of the coach and my camera stumbling in and out of focus, the fact the photo above looks relatively clear is a blessing. Public transport was the word on the street, as my coach stopped for a brief second at the traffic lights I saw the blue and white Pyongyang bus, the red Korean writing had a similar font. The red kiosk interested me to no end, I wanted to see one of them but the itinerary had been pre-determined and that was just so. Being February, the spring chill took on a winter feeling because it felt cold, those low temperatures had the sky looking all hazy. Pyongyang had me captivated from the very first moment. I did see the occasional flashy black car, my mind did wonder? Pyongyang, let's get it! 

Still in utter disbelief that after 30 minutes we had just about hit the city, with all of the distractions the time flew past. What we didn't know was a new development lay behind those green and white apartment blocks, we would be having dinner there a couple of hours later. I was accompanied by several other group members who like me were non-Chinese apart from one lady, then we had our two Korean tour guides, foreign guide and driver. Our Korean guides worked for the Korean International Travel Company, Miss Jeong So Yon and Mr Jeong Gwong had met us at the airport, they had already introduced themselves to us. Their commentaries included brief facts about the showcase city and their country, we had a lot to learn during a short time, it paid for us to listen well. It wasn't going to be a 'bucket and spade' holiday nor a 'textbook' city break, I was ready for the ride and the adventure, the quirks and the facts schooled me. Those city views grew strong, the Pyongyang rush hour was in full motion! Go, go! 

The tours itinerary would take us to Pyongyang's own 'Arch of Triumph' but we were being given a sneak preview as it popped up out of nowhere. Sungri Street allowed me to catch a glimpse of the arch before we were scheduled to visit, along with that snatched view we also saw Pyongyang's own stadium but if I am honest it was almost like a 'sensory overload' due to seeing all of those Pyongyang visions for the very first time. Life had become that documentary as my coach made its way further into the city's core, we were heading for the same coffee shop that Michael Palin had filmed in when he had visited the same capital location. The Grand People's Study House grew ever closer, I had no idea in that moment that I was about to be stepping foot onto the same square where the grand parades take place! We all have our own tastes, some of us travel within our limits but I wanted to break those boundaries. My DPRK introduction in Pyongyang hit the right way, I'll keep the Korean Peninsula, you're welcome to Benidorm, babi! 

We all stepped down from the coach at that very same coffee shop that one of Monty Python's own had visited for himself. It had clicked, I was in Pyongyang! It was like a continual assault on my senses in the best way. From the lights and noise of Seoul's Myeongdong District, the burning flame that sat on top of the Juche Tower glowed red, that was after we had had our coffees and light refreshments. Fast forward to getting back on the coach for a second because that connection with the Juche Tower and the frozen Taedong had me in a daze, I was transfixed. I actually forgot that I had took the photo that has been captured above, some kind of witchcraft that be! Setting down with our drinks, I half expected Mr. Palin to waltz in with his camera crew and Korean guides, quite like mine. The power went out, I should have known that would be so, but it was an instant shock to us all! The guides flashed their mobile phone lights and laughed playfully, they knew the electric would trip back on soon. Was it all just a dream?

The afternoon turned into evening, our coach made its way from Kim Il Sung Square over to Pyongyang Railway Station. We first waited in the main waiting room for the Beijing train to pull into the station, the other half of the tour group were yet to reach Pyongyang, it was fine. The waiting room was large enough to fit around 100 people with enough seats for most of that number to have their own seat. For me, those eyes started to wonder and I wasn't going to kid myself, those Korean brothers were looking fine! It was that military style uniform that I had seen back at the Sunan Airport, also those approved crew cuts had my mind elsewhere. Seoul had many male delights but North of the DMZ, I had to keep my senses, the less said the better. Saved by that train, we were called to the platform because the train from Beijing was approaching. Wives were waiting for their husbands, all suited and booted their reunions looked heartfelt. Those Kim badges were being worn with pride, people had them closest to their heart! 

Reunited as a whole group, we collectively turned our passports over to the KITC tour guides for safe keeping. Heading for the coach, it was such a jubilant time with these new faces in my view, being my first group tour I was excited! Me, being a flight taker had allowed me to spend some three hours in Pyongyang before the train guys and girls arrived, feeling like our secret it had been a golden afternoon in the showcase capital of Pyongyang, Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Now, those green and white apartment blocks hid the location of our dining spot for that first evening. Arriving at the futuristic Ryomyong New Town complex, we climbed several flights of stairs to find a brightly lit dining room that was ladened with an abundance of food. The food itself tasted interesting but in the spirit of things, I treated it as one of the many DPRK taste tests that we would all have. Bring on the drinks, of course I bought a bottle of Pyongyang Soju! From the airport to our Nangang Hotel, the coach trip had been epic! Oh, that was just the beginning!

Pyongyang, I'm On My Way! 

Joseph Harrison 


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