All posts by Gareth

05May/16

A strange evening in the Ukraine

I have spent a lot of time in the Ukraine, had some great parties, met some pretty girls, seen some great sites, and it is true to say I genuinely love the country. I can also add one other little description about the place, it is one of the most corrupt countries I have ever been to, and one I have had lots of problems with the police in. Now whilst getting arrested is always memorable, much like sex you never forget your first time.

 

Losing my Kiev Prison Vplates

My first time in the Ukraine was way back in 2011 during our first Eurasian Adventure Tour. I remember being blown away by the beauty of Kiev, both the people and the scenery as well as the somewhat flavorsome nightlife. Kiev is a party town. We did Chernobyl, the ICBM base, lots of nights out and I remember thinking as we left Odessa heading to unrecognized state of Transnistria that I would someday come back.

A year later I planned to do just that. I had just been on a research trip to Armenia, Georgia and Nagorno-Karaback and my plan was to fly into Kiev two days early party a little bit than then meet up with the Eurasian group before they arrived for the tour.

 

The following tale occurs whilst I was OFF duty

 My first night in Kiev was spent by myself, now i’m not exactly a shrinking wallflower so decided that despite being alone I still fancied a night on the naughty soup. I went out discovered a few taverns, one of which had ladies that would dance whilst I enjoyed a wee tipple of vodka. The following day I awoke with a head worse for wear to meet two of my guests who had decided to do the same as me, come a few days early for a look around a wee drinky. The first fellow was a Brit of Indian extraction (this will come into play later), the second was a very mild mannered Spanish fellow. I am not sure how to describe him except to say that when he spoke it was like the first time I heard Susan Boyle. It was one of the chaps birthday so I asked casually how we liked to spend his birthdays, he replied without skipping a beat “strippers probably” in his midlands accent. Well as coincidences would have it merely an evening before I had discovered a strip joint a stones throw away from the hotel. We duly went to said establishment, drinks were drunk, credit cards were used and dollar bills were placed in many a place before we decided as a group it was time to move the party onto its next point of call.

 

All about the money

I would like to add at this point that unusually I had a lot of money with me. I was leading a tour, much of which needed to be paid in cash and I had thousands on me.

As we were walking along the street not too drunk (really) and not too loud (honestly) a policeman came up to me grabbed me by the arm and started to pull me away. At this juncture I started to protest at which point he produced a piece of paper which had been hand written in English stating it was illegal to be drunk in Kiev. Dear readers I am not sure if you have been to Kiev, but if you have it appears that it is illegal to be sober in the place. I digress. The mild mannered Spaniard then came over and in a mild mannered way tried to defuse the situation, at which point we were both thrown into the back of a police van. Our English friend of Indian extraction was left alone, we assume because of the bad reputation police have here for racism, something we would be able to ponder from the back of the meat wagon.

So there I was sitting in the back of the police van with my Spanish friend with realization that if they found the money in my pocket I would be screwed, so I started to shove it down my sock, an act that did not go unnoticed by the cops shining a light in the back of the van, asking me what I was doing.

So we arrive at scary looking Soviet dungeon style police station and are led inside. I decide that my best chance here would be to put on a posh English accent and demand to see my embassy, to which I receive a reply of “no embassy”. It is at this point I look up and realize what a colossus of a man this mighty Slav was. I am not exactly tall, but holy crap the cop was massive, he then starts pushing me into a room, and thus away from the Spaniard, I back into the room, a kind of interview type place at which point the cop slams the door closed again looks at me menacingly and says rather loudly “you understand me no embassy”. He stops. I stand there. There is a short silence. I am not sure what went through my head at this point, but I turn around walk calmly to the wall behind me, remove my glasses as if I were about to take a nap and I do it.

 

It is a fine line between genius and insanity

My head splits immediately in impact and i’m bleeding a fair bit, I turn around clutching my head with both my hands whilst clutching my glasses and scream “you hit me, you hit me”. Said officer looks like he has seen a ghost turns opens the door storms out to his colleague who is with the Spanish guy. I follow. I then start saying “he hit me” and acting quite hysterical. The Spaniard looks mortified, he catches my eye, I slip him a sly wink, he calms down, the two cops are now screaming at each other in Russian (back then most cops were Russian), before looking at the Spaniard and bellowing “you are fine, but your friend (he points at me) is fucking crazy”, “what”? A confused Spaniard replied. “GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT”. We did not need telling a a fourth time.

 

Bopping our way back to Kiev Hostel

We jogged about 3 blocks before realizing that firstly we were lost and that secondly we had got away with it. I pulled the Euro from my socks, we high fived, and went over what had just happened. It so happened that the Spaniard had a great sense of direction and we felt we it was not a place to stay in dark alleys. After 45 minutes or so there we were, on the final stretch to the hostel, the main square in Kiev, and more importantly the scene of the crime, just outside the strip club where we were arrested. I looked at the Spaniard our eyes locked in an exchange for what felt like an eternity, an exchange that can only happen to those who have been through something so momentous together, the the thousand yard stare, until I broke the silence with a sentence so profound it will live with both of us forever…”one for the road”, he nodded “ci”. And we did.

I was to run into that cop and many others over the following years in Kiev, but these are not stories for now. This is the story of me and my Spanish cellmate and the acting loco.

13Apr/16

Top 10 most memorable travellers that we all meet

Having been travelling for 20 years – being an expat for 15 and a travel agent for eight – I have pretty much met every breed of traveller known to man. Some of these are wonderful human beings, others less so – but they all add to that great travel experience, and leave some sort of impression.

Here is my personal top 10, which in no way reflects the opinion of anyone but myself and is meant to be firmly tongue in cheek!

The burning question is, which one are you?

10. Wastaman
9. The Cheque Splitter
8. The Dodgy Dealer
7. The How-did-you-ever-leave-your-house-let-alone-the-country
6. Spongebob Shithispants
5. Crazy Cookie Chick
4. The Budget Traveller
3. The Topper
2. The I'm So Fascinated by Asian Culture
1. The Guardian Angel
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10. Wastaman - Wastaman is, basically, a white man with dreadlocks. As Will from The Inbetweeners memorably said: “its not counter cultural; it screams of 'I've got a trust fund'”. Art indeed imitating life. Wastaman tends to be from the Home Counties of England, is rebelling against his family (Daddy is often a high-ranking policeman) and likes to think of himself as being “spiritual”. Wastaman is often heard saying things like: “People are people, man”. he is least likely to be heard saying: “Who fancies a beer? It's my round”. Do not employ Wastaman.
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05Oct/15

The Pope’s Visit to Cuba

On Saturday 19 September, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, also known as Pope Francis, touched down in Havana, Cuba. The next morning, Cuban Pioneers was there to see his first public appearance. This visit was hailed as historic, not because it was the first time a pope had visited Cuba (both Francis’s predecessors have made official visits), but because Francis is the first Latin American pope, and because of his role in facilitating the ongoing thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba. For weeks before, shops and houses across the country has been displaying posters with a smiling image of the Pope, declaring “Bienvenido Papa Francis”. The world’s media had descended on Havana. Hotel lobbies were full of journalists and cameramen doing interviews.Pope platform in Havana overlooked by Che

In the years after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, religion was suppressed, with priests and clergy often being arrested, and later the constitution officially declaring the basis of all state activity as “the scientific materialist concept of the universe”. The Communist Party of Cuba denied membership to anyone professing any theistic belief, and anyone not adhering to the official scientific atheism would face severe discrimination in employment and housing.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, Cuba was thrown into turmoil, suddenly starved of the subsidies from its socialist patron on which it heavily depended. Amongst the reforms brought in was a newfound acceptance of religion. While not outright encouraged, religion is no longer a bar to holding high office in Cuba and participation in religious activities has grown. ‘Conventional’ religions including Catholicism are widely practised across the island, with there being active communities of Jewish, Muslim and Russian Orthodox Cubans as well as Jehovah’s witnesses.

One of the most popular religions is Santeria, a syncretic mixture of African traditional religion and Catholicism, born in the colonial slavery of the 18th and 19th centuries. A common sight on the streets of any Cuban city is a newly initiated Santeria Priest or Priestess, dressed from head to foot in white as part of their year-long cleansing ritual.

In 1998 the re-legitimisation of religion was given a huge boost when John Paul II visited the island, meeting with Fidel Castro and giving mass in a packed Revolution Square to an audience of over a million. The country began to describe itself as ‘secular’ rather than atheist and Christmas was reinstated as a holiday.

Fast forward to 2015. At dawn on Sunday 20 September, a group of Cuban Pioneers, slightly less than fully fresh after a night spent in an exclusive Havana nightclub, headed towards the Plaza de la Revolución to see what we could see of the Pope. The streets were closed for miles around, lined with hundreds upon hundreds of parked buses which
are used to bring people from outlying areas of the city and surrounding provinces for mass mobilisations such as the annual May Day parade and for Hugh Chávez’s memorial service in 2013. Police and ambulances kept a watchful lookout and tanker trucks provided free drinking water.

The closest we could get to the Pope’s expected location was the opposite side of the square, some 250 metres from the temporary stage which had been set up. Presumably it was deemed inappropriate for him to speak from the raised centre of the square beneath the giant statue of Cuba’s national hero, Jose Martí, where Fidel Castro has given so many famous speeches, but the low platform provided for Papa Francis meant that only those lucky enough to have front row seats would be able to see him. The surrounding buildings were draped in enormous banners bearing images of the Pope and Jesus, but still bigger than them all was the iconic giant sculpture of Che Guevara, overlooking the proceedings.

Popemobile in HavanaSuddenly an announcement boomed out. ‘Pope Francis is now in the Plaza!’ A cheer went up. It soon became apparent that he was going to do a tour of the square, in true man-of-the-people style, so that as many people as possible could see him close up. He trundled his way around the fenced-off aisles in his open-sided popemobile, waving and smiling, followed by TV cameras. Once his tour was complete, the barriers were opened and the crowds allowed to move forwards towards the stage. It soon became apparent that the plaza was very far from full. Still there was an expectant air. The ceremonies began, and we waited expectantly for the kind of fulsome, inspirational voice which must surely indicate the big man was speaking.

After another half an hour, the sun had fully risen and hangovers were kicking in. We retreated further back in the square in search of shade, eventually deciding enough was enough and heading home. We weren’t the only ones leaving before the show was over. Watching the event on Cuban TV later revealed that the Pope did not have the expected charismatic voice, we had in fact heard him speak, though unfortunately hadn’t been able to make out a word of it.

Perhaps the fact that Raul Castro attended not only the Pope’s Havana mass, but also those on the following days in both Holguín and Santiago, show that the Cuban leadership and world’s media found the Pope’s visit more important than the average Cuban.

15Sep/15

Naked Guy, Becoming Honorary Canadians and the Eurovision Tryouts

After a massive first day in Stockholm I wake up for the second day eating cloth and listening to drums. Only today I wake up a little later than normal, the old carcasse that I’m kicking around in, loudly protesting at the recent abuse.

I`ve got this faint recollection of a blow to the head from last night, but after a decent examination under a hot shower I can find no mark, no scar, no bruise and write it off as a dream or maybe just the remnant of something that didn’t do me any harm, but that the alcohol fairies failed to erase properly.

Today is a slow day, a metro into Gamla Stan in the afternoon is about all I can manage. It’s a beautiful part of the city and if you try and shut out the hordes of tourists and the shopfronts selling all manner of modern items, it is possible to transport yourself, the narrow streets and lanes, the coblestones and old buildings back a few centuries to when they were built. I can almost see the wife of Sven, the local butcher, leaning out her window to throw out washing water, or the horse and oxen led carts trundling noisily up the hill.

After a slow saunter drenching myself into the equivalent of a historical or fantasy novel, my energy is sapped and it’s back to the hostel for a snooze. Soon its time for dinner, and I venture on out to find the main communal area seething with humanity again. I chat to Guillame, Emily and Julie before meeting 4 Canadians, Kristen, Lauren (suffering a terrible head cold), Mike and Matt. They are intending to head into central Stockholm to check out the Absolute Vodka Ice Bar – you know the thing – a bar made of ice where they wrap you up in coats, charge you outrageous amounts to spend 45 mins sitting around in the cold, and offer one or two drinks by the sponsoring distiller in glasses made of frozen water for libation. Sydney has one, Auckland too, and I am a little surprised that Canada hasn´t got one, after all it´s not the middle of the the Saudi Desert where ice is seen as a little bit of a novelty.

The conversation inevitability turns to the events of last night when the Irish boys were a little loud and crazy. Everyone is having a laugh, when a Canadian girl at the next table tells us of her somewhat bizarre experience this morning. Apparently around 6ish she got up to go to the loo. Her room (and 2 others) open onto a small vestibule before that opens onto the main corridor. As she opened the door it hit something and looking outside she saw a naked guy just lying in the vestibule. She quickly shut the door in horror, woke her friend to help work out what to do, then after gathering enough courage to peer around the open door a few minutes later, she foundthe vestibule empty – naked man was gone. Everyone has a good old cack at the expense of the Irish who checked out this morning.

Well, everyone except one person, who is suddenly having to force a somewhat stifled laugh (just as well there are enough people around to piss themselves properly). As this chick describes her story, neurons trigger in my brain, synapses fire and I vaguely and rather hazily seem to remember waking up after a blow to the head somewhere on a floor last night, realising I wasn’t in my bed and managing to get up and struggle back to my bunk. Could I possibly have been naked guy?? When the story is retold with the added detail of the door opening straight onto naked guy’s head I get that dreaded “aw shit” sinking feeling and sheepishly try and avoid the topic as it buzzes around the room, happily to leave guilt laying at the feet of the Irish. Seriously wtf had happened? The brain connections were hazy at best, no complete knowledge came back, but there was that inate certainty that it was me. Damn. Blast. Oops. Thank Og for the Irish.

Conversations eventually turn to other topics, much to my relief, and eventually Emily, Julie and I decide to join the 4 Canadians on the trip to the ice bar. Ralphie and Headley are introduced, the girls immediately take them into their care and the 9 of us depart.

For those that don’t know the Stockholm metro, let me tell you that, like most metros, the various lines run at different depths below the ground. So far I´ve only experienced the shallow stops and lines. So when we get off at our stop and Kristen starts a sprint up the elevator to be first to the top, male pride is challenged and I take of in pursuit on the next escalator across. It’s neck and neck, step after step after step after step after step after step after step after step after step after step after step (fuck is this ever going to end), until Kristen, who has a slight fear of escalator starts and finishes, baulks at the tape and I make a last ditch surge to win by no more than a nose. We both spend 5 mins catching our breath, feeling the burn and looking at each other with a wtf look in our eyes, until the others arrive at the top. We’ve jsut sprinted up one of Stockholm´s longest escalators (at least 50-60 metres top to bottom at about a 50 degree angle)! If I´d known that, I would have lost my entry form to the race, I can assure you of that.

Anyway, we arrive at the Ice bar in a few minutes and wait for our turn. Not knocking the experience, but it´s a little crap. Sydney is bigger, better, you get 2 drinks not just one, and Sydney´s bar doesn’t have a 2 inch gap where the ice ceiling doesn’t meet the ice wall. Still it´s fun – we take a mass of photos as does every other tourist. At least none of us were refused service for being too pissed or wanted to get out of the bar before time was up cos we were too cold, like others I know. Feeling sufficiently shorn of our naive tourist dollars, we depart on our bar crawl home, which will be a little more intrepid as we don’t know any of them.

At the first bar (just across the road), our interest makes the staff unlock a side/back door that no-one else uses (we must look really intelligent), but once inside we think it looks massively overpriced and we exit almost immediately, only pausing to take photos of us sitting on some crazy art deco ball piece of art/modern seating arrangement.

We are supposed to meet Guillame at another bar a few metro stops away, so its back to the depths we go. Unfortunatley we don’t find the intended pub, find out by sms they want a 100Kr (15 AUD) cover charge anyway, so plans to meet are shelved and we go looking for a drink elsewhere. We stumble across this bar which seems to have some sort of live music/cabaret act going on – it’s free entry, so with everyone needing the bathroom, we are straight in.

If you have ever seen the Eurovision song contest, think of the performers at this band as tryouts! 2 blonde Swedish girls in full makeup and costume, ditto 2 Swedish guys in open necked shirts and coiffed hair, singing Europop songs with cabaret/jazz ballet/high school musical type choreography!. Not that the voices are bad, in fact they are quite good, though we suspect some lyp synching. Its more the stage show. Swagman of the 80s eat your heart out! Strolling through the patrons, cosying up to them with love songs, singing in spotlight to each other, (in fact the performance of the 2 guys in that regard make some of our girls suspect they are gay) – but the crowd are eating it up. R&H get a small spot on stage with the girls singing to them before we have had far too many laughs and it’s time to move on before we all turn 16 again. I suspect if we were allowed to we would vote for Sweden in the next Eurovisiuon simply on the strength of this performance.

A stroll back through Gamla Stan, missing the only pub I actually know (Wirstroms) before finding a little place with reasonably priced beer (9 AUD per pint/stubbie) in which we end up staying for a few as we all swap travel stories. Leaving around 1ish we pop up a high crosswalk near Slussen for a bird´s eye view before starting the 20 min stumble home (I’m not getting this last metro thing right yet!)

On the way I confess that I think I am naked guy which brings much hilarity and congratulations (!?). Having percolated at the back of my brain for a while without result I can only come up with the following:

  • I actually remember going to bed and getting into my sleeping bag liner about 4.30 am

  • Sometime later I deduce thzat I must have woken up needing to go to the toilet/thinking about having a shower

  • Leaving my dorm I must have turned right instead of left and opened the door to the vestibule, instead of to the bathrooms/showers

  • Finding myself hopelessly disorientated and with the reasoning skills of a small ant, I decide to lay down and rest

  • Why I was naked I´m not sure (cos I normally sleep in jocks when in dorms)

The story still needs verification. Upon return to the hostel, Kirsten finds that the Canadian chick with the story is still awake and goes to get more details to see if we can confirm my fears. I follow and confess that it might have been me. Canadian chick looks at me , says nooo, surely not, then asks the definitive question – what colour were your jocks ? (apparently they were lying on the floor next to me). With my answer of yellow comes immediate confirmation in a look of shock, laughter, followed by an embarrassed apology which is more than graciously accepted along with the aside that she saw nothing anyway as she was too shocked and quickly shut the door in retreat. We get more detail re where I was lying, where my head was etc, much to the amusement of everyone as news of conformation spreads.

To be honest, to this day I still don’t really know what happened, though the version above is the most likely. Why I was naked I don’t know – I did wake up with a strange towel in my bed which Canadian chick denied seeing or throwing over me, so maybe I was going to the shower?! Why I had my jocks next to me in the vestibule I´ll never know, I can see no reason for taking them off after wearing them that far but processing power was undoubtedly diminished at that stage. Still, as far as travel stories go I now have a doozy in my possession.

Oh well that´s life on the road and you have to take the good with the bad. Somehow Stockholm is turning into party central for me. And despite some of you back home shaking your heads in complete disgust, this story has bought me a few beers since. Oh, and for their part in tonight’s events the 4 Canadians kindly make R&H honorary Canadians, presenting them with little maple leaf pins that they proudly wear to this day. Just as well naked guy wasn’t inaugurated – where would the pin have gone???

More on Stockholm later…

10Sep/15

Trans-Siberian Part 1, Border Crossings, Fermented milk, Russian Ninja Military Women, and finally Irkutsk (the home of the dart)

Ever seen a good looking Russian Miltary Woman clamber unaided up the walls of a train carriage to check for secret stuff in airvents and light fixtures?

Ever had a Mongolian Border Guard tell you that Jeff (the Welsh guy on Couplings) is in fact you when he looks at your ipod, and cant be dissuaded?

Ever seen a crazy Polish guy with a red cap go bezerk and start kicking chairs at the Mongolian Border town of Erlian?

Well the Trans-Siberian railway from Beijing to Irkutsk provided all that and more.

After a fairly dodgy wake up call at 5.45 am (it wasn’t in English, but that’s all I can tell you) allowed me to be ready for my transfer just on 6.30 am, I ventured downstairs only to find that my guide was there but the driver had unfortunately forgotten to show up. Cabs at the Hotel weren’t going to give up the long trip to the airport they were all hoping for, just to ferry me cross town to the railway station (sound familiar?), so off we chugg down the street to hail a cab on the corner. First 2 refuse before one finally relents and agrees to the trip. My guide tells me its not only the shortness of the trip but the fact that the cabs are inspected at the station for “cleanliness” – if we ran such a system back home there would barely be a cab left on the roads!

Get on the train and find that I have my 2 berth sleeper all to myself! Slump up against the window and start to watch the scenery go by. Meet a couple of young Germans Alex and Hannah just next door but otherwise its a pretty quiet trip until we get to the China – Mongolian border at Erlian. Now it may seem from the scarcity of the above that this arrives quickly – in fact, its about a 14 1/2 hour trip with only a few 10 min stops and little to do but read, check out the dining car (where we first encounter the Mad Polish Guy “MPG”), eat, watch some episodes of Couplings on the ipod and doze. I won’t bore you with descriptions of scenery – but some of it is absolutely beautiful. And some of it is just trees and grass.

So we get to our first border crossing – from China to Mongolia.

The last Chinese town is Erlian and after some brief inspections of papers we get off to wait for the 2-3 hrs that they take to change the bogies on the trains (the rail gauge in Monglia and Russia is slightly wider than that used in China!). We head off in search of a beer and after 20 or so mins discover the bar upstairs at the station – where 9 foreigners finally congregate:

  • Beth (Canada) and Gareth (UK) – both have been teaching english in southern China and speak a little Mandarin – which will prove indispensible
  • Daan and Christophe (Belgium) – returning home from holidays
  • Echo (A Mongolian Chelsea fan who speaks English, French, German, Mongolian and Chinese)
  • Houtang (UK) – another Chelsea fan who has been teaching english in South or North Korea
  • Matt (German) – retrning home after holidays
  • Alex and Hannah
  • And Me

Gareth starts to negotiate the price of a round of beers. Originally quoted 5 Yuan, once he orders 9 of them she wants to charge him 10 Yuan (the contadiction inherent in a bulk “increase” isn’t one we can clearly communicate) so he tells the bar lady to put them back. Well this reduces her motivation to be either pleasant, communicative or in anyway helpful to any of us. Finally she and Gareth negotiate and agree on 8 Yuan. (Given 2 yuan is approx 25c, 8 Yuan to the USD, this is hardly necessary but there is the principle I suppose).

Anyway we laugh, introuce ourselves and chat about where we come from, football (Chelsea v Arsenal – can you imagine) etc. Houtang tells a horror story of 2 Canadian guys he knew being sentenced to 5 years in a Sth Korean jail over1/2 pound of Marijuana. 28 other plain “users” were expelled, but the 2 Canadians and one other guy are considered “dealers’ and get jailed!!!

Another round of beers is required so off I go up to the bar (having Yuan left over whilst others have only USD, Mongolian Tarog, Roubles, Euros etc). Some of you will have seen this coming but the price is now back up to 10 – I cant be bothered arguing so pay the extra 18 Yuan – 2.50 USD. Back at the table I’m castigated with eeryone telling me that once I’ve been on the road that 2.50 will become important, and Gareth is about to intervene when MPG (Mad Polish Guy) erupts.

Sitting off at a table on his own, talking to himself in his ubiquitous shorts, white tank top and red cap, he jumps to his feet, starts yelling at a group of 4-5 non-chinese sitting near him and kicks a few chairs over. This goes on for a few mins before he abruptly stoms off and disappears. No military police, no intervention, everyone is just a little shocked.

We find out later that the perople on the table near him were Polish and were discussing their home politics in their native tongue. MPG overheard, and not approving of their political views decided that a small demonstration of his discontent was appropriate!!

Anyway that derailed our beer-pricing forum, so we get back to a few more ales until finally the train arrives with its widened bogies to take us into Mongolia. A sight to be seen was the Chinese station personnel in full uniform standing at the edge of the platform at full salute as we left with the National anthem playing in the background!!! Priceless.

Another stop inside the Mongolian border at Zamyn-Uud where we can’t get off the train!. Paperwork was easy – they focus more on the Chinese and Mongolians, and since its now late its off to bed.

Wake up and we’re only a few hours from Ulaan Baatar having slept 8-10 of the 13 hr journey there from the border. Mongolian townships pop up out of nowhere complete with gers and satellite dishes (they are everywhere!!!!!!) only to disappear just as quickly leaving a very isolated landscape. UB comes and go – its more sprawlier than I thought and more modern – the prominent Nissan delearship a personal fave, with only a quick stop for the required photos and purchases from stalls on the platforms.

About 3 hours later we stop in the middle of nowhere and wait – not sure why or what for (?) but during the 20 misn or so we open the windows and take a few happy snaps of a group of local Mongolians sitting out of the sun. They wave, smile,and finally trot over with a big cup of what we think was Aigar – fermented mare’s milk. We all take a taste – I wouldn’t have it as my first choice of beverage but its not anywhere near as bad as it sounds.

its back to the never ending traintrip – beers and vodka in various carriages/berths until we get within a couple of hours of Russia – at which point we decide being trashed at a Russian border crossing prob isnt a great idea and put the bottles away.

Russia approaches in darkness and the out of Mongolia section of the border crossing is straightforward – despite the Couplings/Jeff lookalike diversion.

The Russian side however….. well let me take you through the highlights:

A Russian Colonel in full miltary garb including cap, rod and briefcase arrives at your door. Crisply asks for papers and instantly is dismayed that I haven’t filled in both the LH and RH sides of the entry form – aparently both the IN and Out sections are required now! I grab my pen but he simply puts the papers and my passport in his briefcase and barks for me to get out of the carriage.

He summons his ninja – a petite, athletic (and good looking) Russian woman in her 20s in military fatigues who promply searches the cabin. And I mean searches. She climbs walls unaided like that Chinese acrobat in Ocean’s 11 and 12, unscrews light fittings, opens air vents, pushes up the ceiling panels and shines her torch around before smartly dropping down and gives the all clear to her boss.

Without mention to me he takes 4 steps to the next carriage and starts the same process leaving me in the passageway. Taking pity on me, the ninjette glances over at me and nods that I can go back in my cabin. I hear but don’t see a heated exchange in German with the two 50ish male occupants of the next carriage. My limited German gets the idea that there is soemthing wrong with dates or visas and there is some consternation. Alex and Hannah later tell me that one of the guys has 2 passports and somehow screwed up the dates on them. So when he presented his passport to the Russians he “accidentally left” some Euros in in!!!! The Colonel immediately put the money back on the table and then a stronger discussion followed which included barking of Russian and German. They did the same search before moving on – no-one was sure what the position was on the passports but the Colonel had them all in his possession.

Now 2-3 hour pass – all we see is the Russian militay periodically walking up and down our carriage on the way to search the rest of the train. They distribute Customs declaration forms for us to fill in. And here’s where I make a mistake (Sis forgive me!).

Given the atmosphere etc I decare some sleeping pills and valium that I have prescriptions for as they are in my daypack (and the form ask for any medicines being taken in!). I line them up on my table with scripts etc and wait for the customs guy. An hour later he appears and as soon as he sees the check mark against medecine promptly taps my carriage door loudly with his rod and summons another guy. He comes in looks at the pills & scripts, I haltingly explain one set are for sleeping (mime sleeping) and the other is because I”m nervous when I fly (mime plane ad nervous – the latter not the hardest thing to do at this point). He makes a joke to his comrade outside,clearly at my expense about the nervous thing (after all he is a good strong Russian soldier) before taking just the valium prescription with him and departing without a word. He leaves all the pills and the sleeping tab script behind?!

I wait nervously. One hour passes. Another. Its now somewhere around 3 in the moning, I’m stuffed but don’t really want to go to sleep in case they come back and have to wake me up to explain whatever he was checking with the Valium script. Finally Colonel #1 appears (it’s about 8 hrs into the crossing process) and simply hands back my passport and papers (now with the RHS filled out by some Russian flunky!) . The carriage attendants tell me we are now done and can go to sleep which I do – wondering where my Valium prescription went but not wanting to really ask. Wake up the next day – no prescription, I didnt get my customs declaration form back, but I’m still on the train and in Russia!!

Over brunch we all tell our tales – some declared absolutely nothing & had their declarations stamped and handed back in 2 mins, some declared nothing and didn’t get their form back, some declared stuff and had no problems – it was all completely random and arbitrary. Still I’m assured it’s not an issue – I’ll just fill out another form when I leave (this time I think I’ll not declare the Valium!)

Finally around 3 pm we arrive in the home of the dart aka Irkutsk. It’s been nearly 3 days on the train so I’m glad I’m getting off – all the others are on a direct non-stop trip to Moscow!!Goodbyes are said with lots of toasts and hugs and I leave the train to find my transfer to thehomestay. The others have another 3 1/2 days to go to get to Moscow!!!

More on the Home of the dart and Moscow tribulations later – but I’m now only about a week behind real time! Just checked ad the Cats got up by a record margin so I only need the Storm to get up tomorrow for the double! Shouldn’t be a problem beating those soft Manly silvertails!

30Aug/15

North Korea favourites – thoughts of a North Korean tour guide

YPT’s very own Chris Kelly weighs in on his favourite things to do and see in Pyongyang.

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Building in North Korea – Tower of the Juche Idea

It surprises me to hear customers commonly ask, “Aren’t you bored of returning to the same places in Pyongyang?”  The answer is honestly, a resounding no!  Regardless of how many times I have donned my suit to pay a visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, walked up the steps and past the bronze busts at the Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetery, learned about the ‘handsome’ vase at the Koryo Museum, or singing along to ‘Pangapsumnida’ as the sweet sound of the accordion fills the room at the lamb barbecue restaurant, I have never, ever felt bored in the DPRK.  But there is one place that excites me more than all others and on a good, clear day it could even be my favorite place in the whole world.  That place is the Tower of the Juche Idea.

When I travel to a new city, I am partial to a good view and even before I first traveled to north Korea, I was unashamedly excited to visit the Tower of the Juche Idea.  Due to a number of reasons, many viewing platforms across the world incredibly disappoint.  But the long queues, exorbitant entrance fees, crowds of people on the platform, and unnecessary obstructions that plague other viewing points, do not do so here.  With quick access, a lack of other tourists, a chest height stone wall separating you with the city, and with an entrance fee of just 5 Euro, the Tower of the Juche Idea does not suffer from the same drawbacks that buildings such as the Empire State Building and the Shanghai Tower do.

There is something spectacular about the city of Pyongyang and it is only by standing at the top of the Tower of the Juche Idea and taking in a panoramic view of the city that one can truly realize just how aesthetically beautiful it is.  One second you are looking at canoeists in the Taedong River whilst a slight glance to the left might see preparations under way for a mass rally at Kim Il Sung Square.  Take another look and you will see the May Day Stadium and a close inspection to the right will bring you to the colorful communist era housing blocks in East Pyongyang.

I do not exaggerate when I say I could spend hours standing at the top, leaning over the stone wall and observing the people of Pyongyang cycling by on their bikes, fishing at the banks of the river, queuing for buses, or simply chatting with friends.  In any other city, it might not make for interesting viewing but this is Pyongyang, where simply everything is interesting.

Activity in North Korea –  Munsu Water Park

Bar none, the greatest place to have non-alcoholic (recommended, not enforced) fun in Pyongyang!  One of the most interesting experiences I had here occurred after the Pyongyang Marathon in April 2014, when, after foolishly ignoring the attendants advise not to do so, I went down the pink slide and ultimately ended up with a face full of blood and five badass looking stitches.  On most occasions though, a trip to the water park has proven to be nothing more than just good wholesome fun and (no doubt to the chagrin of the western media who portray such places as being only for the ‘super elite’ ) it’s is full of local North Korean people from Pyongyang and beyond.

The indoor part of the park consists of a trampoline area, a rock climbing wall, badminton courts, lane pools, and water slides.  One of the most interesting things about the water park is getting to see the latest trends in the North Korea swimwear market and, without getting too crude, lets just say people are often surprised that the ladies of North Korea are not quite as conservatively dressed as they may have originally believed.

During the summer months, the outdoor section of the park opens for business and it really is an sight to behold.  There is something quite extraordinary about standing with a yellow inflatable raft on steps leading to a water slide, whilst chatting to a young North Korean English student from Nampho, and concurrently catching a glimpse of the magnificent Ryugyong Hotel looming over the entire city.  In Pyongyang, ordinary things become extraordinary, simply by virtue of their existence.  Munsu Water Park is one of these things.

If I could pass on one tip it would be to refrain from climbing to the highest platform in the diving area unless you are confident you will descend in a manner other than the stairs; the North Koreans will form a crowd to watch you and they will be extremely disappointed if you chicken out!

northkoreaarmyRestaurant in North Korea – Train’s Restaurant Car

I’m not sure if this is cheating because it doesn’t have a name and its not stationary but who says that should be part of the rules anyway!  But honestly, my favorite restaurant in North Korea is the restaurant car on the train from Sinuiju to Pyongyang.  Although I think the food is very tasty, It takes a lot more than just that to enjoy a dining experience.  In the restaurant car, whether it be from our customers embarking on a first time trip to North Korea, North Koreans from Sinuiju visiting Pyongyang, or Pyongyangites returning home, a constant clinking of soju glasses and chorus of laughter run continually through the carriage.  On the occasions when the windows are open and the weather is nice, there is no finer feeling than rambling your way on a train through the North Korean countryside, sipping ice cold beer and enjoying conversations with new friends as the gentle breeze sweeps into the carriage.  Truly delightful!

Experience in North Korea – Marathon

There are some experiences that will live with a person forever and if for some reason, my taking part in the Pyongyang Marathon happens to fade from my memory, I highly doubt anything else will remain.  Truly, it was not only my greatest experience in North Korea, but without question my greatest experience in life.  Having the freedom to run the streets of Pyongyang whilst high fiving local Pyongangites standing by the side of the road and returning waves from those standing on their apartment balconies may not sound like much to some, but try telling that to any of the hundreds of foreigners who took part in the Marathon.  After completing the race inside a packed Kim Il Sung Square, I witnessed and comforted people so overcome with emotion that they could do nothing but remain speechless.  Afterwards, finding each superlative falling short, people found it impossible to conjure up their true emotions.  I too am still searching for the right words.

29Aug/15

Taking part in the Rason Trade Fair

When planning our first trip for Paektu Cultural Exchange we explored a number of options to fit around the dates we had available, now whilst visiting the DPRK for Liberation Day, or the Laibach concert might have had more razzmatazz, we felt that doing a trip for the Rason International Trade Fair would offer for more chances to nor only learn more about the workings of the country, but also offer us more chances for cultural exchanges and interactions with the people of the country, we were not disappointed.

One of the main points of interest for us with taking this particular trip into Rason was that through the connections of PCE founder Michael Spavor, we would be offered the extremely rare opportunity of traveling in official, as opposed to tourist visas. Whilst this would not be as big of a deal in other countries in the DPRK, in theory at least this would afford us a much higher degree of freedom to travel independently, arrange our own itinerary, meet the people we wanted to meet, and even pick and pay for the restaurants of our own choosing. Again regular stuff for most countries, but for those who have followed the standard route of a Pyongyang, or Rason tour will understand, this is very far from the ordinary.

A second, and obvious point of interest, and our primary reason for visiting at this time was the Rason International Trade Fair. To give some background on the fair itself this was to be the 5th annual incarnation of the event, and as the hosts informed us the busiest as of yet. The main aim of the fair is to promote international trade and big business between the Rason SEZ, and the wider international community, a place where big deals can be made. Having visited the previous year my personal experience was that at the end level at least the reality was that it was much more focussed on end level consumer goods that can be purchased right away by local Koreans. Although with that being said there is always participation from a broad range of international companies, and it does offer a great opportunity to network.

A classic way to start any trip into Rason, or indeed the Yanbian Korean Prefecture is to stay at the legendary LiuJing Hotel, one of the two DPRK owned hotels in Yanji, full and kitted out with singing North Korean expat staff, Korean beer, and all the other little Korean things you learn to love after constant trips to the country. As some of the group were arriving later we started with a casual Korean meal in the hotel with a brief introduction and talk about the business opportunities in the country before an early night to prepare for our first day in country.

The first difference between a standard tour and going in on official visas is the transport element. A standard tourism package involves taking a private bus to the border, going through customs and immigration on both sides, before being met by your Korean guides, or as they are often wrongly described minders, before transferring buses and then going on your trip with pre-arranged meals, hotels and itinerary planned to an almost minute by minute fashion. On official visas, you get your bus in China, you drive through into the country, pick your own hotels and restaurants, and to an extent just get on with it, so on the morning of departure that was exactly what we did with our Chinese driver picking us up at the ripe old time of 7 am for the trip into Korea.

rason1No trip to Rason would be complete without talking about the fun that is customs and immigration. The Chinese side is fairly chilled, with them seemingly doing an almost over the top act in friendliness to try and offer a comparison with the other side. You will often hear about Rason being the only place in the country that is “visa free”, as a tourist this is technically true, with you having a tourist permit, but on official visas they literally check your name on a system, and thats it you stroll along and into the Korean zone. The Korean zone, to put it as politely as possible is different. It is quite bustling with Chinese businessmen and tourists, and what you bring into the country, such as books, USD sticks, cameras and computers are meticulously recorded, so they can be checked when you get out. This is not a quick process, taking at least an hour, but with the new immigration building having been put up, better than it has previously been.

Once through the official visa adventure continued with us heading into Rajin town with the two questions on our mind being where to sleep and where to eat, two things we had decided not to prior plan, and to see what was available. Whilst this might seem on the risqué side of things generally speaking there are a lot of decently priced hotels in the Rason SEZ that would fit our purposes. We headed to the Tongmyong Hotel, a place a few of us had previously visited. The place is very DPRK, with sea view rooms decorated in quite the retro fashion, as well as some cool little beer kiosks placed conveniently next to the sea view, and surrounded by the anthropomorphic cement pigs that litter the country. A good choice for the first night. For our dinner adventure we decided to go for it by visiting the outside barbecue restaurants in the centre of Rajin. Why? Because previously as tourists we had been told we could not eat here. We went, we ate, and it was wonderful, we finished the evening with a few beers overlooking the sea before an early night in preparation for the big day, the start of the trade fair.

For the trade fair we had decided that rather than just visit we would take part. The cost of renting a booth for the 4 day event is 600 Euro, so we headed straight to the event to set ourselves up. Armed with PCE literature, posters, business cards and some consumer goods to sell to the masses we set up the stall, which in our mind looked pretty plush, and certainly up to the standard of the other participants, we then departed the hall to be at the front for the opening ceremonies, where a number of high level Koreans gave speeches that were translated into English. Standard stuff, but very cool to be able and allowed to be part of.

As I previously said, whilst the trade fair is supposed to be about big business there is also a very strong angle towards consumer goods for Koreans, which means that the second the fair opens it goes crazy with people running around to see not only what is available, but more importantly what is being given away for free. In our wisdom we had decided to give away free PCE bottle openers, when word got out things got a little intense, and we had to start charging for them. Walking around the fair (without guides) was extremely interesting with us noting there being a lot more of an international flavour this year, with firms from China, Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Canada and even Italy having stalls, although again the predominant theme still being consumer goods. During this first day we were able to arrange a number of interesting meetings and get a real feel for proceedings.

After leaving the fair we headed not only one of the highlights of a trip to Rason, but also one of the most unique aspects of visiting here, the bank to change money at the black markets rates, and the only private market in the country officially open to tourists.  Golden Triangle Bank, the first bank in the zone to deal with foreign exchange is where you currently change into local Won. The current exchange rate is 1300 to 1 RMB, or 15 cents $USD. To put this into context the largest denomination note produced in the country is 5000 Won, and the official exchange rate in Pyongyang is 100 to $1, therefore 50 bucks gets you a fair bit of cash. Private markets though common throughout the country are still quite a contentious subject with regards to the socialist system in the country, to some extent they officially do not exist, but in Rason you can go freely. For this trip we actually got a chance to go to the new 4 story private market apparently built by the Chinese and featuring store like elements, as well as a department store type element, but all run by women entrepreneurs working independently. A great chance to buy goodies, but also see the contemporary situation in the main special economic zone of the DPRK.

As a group with a booth we were entitled to 2 tickets to the official Rason banquet to celebrate the opening day of the fair, the problem being that our group consisted of 9 participants, not including the driver. Luckily group leader Michael not only speaks fluent Korean, but is also quite adept at the pulling of strings, so it was not too long before 9 tickets had been procured and we were hobnobbing with all the big players at the event. The dinner as expected was wonderful, and meeting major foreign business people and listening to their stories about doing business in the zone was priceless. For our second night we had transferred to another hotel, partly due to logistics, and partly just for a change of scenery. The hotel on question PiphaGak on Pipha Island is one of my favourites due to its retro karaoke/bar/club room, although on our first night we decided to go a little easy due to the schedule.

For day 2 we headed right back to the fair for another day of selling our products, checking out the booths we had not yet had time to see, attend a business seminar, and where possible arrange meetings with the people our group were interested in talking to. The seminar was extremely interesting, and useful, although with all these things a pinch of salt needs to be taken with what is said, and dare I say the expertise of PCE or a similar organization would also need to be sought if one were looking to do further investment in the zone. After leaving the fair we decided that a quick jump back onto the tourist trail would be a welcome change, and as we were on official visas decided we would again push the envelope by asking if we would be able to visit Rajin Train station, a place tourists are not usually allowed to go, we were given a yes so headed over there. The station like many buildings in Rason was built during Japanese occupation, and was not only interesting, but a good little break from what we had been doing. We then went to the Telecommunications centre to see what the current situation was with foreigners using the local phone network, and even 3G services. For those that know about Pyongyang, or have visited, you would probably be familiar with KoryoLink the joint venture between the DPRK, and Erascom from Egypt, but alas even if you are lucky enough to have one of these SIM cards they are of no use in Rason. The DPRK strangely actually has 3 networks. Now this could be a blog post in itself, but I will keep it as simple as possible. In “mainland” DPRK there is KoryoLink who provide 3G and have the monopoly on foreign users. They have been in the country about 3 years, but before KoryoLink there was Kumsan, a domestic company that largelly still has better nationwide coverage than KoryoLink. If you are out of Pyongyang your phone will often switch to this network, or to its 2G, or Edge. In Rason they have a third major network run by Thai company The Loxely Pacific Company that does not work with with the other two. Confused yet? Well I did not even begin to get onto the fixed line networks, which again would require a whole article. 3G in Rason has now been implemented from 2015 with a SIM card costing CNY 900 ($130) for the SIM card alone, not including the monthly fees that would follow, and alas no option for an Iphone. After a stroll in the park, and eating in another fabulous restaurant we decided to go for a Korean massage. If you have not tried a Korean massage, it is quite different, the woman train for 4 years to become qualified and whilst it feels quite brutal at the time you feel great afterwards. As this was our last night in the country we had to have a little bit of a party, so when we got back to the hotel we hit the Karaoke, put on the bubble machine and took it in turns either singing Korean songs, or letting the staff sing to us whilst knocking back Taedongang and Soju, the notorious SoMaek cocktail, a decent last night.

For our departure day we had to quickly pop back to the conference hall to sign some pre-arranged contracts before deciding to treat ourselves to lunch at the now infamous Czech beer bar. Last year the government of the Rason imported a full bar from the Czech Republic, as well as a Czech beer master and set up what is one of the more interesting bars in the zone, although the food was very much still of the Korean standard. After a few beers we fixed our exit stamps and over DPRK procedures before racing over to customs and immigration in the knowledge there was a storm on the way. We beat the storm, but guys leaving after us were apparently stuck in the country for a few days due to severe flooding blocking the roads.

We finished the trip with a night and a day hanging out on the Tumen border, checking out businesses, wandering along the border and purchasing a few last DPRK souvenirs. Overall a great first trip for PCE, with our official visas making this a very interesting delegation, and certainly not just a standard tourist trap trip.

29Aug/15

Adventure in the North East

On Wednesday April 22nd, seven travelers hailing from the the US, Canada, Australia, and Ireland, became part of the very small handful of people to have walked across the bridge from Tumen, China into Namyang, DPRK.  As if entering a new country in itself isn’t exciting enough, there is something more special when you cross that border by foot.  Adding to this the fact that we were crossing a bridge into North Korea, it becomes easy to understand why our excitement was palpable and in turn, why the picture below becomes even more epic.

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With only around forty western tourists passing through Namyang customs every year, the Chinese immigration officers in Tumen were noticeably bemused when we showed up in the empty building with our DPRK visas.  Relatively straightforward on the Chinese side, we were bid a hearty goodbye and made our way across the bridge.  Arriving in Namyang, we were saluted by the soldier from the Korean People’s Army and proceeded inside the customs building for a thorough inspection of our bags.  On my previous visit to Pyongyang, I met the First Secretary of the Russian Embassy in a bar and we had a few drinks together.  I forgot that I had his business card in my wallet and after the customs official examined it, his demeanor quickly changed and he gave up searching my things.  And people say drinking is bad….

So, the seven of us, along with our incredible guides, So, Chae, and Ma, boarded our bus and made our way down the long, bumpy, windy, dusty road to Hoeryong.  I think the most incredible part of this drive has to be the fact that we hugged the Tumen River the whole way there.  This means we could see just how narrow the Tumen river is at parts and most of the group were shocked at just how close the shoreline of China was at times.

“Mr. So explained to us that in summer time, children from the villages in North Korea and those from the villages in China, play with each other in the river and then return to their respective countries.  This surprised those in the group who had read lots about the heavily fortified Sino-Korean border but upon inspection, the vast majority of the river banks are completely devoid of guards or any other patrols.”

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Hoeryong’s importance in contemporary DPRK culture is down to the fact that Mother Kim Jong Suk, wife of Kim Il Sung, was born in the county.  Kim Jong Suk is a revered figure in North Korea and her exploits against the Japanese as a guerrilla fighter in the 1930’s and 1940’s are proudly told and retold throughout the country.  After visiting the impressive statue dedicated to her, we visited her home which looks very similar to Kim Il Sung’s birth home in Mangyongdae.  Following a visit to the home, we walked to the revolutionary museum where we learned more about the sacrifices she made during the Korean struggle for independence.

Following our tour around Hoeryong, we jumped back on our bus and made our way to Chongjin, the third biggest city in the DPRK.  Having spent much time in Pyongyang, it becomes easy to forget that the rest of North Korea does not have the same access to electricity as the citizens who live there.  This fact became startlingly evident as the bus entered the city at around 8pm and was met with a wall of darkness.  As the bus sped down the main street, it became clear that despite the complete lack of any illumination, the place was bustling with pedestrians and cyclists who were seemingly able to navigate perfectly fine.

We pulled into the Chongjin Hotel at around 8.30pm and indulged in some incredible cuisine, glasses of Soju, and bottles of beer.  After some pretty deep political / religious / cultural conversations that would become very much the norm throughout the trip, we made our way over to the Seaman’s Club for some post meal drinks and fun.  Unperturbed by the numerous blackouts, the five of us that opted to go to the bar, drank soju, beer and tasty makoli before enjoying the dancing and singing of some of the most beautiful girls I have had the pleasure of seeing in the DPRK.  After joining in ourselves, a few of the group made no secret of the fact that they had just fallen in love!

Understanding that our driver was probably more than a little tired, we bid a sad goodbye to our lovely waitress hostesses and made our way back to the hotel for our first night’s sleep in North Hamgyong Province.

Following an early breakfast the next morning, we were back on the road and making our way to Mount Chilbo, one of the five revered mountains of the Korean Peninsula.  The drive took us past some incredible views and scenery, unlike anything I had seen during my visits to Pyongyang, Nampo and other cities in the south of the DPRK.  With Troy Collings, owner of Young Pioneer Tours, having been the first westerner to cross into North Hamgyong Province from Tumen in 2013, the idea of western tourism within the area is still very much in its infancy.  This means that the rules are very much akin to what it was like in Pyongyang ten years ago; namely, no photographs of local people, machinery, cars etc.  Although for the more snap happy of our group, this initially proved a little bothersome, they quickly realized that it was nice to just sit back and enjoy it for what it is, rather than trying to find the perfect picture.

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We arrived at Mount Chilbo Outer Hotel in the afternoon and following lunch, made our way to Inner Chilbo for a hike through the mountain and to see some of the more scenic sites.  Along the trail, we came across a tree that look like it was rotting and so, following encouragement from our Korean guides, we banded together as a group and managed to topple the huge specimen without incurring any injuries ourselves.  Something I had not realized before is that Koreans (or perhaps only those from North Hamgyong?) have an incredible desire to name rocks after what they appear to look like.  Although some of them e.g. Woman Holding Baby Rock, Woman With Hand Down Man’s Trousers Rock, and Gorilla Rock did indeed look like what they are describing, when it came to Bag of Rice Rock, I got the impression that they were either taking the piss, or clutching at straws.

“Nevertheless, the rock formations were truly incredible and when we reached some of the summits and peaks, the landscape in combination with the beautiful weather, made for some surreal moments.  It was during such moments that I had to remind myself that I was actually in the DPRK.”

northeast4The next day, following breakfast at the Outer Chilbo Hotel and a few more glorious hikes to Tokgol and Manmulsang, we made our way to the Homestay Village in the Sea Chilbo area.  Before this however, we hiked to a waterfall area and one of the group got the brilliant idea to jump from high rocks into the pool below.  In summer this would be no problem but the temperature of the water was so cold that parts of the same river were still frozen over.  After he became a true pioneer and jumped in, someone else in the group followed suit.  Always one to follow the crowd, I didn’t want to be left out and after stripping down to my nags, I climbed the ledge and saw that it looked about twice as high as I had envisaged.  After about five minutes of standing there, I still hadn’t jumped but I also knew that there was no way I could do the walk of shame back down.  Eventually I just counted down and did it – probably the coldest I have ever been.  I  found it difficult to even catch a breath but I was pretty proud of myself and it also got rid of that lingering hangover from the previous nights festivities.

northeast5We stopped at a beach on the outskirts of the village and all hopped on a small fishing boat in order to get a more panoramic view of Mount Chilbo.  From the fishing boat, the whole area looked like what I imagine some of the world’s most beautiful beach resorts to have looked like before being overtaken by huge hotels and apartment blocks.  Truly breathtaking.

After our tour around the harbor, we enjoyed a very traditional picnic lunch on the beach and washed it down with local soju and beer.  Having eaten a lot, we decided to walk to the Homestay Village instead of taking the bus and we quickly saw in front of us, beautiful Korean style houses but with a very modern twist.  This would be our home for one night.

“At the Homestay Village, two people would stay in one house and in each house there is a husband, a wife, and, in most cases, children.  The houses are built to a very high standard and, admittedly, are not wholly representative of the typical North Korean household.  Nevertheless, they are real people, living real lives and it really is the best way to get a good idea of how a DPRK community operates. The original plan for the site was to build a hotel but a Homestay Village was instead created because someone assumed that tourists would much prefer to experience life with a local Korean family than to stay in a regular hotel – they were correct.”

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When we first arrived at the village we went straight to the beach volleyball court were we would be battling the locals in a game of which none of our group played and of which all of our opponents played pretty much every day.  Sensing an annihilation, we decided to split up the teams and although it took us a while, we finally got into the rhythm of the game.  With the western players feeling a surge of confidence we felt that we were ready to take on the Koreans as a collective unit and so, following a thirst quenching session of Taedonggang beer drinking alongside our soon to be rivals, we took to the court once again.  I would like to describe now of some rags-to-riches, Rocky-esque story but the fact is we lost, and lost pretty bad.

Following the volleyball session, the local people introduced us to Korean Wrestling in which each wrestler must hold onto the material wrapped around his or her opponent and try to get that person on the ground.  Following about five matches, three of our group suffered injuries to the leg, ribs, and arm so we decided to call it a day on that.

northeast8Following our afternoon of sports and warm weather beer drinking, we made our way up to one of the traditional Korean homes were we would be helping local people make rice cakes and rice noodles.  With the help of our extremely friendly hosts, we got the hang of it pretty quickly and at dinner that night, we got to eat the fruits of our labor.

When we were too full to eat anymore, we grabbed our soju and beer and made our way down to the beach were we would be having a bonfire with the locals.  As it inevitably does in Korea, singing soon broke out and we were lucky enough to be serenaded by local men and woman singing Korean revolutionary songs.  Our more western approach to bonfire singing may not have sounded quite as beautiful as the nationalistic tunes that preceded them but our efforts were certainly appreciated.  As a final thank you to the locals and our host families for being so inviting, we sang them a song that we had been practicing all day in preparation for this moment – Defend to the Last General Kim Jong Un.  Mr. So had helped us practice it on the bus on the way to Chilbo and although we stuttered over a few words, I think the locals were pretty happy we gave it a shot!

The next morning we awoke early and helped the local dwellers with some chores.  Toiling away under the early morning sun, we helped plant corn on one of the personal farming plots of the residents.  We only mustered around ten minutes of actual work and following the not-so-backbreaking planting of  kernels, I asked my host mum if I could use a bike.  She said yes, but as her son had to go to school on it, I needed to be back by 8 am.  I jumped on it and cycled down to the beach where I saw locals working on a construction project, cycled to the other end of the village where I watched people practicing taekwondo, and then looped around back through the village, back to the house, so my little host brother could get to school on time!

We said goodbye to the villagers and made our way to the starting point of our final hike of the trip.  This would be the longest of all the hikes but at around two hours to the top, was not too demanding at all.  We were the first tourists of the season to travel to this part of the mountain and we found many boulders and rocks blocking our way.  Collectively, however, we moved some of the large rocks and this, coupled with the driver’s extreme / skillful driving, allowed us to make it quite high up the mountain road.  A huge tree, however, proved insurmountable and we began our hike from there.

“The view at the top was simply breathtaking; one of those views that no picture could possibly do justice.  A few of the group remarked, and I had to agree, that what makes all of these views even more incredible than they already are, is that one is free to enjoy them in complete peace and quiet.  Unlike other countries, no one is trying to sell you anything, there are no other tourists trying to push by you, and there are no noises except those prescribed by nature.”

Sadly leaving beautiful Mount Chilbo, we made our way back up north to Gyongsong, an area famous for its natural spa water.  With this in mind, we just had to visit one of the local mineral baths and although perhaps not as hot as some of us would have liked, we still enjoyed soaking in the individual tubs.  Our enjoyment probably stemmed from the unavailability of hot water at the hotels in North Hamgyong, and as a result of not really being able to shower for the whole trip, the bath was a welcomed treat!

Upon leaving the spa complex, I noticed some kids in the opposite park playing football.  I walked over and in doing the universal hand gesture for ‘pass me the ball,’ I apparently scared them away.  I realized that these kids had probably never seen, let alone met, a westerner before so I guess it was understandable that they be terrified.  Nevertheless, Mr Chae called them back and with some trepidation, they re-emerged and I told them I would be goalkeeper if they wanted to play.  They heartily agreed and what ensued was around fifteen minutes of unscheduled grassroots internationalization.

On the tour, Mr. So told me that people in North Hamgyong used to hate US citizens coming to their towns and villages.  Then, he said, the local people saw their leader Kim Jong Un on TV openly embracing Dennis Rodman, an American.  He told me that after that event, people’s perceptions in North Hamgyong changed; they reasoned that if the Marshall can embrace Americans, then so could they.  This an example of when engagement works, and with regards to this situation, although little things like playing football with a bunch of kids isn’t going to change the world, it may very well alter the viewpoints towards westerners that those individual kids possess.

The next day, we left Gyongsong and made our way to Chongjin were we enjoyed a performance at the local
northeast9Kindergarten.  Regardless of how many of these shows I have seen, the talent that some of these kids possess never fails to amaze me.  After the performance we made our way outside and took some group photos on the playground rides which took the shapes of, among other things, rocket ships, tanks and bomber planes.

In Chongjin, we also paid a visit to the newly erected statues of President Kim Il Sung and General Kim Jong Il, which although much smaller than those in Mansudae, Pyongyang, are nevertheless extremely impressive.

As luck would have it, we happened to be in town when the North Hamgyong Province Art Troup were performing and we were not disappointed.  While we waited for the show to start we were put in a VIP waiting room and after about ten minutes, we were led into the main theatre to take our seats.  With very few tourists visiting the region,  every single person in the audience stood up or craned their head or did whatever they could to get a look at us and a general whisper rippled throughout the crowd.  The show itself was exceptional with lots of heartfelt revolutionary songs and we were even treated to the Chongjin debut of a brand new song – Let’s Climb Mount Paektu.

Following the show, we made our way to Hoeryong and checked in at the local hotel.  Our day of culture and music had not ended yet and we were treated to a performance by the hotel waitresses who are among the most fun, energetic and outgoing people I have met in the DPRK.  Of course, we were expected to take part and after polishing off a few bottles of soju and more than a few bottles of beer, everyone in the group was more than keen for a dance!  Together with the waitresses, we all sang our revolutionary song Defend to the Last General Kim Jong Un and following this, they treated us to a rousing performance of the DPRK national anthem.

“The night ended with one of the group dancing on the stage in his birthday suit, but I think that story is best left to another time.”

Whatever the opposite of ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’ is; the next morning, we were it.  Nevertheless, we would not northeast10be crossing the border until the afternoon and still had a few things left to see.  The main focus of this day would be our visit to Kim Ki Song Middle School in Hoeryong.  At the school we were able to observe an English lesson and myself and someone else in the group even put on an English lesson for them.  Their understanding of English was surprisingly good but, as is the case with most English teaching in Asian countries, the answers were a bit robotic due to high emphasis being put on repetition and not enough on conversation.  Following the very successful English lesson, we made our way outside where a PE class was underway.  We managed to arrange a football game of DPRK v YPT and after a hard fought battle in what had become a searing heat, YPT somehow emerged victorious.  The middle school students seemed pretty dejected but cheered up by the time the group photo was taken.northeast11

After defeating the Koreans in their own backyard, we jumped back on our bus and followed the Tumen River all the way back up to Namyang.  Before this however, we stopped at the Wangjaesan Grand Monument which is made up of one hundred different sculptures.  Even including those in Pyongyang, this, in my opinion, is the most impressive monument in the whole of the DPRK.  The attention to detail, the size, and the surroundings, all contribute in making it a phenomenal piece of art. With heavy hearts, we left the Grand Monument and made our way back to Namyang customs where we were again subjected to rigorous checks and eventually given the all clear.  And so, after being given one final salute by the KPA soldier stationed at the border, the seven intrepid travelers made their way back across the flowing Tumen river.

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29Aug/15

Sports in North Korea

Every June, Young Pioneer Tours holds a Sporting Interest Tour to combine two of the greatest things this world has to offer – Sports, and a trip to the DPRK.

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In the spirit of all things World Cup, Young Pioneer Tours, last June took a group of eight people to Pyongyang to play a friendly game of football against local Koreans.

We played the match on Friday morning and although Messi was replaced by Kim, and Pak took the place of Neymar, enough skill and excitement was created to keep the spectators enthralled.  Whilst the DPRK team was made up entirely of Koreans (including the former goalkeeper for the DPRK national team), the international team consisted of players from Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Hong Kong, France and DPRK.

Although the main purpose of the trip was this football match, it was by no means the only highlight.  In addition topyongyangshoot1 this match which is explained in detail below, we also watched a cup game at Kim Il Sung Stadium between Wilmido and Sonbong, fired live rounds at the Meari Shooting Range, drank with Pyongyangites at the Gyonghung Beer Bar, rode roller coasters at the amusement park, and swam with locals at Munsu Water Park.  As action-packed as this sounds we also visited all of the major sites in and around Pyongyang and took a trip down to the DMZ to view the most heavily fortified border in the world and have pictures taken with soldiers from the Korean People’s Army.

“Having arrived in Pyongyang four days before the actual match, our team was certainly not in prime physical condition for the game.  Anyone who has traveled with YPT knows that we like an evening drink or two, something that doesn’t really go hand in hand with excelling at sports.”

sporting-tourThe game started off rather bad for us, much to the joy of the Korean onlookers.  After about ten minutes we were two-nil down.  Perhaps due to the jests from the other team that we should’ve gone easy on the soju the previous night, the YPT team rallied back to bring it to two-two.  Everyone likes a good comeback so even those on the sidelines applauded our determination.  Invigorated by our new fan club, the international team through sublime passing and skill, went on to take the lead.  Half time was fast approaching and our team was confident of entering the break with at least a one goal margin.  This confidence manifested itself as laziness and after two quick goals from the DPRK team we entered half time trailing by a goal.

“During the half time talk, we rued our soju infused bowling escapades the night before but realizing that now was not the time for self-pity, we rallied and planned new tactics.”

Confident of regaining our short lived lead, we emerged to the pitch full of hope.  This hope turned out to be asIMG_75578 fleeting as our one goal advantage and we quickly we found ourselves five – two down.  Changes were made and again the pendulum of fortune swung in our favor as we quickly pulled the game back to five – five.  Our fan club which appeared to disband at five – two down had by now firmly re-established itself.  Alas their support, perfidious as it was, was not enough to allow us to go onto win the game.  After a few near-misses and wayward passes from our side, the DPRK team capitalized and managed to squeeze in a further two goals to end the game seven – five.

After some post match handshakes and photographs, we told them to take good care of the trophy as we would be back to reclaim it in 2015!

29Aug/15

Pyongyang Marathon – An Indescribable Experience

Around 700 foreign runners awoke on the 12th of April knowing that they were about to experience something incredible.

The vast majority had previously taken part in marathon pyongyang-marathonevents but undoubtedly there was something special about taking part in the Pyongyang Marathon.  After a feast of a breakfast in the hotel banquet room that included everything from apples to Chinese soup to fried pork, the runners departed the Yanggakdo Hotel and made their way by bus to the imposing Kim Il Sung Stadium.  By the time the runners arrived, the 50,000 capacity crowd had already begun to file in an orderly manner into the stadium to watch not just the marathon event, but all the subsidiary entertainment put on in celebration of the 103rd anniversary of the birth of President Kim Il Sung.

After around twenty minutes of warming up outside the stadium (and under the watchful eyes of General Kim Jong Il and President Kim Il Sung), the marathon, half marathon and 10km runners were permitted to enter and, as one competitor remarked to me at the time, the feeling of entering Kim Il Sung Stadium with the capacity crowd chanting, clapping, singing, and cheering was one that was not likely to ever be forgotten.

Assembling on the football pitch inside the stadium, some of the more focused runners managed to continue warm ups but for the vast majority, simply glancing around the stadium at 50,000 North Koreans eradicated any ability to warm up and, notwithstanding the odd picture or two, allowed only for a permanent look of incredulity and disbelief.

pyongyang-marathon-cheerThe stewards organized all the runners into position and eventually, at 8.30 am, the starter’s gun reverberated throughout the stadium.  To the cheers of the crowd, the competitors ran about half a lap, exited through the stadium tunnel, emerged back into the light, and appeared in front of  one of the highest monuments in the world, the Arch of Triumph.  Running past the Arch of Triumph, the runners made a sharp right up the road and headed towards the Sino-Korean Friendship Monument, built to commemorate the sacrifices made by the Chinese during the Fatherland Liberation War.  Taking a right at the monument, the 700 or so competitors continued down the long Pyongyang avenue, cheered on by both those spectators lining the streets and those trying to catch a glimpse out of their apartment blocks.  Entering the Chongryu Tunnel, the runners enjoyed a brief respite from the sun that was by this stage growing stronger and, emerging onto the Chongryu Bridge, were met with the incredible view of the largest stadium in the world, the recently refurbished May Day Stadium.

Continuing along the bridge, the runners then took another right onto Juche Tower Street which marked, for everyone, the 5km mark and, for the lucky few, the half way point.  Continuing down Juche Tower Street, the runners were treated to some incredible views of the Taedong River before making a sharp looping right onto Rungna Bridge where more spectators were lined to provide some much needed encouragement and high fives.  pyongyang-marathon-reachTheRungna Tunnel was the scene for the next section of the race and once again, the competitors were thankful for some much needed relief from the elements.  The emergence from the tunnel signaled the final stretch of the lap and a two kilometer run up Sungri Street was met with the welcome site of the Arch of Triumph.  It was at this point that those who ran the 10km race would finish and enjoy a much deserved rest.  Those brave souls who opted for the half marathon and the crazy ones who were fit enough for the full marathon would enjoy one and three more laps respectively, with both groups finishing inside Kim Il Sung Stadium.

At two hours, thirty-nine minutes, the first full marathon runner entered the stadium to huge applause from the audience.  Mads Hey, traveling with Young Pioneer Tours, went onto achieve a personal best time of two hours, forty minutes and what an arena to do it in!

50,000 cheering North Korean spectators carried the young Norwegian to the finish line and for his efforts, later received a standing ovation during the medal ceremony and was awarded with a DPRK-made ceramic vase.

pyongyang-marathon-beginAt 1pm, when the ceremonies were wrapped up, all that was left was for the competitors to reflect on what they had just experienced.  For many, the words would not come and for most of those, they most likely still haven’t.

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t done a very good job of describing the marathon and truth be told, I don’t think anyone could.  The correct adjectives do not exist and any description, regardless of how well written or how fantastically elocuted will, in my opinion, always fall well short of the actual feeling of being there and taking part.

Quite simply, you have to run it to believe it.

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