Category Archives: Asia

For Asia

05May/16

Researching places that don’t exist

Back in 2012 I was due to lead our third tour into the Islamic Republic of Iran before a month interlude between hooking up with YPT’s second annual Eurasian Adventure Tour in Kiev, and with but a mere two countries between my destinations, a pocket full of money, two trusty travel buddies, and a month to kill all roads led towards a sexy little research trip.

In the good old days of the Cold War the northern border of Iran separated the capitalist west from the Soviet Union and in particular the Azerbaijan SSR, Armenian SSR, and lastly the Georgian SSR, 3 newly independent states that I had wanted to check out both from professional and personal point of view for a long time. What the Caucuses also had was something I have a borderline sick obsession with, unrecognized countries and frozen conflict zones, in this case namely Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and the real mafia jewel in the crown South Ossetia. A plan was made, we would cross from Tehran up to the border by car before traversing over to Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Georgia before finishing it all in Abkhazia (it was decided that that South Ossetia a bit too sketchy). What could go wrong?

On our first day in Iran my travel companion Joe had noticed that every 3rd shop in Tehran seemed to be selling extremely shiny, and dare I say borderline offensively shiny suits, it was suggested off the cuff that we should all go and buy one, I agreed expecting it was one of those throw away amusing comments that no one ever plans to do. I was wrong and on our last night in Tehran 3 of us were sitting in a tailors being made to measure for shiny silver, green and gold suites, complemented with lapels and frilly elements to our white shirts, the tailor did not speak English, but if he had I half expected him to look at my face and say “too jazzy”?.

So $100 and a mad last night out in Tehran and we were now wearing our shiny suits (now complemented by a Hannah Montana bag) and heading up north to the border with Armenia. Whilst Iran is a beautiful and interesting country to travel around their motorways (and dining choices) are not the most interesting, so we were somewhat pleased to rock up to the border suited and booted around nightfall. Armenia is now visa free, but at the time we went you were required to get an online visa on arrival, something which despite we had done for some reason was not showing up on the system, so despite having cleared through Iran we were now stuck in the the border limbo land. My Russian speaking colleague whiled the two hours away chatting with the guards, whilst I spent my time mostly standing outside smoking and watching the trucks come through. After two hours of post-Soviet bureaucracy we were finally stamped and let through, as we were just about the to leave the building the border guard shouted out to the Russian speaker “one minute man, I got one question”, “whats up”? “Man what the fucks up with those suits”?………he smiled and replied “we just went to a wedding”. The Armenian guard said “oh” and then looked even more confused than ever as we exited into Armenia.

In most of the ex-USSR taxis are less like we know in the west, and much more resemble an old man with a Lada without a meter who charges whatever he fancies charging. Yeah traveling by yourself can be fun, but at this point I was pretty damned pleased to be accompanied by a walking talking tour guide/translator and after negotiating a $4 ride to the nearest cheap as hell hotel we headed off. I’m a massive fan of border towns, because they tend to be very sleazy, and when your particular border town borders genuine Islamic Republic and is serviced by salt if the earth truckers it was unsurprising to see strip clubs and the kind of nightclubs where women outnumber men as far as the eye could see. As tragic as it sounds the three of us being early to late 30’s in age settled for a night in with beer and cheese, two other luxuries (largely) unavailable to us in Iran.

As interesting and seedy as border towns are, during the day they lack interest, so we got up early and decided to head off on the next part of our adventure onto the border town of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, Goris. Goris was an extremely pleasant place to stay for a few days, lots of churches to look at, old buildings, and what we enjoyed the most an old Soviet style bar filled with communist kitsch where the governor (who does resemble Borat) made his own home made vodka. Easily the most drunk I had been in a whole week. I was also introduced to what is now one of my newfound culinary loves Chechil, which is a braided salty cheese traditionally eaten when you eat beer, or drink vodka, I added watching football as well which made it probably the best day of my life.

Goris was nice, but we had come out this way with bigger fish to fry, with that fish being the unrecognized state of Nagorno-Karabakh. If you want a detailed background on the place check out Wikipedia, but for an abridged version basically NK is ethnically Armenian, but was a part of Azerbaijan, at the end of the old CCCP they declared independence and fought a war with Azerbaijan, which with Armenian and Russian help they won. The world recognizes them as part of Azerbaijan and normal level headed people with intelligence accept that not only are they not, but they don’t want to be. I’ve been to quite a few border crossings, but this one was special, army dudes and little look at our passport before we were whisked on to our imaginary country for the next few days. On arrival in Stepanakert the capital we checked into our hotel before heading to the immigration bureau for our “visa on arrival” which they stamp in your passport, or on a piece of paper if you ever want to travel to Azerbaijan, who won’t let you in if you have this visa in your passport. I made my stand that that day and decided I would rather a cool stamp than to go to a country that acted so childishly. Being in genuine capital city and it being Halloween we decided to hit the cities only nightclub. I won’t go into massive detail about the club, but weird would be somewhat the understatement. We went (obviously) in our shiny suits. The clientele ranged from unaccompanied children to oligarchs and the elderly, a total of about 25 people. The evening consisted mostly of what appeared to be strange Soviet era games before at about 11pm when there was a massive, and I mean massive food fight. Not feeling the evening was weird enough I decided to buy 8 cans of beer on the way home, drink them at the hotel and then shave my head, badly. Not your average day at the office.

Aside from frankly bizarre nightclubs Stepanakert doesn’t have all that much to offer, so we decided to head to the next part of our freak show, a place by the name of Vank. Now to give Vank a little background. An Armenian dude went to America chasing the American dream, made himself a billionaire and then decided he would reward his hometown people of Vank by building bizarre monuments such as one made from a Lada the locals gave him as a gift, a collection of number plates, and a hotel modeled on the Titanic. The big Kahuna still pops back every now and again showering the locals with money, and unsurprisingly he’s still fairly popular. Weird, but well worth a stop.

Our next port of call was a brief stop in Yerevan the capital of Armenia. As capitals go it was extremely pleasant, a real post Soviet bar scene, the cool beautiful moneyed people of Armenia, and as we read online great strip clubs……Strippers and booze aside theres also the brandy factory, and just outside the oldest church in the world (Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity), two days well spent we headed to Tblisi.

Whilst driving around in Ladas is pleasant enough you have not traveled around these parts unless you have taken at least one overnight sleeper train, so after stocking up on vodka we boarded our bed for the night. There truly is something special about rolling slowly through the Soviet Wastelands drinking vodka and kicking it back with your friends, in any journey this is a highlight.

Tbilisi the capital of Georgia is OK as cities go, and I have friends that absolutely rave about the place, but to me it was decidedly so so, perhaps because I had enjoyed Yerevan so much. The one night we did “hit the town” was fairly interesting as I arrived to meet my friend at a bar, where he was drinking Absinthe Mojitos and chatting up some rather stunning ladies. After procuring my own Absinthe Mojito, the ladies then left our table to join the huge Soviet dude who had come to meet them. He flashed us a smile, sat down and as his ass hit the chair we got a flash of the glock hanging off his hip. His point was made, we asked for the bill. FYI Absinthe Mojitos cost $25 a pop in Tbilisi. Two lessons learned.

We did a few more days touring around places near the border with Turkey, which largely consisted of the other two looking at stuff whilst I drank vodka, before we headed off for what was in my mind at least the highlight of the trip the hometown of Joseph Jughashvili, or as the cool kids know him Uncle Joe Stalin, Gori.

Now before I go into detail about our crazy few days in Gori, it is worth regaling you with some Soviet humor. Whenever we told friends from various parts of the old USSR that we were going to the Caucuses, and Georgia in particular everyone we told would joke that we should be careful because everyone in this region was gay and would try to “bum rape us”. Something we obviously laughed off as being one of those untrue stereotypes that do not exist in the real world. I’ll come back to this point later….

On arrival in Gori we decided to go full on Soviet and book into the Intourist hotel. For those not geeky enough to know what Intourist is, basically they were the Soviet government tourism monolith that controlled all elements of tourism in the Soviet Union, including which hotels they could bug and thus foreigners were allowed to stay. When YPT stay in Tiraspol we stay in the corresponding hotel there, and it is frankly just a wonderful experience, if you like cold rooms but a real Soviet experience.

Whilst Stalin is largely reviled by most of the world now, in Gori he is a big deal, with this being the only place where his statue was taken down, but actually put up again, it is also where the Stalin museum is. The Stalin museum? Well it is wonderful, very pro Big Joe, and with his old train carriage, his original family home and a massive statue of the Uncle very commie extreme.

After a day spent in museums, we decided to indulge our anthropological sides and get out down and dirty with the locals by indulging in some drinking at a wee local tavern. It was not long before a bunch of young, but big and strong Georgians decided to befriend us and pretty soon we were shooting massive shots of vodka. This is where stuff started to get interesting, Joe from our group is a big muscley American former first mate on  ship and is fairly good at arm wrestling, so everyone wanted to arm wrestle him. He kept winning. People in Stalin hometown getting beaten by the American did not go down well. We were then invited aggressively to their houses. We then decided to leave. The end of the night consisted of us running away from a chasing pack of Georgian males shouting they wanted to “fluck your blasses” or words to those effect. Who said stereotypes were always wrong?

My two companions left the next day to continue their travels with my plan to spend one more night in Gori before heading off to Abkhazia. What actually happened was I discovered a great cafe with good food, fast wifi, cheap vodka and a view of Stalin from the window. Everyday I would head off to the bus station drunk at 6pm to be told I had missed the last bus (by day 4 they thought I was mental), before spending another night in Gori.

I eventually left 5 days later for Batumi to get my flight to Kiev. Yes I had missed Abkhazia, yes I had spent almost a week in the drab old Soviet hometown of genuine great dictator, but some like beaches, good bars, great food and clubs, I had cheese, vodka, Soviet grim and a daily view of Stalin, this was my Ibiza.

I managed to visit Abkhazia later, and largely use the basis of the trip to create what is now one of our most important tours on the calendar, the unrecognized countries tour, and whilst, thankfully for most it is not exactly like my research trip, we still feel it holds some of the same spirit.

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.

pyongyangstreets

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.

dprkfootball

02Aug/15

What Lies Between: Exploring the Chinese/North Korean Borderlands

Joining a research team from Young Pioneer Tours, M G Martin discovered a world of weirdness along the hinterlands of the world’s most secretive state.

IMG_2046There were five of us, a minibus and a Chinese driver. Although being chauffeur driven always feels a bit like cheating, there’s simply no other way to explore this rarely visited corner of the world.

Starting in the relatively well-known border town of Janji, our first stop was a nearby border crossing where there’s been an attempt at creating something of a tourist attraction. There was a little parade of shops selling DPRK memorabilia and the flood plain below the soaring bridge had been pleasantly landscaped, with gravel paths and bird boxes in the trees. We went for a wander, past signs saying “no farming” “no swimming” and “no photographs” to the banks of the frozen river. Here the Hermit Kingdom was just a short, albeit slippery, walk away. On the far bank, day-to-day North Korean life was clearly visible: Old men were pulling rickety carts of firewood, woman were washing clothes through holes in the ice and soldiers kept up constant patrols. Chris decided to test the ice, and walked out onto the river. Suddenly there was commotion on the far side as, with shouts and whistles, soldiers began to converge on the opposite bank. We scarpered. None of us wanted our trip to end in a diplomatic crisis quite so soon.

Soon after, our van was winding its way through a scenic wooded valley. We were still discussing our border incursion when the driver slammed on the brakes. Suddenly appearing around a bend in the road was an armoured troop carrier, and within seconds there was a grim-faced Chinese soldier at every window, some shouldering sub-machine guns and others holding huge alsations on metal chains.

IMG_2044The commander, who was carrying a field medical kit (perhaps more sinister than a gun, when you think about it), questioned the driver through the window before ordering us out. Passports were demanded, and taken away for inspection.

For a while things were somewhat tense as we stood shivering on the roadside, but they soon concluded we weren’t any threat to the People’s Republic, and it was all smiles and friendly questions. Even the dogs started wagging their tails. After taking some souvenir photos of us, the soldiers drove off, waving cheerfully through the grilled rear window of their vehicle.

That evening we stayed at an unpronounceable town called Erdaobayhe. This is an odd little resort town serving the nearby Chang Bai national park. This mountain straddles the border, and is known on the Korean side as Mount Paektu. Like Mount Fuji in Japan it is considered a sacred place to Koreans. For those living in the south of the divided peninsular, the only way to visit the place is via the Chinese national park, and in the summer they flock here in droves.

Typically, the northern regime has appropriated the mythical significance of the place, by claiming it as the birth place of Kim Jong Il. According to the official account, his arrival was heralded by a new star appearing in the sky, the sudden flowering of spring blossoms and numerous rainbows. Cynics, however, maintain he was born in a guerrilla camp over the Russian border while his father was on the run from the Japanese. Either way, as is now traditional, Kim Jong Un represents the Paektu constituency in the DPRK’s Supreme Assembly.

IMG_2088Our evening in Erdaobayhe wasn’t much of a success. It was a typical out-of-season resort, like Blackpool on a wet winter’s Sunday. It seemed the only place to find a beer was a club on the outskirts of town with the delightful name of ‘Coco Banana’. This was an odd, but typically Chinese, nightclub. Although it was more or less empty, the music was earsplitting, and we were compelled to buy 20 beers between us, and pay up front. A huge video screen over an empty stage flashed the words “analogue” and “recycling” on a constant loop. The manageress of the place — a burly girl with beady eyes and all the charm of a constipated badger – sat at our table and demanded that we pay some bored-looking girls £20 each to join us and drink our beer. Hardly the offer of the century, so we refused.

Keen to be gone, we took our unopened bottles and left. As soon as we reached the street, the manageress came shrieking out the door and demanded we return our unopened drinks. As her screams were reaching a crescendo — and the male security staff began to muster in the doorway — a taxi arrived right on cue, and we left the wicked witch of Coco Banana mouthing curses on the street.

The next day it was off to explore the Chang Bai national park. In typical Chinese style, this was quite an expensive excursion that involved numerous tickets. First there was a shuttle bus from a huge visitor centre to the foot of the mountain and the official entrance. Then it was all change to a fleet of four-by-fours for the drive up the mountain. To be fair, this made the price worthwhile. Our driver was obviously a frustrated rally driver, throwing us around the back of his vehicle as he skidded round the icy bends as the road snaked up the 2,700m mountain.

IMG_2086The mountain is actually a volcano; at the peak you look down on a huge crater lake that is large enough to have its very own clouds scudding across the frozen surface. It was a stunning, otherworldly place, ideal for the magical birth of Kim Jong Il.

Despite the amazing views, it was blisteringly cold – within minutes I had icicles growing on my moustache that made me look somewhat like a walrus. We headed back down to the entrance and hopped on and off shuttle buses running between the other sights. There are a couple of temples, forests that promised the possibility of wild tigers and hot springs where you can buy boiled duck eggs and slightly sulphurous corn-on-the-cob.

IMG_2085We could have spent much longer exploring, but we had to move on to our next stop, Chang Bai village. Despite its name, this was several hours from the mountain. Somebody obviously has big plans for the place, as there are numerous building sites ringed by billboards depicting scenes of typical German life: There were wooden chalets, men in lederhosen spanking each other, buxom wenches with big foaming steins of beer and sinister grinning snowmen eating what I hope was chocolate. It seems odd that anyone visiting this place would want to pretend they’re in Europe, but who am I to say?

IMG_2070Our hotel for the evening was even odder than the planned German resort. It was furnished throughout in the style of a Renaissance palace – the walls were covered in cheap copies of old master paintings, the bannisters and cornices were all painted gold and even the plug sockets and little filigree decorations. But the oddest thing were the en suite bathrooms – these were glass cubicles offering absolutely no privacy. It’s hard to fathom the logic of this – even if you’re on a honeymoon, you don’t necessarily want to lie on your bed and watch your partner having a poo.

That evening we found a half-decent place for a drink, another typically Chinese club, but with friendly staff who didn’t rip us off. There were a few other customers there, who were drunkenly keen to meet us foreigners. Pier was propositioned by a very pretty girl, who invited him to stay at her place. He thought his luck was in, until her boyfriend materialised and repeated the offer, before playfully sticking his tongue into his earhole.

IMG_2083The next morning we discovered that our hotel directly overlooked the border. It was an odd feeling to sit on a throne-like chair of purple and gold watching the people of North Korea scratching their living across the river.

We had a walk along the riverside and were struck by how the Chinese side resembled the Great Wall. Stone built ‘fortifications’ rose vertically from the water to a height of about 40 foot. However, this barrier obviously wasn’t intended to be impregnable, as there were ladders and even stone staircases placed at intervals. But this is typical of the border in general. Just along the river were short stretches of tall fences topped with razor wire. At either end of these ‘defences’ the ground had been beaten flat by the passage of many feet.

Close to the river there was a fairly extensive retail park that seemed to have been set up in anticipation of thriving cross-border trade. Although there was no sight of any customers, I wonder if it could be a hint of how the DPRK’s relationship with the outside world may be set for change?

Soon it was back on the road, passing through more stunning scenery and tiny unvisited villages. In one place we stopped we were soon surrounded by curious old men, all wearing old-fashioned Mao jackets. It was obvious they had never seen foreigners before and were delighted to pose for photographs. They were all absolutely tiny, and with my frosted beard I felt like Gandalf visiting the Shire.

After feeling that we had left civilisation far, far behind us, it was a shock when we turned a bend in the river and saw something like Las Vegas illuminating the horizon. This was the neon city of Lin Jian, where every building is lit up as if for Christmas.

Although somewhat surreal, it seemed a smart and prosperous place. If the movie Back to the Future had been made in China rather than the USA, it would have been set in a place like this.

IMG_2082When we arrived, communal dance exercises were taking place in the central square, men on one side and women on the other. We found ourselves on the ladies’ side, where three instructors in pink jump suits were standing on the city hall steps leading a large crowd in a merry dance. Unable to resist, some of our party joined the pink-clad leaders, to hoots of laughter and mock-scandalised giggling.

By this time, we were all ready for some western treats, so took dinner at a restaurant that offered things like steak and pizza. As we were eating, a couple arrived, the woman staggeringly drunk and the man angrily pushing her. He shoved her into a seat with loud recriminations and obvious threats. Thankfully, it didn’t turn violent. It’s one of the awful things about provincial China, if you ever tried to intervene the locals would always take the side of a wife-beater over that of a foreigner. Many a westerner has found himself savagely beaten after an attempt at gallantry, often with the wounded woman joining in too.

By this time snow was falling thick and fast, and we enjoyed an atmospheric walk around the psychedelic city before finding a pleasant bar serving some decent cocktails.

We enjoyed a leisurely start the next morning. First stop was a statue of Chen Yun, one of the more interesting of China’s revolutionary leaders. While Mao was in power, he was one of the few people to criticise his policies. “Too Communist,” he said. Then, when Deng Xiaoping came along, he spoke out against the pace of reforms. Despite consistently sticking his neck out, he was never purged, and died a peaceful death in 1995.

It was then a long drive to the small provincial city of Jian. Despite it being home to four million people, we struggled to find anywhere to eat. After tramping the slushy streets for quite some time, we eventually found a very grubby barbecue place, serving nothing but meat on skewers. After trying some beef, lamb and the usual sort of stuff, we just pointed at some random items on the menu, which was painted on the peeling wall. We had some success with chicken hearts and spicy lamb, but then they brought out a pile of skewered moth cocoons. They were about the size of cocktail sausages and the stench of them was awful – somewhere between wet paint and wet dog. Only Pier was brave enough to try one. As he was crunching through the charred outer shell the lady behind the counter indicated that he should spit this out, and just swallow the white goo it contained. It made me feel sick just to watch.

The next day we went to visit some old tombs of the original Korean kings, who founded their dynasty in what is today China before moving south. Along the way we passed sections of the little-known Great Wall of Korea. Obviously, not as impressive as China’s but, I think, older. We weren’t able to make it to the tombs. They are atop a mountain reached via a snow-covered road that was just too steep for our van to cope with. After turning back we noticed an odd building perched on the side of a nearby hill. It looked like a cross between a Disney castle and a high-security prison. After making enquiries, we were told it was a new hotel, so introducing ourselves as tour guides on a reconnaissance trip, we paid a visit.

The place had only just been completed, and although buzzing with dozens of uniformed staff, was not due to open for several months. The detail inside was staggering, wood panelling, mediaeval tapestries and inglenook fireplaces in every room. We were first met by the deputry manager who gave us all a business card and chatted in broken English until his boss arrived.

The general manager eventually turned up and told us how he used to live in England. He looked genuinely sad as he looked around him at the strange mediaeval kitsch and said: “I miss Birmingham so much.” He then smirked, and asked if we’d had a good look at his colleague’s card. I checked, and there in black and white was the poor chap’s name – Peter Pan.

It was quite a fitting name for the place though. Behind the hotel was a vast man-made cave complex, I think aimed at one day being China’s largest wine cellar. It was easy to imagine Captain Hook lurking around every corner.

After this diverting tour it was on to our final destination, Dongdang. This splendidly-named place is the main destination for people to come and do what we’ve being doing all week – peering across the river into North Korea. After some of the places we had visited, it seemed like a positive metropolis, with bars, restaurants and coffee shops.

It also has the catchily-titled ‘Oppose American Imperialism and Aid the Korean People War Museum’. This focuses of the many thousands of Chinese volunteers who flooded into North Korea to fight alongside their Communist comrades. This huge contingent wasn’t mentioned at the Pyongyang War Museum. I suppose it detracts from the narrative of Kim Il Sung single-handedly leading the resistance. But it was an interesting place, and gave a slightly more balanced view of the conflict, with at least one foot planted in reality.

After relaxing in a cafe run by American missionaries – they’re hanging out on the border to protect defectors from the DPRK, I guess – it was onto a sleeper train bound for Beijing. Although I was still in the ‘culture shock’ stage of my relationship with China, it felt like I was on my way home.

02Aug/15

Trippers, Strippers and Buskers with Flippers: Oh to be in Bangkok, Now That April’s There.

Like many travellers, M G Martin has a love-hate relationship with the capital city of The Land of Smiles. In this extract from his diary, he describes roving the city in search of any respite from the crippling heat.

IMG_2195Bangkok in April is like Paris in August — those who can run away to the seaside for a month. It really is horribly hot and humid and difficult to breathe — very much like, I’d imagine, having a freshly soiled nappy clamped to your face.

It’s difficult to do much and any journey, no matter how short, has to be carefully planned with reference to the placement of fans and air conditioning. It really makes me appreciate the peculiar genius of the Thais that leads them to celebrate their new year with a giant water pistol fight. Even though it had started to wear a bit thin, I really miss last week’s constant soakings of Songkran now.

After the festival finished I decided to have a change of scene. Even though I was still enjoying my evenings chilling out with my lovely waitress friend Apple and her colleagues, I was getting a bit sick of the traveller scene around Khaosan Road.

It seems just spending a couple of weeks in this country makes people believe they’re experts. I’m constantly overhearing conversations along these lines: “Have you been to Koh Samui?”

“Yes, I…”

“You don’t want to go there! There’s a much better place just along the coast! Koh Samui used to be good, but now it’s just…blah, blah, blah.”

Or: “How much did you pay for that banana fritter?”

“Oh, err, 30 baht.”

“What?! You should’ve gone to the shop up the alleyway next to Burger King! They’re only 25 and so much better. The woman who makes them has only got one eye and she keeps chickens in the kitchen and it’s a real local’s place and….blah, blah, blah.”

These know-it-alls are uniformly dressed in the approved manner: Vest top with an artfully faded beer logo; ridiculous billowing elephant-print pantaloons; ‘high-performance’ flip-flops and sweatshop-produced shoulder bags that flap around their knees. To complete the look there are ill-advised tattoos, armfuls of bangles and lank greasy hair with bells and bits of twig woven into it.

The worst thing about these people is the pride they take in not spending any money — as though the Thais should be grateful to host them, just because of Who They Are. You see them lined up on the pavements outside convenience stores drinking cans of beer — while just over the road is a bar employing half a dozen local kids and supporting several families. “Yes, but the beer in the bar is 80 baht and cans from 7/11 are only 65. And, actually, I think the bars here are just tourist traps and…blah, blah blah.”

Of course, there is an argument that free-spending tourists with fat wallets make all foreigners look like walking cashpoints, but when you find yourself haggling over a 10p spring roll, you should know you’ve got problems.

But what really boiled my piss was a group of western hippies busking on the pavement. They had a row of beer bottles (bought from the nearby corner shop) filled with differing amounts of water, upon which they tapped out a tune. Just over the street was a disabled harmonica player with flippers for arms, who obviously relies on the few pennies he gets for his very survival. But people were actually giving money to the filthy dreadlocked middle-class bastards. Doubtless when they get back to Belgium (or wherever hippies are spawned) they’ll be joining protests about capitalist agribusiness destroying the livelihoods of Peruvian quinoa farmers or whatever.

IMG_2194I didn’t actually make it out of Bangkok, I just moved across town to the more modern quarter of Sukhumvit. I reasoned there’d be fewer hippies and more air conditioning there. It’s a strange part of town in many ways — almost like a dystopian future where humanity has developed into two distinct sub-species. As you drive along, gleaming new shopping malls alternate with filthy chaotic side streets and alleys. Huge billboards of Hollywood stars flogging scent or wristwatches glower down from the malls onto scenes of the most awful deprivation. Although it’s so mixed together, it’s shockingly obvious how the rich and poor live such separate lives in this city. Adding to the futuristic feel are the huge concrete trackways of the Skytrain system that loom over most of the main streets, making you feel you’re trapped in some sort of underworld, far below the shining skyscrapers reaching up to the heavens.

There wasn’t really much to do, mainly inventing excuses to wander around the air-conditioned malls and eating German food. I’ve discovered that this cuisine is the perfect antidote when you’ve had your fill of rice, noodles and fried things. Thai food is all well and good, but they’re buggers for the fish sauce. You never know when it’s going to turn up. One day I decided to play it safe, and ordered plain noodles with vegetables. “No meat, no fish,” I said. The first mouthful I took had a big lump of anchovy in it. So I’ve a whole new respect for Teutonic cuisine now — eating asparagus, cured ham, mashed potato and sauerkraut has felt like taking delicious life-givng medicine. And the restaurant was air conditioned.

Most evenings would find me sitting at a street-side bar, under a fan, just outside the Nana Plaza, which bills itself as “the world’s largest adult entertainment venue” but is known locally (and somewhat unkindly) as “Three Floors of Whores”. Just at the entrance to the central courtyard is a little free-standing Buddhist shrine. As the girls come in to work, they all stop in front of it and make a respectful bow, with their hands steepled together over their faces. Some kick off their high heels and kneel in prayer, while others leave offerings. None of them ignore it. It really encapsulates one of the great mysteries of Thailand — how it can be such a traditional and conservative place at the same time as being so bawdy and outrageous. It’s hard to imagine a western stripper saying her Hail Marys before dancing suggestively with a courgette.

The offerings left by the girls were interesting. Traditionally shrines would be decked with fruit and flowers and things like that. But these days, it seems, Buddha has developed a taste for fizzy pop, particularly Fanta. When I saw girls offering cans, they’d carefully open them and put in a straw. It seems strange that they’d be necessary to draw out the transcendental essence of the base physical matter. But I guess Buddha insists on it — he’s always struck me as being a bit babyish. I bet if they gave him sandwiches he’d demand that the crusts were cut off.

The venues inside the plaza are the usual sort of go-go bars you find throughout South East Asia, but with a much rougher edge. In the Philippines, for example, many of the girls you find in these places are happy to get their cut of a ‘lady drink’ and have a chat and a laugh. But at Nana Plaza it’s straight to the chase — using lewd hand gestures the girls immediately suggest that you pay their bar fine and take them home with you. Of course, most of the girls are doing this for the same sort of reasons — usually an illegitimate child back home in the provinces, or a mother who needs ten shags-worth of medicine per week — and their desperation to pocket some cash is all too clear, and sad to see.

Overall, it was quite a dispiriting place. But — and this is a big ‘but’ — these go-go bars are the only places in the Kingdom of Thailand where you can smoke inside an air-conditioned room.

I’m back in the Khaosan area now, already being aggravated by vest-wearing tosspots. Today I was having lunch when a local chap walked quietly between the tables distributing flyers advertising cut-price buses to various resorts. A Cockney woman who’d been yabbering on at the next table suddenly leapt from her seat and started shouting, waving the flier. “Mate! Mate! I don’t need this! I’ve bin everywhere in Thailand, I ‘ave! Don’t need it! Yer just wastin’ yer paper! Wastin’ yer paper!” She forced the leaflet back into his hand. He just shrugged and carried on with his job.

She then turned to her poor dining companion, who was red-faced with embarrassment and wiping her spit off his face. “I said to him, I said, you ‘ear what I said? ‘I don’t need ‘em’, that’s what I said. ‘Wastin’ paper,’ I said. Hahahahahahahaha! Bin everywhere I ‘av. All over…

“So, anyhow, ‘ave yer bin to Koh Samui?”

27Jul/15

Where the open road began: The ancient homeland of the original nomads

Summer was arriving in Kashmir’s Sindh Valley. The ice was retreating up the towering mountains and the fragrant heather was lending the hillsides a cloak of purple. Far below, the river ran wide with melted snow. As the seasons move, so the time comes for annual migrations.

The call of cuckoos carried a melancholy air of farewell, a sound I’d usually associate with autumn in the English countryside. The darting swallows seemed to be taking a final look at their winter home, as they prepared for their astonishing journey to the insect-rich wilderness of Siberia.

The path we were following along the steep slope was only a foot-span wide, marked out by the passage of sheep and cattle. Our destination was a collection of rough stone-built huts, the summer abode of the original Gypsies, who when I visited with a local guide were still on the road, herding their sheep up from their winter pastures.

Today this is a small population, the remnant of a people who started travelling towards the setting sun, and never stopped. Here however, in this remote outpost of Northern India, the Gypsies continue with their ancient twice-yearly migration between lowland and upland.

IMG_2504-350x184

Why they set out on their epic westward journey, nobody really knows, but it was almost certainly triggered by the sort of persecution that has dogged their steps ever since.

There has always been confusion about the origins of the Gypsies, reflected in the various names they have been given over the years. Gypsy is a shorted form of “Egyptian”, based on a colourful theory that they were descended from the Biblical innkeeper of ‘Little Egypt’ who turned away Mary and Joseph. For this reason, it was suggested, they had embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome to seek forgiveness — hence “Roma”.

Perhaps more accurate is their name in Central Europe — Sinti, which almost certainly is derived from “Sindh”. This theory is backed up by many aspects of Romani culture, particularly the language, which is closely related to Sanskrit. Why they set out on their epic westward journey, nobody really knows, but it was almost certainly triggered by the sort of persecution that has dogged their steps ever since.

Their “summer residences” had none of the luxuries that such a description would usually suggest — no verandas, fountains or rose gardens. Just tiny earth-floored hovels (ironically, this word is possibly related to the Hindi word “haveli” — which means private mansion) with a small hearth and a door. However, they do come with million-dollar views, and herb gardens that stretch from horizon to horizon.

IMG_2493-1-350x261Quite how old they are would be impossible to guess. But they did carry that sense of antiquity that you can almost taste in very old buildings. I like to think they dated from before the great migration.

The houses are built into the slopes, meaning that the packed earth roof seems to be just an extension of the hillside, a natural ledge on the incline. Approaching from above, it would be easy not to realise you were standing on top of somebody’s home.

image-1-300x300Even though they were all standing empty, it seemed somehow disrespectful to poke around too much, so after taking a few pictures, we headed down the slope to the waiting car.

About half way back to Srinigar — I was staying in a houseboat on the city’s Dal Lake — a turn in the road revealed a field full of tents. These were the neutral-coloured practical sort favoured by refugee agencies and the like. But this wasn’t any sort of humanitarian crisis, just the travelling kit of the returning Gypsies.

From the fleeting view I had, the camp was a cheerful place. Brightly dressed children darted around the tents like swallows on the wing, and women smiled and laughed as they stirred steaming cauldrons of food. Even the large flock of sheep that trimmed the grass around the site seemed content with their lot in life.

My guide seemed to pick up on my train of thought. “They are very happy now,” he said. “Only ten more days walking and they will be home again for the summer.”