Category Archives: Chris Kelly

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30Aug/15

North Korea favourites – thoughts of a North Korean tour guide

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

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Building in North Korea – Tower of the Juche Idea

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

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

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

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

Activity in North Korea –  Munsu Water Park

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

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

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

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

northkoreaarmyRestaurant in North Korea – Train’s Restaurant Car

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

Experience in North Korea – Marathon

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

29Aug/15

Adventure in the North East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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29Aug/15

Sports in North Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

29Aug/15

Pyongyang Marathon – An Indescribable Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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