О насVOSTOK Magazine - это первое независимое медиа об обществе, культуре, истории и политике стран Ближнего и Дальнего Востока. Мы пишем обо всем, что кажется нам важным и интересным.
As I was watching the sun rise over Beijing six hours after departing from Moscow Sheremet’evo Airport I was in a special mood. Neither myself, nor anyone from my family has ever gone East this far. It is an unexplored, strange place, yet a somewhat special one for the Russian soul that is always on a search of an adventure.
In Marco Polo’s times the East was believed to be inhabited with some half-man-half-dog beasts with tales and muzzles. This view has been luckily changed in more than 800 years. Today all of us have an idea who, for instance, the Chinese people are. Still even in the 21st century there is something to amuse us: elderly people from the Heavenly Empire who were on the same plane with us looked like they came from some hick town. They were pushing, squinting and running round the plane with their thermos cups in search of boiling water to make some Pu-erh tea. Even though I was aware of the peculiarities of their national character, the impression was rather unpleasant.
After arriving to the Beijing’s airport (where the traffic on the takeoff strip is comparable to the one on the Moscow’s Leningradsky Highway), changing planes and almost 20 hours after the departure our team finally reached Pyongyang. As we were flying closer, we saw our dreams come to life: mountains, rice fields, a slight gauze somewhere in the horizon… I could not think about anything but an opportunity to get in touch with things that most people of the Earth would not likely to experience in the near future.
When we had landed, I looked out of the illuminator and had a fugitive feeling of being in the Moscow area – same fields but with mountains. I could see six old “Air Koryo” planes standing in the open air which were thoroughly examined by the local working class. Portraits of Chief the Grandfather and Chief the Father were looking down at us from the main airport building.
Two members of the Russian Embassy met us at the airport and led us to a four-room flat with Internet connection and hot water supply where we could stay every day until 11 p.m. Considering that the Pyongyang metro closes at 9:30 p.m. our allowed stay at the Embassy appeared to be even shorter. They let us stay at the Embassy overnight on weekends nevertheless, which was quite convenient.
After the greetings at the airport we were taken to the Kim Il-sung University’s dorm, which was the main place we stayed at for a month. The diplomats warned us that our luggage would be looked through after our check-in at the dormitory, but we should not worry, it was perfectly normal. The portraits of the Chiefs were hanging in every room. While we had still been in Moscow senior students had told us that there were bugs hidden behind them but we did not get an opportunity to check it. After checking-in we came to realize that almost everyone in the dormitory was Chinese. And it was hard to decide what was worse: to have no Europeans around you or to have a lot of Chinese. As we found out later, Chinese students were having a 7-month-long probation there and the only leisure activities they had were mahjong, Ping-Pong and a TV with two available channels. North Korean students also lived in the dormitory with us. Their main objective was to help us with any problems we had and, to tell the truth, we had plenty of them.
When we stepped outside for the first time, I felt shiver run down my spine. It is impossible to describe the feeling of every single person around looking at you as you go down the street. The children are laughing, the grown-ups peep at your poky clothing style as they see it. We paid them back with ironic smiles. Because how could anyone not feel ironic watching identical people wearing identical clothes having identical expressions on their faces? Everyone wore badges. The DPRK’s government is really strict about those. They are said to have numbers, every single one; the loss or disposal of a badge is punished. On our last day after arriving at the airport, I saw an interesting detail: wealthy dressed North Koreans, most likely high-ranking – who else might have an opportunity to leave the country? – prefer to wear badges that were really hard to notice, not more than 1cm in diameter. Could they be ashamed?
The main purpose of our month-long probation was to get to the unknown in the Korean language. We did this 5 days a week from 8 to 11 a.m. We woke up at 6:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m. in Moscow) and had our breakfast, which consisted of a glass of milk, rice porridge, an egg and some bread. Tuesday was a blessed day, because on Tuesdays we had milk toasts.
The University was located on the top of a hill, where we had to go on foot. We had two teachers whose names were Kim and Park. We got on pretty well with professor Park after discussing and comparing Russian and North Korean alcohol production. By the way, I drank the best beer I had ever drunk in my life in Pyongyang. It was called “Taedonggang” after the name of the river the city stands on. This beer is one of the few things I am still missing.
We also had plenty of amusing moments during our lessons. For instance, once we were discussing adjectives and Comrade Park asked me to describe Russia and Russians. It did not take me long to think and I said that Russians are kind and welcoming people. Then I asked what Korea is like and got an immediate reply that “Korea is the country of the greatest Chiefs”. Comrade Kim once made a mistake when we were discussing the Great Chief and the year he had been born. To our surprise, the teacher wrote the year 1942 on the blackboard. I did not know, what caused the mistake, but she did not fixed it by the end of the lesson. Once we got complimented in Korean. It went like this: “Comrade Kostya, your face is as white as a woman’s face”; “Comrade Maria, you are as tall as a man”; “Comrade Vadim, you are a four-eyes”.
There was not much fun in the city: no bars, no cinemas, not to mention nightclubs. It was rumored that there is an island of Wonders in the center of Pyongyang, where North Korean senior ranks enjoy themselves. I did not see it by myself, but diplomats confirmed the information. We spent our free time in all the possible ways: one day we went to the museum, then – to the aqua park, we even went up the Juche Tower. On the Victory Day (of the Korean War) we were taken to the Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jung-il’s mausoleum. When we came close to the sarcophagus a group of North Korean women started crying as if they just had one of their limbs cut off. However when they were leaving the room they seemed totally at peace. I tried to figure out if their tears were sincere and the only answer I got was “They know how they are expected to act, they have to break into tears”.
There is a strict dress code in the country: men are forbidden to wear shorts and jeans, so are women, who are allowed to wear only skirts “20 cm below the knee”. Last year North Korean women were permitted to wear shoes with heels, and as a result the shops became full of cheap and undurable shoes exported from China. Students and schoolers have to wear uniforms. In summer, when the temperature is about 36ºC, male students have to wear a pair of trousers, a shirt and a red tie, and female students put on blouses and skirts.
There is a chain of European restaurants in Pyongyang. They are quite unusual as anything else in the DPRK: the food is spicy and Russian Victory day concerts (!) are broadcasted on the LCD screens. There are four types of currency in the city: local won (“Joseon tong”), euro, yuan and dollar. Even in the city’s smallest beer stands there are calculators which North Korean grannies use to convert your money in the currency they find the most suitable. Once we got our change in 5 euro, 20 yuan and a gum pellet.
“Goodbye, nice life”, – one of my friends said once after exiting the Embassy building. And he was damn right because we spent all our time in Pyongyang running from one place to another due to the lack of time, transportation problems (we were not allowed to use any kind of above-ground transport except the taxi, and they checked us in the metro every time) and extremely hot weather. Taxis had appeared in Pyongyang only recently. Being a foreigner you would never catch a car on the street, at least, we did not manage to. The only place we could find a taxi was a square close to the subway station of the Russian Embassy. We were allowed there to get into the car after about three attempts. However, we had to catch the taxi before 6 p.m. as after that time all the cars drove away.
I would like to mention the Saturday football matches in the Russian Embassy, which attracted diplomats from all over Pyongyang, from Nigerian to Indian. The rumble of so-called “Propaganda cars” that broadcasted patriotic songs and recent news around the district accompanied international matches.
When I returned to Moscow my friends asked me how I liked Korea. I did not know how to cease a month of my life into one sentence, so I said: “80% of things they say about North Korea is made up. But I still can not get how their regime and their lives still hold on and do not collapse like a house of cards”. A trip to the DPRK was an unforgettable experience, which changed a lot in my consciousness and gave me new ground in studying the Great East.
On behalf of our group, I would like to thank Zheleznykov Dmity Ivanovich, Kosheev Oleg Anatol’evich and his wife, Tret’yakov Dmitry Nikolaevich and Tsaryova Svetlana Viktorovna, the members of the Embassy of Russian Federation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, for all the help and understanding.