Tinsel Town, North Korea
How many conversations involve the questions and answers "Hey, do you want to go to North Korea with me?"......"I'm not doing anything on that weekend...sure." I am gonna go out on a
limb and say a fraction of a fraction of 1% of the all conversations that are exchanged between all the chatter boxes out there involve a combination of those words. Fortunately and fatefully, that question and that answer were both featured in a phone call between Alicia, (my friend and Korea travel partner) and myself; and after a few clicks of the mouse on the information superhighway our trip to North Korea was set in place. A trip....a trip to North Korea.
What kind of expectations do you entertain before going to one of today's most notorious totalitarian dictatorships? Was it going to be a harsh stay in third world style surroundings? Were we going to be shuttled around by gun toting communist soldiers like a fragile breakable toy? Were we going to have to do jumping jacks in the morning after sleeping in small and uncomfortable cells? (For the record, these situations were all what I secretly wanted...and none came remotely close to being met).
I had absolutely no idea what to expect besides what our meager itinerary consisted of for our
48 hours stay: many hours of hiking Guemgang San Mountain, many hours of bus transportation, and many less hours of sleep. The latter was a formality whose impact was much more devastating than anticipated. (A lack of sleep and the resulting drug like and lackadaisical effect was a recurring theme to one of the strangest weekends of my life) Oh yeah, and a few other planned activities that through my expectations for a loop: stays at hippy mineral baths/hot springs and early evening entertainment at the North Korean circus featuring the flying Stalinists and their acrobatic wonders.
Let me give an overview of the timeline that we were subjected to:Saturday 12:00am
Leave from Seoul on two chartered buses with about 90 foreigners.5:00am
Arrive just south of North Korean border to where we had to change buses. Sleep meter: 1.5 hours of shitty REMless shut eye.7:00am
Arrive South Korea immigration and pass through the DMZ (no picture taking aloud). Sleep meter: 2.0 total hours.8:00am
North Korean immigration. We are told to avoid eye contact with guards, not to smile, and not to speak Korean to them. I told one of the guards he looked good in his uniform. He then blew his nose in my passport. I am joking.8:30am
4 hour hike of Guemgong San. After avoiding falling off the mountain due to my sleep deprived almost drunken state, spiritual nirvana was attained at the top.2:00pm
Free time. Devouring of the cultural North Korean dish of fried chicken and beer. Moderate intake of alcohol with new found friends. Hot shower. 30 minute nap from heaven. 4:00pm
Acrobatic wonders of the "Flying Stalinists." My snoring was heard outside the building.7:00pm
Free time. Breaking the ice with an epic drinking game of KINGS.11:00pm
Noray bong (kareokee) of mirth and euphoria with a plethora of new found friends.Sunday12:45am
Sleepy sleep sleep. In a 4 star luxurious hotel. In NK. For reasons known only to
myself, I got horrible sleep, maybe 3 or 4 hours. Total sleep for the past two days = 6-7 hours.7:00am
Hotel breakfast that included fish, kimchi and rice. Boarding of bus to second hike.8:30am
Three hour hike of Manmulsan. 8 hours of total hiking, roughly 15 km in the past 24 hours. Breathtaking views; wobbly, wobbly legs.3:00pm
Board busses to go back to South Korea.5:00pm
Arrive back at North Korean immigration. I was the only foreigner detained by NK soldiers because I had damaged my temporary passport. I am not joking. I was fined an undisclosed sum of money. I seriously have a receit. That night, Kim Jong Ills drinks were on me.11:30pm
Arrive back in Seoul, my beloved South. Managed roughly 2 hours of painful sleep. Trains and subways stop running in a city of 12 million at 11pm. Alicia and I were stranded and decided on a Jimjill bong, an inexpensive Korean blend of a gender segregated sauna / steam room / hot tub / communal shower / sleeping room.Monday2:00am
Find a jimjill bong in Myeong-dong, Seoul.
My travel partner decides she hates me due to the fact that I apparently turn into a monkey full of retarded comments and she turns into Cruella Deville under situations of sleep deprivation.6:00am
Wakeup and catch a taxi to Seoul station to catch a train to Pyongtaek. Alicia is still incapable of speech due to her being robbed of sleep. I asked if she liked the jimjillbong and
she snapped something unintelligible back at me with a look in her eye that screamed "I will remove a testicle with a spoon."8:00am
Open the door of my apartment and collapse on my bed. Am overtaken by deep, black, dreamless sleep. I teach in less than 4 hours. Interpretation:
Traveling into the north was surprising in that the land was not built upon and was pristine. And then you snapped out of that relative calm to notice the one random communist soldier perched at the top of a hill every 300 yards or so along the road. Brainwashed sentinels of a
collapsing regime, dotting the landscape. Just standing and watching. The small village square we ultimately ended up at was beautiful and clean on the outside, but after being there for extended period of time....The place started to echo with silent screams of hollowness, of fabrication. You knew you were just being spoon fed a pretty and sugar coated little theme town that was simply created to give the impression of stability and happiness. An image at complete odds with the country we were in. Aside from random patrols of soldiers in those muted brown uniforms (I will never forget the uniforms), I am pretty sure the town was staffed almost completely by South Koreans. At any moment during the day in this tinsel town of NK, there was music being played over loudspeakers....I couldn't tell if the song changed or if it was looped. Just a Korean woman singing the same indecipherable words over and over.
We were given our first and only true taste of what North Korea was while we were leaving. After traveling maybe a mile from tinsel town NK, off in the distance you could see crumbling and deteriorating concrete structures that looked uninhabited. I fear they weren't. I can remember thinking if these people get education in any form. Are they taught? What do they know? What do they believe?
A weekend relatively empty of the true craziness and mayhem that I love and seek. A weekend quietly exploding with surreality. A weekend full of things so bizarre, so extraneous, so fake. I was and upon recollection, am still left scratching and shaking my head with a silly, awkward smile. The time flew by with the blink of an eye, yet I know the memories will always be. I read somewhere that memory is like a child walking along the seashore. You never can tell what small pebble it will pick up and store away among its treasured things.