Saturday, February 26, 2005

Streets of Pyongyang

The most interesting part of the trip was the time spent travelling between sites, where we could watch outside the bus and see what life was like for ordinary Pyongyangers.

The first thing that you notice is that there are so few cars on the road. Most of the traffic is on foot or on pedal, with a constant stream of pedestrians dominating some streets. People seem to be much like the denizens of any other Asian developing world capital - dressed in basic but adequate clothing, generally walking in small groups, often avoiding eye-contact, and slightly hunched over as if to remain as unnoticed as possible. There is no particular urgency to movement in Pyongyang - I guess there are few places worth rushing to. Oddly, there is a large collection of newly minted 'Pedestrian Crossing' signs, black and white on a blue background, which are placed anywhere that a pedestrian might be moderately interested in crossing the road.

Another strange pedestrian quirk is the proliferation of underpasses in the city. Presumably in anticipation of large volumes of traffic (or a nuclear holocaust, whichever comes first), the government has constructed frequent, caverous road underpasses. Even though there is usually no traffic whatsoever approaching, all pedestrians without exception will use the underpass if it is available where they wish to cross. This provides a fascinating little glimpse into the people's relationship with figures of authority - they will blindly follow the rules, regardless of whether the rule is necessary or not. Few people anywhere else in the world would use an underpass to cross a deserted road.

Men on the streets seem to have cigarettes permanently positioned in their hand, although most seem to puff only occassionally and use the ciggie as a cheap prop. Perhaps to warm themselves in the cold. Women, however, don't seem to have picked up the habit.

The wild streets

There is a decent trolley-bus system operating in Pyongyang as well. Aging vehicles trundle along tracks on the road, usually bursting at the seams with passangers and in a mild state of disrepair. The vehicles appear to be quite poorly maintained, and it was not uncommon to see groups of concerned men hunched over a broken down vehicle. The tram and bus stops had a serenely peaceful order to them, with long lines of commuters waiting patiently single file along the road at a stop.

Cars are still scarce in Pyongyang. Though it was hard to tell from what was seen, apparently most cars are either those of government or military workers, their families, NGOs or diplomatic vehicles. Most seem to cruise along the streets well below their potential speed, perhaps mindful of the number of pedestrians around them.

Thankfully there are some cars on the road, since it justifies the existence of the PyongyangRoboTrafficCopWomen (PRTCW, which they will now be known as in the absense of anything catchier). These women are dressed in a sobering police uniform and wear heavy white make up. PRTCW stand in a small painted circle in the middle of an intersection, and direct traffic with complete and utter humourlessness, robotically moving their arms and rotating their bodies to guide the occassional vehicle through the intersection. The PRTCW seem to be universally respected by motorists and pedestrians alike, and are some of the few women in NK with any sort of power or authority. Sadly, the days of the PRTCW may be numbered, with traffic lights already installed at some inner-city intersections, although none of the traffic lights were yet functioning. Thankfully.



Anonymous said...

Unfortunately? Yes, b/c they'll be out of a job. But a job that consists of directing traffic in a traffic-less city in the freezing cold, standing, for hours on end.
I'd feel better with a traffic light. They're prestigious and pretty, they'll find work elsewhere. Better work hopefully than that shitty job. Otherwise, good website.

Anonymous said...

The risks of smoking aren't well publicised there. And cigarettes/nicotine are one of the few acceptable pleasures/vices in NK. And they;re cheap. Nicotine also represses hunger. I smoke here (USA/Japan) but I'd CERTAINLY smoke there!

Anonymous said...

Heck, if I was NK I would smoke too, smoke like a friggin' wood-fired bbq, 3 cigs at once! Why not... Why extend your life when there's so little to live for? Would smoke lots of other things too, but probably not available and would shorten life a bit too quickly... but is that such a bad thing?

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