Instead of the Ryugyong, like most foriegn visitors to Pyongyang I found myself staying at the Yanggakdo Hotel. The Yanggakdo Hotel is a slice of Cold War Bondesque paranoia writ large. The hotel is located on an island (Yanggakdo Island, strangely enough) in the Taedong River, just south of the city. Separated from the rest of Pyongyang by a commanding, majestic bridge, Yanggakdo Island is intended as an oasis of western affluence in a desert of North Korean Koreanness. On it is the Pyongyang driving range, the Pyongyang international cinema (which has, in the past, screened Bend it Like Beckham as part of the annual film festival) and the Yanggakdo Football Stadium. Though access to the island is not technically restricted, the only North Koreans who find their way onto the island are those involved in business with foreigners. Typical NKorean paranoia dictates that anyone else there without a good reason is most likely a spy, and given that teh North Korean justice system is not known for its commitment to due process, NKoreans stay away in droves.
The Yanggakdo Hotel is a surprisingly lively place, populated by a range of oddball characters, many of them up to no good, and oddball places for them to be odd and be no good. The lobby is a vast expanse of open-plan marble flooring, with imposing chandaliers hanging down from the ceiling. The reception desk mimicks that of every western hotel, although one suspects that there are all sorts of secrets lying within its drawers. The hotel reaches up to 45 floors, and a glass elevator smoothly glides upward to the sky. Clearly, many of the floors are without guests, and one suspects that it has been a while since those beds were occupied. Wandering around the 30th floor, where our group were staying, there seemed to be a discreetly hidden series of liftshafts, whose purpose remained unclear.
The rooms were largely unremarkable as hotel rooms go. In ours, two single beds sat side by side, with a small bedside table between them. A desk in the corner, a bathroom with all the basic creature comforts, and a decent set of wardrobes filled the space. A little strangely, a lamp sat in the corner with no apparently off switch other than the main switch to power the whole room near the door. The room also boasted a TV, which intermittantly broadcast STAR sports from Hong Kong, CCTV from China, some Japanese TV, a Russian TV channel, Juche TV (of course), and strangely enough BBC. Admittedly, the BBC reception was non-existant for part of our stay, but at other times it was clear. On the night of 16 February, I sat watching BBC broadcast footage of the Kim Jong Il birthday celebrations from earlier that day, as well as some critical commentators from Seoul, all broadcast without interuption.
1 level below ground in the Yanggakdo is a rabbit-warren of paths and tunnels, which may - like the Pyongyang Metro - act as a safety bunker in case of attack. Wandering through these halls, you can find a small convenience store, a karaoke bar, a ten-pin bowling alley, a billiards hall and a travel agency. Though many of these places see few visitors, they are all attentively staffed by North Koreans who are eager to help, and are some of the few who work in jobs which expose them regularly to foreigners, and to foreign currency.
On our first night in Pyongyang, our group of six (four visitors plus our two guides) headed to the karaoke bar for a bit of bonding, Korean-style. Flicking through the bilingual catalogue, there were a number of dreary sounding North Korean songs (Anyone for Let's defend Socialism?) as well as a very tame collection of English songs (Edelweiss, My Love Wil Go On, etc). After hearing a wonderful rendition of Rod Stewart's Sailing from our talented guide Miss Pak, we all dived in to a rendition of Hotel California. As we got to the last paragraph, you couldn't help but wonder if the place that was sung about was a little closer to home:
Mirrors on the ceiling
Pink champagne on ice
And she said
We are all just prisoners here
Of our own device
And in the master's chambers
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can't kill the beast
Last thing I remember
I was running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
Relax said the nightman
We are programed to recieve
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave
Elsewhere in the hotel is a glitzier, more upmarket entertainment area. Facing each other one floor below ground was the Casino Pyongyang, a Macanese restaurant, a massage parlour and an Egyptian-themed karaoke disco (the last two blatantly doubling as brothels for tired Chinese businessmen). The Casino is a bizarre little place, with a single room with a handful of mah-jong and craps tables, as well as a bevvy of bored Chinese croupiers outnumbering gamblers ten to one. Technically, the Casino doesn't really exist, and the NK government puts up with it because it is such a handy source of hard currency. Increasingly, NK is being sold to wealthy Chinese as a gambling destination. The staff are all Chinese, and are not permitted to leave Yanggakdo Island. No wonder they look bored.
Back on the ground floor of the hotel is a selection of equally bland and generic restaurants. Restaurant Number 1 and Restaurant Number 2 offer the sort of food you'd expect from restaurants with that level of imagination in their title, whilst there is also a Japanese and Korean restaurant. Whilst it is churlish to complain about the quality of food is a country riddled with starvation, it is safe to say that what the food lacks in taste it more than makes up for in quantity.
One night in a desperate search for the handful of foreigners living in Pyongyang, we headed to the second floor of the Koryo Hotel, closer to the centre of town. Spending an hour or two in the billiard hall, we came across a group of Russians who were in town for a dance and musical performance. (We were later to discover that they had been watched the previous evening by none other than The Dear Leader himself, and as we chatted footage of the standing ovation received by KJI was being broadcast on Juche TV. It would be the only time we would see recent images on him in our trip to DPRK.) Though more centrally located, the Koryo Hotel had all the (lack of) charm of our own hotel, and makes choosing between the two a rather unappetising proposition.
During our trip to Kaesong, we were lucky enough to stay at the cosy Kaesong Minsok Hotel (translated as 'Folk Hotel'). As a traditional yeogwan, the hotel offers low beds on the floor, with amazingly effective below-ground heating. The rooms are wonderfully quaint, with curtains, chairs and teapots all in the traditional Korean style, spoiled only by an television sitting in the corner. Seemingly, we were the only guests for the night, and so were given wonderful hospitality by the host who prepared a Korean dinner and left us to wander along the banks of the creek which meanders lazily through the hotel. As a cultural experience - unbeatable.
On the road to Kaesong.