Monday, February 28, 2005

Pyongyang Metro

The PM is where two of my favourite interests reunite in one glorious symphany. As both a North Korea watcher and a trainspotter, it is thrilling to see and travel upon this feat of modern engineering. Apparently I'm not the only fan of this fine mode of transportation - this unofficial site for the PM tells you plenty more than I ever could.

The PM is deeper than almost any metro system anywhere in the world. Due to a combination of paranoia and the 'cos we can' factor, the PM is a hundred metres below ground. On regular occassions, Pyongyangers will participate in emergency drills which will see them rush to their nearest metro station and hide down its cavernous tunnels. Whether this would be particularly effective in the face on a heavy South Korean/US arsenal is hard to tell, but I guess it can't hurt.

The station at work


As tourists, we were only aloud to visit two stops on the PM, and travel between them - from Puhong (Rehabilitiation) to Yongwang (Glory). We entered one weekday morning with a rush of Koreans subtly eyeing us as they headed into the station. On the wall to one side was a map of the Metro system, with a rather ambitious feature where the commuter pushes a button corresponding to their desired destination, and the appropriate Metro path is illuminated. With only two lines operational it was perhaps a little unnecessary, but would not doubt be a major source of entertainment were it actually working.

Where do you want to go today?


We ventured toward the escalator and was waved through by a stern looking woman checking tickets at the entrance. Apparently our guide had made the necessary arrangements. Koreans headed to ticket checker with their 2-won paper ticket in hand, issued by the understaffed ticket booth to the side. We then headed down the longest escalator (presumably, if we were going down, it should be a de-escalator) which covered the full hundred metre vertical drop. It is difficult to convey in pictures just how exceptionally long this flight was, but it took several minutes to get to the bottom.

Bright lights, big city


The station we ventured into - and the one we soon exited at - were sites that Pyongyangers obviously take great pride in. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling, some formal, others attempting to represent fireworks exploding above us, whilst to the sides, behind the tracks, were majestic murals, at one station depicting life either side of the Taedong River in Pyongyang, whilst at the other depicting KIS in all his deceased glory. Perhaps the most famous image from the Pyongyang Metro is the mosiac of KIS guiding the workers of the Metro in their endeavours. Is there anything that man couldn't do?

Kim Il Sung... the engineer


Finally we boarded the train, a clean, simple vehicle with several carriages along the length of the track. It was late in the morning, and whilst most seats were taken, the train was not at all full. The train moved smoothly along the track, and apart from the very occasional glance from a Pyongyanger surprised to see us aboard, there was little remarkable about the trip. As all tourists must, I befriended a few local commuters, spoke to them in a language they don't understand, had a photo taken, and then walked out of their lives.

Catching a ride with some friends.


As we emerged at the other end of our epic journey, we took some time to admire the architecture and sheer beauty of the scene - not something metro stations are known for. Slowly we sauntered toward the escalator, staring wide-eyed at all around us.

All Aboard!!


There are also rumours floating around about PM, some as truth, some as muckraking.

The suggestion that the PM network as on the map does not exist, and only the two stations open to tourists do, is complete crap. On our trip, there were plenty of ordinary people doing their daily commute, and the openly publicised map was not simply for our amusement. As we pulled out of the second station, there will plenty of people still on board continuing on their journey. True, around town you see few signs indicating subway entrances, but nor was the one we visited particularly well sign-posted. Perhaps just another bout of paranoia in keeping them hidden a little. More likely is that the other stations are less ornate than the one we visited, and that's why they are not available to foreigners.

Another suggestion is that there are additional, unpublished lines which exist to serve the military and government elite as a link between various important buildings in Pyongyang. Quite possibly some truth, with nothing I saw confirming or denying. The third suggestion is that there is some sort of underground city below the depths of the Metro, quite possibly where important military infrastructue and equipment is held. Again, nothing to confirm or negate, although an interesting story backing this up was told by a frequent NK visitor.

Clearly the PM is an important part of how ordinary people move about the city, and it was fun to be a part of it. Would hate to be trapped down there if the bombs start dropping, though.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

The ego of the Kims

North Koreans seem to have an intense fascination with their leaders. As NK's founding president, Kim Il Sung was adored and celebrated by his people... or at least that's the impression left my the endless pictures and monuments in honour of the man. Such was his impact on NK that he was enshrined in the country's constitition as a permanent president, meaning that his death in 1994 had no impact on the status of his presidency. He is often affectionly referred to by NKers as the "Great Leader". His son, Kim Jong Il fought of a number of contenders before being announced as successor, and has earnt himself the honorific title of "Dear Leader". Despite the fact that he has yet to break his duck in giving a speech in his time as national leader, he is revered in the same spirit as his father was.

It is difficult to appreciate just how central these two figures are to North Korean life. Their images are omnipresent, and their auro worshipped. A few quick examples to demonstrate how Kim-crazy NK really is:

- Portraits of KIS and KJI appear in most rooms in all public buildings. People have also taken (possibly with some coersion) to putting up pictures of the two in their homes. All this creates the eerie sensation of being constantly under the watchful eye of an untrusting father - two, in fact. It would be fair to parallel this Kim devotion with the obsession with the cross shown by many committed Christians. Indeed, admiration of the Kims seems to have overtaken any sort of organised religion.

Il Sung on the left, and Jong Il on the right


- The central attaction in Pyongyang is a 26 metre tall statue of Kim Il Sung, who reaches commandingly into the skies. The statue in Mansudae is a central gathering point in Pyongyang, and one that many workers will visit as part of their daily routine. On our visit, many locals were expressing their thanks and placing bundles of flowers at his feet. As the Lonely Planet guide points out, its worth remembering that this monolith was constructed whilst KIS was still alive as a birthday celebration, rather than being a tribute after his death. The man had balls, big dangly steel ones, it appears.

Kim Il Sung Grand Monument at Munsudae


- With astonishing predictability, many of the major buildings and institutions are named after K1 or K2. The most prestigious university in NK - Kim Il Sung University. The central gathering point - Kim Il Sung Square. The two national flowers - Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia.

- Public art and culture is slavishly devoted to the Kims as well. During our visit, the Kimjongilia Flower Festival was on in honour of KJI's 63rd birthday. The festival consisted of various arrangements of the single type of flower under courageous portraits of the Dear Leader. Various public institutions with stands at the festival seem to have tried to outdo each other in their sycophancy. In other demonstrations of the trend, a public art show consisted almost exclusively of portraits of KJI in heroic poses, like a "Where's Wally" for complete idiots. With some pictures, one sensed a clearly talented landscape painter desperately seeking to throw Kim from the canvas, but lacking the courage.

Kimjongilia Flower Show


- Various other Kim flotsum and jetsum... 80% of the titles at a bookshop visited by the tour were either written about or written by (or sometimes both) the Kims... a preface at the start of a children's book explained that the story that followed was once told by Kim Jong Il in his younger days... every adult Korean wears a small badge portrait of KIS on their lapel, and last year a request was issued by KJI that badges with his photo not be worn because - wait for it - he claims to be a shy man. Go figure.

But is this public honouring of the Kims genuine, or is it the product of a malicious state who will punish those who don't comply? Strange at it may seem, the admiration appears genuine. People seemed to be genuinely uplifted by small daily encounters with Kimthings, and wore the badges on their lapels with pride and distinction. Perhaps this is a product of growing up knowing little else, given that it has been instilled as a way of life for over half a century. NKorean people seem to feel that they are genuinely blessed to have such divine guidance... two times over!

More Kim


One wonders, though, what it says about the ego of any individual who requires such regular, graphic demonstrations of admiration. Clearly there is an underlying insecurity in the character of KIS and KJI, particularly KJI who has no real notable achievements to his name yet is lauded with such unbridled joy. At some points, there is a strange sexual overtone to the admiration, particularly with people speaking of their desire to 'please the Dear Leader' and their earnest pledge to do 'anything for the Dear Leader'. The scary part is that KJI seems to believe his own publicity, and struts the public stage as if the outpouring of admiration is both genuine and deserved.

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.

PRTCW

North Korea as a tourist

Travel to North Korea is very heavily resticted. You cannot travel on passports from the US, South Korea or Israel. You cannot travel on a tourist visa if you are a journalist. Most painfully of all, you cannot travel around freely within North Korea, but must at all times be accompanied by two North Korean government officials (the second one, presumably, to keep an eye on the first). For me, I went with a group organised by Simon and Nick at Koryo Tours, a British company based in Beijing who help curious westerners like myself settle their North Korean fetish. As we had just past the depths of winter and this was the first tour for the year, there were only four in the group, with John, Tom and Aruna my travel partners.

Our guides for the trip met us at Pyongyang airport when we first arrived. Mr Ri was in his late 40s and had been a tour guide for many a year. He also spent time serving in the Korean People's Army, and so is one of the few NKoreans to have travelled abroad, in his case to China and Tanzania (interesting footnote that NK had close ties to many similarly minded African countries during the cold war, and there were many technical exchanges between them). The other guide for the trip was Miss Pak, a 21 year old Pyongyang native who had recently graduated from the NK Foreign Language School, and spoke a charming but slightly broken brand of English. The guides are from a small pool of foreign speaking guides at the Korean International Travel Company, the Government travel company.

During the trip, the guides kept a close but not suffocating eye on us. Whilst we were told never to stray from the group, there was never a problem with us lingering a little behind the group, or meandering in a way that left us surrounded by NKers. Language difficulties were a much greater barrier to communicating with the local people than the guides were. During a few experiences on the trip - such as on the Pyongyang Metro or whilst walking to the hotel in Kaesong - we were freely encouraged to engage with local people. The guides also served a slightly more sinister role - it is likely that they were keeping a close eye on our activities. Asking too many odd questions or taking too many photos was likely to be reported to people further up the hierarchy.

The guides are adept at giving you the official version of all things North Korean. Throughout their commentary on the various sites visited, they would heap praise on the two Kims, celebrate the happy lifestyle of NKers and do all they could to give the best possible impression of the country. They are also well aware, however, that those of us who are travelling may not be big fans of the Kims (or, indeed that favourite of Korean dishes, kimchi) and make no attempt to proselytise. There is no need for tourists to lie through their teeth in praise - instead, some careful diplomacy is needed. Whilst outright criticism of NK would be a dumb move, there is plenty of room for honest questions ("So do you think that Juche has been a success?"). Heaping fake platitudes apon the regime will bore you and fool no one.

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The tour guides, Mr Ri and Miss Pak are on the extreme left and right (in the photo, I mean, not politically), whilst John, myself, Aruna and Tom fill out the picture and empty the pitcher.

Welcome to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

North Korea is a place that is shrouded in mystery and conjecture, much of it of its own creation. For so long it has chosen to close itself off from the rest of the world that little information flows in or out of the place. In the absense of hard facts, rumour and speculation run rife. I plead guilty as one who has engaged in plenty of rumour-mongering in the past (and, let's be honest, will probably try my hand at it in the future), but to really come to grips with the place it is necessary to see it first hand. Much of the speculation is not meant in a harsh, negative way - although there are elements of that - but is instead meant in the same way that people watch the bearded lady at the circus. Curious, but not necessarily critical. Perhaps they could but those on the number plates - DPRK: The Bearded Lady of Asia.

Since there are so few who have seen the place but so many who speculate, I think it is worth publishing a few thoughts after my trip. It's important to remember a couple of things as you read what I have to say. Firstly, I'm a human, and like others in my species, I am subjective and colour what I see with my own opinion. Secondly, I was on a tightly controlled tour that attempted to shield us from some of the realities of North Korean life. Thirdly, most of the trip was in Pyongyang, which is not at all typical of North Korean life, and certainly not near any nuclear research, political prisons or human breeding laboratries, all of which are said to exist in DPRK. With that in mind, here's my take on my North Korean adventure, 15-20 February, 2005.

UPDATE, 16/02/2006: It's been a year now since my trip to DPRK, and I've decided to tidy up my blog diary account of the trip. For a start, here's a complete list of posts:

1. Welcome to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea
2. North Korea as a tourist
3. Streets of Pyongyang
4. The ego of the Kims
5. Pyongyang Metro
6. Commerce in North Korea
7. Happy Birthday Mr Kim
8. Media in DPRK
9. Panmunjeom and DMZ
10. A place to rest my head
11. Monuments of Pyongyang 1
12. Monuments of Pyongyang 2
13. Monuments of Pyongyang 3
14. Let the children play
15. Flying in and training out
16. Final thoughts

Back in town

Landed in Melbourne this morning, tired and worn-out, but otherwise happy to be home. Will be uploading photos in the next couple of days, and also writing plenty on the North Korean trip. Please feel free to post any questions about NK, and I'll have a go at answering, or at least making up a convincing lie. To save face, you see.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Homeward bound

It's just past eight-thirty on Thursday evening in Beijing, and so in less than twelve hours my flight home will leave Beijing bound for Hong Kong, and with any luck I'll be on board. Just after sunrise on Saturday, I'll arrive home in Melbourne, and so my three-month adventure through Asia will be over.

Without getting too sentimental about the past couple of months, for my own self-indulgence (and for what my psychotherapist, if I had one, would call 'closure') I think it's worth reflecting on the good, the bad and the ugly from the trip.

When I look back at how much ground I covered in such a short space of time, I wonder how I did it. 9 countries (more or less, depending on your take on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, North and South Korea) in about 12 weeks doesn't leave a lot of time for smaller towns, quiet wandering or time consuming distractions. After a while, travel at that speed becomes rather manic, with much of your time spent in transit, mentally stuck at your previous destination or already ahead at your next one. Having said all that, there aren't any destinations that I would have been happy to have skipped - even places that I wasn't 'enjoying' would still give me interesting experiences and a different take on the world.

For me the trip covered two very different sides of Asia. Much of it was the developing world - places like Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma - where life is tough but people are generally happy, and for me this provided the biggest culture shock. The other part of the trip was in the developed world - South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong - where things are humming along in relative peace and harmony. There is some category confusion in my mind, though: for me, Thailand is firmly a developed world country, at least in the big smoke, whilst China straddles the two categories. Though life is easy in the developed world, I found that the specialist memories and the highest highlights were in the developing world. It is in these poorer places that contact with ordinary people is more genuine, and material considerations give way to a deeper, cultural connection.

The good: undoubtedly, contact with people in Burma. Burmese people are amazingly sincere and welcoming to outsiders, and they have a natural, almost naive, curiousity about life outside their own country. Despite being the victims of a heartless and incompetent regime, people in Burma walk with their head high and work hard to make their lives as good as they can be.

The bad: a tough call, but for me Hong Kong is a economy without a society. Though the list of interesting tourist attractions is long and comprehensive, it is a difficult place to relax and have a good time. The bars require the drinker to rob the local branch of the HSBC before settling down for a good night, Nathan Road should only be strolled with the aid of a poison-tipped umbrella, and perhaps HK could be pitched as a weight loss venue for vegetarians, such is the lack of options.

The ugly: North Korea has all the aesthetic charm of a Kim Beazley exercise video. The buildings are square and concrete, public art has a monotonous and slavish Kim theme to it all, and the people live in such fear of the state that they often refuse eye contact with foreigners, let alone conversation. Having said that, I had a sensational time in that bizarre little world. The highlight. The climax. And now I'm ready to go home.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Easy come, easy go

A fortnight ago in Beijing I had to farewell a pair of pants. They had served me well, through half a year back in Australia plus almost the entire length of the trip. But they were ragged, full of awkwardly position holes right around the crotch area, and worst of all they smelt funny. Reluctantly I threw them out, and headed out to one of Beijing's classiest stores, The Henderson Centre, to buy a replacement.

Unfortunately for me, I'm a big guy. There's no escaping the fact that my size is at the extreme end of the spectrum for most clothing stores. You can chose whichever euphemism you like - large, generously proportioned, weighty, voluptuous (okay, I haven't heard that one directed personally at me, but you get my drift). Buying good clothes is tough in Australia, but here in China it is almost impossible. As I entered The Henderson Centre, a Myers-esque department store in the city, I browsed from outlet to outlet, with everything looking far to slim for my build. Each time I would approach a sales assistant, and indicate that I was after some pants, and they would giggle in that slightly humiliating way, that made it sound like I'd just requested to eat a Peking Duck through my nose, or something equally as absurd. Three or four times the routine would be the same - after they'd overcome their amusement, they'd measure me up, offer me a few pairs to try on which were clearly too small, apologise when they didn't fit, and would then send me on my way.

After much browsing, the choice ended up being between a pair of ski pants, designed to keep me warm in extreme climates, but look insanely ridiculous in any normal climate, and a pair of up-market black pants that would be well suited to a spot of ball room dancing. Alas, I chose the latter, and headed to the door... to find a ball room.

Just today, two weeks after I bought the pair, they tore in half across the buttocks. I think this says more about the appalling state of Chinese clothing than it does about my buttocks, although both are in dire need of improvement.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

A few thoughts on North Korea

Okay, I'm back in China, alive and well, and much much wiser for my five days in North Korea. There is so much I want to write about the trip, that I'm best of waiting until I get back to Oz, where I can spend all the time I like tap tap tapping away, rather that at the dingy internet cafe I'm currently stuck at in Beijing Railway Station. For all the detail and the photos, check the site out after 27 February, and all will be revealed.

For now, though, a few quick thoughts. North Korea is a poverty stricken place, but no more poverty stricken than other 'developing world' countries I've visited on the trip, such as Burma and Cambodia. Contrary to my expectations, the streets of Pyongyang do have some traffic, there is some commercial activity, people look reasonably healthy and adequately dressed, kids do smile and laugh and be kids, food is available if not plentiful. The one day spent outside of Pyongyang revealed that life is significantly tougher away from the capital, with much more noticable poverty and malnutrition, but again this is in parallel with experiences in other countries.

What sets North Korea apart though, as a unique destination is the complete and utter devotion that is shown to the President - the Great (and since 1994, dead) Leader Kim Il Sung - and his son the Dear (and rather chubby) Leader, Kim Jong Il. The images of one or both of them appear at every possible opportunity. Posters dotted through the city show the two of them in benevolent poses, portraits of the two appear in every home and public building, badges of the Great Leader sit atop the heart of every North Korean. The biggest attraction in Pyongyang is a 26 metre statue of Kim Il Sung. The flower show we attended (the Kimjongilia Flower Show - I shit you not) featured picture after picture of the Dear Leader. The examples are limitless, and I'll share more when I write more.

Thanks for those suggestions of birthday presents for KJI. Alas, his birthday passed on February 16 without any public appearance at all by the Dear Leader, despite dozens of events all across the country as part of the two day birthday celebration. There was one, brief, public appearance of KJI during our trip - on Thursday night he was the guest of honour at a Russian musical performance in Pyongyang. The very fact that he was there, in the flesh, alive and in Pyongyang, shattered a theory or two that was circulating in our small group about the current state of the Dear Leader. Again, more to come later.

The countdown is on until I return to 'Straya. I've got just short of a week in Beijing, and will then be heading home. Anyone got any gift requests before I get back? I've got some stray nuclear material from NK, offered as a parting gift to every visitor to Pyongyang. Soon they'll start using the stuff as food. Eat your greens... even if they're glowing green in the dark.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off the the Worker's Paradise we go

Well, today might be Valentines Day, but it's tomorrow that I've been looking forward to for a long while. At 11:30am, I'll be on the flight out of Beijing, bound for Pyongyang, and from there my great North Korean adventure will begin.

Today was a briefing session with Simon at Koryo Tours, and the three other participants on the trip. Most of the practicalities seem to be taken care of, so there's nothing to worry about. I have my plane ticket in hand and the visa (a removable slip of paper, unfortunately) in the passport.

For the next five days, I can absolutely guarantee I'll be offline, so to keep you all amused (and also to satisfy the curiousity of all those NK spies who are sick of reading "Y'all listen up, dis is how you speak English good" by Charles Jenkins and want something else to do), here's a blow-by-blow itinerary. Of course, things often change once you hit the ground, but here tis anyhow:

Itinerary

Tues Feb 15th - Flight FNJ-PEK, meet guides at airport, transfer to Pyongyang, Performance at Theatre if running, Mansudae Grand Monument, Fountain Park, Arch of Triumph, Check in Yanggakdo Hotel, Dinner in Pyongyang, Overnight in Yanggakdo Hotel

Wednesday Feb 16th - Pyongyang City Tour, Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, Juche Tower, Kim Il Sung Square, Lunch in the TV tower, Some of the Parks to see what the local people are doing on this national Holiday, Grand People's Study House. Whatever celebrations are taking place for the Birthday of Kim Jong Il, Soiree (Mass Dancing), Kimjongilia Flower Show, etc. Overnight in Yanggakdo Hotel

Thursday Feb 17th - Remaining sights if Pyongyang including Mangyongdae Native House, Lunch in Pyongyang on the Boat Restaurant, To Kaesong, Tomb of Kongmin and Concrete Wall, Koryo Museum, Dinner and overnight in Minsok Hotel

Friday Feb 18th - To Panmunjom/DMZ Lunch in Restaurant in DMZ (former base of Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission) Return to Pyongyang, Shopping at Stamp Shop, Bookshop and Department Store, Circus of Schoolchildren's Palace performance, Dinner in Duck BBQ restaurant, Overnight in Yanggakdo Hotel

Saturday Feb 19th - Depart Pyongyang by train, dinner and overnight on the train

Sunday Feb 20th - Arrive in Beijing, End of Tour


One last thing - Wednesday, 16 February is the birthday of Kim Jong-il, The Dear Leader. Has anyone got any suggestions of a birthday present? Though my chances of giving him the gift directly are as unlikely as the chances of me stumbling across nuclear material whilst seeking an out-of-the-way toilet, I have been told that if I give it to the guides, it will be forwarded to the Dear Leader's office.

Any suggestions?

Only in China...

The United States is famous (rather unfairly, really) for housing its fair share of simple minded country folk, but these couple of 'round the grounds' reports published in the Shanghai Star should surely put the China up there with the best and dumbest.

Verbatim...:

GUANGXI: Greedy for tourists
A SUPER restaurant capable of accommodating 10,000 diners is expected to be completed this year in the Qingxiu Mountain Scenic Spot located in Nanning, capital of South China's Guangxi Xhuang Autonomous Region. The building covers an ara of 20 hectares and has cost 120 million yuan (US$14.4 million). Jia Yuchen, director of the nanning Tourism Bureau, said the unfinished restaurant would be the largest in the world. It will feature decorative landscapes and cuisine from a variety of Southeast Asian countries. In comments that could be of concern to owners of the new dining spot, two employees of another restaurant located nearby said few people came to visit Qingxiu Mountain and restaurants there closerd at 4pm every day.


And another bit of crazy Chinese capitalism...:

HUBEI (a landlocked province, a quick glance at a map reveals -AS): Sinking finances
A FARMER named Li Yuming in Wuhan, capital of Central China's Hubei Province, borrowed more than 90,000 yuan (US$10,800) from his friends and relatives to build a submarine. Li's passion for invention has led him into a financial crisis, without the money even to pay for a bus ticket. Thinking submarines were vulnerable to capsizing, due to their unstable centre of gravity, Li advanced new ideas and successfully applied for two patents. Last August, together with three other farmers, he set out to build a submarine according to his new ideas, but failed. Despite the adamant opposition of his family, Li is still thinking of making another submarine.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Beijing Flu... well, cough and cold at least

Since trecking along the Great Wall of China (as the song says, 'Goodness, gracious, Great Wall of China'... or something like that) on Thursday, I've been feeling rather sick. Thankfully, it's all above the neck and none of it involves digestion, since I'm not keen on the squat toilets, but nose, ears, throat and head have all been receiving a fair bit of punishment. Glumly I've spent a couple of days wandering aimlessly through the hostel I'm staying at, sleeping, reading, eating, typing and shitting, sometimes several of them at once. If it's any guide, I managed to knock off the entire The Da Vinci Code in less than 2 days - not something I'm proud of, but then again... who would have guessed Robert Langdon was really a woman?

Nothing really interesting of note from the past couple of days, although yesterday there was a slightly odd experience. In preparation for my great North Korean adventure (departing Tuesday!) I've been told to stock up on a carton of cigarettes as a thank-you to our malnourished (and, clearly, nicotine-deprived) hosts. As someone who has never in my life bought a packet of cigarettes, I wandered into the Smokes Store close to the hostel, and browsed aimlessly for a while. Given I knew little about the product and didn't speak any Chinese, it was going to be a tricky transaction. Finally, I settled on a large carton of Marlboros (I considered the Lights, but I figured that would probably be considered an insult. They're desperate, but not that desperate...). As I headed toward the counter, I involuntarily let go of the largest, wheeziest, most painful cough in my several days of sickness, and then plonked the carton on the desk. Giving me the glare that says 'Do you really need these?', the shop assistant eyed me for a while before continuing the transaction. Done like a true smoker!

Chinese Meeja

Even though the Chinese economy is slowly becoming free and open, the Chinese media is still firmly in the grasp of its Beijing masters.

Flick on a TV anywhere in China, and you'll no doubt be confronted by the omnipresent CCTV logo winking at you from the top left hand corner. It's a strange but appropriate coincidence that those four letters stand for 'Closed Circuit TV' in the rest of the world, but here they represent the 'Chinese Central TV'. Either way, you can't help but feel paranoid. CCTV is TV is China. There are 9 - yep, count 'em - NINE CCTV channels, each of them looking to the casual observer to be as turgid and boring as the next. The only one I've given any time to - CCTV 9 (aka, CCTV International, aka CCTV in English) is an unconvincing mix of propaganda-as-news, Chinese arts and culture, and painfully inoffensive nature documentaries.

One long-termer in China explained that CCTV International is watched by almost no one - the Chinese-speaking locals have got eight boring CCTV channels of their own to chose from, and the English-speakers know that CCTV International is mushroom television (being kept in the dark, and fed shit). Presumably the Chinese government keeps the service operating as a means of helping learners of English, and also as a fig leaf cover for continuing to make 'real' international news unavailable ('Why do you want CNN or BBC?? You have CCTV International right here...').

When you get bored of watching CCTV - it doesn't take long - you can always pick up one of the many fine newspapers which are available at newsstands far and wide through the great yellow land. Prominant amongst them are the People's Daily, and the Beijing Youth Daily (I think the meaning of that one was kinda Lost in Translation), which offer a collection of dull human interest stories, brown-nosing editorials, and colourful photos of Central Party officials. Whilst as a source of news, the newspapers fail abysmally to live up to their name, they are an interesting little insite into the thinking of the regime in Beijing.

Many of the lines taken by the newspapers are highly scripted and dictated by the central party. A shift in the paper's attitude toward a particular issue, place, person, etc, is usually a sign of a shift further up the national hierarchy. It's an archaic way of communicating, but one that has served the regime well over time. It also is a great way to boost circulation - you're average Beijinger might not read it, but you can be sure that every Embassy and intelligence-gathering service around the world are poring over copies.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Shana Tova, Beijing

Chinese New Year has come and gone, and it was a strangely low-key event. Rather than being like a western New Year celebration, CNY (or Spring Festival, as this mid-winter celebration has come to be known) is more like Christmas. There are plenty of public displays leading up to the occassion, but come the day itself, the streets are abandonded, the cities are quiet, and everyone worth their dim-sum is at home with their family.

For a truly odd little twist to things, a group of fellow travellers and I headed out on New Years Eve to Tianenmin Square to soak up some of the excitement. When we arrived, we found that the entire square had been blocked off from the public, and there were humourless PLA soldiers patrolling this big people's square, lest any people attempt to enter. In the end, a bunch of shiverring westerners was the biggest tourist attraction that the Chinese people who were there could find, and so they lined up to take their photos with us and practice their English. One short-statured Chinese guy started comparing his height with me, and it one swift motion I picked him up and held him half a head above me. Enjoying the view, he spontaneously reached down and gave me a peck on the cheek! Under the big photo of Chairman Mao! Life is good, here.

You know things are pretty boring when I'm the most interesting thing to see.

What's the plan?

It looks like Kim Jong-il is back on the front foot in DPRK, playing a firm shot to some increasingly fast bowling. The latest moves in Pyongyang seem to be a deliberate attempt to keep the issue front and centre in the international relations game, presumably to maximise the concessions to the DPRK if and when an agreement is reached. CNN for the details:

North Korea claims nuclear weapons
Pyongyang pulls out of six-nation talks
Thursday, February 10, 2005 Posted: 10:01 AM EST (1501 GMT)

(CNN) -- Citing what it calls U.S. threats to topple its political system, North Korea says it is dropping out of six-party nuclear talks and will "bolster its nuclear weapons arsenal," North Korea's official news agency KCNA reported.

Thursday's report was the first public claim by North Korea to actually possess nuclear weapons.


The other possibility is that the latest move reflects the internal conflict taking place within DPRK. KJ-I may be trying to demonstrate that he is still firmly in control and is not afraid to take decisive action. Given the small but significant relevants about pockets of vocalised dissent, a show of strength does make sense.

Perhaps, ultimately, it's a bit of both. Playing the external strategic game at the same time as keeping the internal status quo is a skill that Kim and his father were and are brilliantly adept at.

I bet they're jealous in Cannes...

Look what will be showing when I hit town next week (straight from KCNA - this stuff is funny enough without any smartarse tops or tails):

Ten-day Film Show Opens
Pyongyang, February 9 (KCNA) -- A ten-day film show opened to celebrate the birthday of leader Kim Jong Il (February 16). Shown in this period will be Korean documentary films including "February 16, Greatest Holiday of Nation" and "Holding Great Brilliant Commander in High Esteem", which tell about the feats performed by Kim Jong Il leading the Songun revolution. To be screened also are feature films depicting the indomitable struggle of the Korean army and people such as "Battalion Commander of Ridge Chol," "People of Jagang Province" and "Ten Party Members Today."
An opening ceremony was held at the People's Palace of Culture Tuesday.
Minister of Culture Choe Ik Gyu made an address at the ceremony.
At the end of the ceremony the participants watched the documentary film "Bringing about Great Change in Fields on Outskirts of Pyongyang" and the feature film "Bouquet of Dandelion."

Hit, Bluz and Hotpot!

Life in Harbin aint pretty, particularly during the coldest days of winter when the mercury hits -25, the wind is up, the nightlife shuts down, and there's nothing to do over Chinese New Year because every local person is heading back to their home town to get drunk on Pieju with their family and long lost Uncle Le.

Social life for many of the expats of Harbin revolves around two funky little places at opposite ends of the good taste spectrum. At Hit 1098 bar (HIT is the Harbin Institute of Technology, but you knew that already) you can drink 4 kwai beer (about 0.70AUD) and eat greasy snackfoods and talk and smoke the night away. It has just the right vibe for cold, homesick expats, and the bar is filled most nights with the crazy characters who are strange enough to call the city home. Flags draped on the walls, bizarre graffiti, a glorious Bob Marley poster peering in on the Smokers Den... this is the sort of place I'd be a regular at, if it wasn't 6,000km from home.

Once Hit 1098 closes, the action shifts to Bluz (supposed to be a cute pun, but like most things at this place, it's lost in translation). As well as providing a chance for expats to test out their funky dance moves, Bluz is the favourite destination of Harbin's significant Russian population. Being just a short distance from the border, and having Vladivostock a fair bit closer than Beijing means that there are plenty of people Russian around. Young Russian women caked in enough make-up to stage their own inpromptu Chinese Opera wander around drinking overpriced vodka and staring their noses down at those Chinese men naive enough to try to practice the art of conversation on them. The latest Russian dance music is pumped through the cheap speaker system, and the shimmering pole in the middle of the dance-floor sees more crotch-action then most of the party-goers ever will.

Those who have made it through Bluz without bringing up their Vodka for a second taste and without enjoying the company of Harbin's finest Svetlanas then head off for a traditional Chinese hangover-prevention - HOTPOT. The streets of Harbin are dotted with 24 hour hotpot joints, most of them doing plenty of business during the witching hours. In the centre of the table sits a gas stove, with a large saucepan filled with spicy broth. As it bubbles away, diners add meat, vegetables and tofu to the mix, letting it sit for a while before diving in with their chopsticks for a Hotpot lucky dip. Normally, people of taste would stay away from hotpot, but these same people jump in with gay abandon, provided there is ample cheap beer on offer. I plead guilty - dispite my previous bad hot pot experience (see The great Taipei Hot Pot Incident of '05 some time back in January) - I experienced the full hotpot adventure, although I pushed the meat to the side rather than trying to exclude it completely, in the true spirit of Chinese vegetarianism.

A strange crowd in a strange city, this truly was a spectacular night out. There's something oddly exhilirating about heading outside after a drunked hotpot and catching a taxi home as the morning sun peeps over the snowy hills. Repeat it night after night, and you've just found Harbin Nirvana.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Harbin a great time

Sorry about the lack of posting of late. I've been up to all sorts of strange things in the supercold ex-Soviet Chinese city of Harbin. A fascinating history to this place, which leaves a lingering hatred of the Russians and the Japanese, as well as the shell of a large Jewish community. Thesedays, the place is famous (well, these things are all relative really, given that few people have ever heard of the place anyway) for its magnificent ice festival, which sees snow and ice sculptures dot the city and fill a large park. The sculptures truly are breathtaking, even if the weather makes the taking of breath a rather perilous task.

Anyhow, am bound for Beijing tonight (Monday) and will write some more soon. Tuesday is Chinese New Year, and this place is expected to be something to behold. I look forward to sleeping and drinking my way through it.