A huge Starbucks sign. Yao Ming peddling mobile plans. No guide waiting just beyond check-out. No guide telling you to hand over your cellphone. Or follow you around. Or hustle you onto the bus. Taxis on demand! Beijing. The real world. We’re still coping with the culture shock.
Pyongyang was all about what we couldn’t do. No walking on the roads. And every foreigner at the festival pushed to walk on the roads. No going out on your own. A coup was when you walked 30 metres outside the hotel on your own. No eating at streetside food stalls. And of course, some delegates had to do just that.
But Pyongyang was also about living a pared-down life. Who needs the internet? Or mobile phones. Not necessary, was what our guide told us when we asked why they weren’t allowed in her country. Not. Necessary. There was no advertising to distract us. No nightlife to speak of. No cuisine other than Japanese and Korean. One of our funnest evenings was spent playing ping pong with three guides and a few festival guests.
They’ve never heard of Marilyn Monroe. Never heard of Frank Sinatra. Never heard of Angelina Jolie. Never watched Star Wars, ET, or Sex and the City. Never attended a rock concert. Vanity Fair is a thick book by Thackeray.
When we asked after the Kim Jong-Il’s health. They were genuinely shocked that we believed him to be unwell. Said the world had gotten it all wrong. He was absolutely fine.
They love their leaders. No questions about that. Worship them. It is an unflinching faith, overwhelming at times. We were constantly told to bow before statues of the General and the Great Leader.
They’re opening up ever so slowly. Or at least, it feels that way to us. In Pyongyang, we were surprised by the number of tourists we met. Our hotel was bursting at the seams. In a lift one day, obnoxious Singaporeans criticized the country in Mandarin. They didn’t know that the North Koreans could understand them perfectly. They speak all kinds of languages in Pyongyang these days.
They travel more than you think. One guide told us she’d been to China and Germany. Another spent three years in Singapore. She attended a local secondary school. She lived in a condo and had a great time. A third guide told us about his years in Afghanistan. His father had been a diplomat in Kabul. The house next to theirs was destroyed in a bomb attack.
They’re less deluded than you think. They acknowledge that their country is going through tough times. That the economy isn’t great. That the food situation is critical. That the famine – known as the Arduous March – was difficult.
And always, always, they speak of a time when North and South can be one again. They speak of a common Korean heritage, a shared past and American imperialism. They say they want peace but are ready for war.
Maybe Pyongyang was a bit of a bubble. The showcase city meant for a privileged few. We were only allowed to see what we were shown. But what we saw was unexpected, fascinating and complex. Midway through the festival, our guide told us that some people from Earth were arriving. Earth? It took us a moment before we realized she meant the BBC documentary, Earth. But she might as well have referred to the rest of us. Pyongyang was an entirely different place from the rest of the outside world. An alien city peopled by very human, human beings.