travel


In a long and important piece on the Stakhanovite movement, Stalin has this to say about the speed of trains. Keep in mind that the movement was part of the extraordinary and rapid transformation achieved through industrialisation and collectivisation:

We shall have in the first place, to persuade these conservative elements in industry, persuade them in a patient and comradely manner, of the progressive nature of the Stakhanov movement, and of the necessity of readjusting themselves to the Stakhanov way. And if persuasion does not help, more vigorous measures will have to be adopted. Take, for instance, the People’s Commissariat of Railways. In the central apparatus of that Commissariat, there was, until recently, a group of professors, engineers, and other experts – among them Communists – who assured everybody that a commercial speed of 13 or 14 kilometres per hour was a limit that could not be exceeded without contradicting “the science of railway operation.” This was a fairly authoritative group, who preached their views in verbal and printed form, issued instructions to the various departments of the People’s Commissariat of Railways, and, in general, were the “dictators of opinion” in the traffic departments. We, who are not experts in this sphere, basing ourselves on the suggestions of a number of practical workers on the railway, on our part assured these authoritative professors that 13 or 14 kilometres could not be the limit, and that if matters were organised in a certain way, this limit could be extended. In reply, this group, instead of heeding the voice of experience and practice, and revising their attitude to the matter, launched into a fight against the progressive elements on the railways and still further intensified the propaganda of their conservative views. Of course, we had to give these esteemed individuals a light tap on the jaw and very politely remove them from the central apparatus of the People’s Commissariat of Railways. (Applause.) And what is the result? We now have a commercial speed of 18 and 19 kilometres per hour. (Applause.)

Works, vol. 14, pp. 107-8.

Many are the reasons as to why one would want to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For some it is way off the ‘beaten track’. The fact that many people think you cannot travel to the place at all reinforces this sense. For some it provides a window into what the communist countries of Eastern Europe might have been like before 1989. Indeed, the tourist companies trade on this desire, offering Soviet architecture tours or plane tours in which you fly with Air Koryo’s fleet of Tupolevs. For some it is an effort at reinforcing their own ‘world’, to remind themselves of how ‘bad’ socialism really is and why capitalism is far ‘better’. For some it is a genuine desire to see what this form of socialism looks like, even to the point of sympathising with the sheer effort of maintaining the system. For these people, it is extraordinary that the DPRK has survived for almost seventy years.

For some, however, it is the appeal of what I would like to call ‘communist mystery’. By this I mean the profound sense that the DPRK is keeping much hidden from public scrutiny. More than once has the ancient foreigner’s title of Korea as the ‘hermit kingdom’ been used for the north. Indeed, whole projects exist – sponsored by the limited ‘intelligence’ services of countries such the United States – to try and find out what is happening in the DPRK. Most of that is pure speculation, since they really cannot find out all that much. Foreign journalists are forbidden to enter the country and one is not permitted to take in any GPS device. Add to this the fact that the telephone networks do not connect internationally, and that there is a separate phone network for foreigners who visit the country. The two networks do not connect with one another. And the DPRK’s computer systems also remain internal, without connection (mostly) to the wider internet. A visitor is therefore ‘off the grid’ when visiting the place.

This mystery, of course, generates a desire by some visitors to act as pseudo-journalists, attempting to find out about what is being kept hidden. It may take the form of trying to photograph items they think they are not supposed to photograph, or of ducking off from a tour group for a few minutes to see what might be seen. But let me give two examples.

When travelling the metro system, one is told not to photograph the metro tunnels. You may photograph anything else – people, metro cars, the glorious artwork in the stations, one another – but not the tunnels. So of course one or two try to photograph the tunnels. Who knows, they may hold some secret weapon stash, or some underground laboratories, or whatever. But as soon as the photographs are taken, a platform attendant immediately walks up, calls to a guide and demands that the photograph be deleted. This only exacerbates the mystery. I happened to be standing next to one such culprit when the deletion took place. The photograph merely contained a black space, with nothing to see. But the fact that you could not take a photograph of black space meant that it much conceal something.

The other example is the fabled ‘fifth floor’ of the Yonggakdo Hotel, one of the hotels where many visitors stay. The lifts skip by the fifth floor, jumping from four to six. And if one has bothered to check the internet, then stories abound of the mysteries of the fifth floor (check google or youtube). Many are speculations: here the guides are kept under guard so as not to be corrupted by foreigners; here is equipment to spy on visitors; here is a crack military squad ready to deal with any problem. To add to the mystery, occasionally a guard may appear and sternly demand that you depart. In our group, a few tried to get to the fifth floor by the stairs. One or two even managed a photograph. What did they reveal? Some pipes, perhaps a door or a wall or a corridor. And of course rooms with doors. Nothing else.

That is the point: nothing is there. The Koreans are very good at creating the impression that something is there, hidden from prying eyes. I suspect that they have created such zones precisely to maintain the mystery, for it appeals immensely to some foreigners, especially of the bleeding heart liberal type. Nothing actually exists in the metro tunnels except tracks for the trains. And nothing is to be found on the fifth floor of the hotel, except rooms and a possible guard to tell you not to enter. After all, if there really was something to hide, why have stairs with a door that opens on the fifth floor, or why have a ‘secret lift’ that visitors can actually use to get close to the fifth floor?

Let the mystery continue, for it keeps some visitors coming.

If you believe the steady stream of items propagated by the corporate media and government agencies, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a ‘totalitarian dictatorship’ with closed borders. People are not allowed to enter and its citizens are not permitted leave. If someone does happen to try and leave the ‘hermit kingdom’, he or she is dubbed a ‘defector’. Conversely, anyone who wishes to enter the DPRK is also a ‘defector’ – a recent example being the Chondoist leader, Ryu Mi Yong, who opted to leave South Korea and move to the north to join the bulk of her fellow Chondoists.

I must admit that I entered the DPRK with such a mindset. The warnings from governments like those of Australia, the United States and Canada did not help. They either warn against all travel or strongly advise you to reconsider your travel plans and go somewhere else. I believed that I could visit only with an officially sanctioned tour company (Koryo) and I had read that at most 2,000 foreigners visit the country every year. The very fact that I was able to visit amongst others should already have alerted me to a somewhat different situation, but such is the strength of preconceptions that it did not. Even more, the fact that the flight into the DPRK – a glorious Tupolev 204 – was filled mostly with citizens of the DPRK should have set me thinking. Yet again, it did not.

Only after arriving and spending a few days there did reality set in. Our hotel, Yanggakdo, was quite full, with tour buses clustered outside on any given day. People were constantly arriving and leaving, many of them Chinese but also a good number of people from other countries. For some reason, it seemed to me that Australians were everywhere. I had come with the assumption that we would be largely on our own. Clearly this was not the case. Even at the Demilitarised Zone close by Kaesong, there were buses aplenty, so much so that we were lucky in being the first in a long line of groups visiting the area.

I had to find out more. In one of my many discussions with the older tour guide, I asked. ‘How many visitors come to North Korea each year?’

He thought for a moment and said, ’10,000 or so’.

That made far more sense. Not a huge number by some standards, but way more than anyone would expect.

‘But is this the only hotel where visitors can stay? I said.

‘Oh no’, he said, ‘here are many places throughout the country where you can stay’.

‘So where could I travel?’ I said.

‘Most places’, he said. ‘You can travel in the far north, stay in the countryside, do some volunteer work on farms’.

Later I began to ponder the possibility of spending some more time in the place. I asked about foreigners working in the DPRK.

‘We have a quite a number at different levels’, said another guide.

‘What about universities?’ I said.

‘Oh yes’, he said, ‘foreigners come and teach at some of them. Many come as volunteers through UNESCO, and there is also the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology’.

‘Is that the one funded by Christian groups, with classes taught in English?’ I said.

‘Yes’, he said, ‘and it teaches students about many facets of international education’.

‘Would I be able to spend some time at one of the universities?’ I asked.

‘What do you teach?’ he asked.

‘Marxism and philosophy’, I said.

He smiled. ‘Very interesting. I will see what I can do.’

I gave him my email address.

But what about Koreans travelling, working and studying internationally? I was admittedly quite astounded to find out how many from the DPRK do exactly that. Most go to China, but some travel further afield. Indeed, the week before, when I was in Harbin in the north-east of China, I had encountered students from the DPRK studying there. And this was only one example. To be sure, they need clearance from a government agency to do so. But I was reminded of the fact that I too need to request permission to travel overseas, albeit from my university rather than the government.

Even with this knowledge, on the day of our departure, I was still amazed at how many Koreans were boarding the train out of Pyongyang. On the platform were a few foreigners, but most were from the DPRK. Each day the train leaves for Beijing, carrying locals to various destinations outside the country.

Closed borders? If so, the gate is not securely fastened.

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While I write my next story on the carefully guarded, if not manufactured, ‘secrecy’ of the DPRK in order to entice foreigners (such as the mythical fifth floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel), here are a few useful websites for anyone who may be interested.

The DPRK webpage: the website of the Korea Friendship Association, a group of politically sympathetic people.

The Korean Central News Agency:  for a truly DPRK view of the world.

North Korea Books: where you can get all you want on the DPRK (I bought about 15 books while there, mostly the writings of Kim Il-Sung). This site is currently under maintenance.

While on the subject of books, you can acquire Kim Il-Sung’s Memoirs as well, called With the Century. I am particularly interested in his sympathetic views on Christianity in this series.

A site dedicated to the Pyongyang Metro: I have a t-shirt on the metro, with the slogan ‘Take Me to Paradise’ (Rakwon means paradise and is one of the stations). I got hold of this gem at Koryo’s office in Beijing. It generated immense interest in the DPRK, since it is not available there as yet.

For anyone interested in the uniqueness of the DPRK, there is DPRK Retro, with some great archival stuff.

Tour operators. With more and more people going to the DPRK (now about 10,000 each year), new tour groups have sprung up. Young Pioneers offers budget tours, and they actually sell Stalin t-shirts. They offer some intriguing volunteer tours, working with farmers and so on. Another bunch, based in Beijing, is Koryo Tours. They are the ones with the most experience and probably have the best connections and ability to make things happen.

This country would have to be one of the most repressed I have ever visited, with an extraordinary return of the repressed at all sorts of levels. On the one hand, everyone is impossibly polite, nice, tidy and meticulously rule-abiding. Everyone bows at the slightest meeting. Even on a train, the person wheeling the trolley with food will bow at the end of the carriage before making her way along, offering drinks and snacks. Police officers assist you with the most trivial detail, all the while wearing a huge smile. Everyone drives about 10 km below the speed limit, for fear of breaking the law. And forget about crossing an empty intersection if the pedestrian light is red. Even more, excessive noise is a no-no. You can speak on a mobile phone in a train only in vestibule of each carriage. Hotel regulations make a big thing about quietness. Every word is spoken softly.

At the same time, Japan has one of the largest prostitution industries in the world. Worth an estimated 10,000 billion yen a year, it is in your face – so to speak – everywhere you turn. In grocery shops, leaflets advertising local services can be found. If you live in the country, your letterbox will be full of such leaflets. But call it prostitution. Ah no, is it ‘health delivery’, or ‘soapland’, or you can engage in a ‘romantic’ getaway in a ‘leisure hotel (the latter are a cheap way to travel in Japan). Keep in mind that prostitution is technically illegal in Japan.

However, you don’t have to go that far to see such repression and its release at work. Take the toilets in a standard hotel. They all come with a curious panel of buttons on the side:

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Initially, I ignored such devices, but then I became intrigued. How do they work? I tried pressing the buttons, but to no avail.

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However, after sitting upon such a toilet a few times, I noticed that the green light went on (square button) after some water noises. I then pressed the ‘bidet’ button. At this moment, a phallic like tube emerged from the back of the toilet:

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And before you know it, a stream shoots right up your anus:

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Now let me be clear, such a photograph is not possible until after sitting down, pressing the appropriate buttons and waiting for that tingling feeling down below:

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In fact, it requires significant dexterity to leap up from the seat while one’s underside is being doused, aim the camera and take a shot before the stream stops. After numerous attempts, I became somewhat damp, but now I wanted to try the ‘shower’ button. What would that do?

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Yes, this one was for the ceiling, since it shot almost straight up with significant force:

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As I said, Freud would have wet himself with excitement over all this. Return of the repressed – and how. But as I dried off, I also realised that Japanese cleanliness goes a long way, since it seems to me that anyone who uses such a device cannot help but having one’s whole internal system washed clean.

Forget the propaganda about the Shinkansen (‘new trunk line’) trains in Japan. Images and stories would have you believe they are sleek, aerodynamic things that race about this tiny country at high speeds. Not true, for they actually look like this:

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Obviously, they travel at very high speeds, occasionally hitting 40 kilometres per hour.

Earlier this week I had to get from China to Japan. Since flying is a crap way of travelling, I took a ship from Shanghai to Osaka. Two days it takes, across the East China Sea.

The ship was the Suzhou Hao:

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Simple and with none of the silly additions, like shops and multiple restaurants. We had one dining hall, where everyone ate the same food:

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My cabin was exceedingly simple:

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We made our way out the the busiest port in the world, at the mouth of the Chang Jiang (Yangze):

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Only to join a flotilla of ships leaving and entering the port:

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Meanwhile, I made sure not to take the slipper on deck and keep my fingers attached to my body:

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Night at sea is one of my favourite experiences, so I make sure I am on deck when everyone has gone to bed:

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Or perhaps sunrise at sea is the best:

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Later that morning I became entranced by the passing water:

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Although I took to heart the warning not to become too entranced:

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Especially in light of a curious pair of shoes on deck:

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Or did he have the same strange desire to take a ride in one of these?

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Then we had our first sighting of Japan – always a thrill in a new place:

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The Japanese even sent out a fleet of welcoming vessels … or were they a warning, especially since Chinese people are not allowed to travel in Japan on their own?

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Up between the southern islands we went, with another day of sailing:

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Then it was all hands for the arrival in Osaka:

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Arriving in a new land by sea is like a wary kiss – after a patient approach – and then a slow embrace:

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