Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Welcome to North Korea - We Have Some Rules

Probably the first thing to say about our trip to North Korea is – there were some rules we had to follow. One or two. Or three. These were explained to us, pretty forcefully, before we set off. Rules like, for example –
  • You do not have freedom of movement. Everywhere you go, you will be accompanied by two guides from DPRK's state tourism agency. In the evenings you are confined to your hotel – unless your hotel happens to also be on an island. In which case, you are confined to the island.
    The Yangakkdo Hotel in Pyongyang – they call it 'the Alcatraz of fun'
    (Photo from Virtual Tourist)
  • You are not free to talk to the locals – and if you do try, they will probably not want to talk to you. The tour guides make clear which people you are allowed to engage in conversation - and they will either be other tour guides, or members of the military. Or tour guides who are also members of the military. 
Don't talk to me...
...but you can definitely talk to me
  • You do not have freedom of expression. Call it politeness if you like, but you do not criticise, and you certainly do not mock, the Dear Leader or his father during your visit. Doing so can cause serious problems - for you and for your group.
  • Your contact with the outside world is extremely limited. Your mobile phone and passport are taken away from you at the airport. Your hotel's 'International Communication Centre' is not the hub of connectivity the name implies. (The guides will say to you, without irony, "On the second floor of the hotel is the International Communication Centre, where you can send a postcard.") You can receive phone calls from abroad in your hotel - but you should expect that someone may be listening in, and watch what you say.
In fact, the need to watch what you say is a feature of your entire trip – and even extends to conversations in your hotel room. There is no privacy on a holiday in North Korea. The Lonely Planet Guide to North Korea drily notes that:
"While most hotel rooms are probably bugged, there's only a very small chance anyone's listening."
... which is not entirely reassuring. And since our tour was – for reasons we needn't go into – somewhat higher profile than most (it had nothing to do with Sam or me), we were instructed to act as though we might be being listened to at any time. So you can't even come back to the hotel room and yell about what you really thought of the day's activities.

I might just be a hotel sofa. Or I might be listening to you.
But it's the reverence towards Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung (the Dear Leader and Great Leader, respectively) which really permeates every aspect of your trip. You may not have to bow at every statue of the DPRK's rulers – but you do have to stand quietly while your hosts bow. For anyone used to a Western level of respect for politicians, this can be pretty jarring.
You don't have to bow - but don't think about giggling...
To take another example: you are warned that you must never throw away a Korean newspaper - because newspapers contain images of the Dear Leader, and such images must be treated with the same respect as the man himself. (How North Koreans do dispose of newspapers was never explained – but we were assured that there's an elaborate system in place.) One tourist who did make the mistake of chucking away his copy of the Pyongyang Times – into the bin in his hotel room – was reported to the hotel's management by the cleaner who tidied his room. He had to write a letter of apology.

You're even expected to fold your newspaper in a special way so that the Dear Leader's face doesn't get creased.

Respect me, respect my image
In a similar vein, there are also rules about the kind of photographs you're allowed to take at the (numerous) statues of Kim Il Sung which you are privileged to visit each day. You're strongly encouraged to snap away at the statues (the guides love it when you photograph the statues), but you aren't free to take any photograph you like. Specifically, you're forbidden from taking photos which don't include the Eternal President's whole body - especially not arty close-ups of individual parts of his anatomy. If you want a giant picture of Kim Il Sung's nostrils, you'll have to Photoshop it when you get home. Your camera may be checked on your way out of the country, and offending shots will be deleted.

Not ready for my close-up
Needless to say, all this reverence is pretty tough to swallow for a Western tourist - and not just because of any feelings you may have towards Kim Jong Il's regime. (Here I'll just refer you to the health warning which applies to all our North Korea posts, and make no further comment.) It's not just about your attitude to their rulers, it's also about our attitude to our own political leaders. Laughing at politicians is pretty much a British institution - we have newspapers and TV shows entirely devoted to the art. Indeed, we have shows specifically dedicated to desecrating their image:

This would never be allowed...
... and this would get you imprisoned
Which means that a common response among Western tour groups (and certainly a response among ours), is a sudden and overwhelming desire to act like schoolchildren. Seriously – every time you're confronted with a statue, or a museum, or a memorial wall dedicated to the exploits of the Kim family, while the guides tell you in hushed tones the exact dimensions of each photo of the Dear Leader ("this picture is 25 inches by 19 inches...") – you find yourself wanting to be... well, rude. And angry. And silly. You want to heckle, snigger, make snarky comments, turn a cartwheel – anything to lighten the leaden mood of sombre reverence. But if you give in to that impulse - by asking an awkward question, or giggling, or simply trying to wander off – you immediately see the look of pain on the guide's faces. Their respect for their leader is genuine (or else you wouldn't be meeting them). Nothing you say is going to shake their faith. And, like anyone else, they don't appreciate being mocked.

Of course you know about all these restrictions before you travel (you don't hear anyone in the airport yelling "You want to take my phone? Are you insane...?"). But what you don't know is how you'll react to them. All these rules (and more I won't bore you with) combine to create a feeling of incredible... pressure. You don't really get to blow off steam anywhere, for the duration of your trip – not in your room, not on the tour bus, not even on the plane home (we flew with Air Koryo, North Korea's state airline, where even the pre-flight safety announcement includes an expression of grateful thanks to the Dear Leader, for making today's flight possible). By the time you arrive back in China, you're wound up pretty tight.

In any case, you get the idea about the rules and resrictions – I doubt much of it surprises you. (Except maybe the newspaper thing - I mean, that's weird, right?) In our next post, we'll talk about what you actually do on a tour of North Korea - where they take you, what they let you see, and why. In the meantime, just to give you a flavour of the surreal atmosphere, here's a short video of a Kim Il Sung statue in Wonsan - which continuously plays the theme from Dvořák's New World Symphony. (I mean continuously - even during power cuts.) Apparently it was one of Kim Il Sung's favourite pieces of music - and you hear it all over the place.

It's an extremely short video, because I'm not entirely sure we were supposed to take videos at all. In any case, it does at least have his whole body in frame...

North Korea Blogging - a Health Warning

Is this a health warning symbol? Let's say it is...
So the Dear Leader is dead. The North Korean people – some proportion of them, at least – are mourning publicly (the videos are extraordinary). And the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is about to experience that rarest of things, political change. What happens next is anyone's guess.

Dear Departed
Sam and I spent eight days in North Korea in October, travelling to three different cities across the country (Pyongyang, Wonsan and Hamhung) as well as the demilitarised zone. It was, without question, the strangest week of our lives. We've been meaning to post a few photos and thoughts ever since we got back, and Kim Jong Il's death has certainly prodded us into action. However, blogging about a trip to North Korea isn't at all straightforward – so here's a preliminary health warning:

Tour companies operating in North Korea make one thing abundantly clear to visitors: even after you leave, you are not entirely free to write about your experiences. You aren't supposed to write newspaper articles, you aren't supposed to make documentaries, you definitely aren't supposed to publish devastating critiques of the regime's injustices.

Now, you may ask, what's to stop you? The regime, after all, holds no power over you after you leave.

Ah, that's true, say the tour companies – but the regime can punish the only people in North Korea with whom you are allowed to form any kind of emotional bond during your trip: your guides. Your unfailingly polite, kind, English-speaking guides, with whom you spend almost every waking minute of your time in North Korea. You get to know about their families, their daily lives, their hopes for the future... and you are told that if you 'break the rules' after you leave the DPRK, they will be punished for your actions.

Write mean things, and the kitten gets it
It's emotional blackmail, of course. The threats may even have more to do with the tour company's business model (they don't want to be locked out of the country) than with any threat held over the guides' heads. But the point is, we have no way of knowing. Emotional blackmail it may be, but it's effective emotional blackmail – because it might just be true.

So we're going to play by the rules. (I mean, aside from the picture of the kitten, we're going to play by the rules.) In the posts that follow, we'll write about what it's like to be a tourist in North Korea, as honestly as we can. We'll post lots of photos of statues –

We have like 9,000 of these
... and lots of blurry photos taken from the window of our tour bus...

... and about 8,000 like this...
... but we're going to leave any kind of political condemnation to one side. If you're looking for a comprehensive critique of Kim Jong Il's regime, this definitely isn't the place to find it (you could try Google).

But if you'd like to see some of our photos, and get an idea of what it's like to visit the world's oddest country - stay tuned...

Friday, 4 November 2011

Back in Blighty - and straight onto Radio 4

So we're back in the land of hope and glory - and we're heading straight into that most British of institutions, BBC Radio 4. Sam and I have been invited onto Excess Baggage at 10am tomorrow, to talk about our experiences in a live chat with John McCarthy. Do tune in, if you happen to be awake.
Excess Baggage
John McCarthy focuses on Panama with Verol Gordon who has moved there with his family and explains the attractions of a new life in a fast developing land. John also meets foreign correspondent Nicholas Wood who has turned his hand to running tours of some of the world's politically sensitive spots. They are joined by playwright Samantha Holcroft and economist Alistair Muriel who recently accompanied him on a trip to North Korea to find out if they could get any closer to this controversial country. 

Monday, 31 October 2011

The Wall Less Travelled

[A bit of a rewind here - a blog post we wrote before heading off to the Hermit Kingdom, but couldn't post - we may have mentioned we've had some minor issues accessing Blogger :-) 
Anyway, here are a few notes about our Great Wall of China adventure.]

The terrible contradiction of modern tourism - 
  1. You want to see all the cool stuff, but -
  2. You want to avoid the crowds
Because fabulous sights just aren't as fabulous when you're being elbowed in the ribs by nine thousand other sweaty tourists, many of them from cultures substantially less polite (and substantially less conscientious about personal hygiene) than your own.

So while Sam and I were desperate to see the Great Wall of China, we also really, really wanted to avoid the crowds. Which is far from straightforward, because the Chinese Government funnels tourists to just a few sections of the wall (Badaling chief among them), to enable more efficient separation of tourists from their tasty Western dollars. Which means that on your average day, Badaling looks something like this:
Ah, the tranquility
(Image from China-Mike.com)
If you're willing to hire your own driver, though - and willing to forego the 'I Climbed the Great Wall' T-Shirts - it's possible to see the most amazing sections of the wall, far from the madd(en)ing crowds. In fact, you can have miles and miles of Great Wall, entirely to yourself. So Sam and I skipped Badaling altogether, and headed here:

Spot the tourists
This is the wall at Huanghua - a tiny village about 70km north of Beijing. It's a pretty unorthodox tourist experience - first you pay this man 2 yuan to scramble through his back garden:
That's 20p in real money
And then (with the locals' encouragement) you ignore the signs the Chinese government has plonked around the place to scare potential tourists away:

That's not what the guy whose garden we just scrambled through told us
The payoff is the most incredible hike through completely deserted mile after completely deserted mile of glorious wall. The downside, for those with a health & safety bent, is that the guard rails at the highest sections are a little, um... non-existent.

This would never be allowed in England
Oh, and the stone in some of the steeper sections has been worn completely smooth. It's not somewhere you'd want to come on a frosty morning.
Don't slip
By the time we got back to the village after a few hours of climbing, our legs were shaking with exhaustion. We were also starving. Lucky, then, that the cost of our driver also included a barbecued fish lunch from a little local restaurant. As we scrambled back down from the wall, we saw the chef crossing the road holding a huge, muscular brown fish, wriggling in his hands. He waved at us, then nonchalantly smacked the fish against the sink. Lunch would be ready soon... 
Looks terrifying. Was delicious.
Maybe it was all the exercise, or maybe the best restaurant in China is a tiny roadside shack in Huanghua... but it was the most delicious meal we've had on our trip.
The dishes just kept coming
So thank-you, Huanghua, for an unforgettable experience. And thank-you Chinese government... for keeping out the riff-raff.

Back in the Land of the Free Still-Not-Free

Aaaaand we're back. After spending 10 days on a tour of a country we still can't name for legal reasons, but which is popularly known as the Hermit Kingdom, and is currently vying with Syria and Zimbabwe for the title of 'Most Repressive Lunatic Regime, 2011' (after Libya tragically dropped out of the running...).

Lots more to say about that, but first a word about returning to China, after spending time in the Hermit Kingdom. Here's the sad thing: the two regimes have a lot in common.

Admittedly only China can afford computer graphics for its news channel...

At first it seems ridiculous to compare the two - the Hermit Kingdom is a famine-prone basketcase, while China is busily motoring towards global economic supremacy. The Hermit Kingdom has only one TV channel - a low-budget joke spewing stodgy propaganda and 'ideologically pure' drama. Chinese TV, in contrast, has dozens of channels, including a slick English language news channel. The Hermit Kingdom completely bans access to the internet, even for foreigners - while in China, wifi and 3G are everywhere. Etc.

But scratch the surface.

Chinese TV may have dozens of channels - but the government can ban any show, on any channel, at any time - for any reason. Most recently, they pulled the plug on one of China's most popular shows - an X-Factor style talent contest called 'Supergirl'. Their stated reason? "It was too long." The real reason? It encouraged people to vote.

A threat to the Chinese state. Seriously.

But it gets much weirder than that. The Chinese government can ban specific types of plot from all dramas on TV. So this year, they banned all stories involving time travel.

Back to the Western TV Channels ("Great Scott...!")
Their stated reasons for the ban (available here, if you read Chinese) are truly fabulous. Characters travelling back in time "lack positive thoughts and meaning" and portrayal of time travel can "casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation." 

I mean... wow.

In case that all made too much sense, the censors have really warmed to their work, and recently banned all detective dramas and spy thrillers for the next three months, so that viewers could instead enjoy "the dozens of good TV dramas relating to the founding of the [Communist] Party."

But which one do I want to watch?

And then there's the news. With the best will in the world, China's English language news channel is by far the creepiest thing I've seen broadcast in my language, in my lifetime. You're just not used to seeing blatant state propaganda being churned out in English (and if you're about to reply that "the BBC is blatant propaganda, man", then you should probably stop reading this blog and get back to stocking your nuclear bunker with tinned food).

Give the Chinese state broadcasters some credit - they've hired proper Western journalists, and they try incredibly hard to make it sound like a regular news channel (with feisty debates, controversy and so on). But the heavy hand of the government censors editors is everywhere. Sam and I have been collecting our favourite examples of completely-free-and-balanced journalism on the state news channel - but we keep getting angry and having to switch off. Here's our favourite so far:

"So, Tom, are the Occupy Wall Street protesters exaggerating, or do these protests expose the inherent instability of America's capitalist system?" 
"I think they expose the inherent instability of America's capitalist system..."

As for foreign news channels - they are censored, arbitrarily, at any time. Even in a Beijing hotel populated entirely by Western tourists, BBC World News can have the plug pulled at any minute. And it is - regularly. One minute you're watching Jeremy Bowen chattering excitedly about Libya - then the newsreader says 'Meanwhile in Syria - ' and the screen goes blue. Sometimes it stays blue for hours. You have to switch back to Chinese state TV for a dose of propaganda, or else settle in for a drama about the founding of the Communist Party.

"This is the Ten O'Clock News from the BBC..."
Even in the country-we-can't-name-for-legal-reasons, BBC news was broadcast unmolested in foreigners' hotel rooms. In that respect (if in no other), it's a freer place than China.

Then there's the internet. Or rather, there isn't the internet, in the case of the Hermit Kingdom - it just doesn't exist. As our guides told us, without irony, on arriving at a hotel: "On the 2nd floor you will find the International Communications Centre, where you can send a postcard..." The Chinese Communist Party, in contrast, allows the internet to flourish completely unencumbered. Oh, apart from the largest and most technologically advanced censorship operation in the history of humanity. Apart from that it's totally free.

It works like this: the Chinese government has simply banned a bunch of websites on which Westerners blithely enjoy their rights to free speech (Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, YouTube), and it's crippled Google as well (if you enter, say, 'jasmine' into Google, you'll find your access denied, and it'll stay denied for quite some time). In their place, the government has allowed Chinese copies of each site (Renren, Weibo, Tudou, etc.) which are broadly similar to their Western counterparts - except that they are policed by tens of thousands of state-employed censors moderators. If free speech exists at all in Chinese blogs, it exists in the hours (or minutes) between the posting of anti-government sentiments, and their deletion.

I'd love to tell you, but the Communist Party won't let me
And it's certainly not just about censorship. The Great Firewall of China has a hulking great fist behind it: according to Amnesty International, China has more imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents than any other nation in the world.

Jiang Zemin - 17th Chinese Communist Party Congress
"We're number one!"

OK, you get the idea - I'll stop ranting (you can probably tell I've been bottling this up for a while). If you're a Facebook-using blogger who likes to watch the news, flying from the Hermit Kingdom to Beijing doesn't feel like returning to a land of freedom. It feels like more of the same.

Oh, and one more thing. Stein's Law says that: "If something can't go on forever, it will stop." Well, from what we can see, the Chinese people are as smart, tech-savvy, feisty and fashion-conscious as anyone in the West. In fact, let's just go ahead and admit it - the next generation of Chinese students is way, way smarter than us.

 This can't go on forever.

Friday, 14 October 2011

100% Genuine Armani Watch - Final Tragic Update

We've been flooded with literally one more request for information about my 100% Genuine Armani Watch, purchased for £15 on the streets of Moscow. It is with great sadness that I confirm - the 100% Genuine Watch is no more. In the same incident in which my arm was broken, a far greater tragedy also occurred: my watch was snapped from my wrist and left to rust (or whatever lacquered plastic does) in the dust of the Mongolian steppe.

If you want a 100% genuine watch, there's one just lying around here somewhere
There are two potential stories we might tell about this loss. The first goes something like this:

My wrist is broken in a place which very closely corresponds to the sort of place which a watch - if, say, crushed against its wearer's arm during a sudden fall from a stampeding horse - might crunch into the surrounding bone.

Sort of watch-y kind of area, don't you think?
Which might lead a cynical observer to wonder whether my 100% Genuine Armani Watch may in fact... have broken the radius bone in my arm.

But there's another, altogether more interesting version of these same events. Because that watch hit the ground with so much force that it was completely torn from my wrist. That's a lot of force - especially when you consider that the strap was 100% genuine plastic leather. So now ask yourself: what sort of damage might my arm have sustained, had my 100% Genuine Watch not bravely, selflessly, fearlessly borne the brunt of the impact?

Without all that plastic metal and perspex glass courageously hurling itself between my arm and that hard earth - I could have been really, seriously injured. Lacking medical training, we can only speculate - but I'm pretty sure fragments of bone may have been dislodged completely, only to lodge in other parts of my body. Who knows where they might have ended up - my lungs maybe. My brain. Even my heart. Lacking any medical knowledge of any kind, at all - we can literally only speculate. What we can say for certain is this: my 100% Genuine Armani Watch may well have saved my life.

So farewell, 100% Genuine Armani Watch. Thank-you for your many years days of tireless service. I hope you're happy out there in the Mongolian wilderness, and - since I'm certain you contain no biodegradable parts of any kind - I hope you continue to enjoy that tranquillity for many centuries to come.

I'd hate to end this post on a downbeat note, however, so let me add one further piece of news:

Sam and I went shopping in Beijing's extraordinary Silk Market today - a shopping mall containing more 100% genuine goods in one building than I have ever seen in my entire life. And for the exact same price as my 100% Genuine Armani Watch, we managed to purchase something even more incredible.

The 100% Genuine Armani Watch is dead. Long live the 110% Genuine Patek Philippe Watch!

Isn't she lovely? 

Thursday, 13 October 2011


Our hotel here in Beijing is right in the heart of the hutong - the narrow medieval streets to the north of the Forbidden City. Noisy, smelly, crumbling and crammed with all manner of street vendors, bars, markets and workshops. The tiny roads are permanently rammed with vehicles, whizzing in every direction and ringing, honking and shouting according to a strict hierarchy:
  • Bicycles ring their bells manically at pedestrians
  • Electric bicycles blast out pre-recorded car-alarm sounds at bicycles
  • Three wheeled bikes yell furiously at two-wheeled vehicles of all kinds
  • Cars honk at all types of bicycles, their drivers possibly supplementing the honking with shouted abuse
  • Trucks just park in the middle of the street, blocking traffic in all directions - and ignore everyone

Amidst such carnage, there's really only one way to see the hutong - by bicycle. You may be towards the bottom of the food chain, but at least you're not a pedestrian.

Fortunately our hotel offers a range of cutting-edge road bikes for visiting tourists, and Sammy and I were allowed to take our pick from their extraordinary selection. I opted for the injection-moulded carbon-fibre BMC bike ridden to victory by Cadel Evans in this year's Tour de France: 
That basket is pure carbon fibre
Sammy, having a more classical sensibility, went for the epoxy-composite Trek Madone SL made famous by Lance Armstrong in his final 2005 Tour victory:
That's not just rust - it's go-faster rust
Of course, there was the minor detail that it was my first day with my arm in a plaster cast - but so many other cyclists were talking on mobile phones with one arm while they steered with the other, that I figured 'how hard can it be?'

No two ways about it - that is one masculine basket
For her part, Sammy was absolutely 100% certain that cycling in Beijing was an excellent idea:

"I'm 100% certain this is an excellent idea"
 So we hopped on our bikes, and...
... cycled from one side of Beijing to the other. We were having such a great time in the hutong that we hit the main roads (with their vast, cordoned-off cycle lanes) and blasted east to the financial district. Then we turned right around and cycled back to the Forbidden City.

It's the strangest thing - the roads are so utterly bonkers that they feel completely safe. Everyone is doing mad things, all around you, all the time - people cycling the wrong way down one-way cycle lanes, pedestrians stepping out in front of buses without a glance - which means that everyone's expecting madness to occur at every moment. So if you mess up and end up in the wrong lane, it doesn't matter - everyone's in the wrong lane, and everyone's ringing their bells and honking their horns, all the time - so you don't really notice if/when it's directed at you. It's a state of perfect, glorious anarchy.
I fear nothing
After several hours of cycling, we decided we'd earned a break, and pulled in for an hour long, full-body massage at the highly-recommended Dragonfly Spa. Which was amazing for several reasons - not the least of them being that I'd never had a lady rub oil into my buttocks with Sammy in the same room before.
This is where the magic happens
We left feeling so relaxed we could have passed out in the street. It was all we could do to drag our bicycles out into the madness of the traffic, potter back to our little hutong past the charming shops in our neighbourhood -

OK, then...
- and collapse into bed in our beautiful, beautiful hotel (about which Sammy will have much more to say later).

Our best day in Beijing, by miles. Something we've said to ourselves every day in Beijing so far. We absolutely love this city...