North Korea – respecting the Great Leader(s) in Pyongyang

When I told people I was going to North Korea, everyone said I was nuts, but it is one of the safest places to visit in the world and profoundly fascinating to see an entirely different culture unblemished by western values.  While it was tricky to keep a straight face when hearing about the evil imperialist US and the divine acts of Kim Il Song, it was interesting how committed the North Koreans are to their country and the Juche ideology.   And the food was pretty good too!  Definitely worth a visit!   

Liberation museum statue

Before we were allowed on the plane we had to sign on the dotted line that we were not journalists and promise that we didn’t have any bibles and were not going to on a mission to convert any North Koreans to Christianity. That done, we then got a detailed briefing on what we weren’t allowed to do in the country, though in fairness it was largely a request to not take the piss out of the great leader (including only taking full and flattering photos of pictures or monuments of him) and being sensible (don’t take photos of the military or make dumb comments about the government)

Captured US enemy tank

Arriving in Pyongyang was an efficiency dream putting European and American airports to shame. There were more staff than passengers and while we were asked a bunch of questions and Lenas books were inspected we were through in five minutes. Our lovely guides took our passports and visas for the duration of the tour and then drove us in to town. 

The enemy ship USS pueblo

Our first stop was the Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum. We had an extremely earnest young female military guide who spent two hours explaining in great detail how the imperialist and dishonourable US army had started the Korean War with their ‘puppets’ (South Korea) and without a note of cynicism went on to celebrate how ‘the supreme great leader’ Kim Sung Il had ‘liberated’ the whole of Korea before eventually being victorious in ‘liberating’ the DPRK (North Korea) when the Americans ‘surrendered’ (signed the armistice). 

Postage stamp

It was an endurance test for Lena and I not to burst out laughing at the exhibits and the fervent explanations which were delivered without a single note of cynicism. Highlights were the USS pueblo ship captured from the enemy who were committing evil espionage against the great people of the DPRK, the b grade propaganda films showing the US apologising for their cowardly acts and the extraordinarily 15 minute sound and light show in the revolving tower showing the beginning of the war. I have no doubt their were several elements of truth in the ‘facts presented’, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the US had dropped 410000 bombs on Pyongyang which at that time had a population of 400000 but it would be fair to say it was a one sided view.

Mosaic for the party

By the time we finished it was dark and freezing so we went for dinner and a warmup ‘lecture’ from our guides on why North Korea should be allowed missiles and nuclear weapons. The bibimbap and kimchi were outstanding. And to be honest, while I would prefer no country had missiles I can’t see any sound logic for allowing Trump to have missile control and not Kim Jong Un. They also assured us that given the racial homogeneity of Korea it was much safer than Europe where they know we have ‘problems with refugees and immigrants’. It is frighteningly aryan how often the concept of racial homogeneity came up and it is apparently a core principle behind the design of the flag.

View of the Juche tower across the Pyongyang river

We then checked into the Yanggakdo hotel which was a 50 story monstrosity which only appeared to have two floors in use. Fortunately we were on the tourist floor and the hallway lights worked, the Chinese tourists had to stumble around the tenth floor in the dark to get to their rooms. The hot water and power worked and their was toilet paper, so no complaints.

With our guide before the great leaders

After breakfast we headed out for the day. The highlights included Kim Il Song Square where the great esteemed leader watches the troop marches, the Mansudae Grand Monument where we had to buy flowers to leave underneath and were required to bow appropriately out of respect. Wandering around the town to get there was amusing as it is truly bizarre to see no brands or advertising….. only the ever present communist propaganda posters and pictures of the great leaders.

We were then treated to a ride on the Pyongyang metro which was fabulous. The stations were aptly named Prosperity, Glory, Torch, Victory and Reunification. The investments in mosaics and paintings are impressive, though it is a shame all of that creative talent is limited to depicting the great leaders and the communist struggles. 

Pyongyang metro
Pyongyang metro

Then a visit to the Arc de triumph, which like many monuments in Pyongyang was built for the 70th birthday of the leader.  

Then it was off to Okryugan for the Pyongyang specialty of Goksue – cold vermicelli noodles. While it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great, but it was fun watching the slurping techniques of the locals.

Goksue – cold vermicelli noodles

Highlights of the afternoon were the Kwangbok department store which was heaving as it was a public holiday for international women’s day (kudos to North Korea for that!). We were amused by the fights that were breaking out in the cafeteria queue which was not really equipped for the demand. Then we were off to see the Presidents House where we saw where Kim il Song’s grandparents lived in humble poverty.  

Arc de triomphe
Downtown Pyongyang

Next the Tower of Juche. Juche is the Kim Il Song’s philosophy of ‘self determination’ which essentially says that man creates the world he lives in, and this is why religion is irrelevant. Worth a google for those of you with an interest in communism and philosophy. And finally the Party Foundation Monument.
Juche tower
View from Juche tower

By this time Lena and I had both lost feeling in our fingers (it was below zero) so after a quick beer we headed off for Jongol (the Korean version of shabu shabu) which was accompanied by another fervent and friendly lecture on why the DPRK should be allowed nuclear power and why there should be more foreign investment given the stability of the economy.  

View from Juche tower of our hotel and sun going down

Our guides were lovely and we had lots of fun with them. They were surprisingly flexible when they could be and let us flex different elements of the tour. However they did ask us more questions than we asked them and surprisingly knew more about is than they should have given what we put on our visa forms. Lena and I both noticed that they would ask us the same questions about each other to cross check our answers. We also got the standard questions of ‘why don’t you have husbands with you?’ and for me ‘why no kids’ and for Lena ‘why are you not married?’ And ‘how long did you breastfeed for’. We were apparently unusual in turning up as friends and we are pretty sure they thought we were having a lesbian fling. Nonetheless they were pretty amusing and we even got them singing in the bus one day. They were also constantly amused by how much food we could eat and how fast we could do it – I was nicknamed ‘pally pally’, Korean for fast, given how quickly I inhaled my meals.

Party foundation Monument

Honestly it was a fun couple of days and I would recommend it for a novel holiday. I probably wouldn’t stay too long as it is a bit suffocating having to be accompanied everywhere, and it is weird having no phone or Internet. It was a quirky destination, people were largely friendly, the food was great and the sights were pretty unique.  Lena summed it up beautifully as ‘fascinating, disturbing and hilarious’! 

Freezing on top of the Juche tower
Notes on the tour 

– You cannot travel independently to North Korea – you must book with a tour company, although you do not have to join a group tour if you are prepared to pay for your own tour. We went with Koryo, who came recommended by good friends and were excellent

– Your itinerary is restricted to open sites. We were happy with what we saw but if we had had one more day we would have gone to the DMZ at the border with South Korea which is apparently fascinating 

– none of the toilet doors had locks on them, mostly you had to hold them closed while precariously squatting. No one could explain to us why locks were not allowed. Learn to be zen with strangers watching you pee or hold on all day 

– Be respectful to your guides, don’t try and ditch them, as they are normal people with jobs not state security police and they get in a lot of trouble if you do anything bad. You will probably also be detained

Pyongyang March 9, 2017


Mongolia – 24 hours chilling in Ulaanbaatar

One day I plan to come and do a long extended tour of the Mongolian steppes, but I would like to do it with the hubby, and he is wildly underwhelmed with the idea of gers, hiking, no showers, and long days in rickety vehicles. Until I persuade him, I am making do with a lightening visit to the wonderful Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.

Spinning the wheels at Gandan Khiid

I must confess that my planning has been rather poor in this case. While I am now an expert at global flight connections, currency conversions, and general travel prep, every now and then I do something inordinately dumb. In this case I forgot to take a look at the temperatures, and it turns out the weather forecast was for between minus 30 and a high of minus 8. Hmmmmmf! and I was coming from Polynesia where I have been living in shorts and singlets. Oh well, at least wearing all my clothes there was nothing left to carry in the bag.

Gandan Khiid

The first introduction to Mongolia was the plane flight from Hong Kong. Check in was a heaving mass of humanity, and almost everyone was travelling in an enormous family group, grand parents, parents and lots of kids running around screaming. They all look delightfully friendly, big warm smiles on wonderfully chubby faces, however they all seem to have the evil queuing instincts of the french or the mainland chinese, seriously everyone from the 5 year old to the 80 year old tried to cut me off in the check in queue. The plane was a similar experience, but I just can’t helped but be charmed by these chubby smiley people…., especially the kids, the most amazing pinchable cheeks. I am assuming that given the temperatures everyone here wisely carries a few extra pounds to ward off the freezing blimmen cold.

Gandan Khiid

Ulaanbaatar is definitely modern, packed with coffee shops and malls funded by the brits, Chinese, Koreans and Japanese. I was expecting Tashkent and I got a cleaner version of Almaty. Modernity offset by the gers/yurts clustered around town – unfathomable how they survive winters at minus 40 in a tent
Given the limited time, I had prioritised the very best there was to see in Ulaanbaatar, and recommend these sights as a minimum:

Gandan Khiid

Things to see

  • First stop Gandan Khiid/Gandantegchinlen a.k.a. ‘the great place of complete joy’, which had unbelievably beautiful standing Buddha statue (no photos allowed – you will have to come check it out for your self). I couldn’t find anyone to buy a ticket from but the taxi driver sent me off to a few side buildings as he mimed monks chanting. I found my way through the curtain into a small incense filled room with monks chanting and drinking tea, I am assuming it was a ceremony as the room was crowded with worshippers but they could have equally been having breakfast. Oddly, given the religious nature of the event, it was more like being in a rock concert with people pushing and shoving to get in and out, I guess I am used to my buddhists being a bit less physical. After getting elbowed in the tit for the third time I beat a retreat. I sat outside enjoying the view of people spinning the prayer wheels until I lost all feeling in my fingertips (approximately 3.2 minutes) and hustled back to the cab
Gandan Khiid
  • Next stop Chinggis Khaan square….. a desolate space surrounded by ultramodern buildings. Suspect old Chinggis would be less that impressed by his nomadic countrymen settling down in bricks and mortar
Morning prostrations at Gandan Khiid
  • Then, i had less luck at the chojin lama palace which is incongruously set against the high rises of downtown Ulaanbaatar, as it was closed on Monday. I asked the security guard to let me in for two minutes and he said sorry, security camera and pointed to the 5 cameras surveilling him, sometimes I miss the days pre cctv when a small gift would have definitely gotten me access. Oh well, one to visit next time
Chojin lama temples with skyscrapers in the background
  • The winter palace of Bogd Khan (home of the last king) was spectacular, even more so given it wasn’t over renovated. Some consultant had clearly given them pricing advice as while the tickets were $3, it cost $20 to take photos but you were still not allowed to take photos inside the buildings. I managed a couple of photos, and really enjoyed the zen atmosphere and watching the icicles drip water on the Chinese tourists
Bogd palace
  • Final stop a nice climb up the Zaisan monument for stunning views over the town. I lost feeling in my fingertips and my phone died of shock from the cold after about five minutes but it was worth it. Apparently Ulaanbaatar has some of the worst smog in the world, but not today. The mountains and plains around town are a tiny taste of what the rest of enormous country looks like, and I am itching to come back and go for some long runs up and down these hills
Bogd palace

Additional notes

  • I stayed at the Hotel Khan Palace Kempinski – recommended as the nicest hotel in Ulan Bator, and at a reasonable $100 a night that felt like a good deal for me given the gym, sauna, wifi, toto loos and free breakfast
Zaisan – with a view of town
  • I rented a taxi for the time I was there. At $10 an hour, it was good value and made sure I maximised the time I had to get around to see everything Taxis to and from the airport are $20.maximum. I used safety taxi.  My taxi driver was adorable, and pointed out all the sights, pulled my hat on for me and even offered me his gloves as he didn’t think mine were good enough – he was right and I should have taken his. It was definitely the best way to get round town in March, as my original plan of walking everywhere would have had me hypothermic within 20 minutes.
Khuushuur – a bit like a cornish pasty but not as yummy

Thank you Mongolia, I will be back

Ulaanbaatar, March 6, 2017

Prayer wheels at Gandan Khiid

P.s. A random fact that I love about Mongolia – women here go to school longer than men, as the men tend to be needed to look after the animals, whereas women need to be better educated to look after the household finances.  As a result 70-80% of the skilled jobs in Ulaanbaatar are held by women

View from Zaisan
Bogd palace

Solomon Islands : Scrambling around the WW2 wreckage on Guadalcanal

The Solomon Islands are apparently amazing for diving….. shame I don’t like fish!  However, for a raw look at Melanesian culture, and to check out some interesting Guadalcanal history, Honiara is definitely worth a (short) visit.

What to do in Honiara!

Vilu museum

Visit the WW2 relics

The easiest place to do this is to go to the Vilu museum on the North Coast of Guadalcanal.  It isn’t signposted from the road so it is probably easier to take a taxi (I rented one for a few hours).    Created by the current owner’s father, and by the current guide – Talia’s grandfather, when he collected all the best examples of old aircraft and relics from around the island, it is a fun place to visit and Talia is as passionate about the planes as her granddad.  (S$100).  My other favourite location was the Sherman tank just across the road from Ruaniu, which was interesting to see but probably not worth the S$30 entry fee

Tens of thousands of young men who fell in battle sleep here.  May the tragic events that occurred on this island during WW2 be forever inscribed in our memories.  War brings all sides nothing but deep grief and distress. To the souls of these departed youth our only words of tribute are the renunciation of war.  May the blue sea, the great expanse of sky, and this green island be a testimony of eternal peace.  Sleep peacefully, fallen friends.    – Words on a monument erected by a Japanese soldier

Philip the taxi driver couldn’t resist climbing on the tank – I actually got in it too

Practice you pidgeon

I was delighted to learn that I actually speak the local language, well I can understand it.  My favourite signs in Honiara were no torowem rubbish hia and hem half past four nao? – a sign for the beer company.  I also conquered the basics of ‘mi laek go long…’=I want to go to, and ‘hao long nao bae hemi tekem fo wakabout go….’= ‘how long does it take to walk to…’.   I had quite a lot of fun practising and the locals were surprised how much I understood.

The sunk Japanese ship

Go snorkelling at Bonegi/Ruaniu

The remains of a 6500 tonne Japanese transport ship was sunk here in 1942 and it is a great location to check out the fish or have a swim

Go swim in a waterfall

Both Mataniko and Tenaru were easy to reach but not hugely spectacular

Stroll around Honiara

None of the sights are amazing but you can check out the National Parliament building (where long shirts and cover your shoulders if  you want to go inside), the National Museum (not scintillating), and the catholic and melanesian anglican churches.   Go to church on Sunday if you are there, the singing is pretty good!

Go shopping

Ok, so there isn’t anything to buy, but checking out the pretty grim supermarkets with their out of date products and limited variety will make you feel pretty good about how good your supermarkets are at home.  The exception to this is the central market, which is worth a visit for some decent fresh veg and fruit

Plane ruins at Vilu

Check out the drunks/betel nut chewers

I have never seen such a high proportion of bottle stores to food shops!  On the road from Honiara to Vilu there were 27 bottle shops on the outside of town and probably two food shops!   I also saw more stalls selling betel nut than vegetables.  Hmmmm.   Perhaps that explains why there were numerous signs around town banning chewing, spitting and alcohol.  I did have a run in with a gang of drunks near the market who started yelling ‘what ya want white man’, but I wasn’t too bothered as was entirely confident I could outrun them if they made a move.

Additional notes

  • I stayed at the Chester Resthouse, which at S$330 per night ($45) is the cheapest in Honiara – sadly expats and aid workers have inflated the prices of the few western hotel rooms to egregious levels, and I wasn’t prepared to pay $300 per night.   The Resthouse was clean and safe and $45 for a small room sharing a bathroom with the 9 other rooms.  Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot of soundproofing, and there were a lot of kids and babies, so I didn’t get much sleep.  I probably would still stay there again in spite of the noise, given the lack of alternatives, but can’t really recommend it
  • I ate mostly from the market and the ‘bulk store’, but can recommend the Lime Lounge which was the only wifi I got in Honiara – decent coffee and a small but perfectly formed burger with fries.  I also recommend the Frangipani ice for a cone and the Honiara hot bread kitchen for a nutritionally void donut.
  • Taxis from the airport cost S$100, and then about $100 per hour if you want them to take you around the Island.  My driver was the helpful Philip, who can be reached on 7833203.
  • Note that while NZ/AU phone companies roam in the Solomons, EE in the UK definitely did not

Jezebel the Sherman tank

The rest house takes shell art to a whole new level

One of many bottle shops

Honiara, march 3, 2017