EX­PE­RI­ENC­ING NORTH KOREA

HI Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - STORY INDRANIL CHOWDHURI — HiWeek­end@time­so­fo­man.com

Amidst po­lit­i­cal un­rest and re­stric­tions, trav­el­ling to North Korea can be a life­time ex­pe­ri­ence for an avid trav­eller.

Amul­ti­tude of ex­as­per­a­tions sur­face when speak­ing about North Korea. Plan­ning a va­ca­tion there of shock and awe. A visit to the Demo­cratic Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of Korea (DPRK) does not ma­te­ri­alise, at the drop of a hat. Their visa reg­u­la­tory body is more in­tent on re­ject­ing ap­pli­ca­tions than grant­ing. The ac­cred­ited agent based in Bei­jing is Ko­ryo Trav­els, and one needs to sin­gle win­dow them, for vis­it­ing the King­dom.

Trips to DPRK needs sen­si­tiv­ity train­ings, termed as pre-trip brief­ings, which could span a few hours to a day. The train­ing was all about the dos and the don’ts, and at the end, we found that there was noth­ing much we could do there on our own as a tourist. Breach of ethics or di­ver­gence from set rules could be dev­as­tat­ing with a prob­a­ble un­end­ing stay in North Korea.

Armed with pa­per stamped visas we checked in at Bei­jing air­port. The Air­lines was Air Ko­ryo, an un­event­ful flight, and we landed at the spick and span Py­ongyang In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

The jour­ney of dis­cov­ery be­gan. With not much of traf­fic, save a cou­ple of daily flights, the lines at im­mi­gra­tion moved fast, since they have a de­tailed ros­ter of all in­com­ing pas­sen­gers.

The bot­tle-neck starts at cus­toms. Lap­tops, hard discs, and cell phones are checked for con­tent and we ex­ited the cus­toms for bag­gage. The en­tire group was then sub di­vided into smaller “man­age­able” groups of about 25.

Trans­ported to a ho­tel, which had been al­ready sani­tised as “for for­eign­ers only”, our pass­ports and the visa was taken away, with a ver­bal as­sur­ance to be re­turned when ex­it­ing.

Im­me­di­ately the rules swung into ac­tion. We were free in­side the ho­tel, as there were no guests apart from us, but were barred from leav­ing the premises. Each group had two “min­ders” and they hung around ubiq­ui­tously.

The tele­vi­sion had only one chan­nel, and that was en­tirely de­voted to Kim Jong-un and his heroic ex­ploits of tak­ing the na­tion for­ward.

North Korea runs two par­al­lel mo­bile phone ser­vices. One is solely for the lo­cals, the other one for for­eign­ers, which are rarely avail­able. The most amus­ing part be­ing, that the two ser­vices are not com­pat­i­ble. A lo­cal SIM can­not call a for­eign SIM, and vice versa. Com­pounded with the fact that there was no in­ter­net, we were to­tally iso­lated from the world at large.

The next few days were go­ing through the set tours, and it was hi­lar­i­ous. Her­alded into a bus with tinted win­dows, num­ber count ev­ery now and then, har­ried “min­ders” in per­pet­ual stress, as if any one of us would de­fect from the group.

We were not al­lowed to in­ter­act with lo­cals as we got off the bus, and crossed streets to visit a mu­seum or a place of tourist in­ter­est. Some did try, but the lo­cals walked past, with a blank stare as if they never heard us. They have an ar­chaic metro rail sys­tem.

The car­riages ac­tu­ally look like boxes and even in the train the in­ter­ac­tion with lo­cals were frowned upon.

From ev­ery street cor­ner, from ev­ery build­ing, Kim II-sung, and Kim Jong-il, stare down at you. At the Man­su­dae Grand Mon­u­ment, enor­mous bronze stat­ues of the two past Pres­i­dents over­look the city. Right from ar­riv­ing, we were told that pho­to­graphs clicked would be sub­ject to scru­tiny. At ran­dom, the min­ders started check­ing the cam­eras for any ob­jec­tion­able pic­tures taken. The ground rules were not clearly de­fined, but their de­ci­sion, ir­rev­o­ca­ble.

The high­light of the trip was ob­vi­ously the visit to the bor­der —The DMZ. There was ex­cite­ment within us. The min­ders were tensed and stressed to their end.

Many a times, they re­peated the num­ber count. We were harshly in­structed against try­ing to and make a dash across the bor­der. Through many a check and re­peated alerts, we reached DMZ.

Just a nar­row road de­mar­cates the two Koreas, and se­cu­rity is on pre­mium on ei­ther side. But then the fun started. We were taken to the roof of a build­ing over­look­ing the bor­der and the stone faced North Korean Guards, sud­denly let go their com­po­sure and started mak­ing merry. We joined their cir­cus, and there was bon­homie, selfie tak­ing, and mak­ing friends.

Life is ab­so­lutely reg­u­lated, and free­dom of travel even within the coun­try is re­stricted. One can­not visit the cap­i­tal, if not stay­ing within the city lim­its, and can come only if called.

All hol­i­days are spent by the lo­cals, vis­it­ing the mon­u­ments of the lead­ers in na­tional cos­tumes, and pay­ing obei­sance. The min­ders told us it is “vol­un­tary” and the ci­ti­zens love their lead­ers, past and present so much, that ev­ery free time, is spent in their adu­la­tion. At the Kum­su­san Palace of the Sun, the em­balmed bod­ies of the father and grand­fa­ther of the present Pres­i­dent have been kept. For­mal dress com­plete with tie and jacket are a must and cam­eras are a strict no. The Palace it­self is mam­moth and the rooms in­side are enor­mous. There are un­end­ing rooms where the gifts and medal­lions given to their departed lead­ers are on dis­play. One needs to painstak­ingly walk in a file in­spect­ing the hun­dreds of ex­hibits.

As one en­ters the sanc­tum of the mau­soleum, where the Pres­i­dents lie em­balmed, each group is mys­te­ri­ously joined by wail­ing women, who seem to ap­pear out of nowhere. Their grief and tears are on cat­e­gor­i­cal dis­play as the vis­i­tors solemnly walk past them. Then they dis­ap­pear as silently as they came in, and an­other group of women ap­pear to put on dis­play their heart felt grief. It is just an­other day in the of­fice.

A sim­ple week-long visit opened our eyes to a pos­si­ble world be­hind the screen. The shim­mer of the façade was frag­ile enough for us to scratch. But at the end of the day, they were won­der­ful hosts.

TRAVEL WITH NEEL Indranil Chowdhuri is based in Oman and an avid trav­eller who has com­pleted foot print­ing in more than 100 coun­tries.

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