Arirang Spectacular

September 2012

North Korea is like the urban legend of the Japanese soldier still fighting WWII out on some lonely island in the remote Pacific.  In his mind, it’s all still very real for him.  When he starts shooting at us, then it’s real for us, too.  At first I didn’t know if they were even going to let me in the country, something about journalists not allowed in on tourist visas.  That’s the first time I’ve ever been accused of journalism.  Them’s fightin’ words.  Obviously they’ve never read my work.  Finally I convinced them I was just a blogger, so apparently that’s okay, heh heh.

…the plot only thickens, of course, in direct proportion as the prices rise… can only enter the country on guided tours…guides! and lots of them.  Tourists NOT allowed to travel independently, rarely even allowed out of sight of the guides… assigned hotel is on an island…  I was pretty skeptical, frankly more interested in notching my 145th country on my bedpost than in getting all cozy with the commies…

Arirang 2012

Arirang 2012

…not as restrictive as it sounded, in fact, mostly just pricey… number of Western tourists for the whole year, in fact, is about equal to the number of Western tourists who enter Bangkok every hour of every day of every week of every year… occasion for my particular “mini-tour” was the ‘Arirang’ Mass Games… largest choreographed spectacle of its kind, something like the opening to the Beijing Olympics on some really good steroids, them not me…

…half of the spectacle occurs on the playing field itself… other half occurs in the bleachers opposite us spectators… an elaborate card stunt… each seat and slot is used in its capacity for playing pixel, producing color and texture, each person holding up cards on cue for massive mosaics…. corny in one sense, in another quite spectacular…

Pyongyang's Berlin metro

Pyongyang’s Berlin metro

Communism stops the clock.  I’ve seen it over and over—Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, etc.  The countries behind those curtains are usually time-warps of the past, frozen in glass.  But where Havana is funky, even skuzzy, Pyongyang is squeaky clean, almost sterile.  Where Havana has crumbling buildings—sometimes with quite decent digs inside, Pyongyang has decent modern sky-scraping apartment buildings, each with a little puddle of shrubbery on the balcony ledge outside, and hopefully some food in the cupboards.

…surprising thing is that what little commerce is there is hardly visible, usually no more than a small sign outside to indicate what is inside… usually located on an upper floor with concrete steps leading up to it.  Nothing seems organic, intuitive, or even especially logical… “location, location, and location?”  …no actual ‘bar’ in fact, just seats at a table like my elementary-school ‘cafetorium’ (yes).

…beer is good, though, and reasonably priced at 5RMB or .50EUR.  I never saw an actual North Korean won, though prices are quoted in them.  Is this the first virtual currency, merely a number without a piece of paper to back up its value?  Sounds like “Haitian dollars” to me.

Reading news in Pyongyang

Reading news in Pyongyang

…surprising thing is how pleasant the city is.  I’ve often wondered what future cities—without cars—will be like.  The day will come sooner or later.  Will people kill themselves?  Will people go “Mad Max” in search of gas?  There is no one alive today who remembers a city without gasoline.  This is probably the best clue, and almost worth the price of admission right there.

This is a city built for living in… where Havana is populated by an aging fleet of ‘50’s-era American honkers, Pyongyang is traversed by few if any vehicles, just a few trams and trolleys and the ‘Metro of Time’ (the old Berlin subway)… chandeliers on the ceiling and ladies holding flags along the edge of the platform to signal trains.  They won’t let me take their pictures.

Pyongyang: city without cars

Pyongyang: city without cars

…only two leaders, Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il, and their pictures are everywhere, including the lapels of every citizen.  Their son and grandson has yet to make his appearance on the walls and bridges… sights and sites pretty much limited to war memorials and monuments to workers’ dignity… kids all dressed up in matching black pants and white shirt—apparently the national uniform—and busily working on the next socialist celebration on the schedule…cool.

…all in all Pyongyang a rather pleasant city… offers valuable clues as to what a future city might be like, without all the cars… and the cult of personality, of course.  That’s where North Korea shows its true colors, that and a certain missile program.  I’d like to think that a few more tourists and some person-to-person contact might help alleviate some tension around the peninsula.  Surely these people know that they’re the world’s last Communist state, don’t they?  Don’t they?