Grand People’s Study House is one of the most famous buildings in Pyongyang and part of pretty much every tour to the DPRK. North Korea’s central library is located at Kim Il-sung Square in the heart of Pyongyang and can hold up to 30 million books, including a couple of foreign ones. It was built over a period of 21 months and opened in April of 1982 to honor Kim Il-sung’s 70th birthday.
We entered the study house through the entrance of Seomun Street (the north/south one, not the east/west one) and I have a feeling that this is not the entrance most people use. The first room we entered was a huge hall with a gigantic statue of Kim Il-sung, about 2 storeys tall, to the left and the right an escalator each, half-hidden behind huge pillars. We used the right escalator to go to the upper floor where a couple of locals were using PCs, looking through the library’s catalogue according to a white sign with blue lettering. I was really surprised to see that most signs at the Grand People’s Study House were bilingual Korean / English; not only those guiding signs, but also the names of study rooms and auditoriums.
Speaking of signs: When I took pictures of the restroom signs I seriously confused Mr. Yu; so much that he talked to our Western guide Sarah about it. I overheard the conversation and explained to him that I thought the signs looked interesting, with a more traditional one on the door and a more modern one next to it. I also mentioned that people who have never been to the DPRK don’t know what toilet signs look like in the DPRK and that some are interested in those details. This situation perfectly showed how differently photography is treated in North Korea and the majority of the world. For us photography became a thing we just do, sometimes even carelessly – even without having a camera with us most of us are able to take pictures at any time with a phone or a tablet. We rather take too many photos than to miss something we might regret. Not so in North Korea. There are a lot less mobile phones (which I don’t consider a bad thing…) and you only bring your camera to special events. Remember the days of analog photography, when you took pictures without knowing if they were good and you had to pay for every single one of them to find out? That’s what it’s like in the DPRK. In the 1950s or 60s hardly anybody took trivial photos – nowadays the meaningful photos have a similar share as back then the pointless ones had…
The tour through the building was pretty much exactly the same as the one everybody gets – and of course they told us the story about how Kim Il-sung invented the adjustable table when he first visited the study house. (He saw his fellow Koreans’ backs bend over the tables and decided that the height and angle of the tables need to be adjusted to make it easier for them to study…)
At the media room our guides popped in a tape with Beatles classics – a video I am not allowed to post on Youtube due to possible copyright infringements. Isn’t it nice to live in the free world?
From the media room we went to the foreign language classes and had a peak at an English lesson and some people learning Chinese. When we were on our way to the balcony to enjoy the stunning view at Kim Il-sung Square all of a sudden Jeff decided that he wanted to talk to the English students – after a short deliberation we got permission to go back, much to the surprise of everybody. Jeff, Juliet and Barbara crashed the English class, introduced themselves and asked the students a couple of questions; including if they had some themselves. At first the whole room acted like a group of deer in headlights, but they gradually warmed up to their new teachers and even started to give answers. Those conversations weren’t deep, but nevertheless quite moving to everybody present – students, guides, foreign visitors. This was quite an unusual situation, probably an all-time first. And everybody seemed to enjoy it – a welcomed change of pace after the rather unspectacular visit of the *Taedonggang Combined Fruit Farm* and the quite boring Museum of Metro Construction (where we were not allowed to take photos… although nobody seemed to know why).
When we finally reached the balcony of the Grand People’s Study House we were running behind schedule (of course…), so I was only able to take a couple of quick photos and a short video. Guess what – at a school kids were waiting for us… to entertain with a musical performance!
Oh, one final little detail though – remember how I wrote that we entered the Grand People’s Study House and used the escalator to the right of the Kim Il-sung statue to get to the upper floor? Well, when we left we used the same moving staircase to get back down, which means that they changed the direction of the escalator, although there was a second one to the left of the statue. I guess it doesn’t mean a thing, but if you were critical of the system you could claim that everything is a show, that they don’t keep the escalators running all day and just turn them on for tourists to get in and out… heck, maybe the left escalator isn’t even in working condition anymore?
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