The first full day in Rason was packed with tons of program. After breakfast in a separate building (once an exclusive retreat for party members, on some maps marked as “DPRK Leadership Complex”) we headed down the bouncy mountain road to downtown Rajin and paid respect to the Kims. Despite being part of the Rason Special Economic Zone since 1991, Rajin still doesn’t have its own set of statues, so we had to make do with portraits right across from Rajin Stadium. (The statues are currently being built on top of a hill overlooking the city and will most likely be revealed later this year.)
On that hill already is a music hall and a museum, the latter we visited for a couple of minutes. Here I found out that our second set of guardguides were not as funny and relaxed as we all thought the night before. After listening to the local museum guide and Mr. Kim’s translation I was about to choke since I caught a cold after four days of low temperatures and no hot water in North Hamgyong. I live in Asia long enough to know that blowing your nose is considered impolite in some areas, but snuffling wasn’t an option – the space was already occupied. So I waited for the guides to finish their speeches, until we got time to explore the room by ourselves. And then I dared to blow my nose, as quietly as possible of course – and if look could kill, I would have dropped dead.
Mr. Pak, soon be known as Robocop amongst our group, shooshed me with an evil stare only somebody with ten years in the North Korean military can develop. Our “lovely” third “guide” got his nickname because of his amazing range of facial expressions, which was somewhere between Keanu Reeves and… well… Robocop. Since he was the least experienced minder, being with the team for just two months, Robocop had the task of keeping an eye on us to make sure that we follow ALL the rules; especially the ones nobody mentioned. Before his new career as a tourist guide, Robocop actually was a career soldier who spent the past decade with the Korean People’s Army – and given his general demeanor I don’t think he was a chef there, though I am convinced he was very good at deboning…
Anyway, I survived both the snot attack and Mr. Pak’s evil stare (his shooshing being louder than my nose blowing), but I would have a run in with Robocop at least once a day – and so did a lot of people.
Next we visited an art gallery in the city. Half a year prior I bought two hand-painted propaganda posters in Pyongyang and I was hoping to get more here; especially after 5 days of only being able to buy nothing but alcohol and a couple of books. Finally some real souvenirs! Or so I thought as the art gallery turned out to be the first of many disappointments in Rason (not counting Mr. Pak’s shooshing, which actually was kind of a disappointment, too). Despite the fact that they had a dozen propaganda posters on the wall, the gallery staff refused to sell them to us. We could buy anything else, but not the propaganda posters. What the heck? Sadly they didn’t make any effort to sell us anything at all, so we left after a couple of minutes, slightly confused. (And when we drove by the gallery a few minutes later it was closed already, at around 11 a.m.!)
Next on the itinerary was “something very special” – we were allowed to go to the Golden Triangle Bank, one of several financial institutes in Rason, to change EUR, USD, RUB, JPY or CNY into North Korean won at the current, actual exchange rate. (When we did “something very special” in Pyongyang, they allowed us to change money, too, but at a horrible rate, worth a fraction of the actual value. Advantage in Pyongyang though – we received brand-new bills and coins…) All four of our guides warned us not to change too much money as we were not allowed to take it back to China – if we were caught, terrible things could happen to our Korean guides! Spoiler alert: Two days later at the border crossing nobody checked our wallets or what we could have potentially have hidden in clothing or underwear. Since we were a good group, nobody or hardly anybody tried, but it was one more bullshit story we wouldn’t have bought anywhere else in the world. Dozens, probably hundreds of Chinese cross the border every day and on a regular basis at Wonchong – you can’t tell me that they too are forced to cross without any Korean money on them!
Well, anyway, the usual spiel of “something they want to do, something we want to do” continued, so next on our schedule was a visit to a greenhouse where they were growing North Korea’s two most famous flowers, Kimilsungia (an orchid) and Kimjongilia (a begonia) – guess why we went there! While the Kimilsungia was named after Kim Il-sung when he saw the then unnamed flower during a visit to Indonesia, the Kimjongilia was cultivated by Japanese (!) botanist Kamo Mototeru in the dictator’s honor. There wasn’t really much to see other than a couple of dozen potted flowers (plus the usual array of info signs in Korea), so the whole group was back out and ready to go in no time.
Which was good, because now we were in a hurry to make it to the American run shoe factory in Rajin as the workers there were about to have a break; which would have prohibited us from seeing how shoes are made. Maybe it was because of lunch time or because it was Saturday, but the assembly line we saw wasn’t exactly super busy. Half a dozen workers were gluing sports shoes together and all of a sudden they were gone – so we had lunch, too. Interestingly enough the workers didn’t look like they were about to have lunch when we left – we saw them getting together in the yard to work on the construction of another building. I guess nobody cared or dared to ask, but some things didn’t fit. Either it was one big misunderstanding from my side or those guys weren’t really working in that factory on Saturdays…
Lunch was interesting in that regard as the restaurant we ate at was next to a souvenir shop – the next shopping disappointment. The store, targeted at foreign tourists, was stuffed with all kinds of low-price crap and high-price art (fine-art paintings, wood carvings, …) for Chinese and Russian tourists. No books, no sweets, no posters. Just a couple of national flag pins I loved during the first trip. In Kaesong near the DMZ those pins were 50 cent a piece, in Rajin they wanted 3.50 EUR! Congratulations, guys – I guess Juche and capitalism aren’t mutually exclusive after all, especially when supply and demand are involved; and rich Russian tourists!
Luckily the tides turned just minutes later and the money we got our greedy little hands on came into play, when we were taken to a local store to buy some sweets and notebooks for the kindergarten kids we were about to visit. A local store, with local money, in North Korea! (Okay, in Rason, the Candyland version of North Korea, not the real North Korea – but real enough to realize that this was a very special moment and something only a handful of Westerners have ever done!) I was finally able to satisfy my souvenir urge by buying some really interesting looking pins I’ve never seen anywhere else before – and then I was just fascinated by the fact that I had access to local prices. Again, in the probably overpriced and definitely Candyland version of North Korea, nevertheless in a store that had everything from gigantic sacks of rice to Chinese razors (30,000 won and up), from Hello Kitty sweaters (62,000 won) to cigarettes (1,300 won to 47,000 won per pack!), from local sweets (1,000 won and up) to plastic guns. Given that 10,000 won were about 1 euro, everything there was dirt cheap from our point of view – at the same time you have to consider that the biggest bill in North Korea is a 5,000 won note and a ride on the *Pyongyang Metro* costs 5 won… and that most people only get some kind of pocket money as the state provides housing and most of the food. This realization hits you so much harder when you are there on location! (It also explains why I paid 2 EUR for Kim Jong-il’s “On the Art of Cinema” in Chongjin while a fellow traveler paid 20 EUR for about 30 pages of legal text in Rason; Chonjin / Rason, supply / demand. North Koreans officially hate capitalism now, but Rason is proof that they are learning at the speed of light.)
From the shop we walked to the city center of Rajin to have a rest at some street stalls (selling beer, snacks and cigarettes). On the way there we met Czech brewer Tomas, who was temporarily living in Rason to supervise the construction of a microbrewery. By nature a kind person and admittedly bored, he invited us over to his place of work, but we had more urgent things to do at the street stalls; namely waiting… and waiting… and waiting… for 45 minutes.
Next on the schedule was the rather underwhelming Suchaebong Seafood Processing Factory, where we saw a couple of clams in water basins. Wow!
Luckily the kids at the kindergarten totally made up for it. As you know, I am still not a fan of these singing and dancing performances, but those kids were ADORABLE. Yes, all caps; THAT adorable! First they had to deal with a blackout halfway through their show and none of them even blinked. When the whole thing was over, of course we were encouraged to take photos with the kids, who were all giddy with excitement as most of their audiences have been Asian so far. Back then I was sporting a full beard and it was just hilarious to observe some of the kids talking to each other, pointing at their own faces with a circular motion and then pointing at my face. But it were fellow travelers Kent and David who put them in a previously unknown state of mirth when they started to take photos of the kids with their Polaroid camera – the room was buzzing with kid-sized humming birds, shaking countless pictures; absolutely unbelievable!
Sadly the kindergarten itself, while rather modern and without a spot, was one of those propaganda pieces of crap. I mentioned it in another article that *the chariot in front of the kindergarten was quite different from the one in Pyongyang*, but that’s not all. One of my fellow told me that she found what she described as “a war museum” when she was opening doors in the hallway while nobody was looking – and the militaristic sculpture next to the soccer field (labelled “strong and prosperous nation”) surely wasn’t put up there to build a bridge between the DPRK and the USA…
More adorable kids followed just minutes later, this time teenagers at the Foreign Language School. I fell victim to three 14 year old girls who bombarded me with questions in English, some of which I was able to ask back. Of course all questions were prepared and most of them were trivial, standard stuff like future jobs (2 out of 3 wanted to become soldiers!) and favorite hobbies (2 out of 3 liked to rollerblade in the park)… but when they asked me about “October 10th” I had no idea what they were talking about. Well, the founding day of the Workers’ Party of Korea, stupid! D’oh! Luckily they didn’t hold it against me and so we continued with less political topics – for example food. They were very eager to find out what pizza is and how they can make it at home; halfway through the description I realized that three female teachers in their 20s/30s were listening closely, too, more or less obvious. One of them was brave enough to ask afterwards what pasta is exactly and how to prepare it. When I mentioned that you can get it in every supermarket where I am from I felt a bit embarrassed, but I didn’t see any negativity in their eyes – her attitude was more like “I can’t wait for Rason to develop enough, so I can buy pasta, too!”. Probably the deepest insight got one fellow traveler who started talking about cars and who was asked by his students if he was military or a taxi driver – because even in the rather rich Rason Special Economic Zone hardly any Korean has a private car, so people being able to drive must be taxi drivers or members of the military, one of the few places in North Korea where you have the opportunity to learn how to drive. Those students obviously weren’t aware that in industrialized countries cars are as common as bikes are in North Korea.
The final stop of a really long day was at a textile factory where a few dozen women were sewing winter jackets – incredibly unspectacular. It kind of reminded me of the local company my grandma worked at when I was a child, and therefore nothing like the sweatshop images we all know and ignore from Southeast Asian countries. Of course we didn’t get any deeper insights (payment, treatment of the workers, …), but I didn’t get the point of visiting the factory anyway – we were a bunch of tourists, not investors. After we left though, one of my fellow travelers described how they saw that the labels sewn into the jackets said “Made in China”. Damn, I missed that little detail! I would have loved to seen it with my own eyes… and camera.
Anyway, Day 6 turned out to be a veeery long day – and this article turned out to be a veeery long one, too. I hope you enjoyed it… and I’ll see you in a few days!
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