Rason being surrounded by mountains and me being an avid hiker, I asked Mr. Kim (not comrade Kim, we were not in North Hamgyong anymore!) on Saturday if hiking was a popular hobby in the DPRK – he said no, and his answer wasn’t a surprise. When you have to walk everywhere because hardly anybody has a car and only a few more have bikes, the one thing you don’t want to do in your rare spare time is walking… up a mountain. At least in that regard 99.9999% of humans are the same, because when you look at the history of mountaineering, it’s basically just 200 years old; and it weren’t the poorest of the poor who started it.
Interestingly enough sightseeing on Day 7 started in front of a gigantic hiking map. Mount Sahyan is overlooking Rajin and promised to offer stunning views. Surprisingly North Koreans and Japanese are quite similar when it comes to mountain climbing, and so our dear hosts built a road to the top of the damn thing – much like Mount Ibuki, one of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. Luckily Mr. Kim remembered my question from the day before, so he stopped the bus and we walked the last few hundred meters, the mountain still partly cloaked in clouds. I loved it!
The view from the observation platform was stunning and thanks to the additional height I was finally able to make use of my 200mm zoom. Not that there was something secret to take pictures of… at least not looking down the mountain. Maybe up there? It seems like somebody was living right under the platform (clothes drying in the sun, a photo I had to take secretly), and two of my fellow travelers spotted an electric fence in the middle of some scrubs – and close to the mountain top was some shell construction going on. Of course nobody mentioned anything, so we left without bringing up tricky questions.
Rason’s pride and joy clearly is its harbor – not the more or less abandoned one in Sonbong, but the one in Rajin, especially the Russian pier. At the time of our visit the place was one big chaotic construction site, but that didn’t keep our hosts from showing us all the modernizations – mostly done by Russians with Japanese equipment. A dredger was deepening the harbor basin and a dozen new cranes were prepared for their tasks. After finally reconstructing the train line between Rason and Russia, the harbor’s tracks were modernized, too – and unlike in spring nobody kept us from taking photos of those trains, which were about 1/20 as old as the ones I saw between Pyongyang and the Chinese border.
One pier east of the Russian one we made another stop to take some photos. The most interesting motif there was a really old ship towards pier #1. Upon closer look you could see four different names, some of them overlapping. A Japanese one, a Chinese one, a Korean one, then a layer of white paint and the current Chinese one written in black letters. Not really a surprise to see such a vessel in North Korea (I think I’ve seen more barely swimming ships than decent ones in the DPRK), nevertheless a nice find.
Right before lunch we stopped by at the Foreign Language Bookshop in Rajin, which was nothing like the one in Pyongyang or the stamp shop in Kaesong. No propaganda postcards, just relatively dull photo postcards of Mount Chilbo. No English books, or hardly any. A couple of out of date maps and quite a decent collection of DVDs (music and movies) as well as Korean comics – since those turned out to have at least some insight value (western characters were clearly unflattering caricatures) I got half a dozen of those and a set of postcards to send home. The reunification postcard I sent to myself from Pyongyang is still one of my favorite souvenirs ever, which left 14 for family and friends. Of course capitalism is strong in Rason and so it wasn’t really a surprise that postage was 2.5 EUR per postcard! I don’t remember 100%, but I am pretty sure that I paid one EUR per card half a year prior in Pyongyang… let alone that the nominal value of the stamps were 155 North Korean won, less than 2 cent! (31 times the price of *a subway ride in Pyongyang*, but at the same time more than 125 times of what they actually charge tourists.)
After lunch we visited the Hae’an Park in Rajin’s city center (not to be confused with the significantly more famous Heian Park in Kyoto!). But of course it wouldn’t have been North Korea if things wouldn’t have been twisted there, too. First of all: Hae’an Park wasn’t free, although it looked like any generic public park anywhere else in the world; except for the big screen showing a North Korean movie. Locals as well as foreigners had to pay a fee at the gate, of course at a special rate for foreigners. Since it was included in the tour fee it shouldn’t matter to me, but stuff like that annoys me quite a bit under certain circumstances. Special rates for foreigners – postage, entrance fee, everything. Sure, I’m from a rather rich country and I don’t consider myself a stinted person… I basically don’t mind paying a markup in poorer countries, although I don’t get a discount when I travel in richer ones. It actually only really pisses me off when lying or cheating is involved. Like at that one park in Beijing, where the entrance fee was 2 RMB; I gave 10 and received 7 back. I honestly don’t care if the entrance fee is 2 RMB, 3 RMB, 5 RMB or 10 RMB, especially when on vacation. But don’t cheat me out of 50%! But who would argue over 1 friggin yuan when you don’t know Chinese? I didn’t, but I will forever remember Beijing as a city of liars and cheaters! (It wasn’t the only “incident”. The Beijing leg of my *spring trip to North Korea* was one big nightmare… Whereas people in Yanji were rather lovely.)
Anyway, Hae’an Park charging an entrance fee. How ironic. Of all the countries in the world, I expected parks in North Korea to be free of charge…
Guess whom we met just minutes later! Tomas The Brewer. The brewpub he was responsible for was (and still is) located in Hae’an Park, so we did a little detour and had a closer look. Brand-new building close to the beach, two containers with equipment just a stone’s throw away. Everything imported from the Czech Republic, down to the hop and malt, in a joint venture between the Rason government and Zvu Potez. Tomas was there for about half a year to supervise the construction / installation and to teach a couple of locals how to brew beer. (Another similarity between North Korea and Japan! When the latter opened to the west in the 19th century, it hired experts from all over the world to import knowledge – among them were German brewers at what is now known as Kirin.)
Back at the main area of the Hae’an Park I ran into more acquaintances: two of the three girls I talked to at the Foreign Language School the day before were roller skating! They obviously had no idea that we would be at the park, you could clearly see it on their faces when they saw us – and they always kept their distance. Makes me wonder how good their English really was. When we stayed on-topic it was pretty good, way better than mine at age 13 actually, but they succeeded at not risking the good impression they made 24 hours earlier.
Mind-blowing highlight of the day was visiting the market in Rajin, the only market in North Korea open to foreigners. Most of the time our Korean guardguides were calm and collected, but all of a sudden they became tense – no camera, no cell phone, no bag, no nothing! Wallet and jacket, that’s it, everything else we had to leave back at the bus. People always tell me that my photos of North Korea look so empty. It’s because usually we were not allowed to take photos in more crowded areas. And that market was crowded! We were basically pushed and shoved through the halls and along the paths between the outdoor stalls. Split into sections, the market offered basically everything you can imagine – from clothing to office supplies, from electronics to food. While people all over country (except for the political elite) were eating kimchi or corn for half of the year, the food section at the market in Rason was stocked like a Japanese supermarket, including some fruits I had never seen before in my life. The whole experience was like a rollercoaster ride, everything rushed by in no time. Sadly the following story, too, so I report it to the best of my memory:
You have probably heard about North Korean street children. Every once in a while short sequences of shaky low quality video pop up, taken by undercover aid agencies. There are orphanages in North Korea, but I am not familiar enough with the social structure of the country or how interested the state really is in picking up additional eaters it has to take care of. Maybe it’s easier to have them living in the streets – or maybe everything just South Korean propaganda (I doubt that though!). Anyway, I was so distracted by all the chaos of the market, that I didn’t pay attention whether there were children or not. Our “big” group (of 12 at this point… plus guides) split into two or three smaller groups, reunited, split, reunited. Some of us westerners spent remaining local currency on small purchases, like cigarettes, sweets, fruits and vegetables – even with rather little money we got rather big amounts of chestnuts, roasted peanuts, banana chips and other things. We were already on the way out when I saw how someone from our group gave a huge handful of chestnuts to a young boy, maybe six or seven years old, not exactly well-dressed; the first kid I consciously saw there at the market. Then everything happened even faster. One of our guardguides must have observed that act of kindness, bawled at the group member and at the same time slapped the chestnuts out of the kid’s hand. He then started yelling at the boy, who ran away. Everything happened so fast that I am still not 100% sure if everything really happened that way, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. You have to deal with a lot of bullshit when visiting North Korea, I think I have been pretty clear about it here, and most of it I accepted as part of the experience. But there is absolutely no reason, under no circumstances, for a highly privileged party member (who could buy whatever he wanted at the market, just from the tips he was about to receive the next day from a dozen western tourists!) to slap food out of the hand of a skinny boy with a dirty face. Behavior like that disgusts me beyond believe – and what made it even worse was when the same guardguide fed pieces of steamed buns to seagulls the next day with childish joy on his face!
(Since I still had local money when leaving the market I asked Mr. Kim twice that day, if we could visit the same or another mixed goods store again, so I could spend those won – he said yes, but didn’t follow through.)
After visiting the market our whole group was kind of deflated. We drove to the Rajin Hotel, years ago the prime tourist accommodation in the area, for a cup of coffee. What once might have been the pride of Rajin was just a shadow of its former glory. I’ve actually been to abandoned hotels in Japan that were in better condition. Most windows were cracked and some walls were moldy, even in the area we sat in. More than an hour we wasted this way before we continued to…
… another accommodation we didn’t stay at. This time the (in)famous Emperor Hotel & Casino, Rason’s only 5 star hotel, built and run by the Hong Kong based Emperor Group. Opened in 2000 after an investment of 64 million USD, the hotel targets rich Chinese businessmen and tourists who are able to afford one of the more than 100 rooms at a rate between 780 and 1680 RMB (between 128 and 276 USD). According to our guides most guests actually don’t leave the hotel much and instead spend their time gambling at the casino – which kind of explains the condition of the beach behind the hotel and the path leading there.
I was bored in the hotel lobby within seconds, so I asked Mr. Kim if we were allowed to have a look outside. He said yes and I bolted instantly without even having a look at the casino. (Especially since we had to buy chips to get in – of course we could return them without playing, but why the hassle? There are casinos everywhere in the world.) Outside I took a few photos up the mountain where our hotel was and then I went to the seaside to have a look at the back of the Emperor Hotel. Within a couple of minutes Robocop showed up. “What are you doing out here alone”, he asked me, sounding like a Russian mobster who was going to whack me. “You shouldn’t do that!” So I dug as deep as I could and told him how much I enjoy nature in the DPRK and that I couldn’t stand to spend more time inside of that building. Robocop bought it and we actually had a nice conversation – the only nice conversation, as our stiff third guardguide usually wasn’t much of a talker… unless he yelled at poor children. I’m actually pretty sure that the girls at the Foreign Language School spoke better English than him. Anyway, while we were outside pretending to have a natural conversation, Robocop talked on his cell phone two or three times – and even within knowing any Korean it wasn’t really a surprise when five minutes later the rest of the group showed up. Felt like being back in Japan, you are nothing without your group…
As a group we finally made it to the beach, which clearly hadn’t seen any cleaning or other kind of maintenance in quite a long time, despite it being a really nice beach with crystal clear water. Since most people were making small talk, one of our more investigative members went on a walk along the beach towards a small building, probably a snack shop. After a while Robocop’s spider senses must have tingled, because he was bolting after the fleeing “sheep” – who sped up when realizing what was happening. It was actually quite funny to watch and gave a couple of other people the opportunity to have a closer look around. Not that there was much to see, but it was always nice when Robocop was distracted. Five minutes later guard and guarded came back, “having a nice conversation”. A busy day for minder #3…
The day’s entertainment program ended at the Pipha Folk Hotel. Before dinner we had a little workshop about how to make kimchi, after dinner (sometimes with electricity, sometimes without) I took the opportunity to write the postcards I bought earlier that day. When we were about to leave, the waitresses “insisted” on performing for us in a separate karaoke room with the nastiest laser show I’ve ever seen – the kind where you are in constant fear of going blind, which isn’t exactly unlikely given the close relationship between North Korea and China. Of course the performance turned into a join-in party and I was just glad when we finally made it back to the Pipha Hotel…
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