Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘China’ Category

“What kind of place did I just leave that entering China feels like gaining freedom?!”
That’s what I was thinking upon leaving North Korea for the second time – because leaving the second time definitely felt different.

When I crossed the border at Dandong a few months prior I felt a bit wistful. Something was dragging me back instantly, I was mesmerized by my experiences. Dandong felt very surreal, like a completely different world. And although I wasn’t 100% serious that I would visit the DPRK again when I promised to do so to my Pyongyang guides, I somehow had a feeling that it wasn’t totally out of question.
When I was leaving North Korea for the second time I was actually glad to get out of there. The trip had been way too interesting to be considered a bad one, but this time was much more intense, I witnessed and found out things that would take me much longer to process than the lifetime worth of experiences I made in Pyongyang.

After Pyongyang I started writing right away. I went there ignorant on purpose, I wanted to enjoy the show and embrace the deception – which is so not me as I hate being lied to, but I figured it would be easier to go with the flow when visiting North Korea. (It’s definitely tough going against it when living in Japan…)
After the Northeastern Adventure I took a lot more time, hoping that I would be able to use it to process and structure my thoughts – to make sense of what I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, felt. In hindsight probably not a good idea as I don’t think it helped much, but I started to forget details. Details that weren’t essential, but details nonetheless. At least it gave me the confidence to write everything as I remembered it, because after my return to Japan (and seeing how messed up in its own way this country here is) it took me less than a week until the urge to go back rose. I wasn’t lying awake night after night trying to find a way to “go back to the island”, but North Korea is a decent size country that is opening up to tourism more and more, which is great for the half dozen travel agencies offering trips, because they can lure customers back easily. “You’ve been to Pyongyang, Kaesong, North Hamgyong and Rason, but… XYZ is open now – and you can be part of the first tourist group to get there!” And that is one of the selling points of North Korea, to boldly go where hardly any man has gone before.

Do I want to go back to North Korea? Heck yeah! I’m a sucker for remote and unusual places that offer photo opportunities, that’s what this blog is all about! Of course I would love to go back to North Korea, despite the fact that I was really angry (and happy to leave!) last time.
Will I go back to North Korea? Most likely not. Not under the current regime.
Why? Because I have the ability to remember. I remember Robocop and how he treated that boy at the market in Rason, I remember how I felt being ratted out by that old woman in Rason, I remember looking at GoogleMaps, realizing how close we came to some of the death camps – which hopefully will be remembered as a stain on the history of humankind once this ridiculous regime dissolves and all Koreans enjoy (relative) freedom.

There are some voices out there on the internet who are convinced that North Korea can be opened little by little if more and more tourists visit the country – sadly most of those voices are actually either fooled Pyongyang tourists or western tour guides to the DPRK. And I am not sure what to think of the idea. North Korea is so full of contradictions, yet the system survived for so long – can a couple of thousand tourists driven around in busses with tinted windows really make a difference? After thousands of tourists before didn’t make a difference?
When visiting Pyongyang you kind of get the image that the DPRK is a misunderstood country which is struggling to survive and doesn’t want no harm to nobody in the world; but that’s the microcosm Pyongyang, where only the elite is allowed to live and where resources from all over the country get concentrated. In North Hamgyong and even in the comparatively rich Rason I felt transported 20 or 30 years back in time – and I started to wonder why North Korea even allows those tourist tours, because like so many things in the country, the tours don’t really make sense. I don’t think it’s about the money, because there are not nearly enough tourists to the DPRK to justify the effort. In Pyongyang I can see it being about changing foreigners’ minds. The regime will never win over the western media, but they can create positive word of mouth. But why allowing western tourists to North Hamgyong and Rason? Korean is not the most common language in the world, but there are always one or two people in each group who are able to speak it – and if not, people know people who know the language. Sure, while at the clothing factory in Rason I didn’t know that one of the slogans on a pillar said “Ideology First”, but it didn’t matter, because I knew a few days later, so congratulations to the factory management, you fooled me for a couple of days! But that didn’t keep me from telling a couple of thousand readers that, while you seem to treat your workers well, you also bombard them with propaganda music and propaganda slogans – and that you use “Made in China” labels. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as you know, since I mentioned all the little things in the previous eight articles.
So why is North Korea allowing foreign tourists in the country, when it fails to deceive them and continues to indoctrinate its citizens. When things like the electric fence are continuously brought up (or maybe even revealed) by tourists? Why allowing small scale foreign aid that doesn’t get mass media attention, when Juche, Korea’s autarky, is the state’s ideology and most important goal?
The answer is: I don’t know. North Korea is full of contradictions, almost everything there is tied to a contradiction. The more you know about North Korea, the less it makes sense. And I’ve spend a lot of time in 2013 talking about North Korea and actually being there…

That being said I am very glad that I did those two trips. I made a lifetime worth of experiences, good and bad, met some extraordinary people (also good and bad…), saw and did things I wouldn’t have thought of in my wildest dreams. First I went there during the political crisis of 2013 and then again just weeks before Merrill Newman was arrested and Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed – and in-between I could understand very well why some friends and my whole family were worried about my security.
If you are interested in visiting North Korea, I hope my two travel reports were helpful to you. If you are just interesting in North Korea, I hope I was able to show you a different, a neutral side of what it is like to be a tourist there. And if you are mostly interested in urban exploration, I hope you enjoyed both series nonetheless – thanks for sticking with Abandoned Kansai, I promise I will make it up to you on Tuesday with a mind-blowingly amazing deserted hotel! (There will be two or three more articles about North Korea in the future, but none of them will put my urbex articles on hold for weeks…)
Since I came back from my second trip I’ve been asked a lot of times where I will go next, by both friends and strangers. Where can I go next after I went to North Korea? For a while I didn’t have an answer, I was considering Siberia or Alaska, but now I can tell you what the main event this year will be: I will go back home to Germany for almost three weeks (a.k.a. annual leave) to celebrate the wedding of one of my best friends – and I can’t wait to do so!

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

Read Full Post »

My last day in North Korea started with another unpleasant experience. Since I was early at the bus in front of the Pipha Hotel, I used the waiting time to walk 30 meters down the driveway and take a picture of the carved in stone hotel sign. I kept in sight of both the hotel and the bus, yet Robocop was slightly upset when I came back three minutes later. What I was taking pictures of, he asked me. So I told him and offered to show him the pictures. “No, it’s okay.” Thank you so much, Sir, how generous!

When everybody was ready, we drove down to that snack shop looking building at the beach and walked across a bridge to Pipha Island – or Pipa / P´ip´a / Pípá / Bipa Island, depending on the sign. Fun fact: The Chinese characters the Koreans used on signs were 琵琶, as in Lake Biwa (琵琶湖), Japan’s largest freshwater lake, just across the mountains from Kyoto and home to many abandoned places, like the *Biwako Tower & Igosu 108* – all the places and hotels are named after the same item, a lute. After about 20 minutes of easy hiking we reached the Pipha Island Hotel (which reminded me a little bit of a pink painted *Nakagusku Hotel*) and some landing piers for boats. The most interesting thing there was a large container painted in silver – and when you walked around it, you could see that the back wasn’t painted over and still showed the logo of its original owner, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, part of the Mitsui Group and one of Japan’s largest companies…
But we weren’t going to Pipha Island to discover more about the crazy relationship between North and East Korea, we were there to have a look at the island itself (our guides talked about it for two and a half days!) and to go on a boat ride. Just north off the coast was North Korea’s only nature reservation site… for seals! Of course they charged us an additional 100 RMB per person, but how many people can claim they went on a boat ride in North Korea? Although the question should probably be “How many people want to claim that?” as the landing stage was an equally rusty and brittle construction of metal tubes and planks. The boat itself didn’t look too trustworthy either, but hey… no risk, no fun! So we headed out to seals, followed by a swarm of seagulls, Robocop being happy like a child. (Well, happy like a happy child, not like the child he yelled at the day before!)
Speaking of seals: Out dear guideguards kept referring to the Russian tourists visiting Rason as “seals” – mainly because, according to them, they are fat and lie at the beach all day; which is kind of funny and hilariously unprofessional at the same time. I guess you don’t need to know much about the world to be a racist…

After spending almost three days in Rajin we finally drove to Sonbong, the second name-giving part of Rason. There, at the Sonbong Revolutionary Site, I should make my scariest run-in with the local authorities.

Sonbong (a.k.a. Unggi) is famous for being the harbor Kim Jong-il landed at upon his return from Russian exile at age 4. Now there is a nicely gardened revolutionary site at the city center, including the former house of a Japanese businessman. While Mr. Kim was talking I had a look around and went to the backside of the house, taking a couple of photos out of sight of the rest of the group. When I returned to the group I saw a local senior citizen talking to Robocop and I knew I was in trouble. After finishing the conversation Robocop came straight at me, demanding to see my photos. Not “Can I please have a look at the last photos you took?” – no, “Show me your photos!”. I didn’t have a guilty conscience, so I happily showed him the last dozen photos I took, but it was nevertheless a friggin scary moment! Getting denunciated by a North Korean woman in North Korea… Wow, that was so weird. But it also shows how deeply rooted their obedience is, and this culture of ratting out other people. Rason is a Special Economic Zone for about 20 years, there are foreigners (Russians) around for much longer. Western tourist groups are becoming more of a regular sight in Rason, some foreigners running joint ventures are living there – yet that old lady felt the urge to run to the authorities right away (even when she saw the big group of tourists accompanied by three Korean officials in suits!) and report that one foreigner, who was taking photos when nobody was around. It’s actually quite sad and one of the countless hardly visible difficulties Korea will face if the country ever gets reunited. But of course I didn’t take any problematic photos (in Sonbong), so Robocop got off my case with a simple “It’s okay.” after he went through my photos – no explanation, no apology.

At that point I was actually happy to finally leave the country. Between the delusional guides in North Hamgyong and the paranoid-lying bunch in Rason I was so tired of all those crazy characters you had to experience yourself to believe that they were real. (My fellow travelers were lovely though. I usually don’t like bigger groups, or smaller groups, but hanging out with this gang 24/7 never felt like a burden.)

After lunch at a restaurant with a small Christmas tree we left Sonbong for the countryside. With that it was clear that Mr. Kim lied to me for the past two days and we were not going to another local store. Most people spent their remaining local currency on water and other drinks at the restaurant, but I had too much left, which I wasn’t happy about. It was completely out of the question to give it to the guides as an additional tip, so I was contemplating what to do with it. Leave it somewhere? Flush it down a toilet? Burn it?
Luckily I didn’t do the latter! After I got back from the trip I read all kinds of articles about Yanji, Rason and North Hamgyong. One was about a journalist in Yanji interviewing refugees. In 2009 North Korea undertook a currency reform, replacing old won with new won. There was an exchange limit of 500.000 won, but even poorer people were worried that having too much cash might raise questions, so they got rid of it. One interviewee reported that one guy burned a couple of bills and got caught. Shortly after he was executed – because he burnt the image of Kim Il-sung… So aside from not being practicable, it’s generally not a good idea to burn local money in North Korea!
I ended up handing the remaining won to Mr. Kim, along with a huge stack of RMB and 15 postcards – as I mentioned before, postage was 2.5 EUR per card, and he promised to take care of them as we never made it to a post-office or shop. “It is my honor and my duty!” were his words when I thanked him. The cards were supposed to arrive after six to eight weeks, two weeks longer than from Pyongyang in spring. Guess what! Four months later not a single one of them has arrived; not mine, not those of my fellow travelers! (I wrote them an e-mail last week to find out about it…) I don’t know if Mr. Kim took our money and never posted the cards, if the person he gave them to just threw them away, or if the postal operators in Australia, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, the States and New Zealand all failed – but I am absolutely not happy about it!

Last tourist destination of the trip was the Three Border Viewpoint in the far northeast corner of North Korea, where the DPRK borders China and Russia. Landmarks were a watchtower in China and the railroad bridge across the river Tumen between North Korea and Russia. On the Korean side it was the Sungjondae, a memorial in honor of Yi Sun-sin, who invented the turtle ship and repeatedly defeated the Japanese invaders in sea battles at the end of the 16th century.

After a 90 minute drive to the Chinese border at Wonjong / Wonchong (passing smaller towns like *Tumangang*, which I secretly filmed), we went through what was supposed to be the most nerve-wrecking luggage check. On the way in we had nothing to lose, but on the way out each and every one of us had tons of photos, videos, books, magazines and other things. To my surprise this border check was complete mayhem. They collected all the foreign books and electronics again, but it was so chaotic that they missed people and weren’t very thorough with the rest of us – dozens of Russians and Chinese just added to the turmoil. The suitcases were x-rayed, but without much attention. In the end the check was a lot less thorough than eight days prior. Then we boarded a really crowded bus with a lot of cross-border commuters and off we went. The 600 meter ride took about 15 minutes as first there was some struggle over the bus fee and then somebody took photos on the bus, much to the dislike of some officials. Entering China was a piece of cake and after eight days on horrible roads it was so nice to drive for two hours straight without bouncing in your seat like a bobblehead.

Upon arrival at the Ryugyong / Liujing Hotel in Yanji we watched one final North Korean performance (without being dragged into it!) while having dinner together, before one after another said goodbye to the group. Most of them were flying to Beijing early next morning, but I had to stay another night in Yanji since there were no flights by Korean Air to Seoul on Tuesdays – a blessing in disguise as I was able to explore the *amazing half-abandoned amusement park in Yanji’s city center*.

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

Read Full Post »

The Northeastern Adventure started on a rainy Monday morning in front of the Ryugyong Hotel. No, not the famous triangle shaped hotel in Pyongyang that was the world’s most famous construction ruin for many, many years – the one in Yanji, China, also known as Liujing Hotel. At first sight just a regular accommodation like most other ones in this emerging city, it is in fact quite unique as it is run by the North Korean state. More about the Ryugyong Hotel in the *Day 8 article*, when I actually stayed there for a night…
I had met some of my fellow travelers the day before on the way from Yanji airport to the city, but since I stayed at a different hotel, mainly for cost reasons (70 EUR VS 17 EUR…), I had to catch up with a couple of names and faces before being put on a bus to the border between China and North Korea. While most tourists to the DPRK enter and leave the country via Pyongyang Airport, we were about to use the border crossing in Tumen, about 40 kilometers east of Yanji. Up till 2013 Tumen attracted both Chinese and western tourists who wanted to take a peek at the Evil Empire and maybe buy some authentic North Korean items from local traders – defectors tend to sell most of their belongings, including the otherwise not-for-sale Kim pins North Koreans wear in public, to finance their new life in China. It was even possible to walk up to the middle of a border bridge for some souvenir photos… where a friend of mine was warned in 2012 that he would be shot if he’d take one more step, passing the yellow line on the ground. This border was opened to western tourists in 2013 – and to the best of my knowledge we were the second western tour group to ever cross this line (without being shot). It also means that we were most likely the second tour group to ever enter North Korea on foot, since you have to take a bus at the bridge in Wonchong to enter / exit North Korea when visiting Rason.
Despite one of my fellow travelers taking the flak from a Chinese immigration officer when taking photos inside the customs building (d’oh!), I quickly took out my small and totally silent video camera when we left, allowing me to shoot a three part video: Chinese customs building to final Chinese passport inspection, Chinese passport inspection to North Korean side of the bridge, North Korean side of the bridge up to North Korean border guard. How risky that move was, I realized at said warning line where my friend Nicolai almost got in trouble a year prior. Another member of my group crossed the border to North Korea and started to take photos – the Chinese border guard at the line told him to stop and delete the photos whereupon my fellow tourist said something like “You can’t tell me anything, I’m in North Korea now!”; he was right and the Chinese guy was slightly pissed. I just kept a low profile, holding my small black camera close to my chest, wearing a black T-shirt and a black coat…

Back In North Korea

While customs on the Chinese side were quick and easy, they dragged for quite a while on the North Korean side. After meeting our local guides we were led into a waiting room where we had to put all electronic devices as well as English and Korean books into a blue plastic bag with our names on it (in Korean). We were told ahead of time that there won’t be an X-ray machine and that everything would have to be checked by hand – luckily the customs office recently got a brand new machine, which cut down the waiting time drastically. The electronics check had to be done manually though, but the customs officers… well, they were not really familiar with modern technology. They knew about certain technical terms, but they didn’t seem to have a clue about how things are connected. IIRC they asked a fellow traveler to show them the hard-drive of her MacBook after booting the machine – and when she said that it doesn’t have one they shut down the computer and moved on with the next person. After about two hours we were finally done and entered our new main home of the following days: our bus. By North Korean standards an engineering marvel, coming from the country of Mercedes-Benz busses I’d consider it a rather uncomfortable Chinese monster with tinted windows. Yes, tinted windows, reducing visibility and shutter speed. Taking pictures from a moving bus on bumpy roads is tough as it is, tinted windows don’t help. But that was something I shouldn’t worry about too much anyway as the three guides officially introduced themselves, laying the law on us – i.e. reminding us that photography is the main problem with tourist groups and strictly limited, especially on the bus. That being said our driver Mr. Kim hit the gas and off we went…

Onsong

So, what’s the first thing you do upon arrival in North Korea? Wrong, not bowing in front of a statue, at least not in our case – we had lunch first! As you might remember from *my first trip to North Korea*, food is good and plenty in the DPRK… at least as long as you are a government official or a tourist. After a really good meal in Onsong we made our way to the Wangjaesan Grand Monument right outside of town (*don’t miss my tourist map of North Korea if you don’t want to get lost!*) – erected in 1975 to commemorate a speech given by Kim Il-sung, pardon: comrade Kim Il-sung, in 1933. Yes, comrade Kim Il-sung. The countryside guides are clearly a little bit rougher around the edges than the guides in Pyongyang. Their English is worse, their photography rules are stricter (and more inconsistent…) and instead of referring to the Kims just by their names we had to add “comrade” all the friggin time. Leaving it out lead to being corrected by Mr. Li, Mr. So and “the Shadow” Mr. Sin – who was barely seen and hardly heard until the last evening, when he finally relaxed and got drunk on Mr. So’s birthday. The Shadow also provided us each with a huge bag of homemade popcorn on the first day; great stuff BTW – eat that America, North Koreans make the better popcorn! 🙂
Anyway, Wangjaesan Grand Monument, a beautiful set of sculptures. Kim Il-sung surrounded by his people from all walks of life, people preparing baskets of flowers for the Great Leader and of course some more statues of soldiers moving forward. The real highlight though was the beautiful scenery the monument is located in… and the rather cute local guide in WW2 uniform. The Wangjaesan Revolutionary Museum we left out though – all four guides agreed that we could do without it.

Back on the bus the never ending confusion about photography started. Since we were in the middle of nowhere our fabulous guide Amanda got Mr. Li to allow us to take pictures from the bus… and five minutes later Mr. “No take photos!” came up to me and stopped me taking a video. I guess by pictures he meant photos, not videos… Or maybe I missed some kind of time limit. Lost in translation, that happens, but it continued, which started to frustrate me, especially since a Japanese guy was involved – he was on his 11th (!) trip to the DPRK, fluent in Korean and didn’t give a damn about any of the photography rules; and he always got away with it! It happened more than once that I heard a slowly familiar “No take photos!” (directed at me or somebody else from the group) while the descendant of the evil occupants (of all people!) freewheeled and took photos of anything and everything, including absolute no-gos like trains, stations and people.

From Onsong we took a rather mountainous road back towards the Chinese-Korean border along the Tumen River to our final destination of the day, Hoeryong – and Mr. Li started to repeat over and over the three things the city is famous for: beautiful women, beautiful white peaches and beautiful earthenware. On the way there we made a couple of stops where we finally again got official permission to take photos, which was nice, because this area is hardly seen by any westerners.

Hoeryong

Upon arrival in Hoeryong we checked into the Hoeryong Hotel (no need for creative names when the competition is low…) and had dinner – a rather nice hotel and a rather nice dinner, though the singing and dancing hit us with full force. We were told that after dinner the waitresses would like to entertain us with a performance, and of course it didn’t take long until some of us were dragged into it.
At least the waitresses were indeed beautiful, unlike other things going on in the city of Hoeryong. In fact, most Westerners who have heard of Hoeryong have heard of it in a different context: Hoeryong is (or was?) home to Kwan-li-so 22 – a.k.a. Penal Labor Colony 22 a.k.a. Hoeryong Concentration Camp. Founded in 1965 and according to satellite photos either remodeled or closed in 2012 it is one of the biggest and most infamous death camps in North Korea. With a size of 225 square-kilometers (!) it is far more than a prison – there are farms, a mine, a train station, several factories and of course quarters for the guards and up to 50.000 (!) prisoners. The West knows quite a bit about the conditions in the camp thanks to Ahn Myong-chol and Kwon Hyok, two former guards who defected in the 1990s – if you are interested in the sickening reports about people getting tortured, experimented on and worked to death feel free to google the place; you’ll find tons of gut-wrenching information on the internet.
Only few of us were aware of these unmentioned facts while sleeping well-fed in our warm beds at the Hoeryong Hotel – just 5 kilometers south of the death camp’s entrance…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

Read Full Post »

Urban exploration in China is something I thought I would never do – and actually only did by chance. In October of 2013 I was on my way to a second trip to North Korea; not *Pyongyang and the southern parts* again, but North Hamgyong province and the Special City Rason in the north of the DPRK. To reach those areas you don’t fly into Pyongyang via Beijing, but you enter and exit by land. Meeting point for those trips is the Chinese city Yanji, an up and coming 400.000 people town quite close to Russia and less than an hour away from the North Korean border. The tour to Korea ended on a Monday evening… and since Korean Air doesn’t offer any flights on Tuesdays I was stuck in Yanji for a whole day. My buddy Nikolai, who spent a couple of months learning Korean in this town without any tourist attractions at all, told me about a half-abandoned amusement park in the city center. “Half-abandoned” sounded like a dying amusement park to me, one with fewer visitors than necessary, one that is supposed to close soon. Little did I know that he meant an amusement park where literally half of the attractions were abandoned. And that’s not even the weirdest thing about it!

The People’s Park (人民公園) in Yanji looks like a normal public park when entering from the south – a big pond full of water plants, a couple of peddlers selling food and plastic toys, some sculptures (including tasteful nudes), a few benches, and senior citizens playing games at tables. After a couple of minutes you’ll reach animal cages and stalls filled with all kind of more or less exotic animals… as the People’s Park features a free public zoo. But that’s not all! Right where the zoo ends is a small dump area with a couple of abandoned seats, small stands and parts of carnival rides – and at first I thought that was what Nikolai meant when talking about the half-abandoned park. Boy, was I wrong!

Within earshot of the rusty remains I spotted small Ferris wheel, blasting some music into the silence of this sunny Tuesday noon. Customers? None. Potential customers? Only a few more.
The (not so) big wheel was surrounded by 15 to 20 other carnival rides. Two or three of them were also open and running, half a dozen others looked more or less well maintained – and the rest of them were actually abandoned, except for the single demolished one; paint flaking off, weeds growing through a mini roller coaster, seats weathering, concrete crumbling.
This place was so friggin weird! It looked like an abandoned pay-as-you-go amusement park, but it wasn’t, because every other minute you would run into some sweethearts looking for entertainment, and there was music playing in the background all the time; some of it being karaoke sung by a few senior citizens further up the hill. It was so creepy and bizarre – and calming yet very exciting at the same time! Usually I have to sneak around and jump some fences, especially when exploring abandoned theme parks… but not this time! Relaxed I made my way from attraction to attraction and took pictures of whatever I wanted at my own speed, not worrying about anything. When I thought it couldn’t get any better (except for being there on a misty day!) I hit the weirdo jackpot!
I’ve seen a haunted house or two in my lifetime, but none with a naked female torso breaking through the wall on the upper floor, a big hand trying to hold her back, partly covering one boob – next to a monstrous mutant face. But that’s not all! To the left and mid-air was a nude couple (male and female) in a grotesque pose, attacked by two gigantic green snakes – the guy’s face full of panic, the girl’s face barely visible, but clearly in agony, one of the snakes biting into her left shoulder and half of the exposed torso.
The back of the abandoned haunted house wasn’t a tiny bit less bizarre and probably my favorite area in the whole park. There I found a couple of concrete or gypsum animals lying on the ground and standing around, the greyish material spalling off in huge chunks, revealing steel wires underneath. Next to a path nearby was a huge Buddha statue rotting away, made of a Styrofoam looking material – accompanied by the concrete statue of a naked Chinese fairy, right in front of a white rabbit with red eyes carrying a gigantic mushroom… which at this point I felt I must have smoked earlier!

The *second abandoned Japanese sex museum* meets *Nara Dreamland*… with no security standards whatsoever. One of the remaining running rides was a monorail through half of the park. It’s height? About two meters – and no protection at all. I was able to touch the rail at any time and even smaller people carelessly stretching could get hurt seriously by one of the monowheel looking cars. Trash, broken glass and mirrors, rusty metal, brittle animal figures – everything was scattered in the woods around the park and nobody seemed to care about it.
The carnival section of the People’s Park in Yanji was one long bizarre exploration and one of my favorite abandoned amusement parks overall. Deserted theme parks are generally creepy, but the fact that this one was only half-abandoned took it to a whole new level!

(If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* or subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube*…)

Read Full Post »

Although I am living in Japan for almost seven years by now I had never been to any other Asian country before this trip – mainly because you don’t get many paid vacation days and no sick days in Japan (i.e. if you get sick, you have to take paid vacation days), so I always went back home to Germany to visit family and friends. When I planned the trip to the DPRK I had to go through Beijing both ways – and when I saw that Koryo Tours offered a layover in Dandong I sacrificed another paid vacation day (sorry, family and friends!) that will shorten my summer trip this year even further. But 23 hours on a train didn’t sound too tempting and I guess I will never have another chance to go to Dandong, so I jumped on the opportunity… and it was a good decision!

While I basically hated every second in Beijing, my 24 hours in Dandong were really enjoyable. We were seven people from Koryo Tours staying there, Patrick and Juliette from my group, four from the other group. Fresh blood, new stories – and a culture shock!
Dandong and North Korea have pretty much nothing in common, that was clear upon arrival. We met our local guide and checked in at the hotel – free WiFi, yay! After more than a week without internet I quickly scanned through almost 200 e-mails (most of them blog related!) and sent a quick one to my sister to let her know that I was okay and had a great time in the DPRK. We only had 1.5 hours till dinner, so I hurried a bit and went across the street to the waterfront as our hotel was right next to the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge and the tourist attraction “Broken Bridge”. The Broken Bridge was already closed and the waterfront looked too big for the 30 minutes I had left, so I went back to the hotel to sort and read more e-mails.
When I met my fellow travelers in the lobby it turned out that I was the only one who had left the hotel so far – the others said they didn’t dare to do so without permission; and I am pretty sure hardly any of them was joking…
Dinner at the nearby restaurant was a feast. The food in the DPRK was really good, but even after a week it started to become a bit repetitive (no complaint, especially given the situation, I am just saying as it is!) – having Chinese for dinner was… surreal. The flavors were so different, so much more intense. (The Snickers I had for dessert must have been the sweetest food item I ever ate after being mostly off sugar for 8 days…) Also surreal was the amount of food they brought to the table. We were eight people in total, but I think you could have fed 30 with what was brought to us. A shame considering that people are malnourished just half a kilometer away!
It’s amazing how quickly you adapt to situations, which is another reason why I was happy to get off the train immediately after leaving the DPRK – because China hits you like a hammer after a week in North Korea. Not just the food and the freedom of movement. Everything! While in Korea everything seemed normal. The lack of cars, the low noise level, that it is mostly dark once the sun was gone, that we were told to stay in the hotel… friggin everything, you just adapt to embrace the culture you want to experience. 500 meters down the road – BOOM! A buzzing megacity; gluttony and profligacy everywhere! The strange part was: Dandong is pretty similar to big Japanese cities regarding traffic, noise, lights, food, consumerism, so I should have been used to that. But it really hit me like a hammer, an unexpected culture shock.
After dinner we had a walk along the waterfront, huge apartment buildings lit up like Christmas trees. I didn’t have a tripod and still was able to take decent pictures. Candy town. And on the other side of the Yalu river? Not a single sound, barely any lights, low buildings in the dark. The next day I took a photo from the middle of the river while on a boat tour – left China, right DPRK. The countries could have hardly looked more different.

The second day in Dandong was full of touristy stuff. First we went to a reconstructed part of the Chinese Wall, once upon a time continuing on the now Korean side of the Yalu river. Since I didn’t have time to visit the wall near Beijing this was actually a very nice treat – and a very surreal one, since that part of the wall was right next to the border. Not only were there tons of bilingual warning signs (Chinese and English, obviously), but I was also able to take pictures of the Chinese Wall and North Korea at the same time! I had no idea that it was possible…
Why were there no signs in Korean, you ask? Because, and this is a dirty little secret nobody wants to talk about, Koreans don’t dare to cross the border here; at least not permanently. The reason for that is the fact they would be easily spotted by Chinese doing so – and the Chinese government not only sends defectors back to the DPRK, they also pay their own people to rat out fugitives! Yes, while every North Korean who made it to South Korea or the States is celebrated, the same people are everything but welcome in China. To a point that average Chinese people have them deported for money, very aware that caught defectors won’t have an easy life back in the DPRK… Morality is luxury.

Next stop of the tour was the „Museum of War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea“ or just simply the Korean War Museum, one of the most interesting places I have ever been to. As you know, history is written by the victors – in this case you had two victors (or none…), and we all know what the Americans are telling us. So it was extremely interesting to hear the Chinese side, a side that was presented with a surprisingly high amount of signs in English; given that Dandong only has a small airport, it’s not exactly a destination for Western tourists. Most of the texts were biased obviously, resulting in sentences stating that the Chinese and Koreans “overcame all the difficulties with incomparable heroism and inexhaustible wisdom and smashed the “strangling warfare” by the U.S. Army”. Stuff like that sounds hilarious to western socialized people, often not realizing that lies can be easily hidden with the help of pretended objectivity. To me the most interesting aspect brought up by the communist side was the aspect of biological warfare. A small section of the museum is dedicated to those allegations brought up by China, the Soviet Union and the DPRK, while the whole topic is denounced by the US government and its allies. The shocking thing about those accusations is that they make sense! When I wrote about the *Rabbit Island Okunoshima* a while ago I mentioned one of the most despicable human beings that ever lived, a Japanese military surgeon named Shiro Ishii. Ishii was the head of Unit 731, a Japanese research group that developed biological weapons in top secret Chinese facilities during World War 2 – by testing them on humans, including vivisections of infected victims! (I mentioned them, because Unit 731 related people also tested poison gas produced on Okunoshima.) Instead of executing Ishii as a war criminal, the Americans granted him immunity in exchange for the data he gained during the human experimentation – MacArthur knew about that plan in 1947 and it was concluded in 1948. In addition to their own biological weapons program in Fort Detrick, Maryland, the Americans now had the Japanese material. But that’s not all! While Ishii’s daughter says that her father spent the rest of his natural life in Japan, Richard Drayton, a senior lecturer in history at Cambridge University, claims that Ishii actually „came to Maryland to advise on bio-weapons”. Just for your information: The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953, the allegations are from the year 1952… Ishii died a converted Christian in 1959.
(Another surprising realization I had at the museum is DPRK related. You know how Western media are making fun of Kim Jong-un being a bit chubby and having a terrible haircut? Well, I was walking around, looking at things, when I saw that really old photo on the wall – of a guy that looked like Kim Jong-un; slightly chubby, unconventional haircut. It was Kim Il-sung, his grandfather. Kim Jong-un looks like Kim Il-sung around the time of the Korean War! Now it all makes sense, because given the personal cult in the DPRK of course that’s not a coincidence…)

Last but not least we went back to the waterfront and did a little cruise on the Yalu river that separates China and the DPRK. A few western tourists are claiming that they’ve visited North Korea after taking that 45 minute long boat tour – according to our guide they haven’t as the river is actually considered no man’s land…
The boat tour started just south of the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge (constructed when the whole area was occupied by Japan) and the Broken Bridge (built between 1909 and 1911) and first gave a good look at the bridges while heading north. Both bridges were repeatedly attacked and damaged by the United States during the Korean War and at first both of them were repaired, but then the communist side focused on repairing the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, leaving the Broken Bridge first a ruin and now a historical tourist attraction. Today the Friendship Bridge is one of the few ways to enter the DPRK by automobile or train. After passing the bridges it was bizarre to see gigantic apartment buildings on the Chinese side… and basically nothing on the other. Then we turned around, passed the two bridges again and got closer to the Korean side; pretty close actually… There we could see how the low tide left some old, rusty Korean ships on the shore and how workers loaded coal via small cranes. While the people around us were all excited about getting a glimpse at North Korea I wasn’t able to share that excitement. I actually felt bad, knowing how much Pyongyang needed that coal, wondering if the appointed train would actually make it there to keep one of the two coal power stations running. None of us had goose-bumps looking at “the Evil Empire” as if it was a tiger at a zoo more than a century ago. We had seen more than the waterfront, we had talked to the people; it was surreal looking back, while the Chinese tourists probably were judging the whole country by what they saw there and then, talking about each other instead of with each other. I think all of us Westerners felt a bit desperate and frustrated while on that boat – having enjoyed eight days in the DPRK we finally realized how far away from the global community the country really is; not only ideologically, but also economically…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

Read Full Post »

It takes almost a whole day to go by train from Pyongyang to Beijing – and it’s quite an experience…

One of the few limitations Americans have when visiting the DPRK is the fact that they are not allowed to ride trains as the railway system is considered a military installation; so if you are American and you want to travel to North Korea you have to enter and exit by plane. All other nationalities usually take the plane in and the train out (or vice versa) – not because it is cheaper (it actually isn’t, at least not for the customer, probably for the travel agency though…), but because it is part of the fun. 23 hours on the train, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature! Well, to some people. Not to me necessarily. So I decided to split the train ride in half and have a 24 hour layover in Dandong, right at the border between China and the DPRK.

My last hours in North Korea began with the usual morning routine, but instead of going sightseeing after entering the bus, we went to Pyongyang Station – and I wish I had taken some photos outside instead of rushing inside with the flock as the square in front of the huge station looked quite modern, including some advertising and huge screens. Instead I spent another 15 to 20 minutes in the waiting room for international travelers, featuring the last gift shop before leaving the DPRK.

Pyongyang Station actually isn’t that busy and it seems to have only one platform – a gigantic platform where you can park buses crosswise. Nevertheless it serves four lines: One to Nampo, one to Rajin in the far North, one to Kaesong (theoretically to Busan via Seoul, but you know the problem there…) and one to Sinuiju; the one our group took.
The standard procedure is the following: The train leaves at around 10.30 in the morning for Sinuiju with several stops at stations along the way. At around 15.30 you arrive in Sinuiju, where you have to go through customs on the Korean side, which takes about two hours – sometimes more, sometimes less. Then the train crosses the river Yalu to Dandong, China. There you have to go through Chinese customs, which takes about 30 minutes. (Don’t forget to adjust you watch as China is in a different time zone!) Then you have about half an hour before the train continues at 18.30 to Beijing, where it arrives at 8.30 in the morning. At no time you have to leave the train – customs on both sides take care of everything on board. People going to Beijing directly are located in nice 4 bed compartments, travelers getting off at Dandong enjoy the 5 hour ride plus 2 hour long customs process in a smelly wagon with open 6 bed compartments. Since I opted for the layover in Dandong I was with the latter group…
We had seen lots of settlements and fields on the way to Kaesong and Nampo, but the northern part seemed to be a bit greener – and the train wasn’t nearly as shaky as that bus, so I was able to take some nicer photos and a really decent video.

The train ride through the North Korea countryside was actually quite relaxed, despite the fact that the 160 km long trip took a whopping 5 hours. The reason for that is the fact that the railway system was in abysmal condition. Like I said, we were not allowed to take photos and although we said goodbye to our Korean guides back in Pyongyang I stuck with it – out of respect and out of fear to get in trouble at customs. Our train was by far the most modern one on the way as all the other ones looked like they were from back in the days when Japan was still in charge of the country. The stations were in decent condition, but the trains… it’s actually hard to describe. First of all I don’t remember seeing many of them being in working condition, we saw only a couple of them with passengers in them. The trains and wagons parked within stations… half of them looked like they were involved in fires or explosions, the other half looked like they were rusting away for decades. I guess shock and surprise was another reason why I didn’t take photos. People thought the East German railway system was in bad condition when the FRG “bought” the GDR – but damn, this was a whole different level! Another sign that there was no to barely any railroad modernization since the 1930s or 1940s were the electricity posts along the track you can see in the video and on one of the photos. I’ve seen similar ones in Japan. Along railway tracks. Abandoned tracks! The DPRK must have spent quite a chunk of money on maintenance, but I am sure the railroad system in the 1960s was in better condition than it is now… except for the rather luxurious overnight wagon to Beijing.
Customs in Sinuiju took indeed a little bit more than two hours, but they weren’t really thorough. We occupied 5 or 6 beds in the smelly wagon, but they didn’t look at any of our photos and even forgot to look inside one of our suitcases…
Customs in Dandong were even faster, basically a passport and visa check, they didn’t even open any of our luggage. After the Chinese custom officers were done we left the train, said goodbye to our fellow travelers continuing to Beijing and left the station, where our 24 hours in Dandong began; three people from my group, four people of the other group. More about that on Friday!

24 hours later we were back at the station – well, me and my other two group members Patrick and Juliette as the group A guys actually stayed for 48 hours in Dandong.
This time we checked into one of those luxurious sleeper cars with four beds and a door, shared with a young Chinese woman travelling from Dandong to… somewhere in China. The train stopped every couple of hours and she left maybe two hours outside of Beijing. When I woke up in the middle of the night we just had stopped at one of those stations and I took a photo over my head aiming outside of the window – it turned out to be a quite nice one, so I added it to the gallery.

Overall the train ride to Beijing wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected it to be, probably because I was able to split it into two halves. Arriving in Beijing though my bad luck in the city continued: While at the *Mansudae Art Studio* I bought a lithography too big to put in my suitcase, so I was having an eye on it for almost a week. At Beijing Railway Station I left in a hurry and after about three minutes I realized that I didn’t have the lithography in my hand anymore. Despite the masses, the heat and the humidity I immediately ran back to the train compartment where the cleaning personnel already started their work, less than five minutes after I left in this huge, loud, summer smelly crowd – of course nobody understood me or had seen anything. I don’t think I’ve ever lost anything since I was five years old! But that was just the beginning of another horrible, horrible stay in China’s capital…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

Read Full Post »

Air Koryo is the state owned and government run airline of North Korea, based at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport. It was founded under the name SOKAO in 1950 as a joint venture between North Korea and Soviet Russia, but had to suspend business shortly after due to the Korean War. A successor was established in 1954 under the name of Choson Minhang and started operations in late September of 1955 before being renamed Air Koryo in 1993. Air Koryo from the beginning was placed under the control of the Civil Aviation Administration, a part of the North Korean Airforce – which means that all pilots are military officers. Due to North Koreas close affiliation with the soviets all airplanes in the fleet of Air Koryo are Russian models. Antonovs, Ilyushins, Tupolevs. During the Cold War Air Koryo flew to more than three dozen destinations within Korea and all over the world – nowadays there are only three regular international connections (Beijing three times a week, Shenyang twice a week and Vladivostok once a week) plus a couple of charter flights. In Europe Air Koryo is blacklisted since March 2006, though that ban was lifted four years later for two newly acquired Tupolev Tu-204s.

It was on board of one of those two machines that my fellow travelers and I started our trip to Pyongyang in Beijing. Some websites still recommend using Air China (or the 24 hour train…) to get to North Korea’s capital, but I would have chosen Air Koryo anyway if I would have been asked to choose. How often do you have the opportunity to fly Air Koryo?!
Interestingly enough our predominantly white Air Koryo plane was parked right next to a predominantly blue plane by Korean Air – the flag carrier and largest airline of South Korea. Since the Korean Air machine took off before we even boarded I had the great opportunity to take a photo of both machines at the same time when the Seoul bound machine was on its way to the runway. Two planes, one photo. It didn’t cross my mind at the time, but I am sure North Koreans would have loved the picture, them being all about one united Korea. (And so would have the dozen Christians wearing “A United Korea 4 The World” sweatshirts that boarded the plane with us. I seriously hope they were able to leave the country without running into trouble – they might love Korea, but (North) Korea doesn’t love missionaries. And those guys looked like they were on a mission from God…)

Air Koryo actually was the first positive surprise of my *trip to the DPRK*. After using *Ukraine International Airlines to Kiev* three years prior, my expectations on (former) communist airlines were as low as they can get; but the Tupolev Tu-204 was a perfectly fine modern plane with the usual seat spacing, the flight attendants were as friendly as they were beautiful (and they were gorgeous!) and the food was living up to international standards, too.
When checking in I was asking for a seat away from the wings to be able to look outside and maybe take a quick video secretly. At that point the photography situation was a bit up in the air (no pun intended…) – we were told that it’s okay to take photos on board, but not of the stewardesses; and nobody asked about video or footage through the windows. So I took a few quick snapshots until one of the other foreign travelers was shut down when he violated the instructions we got and took photos of a flight attendant… Even worse: After we all settled in and were ready to take off about a dozen Koreans boarded the plane and occupied seats all over the aircraft cabin. Just a coincidence? Or a way to keep an eye on the foreigners at a time when the official guides were still waiting for our arrival in Pyongyang? I felt a bit uneasy, but decided to give the rather young fella sitting next to me the benefit of the doubt. Which turned out to be right about an hour later. Lunch was just served and I was wondering if it was okay to take a photo of the meal – as we all know from Western media: Taking pictures most likely is a crime… So I slowly unwrapped all the small containers and before I could even start to eat my meal the guy in the neighboring seat pulled out his smart phone and took a photo himself. Easy going! The same situation a couple of minutes later. While I was wondering whether it was okay to take some photos of the landscape passing by (there could have been airports or train stations or military camps – or worse!) we were informed that we just entered Korean airspace – and all of a sudden everybody took photos, including our late arriving Koreans. Lesson learned: Don’t shove a lens into somebody’s face and you can take photos of pretty much everything you want…

Air Koryo’s home airport Pyongyang Sunan International Airport is as small as you think it is – two landing strips, one of them closed permanently. There are 10 regular international flights a week at Sunan (7 by Air Koryo, 3 by Air China), plus charter flights and some cargo flights – that’s it! There are no official statistics about flight movements within the DPRK, but I doubt that there are many, given the rather high cost of air transport and the regime’s problem to get fuel.
On the positive side: Immigration is a piece of cake. You show your filled out forms, your passport and your visa – and then you are in. No bag checks, no other bullshit. When you want to enter Japan on the other hand you get treated like a criminal as they take your finger prints and a photo. Every… friggin… time! I’m on my third Japanese long-term visa, I never ran into trouble, I always pay my taxes – nevertheless I get treated like a murder suspect every time I come back from an overseas trip… Welcome home! (Of course this treatment only applies to foreigners, Japanese people just waltz in…)

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »