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Archive for the ‘Monument’ Category

As of a week ago, one of my biggest urbex regrets had been not exploring the abandoned Western Village before its demolition. I found out about this Wild West amusement park many years ago, long before it was picked up by Japanese urbex blogs, but it was far away from Osaka, nestled in the mountains of Tochigi prefecture, giving it a Rocky Mountains-ish vibe. A trip rather time and money consuming, I kept postponing my visit, until I heard in autumn of 2014 that Western Village had joined the long list of famous places demolished last year. Apparently that news was rather exaggerated, as I read by chance last week – heavy machinery had been put into position and a locomotive was removed, but the main park was still there… at least during the Japanese winter break, ending on January 4th 2015. So I did what every upstanding person with regrets would have done: I tossed all concerns about money and time out of the window and headed up to Tochigi to explore Western Village before it was gone for good! (Which is probably, but not necessarily, happening as you read these lines…)

Western Village emerged from a family owned guest ranch with a few horses and a fishing pond called Kinugawa Family Ranch, started in the early 1970s as an additional attraction for visitors of a nearby hot spring – there were metal cups labelled that way all over the premises, most likely around 40 years old and once sold in gift shops. Kenichi and Masayuki Ominami’s uniquely themed leisure park was divided into several zones, the last one added in 1995 for about 25 million USD, featuring a three-floor building with a 1/3 scale replica of Mount Rushmore; the latter earned Western Village a few awards, from the Mount Rushmore Society and Northwest Airlines, making the park’s then-president Kenichi Ominami a honorary governor of South Dakota. Main attractions included said Mount Rushmore, several (now removed) locomotives and cars imported from the United States, and a live Wild West show – minor attractions were an arcade, two haunted houses, and lots of smaller buildings with western content. In addition to that, Western Village was often used as a film set for promotional videos and movies.
From 2003 to 2006 visitors were able to rent Segways, and in its later years of existence the entrance fee was lowered from 2400 to 1500 Yen, but all of that didn’t stop the demise of Western Village. In 2006 the official website announced that the park would be closed from December 6th till late March 2007 (the end of the business year) for maintenance, but the park never opened again as announced in February of 2007. In April 2007 the Sankei Shimbun, one of Japan’s biggest newspapers, reported that the creditor NIS Group filed for foreclosure of land and buildings in the Tokyo District Court in September 2006, deciding that it would be financially impossible to re-open the park. Since then Western Village has fallen into disrepair, suffering from metal thieves and vandalism, despite reports of security on patrol and the Tochigi police training on the premises. In the second half of 2014 Japanese explorers reported that the demolition of Western Village had begun. Usually something like that takes only a few days in Japan, a couple of weeks max, if the crew is small or if ferroconcrete buildings are involved. So everybody believed Western Village was no more and none of the visitors since then cared to debunk the rumors… until last week.

Every year around New Year’s Day Japan shuts down for about a week, coming to a near standstill on January 1st. On that day only basic services like trains, taxis and 24/7 supermarkets are running, even most bank ATMs are shut down – the perfect time to get out of the country or to welcome visitors without having to take sparse paid days off. In my case, my sister was visiting, so I was super busy planning and executing day trips, dinner with friends and stuff. By coincidence I saw a friend posting on Facebook that he just came back from Western Village and that heavy machinery was still in place, idle during winter break. Without time to plan anything, I packed a small bag with some clothes and my camera equipment, actually forgetting my ultra-wide angle lens. On Friday morning I accompanied my sister to the airport for a proper farewell, headed back to Osaka (without stopping at home) and took several trains north – continuing to Western Village on Saturday, spending more than six hours till sunset on the premises.

While a good portion of *Nara Dreamland* was just false front, Western Village was actually a full-blown Wild West town. All buildings were accessible, all of them had a purpose. The fully stocked arcade was surprisingly big and featured a custom made animatronic shooting game as well as classic video games like Space Harrier, Alpine Racer and Crazy Taxi. Two gigantic restaurants were able to feed hundreds of customers at the same time, not to mention the saloon next to the gift shop. There was a fake hotel, a barber, a bank, a black smith, and a sheriff office; interestingly enough the fake looking church was real, imported from California. Several attractions costing extra money included a haunted house, the now almost empty Mystery Shock with its messed up floors and walls, a shooting game featuring futuristic looking guns (long before Cowboys & Aliens!) and a photographer’s shop, where you could dress up in cliché outfits. Some of those buildings were “inhabited” by animatronic characters like a clerk, a bartender and a Pony Express employee, giving the now abandoned park a really spooky Westworld vibe, especially since most of those animatronics were built to match the likenesses of movie icons. (The older among us remember Michael Crichton’s movie with Yul Brunner and James Brolin, the younger will get a star-packed HBO version produced by J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan soon.)
Western Village has suffered quite a bit from vandalism and natural decay over the last couple of years. Animatronics and mannequins have been moved all over the park, so were clothes from the photographer’s shop and several single items. Some people clearly had fun positioning large teddy bears (from an exhibition at the Mount Rushmore building) behind partly smashed doors and lurking creepily through windows. The auditorium at the foot of Mount Rushmore was rather overgrown even in winter, and the veranda of the hotel was on the brink of collapse – but overall Western Village was still in decent condition, considering that it consists largely of wood and is one of the most popular *haikyo* in all of Japan. It’s totally beyond me that *Nara Dreamland* is super popular and Western Village is completely overlooked; the latter one is actually in much better condition (well, probably because of it…). Sure, it lacks the rollercoasters, but it’s stuffed with tons of interesting items and animatronics. It’s a lot easier to access and has a unique subject matter, especially considering its location… Japan. Overall a fantastic exploration – and I really hope that somebody will hold back the heavy machines for a while, so more people will be able to explore Western Village!

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Spring is the perfect time for hanami haikyo – exploring abandoned places while the plum and cherry blossoms are in full bloom. The window of opportunity every year is small, especially during cold and rainy springs, but this year I was luckily to hit one of those perfect days early in the year…

A few years ago I saw the remains of what appeared to be a playground on some random Japanese blog. Another source called it an abandoned amusement park. And then some photos of a golden Buddha statue appeared. It took me a while to piece all those pieces together – and afterwards I knew as much about that mysterious place as before… plus its exact location on a small mountain in Gifu prefecture; very countryside, and so I explored in Gifu and passed through Gifu several times before I was finally able to visit the Golden Buddha Park myself – most likely not its original name, but the fake names Japanese blogs used make even less sense, so mine is as good as theirs.
In the Japanese countryside GoogleMaps often is little more than a general hint, especially when construction is going on, so Dan, Kyoto, Spencer and I (big group this time!) knew where we had to go, but didn’t exactly know how to get there. After several twists and turns we reached a strange area where about a dozen regular cars were parked on what appeared to be an abandoned road with small abandoned houses – and one active apartment building at the end, much too small to house everybody parking there. We turned back again and parked at pretty much the last available spot, next to a partly collapsed house and an overgrown and dried-out pond. The paved street had turned into a cobblestone road, the condition getting worse and worse, so we decided to walk. Soon even the cobblestones were missing and we hiked up what appeared to be a dirt road getting narrower and narrower, becoming more and more overgrown. But we were on the right track as I remember a mushroom shaped resting area I saw on photos years prior. At that point there was a rift about half a meter deep splitting the road / wide path we were on. A strange place and probably creepy as hell on a foggy day. After a couple of minutes we reached some kind of plateau with a metal beam cage – probably for bird or maybe a small feline predator. There was trash all over the nearby slope and a vandalized bus was rusting away, offering the first good photo opportunity of the day. Opposite of the bus and mostly overgrown were several flights of stairs, some handrails and other concrete leftovers – it seems like there had been a now mostly demolished solid building once, but what it was… your guess is as good as mine. Next to the construction ruin we found a massive flight of stairs leading up the mountain, one huge concrete elephant statue on each side, with the weirdest plastic eyes I have ever seen; also worth mentioning: since the trunk was crumbling away we could see that there was a hose inside, so those statues were probably able to spray water…
On top of the mountain / hill we finally saw the golden Buddha in its white dome, lined with cherry trees. What a sight! But it was also guarded by two statues that probably were supposed to be dogs or lions, but looked more aliens – or alions… The statues with their weird eyes formed an unnerving contrast to the tranquil atmosphere of the Buddha and the countryside beauty. Such a strange place!
Upon closer look the base of the interesting looking concrete construction must have been hollow as we found a door on the back. Since it was locked we rather climbed the socket and had a closer look at the statue. Most of it was actually undamaged, but the gold leaves of lowest part, even in reach of small people, needed some refoiling.
Sadly there we no sign or other hints what this could have been, so after a while we hiked back down the mountain to our car. There we had a closer look at the dried out pond and the neighboring building, probably a conference center or something like that. The front was already collapsed and the interior had seen much better days, too. With that, our motivation to go through another half a dozen abandoned houses dwindled and we decided to call it a day – if Japanese explorers were not able to figure out what this strange setup was, we figured it would be rather unlikely that we will. And it was a good decision, because later that day we found the most amazing *abandoned ski resort* ever. But that’s the story of another time…

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“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…)

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Why staying at Kyongsong? Because if the town was good enough for Kim Il-sung, his wife and his son, it is damn good enough for any western tourist! And of course there were more things to see, like the house the most famous Kims stayed at while giving guidance on location, now part of the Kyongsong Revolutionary Museum. There we listened to some “fascinating” stories about the Kim family, for example about how Kim Jong-il was really smart at a very young age. When he asked his mother Kim Jong-suk why most animals drink with the help of their tongues, but not chickens, his mother told him to observe the feathered fellas and come to a conclusion by himself. So he watched the chickens for seven days straight and then told his mom the correct answer at age 5!

Just out of town we visited the Jipsam Revolutionary Site, where three generals met during the Japanese occupation to defeat the invaders. Luckily our guides kept the story short; either because they were still hung over or because they slightly panicked when they saw planes practicing starting and landing at the nearby Kyongsong-Chuul Airport a.k.a. Kyongsong-Chuul Military Airfield. We got permission to take photos freely, except of the airplanes. Which was kind of hard to do, because the machines were coming down every other minute right over the scenic fishermen’s village. Luckily the planes were so tiny in the distance that nobody really cared – yet Mr. Li yelled another “No take photos!” at me when I took one of a boat on the shore. So we were allowed to take photos of everything – except for the unmentioned things they didn’t want us to take photos of. Sometimes I really had the impression that our guideguards had no clue what they were doing… So I paid even more attention to keep out of their sight without losing contact completely, because nothing is worse than an unaccounted tourist! And by chance it happened that I “accidentally” caught some of the planes on video when filming the coastline. I have no idea what kind of planes were starting and landing there, but the whole thing felt like a WW2 airshow. If that was a representative example of the DPRK’s airforce, those poor pilots better stay on the ground and hide somewhere in case of another war!

Next on the itinerary was a stop at a kindergarten in Chongjin – and we all know what that means, right? Singing and dancing children! Yay!
Luckily this kindergarten had so much more to offer, involuntarily!
For example the playground in the yard. Sure, it was a bit rundown, but it had a new layer of paint recently. And the rides were awesome, amongst them a rough merry-go-round with rockets and even a small Ferris wheel. I think children all over the world would have loved those playground attractions. The problem was: I am sure none of them had been used in the past couple of months, since branches of nearby trees blocked their movement! At first I was like “Hey, cool, those are awesome!” before the “Wait a minute…” moment kicked in. Kind of sad to maintain those rides and then make no use of them.
But that’s not all, because we also got a tour of the building. Well, part of the building. We witnessed an art class, saw the room for the kids’ afternoon nap, even had a look at the indoctrination rooms where the little ones were taught about the lives of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. The hallways and staircases were decorated with Hello Kitty and nature motifs (like a partly sculptured tree), all beautifully executed. The children’s performance was on the third floor, so when we went from the first to the third through a staircase, we were kind of rushed as the kids were waiting. Nevertheless I was able to walk down a hallway on the second floor for a few of meters, where I took a picture of a painting I am sure we were not supposed to see. It showed some armed children attacking a couple of snowmen. Even without being able to read what was written on them I knew that I struck gold – later I found out that the snowmen were labelled “American Bastard” and “Jui Myung Bak”, a play on words meaning “rat-like Lee Myung Bak”; Lee being the 10th President of South Korea. Lovely, just lovely!
But to be honest with you, it’s actually this kind of photos I was hoping for before the tour started – you can see quite a few pictures of Chongjin and Mount Chilbo on the internet; little gems like the snowman propaganda painting I’ve never seen anywhere before. At the same time experiences like that are the main reason why this series of articles is so much more negative than the first one – they make it so much harder to believe the show you get presented in Pyongyang. Everything in North Korea is full of contradictions all the time!

Well, lunch was at the Chongjin Seamen’s Club and I mainly mention it for the “hot se(a)men” jokes somebody has to make sooner or later; and now let us continue to pretend that the fourth season of Arrested Development doesn’t exist. The Seamen‘s Club is actually one of the few places in North Korea where foreigners and locals can mingle, though it seems like in the end everybody sticks with their own kind – and of course we were seated in a separate room, though we were allowed to roam the gated area freely. It was there that I bought my first souvenir of the trip, a hardcover copy of Kim Jong-il’s “On the Art of cinema” for 2 EUR! I almost felt bad getting it for that price, but in the end it probably was a good deal for both sides; and one of the few things I was able to buy overall. (More on prices and overpricing in the article about Day 7!)

After lunch we headed north to Rason. Since there is no freedom to travel in North Korea, not even within North Korea, we had to cross an internal border and needed two different “visa” for North Hamgyong and Rason – and also two different sets of guardguides, since Mr. Li, Mr. So and Mr. Sin were not allowed in Rason unless they had special permission. (And none of us were allowed in Pyongyang! If we would have hurt ourselves seriously, they most likely would have taken us to China, not to the capital – because we didn’t have proper documents to enter…) About half an hour away from the internal border the unavoidable happened – our bus broke down with a flat tire in the middle of nowhere and it took about an hour to fix it. Luckily we had a spare on board, so we left the forest just before the sun went down. Interestingly enough there were many locals strolling through the forest – probably the cause of the omnipresent plastic waste. Seriously, this was one of the dirtiest sections of forest I’ve ever been to! A real surprise, given that it was plastic trash and North Korea. Who knew they even had plastic there?! 😉

Finally arriving at the Rason border, Mr. Kim and his team took over (not the driver of the North Hamgyong bus, another one…) – and he turned out to be a jokester. First he apologized for the bad quality of the road, but hoped that we would enjoy the free massage for the next 10 minutes. When we asked him to turn off the internal lights of the bus, so we could have a better look outside (it was dark by then), Mr. Kim told us that one of the advantages of the DPRK (and the huge number of blackouts) was the fact that there was no light pollution in North Korea. Damn, if I ever do a comedy routine about NK I’ll definitely steal those two jokes!

Exactly 10 minutes later we left the bumpy dirt road and reached a normal one – and soon later we passed Rason Harbor on our way to the city center of Rajin. (Rason is a Special Economic Zone consisting of the cities Rajin and Sonbong – here the DPRK experiments with capitalism in cooperation with its ex-communist buddies China and Russia, plus a few others.) And by “normal” I mean that the road was not only smooth, it had street lamps! Light. In the darkness. 13 adult travelers excited like little kids. It’s interesting how fast you forget that you miss certain things you are used to – and how equally easily excited you can be to get them back. We all take electricity for granted and it’s truly amazing how much of it industrialized countries waste. While North Hamgyong is clearly lacking supply, Rason uses it reasonably; Yanji wastes quite a bit and Osaka… I’m sure Osaka uses more electricity than all of North Korea – and given that pretty much every apartment building and busy neighborhood is lit up like a Christmas tree, Osaka probably wastes more electricity than North Korea uses; which is amazing given the constant talk about being green and how the electricity price exploded in Japan after Fukushima!
After dinner at a well-lit (!) restaurant (in the same building as the local travel agency), we were supposed to check into our hotel just down the street, the Namsan Hotel – but Mr. Kim had a surprise for us: Instead of staying at the slightly run-down accommodation in Rajin’s city center, we drove up a mountain between Rajin and Sonbong to the newly built Pipha Hotel with a stunning view at the city’s (in)famous Emperor Hotel and the beautiful Changjin Bay. Upon arrival we found out that we were the first guests there – EVER. (And probably the last, as itineraries for future Northeastern Adventures still mention the Namsan Hotel…)
The Pipha Hotel turned out to be a slightly weird… installation. First of all, the hotel didn’t have a reception; it looked more or less like an annex building. We entered via an external staircase on the second floor, basically through a tiny lobby with a couple of seats in a hallway. There was a first floor / ground floor, but we never went there. As Mr. Kim said, the building was brand-new, so it was by far the most modern and overall best hotel I stayed at in North Korea across both trips. Hot water, running water and a (not working) AC, which was compensated by heating blankets. The first shower in three days felt wonderful! At the same time the Pipha Hotel showed how little experience North Korea still has with tourists. For example:
The bathroom had some toiletries, but those were sealed shut. While it’s worldwide standard that little packages of shampoo have a small cut so you can open them easily, the ones we were provided with had to be opened with a pair of scissors.
The room itself was quite nice, but when the architect planned the hotel, it seems like he didn’t think along… and put the main light switch of each room in the hallway instead of inside the room right next to the door. As a result it was impossible to switch the light on / off from within the room.

None of it affected our happiness about hot running water or the overall experience, those are just two more examples of things that we take for granted and that stand out when they are not the way we are used to. And despite looking strangely familiar, it turned out that Rason was full of things that were not the way we are used to…

(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…)

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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…)

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My *first trip to North Korea* was a great experience. I went there with a certain amount of ignorance, to “enjoy the show”. And it was a good show, a great show… a fantastic show actually. It was so elaborate, that it was easy to believe most of it. No freedom of movement? Sure, their country, their rules. Regular blackouts outside of Pyongyang? Unfortunate exceptions. Taboo topics? Well, you avoid bringing up politics and religion in most parts of the world. The radio wasn’t working? Who cares, it would have been in Korean anyway – there was barely enough time to watch TV. Not much traffic? Well, it’s a poor country with fuel shortages, but everybody is trying to make the best of the situation. And the guides telling us that walking a lot is healthy anyway? Well, probably just North Korean humor – it’s not like Japanese jokes are much funnier…

North Korea is changing, no doubt about it – opportunities to “enjoy the show” are getting sparse, and now is probably the last chance to get a glimpse at the old regime, the strict, stiff, dictatorial North Korea. If you visit Pyongyang you already get a watered down, rather easy to swallow version. While a couple of years ago visitors had to refer to Kim Il-sung as “Great Leader” and Kim Jong-il as “Dear Leader”, nobody seems to care about the use of honorary titles like that anymore, as it alienates foreign visitors. The guides in Pyongyang speak English quite well and most of them have enough experience with foreigners to know how to handle them and follow the rather strict limitations (forced on them by their bosses) at the same time. It’s easy to get lost in that charade and blame all the evil things happening on America or the people themselves – if they would have followed the rules, they would not have been put in jail. (Which is bullshit, as we all know. In the Early Modern Age countless women were tortured and killed as witches, because their resentful neighbors made a claim and the victim had to proof their innocence. And that’s pretty much how North Korea works today.)

After my return to Japan and the series of articles I wrote about my trip to North Korea, I wanted to see more. I wanted to see a different side. I wanted a rougher version, to see myself whether Pyongyang was just a sample of an aspiring country striving for success – or if it was the exception, a Potemkin village to fool visitors.
In July 2013, while still writing articles for the first series, I decided to go back to North Korea. This time I chose a tour with a completely different itinerary with a route that wouldn’t even get close to any destination I saw on the first tour. The Northeastern Adventure was introduced in spring 2013 and opened the border crossing in Tumen for western tourists. Up till then the few visitors to North Hamgyong province used to fly in from Pyongyang or entered via Rason to visit the famous Mount Chilbo area. With the Northeastern Adventure I had the rare opportunity to see the Wangjaesan Grand Monument and to spend a night in Hoeryong. Next stops were Chonjing, the homestay village near Mount Chilbo and Kyongsong before spending three nights in the Special Economic Zone Rason. (*Click here for a GoogleMap to give you a better idea.*)
Believe it or not – I got what I bargained for. North Hamgyong and Rason were a lot rougher than Pyongyang and the places in the south of North Korea. The guides were rougher (“It’s comrade Kim Il-sung! / “No take photos!”), the conditions were rougher (no running water and no hot water for three consecutive days – which is not unusual in a poor country, but irritating when that poor country always pretends to be on par with the rich ones…), the locals were rougher. The cities were smaller and less colorful, the anti-American propaganda was less subtle, the infrastructure was less developed. While the southern parts were all about the Korean war, the northern parts were all about the Japanese occupation – down to the guide’s countless stories about Japanese atrocities, some of which started with “Sorry Mr. XYZ, but it’s historical fact!” as the Northeastern Adventure was accompanied by two Japanese citizens. (To everybody’s surprise as most Japanese people don’t want to have anything to do with North Korea.)
Speaking of my fellow travelers: This was an extraordinary group to travel with! When signing up for a group tour you never know what you get. While I enjoyed the Pyongyang group for several reasons (hey Jeff!), the Northeastern Adventure group overall was much more relaxed and less stressful – probably because it wasn’t the first trip to North Korea for anybody, with one exception. Everybody knew what to expect, everybody knew how to behave (at least most of the time), there were no “I am so cool because I am traveling to North Korea!” characters, it was just a great group!
Which brings me to related topic: You won’t find a picture of myself on Abandoned Kansai and, like last time, I tried to extent this courtesy to the rest of the group for this article series – which worked with two or three exceptions. If you see yourself on a photo and don’t like it, please drop me a line and I’ll remove the picture right away! As for you, dear reader: This time the group consisted of thirteen people plus one British guide (Amanda) plus three Korean guides during the first leg in Hamgyong province and three different Korean guides during the second leg in Rason, where the group shrunk to twelve people as one of our Japanese group members had been to the Special Economic Zone before and decided to leave early. (A “Special Thanks” goes out to my friend Mayu, who didn’t join me on the trip, but provided valuable translations afterwards. Whenever you see captions to Korean text on photos – those I owe to her.)

For the first trip I decided to write separate articles for each major stop on the tour, which resulted in more than 30 posting over 10 weeks – way too long for a blog that usually is all about urban exploration. So this time it’ll be more like a classic travel report: eight articles, one for each day; plus this introduction and an epilogue with some final thoughts. Some of the articles will be freakishly long (up to 2.500 words…), some of them will contain rants as I won’t stay away from hot topics this time. Nevertheless I hope you’ll enjoy reading what I have to say – my mind was blown several times during the trip and if everything goes according to plan you’ll make a “WTF?” face at least once per article… 🙂

Oh, and for all you hardcore urbex fans out there: The next abandoned place will be posted on February 25th – an amazing original find I explored almost two years ago!

(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…)

P.S.: I almost forgot – welcome, dear readers from North Korea! I know you don’t stop by often and I doubt that you are regular people who surf the internet after a hard day of work in the fields. But, according to the basic statistics WordPress shares with me, I had 12 page views from the DPRK between my first and second trip to North Korea, much to my own surprise. So again – welcome, comrades!

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There is no frozen banana stand in the DMZ, dear Arrested Development fans! Which isn’t really a surprise, given that it’s not exactly easy to get bananas in the DPRK. Or chocolate. Or nuts. Or a freezer. Or a reliable source of electricity…
Nevertheless I kept my eyes peeled after watching the show’s final episode (of season 3…) for the gazillionth time – at the *Minsok Hotel* on a media player the night before going to the North Korean side of the DMZ / JSA.

I decided to not bore you with too many facts about the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), especially after I dropped way too many numbers and Korean terms in the previous article – there are plenty of ways to educated yourself about the Korean war and its end, and you probably know the basics anyway. Instead I would like to talk about how it is to visit the DMZ when in the DPRK.

First of all: People who say that they’ve visited the DMZ most of the time actually visited a very tiny part called Joint Security Area (JSA), the only portion of the Demilitarized Zone where soldiers from both Koreas get close to each other and don’t stand 4 kilometers apart – to the best of my knowledge tourists can only visit one other part of the DMZ: A lookout where you are supposed to see the Korean Wall. “The Korean Wall?” you ask? Yes, the Korean Wall. More about that topic next time!
I’ve never been to the southern side of the JSA, but I’ve heard it’s not exactly a relaxed trip. You have to sign a waiver (since there is a theoretical chance that you might be injured or killed…), groups are split by languages (sometimes prohibiting couples of different nationalities to go together), you have to apply several days in advance (some nationalities have to go through a background check), there is a dress code, you are not allowed to do certain things (like pointing at DPRK soldiers) and overall it seems to be quite a rushed experience.
Going to the northern side of the DMZ / JSA is actually quite laid-back. We went through a background check before entering the DPRK, none of us brought offensive clothes, no matter what nationality all of us spoke English, 80% of the previous locations were a rushed experience anyway and our guides knew we would behave properly without reminding us – and signing a waiver was not necessary. It felt like just another place to see, to my surprise without any photography limitations. Even usually off-limit motives like military personnel were no problem at all. Heck, our local guide in the rank of daewi, Captain, patiently posed for photos with everybody who was interested in having one.

Visiting the JSA from the northern side started a couple of kilometers northwest, pretty much at a distance where the DMZ technically begins. There everybody had to leave the bus at a military checkpoint for checks unspecified to us. The procedure took about 20 minutes – and to keep people busy there was a decent gift shop and a separate restroom building. When the buses were ready to continue the waiting groups got a little lecture about the history of the DMZ in front of a huge painted map. Meanwhile the buses actually drove about one hundred meters past a checkpoint and everybody had to pass through an opening in a wall next to the road (rows of two, like in school!) before boarding the bus again. (No metal detectors or being padded down involved…)
About 1.5 kilometers down the road was the first of two stops, a neatly gardened area with a building where the armistice was negotiated and the building where it was signed, now housing the North Korea Peace Museum. Located in the former village of Panmunjom, the buildings were specifically constructed to house the negotiations and the signing of the Korean War Armistice Agreement.
The second stop was the actual Joint Security Area, which most people visit from the southern side. First we visited a monument dedicated to Kim Il-sung reading and signing a document about Korea’s reunification on 1994-7-7, the day before his death. The signature plate is 7.7 meters wide, the whole monument 9.4 meters; and of course it is richly ornamented with Kimilsungias, an orchid named after guess who. From there we went to the Panmungak, the building for visitors on the northern side of the JSA, to take some photos and… that was it. There was barely any activity on the southern side and since it was a quiet sunny morning, the whole visit felt quite peaceful and slightly surreal.

People always seem to be so excited about visiting the JSA, especially those who step into North Korea for half a minute in one of the blue conference buildings on the border between North and South Korea, but after having spent six and a half days in the DPRK the experience was rather underwhelming; nothing in comparison to standing in front of *Chernobyl’s Reactor #4* or *having lunch with North Korean locals*. No disrespect to the incredible importance this place has in history, but to me the first stop was much more interesting than the second one…

(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*…)

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