Archive for the ‘Nampo’ 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…)

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The West Sea Barrage is an eight kilometer long system of dams, three locks (capable of handling 2,000 to 50,000 ton ships) and 36 sluices near Nampo. It was built from 1981 to 1986 to close off the Taedong River from the Yellow Sea – the goal was to prevent seawater from entering the Taedong, causing floods. At the same time the Taedong’s water level was supposed to be raised under controlled conditions to improved ship traffic and to make it easier to irrigate fields along the river. Critics claim that the raised water levels destroyed farmland, contributing to the famine that struck North Korea from 1994 to 1998.
Considered a major technological accomplishment the West Sea Barrage is a standard stop for international tourists as well as foreign dignitaries – nevertheless photography was strictly limited until a couple of years ago, since the dam was considered strategically important (if you watched the Vice documentary, this is one of the many aspects where it is completely outdated). Even the former US president Jimmy Carter visited the West Sea Barrage during his stay in the DPRK in June 1994. (Interestingly enough Carter arrived by boat, not by car – I assume you can guess why…)

After a good night’s sleep at the *Ryonggang Hot Spring House* we drove to the West Sea Barrage, more specifically: P’i Do Island, which was included into the dam’s construction. There you can find a visitor center, which is also home to the P’i Do Lighthouse, the tallest and most powerful lighthouse in North Korea, its focal plane at 86 meters. The tower itself is 33 meters high and shaped like an anchor, so it’s also a nice looking monument.
Visits to the P’i Do Lighthouse usually start with the local guide showing you a video tape about the construction of the West Sea Barrage (which was actually quite interesting, despite the fact that it was what most people would consider “a cheesy propaganda video” – nevertheless I liked it quite a bit!), followed by a Q&A session about the dam. Then you go outside to take some photos and leave when your group guides tell you to… The underwhelming opening to a generally slow day.

(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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Nampo / Nampho is the center of the North Korean shipbuilding industry and has a population of about 370,000, making it the fourth biggest city in the DPRK; other important employers are the Nampo Fishery Complex, the Nampo Smelter Complex and the Nampo Glass Corporation as well as several sea salt producing companies.

My trip to Nampo began, like most trips there, on the Youth Hero Motorway, a 46 kilometer long expressway between Pyongyang and the industrial city on the north bank of the river Taedong. Construction started in November 1998 with the massive support of young Korean volunteer workers; hence the name Youth Hero Motorway. While on the highway Mr. Yu told us that he was one of the volunteers when he was a university student – you could read between the lines that it must have been an excruciating project for everybody involved… Opened in October 2000 the widest motorway in North Korea (5 lanes in each direction!) already is in really bad condition. At least half of it is full of potholes, so we were able to drive faster on most countryside roads. (A video taken on the Youth Hero Highway came with *the first article of this series*.) I didn’t have a look at the watch how long it took us to get from Pyongyang to Nampo, but I guess it was about 2 hours, probably longer…

Nampo itself looked a lot more like how most people imagine North Korea to be – a bleak industrial city full of decay, with a lot less of those colorful apartment blocks and post-futuristic buildings I loved in Pyongyang; the streets being in a lot worse condition, too. We never stopped anywhere within the city limits, but parts of Nampo would be a perfect location to shoot a remake of Michael Radford’s 1984. When we drove past the Nampo soccer stadium I thought that most of the abandoned buildings I visit were in better condition – the FIFA would never approve of that one! (A *look at GoogleMaps* confirmed that the stadium basically is a ruin…)
The sun was setting and it was a beautiful evening, but quite a bit of Nampo looked rundown and rather depressing. Some government buildings and the huge paintings of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il looked nice, but overall it was pretty clear that Pyongyang had priority over Nampo in many ways. I am actually a bit surprised that we drove through Nampo as there is a bypass north of the city center – so they could have avoided showing us stuff like the soccer stadium if they really wanted to… (I took some photos and both videos published with this article the next morning on the way to the West Sea Barrage, just in case you wonder about the different lighting conditions.)

The Ryonggang Hot Spring House (in most itineraries referred to as the “Dragon River Hot Spa Hotel” is not in Nampo city, but 20 kilometers northwest in a small town called Onchon – and like so many rather modern things in Korea it dates back to when the country was under Japanese occupation; which also might explain why you take off your shoes at the entrance and switch between house slippers, apartment slippers and bathroom slippers… The House actually is a resort, consisting of seven small villas with four apartment units each, and a so-called service center with a restaurant, a karaoke room, a pool room, and all the other usual stuff. Each apartment has its own private hot spring tub; the water is said to treat “hyperpiesia, non-tubercular arthritis, neuralgia, neuritis, lumbago, varieties of wound (sic!), sequelae of operations, chronic gynecologic inflammation, functional disorder of nidamental gland, sterility, chronic gastritis, chronic colitis, skin diseases including eczema and prurigo” according to the spa’s brochure. Speaking of the brochure – it was too large to scan as a whole since it was three big pages each side wide. So I scanned the more interesting two connecting pages on each side, leaving out the pages that mainly consist of water analysis data and tourist spots nearby.
Upon arrival Mr. Yu, Mr. Kim and Sarah started to set up the famous petrol clam BBQ *I wrote about in the food article*. By then it was pitch-black and rather cold outside, but the soju and vodka warmed everybody from the inside. Half an hour later the whole group went to the main building to enjoy dinner – a pitch-black dinner at times as Nampo, unlike Pyongyang, suffers from regular blackouts. But the food was good and the company was nice, so it was a really successful evening again…

Oh, one last thing about the Ryonggang Hot Spring House: The tree covered resort is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and the main entrance (facing open fields, not the town’s center) is guarded by an armed soldier – your guess whether he is there to protect guests from locals or locals from guests is as good as mine!

(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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The food during my trip to North Korea is a topic I didn’t want to touch with a 10 foot pole, because as we all know the DPRK is a terribly poor country and it was struck by famine for several years in the 1990s. But I know that a lot of you are very much interested in what visitors to North Korea eat… and where… and when…

Since trips to North Korea are group tours pretty much everything is included in a total price. We always had breakfast at the respective hotels we stayed at – buffet at the *Yanggakdo Hotel*, set menu at the Dragon River Hot Spa Hotel in Nampo and the Minsok Hotel in Kaesong. Lunch usually was at restaurants run by KITC (which means that usually we didn’t eat with locals), dinner was either at the hotels or at restaurants. Lunch and dinner included water and one beer per person, additional alcohol was available at a ridiculously low price – I think 50 cents per bottle.
The Korean guides usually had their own table, not because they got different food, but because it was a chance for them to get away from the group and be amongst themselves. Tour guides work long hours, so they definitely deserved it!

Breakfast at the Yanggakdo Hotel was pretty good – usually some bread / buns, sweet doughy things (like donuts), pickles, kimchi, fried eggs, stewed meat (chicken, pork), battered fried fish, fried potatoes and veggies. Simple, but delicious. (Breakfast at the other two hotels was a lot more simple, which is understandable since they had a lot less customers…)

Lunch was always amazing! Usually we sat on a long table were groups of four people shared about 8 to 10 dishes. Kimchi, fried eggs, stewed meat, broiled / fried fish, sweet and sour tofu – similar to the breakfast, but way better quality. Again: simple, but extremely delicious. Since there are a lot of Koreans living in Japan I had all kinds of kimchi before, hot and cold, and I never was a big fan of it – but the kimchi we had at the KITC restaurant in Pyongyang was amazing, the best kimchi I ever had!
One day we were able to choose one of the main dishes, either bibimbap or naengmyeon. Bibimbap is one of the most famous Korean dishes (mixed rice, including vegetables, meats, eggs and several spices) and since I had it before I went with naengmyeon, cold noodles in a broth Pyongyang is famous for. Living in Japan I am very familiar with soba and udon (two Japanese kinds of noodles than can be eaten hot or cold) and so I was very curious about naengmyeon – and the guides were quite interested in my opinion. To be honest with you, if prefer udon over soba over naengmyeon at any day, but for the sake of understanding among nations I called it a draw – actually making our guide more interested in Japanese food. (I brought some sweets and shared them during the trip with fellow travelers, guides and locals.)
Another lunch highlight was the lamb BBQ in a Pyongyang park. Of course we had our own tables, but local groups were having picnics at identical tables, too, so it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary what we did there. Sunny day, great food, locals – a nice break from “foreigners looking at things”…
The lunch our guides were most proud of was pansanggi we had in Kaesong. Pansanggi consists of about a dozen small brass bowls filled with… well… vegetables, fried fish, pickles, tofu, meat, … It originated among Korean royalty, who realized that variety is the spice of life and rather had small portions of many dishes than big portions of a single dish. And since they had the resources to afford it… The preparation was amazing, for example this was some of the best tofu I ever ate – and of course the presentation added to the experience, too.

Dinner usually was kimchi, fried eggs, stewed meat, pickles, broiled / fried fish, tofu… lots of variations, so hardly any of us got sick of it over the course of the eight days we spent in the DPRK; but it was all Korean food, so people used to not only eating a different dish, but a different cuisine every day might have a tough time in North Korea. One evening we had the opportunity to visit Pyongyang’s only pizza restaurant with authentic Italian equipment and staff trained on location, but I bowed out and had dinner at the Yanggakdo Hotel. When in Rome, do as the Romans do… and eat pizza – but when in Pyongyang I prefer to have Korean food!
In Nampo we had a local specialty before the dinner – the petrol clam BBQ. And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. You arrange dozens of claims on a flat stone, soak them with two 500ml plastic bottles of petrol and light them on fire! Since the Nampo clams don’t open up when cooked that way, most of the gasoline actually burns into thin air. Nevertheless about 1 in 4 clams taste of petrol according to our guide Sarah. (I’ve tried only one since I had a weak stomach that day – more about that later…) But since “better safe than sorry” is valid all over the world our guides treated us with two bottles of soju (sweetened rice liquor) and two bottles of Pyongyang Vodka (beyond 50% alcoholic content…). I was tempted to ask for a bottle of Victory Gin, but I bit my tongue last second. 🙂
By the way – the standard farewell meal on the last night is at a duck restaurant in Pyongyang. When we went there the place was packed (with foreigners…) and the food was amazing! Four plates of meat, two plates of veggies and a grill in the middle. Heaven!

What else is there to say?
Oh, pretty much every meal came with a soup and rice – and the rice was usually one of the last dishes. Why? Because our hosts didn’t want us to give the impression that they would fill us with rice so they wouldn’t have to give us much meat, eggs and vegetables. A sweet gesture, but I don’t think anybody would have complained to get the rice along with the meats and vegetables; but I’ve heard it’s custom in other countries, too, for example at Chinese weddings.
If you want to visit North Korea, but you can’t stand the idea of eating fish, meat and shellfish with every meal there is good news: a vegetarian option is available, but no kosher or halal one.

And that’s it for food in North Korea… for now. (*But don’t miss the article about Korean Dog Soup!*)

(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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