By Alek Sigley, founder of Tongil Tours and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
This is a diary entry from the 24th of September, 2018
It was the traditional Korean autumn harvest festival of Chusok (also commonly referred to as Han’gawi/한가위 in the North) today and all we Kim Il Sung University foreign students had a day off from class, so we decided to go out, have lunch and explore the city a bit. This time Erik (a newly arrived foreign student at Kim Il Sung University from Sweden) and I are joined by two of the Chinese students on a one-year long exchange program funded by their government.
We end up spending a pleasant afternoon eating an excellent lunch in one of Pyongyang’s best restaurants and exploring a part of downtown Pyongyang with colourful and unique architecture that is seldom visited by foreigners.
Around noon, we ride the Metro from Samhung Station near the Foreign Student Dormitory to Puhung Station. This trip is basically from one end of the subway system to the other.
We make a bet about how many times we get questioned by subway staff. Foreign students are the only type of foreign resident allowed to ride the Pyongyang Metro. It’s fairly common for them to come up to us and check that we aren’t stray tourists or people from the diplomatic compound who haven’t brought a member of their Korean staff with them. When blonde-haired blue-eyed Erik is with us the likelihood of being questioned is even higher. But everything is smoothed out as soon as we tell them we are foreign students from Kim Il Sung University. I bet that we’ll get questioned twice, and Erik goes for three times. At the end of the day it was only once (including the trip back, which we also took by subway).
Going down the inordinately deep escalator from the subway entrance to the platform, we notice that people give wide berth between themselves and us. But inside the carriage, which was packed this particular day, we ended up very close to the Korean commuters. I always tell Erik that part of the reason I love getting the subway to go places is that we get to be close to the Korean people like this.
A small child repulses from Erik in horror. But on the faces of others I can see friendliness and curiosity.
At the end of the carriage is a transparent window built into the door to the next carriage. Through it I see a little girl on the opposite side dispassionately surveying the scene. Above her face hangs the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il that decorate every carriage.
We get off at Puhung Station, at the end of the line. It’s instantly recognisable to me. I have been here more times than I can count leading tourists. With its high ceiling, splendid mosaics, colourful chandeliers and elaborate pillars, it’s one of the two stops shown to tourists on standard itineraries. It was my first time coming here on my own though.
We’re heading to Yonggwang (“Glory”) Restaurant for lunch, which I’d already had two friends strongly recommend to me. One was Ms Hong, an extremely charismatic young guide with our Korean partner company who most tourists who’ve traveled with Tongil Tours will recognise. The other was a Korean Chinese professor from Yanbian University studying philosophy at Kim Il Sung University. Apparently, this is the place to come for spicy Chinese food. Luckily the restaurant is marked on Google Maps (I can tell you, it’s one of only a handful!). After emerging from the station, I look at my phone to get my bearings.
A long, bare metal frame standing just across from the entrance to Puhung Station catches my eye. I remember it as the place where one of the most prominent anti-US slogan boards in Pyongyang used to be. The slogan read something along the lines of “If the US Imperialists Dare to Attack Us Again We Will Wipe from the Face of the Globe!”. The word “US Imperialists” was written in a scary looking font and painted black (while the rest of the letters were white—all on a red background). This was one of several anti-US slogans and propaganda billboards that had been removed in the aftermath of the Trump-Kim Jong Un Summit.
We end up walking to Yonggwang Restaurant through the center of Pyongchon District. I am quite excited to be able to do this because it’s one of the parts of downtown Pyongyang I hadn’t been able to explore thoroughly yet. There aren’t many tourist attractions in Pyongchon District, and the commonly visited ones such as Puhung Station and Mansudae Art Studio are situated in the district’s edge far away from its center. Tourist bus drivers also seldom take the route through the district. But I did remember coming through once and seeing some really interesting architecture which I wanted to look at more closely this day.
Pyongchon District is one of Pyongyang’s industrial areas. Colourful pastel apartments line the roadside, but further inside the blocks are factories, such as the Unhasu Cosmetics Factory, which we soon walk past. The area is totally unfamiliar to me until I spot the restaurant that Howard’s (my South Korean-Canadian friend at Kim Il Sung University) parents own, the only in the country that does South Korean style fried chicken.
Further down I recognise a restaurant a Chinese student from Kim Il Sung University brought me to last semester. Soon enough we’re close to the restaurant, and I realise that we are not too far from the Changgwangsan Hotel and the distinctive ice skating rink located opposite it—an area I am quite familiar with.
I’m still not quite sure where the restaurant is but after asking at a snack kiosk I find that it’s on the 2nd floor of a hulking grey apartment block just in front of us.
We enter the building and come up to the restaurant through a very elaborated decorated staircase.
The restaurant has a nice interior and pictures of delicious-looking Chinese food on the walls.
The menu itself has Chinese aside the Korean, which I seldom see here, and the dishes look just as they do in China. Each dish is given a chilli pepper rating out of five chilli peppers, to indicate level of spiciness.
We order kung pao chicken (宫保鸡丁), sweet and sour pork (糖醋里脊), spicy tofu ( 麻辣豆腐), and spicy instant noodles (麻辣方便面). I see some other Chinese classics like jingjiangrousi (京酱肉丝), shredded potato (家常土豆丝), and sour fish soup (酸菜鱼), a favourite of my wife— she would have loved this place!
The food came out and it was top notch. They didn’t tone down the spices and it tasted just like what I’d eaten regularly during the almost four years I lived in China.
To celebrate the holiday, we had a few beers. Erik had just arrived at Kim Il Sung University, but I quickly discovered he had a good sense of humour, positive outlook, and genuine interest in the DPRK’s language and culture. We also had some shared experiences to joke about—such as being in a Korean language class surrounded by hardcore K-pop fans as the only person interested in North not South Korea. And being scolded by a South Korean language teacher for using North Korean words in class.
After our meal we purchase Mars (Bar) Ice Creams for 20c apiece from the café on the first floor, and walk out into the pleasant autumn daytime warmth. We walk down the length of Chollima Street appreciating the typically 1970s gargantuan pastel apartment blocks that line the way.
We spend the rest of the afternoon checking out a few other shops in the area before returning home to the Kim Il Sung University Foreign Student Dormitory. All in all, another day well spent in Pyongyang.