By Alek Sigley, founder of Tongil Tours and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
This is a diary entry from Saturday the 19th of May, 2018.
Today’s weather was beautiful. The temperature, warm, and the sky, perfectly blue and clear, and a deep, dark blue at the edges. Sometimes there’s a bit of white haze, presumably due to the coal plant, but today I couldn’t see any at all. The little white balls of fluff from the poplar trees were floating about everywhere, lending a magical atmosphere to outside. It was a perfect spring day.
Victor (a Kim Il Sung University foreign student from France) and I decided to go for a walk in Moranbong Park, a huge park and forested area along the Taedong River in the centre of Pyongyang (Pyongyang’s Central Park perhaps?). We left at about 10:30am. We walked there from the dormitory, past the West gate of Kim Il Sung University and into the park through a secret back entrance near the Chongryu Tunnel I had found out about from some of the other foreign students.
Once inside the park, we had a look at a pavilion called Ondallu (온달루), and enjoyed the view from inside.
There were a fair few people around today. People were playing badminton without a net right in the middle of the footpath, others were playing volleyball and chess, and down near Kim Il Sung Stadium there were some tennis games taking place (they have tennis courts down there). There were young couples on dates, and groups of friends enjoying the scenery, grandparents and parents with toddlers, and old folk picnicking.
We then climbed up to choisungdae (최승대), which I was told has the best view. Once up there, we could see the May the 1st Stadium, the Taedong River, East Pyongyang, and Ryomyong Street. Or bits of them at least, since much of the view was obscured by foliage.
At Hyonmu Gate (현무문) we talked to an old lady who was taking her two young grandchildren out for a walk. She explained that the gate was from the Koguryo period. She asked us where we were from and what we were doing in Pyongyang. After Victor told her he was from France, she said a few French words that she knew, including camarade, French for “comrade”. Upon saying farewell, she told us to “study hard and become brilliant people” (공부를 잘 하시고 훌륭항 사람이 되십시오).
I had been to Moranbong Park a few times before as a tourist, but it was nice to be able to come back as a student and spend a good couple of hours here, rather than being rushed through, and go in whichever direction we pleased. Walking further, we saw squirrels leaping about, and caterpillars dangling from long threads down from tree branches. Finally, we reached Kim Il Sung Stadium at the other end of the park, and decided to go over to the nearby Puksae (북새) neighborhood for lunch.
We crossed the road at the Arch of Triumph and tried the “Chicken Speciality Restaurant” (닭고기전문식당) which a Chinese friend had recommended. Upon entering, the staff told us that their speciality was fried chicken, and made a comparison to McDonald’s and KFC. We ordered one chicken dish with spicy sauce and Korean glutinous rice cake (떡; tteok), a serving of original fried chicken wings, which came out with mustard and sweet chill sauce, and a Japanese-style dish consisting of rice and meat on a teppan hot plate (철판구이). The original chicken wings I found a little too bland and oily, but the other two dishes were quite good, and I found the chicken in spicy sauce to some of the chicken I’d had in South Korea.
Playing on a TV in the background was a Mokran (a local video company) DVD of a Russian ice skating competition. We watched an act where skaters dressed as the Nintendo character Mario and performed with the Mario theme song as their backing track. After this DVD had finished, they put on an epic, gory Indian fantasy movie called Baahubali. I had seen it playing in a lot of places recently (I mentioned it in this previous blog post). I asked the staff about it and they told me it was all the rage in Pyongyang recently, and recommended that I watch it. Towards the end the power went out and we had to finish our meals in partial darkness.
After lunch we stopped in the Puksae Store, which carries high end imported brands. Browsing, I saw that they had a Zara spring bomber jacket for $450 USD, I imagine this would be multiple times the original price. I saw Gatsby hair gel too and was reminded of how it became a bit of a fad when I was in high school. I needed some shaving cream but a can of Gillette was $13. After some browsing, we left without buying anything (too expensive!).
After getting a taxi back to the dormitory, Xai, one of the two Laotian students in the dormitory, invited us to join a soccer match. We were joined by a Chosonjok (ethnic Korean Chinese) professor visiting Kim Il Sung University from Yanbian University, another Chosonjok young man who had just finished his master’s, and Victor. Bodh, who studies at Kim Il Sung University but lives in the Cambodian embassy, drove his van down to the dormitory and picked us up. We drove across the city to Tongil Street on the southern edge of Pyongyang.
It was an interesting drive through East Pyongyang, past the Party Founding Monument and Songyo District, a more working class part of the city. On the way I saw a few things which caught my eye. A new bicycle storage facility (자전거보관소), the office building of the Literature and Art Publishing House (문학예술출판사), which publishes the novels I study in class, Han Tok Su University of Light Industry (한덕수평양경공업종합대학), named after the founder of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), factories, shops, bars and restaurants bustling with people, as well as an interesting mix of architecture from a lone building in 1950s Stalinist neoclassical style, to colourful apartment blocks with various design influences, and traditional style, single storey tiled-roof houses.
Where Songyo meets Tongil street at its eastern end, I saw several new apartment blocks being built. A new suburb on the edge of Pyongyang. Tongil Street itself was full of pedestrians. We ended up at the Tongil Street Exercise Centre on the western end of the street (통일거리운동쎈터).
On the soccer pitch was an electronic scoreboard. We were even assigned a referee. The pitch was covered in astroturf, and down on the end some Koreans were playing volleyball. We Kim Il Sung University students joined some of the Egyptian embassy people (and their children) and formed one team, putting on red vests distributed from the centre to differentiate ourselves. The other team consisted of Mongolian and Russian embassy people. We also had a Korean man from the centre on our team. We scored the first goal in about 30 seconds. But after that we got thrashed and the other team scored about 10 goals. The game ended up 2-11 or something ridiculous like that.
Koreans walking down an overpass that goes by the pitch stopped to watch our game. Some middle school boys started screaming “hello!”, “good evening”, and “what is your name?” at us repeatedly. A bunch of soldiers on their way to (or back from) construction work stopped too and spectated for a good ten minutes or so– not that there was anything particularly interesting to see, other than a bunch of foreigners playing soccer very badly.
It was nice getting to know some of the other resident foreigners outside of the dormitory. When lunging for the ball I hit a Russian man’s hand quite hard. After apologising profusely we chatted a bit. I also talked with a very nice Mongolian man who did his undergraduate degree at Kim Il Sung University and now works in the Mongolian embassy. He suggested getting a drink some time. They play soccer here every Saturday, he told me.
On the way back to the dormitory the buses and trams were crammed with kids coming back from training for the mass games in September. They were dressed in white shirts, pants and caps. Arriving back home, we went to the coffee shop on first floor and had some drinks with some of the other dormitory residents who I’d just played soccer with. Some of the Chinese one year short term exchange students (실습생) and Korean students came down too, and we drank beer and made merry, talking with comrade Jong Hwa who works behind the counter until closing time.
After that we went to Victor’s room and together with Jin Jin (金槿), one of the Chinese 1st year undergraduate students I had become friends with, drank some of the brandy I had received as a wedding gift. We listened to some old school metal on Victor’s speakers– Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Slayer, before watching some season 19 and 20 of South Park that Victor brought with him, before calling it a night.
And that is I guess what you could say is a typical Saturday for us.