By Alek Sigley, Tongil Tours founder and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
This is part of a diary entry from Saturday the 21st of April, 2018, and a continuation from the last part on walking down Tongil Street
After our very satisfying lunch at the duck speciality restaurant, we returned to Tongil Market (통일거리시장). I had heard a bit about Tongil Market, being the largest in Pyongyang, but had not yet been able to enter since it wasn’t open to tour groups. So this would be my first time going inside and I was excited. It was already 2pm now, the stalls had finished setting up, and the doors were now open for buyers. Photos of the inside are strictly prohibited, so all I can share with you here is an image of the entrance, although there are some stock images of the inside elsewhere online.
The inside is divided into several aisles. In the stalls behind the counters were innumerable middle-aged women—the salespeople, dressed in identical brightly coloured shirts. In the left aisles toward the left they wore pink shirts, in the middle they wore green and on the right, blue. I’m not sure of the significance of this colour coding but will ask next time I’m there. At the time we arrived there seemed to be many more staff than shoppers, but perhaps we had arrived a little early. According to the sign at the front entrance the doors open at 2pm, close at 6pm, and Monday is a day of rest. Most of the shoppers we saw were Korean women. We saw some other foreigners there too, some Chinese and others who looked middle-eastern.
We walked through all the aisles starting from the left, the section for household goods. Victor, my travelling companion and French student at Kim Il Sung University, needed to buy a power board so we picked one up there. Most of the items in this section appeared to be Chinese. Then we moved onto clothing, which also seemed to be mostly Chinese. Some local-style clothing could be seen however, such as Mao suits and factory worker-style clothing. Then when we entered daily goods (일용잡화) we started to see more Japanese goods. In the section with packaged food and drink we saw even more Japanese products, such as Calpis. There were also some other products from Europe, Southeast Asia and other regions in this section.
Next was fresh fruit and vegetable, and then lastly, the furthest aisle on the right was for meats. In the fruit and vegetable section I was surprised to see mangos, which I had never seen before in the DPRK. They were imported from China, and sold for 40,000 won a kilo ($5 USD a kilo). I bought one kilo which ended up at four mangoes. The saleswoman also threw in a free, domestically produced Korean plum (추리 in the DPRK but 자두 in the South) for me.
In the fruit and vegetable section I saw something that looked like natto (띄운 콩—“fermented bean” it said on the label), Japanese fermented soybean. This is one of my wife’s favourite snacks and when I saw it I made a note to come back and get some for her closer to the next date we would see each other. I also saw pollack egg (tarako) in the long, thin, pink membrane they come in resembling lips. My wife also loves these and I’ll have to get some of these too for her, I noted.
There was a section with all kinds of kimchi too. The stuff around here, even the processed goods such as the natto and the kimchi wasn’t packaged or branded. These goods come straight from the farmers who are allowed to sell some of their surplus on the market (and recently as a part of an economic reform package, this amount has increased).
One of the ajumonis (“aunty”, a term of affection for middle-aged women) tried to sell Victor a huge, 70 cm long carp, and we joked about the various uses that he could have made of that carp—from pillow, to club-like weapon, to wedding gift– had he’d bought it for quite some time afterwards.
In household goods and clothing the saleswomen didn’t pay much attention to us. But as we started entering the food aisles, and even somewhat in everyday items, the ajumonis became more enthusiastic in pointing to their wares and calling out to us saying “please buy” (“사십시오”), “cheap and delicious strawberries!” (“눅고 맛있는 딸기!”) and things like that.
After a good look around we left. All the walking had made me thirsty so I bought a cup of soy milk at a stall at the entrance. It was thick, cool, refreshing, and a little sweet. It tasted almost exactly like the stuff I liked, the kind of soy milk that you’d get from Oriental grocery stores in Australia. There was no better way to conclude my first visit to Tongil Market and recharge my batteries for our next adventure than this delicious, chilled, plastic cup full of soy milk.
Next, we go to the Potong River to check out the weeping willow-lined promenade there (보통강 유보도). Read about it in the next part of this blog!