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
In the morning I saw Victor, a French student here at Kim Il Sung University who was studying Korean language for a semester. We decided to go and explore an area of Pyongyang that we hadn’t been before. After some discussion we decided on first going to Tongil Street. While there we would walk down the street and soak in its architecture—it was lined with huge, monumental apartment blocks that had been built down the street in the late 80s as a part of a massive urban development project. Then we could check out the Tongil Market, the largest market in Pyongyang and the entire DPRK.
We got a taxi from the front of the dormitory. The driver started taking us there but asked us: “Where is your interpreter?”. We explained that we were foreign students at Kim Il Sung University and thus didn’t have nor require interpreters. We were allowed to move around Pyongyang by ourselves without any need for accompaniment, I explained to him in Korean. After a phone call to his company, he said: “Alright, no problem. I just had to check”.
The ride took quite a while, maybe twenty minutes, and took us to what is basically the other end of Pyongyang. It cost us about $7 USD (fuel is expensive due to international sanctions), which we paid in Korean won at the market exchange rate of about 8,000 won per $1 USD. After we’re issued our students cards we’ll be able to get the subway there, which costs only a token amount, but that is still a few weeks away. Passing the Taedong River we saw quite a few buildings under construction, including a whole new set of apartment blocks not far from Kim Il Sung Square. Together with Changchon Street, Mirae Scientists’ Street and some of the other urban redevelopment projects, these structures were already beginning to give central Pyongyang quite a distinctive and impressive skyline—not bad for a country under the heaviest sanctions in UN history.
At about 11am we got out of our taxi in front of Tongil Market and found it was opening at 2pm. We were both peckish so decided to find lunch somewhere on Tongil Street while making a walk of it. I knew the bulgogi place in the stamp exhibition hall just in front of Tongil Market, and the “sweet meat” (dog meat) restaurant a few doors down, both of which I had visited while leading tours, but thought it might be interesting to try a place I hadn’t been to before. So we walked down Tongil Street in the direction of central Pyongyang. It was a beautiful, balmy spring day. The sky was almost completely clear barring a few, small, wispy clouds and bright bright blue. It was the warmest day of spring yet. I had visited Tongil Street many times on tours but had never been afforded the chance to take a leisurely stroll down its length, so greatly enjoyed doing so on such a lovely spring day.
It was a Saturday afternoon and lots of people, young and old, were out on the street. The street has its own tram line with retro-looking but well-maintained trams, and every few minutes or so one would come zipping down past us. We passed a few parks that were full of children who were playing while their parents relaxed nearby. Some of these children, especially excited to see a white person walking down the street, looked at us with curious and delighted smiles. We waved at them and they became even more excited.
I saw a sign that said “bulgogi restaurant”, and thought that although they’d most likely turn us away (only certain restaurants can serve foreigners, and those restaurants become few and far between the further you leave the centre of Pyongyang), it wouldn’t hurt to at least ask. Unfortunately, it turns out that they couldn’t serve foreigners. They apologised and we left joking amongst ourselves that we would leave them a bad review on TripAdvisor. We continued walking further down the street. By now our stomachs were grumbling. Then, I had a gut feeling that the other restaurant I had been to with tours on Tongil Street, the duck speciality restaurant, was just a bit further down the road. So we walked a little bit further down past the bridge that forms the junction between Tongil Street and Ch’ungsong Bridge (충성의 다리), and crossed. And lo and behold it was there!
We entered and asked if they could serve us. They said they could on the 1st floor. I noticed that on the ground floor in what would be the section for locals, there were really quite a few diners. We went up the stairs to the room where I had eaten multiple times with tour groups in the past. But since no tour groups were visiting at that time, it was completely deserted.
The manager was very friendly and I chatted with her, explaining that I’d visited previously as a tourist, and trying to describe to her a dish which I’d had on a previous visit which I’d like to order again. We looked through the menu which was a first since on previous visits with tour groups my Korean partners had ordered everything in advance. The manager recommended a few things and we got the duck barbeque, the dish I tried to describe (but failed—something else came out instead, afterwards I talked with the manager further and realised that it should have been the glutinous rice coated steamed duck meat balls –찹쌀오리고기완자찜), and duck yukgaechang soup.
They also brought us some of their own corn makkolli (강냉이 막걸리), which had a fantastic smooth flavour and texture, and a nice, pale yellow colour, served in wine glasses. I had never heard of corn makkolli before despite having lived in South Korea for a few years, and found this makkolli to taste – like other North Korean makkollis I’d had in the past– pretty different to the South Korean stuff but very good in its own unique way. After this delicious and filling meal we paid (the meal cost about $10 USD for the both of us including drinks), said goodbye to the manager and went back to the Tongil Market.
See the next part on our visit to Tongil Market.