Monday, October 02, 2006
This time last year, I was on holiday in Pyongyang, North Korea. A fascinating experience, if inevitably also a somewhat depressing one in many ways. The all-pervasiveness of state propaganda quickly becomes a bit oppressive (as in Orwell's '1984', they really do have radios in every home, radios that you can turn down but not off). The diminutive stature of the people is an uncomfortable reminder of the decades of starvation the country has suffered. The low level of technical, cultural, and economic development is everywhere apparent; even in the modestly affluent capital, motorised transport is almost unknown, and even bicycles are a rarity - most people walk to work.
Moreover, there were extensive restrictions on our movements: basically, we were expected to stick with our tour group at all times, and not to attempt to photograph or engage in conversation with any Pyongyang citizens we might happen to meet. We were not supposed to leave the hotel at any time unless accompanied by our Korean guides (although trips to the nearby stamp & poster shop, only 50 yds or so down the street, were tolerated).
Evening activities, then, were decidedly limited, once we had returned from our day's excursions and our evening meal. At least our base for these few days, the Koryo Hotel (one of only two hotels in the city equipped to deal with foreign visitors, and much the nicer of them from my observation), was very comfortable - and had two decent bars. I favoured the less-frequented one upstairs, largely because of the presence of pool tables (though I could rarely find anyone to have a game with), and also because of the devastatingly pretty girl who served there in the early evenings. It would seem that North Korean women are, in general, strikingly attractive; and, of course, the ones who get high-profile jobs in the tourist industry are the pick of the crop. I was significantly smitten two or three times during my short visit. Alas, wooing & marrying one of these lovely creatures is simply not allowed. And, as I learned from the barmaid, state propaganda effectively programs their thinking to exclude even contemplating such a possibility: "Why would a Korean girl marry a foreigner? Korean men are much better!" Bravo - quite so, yes. Nothing wrong with a bit of national pride. But surely, once in a blue moon, there might be a foreigner worthy of consideration? Not this foreigner, evidently.
North Korean beer is very passable - mostly German-style lager of the kind that prevails throughout Asia, although they do also produce a more distinctive brew that's more like an English brown ale. North Korean rice spirit - soju - is more than acceptable: one of the best drinks of this kind I've encountered, far more palatable than the Japanese or Chinese equivalents. I even picked up as a souvenir a local adder liqueur ("good for health!"), the snake coiled ghoulishly in the bottle. A year later, I still haven't got around to trying it!
No great drinking adventures to report here. We were on a punishing sightseeing schedule, with pretty early starts each day. And I was - up to a point - trying to treat my body as a temple, in anticipation of running my first full marathon a few weeks later. And there wasn't a reliable, regular Drinking Companion on hand to lead me into excess (although I did have a number of fascinating conversations with members of the hotel staff, with other tourists from a variety of European countries, and with a pair of Russian musicians playing with a visiting military band). Nevertheless, it was certainly one of the most unusual places that I have ever drunk (a police cell in Fiji probably takes the prize there - but that will have to wait till a later post).