North Korea 2008 – Part 1: Accommodation Alcatraz
There are several distinct elements for foreigners visiting North Korea . Curfews, for instance, are not merely suggestions, but being in the accommodation come the evening and not being allowed back out. Consider the placement of Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo International Hotel, which is on an island in the middle of a river, and deliberately so. This is your home while here, and it that is made plainly clear.
To amuse the captured guests, the Yanggakdo has a bowling alley and a casino – or rather two casinos, as the Chinese businessmen who cross the border play their own games. North Korean won is a purchasable souvenir rather than means of currency for tourists, so games are played in US dollars, and my claim to gambling fame is I have won $5 on a Pyongyang blackjack table. Table tennis and an occasionally open shop selling Korean dress and trinkets make up the rest of the internal entertainment, and outside there is the option to drive golf balls into the river*. In the rooms the television is obviously dreadful, although getting a brief glimpse of the insanely fervent propaganda woman shouting her war cry is amusing, in a way.
Despite being 47 floors tall and evidently built for flocks of guests, there was an emptiness to the Yanggakdo when I stayed. There might have been three groups of tourists in the building, and as each ate together the downstairs restaurant died as soon as the last was done. In the recreation spaces there was no wait for ping-pong, and a need to turn the lights on for bowling. It lacked the atmosphere of a hospitality industry, feeling more like an obligation to the visitors. However, and one must be fair, the hotel delivered comfortable rooms and there weren’t any issues. I have met rooms far worse in Tampa and Inverness.
One aspect of a deflated hotel is the feeling much of it is being kept under tarpaulin. The 5th floor of the Yanggakdo has gained notoriety for being top secret (security centre and propaganda posters, it is rumoured), but our group did not even manage a welcome to the revolving restaurant. It is no great loss, and the diner may well have been open all along, but basically one had better bring a book or really like table tennis and bowling to pass the Yanggakdo pleasure programme.
Accommodation is a little more liberal outside Pyongyang, or at least was in a guest house in Kaesong. Without anywhere to wander, guests can wander at will, providing that neither wandering nor will oversteps limitations. In short, that means a walk in the garden or to the end of the road. Still, we evidently were not considered a flight risk and Mr Kim, our always grand guide, even took a few to a local dining and drinking establishment. I was not present at this jolly, but was told it was not a heavy night.
However, there was drinking to be done on this trip, and that did surprise. Dinner always had a beer option, and there was alcohol on hand for the later hours in the Yanggakdo. This culminated in a final night blow out which left Mr Kim a broken man showing his wards around on the last morn. He had gone to bed at 5, which did not fit with a view of North Korean behaviour at all. Such is the sacrifice one makes to keep the Brits happy.
* The driving of golf balls into the river has long been discontinued.