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Sunday, August 13, 2017

North Korea, A Victory Day Tour


At 14:10 on a nice afternoon in Beijing, I take a leisurely walk towards the Zhong Gu Hotel where I will be meeting with fellow travelers for my trip to the DPRK. With political tensions rising between the United States and North Korea I have had some concerns but those are easily suppressed as the beginning of my trip is actually happening.

At our pre-trip meeting we learn that our group is actually smaller than originally planned as there has been some last minutes cancellations.


Beijing Railroad StationHowever, there are six of us who will be boarding a 17:35 train for Dandong, China the border crossing city for North Korea.

It is a about a 14 hour journey that after great conversations with new friends and maybe too many warm beers, passes too quickly.



It's just pass 07:00 when we arrive in Dandong after enjoying an afternoon, a night and watching the sunrise across a Chinese landscape. Did you know that there is only one time zone in all of China?



P7250009Dandong Train Station


Outside of Dandong Train Station we hurdle in a group like lost children as we are not met by our tour guide as expected. However, we soon take comfort as others with similar concerns and backpacks start to approach us. Soon enough our guide, Rowan from YPT (Young Pioneers Tour) shows up and gives us our border crossing plan and more importantly our DPRK Tourist Visa.



IMG_20170726_075302Unfortunately, we will not get to keep them and begin snapping away.






With hundreds of Chinese nationals crossing the border today by train Rowan has come up with a new plan for us. It involves a little walking but we will cross the border by bus and at a check point that is not normally available to Western tourists.

Crossing the Yalu River we get good views of the Dandong skyline and what a contrast compared to our initial destination just a mile or so away.



P7250016Almost within touching distance is “The Broken Bridge” a bridge bombed by the United States during the Korean War.





Although China has restored their side of it we are told the North Koreans refuse to do the same as they want to keep the destruction as a memento of the war.

After some stop and go from other commercial only traffic on the bridge we begin our so far unofficial entry into North Korea and we are told we cannot take pictures of broader area. However, on our left side are also abandoned buildings which were planned mainly Chinese day visitors but has not lived up to their potential. This area was intended to have Yalu River boat crossing access which apparently the North Koreans did not become to fond of the idea.

On our right side a faded 1950's “Ferris Wheel” and another amusement park ride stands lifeless. In the background kids are having fun at a water park where green seems to be the color of the day for the pool water. In a few minutes we are gathering our belongings and exiting the bus for our official entry into The Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

A bit to my surprise we are greeted by smiling officials while we lined up and pass through an airport type security screening. Our books (no religious material, pornography or tour books allowed) and all of our electronics are screened separately while our passports and visas are reviewed. We patiently wait back on our bus about 30 minutes for this process to be completed. A final part of this process happens when we are required to give more detail information about our cellphones including brand name and color.

Overall, the process is much simpler and easier than I expected and soon enough we are heading on a train for Pyongyang.

This time it is about a 5 hour journey but all in daylight. Our route is mainly along lush green farmland with occasional villages scattered in the distance. Every now and then we pass close enough to one of them to get a glimpse of North Korean life at 60 miles per hour.


P7260021A Korean style lunch is served along the way but minus warm beers.







The scenery does not change much until the outline of Pyongyang comes into sight with one of it's more prominent if not infamous landmarks comes into view. The 105-story, almost 1000 feet tall unfinished pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel is a cool futuristic skyscraper to behold.



Ryugyong Hotel


The Pyongyang Train Station soon welcomes us and our almost epic train journey is about to end. Our final destination is just minutes away and another dream of mine is about to be fulfilled.

Leaving the train station we board a comfortable bus and our tour of Pyongyang begins under the relax guidance of Rowan along with two local guides, “Back” and “Mrs. Kim”.


P7260037A short bus ride and we are dropped off to begin a walk to the famous Kim ll-sung Square and Juche Tower.






It is a surreal experience to be standing where at certain times thousands of North Koreans and their leaders showcase their “Military Might” to the rest of the world. However, today is just a normal day in the city and I get to take it all in for what it is worth. The area is not busy with the sidewalks and streets being impressively clean.



Juche TowerJuche Tower


At a park nearby serious games of volleyball are going on as local music fills the air. Our next stop is at a bookstore that offers a lot of material on North Korea and more importantly lots of reading material about it's Supreme Leader in many languages. Watching a traffic officer outside of the bookstore turns out to be very entertaining and interesting. She is very serious and animated in doing her job almost to the point of being militant about it.

Next we take a drive across town for dinner and see some impressive new apartment buildings that were built just for members of the scientific community. Along the way Mrs. Kim entertains us with some “Tour Bus Karaoke”. Our dinner which is included in the price of our YPT package is at a restaurant owned by the North Korean bus tour company. The service and food which included a lot of variety and a local beer was very good. While eating we did experience a minor power outage which lasted only about 2-3 minutes.


Youth HotelWhat seemed like a long day ends at the Youth Hotel which we are not allowed to leave.






Although it would have been nice to be able to freely walk around I came here knowing that there would be such travel restrictions. However, the hotel does have a couple of bars, a game room and a pool to pass the time. By Western standards the hotel is maybe a “3 Star” at best but the accommodation is adequate and the staff was pleasant.

Around 5am I wake up to the “Sound of Music” but it is not Julie Andrews instead it is a large group of soldiers marching twenty nine stories below me. An interesting site along a major highway that has been practically empty ever since I checked in except for a local bus or tram.

Breakfast then we are off for our “Victory Day” of sightseeing. Unfortunately, the weather forecast calls for rain during most of the day. Our first stop is at the Mansudae Grand Monument where North Koreans come to pay respect to their leaders.



The Supreme Leaders

The Supreme Leaders


Here there is a certain protocol to be followed if you want to experience this sight. We are given the option to remain on the bus if we would not be comfortable with the required protocol. I give up the equivalent of a few euros to purchase some flowers then with others we proceed to the “Ten Thousand Times” bigger than life statues of the father and son leaders of North Korea. With others I place my flowers and then we all step back in a line and take the required bow with utterances under our breath. A few “proper” pictures and I have experienced the Mansudae Grand Monument like a North Korean.



IMG_20170727_093831Next it is the Pyongyang Metro which lies about 300 feet underground and is one of the deepest metro in the world.

What is also interesting about this metro is that many of the stations have murals that tell the history of the nation.



At the Arch of Triumph we learn a little more about North Korea and as the forecast rain begins to fall we get a bird's-eye view of Pyongyang with dark clouds hanging over it. However, the gray skies still provide a nice contrast to the colorful buildings around the city.



Arch Of Triumph



From the Arch of Triumph we head over to the new and impressive War Museum which houses United States sovereign property the still commissioned USS Pueblo.


USS PuebloDid you know the Korean War is the only war in US history that ended with a cease-fire agreement?

It happened on July 27th, 1953 which the North Korean maybe rightly so celebrate as “Victory Day”.






War MuseumThe War Museum


It soon lunch time but when we arrive at the restaurant to eat I am more interested in ping-pong than I am food. Fortunately, I get to experience both but I do much better handling my food than my gracious ping-pong opponent.



P7270072I think I did manage to score one point or maybe she just let me.







Our afternoon touring starts off with an enjoyable performance at the circus for about 20 Euros. Very cool acts to a full house that have us all amazed and entertained.



The Children Of Pyongyang


However, for me the highlight of the show comes afterwards with the smiles and waves from a young group of North Koreans who interact with us.

A stop at a local department store and we get a chance to exchange our money for local currency which we are prohibited from taking out of the country. A browse around the multi-story store and I get to see the products and goods available to most locals. Not surprisingly the selections are limited to what I am use to and most products seem to be of questionable quality.

I was disappointed in the fruits available and the expensive prices for them which I am told are imported from China. One of our group members tried to make a book purchased and was denied. We are later told this is because of the short supply and the books are needed for locals not tourists.

The weather forecast is being true to itself and it ends up literally “raining on our parade”. One of the highlights of this tour was to witness the large gathering of college students dancing in public areas to celebrate Victory Day.

Unfortunately, they are dispersing as we arrive at one site. The event has been canceled because of rain along with this evenings fireworks.


P7270082At a local bar we drown our sorrows with 1-7 full size samplings of North Korean beer along with an odd bar snack, whole dry salted fish that was tough as nails.

Feeling good it's time for more Tour Bus Karaoke this time with more than just Mrs. Kim participating.





P7270084A Bar Snack








A different dinner experience then I give up about 35 Euros for the ultimate North Korean souvenirs a pair of Pyongyang T-Shirts. I have never spent that much for two t-shirts but then again I doubt I will have the opportunity to get any souvenirs from North Korea at least not in the near future.

Another breakfast and just like that my 3 Days and 2 Nights Ultra Budget Tour of North Korea is coming to an end. We are accompanied to the train station by “Back” and “Mrs. Kim” where I am given two samples of North Korean sausages by Mrs. Kim as a kind gesture. As we leave Pyongyang Train Station I have a feeling of sadness but a slim hope that maybe someday I would be able to see “Back” and “Mrs. Kim” again.

Five hours or so later we are stopped at the border and the process of crossing back into China begins. Our passports are collected along with DPRK Tourist Visas that are taken back. Some pleasant officials board the train and randomly take a look at our pictures and do selective security wands. About an hour and a half later our train is cleared to proceed on.



P7260039


As we cross the Yalu River into Dandong I realize that going in and out of North Korea was not as bad as one might be led to believe.


P7260052This turned out to be an enjoyable trip and I hope that more people will have the opportunity to visit North Korea.

Thanks, Rowan and YPT!

Pyongyang North Korea

China, Tin Hau Temple Hong Kong

 

A stroll along the waterfront from Stanley Market and somewhat tucked away in the corner of an open square you will find a small but intriguing Tin Hau Temple.

 

062Built by the seafaring people of Stanley Bay in 1767, the temple is a monument to Tien Hou, Queen of Heaven who performed many miracles to save the fishing communities from disasters.



Today, she is considered the patron deity of the boat people of Hong Kong.





066



So if you are overwhelmed by the shopping at Stanley Market or think you have had a spiritual enlightenment from too huge a dose of wasabi then stroll over to Tin Hau.


096 (2)The smell of fresh burning incense. The warmth of flickering ceremonial candles along with the sight of beautiful offerings. And maybe your mind will be soothed in a way no amount of shopping can.

Priceless.





China, To Stanley Market Hong Kong

 

 

111The gin is flowing freely as I begin my tour of Hong Kong headed for Stanley Market.

I hope someone has bought the juice as I am staring at a huge upside down bottle of Beefeater represented by one of the original British buildings that still grace the Hong Kong skyline.



The next eye catching building is the Bank of China which for some gives off an oppressive and negative impression because of its architectural design. Either way, the skyline here is fascinating to witness up close and personal.

 

 

079St John’s Cathedral

 

Passing through the Central District, I get a glimpse of the beautiful St John's Cathedral an Anglican church built in the shape of a cross. St John's is located just down the hill from the Peak Tram station, a planned stop later on my tour.

Driving down one of the main highways, a street sign is flashing a warning about a cyclone that I hope remains only that, a warning. Despite the high cost of real estate on Hong Kong Island, I am surprised to learn that a huge amount of it is dedicated to the sport of horse racing, a local favorite.

 

087We pass the huge Hong Kong Jockey Club as we leave the Central district behind headed for the Aberdeen Tunnel one the islands most busiest road that links the North and South of Hong Kong.

 

 

Hillside Cemetery

 

If you want to visit one of Hong Kong's most popular local attractions then spend a day at Ocean Park which annually draws over 5 million visitors. Located near the Hong Kong police training academy, the park is located on prime real estate which gives nice views of the island.

 

 

104

 

 

From my vantage point, I am soon looking at the South China Sea and a beautiful view of South Hong Kong's gorgeous coast line. Here you can take a swim at a few beaches including Repulse Bay one of the more popular and spectacular beaches in the area.

 

236Just east of Repulse Bay, I arrive at Stanley a coastal community named after Lord Stanley, the former British War Secretary and 14th Earl Of Derby.

Stanley is in an area formerly occupied by Chinese pirates but today it is home of the famous Stanley Market and Tin Hau Temple.





094 (2)Tin Hau Temple


For me, Stanley Market turns out to be a bit of a disappointment as I am not into shopping and I never manage to find a guy named Stanley. However, the town is pleasant to walk around and the scenery is quite enjoyable.

 

 

243At a local grocery store I grab a delicious tuna fish roll and sushi for lunch then make an interesting discovery.

One should not be fooled by the small commercial packaging of the wasabi sauce that comes with the sushi.



I put what I consider a not too generous amount of it on my crab roll and almost created a second set of nostrils as I took my first bite of it. Gulping a huge volume of air, I am fortunate that a fire truck is passing by and sprays me down with a cold beer.

 

067My fond memory of Stanley Market will not be the shopping or the scenery but the wasabi!

 

 

 

 


China, To Hong Kong Island

 

A light rain is falling as I head down a busy Nathan Road to find the No.2 bus that will take me to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre located near the Star Ferry terminal.

 

2012-06-20 00 01 00Surprisingly the bus fare is relatively cheap, only HK$4.5 (about US$ 0.50) and comes with a nice double decker view if you so choose.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2012-06-20 00 01 50Hong Kong Island

 

I am a bit worried about my sightseeing options for the day as “Typhoon 1 Warnings” are posted around the city and I am beginning to feel like it is raining all over the world. From the HK Cultural Centre, I look across Victor Harbor at the skyscraper shoreline of Hong Kong Island. Even with the morning clouds casting a dull gray and moist shadow over the city there is still something spectacular about the view.

 

2012-06-20 00 02 06Life in the city and along the harbor goes on as the thump of a helicopter blade beats the humid air and various types of boats cross the harbor in all directions, leaving huge rolling waves behind.

I soak it all in as I continue my walk toward the Star Ferry terminal.





2012-06-20 00 01 58Clock Tower



Just outside the Star Ferry terminal is a Clock Tower, a monument to the 1900's Kowloon Canton railroad. Continuing to the ferry ticket window, I am approached by a young man that makes me an offer that is almost too good to refuse. We make a deal and I am headed to the Upper (First Class) section of Star Ferry.

 

 

2012-06-20 00 02 22For HK$300, I am going to see all of Hong Kong that I can within 24hrs. First, I am going to meet a guy named Stanley.

 

 

 

 


Swaziland, Just For Lunch

 

I wake up in South Africa but in a few minutes I am looking at towering mountains touching the heavens in “The Kingdom Of Swaziland”. As a country inside of another country it is easy to dismiss a visit to Swaziland and as I would discover that would be a mistake.

 

IMG_5752Climbing a steep mountain road that takes me through a beautiful countryside pass fields and fields of logging timber, I am headed to the Josefsdal border crossing.







IMG_5757


Reaching the border post, the scenery almost seems unreal. I feel like I am in a 1950's movie. Yes, there is a fence and official buildings but there is something cute and antique about this border crossing.

“Do you mind giving a policeman a ride into town”, I am asked as I approach the smiling Immigration, Customs, Tourist Board, Swaziland Ambassador, Officer.

Of course, I don't mind and she places a call to see if he is still down the road waiting for a ride. Unfortunately for me, he has already been picked up. What a shame.

 

IMG_5759Leaving the smiles at the border, from miles away, my nose determines my first stop in The Kingdom. Nothing is more appealing in the morning than the smell of fresh baked goods permeating the air.




I come to an almost abrupt stop at a non descriptive white building just at the beginning of a small town. A smiling owner welcomes me to Swaziland and tells me about his famous fresh baked brown bread.


IMG_5762I believe every word he says as I watch a smiling regular customer pick up a loaf or two. If his brown bread is that good then his other baked products cannot be to far behind.

A purchase and I am not disappointed just sad as I leave that sweet scent behind.






IMG_5767

 

 

Navigating along a gravel mountain road with no rail guards and potholes that could swallow a small car like mine, I now know why officially I should not be driving a rental car here. However, I have watched enough episodes of “The Dukes Of Hazards” that I feel confident that I will survive the next eighteen miles even as I share the narrow road with cows, sheep and an occasional logging truck.

I am happy when my Dunlops begin to roll over black top and a Colonel's smiling face is a welcomed sign even thousands of miles away from Kentucky. Before long, I am on a hill at a souvenir stop watching a local craftsman demonstrate ancient rock carving using what seems like a one sided miniature pick ax.

Green towering mountains, a huge lake which I will cross in a few minutes are just some of the landscape I can see from here, all a part of what makes Swaziland a beautiful country.

 

IMG_5770Just as I cross to the other side of the lake my eyes are drawn to a pair of small dancing trees along the highway. I am going too fast to make a sudden stop so I pull a u turn to investigate.

Stopping, I am greeted by the solo thumping of a drum that is helping to keep these little dancing trees in rhythm.

 

 

Even though it costs me a few rands, I am glad I stopped especially when I get one of the trees to smile back at me.

A few more kilometers and I am nearing my destination as I travel down a dusty road. It is now early afternoon and apparently school has just let out. I pick up a hitchhiker walking the same way I am headed and although our conversation is sparse, I am good at following pointing fingers.

 

IMG_5775I come to a stop at the edge of the road with a slopping valley below me.

I watch as my hitchhiker disappears with box of cookies my waistline does not need.




 

 

IMG_5786Swaziland Pot Stew

 

 

IMG_5784Less than five minutes later and I am at Hawane Village, a local restaurant and hotel.

A pot stew, a cold beer or two and I have not only seen The Kingdom Of Swaziland, I have just had a great taste of it and it has been more than just lunch.





Thailand, I Ate A Bug

 

This is my second visit to Thailand and even though I am a bit older, I am not sure I am any wiser. What I do know is that I am a little more adventurous (crazy, insane, nuts) and return here to fulfill a challenge I did not have the courage to complete four years ago.

 

004For some, it is no big deal and most would just hop right up and do it.

For me, I still need the courage of a liquid Tiger to face dozens of big black eyes on small stiff bodies steering back at me.



To conquer, or as some would say “swallow up”, just one of them would be a small victory for me.

Along a busy street, I try to solicit a like minded warrior but to no avail. Instead, in exchange for 10 Baht, I am handed a pair of legs and told “me no eat”. However, I am gladly given instructions. “Just bite and pull”.

Soon, I am left with just a pair of tiny legs between my fingers. I might as well finish off the job. I can't believe I just ate a grasshopper. Wax on, beer down, wax off.

Deep fried and crunchy, not too bad. Maybe you should try one!