An empty tarmac, save for a decades-old Tupolev jet in one corner, greeted us as we stepped off the plane. A no-frills, aged but very clean terminal was our first point of interest. By the moment my eyes made contact with the portrait of Señor Kim (the Il-Sung ilk), trigger-fingers were already a blazing, picking off the newly arrived tourists one by one. Thus ended my time in the hermit kingdom.
Actually, the triggers belonged to the cameras that everyone brought with them, and the fingers were the noun that follow the hyphen. We walked right through the doors to immigration, and that was where the three Americans (myself included) heard a bit of unexpected news: everyone else in the group was allowed to exit the country by train (to Beijing), but oh no, not us. We had to fly out, to Shenyang. 모르겠어요 (I don’t know.) Maybe the authorities didn’t want us to see the ferris wheel up by the Chinese border (link courtesy of Luke Petschauer). Which we could see from Dandong, the city on the Chinese side. A train would’ve been swell, but the aviation enthusiast in me wasn’t too disappointed.
Immigration went without a hitch (顺利 shun4li4), though that was the point when everyone had to hurl their mobile phones into a bag. They asked about other electronics at baggage claim, and seeing as I also had my laptop and iAlreadyLostIt, nothing …happened. No draconian searches, no gloves, no throwing out the post-security purchased tea (kudos to you, Hong Kong Airport troglodytes). On a lighter note, that would be a good souvenir, a DPRK simcard.
I will discuss day-to-day sightseeing in the next entries, though today, I’d like to focus on the hotel where the group stayed. The Sosan Hotel (서산 호텔-by the by, the Korean alphabet is called 조선글 choseongul in the DPRK and by its northern border, but hangul, 한글 elsewhere) became our abode for the next few days, which we shared with a Chinese sports squad visiting for a competition. The temperature in the lobby felt cooler than that outside (granted, it was wintertime), one because a large part of it was marble, and two, electricity and heat were nationally mercurial. When the sun set (no, I’m not going to start to talk about any great leader’s birth now…) darkness blanketed the cityscape. The hotel wasn’t exactly downtown but it was in the sports stadia neighborhood, though you’d have no idea since people, cars, and lights don’t roll well with those Kims.
The hotel had quite a comprehensive list of leisure activities – a bookstore, a karaoke room, bars, driving range, ping-pong tables, abandoned floors, stairwells to nowhere – nothing I ever look for in accommodations, but when you unable to freely wander off the premises, it’s fine.
For most of the time, my room was well-heated and comfortable. The mattresses were mainland China-style, i.e., if you’ve slept on pavement, then these were no problem. Just cold water from the tap, but eh, I guess I was just doing my part for the environment. Breakfast and I think one dinner were served in the dining hall, and if you’d like a priceless look from the waitstaff, just ask for a fork. State-run tv was shown throughout each meal, usually illustrated by catchy anthems, banshees and long links of choseongul strung together.
There are much worse digs around than the Sosan Hotel. Anything near New York’s Penn Station, for one. The staff were very kind, and using Chinese and broken Korean, they affably communicated with me. Also, wherever guests were common, cleanliness was paramount, which can be said about my whole time in the DPRK. Stay tuned next time for a tour of Pyongyang, and do let me know if you have any questions about the tour.