Camels, Carpets….and Kebabs

I’ve dreamt of going to the Silk Road for longer than I can remember. Something about that phrase is more evocative than any other, for me at least, of far flung places, exotic spices, dusky maidens…..adventure.

So when we rocked up in Turkmenistan, we were ready to get our Silk Road ON.

First stop Tolkuchka Bazaar, on the outskirts of Ashgabat, and for decades perhaps the most famous of all the Silk Road bazaars for its sheer volume of STUFF. Want a live camel or two? A bushel of pomegranates? Stripy skullcap for the gentleman, silken headscarf for the lady? Prayer mats? Or more prosaically, some drain cleaner? A new kitchen sink? It’s all right here, you’ve just got to haggle (hard) for it. Strangely, however, we came away without buying anything other than several pounds of pomegranates (small translation issue), some nougat and a small mountain of dried fruit and nuts (so good here). Not for fear of haggling, mind (although we did both nearly fall over when the nice kindly old man quoted us $300 for the nice fluffy hats we’d been looking at. Real mink, apparently, rather than the more traditional sheepskin. Or fun fur). More a completely overwhelming surplus of choice. Tolkuchka has been moved in recent years to a smart, glossy new location that is shaped like a carpet (kid you not) and absolutely MASSIVE. Too big. We had an awesome time wandering round and looking at the transparent evidence of a genealogical melting pot in the faces of the people all around us but nearly gave up on our quest for the livestock market. We found it eventually though and were rewarded not only by the sight of camels being manhandled into pickup trucks (apparently quite easy – tie up their front leg, hoick it up onto the flatbed, camel will follow) but also the famous Silk Road fat bottomed sheep. And yes, they do indeed.

We did also see some magnificent carpets at the Bazaar, which, in retrospect, were probably some of the finest we have seen. However, Turkmenistan has some fairly byzantine carpet export legislation, so we didn’t look too closely, saving that treat instead for the shops which sell the goods complete with licence. Here, however, the selection was underwhelming, until, in the half hour before we were finally due to leave Ashgabat for good, I looked into the hotel shop – only to find a veritable Aladdin’s cave of beautiful, fairly priced carpets, but alas without the time to be able to indulge. We’ve been left, both of us, with a relentless thirst for a truly beautiful carpet which has followed us through the Silk Road, thus far unslaked.

What’s a girl to do in the face of such adversity? Well, ordinarily, drown the sorrow, but what with the multiple attractively dressed and strangely unaccompanied young ladies in the bar, I fell to the last resort.

Mutton kebab. First of many. Uuuuuummmm, greasy.

Welcome to the Silk Road.

Forbidden City Flythrough

One of the moderately strange things about our epic journey is that, given the amount of far flung and exotic places we’re going to, we end up transit-ing areas that would usually form epic destinations in and of themselves. Perhaps the classic example here is Beijing – which I recall going to only a few years ago as the highlight of a visit to China, and which this time round we passed through, for a day or so at a time, either side of our trip to North Korea. A place to eat some tasty food, get some laundry done (surprisingly difficult – the phrase Chinese laundry evidently needs re-working) and to marvel at the modern, global big city stereotype that is Beijing nowadays.

Also to go visit the Forbidden City and Tiannamen Square and get our first go-round at the great debate on modern restoration programmes. The Forbidden City was touched up pretty zealously pre the Olympics – whilst some areas of faded grandeur remain, the majority of the larger sites have been thoroughly worked over with a good coat of paint and plenty of gold leaf. Many complain that the City has lost its romance, its air of history – but on this occasion, I’m actually on the side of the restorers. Grass growing from the rooves has its own charm, but I just can’t picture the Emperor-gods of China, or more particularly the famously bloodthirsty (and quite probably mad) Empress Cixi in this placidly tranquil environment.

Bring on the glitz and the dancing girls – but make sure to keep the oil cauldrons nice and hot whilst you do so.

Imperialist spy-dogs

One of the lighter points of relief, at least from my perspective, during our trip to North Korea, was our visit to the USS Pueblo. Most of you reading will have no idea what the USS Pueblo was or what it represents, but to the North Koreans, the capture of this US “spy ship” (“scientific research vessel” under US terminology – as ever, who really knows the truth) inside (or, again per US version, just outside – truth where art thou?) the country’s sovereign water represents the singular high point in the country’s continuing anti imperialist battle since the Korean war armistice was signed.

As an aside, the North Korean view of the Korean war is pretty simple – the American aggressors aggressed (in some manner never very clearly specified, presumably having to do with the fact that there were US troops on the ground in South Korea but who knows), the DPRK troops retaliated and ultimately conclusively won the campaign, in the only known defeat of US forces. The Korean war is a sufficiently grey and murky zone that you’ll hear quite loudly my total non-comment on this subject, other than to say that this particular telling might not be so widely recognized in the West.

You can understand, though, with that background, that the DPRK was pretty excited, after its unprecedented whipping of the US Army in the war, to then also be able to capture one of its spy ships, including all the crew bar one who tragically was killed during the boarding process; for said crew off their own bat and with no undue pressure to then author and sign a confession of their transgressions; and for America to issue a statement confirming that Pueblo had been spying, and an assurance that the U.S. would not spy on DPRK again in the future, in return for the release of the crew. (Again, just to avoid charge of bias, the US version here is that the crew members were imprisoned, starved and tortured; and that the Pueblo commander eventually signed a confession under threat of having his entire crew executed in front of him). And the whole thing does look pretty damning, really, what with the large tiers of radio equipment on board, plus the battleship grey colour of the ship – I mean what research vessel do you know that’s painted battleship grey? Although of course it wasn’t at the time of capture, that’s just a paint job put in place by the DPRK for added authenticity….

Anyway, lighter point of relief, I hear you ask somewhat quizzically? Well, yes. Despite the difficult and possibly quite tragic backdrop to the affair, the tour of the vessel was fabulous. “Here is the radio room from where the imperialist spies unlawfully gathered secret information on our country – but to no avail.” “Here is the bridge from where the cowardly imperialist captain surrendered his vessel. Acknowledging our [DPRK's] superiority, he immediately confessed to us the number of crew people on board.” And, my personal favourite, during the video describing the whole affair, “The American imperialist was so confused [during the occasion of signing up to the agreed US confession] that he FORGOT to date the document!!”. It’s like something from a bad comedy, with a sturdy uniformed lady DPRK soldier as your charming hostess. It was all just so refreshingly, honestly, un-reconstructedly cold war. This is a country that’s still very much at active war with America, if only America would notice.

Plus you get to play with the machine gun. It’s the perfect day out for all the family.

I could have sworn I saw a capitalist just now...

I could have sworn I saw a capitalist just now…

The Arirang Mass Games

On our first night in Pyongyang we were hustled on to a bus and driven to the May Day stadium for the Arirang Mass Games – the very-much-anticipated highlight of our trip to Korea was going to be pretty much the first thing we saw. As ever, we were worried that an event we organised our entire eight months off around might not live up to our extremely high expectations.

We needn’t have worried – it was extraordinary. I can’t say that you should go and see it yourself – unfortunately this year was the last year of the Arirang, to be replaced next year by something else, no doubt also involving 100,000 spookily-drilled performers. We just opened our eyes wide, sat back, forgot about all the overtones and undertones, and enjoyed the show.

Post from Pyongyang

I’d love to write all about my impressions of North Korea, but I’m not really sure that I saw it.

What I did see was the face that Pyongyang chooses to show to foreign visitors, and a carefully coiffed, immaculately made-up face it is too. Life for the 30% or so of North Korea’s population who are Pyongyang residents looks pretty good. The city is clean. There’s bright new shiny buildings constructed purely for the benefit of the workers and the newest even have paint all the way round (not just on the street facing half of the building). There’s funfairs, circuses, a wonderful park. And there’s lots and LOTS of stupendously large statues of the great leaders and their supporters in the great revolution. People are neatly and smartly dressed, down to the natty Dear Leaders’ pin that every single Pyongyang resident I saw wears (these are given to every individual who chooses to join the Vanguard – kind of a young communists movement – when they are about 13 and retained carefully thereafter for life.).

There are even things in the shops, although I didn’t actually see people in said shops. No time for frivolous shopping when there are so many great group activities for one to indulge in. All paid for by the State, naturally. Mass dancing events spontaneously organized by the university study groups to celebrate National Day (those students really looked like they were having FUN!). Group bowling games. Extra study courses (as sanctioned by your boss of course) where such study is expected to make you a more effective employee and therefore contribute more effectively to the State’s progress.

Life here is taken pretty seriously. We went to see numerous statues, mainly bronze and monolithic and of course very impressive, we bowed a lot. We went to see feats of civil engineering, we oooh-ed a lot. We went to see Kim Il Sung’s birthplace, we aah’ed a lot. We went to see the heavy industry museum whose highlights included a display of the different tensions of copper wire that North Korea produces, we ooh-ed some more. Cataclysmic boredom threatened more than once – this is a place where you have to work at your fun, and that includes the tourists.

As light relief, we went to see some students at the local school putting on a show. Aaah, we thought, some delightful little snotty nosed kiddies singing off-key and simpering. Oh no. North Korea doesn’t display its amateurs, these kids were in the final years of the Vanguard equivalent of stage school. Polished doesn’t even begin the describe the level of finish these kids had achieved in their acts. Perfect timing, perfect execution, perfect smiles. Nature tamed.

So was I impressed? Sure.

Did I like it?…..Hmmmmm, come back to me on that one.

Backgrounds – Arirang Mass Games

Nothing to see here – please move along. Everything is completely normal. Please do not adjust your eyes.

Spontaneous outpouring of joy by the Korean Army Ladies' Winter Division

Spontaneous outpouring of joy by the Korean Army Ladies’ Winter Division

A few (tens of thousands of) schoolchildren just hanging about after class

A few (tens of thousands of) schoolchildren just hanging about after class

It's all a little brain melting - see if you can spot the individual kids in the backdrop

It’s all a little brain melting – see if you can spot the individual kids in the backdrop

We are going to need a wider-angle lens...

We are going to need a wider-angle lens…

Factories and Farms

Continuing the theme of a school trip, Group A (that’s us) was taken on an informative visit to see how the Korean manufacturing and economic miracle works. As ever for North Korea, this was partly extraordinarily mundane, and partly extraordinary. As ever, the information that crept around the main message was as interesting as, if not more interesting than, the message itself.

Now, I don’t want to be a Western cynic here – after all, with the wrong mindset it is possible to come away from any experience with negative preconceptions confirmed. In the West (and particularly in America) we are fed so much of our own propaganda about socialism that it is difficult to keep an open mind. I have a theoretical understanding (but no direct experience) of centrally planned economies, and would love the opportunity to have an open discussion with a knowledgeable Korean economist about how things work there. As it was, we were left to form our own opinions from the following vignettes:

The Collective Farm: we were shown round a model farm, including a visit to a model farm worker’s house. So far, so good: corn was drying in neat rows on the ground and the place was surrounded by neat fields. There was, of course, a large statue of Kim senior, who came here to dispense “Juche” wisdom back in the day. There were also worker’s schoolrooms for farming education and a whole range of other wonderful facilities. All impressive, but … we were shown round by a lady in high heels and national dress (which to Western eyes looks like, erm, a fancy ball gown). The corn was in extremely neat rows, and from the number of cigarette butts therein, it had been in neat rows for some time. Was it a farm or a museum? What was it all for?

The Mineral Water Factory: an impressive factory. At least it must be, when it is working – the place was utterly deserted. Lucy used to spend time at her father’s factory when she was little and I spent a happy two years at university touring manufacturing facilities for my degree, and we both have an idea of what factories look like. This place was impressive, but deeply strange. It was spotlessly clean (but not running – Monday is maintenance day, apparently, and it was lunch time so nobody was there). There were lots of long impressive-looking conveyor belts to move the bottles around between the machines (but long impressive-looking conveyor belts are actually a waste of space and energy – just put the machines right next to each other). They were selling fizzy and still mineral water in glass and plastic bottles (but the line looked set up for glass bottles only, and the visit wasn’t really set up for us to be able to ask questions about it). Again, it was utterly empty.

The Model Fruit Farm: acres of orchards producing apples, and a factory producing apple products. We were walked a couple of hundred yards up a tarmac path to a viewing platform on a hill, from where Kim Junior surveyed the orchard and declared it good. And it was good – apples grow well in the Korean climate, and if you have to produce one fruit the apple is probably best. Korean apples are actually very tasty. The weirdness here was a minor detail. The tarmac was surrounded by a gravel border, then grass, then a low hedge, then the countryside. Of course the grass was neatly cut (I expect by hand – you see large groups of people in Pyongyang parks squatting to cut the grass with hand sickles). The weird bit was the gravel: I don’t know who noticed it, but each piece of gravel on both edges of the border had been lined up in a neat row, by hand, for the entire length of the tarmac path.

The Terrapin Factory. The dear leader had declared that Korea should produce terrapins for food. Terrapins used to be an item reserved only for kings, and I expect the logic was that if the people have terrapins then they will feel that socialism is providing them with luxury items (which, of course, it will be). As such, we were taken to a large new breeding and growing facility, with dozens and dozens of large tanks. Four words: Where Are The Terrapins? We saw a very few tanks full of tiny terrapins, and a few tanks full of larger frogs. I looked through the window of an adjoining facility and saw some larger tanks, with a total of four larger terrapins. Now, in the West this would be seen as a disaster – a large, empty, expensive facility. However, in the socialist world it is possible to take a long term view, build a large and expensive facility and work out how to grow terrapins later. Perhaps this is what was happening? I don’t know. If so, I feel sorry for the manager of the facility, handed such an expensive piece of kit with limited prior knowledge and told to succeed at all costs.

Overall, I feel extraordinarily sorry for the central planners. Picture yourself strolling through a medium sized supermarket – your local Tesco, perhaps. Now imagine how you and your colleagues could possibly design and build a complete, centrally-controlled system designed to grow, process, package, distribute and sell every single item on the shelves. Imagine trying to control stock keeping, expiry dates, product updates, harvest failures, staff turnover, everything. Now imagine trying to do the same for heavy industry. And light manufacturing. And defense. And the arts. And keep people happy while you do it. Perhaps I am displaying enormous ignorance as to how centrally-planned economies work, but I just can’t see how they can possibly function effectively.

Let Us Learn Korean

Like many visitors to North Korea, we were keen to take home some examples of totalitarian kitsch. So far, however, we had been largely thwarted. Yes, we had picked up a book of Kim Jong-Il’s views On the Art of Opera (his much longer book On the Art of Cinema was sold out in English, and I didn’t have the heart to read it in French). Yes, we had picked up a biography or two of the great man himself, but so far there had been nothing suitably and inadvertently hilarious to bring home. Everything had been pretty normal.

Or so we thought. Enter a beautiful little green phrase book, titled “Let Us Learn Korean”.

It starts off pretty slowly:

  • “Hallo Comrade” = “Tongmu” (or “Tongji” if the comrade is a lady – very equal opportunity these Koreans)
  • “Good morning” = “Annyong-hasimnikka”
  • “Thank you” = “Kamsa-hamnida”

So far, so useful. In Chapter 9, however, things take a decidedly left turn. At the risk of verbosity, I am going to repeat many of the English phrases in the chapter verbatim. There will be a prize for any of our dear readers who manage to insert any of these phrases into natural conversation:

Chapter 9: Sightseeing of City

  • “What are you going to see today? ” = “Onul odirul chamgwan haryo-go-hamnikka”
  • “I want to visit the bronze statue of Comrade Kim Il Sung first to express my condolences”
  • “Comrade Kim Il Sung was the most distinguished leader of our times”
  • “Comrade Kim Il Sung devoted his whole life to the freedom and welfare of the people”
  • “Death of Comrade Kim Il Sung is a great loss to the Korean revolution and the world revolution”
  • “With the death of Comrade Kim Il Sung mankind lost the legendary hero, great leader”
  • “The services rendered by Comrade Kim Il Sung will remain forever in the memory of the Korean people, and the world’s people”
  • “It is a miracle that Pyongyang has been built up beautifully and magnificently in such a short time”
  • “Such a miracle is only possible in Korea led by the great leader Comrade Kim Jong Il”

And a cheery goodbye from Chapter 11: Departure

  • “I saw and learned a great deal in Korea” = “Josoneso mani bogo baewot-sumnida”
  • “I practically felt that the Korean people are singleheartedly united behind Comrade Kim Jong Il”
  • “Korea is the people’s paradise where there are no beggars and all people study”
  • “Pyongyang is clean and beautiful, and seems to have the best housing conditions in the world”
  • “All the Korean people are good-mannered, diligent and modest”
  • “The Korean people long for national reunification”
  • “The United States must get out South Korea. It has no grounds for remaining in South Korea”
  • “Goodbye”

I hope you have all been paying attention. There will be a test on this later.

Top 10 Things Not To Do With A Crippling Hangover

Every now and then when you travel you have an experience that is so unclassifiably strange, so subtly unusual, that it is extremely difficult to know how to start explaining it to people. We have just got back from five days in North Korea, and we haven’t yet digested the experience sufficiently to know quite how to start blogging about it. We have to start somewhere, however. If this was a jigsaw puzzle we would start with the edges; as this is an essentially frivolous travel blog I will start with a suitably idiotic vignette and hope that the clarity starts to flow from there over the next few posts. Here we go.

OK, so I had been drinking. Lucy had very sensibly headed off to bed once I decided that six dry-ish weeks in the South Pacific had blunted my alcohol tolerance and needed to be rectified. Add one Pyongyang hotel bar with a microbrewery (unusually for North Korea, there was a choice … of Yellow Beer or Black Beer, I kid you not). Also add some high quality drinking companions including an American ex-fast jet pilot from central casting, complete with impressive stories and impressive jawline (hi Chris!) and the evening was made. Cue two in the morning, meandering back to the room, drinking lots of water (from the tap, I suspect), four and a half hours kip before an early start the next day. The scene is set…

Ladies and Gentlemen, I don’t know what all top ten things not to do with a crippling hangover are, and I hope never to find out. However, the top one thing not to do with a crippling hangover is … be forced to march up and down in lines by the North Korean Army, followed by a lunch of spicy dog meat. For, that day we visited the world famous Korean Demilitarized Zone. From the North side.

Jesus. I can handle a two and a half hour coach ride on the world’s bumpiest three lane highway. I can handle smoky briefing rooms. I can handle looking bleary-eyed out of said coach while high voltage electrified fences, massive tank traps and heavily mined, heavily tunneled strips of land scroll past. But being made to stand in two lines … now five lines … now march … now stop … now march … by the elite border guards of the DPRK Army was just too much for me. It was utterly terrible. I could be the only man in history to slump groggily for relief into the (actual) chair in which the (actual) UN representative sat to sign the (actual) Korean War Armistice. I slumped again for relief in the historic meeting room which straddles the North / South Korean border, and I slept stretched out on the back seats of the coach on the way to lunch. The actual visit was fairly interesting although, as usual for North Korea, what they didn’t tell us and didn’t show us was often more interesting than what they did. More on this later, as this touches on a more serious point and this, fairly obviously, isn’t the time or the place.

So about that dog meat, eh? When my hangover struck I was worried. I had expected to feel a little rough, but not THIS bad. Perhaps I really am out of practice on the booze; perhaps North Korean hotel-brewed beer had some nasties in it; perhaps the tapwater had some nasties in it? It doesn’t really matter I guess, but I was knocked out for a full 24 hours and wasn’t really able to stomach food until breakfast on the following day. I really, really didn’t want to have dog for lunch.

But (and it’s a huge but) this would make me three for three on borderline “so weird I might not actually want to do it” cultural experiences. First there was the invitation to the crocodile skin cutting ceremony in PNG, where we umm-ed and ahh-ed and eventually agreed that watching teenagers being tortured to prove their manhood probably was something we wanted to witness … only to have the ceremony postponed until after we had to leave the region. Then there was the offer to wear a Namba penis sheath and take part in the men’s dances in Ambrym, where I umm-ed and ahh-ed and decided that (a) being naked with a bunch of Ambrym village elders was an honest-to-god once in a lifetime experience and (b) I will never run for political office (sorry Dad) and that I should do it … only to have Chief Sekor’s sister in law tragically die the night before and the village be too busy with the funeral to wrap banana leaves around scared Westerners westerly bits. I even had a blog post worked out about it, to be called “Me and Prince Harry”. Third up was dog meat – we had umm-ed and ahh-ed once more, and decided to give it a try. With this history, no hangover on earth was going to stop me, and if Fido bounces, he bounces.

(tastes like beef)

The South Pacific – The Stats

  • Countries visited: only three (Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu) although it felt like dozens in a region where the village over the hill probably speaks a different language
  • Flights taken: 16 in six weeks. Of which we only had to charter one ourselves (or we would be bankrupt by now). Locals medevac-ed for urgent medical treatment in our spare seats: two
  • Longest period without a hot shower: two full weeks, although cold showers, hot lava-warmed buckets and using industrial-strength insect repellent as deodorant go a long way (please think of this, when we are being gleeful about our posh flight tickets!)
  • Nights spent sleeping on the floor with no bedclothes: two. Both in the rain, one in a leaky tent. Never again
  • Number of naked boobs seen: several hundred. We have started to see them when we shut our eyes. The Horror. The Horror.
  • Number of naked men seen. None, as a single banana leaf technically counts as being appropriately dressed on Ambrym
  • Number of birds of paradise slaughtered to make headdresses for the Mount Hagen show: apparently none – apparently all the feathers are antique. So it only looks like thousands of these rare birds have been killed for your amusement
  • Time it took to get comfortable with everybody being armed with a bloody great machete: shorter than you might think!
  • Number of times robbed at knifepoint: zero. Number of times we thought someone might be about to rob us at knifepoint…
  • Occasions on which we fled the country under threat of police action: one. We love Port Moresby (hi Brian!)
  • Active volcanoes climbed: two. Active volcanoes actually seen: one
  • Meals consisting solely of bread or crackers, peanut butter and jam: a dozen? Maybe more – memory is merciful
  • Mind-bendingly incredible experiences you couldn’t get anywhere else in the world. Half a dozen? The Mount Hagen show; a good couple along the Sepik river; the Ambrym festival; Mount Yasur volcano on Tanna; diving on WW2 wrecks in the Solomons. Absolutely amazing.