Wednesday, July 12, 2006

North Korea

We left late Friday night on 2 buses with a total of 89 people with Adventure Korea. I think we got to the South Korean immigration office around 7:30 am and then the North Korean immigration around 9:00 am but it's all real fuzzy because I apparently took too many of these little orange pills from Kaleigh in an attempt to get some sleep on the bus. I passed out hard. When I woke up I could barely walk or comprehend what people were saying to me. I heard what they were saying but then I forgot about 2 seconds later. Luckily it wore off not too long after we arrived.

As we were driving through immigration and then on to Geumgangsan mountains, photographs were not allowed and soldiers were standing along the road holding red flags ready to alert for backup if need be. Everyone had to wear an identification card around your neck at all times or be subject to a fine. North Koreans are easily identified because of their lack of these cards and also the addition of a small red pin worn above their heart bearing a portrait of the senior Kim. (Another sign that you are probably from the South was the presence of a shirt with Konglish or inappropriate English. Somehow I doubt the guy I saw with a "FUCK ME" shirt on was a North Korean...)

The weather all weekend was overcast and very foggy, especially up in the mountains on the hikes both days. That meant no amazing views from the top but at least we weren't hiking in the heat. The fog hung in the air constantly and gave the mountains more of an eerie feel. The "town square" (if it could be called that) was strange also. It felt like you had just walked into a huge movie set. There were hardly any cars and the mountains surrounding it were like a giant 360 backdrop. There was a Family Mart (accepting US dollars and South Korean won) and a big souvenir building, a few restaurants, a couple hotels and a dome performance hall where we saw an acrobatics show on Saturday afternoon.

The Geumgangsan town square

We stayed at the Geumgangsan hotel. It was the nicest place I've stayed at since I've been in Korea. A definite step up from my usual random weekend accommodation usually consisting of a piece of hard floor or ground. We had an end room so we got lucky with a balcony looking into the mountains. We were looking over the balcony as the sky was darkening and mist droplets were sticking to our arms and I realized one reason it seemed so surreal was the silence. Or not silence, but lack of city sounds: traffic noises, loud speakers and all the other sounds I've grown accustomed to from living in the city. It was only cicadas, a dog barking and other outdoor sounds.

We had some beers and then some North Korean whiskey (disgusting) and had ourselves a once-in-a-lifetime North Korean party. We found out later that we drank the hotel completely out of beer. I still managed to go to bed before midnight but was found early in the morning sleepwalking around the halls. I always seem to do that whenever I'm sleeping in hotels. Or maybe I do it at my apartment also but there's just not anyone around to tell me about it in the morning. I went back to bed like a robot and don't remember it at all.

It was a good trip. A weird trip. Like it was all just a big show. Starting with the overly friendly North Korean greeters once we walked through customs and continuing on all weekend. It would be interesting to spend some time in North Korea and actually be able to make it past the surface of things. Probably not possible for me, but at least an intriguing thought.