World Cup Mania in the DPRK
Ok, so I hadn't really wanted to go away during the World Cup - particularly not to a country where I wouldn't be able to see any of the matches but, this once-in-a-lifetime trip just happened to coincide with the long-awaited tournament and I wasn't going to give the opportunity up - even for football!
The day before the tour left, the group met at the Koryo Tours office for a pre-tour briefing. There were only 14 of us travelling together and from what I could tell, despite being a mix of ages and nationalities, we all had a single strong interest which would bond us together - travel to North Korea, quite possibly the least visited country in the world and certainly one of the most difficult to get a visa for. For most of the group it was the opportunity to see for ourselves at least one version of North Korea. We knew it would be the polished side of Korea - perhaps a Potemkin sanitised version, what we did not know was that we would also get access to another side - a genuine contact with a people who know as little about us as we do them, and it was quite simply stunning.
After the meeting I actually got a glimmer of hope that my week in DPRK would not be as football-free as I had feared. We were shown a film made by Nick Bonner (director of Koryo Tours, the company we were travelling with) about the 1966 World Cup. It was certainly a story that I had never heard before - that of the North Korean team who travelled to England to compete in the World Cup and who ended up beating the Italians! It was a great story and taught me that perhaps football really is trans-national and loved by absolutely everyone. However, would the North Koreans be interested in this World Cup even though their team hadn't qualified?.
The following morning we made our way to the airport together and after the obligatory time-wasting in the departure lounge we boarded our Air Koryo flight at the exact time it said on the ticket - take-off was just as punctual. Being on that old Russian plane made me feel like I was going back in time. A few people were a little nervous about the reliability but I had been assured it would be fine - and it was. No turbulence, a smooth take-off and landing, impeccably dressed air hostesses who never seemed to sit down and greeted us with "Good Morning" as they handed us the Pyongyang Times.
Landing at the vast airport (apparently big enough to accommodate any size of aircraft) we were herded onto buses which drove us the 30m to the terminal where we got through customs and met our guides. Each tour group that goes, regardless of size, is accompanied by 2 tour guides and a driver. Our Korean guides were not the robotic, de-humanised people we had expected - contrary to our preconceptions. Our guides spoke fantastic English and showed no hesitation in cracking jokes with us which put us all at ease. They were very interested in us and asked lots of questions. To my surprise, one of the first questions they asked me was how I thought England would do in the World Cup. This led to a discussion amongst our group about the World Cup in which we found out that our guides actually knew much more than I thought they would. It turns out that the North Koreans were all supporting the South Korean team - despite being 2 countries they see themselves as 1 people and in events such as this they support each other. I suspected our guides were much more knowledgeable about and interested in the World Cup than most North Koreans were, but during the course of the trip I was to be proved wrong. It seemed that everybody had World Cup fever.
Before checking in at the hotel we did a brief city tour. Pyongyang is filled with monuments to the Party, to the Great and Dear Leaders and to the Korean War. Almost all of the buildings have been constructed since the Korean War ended as the city was practically flattened during that time. Our first stop was at the Arch of Triumph - an almost identical replica to its Parisien counterpart, only slightly taller and dedicated to a very different cause - Kim Il Sung's victorious struggle against Japanese rule in the early 20th century. Near the Arch was a large expanse of concrete where hundreds of children and young adults seemed to be practising callisthenics. Our guides told us it was rehearsals for the Arirang Mass Games which will be held in Pyongyang from August to October. I could hardly believe it when they told us that 100,000 people take part in this event simultaneously which is shown 6 nights a week for 2 months. Throughout our tour we saw many practices for the games - if the level of the practice is anything to go by the actual performance is going to be mind-blowing! On one longish bus journey the guides showed us a video of the 2002 games - the female guide actually took part in the games herself. One of the other guys in our group said he had seen another film made by Nick about the mass games and said it was fantastic - I have since seen it and can vouch for that.
Our hotel was on an islet in the Taedong River which runs through the city. It was practically the only area we were allowed to wander around without our guides... Dinner was in the hotel in the revolving restaurant right at the top. This afforded us a great view of the city as it got dark - I have never known a capital to have such little lighting at night. After dinner we gathered for drinks in the hotel bar where we were to sample the hotel's very own brew - as we were to find out, home brew is pretty common in DPRK - even the railway station at Sinuiju (on the DPRK/China border) has its own which is poured from a kettle!
That night, when I got to my room I switched on the television expecting to find some old war movie or the news, but instead I got Poland vs Ecuador! I was stunned, had I had one beer too many? It turns out the hotel had satellite so I had access to all the World Cup matches (as well as BBC News and a Russian Channel). What surprised me even more was that the following day, I saw a repeat of that same match on the Korean channel - this happened throughout the trip, I couldn't get away from the football!
The 5 day trip went incredibly quickly - we were up early every day and had a full day's sightseeing. Places we visited included the Demilitarised Zone at Panmunjom where we were able to enter a hut guarded by soldiers which actually straddled the North-South border (couldn't get out the other side though!), we asked the colonel who took us around what he thought about the football. He said as a youth he was a goalkeeper - guarding the security of the country - without a brilliant goalkeeper the team cannot achieve victory. "But now the north and south of our country have good relations and soon we will have one team - and when that day comes we are sure to win the World Cup."
Other highlights were the International Friendship Exhibition where 2 huge buildings with hundreds of rooms house the thousands of gifts that people from all over the world have presented to the Kims (the football from Pele grabbed my attention), a ride on the Pyongyang metro with its amazing mosaics and kitsch light-fittings, the sombre Korean War Museum (the official name of which is the 'Victorious Fatherland Liberation War'), and much more.
One of the highlights of my trip was the afternoon spent walking on Moran Hill followed by a visit to the nearby funfair. We got more contact with the locals than I could have ever imagined. They invited us to sit down with them, share their kimchee, have a glass of beer (or in some cases soju) and join in their dancing. Although there was an obvious language barrier we communicated though actions and through the odd bit of interpreting from the guides. Most importantly, we enjoyed being with them and vice versa - it was a genuinely happy occasion. As for the funfair, the rides were excellent - the rollercoaster over the cabbage patch, the "wheel of death" which starts off like a centrifuge but then does some pretty unexpected things and the "hamster wheel of death" which made me laugh so much my stomach hurt. I think for the locals in the fair, us group of foreigners were as much as attraction for them as the rides themselves were. The afternoon was an incredible experience that I never thought would have happened, in a country where there is so much control and organisation we were able to break through and enjoy the time with the Korean people.
Another highlight for me was simply getting to know the guides. They were far better than any guidebook you can get on the country. As well as telling us so much about each place we visited they were also more than happy to talk about their families, daily life, and their interests, which for me gave a far greater insight into this fascinating and mysterious place. It was possible to laugh and joke with them, and the more we got to know them, the more happy they were to let us do things that were not "on the itinerary". Granted, there were times we were only allowed to see something provided we left our cameras on the bus, but photos aren't everything and I am more than happy to give up a photo opportunity if it means I get to see something a little different.
I wouldn't say that the trip was relaxing by any means - early starts and late nights (the latter largely due to the abundance of the local beer!!) but I can safely say it was the best trip of my life. It was so enriching being able to visit the country about which all we ever hear in the West is negative things - stories of nuclear weapons, counterfeit currencies, famine, etc - and see that the people there are human beings just like you and me. I have got so many good memories (and some great pictures too) and I didn't even have to go without my beloved football. It is hard to fully get across the experience of going there in words so I strongly recommend going there in person - you won't be disappointed. I also strongly recommend going with the company that I went with - Koryo Tours. They have been running trips there for about 13 years and are real experts on the place. It was great having them there with us to give a different perspective on things and to make sure that everything went smoothly. Well done guys - I'll definitely be back to watch the mass games!
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For more details please visit:
koryogroup.com (the website for actually visiting North Korea)
thegameoftheirlives.com (the story of the greatest shock in World Cup history - North Korea beating the Italians and turning the hostile English crowd from the enemy to their home supporters)
astateofmind.co.uk (award winning documentary on the DPRK Mass games and an incredible insight into North Korean society).
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Published on 6/26/06