Friday, August 29, 2008

Day 1 (part 2) - on the plane

Okay - on to the plane. My first time being surrounded by North Korean things. Actually, it wasn't as bad as I expected. The seats weren't midget sized or anything, like the Chinese try to do sometimes. There was fog coming out of the air vents, which prompted musings about biological weapons and such. One quirk was that the seat numbers weren't labeled, so the flight attendants had to tell everybody where to sit. The Korean teacher was sitting right next to me, which was kind of auspicious. Her Korean was maybe comparable to my Chinese. She was telling me that the language they were using was an extremely polite version, which she didn't even know very well. Their voices were very high pitched and feeble, which she described as how the church ladies in South Korea talk.

The flight attendants came around with newspapers. I wasn't disappointed with the quality of their propaganda. One story I particularly enjoyed explained how the recent high fuel prices were the result of an American conspiracy. (It's in American interests, of course, because it's the only way for the US to dump excess dollars. Duh.) Apparently everything that goes on in the world somehow benefits the US.

I was looking forward to the plane ride, because it would be one of my only opportunities to take pictures freely. It's not like the flight attendants can watch a whole planeful of people very closely. So I was a bit dissapointed when somewhere in the middle of the flight one of the flight attendants sat down right in the empty seat two seats away from me. Apparently there's no place in the cabin set aside for them. Actually, I was incredibly lucky to have a North Korean and someone who can translate Korean in the two seats next to me. Right in the first half an hour of the trip, I had one of the more spontaneous and unscripted interactions for the whole time I was there.

Still high on adrenaline, I started right away with the questions. Was she North Korean? How old was she? (22 I think it was.) How long had she been a flight attendant? (3 years.) What languages could she speak? (Korean, English, Chinese, and Russian. Actually, neither her English nor her Chinese was good enough to communicate with.) Was she from Pyongyang? (Yes.) Did she go to a special flight attendant school? (Yes.) Though she answered everything I asked, she didn't really seem particularly pleased to be talking to a foreigner. Though on the outside this exchange was very similar to interactions I'd had with Chinese people countless times, I found something very cold about her. She didn't ask me any questions.

As for the landscape itself...I think some of my travel mates may have gotten pictures, which might become available later on Flickr, but I'll describe it for you. Richard the Brit noticed that as soon as we crossed the line into North Korea, the air became much clearer. The entire country was very green, and there were no mountaintops missing or lakes drained like you see in China. As we got lower, I could see that the crops were all in neat rows. Human engineering projects criscrossed the landscape, but in a way that complimented, rather than detracted from it. There were many long, straight, dirt roads. Later views from the ground showed these roads in relatively good condition, relatively smooth and few rocks. Canals were also very visible. Some of them, though obviously artificial, were as big as rivers. They snaked around the edges of hills, and sometimes, which I found pretty amazing, even tunneled through them. As we got even lower, we could see some of the little village hamlets, which again were quite attractive looking, even if modest. The North Koreans, it seems, can make poverty look somewhat attractive from the air.


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