Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Day 2 - some random memorials - getting to know our guides better

My goal this day was to actually get to know our guides a little bit better. As we started off towards the Kim Il Sung mausoleum, I started asking one of them with the best English her about her life. She was 22, could also speak Chinese, and we were her fifth tour she had done (second with Westerners; the rest with Chinese.) Her father was in the military, her mom organized mass events like the Arirang festival we were going to see the next day. She had even performed in one of them, in the background, one year. She lived with her parents in an apartment. She had been a foreign language major in her college, which was the second best college in the country. She had had a British foreign teacher for a bit, and had even watched some foreign films. (Actually, I later found out, like 'The Sound of Music' - not like Hollywood films.) Unlike the flight attendant, she didn't know she was going to be a tour guide since graduating high school. She said she could have been a diplomat if she wanted to, with her foreign language training...I wondered if that was really true. And why she wouldn't want to. I asked her if she knew any people from outside Pyongyang, and she said she had done some work in the farms in the countryside. But sometimes you have to ask these questions in the right way...I asked her if she actually had any friends from outside Pyongyang, and she said no. That would seem to imply that even the country's no. 2 college doesn't recruit very much from outside Pyongyang, which I found to be pretty interesting.

Our first stop today was Kim Il Sung's mausoleum, the site of his preserved body. (Incidentally, this completed the 4-fecta of preserved Communist leaders for Richard, my roommate.) I won't go into the details...there was a long hall to get there which took forever, and we had to turn over our cameras, so I don't remember what else was along the way. There was one guy there who was obviously a political type, way overdressed, and standing at least a foot above everybody else. I guess probably on some kind of diplomatic assignment or something, though he didn't seem too much older than me. (Or does the US even have a diplomatic assignment there?) Anyway here's a picture outside the hall, I walked up on a photo shoot with Koreans:

There were a bunch of soldiers there, of course we couldn't take pictures. The girls were all giggly around us, and they stared at us when we went by, but of course they couldn't talk to us. When one of our members waved at a big group of them, they all started giggling, while of course still pretending not to notice.

Our next stop was the USS Pueblo, the spy ship North Korea captured in 1968. Though I guess some people on the trip were interested in seeing it, my feelings were a bit more skeptical. Showing respect to their leader is one thing, and of course they have a culture that really values that sort of thing. But having to sit down and listen to anti-American propaganda - though of course not unexpected - is bit different. I can handle this thing, if you don't talk about politics, I won't - but that wasn't exactly the arrangement they had in mind. So back on the bus, after having our long conversation in the morning and wondering exactly how far I could push the boundaries, I asked the guide if she could take us to see some Korean spy ships. "Korea doesn't have any spy ships," she replied. Of course. "I think your joke has gone too far." Uhh. Great. It looks like humor here is a razor-thin deal.

I quickly clarified that I meant counter-spy ships, but the damage was already done. The rest of the bus ride was pretty quiet, at least for me, and I didn't talk to her for most of the rest of that day. We went to a couple of other monuments and memorials that - Kim Il Song's birthplace was very nice, very obviously fake.

Oh, but the subway was very cool, as expected.

By the end of the day, before we got back to the hotel, I had a conversation with Ms. Jong again, about learning foreign languages, something we both had in common. I will also say in my defense that Richard got into trouble with her too for taking too many pictures (it was either that day or the next day,) and she made him delete him delete some. For a while I was getting really paranoid about the pictures I had already taken. But actually, our relationship with our guides would very quickly warm as we headed into our third day...


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