Cuba: 2005/2015

Ten years ago, a certain someone went to Cuba, but never posted the pictures.  And this week, another certain someone very close to the first certain someone went to Cuba, and took more pictures.  And here they are:

Cuba 2005

Habana Viejo

Habana Viejo

Riding Around Havana in Style

Riding Around Havana in Style

Hemingway's House

Hemingway’s House

Eastern Cuba

Eastern Cuba



Enjoying the Delights of Havana

Enjoying the Delights of Havana  

Cuba 2015: 

Exploring  Havana

Exploring Havana




Japan: May 21- June 17, 2015

There is so much to see and do in Japan, so it’s a good thing we had almost four weeks to spend there! We bought a Japan Rail 21 day pass, allowing us unlimited train rides around four of Japan’s islands. And we took major advantage of it.

The first night we were here, we walked up to a ramen counter and sat down. The conversation went like this:

Owner: “Hai!”.  Meaning, “Yes, please order, I am busy”.

Deah: “Hiiiiii….”.  As in, “Hellllooooo!”.

Chris: Dies laughing.

That was in Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu, (after a ferry ride from South Korea). We sampled the local ramen specialty, saw some old style shrines and temples, and visited a Mongolian Invasion museum and a robot museum (opposite ends of the spectrum!). And then we took a train to Nagasaki, to see two sites: the “Battleship Island”, an old coal mine island that has been abandoned since 1974 (and is the evil lair in 007 Skyfall), and the Nagasaki Peace Park, ground zero for the atomic bomb. What a moving place, especially with the tens of thousands of folded origami cranes, homage to a young girl named Sadako who died after the bombings. From there, we went to Beppu, a hot springs town, to visit the seven different “hells”, or hot springs, as well as get buried in volcanic sand and stay at a traditional ryokan (Japanese style room with futons and tatami mats).





Then we were ready to move on to Honshu. We stopped in Hiroshima, and then Himeji, to visit the White Egret castle, one of the remaining 12 originals from the shogun period. This is where Chris accidentally bought a whole plate of cartilage and liver yakitori.  I declined. We also went to the island of Myojima to see the floating Tori shrine- really beautiful. And then we made our way to Kobe, to stay with my college friend Kirsten, and go to sake factories, sing karaoke, and try some Kobe (Wagyu) beef! So good, it melts in your mouth, literally.  I was so sad when that last piece was eaten. From Kobe, we also took a day trip to Mt. Koya to visit a very old Buddhist cemetery, which was set in a lovely cypress forest atop a mountain.

Around Kobe

From Kobe, we went to Kyoto. We skulked around the Gion area long enough to spot some geishas, and we visited the imperial palace and the Golden Pavilion (a bit overrated). We went to the really beautiful bamboo forest at Arashiyama, and took a quick commuter train to see the fushimi-Inari shrine, which is three kilometers of gorgeous vermillion tori gates, lined up one after another, up a mountain. Just beautiful.

Around Kyoto

Skipping Tokyo for the time being, we took the super fast Shinkansen trains past Mt Fuji, past Tokyo, and over to our third island, Hokkaido.  We spent the weekend at another onsen/ryokan (Japanese style room with a hot springs bathing room) at a lakeside village called Toyako. The tiny town featured a lake, a volcano, a national park for hiking, and nightly fireworks. Also tame deer! It was very relaxing, and got us ready for our time in Tokyo.


Lake Toya

Then, to Tokyo, the biggest city in the world! Although I have to say, that with  everyone using public transportation, the streets are not as crowded as I thought. We went to watch a sumo wrestling practice, and went to the Palace Grounds (actually you can’t see much).  At night, we went up to the 48th floor observation deck of the government building, and also to the 52nd floor bar of the Hyatt hotel (that was in the movie Lost in Translation)- what a view! Chris got up early and went to the fish market tuna auction (I slept in).  The Edo-Tokyo History Museum was a really good history of the city since the 1700’s.


Last stop was Osaka. On the way, we went to the home of Hattori Honzo, now a ninja museum and demonstration. Very fun- the whole town has ninja mannequins on top of buses, underneath benches, in the corners of shops.  Then we had one more Wagyu beef dinner- so, so good. We went to the ramen museum, where we learned all about Momofuko Ando, the inventor, and we even got to make our own cup and customized noodle and toppings. Too fun.  We saw a few more sites around Osaka, such as the Osaka castle and Tennoji  Park, and then were ready to prepare for our flight home.


South Korea: May 9-21, 2015

On May 9, we flew from China to Seoul, South Korea.  We spent the next week in Seoul, visiting various sites such as the Jongmyo Shrine,  the old city walls, the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul Tower, and a couple different history museums. 

Another day, we had lunch and walked around the area called Itaewon, full of servicemen and restaurants from all over the world.  After lunch, we spent the rest of the day at the Korean War Museum, comparing their version of the war with the version we saw in North Korea.

I caught a cold and stayed home the next day, while Chris visited the DMZ.

At the end of the week, we spent a day out in Incheon, visiting the lovely Central Park there, and having dinner with our friend Maluschka, who we had not seen in nine years.

After Seoul, we headed to the east coast, for the express purpose of visiting the Haesindang Penis Park.  The park is full of statues, benches, sculptures, and artwork, all in the shape of penises.  The story goes that a young maiden drowned off the coast of this fishing village, and after that no fish could be caught.  One day a fisherman exposed his penis to to the sea, and the fish rose to the surface. And so the villagers concluded that the ghost of the maiden was unhappy and could only be appeased by penises.  And so here you go.

From the east coast, we took a bus to the south and the city of Busan.  We did a little sightseeing there,  picked up our Japan rail passes and ferry tickets, and tried some Korean street food, such as mandu (dumplings) and pajeon (chive pancakes). 

On our last day, we visited the Lotte Department store- 13 floors, including an aquatic show, a four-level cinema, a gym, petting zoo, and a sky terrace offering amazing views of the city.  Kind of a weird way to spend an afternoon, but fun.

And now….. We are headed by hydrofoil jet to Japan, our last stop on this trip.


China: April and May, 2015

*We entered and exited China four times in the last two months, so I waited until the end of our China visits to post this.

* I wrote Taiwan, Hong Kong & Macau, and Tibet as separate posts because of their unique cultural or geographical identities, even though technically they are part of China.

On April 4th we walked over the border between Macau and Zhuhai, and boarded a bus to go north to Guangzhou, China. We spent the night there, and then took a train to Yichang.  We chose that as our first stop because we wanted to see the Three Rivers Dam and the beautiful gorges and rivers in the area.  I have wanted to see that area ever since seeing the movie The Painted Veil, which was filmed in that area in 2004- the last film that was made in the area before the dam was built. We went on a tour of the dam- the largest in the world- and took lots of pictures.  Unfortunately our tour of the dam was not in English. But we figured out most of it anyway.  In Yichang, we stayed in a nice hostel, which thankfully had heat, which was good because it was super cold there. So cold, I had to break down and buy a jacket, even though it’s April already.

Three Rivers Dam, Yichang, China

From Yichang, we took an overnight train to Xi’an, home of the terra cotta warriors.  I happen to love overnight trains. The best duration is 12 hours. You board the train around 7 or 8 pm, settle in, read for an hour or two, then pop a sleeping pill, put on your eye mask and earplugs, and sleep for 8 hours. Wake up, have a cup of coffee, and an hour later you’re there.  Drop your bags off at the hotel, and you’re ready to go sightseeing. It’s way more comfortable than a long bus ride, cheaper than a plane ride, and you save a night’s accommodation costs. Plus you get to see some scenery.

Some of my train companions

Although I do have to say that I like the Thailand trains better than the Chinese trains. Thai trains, in 2nd class, have long rows of bunk beds, that convert to table and chairs during daytime hours.  All the bunks have a privacy screen.  Once you’re in it for the night, you’re pretty cozy. Chinese trains, in 2nd class, have three tiered bunks, which means you basically can’t sit up right in any of them.  No privacy curtains.  Alongside one wall of the train are tiny pull-down tables and chairs. Tiny. We did two 2nd class Chinese trains (called “hard sleepers”, even though the beds are fairly soft), and two 1st class (called soft sleepers, not actually any softer). In first class, they have two sets of bunk beds inside a private cabin, with a small table in between them. The door closes for privacy and you can control the lights, and they have a tv in them, although I never used it.


Chris on a Thai train; Chris on a Chinese train

So, we arrived at the home of the Terra Cotta Warriors, Xi’an. They were made  2,200 years ago, to celebrate the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, considered to be the unifier of China. Discovered by farmers digging a well in 1976, so far over 8,000 warriors, including archers, infantry, cavalry, and horses, chariots, acrobats, strongmen, musicians, and generals have been uncovered. About half are on display; the rest are still under cover until the preservationists can figure out better techniques for preserving the delicate polychrome lacquer painted on the statues. They were quite a sight, and a lifelong goal of mine.

Terra Cotta Army, Xi’An, China

Afterwards we walked around the walled city of Xi’an, sampling some food and seeing their Bell Tower and Drum Tower. The city is pretty far west, so we saw some of the Uigur, Chinese Muslims, with their big bee-hive head scarves all wrapped up around their hair.

From Xi’an, another sleeper train to Beijing.  There we explored Tiennemen Square and the Forbidden City, both not far from our hotel. Tiennemen Square is pretty boring, really, just a big square, but The Forbidden City had all kinds of courtyards, palaces, apartments, alleyways, etc.  Afterward, we climbed a hill just north of the Forbidden City, and got a look at it from above.  There you could really see Beijing’s pollution. Kind of sad.

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City

We had Peking Duck for dinner, and of course we went to the Great Wall.  Talk about another lifelong dream! We went to the Matianyu section, about 70 km from Beijing, chosen due to it generally being less crowded than other sections closer to the city.  We took a cable car up to Tower 14, hiked up and along to Tower 26, then returned back to Tower 6 and took a ski lift back to the bus park. All in all, about 8 km of hiking. It was amazing seeing the wall curve and wend its way along the mountains, and all along the cherry blossom trees were just beginning to bloom.

The Great Wall of China; Peking Duck

The Great Wall of China; Peking Duck

In Beijing, we also visited the Temple of Heaven. It’s located in a beautiful park, and used to be reserved solely for the emperor as he made an annual sacrifice. One temple there is the oldest wooden temple in China. The blue, circular wooden buildings are really amazing examples of Chinese architecture and cosmology.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing

We met with our DPRK group, and flew to N Korea. When that trip finished, we had one day and night back in Beijing- more Peking Duck.  Then we flew to Monglia. When we returned from Mongolia, we had one night in Beijing before our trip to Tibet. No time for more duck.

When we left Tibet, we took the train from Lhasa to Lanzhou, a medium-sized city pretty much in the middle of China.  We chose the train because we wanted to see the scenery as we left Tibet.  It was amazing. We went over some pretty high mountain passes. I could feel it in the air as we tried to breathe. The Tibet trains have special glass windows to block out UV Rays, because the atmosphere is so thin. Each cabin has special oxygen hook-ups in case you need it.

Tibet from the train

Last stop in China was Lanzhou. The city was considered the beginning of the Silk Road for all goods leaving China and heading west. The plateau that the province sits on was also probably one of the first settled parts of China, and has an amazing number of potsherds, early bronze items, etc. Even a large number of dinosaur bones have been found here. They have a pretty good museum with several rooms, so we went to it. The Silk Road, Han Buddhism, fossils, and Neolithic Pottery were all nice exhibits.  And it was free.  I wholly approve of free museums.

Gansu Province Museum, Lanzhou

After crossing The Yellow River, we headed to the airport.  We will fly via Shanghai and arrive in Seoul on Saturday, May 9.  Country #84!


Tibet, April 29- May 6, 2015

Yak butter tea, yak dumplings (momo), yak curry, yak cheese, yak noodle soup.  If it had yak in it, we ate it.  Yak butter tea? Super, super salty.  I’ll stick with sweet tea from now on.  Yak meat? Tastes like cow, just a little fattier. Yak are just cows that have adapted to higher altitudes, one adaptation being long hair, like buffaloes. 

You can only visit Tibet as part of an organized tour, and it involves alot of paperwork, including a Chinese visa, a Tibet travel permit, an alien travel permit if you leave Lhasa, and another permit if you’re going mountain hiking. We signed up for a week tour, including two days in Lhasa, then an overland tour to the Nepal border, where we would visit a monastery and either stay there, with a view of Mt Everest, or cross over and actually stay at a “tourist” base camp (not the one the hikers use). 

Three days before we were supposed to visit, a massive earthquake hit Kathmandu, which caused an avalanche on Mt. Everest. We checked with our tour company, they said we were good to go to Lhasa, and they would fill in the other days with other sites around Tibet, as the road to Nepal is now closed and likely will be for weeks. 

So. We met our guide, and our “group”, which consisted of one other person, a very nice Indonesian lady. On our first full day in the capital city of Lhasa -12,000 feet above sea level- we visited the Potala Palace- traditional home and burial place of the Dalai Lamas- (from the Mongolian words “ocean of wisdom”)- and Jokhang Temple, home of a 7th century statue of Buddha, gift of a Chinese princess to her husband, the King of Tibet. Both places were beautiful, inside and out. My favorite parts were the amazing sand mandalas, so perfect and intricate. We learned about the “butter lamp offerings” that Tibetans give- they bring melted yak butter to the temple and pour it into the lamps there. When Buddhists die, they spend 49 days in darkness, in hell.  If you made butter lamp offerings in your lifetime, you wil have a light with you in hell, for comfort.  After 49 days, it will be decided whether you go on the “white path” toward enlightenment or the “black path”, away. 

Potala Palace; Jokhang Temple; Butter lamps

Our guide told us all about a Tibetan tradition, the sky burial.  When a person dies, the body stays in the home for three days. Then distant family and friends- not close family- take the body to a mountain. They hire a special butcher, who takes out the internal organs, and basically carves up the body. Then carrion birds descend on the body, and within minutes, devour it. Then the bones are placed in a large hollow bowl or rock, and are pounded up, added to the internal organs, plus some barley flour and yak butter, and then the birds have a second feast. People paint a ladder on a rock on a mountain to indicate that their loved one’s soul has ascended.  

Sky Burial (these pictures were in a magazine article); soul ladders

The next day we visited two monasteries, Sera and Drepung. Being a Friday, we could watch the monks debate philosophy and religion with each ither.  Interesting, but incomprehensible to us, as it was in Tibetan. Over ten thousand monks lived there before the “liberation” of Tibet by the Chinese in 1949. Now only a few hundred monks live in each.  It was due to this “liberation” by China that the current Dalai Lama (the 14th) left Tibet in 1959. The “cultural revolution” of China was between 1965-1976 and resulted in about 45% of the religious buildings, art, and works destroyed.  The Dalai Lama, age 81, lives in India, and can never return to China/Tibet. His book, “My Land, My People” is illegal here.  Also, Brad Pitt is banned from China for his role in the movie “Seven Years in Tibet”.  

Dreprung; Sera; monks debating; sand mandala


Aside from the Dalai lama, the second highest lama is the Penchan Lama, meaning “all seeing one”. Chances are good that the two lamas won’t both die in the same two year period, so the one spearheads the search for the reincarnation of the other. This takes place two years after the lama dies, and involves multiple examinations of two year old boys in certain regions. Unfortunately, the current (11th) reincarnation of the Penchan Lama was chosen by the Chinese government without all the required Tibetan tests, and he resides in Beijing. He comes to Tibet for one month every year, but the Tibetans are reluctant to welcome him. So the Chinese made a rule that two from each family must come to welcome him each year or you wil be fined.

Don’t worry, the monks have plenty of butter. And sorghum. And cash.

The next day we drove out to Namtso Lake, a sacred salt lake very high up in the mountains (5190 meters). We had to pass six checkpoints to get there.  The Chinese don’t mess around.  Amazing scenery, with mountains over 7000 meters next to us and snow everywhere. The Himalayas in the background, with Bhutan on the other side, and yaks decorated with ribbons and bells, plowing the fields. 

prayer flags; Namtso Lake; Yaks

The following day we went to Yamdrok Lake, another sacred lake. We brought along some prayer flags to hang.  The five colors mean: blue for sky, white for clouds, green for river, yellow for earth, and red for fire.  Our guide wrote our names  and family and friends’ on them, said a Buddhist prayer, and we hung them in the wind.  The Buddhist term for prayer flags come from the word lungta, Tibetan for “horse” and “wind”. Your good luck is supposed to gallop along the wind like a horse. You can also buy small prayer cards and throw them in the wind. 

Yamdrok Lake; prayer flags with our names in Tibetan; prayer cards

Traditional Tibetans have a fascinating style of dress.  Not since Myanmar have we seen a culture that is still so unique, so shielded from western dress (even North Koreans basically wear pants or skirts, and blouses). Here, the Lhasa women wear black or brown, narrow wrap around skirts that go to their feet. On top of that they wear a narrow striped apron, usually in earthy colors, also to their feet.  When it is cold, they wear a sheepskin coat, with the fur on the inside, and a canvas or heavy cotton backing on the outside, black to draw in the sun. The women and the men grow their hair long, and braid ribbons, cloth, bells, or cowrie shells into their hair, and then pull the  whole thing up and do some kind of wrap around the head thing with their hair, Star Wars fashion. Many Tibetans have very rosy cheeks, a kind of permanent rosacea  from the sun and the wind.  Women often wear hospital face masks over their nose and lips to protect from the sun, and the men often wear a kind of cowboy hat. They resemble Peruvians. Tibetans over 80 years old wear a white vest with a sun and moon embroidered on it to indictate their age and status. Women from other provinces wear a thicker, sari-type garment wrapped and tied with a bright sash, and some wear a quilted dress/coat that is edged with bright colors and belted. 

Traditional dress and hairstyles

On Monday we drove towards eastern Tibet, to visit the first building that was ever built there, in the second century AD.  People from the east are pretty poor, and when they visit the temples near them, or they pilgrimage to Lhasa, they bring offerings of yak butter, salt, sorghum, tea, or firewood.  If they have nothing, they bring pure clear water from the mountain streams. Many of the provincial Tibetans make a pilgrimage to Lhasa every year, where they walk around main temples three times. Some of the really devout ones do the whole circuit in prostrations.  They take three steps, then kind of dive towards the flagstones, doing a sort of body slide of 2-4 feet if they have a good slide going.  They wear leather aprons to keep their clothes from being torn up, and I think it helps with the slide.  They wear wooden or metal blocks on their hands, which they clap together over their heads, then on the ground at their shoulders, then on the ground at their mid sections.  Then they stand up, and repeat.  Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, sliiiide, clap clap clap, mumble a prayer, repeat.  They must have abs of steel.  It takes hours to go around once. 

Tsetang; pigrims making prostrations

Our last monastery was on Tuesday, Samye Monastery, built in the 8th century, in a combined Tibetan, Chinese, and Indian style. Lots of Buddha statues in here, and also butter mandalas, like the sand ones but vertical and made from butter mixed with sorghum flour and coloring, kind of like a fondant. Some are pretty amazing, and in January’s Butter Festival, they make huge, 20 meter high towers of butter, with all kinds of decorations and carvings.  Tibetans believe that more colors equals more good luck.  

Samye Monastery; Chris at prayer wheel; butter mandala

And that is Tibet. Tomorrow we take a 24 hour train to Lanzhou, China, on the Silk Road. We probably should have flown, but we like sleeper trains, and we wanted to see the scenery of Eastern Tibet. I will finish up my China blog and post then, so be on the lookout.  On Saturday we fly to Seoul, Korea. 


Mongolia: April 22-28, 2015

With a hankering to try mare’s milk and see the world’s largest equestrian statue, we decided to include Mongolia on our trip. It’s a two hour direct flight from Beijing, and we had a week to kill between our North Korea tour and a planned tour to Tibet. We would have liked to take the train to Mongolia, but it takes two days and also we would have had to wait a day or two to start the train journey, so it would have cut our time in-country very short. 

So. We flew from Beijing to Ulaan Battar (after an 8 hour delay due to “weather”), and got to our hostel.  The flight flew in over the Gobi Desert and it was amazing to see it from the air. The next day we went to Terelj National park, a beautiful, empty place out on the steppes. We hiked around, rode some horses, and stayed in a ger, which is the same as a yurt (the Turkish word for a round, felt house that can be moved from place to place). A lady named Anna cooked our meals and showed us how to work the wood fired stove (it was pretty cold at night!). It was really lovely out there. 

In the city of Ulaan Battar, we visited various Ginghis Khan related places. Lots of giant statues of him all over the place. Including a giant- world’s largest- equestrian statue of Ginghis riding a horse, covered in steel plates.  You can even take an elevator up to the horse’s head and stand up there, seeing for miles around, snow-capped mountains in the distance. 

Ulaan Battar, surprisingly, has some pretty good food options. We had Russian food, Turkish food, and Mongolian food while we were here. One local specialty is a slightly fermented drink made from mare’s milk.  It wasn’t terrible, it tasted like drinking sour cream or yogurt. We also had a local dumpling type food called khushuur, made with meat inside, which is sometimes fried and sometimes boiled in milk-tea. Speaking of, we asked about yak butter tea, a famous Mongolian thing, and were told two different things. One person said only the true nomads- way far away- drink that and it’s disgusting and smells horrible. Another person said it’s simply hot tea with yak milk and salt. A yak, after all, is just a very shaggy type of cow. 

We visited a beautiful Buddhist monastery called Gandantegchenling. The Mongolian Buddhists share the same kind of Buddhism that Tibetans do, and both countries fought for independence from China. Many Mongolian monasteries were burned down during the Communist Soviet purges of the 1940’s.  In addition to Buddhism, many Mongolians are animists, believing in the spirits of nature, such as wind, water, and sky.  There are many awaas around the area, which are rock cairns with prayer flags where Mongolian shamans make prayers for good luck or positive outcomes. 

The Mongolian National History museum was really informative, with rooms taking the visitor from Paleolithic to modern times, including a section on the Mongol empire of course. Good stuff. We downloaded the 2004 movie Mongol: Rise of an Empire, but we need one with subtitles. It’s supposed to be a pretty good movie about Ginghis Khan. 

We enjoyed our time in Mongolia, but regretted that we didn’t have enough time to get out farther afield. 


North Korea, April 14-21

From Beijing it’s a two hour flight on Air Koryo to get to North Korea. The visa only costs 50 Euro, so we decided to go. The country closed its borders from October to March due to Ebola, but reopened in April.  It is not, contrary to popular belief, illegal for Americans to travel to North Korea. The only way any travelers can go is with a group, so we booked a week long tour with Young Pioneer Tours. They also run tours to Iran, Haiti, Mongolia- their motto is “we go places your mother doesn’t want you to go”. We picked a tour that was the week of the biggest national holiday in DPRK, which is President Kim il Sung’s 103rd birthday. Yes, he’s dead, but he would be 103. And yes, he’s still the President. His son, Kim Jung il, was the General, and his son, Kim Jung Un, is the Grand Marshall.

Chris and Deah in the DPRK

 Some of our group took the train in (24 hours) from Beijing, but Americans aren’t allowed, so several of us flew in. We all regrouped at the hotel- 19 tourists, 1 Australian guide, 2 North Korean minders, 1 North Korean guide, and a bus driver. A pretty mixed group- 2 Irish, 5 Americans, 3 Australians, a Russian, a Slovenian,  etc. Chris and I were the oldest, but not by too much. We stayed at the Yanggakdo Hotel, one of 17 hotels in Pyongyang, which foreigners can stay at. A pretty nice place, it has 48 floors (except no floor 5, check the Internet for theories why), and a revolving restaurant at the top- lovely views of the city. Downstairs there are several bars, a pool, bowling alley, massage, ping pong tables, billiards, karaoke, a tea house, and an international communications center, where you can (for a high fee), call, fax, email, or Internet with the rest of the world. A call to the U.S. is 5 euro a minute. Hot water from 6-8 am and 8-10 pm.

The Yanggakdo Hotel

 Dinner, and some drinks, getting to know our group.  Then off to bed. The next day, after breakfast at the hotel,we were off to see the capital, Pyongyang. Our first stop was The Palace of the Sun.  No hats, no sunglasses, no cameras. It’s the building where both Kim Il Sung (died 1994) and Kim Jung Il (died 2011) lie in state. They are embalmed, and you can view the bodies. You have to line up in two rows, and bow in front, bow on the left side, and bow on the right side.
The Palace of the Sun

The Palace of the Sun

 Next stop was the Grand Monument, 20 meter high bronze statues of both Kim il Sung and Kim Jung il. When they created the statue of the first guy, the people wanted to make a giant bronze statue of the second guy, but he said, “No, I’m just a man, working hard for my country. I don’t need a 20 meter bronze statue.”  But then he died. So the people made a big bronze statue and put them up in every city in the country.  When you go visit these statues, you have to line up in two rows, bow, then walk up to the statues and deposit flowers. Handily, these flowers are for sale nearby for 5 euro.

The Grand Monument

 We went to a city park next, where, since it was a national holiday, many families and groups were picnicking and practicing dances. We watched one group, joined in, and generally caused a scene. A grass keeper had to yell at the crowd to get off the grass. With a bullhorn. He was mad.  After, we went to the Arch of Triumph- just like the one in Paris, but, naturally, bigger- and they had a mass dance. 2000 university students, dancing, in traditional jogori dress for the girls and white shirts, black pants, and red ties for the boys. They practice mass dances every year, and perform them in the Arirang Games, except 2006, when the U.S. called them the Axis of Evil and they were so so sad, they couldn’t dance that year. True story. My guide told me. 2006 was her year and she was very sad to not compete.
Mass Dance

Mass Dance

After the dance, we went to the Caeson Fun Park, and rode some roller coasters! The locals paid about the equivalent of $1, while we had to pay $5 each ride.  But it was like a fast pass at Disneyworld; we got to go to the front of the line. A bunch of our group rode a ride that was like a giant, twisting, pendulum, and it was the scariest ride I’ve ever been on. And I used to work at Six Flags and I’ve ridden them all. Scar.I.Est.
Caeson Fun Park

Caeson Fun Park

At last it was time for fireworks! Celebrating the 103rd birthday of the Dear Leader.
103rd Birthday Celebration

103rd Birthday Celebration

Unfortunately, in the hubbub of downtown Pyongyang, we lost five of our group members, and it took an hour to locate them. So that was fun.  Imagine being lost, on your own, in downtown North Korea. And the five weren’t even all together!!! They were one, one, and three! They were traumatized. Luckily we all made it back to the hotel and to bed.
Day 2: The DMZ
We drove down the wide, six lane empty highway to Panmunjon, where the DMZ is located. We were the only vehicle on the road. They made the highway so wide because they want to be able to mobilize tanks and troops down it quickly if the puppet South Koreans/ imperialist Americans invade. All along the highway are mountain passes rigged with explosives to detonate and bury the highway if needed. At the DMZ, they had us bow to a plaque showing the signature of the great leader, then showed us the room where the armistice was signed- they showed us the copy “left behind by the Americans because they were so embarrassed by their defeat”.  They did not show us the tree from the 1976 incident.
All in all, they were pretty relaxed around there. They took photos with us, answered our questions, and as soon as we left the actual demarcation line, they disappeared back into their little hut (it was cold and drizzly that day). There were not actually soldiers staring down their guns at each other. Perhaps they were somewhere else.
Chris and Deah at the DMZ

Chris and Deah at the DMZ

After the DMZ, we visited their gift shop (every tourist site in the DMZ has a gift shop), where we picked up some fabulous postcards and stamps. I got extra; let me know if you want one.
Lunch was next, (dog soup optional. No, not kidding) and then we visited the burial site of an ancient Koryo King and queen.  It was looted by the Japanese during their occupation.  On the way back into Pyongyang, we stopped at the Reunification Monument, two giant angels holding a globe that has the Korean Peninsula reunified. BBQ duck for dinner, mmmm yum.
Dog Soup; Koryo Graves

Dog Soup; Koryo Graves

Day 3: Pyongyang 
We visited the early childhood home of Kim il sung, although his actual birth place is reportedly mt. Paektu, the highest mountain of Korea and where they believe the son of heaven will descend from. Draw your own conclusions. 

We went on a trip to the Metro. The deepest in the world, averaging 110 meters.  Each station has a huge mural painted along one wall, representing a socialist ideal.  Each station is named something like Prosperity, Loyalty, or Triumph.  Huge chandeliers light up the stations, and the metro cars. are the ones that used to be in East Berlin. State newspapers hang in glass cases all along the station so the workers can read the state sponsored news while they wait for the train. When they get married, city dwellers apply for housing near their offices, so bus, tram, or metro commutes are quite short and cost the equivalent of five cents. There are very few cars; many people walk or ride bicycles around the city.  Traffic wardens stand at intersections and direct traffic.
Traffic warden; the metro

Traffic Warden; the metro

We finished the metro at the Triumph station, and came up at the Arch of Triumph, celebrating the 1925-1945 campaign for liberation from the Japanese.  Then we walked to the foreign language bookshop, where we could purchase Kim il Sung’s autobiography, all kinds of pamphlets and treatises on socialism, the Juche philosophy, the imperialist Americans, the revisionist Japanese, and anecdotes from the leaders’ lives. We could also pick up copies of the weekly English edition of the Pyongyang Times. It is fascinating, and I picked up several.  Only 8 pages long, but in each edition, two pages are dedicated to exposing American atrocities.
Victory Arch; Bookstore Wares

Victory Arch; Bookstore Wares

We rode up to the top of the Juche Tower, a 150 meter tall tower with a red flame at the top.  It’s a monument to the Juche philosophy, which is basically the idea that we control our own destiny and that with hard work we can achieve our aims. The bottom of the tower is paved with tiles engraved with the names of Juche Societies around the world.
Juche Tower and the View of Pyongyang

Juche Tower and the view of Pyongyang

And then the flower show! Featuring, of course, the kimjungilia and the kimsungilia.  Groups and societies and clubs get together, and make a flower display, featuring a monument or scene from Korea, 90% of which feature one of the dear leaders. And then they present them at the annual flower show. They kind of reminded me of the Annual Peeps Dioramas.
The Flower Show

The Flower Show


Later, in The Day That Would Not End, we went to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.  The star attraction here is the USS Pueblo, an American ship captured in 1968. I thought Chris’s head was going to pop off during that presentation.  Inside the museum was actually pretty cool, with well made models, dioramas, and a really amazing 130 meter long panorama, painted by 45 artists, featuring over 20,000 human figures at some battle that I’m sure the Koreans were victorious at. 

Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

Victorious Fatherland liberation War Museum

Finally, dinner. We had lamb and chicken, kimchi, soup, and noodles. Then we went to a microbrewery, where we could try a barley beer, a rice beer, or a coffee flavored beer (2 euro each). We were the only people in the bar. The bar closed at ten pm and we went back to our hotel.  Did I mention that one member of our group was ill that day and had to stay at the hotel? One of our minder guide had to stay with him. 
Hanging at the local bar... with no locals

Hanging at the local bar…. with no locals

Day 4: to Namp’o
In the morning we went to the four-story Korean national treasure house. When they opened the front doors and the light shone in upon the two huge marble statues, I was surprised to not hear a choir of angels singing. We bowed to the statues. Chris, as per usual, seemed to be fumbling with his camera at the exact moment that everyone else was bowing. The treasure house was much like the Sultan of Brunei’s, except all the gifts are from Koreans who live abroad and are so, so sad to be separated from their dear leader.  Although, some of them must be okay with being separated, because some of the gifts cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so they are probably pretty happy to have all their capitalist money and not be socialists. My personal favorite was the portrait of Kim Jung Il, in full ancient Koryo dress, riding a tiger.  No cameras allowed, but I was able to get this snap from the Internet.
Full Koryo Dress, riding a tiger

Full Koryo Dress, riding a tiger

Lunch was a lovely picnic at a park on the side of Mt Ryangak.  Lots of Korean wedding couples were out there today, and all week, because it’s traditional to do a city tour the day of the wedding, getting wedding photos taken in front of all the monuments, and April is an especially happy time to be married, due to the national holiday and also the cherry blossoms. The ladies all wear the full jogori dress and the men wear suits. Quite fetching.

Going to the chapel, no, the statue to get married

A mineral water factory was next. They make 8000 bottles an hour. We saw the machinery, drank a sample, and saw a capped geyser of mineral water.
Because everyone loves babies, we visited an orphanage/nursery. There is one in each province. The orphanage also takes in multiples- if a family has triplets or quadruplets, they can bring the babies to the orphanage/ nursery to get nurses to help them care for them while they are babies. The babies can stay there during the day and overnight as well if the parents can’t handle it at home (remember, no nannies or maids here!).  Mothers get five months maternity leave- three months before the baby is born, two after. The orphanage we visited had about 140 kids, and one set of triplets born in January.  Super cute.

A day at the orphanage

We stayed the night at a hot springs resort, in a pretty fancy villa- fancy in a 1960’s way.  Totally Shag Palace.  The bathrooms had a huge, two person tile mosaic hot tub, with piping hot mineral water pouring in.  It was quite relaxing. For dinner we had famous Nampho clams, cooked outside in petrol by our bus driver. Strangely, they don’t taste like gasoline.

Staying in Nampho

Day 5: West Sea to Pyongyang 
Our first stop today was at a dam, called the West Sea Barrage.  It separates the West Sea from Korean farmland. The great leader visited there, realized the need for a dam, and because he’s such a great engineer, designed one himself and had it built in five years. We watched a rousing video showing the army volunteers building the dam. It had stirring music and reminded me of the opening scene from Les Miserables.
The Dear Leader at the Dam

The Dear Leader at the Dam

Next we went to Chongsan farm cooperative. 2500 people live there, of which 1000 are farmers, the others being children, old people, teachers, clinic doctors, and administrators. The farmers get work points for the hours they work, which then gets them rice, food rations, and a salary. In the city an average salary is around $30 to $50 a month, but I think it’s less in the countryside. Much less. The men are given four free beer tickets a month (none for the women).

The great leader at a collective farm

Lunch was Pyongyang cold noodles, apparently a famous dish.  Chris really liked them. At every restaurant, a video of what we called “the North Korean spice girls”- an all female military rock band that play at official functions, was playing- the guys in our group all found their military skirts and high heels quite sexy. The same video played on both our Air Koryo flights. At most our meals, the waitresses sang karaoke for us as well. There was much dancing.

The North Korean Spice Girls

Back in Pyongyang now, we went to the sports centers. We visited the shooting range. You could play virtual shooting games, use a bow and arrow, or fire a pistol or a rifle. Outside, you can shoot a .22 rifle at a chicken.  If you killed it you could keep it.

At the Shooting Range

The last stop for the day was an indoor water park. For 10 euros (foreigner price), you get admission, a swimsuit, towel, and bathing cap.  Slides, a wave pool, swimming lanes, and diving boards, plus a bakery, a bar, and a coffee shop.  And a sauna and barber shop. Here I was able to snap this fabulous photo of the dear leader at the beach.

At the swimming pool

Day 6: Pyongyang
The day started with a trip to the film studio, where we could walk through street sets of ancient Korea, Japan, 1960’s Europe, etc. We all dressed up in Koryo costumes and did a photo, and then we watched part of a Korean movie.

The Film Studio

The Children’s Palace in Pyongyang was under renovation, so we could only see the outside. Students go to school from about 8 to noon, eat lunch, and then go to a central building for extracurriculars like music, sports,  calligraphy, embroidery, or extra study hours.  Gifted middle school and high school students have the option of being sent to a central boarding school instead of their local regular school.  When students finish high school, the boys generally join the military for three years, and the girls for 1-2 years, but it’s not mandatory (but it is highly desired for dating/marriage prospects). After military, or instead of, they go to university or go to work in a factory or other job.  At the end of university, the best students are invited to join the government in different capacities.
Mansudae art studio is where all the artists work, and they make all the huge bronze statues, the huge marble statues, the tile mosaics, and any other art pieces deemed necessary.

Some works by the artists collective

Kim Jung Suk textile factory dormitory is a newly built, very nice dormitory for women that work at the textile factory.  It has 330 rooms, and each room houses 7 girls! Wow, I thought having one roommate in college was hard, imagine 6.  Their dormitory includes a bathing room (hot and cold pools, dry and wet sauna, showers), a library, sundries shop, tailor, dining hall, and outside sports area.
The Raekwon Department Store was next, three floors of extremely high priced goods. The pricing system in Pyongyang is. Very weird and hard to explain.  I saw an external hard drive with a “450 won” price tag, and a basketball that was 1150.  A nice dress was 32000 won. There are two pricing systems; those for people paying with ration cards and NKW and those with hard currency like euros.
And, finally, we wound up at a bowling alley.  I love the photo of Kim Jung Il visiting there.  We rented some shoes, bowled a game- 115- and left. It was during the workday so there were only a few Koreans in there.

Bowling, anyone?

And that was our trip.  Pretty bizarre.  A fully packed week, seeing so many things.  In general the Koreans we met were very nice, but we were not really allowed to interact with locals at all. It’s so hard to figure out what is real, what is propaganda, what life is like for the regular person on a daily basis.  We took about 1100 photos so if you want to see more of North Korea, let me know when Chris and I come to Texas/Virginia in July to see our dear comradesfriends and family, and we’ll show you the whole thing. 
I’m including some links below that will offer a bit more insight into life in North Korea:
Wiki travel, an online travel guide about North Korea
Nothing to envy, a nonfiction book about six people who lived in North Korea
Only beautiful please, a nonfiction book written by a former British Ambassador to North Korea
A Kim Jung Il Production, a true story about a kidnapped actress and her husband