I followed my instincts, and made my way to North Korea.
From now onwards I will try to refer to the country as DPRK (Democratic Peoples of Korea). Koreans in the North of the country prefer that it is not referred to as a segregation between North and South as is commonly perceived, in their view it is in fact one country on the path towards reunification.
The only way to visit DPRK if you are a tourist is part of a reasonably strictly controlled organised tour. You can't just rock up with a backpack and go exploring around willy nilly.
Contrary to popular perception, visiting the country is a safe albeit surreal experience, and is open to anyone regardless of nationality. We had a South Korean as part of our tour group and also had an adventurous tour guide called Chris (a USA citizen) leading from our end and able to provide in depth information on the country. He's worked all across the DPRK and was extremely knowledgeable about the situation on the ground here. We were able to direct any politically sensitive questions and debates his way.
I chose to take a tour that is far away from the 'mainstream' tourist route to DPRK, which typically involves going to the capital city Pyongyang. I'm told that going to the capital is much more of a 'showcase' experience than what we got to see where we went, which was in the very Northern tip of the country.
This part of the country has a very low profile as far as tourism goes and apparently less than 50 tourists visit this region of the country every year. As a result we were a very small group, only 7 of us including our US tour guide. To me this was an ideal number of people to have on such a trip. We were all adventurously spirited and got on well from the start. Of course,we also typically had one or two DRPK 'minders', who would basically direct us towards what we could and could not do, and make sure that nobody attempted to go off on one with some kind of religious or imperialist agenda....
..........RASON - SPECIAL ECONOMIC ZONE..........
We based our trip around the town of Rason, a special economic zone of the DRPK with more liberal trade policies than the rest of the country, as it is the place where the DRPK facilitates trade with neighbouring China and Russia. There is a bank here and as it happens, this is the only place IN THE WORLD where foreigners can obtain DPRK banknotes. There is a strict rule against taking the currency out the country. Of course, I made sure to stock up on a load of these notes and smuggle them out with me!
We were given a fair amount of autonomy by our minders who were on the most part very open and understanding about everything that we wanted to do. On the most part, they were most concerned about what we took pictures of. Sometimes this seemed pretty obvious, such as no pictures of the military or other national security related infrastructure. Other restrictions seemed to relate generally to signs that the country is still developing, such as pictures of buildings under construction, the poor countryside, tower blocks and farm houses, etc.
This was often simply out of respect for the people in question. Because of the fact that this is North Korea, even pictures of everyday and rudimentary stuff all of a sudden become essential...but they do just consider it a bit rude to be sticking your camera in peoples faces without asking. As a point in question, when the picture to your right was taken (of people piling into the back of a public bus), several people on the bus actually got angry and started approaching us. They were clearly offended and started shouting at us as we were quickly ushered back into our tour vehicle with warnings that the situation could very quickly and easily have 'escalated'...
I would imagine a lot of you reading this will be expecting this report to focus on how shocking, inhumane, depressing and otherwise negative everything must be in the DRPK, due to the authoritarian regime that rules the country. In fact, the main focus of my story is indeed surprising but takes a slightly different focus than you might expect, providing an alternative outlook to that presented by the mainstream media and that what you have most likely already been exposed to from the various documentaries on the subject currently making the rounds.
That said, there are one or two of these pretty undeniably negatively shocking things I'd like to get our of the way before we proceed. Most vivid in my mind was the anti-USA propaganda posters that were prevalent in many public institutions - it was not actually the existence of the posters themselves that I found unnerving, I was expecting this kind of thing - what was shocking to me that these were admonishing the walls of the schools and kindergartens we visited, often depicting the violent elimination of (clearly labelled!) US troops, in the worst case actual decapitation was shown but we were shooed away from taking pictures by our minders.
I think it is the exposure of the children at such a young age with these political concepts that I found most shocking of all that I saw in the country. We visited a few schools during our trip, at one point we had around an hour talking session where we could help the kids practice their English - they were around 7 years old and had a surprisingly good grasp of the language for their age. Through our conversations, I discovered that the girls invariably all want to move to the capital, Pyongyang when they grow up, with ambitions varying from scientist to lawyer. All the boys want to be in the army...
This probably has something to do with the pervasive militant propoganda, including murals in town squares, schools and a large screen in Rason town centre. This seemed mostly to be showing reports of Dear Leader Kim Jong-un travelling around the country generally going great things (including opening a new horse racing track). Quite disturbing though was at one point there was a military band being screened - they were singing and the South Korean who was on our tour translated their chant for us:"We will die for you!".
So that summarises a lot of the outwardly negative stuff that I personally got to witness in the country. Of course, they aren't going to take us to visit concentration camps or to witness people starving, but I'll get onto a point about that later on. In the meantime I'm going to go into some of the fun stuff that went on during our trip.
After a long and exhausting first day in the country we all went to have a massage (actually the first time I've ever been to a massage place...first time/place for everything I guess). We indicated to our minders that we were not in fact quite ready to go to bed yet and we'd like to go for some drinks. We ended up going to a couple of local bars and then to a karaoke place.
Like all Asian countries it seems, they love karaoke rather a lot in North Korea! We stayed at this one place for a while and got to know the girls working their who seemed keen to hang around with us. Our minders on the other hand were completely tired and not much in the mood for drinking, and they actually just went to bed leaving us completely unsupervised. At some point we moved from the standard karaoke room to another large room that was like a mini-nightclub, complete with disco lights and loud sound system etc. We had a good little party going on!
Now the precise sequence of events escapes me, maybe because of the large amounts of strange wine spirit drink we were getting through. I do remember at some point that the Korean bar girls asked two of the guys including me to take off our shirts. I remember the other guy had mentioned to me that he'd been studying kung-fu so I was getting him to show me some moves and I demonstrated some tae-kwon do kicks. I mean that is a Korean martial art after all.
Probably most bewildering was to find myself singing 'up town girl' on the karaoke with no shirt on while our American tour leader was getting off with one of the Korean girls. I'm not sure whether this would still have happened had our minders not been asleep!
We discovered later that it's basically unheard of any these trips to DPRK getting quite so 'wild' before!
---------------INTO THE UNDERGROWTH-------------
The next day, it was understandably painful to get up at 8am in the morning, but nevertheless it was essential that we made progress and we headed out on a bus to the countryside and headed for the industrial city of Chongqching.
The countryside in this part of country is pretty epically beautiful and our route took us along the seaside, so it was a really nice, if extremely bumpy journey.
As well as the amazing landscapes, another thing I rather like about the countryside is the abundance of special weed that grows freely about the place!
Now before I came to DPRK, I had read somewhere that weed is not technically illegal or regulated at all in the country. This does infact make complete sense, as it was the mighty wisdom of the USA that made it illegal in the first place, for reasons very little to do with public health and very much to do with defending private hemp, alcohol and tobacco industry interests. So it follows that DPRK would be one place in the world that wouldn't have fallen under this particular stranglehold!
So anyway, we were at liberty to stop the bus and go searching for the good stuff. The minders didn't know what it was, but were generally curious. We explained to them as best we could that it was 'medicine' and that it is controlled in many countries - they even helped us translate to a local farmer guy who pointed us in the direction where we could find some more.
We arrived at the city of Chongjin which is a large industrial city with a lot of heavy industry and steel - it's sometimes referred to as the City of Iron. We were strongly monitored on taking pictures in this particular place. Not many tourists visit and problems have occurred in the past with people taking photos of the wrong stuff, which once previously ended up with the military getting involved and generally causing a big fuss.
As in most places we visited, we were taken to a few monuments and museums in the town. There was some very interesting revolutionary history here including some tree carvings that many Koreans died in a fire in order to protect.
We also had an obligatory visit to the monument depicting President Kim Jong-Il and President Kim Il-Sung. We were instructed to approach the statue, lay flowers and bow to the Dear leaders. Also any photographs you take must include the whole picture, no chopping off the edges, crappy blurry pictures or anything like that.
We also visited a public library where we could observe a large amount of computers for public use (around 200 or so in the building), a foreign language section etc. A lot of the kids were playing computer games when we came to visit, tut tut.
The country does not have internet as such, but what they do have is a country-wide network of servers for sharing news and information. The university students in Pyongyang have even developed their own network browser software called Red Star. Did you really expect North Koreans to use that demon spawn of US imperialism, Internet Explorer?
At some point after having a lunch we attempted to drive to another part of the city when we realised that the city was eerily quiet - the streets were completely empty, no cars, no people, nobody to be seen not even at any of the windows. We then realised that the military had the entire city on lockdown. Nobody was allowed anywhere and we were angrily ordered to go back to the restaurant from whence we'd come and stay there until further instructions arrived.
So anyway the town was in this state of lock down for about 40 minutes or so. We found out in the end that this was basically a military orchestrated drill. Due to the ongoing political tensions with the South of the country and the the US imperialists, such drills are evidently a necessary precaution.
Eventually we were given the all clear to continue on our journey, and as we drove through it was clear that it was indeed the whole city that was affected by this surprise lock down drill. We noticed that there were a lot of the mega-phone adorned mobile broadcast vehicles driving around, presumably now telling everyone that it was okay to come out again.
The whole thing was completely unscheduled and I guess these cars had gone round earlier on to signal the start of the drill but we'd manage not to notice, hence the fact we got caught out in the middle of it.
One thing that was quite humorous was getting stopped a further three times by confused and somewhat disbelieving soldiers who'd obviously not got the message that the lockdown was now in fact, over.
We visited another school when we were in Chongjin. We were told we were going to see a performance and to buy some sweets to give to the kids. When they told us about going to see a kid's show, I thought this was probably gonna be fairly cute to see but nothing could really prepare me for the ridiculously amazing performance they actually put on for us...
As well as incredibly well choreographed dancing and singing, these kids could play a wide variety of instruments to what essentially would be a pretty professional level for a western adult! We saw them playing various oriental stringed instruments,the piano, drums, violins, even guitars! The show was really impressive and I was pretty gobsmacked.
There was an air of weirdness from to it, mostly their young age, but also the fact you can make out the words of some of the songs to be about the current Dear leader, Kim Jong-un. Also it does make you think how hard these kids work to get to such a good level! We were told that they do practice for several hours everyday.
It would be easiest to assume that, because this is North Korea, these kids must have been driven against their will to become this good. This may well be true, but that would be an assumption at the end of the day. The fact is we do not know if that is true at all or if perhaps these kids are brought up to actually enjoy what they are doing and to value working hard to become good at what they do. Remember this is a country brought up on values of hard work, not on eating junk food and watching satellite TV.
As I wasn't able to make any radio recordings in the country, instead the recorded soundtrack provided at the bottom of this report features the music from these kids' performance. You can also find a full length video recording of the show. I strongly recommend you check it out!
..............MADE IN CHINA..............
One of the interesting things we did in DPRK was to go and visit a couple of factories, a shoe factory and also a textile factory. We were allowed to wander around as much as we wanted and see all the different production stages going on in the two factories, take pictures of anything we wanted.
In the textile factory there was something quite surprising to learn about the global textile supply chain. At the end of the line you can see the finished products, all proudly bearing the label 'MADE IN CHINA'. This wasn't just random generic stuff though, this particular factory was producing garments for the well known western brand "The North Face" which you have probably heard of!
We all know that big western clothes designers outsource their production to China because the production costs are so much cheaper...but what most people probably don't realise is that the Chinese will then sometimes further sub-contract their manufacturing to the DPRK, because obviously it's EVEN CHEAPER there!
So don't necessarily believe everything you see on labels, kids!
We'll get onto more about this later, but in reality, big business doesn't care much about what the politicians are faffing about with and will the influence of corporate capitalism will always find a way to leverage cheap labour or abundant mineral resources wherever they may be.
So much for "not supporting authoritarian regimes" (which by the way is a ridiculous and counter productive concept anyway). More about that later!
............FUN TIMES IN THE MARKET...........
Back in Rason, we got the opportunity to visit a real DPRK market place and to spend some of the currency we'd got hold of earlier. This was a large and very busy local market where the real people do their shopping for groceries, clothes and whatever else. The market has indoor and outdoor areas and there were at least 1,000 people there when we visited, with hundreds of stalls.
We were told not to take pictures here, though I did manage to covertly pop a few off. Some of the fascinating items bought among our group included nuts, a piece of pipe, and some badges.
These badges are the focus of story, because my god did they create a scene quite unlike anything I've seen before, or likely ever will again! They are little badges with red stars on them, and they are worn by the young kids to indicate their 'rank' before they are qualified to officially be called a 'Young Pioneer'. It's essentially similar to the scouts or whatever in the UK.
So to wear these particular badges basically means that you are a complete noob, the lowest of the low - completely unqualified for any leadership activity whatsoever, probably incapable of trying your own shoelaces - that kind of thing!
Once we knew what they were, a few of us put them on and proceeded to proudly strut around the market place with our noob badges on display...and the entire place was absolutely roaring with laughter at us! Wherever we walked, we would have row after row of the ladies behind the stalls pointing us out to their friends, absolutely cracking up laughing and saluting us.
It was a very surreal experience to walk around this market place being the subject of a massive scene with everyone laughing at us, and as a result I found it pretty hard to concentrate on any of the goods actually on sale!
At one point I noticed we were being flanked by a couple of police officers. I was a bit worried that things might 'escalate' but I think they were just curious about what all the fuss was about. I did however find out later that apparently those badges are no longer allowed to be sold to tourists! Oh well, so we probably spoilt that for everyone...was awesome while it lasted!
..........CULTURES AND CUSTOMS.........
It's probably about time I started to wrap this section up. We did a lot of other things I havn't been able to go into, but I'll provide a generously large gallery picture section that will show off some of the other things we saw and did.
In general, I think the trip was made all the better for the fact it was a small group of young people and the tour company itself which specialises in adventurous type tours for young people. I'm not gonna name the company here, but if you're interested, send me a message. They even accept bitcoins!
While seeing quite an overwhelming amount of stuff during each day, we tended to spend our evenings in various KTV places, drinking and smoking up until the early hours of the morning. At one point we convinced our NK minders to sample some of our special medicinal smoke (bear in mind they'd never tried this before). This had some extremely humorous results and everyone ended up well and truly baked.
Just before we left the country, we did get to visit a place in the mountains that is at the intersection between the three countries of North Korea, Russia and China. It was a clear day and kind of cool being able to see these three countries in one spot.
This was the last place we visited before we made our way back to Wongjong customs, on the border between DPRK and China. I didn't mention this before, but they are pretty strict over electronic items and other sensitive materials coming in and out of the country (including religious texts, news publications etc.) When we entered, they took all of our devices, including laptops, mp3 players, cameras, SD cards etc. and made a note of what we had. It was important we took the same things out that we took in with us. Presumably, they don't want some twit attempting to leave a USB stick filled with US imperialist propaganda, or other such rubbish.
On our way out, they checked the list of items and also went through all the laptops and memory cards, deleting pictures that they didn't want leaving the country. They didn't delete much, but alas, the picture of female NK soldiers holding AK-47's didn't make it out! They also went through our bags pretty thoroughly. Don't ask me why, but I had a sex toy in my bag. Rest assured, it was for perfectly legitimate reasons. I don't fully understand why, but the customs guard was not satisfied about my explanation of what it was and confiscated it!
Having a sex toy confiscated from me by North Korean border guards is just one of those situations that I never could have anticipated would happen to me.
.............WHERES THE BEEF?..............
To finish off this report, I'm going to go into some of the broader, meatier political issues that one wouldn't go to a place like DPRK unless you have an interest in.
The first thing relates to the idea of tourism itself, something that is increasing year-on-year. I've occasionally dealt with the argument that tourism to this country is unethical, because "you are supporting the regime". This is a completely childish and short-sighted piece of pants to come out with. For a start, tourism is on such a small scale that it makes a negligible contribution to the regime/economy. Even if it didn't however, this is one of very few things that is going to help 'open up' the country to western culture and capitalist interest, as it seems everybody assumes this is a critical thing that needs to happen in this country as soon as possible...
Tourism is beginning to invite foreign investment in the country and is also having a gradual but definite impact on the people working in this industry, but also on the local people. Even down to the small details...local people inevitably end up seeing and often talking to us as tourists. They will see the way we dress, the expensive camera's we are flashing around the place. They hear about and actually witness what we do for fun, our travel stories, the type of work we do, our hobbies and interests.
I wonder what the kids I spoke to think about all the countries I mentioned that I've travelled to, when a lot of them have never left their home town (and obviously not travelled outside of their own country!)
Infinitely more significant than the impacts from tourism however, will be the relentless transformative force of global capitalism. I do believe that this will inevitably work to erode the control of the regime in this country. As it has unarguably managed to do so in most other countries on this earth!
Indeed, the evidence of this is already apparent in the places we visited. I already mentioned about the clothes manufacturing supply chain. Also, the ever enterprising Chinese (and Russia, Brazil to a lesser extent) have got their sights on the mineral resources locked up in the beautiful North Korean mountains. The Chinese have built a set of roads leading into the country. The Chinese and Russian have also collaborated to improve train lines and build an industrial port complex.
Although not currently being used to anywhere near its full extent, this type of emerging infrastructure does not get built without an expected return on investment....and the Chinese have proved themselves to be very efficient indeed at securing such returns! The Chinese have also built a couple of massive luxury hotel complexes...we visited one and it was interesting to note that the staff there did not actually speak Korean.
Information technology is another unstoppable force in the world. They have crude methods at the border points for attempting to stop information and devices coming in and out of the country, but it really is only a matter of time before cheap abundance of technology opens up more communication channels for the outside world, including for the ordinary people. Many of the local people do have mobile phones these days for a start. Business people also can get access to the internet for business reasons. They are also allowed pretty free roam, and we saw Chinese business men wandering around the town of Rason on their mobiles, clearly arranging important deals.
I believe all these factors are gradually going to work to irreversibly change things for this country, all the way up
to the highest levels of government. The current Dear Leader has already clearly been drawn by the temptation of many aspects of western fashions and culture, and although him and his elite are currently some of the few people in the country who can currently experience this exposure, soon enough, somebody will come to power and will figure out a way to make themselves money by bringing some of this stuff to the rest of the North Korean people. For better or for worse...
Now there is also obviously something to be said about the fact that, as tourists, we would have received a very 'sanitised' perspective on the country. No, they didn't take us to see their forced labour camps, or to watch people starving to death (neither ills of which are by any means unique to North Korea).
In fact, these people were very keen to show us things that they like about the country, the things they are proud of. In a similar way, if you go to visit the US, nobody is going to want to take you on a tour round the projects, or if you visit the UK, a trip to a dodgy crime ridden council estate probably won't feature highly on the agenda!
Furthermore, I think by reading this you can see that we were actually given some degree of freedom to actually interact with the people. It was not like the whole thing was some kind of well orchestrated show...it wasn't the case that everyone we were allowed to talk to was a party fanatic actor hell bent on misleading us on the realities of the country. It was controlled, but this is a poor, run down place. Their propaganda methods are crude - they don't have spy camera's and drones, the tour guides count themselves very lucky to have a job attempting to present a positive view of their country to largely clueless and judgemental American tourists. If you treat the guides with respect rather than suspicion they are happy to open up a little bit and as a result we did get to experience some of the raw realities of the country.
This country was bombed into complete despair during the Korean war and as a result they have extreme reverence for the leaders that worked to rally the people and build the country up again. Sadly, as with all the large scale attempts at state enforced communism the world has so far seen, as a consequence the country suffered from gross mismanagement of resources and famine.
As a result you see a developing country consisting largely of poor farming communities, getting on with their day to day life. When you get away from the cities with the propaganda murals, lockdowns etc, what you see is roots level agriculture, very much similar to the reality of life for the vast majority of people living on this Earth.
You can decry the fact that these poor people simply don't know the extent of the political mismanagement going on in their country because they have been 'brainwashed'... but similarly, how much do the poor farming people in ANY country really understand about the extent of their respective governments systematically funneling wealth from the poor to the rich?
I'm by no means excusing what are some pretty horrendous things going on this country, merely trying to put things in some kind of perspective. Like it or not, consciously or otherwise, we are all subject to significant influence from our own western media and often subtle forms of propaganda that works to shape our own perceptions of the world.
As a communist regime, North Korea is an intensely proud country that rejects the idea of individuality, choosing instead to focus personal desire on supporting the country itself. The idea of following a leader without question, giving up the opportunity to have a better position in ones own life seems abhorrent from a western frame of mind.
Crime and unemployment is pretty much non-existent in the country. Having come from China, it was refreshing not to see any sign whatsoever of the huge billboards, corporate advertising, big brands and personal status that we in the West often seem to worship and work for in a way that could even be comparable to the way Koreans do for their leader.
Finally, one thing that simply cannot be faked was how happy the children in this country seem to be. They play happily together, skating, singing and exploring in big groups all around the place, under no supervision. Numerous other reports on the subject have made this same observation. Who knows, perhaps in reality all the kids are sat around eating clay but we what we saw was something completely different.
Whether you found this report interesting, boring, provocative or controversial, if you want an informed opinion on the place you really should visit North Korea immediately.
As soon as you get into China you realise it is a huge, noisy, busy, disorientating place. Obviously everything is in Chinese so the ability to at least memorise or roughly pronounce the names of places, etc. quickly goes completely out the wi ndow…
Lots of people don’t really like it in Beijing, I can see why in some ways, in particular the pollution is an issue – there were days where the sky was completely overcast…until you realise that you can make out the orange silhouette of the sun, and that the whole city is actually overcast with a thick cloud of smog!
If you’re travelling overland the route I took Beijing is an unavoidable transport hub but as a result I found it a great place to meet travellers from all over the place – as well as a huge amount of expat’s working out here, normally teaching English.
Beijing also has its fair share of big ticket, essential ‘touristy’ stuff that you kind of have to see (Great Wall, Forbidden City, endless parks, temples etc…). I did go to see all this stuff but I won’t bore you with the details, you've all probably seen the pictures of this stuff already and I’m pretty sure every other China travel blog already has that covered. I'll stick a few extra pics including these things in the gallery viewer at the bottom of the page.
...BEST NOT TO ASK…
One of my highlights in Beijing was the Chinese lantern adorned food street that stretches for about 1km. There is a huge selection of little restaurants and food stalls with hilariousy bad English semi-translations of what they have on offer – some examples:
“Fried squid leg (must be)”
“Boiled goat face”
“Garlic fans steamed dishes the doll”
All of this provides great entertainment for an evening meal. Some other special things I found on offer included duck neck, lambs testicles (lambs ‘treasures’!), snake head, dog meat, and of course, cows penis. All this stuff tasted better than they sound, though I didn’t try any dog (due to the fact that I consider dogs to be my friends) or any of the penis because according to a local “it doesn’t taste good”.
In general, when being served up dubious or mysterious looking bits of meat food that you’re not sure what it is, I’ve figured it’s probably just best not to ask!
CHINESE PUNK ROCKING
Back at the Dragon King, I made friends with a Swedish rocker dude, also by the name of Alex. We got a group of people together and headed out to a place called the School Bar for a Chinese Punk Rock. This was actually a lot better than it sounds and than what I had expected. They had a live band banging out some super hi speed Chinese punk music. There was a small Chinese girl on the drums and banging out the beats with a surprisingly impressive amount of energy.
The place got pretty rowdy and there was a good amount of ‘moshing’, generally aggressive dancing, pushing people around etc. and dancing like a moron, but not in an overly violent way. I was loving it! This was apparently one of the biggest rock bands in Beijing and after the night a big fight broke out in the street between some rival band members that my Swedish friend was doing his best to pacify, but not getting much appreciation for this whatsoever.
I do appreciate the general abundance of public toilets in China, particularly useful if you’ve had a bit to drink. Obviously they are the squat type toilets, but one thing I hadn’t seen before was a row of five of these, unsegregated. So this means you can happily be doing a wee into one of these while a Chinese guy is sat down right next to you doing a poo. It occurred to me that this is, in fact, one of the few situations in life where it would be possible for you to accidently piss on somebody else’s head. I did my best to avoid this happening, you know, cultural differences and all, you never know whether it would be appreciated or not :)
Never go to a big Chinese city like Beijing or Shanghai without a thorough grounding in the various scams going on or you will likely end up severely ripped off…or worse.
As an example, The Chinese ‘Tea Ceremony Scam’ is well documented, and involves some hot, young Chinese girls chatting to you in perfect English before leading you to have a cup of tea/coffee/beer etc. before you are landed with your share of the bill, often exceeding £100. Big Chinese guys will be blocking your exit, and the local police are in on the scam so once you are caught up in it, it’s very hard to get out.
Nearly everyone I spoke to had either had this tried on them, or managed to be sucked in by it (on one occasion, even after I specifically warned them about it!). I knew about this and a lot of others so wasn’t going to fall for it, but here is my story about how I unwittingly ended up in a pretty dodgy situation.
We’d been out drinking at a famous place in Beijing known as the heaven supermarket. This is a fabulous establishment. It started off as a normal supermarket, with a small table where customers could sit down and drink a few beers. It evolved to have a huge number of tables spreading all out into the street, while still selling booze at supermarket prices. So you get the best of all worlds. Supermarket price drinks, with the buzzing vibe and loads of people of a bar. Although it does sound too good to be true, this place is no scam, it’s one of the highlights of Beijing! You can even buy rizla paper there.
So anyway, after a load of dodgy Chinese rice wine from this place I shared with a group of expat’s I’d met, we went out to a rooftop club, continued drinking etc. It got to about 4 in the morning and I’d manage to lose track of my friends.
Due to space considerations, I’m going to have to put the rest of this story on a separate page.
Next stop from Beijing…Shanghai! Shanghai is somewhat of mega-city. The population of the city is greater than that of Holland. It’s the most developed city in China with huge, brightly illuminated skyscrapers in all directions and a buzzing nightlife.
I’m pretty sure I did a lot of stuff in this city, but there was one experience that will be permantly etched into my memory!
I got talking to a group of American students, who I’d met a previous night. They mentioned to me they were going to a music festival. I was like “oh, that sounds interesting, what type of music is it?” They told me it was psy-trance, techno, etc…so this definitely got my interest…psy trance?? In China?!... They were leaving that minute so I pretty much had to drop everything and just join them to see where on earth this would lead…
I was actually pretty surprised to find myself at what a party that was pretty much indistinguishable from the psy-trance/rave parties that I’d become so used to in the UK.
I ended up rolling and also tripping out at the party, both sorely missed activities from back home, and both of which left me really pretty pleased with myself as the sunset illuminated the beautiful Chinese farmland we were currently inhabiting…
Things took a turn for the worse though when I noticed the groups of chinese men, actually dressed in suits, standing around the place clearly monitoring the situation and waiting for the whole bloody thing to be over. Already not in a particularly sound state of mind, this was enough to send me a bit more loopy than I’m normally used to.
To cut a ridiculous and mostly non-sensical story short, I became convinced the whole thing was a set-up, a clandestine experiment designed to test some new fangled chinese research chemical drugs (hint: 25cNbome) on unwitting party goers, and observe the unpredictable behaviour of deviants like me in their product refinement process. I was also convinced that the organisers had hired a group of about 10 actors that were not actually party goers at all, they were there to represent various archetypal rave characters (drunken Belgian, non-stop raver etc.) in order to make the general vibe of the party more conducive to their experiment. It became increasingly difficult to tell who were the actors, and who were the real people!
The end result of all this was that I had a minor mind-meltdown, ending up with me extremely confused and roaming the metro stations and streets of shanghai trying to console myself for longer than appropriate.
I was most pissed off at myself for systematically failing to get the numbers or properly say goodbye to any of the really quite cool people I’d met at the party (including a girl from Bristol who I really got on well with) It took a few days of lonely drinking sessions for me to piece together the events of that night and work out how best to place the broken pieces back my head, but I got there in the end! To those real people who I was too spun out to remember what happened, the memories of you are there in my head somewhere. If you ever existed in the first place!
The moral of the story is: The Chinese psy-trance scene I came across in Shanghai is very ex-pat orientated a bit like what most people associate most Chinese manufacturing – on the surface, it appears to work, but if you look deep down, it turns out that the workmanship is somewhat dodgy. Be careful about tripping out in China, it’s a weird place to be in such a state of mind!
I apologise of the lack of decent pictures of this particular experience and in this section in general, my mind was somewhere else a lot of the time. Expect better in the next sections!
ONWARDS TO YANJI...
At some point during my time in China, it occured to me that it was technically possible for me to visit North Korea, while still keeping within my 'overland' travel rules. I had initially planned to visit Taiwan for a few weeks, but once I got the idea of North Korea into my head, I had to weigh up how much more interesting a week there might be instead.
Needless to say, the allure of such a different place won me over and so my next after Shanghai was to head all the way up to Northern China to a city called Yanji, right near the border between NK and China.
This involved approx 40 hours of train journeying, with a stop in a place called Shenyang, a city that is 'not exactly the place to be...' My journey up to Yanji was definately one of the more lonely and reflective experiences of my time in China as I didn't come across any fellow english speaking people on this really pretty untravelled route.
I'll finish this section with a couple of random observations from my first foray into the Chinese motherland. One of these is to do with the treatment of homosexuality. I heard this from a gay expat I met in Beijing.
One of the unexpected side-effects of the Chinese 'one child policy' is that there tends to be more a higher proportion of males, with a distinct lack of girls to go round, so to speak. As a result, being a gay male is no real problem at all, at least in the big cities. Afterall, it's working to increase the supply of eligible females afterall!
Being a lesbian however...that is most totally unacceptable! How weird is that!
Another comment is on what appears to be a pretty ruthlessly effective and often brutal expansion of this country. In any of the big cities I visited (they are all MASSIVE cities!), anywhere you look you will most likely see at least four or five construction cranes...and on any train or bus journey in or out of these cities you will struggle not to notice mile after mile of high rise buildings currently under construction.
Contrary to mine (and I expect many others people opinions) of China being a poor country, all the cities are jam packed with designer brand retailers, extremely high end hotels I concede that things are very different in the countryside which is primarily poor farming communities but the fact remains that there are extremely significant divides between these poor people, a massively burgeoning middle class and the "mega rich" business people dominating development in the inner cities.
I might add that on the surface there appears to be relatively little support for elderly, disabled or otherwise disadvantaged people. One particular incident that upset me quite a bit was to see this charming little old lady happily singing her away along the path where I was sitting on a park bench...we had a very freindly conversation and despite not having a common language, she succeeded in expressing some wise advice (not good to drink, not good to smoke!!)....anyway, after our brief exchange I saw her go on to search through the bins for some food to eat.
Another relevant story I heard from my freind Chris, who currently lives in China and who you will meet in the next section...He lives in the huge central city of Xian and used to frequent a local little street to pick up his shopping and groceries and other little bits. One day there was a sign saying that this street was due to redeveloped.
Only a week later, the entire street, including all the shops, all the homes and all the people that lived on the street, was completely deserted and secured by security forces. Apparently there was some kind of small protest during their forceful eviction, but it was completely hopeless in a place like urban China. Wealthy real estate developers clearly had the upper hand here and their power was expressed with ruthless disregard for the local communities. There are some really shocking things to go into on the subject of Tibet, but I'll leave it for another time!
My inescapable conclusion from all that I saw was that, despite the communist party facade promoting some vague idea of socialism, China is the most brutally capitalistic and aggressively expanding country I've visited. Their aim is to be a global superpower and in my opinion, they are well on the way to achieving this. The USA doesn't stand a chance of retaining its position, to be honest!
So I've ended this section on a bit of a serious note...don't worry though, as I headed south in the my second entrance to China, my overall experience was lot more positive with a lot less mulling over political bullshit!
Anyway, without, further ado, onwards to North Korea!!