Spring Festival in Pyongyang

Article by  John McGovern

Iwon’t lie, Chinese New Year has been good to me over the years. I’ve spent it with families in different parts of China, had my fill of jiaozi in northern Jiangsu, the “ba wan” 8 dishes of meats and fish in northern Shaanxi and cured duck and seafood galore in Guangdong. I’ve endured the TV gala and set off fireworks with friends, and I have bitten down on coins in my dumplings which ensure my (as yet still not arrived) future prosperity. I have had my share of baijiu too of course.

But one year on the 1st day of the 1st month in the lunar calendar after a particularly late and baijiu-fuelled night I was woken at 7am by the firecrackers just outside my window. And I thought to myself, “never again!”

Since then I have used Spring Festival as a good chance to travel outside of China, but working with Young Pioneer Tours there’s one place we go to every year at this time – Pyongyang, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which you’ll probably know as North Korea.

If, like me, you’re a train enthusiast, the journey into Pyongyang is actually one of the highlights! Starting in Beijing you get to meet your YPT guide and fellow travellers. We board the afternoon train and have a chance to get to know each other over instant noodles and a few beers before lights out.

First thing in the morning we roll into the border city of Dandong, a fascinating place in its own right. Here we change trains, and there’s just enough time to walk down to the Yalu River front and catch our first glimpse of North Korea on the other bank, and see the “Broken Bridge” which stands half-bombed, the other half having been destroyed by US bombs during the Korean War.

Back onto the train we’re now usually surrounded by North Koreans, and as the train trundles over the Chinese-Korean Friendship Bridge a sense of trepidation mixed with excitement usually starts to reach a crescendo! In Korea we stop in Sinuiju to go through customs. The guards come on to take our documents and check a few bags. Looking through people’s cameras they’re often fascinated by photos of our travels, not least if you’ve been to South Korea. They used to check everyone’s laptops religiously, but enough gifts of cigarettes over the years means now it’s usually limited to the simple question, “do you have the film The Interview?” No, all good, on you go!

At lunch time we head to the dinner car for a sit down Korean meal. Sometimes we’ve tucked into our preliminary kimchi with a cold Taedonggang beer while chatting with the North Korean volleyball/football/ping-pong team, and by now, as we roll through the bleak, wintery Korean countryside China starts to seem far, far away.

By late afternoon we start to enter Pyongyang, and the infamous, unfinished Ryumgyong Hotel looms large like a crashed spaceship from Star Wars on the horizon. “Welcome to Pyongyang!” We’re greeted by our local Korean guides, who enthusiastically get the show on the road.

The bus stops near Kim Il Sung Square, the heart of Pyongyang, and we walk through the streets, crossing roads in between trolley buses, and see the huge Juche Tower on the other side of the Taedong River, the monument to North Korea’s own communist ideology. And walking down Ryomyong Street we head for dinner.

It’s cold outside, Beijing levels of cold minus a couple of extra degrees, so who wants Pyongyang cold noodles?! It’s that or bibimbap, and I advise the noodles every time, the mustard has a warming sensation and a few glasses of soju, the very much lighter Korean equivalent of baijiu, certainly warms the cockles.

Tomorrow we hit the DMZ on the 38th parallel, Kaesong old city – the only place in North Korea not bombed during the Korean War – and then see the sights of the capital from the famous huge, bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il to a ride on the Pyongyang Metro and a simple supermarket full of locals.

Back in the Rakrang Hotel over a game of pool or nursing a cold pint, we sit around and take it all in. This is Pyongyang, this is North Korea. The guides have high hopes for the future and are more excitable in recent months. Miss Li and Miss Pak explain, “in 2018 we have shown the world that we can be a friendly and outward looking nation, and we have shown that the dream of Korean unification is one of all the people on the Korean peninsula and one that is in our grasp!”

“Who knows what 2019 will bring…”

John McGovern works for Young Pioneer Tours, add his WeChat (ID: johnmcgovern) or send an email to john@youngpioneertours.com if you have any questions about travel to North Korea and quote the code XIANEASE20190101 to claim a €50 discount on any tour in 2019!