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Teenage wasteland

There’s this joke that Steve Martin delivered while hosting the 73rd Annual Academy Awards. He says, ‘You know, I saw the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and I didn’t see any tigers or dragons. Then I realized, it’s because they’re crouching and hidden.’

While I can be pretty certain that Pyongyang’s youth weren’t crouching or hiding on any of the streets our bus went down or at any of the places we visited, they were pretty darn hard to spot. But, as it turned out, it was a matter of knowing where to look. And where to look turned out to be the Pyongyang June 9th Middle School and Pyongyang’s ice rink and skate park.

Given our visit to both sites coincided with the New Year public holidays, school was out but the skate park was busy with activity. So no peeking in on students studying obediently. We were, however, shown around to a few rooms especially outfitted to be showcases for tourists such as ourselves. Our group might have been shown a classroom or two, but given I had excused myself to visit the bathroom instead (squat toilet, no toilet paper or soap), I missed most of the tour.

You can get a sense of what I might have seen by visiting this webpage though. It seems that the June 9th school (named so because that was when President Kim Il-sung ordered for the school to be built in 1969) is where all Pyongyang tourists get taken.

After the classroom/display rooms tour, we were treated to a performance by several kids who may or may not have been students of the June 9th school.

Some of the kids took their place on the stage as part of a band; small groups of girls in full, subtle Korean stage make up and beautiful dresses performed a number of dance routines and sang.

The room was cold, the lighting was poor, but the performances were top-notch – as you might expect.

Afterwards, the girls gathered in front of the stage to receive our applause and for photos. As you’ll see in my pictures below, a number of camera crews were also on hand.

This went on for some ten minutes, and later, a member of our group claimed that one girl was on the verge of tears from having to smile and pose for so long. My roommate told a couple of us that she shook one girl’s hand and it was icy cold – even colder than her own, and she was freezing in that room.

When we finally left and headed back to the bus, we passed another tour group heading in to the auditorium. No doubt to watch the same performance we’d just watched. This had us wondering just how many times that day those students would have to repeat what they’d just done.

The following day, we took the underground metro (the trains were soviet cast-offs, complete with Russian graffiti etched into some of the windows) and hit the ice rink and skate park. We were given the option of ice skating or skating outdoors. Because I was in DPRK and was intent on trying new things, I handed over my $5 (or whatever the fee was) and strapped myself into some rollerblades. Later I’d also give this strange two-wheeled skateboard a shot, helped ably by one of the brothers Karamazov.

At the skate park, Pyongyang kids whizzed by unencumbered by helmets or safety pads of any sort. I, similarly, figured that rollerblading for the first time without a helmet was probably the least dangerous activity I could get up to in DPRK.

Not that I had any expectations to begin with, but the kids were surprisingly friendly to our group, and quite curious – all the more so of the Caucasians among us. I was clearly not local though, so was also approached by a kid or two.

They asked as many questions as their limited English would allow. Which, basically, was just name, age and where we were from. But that’s still more than I can say in Korean. I mean, I can order a beer now in Korean. Not that I would expect the same in English of a Korean kid.

I did a few laps around the ring, managed not to fall on my arse, and took some pictures.

In case you’re curious, check out some photos from the opening of the ice rink, skate park and Ryugyong Health Complex (which is across the street from the skate centre) on North Korea Leadership Watch. It was a really, really big deal for them.

I should also mention, in relation to the underground metro, that we got on at Puhung, passed one stop, and then got off at Yonggwang – which I was informed (not by the Korean guides, I hasten to add) are the two most ornamental stations. I have no idea how pretty or drab the other stations are, but I’d bet good money that they’re not as ornate as the ones pictured below.

We were told that the fee for riding on the metro is 5 North Korean Won. To put that in perspective, the way I was making my calculations for how much everything cost in dollars, I was dividing however many DPRK Won by 21 to get the approximate value in Chinese RMB, then dividing that figure by 5 to get the approximate value in US Dollars.

This website offers some good insights into the Pyongyang underground metro, in case you want to read further.

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Skate
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