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Goodbye, North Korea

It seems that some of you thought that my post about the Lumineers was the final in the DPRK series. But you good folks would be mistaken. And I do bear some responsibility for creating that impression. Anyway, like all great things that come with a free set of steak knives, there’s more. But in this case, just one more.

So where were we?

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Visiting the DMZ really whet our appetites, so we rolled into Kaesong for some lunch. Lunch was traditional Korean food served in as many small golden bowls as could fit on the table. It was the place where we could order dog drop soup, though I didn’t realise this until after I’d finished my meal. Not that knowing would have changed the outcome.

The restaurant was on a street that was very sparsely populated. There was so little traffic and so few people that after we’d eaten, we took the opportunity to stand in the middle of the street to take photographs of the scene around us.

Passers-by stared and a couple of nearby residents peeked out their windows at us. Then again, we were treating them like local wildlife.

The next stop was a propaganda/souvenir store, where I purchased some anti-American postcards and a poster. Then we went on to visit what remained of an ancient village that was also home to the Koryo History Museum. I kinda blocked out most of Ms Pak’s commentary of the area because I was too busy talking to that cute guy I crushed on. I think I asked him about a pair of shoes I heard he’d lost somewhere between America and China, en route to North Korea. Apparently he’d misplaced an entire bag, which would’ve really bummed me out, but he took it all in his stride.

The museum was your typical museum, all artefacts and framed pictures in a long, dimly lit room. The two notable features though, included one item which we were told was the oldest block of moveable type, older than Gutenburg. Upon further reading, it seems that all the artefacts in the museum were simply copies – which makes sense, given the place wasn’t guarded at all and barely protected from variations in air temperature.

The other interesting tidbit was these big, elongated metal spoons that were displayed next to a picture of some emperor. As with many Asian emperors, this one had a long black beard. We were asked, in relation to the spoons, why we thought they were the long shape that they were. The answer: to deliver food to said emperors’ mouths without getting it all over their facial hair.

I liked that. A case study of case and effect.

There was also a tomb in that little ancient village complex. We all took turns stepping inside, peering around, and stepping back out again. And that tree pictured, which some members of my group were hugging? I’m not really sure about that. I think it was just a really, really old tree.

We hopped back on the bus for another hour, during which point I had that awesome back-of-the-bus moment.

We were let off in the heart of Sariwon City, at the doorstep of the mountain-top pagoda. The ground was icy, the stone steps leading to the top treacherous and my footwear unsuitable for the climb, but fortunately one of the Karamazov Brothers was kind enough to Sherpa me up.

My roommate opted to stay on the ground, noting the danger of mounting the steps in her ballet slippers, but after taking in what I could of the absolutely stunning city around me, I simply had to see it from an elevated vantage point.

One of the photos below shows a Karamazov Brother, but not the one who helped me not only up the mountain, but back down again.

On the ground once more, the rigour of climbing the stairs caught up with me. I ignored the waves of nausea though, and followed the crowd down the road and to a small building where I gladly collapsed into a corner seat at a table, later joined by a fellow Australian Brendon and two Germans from our group. There, I quietly writhed and made conversation while I watched bowls of rice alcohol served and drunken.

Drinks gone, we were taken to a hotel to use the amenities before getting back onto the bus for another hour’s ride back to Pyongyang. As if to ease us back into western civilisation, and because the majority of us voted for it, we went to a pizza restaurant that was run by a man who had reportedly been sent to Italy for the proper training.

Now I had been craving pizza ever since I’d left Australia. But instead, I settled for an order of fizzy water and repeated trips to the bathroom to throw up.

In spite of my condition though, I wanted to keep my promise to Brendon to visit the revolving restaurant at the top of Yanggakdo Hotel. I’d flaked on him the previous night, in favour of going swimming with that other guy I liked – and then the pool turned out to be closed for cleaning, which I felt to be karma telling me I was a bad friend. Because there would be no more chances to go up there given it was our last night in North Korea and because I didn’t want to bail on him again, when we returned to the hotel I freshened up, then met him outside his room.

The revolving restaurant, that night, was not revolving. And due to the inward slant of the windows, we couldn’t really see out either. Except for a group of Cantonese-speaking, cigarette-smoking tourists, we were the only ones up there. We sat talking, facing the inner ring of the restaurant. I tried not to double over with every stomach cramp that tore through me, silently praying that death would come quickly. When I couldn’t take the pain any longer, I suggested we go, and so it was that I retired to my room for the last time.

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While the mornings in Canberra in the dead of winter are deceptively bright and sunny, in Pyongyang they are grey and foggy. The weather didn’t clear for us on the day of our departure, which meant there was again no view to enjoy that last morning from our 42nd storey room.

I still wasn’t feeling a whole lot better after nearly 7 hours sleep, and was very much dreading the plane ride ahead. My roommate gave me an antibiotic she had on hand, from a pack she’d brought with her to India where she’d been doing not-for-profit work helping homeless women. I guess I must’ve been feeling quite weak from the illness and lack of food, and subsequently emotional, because when we hugged goodbye shortly after I received her little gift, I cried. She had shown me so much kindness, from lending me her Calvin Klein tights to wear to the Kumsusan Palace to offering to vacate the room if the opportunity presented to shag the cute guy, her friend. Best. Roommate. Ever.

The plane ride turned out far less awful than I’d been expecting. I put it down to the antibiotic, which was meant to pack a punch. My flight companion was a guy a fellow group member and I had previously mocked, when we saw him squatting outside the souvenir store in Kaesong. In his high-collared grey jacket, he was the image of a westerner who thought he was Chinese. Now here he was sitting next to me. And he turned out to be pretty cool.

Once we arrived at the airport, our group fragmented. Between airport security and the baggage carousel, everyone sort of wandered off and went their own way. I had anticipated that we would all gather together one last time for some sort of final, mass goodbye. No such thing happened.

I did, however, manage to catch Derek and Brendon at the carousel. I had kinda hoped that Brendon would decide to spend his layover in Beijing visiting the Forbidden Palace with me. Instead, he opted to wile away the hours before his flight to Sydney in the airport.

At the other end of the room stood my roommate and my crush. They spoke for a while, glancing our way a couple of times, then walked away.

I followed sometime later and bumped into the Brothers Karamazov, Joe and another guide, Marshall in that liminal space of the airport where recent arrivals, departees and anxious/happy friends and relatives mix. We each hugged, and Joe slipped me his Young Pioneer Disaster Response business card.

The Brothers were kind enough to escort me to the taxi rank, where they found me a taxi and told the driver in Chinese where I needed to go. I threw my bag onto the backseat then followed it in. As the taxi pulled away, I waved to the Brothers through the window, my eyes already beginning to mist.

I’d like to say that I didn’t blubber like a baby, and indeed I didn’t, because babies don’t normally cry silently. A Chinese radio show streamed quietly through the speakers as we coasted down the Airport Expressway. In my mind though, the sound of Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just like honey” began to swell. I was Bill Murray, watching the cityscape rush by, and being taken further and further away from five of the best days of my life.

It was a never-to-be-repeated, incredible experience – and it was over. And in all likelihood, apart from Brendon, I would probably never again see any of the people I had become close to over those five days.

From five days of having constant company, always with someone to talk to or share a laugh with, I was now hurtling to my next destination alone. It sucked, and it hurt like hell.

Goodbye to those five days. This is my love letter to you.

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