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Unseen North Korea's Rural Sites for Foreigners

[Benji's Photo Diary 3.]
2008-12-15 13:00

Daily NK is releasing a series of photo diaries by Benji, who visited North Korea starting September 6 this year. Benji, a European, wants to share his precious experiences with Daily NKs readers. Daily NK is only releasing his pen name, Benji, without any other private information to protect his privacy. -- Editor

[imText1]My first day in the Mt. Chilbo area mainly consisted of riding the bus between the airport and our home for the evening.

Our minders were much more restrictive regarding the taking of photographs along the road between Orang and Chilbo than they were in Pyongyang. It was easy to see why. Aside from the fact that there werent even any roads meant for motor vehicles (we traveled on an extremely bumpy dirt road), our tourist group got to see a version of North Korea much closer to the real one than the showcase capital Pyongyang.

This was the North Korea of ravaging famine, the North Korea where the people are constantly forced to thank a leader for wealth that doesnt exist, and the North Korea where people dress in rags, and owning a broken Chinese tractor built many years ago is considered lucky.

We did get some time to check out the nearby beach, and the surroundings of the homestay. Most people took the time to go for a swim or just hang around at the beach. I decided to do something else.

I knew that we were limited in our freedom of movement in Pyongyang, but since no one had told me the specific rules for this part of the trip, I decided to assume that there were no rules in the same sense here. So, I decided to go for a walk to the nearest village.

People were curious about the strange foreigners visiting their town. Using the few phrases I know in Korean was a gamble; some people answered with a smile, others turned away. The latter seemed to happen more often when my minders were present than when they were not.

I didnt get far. After just a few minutes of walking, I was stopped by a Korean man on a bicycle. Smiling but evidently upset, he pointed to the direction from which I came, and started walking – and taking me with him.

When getting back to the area where we were staying, I asked one of my guides to go with me for a brief walk, since I obviously wasnt allowed to go by myself. He agreed at first, but after a very short walk on the dirt path along the beach, we were stopped by a soldier.

Mr. Kim said that we had to go back. When asked simply why, he gave me three different reasons. At first, it was because there was construction work going on near the road, and we could get hurt. But I hadnt seen any construction work on the way there with the bus, so Mr. Kim said that it could be dangerous for me to keep walking since I didnt speak Korean. Perhaps realizing himself the unreasonableness of the explanation, he said that the army had simply decided that we couldnt keep walking. And there was obviously no use in trying to argue with the KPA

Before going to our homestay, we made a few stops around the Chilbo Mountains. Sure, it was beautiful.

We dropped by a temple. An old lady with a crouched back stayed there as manager of the monastery. It was obvious that there hadnt been any monks there for a long, long time – despite Kim Il Sungs orders to preserve the traditions and relics at the monastery.

Our guide at the monastery explained the lack of monks with them unfortunately being away for a trip for three days. But our other guide was more honest and said that there simply where no monks there, at any time.

We were told that we were going to live with regular North Korean families. That quickly turned out to be quite far from the truthTo start with, the houses were we stayed were way too large to possibly be inhabited by regular families in North Korea. Secondly, it was obvious that these families were living in relative luxury, owning two refrigerators, a Japanese TV-set, and not least receiving regular tips and gifts from the tourists staying in their rooms. I even wonder if they actually live there, when not taking care of tourists.

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