Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Laos

After arriving in Beijing on the train from North Korea I had 6 hours to kill before heading on another train south to Kunming, capital of the Yunnan province. The journey was 40 hours (3174km) so I ended up doing almost 4500km on trains in three days in a row (and that's only half of the Trans-Siberian journey!). I boarded the train in Beijing and found my bunk in a carriage that was like a massive dorm room filled with Chinese people travelling home at the end of the Golden Week holiday. I really wish I had been able to speak Chinese, but again my charades served me well....but there is only so much you can discuss using gestures so spent a lot of time staring out the window at the countryside and chowing down on my two minute noodles...the staple diet of Chinese travelers.

Chinese dorm train (aka "hard sleeper") which was actually very comfortable!
In Kunming I stayed with Lawrence, the brother of a woman called Sarah who was on the Central Asia trip with me. He was great showing me around and getting much needed admin like washing done! From Kunming I caught an 8 hour bus to Jinghong. The landscape changed dramatically en route with rubber trees, banana palms, and tea plantations - much more tropical, and muggy and warm too. Feel a bit silly now having half my bag filled with puffer jacket, polar fleece and thermals leftover from Central Asia camping! On arrival in Jinghong I had no place to stay so after wandering the streets around the bus station for a bit eventually went into a local jewelery store where they spoke english and asked if they knew of a cheap hotel. The owner took me (and backpacks!) on the back of his scooter to some dodgey backstreet hotel, which I thought might have been a mistake, but it was cheap and perfect for overnight stay. I got a bus to Laos the next day...the bus was filled with people, most of the vegetables from the market and the odd animal!


Two chickens in a bag checking in at the bus station
Arrived in Luang NamTha, Laos after getting visa at the border (a process that was remarkably quick and easy compared with my past few months of travel). I was quietly stoked as there was a Canadian and Spanish man on the bus and the visa was cheapest for NZers, nice work! I found a room for $6 (its cheaper to travel round here than it is to live at home) and then hired a bike and went exploring. The bridge over the river on the map was non existent so ended up carrying my bike across much to the amusement of the farmer on the other side! It was beautiful lush green countryside with rolling hills and rice fields. I met a couple of Canadians and a South African who were keen for some jungle trekking, so we signed up for a two day trip and headed off into the jungle the next day. Our guide did the whole trek in jandals and hardly slipped...have decided us western tourists are too precious with all our gore-tex and hiking boots and need to go back to basics and toughen up! We spent the night in a bamboo shack, in bed by 8 with the sounds of millions of insects to lull us to sleep.

Rice fields

Jungle trek lunch, green banana leaf pouches filled with sticky rice

Trail was steep and muddy in places, had to do a bit of de-leeching at times

Our guide and two locals preparing dinner

Village at end of trek, this little pig went to market...

Five of the people I met on the trek were heading in the same direction as me so we caught a bus the next day, great to have some friends to chat with when you are going solo! The bus was packed with locals and whatever they could stuff under the seats and in the aisles, one bus at the station had several motorbikes on it's roof. I spent an hour on a wooden stool in the aisle before I got a seat, which I then had to share with another woman...you get used to cuddling up to the locals on public transport here! Had overnight in a village on the way before catching a boat down river to a stunning place tucked in the mountains called Muang Ngoi Neua which is only accessible by boat and where electricity is only available for 3 hours a day when the generator is on. Did some cool walks up river valley to caves where the villagers lived for two years due to threats from bombing raids. Was also lucky enough to be there when the twice-montly market was on, with people from all around the river communities coming by boat to buy and sell. It also happened to be pouring rain, making bare-foot through the mud the only way to walk!

Not even the driver had his own space, a guy was lucky enough to be able to use the his shoulder as a pillow...and the woman in pink made changing gears difficult!

On a boat on the Nam Ou river weaving through the mountains

Jungle in the sun rays

Muang Ngoi Neua streets

View from lunch...ahh life is tough!
From Muang Ngoi Neua I headed to Luang Prabang, the Laos version of Queenstown, with heaps of tourists and everything from elephant rides to kayaking on offer. I had to leave my new-found travel buddies behind in Muang Ngoi Neua as they had more time than me and had fallen in love with the place, rightly so! The highlight of this transfer was having a bag with a chicken in it between my feet for three hours (he had no hole for his head like the photo above though, poor thing)! On arrival in Luang Prabang I resisted the urges of the local tuk tuk men to give me a ride and hired a bike to get to the Tad Se waterfalls. I got a city bike with no gears and a basket as it was cheap, which I regretted after an hour and a serious hill to climb in 30deg+ (the man at the hire place had warned me too!). It was well worth the ride though as the waterfalls were absolutely incredible, weaving through trees and there were several pools you could swim in.

Chickens in the restaurant near waterfalls...I went for the vegetarian option that day

My own private boat ride across the river to the waterfalls, Bob the Builder driving

I asked a Spanish man who was drinking beer and smoking a massive joint to take this pic for me, am surprised its in focus!


From Luang Prabang I caught the overnight sleeper bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It was a 10 hour journey and instead of seats you had these kind of recliner pod seats, like an almost-business class seat on a plane, which would have been amazing had I been 5ft4! I slept like a baby, in that I was awake every hour wanting to scream! No, it wasn't that bad and was actually surprised how quickly the time passed, and its a great way to travel as you save a nights accommodation along the way. Vientiane is on the banks of the Mekong river near the border with Thailand. I reckon there are more Toyota hilux per capita here than in Kurow! Spent a couple of days exploring the city by bike.

Vientiane version of Arc de Triomphe - Patuxai - built to remember those who fought in the struggle for independence from France

Hammer and cicle (Laos is a single party socialist republic) and Laotian Flag along banks of Mekong

Outdoor gym in the park
Got on another night bus to head to southern Laos, this bus was much older than my first sleeper bus experience and I was very fortunate to have the "bed"to myself as its the size of a large single and many people were sharing with strangers. I was on the top bunk, and with a bus with shot suspension and crappy roads meant I spent most of the night trying to make sure I didn't roll off the side. Arrived in Pakse and jumped on a local bus for the remainder of the journey to 4000 Islands (in the Mekong River, near border with Cambodia). The local "bus" was just a truck converted into a bus, the norm in Laos. I think the driver felt sorry for me and invited me and another lady to sit up front in the cab, so I didn't get to cosy up with the locals, but it was definitely a far more comfortable ride! The system was that the people in the back would ring a bell when they wanted to get off, and the driver would beep the horn in every town to see if someone wanted to get on...worked a treat!

Our bus being loaded up

At every stop local people would try and sell food to the passengers...I think these were some kind of flattened roast chickens
I caught a ferry across the Mekong River from the mainland to an island called Duan Khong, which is the biggest of the 4000 Islands (there aren't actually 4000, most are submerged) and rented a bike to cycle around the island. Its very un-touristy and I got a great taste of local living cycling through the rice fields, which on a hot day shimmer like a big inviting green swimming pool. I went past a couple of small schools and the kids were very interested in a very sweaty, crazy foreigner on a pink bike!

Family home...might leak when it rains, but at least there is satellite TV!

Farmers harvesting rice

Nothing like a swim on a hot day!

Cheeky school kids

View from restaurant overlooking Mekong
I visited another of the islands, Don Det, which is slightly smaller but is equally as lovely as Duan Khong. I grabbed a bike again and set off exploring, coming across a brilliant restaurant which was perfect for watching the sunset. From the 4000 Islands I caught a boat back to the mainland and a bus on to the Cambodian border for the next stage of the adventure. 10 days wasn't really enough to see all of Laos, and would have loved to have stayed longer in places, but I managed to see some very beautiful spots, only one big spider (something I was very worried about on the jungle trek!), and meet some great people along the way.

My standard Laos exploring transport, complete with basket for $2/day

Don Det village

Sunset over Mekong looking towards Cambodia on otherside of river

Fishermen on the Mekong


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

North Korea

Many people have asked me why I wanted to go to North Korea...I have always had a bit of a fascination with communist regimes (probably since living in Eastern Europe under Soviet rule growing up) and was looking to head to somewhere that is vastly different from anything I had seen before. So I google-searched North Korea tourism and was surprised at the number of companies offering tours. You can't travel there as an individual, it must be through a company that is recognised by the North Korean government and can organise visas and guides etc. So I signed up with a tour group and they issued me with my North Korean visa, ready for action!

I met up with four of my group at the Beijing train station and boarded the train to Pyongyang in the evening and arrived in Pyongyang the next evening, 26 hours. The rest of the group were flying to Pyongyang - we had the option of either going by train or flying, apart from the three Americans in the group who had to fly as Americans are not allowed to go by train. We crossed into North Korea over a river which separates China and North Korea and spent two hours at the border where we had to have our mobile phones sealed, with strict instructions not to open them until we crossed back into China (the punishment being that the tour company could lose its tour licence and the local Korean guides suspended). Our bags were searched for books, religious materials or other foreign media such as DVDs and CDs. Unfortunately a North Korean visa is not placed in your passport, instead you get a piece of paper, so no cool stamp! We saw a couple of Korean men ('elites' who were allowed to travel abroad) in our carriage whisper something to the guard and then hand over a sneaky cash bribe which he put inside his hat in order that their bags didn't get searched, brilliant! Turned out the bags contained a whole lot of portable Chinese neck massage machines...?!

Bridge over river border, stops halfway on the Chinese side - a tourist attraction to look at trains coming in and out of North Korea

My phone, sealed by customs for the entire journey
My visa paper
It was stunning countryside to go through by train, big fields everywhere with masses of people working in them, all in very drab colours, and lots of army everywhere (North Korea is the most militarized country in the world with the fourth largest army as well as compulsory military service). There were slogans everywhere in the fields and on buildings encouraging the people to work harder for the good of the nation. There was absolutely no commercial advertising anywhere and everywhere there were photos of the two famous leaders, Kim Il Song and his son Kim Jong Il, referred to throughout the trip by our local guides as the "great leaders". The current leader is apparently not yet considered great as he is yet to prove himself! The trip could be summed up as a tour of what the great leaders had done for the country as everywhere we went the local guides described how the great leaders had helped the people, in everything from solving farmers problems to building dams and protecting the people from the "imperialist" USA. The US was always referred to as the "imperialist US" (despite having several Americans in the group). There was also much talk about how much the north wanted reunification with the south, but the imperialist US were preventing this.

Oxen and carts in the rice fields
Workers harvesting rice - almost all farming we saw was done by manual labour
Sign encouraging workers to work harder for the nation
We arrived in Pyongyang and met our guides, we had three of them for our group of 18. They went with us everywhere and were great at explaining the history and significance of places we visited.  Often if you asked a question that was slightly too probing they would ignore you or give you a blunt yes/no/I don't know kind of answer. They also told us what we could and could'nt photograph, and sometimes they asked us to delete photos we had taken. They were very friendly though and were keen to practice their english and ask questions about home. It was interesting trying to explain the wide ranging internet access we have at home, things like google and youtube, and how we use email etc. Here they have an intra-net which has no access to foreign sites. They even have a Korean version of facebook called red-star. There are no rock bands or foreign films shown and much of the media revolves around nationalistic themes. There was no such thing as "free time" on the trip to wander off on your own and explore, much like being a teenager on a school trip, except the punishment for sneaking off to the pub is slightly more severe!

Our three guides and bus driver enjoying favourite meal of clams cooked in petrol, clams are laid on stone, covered in petrol and set alight then eaten!
There were many massive statues of the leaders everywhere and whenever we stopped to look at them we had to line up and pay a silent tribute, which meant bowing, and one of the group had to purchase a bunch of flowers to lay at the statue. The statues were in all kinds of different poses from riding horses to posing on a film set. There were also many pictures of them in equally rousing poses, often with the common people, and always smiling - everything is designed to depict a happy and prosperous nation.

Locals posing in front of statue of leaders galloping on horseback. You can just see a small red badge they are wearing, all North Korean adults wear these - a small red flag with photo of the great leader on it, and are presented to them by the government as a sign of their devotion
Me placing flowers at the great leaders statue at collective farm on behalf of the group
 
Local people lining up to pay tribute to the statue of the leaders. Massive mural on the wall behind of Kim Il Sung
Mural covering entire wall of a building depicting the people of North Korea
and another...

and another...

and yet another...this one is in a metro station which were amazing places with murals and chandeliers

This one is a painting in a museum, showing the leaders riding some kind of hilarious futuristic train and being adored by Korean children

School children posing for a photo on a school trip, also wearing the youth version of the red badge

Apparently there is no unemployment, crime or homelessness as all people are given a job and housing by the government and rations for food and other essentials. Then they are then given a small wage from their job to buy luxury items. We never went to a local supermarket or store so didn't get to see what was on offer, instead we were shown the international supermarket with a lot of imported goods on sale, accessible by diplomats and the elite Koreans. We were not allowed to photograph inside the store. Foreigners are not allowed to have local currency either so we either had to pay for things in Euro, USD or Chinese money. I did manage to get my hands on a souvenir note though which I snuck through customs in my undies!

One crazy place we visited was the National Gift Exhibition hall which was this enormous marble building that displays over 20,000 gifts that have been given to the great leaders by Koreans living in Korea or overseas. There were some hilarious gifts on display, including an old desktop computer, a normal desktop phone, heaps of tacky marble statues, and my favourite was a large tapestry of Kim Jong Ill riding a tiger through the mountains!

Most of the trip was spent in the capital Pyongyang with a couple of nights in smaller cities. Pyongyang is the showpiece of the country with some impressive buildings and monuments.


The Korean version of the Arc de Triomphe, 11m higher than the one in Paris apparently (pissed off the two French in the group!). It was constructed in the 1980s to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan from 1925-45
US Naval ship captured in 1968 and kept as a 'trophy'
View of main square where military parades take place

Square at centre of Pyongyang, famous for it's military parades
Photo of military parades - foreigners are not allowed to attend
Dots and numbers on the ground indicate where people in parades must stand

Worker's Party Monument, hammer, sickle and paintbrush representing industry, agriculture and intellectuals

School children visiting Revolutionary Martyr's Cemetery, Pyongyang in the background

More school children visiting Revolutionary Martyr's Cemetery

The army elite travel in style

Whereas the average Korean travels in a beat up Soviet bus
 
Typical ousing in Pyongyang
Another major highlight of the trip was the famous mass gymnastics performance called Airirang. It was one of the most incredible live performances depicting the history of Korea, with over 100,000 performers. The choreography was magnificent, something the koreans are very good at - apparently the Chinese asked them to help with the design of the Olympic opening ceremony in 2008. The images at the back are actually formed by 20,000 children holding up individual coloured cards, transitioning them in perfect synch to form each new picture. Children, some as young as 5, are taken out of school and practice for a year to perform. The year 1912 is significant as it is the birthday of Kim Il Sung, this year celebrating 100 years since he was born. We were really lucky to get tickets as it was one of the last performances of the year (they have three a week from August to September). Have a look at this youtube video

 

We were taken south to the border with South Korea to visit the demilitarised zone (DMZ) accompanied under security by military personnel and could actually briefly cross into the part which was South Korea. We couldn't see any tourists visiting from the south, apparently they time it so the two groups are not there at the same time. The DMZ is a 4km wide stretch of no-mans-land where both sides are only allowed limited arms under an agreement signed in the 50s.  

Sunset from viewing area of DMZ

A Colonel of the North Korean Army pointing out the fence at the northern edge of the DMZ, lights of South Korea in the distance

Me and the Colonel, fully authorised picture of course!
Site where the Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953 to end the Korean war and set up the DMZ
At the DMZ, North Korean guards in North Korea in the foreground, two US soldiers in South Korean section in the background

Entrance to DMZ area. Massive concrete blocks are positioned above the road ready to be positioned to cover the road and block advancing troops should South Korea invade.
Our hotel in Pyongyang was on an island (to keep the tourists in?!) in the middle of a river that runs through the city. The hotel is famous for its 5th floor which it is rumoured to house surveillance equipment to keep an eye on foreigners in the hotel. There is no 5th floor on the lift buttons, but we had fun late one night trying to sneak down the fire escape for a look, only finding a locked door. The very top floors of the hotel were for foreigners and the remainder for locals. We had a look at one of the lower floors and the contrast from 5 star to 1 star was incredible. If you looked at the hotel at night most of the lower floors were dark as the electricity had been turned off on the floors for locals. 

No 5th floor button in the lift, mysterious
Sneaky midnight mission to try and get to the 5th floor...Clement trying to get through but unsuccessful!
View of sunset over Pyongyang from hotel room on 43rd floor. Coal fired power station pollution adding to the red sky
Electricity issues are nothing new in North Korea, several places we went to at night including bars and restaurants had periods when the lights went out! Driving through the countryside at night was pitch-black, with no street lights and no lights in houses except for the occasional gas lamp or torch you could just see through the windows.

The other thing in short supply was cars, most of the roads outside of Pyongyang were used for people to walk or ride bikes. There are different coloured number-plates, one for government, one for military, one for diplomats and one for private cars. The whole time we were there I only saw one private car. Driving in the country side there are checkpoints everywhere. You must have a reason and permission to travel from one area to the next - no such thing as a lazy Sunday drive round here!

Six lanes in each direction leading into Pyongyang, useless given the number of cars but apparently very useful for military and a show of national might
 
Main road from Pyongyang to southern part of the country. Big concrete pillars are in place ready to be placed (by explosion at the base) across the road should South Korea invade
 
                                        
                                                    Typical road through countryside

View from the entrance to our hotel in Kaesong, near the DMZ, with army propaganda poster in background
  
Street scene in Kaesong. Kaesong used to be in South Korea so survived much of the bombing during the war and therefore has more traditional older buildings
   
We went to visit a collective farm, which is essentially just a farming village complete with schools, but all produce and work are shared amongst the people. All farms are either collective farms or state farms. Workers get a portion of the harvest based on how hard they work and then there are 'prizes' for any extra work done. The farm we visited appeared to be set up for visitors as it was very tidy and it was one of the farms which the great leaders had frequently visited. People from the city spend two weeks every year helping out in the farms. There was a small amount of sketchy information from the guides about the situation in the north of the country where it is reported there is massive food shortage. We were told that there had been natural disasters such as floods and that it was very cold, but that the great leaders had been there and solved the problems by introducing double rotation harvests and potato crops which grow better in the cold than rice. 
State farm just outside Pyongyang. The massive 330m pyramid like building in the background is a new hotel (construction started in 1987 and it is still not finished)
Rural housing on a large collective farm
After five days we again boarded the train back to Beijing. At the border we were searched again and had our cameras checked for any 'illegal' photos. I had several of mine deleted, mainly ones taken out of the train window of the countryside which had local people in them, or photos with military people in them. It was strange to arrive back in China and be bombarded by colour, in particular cars, people's clothes and neon advertising. Overall a fascinating trip, a real eye opener into one of the most mysterious countries in the world. Arrived back in Beijing after another 24 hour train journey and had a 6 hour layover before jumping on another train to Kunming in southern China to start the next adventure...into Laos and Cambodia.
 
Waiting to board the train at Pyongyang