Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Travel Update VI


So, here I am on my last night in Beijing and thus, the last travel update too. It's been a pretty amazing trip with some lows as well as highs and I'll try to sum it up briefly now.

Since leaving the DRPK, I've travelled back across north-eastern China to Beijing. We spent the first two nights in Yanji, a city of about half a million where over 50% of the population is ethnically Korean and is capital of the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture where Korean is the first language along with Chinese. It was a nice place but, despite its undoubted Koreaness, it was a massive culture shock. After the DPRK even the piffling provincial town of Tumen seemed like Manhattan and somewhere like Yanji with forty-storey high buildings and flashing neon seemed positively Blade Runner. Nonetheless, we had a great time. Yong Li arranged for us to stay in a local apartment and the whole group had one last Korean BBQ - and if you've never tried one, do - and then there were the baths, some of the best I've been to outside of Japan. It was also interesting to meet some of the other Koreans, not just the Chinese ones but also South Koreans. There are six flights daily to Yanji and I got chatting with one gent who runs a coffee shop and also a young couple who were fascnated with our DPRK videos - after all, they are not allowed to visit.

Most of the South Koreans fly to Yanji to visit Paektu-san - or in Chinese, Chang Bai Shan - Korea's holy mountain which lies half in China and half in the DPRK. So Glenn and I headed off there for a day trip to view the incredible volcanic crater lake which would have been mind-blowing except that my leg which I injured in the DPRK was killing me plus I came down with what was probably mild food poisioning so I felt like crap all day and throughout the night and following day and night. We spent those in Shenyang, a city of 7 million people, (read Greater Manchester, West Midlands and Merseyside combined), that I'd never even heard of before and which doesn't even get into China's top ten. 

Glenn and I returned to Beijing on the new bullet train which transformed a twelve hour journey into four and a half, and since then I've been pottering around Beijing whilst my leg strengthens and my stomach recovers, buying Asian junk that reminds me of Japan and that Vietnamese friends have requested.

But this trip was always more about the DPRK than China and I have to say that whilst my China experience was marred by illness and injury nothing could take away from North Korea, one of the most surreal travel experiences on earth. Perhaps the best way to describe it was something that Glenn said last night when we were talking to agirl we'd met in the hostel. "Remember back to your first travel experience, that time when it just hit you and blew your mind, that the world could be so different. That was how the DPRK felt." And he was right. I'm pretty well-travelled these days and so is he, having overlanded across Africa and most of Asia, and the problem with experience comes jadedness, yet on our DPRK trip no one was jaded, even the guide. It is a special place. The most lingering images that stay in my mind are fields teeming with people using agricultural methods unchanged since the 1800s, railways with electic wires where the (few) trains are all diesel because the supply keeps going off, thousands of people walking and cycling up and down unmade roads with fewe cars, Russian trucks converted to run using wood-burning boilers so that they appear on fire and Chongjin, a city of 600,000 where after the sun sets only a few lights and the statues of the Kims are lit and hundreds walk the streets in pitch black. 

The DPRK is not a third world country, I've seen those before. They are dirty and unimaginable poverty exists alongside bloated wealth. The DPRK is ordered and clean; it is developed and modern... or was. It is a country in which the money has left town, sometime during the early 1990s and everything has frozen then or regressed. Yes, there are those with wealth, but it is not obscene; they are as susceptible to things too. We stayed at all the best hotels yet not one had hot water and all suffered powercuts. We dined at Chongjin's premier entertainment venue and the electric went and we were sat there drinking beer in the pitch black. Our tour bus, one of the few on the roads, broke down three times.

Yet that was all part of the experience, as too was the group. I'd had misgivings beforehand about travelling with others yet our party of seven, (ten inclduing our three Korean guides), were excellent. We had intelligent debates on a plethora of subjects and no one abused or disrespected each others opinions. My fellow travellers and hosts made it for me and for that, I am deeply thankful.

But for now, home beckons...

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

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