Hiking the Great Wall and shopping in China.

Apart from the Forbidden City, I suppose the Great Wall is the other “must see” when visiting Beijing. Of course, the wall is 8000 km long, so Beijing is not the only place to see it from, and even from the capital, there are multiple locations to visit. The most popular, and touristy, sites are Badaling and Mutianyu. The option I chose was to get on an organized tour which dropped me off at Jinshanling, about 140 km from Beijing, and picked me up three hours later at Simatai, which I reached by hiking 7 km on the wall itself. A pricy option, but so much easier than getting there and back by public transportation.


I won’t babble about the Wall, that’s what Wikipedia is for.



I must say it is impressive to see the Wall going off in the distance. To think that you are only looking at a minuscule percentage of what was built essentially by hand, using a massive amount of workers toiling away with 3rd Century technology. Unfortunately, the visibility was not that great in the middle of the day. Going at dawn would probably be better, but you would have to sleep in an adjacent town, or take a very expensive taxi at some horribly early time. Continue reading

Visiting Beijing – and trying not to get hit by a car.

I don’t know this for a fact, but apparently China’s new President often refers to the Chinese Dream. Some commentators point out that he has yet to define what the Chinese Dream is. Well, let me tell you. The dream is divided in two parts. The Chinese people dream of:

1 – Owning a car.

2 – Using it to run over a pedestrian.

If that’s not the case, they certainly hide their true dreams very well. Luckily, there are pedestrian streets.


And Beijing residents are famous for following rules.


Actually, they are so bad at following rules, that the city has built fences at taxi and bus stands, to force people to line up.


To avoid being run over by cars, you can take the subway. Beijing has a very vast, very cheap, first class subway system, but it gets very busy. People who have not achieved the Chinese dream – and thus who must take the subway – are very frustrated at their failure and seek vengeance. So they make the sacred vow that they would prefer to die rather than let anyone already in the train car get off before they get in.


Having had enough of the subway, I decided to walk from my hotel near Beijing Central Train Station to the Forbidden City (a few km). I took this picture on a different day, and it illustrates how smoggy Beijing can be. It also shows that in Beijing, they don’t build small buildings. Continue reading

The United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea, the only UN cemetery in the World.

As I mentioned in my previous post about South Korea, I travelled there mostly because I had to “escape” China for a little while. I had done minimal research on the country and it is a bit by chance that I discovered the city of Busan was home to the only military cemetery managed by the United Nations, anywhere in the world. The United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea (UNMCK), was created during the conflict and formally recognized in 1959.


Of the 2,300 soldiers buried here, most came from the Commonwealth and Turkey. But this does not reflect the relative losses of the various contingents. While the vast majority of Commonwealth casualties are buried here, I suppose the Americans had already begun to move away from burials in theatre. And understandably, even in those days of limited strategic lift, the remains of the hundreds of Thai and Filipino soldiers who lost their lives were probably transported back to their relatively close homeland.


The site is managed by the UN, but guarded by the Korean Army. I happened to stumble upon the lowering of the flag, strangely at least a good hour and a half or more before sunset.


The Commonwealth also honours the memory of its 386 soldiers with no known graves. The Unknown Soldiers’s Pathway.


The Commonwealth monument to the soldiers missing in action, including 21 Canadians.


Several Royals, Picklies and Vandoos on this monument. While in no way do I want to minimize the hardships and difficulties faced by our soldiers in today’s wars, I find it hard to even imagine wars where we suffered major defeats at the operational level. Battles where battalions, brigades and even higher formations got beaten so bad they couldn’t even find or pick-up their dead. Continue reading

South Korea, that nice country where I stayed in my hotel, writing about North Korea.

I traveled to South Korea primarily because I had to “escape” China. On a week of national holidays, the “Golden week”, China is not very nice for foreign tourists, because half a billion Chinese are on vacation and if you want a train ticket, a hotel or a table at that nice restaurant, you can pretty much forget about it.


After internet-less North Korea, South Korea was a BIG change in that department, with 2 of the 3 hotels I stayed at providing the fastest upload and download speeds I ever measured in the last year of travels. Connections are everywhere, like in the subway, but sometimes it is difficult to get access without a Korean cell phone number (to get the password by text message).


I recently wrote about the fact that North Koreans can sometimes be strange, but the Southerners are also quite capable of doing it once in a while. “In your future, I see a flaming ball of twisted metal…”.


Strange and interesting.


All three hotels shared one feature I had never seen anywhere in the world. The rooms provide all sorts of toiletries, but not of the disposable kind: hair spray, moisturizing lotion, toothpaste, perfume, etc. Very convenient. I guess they assume their clients are normal human beings who won’t put crazy glue in the shampoo bottle or poison the toothpaste. Of course, as a North American, I assume they will, so I didn’t touch anything.


The welcome package at my first hotel included the normal set of toiletries, as well as condoms and sensation dampening cream. Then I realized the parking was surrounded by very high fences hiding the cars from street view. Right. Unlike the other clients, I had neglected to bring my secretary with me, so I only used the soap. Continue reading

Having fun in North Korea: roller coasters, microbreweries, bowling, Celine Dion karaoke, dog soup, movie studios and rice wine, lots of it!

For my final post about North Korea, I left the “light” stuff: eating, drinking and general silliness.


The eating part was off to a bad start: a cold, horrible “burger” in a sweet bun. I have seen comparable on other airlines, but Air Koryo probably makes the top 5 of my worse in-flight meals ever. Also, because of the tour schedule, this was actually lunch. Sorry for the blurry picture, but the weather made the Antonov 148 ride very bumpy.


The welcome dinner at the Yanggakdo International Hotel was a much better buffet dinner. Nothing special, but I seem to recall the tofu-vegetable mix was quite good.


Breakfast, on the other hand, was atrocious. But this was not a big surprise, as most Asians don’t do breakfast the way we do in the West. In many Asian countries, you will find me eating dinner on the sidewalk with the locals, but I admit that in the morning, you’re more likely to find me at Starbucks. In North Korea, where there are definitely no Starbucks, coffee from the lobby bar and cookies from the convenience store became my breakfast of champions.


Most of the other restaurants were nice, featuring traditional Korean cooking of all kinds, like here at the Lamb BBQ Restaurant (not much marketing effort put in naming the State-owned restaurants). In the picture from the left, Christophe (Switzerland), Tyler (US Imperialist), Matthias and Suzanne (Austria) and Plum (UK). The waitresses sang and danced and it was quite fun, but the air-conditioning didn’t work. And yes, that’s a charcoal fire on the table, a foot away from me! Usually, we were the only customers in the restaurants but on Sunday, the day off for North Korean city dwellers, we saw several tables of well-off locals. During the week, I was told no local would ever have lunch in a restaurant, as they eat in their employer’s cafeteria for very cheap.


At Kaesong City’s Thongil Restaurant: Hanjeongsik, a full Korean meal composed of a multitude of side dishes, called banchan. Opening the little dishes… Continue reading

The Greatest Show on Earth: Pyongyang’s Mass Games!

Since they first started in 2002, Pyongyang’s Mass Games are performed 4 times a week, during the Summer and early Fall.


Even before entering the stadium, you can tell there will be a lot of people involved.


The Rungrado May Day Stadium is allegedly the largest in the world, with a seating capacity of 150,000. The guide alluded that the Guinness Book of Records did not acknowledge that, so either the figure is slightly inflated, or Guinness has some sort of problem verifying things in the DPRK, I don’t know. What I do know is that it is enormous. The building is a hexadecagon, meaning this gigantic facade is one of 16 identical ones!

And that was the first time in my life (and probably the last)  I have ever written, or used, the word hexadecagon.


It looks a little empty on the picture, but it actually gets quite full. However, like an opera, the Mass Games cannot really be watched from the sides, and certainly not from behind, so only a small portion of the available seating is used. The soldiers in the far seats are sitting in third class seats, which would cost a tourist 80 Euros. Nobody buys these tickets, because the next section closer is much better and costs only 20 Euros more. First class seats, where I am seated, come with a table, direct frontal view and will set you back 150 Euros. The row of empty seats right in front of me is the “VIP” seats, which are exactly the same as first class but 2 meters closer. They cost 300 Euros, so nobody buys them either. A few well do to Koreans sat there, the men in dark suits and the women in traditional dresses. Finally, the red tiled area is where the day’s ruling Kim would sit (no, not on the floor).


At the back of the stadium, schoolchildren with big colourful books sit, ready to open them at a particular page on command to make a gigantic mosaic of sorts. They are really good at it.


And there are 20,000 of them! Want a random fact? Here’s a list of 12 UN member countries:

1 – Seychelles

2 – Antigua and Barbuda

3 – Andorra

4 – Dominica

5 – Marshall Islands

6 – St-Kitts and Nevis

7 – Liechtenstein

8 – Monaco

9 – San Marino

10 – Palau

11 – Tuvalu

12 – Nauru

What these 12 sovereign countries have in common is that the number of performers at Pyongyang’s Mass Games exceeds their total population. It takes 100,000 performers to put the show together! Continue reading

Outside Pyongyang: driving around North Korea

While Pyongyang is the centre of most tours to the DPRK, my itinerary took me to Kaesong, gateway to the DMZ, and Wonsan, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. In all honesty, it’s not as exciting as the capital.


Wonsan is a nice city on the water. A long pier takes you to Chok Islet, from which I took this photo of the city. The large white boat you see used to ferry people to and from Japan I was told. In the current political context, it mostly sits idle.


We had a few things to visit in Wonsan but a choice was offered and an afternoon at the beach won over visiting some train Kim Il Sung took decades ago.


There are definitely fewer cars outside Pyongyang. And far more bicycles. Presumably people are less likely to buy bicycles in Pyongyang due to the good subway and bus systems, which cost next to nothing to take.


You certainly see things you would not see in the capital, like laundry in the river, but if severe poverty is present, it is not apparent to the uninformed observer. As I mentioned before, the poorest provinces in the North are now open to tourism, but my itinerary did not include them.


You can still tell you are in North Korea, because even though there is no traffic, there is a traffic cop. Continue reading