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…
…reveals countless little marvels. Along with rice and soup, it makes for a dinner fit for a king. Our guide said people still prepare this kind of dinner on special occasions. Nothing looked particularly expensive – mostly vegetables – but the cost in preparation time would be quite high! Note the thin metallic chopsticks; even if you are agile with chopsticks, these were crazy hard to use.
PET LOVERS, SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH! In Kaesong we had an opportunity to try dog soup. Honestly, I still can’t say I really know what dog meat tastes like, because the soup was both very fragrant and very spicy. But I would say it had the texture of poultry dark meat that has cooked for a long time in a soup or stew. Most people tried it and I think all liked it.
Another tradition in Korea is to make your own soup. We did that at the Chongryu Hot Pot Restaurant, in Pyongyang.
On the long pier leading to Chok Islet, in Wonsan, we stopped at one of the many local BBQ hangouts to eat seafood and fish cooked on little charcoal BBQ’s. Unlike the restaurants, tons of locals were partaking in this. Come to think of it, I can’t really imagine the ladies running these very basic eateries being paid to do so by a State agency, so perhaps this was my only contact with the informal, “private” economy. But I could be totally wrong; they could work for the pier, the park, the city or whatever else. On the left, Jamie from the UK, Eric, another US Imperialist, and two of the guides on the right, Troy and Mr. Kim.
The traditional food took a turn for the worst when we went to Pyongyang’s only pizzeria, complete with waitresses in 1950’s US Imperialist diner uniforms! Bad pizza, bad karaoke by drunk Koreans, lots of soju (rice wine), and a lot of very surprised looks at the Yanggakdo International Hotel when other tourists saw me with a take-away pizza box. To their queries, I suggested I had “connections”. It didn’t help keep the evening classy that we went to the pizzeria after a rather long visit to the Rakwon Microbrewery, where beer was half a Euro a pint! All and all, bad food but awesome fun – soju helping. Oh well, more than once, in places like the amusement park (to come), the Diplomat’s Club (never to be mentioned), or during Karaoke downtown late at night on the tour bus (!), the comment was made that “What happens in Pyongyang stays in Pyongyang”.
Although the karaoke was bad, the restaurant’s pianist sang some nice Celine Dion songs (yes she did!), and we were also treated to our guide’s piano recital. As I mentioned in an earlier post, her mother forced Mrs. Park to take piano for years. “I wanted to kill myself”, she said. Anyway, when I put a video together, I’ll show you how good she was.