“One day we will liberate South Korea!” beamed the museum guide in her snug green uniform. With welcoming bandwagons in the South ready to rid themselves once and for all of the K-Pop scourge, banners were hastily folded away once they realized their 5G network, bullet trains and abundance of food were also set to be liberated. You may have read titbits about North Korea, pieces quoting ‘democratic’ voting turn-outs of 99.9%, government sanctioned haircuts, and the occasional nuclear underground bomb test. Setting sanity aside, we booked ourselves on a tour that coincided perfectly with the dancing, fireworks and merriment put on for the President’s 103rd Birthday. What, a person can’t be President just because they died in 1994? Open your mind! Like every good story, you have to begin at the beginning.
The only way to get into the country is by guided tour or through kidnapping, which is how some Japanese film darlings came to town when Kim Jong Il was in charge – a green jumpsuit wearing despot and star-struck movie buff, apparently. Before casting aspersions (bit late?), a brief history to learn your King Kim’s from your King Kongs. Once Japan lost the Second World War, a prelude to Vietnam followed as the American backed South fought the Communist North - armed by Russia and China. The North’s eventual leader was President Kim Il Sung. After a flying economic start famine struck, reportedly killing tens of millions. Kim Il Sung beget Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Il beget Kim Jong Un, which is where the nation sits now. Whilst Il Sung seemed a passable respected leader, his son…well…you know that friend that you don’t invite to parties because they’re liable to arrive naked save for a carefully positioned haddock? And he spawned. Sung and Il are interred in extravagant, temperature controlled marbled mausoleums, and the masses flock to pay homage. Whether they do on their own volition is by the by. The train-carriage that Kim Jong Il died in remains (apparently) how he left it, with some fancy sunglasses and a Mac Book Pro lying dormant – why he needed that with no internet access to the outside world prompted our guides to perform Lord of the Dance style uncomfortable foot shuffling.
A modern tourist bus marched us around the spotless capital, a Communist city like any other with tarmac roads, concrete blocks of flats and the occasional hammer and sickle adorning buildings. Oh, and with the additional towering statues of The Great Leaders (Sung and Il), all gleaming teeth and pudginess that comes from an incomprehensible affluence. In the same vein, our huge multi-starred hotel had BBC World Service, fully stocked bar and telephone exchange. Much to our surprise, for our entire trip we eat fantastically, knocking back kim-chi, friend chicken and the Korean favourite dog-soup when available (tasted like fatty lamb but with the texture of pulled pork). However, the nagging feeling kicking you in the side of your head is inescapable: 90% of the time we were the only ones in the restaurants; there are no privately owned cars; there are no signs of supermarkets, clothes stores or visible shops of any kind, not even a sanctioned hairdressers; no traffic lights or streetlamps seemed to work; and there were no advertisements whatsoever bar a single billboard on a bridge for a car that no one could hope to buy.
Our tourist guides spewed forth facts of their country during our jaunt, taking umbrage as to why we’d even question the use of child soldiers during Civil War or indeed believe there is any benefit of multiple media sources. Contrary to expectations, we roamed freely from the tour group a little in the squares and could take photos of everything and everyone apart from soldiers, policeman and bizarrely the quite ornate underground stations – thank you West Germany for selling your metro! For me, the whole vibe to North Korea was played out in a single scene at the Demilitarized Zone. It took us a few hours to get there from the capital Pyongyang, through countryside where every scintilla of land was tilled by hand or on a rare occasion by tractor, but the DMZ did not disappoint. The military performed with stone-faced pomp on both sides, but upon a regulation stand-down the US continued their formidable stances, whilst the North all huddled behind a cabin and bummed a cigarette like they were down the park. Break over, nothing to see here! Ready, Set....Pomp!
Although we could technically ask the guides anything, we were told to be careful less we get them into trouble – they were rumoured to be watched constantly and their families shipped off to gulags if anything out of the ordinary was relayed. The guides though did openly blame American Imperialists for all North Korea’s ills (tick!) instead of their own regime (tick!), and we left after a week not knowing if they genuinely believed it or whether they were just part of a production (tick!). Towards the last day of our trip our guide asked for medicines or creams, the only time we possibly saw a chink in the armour of our proud guide. They liked to keep us on our toes though, and to quote their greeting on the third day which will stay with me forever “Good morning and welcome to another day in paradise in Pyongyang!” (tick!)
Another year, another dove-grey winter’s day where the cold bites on the neck in a vampyric frost. Last night’s snow means you have the pleasure of crunching through the first morning powder like you’re stepping out onto the moon, going timidly where you went only a few days before. I like to pretend I’m Shackleton or Scott, racing to the Poles, watching the dog hurtle ahead over the white fields, hopefully chasing down that swine Amundsen!
In a helter-skelter direct universe to that, my last few Christmases have been spent in Melbourne, Australia. Currently the air-conditioning is blasting and I’m contemplating hitting the swimming pool as the heat finally climbs down from its 33C soap box. Could be worse, last weekend was 40C, culminating in bushfires across the state and half the populace trying to climb inside their own fridge. As I reflect on the sweltering year, I marvel at my stoic Christmas tree. This decoration that has caused considerable bewilderment, each visitor in turn ejaculating “is it that time of year already?!”
It should have been taken down in the first few days of 2015, but things got the better of me, calendars were full and besides, it looked fine adorning the mantelpiece. That excuse lasted not only throughout the entire of January, but extended right through to May. By that time it was almost the middle of the year, and the coldest darkest months for Australia where sometimes it got to single digit temperatures during the day. Over here we have the much celebrated Christmas in July, where we do exactly that. What the hell happened between July and November seems exceptionally blurry, but alas it was then almost real Christmas again and time to get the tree up...which I was, for once, way ahead of myself. It’s all in the preparation.
I have to admit none of the religious trappings of Christmas enter the household other than the tree, so we make the most out of it 365 days a year. Here’s to another lovely loooong Christmas, happy holiday season everyone!
I’ve travelled to some bizarre places, mispronouncing at least half of them. In my current country of residence, Australia, they’ve mixed and matched British names such as Newcastle and Perth, pretty easy, with indigenous ones, which, well, leads to problems. There’s no easy way to lead up to this, so here goes. The longest name of a place in Australia is Mamungkukumpurangkuntjunya Hill. I congratulate your miserable fumblings if you attempted it. By the way, the people opposite you are wondering why you’re making a face like a chimp and babbling like a baby ….mamung koo kooo! Oddly, the name means “where the devil urinates”, which hardly whets appetites. How do they even come up with place names like this? “Mate, this place fackin reeks! It’s like Beelzebub has just pulled down his dacks! It’s in me throat mate, right at the back of the bloody throat!…facccckkkk this devil pissin bastard!”
It’s on journeys to some of these weird places that I’ve shared lives with some spectacular people, even if for the most infinitesimal fleeting periods. Whether Iranian truck-drivers, Pakistani Army Majors, Russian doctors, Australian circus performers, Hollywood Acting Agents and actors, charity workers, even lawyers (I know, right!) they all had the same thing in common: human kindness. Even the lawyers. One of the most interesting was also one of the youngest, because at 22 years old Andy left Austria to travel the world, finding a truth that would change his life. In Australia he picked up a didgeridoo and become quite adept, quickly mastered it from tribes in the outback and then had an epiphany: in meeting a Medicine Man of the tribe, Andy decided to quit his current degree of aeronautical engineering and switch to medicine, on the premise that helping people and making a difference was far more beneficial. Along the same lines but years later I would meet a South African that resigned from his office-job and join the police force, again on the premise that making a difference in people’s lives was far more important, and rewarding. Late night conversations as I’ve got older often stem back to this, and I surmise there are only a few proper jobs in the world where you directly affect people’s lives: doctors and nurses; armed forces; teachers; policemen; firemen…these are real jobs where if you don’t turn up to work, it genuinely matters. You can have an inspiring job like Sir David Attenborough, but these are few and far between. That boy, Andy, was onto something. For the rest, including myself, we push paper around, but boy you should see me push that paper, I’m like a firkin ninja with that paper. I push it and it remains pushed! Until I get it back, then I file it, and bam, it stays filed! But pushing paper has put money in my pocket, affording me something spectacular: perspective. For me the sense of freedom in feeling something new, something breathtaking, whether art or landscape or music or kindness or happiness, is my self-healing. Each instance reminds me how incredibly lucky I am not only to be living in the time I do but with the means that I do.
Travel has enabled me to be transported from my desk by memory all over the world: to the chill in a dessert morning as the sun rose across a red Monument Valley in Utah; high into the air when paragliding over the snowy Alps in Grindelwald, Switzerland; standing stock still in Kenya’s Masai Mara as three lionesses padded a few feet away in complete calm; my eyes breaking through their sockets as a huge Great White shark serenely developed from dark blue nothingness to within touching distance; spending a Christmas morning being playfully followed by a small boy selling coconut on the beach in Chuang Tha, Burma, with a beautiful smile on his face that melted me completely. These snippets of life mean more to me than any physical asset I could possess (my girlfriend will kill me if she reads this).
What I take with me on every journey, even to work, is a sense of joy at the sheer privilege of the experiences I’ve had, but also knowing that whatever my job, and whatever your job, you can influence lives of those around you by simply being a compassionate human being: whether consoling a work colleague having a bad day or breaking bread with a stranger these microcosms of kindness, these minuscule interactions in life make a difference and that’s the same whether in Wales, Esfahan or Mamungkukumpurangkuntjunya Hill.
Writing and writing...