Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Democratic People's Republic of Korea - part 1

I’m not entirely sure how to begin the documentation process for my trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. I kept a detailed journal while I was inside (the word ‘inside’ has been deliberately chosen for its numerous connotations and because of the difficulty in getting both ‘in’ and ‘out’ again) because I wanted to avoid the hassle of trying to take a laptop. The border entry searches were laborious and extensive, but I’ll go into that later. My point here is that whilst I have an accurate record of everything that happened around me in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, I am still grappling with the greater significance of each grain of information I was presented with. A purely chronological account of my visit simply would not do, and yet if one is not chronological, where does one begin?

I suppose that yes, I have made lists of moments and people and anecdotes which I intend to process and share over the next few days, but I feel as though no matter how I approach this, I will fail. A very fundamental change has occurred within me, and it is affecting my perceptions of many things. How could I possibly communicate that with any adequacy? Perhaps I should begin with the politics - after having seen and experienced the workings of a communist state, complete with it’s propaganda and fear and poverty and totalitarianism. Or rather with my new perceptions of humanity - now that I have seen what happens to humans in environments so radically different to my own I am no longer sure of what is truly ‘human’ in nature. Or maybe I start with China – because I am looking at this country now with a real understanding of where it came from and how far it has developed within a few short decades.  

I do know for sure that the reason I am struggling is because my brain right now is like a swamp. I’m wading through all the muddy, confusing crap, and it just takes a little while till I break out into the clear river. What a killer metaphor. I digress. I’ve postponed this for nearly two whole days already, and I think I’m gonna have to start wading before I can even imagine what the river might look like.

Contrary to popular belief, if you go with a proper tour group and aren’t some kind of crazy enemy-of-the-state or diplomatic top-dog, getting a visa for DPRK isn’t really problematic right now. American passport holders can have difficulties depending on the (very fragile) state of relations between the two nations, and South Koreans do have to be a little cautious for the same reasons, but for a kid like me, it was all cool. You don’t get anything in your passport unless you are a Chinese passport holder (who knows why), so that’s a little disappointing, but I got in and out without too much hassle, so I really can’t complain.

I went with a company called Young Pioneer Tours, and I really can’t recommend them enough. They’re obviously aimed at a younger demographic, and sell themselves as “a tour company for people who hate tours” so I was pretty keen before I even left. As it turns out, the main man Gareth (who is a damn hilarious smokeslikeachimneyanddrinkslikeafish kind of guy, and a complete genius for all things DRPK) has discovered this great niche of taking people who usually backpack, to places where they can’t really go by backpacking. Their clientele are the epitome of awesomeness, and it really reinvigorated my faith in group travelling. They took us to all the biggest and best places (Arirang, Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum, the DMZ North/South border) but we also went to a whole bunch of super interesting smaller places (bookshops, parks, war museums). Each meal comes with beer, the numbers are capped, and the YPT guides pick only the best of the North Korean guides for their trips. Speaking of which, there were two groups of about 15 people and we had 4 North Korean guides plus a driver per group. A note out to the ladies, too, there were only 5 females on the trip and I was the only one of those five not in a couple – massive sausage-fest. LOL. Apparently females are much less common on trips to highly dangerous political areas. Who’da thunk it? There were people from Australia, Germany, England, Canada and French Canada, America, Austria and perhaps some others I can’t think of right now. I must reiterate, that all of these people were actually really awesome individuals. There must be something special about YPT, because as good as DPRK was, the best times were when I was chilling and drinking with my new pals. Sounds lame. Totally isn’t lame. Is totally cool. I would almost recommend going to DPRK just to meet the other kinds of people who want to go to DPRK.

I suppose I had a pretty good time with the people, but I’ve never been one to be able to separate my surroundings from my internal landscape. DPRK was highly educational, but only because it was challenging. I was exhausted by the end and glad to be back in China, which says a lot.

This next part is hard to explain. I feel as though my brain is a kind of container, almost like a house, I guess. It’s full of rooms and compartments for the different facets of my life, and these places –or rooms– have different interior designs and lighting schemes and playlists and are even filled with different people. I manage the home as any human would, and I clean it and make it dirty and clean it again as part of the process of life. I spend more time in some rooms than others, I even like some rooms more than others, but I am conscious of all of them at all times. In an instance, I can sit in a moment of self reflection and gaze at my mind as though it were the blueprints of the house. I never forget about the study when I’m in the kitchen, my name is my address, I live alone (not even with cats), and at times I find this too consuming. Too laborious. I have so many rooms. I don’t want to be having to think about the damn laundry when I’m in the bedroom. I can barely handle it. In this life, I don’t want to think about the news when I’m with friends. I am tired of thinking about exams when I’m enjoying dinner. But these rooms combine to make this house, and this house is who I am. When I retire I shall move quite literally and also internally, to a smaller house. Something far more manageable with far less rooms, and I long for this house already. At 19 I am just exhausted from having to think about such a stupid goddamned mansion of shit.

Why am I talking about this? Going to North Korea was the beginning of a renovation project to extend the walls and make space for a new room. Why would I want that? I didn’t want it. I still don’t want it. It’s there now, and it’s another place I have to furnish then clean and then spend my time in. Another place physically and internally, to be conscious of for the rest of my life. This room has altered my perceptions of all the others rooms, and has changed the schematics of the house. I haven’t adjusted to the new blueprint yet. I still resent the extra vacuuming. I had to go because it was an opportunity I could not live with myself for passing up. When I think about how bad that country is, it makes me feel so intensely grateful for every single thing that I have in my life right now. It is part of my growth as an informed, responsible individual within this world. It gives me enough badass credits to not have to go do crazy shit for a long time to come. As Hanna would say, I’ve leveled up.

I’m going back to posting everyday now and I’m having some quiet time in Beijing at the moment, so it will be DPRK for several more days. Hopefully by the end we’ll be swimming in a clear river together. Hahahahha, kidding. I promise no more rubbish metaphors.

1 comment:

  1. You really got me with that house metaphor, so genius. I hope you get to move in your own little Panama very soon.


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