Pyongyang Underground

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Pyongyang, North Korea – April 2016

Some have speculated that the Pyongyang Metro is an elaborate hoax. The three stations that tourists are allowed to visit are the only stations that exist.* All of the commuters are actors. Everything about North Korea is an illusion, they say. You can’t trust anything you see.

It is a long, steep descent. As we glide down the softly lit escalator, an ardent female voice chirps a patriotic anthem. Commuters drift by on their way up. They stare ahead, faces devoid of expression. The few who turn to gaze as we glide into the depths respond with icy glints of contempt or flickers of curiosity.

We chatter. There is so much to talk about, so many things we want to know. We are still decked out in our Palace of the Sun finery. Most of the guys are wearing suits and DPRK pins. I’m wearing a colorful new skirt that swirls when I spin around. As the platform comes into view, a shiny new train pulls into the station.

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Our Western guide claps his hands. “Cool! We get to ride one of the new prototype trains. I haven’t ridden one yet.”

The train hesitates as we take photos of the Kim Il-Sung mural. A warning bell sounds. We hop on. The doors slide shut. The passengers blink and shift in their seats, a gradual awakening from the trance of uniformity. The tour group spreads out. Some just ride, some take photos. We beam at each other. Why are we so exhilarated? It’s just a metro ride, for crying out loud. A schoolgirl gets up and motions me to take her seat. I shake my head. She insists, so I sit down.

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Another member of our group sits across from me. The man next to him narrows his eyes at me. I keep my face neutral. No condescension. No pity. No desperate camaraderie. Smiles can backfire, make things worse. Out of the corner of my eye, I see his expression soften. When I look directly at him, the sides of his mouth straighten. I look away and look back at him a few times. His eyes light up and a slight grin appears. In spite of himself. He points at my camera and shakes his head. I nod. Okay. But I break my own rule of not taking photos of people without their consent. A quick flick of the wrist and the deed is done. The result is priceless.

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Most of our group of twenty-four are men. There are two couples. Only two of us are solo women. Except for three, all of the men are young enough to be my sons. I find myself wistful in their presence. They are so inquisitive about this mysterious place. So respectful of the culture and of the older members of our group. Their parents deserve to be proud.**

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The train halts. We spill out of the carriage. Kim Jong Il towers over the staircase. Candy-colored chandeliers illuminate delicate cityscape murals. Those of us with cameras scurry around. So many images, so little time.

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The guides herd us towards the next train, a sturdy retro type. We embark at the back of the carriage. The stench of urine hits us full force as we step inside. Some of us look at each other and stifle grins. The Korean guides are embarrassed. They beckon us towards the front.

“Wow, they sure go to great lengths to fool tourists,” I whisper to one of my companions. He nods, eyes shining.

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We weave in and out of the passengers. Again the slow reaction to our arrival. The initial coldness. I pause in the middle of the aisle. Two middle-aged ladies sit on the right. Two higher ranking military men sit on the left. Colonels, possibly. The force of their glares makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I grasp the bar above me and stare straight ahead, face neutral again. Just be with them. Just be.

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The departed Leaders bestow their benevolent smiles upon the passengers. I step forward and peer through the window to the next carriage. The passengers stand motionless, phantoms lost in reverie. A slight commotion to the right. Some of the group have lined up to take photos of a pigtailed little girl. She giggles and squirms on her grandmother’s lap. Her grandparents are delighted at the attention. They give me an expectant look. I hesitate. She is adorable, but the ruckus around her makes me cringe. I smile at them, but I cannot bring myself to aim my camera her way. I retreat to my original place.

When I look at the military men, they smile at me in unison. Deep, sincere smiles. A soft radiance wells up inside, spreads through me, infusing my atoms.

We stop, but do not alight. People file off. People file on. An elderly woman takes a seat next to the military men. She notices me, starts to rise, and offers her seat. Sparkling black eyes. Toothless smile. Every line in her face glows. I shake my head. No way. The military men laugh. She laughs. Warmth emanates from the middle-aged women to my right. For this one precious moment we share a bond of simple happiness. It doesn’t get any realer than this.

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Then it is time to leave. Waves of farewell. The doors slide shut and the train vanishes into the dark tunnel. We ascend, breathless. The chatter resumes.

“They’re just people going about their lives.”

“No one will ever believe us.”

“We may as well have witnessed an alien invasion.”

We look at each other and laugh.

It was just a metro ride, for crying out loud.

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*There are now Pyongyang metro photography tours which visit all sixteen stations.

**On the last evening of the trip, I mentioned to one of the young men how pleased I was that they were so cool to me, since I was old enough to be their mother. He told me, “You would be the coolest mom!” I was stunned speechless for a few seconds. “Now, that’s something I’ve never heard,” I replied. “If anyone says anything about it, they say it’s a good thing I never had kids.” He was horrified that anyone would say such a thing, but I assured him it was okay. I am used to being scorned by the Motherhood. I’ll never forget his words. So many unforgettable little things, extraordinary in their simplicity, happened during this journey.

55 thoughts on “Pyongyang Underground

  1. I was mesmerized, Julie. It felt like a description of first-contact: the initial carefulness and the discovery, after all, that people are just people, and a smile has to be shared.

  2. i’m happy to read this
    well expressed account,
    and that the fearless leader,
    school children & other passengers
    did not detain or make accusations
    of espionage 🙂

  3. Wonderful post. And very enlightening. There’s something very sad about using art to portray a misleading message.

    I always get a second cup of coffee before I start reading about your adventures, Julie.☺ They are special. Thanks so much. 💖

    • Thank you, Van. I’ve had so many rich adventures, but North Korea is one of the most mindblowing (along with Papua New Guinea), in a cultural sense.

  4. Wear your “Cool Mom” badge with pride Julie! A great tour through what is obviously so much more than a metro ride. The pic, third from the bottom, is so good – a glimpse into the twilight zone of your incredible adventure.

  5. Splendid photos, Julie, including the ‘stolen’ one. It’s nice to be able to peer into the daily life of something so remote and hidden. Urine stench on a train is a new low for me, even after five years’ worth of TfL! Vomit, yes, by the bucketful, but someone having a pee on the train is a new one.

    • Thanks, Fabrizio. I’m very pleased with how my photos came out, especially the ones that I took at a split second’s notice. The urine stench was a first for me,too,but I have to admit that it’s not as bad as barf. Living in this part of Europe for so long, I’m used to barf everywhere. Oh, do I have barf-on-public-transport stories. At least with urine you can’t see what the person had for dinner.

      • With hindsight, the one with the two leaders on the carriage is my new fave. I really like its tones, and the fact that it’s spot on despite having been done on a moving train. Well done!

  6. It looks like a film set! I wasn’t sure where you were taking me at first, Julie 🙂 Quite an experience from the sound of things. And you made a fan 🙂

  7. Very cool. Reality is hard to believe sometimes. Perhaps you were part of one big “The Truman Show”. 🙂 Glad you got a buzz from taking the candid shot. 🙂

  8. I don’t know if I’ve read them all, but I’ve really enjoyed your North Korea posts. I like being able to see through your eyes, rather than so many of the other ones available. The human moments of connection shine through, even as they are book-ended by ones of discomfort and difference. I think it is viewing life without judgment in which its underlying reality shines through, and you have a beautiful way of seeing so…

    Peace
    Michael

    • Thank you, Michael. You’ve read all of the NK stories that I’ve posted so far, but more are definitely to come. You have understood my intention in showing NK in a different way than the mainstream. I expected to be scolded (not by you, of course) for not perpetuating the narrative, but the readers who have responded have been positive so far.

  9. I am unsure whether it says something about the world or about us that we get so surprised when we meet with genuine kindness from strangers. “Just be,” is the ideal way to travel, but so hard for me to practice!

    • “Just be” used to be tough for me, too. 🙂 I stopped expecting honest kindness from strangers long ago, and I certainly didn’t expect it in a place where people are taught from birth to hate “Foreign Imperialists”. That’s why it was so surprising to see them open up. I’ve never felt tension dissipate so quickly.

  10. For me, your post reinforces the idea that a country’s people should not be confused with its government – probably the best lesson I’ve learned from decades of travel. Stereotypes and official narratives aside, the station still does look unreal! In at least one quick glance, the real people blended so seamlessly into the murals (or is it vice versa?) that I had to peer closely to distinguish living from painted humans. The lighting is unusual and captivating also; I’ve looked at these photos for two days now and still can’t fully describe what I’m seeing and feeling. Your post is a wonderful, small, quiet look at the life that takes place in these surreal surroundings.

    • Exactly. I hope that interaction with outsiders, no matter how brief, enlightens them to that fact, too. There is a feminine look to a lot of the deco in North Korea. Shades of pink and flowers. It’s an interesting contrast with the military murals.

  11. These are the posts of yours I only dream I could write.

    North Korea has long fascinated me, and I think it is even higher on my must visit list (being honest, it was already pretty high)!

  12. Great photos and post ~ it is a bit like “Utopia goes Underground.” Another world and you create a feel just like the one I experienced during my visit to the Hermit Kingdom subway station. Wonderful to read your thoughts and see the images you have.

    • Thank you, Dalo. I’m delighted to hear that it mirrors the feel of your visit. The metro was definitely one of the highlights of the entire tour.

        • I went to a microbrewery and it was small, but apparently there are now several in the city so I’m not sure it’s the same one you went to. It’s true it was different – beers were ordered by numbers and the decor was totally minimalist. I didn’t drink any beer, because I was so tired (lack of decent coffee) and we still had stuff to do.

  13. Thank you Julie. I must confess I shivered a bit reading your account of a simple metro ride to the land of Orwell… (Or is it just my imagination…)
    Bon week-end mon amie.
    Brian.
    PS. I just remembered my worryless childhood in former french Guinea in West Africa, under the brutal regime of Sekou Touré. Everything was hidden…

  14. What an exceptional journey, Julie, and what wordless stories!! I met a person from Senegal on my blog and he always calls me MOM. Thank you very much for having shared your experience with us.:)

  15. Glad I left Ello for a while to discover this post… just great! Thanks for that. My English is not that good, but I enjoyed your proze very much. (In case you wonder… amateur_photography here 🙂 )

  16. Thanks for a lovely metro ride along with you. Really enjoyed this. ESPECIALLY the ending. Too funny!!!!

    I love the line “share a bond of simple happiness” and I know the feeling well whilst traveling. Thank you

    Peta

  17. wow, this metro ride really surprised me, I really enjoyed reading your words, Julie. The scene about the man sitting across from you and the story of your shot in that moment really impressed me. Hoping to have my own experience in Korean metro, someday.

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