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Old 14-05-2018, 10:34 AM
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So yeah, we stayed on the sports complex (and not the well-known island hotel) – the complex was quite large with large velodrome-like buildings, apparently one for each sport. Table tennis, volley ball - which was their favourite. There were street volleyball courts along the marathon route, that were being used when we were running. Outside of these buildings , there were 'athletes' doing like squat jumps up three steps, and repeating under the guidance of a coach. So they were active, if the complex looked half deserted.

The hotel was approximately 30 floors high, and was reasonably decent accommodation ((3* western equivalent)). There was a bar, Souvenir shop and our rooms had a couple of English language news channels – one of which was English RT. So we whilst we weren’t receiving DPRK propaganda, we were receiving Russian instead. We never had any Korean television, I don’t think. Although, maybe a few Chinese channels. What was to our surprise though, was the fact that the Elite marathon athletes invited for the same race were also staying in our hotel, so we had a chat with them in the lifts, and also at buffet breakfast with them both before and after the race. It was interesting to hear the gamesmanship from the local authorities, in order to give the odd % to help the Koreans win the race. Which they did in the Elite races, most of the African runners dropped out. Back to the lifts considering what happened to Otto, and the fact we had western television, there were Korean floors and Western floors. So it was ultimately an offence for the locals to be on our floors and vice versa. (not sure how the cleaners coped). To help this there was a Korean lift in the lobby and three western ones. It took two trips up the in the incorrect lift work this out, as we were never told – although strangely the Korean lift still went to our floors. And some floors were missing on the tourist lifts. It seemed a really good idea to get around anymore international incidents by having it this way, but like most things in Asia – badly implemented. Given the organisation and the freely available alcohol, the fact that the majority of westerners (even the marathoners) liked to stay up and drink it is quite easy to see how incidents could happen.

We were up very early the next day as the we had to leave the hotel at 7am for the coach to the stadium. The Magyongdae International Prize Marathon (this was the 27th event) is a big date on the calendar. It’s named after the area of Pyongyang where Kim Il Sung was born, and is part of his birthday celebrations. This really is a huge event, and has only been open to tourists for 6 years or so. We left a little late but were at Kim Il sung stadium for 7:30am and it was a hive of activity. Unbelievably, the stadium was already almost full. It holds 50,000. There were lots of people still outside and arriving, these were mostly ‘athletes’ as there were several races. Elite, Amateur, and juniors – to national standard, over shorter distances. Probably over 800-900 runners in total. We were ushered into the big entrance to the and told to regimentally line-up in rows 8 or 9. We weren’t locals, the Army or Workers Party people, we were western tourists, so it was like trying to get a load of 8 year olds to stand in line ina orderly fashion. Through the entrance inside you could see all the locals clapping and cheering – most likely propaganda songs, and anthems that they’ve known all or their lives. Some blocks were army related, and others workers party, and others family of… etc. Before we knew it we were being lead out, under the banner of ‘amateur 1’, to a huge round of applause. The loosely regimented lines, soon become blurred to non-existent, as everyone got over excited, waving, taking photos and taking it all in. We were lead round the track and then onto the field (it was 3g standard all weather pitch). Then there was an opening ceremony, with the minister for sport who read in Korean and there was also translation into English. We then had the marathon anthem played and turned to the marathon flag being raised. Onto the start line with the elites, and national standard kids of all ages. And off we went the – the route was out and back 13.1 miles each way.

I don’t want to bore you with every bit of it but you could tell all the locals in the stadium wanted to be there because of the event it was, and there was orchestrated singing and clapping - but comparable to singing the national anthem or any other type of western event, etc. And no difference with the locals who were lining the streets outside did too. I know this because everyone outside was happy and cheering, high fiving when the international athletes were cruising through, and some westerners whom they don’t see too often, but three hours later… Pyongyang had returned to normality, and the streets were relatively empty as people went about their daily business. This is the time as a marathon runner when you need a bit of support. However, the pain and fatigue disappeared as you entered the stadium which was still full. And I had the last 400m – the whole stadium to myself. I did a lap in front of 50,000 people – who only cheered and waved in their own way, when I did. So on the back straight I tried to milk it. A fantastic, fantastic one-off experience. It was a cold day, and the crowd in the stadium had been entertained by at least one football match since I had gone. My mate won the amateur race – and my other mate came third and both had a podium presentation, with the Minister of Sport giving out the medals, and a flowers presentation. It was a surreal, bizarre and incredible experience. And one that probably could only happen in DPRK. We then left the stadium to make our way back to the coach, my mates had the medals and posy of flowers and we freely mingled through the crowd of the people leaving. Everyone seemed to be curious about us as we were of them. Lots of smiles, a few waves but not much interaction. Later that evening when we were taken to the restaurant, as we walked in my mates were on TV – their state TV. And the clip cut to the news anchor (not the famous one) – so that was a surreal twist to one-off experience. The Kim family probably were watching!? Before that though, we had another whistle-stop tour, whilst the people on longer tours relaxed at the big spa complex. It’s apparently huge, wave machines, Jacuzzis, pools, over ten indoor slides… and were also mixing with locals. Gutted we missed out on that! Budget tour option, problems.

After our tour we went to a Craft ‘beer bar’. The beers never had names as such, instead they were numbered. 1-6. I had a number two – your standard lager, while number 6 was a real dark beer. After that we left and headed back to the hotel. We drunk late into the night, drinking until around 3am. The English and Korean guides were still up drinking and talking when we left, I think they have to be the last to bed, for obvious reasons. The following morning we left for the station and the train back to China. At the station we were witness (“no photo, no photo”) to a rather large troop movement. There must have been 16 troop carriers, all at the station, and in the back of these were packed (overloaded) with young NK troops. It was almost like a scene from WW2, open back wagons, and a good 4-500 troops there. Some waved, some looked incredulous, some looked curious.

Now that I’m back, I feel you do have to get past the headlines, whilst balancing the fact that they do live in a heavily sanitised, regulated environment. Everyone I came across, was part of the problem. The people of Pyongyang are towards the top of the pyramid. They are fairly happy – not that they have a choice. You look at it and could see how ‘regime change’ could affect a country so heavily invested in one idea. – Juche Ideology. Nobody would know what to do. With regards to Otto – he went with our tour group – YPT. And he was warned like everyone that if you’re respectful, and you’ll be surprised how open and relaxed your time there is. But he decided to steal a poster, a whole host of lines crossed with that, desecration of an image of their leader, espionage, theft. He was facing 6 years of prison / hard labour. Nobody we came across from the English speaking side believe he was mistreated in any way. Includes our tour guides and the UN guy (who has lived there two years). They think that he tried to kill himself. And nobody in Korea wanted a US citizen passing away on their soil like that – so returned him home. The problem is Otto’s family were religious so didn’t allow a post mortem to be carried out, so that allowed the headlines to run away a bit. If we had done anything wrong – unless very serious like espionage, we would have been arrested and swiftly deported. As you are seeing right now – we were getting vibes of hope with positive future. Ask a guide how many people live in their country, they respond with the population of both north and south korea. They want and their seems to be hope that they will re-unite the country. Our English guides stated to us a couple of times, that North Korea might not exist in a few years’ time (and not in a wiped off the face of the earth way).
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Last edited by eagle mart; 14-05-2018 at 02:27 PM. Reason: edited for skin flint
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