How a crowd of 40,000 North Korean spectators put on a synchronised show, making marathon runners feel like professional athletes attending the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.
It’s said that no great story ever started with someone eating a salad. I don’t know if there’s any truth to that, but it does sound something like the late Anthony Bourdain would have said while eating fermented shark or feral pigeon. But, my adventure begins with kimchi. And as much of a salad as it may be, I can assure you that I was going to experience the forbidden fruit of travel.
Late in February, I made the spur of the moment decision to register myself for the Pyongyang marathon. North Korea’s premier sporting event, as it was advertised on their website. I had always enjoyed leisurely runs, but never attempted anything near the distance of a marathon, which, in case you’re wondering, is 42 kilometres and 195 metres. But I convinced myself that this was the time and place to do it. And after weeks of trying to persuade North Korean officials that I wasn’t going to engage in any rogue journalistic activities, I was granted a visa and my application to run in the Pyongyang marathon had been accepted.
My journey began at Shanghai airport. Not only was it a first chance to meet my fellow runners/adventurers who had travelled from all corners of the world, but also to attend the mandatory briefing session on the dos and don’ts of our trip. I had a sense that a lot of what was about to be said was going to sound nonsensical, comical in fact. But, I knew that I had to take it seriously. Not abiding by their rules could very well mean the involuntary extension of my North Korean ‘vacation’.
The rules were strict. Stricter than any other place I had visited. Rule # 1: Do not, under any circumstance, disrespect the supreme leader(s). Rule # 2: For our own safety, we were not allowed to leave the hotel unaccompanied. Rule # 3: Only take photos of what your guides allow. The list goes on but it was clear. I was to be a model citizen and only see the North Korea they wanted me to see.
As an aviation enthusiast, I was very much looking forward to my flight with Air Koryo, the state-owned carrier of North Korea and the world’s only one-star airline. A claim to fame that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with on the last leg out to Pyongyang. Due to decades of international sanctions, I was expecting a dilapidated relic from the Soviet era. But, much to my surprise we boarded an aircraft that was actually made in this century.
We were unemotionally greeted by stewards wearing oversized dark-lensed aviator sunglasses like they were part of some Top Gun programme. And the stewardesses… well, for lack of a better way to describe them, were oddly similar to the Fembots from the spy spoof Austin Powers. For most of the two-hour flight, my eyes were inexplicably glued onto the propaganda video being played on the cabin screens, an amateurly-produced video proudly displaying the country’s military might and national pride. Shortly before dawn, our eagle touched down in the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’.
We had arrived in Pyongyang, North Korea.
After clearing immigration, our personal items were thoroughly checked by customs officers who were dressed in overly decorated uniforms, as if they single handedly won some battle. Over on landside, I was immediately approached by Ms Pak and Mr Cho. They were going to be my shadows for the next three days. With a tendency to say socially awkward things to break the ice, I was praying to myself to stay quiet. I politely said: “Hello, I’m excited to taste your spicy cabbage.” Way to go Alican! Two minutes in the country and already you’ve made a fool of yourself. Ms. Pak replied with: “I hope you will not finish last in the marathon.”
Or what? I thought to myself… I felt as if I was starring in the North Korean version of Bill Murray’s Lost in Translation.
Once everyone cleared customs, we were divided into smaller groups. Our group of 20 boarded a bus and soon we embarked on our way to the hotel. Cities often invest a lot to clean-up the area around their airports. You never get a second chance to make a first impression as they say. One of the first things we saw was a giant mural of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founding father, smiling alongside his son Kim Jong-il. Both enjoy God-like status within North Korean society.
I had heard urban myths, of them shooting 38 under par in 18 holes of golf with 11 holes-in-one and being so biologically ‘supreme’ that they did not need to ever use the toilet. Today, in fact, both are ‘technically’ not dead, with the former still referred to as the President and the latter as the Chairman. So, the country still operates under the rule of dead leaders. This must be the world’s only necrocracy, I thought to myself.
After a quick shower and breakfast, our tour guides ushered us back onto the bus for our day trip to the village of Panmunjom and the DMZ, a small area of neutral land between North and South Korea known as the demilitarised zone, (after nearly 70 years, the two countries are still technically at war).
The streets of the capital were eerily empty. I asked Ms Pak why that was. She said that everyone was busy working for the improvement of the country. At some point we took a right turn onto the six lane Mirae (Future) Scientists street, a stretch of road with impressively modern looking buildings designed to look like intercontinental ballistic missiles that housed the country’s scientific elite. Quite befitting I thought. If you’re going to build them, you might as well live in one. But as smooth as the pavement was on that street, the highway down to the 38th parallel was filled with potholes. Three hours of a bumpy roller coaster like drive and the kimchi I had eaten for breakfast was going onto a second round of fermentation in my stomach.
With North Korea being a communist country, I was surprised by how eager they were to show off their capitalistic side. As soon as we arrived at the DMZ we visited a souvenir shop. North Korean stamps and propaganda posters were just some of the items on sale. Panmunjom is famous for its ginseng and the shop even had ginseng flavoured cigarettes, with the sales people claiming that they were ‘good’ for cancer.
Again, one of those Lost in Translation moments.
The following day was dedicated to a Pyongyang city tour. We were going to really jump into the deep end of the country’s Juche philosophy. Personally, I was most excited about seeing the square that hosted the country’s infamous military parades. But upon arrival, it was actually quite anti-climactic. An empty square never gives off the same feeling of awesomeness. Every so often hundreds of tanks and missile-loaded vehicles would roll in unison through towering Soviet style government buildings with tens of thousands of patriotic bystanders cheering on.
But we did get a chance to ride the beautifully decorated subway transit system, pay our respects in front of the giant bronze statues at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, which serves as the mausoleum for the country’s eternal leaders, as well as visit the War Museum. It was a chance to hear first-hand the atrocities committed by the ‘imperialist aggressors’.
Our final day in North Korea was marathon day. I hadn’t slept much the night before and wasn’t feeling particularly at my best. Not the ideal condition to attempt tackling a physically daunting challenge with little training.
I remembered to have a light breakfast and after a good stretching session we were off to Kim Il-sung stadium, the starting point of the marathon. We all lined up in military form outside and waited for the opening ceremony to begin. At 8am sharp we, the runners, were led into the arena and what we encountered was beyond belief. At least 40,000 enthusiastic spectators had taken their places in the stands and were putting on a synchronised show of a lifetime to welcome us to their country. I knew there and then that this was going to be the closest I’d ever get to being a professional athlete attending the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.
I left the country more confused than I arrived. I has met wonderfully kind people living a life blissfully unaware of the things going on outside their borders. Their sole desire? To see the peaceful unification with the south.
Thank you North Korea. And good luck with your dreams.
If you were wondering, I completed my first marathon in just over four hours. I didn’t place last. Which was probably a delight to Ms. Pak. And suffice to say that I will probably never attempt that distance ever again.
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