Mass Games

If one ever plans a trip to the DPRK, it should be scheduled to coincide with the Arirang Mass Games in late August or early September. The production of this event is on such a grand scale that it makes the Olympic opening ceremonies look like a kindergarten production. The games are held in the May Day Stadium, which is the largest open stadium in the world:

We were to attend the Mass Games on our first night in North Korea, a guaranteed way to impress the socks off any visitor. Everyone in my tour group wanted to attend the games, and this was one expense that was not covered in our otherwise all-inclusive itinerary. Tickets for the Mass Games were expensive: ranging from 80 to 300 euros. I have no doubt that locals paid an exponentially lower price for tickets. We had a choice of seating by class, 80 euros for third, 100 euros for second, 150 euros for first class and 300 euros for VIP seating. We paid Amanda Carr for our seating preference and received our tickets later that evening. The tickets, like the show itself, were the biggest things I had ever seen: they were a metre long and ten centimetres wide. They were printed on the thinnest glossy paper and I knew that they would not survive unbent or uncrumpled over the duration of my holiday. I chose to buy first class tickets, and sat with my group in the front row, overlooking the VIP area.  

The Mass Games are famous for their acrobatics, gymnastics, trapeze artists, martial arts, marching, singing and dancing performed in front of a colossal backdrop of a mosaic card display. It is this rapidly-changing card show that leaves me in awe. Young students create mosaics opposite the viewing audience. They use large books with coloured pages to create portraits that are as large as one side of the stadium–and this is the largest stadium in the world, and that’s no hype. Sometimes the mosaics became moving pictures. As impressive as the mosaics are, it is just as impressive to witness the precise synchronization of thousands of colour books flipping over to create a surprising vibrant massive image in less than a second.

I wanted to enjoy the huge scope of the Mass Games through my own eyes and not solely through a camera lens. Thus when the mosaics changed, I wanted to be awed by the split-second turnover dominating my presence in front of me, versus seeing it change through my minuscule viewfinder. I did take pictures of almost every single mosaic backdrop, but I waited to snap a picture until after I was awed by the entire stadium side changing at once. The mosaics stayed in place for a long time, so I was never hurried to take a photograph.

As we counted down to the 8 p.m. start, the backdrop at first looked like this:

Within a second the backdrop changed to a simple stripe pattern:

The vertical stripes became horizontal as the stripes filled the backdrop from left to right with a new colour. Here is a closeup of the children and their colour books:

The backdrop then broke up into vertical sections as the children used their books to spell out the names of their schools. As they did this, they stomped their feet, creating a clamorous racket.

There were hundreds of different backdrops during the ninety-minute show. I have included here some of my favourites:

When the image of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung appeared, the audience burst into applause. Notice the shining golden halo around his portrait:

Sometimes only a portion of the backdrop would change. This would occur whenever different messages were spelt out against the same background. The Korean letters would have to change and would involve some children having to flip their books to a new colour showing a Korean letter, while some would have to flip their books to match the background colour each time there was a new message. Watch how the rainbow changes into a message here:

A closeup of the action on the field:

More action as the martial artist leaps into the backdrop…

…and smashes a board to pieces. Notice how the message also changes:

The DPRK flag took centre stage and as the lights dimmed to darkness, a spotlight centred on the star, following it and it alone off the field:

And the show’s grand conclusion:

Arirang, the Mass Games of the DPRK, is a show on a scale unlike any other production you have ever seen. All the tour groups were given the opportunity to see it again, with a free upgrade. If you paid 100 euros for your last ticket, you would be upgraded to 150 euro seats for the same 100 euro price. Unfortunately, this special offer didn’t apply to those like myself who had bought 150 euro tickets getting an upgrade to the 300 euro VIP section. Some members of my tour group opted to see the show again. At 150 euros a ticket, it was very expensive, and I wanted to save my money for other things…like souvenirs!

My next post will be about all the books, pins, T-shirts, Pyongyang traffic lady dolls, hotel freebies and airplane paraphernalia I brought home as souvenirs.

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