Pyongyang, a showcase city

Pyongyang was levelled during the Korean War and over the next sixty years was rebuilt with the specific intention of being a showcase world capital. It is a stunning city. I spent over a week in Pyongyang and every time I left the hotel I was impressed. While the rest of the country is still struggling in a third-world existence, Pyongyang is rich and beautiful in its architecture, parks and monuments. The DPRK filters its money into the capital in order to show it off to tourists. Say what you want about the North Korean regime, but the city they have recreated will leave you in awe. I have also never seen a cleaner city than Pyongyang.

In every postcard I sent, I wrote that the city’s architecture was colossal, yet beautiful. In communist countries, one often thinks of apartment buildings as dirty, formless super megaliths which occupy entire city blocks. I certainly saw buildings like that in Leningrad and East Berlin. Pyongyang had apartments that were enormous as well, both in terms of height and breadth, yet they were architecturally engaging to the eye, and elicited multiple glances every time I passed by. The entire city is built on a superhero scale, which makes visitors, as well as I’m sure the citizens themselves, feel that they can only cower in awe and admiration beneath the towering architectural majesty. Imagine a Las Vegas without light, and you have Pyongyang. 

The one building everyone sees from well beyond city limits is the infamous Ryugyong Hotel, a 105-storey pyramid that dominates the skyline as you approach the city from the airport.

Its three sides of glass reflect the clouds and surrounding buildings. I felt transfixed by the hotel whenever my tour group drove through the city, as though God himself was using the hotel as a hypnotist’s pendant. As the Korean economy crumbled in the mid-nineties, construction on the hotel ground to a halt. For sixteen years the Ryugyong stood as a skeletal concrete shell, with a crane perched on the top like a lonely stork. With the centenary of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung next year, the DPRK regime no doubt felt it had to get its act together and find the money to give the hotel the illusion of at least looking like a completed structure. The outside is now almost entirely covered in glass, except for a bare concrete strip or two:

The hotel interior is still empty. There are no definite plans for the future of the Ryugyong, so it may remain an empty shell, albeit snazzily glass-covered, for years to come. 

My tour group was fortunate to visit Kim Il Sung Square twice, during the day:

…and at night. Not many tour groups get to walk around Pyongyang at night, however I let my wishes be known to Koryo Tours that I wanted a night walk. I also told the guides almost as soon as we were introduced that a night tour was high on my list.

Pyongyang lies in darkness at night, with buildings all over the city turning their lights off at 10 p.m. on the dot. Residence apartments stand in total blackness. Watch this video clip:

I did notice some apartment blocks–entire blocks of colossal buildings–completely lit up, with a light on in every window. Imagine a Super Scrabble board with a light on in every square. There was nothing visible in these apartments: no pictures on the walls, no curtains, no plants or other items on the windowsills. This gave me the strong idea that these apartments were uninhabited, and lit up just for show. An apartment building where every single window was lit up would not be seen in even the richest of countries. 

Since our group was in the capital during the anniversary week of the founding of the DPRK, we were fortunate to see buildings lit up even later than 10 p.m. The beacon of Pyongyang, the Tower of the Juche Idea, a gigantic granite matchstick 170 metres high, stands on the east bank of the Taedong River.

The red flame at the top is always lit past the 10 p.m. blackout period. During the National Day celebrations, the flame stayed aglow often all night. Twice in Pyongyang I was awakened at 4 a.m. (unfortunately by my roommate’s snoring). I got up out of bed and took a peek out the Yanggakdo Hotel window and saw the tower flame still lit. The flame appears to be red glass but the light underneath seems to churn and rotate, so that it resembles a real flame.

The tower is flanked by buildings such that the frame appears in perfect symmetry when photographed from the right angle:

I returned to Pyongyang for my last two nights in the DPRK, after visiting the northern part of the country. Almost two weeks after National Day, the buildings of Kim Il Sung Square had returned to the 10 p.m. blackout schedule. I had a funny moment while taking photos from my 41st-floor Yanggakdo Hotel room window. The hotel windows had no screens and thus opened to the fresh air. I leaned out the window to the left in order to snap the Pyongyang Grand Theatre which was lit all over, highlighting its particularly beautiful green roof. The first picture I took was blurry, so I leaned out and tried to take it again. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the theatre. Where was it? It was there a second ago. Then I looked at my watch; it was exactly 10 p.m. The lights had been turned off! Had I started to take photos only a minute earlier, I would have captured a nighttime shot of the Grand Theatre, bathed in light.   

The Pyongyang Ice Rink reminds me of a mokorotlo, which is a Basotho hat. It is open for foreigners only on Saturday mornings, and aside from my arrival in Pyongyang on Saturday 3 September, I was not in the capital on the next two Saturdays. I would love to skate there the next time I visit Pyongyang.

These apartment buildings are new and were under construction last year. We saw them whenever we left the Yanggakdo Hotel. They were built specifically for artists. I especially liked the candy-cane stripes of the balconies, and notice how some of them have concave or convex panels. I nicknamed these apartments the “lipstick buildings” in imitation of the way the stripes mimic the movement of a lipstick tube when opened.

Pyongyang has so much more dazzling art and architecture in the form of sculptures and monuments that I will have to save all that for another post. I have been anxious to talk about North Korea’s power and water shortages and how that affected me and my tour group, so I will focus on that topic next.

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