The DPRK may boast that it is 95% electrified but that is a meaningless statistic. The country may have an electrical network in place–and it may very well be in full operation–but the reality is that this electric supply is shut off for much of the time. For tourists, however, Pyongyang is fully plugged into the electric grid. I never experienced a power outage or water shortage during my time in the capital. I always had unlimited hot water, sockets that worked to recharge my batteries, and lights that flicked on at all times during the night. I was especially happy to watch North Korean television, and I often went back to my hotel room at 10.30 each night in order to catch the news, weather, national anthem and signoff to test pattern on the country’s only station. I nicknamed the DPRK TV station “the Juche channel” since the network brands the top left of the screen with a symbol of the Juche flame. I taped the day’s final broadcast on 6 September. The weather report is for the next day:
Once we left the capital, our hotels were always in the dark. Our bus would pull up and the building would be in complete darkness. The hotel staff was always waiting for us because our tour guides would call the hotel to inform them of our imminent arrival. We entered the hotel lobby with no lights to guide us. Our flashlights were a vital must, and I had many comical yet scary moments using my light beam to guide me up and down stairs and down dark corridors to find my room. My roommate was well prepared and even brought glow sticks which he placed in all corners of our floor.
On more than one occasion the bathtub was running by the time I entered our room. The water was cresting the edge, perilously close to spilling over. My roommate and I were lucky in that we never entered any of our hotel bathrooms on wet floors. Some of the travellers in our tour group found themselves wading through ankle-deep water by the time they arrived. The hotel staff filled up the tubs to provide us with a water supply during our stay. The water would then be cut off, yielding nothing but wheezes if you turned on the taps. There was no running water for the sink and nothing in the toilet either. We filled up a small basin using tub water, and flushed the toilet by sloshing down ladle after ladle.
A picture of me taking a picture of our water supply in Anju:
And our water supply in Chongjin, a city open to tourists for the first time ever:
It was hardest to use the bathrooms in the dark. We had to find a place for our flashlights so that they lit up the room. Often there would be very little in the bathroom on which to place the flashlight. I would have to rest the flashlight on its side as it balanced on the edge at the top of the bathroom mirror. The dark bathroom experience made removing and cleaning my contact lenses a harrowing ordeal. One slip of the fingertips and they were gone for good.
I was given a mini reading light that one attaches to a book, to enable one to read in the dark (usually in bed) without disturbing anyone. I regretted not bringing it, because I could have used it while writing postcards. I could have clipped it to a large book and used the book to write the postcards on.
Sometimes the hotel turned the lights on, but only long enough for us to find our way upstairs. It was not uncommon for the lights to be turned off again after only being in our room for five minutes. It was a running joke that the hotel always promised us one or two hours of hot water in the evening or perhaps in the morning, but each and every time there was no hot water to be found. In fact, we had no running water at all, not even cold, at anytime during our hotel stays outside Pyongyang.
The only hot water we saw was that in our thermoses. Each hotel room had a flask of hot water. Sometimes the flasks were large enough for two, but often we would have to share from a small thermos. I like my coffee every morning, and the hotels in the DPRK only served instant. I never drank brewed coffee at anytime in North Korea. Hotels gave you one demitasse with your breakfast but any additional coffee served during breakfast, or even your first cup at lunch or dinner, cost one euro extra. Talk about expensive. I knew that coffee was a rarity in the North so I made sure I brought my own. North Korean tap water is not potable, but since drinking boiled water is safe, I had no reservations about using the hot thermos water for my extra cups of craved coffee. I would have two small cups of coffee in my room before I left for breakfast. The water would often be scalding hot even a day after our arrival. We even poured some of this hot water into our basin to wash with.
At night during dinner the lights would flicker and even turn off unexpectedly. We were all prepared for this and brought our flashlights to dinner every time. We had enough candlelight suppers to make Hyacinth Bucket flinch with jealousy. Simon Cockerell and Amanda Carr of Koryo Tours sit opposite me while having dinner in Mt. Chilbo. Note the attractive candle holder:
Travelling in the DPRK outside of the capital was a lot like camping, except we weren’t in tents. It made me feel that this was what the real North Korea was all about.
The topic of my next post will be contraband photographs I managed to take. What the authorities didn’t want us to see was often unavoidable. The prohibited subject matter was in many cases some scene that might appear wholly innocuous to our eyes but would be a national insult if seen by the outside world.