Keeping a blog in the Instagram age has made me realise how much I cherry-pick what I show the world. Even though I shoot prudently (because I dislike sorting photos), I still end up with at least a few hundred photos per trip.
From there, maybe five pictures will make it to Instagram, and another 15 might make it into a blog entry. What happens to the rest? Each time I go through old photos in my phone or hard drive, I’m struck by the scenes I’d snapped but long forgotten. The ease of photography has made digital hoarders of us all.
I write to remember things, scenes, places, feelings. And while my photos may capture more details than my pen, they only work to augment memory if I engage with them — through shooting, curating, editing or showcasing them for the world. Each time I caption a photo, I reflect on when it was taken, and often discover some new insight about a split-second moment.
These are the small moments in North Korea that I don’t want to forget.
Also check out: My travelogue for The Straits Times and a post about fleeting friendships with our North Korean minders.
Train to the North
North Korea is so remote that everything about the experience becomes that much more significant. I’ve taken many train rides around the world, not thinking to document any part of it — but the moment I boarded the train from Dandong, a border city in China, I wanted to memorise every detail.
Most people travel to North Korea by train — all tourists except those from the USA, who must arrive by plane, are allowed to enter this way. I begin my journey in Beijing, a 14-hour train ride to Dandong, which sits on the banks of the Yalu river.
When we change trains in Dandong and rumble across the Sino-Korean friendship bridge that connects Dandong to Sinujiu in North Korea, a frisson of excitement ripples through the group. Everyone is a savvy, experienced traveller but this is new to all of us.
The first time we see portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, a flurry of cameras clicks frantically at rain-speckled windows. It’s the first sign that we are truly in the hermit kingdom. Later there will be many more of their portraits, smiling beatifically from the walls of residential buildings, schools, subway stations and even souvenir shops; so many we will tire of them.
But for now it is like catching the first glimpse of an impala or warthog on safari, before the novelty wears off and you realise that these animals are really nothing special after all.
There is a kind of freedom to being on the train. Within our large metal cocoon, nobody seems very concerned about the photos we are taking.
Earlier, during our pre-trip briefing in Beijing, our guides from Young Pioneer Tours spelt out the ground rules of photography in North Korea — only snap the complete image of the country’s leaders, no photographs of the military, and always listen to the minders.
Later I will learn that in addition to the ground rules, our minders do not like our photos to showcase any form of struggle or poverty.
But there are no minders on the train, so there is no one to stop me as I snap two officials shooting the breeze, or a group of people with bicycles parked, working the land.
Of all the pictures I snap during the journey, this one stays with me — something about the man, how well dressed he is, walking an endless dirt path amidst green fields that stretch endlessly into mist and rain and questions.
During the journey, guards come around for the mandatory bag search that all travellers into North Korea must go through.
The train is at least two thirds full, bunks stacked in tiers of three with not a lot of legroom, but the guards manoeuvre around us and we pull our legs off the floor to give them room.
Considering the amount of luggage they have to go through, the guards are fairly thorough — although they stopped short of rifling through our clothes and didn’t open every single compartment in our bags.
If someone really had contraband to sneak in, it’s not impossible. (But given what happened to Otto Warmbier… I’d say don’t.)
Bags and luggage aren’t the only thing they rifle through. Guards are also tasked with going through our electronic devices, including the thousands of photos we have on our phones, laptops and ipads.
Their job is to spot — and possibly remove — any prohibited material, including religious texts, pornography and maps of North and South Korea.
I watch this process dispassionately. As obedient Singaporeans, my partner Dean and I have already scoured our bags and devices for anything that might not pass muster. But something in Dean’s SAF-issued sling bag gives a guard pause. When she takes the bag away, we exchange nervous glances.
The offending item turns out to be a small booklet of Buddhist text, an amulet of sorts, one we had both forgotten about. Earlier, on the way to Dandong, our guides had regaled us with stories of evangelical Christians detained for “hostile acts against the government”.
Thankfully, the guards decide that Dean’s Buddhist text harboured less of a threat. They hand back his bag and the train trundles on.
The Yanggakdo hotel
We pull up to Pyongyang Station after a 24-hour train ride and are promptly whisked away to the Yanggakdo Hotel.
It’s located on Yanggak island, and we are swiftly told not to attempt to leave either hotel or island on our own.
The hotel does try to keep guests entertained. It’s grand but dated, and everything from the hotel lobby to the dimly-lit rooms with greenish-grey tiled bathrooms has a 70s-80s kind of vibe. It basically feels kind of haunted, but for the four days we are there, Dean and I studiously avoid any mention of the supernatural.
Because we’re in North Korea, we perform a cursory fingernail test on the mirror to find out if we are being watched, even though it isn’t the most reliable method of identifying two-way glass.
Later, while trying to move the twin beds together, we discover that the nightstand is unusually heavy and connected to the wall by a tangle of wires, something I’ve never seen in any other hotel room. Listening devices? Voice recorders? Again, we’ll never know. We decide to leave the beds where they are.
The souvenir shop
A vacation isn’t complete without stocking up on souvenirs, and even a country like North Korea knows that.
Walking distance from Kim Il Sung Square is a small souvenir shop, lined with books written about, and purportedly by, the Supreme and Dear Leaders. I make a beeline for the pile of propaganda posters strewn haphazardly in the middle of the shop, keen to add to my collection from China and Vietnam.
“They’re hand painted,” offers our guide Li, and indeed I can make out the pencil lines filled in with paint, and the signatures in Korean characters.
He tells me the posters are painted by North Korean artists, and I immediately imagine rows of men and (maybe) women hunched over easels in a drab industrial building somewhere. I don’t know how to confirm this without sounding offensive.
Most of the posters depicts the DPRK at war, hurling oversized bombs at terrified American soldiers. A few are more pastoral, with images of women harvesting crops or working the fields, shoring up resources in a food-scarce country.
I pick up a poster of a pretty, wool-clad police officer directing traffic in winter. Li says she is making sure than the soybean truck behind her can distribute the milk to school kids. It reeks of propaganda but Li is so sincere that I guess some of it rubs off on me. I pick up the poster without asking the price.
At the counter, it turns out that this poster costs 63 Euros. It’s more than I have ever paid for any souvenir in any country, ever. I tell the salesgirl it’s okay, I don’t need the poster, when Dean comes up to me.
“Have you paid?”
“The poster is 63 euros, I don’t think I’m getting it.”
“But you’ll never be back here again,” says my usually thrifty partner.
Today the poster is mounted above my computer at home — a reminder that the world is large and expensive, but if I hustle a little harder, perhaps I can see a little more in this lifetime.
The supermarket parking lot
One of the few times we are allowed free rein is in and around Kwangbok supermarket, a DPRK-China joint venture that seems to decry the North Korean ethos of juche, or self-reliance.
Inside, the shelves are stocked with international imports including Skippy peanut butter and made-in-China cutlery.
We are allowed just one hour here, barely enough to browse the aisles and pick up snacks at the top floor food court and people watch and try to memorise every bit of a supermarket that is bizarre in its normalcy. When the hour is up we gather in the parking lot to wait for our tour bus.
Downtime is precious on a North Korean tour. We are ushered so swiftly between sights and attractions that there is often no time to pause, ask questions, process what we are seeing.
While I chat with our minder Jo, who claims that his wife sometimes shops at Kwangbok, Dean takes these pictures — some of my favourite street shots from the trip.
Train back to China
Being Singaporean, we had done our research on the exit checks of our bags and electronics. So the morning we left, I swapped out my SD card and tucked it somewhere safe. Even if most of my photos seemed benign, I didn’t want to risk having the border guards delete anything.
Then I set about filling the new card with enough images to make it seem like I had been snapping away for the past few days. On our way out of the country, Dean and I took turns to click away at pedestrians and empty streets and wide swathes of nature that we passed.
I don’t envy the guards who are tasked to spot check outgoing visitors. Pretty much everyone in our tour group had taken hundreds of photos, and each person usually had two to three devices. It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack, over and over and over again.
When I handed my camera over to a young female guard, she gave a polite smile and a small sigh.
Then she began turning the dial, faster and faster until the photos became a blur of green on the LCD screen, just like the swathes of grassland we continued to pass on our way out of the country.