Myanmar (Burma): Charm, friendliness, and a couple of bumpy rides.

Visiting Burma has been an ambition of mine ever since I saw the word ‘Myanmar’ patched on the back of an athlete’s jacket at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou. It took a little Google to find out that I knew nothing about the biggest country in South Eat Asia. Both James and I considered, and ultimately decided against, going to Myanmar when we travelled in Vietnam at a time when it was just coming out of military rule. However, I finally got the chance to visit this month as Nicki found herself as intrigued about the country as I was.

In fact, we arrived in Myanmar during a time of change. Not only has the political climate in the country altered dramatically in recent years, but it is also now starting to open up to the world. This is a double edged sword, however. The increased tourism is a major boost for many people in the country, bringing in money that would not otherwise have been available. This has led to infrastructure developments and modernisation. However, people can be overheard stating that Burma is ‘what Thailand was 20 years ago’. Myanmar’s beauty attracts tourists, like Nicki and I, but one must fear that exploitation of it’s own beauty may lead to something ugly.

For this reason, we were glad to see the new Myanmar whilst it remains relatively unspoilt.

We in Yangon (Rangoon) mid morning following our pleasant China Southern flight. The airport, positioned slightly outside of the city, immediately stimulated comparisons with Goa. We initially felt glad that we were no longer amongst crowds (such is China), but a short taxi drive towards the city-proper and we realised that Yangon also has an extreme traffic problem.

We checked into our cute little hostel and had a short rest before embarking on a walk towards downtown, passing several young monks on the way. The city itself is very busy and heavily populated, and not that clean. People were friendly and I had to remind myself not to be too cynical about people being nice.

The downtown area is divided into straight narrow streets, each with their own character and identity. The buildings mixed between asian design and the remnants of British Imperial rule. In fact, there is still some Britishness about the Burmese. What also helped was that many of the people we met spoke English.

We tried some food in the downtown, keen to eat local delicacies before walking back towards the majesty of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Nicki had researched and discovered that the best time to see the pagoda was at sunset. She wasn’t wrong.

Because I was showing off my knees, I was required to wear a longyi when I entered the sacred Buddhist sight. This is a type of long skirt traditional to Burma. I read George Orwell’s Burmese Days whilst in Myanmar and longyis were a staple item of clothing for the characters in the book too1355946575

 

Anyway, the pagoda itself was a sight to behold. It was like a town of gold with the bell shaped pagoda right in the centre. As the day became night the pagoda looked even more fantastic. Many people were sitting (perhaps meditating), bowing or just staring in awe at it. We already had a highlight from our trip and it was only day 1.

The next day we explored more of the city, visiting a market, the disappointing museum and then enjoying some traditional Shan noodles (an ethnic group of Myanmar) at a small restaurant in the city (in fact, the restaurant was mainly full of foreigners like us).

We then had a night bus to our next destination: Inle Lake. We had initially decided to take 3 night buses to limit our hotel costs but the experience of the first one, twinned with the fact that we both had Burma Belly (don’t ask) and limited time in the country, meant that this was our only night bus adventure.

The journey was a bumpy one but I, quite guiltily, got a lot more sleep than Nicki and we spent part of our first morning in the town beside Inle Lake catching up on our sleep. This meant that the night bus wasn’t as time economical as we had hoped.

Before lunch we hopped on the bikes that our hotel had given us and cycled around a local village before making our way towards Myanmar’s best vineyard where we tasted the local wine whilst admiring the views over the hills and the lake.

We then cycled back to find the restaurant we were recommended to eat at had just burnt down. So we ate somewhere else.

The next day was the most exciting yet. We headed early in the morning towards the beautiful Inle Lake. In order to reduce costs we paired with an American couple with a story or two to tell.

A tuk-tuk took us to the lake where we boarded a long boat which would be our vehicle for the day. Both Nicki and I have been very conscious of the sun since embarrassing ourselves in Goa and we were careful to keep protected at the powerful Burmese sun pelted us. I even ended up with my longyi on my head.

The lake was amazing. We stopped off at a floating market where locals were buying their groceries, having haircuts or just having a natter with their cigars. Nicki boldly asked a few of the ladies if she could photograph them. They obliged.

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1650963476We then visited some silver workshops where we witnessed how silver jewellery is made from source (Nicki later bought a 98% silver ring at the market for next to nothing). We saw a silk factory and witnessed the Burmese Charoot cigars being made. Naturally we had to try and buy some.

After a lake side lunch in one of the stilted house upon the lake we saw some women with metal rings on their necks. This was a little odd and made us feel awkward. However, it is a tradition in some parts of Asia, particularly Burma, where long necks are synonymous with  beauty. Every year a new ring is added to the neck of a lady until it gives the illusion of a long neck. We picked up some of the rings and they weren’t light. Yet, the woman we met seemed to be very happy.

We returned on our boat back to the village and reflected on a very nice, and thought provoking, day upon Inle Lake.

Our next stop was Bagan. And this time we travelled in the comfort of an airplane, rather than a night bus. Myanmar have air travel the way it should be – quick and easy. It was just like catching a bus. We turned up, checked in our bags and boarded the light aircraft. I suspect that this was how air travel used to be before the security was (rightly) heightened up.

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We arrived in Bagan and checked into our hotel before midday. We suffered an early afternoon downpour so we took advantage of a rest in our hotel before renting an e-bike to ride around the ancient pagodas of Bagan. I was the designated driver and Nicki sat patiently on the back of the bike. I have driven my e-bike in China under stressful, lawless conditions so the peacefulness of Bagan was welcomed (although Nicki wasn’t so sure). We spent the afternoon exploring some of the 2000+ pagodas around Bagan. Unfortunately some of them have been damaged in a recent earthquake, but this hasn’t reduced their beauty.

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1415519461After eating in a shack offering local cuisine with a smile we headed towards one of the few pagodas which allow visitors to climb beyond the first tier so that we were well positioned for sunset. Here we experienced the spectacular arial view of the pagodas and the untampered fields that surround them. We agreed to return in the morning to witness the sunrise, and we were not disappointed!

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Despite spending some of the evening swimming in an outdoor pool, we set our alarms for 4:30am and jumped on our ebike in order to arrive at the pagoda for 5:30, and therefore sunrise. Looking back, it was all slightly surreal but that may be because I had never seen anything like it. Nicki and I have been lucky enough to have a few of these moments in out time together. We were waiting an age for the sunrise and after the sky became brighter we thought it had occurred behind the clouds, only for the sun to peer over the horizon and dazzle us with it’s beauty. We then returned back to our hotel to catch up on our sleep.

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Our week in Burma ended with a return to Yangon where we attempted to take the 3 hour circular train around the suburbs of the city and see it in working action. Embarassingly, I had to whisper to Nicki that I needed to leave the train a few stops in (I hadn’t shaken off my Burma Belly) and ran down the platform to find a hell-hole of a toilet. Nicki is fantastic enough not to judge me for it.

And so we spent our final evening dining on Burmese cuisine and reflecting on another brilliant trip away.

 

 

Iceland 2016: On Another Planet

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Our journey.

Our summer holiday is now in full flow after 8 days in the most astonishing country imaginable. Nicki and I had spent the last few weeks counting down the days towards our return to the UK, and had given very little thought to the Icelandic adventure that lay imminently ahead of us.

After a few days visiting our own families in different parts of England, we met again at Gatwick airport for our 3 hour flight to Reykjavik with WOW Air.  We then got a very helpful bus from their airport, dropping us directly to our hostel.

It became apparent very quickly that Iceland was not going to be a cheap place to travel and we immediately started thinking of ways to limit our outgoings. This lead us to eating supermarket sandwiches for dinner on our first night.

We walked through Reykjavik during the afternoon. It represents the World’s northernmost capital city, but at with only 200,000 it is a village in comparison to the smallest of Chinese cities. Our first evening was our first introduction to the endless sunlight of the Icelandic summer. We were fortunate to arrive on the day of the final of the European championships. Iceland’s success in the tournament, not least their victory of England, made for added excitement around the game. We watched it on the big screen in the middle of the capital surrounded by a large percentage of the countries population, and a surprising amount of French people. The French spirits remained high until the final whistle.

Our original plan was to hitchhike our way around the island. However, when given time to consider the implications this might have on our independence and enjoyment we decided to hire our own car, under the condition that we pick up hitch hikers on the way.

We retired to our hostel bunk beds for the night and picked up our car the next morning. The car ran well but it was well beaten-up and didn’t look road worthy. We didn’t see an uglier car on our whole trip. Before setting off we had some breakfast, featuring SkyR yoghurts, which became Nicki’s go-to snack for the rest of the trip.

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We had designated the famous ‘Golden Circle’ to our first leg of our journey around Iceland. The journey took us inland from Reykjavik to our first stop at Þingvellir National Park. It is at this point that 2 continents meet, as the tectonic plates of America and Eurasia are both present, hence the abundance of volcanoes in Iceland. It is incredibly unique as you are able to stand between the two techtonic places, geologically in neither continent. Þingvellir also had a huge historical influence in Iceland, since it was where parliament was first form after the settlement. It was only that start of an interesting day.

Before our next stop we pulled over for some lunch in a lay-by. The cheapest and rediliy available snacks in Iceland are hot-dogs.  Once we ordered ours we noticed that the man in the restaurant had been left alone to take orders, money and make the food. We asked if he needed help and he was very pleased to have 2 extra pairs of hands. So we set to work making hot dogs behind the bar for the lunchtime tourists who didn’t complain about my shoddy presentation (although Nicki made a real effort to make her hot-dogs pleasing on the eye).

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We were not far from our next stop, and perhaps the most famous attraction in the whole of Iceland; the Geysir. Here the ground reaches staggering heats and the water that reaches the surface of erupts every 5 minutes in a huge spectacle of boiling water. We had to see it a few times to completely comprehend it.

The final point on the golden circle was the famous Gullfoss waterfall. Waterfalls always amaze me and this one was no different. The true natural prowess of Iceland was already becoming almost overwhelming. We approached close enough to the waterfall to feel the cool splash of the water on our faces. Everything in Iceland is fresh and cool. From the air to the water. It appeared to be our antidote to a year of pollution in China.

We worked our way south on as we headed to the town of Vik on the South Coast. The map indicated that it was a major town but it probably didn’t house more than a few hundred people. We got slightly lost on our way down but it is hard to stay lost in Iceland since there are so few roads. Nicki had suggested that we pick up the first hitch hikers we see and so we drove into the town with an Israeli couple who had been hiking in the highlands for the last 10 days.

This was the start if our first night in the tiny tent that we had fit into our hand luggage. We could both just about fit in it, and I initially thought it was a useful size for 2 bodies to heat during the cold Icelandic nights. I was wrong, it was still freezing.

During our whole stay in Iceland we did not see natural darkness. Supposedly sunlight lasts 22 hours at this time in the summer, but I struggle to believe that it ever gets dark at all. This meant that we were able to cook our burgers on the BBQ in the late evening with the sun on our backs whilst enjoying a nice Icelandic beer. It turned out that we timed this perfectly as it started raining as soon as we finished and didn’t stop all night.

Nicki woke up early from a restless night and continued her sleep in the warmer climate of the car. Because I didn’t sleep very well after the tent started leaking, we were back on the road before we intended to be. I soon had to pull over though to have a nap in front of the beautiful roadside mountains. I did feel slightly responsible as I had suggested the camping element, but Nicki is always up for a new challenge and she remained in high spirits, to my relief.

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Half way through our morning drive we stumbled across our attraction for the day, almost by accident. We were at the most fabulous glacier of Jokulsarlon. I couldn’t believe how diverse my drive had been up until this point and it was only going to get better. We had driven from a city into a huge rocky national park, past the snow topped volcano of Eyjafjallajökul, the greenery of the lowlands and their awesome cliff faces, more powerful mountains, and now into the icy glaciers. I kept thinking about how much Dad would enjoy driving on the roads, especially when we passed groups of motorcyclists. This was a truly breathtaking sight and one we admired for longer than the others. We really did feel close to the Arctic here.

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We then headed to another major port town on the map, which also turned out to be small. This one was called Hofn. We stopped in Hofn for some homemade soup (because everything else was very expensive) before deciding it was too early to stop for the evening and we could continue our journey and limit the driving for the next day.

We drove another 100km before following a car, rather murderer-like, down a gravel path because we saw a hostel sign. We were glad we did as we then came to a very quaint little house where a family lived. Outside the house stood a small church and cemetery which made us believe the family had owned the property for centuries. It really was a beautiful lake side setting to end our evening and made us thankful that we had moved on from Hofn.

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The owners son offered us a room in the house but we decided that we would rather pay for a good dinner than a soft bed, and agreed that it would be our last night of camping if it went the same way as the night before. The owner told us that there was only one option for dinner: cod. we were happy with this as we understood that it would have been fresh from the day’s catch. It tasted as good as it looked and we stayed indoors long enough for our tent and sleeping bags to dry up. We were able to shower and settled down into our tent with a more sun-kissed backdrop than the previous night.

Despite the better weather, the night was still cold and we both ended up back in the car for a more comfortable sleep in the early hours of the morning. Lesson learnt, but an experience none-the-less.

Our next journey took us North towards the Fjords. We once again travelled fantastic roads and Nicki had a little drive. I must admit that I was a terrible passenger and probably the reason why she decided to swap back after a few kilometres. The roads became a little more scary during the day and several one-lane bridges appeared over rivers. This made me think of dad even more. I genuinely think his bike crew should find a way to Iceland.

The diversity of colour increased as we drove around mountains and cliff faces, and we pulled over regularly as something new astonished us. We hope that all of these fabulous natural creations remain free to the public as Iceland becomes an even more dominate tourist destination.

Eventually we reached some volcanic mud pools close to Lake Myvatn. Here the ground we walked on was warmed by the aggressive activity below it’s surface. We were told that the head in the pools was hot enough to kill us instantly, but that didn’t stop everyone wanting a closer look. Beside the pools were a few gassy taps that appeared to be letting gass escape from deep within the Earth. It was all so natural but seemed like we were in a Sci-Fi movie. However, one thing we could not escape was the smell of rotten eggs, which we could smell wherever we walked and took a while to acclimatise to.

We then reluctantly left this exceptional sight and headed 7km towards a massive volcano crater. Within the crater is a pool of beautiful blue water, which makes for an incredible sight as you walk around it. It was hard to grasp its vastness but it seemed that Iceland has almost too much to offer. We were both loving it.

Our next stop was the Lake itself, where we wandered some extensive lava fields. Nicki was quite good with her summary when she said that the lava fields were so peaceful but must have been formed with such destruction.

We then headed to some craters surrounding the lake, but our enjoyment there was restricted due to the abundance of flies that swarmed around us. People rightly recommended head nets for the volcanic craters here.

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Before ending our busy day back in the North of Iceland we had a dinner stop in Akureyri. One of Nicki’s favourite dinners is fish and chips and we were lucky enough to dine in a local fish and chip restaurant here, with another batch of very fresh fish. Yum.

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We then drove our final leg of the day to a fishing village called Dalvik. We rewarded ourselves with a nice bunk bed in a hostel and a very warm shower. Everyone in Iceland seems to be linked, and our host revealed that he once trained footballer Heiðar Helguson in his younger years.

It’s easy to imagine that our sleep was a good one and we were in no rush to get going the next day as we treated ourselves to another shower. There were, however, nice views of Arctic fishing trawlers as we woke up.

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We had a decision to make about that to do on our way back towards the South West. In the end we decided it was worth the extra half an hour to tour a Fjord (one of several inlets at the North of Iceland). As we reached the northern point on the Fjord we got out to lookout over the Greenland Sea and consider if we will ever be closer to the North Pole.

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We travelled through 4 lengthy tunnels which helped us cut out mountains as we travelled through the Fjord until we reached the town of Hofsos. It is famed for its outdoor swimming poor, where you have a back drop of snow capped mountains. However, the children in the pool and our desire to move on restricted us to just eating a hot dog at that point.

We then made our lengthy drive towards Akranes. Nicki had specifically downloaded Bjork and Sigur Ros for this leg of our journey, which gave an Icelandic twist to driving. Although, we did discover that Bjork only really has one decent song. Shhhh.

Our long journey was probably through the least spectacular part of the drive, but we may have just become desensitised to fantastic things. We managed to find a licensed liquor store which sold nice local beers. We enjoyed those in our peaceful hostel and ate at a cheap restaurant not far away. We found that the towns and villages were nothing more than stop overs for us, and the true attractions of Iceland are where you will find no permanent dwellers.

I had made an effort to avoid reminding Nicki of my birthday but it appeared that she had been thinking of it throughout our week, as she had a few hidden surprises in her bag from the very beginning. One of which was a very nice card she gave to me as we woke up in the morning. She was completely focused on treating me to a nice day and it was a very nice surprise.  Our first stop was the famous Blue Lagoon just out side of Reykjavik, which meant driving past the starting point of our journey and completing our full circuit of the country.

Unfortunately, the Blue Lagoon was full and not able to take us. However, we found another location in the city which offers a geothermally heated pool, just like the Blue Lagoon. Yet, this one was far cheaper so we felt like winners.

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We then spent the evening back in the city of Reykjavik, where we tried local beers recommended by friends who had previously visited and ate at a local burger shop. As our burgers where delivered, Nicki produced a candle and stuck it in the middle. It was a lovely surprise and I couldn’t believe she had carried a candle all around Iceland specifically for that moment. I was chuffed. I’ve really hit the jackpot with Nicki!

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We then walked back to an apartment that we had booked close to the centre, where Nicki produced a cake with candles in it. It had become a very memorable birthday in a magical country.

Our final couple of days were far more relaxing but no less enjoyable than the others. We had the pleasure of sharing our dorm in the hostel with about 10 Chinese tourists, who could not speak English so must have found it hard in Iceland. Many of the others in the hostel did not warm to the Chinese early starts and loud voices, including Nicki. Unforgivably, I slept through much of the drama.

The highlight of the final couple of days was our visit to the penis museum, featuring penises of hundreds of different animals. The centre piece in the museum was the casts of erect silver penises provided by the Icelandic Handball team to commemorate their silver success at the 2008 Olympics.20160716_164435

We were up very early on the Monday morning for our flight back to the UK, where Nicki was finally meeting the mother (and gave a great first impression). Iceland offered us sights, sounds and smells like no other and I would recommend it to anyone. We loved everything about Iceland (except the prices) and I don’t think there is anywhere else like it in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

North Korea: A Free Man in Pyongyang

Last August, I shared a hostel with a Scottish man in Guangzhou. Over some Cantonese cuisine and a couple of beers he shared his travel stories with me. I was shocked to discover that he had recently visited North Korea as I did not believe foreign tourists were permitted to travel in the most secretive country in the world.

Yet, less than a year later, I find myself with a set of memories of my own first hand experience in North Korea. What’s more, by participating the Pyongyang Marathon I had the opportunity to be one of the first foreigners to wonder freely on the streets of Pyongyang. It is the resulting interaction with the beaming local people that will etch greater in my mind than anything else I experienced in this country.

Whenever I told people about my scheduled trip I was greeted with responses of ‘be careful’ or ‘make sure you come back’. These are not normal responses when someone tells you they are going on holiday. Additionally, the spate of cases of arrests in North Korea meant that people were becoming aware of the risks of travelling there, and I was all too frequently reminded of them. In fact, mum asked who she needed to contact to cancel my flight. Fortunately she is all bark and no bite, unlike Kim Jong Un.

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I travelled to Shanghai Pudong directly from work on Friday in order to meet my 10pm meet up with the other runners. It was here that we were given our tourist permit cards and a last minute briefing about desirable behaviour in the country.  Upon completion of Chinese security checks we made our way to our gate, which was hidden in the dark recesses of Pudong Airport. We then had to board a bus to our plane, which was also hidden away. The aircraft featured the North Korean flag on its tail and a very soviet looking interior greeted me once I made it up the stairs. Naturally, I slept through most of the flight despite Korean music blaring loudly throughout the whole journey.

The customs check on the other side was relatively smooth. Everything on me was inspected rigorously, with a man employed to look through my phone pictures in a similar manner to the airport staff in Israel. They also took a look at my Harry Potter book to make sure it didn’t feature any political or religious preaching.

This meant I had officially entered North Korea at 3am on a Saturday morning. Myself and my allocated room mate, Samuel, immediately purchased a newspaper and thought nothing of placing our folded papers beside us on our short coach journey to the specially equipped foreigner hotel in the centre of Pyongyang. However, our tour guide, ‘Lee’, spotted our papers pretty soon and informed us that we would have serious consequences if we were seen to fold paper featuring a photo of Respected General Kim Jong Un. I had realised that I needed to adjust to the do’s and don’ts in this country quickly, or live to regret it.

We eventually arrived at our hotel at 5am and were given a few hours to nap before our 9am start the next morning. Tourism in North Korea is very restricted, so we were confined to our tour group until the race on Sunday (not that it was a bad thing). Following a swift breakfast we made our way to the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (the two deceased ‘great leaders’ of the country). Kim Il Sung is regarded as the founder of the North Korean nation and the eternal chairman of the country. We were already beginning to see the god-like worship of the people towards the great leaders, and it was fascinating.

Before standing in front of the bronze statues of the Great Leaders we were required to buy a bouquet of flowers and lay them at their feet. We then had to stand in formation, remove sunglasses and bags, take our hands out of our pockets, stop chewing gum, and bow to the Great Leaders. It was a ritual repeated by the locals after us.

We also visited the newly complete Science Museum, where we had to bow before a photo of Kim Jung Un. The museum had no attendees, despite it being Saturday. The guide claimed that it was because it was the morning, but another said it was because it was Saturday. We were getting cynical about what was real. In fact, our cynicism escalated when there appeared to be no hard drives in the state-of-the-art public computer areas. The keyboards were clearly untouched as well. I am not sure anyone would be able to access anything on them if they were ever used.

We were now fully immersed in the North Korean way.

It was then time to head for our first taste of North Korean kimchi, which I preferred to the South Korean taste. More importantly, I was able to have my first taste of the famous North Korean beer which people claimed to be the best in the world. It is not a bad claim.

Immediately after lunch we headed to the birthplace of Kim Il Sung. I was a little sceptical about its authenticity, as it had an uncanny resemblance to the birthplace of Mao Zedong in ShaoShan, Hunan. Perhaps all dictators have humble beginnings beneath thatched roofs.

Not far from the area stood a very modern theme park, which had no people. We asked why it was closed on a Saturday, to which no-one had a genuine answer. We suspected it was never open.

Quite surprisingly, the Pyongyang metro system was one of the major highlights of the day. We visited in what you would regard as rush hour, but nothing like the congestion of Hangzhou or Shanghai. Instead we took an escalator an almighty 70m down and came out on a renaissance style platform featuring an old East German train. We had travelled in time, and it was fantastic. The same music blared out on  the subway and there was an odd silence among the group as we tried to take in the sights, sounds and smells of a functional city stuck in the 1950s. We got off at a few stations and stared in awe at the wonderful uniqueness of each.

Our exit station led us to the Arch or Triumph (Pyongyang, not Paris), one of the famous monuments in the city. We saw hundreds of people dancing in unison in the square around the city, which we understood as preparation for the celebration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday next week (celebrations started by the marathon). In fact, the monument stood in the middle of a roundabout, yet we were able to cross the road without fear of cars or even car horns. Pyongyang remains a city of few cars, where most people are on foot or bikes. It is eerie to see a place like that when I live in the city with the worst traffic in China. It would appear that Pyongyang is as China probably was before the death of Chairman Mao.

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We then made our way to the May Day stadium, where the marathon would be starting and finishing the following morning. We were informed of the race route here and watched the final preparations taking place inside the stadium. The May Day Stadium is supposedly the largest in the world with a capacity of 150,000 people, and the thought of running in it was getting exciting. As I looked round I noticed the Olympic rings proudly on show and the Fifa logo (as well as the obligatory portraits of the Great Leaders). I had to question whether either of these images were legitimate.

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Our last stop before dinner was the massive Pyongyang Tower, the tallest granite structure in the World. We took a lift to the top of the tower to witness a breathtaking view of Pyongyang at dusk. The streets were quiet, the roads empty and the buildings in soviet style blocks. Somehow Pyongyang was now more mysterious that it had been before I arrived.

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We then returned to the hotel for a few bowls of carbohydrates before having an early night in our outdated room before raceday.

Naturally it was an early start for the marathon, although many were concerned about starting at 9:30 at the weather reports indicated midday heat (since I was only doing the half marathon I didn’t really need to worry about that). We had a swift breakfast before boarding the bus to the stadium. On route we saw thousands of locals, mostly in their identical suits and all wearing a badge of their Great Leaders on the left side of their chest., walking towards the stadium.

20160410_081011 Once we arrived we finally saw other foreign runners who made up the 1000 lucky enough to participate. We immediately joined the queue in the tunnel entrance of the stadium, getting a sneak peak of the full bottom tier of the stadium. We had enough time to visit the toilet and undress before we were required to enter the stadium and bask in the noise of the 60,000 people gathered to get a glimpse of us. We then stood in lines in the middle of the football pitch and listened to the opening speeches of highly important military people sitting below the pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il. Unfortunately,  if Kim Jung Un was present at all, he was incognito.

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Up until this point there had been very little drama. However, Pyongyang was not fully prepared for the bladders of 1000 anxious and excited western runners. We had to the queue for 3 urinals (I had been drinking lots of water) only for the sound of the gun to go before I had got through the door. I had to abandon the idea of having a wee in order to start my run. However, when I made it back to the track I was nearly run over by the stampede of elite runners who had already completed their start lap. This meant I had to find a gap in the crowd to start mine. On a positive note, it meant that I nearly had the crowd to myself as I ran around the track after everyone else. Having 60,000 people cheer you on is a fantastic feeling.

I still needed to toilet as I ran through the streets of Pyongyang, but I soon forgot about it when I saw most of the roads lined with local people, and many smiling children. Everyone was smiling and waving as we ran past. The children were experiencing ‘high-fives’ for the first time and holding their hands out to every runner. Many of the older people simply smiled at us or gave us a nod of approval as we ran past them. There were also people shouting ‘hello’ as each of us past them and everyone seemed happy to see us. The people of Pyongyang are nice, there is no way to deny it.

What was even more surprising was the freedom we were given to roam the streets. There was little or no military presence along the roads. I never once felt like I was threatened or in danger. This made for the most enlightening and inthralling run I will ever experience. However, this did mean that my time became of less importance, although I did try hard to keep up a good pace. Although, now and again North Korean children would appear far too advanced through the race order, which made me suspect that they were dropping them in at different points in the race.

The half marathon was 2 circuits of the course and the second circuit made me realise that I had not trained enough through the polluted winter months of China, but I had the crowd the spur me on. I was relieved to cross the finish line but slightly reluctant to accept that the race was over.

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I was then able to drink a bottle of North Korea ginseng liquid before sitting down in the foreigner section of the crowd to enjoy the football match in the middle and wait for the elite runners to finish the marathon. Naturally, the red team won the football.

There was no shortage of drama in the elite marathon finale. An african runner was the first to enter the stadium on this last 200m towards the finish line. However, he followed the car displaying the time as it turned left on the track, but the course required him to turn right. The crowd roared to let him know but by the time he turned to go the right was a runner had come through and over taken him. The african runner was not able to catch up in his final sprint and the runner who should have finished second won the race. The winning runner was North Korean (read in to that as you will). Of course they also won the women’s elite race too.

I was then able to soak up the rest of the atmosphere whilst we waited for the marathon runners to finish in their 4 hour time limit. Several of the runners just made it through the gates before they closed the entrance to the stadium in a gladiatorial style once 4 hours were up. It was great drama.

Once we were all finished and rested we made our way back to the bus, via more interaction with the locals, and made our way for a Korean BBQ lunch and a well earned beer.

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It’s fair to say that everyone was in high spirits at this point and fully ready for a rest. However, we now had an afternoon agenda. The North Koreans wanted to take us to their war museum, dedicated to celebrating victories over the ‘American imperialists’. In fact, every time the US was mentioned during the trip they were referred to as this or ‘the enemy’.

During the museum visit we explored a ship captured from the Americans who invaded North Korean waters and saw many of the bombs dropped by the Americans during the Korean war. Our guide claimed that there were more bombs on Pyongyang than inhabitants of the city at the time. She also claimed that US planes dropped artillery containing the cholera virus and mosquitos. It’s hard to know what to believe anymore anyway.

The building was as deluxe and as empty of people as the science museum. Together we sat and watched a video demonising the American Imperialists. I think some of our North American contingent were a little demoralised afterwards: ‘We learnt it from the Brits’ being the most light hearted response.

Quite strangely, we were then taken to a shooting range, where we fired weapons at a target. I believe this was nothing more than an exercise to help us claim that we had shot a weapon in North Korea.

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We then visited a very posh dinner where we had a speech and celebratory drinks, including North Korean spirits to celebrate the successes of the day. Several of the younger foreigners got a little carried away with the drinking, which made for cringeworthy dances and a few risque moves.

When we got back to our hotel where we found out their was a brewery within. We had a few more beers before I retired to my room. There were rumours in the morning of a few misdemeanors during the night, which meant a couple of the foreigners were in a little bit of trouble. But no-one had stolen any propaganda posters.

Despite having very little sleep since we arrived no-one seemed capable of sleeping on the bus to the DMZ the next day (the place where North and South Korea meet). This is because, for the first time, we were able to witness life beyond Pyongyang. In fact, the country became rural very quickly and we started to see a side to the country that is very rarely talked about. There are beautiful lakes and an abundance of mountains in the countryside, neither of which anyone would normally associate with North Korea. We also noticed that man of the population are living in small rural villages where wells are used as a source of water. It is clearly far from the abundant country that Kim Jung Un has been painting in the local media (where he visits fully stocked supermarkets).

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We eventually arrived at the DMZ and I was surprised at how the security measures in North Korea were far less stringent than those I experienced in the South. They were more concerned with the photos we were taking than the items we were bringing in. We were joined in our group by an experienced soldier. One of our american companions was keen to strike up a friendship with him and offered him a fist pump. The soldier was keen to partake but I think he was a bit heavy handed with his fist pump. He was happy to engage in conversation via a translator and said that he thought ‘american people want peace, but Obama just wants war’. We wondered if that was something his peers would echo.

As we did in the South, we visited the room where the Armistice was signed by the Americans. However, the North Koreans claimed this to be a different room to the South. Yet, much like the South, they also had a flag that the ‘American Imperialists’ had left behind in their shame and haste to leave. It seemed strange to have the same story told but claims that it took place in different rooms in different countries.

We then went to the point of the 38th Parallel where I entered the same cabin that I ventured into in October, only this time I went in from a different country. It was still odd to think that a table stands in the centre, technically in both countries.

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We then returned to the bus and stopped for a delicious traditional lunch before heading back to Pyongyang. We have realised that we ate far better than the general population over the course of the weekend.

We went via a place of National Importance where a tomb was made out of plastic (so I won’t say any more about that), before moving onwards towards Pyongyang.

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As we approached Pyongyang we passed an impressive stone entrance to the city before stopping at the square where the military so famously gather when we see the huge parades on TV. It turns out that there are obvious white dots on the floor to indicate exactly where people should stand during these parades. It was strange to be in a place, relatively void of people, that you so frequently see represented differently.

Naturally there continued to be portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il on important buildings. I remain cynical about the true opinions of the people as they cannot freely say what they really think. However, being here made me a little less quickly to judge. The images of people wailing in the street at Kim Jung Il’s death in 2011 are perfectly feasible as the many of these people are third generation North Koreans, meaning life before the peoples republic is no longer a memory. Consequently, people no nothing other than what they are told of their great leaders, there is no reason for them to doubt them. They may well have a genuine affection for them all.

Additionally, I now find it hard for the West to judge this as odd. Why can’t North Koreans have fanatical views of their Great Leaders, making them their deities? The majority of the rest of the world worship a God that they only believe to be true. At least with the North Koreans they are worshipping someone that actually officially existed. If they knew anything of Christianity, Islam, Judaism or other religions they would probably look upon them with the same cynicism that we look upon the North Koreans. Still, I can’t help but think it’s all a bit much. Enough of my thoughts.

We then headed to a local book store where the shelves were packed with ‘historical’ books about the lives of the Great Leaders and the war atrocities of the Americans and the Japanese.

We then had a final dinner before making our way to the airport for our late night charter flight back to Shanghai. We decided to discuss one final thing before we got off the bus: the electricity in Pyongyang. It appeared that every effort had been made to leave lights on in empty apartments and no sign of curtains. We wondered if that was for our benefit (since more foreigners were knocking about than usual). In South Korea a lot was said about the lack of electricity in North Korea. I guess I will never know.

20160411_203904The airport was a surprisingly efficient experience. Since there were no other flights leaving the airport we were through customs in record time. Surprisingly, I think North Korea immigration is the quickest I have ever experiences. On the other side we were relaxed enough to enjoy our final cheap beer before our flight home. One of the girls in the group said ‘soon we will be able to speak freely again’….en route to China.

So I may have used over 3000 words to describe what happened in North Korea, but I don’t think I will ever be able to truly relive the experience. It is a unique place where just about everything is different. However, the most humbling thing about the DPRK are its friendly and welcoming people. When I read stories about North Korea I will always sympathise with its people and remember that we cannot judge them on the terrible behaviour of their ‘Great Leader’ just as they don’t judge us on the behaviour our terrible ones.