The Arirang Mass Games of North Korea

The Arirang Mass Games are the most beautiful (and controversial) choreographed performance I have ever seen. An acrobatic, dance and gymnastic show involving up to 100,000 participants in Pyongyang’s 150,000-seater May Day Stadium.  Thousands of artists, gymnasts, martial art experts, dancers and acrobats join the stage and perform acrobatic games with  music and colors. They’re held everyyear, and this year in August I joined the crowds in the May Day Stadium of Pyongyang.

Stunning to the eyes, it’s just too beautiful to watch and magic, the music, colours, background noise, the sound of the thousands of boards flapping in the background forming stunning drawings and images.

The Mass Games are a mix of performing gymnasts with a background made of other 30 thousands of children holding cards, see the background images that change every time?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The cards are flipped in such synchronised way that they create the mosaic images you can see in the back. Before everything begins, the cards are flipped creating a sourround noise throughout the stadium, creating lots of excitement.

Its purpose

Each performance has basically two meanings: one is to depict important moments of the (North) Korean history such as the Korean War, the Signing of Armistice in 1953

Remescing war war times in the Korean peninsula.
1953, the Signing of Armistice between the Koreas.

Another purpose of the Arirang Mass Games is to show pride of their national potential in every aspect. Artistic abilities, the birth of Kim Il-Sung, red coloured flowers symbolising working class, their technology progress, armament and military capability, and their neverending hatred for the Imperialism.

Mount Paektu, allegedly the birth place of the Dear Leader Kim Il-Sung.

North Korea also shares the dream of the peninsula’s reunification

The image depicts two ladies dressed in traditional attire who jointly hold a sphere bearing a map of a reunified Korea

I took photos of the event but they won’t do justice. However, the feeling and exaltation I had while I was watching, so many movements, athletes flying on top of our heads are hard to describe.
This is a very short video I made with my phone:

People in North Korea

In North Korea you’ll find everyone: farmers, nurses, fishermen, secretaries, school kids with blue-buttons and red handkerchief uniforms, traffic police, sellers, librarians, old people and young people. People in North Korea are like people in most other countries with one crucial difference: everybody looks like they’re still in the late 1940’s.

Our tour, as amazing as it was, gave us the chance to see quite a lot in fact. From the capital Pyongyang to remote countryside villages it’s outstanding how things, impressions, reactions and even reality change dramatically, from the city where everything seems so perfectly in order and sometimes even staged to the most remote village where most people have never seen a tourist before and showed us the sincerest kindness and welcome. Why do I say this? Simply because of the look in their face:

Little girl in Nampho, North Korea.

As we toured around on our bus, my taking photos was limited so most of my shots come from my bus windows. Not too bad I have to say, it was funny to see how most of us were so thrilled to capture every moment that everyone kept their cameras focused on the windows the whole time.

It is not rare to say that people were either sceptical of us foreigners or instructed to act as such. Many theories flew the air within my group on how much of what we saw was genuine, what parts were actually staged. It is not an uncommon thought when referring to North Korea. The most prominent theory was the following: in the capital, people have a certain knowledge of the outside world, even certain access to media restricted to the elites. The countryside instead, are completely oblivious of international events and people.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

People in The Capital

Our time in Pyongyang focused on visiting monuments, statues, museums, libraries and even the maternity hospital. People I found there looked at us with caution, indifference or very little attention. It’s not a city where locals would pile to see foreigners. Sometimes we could perceive some fear, and considering the propaganda they live with every day, it makes sense

On the Pyongyang subway, with wagons coming all the way from post-war Germany. Not a word from locals

The Grand People’s Study House is the city library and one of the most famous buildings. Built in 1982 in honor of Kim Il-Sung 70th birthday, is today a huge study building where we saw people taking classes of art, science, IT, history. Because of the locals’ attitude, some of my group said it was all staged and prepared in advance before our coming.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A young man using an old cellphone model (probably a Nokia 6220), and as I said earlier 3G is accessible in DPRK. It is sometimes available to foreigners, although this policy changes very often.

People in North Korea do not have access to Internet. They instead rely on intranet.
However, at times, 3G might be available to tourists, but it’s highly aleatory as it depends on the current political state.

People in The Countryside

In the countryside people are friendlier, smilier, more intrigued towards us. It’s like curiosity overcomes any sort of idea or fear they might have.

A father and daughter waving at me in Sariwon.

 

Locals dancing at a park in Sariwon.

Young guys working at a cinema stage in Kaesong City, they were staging the scenario for a Japanese style movie

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

People in North Korea are completely devoted to their leaders and their country, every museum guide we found performed their job with high devotion and completely belief towards their Leaders

Our guide when visiting the Chollima Steel Factory.

 

North Korea: before you go

Going to North Korea, at the time, was a fantastic revolutionary idea for traveling. A destination nobody would even consider. The most secretive and hermetic country on earth. North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK, is famous for nothing but negative things on our medias, ruled by the questionable supreme leader Kim Jong-un as part of the family hierarchy, known the top 1 strangest country in the world. This was enough reason for me to go and on top of that it is still incredibly easy to obtain a vist permit.

North Korea’s countryside view. District of Kaesong.

What you need to know about DPRK

  • Capital: Pyongyang.
  • Population: Approximately 25 million but statistics are shady so do not trust this number.
  • Language: Korean, specifically a less evolved version of the language peope speak in South Korea.
  • Currency: even if there is an official North Korean currency, the Won, foreigners are only allowed to use Euros, USD dollars and Chinese RMB.

Travel Tips & Facts

  • The only way to enter the country is via an organised tour, either individual or in a group.
  • Like many other blacklisted and embargoed countries, in North Korea there are no ATM’s. Bring cash.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My Experience in the DPRK

Entering North Korea DPRK is something I will never forget: I have never been able to collect my luggage so quickly at an airport before.

I think I might have mentioned it before, but entering North Korea is very easy, regardless of your nationality. You can fly to Pyongyang from three places: Beijing, Vladivostok and a city in Malaysia that I cannot recall right now (perhaps its capital). However, the overwhelming majority of foreigners travel to Pyongyang from China, either by train or flight. Me and my friends traveled via Air Koryo, although I heard from my other tour fellows that the train experience is quite something.

The only way you can enter the country is by joining an authorized tour from an authorised company. When I signed up for the Young Pioneers Tour, all I had to do was filling an application form like this one

DPRK Visa application form

Of course the DPRK authorities reserve the right to reject your application for X,Y, Z reason, luckily, that wasn’t my case 🙂

I did managed to enter so you’re probably wondering “Ok, but how easy it is to get to DPRK from China?”, and my answer is… It is a pain in the neck mixed up with lots of bureaucratic issues and in some cases even many visits to the Chinese Consulate. The most difficult of part of my application process was indeed applying for a Chinese visa.

The application process consists of a general interview. If all goes well, the Chinese Consulate will retain you passport and return to you with the visa attached in it.
In my case there was no issue at all until the North Korea tour came up in the conversation with the Officer. North Korea, being a sensitive topic for China, will require special attention if you are going there through China. You will be asked many questions and eventually sign a waiver that exonerate the consulate from any responsibility during the trip.

So, as the hardest part is over, let’s go back to North Korea entry process. After our arrival in China, as my application went through, we were instructed on some important tips:

1. Always show respect to the Koreans leaders and avoid offending the local guides and people. At certain places especially statues of the leaders we will often bow to show our respect according to the local customs.

2. We are not allowed to use the local currency in North Korea.

3. Professional video cameras are not allowed to be taken into the DPRK, but handheld digicams have recently been allowed as long as you don’t film anything you’re told not to! Regular digital still cameras are fine, for professional cameras, lenses less than 250mm are allowed- anything over that could be retained at customs until you depart.

4. E-books are fine, and normal books are OK as long as it’s not a Bible, Qur’an or any other religious text. A couple of people were in trouble because they were bringing Bibles with them, so e-hem, no religious text book.

5. It is strongly recommend giving an entrance gift for your North Korean guides when you first arrive at the hotel, and have a ‘sit down’.

Having said this, we were ready to go and we had our North Korean tourist card

At the checking counter at Beijing International Airport, already very excited !

Finally on board of Air Koryo!

Flying on black-listed airline Air Koryo.