Beautiful Pyongyang

Traffic has been increasing on the once-empty streets of this extraordinary capital. That said, little else has changed in Pyongyang (‘flat land’) over the last couple of decades. The city remains an eerie, unchanging place of wide streets, endless grey and white Soviet-style blocks, vast monuments to the party and an all-female team of fetishistically-clad traffic wardens manually directing traffic with domineering zeal.

In the best possible tradition of Minsk and Ashgabat, Pyongyang rose from the ashes of destruction and as such was a tabula rasa for the Kim dictatorship to impose its worldview on. Mysterious and grey, Pyongyang is definitely one of the world’s strangest capitals, often wrapped in a thick mist and dominated by the immeasurably sinister and humungous pyramid of the unfinished Ryugyong Hotel.

Every visit focuses heavily on Pyongyang –this is after all a city built to impress with a population of approved, privileged citizens and a slew of awe-inspiring sights your guides are happy to show you. It’s worth trying to get to know the city during your trip, as this is one of the few places you’ll have a chance to get to know in North Korea.

The guides will be falling over themselves to show you a succession of monuments, towers, statues, and buildings that apotheosise the Juche idea and propagate the achievements of the Kim regime. These include the Tower of the Juche Idea, the Chollima Statue and the Mansudae Grand Monument, a vast rendering of the Great Leader in bronze, to which every visitor is expected to pay floral homage.

While these are all impressive, if surreal, the real delights of Pyongyang are to be had in the quieter moments when you can get glimpses of everyday life. If possible, suggest walking between sights rather than driving, which the guides prefer. A gentle stroll on Pyongyang’s relatively relaxed Moran Hill, for example, will reveal that the locals have picnics, play music and idle away sunny afternoons. Despite the best attempts of the Korean Workers’ Party, there is a semblance of normality surviving in the capital. You just have to look hard for it.