The NBA Part 4: Back in DPRK

I run as fast as I can, but the North Koreans are closing in. The saving goal seems impossibly far away. The government van is blasting military music at my heels. Finally, I admit defeat. I step to the side of the road and let the leading Marathon runners pass before continuing my crawl towards the finish at Kim Il Sung Stadium.Here is the story of running a half marathon in Pyongyang.

First stop is Shanghai03.04. We take the red eye flight to Shanghai. After the obligatory 25min taxiing, plus bus plus luggage, we meet our driver and are on out way to our hostel. Returning as tourists feels a bit strange. We arrive at Maoming Lu 112 but only find a locked gate. A friendly lady points us to the next entrance, where another friendly man calls the hostel on our behalf. Then, we wait. Lukas, who is traveling with us from Shanghai onward, arrives. After another call and some WeChat, we are let into our appartment. Nothing fancy but spacious and with a good location.First stop is Din Tai Fun.Second, WW Chan to restock on shirts.Third, a quick stroll through Tianzifan (Lukas buying a painting from our old friend, the Shanghai painter).After a quick dinner, we head to the second floor of SpeakLow for some amazing cocktails, and then to bed.04.04. We try to find some breakfast stalls but it seems that many places are closed and former shops are walled off. Nonetheless, we have a delicious Guotie and Niu Rou Mian breakfast at Xingyang Nan Lu and Nanchang Lu.After breakfast, we split up. While Michi and Lukas go to the Tea City, I meet former JV colleagues Qiming and Yan Yang at the old office at 399 Chuanqiao Lu. The company (now China Mobile Intelligent Mobility) has roughly doubled in size. We have good lunch and good talks.Michi, Lukas and I reunite at WW Chan for a quick fitting. Back at home, Lukas and I pack for North Korea. We have dinner at Shanghai Min at Superbrand Mall at a table overlooking the Bund. We miss Shanghai. After dinner, we join our Rotary Club for drinks. Although, Henry is the only other attendance, its great to catch up and share stories.Now we are on our way to North KoreaThen we are of to Pudong Airport and onward to North Korea. At Terminal 1, we meet our 86 travelers strong group and guides for the briefing. We check in an say goodbye to Michi.05.04. Around 1am we board Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang.The paperwork takes some time but also leaves a few minutes for a nap. Immigrantion seems more relaxed, this time. Our Korean guides Miss Oh and Miss Pak await us on the other side. Overall, regulations seem to be more relaxed. E.g. taking pictures from the bus is no problem, also saying “North Korea” instead of “DPRK”.This time, we stay at Koryo Hotel, downtown next to the train station. Its similar in size to Yangakdo Hotel with a less spectacular but still nice view from the rooms. We have to wait until later to check the view from the revolving restaurant.We have time for a 1.5h nap and breakfast before getting on the bus to Kaesong. Our bus driver is the first to leave, backs up and drives backwards into a lamp post. Good start. After cleaning the fallen lamp debries of the buss roof , we have a safe journey south. The road is still bumpy but much improved over last time. The weather is beautiful, although a little bit chilly out of the sun. We drive past endless fields, every available square meter used for agriculture. Despite being the middle of spring the fields are barren.Today is Tomb Sweep Festival. Therefore, we only see a few people working in the fields.After ca 3h, we reach Kaseong. All 86 of us, 4 busses, go to the Joint Security Zone. Its very crowded. I already know what to expect. Shopping first (I buy a poster), visit to the negotiation room of 1953 as well as the signing hall (US did not bring their flag but one from the UN) and visit to the pavilion overlooking the negotiation barracks, including group pictures with our military guide (I suspect him being the same one from last time but my memory for faces is bad). We do not visit the blue barracks on the border but end the visit and head to lunch.This time, we eat lunch downtown, at the foot of the viewpoint hill. Its the famous 11 royal copper bowls, only this time, I skip the dog soup. The food is tasty. Only, I start to suffer from a headache.After lunch, our group heads to the Kaesong Histord Museum to visit the Unesco World Heritage buildings of the university and the exhibition and buy some postcards at the stamp museum.Final stop in Kaesong is the viewpoint over the old town. Again, its quite beautiful, especially in the warm sun.Wit this picture in our minds, we bump back towards Pyongyang. We stop at the Reunification Monument, which marks the start of the Kaesong Highway (the old road to Seoul), for pictures.We have dinner close to the Future Scientists Street. The restaurant on the rhird floor is a mix of 80s party room with an iluminated floor and a wedding banquet with lots of floral arrangements. There is also a NK-Pop show with 5 girls singing, dancing and ending with the beloved “Arira” song for the Korean Nation, we heard frequently on our last visit.On the way back to the hotel I am surprised, how iluminated the city is. The unfinished hotel is iluminated in many colors and there even is decorative lighting on Future Scientist Street and other buildings, giving it a propper downtown appearance. Power outages do not seem to be an issue anymore. One solution seem to be solar panels, which were, at least in Kaeson, ubiquitous.Back at the hotel, I directly fall asleep, hoping for my headache to get better over night.06.04. Grey skies greet us through spotty windows. Its time to visit Pyongyang itself.After breakfast, we drive to the fountain park, next to the library. Last time, we had snow. Now the fountains are running.Behind the fountain park are the two giant bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kimg Jong Il overlooking Pyongyang and the Monument of the Workers Party.We drive across town to the first Opera House and walk from their to Kim Il Sung Square. While the place itself is impressive, the many markings on the street, which serve the parades, are interesting to see.The Foreign Language Bookstore carries hand drawn Marathon Posters. Therefore, shopping ensues.Back in the bus we drive to the Tower of the Juche Idea (“Everyone is the master of oneself”). From the top, we enjoy the view on Pyongyang, notably the restaurant ship on the opposite shore, which was built there but can pass neiter the northern nor the southern bridge.Final stop before lunch is the the monument of the (ruling)Workers Party. Hammer, brush and sicel to represents the different parts that make up society. Its interesting to see that science plays a prominent role in society (not only the simple people). It is part of the symbolism and major street (modern buildings and appartments) have been dedicated to scientists and teachers. Next to the monument is a picture galery of the leaders. And of course shopping.We head to a nice restaurant for a sumptious lunch, followed by a less professional but no-less dedicated than yesterdays performance. Arira!
With a full stomach, we visit the metro. We start at the end of one of the two lines at the “rehabilitation” station and – despite claims that Korea has replaced all foreign trains whith korean trains – take one of the many former Berlin S-Bahn trains for one station to Glory station. Very short visit, this time.While DPRK has presented itself similarly friendly, a little bit more open, more colorfull and more electrical, our next stop promises a constant view: The Fatherland Liberation War Museum. First, we are presented with the captured wepons, a helicopter and the USS Pueblo. Also, the outside offers a beautiful view on the unfinished megahotel.Inside, fotografie is still forbidden. We bow to the Kim Il Sung statue in front of a backdrop of blue skies with exploding fireworks in the impressive entrance hall. This time, we also get to see the movie, which scientifically explains and proofs that the US used a puppet regime in South Korea to start the Korean War (last time, we could not due to power outage). Our guide goes on to explain the winning strategy of the North. Basically capturing Seoul and 95% of the south, do a tactical retreat to the mountains by the Chinese border, attack again, capture Seoul and accept the american surrender with a border along the 38th parallel. Again, its a much shorter visit the last time.Suddenly, we have a 1.5h gap in our program, as the stadiun we are about to visit only ooens this late. Luckily, by chance, we have the chance to go to the circus for only 20EUR. Of course, we accept as the DPRK truely is one of the very best in the world. The acrobatics are spectacular and nothing short of amazing. Only downside is a bear dressed and walking as a human, who is an increadibly sad sight.We decide, not to visit the inside of the stadium tonight (its very cold and we will see it tomorrow). We drive the half marathon route with the bus and then go for cold noodles for dinner (I believe its the same restaurant as last time).We arrive back at the hotel around 21.00, prepare for the race and relax.07.04. Race Day! Alarm sounds at 5:30. We need to leave the hotel by 6:30, as the roads will be closed at 7:00. I have a headache and its difficult to eat breakfast. But I get well over the course of morning.As we approach the stadiums perimiter, we see thousands of people streaming in or standing in ordered groups, seemingly receiving some instructions. They are (have to be?) here on their only free day of the week to see the Marathon. Its impressive.We wait in the parking lot until 8.00, when we line up. We are in front, directly behind the “Amateurs 1”. Now, some organizational chaos ensues. The want us to form row so fix. That does not work. So they want rows of 10. Some guy with a whistle gets a bit frustrated. Anyway, the lines are finaly formed and hold for the first four or five steps into the stadium. The athmosphere is just too exciting. The stadium is full on every seat except the top 7 rows. People are cheering on comand but as we walk by, people genuinely cheer and wave. We form lines again in front of the leaders podium. Now they want each line to split in two rows of 5. The whistles are eventually silenced by the start of the speech by the minister of interior and sports.We leave the stadium to change and for a final run to the toilet. Then we run into the stadium one more time to get in starting position. There are about 1000 foreigners and ca 600 Korean runners for marathon, half marathon, 10k and 5k.On time, at 9.00, the starting gun sounds. We leave the stadium, turn right at the Arch of Triumph and are on our way. The streets are wide and very convenient to run. There are some ups and downs but not too much.Amazingly, many people line the streets (in perfect sunshine). The smile and wave. Kids love high five parades. The first 12k work reasonably well for me (I have not had the time to train at all). Then I get a strong pain in my left knee. Means, the rest of the run is slower, with some walking with some pain.People cheering along the way makes running easier. Past the War Museum up the final hill to the Eternity Tower and down into the stadium. There is a soccer game ongoing while I do my final lap. Well spent, every bit of power left on the track, I make it in whopping 2:38 – not great but not bad without training, either. Next to me, a Korean Marathon runner finishes and colapses on the track. No big deal for the crew as others follow the same pattern.From the foreigner seats, we watch the remaining runners finish the half and full marathon. The stadium gates are closed at 13.00 and after the final runner completes his lap, victors are crowned. Koreans win in every professional category (no Korean ranin the amateur races; that is only for foreigners).Finally, we get back to the hotel but with only 30min to shower and pack. We do not hassle but check out in good time and have lunch. While the rest of the group gows to the big supermarket, Lukas and I get a North Korean massage; with hands and feet but very relaxing. Our tour guide mixes up the group schedule, so that the rest of the group has to wait for 30min in the bus while we finish our massage. Afterwards, we have a final dinner and to to the airport. We see many shops on the way, brightly iluminated. I wonder, how many of them will be there after the westerners are gone. At the airport, we get our passports back and go through emmigration without any hickups (they not even collect my customs form). On time, we leave Pyongyang and are back in Shanghai at midnight. Awesome adventure.Compared to our first visit is that many things were more relaxed, border control, taking pictures, time management. Food was infinitely better then on the first trip. And Pyongyang was more iluminated and wihhout power outages. The program was very compact, which was great. The Koryo Hotel was a tiny bit nicer but offered less of a view from the rooms (unfortunately, we could not go to the revolving restaurant). The only downside was that it was much more crowded with so many groups. Its impossible to tell if these are real improvements or just a show for 900 westerners visiting the country.Back in Shanghai08.04. After a good night sleep, we get some breakfast on the street and go to Hongqiao Railway station. We take the high speed train (business class) to Hangzhou. By car, we go to Mei Jia Wu village, deep inside the tea mountains. The tea harvest is in fullswing. Tens, may be hundreds of triangular bamboo hats decorate the tea fields. We hike through the hills and enjoy the serenity.We end our hike at the main tea house in MeiJiaWu and have fresh 2019 tea and longjin river prawn.After lunch, we visir the Lingyin Temple; by now a familiar site.Trees are blooming at the West Lake, adding a special touch to the pitoresque scene.From the West Lake, we walk through the old town with its parmacies ad to the food streer where we have a fish dinner. Hangzhou feels familiar as though we never left China.At 20.00 we catch the train from Hangzhou Station to Shanghai.09.04. Today is our last day in Shanghai. Time to meet some more old friends. First, breakfast.In the morning, we meet Gladys for coffee at sichuan Bei Lu. The old town around the High Time building has been completely torn down. Next, we pick up our shirts at WW Chan and meet Javier at Kerry Center for lunch. Michi and I move on to Mrs Ball at Shiliupu Fabric Market to pick up Michis new dress and my repair. She tells us that business is slowing down.
Back at the hostel, we pack for Japan. In the evening, we meet Jenny and Rene for a great evening at Dong Lai Shun Beijing Hotpot restaurant at Nanjing Xi Lu. They are in Shanghai for nine month and share similar stories. We end the night at Oji with drinks. A perfect Shanghai evening.10.04. We are going to Tokyo for thhe final stage of our NBA 2019.