Saturday, 29 September 2012

Urbex FAIL: The Descent, UK

A cursory browse through the growing catalogue of reports on my Urbex page may have had you under the illusion that this is a pastime without pitfalls.

It is for this reason that I have decided to incorporate a list of massive urban exploration failures - to serve as a reminder that things rarely go to plan, and that some of the more memorable adventures are those that end in disaster.

And so with that in mind, I have decided to kick off with one from the vaults... a catastrophe of epic proportions, that befell during an exploration of Bristol's network of caves and forgotten rail tunnels back in 2009.

Here's what a local paper had to say about the event:

Global Party Guide | Systo Palty, Russia

First off, I'd like to address a few errors in the reporting:

  • The caver's rope did not snap
  • The caver did not fall
  • "The caver, thought to be in his 30s", was actually accompanied by a dashing young explorer in his 20s; to whom fell the responsibility of climbing back out, getting to the main road, and fetching help.
  • Here's what really happened.

    A friend tipped me off to the existence of a tunnel network, located deep beneath the rocky bluff that supports the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Some parts consist of natural caves, while others were blasted out during the mid-nineteenth century. The celebrated civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel had a vision of building an underground railway system, for transporting freight between Bristol city and the nearby docks. This pioneering mechanic oversaw the creation of the first railway tunnels, and began the construction of brick-lined passages deep beneath the city. In 1859 however, the dream died with him - those left behind decided that the notion of underground trains would never catch on, and the existing tunnels were sealed up and forgotten.

    Myself and the friend in question found our way in easily enough. He had been before, and was keen to explore a deeper cave system that led off from the main network. To this end, he had packed a ladder for the descent.

    From the discreet entrance hidden just off a main road on the city's outskirts, we had to squeeze through a narrow rocky fissure to reach the abandoned train tunnel beneath. This meant crawling on hands and knees through a shaft lined with thick webs, from which hung dozens of fat black spiders and their powdery-white egg sacks.

    Once past this first ordeal though, we came into a long, vaulted chamber. Here the walls and ceiling were embellished by Victorian-style brickwork, while rusted iron pipework sprouted from walls and floor.

    This was as far as my friend had been before, and he eagerly showed me to the next challenge... a vertical brickwork shaft at the far end of the tunnel, whose depths were well beyond the reach of our torches. He opened his bag, and brought out the ladder.

    Now, I had been imagining one of those compact metal ladders you sometimes see in outdoor sports shops; solid construction and metal rungs, which roll up to fit inside a cylindrical canvas bag. Instead he pulled out a homemade rope ladder, which he had tied together the night before. He proceded to attach the top end to one of the metal pipes extending from the floor, dropped the other over the precipice, and gestured for me to give it a go.

    "After you," I said.

    Global Party Guide | Systo Palty, Russia

    I still don't know exactly how far the tunnels go - but I have heard rumours before and since that they connect to other natural fissures, and lead right beneath the city itself. One of these fabled tunnels was supposedly built to connect the pirate Blackbeard's house to the docks, for the purposes of smuggling.

    My friend started climbing, and was making good progress at first. It turned out however that the shaft opened up into a bottleneck after a drop of roughly ten feet; one moment he was making his way down a narrow well shaft, and then suddenly the walls disappeared from around him, and he was swinging free in the darkness. He panicked, and his foot got twisted in the rope - tangling worse the more he tried to struggle.

    As I said before, the caver did not fall.

    He struggled blindly to the bottom after losing his torch and one of his shoes, the ladder coming to pieces in his hands, and at the end of the rope he dropped with a heavy splash into the water beneath. Shaking and shivering, up to his chest in the black water, he called up to me to get help.

    Unsurprisingly the cave didn't have mobile reception - so I had to climb all the way back out, and get down to the main road. I called the fire brigade, waited, and then flagged down the engine when it arrived. There was nowhere to park along the busy main road however, so soon there were police on site redirecting the traffic into one lane. I had to lead a team of four firemen down the shaft, through the narrow crack and into the main chamber, all the way to the edge of the pit.

    Sending a man on a harness and winch down the hole to fetch my friend was easy enough, but the fire brigade didn't leave just like that - the members of the White Watch team had no idea that these tunnels even existed up until now. Equipped with harnesses, climbing ropes and spotlights, they couldn't resist the chance to have a little explore around the caves for themselves.

    When we eventually made it back out to the light of day, we were in for a surprise; five fire engines, two ambulances and a police car stood in wait, while traffic was backed up as far as the eye could see. The fire brigade must have been having a quiet day, as most of them were down in the tunnels already. A couple of paramedics insisted on giving us a check over in the back of an ambulance, but it was the next meeting I was dreading.

    As it turned out though, Her Majesty's Finest were a pretty reasonable bunch. The two of us got a good telling off, but no more. After all, the caves were located on public ground and we walked in freely - Old Bill had nothing on us.

    "Do you always dress like that when you go caving?" one officer asked, sneering at my trainers.

    So the moral of the story is... well, I expect you've already worked it out.

    More Urban Exploration...


    Friday, 28 September 2012

    Systo Palty, Russia

    Systo Palty
    Kuolemayarvi, Russia
    4-9th May 2012

    The train leaves from St Petersburg's Finlyandsky Station at 7am. We plough our way through commuters on the city’s Metro, before arriving at our point of departure; marble busts of Bolshevik heroes gaze down as we huddle over hot coffees, casting long shadows across the concrete platform.

    Russia's Systo Palty Festival is a large ethno/electronic music festival, which has been held at varying locations across the country since its inception in 2004. This year’s psychedelic gathering took place deep in the forests north of St Petersburg, just outside the village of Kuolemayarvi (Куолемаярви).

    Global Party Guide | Systo Palty, Russia

    The village still bears the name it was given before Peter the Great took these lands from Scandinavia, and it translates literally as ‘Lake of Death’.

    It was on this spot that the celebrated theologian and political philosopher Mikael Agricola died in 1557... falling into a fever on his way back from negotiating the Treaty of Novgorod with Tsar Ivan ‘the Terrible’ in Moscow; where he stood as a representative of Gustav I Vasa, King of Sweden.

    History aside, Kuolemayarvi is far from macabre. Situated just a three-hour drive from Helsinki, the glassy waters of the lake are surrounded on all sides by dense green pine forests - forming a tranquil and remote setting for one of the strangest festivals I have ever experienced.

    It is almost midday before we're descending the archaic metal rungs down to the platform. The station lies in a grassy strip ploughed through the heart of the forest, populated now by milling groups of festival goers clad in everything from rough-spun multi-coloured jumpers to hiking gear and waterproofs.

    Global Party Guide | Systo Palty, Russia

    It's a fair trek from here to the lake where the festival is held, but as we're getting ready for the walk we're approached by a local farmer. He has stumbled across an opportunity for profit, by ferrying people back and forth in the back of an old white van. So, we pay him a handful of Rubles each, and climb aboard... into a pitch black chamber crammed with Russian hippies and agricultural machinery, my open can of beer splashing foam onto my legs at every turn in the road. We make one brief stop, at a shop in the village of Kuolemayarvi itself – giving me a chance to stock up on practical supplies such as peanuts, more beer and a bottle of honey and chilli vodka.

    I'm tagging along to Systo festival with new-found friends: Stasya, Vanya and Katerina. Only Stasya has a ticket however, and so we get out of the van a little way before the main gates. We manage to avoid the security roadblock as we blunder through the dense forest, avoiding bogs, and following the sound of pulsing bass until we stumble out onto a service road within the main festival site.

    Global Party Guide | Systo Palty, Russia

    By the time we arrive the five-day, four-night festival is already in full swing; tents, wigwams and other assorted shelters lie scattered amongst the pines while dreadlocked youths wander to-and-fro fetching water or gathering wood for campfires.

    We meet some of Stasya's friends in the forest, where they are busy setting up camp. They're not unfriendly but I sense some kind of tension, and after a brief Russian exchange Katerina leads us away from the group. I don't understand, but it's explained to me as we walk off towards the lake; we're holding open cans of beer at this point, and it transpires that these teetotal young festival-goers don't want us drinking it anywhere near them.

    Global Party Guide | Systo Palty, Russia

    We walk awhile beside the stony shore of the lake - past stalls selling homemade clothes, traditional honey cakes and masala chai. There are sound systems growing out of the trees at every turn, festooned with camouflage nets, streamers and died silk. In between these are an assortment of what could only be described as art installations: a great spider has been built beside the lake from a mass of foliage, moss and fallen branches; a grim reaper rendered from sticks and cobwebs bears a cardboard placard - with a Russian slogan that warns: "For a bad trip not to happen, give to the spirit of Systo a chocolate, sweet or some other nishtyak" [1].

    Someone has borrowed a tent awning branded with the McDonalds logo, and beneath the golden arches they're selling home-cooked vegan food. An open forest glade designated as a 'chill-out area' promises tea, snacks and games, while a tie-died banner reading "people are strange" flutters from the trees overhead. Later we pass a girl on horseback. She lies stretched out along the length of the creature's back, taking a nap in the last warmth of the afternoon sun.

    The festival area seems to spread indefinitely around the shores of the lake. Each time I think we've passed beyond the last cluster of tents, we round a corner in the forest path, and stumble into a clearing full of colourful stalls and speaker cabinets stacked under tarpaulin. Apparently Systo Palty is expecting as many as ten thousand visitors this year, and it's certainly set up to handle the numbers. There are some impressive systems in place for waste recycling, and plenty of food stalls on offer - provided you can live without meat for a weekend. I was dubious at first, but it turns out I can.

    The only thing that I struggled with here were the latrines. More pit than pot, each toilet block consists of a vast hole dug in the ground, surrounded by a chest-high fabric screen. Strips of black cloth divide the space inside into separate cubicles, while the cavernous gulf beneath is approached via a pair of parallel wooden planks. Imagine balancing over a deep, open sewer, feet placed on supple and slippery strips of wood, themselves not much wider than the average foot... the obvious danger just doesn't bear thinking about.

    Global Party Guide | Systo Palty, Russia

    Later we watch a jazz band performing on one of the smaller stages, and I'm trying to find a bar but it seems literally impossible to buy beer at this festival. Drinking is clearly not the main focus of the weekend, and instead the forest is filled with a range of tents, shacks, and even one beached boat, all selling an exotic variety of teas.

    Eventually night begins to fall and we head back to the camp for supplies. I pocket the vodka, and find myself chatting to a Russian girl in German. I don't remember how the conversation started or how we stumbled across this mutually functional language, but it's refreshing to be able to converse with someone - my Russian being limited at best. Pretty soon I'm sat by a campfire, being offered cups of tea and a tray of strange grey biscuity residue, which tastes fantastic. Somebody somewhere is playing songs on an acoustic guitar while the sun sets over the lake.

    Global Party Guide | Systo Palty, Russia

    When we head back towards the music and shiny lights, we pass through the 'village square' - a large clearing dominated by a rig adorned in red and yellow canvas. A net of peacock-patterned silk hangs over the whole area, its green and blue eyes picked out by dancing lasers. We stay here for a while before following the waterline towards the main stage - passing campfires under the trees, a water-bound sound system on a homemade raft, and an emcee battle at the hip-hop tent.

    I don't remember whose idea it was to go off-road, but suddenly we're under the trees and scrambling down a hillside, through patches of thick undergrowth, to emerge before a ring of fire dancers. We're at the main stage now, and as the burning blades and fire ropes leave glowing after-traces in the cold air, the music gradually fades for this evening’s headliners: The Ozric Tentacles.

    Spotlights lower their gaze to illuminate the main stage in a wash of reds and blues, the surrounding trees lit up with pulsing LED strips. The band emerge dressed in faded jeans and colourful, baggy jumpers, to be received with rapturous applause; and as the bass and drums kick into a high-speed subsonic trot, guitarist Ed Wynne unleashes a swirling, reverb-soaked solo, and suddenly bodies everywhere are moving; twisting and turning against a grooving wall of sound. The song draws to a climatic conclusion, the crowd roar, and bassist Brandi manages an appreciative "спасибо".

    Global Party Guide | Systo Palty, Russia

    Pushing forward to get a better view, I loose my friends somewhere in the crowd. By this point it doesn’t matter though, as I become increasingly enveloped in the droning bass, the dancing flames behind me and the writhing bodies of the crowd. Suddenly I remember the bottle of vodka in my pocket... the chilli burns alongside the initial vodka hit, but is immediately followed by a soothing wash of honey syrup, oozing luxuriously down my throat.

    For a long time I’m lost in the music, the crowd spinning and turning around me. Then, inexplicably, I’m deep in conversation with a crazy-eyed Russian who keeps asking if I’m German while stroking his wispy moustache. "Nein," I say. Undeterred, he professes his undying love for the German nation - so I nod, and all I can think to do is offer him some vodka.

    We talk for a while in German, before he suddenly asks me to swear my allegiance to the Aryan cause. I’m a little confused, but when he begins shouting and Sieg-Heiling I begin to understand better. Out of nowhere his friend appears, and these two drunk Russians start singing a boisterous song in German. I pick out a few words like Juden and Lebensraum before retrieving my vodka from the man’s hand, and melting, clumsily, into the darkness.

    Global Party Guide | Systo Palty, Russia

    My memories beyond this point are hazy at best. I know that somewhere along the way I finished the vodka. I have recollections of dancing on a patio, a half-dozen people holding hands in a ring while an Asian girl tries to orchestrate a Mexican wave. By now I'm so drunk that I've forgotten I don't speak Russian - as a result my communication skills seem to improve no end. I vaguely remember crawling through a long tarpaulin tunnel to emerge into a glowing chamber, presided over by a colossal effigy of Felix the Cat. Then I'm back at the village square; now a writhing sea of bodies that stretches far beyond the pulsing lights of the sound system, fading to darkness beneath the silhouetted pines.

    The next thing I'm aware of is a pain in my head; pain, and the unbearable cold of a Russian forest. It seems to be midday and I'm on my own at the campsite - I haven't seen the others since the Ozrics started playing.

    I pass the next few hours drifting aimlessly around the festival ground. I try on some jumpers at the second-hand clothes tent, and manage to clear my head a little with a visit to the oxygen bar. There's a samba drum orchestra playing on the main stage and in the crowd I recognise the moustachioed nazi from last night... but I manage to avoid his gaze. Next I spend about an hour watching a large bearded man in the village square - who dances like an animal high on fire - before returning to camp.

    Global Party Guide | Systo Palty, Russia

    Stasya, Vanya and Katerina meet me there, and we spend the afternoon in the forest. Walking anticlockwise around the lake we eventually find a finger of land that juts out into the crystal clear waters, and we spend some time here just relaxing, listening to the gentle rippling sound of water against a backdrop of distant bass. Here and there pebbles have been stacked into precarious piles, their shadows gradually lengthening as dusk draws on.

    Nearby, a makeshift wooden hut has been hung with a handwritten sign that reads "BANYA"; the door opens to release clouds of hot steam and a couple run naked and laughing to the lake's edge, jumping headlong into water that couldn't have been far above freezing point.

    As we're walking back, there's a sudden commotion up ahead. I'm trying to make sense of the approaching figures, but eventually give up. An old man runs towards us moaning and gesturing, dressed in a fool's garb, his hair braided with flowers. His wrists are tied and bound, and there follows a procession close behind him; his tormentors skip in single file, singing loudly and goading their captive with painted wands.

    Global Party Guide | Systo Palty, Russia

    Dinner tonight comes in the form of a hot miso soup, served at the Hare Krishna tent. This domed structure has the appearance of a luminous igloo, standing out in sharp contrast against the vibrant sun set. After this it's a reggae band on the main stage, washed down with a glass of traditional Russian honey beer - a perfect end to the evening.

    The next morning is colder still... or perhaps I've simply had less to drink. Even under half a dozen layers of clothing there is little I can do to keep out the crisp chill of the forest. The e-book reader in my bag hasn't fared much better, its screen frozen in a monochrome whirl of dead pixels.

    We leave the festival mid-morning, although it looks as though many of our neighbours are putting down roots. The slow trudge back towards Kuolemayarvi takes us past a wrecked car, abandoned in the night. When we hit the main however, a passing driver turns out to be our friendly villager, and we catch a ride in his van back to the train station.

    A short while later we're sitting along the cold platform, watching a young couple play badminton on the grassy tracks. Behind us, some guy is playing upbeat folk on a ukelele while his friends sing along.

    Global Party Guide | Systo Palty, Russia

    For me, Systo Palty did a lot to dispel some of the commonly held stereotypes about the Russian people; it's certainly a far cry from the austere atmosphere of imperial seats such as Moscow, while introducing an entirely unique subset of Russian youth culture. Peaceful yet never subdued, Systo is a wholesome celebration of music and dance - rather than the experiment in prolonged intoxication typical of so many festivals back home in the UK. The people I met here (save two) were gentle, creative sorts; Tea shops outnumbered bars ten-to-one, drugs were if not absent then at least invisible, and meat products seemed nonexistent - while the only vodka I encountered throughout the weekend came from my own pocket.

    Cultural stereotypes spread slowly, and are hard to shift... it seems that many of those concerning the Russian people are criminally out of date. Systo Palty is everything that is good about music festivals, set in one of the most beautiful places one could imagine; it is both refreshingly honest and singularly bizarre.

    More Party Hacking...

    [1] The Russian word "ништяк" (or "nishtyak") is a colloquialism with no literal translation. In general terms though, it denotes a good thing.


    Tuesday, 11 September 2012

    Dark Tourism: The Pyongyang Tour, North Korea

    When Winston Churchill described Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, it is clear that he had no experience of tourism in North Korea.

    Of course, Churchill was speaking about a place that no longer exists. Under the Soviet Union, Russia was without a doubt a very different country to what it is now; however, in our modern age of smart phones, social networking and global wireless culture, North Korea’s succession from the world is all the more notable, lending this notorious hermit nation a unique air of mystery.

    Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

    Generally labelled communist, the self-styled ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ is perhaps better described as a military theocracy. The armed forces enter into all walks of life here, from traffic control to construction, and the power of North Korea's military is absolute. As for the notoriety, one need only scan the news to see a disproportionate number of reports on North Korea, including the many bizarre tales accredited to this secretive state. The truth however, is often stranger than the fiction.

    Tourism to North Korea is only possible by approval of the KITC, or Korean International Travel Company. A number of foreign travel companies run short tours of the country under the KITC’s approval, and each group is appointed a pair of Korean guides – employees of the KITC itself.*

    Having read stories about bugged hotel rooms, rigorous visa background checks and even entrapment by undercover government agents, I was apprehensive to say the least. Worst of all are the harsh penalties that supposedly befall journalists and writers who find their way into the country without the proper approval**. Even though I had focussed on the consultancy aspect of my job for the visa application form, a quick online search would soon reveal examples of my written work... I wondered how easily it could have been mistaken for journalism, and whether such a conclusion may have put me on thin ice.

    Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

    In reality though, the DPRK is full of surprises. Korean culture prides itself on hospitality, and our group of nine were treated like honoured guests throughout our stay – from deluxe hotel suites to private performances of song and dance by children at the local school.

    One of the most pleasant surprises about the DPRK is the refreshing absence of advertisements. Billboards in Pyongyang tend to display gaudy pop-art designs of happy workers and smiling children, accompanied by morale-building socialist slogans. Yes, it’s communist propaganda. In its purest form. Personally though, I much prefer these simple, feel-good posters to the manipulative advertising which plasters Western cities… often playing upon our subconscious lusts and desires to encourage us to open our wallets.

    Another of the more commonly perpetuated stereotypes of the North Korean people is their blind devotion to the country’s leaders; from founder Kim Il-Sung through his successor Kim Jong-Il, and now down to the young heir Kim Jong-Un.

    Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

    Well, reality would appear to corroborate this. Each classroom in Pyongyang’s main school bears the twin portraits of President Kim Il-Sung and the posthumously promoted Generalissimo Kim Jong-Il. The same likenesses are present in every train carriage on the Pyongyang Metro, and resplendent on the walls of every dwelling – although the latter I was unable to see, as it still remains illegal for a citizen of North Korea to entertain foreigners in their home.

    Hospitals, universities and streets are named after the country’s leaders, and in the heart of the city, their likenesses appear on twin bronze effigies towering over Mansu Hill. On visiting the statues our group was asked to observe the usual formalities – which involved forming a solemn line before the bottom step, before advancing the long walk up to the monument as one, and bowing low at the metal feet of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il.

    Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

    However, despite the apparent devotion it can sometimes be hard to tell how deep these sentiments run. Founding father Kim Il-Sung, without a doubt, is deeply loved by his people; in his youth Il-Sung was a high-ranking officer in the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army, at a time when the Korean peninsula was suffering under fierce Japanese rule in the wake of WWII. Once the country was liberated he went on to become President of the newly founded DPRK... leaving his mark on the fledgling nation with a legacy of schools, hospitals and universities, a metro system and a film studio. His son and successor Jong-Il however is remembered best for watching a lot of films; for developing weapons of mass destruction and for persevering through the great famine of the 1990s – during which time laws were drafted to make cannibalism punishable by hard labour. There is something in the way people here speak of Kim Jong-Il, which struck me as just ever-so-slightly robotic.

    Late one evening I got into conversation with another employee of the KITC, who was off duty, and drinking in the hotel bar. After a few beers I broached the topic of politics and asked what he thought of the country’s latest leader, Kim Jong-Un.

    “Our Dear Leader has only been in power for a few months,” he said with a sly grin, “we haven’t been told what we think yet.”

    Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

    The tour itself proved to be exhausting. We would wake up early each morning, grab a quick breakfast in our hotel, then pile onto a tour bus with our guides. After each long day of museums and monuments, studios and schools, we’d try out a range of Korean delicacies - ice cold noodles, barbequed duck, kimchi and even dog soup - before retreating to a bar somewhere to wind down with one of the fine local brews.

    Our accommodation, the Yanggakdo Hotel, was situated on a small island in the middle of the Taedong River that divides Pyongyang in two. A suitably inaccessible location, considering foreigners are allowed nowhere in the DPRK without their approved escorts. For all the rules however, I was pleasantly surprised by the laxity and informal approach of our guides. While in ‘work mode’ they would tend to give us the party story – their account of the Korean War differed significantly from the version of history I had studied in school, for example. But, despite this they were both warm and approachable, and as the week went on they opened up more and more concerning their own thoughts and feelings.

    Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

    Nevertheless, a curious traveller couldn’t help but question the need for having such a system in place… and often I found myself wondering how much was being kept from us. On Victory Day for example, as we were being shown an attractive marble statue set in the centre of a water feature, our guide informed us that we had just missed the fountains - which would be coming on again later in the day. The dry and dusty basin around the marble figures seemed to tell another story, though.

    Later on we paid a visit to the People’s Study House – a vast pagoda-styled building which houses an extensive library of books in addition to classrooms, study halls and lecture theatres. These facilities are provided free of charge to any citizen who wants to put the time into improving their education, and the building was undeniably very impressive. As we came to leave however, passing by the large marble statue of Kim Il-Sung that presides over the opulent foyer, the lights cut out. Our guide cursed and shouted an order, the lights flickering back on a moment later. I was left wondering if the lavish lighting displays were perhaps reserved only for the benefit of visitors.

    Yet another instance of doubt came during a visit to the Juche Tower; at 170m in height this iconic structure is ranked as the tallest stone tower in the world, and its design encapsulates the ‘Juche Idea’ - a Marxist ideology based on the principals of independence and self-reliance. (It is interesting to note that while intellectuals were often persecuted in Stalinist Russia, here they are celebrated - and the hammer and sickle motifs are joined by a third symbol, a calligraphy brush that stands for learning.)

    Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

    Passing by half a dozen numbered floors as we took the elevator to the observation deck at the top of the monument, one member of our group asked what the other floors were used for. The question was met by an awkward silence from our guide, followed by a swift change of subject. Later, as we were being talked through the landmarks on Pyongyang’s skyline, somebody asked the guide if they could point out the home of Kim Jong-Un. Again, silence.

    It is strange how a country can instil such a sense of paranoid suspicion; North Korea’s avoidance of certain topics, its distrust of global communications and general wariness of foreigners cannot help but arouse interest in the curious visitor.

    As we strolled through Moranbong Park later that day though, we passed families and friends gathered around barbeques, some drinking, others shamelessly serenading one another on cheap microphones plugged into cheaper karaoke machines. At a pagoda located in the centre of the park, dozens of couples were dancing to lively Korean folk songs, while crowds cheered them on… our party was soon enveloped in a throng of middle-aged women eager for a new dancing partner.

    Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

    There are some things which simply can’t be faked, have too much substance to be mere illusion; and the sense of community and festivity in the park that day was so tangible it became infectious. The DPRK do fun very well indeed, and for those content to live a simple life sheltered from the outside world, things could certainly be a lot worse.

    As the week went on the tour guides took us for a ride on the Pyongyang Metro, down to Kaesong and the Demilitarization Zone in the south, and to a war cemetery where each grave bore a painstakingly detailed bust of the deceased. We were also fortunate enough to visit a theme park during our stay – this was the third of its kind to be built in Pyongyang, while the fourth had only just enjoyed an inspection from Kim Jong-Un a week previously.

    It seems as though the new leader spends a reasonable amount of his time testing rollercoasters and water rides. At present, he is overseeing the construction of North Korea’s first dolphin aquarium. Considering many of these attractions are offered with no entry charge to the general public, it certainly makes for a generous gesture of comradeship... though I can’t help but wonder if perhaps the country as a whole would benefit more, had that same money been spent on agricultural machinery or healthcare provisions.

    Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

    The DPRK seems to be very keen to show off the facilities in its capital city – and rightly so, as Pyongyang is a truly impressive capital – but while state services such as healthcare and education are provided without charge throughout the country, it is difficult to get an idea of how far these limited resources are being pushed. Questions about agricultural production levels, health provisions or educational resources for example, anything that sounds as though it may be leading toward judgement, are generally met with responses along the lines of:

    “Why would you want to know that? That’s not interesting,” often immediately followed by,

    “Look at this beautiful monument,” or:

    “Would you like to have a go on the bumper cars?”

    It is clear that there are some things they simply don’t want us to know about the DPRK.

    Our holiday in Pyongyang culminated with a trip to the city’s only nightclub, 'the Diplomatic Club’. It’s hard to gauge what the venue would have been like on a normal night, as we were the only people in attendance on this occasion – although one of our guides assured us that she had frequented the club often with friends, during her student years. The club was pleasant enough, featuring several sofas and a bar, a small dance floor and a modern karaoke machine. The list of songs on offer seemed extensive; though many of the more unexpected entries (Megadeth, Slipknot, Nine Inch Nails) turned out to be 'temporarily unavailable'.

    Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

    The following morning our lead guide made a farewell speech, as we stood dazed and hung-over beneath Pyongyang’s poignant Reunification Monument. This symmetrical statue bridges the city’s southern highway, and represents the dream of a cooperative government ruling over a reunited Korea.

    “We hope you have enjoyed your time in the DPRK, and we apologise if for any reason it has not been up to your expectations,” she said, “we have done our best to show you hospitality, so when you go home, please, speak kindly of us.” Or words to that effect, at least – I confess I was feeling somewhat worse for wear at the time.

    I was left with a sense of North Korea as a country that is very much aware of its world reputation; the majority of Koreans I met came across as intelligent and cultured, and I’m sure those working for the tourism industry won’t have misunderstood the voyeuristic appeal that draws so many visitors to their country. Yet for all the truth in this, the people show a genuine warmth and curiosity towards visitors, and Pyongyang itself is an undeniably charming city.

    Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

    There seems to be, amongst the people of the DPRK, a fear of being misrepresented in the global media. They refer to this anti-DPRK propaganda matter-of-factly, as if its existence is common knowledge... trivial, even.

    I can confirm that many of the popularly-held beliefs I took with me into North Korea turned out to be entirely unfounded, and it seems likely that some degree of misinformation, or at least a strong negative bias, is at work in relaying the facts to us. I don’t want to speculate or suggest examples for fear of being labelled a conspiracy theorist, but take a moment to look at the facts of it: the very notion of happy, fulfilled communists would stand to threaten everything that our capitalist society is based upon.

    Even more interesting, perhaps, are the things that North Korea is getting right. I found myself trying to explain the concept of Search Engine Optimisation to a young guide one day; I was taken aback at just how quickly she grasped the idea, before summarising it thusly:

    “Companies pay you money to make them seem more useful to the world than they actually are, so that they can find more people to get money from.”

    Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

    Later, while on the subject of mainstream video games (another forbidden pleasure in the DPRK), I had to explain to the same guide the purpose of the popular music simulator/game 'Guitar Hero'.

    “Why not spend your time getting good at a real instrument instead?” she asked. Answers like these, simplistic and naïve as they may be, often left me questioning my own culture rather than theirs.

    I can’t help but agree that capitalism breeds a certain kind of rot; our Westernised global culture can have the tendency to promote gluttony and confuse success with wealth, while often devaluing tradition, commonality and good, clean living. Excessive materialism is a disease, and our governments flawed at best; The best argument against democracy, to quote Winston Churchill once again, is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

    Dark Tourism | Pyongyang, North Korea

    Communism, on the other hand, is a beautiful idea; and when it works, it really works. If you’re the kind of person who is happy to work a mundane job for six days a week, then spend your Sundays and annual holiday allowance eating, drinking, singing and dancing with your friends and family, then Pyongyang would be a truly wonderful place to do it – provided you’re living in an area which feature mains electricity, running water, medical and educational facilities.

    I simply cannot comment on the standard of life outside of a few tourism-approved destinations in North Korea however (there are few who can), as I wasn’t allowed to see them... and despite my appreciation for the beautiful thing that they are trying to create here, this secrecy remains a problem. The country clearly suffers from insufficient homegrown supplies, an overbearing government and an unrealistic attitude towards censorship; yet no system is without its flaws, and I can't help but feel that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea could stand to benefit vastly from the resultant trade and tourism - if its leaders were to simply put all of their cards on the table.

    More on North Korea:
    The Ryugyong Hotel
    The Demilitarized Zone
    Pyongyang Metro

    More Dark Tourism...

    *My visit to the DPRK was arranged through Young Pioneer Tours, an English-speaking company based in China. I couldn’t recommend them more – relaxed and informal, they offer an extensive, all-inclusive itinerary which deftly balances visits to sites of political and cultural significance, with the chance to sample traditional Korean cuisine, and fine local beers.

    **I’m referring in particular to the case of Euna Lee and Laura Ling, two American journalists who in March 2009 entered North Korea from the Chinese border without visas - and with the intention of producing a documentary that would ultimately show the country in a bad light. The pair were captured by border guards and detained in a Pyongyang hotel, threatened with 12 years of hard labour. This is the story that spread through the media, and many news outlets sensationalised the event into a tale of wanton cruelty and persecution. Following negotiations with the US embassy and an unannounced visit by Bill Clinton however, Kim Jong-Il pardoned the pair after just 140 days. While much of the Western world was still up in arms at the way the DPRK had treated two illegal immigrants, Deputy Chief of Mission at the US embassy in South Korea, William Stanton, labelled the two journalists as 'stupid'; while Kim Tae-woo at the Korea Institute for Defence Analysis in Seoul explained that their foolish behaviour had 'weakened their government's leverage against the North' at a time of important negotiations regarding nuclear armament.