Pyongyang Night, Final Part

Matt and Lou awoke in their hotel bed a few hours later from thin slumbers, and muttered enough words to each other to plan their day. They decided that it was too late to make a trip to the demilitarized zone, so they would go for breakfast at Kim’s Diner, then go and see the bronze statues of the three former dictators in Mansundae Park.

At Kim’s they sat not talking to one another over pancakes, coffee and unobtrusive jazz music. Lou felt the silence press him to reveal that he knew Matt had snuck out the night before.

“So did you go to that Comrades place last night then?” he asked.

Lou saw a wince of pained embarrassment flash across Matt’s face, as if he had been hoping that Lou would show mercy and not call him out on what he had done.

“I’m sorry,” replied Matt, weakly. It seemed easier somehow, to let Lou believe that something might have happened.

Lou was surprised to feel a sense of relief. Even though Matt had effectively admitted to him to having cheated, he himself was still alive and breathing: his world was no nearer to its end just because their relationship almost was. He stared out the window at men pushing crates of vegetables to the restaurants along the Drive, in preparation of the various meals that would be made that day.

*

They moved slowly up the escalator inside the cool, long tunnel. As the street in front of the station came into view, the first thing that caught Matt’s readjusting eyes was a hoarding for Beyoncé’s latest album Mama B, which featured the singer and her young daughter pictured in black and white, staring moodily out at the passers by.

They walked silently along the newly laid pavements in the direction of the statues. The park seemed to be full of life: tourists walking about in swarms, lead by guides with flags featuring indiscernible company logos; locals sat around, picnicking, smoking and staring at the foreigners as they passed. Looking over all of this were the statues of the three Kims: Il-sung, who had been proclaimed to be North Korea’s eternal spiritual leader upon his death in 1994, and his son Jong-Il and grandson Jong-un, who had successively kept the family business of despotism alive in physical form, until the Magnolia Revolution had put an end to it.

“I guess it isn’t surprising that the statues weren’t pulled down,” Matt said, noticing the forced casualness in his tone. “I suppose even at the time they thought it would be a good tourist magnet. I wonder what the real-life Jong-un thinks about it now that he’s banged up in Seoul?”

Lou didn’t respond.

“God he must have an awful time in prison down there, imagine the way the other inmates -“

Lou stopped walking abruptly, and turned to face Matt.

“Why did you do it?” he demanded.

Matt looked into Lou’s face, searching for the words with which to respond. He found nothing.

“I don’t know,” he said, quietly.

“For the last time,” demanded Lou. “Do you want to end this?”

Matt didn’t answer. He felt as if he had been placed at a fork in the road, and was unable to commit to either path.

“Just get it over with and end it,” said Lou. “If that’s what you want.”

Lou turned his back and kept walking, his eyes fixed resolutely ahead. Matt stood still and watched him from behind, as he moved further away from him towards the mammoth bronze statues. The statues meanwhile stared out beatifically at the horizon, as they would do forever, facing all the world, and all the unknown in it.

Pyongyang Night Pt. 1

Image courtesy of Nicor.

Image courtesy of Nicor.

Matt blew cigarette smoke over the top of the concrete balcony. It floated up into the early evening spring air, joining the club music emanating softly from a flat across the road. Sitting on the hotel’s flimsy patio furniture, he tried to absorb all the sights, sounds and smells of this side street of Pyongyang’s tourist district. But he felt restless, and unable to get the sensory hit he desired from either the tobacco or the surroundings.

He stubbed out his cigarette half-smoked and reentered the sparsely furnished room. Leaping on the double bed, he grabbed his smartphone from the bedside cabinet and opened Grindr, browsing the guys putting themselves on display nearby, in the little photos stacked one on top of another. Around half of them were army guys from the U.S. base just outside the city: their profile pictures were mainly shots taken in bathroom mirrors of naked, muscular, headless torsos. In contrast to them was the profile of Oscar – the owner of Bar Soho that Matt and Lou had visited on their second night here – which showcased his handsome face, complete with immaculately sculpted facial hair.

Then there was SyunJoo, an apparently local 24 year-old with a broad, open face and toothsome grin. Since Matt had first noticed him a couple of days before, he had been drawn to that smile, and had been toying with the idea of messaging him. ‘Like to meet foreigner. English OK,’ read his About Me section.

Matt found himself emboldened.

“Hey,” he typed in the message box.

He then put the phone down on the bedside cabinet, laid back and let his mind creep slowly upwards diagonally, equidistant between the axes of sleep and consciousness.

*

Lou was ambling around the Magnolia Tree, a commemorative monument that took the form of the eponymous shrub, which featured 64 scarlet red glass flowers sprouting from steel branches. Each flower represented a life that had been lost when the uncompleted shell of the 105-storey Ryugyong Hotel had come tumbling to the ground three years before, the monument standing in the space that the hotel had occupied. The disaster had prompted tensions that had been brewing in the impoverished nation to overflow, and caused what would be dubbed the Magnolia Revolution, which saw the overthrow of the Kim dynasty and reunification of the two Koreas. It had been around that time when Lou and Matt had first got together, when photos of people from the North and South embracing were posted, shared and re-shared across the online world, along with horrifying video footage of mass graves, labour camps, and hundreds upon hundreds of emaciated men, women and children. The two of them had always talked about visiting Pyongyang, and now that they had both graduated and were working and earning money – and getting there had become relatively straightforward since the opening of the city’s new airport – here they were on a weeklong holiday.

It was not just money however, but also hope that Lou had invested in this adventure. His and Matt’s relationship currently felt to him like a boat riddled with holes. Since Matt had moved to London he had seemed distant: not keeping Skype dates, cutting phone calls short, replying to text messages with only one or two words and no ‘x’s. Lou had hoped that spending time together in a place that had such a strong significance for their relationship would enable them to become watertight again.

However, it appeared that things were only getting worse: when they were together there was only either silence or small talk. This made Lou feel and exude a nervousness that he was sure only made things more awkward. He was convinced this was why Matt had spent the entire day alone at the hotel, saying that he wasn’t feeling up for sightseeing.

They had also had an argument the night before over dinner, when he had caught sight of the little orange Grindr icon on the interface of Matt’s phone.

“I just wanted to see what kind of guys would be on it here,” Matt had said.

“Oh you’re such an intrepid explorer, aren’t you,” Lou had shot back.

They’d argued about it from the restaurant all the way back to the hotel, and slept with their backs to one another all night.

He suddenly felt a strong sense that instead of worrying about all this, he should be making the most of being in this city that only three years before he wouldn’t have been able to visit. He stuck out his phone and took a selfie with the Magnolia Tree behind. Looking at the photo, he liked his three-day-old stubble, and the Sun just beginning to set behind him did look good once he applied the right filter. But he looked a little sad, so he worried that the picture would be too revealing if he were to post it anywhere online.

Noticing the time on his phone, he deleted the photo and headed off to use the free Wifi at the nearby tourist information centre, to message Matt about their dinner plans.

Two Days in Kathmandu

From the airport we travelled by taxi through the city, along  pothole-filled roads crammed with red-brick houses on either side. Some were plastered and painted bright colours and covered in verdant green plants, high walls enclosing their neat, cool courtyards. Others were crumbling, half-up half-down, about to topple. In the background, massive, concrete-grey apartment buildings loomed half-built; skeletal structures pointing to a hoped-for future. Stray dogs slept here and there on the side of the road.

I remember the colours of the clothes that the women wore – pink, burgundy, turquoise, electric blue, greens and golds – carefully hand-washed, their vibrancy undiluted.

The word REVOLT was painted toweringly on the side of the wall. A billboard for a cellular network leant precariously from a rooftop, displaying a group of young, attractive people using mobile phones and looking pleased with themselves. Revolutionary socialism and consumerism both jostling to offer a form of escape; both coming off as somewhat incongruous with the surroundings.

In the mid-afternoon on our second day we went up a tower in the centre of the city, built 200 years before and opened recently to the public. From the narrow balcony at the top, we looked out on many rows of tall, narrow, higgledy-piggledy houses, and little matchstick figures playing football and cricket on the yellow-thirsty grass of the parks and sports fields. The faint silhouette of the surrounding mountains seemed to fade almost imperceptibly into the hazy grey low-hanging sky; the constant honking and beeping of the crowded streets was audible, yet distant. A father and a son were pointing somewhere and discussing something in good-natured contention, most likely the location of a certain place.

Later on we were sitting in a bar in the tourist area when a white man in his thirties or so stood in the middle of the street outside, alone. He held a transistor radio, and looking up towards the sky, he began singing something softly yet imploringly in a North American accent. Cars honked at him to get out of the way, yet no noise seemed to penetrate the trance-like state he was in. Two or three Nepalis watched from a nearby shop doorway, smiling curiously.

As we sat in the waiting room for the jeep that would take us out of the city, there was a toddler in a bright fuchsia dress with puff sleeves, her eyes coated with thick black make-up, ears pierced with thick gold rings. An empty wrapper of instant noodles had blown in from somewhere and she laughed happily to herself as she chased it, pitter-pattering across the grey concrete floor.

Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu