April 9th, 2016


Sluices and molluscs and radiotoria, oh my! – Travels in North Korea, Part 7

In this series of posts, I document my travels to North Korea (formally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) as a tourist in August 2015.

The afternoon of our second day in North Korea, our tour bus took us from Pyongyang to Nampo, a seaport city on the country's west coast. The two cities are connected by the Youth Hero Motorway, a sprawling, ten-lane expressway that is remarkable for the near-total absence of motorized traffic. For most of our journey, we were the only powered vehicle in sight, though we did pass plenty of people walking or biking on the shoulder. Our British tour manager later told us that the only reason the highway is so wide is to transport in all the tanks, missiles, and other equipment for military parades in Pyongyang.

Our first stop was the West Sea Barrage, an enormous tidal power station located at the mouth of the Taedong River. The Barrage is a point of pride for North Koreans, or at least for the government, who use it as a showcase of national ingenuity. We were taken to a visitor centre overlooking the dam and shown an overwrought documentary describing its construction. Despite the obvious kitsch value, many of us found it difficult to avoid falling asleep during the film. I may have nodded off once or twice myself, though at least I wasn't among those who continued snoring after the lights went up.

[Youth Hero Motorway] [West Sea Barrage] [Kids in Nampo] [Workers in Nampo]
Youth Hero Motorway West Sea Barrage Kids in Nampo Workers in Nampo

The Barrage was our only stop on the coast. Afterwards, we headed to our resort hotel, the Ryonggang Hot Spring House, in nearby Onchon. The resort is situated in a wooded area encircled by a high wall topped with barbed wire; the only access is through a gate guarded by armed soldiers. (This rather detracts from the friendly holiday atmosphere they seem to be going for.) Inside the compound are several isolated villas containing the guest rooms, plus a larger building containing the reception, a games room, and a dining hall. It was evening when we arrived, but it was still sunny, with the temperature well above thirty degrees.

The guest apartments—four to each villa—consist of a spacious bedroom and a bathroom with its own spa. The furnishings are hopelessly dated, and the beds, while very wide, are as hard as a rock, with only a thin cloth padding over the wooden frame instead of a real mattress. Almost nothing electrical in my room worked, including the lights, air conditioner, and power sockets. The only exception was the bathroom light and the television, which was showing the same "Kim Jong Un supervises bombing exercises" show I had seen in Pyongyang. I considered unplugging the set so that I could recharge my laptop and camera, but found that it was hard-wired into the electric supply.

We had two meals that night, one an outdoor "barbecue" which consisted of our bus driver pouring gasoline on a slab of clams and setting them alight, and then a proper dinner in the hotel's dining hall. The latter meal was conducted mostly in the dark due to the lack of electricity. The lack of lighting also ruled out the possibility of any after-dinner karaoke or table tennis, so everyone was advised to retire to their villas and enjoy our personal spas.

[Ryonggang Hot Spring House bedroom] [Ryonggang Hot Spring House spa] [clam barbecue] [clam barbecue]
Hotel bedroom Hotel spa Clam barbecue Clam barbecue

The "spas" turned out to be very large, tilework tubs that can be filled with hot mineral water. Given that it was over thirty degrees out with no air conditioning, taking a hot bath wasn't exactly the first thing on my mind, but I decided to give it a try anyway. Despite the near-blackout, the water was piping hot, so I filled up the tub, got in, and spent an hour soaking up all those healthy hot spring minerals. It was a nice enough experience at the time, but I had a minor pang of regret once I got around to reading the hotel brochure the next morning:

The Ryonggang Hot Spring House is situated in the mid-western area of the Korean peninsula. It is a famous spa treating hyperpiesia, non-tubercular arthritis, neuralgia, neuritis, lumbago, varieties of wound, sequelae of operations, chronic gynecologic inflammation, functional disorder of nidamental gland, sterility, chronic gastritis, chronic colitis, skin diseases including eczema and prurigo.

[So far so good, right? Incidentally, my dictionary defines "nidamental gland" as "an internal organ, in some elasmobranchs and molluscs, that secretes egg cases or the gelatinous covering of eggmass". I guess that explains why they always serve clams at the resort. Anyway, read on for the truly horrifying bit (emphasis mine):]

It is an attractive spa richest in mineral matters among the spas of the country and is a bromine, radon-rich spa. The house provides favourable conditions for radon gas bath, whole body/local bath, douche and internal treatment. Moreover, every room is tapped with mineral water harmonizing with fantastic views, thus winning popularity among the guests.

Yes, that's right! I had just spent the night before bathing in toxic, radioactive radon gas! As Wikipedia puts it, this kind of "spa treatment" was "an early-20th-century form of quackery" that is now "discouraged because of the well-documented ill effects of high doses of radiation on the body". I guess the news hasn't yet reached Onchon.

(Continued in Part 8—coming soon.)