Factory gates with propaganda signs and various buildings
Dark tourism,  DPRK,  Lens-Artists

Some short stories from the Hermit Kingdom

Some photographs are like a Chekhov short story or a Maupassant story. They’re a quick thing, and there’s a whole world in them.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

We visited many strange and wonderful places on our tour of North Korea. But this is a short story about a place we didn’t visit. The photo above is of the Hungnam fertiliser factory, which was first established in Hungnam by the Japanese in 1927 and reopened by the Koreans after having been destroyed in the Korean War. We were scheduled to visit this during our brief stay in the city but it was closed for refurbishment. While that may not sound like disappointing news, the fertiliser factory is a popular stop on tours of Hamhung. Officially this is because it represents the DPRK’s pride in its production processes and ambitions to increase agricultural outputs. Kim Il Sung on a visit here famously said, ‘Fertiliser is rice. And rice itself is communism’.

Unofficially however, the factory is popular with visiting tourists because rumours abound that it is not only fertiliser that is produced here but also some of the chemicals needed for the country’s nuclear programme. Having been denied the opportunity to visit I am in no position to say whether those rumours are true. And had we been able to visit I am confident I would not have been any the wiser on the subject, as I’m sure it would not have been mentioned by either ourselves or our guides!

My friend Albert was rather luckier on his 2018 visit (although I guess it depends on how you define ‘luck’!) and had the opportunity to see a bit more of the factory than we did. You can read about his visit in his own excellent blog.

Boy in blue football strip

A brief encounter

When we arrived in Hamhung we had parked in the centre and had a walk along a street that passed a large restaurant specialising in noodles (or so we were told), a specialist electronics library and the revolutionary museum. We were followed all the way by a couple of young boys who had watched us get off our bus. The braver one of the two had even greeted us in English, ‘Welcome to our country’, and agreed to be photographed!

Later in the afternoon I believe I spotted the same boy among a small group in the city’s main square. I don’t know if he’d followed us there on purpose or it was just a coincidence!

We were to see this curiosity and openness elsewhere in the city too, with little children peering at us and older ones giving shy smiles or perhaps a cautious wave. It was all very different from ‘cosmopolitan’ Pyongyang or rather weary Chongjin in the north east, and made for a memorable if brief encounter.

Large red plastic tub with water and a cable running in

A stay by the sea

While visiting the Hamhung region we spent the night at the rather basic Majon Tourist Hotel. This was in a nice setting right by the beach; we could hear the sea from our room. But our bathroom, across the hall, had no running water at all, hot or cold. Instead we had a bath full of water to last us our stay, a bowl with which to scoop it up, and a plastic tub also filled with water which we could heat with a plug-in immersion heater. This arrangement would surely not have passed any health and safety inspections back home!

The next morning we found that the water had clearly come back on in the night. When Chris went into the bathroom the bath tap was running (the staff must have left it open) and the tub was about to overflow and flood the room; he caught it just in time! But there was nothing coming out of the washbasin taps so we heated up the supply left for us in the red tub with the slightly unnerving immersion heater and managed the best we could.

While we had much more ‘normal’ bathroom provision in most of our North Korea hotels, this was the one that stuck in our memories. And of course it was the one we talked about the most afterwards, as it made such a good story.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these short stories from our brief visit to Hamhung, my contribution to this week’s Lens Artists Challenge. Ann Christine has challenged us to tell a story in a single image, which is what I’ve attempted to do here.

I visited North Korea in 2019


    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Susanne 😀 North Korea is (Covid apart) very open to tourism, even in theory to US citizens. But I understand the US government bans its citizens from visiting so the fact that the north Koreans would let them in becomes pretty immaterial I guess! As for everyone else, all apart from South Koreans are welcome, as long as you’re happy to stick to their relatively few rules and travel with guides all the time. And I mean ALL the time!! It’s worth it however, totally fascinating 😀

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I probably have more tales from this trip than any other, perhaps not surprisingly! I chose these three simply because they were all from the same city, but I could have chosen many more 😀

  • Leya

    Love your good stories, Sarah, and recognize them as known. But, that heater – we still have one in fact, and it goes with us into certain countries and certain places still…

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Marie 🙂 I really wish we’d had the chance to see inside that factory – I know we wouldn’t have spotted anything untoward and would have been closely monitored but it would have been fun trying!

  • Gradmama2011

    Love this post! The smiling boy (or one much like him) tends to appear in photos from all over the world. Kids are curious about strangers everywhere. The red tub with water reminded me of the immersion heater we took with us on our travels in Mexico. (I may still have the heater around here. It worked well, heating a cup of instant coffee or tea quickly. It was a bit disconcerting dangling an electrical device into water, especially for my husband who was a firefighter. 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much 🙂 Yes, I have a similar ‘smiling boy’ photo from Laos last year so I know exactly what you mean! And I’ve used one of those little immersion heaters in the past – I think it was the sheer scale of this operation that concerned us 😆

  • Tina Schell

    Sadly I’m with Mari but the easiest thing is to copy the title of your blog after reading it and then going to the reader and entering the title in search. Annoying but I blame WP, not you!! Anyway, loved this one. My favorite story was your closing one with the red tub. Knowing I’m pretty spoiled I think I’ll experience this one with your images and story rather than first hand!! Fascinating.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Oh dear, you have the same problem? I guess that’s a solution but hardly ideal! Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the stories 🙂 That last one is the sort of travel story that’s much more fun in the retelling than in the experiencing, but for me that’s what travel is all about! Every trip has a few spells of discomfort or challenge, but they all make good stories afterwards and they’re part of the experience for me at least 😀

  • maristravels

    Having cleared my computer of cookies and temp. files it has now reverted to refusing me permission to comment without me going through hoops. I’ve already posted a comment on here but it doesn’t seem to have registered. I’ll leave it for a bit to see if it appears eventually.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Please bear with me when this happens Mari. The comments go through but for some reason I need to moderate and approve them and I can’t always get around to that instantly so there may be some delay – sorry!

  • Anonymous

    Great stories and I especially liked you being followed around town by the kids, makes the place seem more normal somehow! Your story of the immersion heater in your bathroom reminds me of the time when we were hospitalized in Spain after an accident and my husband washed his hands in the basin only to find that it wasn’t connected to a drain and the water ran out all over his shoes. Hospital’s hygiene was a worry but we learned to live with it! That little boy looks so happy, I hope he continues to wear that smile.

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