It may not be high on many people’s list of architectural odysseys, but Pyongyang (translated as “Flat Land”), the capital of North Korea offers one of the world’s most monumental experiences – particularly if immense Socialist Realist monuments are your cup of tea.
There is no such thing as wandering on a whim in Pyongyang – all
visitors are constantly accompanied by their government-appointed guides, and
photography is heavily restricted. It is essential to accept that you will have
no independence during your trip – and you will only hear a very one-sided view
of history. Those who can accept these terms – and feel that the benefits of
opening North Korea up to outside eyes outweigh the problems of travel dollars
feeding the police state’s coffers – will have a fascinating trip into another
rather unsettling world. This reclusive city of some three million people (a
place with neither cell phones nor internet) has almost as many modernist
There are plenty of sanctioned sights to see amid the Soviet-style tower
blocks and wide empty boulevards that characterise this strange city suspended
in its own bubble of Communist-era time.
Perhaps the most eponymous structure in the city is the immense,
mirror-windowed, roughly conical Ryugyŏng
Hotel, towering 330m high and comprising 105 floors. Originally planned for
completion in time for the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students (whose
motto ran “For Anti-Imperialist Solidarity, Peace and Friendship”), dwindling
national finances saw the massive place stand windowless and vacant for more
than a decade. But building has resumed once more courtesy of an Egyptian-led
construction project and, if plans materialise, 2012 might finally see the completion
of this bizarre concrete palace of several thousand guest rooms and five
Next, no tour group to the city leaves Pyongyang without a good long
look at the Mansudae
Grand Monument, a huge bronze rendition of the late founder of North Korea,
Kim Il-sung, unveiled to commemorate his 60th birthday. Beware however, if you
blanch at the notion of prostration. All visitors are expected to lay flowers
and bow at those big bronze feet. Not one to scrimp on birthday gifts, you must see the “Eternal President’s” 70th
birthday present to himself. The 170m-high Tower
of the Juche Idea is a nod to the
late leader’s Juche philosophy, the lynchpin for the country’s Communist
ideals. It is a granite edifice built of 25,500 stone blocks – one for every
day of the leader’s 70 years – but it does offer great views from its pinnacle
out over the city.
Moving on across the Taedong River, stop off at the huge, eerily empty
Kim Il-sung Square (think Mexico City’s Zocalo with an Orwellian twist), to
visit the vast Grand People’s Study House, a library housing several million
books and with a nifty conveyor-belt system to bring your choice of Communist
tome straight to your table.
From here, stop for lunch atop the soaring TV tower, then check out the
world’s largest Triumphal Arch – 3m taller than Paris’s own – and two of the
world’s largest stadiums (where North Korea’s famous Mass Games are regularly
held) before heading 12km from the city centre to the Kim
Il-sung Birthplace at Mangyongdae. Here you will find a collection of
(questionably authentic) traditional huts painting a picture of the deceased
founder of the country as a man of humble origins. There ‘s also a funfair
(yes, a funfair), complete with rollercoaster.
To experience the opposite end of the Great Leader’s story, try to
arrange a visit to the city’s huge Kumsusan
Memorial Palace, his immense domicile in life. These days, it is also his eternal
resting place, with his embalmed body available to notables for special viewing
on the top floor. Even if you cannot catch a glimpse of him in the (embalmed)
flesh, it is okay – the Towers of Immortality scattered about the city remind
you that “The Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung will always be with us”.
Finally, if, like the Great Leader, you are dying for a lie-down, head
back to one of the government sanctioned hotels in the city, where you are
likely to experience yet more Communist concrete and government-sanctioned
artwork. Opt for the Koryo
Hotel if you have a penchant for revolving restaurants (there is one on
either 1980s-era bronze coloured tower), or the towering Yanggakdo
marooned on its own island mid-river. Relax, put your feet up and prepare for
more edification – perhaps in the form of the genuinely gripping Victorious
Fatherland Liberation War Museum – in the morning.
The article 'Pyongyang’s architectural treasures' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.