This weekend, Wanderlust's Lyn Hughes is set to interview former Radio 3 star Andy Kershaw at Destinations Manchester. We've got an exclusive extract from his book No Off Switch...
Exclusive Extract for Wanderlust from No Off Switch
It is the most volatile place on earth. Panmunjom, at the 38th Parallel, where North Korea meets South, is also the world’s last Cold War frontier. Here, the ancient tectonic plates of capitalism and communism still grind relentlessly and terrifyingly together. Concealed in the surrounding countryside, on both sides of the border, beyond the trim lawns, fragrant flowerbeds and ornamental shrubs, is rumoured to be the deadliest arsenal in the world, a concentration of chemical, biological, conventional and nuclear weapons. And all just a minute or two from the gift-shop. Panmunjom always guarantees a jolly day out, consistently the high point of a visit to North Korea.
In the spirit of a school trip, we are driven to the border, a hundred miles south of the capital Pyongyang, in a little bus laid on by the state tourism agency – not a terribly busy organisation. The bus, a chummy-looking vehicle, in green and cream, is of the type you last saw being chased by a skyscraper in an early 1960s Czechoslovakian animation. And we are chaperoned by our cheery government-minders, a bunch as sophisticated and aware of the ways of the western world as the regime can provide.
The showpiece motorway to Panmunjom – in places six lanes wide on both sides – is, shall we say, unspoiled by traffic. Drivers must be on their mettle, nevertheless, to avoid uniquely North Korean road hazards: deer grazing on the central reservation or a herd of goats being shooed along the fast lane. Giant columns of concrete, dotted along the hard shoulder, stand ready to be dynamited to block the carriageway in the event of an invasion from the South. These are interspersed by military vehicles, always stationary, bonnets up, and with the heads of a couple of North Korean soldiers down inside an expired engine. If North Korea ever does lash out at its southern neighbour, as Seoul and Washington would have us believe is Pyongyang’s permanent intention, then the military had better first build up its stocks of string and Sellotape. Meanwhile, in the paddy fields bordering the motorway, giant billboards carry slogans to uplift those working up to their knees in thin mud: ‘Unity Is Victory’; ‘Let Us Live In Our Own Way’; and ‘Long Live The Great General, Comrade Kim Jong Il, The Sun Of The 21st Century.’
It doesn’t take long in the People’s Paradise to get accustomed to this sort of stuff. In fact, from the moment of arrival in the country, it acquires its own momentum. From Pyongyang railway station, following a rattling 31-hour train journey from Beijing, we are whisked immediately to Mansu Hill to pay our respects at the 90-foot-high floodlit bronze statue of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, which stares out and stretches a fatherly hand over the whole city. (This preliminary is a priority, before check-in at the hotel, even when once my train arrived in Pyongyang at 3.30 in the morning.) From speakers concealed in the shrubbery a military choir sings Peace Is On Our Bayonet. And other favourites.
Only with these formalities completed can we then be installed at the spectacular, and virtually empty, 500 room Yangakdo Hotel, boasting a spectacular, and virtually empty, revolving bar and restaurant on the 47th floor. Just why this gleaming skyscraper accommodation was built (in the late1990s) is, like so much of what you see in North Korea, a mystery. On my first trip to Pyongyang in 1995, film crew in tow, I was told by one of my government minders that I was one of only 38 westerners to be allowed into the country that year.
My access to the world’s most secretive and least-visited country – on each of my four trips – has been arranged by Nick Bonner of Koryo Tours in Beijing. Nick (like me, Greg Chamberlain, Jack Straw, Mark Knopfler and Dr Harold Shipman) is a former Leeds University student. Upon graduation, Nick moved to China where, spotting a scarcity of travel agents specialising in holidays in North Korea – and apparently untroubled by the reason for that – he went ahead and set one up. Since doing so, he has been kept busy organising tours for ageing unrepentant Stalinists, journalists pretending to be birdwatchers, spooks posing as academics and television and radio crews working with Andy Kershaw, disguised as television and radio crews working with Andy Kershaw.
The Channel 4 documentary was the first, to my knowledge, to be filmed inside North Korea. To this day, I have no idea why we were granted permission to make it when refusal of similar requests is routine.
Wanderlust editor-in-chief Lyn Hughes will be interviewing Andy Kershaw live at Destinations Holiday & Travel Show in Manchester, this Sunday (20 Jan) at 12pm. Find out more about the show here.