It was my third day in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, on a trip I will never forget. North Korea is full of surprises; some of them pleasant, some of them bewildering…but traveling is about taking the good with the bad, right?
Our third day saw us up with an early start as we were headed for the infamous DMZ, aka the de-militarised zone. This is a heavily guarded strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone at the border between North and South Korea.
It’s a pretty tense place, as one would imagine, but not many tourists get to experience it from the Northern side. And experience it we did. As we disembarked our bus we were greeted by a particularly gruff member of the Korean People’s Army, or the KPA, as they are lovingly known as. This guy had a jaw so stiff it looked like it had been carved out of one of the Kim’s marble palaces. He could have easily been cast in the role of a terrifying henchman in Indiana Jones, if he were privy to Hollywood acting. He proceeded to tell us what we could do, and what we absolutely must not under any circumstances do. The list of could-do’s was short, while the latter list was noticeably more extensive and mostly involved stark warnings about stealing anything or speaking ill of the leaders. Our welcoming speech ended and just like that we were off to the DMZ with a skip and a cheer.
The DMZ has a nickname of “the tensest place on earth”, but beyond the exterior of militant posturing and barking, KPA officers is a place that truly allows a fascinating insight into the long and difficult history that exists between the North and their Southern neighbors. Both countries have been victim to a very cruel and unfair past, and for two nations that were once a single country, their societies are today polar opposites of each other.
To my surprise, our KPA officer actually softened as the morning went on, I could swear I even thought I saw him smile at one point – but it might have just been a grimace. I felt like we won him over eventually though, and by the time our tour of the DMZ came to a finish he even posed for a photo with us. I later tried to tag him on Instagram but couldn’t find him.
By that time all our giggles and frollicks at the DMZ had caused us to work up an appetite for lunch. And we stopped at a highway restaurant on our journey back to Pyongyang. In North Korea don’t be surprised if you and your group are the only people eating in the restaurants every time, and also don’t be surprised if you have the same waitresses in every single restaurant. What can I say, this is show business baby.
The particular restaurant we ate in that day however was one of the more memorable ones, mainly due to some things that were on the menu. Before I get into that – I have to say, the food in North Korea is actually pretty delicious for the most part. We ate Bibimbap most nights – a stir fried rich dish cooked up with soy sauce, egg, vegetables and meats. The fried dumplings are also pretty delectable. Importing things to North Korea isn’t the easiest feat, so good coffee was almost impossible to find, with most places only offering instant coffee. Now on a scale of one to first world problems – that is a big one, but hey we managed. Another repercussion of the challenges of importation is that the Koreans have become masters at brewing their own booze. They love it. We drank in numerous micro-breweries dotted around the capital city. Some of them brew up to five different drafts of beer. You haven’t done North Korea until you’ve gotten pissed drunk singing Karaoke in a microbrewery down one of the back street’s of Pyongyang! Fermented rice wine is also a popular choice, if you go for the good stuff it will have a pickled snake in the bottle. Picture like the maggot in a good bottle of tequila, but much, much bigger. More snake, more taste.
Anyway I digress, this particular restaurant we stopped in that day was famous for one dish – the dog soup. For context, it’s important to know that many parts of Asia don’t have many of the social constructs that we tend to take for granted in the West. And one construct that is absent in Asia is that dogs are pets. In North Korea, dogs have a lot of uses such as guarding things, keeping away pests and vermin, and last but not least they are also quite a popular ingredient in soup and the occasional stir-fry. That’s just how it is. The domestication of dogs is believed to have begun about 30 – 40,000 years ago, but as it would happen, it didn’t quite take off in as big a way in many parts of Asia. The French eat horses, snails and frogs. Indians think cows are sacred. Different strokes and all that…
Ever the curious foodie, I was one of about 12 in our group who agreed to try the old doggy broth. Within minutes, I had a large bowl of toffee-coloured soup sitting in front of me. The soup was a watery texture with lentils, string beans and stringy pieces of meat floating in it. I took a few spoon fulls and washed it down with some locally brewed beer. It wasn’t the worst, the meat was chewy but tasted and felt like pulled pork more than anything. But I must admit I got through considerably more of the beer than the soup, and had had enough after a few mouthfuls, opting instead for the more familiar dumplings that were served as a side. Even though it didn’t taste bad, I was finding it really hard to reconcile the fact that I do love a good doggy, and that there was literally a bowl full of good doggy sitting in front of me. So my one-night stand with dog soup came to a screeching, half-eaten halt.
Since returning from North Korea, I’ve recanted this story to a bunch of friends and the reactions are varied. The vegans think its abhorrent, which is fair. But one thing I didn’t expect was the disgust of some of my friends who are proud carnivores. “Oh my god how could you do that, do you not know how intelligent dogs are?” said one of my mates. And he is right, dogs are smart, but nowhere as smart as pigs – who we slaughter in the millions, despite them being the world’s most intelligent animals after chimpanzees.
The reality is that traveling to far flung places is a rich and intense experience that forces us to confront our own understanding of what “norms” are. And the closer we come to grasping that, the better the chance we might have of understanding ourselves and those around us. As my grandad used to say “there’s many ways to skin a cat”, and depending on where my dear grandad was born – he might just skin a cat and chuck it in a cuppa soup!