Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tbilisi, Georgia; "Now for Something Completely Different"

There are dozens of different reasons for travelling, and like the industry itself, can be divided into “pushing” and “pulling”, tourism to Georgia can certainly be counted on for both. 

Tonight, I find myself in Tbilisi, Georgia, at the beginning of the International Wine Tourism Conference. Now this might sound like a bit of a wheeze, and one has to admit that wandering the planet searching for new and exciting places to operate tours based on eating and drinking might not sound like “real” work, but let me assure you that it is serious business.

It may seem like fun to have to identify new wine-growing regions, techniques and the relationship that they have with the local food industry; to identify those areas in the world that tourists, particularly those with an interest in the culinary arts may enjoy, would enjoy and find suitable accommodation, translation and collateral services that will make their trip memorable. But let me tell you, that is is tiring.

“Gruelling Business Travel”, I say.

It is, however, a very important segment of the travel industry, and tourism that devotes at least 50% of the focus of the trip that includes food and/or wine experiences is a $750 million industry; and that, is a lot of wine, accommodation, flights, transfers, guides, sightseeing and food.

So once in a while, actually, annually, the International association of folks who do this for a living get together and discuss the industry’s trends, developments and issues for a few days, and this year, the meeting happens to be in one of my favourite destinations in the world, Tbilisi, Georgia.

And so, awaiting the conference (including a paper that I have been invited to present), here I am in Georgia, my twelfth visit in eight years, simply fascinated by the development that I can see in front of my eyes.

There are four or five new global-brand hotels being developed, road and rail infrastructure growing, and most importantly, a three-year degree course at the major national university..

It is this, the recognition that tourism is a vital segment of the economy, and the resulting investment in the development of the segment by creating strong post-secondary educational programs that will ensure the success of the industry. Concurrently, of course, tourism will never develop into a vibrant economic sector in jurisdictions that do not offer such academic support.

And so, one has to take one for the team, and head out to taste heaven-knows how many wines for the long-term benefit of our clients. 

I shall report!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Pendulum that is North Korea.

The problem with image and perspective is that too frequently they are based on an extreme viewpoint of the issue at hand. Consequently, in subsequent discussion, one is tempted or even driven to take a position of equal but opposite enthusiasm on the other side of the scale.

And such is my problem with North Korea; it is a nation that draws such invective and hatred, that having seen that it is not all like that there is a temptation to illustrate life in the DPRK in rather more glowing terms that it is due.

It must be said that there are dozens of countries around the world whose governments act (from our perspective) in the most reprehensible ways. One, the Dominican Republic, has a particularly venal administration, home to billions of dollars of laundered drug-money, yet millions of visitors suspend their interest in the politics of their destination, and concentrate instead on the sunshine and the varying shades of umbrellas decorating their drinks. There are many such countries.

So let us be clear; I am hopeful rather than naïve, and although I was born at night, it was not last night.
The DPRK is fascinating; it is a country who has addressed their many problems through an extremely forceful offensive, a belief so complete in the correctness of the righteousness of the DPRK and their philosophy of Juche (self-reliance), and by sealing the country off to outside influences.

The Juche Tower in Pyongyang

Tourists, of course, provide difficulties. They are by nature inquisitive and eager to see as much as possible. Those who have reached the DPRK are completely aware of the nature of the regime, and are unprepared for the normalcy of day-to-day life both in the city, the towns and the fields. The picture is clean; peculiar, but clean. It is ordered, or marshaled, but alive. There are, among the country’s substantial “middle class” lives being lived, loves being requited, children growing up albeit in a parallel universe. I was surprised only by the size and life of the large “middle class”; middle, of course, being a relative term, and not a term of external comparison. Life included such mundane moments as bowling, going to the bar (segregated from foreigners) for a few beers, shopping, flirting and singing revolutionary songs at karaoke bars.

The real curiosity is the absolute unawareness of the outside world, best illustrated by the folks who, having found out that I was from Canada, expressed their knowledge of the country by saying “Ah, Ottawa”! Who would ever associate Australia immediately with Canberra, or Brasil with Brasilia. Not many ....

The DMZ does form a focus for the psyche of the North Koreans; it is an obvious symbol of the division of the country, and highlights the difficulties that their southern neighbours endure through the occupation of tens of thousands of US Agressors. They are patiently waiting for the peninsular to be reunited under the benevolent leadership of the Dear Leader, and its continued military presence is vital to  maintaining control.

 DPRK soldiers enjoying our visit.

The Demilitarised Zone, the DMZ

We are shown, at a point some 40 kms from the DMZ, evidence of the Concrete Wall. Between 1976 and 1979, the South Koreans with the urging of the American Agressors built a wall stretching 240 kms across the Korean Peninsula. It is between seven and ten metres high, ten metres thick, disguised on the northern side by landscaping that disguises the wall’s malevolent purpose. The wall houses tanks in each sector, ready to attack at the slightest provocation. Well-fortified guard emplacements dotted this barrier, and all were ready to fight.

We were shown this first on a map that a well-decorated military officer, complete with a rather vigorous pointer, used to tell the tale, and stoke his indignation. The, led to a balcony several sets of binoculars aimed toward the south, we saw a distant white line, a UN guard post and a highway with hundreds of cars whizzing by.

Explaining the Concrete Wall

Amazing, that such a structure was built so recently, and that none of us have ever heard about; clearly a military adventure of epic proportions, and one that lies at the heart of the danger large to be a dangerous and trigger-happy world of the DMZ.

Which would be alarming, if it were not completely untrue. There is no wall; the structure was mentioned in passing in a speech by Kim Il-Sung, and having been mentioned, became the truth. A complete fiction evolved, complete with complex props, and now, it is impossible to comprehend that none involved with this elaborate sham are unaware that it is all a figment of some fertile imaginations.

And so, climbing carefully back through the Looking Glass, we returned to Pyongyang. Driving up the traffic-less Unification Highway, past scenes of medieval agricultural activity toward the 21st century city that is the country’s showpiece and capital, glimpses of life Through the Looking Glass were everywhere.

Riding the Reunification Highway

Completely in thrall to their country and their leader’s accomplishment, their lives compartmentalised and in Pyongyang at least, comfortable according to their scale, for reasons that I cannot pretend to comprehend, life is well under control.

And so, as much as I enjoyed, and indeed was fascinated by the DPRK, I was surprised only by the size and life of the large “middle class”; middle, of course, being a relative term, and not a term of external comparison. Having spent five days in North Korea, I now feel prepared to return and see even more of their unique and parallel culture.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Monumental Pyongyang

It is no understatement to remark that Pyongyang wins hands-down in any contest involving size, number, variety and overwhelming number of monuments; they are counted by the dozen, and each has a remarkable symmetry and attention to numerical detail that starts as interesting and transmogrifies into the soporific.

The sheer scope of the DPRK’s adulation of their leaders, pride in their immediate and ancient past, and vision of the future is simply prodigious, and we went to see them all.

Some, it must be said, were extremely interesting. In fact they were all interesting in their own way, but wandering from one 20 metre-tall bronze statue after another lost its allure. At first, however, we were bright-eyed and attentive students, and trekked off to the majestic Mansudae Grand Monument.

This depiction of the Eternal President and Eternal General Secretary smiling benignly over the city, flanked by two massive reliefs depicting the heroism of the country’s soldiers in both the war against the Japanese and the war against the Americans is a fantastic introduction to the psyche of the country. WE arrived at the site, and purchased flowers (€4 per bunch) which we placed at the feet of the Great Leaders before solemnly bowing in front of the statues to show our respect. I don’t bow often, but I think I managed an acceptable angle of obeisance, and then proceeded to wander around. There were groups of locals around, and this was to be a constant factor of our sightseeing. Parties of workers making pilgrimages to the city to see the sights and have their revolutionary spirit rejuvenated.

Now I don’t want to sound as if I am mocking, because I am not. The entire country works on a delicate balance of sincere belief, a complete suspension of credulity, an almost complete and permanent news blackout and an ingrained wariness of outsiders; that, and the absolute certainty that the USA is permanently quaking in their boots with the fear that the DPRK may annihilate them when they are not looking.

So off we went. Next to the Juche Tower, the 150 metre tall monument to the “Juche Idea”, the philosophy of self-reliance that forms the backbone of their political belief. I have bought a book about the ideology, and intend to plough through, but I have to say that it is pretty heavy going. The tower itself is quite magnificent, and sports a rather dashing naugha-flame at the top. (€5 for the ride in the lift to the top).

Then, as our schedule never paused for breath, it was down to the centre of the earth, and a visit to the Pyongyang metro, the deepest such system in the world. It is very impressive, if a touch rattly, and capable of carry tens of thousands of passengers per day. Our destination was the local triumphal arch (much like every other arch of this genre), and finally lunch.

Food throughout the trip was good; clearly not the food that nourishes the local population, but food put on to satisfy their visitors, and satisfy us it did. A usual meal comprised of half a dozen “side dishes” of various salads, a little fish and/or duck, and then a soup with rice. Filling, healthy, universally tasty and sufficient to set us up for an afternoon’s worth of monuments, parade squares and a Viennese coffee house.

The afternoon was taken up with a visit to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which is truly a sight to behold. The war with the Americans (not, it must be noted the United Nations), is central to the direction of all. The fighting was brutal and continued for years, and much of the territory of what is not the DPRK was obliterated. Pyongyang itself, previously a city of some importance and a population of 40,000 was destroyed by the roughly 40,000 bombs that rained down on it. It is certainly a marvel on reconstruction that the city has risen in a period of economic stranglehold and almost permanent isolation and embargo.

However, the museum is terrific. At its heart is the USS Pueblo, the spy-ship that was captured by the Korean navy. They are terribly proud of this naval success, and to this day, the ship lies freshly painted and moored on the banks of the Taedong River. One can wander through it and marvel at the technology of the 1960s that looks so totally out of place today, but to the local population it symbolises their parity with the ever-vigilant enemy, the United States of America.

And then bowling, a logical way to wind up a day in a Parallel Universe; two games at the Golden Lane Bowling Centre proved to be a perfect antidote to the history lessons that we had enjoyed all day, and a fine way to see the local Koreans at play.

The Ghost Bowler of Pyongyang!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Pyongyang; the capital of the DPRK, or North Korea

The DPRK is, in a word, heroic. One senses this immediately stepping out of the station into an eerily quiet city centre. The population of the city is given variously as between 1 and 3 million souls, but it is always hard to figure out where they are. There are few motor vehicles, and surprisingly few bicycles. I was expecting to see bicycles swarming in the manner of Chinese cities of the 1980s, but no … the city’s streets were sparsely populated. In fact, they were so empty that one could not help wondering where on earth the 1.5 million Pyongyangers were all of the time.

We were met at the station by our guides; they had little difficulty in spotting us, and the redoubtable Mr. Kim Won Ik and the delightful Miss Han Hyang Hui whisked us away and off into the DPRK’s unusual capital.

The city is new. Obliterated in the Korean conflict, it has risen from nothing into quite a showpiece. Liberally adorned with massive statues of the Great and Supreme leaders, public buildings the size of small villages and as astonishing supply of museums and massive squares. It is not unattractive in an overwhelming sort of way, but for the casual visitor, alas, one is kept on a very short rein.

Accommodation for the first two nights was at the massive and uncompromising Yanggdko hotel, located on a protective island in the middle of the Taedong River and towering  47 stories above the city. There are 1001 rooms, although nobody could explain how this curious number came to be, all fairly chilly at this time of year, and by and large unoccupied; there are massive restaurants to accommodate the collective hunger of these visitors, a bowling alley, bars, a tea room and everything on a heroic scale. Puzzling at the curious number of rooms, I wondered if it was perhaps it is because 1001 is divisible by 143, I had the suspicion that that I was ebbing at least some way into this parallel universe. It was, however, a riddle, and neither the first nor last.

Awakening in the morning to a beautiful blue sky, I was unnerved by the silence. Listening from my 40th floor window, I could hear the wildly enthusiastic songs exhorting workers at a factory far below to pull their socks up and produce for the Dear Leader. These songs were an integral part of life, and all day we heard either the hysteria of encouragement (or should I say hectoring) or an endless selection of karaoke, offering a selection of revolutionary songs curiously written in the style of contemporary lounge music.

It was and is odd.

However, odd does not mean unpleasant, and nor does it invite patronising aphorisms. Pyongyang is the showpiece of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea, and we arrived on Election Day; soldiers were dancing in the street wearing medals by the balconyfull, red flags were being waved, and a tide of emotion flooded the city. There was a palpable sense of hysterical passion although it did seem to be a huge waste of heroism, but true to form and the pundits, the Dear Leader received 100% of the votes cast with an astonishing turnout of 100%. There, “That’s democracy for you” our guides explained, “It is an expression of the love and devotion that all Koreans feel for Kim Jung On”.

Perhaps; anyhow, fortified by a delicious breakfast of eggs, bean sprouts, yoghurt and toast, we ventured outside to a day of sightseeing.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Beijing to Pyongyang: The Train to the Edge of the Earth

As  you know, I love trains, and try to take a long-distance trip as often as possible. The opportunity to have both a long ride, and finish in the mysterious Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) was simply too much to ignore, and so a week ago, I found myself at Beijing’s Central Station trying to find Train 27 to Pyongyang.

Actually, that wasn't too difficult, it left from Platform 2. Two sleeping carriages stuck on the back of a domestic Chinese train bound to the border community of Dandong. They were North Korean, a fact that excited me further, and clambering aboard past the open, coal-fired carriage heater, I found my berth in a very comfortable four-berth cabin. As luck would have it, my travelling companion Al and I had the cabin to ourselves, and settled in for the twenty-four hour journey to the DPRK.

The overnight journey to the border was fast, smoothly run over perfect welded track and rushing past infrastructural development that quite astonished the mind; dozens of high-speed trains whooshing around in every direction, new factories, apartments, shops and a peculiar love for remarkably garish and bright neon light. North East China in 2014 is a happening place; and just how happening we found out by heading to the dining car, located three carriages within the domestic part of the train.

To get there, we had to pass between the DPRK Zone  and the China Zone, not a difficult transition unless someone had accidentally placed a rack in such a manner that we could not open the door. The train has a few short stops, and we took advantage of one to run down the train and jump past a protesting conductor as the train was pulling out, nearly a tragic miscalculation.

Then food was fine (ample food for about $10) and fueled by a selection of beer for ourselves and  our new friends, and perhaps two hundred shared words, we ran down the evening until after 2.00am. Then we realised that the train was not going to stop again, and we needed to get back to our berth, but at that point, lubricated by Pabst beer and the progress made in Sino-Canadian relations, we didn't really care. Our new friends were fun, incomprehensible and on their way home to Shenyang; they found us highly amusing, and as we found them rather humorous, a convivial evening was assured, and considerable amounts of beer consumed.

Finally realising that we should head "home", we found an official, and led him through the three carriages of sleeping Chinese, draped extravagantly over, under and around the seating to the final connection. Here he banged on the window for several minutes before one of our minders came, opened the door and, with a slightly disapproving look at our acts of sobriety, let us in, and back to the serenity of the Korean sleeping cars. And most comfortable they were.

We slept until the border, and rising somewhat slowly, looked at the ultra-modern station at Dandong; we remained for a couple of hours while the train was split, shunted, regrouped and slid once more into Platform 1. We waited, and I have to confess that he tension and excitement grew until we pulled out, and crossed the Yalu River to Shinuiju, the DPRK’s entry point.

Let me tell you that this was a very peculiar bridge; old, solid and pockmarked from artillery during the Korean War, a conflict that has completely shaped the psyche of the North Koreans, it linked the future with the past, the Chinese bank of the river lined with fifteen storey buildings, shops, cars and bright and the DPRK side quiet, rusting and almost ponderous in its decay.

Our immigration guards were all courteous, curious and thorough. They checked our books and magazines closely, but were mostly interested in why we were there and delighted to swap a local cigarette for a Marlboro, but refusing to take a pack. They sat for a while inhaling the excess of life that we were carrying, marvelling at our shirts and toothpaste and eventually with a smile and a shy “Welcome to Korea Pyongyang”, they waved us through, and off we went toward Pyongyang some four and a half hours and two hundred and twenty-seven kilometres away.

There is a time change of approximately two hundred years and one hour between China and the DPRK; life immediately slowed to a medieval pace, albeit one sped up by bicycles, and the small villages and their fields were covered by armies of workers wielding ancient implements and prodding piles of dry soil in hope of triggering a vague agricultural reaction. Everywhere were the signs of The Party; the focus of the entire nation’s drive is to the party and its leaders that are in high, if not mystical, esteem by one and all.

Pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jon Il are everywhere; smiling, pointing at the bright future and exhortations to the people to double and redouble their efforts to complete their tasks for the greater benefit of all. This background, the soul and the pulse of the DPRK became omnipresent as we met our guides, and were introduced to this mysterious and most surprising country.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Voyages into the Unknown

It is not often that I wake in the morning with a train ticket bound for a curious destination. I remember such a day some eight years ago when I boarded a train in Minsk bound for Odessa. As I recall, the train was fine, and the ticket looked more like a share certificate than a transportation voucher.

Anyhow, this morning I am in Beijing, and this evening will travel overnight to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, more properly known (here) as the DPRK: the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea.

I am not sure whether it is a Republic of Democratic Peoples, or simply a Democratic Republic of People; only time will tell. It is, however, exciting.

I am here in search of new and exciting places for my clients and readers to explore, and although I have been unquestionably sluggish in writing over these past few weeks, it is not from a lack of stories, ideas or any reason other than idleness. Writing is not always easy, and once one takes a break, like exercise, it is hard to start up again.

Since we last spoke, so to speak, I have been back to The Guyanas, to Georgia and to Northern Scotland. New ideas are tumbling out all of the time, and a couple are rather interesting. Ideas are always fun, and my friend Cameron Taylor and I have had many over the years; usually they do not progress beyond the second bottle, but every so often they turn into business.

One, a symposium called The Traditional Way to the Future, is such an idea. Transmogrified from the bar-idea stage to reality and public launch, this meeting will prove to be rather interesting. We will be looking at a number of unrelated disciplines ranging from Medicine, Wine Making, Justice, Engineering and others, where old and ancient knowledge is being incorporated into contemporary research. It is simply a practical exercise in the old adage that “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”, and will seek to bring practitioners together in a single forum to look at the power of our cumulative history.

This program, in conjunction with our colleagues from Living Roots, Ia Tabagari and John Wurderman, will take place in Tbilisi, Georgia in November 2015.

Two months earlier Cameron and I began working on a second project in Scotland that will highlight the history of two of the founders of the Canadian Pacific Railway whose roots are in Forres and Dufftown, two small communities in the country of Moray. The program, to be marketed to retirees of the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway), promises to bring the deep connections between the regions and the growth of the Canadian Dream, to light.

Which brings me to the DPRK.

For some reason unknown to me, from time to time an unseen hand plucks me away from my sensible life and points me in the direction of the completely unknown. This is actually getting harder, but this month the Unseen Hand has directed me to visit the Hermit Kingdom, and I am excited. I will, of course, be writing in considerably more detail about the visit in the next week or so, but as a start to 2014’s odd destinations, this one is a winner.

Also on the agenda are visits to Adak in May, and in July to the remote island of St. Helena. The Unseen Hand is really having its way with me.

For now, however, it is a sunny morning in Beijing, and I have to pack for the train!