Sunday, 21 May 2017

On the Road to Kaesong

On a week-long trip to North Korea 3 years ago, I took some 3000 pictures and managed to smuggle them out of the country (on the border to China the border-guard carefully checked all pictures on my camera and then erased about two-thirds of them, but fortunately didn't find the two USB-sticks that were hidden in my backpack).

But then back home I never really found the time to sort through all of them. Here are some pictures from a trip to the border city of Kaesong, discreetly taken from a back-seat of our tour bus. Although we only saw a small part of the country, some of the pictures offer a least some glimpses at life in the countryside in North Korea. 

The total absence of agricultural machines. Most farming still seems to be done with bullock carts and ploughs. The eerie emptiness of the huge Pyongyang-Kaesong highway. The anti-tank concrete pillars that can be pushed across roads to the south, should the Americans decide to attack. The young pioneers with their small broom-sticks on a mission to keep their city clean. The happy and laughing face of a woman who looks at them. The stern and haggard looks on the faces of most of the men. The little girl in her pink dress, and the elderly women selling vegetables, something that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. And a question I've been asking myself for some time, why are so many people pushing their bicycles instead of riding them?


Tuesday, 13 December 2016


Last Friday, I went on a tour with Pyotr, a former miner now working as a taxi driver, to have a look at the settlements and coal mines around Vorkuta.

There were 13 mines at the height of the Soviet Union, but today only 4 are still working. With the closure of the mines, many settlements have been partially or completely abandoned, leaving behind a landscape of eerie ghost-cities.

On our tour, we came upon an installation of the Russian space defense forces, and a newly established Gazprom basecamp.


From here, workers and engineers leave by helicopter to Gazprom's installations in the tundra.

Then we came to the Severnaya mine, where 36 miners lost their lives in February this year because of a methane gas explosion. Pyotr, who had worked in the Severnaya mine himself and had known some of the miners that lost their lives, was visibly touched when removing the snow from some of the name plates. After the accident, the mine was flooded, and is now closed.

While some settlements are still partially inhabited, others were completely empty.

When we came to a prison camp, 6 fresh coffins were standing outside the gate, with Pyotr remarking dryly: “Prisoners here die fast”. Shortly afterwards we came to a memorial for Stalin’s prison camps, behind which a field of small crosses extended into the tundra.

And still, despite all the harshness, the landscape is sometimes of great, otherworldly beauty.


Pyotr had come here in the 1990s from Lugansk in Ukraine, because the pay was better. And although he now could leave, he doesn’t want to. “The fish here is good, Misha”. So I had to buy a couple of kilos to bring to my family and friends for Christmas.