GEOGRAPHY TRIP TO ICELAND 2013
By Eve Aycock, Lower Sixth
Friday 18th October
As we descended from the sky and broke through dense Icelandic cloud, we observed Keflavik’s apocalyptic, rusty, barren land housing volcano craters with bated breath. The steady, eerie drone of the luxurious Iceland Air plane accompanying this unearthly sight made time stand still – and this was only the beginning.
After meeting our friendly guide for the trip, Geir, we travelled in an impressive ex-army bus to Perlan viewing platform (also known as The Pearl due to its circular, iridescent appearance) where we had a panoramic view of Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik (which means ‘smoky bay’ in Icelandic). From the viewing platform Reykjavik looked more like a collection of simplistic, colourful doll’s houses surrounded by towering mountains. Each student was assigned a number, and every time we got back on the bus after an adventure, a teacher always shouted ‘Numbers!’ to check nobody was left behind. The seemingly simply task of each student shouting out their number proved a challenge at times, especially early in the morning. After climbing down the many flights of stairs at the viewing platform, we then drove to where we were staying tonight – Reykjavik Youth hostel. This was a modest, eco-friendly and pleasant place to stay. Once night fell, we walked to the memorial for John Lennon from Yoko Ono, named the Imagine Peace Tower which was an intriguing collection of electric blue searchlights ascending into the clouds. We ate well at a Mexican restaurant.
Saturday 19th October
Today we explored Tingvellir national park – an astounding natural area situated on the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. We walked on the frosty pathway surrounded by volcanic rock faces, waterfalls, lakes and mountains.
After eating our packed lunch full of Icelandic treats next to a scarce forest, we continued our adventures to Geysir – a spouting hot spring. Standing around the edge of the cordoned off, steaming pool, there was a strong sense of tension and excitement as we waited for the Strokkur geysir to monstrously bulge until it suddenly erupts in a shock of hot, sulphur-smelling steam.
We continued on to Gullfoss waterfall (‘golden falls’). This was an extremely large and powerful force of nature, and simply listening to the rush of the water tumbling down the rock crevices was a truly invigorating experience. The magical appearance of a rainbow formed by the reflection and refraction of the light and water droplets provided exquisite photo opportunities. After this, we saw another waterfall called Faxi (our guide Geir had warned us that we would be bored of seeing endless amounts of waterfalls by the end of the trip). This waterfall was similar to Gullfoss, but it was smaller and had a salmon ladder next to it.
Tonight we stayed at the Hellishollar guesthouses; located in an open, rural farming community overshadowed by the Eyjafjallaj?kull volcano (which famously erupted in 2010, and brought European airports to a standstill with its ash cloud). Simply knowing the power and impact this hulking structure could ensue internationally felt mystifying. Later, at Hellishollar, after we had eaten dinner we watched an insightful film on Eyjafjallaj?kull.
Sunday 20th October
Firstly, we stopped off at the farm directly underneath Eyjafjallaj?kull which was greatly affected by the 2010 eruption. Then, we walked on Sólheimaj?kull glacier. Our guide told us that due to global warming the glacier has retreated significantly amongst recent years, which explained why the solitary cafe and car park was so far away from it. After this chilling experience, we visited another waterfall named Skogafoss, where we ate our sandwiches we had made at Hellishollar in the morning. Feeling the spray of the waterfall on our faces was very refreshing. We were given a tour of the Skógar Folk Museum by a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable Icelandic woman. The museum consisted of a boxy, pretty church, various farmhouses (some of which had grass roofs) and a building with exhibits of many nautical handicrafts, set in a green, mountainous landscape. The Museum owner Tordur Tomasson, now 92 years old, was very passionate about his collection and was keen to play ‘God Save the Queen’ especially for us on the church organ; we happily sung along although shamefully only knew the first verse!
Our next stop was Seljalandsfoss – yet another waterfall! However this waterfall was different to the others, as we were able to walk behind it. Seeing the angelic, pale water rushing down from the sky gave a feeling of euphoria. After this, we travelled to Vík; a small coastal village. Here, we went to Reynisfjara beach. With its black sand, textbook caves, arches and stacks, and huge natural pyramid made of basalt rock columns (reminiscent of Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland) walking on this beach felt dreamlike. As the sun set, we climbed a very steep hill overlooking the valley of Tórsm?rk. Witnessing the silver slices of river cutting through the rugged landscape felt phenomenal. Tonight our entertainment was an educational quiz with three rounds: general knowledge, geography and Iceland. The presence of a mouse in the guesthouse due to students leaving their ground floor window open caused a minor scandal, especially as the mouse ate Jamie’s biscuits and had a nibble at his headphones. Luckily, the next day it was skilfully caught and ethically released into its natural habitat.
Monday 21st October
We visited yet another waterfall in the morning – this one was called Gluggafoss (window falls). It is called this because of its inverted trident shape, resembling that of a window. We then walked in a gorge and crossed many rivers, using rocks as stepping stones, and walked up to a dark cave where single drops of water were falling from a hole in the top of the cave, the sunlight leaking through. We had lunch on a river bank, where we had a mind-blowing view of the snow capped mountains and glacier. After lunch, we visited a farm that had some parts of an aeroplane that crashed in the glacier in World War Two. The glacier had preserved the parts very well – the propellers and other mechanical items disgorged from the glacier were found only in 1994. We visited a local swimming pool (swimming is a large part of Icelandic culture; most people swim daily) and we embraced the local customs regarding cleanliness by showering thoroughly both before and after entering the swimming pool. After we had eaten another tasty dinner at Hellishollar, we all went out onto the country road and lay down watching the stars. It was a very clear night and we had anticipated seeing the Northern Lights but unfortunately, despite Patrick’s dubious predictions, we never saw them. However, we did see the Milky Way and numerous star constellations.
Tuesday 22nd October
Today we walked around Reykjavik, which is a very pretty little city. The lake Tj?rnin looked particularly nice with large flocks of migrating Whooper swans bobbing up and down, next to the pastel square houses. We then went back into the countryside to Krysuvik geothermal field. The steaming vents appeared otherworldly. However, they smelt very strongly of sulphur which was rather unpleasant!
I think what most would call the highlight of the trip was our next destination – Blue Lagoon. Lying in its milky blue, mineral rich and geothermally heated waters with lava rocks beneath our feet was the most relaxing and surreal thing I have done in my life.
Tonight, we returned to the Reykjavik Youth Hostel. We ate at an Italian restaurant this time and it was delicious.
Wednesday 23rd October
We had to wake up at the farcical time of 4:00am today; a time at which teenagers do not fully function. As we approached Keflavik airport we had to say our thankyous and goodbyes to Geir, the best possible guide we could have had – his infinite knowledge and passion for his country were outstanding and his comical stories in which he had a penchant for ending with ‘and they all died’ were a main constituent of this once in a lifetime trip. On behalf of all of the group, I would like to thank the teachers (Miss Clark, Mr Cope and Mr Riekert) for accompanying us on this unforgettable trip to the ethereal country of Iceland.
DRAMA AND DESIGN & TECHNOLOGY TRIP TO JAPAN 2013
By Joe Bateson, Lower Sixth
In October 2013 I visited the following cities in Japan; Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kyoto. Along the way we visited various Shinto and Buddhist shrines, the first shrine visited was the Itsukushima Shrine, following that, we were able to go to three of the most famous temples in all of Japan. I believe that all of the temples and the importance of both Shinto and Buddhism within Japanese culture and history has heavily shaped the way that theatre and more specifically Kabuki theatre is performed. For example, the Cherry Blossom tree is richly intertwined within Buddhism and it has very powerful symbolism. The tree appeared in the Kabuki play that we watched and the tree was an extended metaphor for the importance of respecting nature as well as beauty and piece. The trees are often depicted as clouds within genres such as Kabuki theatre or even within modern culture such as in Anime or Manga.
On the trip we also visited the Mazda Factory in Kyoto. I found the factory very stunning as it had an unnerving feel to it due to the unnatural way that all of the machinery moved. The efficiency of the factory was very interesting to observe and hard to believe.
Our trip was one of a life time and one none of us will ever forget! Thank you to all the staff all made it possible!
CLASSICS TRIP TO GREECE
The Classics trip to Greee this spring was amazing! It was lovely and warm, but not too hot or too busy. Just right. My favourite part was the Acropolis and the Acropolis museum with all the fragments of images that had fallen off. I also thought that it was interesting that they were restoring statues with acid and a laser. My least favourite part was that the hotel claimed that it was too cold to open the pool in March, it was about 22C! Plenty warm enough for me. I also liked the Parthenon (which was massive) and Delphi, and, of course, breakfast (I had at least 5 cups of tea per morning). Overall I had great fun and I learnt a lot of new things about ancient Greece. Thanks to Mrs and Mr Stone, Mr Verschueren and all of the parents who helped! Gemma Tipper - L4
GCSE History Berlin Trip (9th-13th Feb 2013)
DAY 1: Saturday
There are certain times in life, and I can 100% guarantee that everyone will have felt this at some point, where you would be hit in the face by a donkey than get out of bed; and at 4:45 on a blustery dark February morning I felt this exactly. This is why I didn’t get up until 5:01. No, this couldn’t be happening, not now, not today, literally without a doubt the most important day of my life, ever. How could this have happened, how could I have overslept? Was it because I went to bed too late? Did I just not hear my first alarm, only to be awoken by my second alarm and then hiT ‘snooze’? Was I simply lazy? Well yes, actually it was all of these, well who feels quite the silly sausage now eh? Me!
You should have seen my face when I realised, but I didn’t have time to ponder over such insignificant questions. I was in a rush. I speedily got out of my rented bed at school (I would have loved to say that it was my own bed, but I literally hate lying, so I’ll tell the truth this once). As I jumped out of my bed (not literally as I said I hate lying, so I think it’s important that you realise I’m just using the expression to get across how much of a hurry I was in) and quickly sprinted –is it sprinted or is it sprant? I’m going to stick with sprinted – to the showers. Cold. Well I had been planning for this for days and, already behind schedule I decided not to let this hiccup get in my way. So I manned-up and threw my fragile self into the freezing grasp of the shower that ripped away my morning smugness.
The mistake of my earlier tardiness was catching up with me, as I realised that I only had 11 minutes to pack up my remaining things, get dressed, do my hair and get downstairs. But I am a man. Of course I can – I could do it in half the time if I hurried. So 7 minutes later, I rocked up outside the reading room, looking dashing in my red chinos ready to board the minibus that was driven by ex-pro snooker player, and close friend of Vernon Kay, Mr R Reikert.
I didn’t sleep a wink until we got to Germany, although the tedious hours on planes, coaches and in airports had taken their toll on the rest of the group, including a third of our leaders (specifically, the former world greens bowls champion, and ex brother-in-law to John Goodman, Mr A Hay). Well, somebody as resilient as me was unaffected by the fatigue and so I was bright eyed and bushy tailed as we touched down in Berlin. As we left arrivals my eyes were greeted by another coach and by the sound of an angel – Tobin the Tour Guide – and knew instantly that we were in safe hands and that soon we would arrive at our hotel, the 5 star Ritz Carlton…
…was where the Berlin Film Festival stars were staying and little did I know that we would be walking past it later today. Tonight’s main activity was a moonlit visit to a floodlit Reichstag building, the Brandenburg Gate and amazing buildings that look astoundingly new. Our first look at the Holocaust memorial reminded us of the horrors that once took place not far from here.
DAY 2: Sunday
Today was certainly a most eventful and enjoyable day. A hearty breakfast including a well-deserved cup of tea helped to kick start the day. I was raring to go – waiting to be unleashed on Potsdam. The coach was clean and had a black interior – much to my liking. One was almost disappointed to have to leave the relative comfort and warmth to walk to the palace at Potsdam.
Inside I was most impressed with the exquisite furniture and ornate decoration. Did you know that on his way to the Potsdam conference Stalin was too paranoid to fly? So he took the train, insisting that a Red Army soldier was posted every 50m along the track to ensure his safety. This feat took 15,000 men to accomplish! The 4 ‘Ds’ that were discussed at Potsdam were Deindustrialisation, Decentralisation, Democratisation and DeNazification as the fate of Germany was decided by the Big Three. Whilst in Potsdam, President Truman received a telegram bearing the words ‘The baby is born’. This referred to the USA’s completion of the first atomic bomb. The conference room in the palace was amazing. It was incredible to think the Big Three leaders had once been in that very room. Indeed, it was somewhat saddening when one finally had to wave goodbye to Potsdam.
On the way to Sachsenhousen concentration camp we took a pit-stop at Maccy D’s. Almost everyone pigged out and ended up feeling a tad queasy. The warm and friendly atmosphere that McDonald’s offered was in obvious and stark contrast to that that greeted us in the bitter cold of Sachsenhousen.
The visit to the camp began with a well-delivered and informative speech from our tour guide Stefan. We learnt of the camps development from 1933 (where it was small and only held 700 prisoners) through to 1945 (when it was a huge 4km2 and housed 40,000-60,000 prisoners. Stefan also talked a bit about Sachsenhousen’s role after the war as a Soviet Special Camp, where Nazis and other ‘enemies’ of the Communists were imprisoned in terrible conditions.
After the presentation came the tour. Stefan was brilliant and told us about the soldiers’ barracks and the amazing stained glass window in the East German centre. However, the mood became much more sombre when we entered the main triangular yard of the camp. It was gut-wrenching to hear of the horrors that had previously occurred in the roll call area and shocking to hear of the execution of those who attempted escape. The inmates barracks were awful and sometimes as many as 500 men would have to sleep in a single storey hut that was less than a ? the size of Big School. We heard how men were trampled and even accidentally drowned by fellow inmates in the scramble to use the few toilets available just once a day.
After seeing sets of the infamous striped ‘pyjama’ uniforms in the camp museum, we passed the Soviet memorial erected after the war by the Russians to commemorate the Red Army prisoners and communists who died there. It did not recognise the deaths of the others in the camp at the same time. After the memorial, we saw the execution trench, where inmates were shot by camp guards. This was horrific, but was worse to come as Stefan led us to Station Z.
Like the position of the letter in the alphabet, Station Z was then end for many of the camp inmates. It was the name given to the execution block and crematorium of the camp. Stefan told us how the Nazis slaughtered their victims using experimental gasses or shooting them in the back of the neck through a concealed hatch as the inmate was being measured against the wall. The true depravity of this place was revealed as we heard how the corpses were then looted before incineration. I think we all saw, learned and felt something today that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. It was a very quiet and reflective coach journey back to Berlin.
The evening was really enjoyable and certainly lifted our spirits as we took the metro to former East Berlin for 10 pin bowling and a meal. Though not everyone’s forte, we all gave the bowling a go and had a fab time. Congratulations to Dosch and Sosie who both scored over 100, and Hugo for his double strike! The meal afterwards was brilliant too, with a really tasty soup to start it off. It was then time to relax with our friends in the hotel. Hopefully tomorrow will be just as awesome as today! Night, night.
DAY 3: Monday
Today we embarked on a magical journey through Berlin. We were met by our guide, Edo, outside our hotel. He had specialised in 20th Century German and European History at Uni. We walked to the overground train station where we got on board and headed for the Hauptbahnhoff, Berlins huge central train station. It was cold and icy outside. We saw the Chancellery, were Angela Merkel could live if she wanted to. Then we went past the Reichstag building, which is where the Bundestag now sits. We learnt how the building had been attacked by Communists in the 1930s and used as an excuse by Hitler to begin persecuting them. It was gutted by fire and so wasn’t used at all by the Nazis when they were in power. It was renovated following the reunification of Germany as the new parliament building as the government of former West Germany returned to Berlin from Bonn.
We left the Reichstag through a park that had a memorial to the Roma and Sinti who had died during the Holocaust. This was followed by a visit the monumentally scaled Soviet war memorial that was flanked by full-sized Soviet tanks – the first two to enter Berlin apparently. Then it was on to the Brandenburg Gate. It’s big and Edo told us that the statue on the top had once been stolen by Napoleon, but the Germans took it back following a siege of Paris. When the took it back they added and iron cross to the laurel wreath to symbolise their military victory over the French. They also renamed the square behind the gate ‘Paris square’, just to rub it in!
On our way to the Holocaust memorial we passed through the National Art Museum where we saw an ancient statue of Prometheus which had been hidden between two walls towards the end of the Second World War. He was only found after the reunification of Germany. Edo told us how the only damage to him during the destruction of Berlin had been that his privates fell off, but that they’d been glued back on – so no harm done!
The Holocaust memorial made me feel very morbid. The memorial, made up of rows and rows of irregular concrete blocks, represented the millions of Jews and others who were murdered during the Holocaust. It made me think how easily people can judge others and the scale of horror a state can inflict on people when it loses its moral compass. It also made me think of the importance of the human rights we have and how lucky that makes us.
To lift the spirits and take the edge off the biting cold (-9°C), we stopped for coffee and donuts, before restarting our walking tour. We passed the British Embassy which was possibly one of the ugliest buildings I have ever seen. We stopped outside the Humboldt University which is where Einstein studied as well as a host of other famous people. It was also the sight of the mass book burnings orchestrated by the Nazis to remove opposition to their ideas. Then it was off again to visit Checkpoint Charlie, the former crossing point between East and West Berlin. The nearby museum showed how people used to put children in suitcases to try to smuggle them across the border. There were all types of ingenious methods tried although some, like the home-made gliders, looked decidedly lethal. It shows how desperate some people were to escape East Germany.
At the end of a long day we returned to the hotel, got changed and then in was off to the Hard Rock Café, where I got the pleasure of hearing Mr Hay sing. Chapel choir is missing out! After the meal some of the group went to a local cinema to watch a film (in German!). According to reports it was the best cinema ever; with reclining leather chairs, little tables, about 1? metres between rows and waiter service. Some even managed to make it to the end of the film!
DAY 4: Tuesday
Adam shave his sideburns this morning. Anyway, we met our guide again this morning and off we went. On the train we were entertained by a man playing a trumpet and dancing. Then it was off to look at Nazi Berlin including a visit to the location of Hitler’s Bunker, which has been filled and built over to prevent it becoming a neo-Nazi shrine. We also passed the largest remaining section of the Berlin wall, which now ironically has to be protected by a fence!
The it was off to the John F. Kennedy museum, which had closed or moved or something without telling either us or our guide. Instead we bought some Berliners in his memory…at least in memory of his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in which he inadvertently claimed in front of 250,000 people that he was, in fact, a jam doughnut! I can vouch for the fact that eating a Berliner without licking your lips is really rather hard!
Then it was back to the Reichstag, but this time we were going in and up! We walked up to the top of the glass dome that crowns the building along a spiral ramp. Everywhere around you was glass – this stood for democracy in Germany through which people can see and watch what the government are doing. From there we also had a great view over Berlin. From there we went into the centre of Berlin and spent some time shopping in the Akaden centre. I think that was an enjoyable experience for everyone involved. We met again at 6:00, but Mr Hay, who is normally always on time, was 14 minutes late!!
Everyone was then really excited about having dinner in the revolving restaurant at the top of the Berlin TV tower. We took an elevator to the restaurant, enjoyed the fantastic views of Berlin and tried a little sample of the local beer. After a good meal we struggled to find the bus we needed to get to our evening entertainment. After searching hopelessly, Mr Hay and Cami organised a fleet of 7 taxis to take us to…the 3D, blacklight, ultra-violet mini-golf that Mr Hay had discovered on the web. The golf was pretty confusing at times with all of the 3D paintings and obstacles, but it was fun and so a good choice!
DAY 5: Wednesday
The last day…I woke up still tired from the night before. As I woke, the reality of heading home to the Isle of Man sank in. However, there was to be one more treat – a ride in the fastest elevator in Europe! As we were on the coach, heading towards the Panorama Punkt I could not help but appreciate Berlin and its History. The coach then came to a stop at Potsdamer Platz – for the final time. As we left the comfort of the coach for our destination, we all quickened our pace as the biting cold had returned and it stung the skin.
As we had arrived too early for the lift, we waited in anticipation in the lobby of the building. Soon the rope which barred our way was lifted and the elevator came into sight. Mr Hay pressed the button and I could hardly contain my excitement. The elevator took less than 8 seconds to lift us to the top of the 25 storey building with its unchallenged views of Berlin. The view was astonishing. We could see the Reichstag, the Holocaust memorial and many other landmarks that we could all actually recognise. My gaze swept to the right and took in the Brandenburg Gate, once in the No-Man’s Land between the democratic West and the communist East of this great city.Now it is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the whole of Germany.
The sub-zero temperature finally forced us to retreat to the warmth, and slightly quease-enducing, speed of the the elevator for our descent. We exited the lift and returned to the coach and that was it. Goodbye Berlin. Ah, the airport. Once again we had arrived too early for the flight, but it gave us one last chance to shop before the return home. Au revoir, rather than goodbye Berlin – many of us have vowed to return!
P.S. Thank you Mr Hay, Mrs Currie & Mr B for arranging our trip!
PARIS - February 2013
On 11th February, Mr Riekert, 11 Sixth Form students and myself, embarked on a four day trip to Paris.
We visited many landmarks of the French capital, went through Pigalle, passing Les Deux Moulins, the famous café of Amélie Poulain, before going through Montmartre to climb la Butte that leads to the magnificent Sacré-Coeur and an amazing view over Paris and the Eiffel Tower. The students walked a lot through various arrondissements to feel the atmosphere of the vibrant City, discovered the rare remaining covered passages and had the privilege to see the 5 new bells of Notre-Dame. We visited Le pont des arts covered with padlocks from numerous amoureux who come to the City especially on Valentine’s Day, and embraced the culture with a visit to Le musée d’Orsay and its famous impressionist paintings such as Van Gogh, Manet, Caillebotte and many others. We also had the opportunity to see the famous Dali Exhibition that was in Paris at the time. On Valentine’s Day, we visited the catacombs and were quite shocked when asked to open our bags at the end of the visit as a few bones had been stolen earlier that morning! We attended a live recording of a Radio programme for France Inter and we’re totally immersed in the French language. To relax, there was some serious shopping in les Galeries Lafayette and on les Champs-Elysées, ice skating outside the Hotel de Ville and sampled les Crêpes and le Confit de Canard in a few French restaurants.
Overall, a very successful trip!
US - October 2012
Just two weeks before the American people went to the polls to decide whether to give President Obama a second term, 27 sixth formers set out to test the mood of the nation. As a wintry half-term began on the island we arrived to blue skies and sunshine in Washington DC. The Capitol building, White House and presidential monuments provided a dazzling backdrop as we walked the entire length of the Mall from Arlington Cemetery to Union Station viewing everything between from the brand new Martin Luther King Memorial to the Constitution itself on display in the National Archives. But keen though we were on politics – the entire group was studying American History as part of the IB – we also wanted the full American experience. We visited the first of oh so many fast food restaurants, and, in order to blend in with the locals, Jack acquired an Abraham Lincoln top hat – complete with false beard.
On our second full day we headed North to Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, the scene of the greatest and most terrible of the battles of the Civil War. We toured the battlefield – by bus because it is so large – and then visited the museum and famed cyclorama. It was another beautiful day which simply made the battlefield, strewn as it is with memorials and cemeteries, all the more poignant. That night back in Washington we made a pilgrimage to the floodlit Lincoln Memorial to pay homage to the man who had saved the Union and given the nation its new birth of freedom.
The following day we hit the Smithsonian Complex. Arguably the largest collection of museums in the world, we started by visiting the Air and Space Museum where the entire group showed off its prowess on the flight simulators. Then, after yet another burger for lunch, some visited the deeply moving Holocaust Museum, the Art students made a beeline for the National Gallery and the rest of the group went undercover at the International Spy Museum. Back in the hotel that evening, suitably footsore, we watched the last of the presidential debates and, experts as we now were, discussed the finer points of the electoral college and speculated on what might happen in 10 days’ time.
The next morning we headed South. Spectacular though Washington is we also wanted to see some of the ‘real America’ and so we boarded a flight to Atlanta, Georgia. Georgia was part of the heartland of the Confederacy and it too played a crucial role in the Civil War. But Atlanta was also central to the Civil Rights movement, particularly the area around Auburn Avenue where Martin Luther King was born, and we were off to see some of the most important sites associated with African-American History. But that’s not all Atlanta had to offer. There was a 4D cinema in the ‘World of Coca-Cola’ (and there’s now a plaque in the gift shop to mark just how much money KWC spent there) and at CNN we peered through the glass to see the News going out live – only, bizarrely, for the newsreader to wave back at us. And then there was The Varsity. Mrs Gibson in the school shop, a native of Atlanta, had told us that we couldn’t visit the city without going to the largest drive-through fast food restaurant in the world. Even Barack Obama had visited whilst electioneering earlier in the year. It was, well, an experience. But that might have been the burger that finally pushed us over the edge - and left us dreaming of meals back in the Barrovian.
It had been a week of enormous variety and amazing experiences. We came back with a much better understanding of American History and of the Americans themselves. And we’d been in the capital of the world’s only superpower just before they decided who should lead them for the next 4 years. It really had been a case of seeing History in the making.
Normandy - October 2012
During the October half term the King William’s College French trip travelled to Normandy, France. The trip lasted for five days and included French students from the Lower, Middle and Upper Fifth. The trip provided an excellent opportunity for us all to extend our knowledge of the French language, culture and history.
The journey to our hotel took a total of eight hours or so. We took the first flight of the day from Ronaldsway to Gatwick where we met by Steve, our chauffeur for the week. The coach drove to Dover, where we boarded the Eurostar and travelled through the channel tunnel. We then drove for an addition six hours or so through the French countryside until we reached the Chateau du Molay. The Chateau is a beautiful converted French estate that is situated within large grounds of private parkland. The members of staff there were all lovely and helpful, and encouraged us to speak to them in French. They organised activities for us in the evenings, such as a crêpe night and cheese tasting. We were also given the chance to taste frog’s legs and snails, which most people enjoyed although the snails did not go down well with others! We also partook in other activities including a bowling night at the local bowling alley. There was also a disco and karaoke night arranged which gave Adam Kite two separate evenings to display his characteristic dance moves, and give us all a delightful rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you.”
The trip also allowed us to see a lot of the French countryside and to visit a lot of the nearby historical attractions. The Chateau was very close to the town of Bayeux, where we got to visit both the Bayeux Tapestry which was an impressive 70 metres long and depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex. It concludes in a detailed account of the Battle of Hastings. We were also allowed to visit Bayeux Cathédrale, a Norman-Romanesque cathedral and also the national monument of France. It was an excellent example of the beauty of the French architecture which differs so much to that of England and the Isle of Man. We were also taken to tour round the breathtaking coastal monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel. The picturesque 11th Century abbey was built on a rocky tidal island that lies at the mouth of the Couesnon River. The day that we were visiting was particularly misty, denying us the chance to see the views the abbey offered but adding to the atmosphere.
We were also taken to visit various towns in Normandy including Caen and St. Malo. We were allowed to shop in these towns independently, presenting us with the challenge of talking to the local French people without the help of Madame Heckel. It gave us a perfect chance to use our vocabulary and knowledge of the French language, helping us to improve in our language skills and also boosted our confidence about replying and pronouncing the various French phrases. I was surprised at how much French I actually knew and understood, although it was hard adjusting to some things, especially the currency. However now I feel more confident in how much French I actually know and experiencing the French culture has increased my interest in learning the language further. It has also made certain words in my vocabulary easier to remember as I have had to use them in practice, which I think will help me a lot in my upcoming external examinations.
Lindsay Madgwick U5
North Korea - 2011
Amongst the students and staff of King William’s College, there are few things that excite more than the prospect of an unusual escapade in the name of IB History. Ignoring the palpitations of our parents’ wallets, ten students from the Upper Sixth accompanied by three members of staff embarked on what promised to be a unique submergence in a different way of thinking, way of living, and way of being a tourist.
The 10 day trip to Beijing and North Korea, which materialised from a fleeting comment about the preceding year’s IB History trip to the USA being “just like it looks on TV”, was intended to take the participants out of their comfort zones culturally and politically in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the single-party dictatorship of a true socialist state. For many, it caused the overhauling of views on the modern world, as well as on prominent points of historical interest and the IB history course.
The longest Day 1 ever, thanks to time differences: Travelling and Beijing
The collective early morning grogginess of the group dissipated as the first member of the tour had gone missing, even before they arrived – as Gina finally appeared at the check-in desk, Mr Hay made an early vow that how we started would not be how we were to go on. The flights to Birmingham and Paris passed in a haze of expensive Ronaldsway breakfasts and undesirable airport coffee, with excited interjections from Miss Kaye about starting her scrapbook (it would appear that she had managed to pack an entire stationary shop into her suitcase). A lucky few were upgraded to Premium Economy for the long-haul flight, but sitting behind the ever-witty Mr Hay more than made up for the lack of extra leg-room as conversation ranged from folk music to releasing smallpox on immigrants, and of course what potentially lay ahead for us at our final destination. In contrast, James Kelly (Head of School) celebrated the trip in style by agreeing to a glass of champagne – ever the classy traveller. We flew across Eastern Europe and Russia in an arc, waving to St Petersburg on the way – the comparatively ordinary destination of the 2008 GCSE History Trip that many members of this tour were also a part of.
We arrived in Beijing very early in their morning, and were instantly thrown into Chinese culture by our guide, Candy, and our breakfast. The food consisted of a tasty mix of egg-rice soup, dumplings, boiled eggs and “deep fried nothing” – all without a piece of western cutlery in sight - to the bemusement of the tour party and the delight of the locals. It was here Gina began her love-hate affair with Soy Sauce, lavishly coating everything she ate in it to mask any other flavours the food may possess.
Not wanting to waste a moment, sightseeing began immediately. Arriving at Tiananmen Square, many found themselves initially disappointed by the lack of memorial or similar recognition of those who fell in the infamous massacre of 1989 – but our guide’s unawareness about the incident answered our questions, and was telling of national censorship. Mao’s Mausoleum, the Hall of the People (where Nixon met Mao) and the National Museum dominated the Square. Interestingly, the National Museum is split into Ancient History and Revolutionary History only, with the rest of Chinese History having been purged during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution under Mao. Queuing up to see the embalmed leader (who only appears in the morning) were hundreds of people lined up around the premises, kept in line by immaculately uniformed guards. The majority of people had travelled from the countryside - you could tell from their teeth and their clothing- and they clearly still worshipped Mao like a god. Although admission was free, white flowers could be bought and offered in their hundreds; after bowing from the waist they were placed onto a growing offertory pile. The size of the mausoleum and the behaviour of the locals was testament to the still-thriving respect for Mao, who died in 1976. The Chinese man placed next to me intensely slowed his pace upon entering the room where Mao lay, and could only be forced to move towards the exit by the guards, where he craned his neck backwards on the way out to get a slightly longer view. Mao, wrapped in the Chinese flag, looked much like the embalmed body of Lenin in Moscow; lit in orange and not entirely there.
The Forbidden City was next. We entered under the overlooking portrait of Mao and were greeted by section after section of gorgeous ornate architecture, most of which went somewhat underappreciated by the owners of aching feet and jetlagged bodies. Locals were exceptionally rowdy when looking at the throne rooms, which were resplendently clad in vivid golds and reds. The Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) showed impressive military precision in their spontaneous parading, and we witnessed this with fascination at the way the military was so integrated into public life.
Our return to the hotel allowed some of the group to indulge in much-needed siestas, and some to wander around the markets and streets of Beijing. Dinner, when we finally got to the right part of the hotel (Sally the translator to the rescue!), showed us that real Chinese food is simply so much better than the takeaways we were used to.
The day closed with a night time trip to Tiananmen Square. Having taken us in the wrong direction whilst trying to find the metro, Mr B hailed taxis and showed no sign of defeat. When the group finally reunited under the lit portrait of Mao, fascinated locals took pictures of us; it was here that Max met and exchanged numbers with an over-friendly English teacher called Kevin who had taken a shine to his blonde hair and called us his “beauties” – it’s always good to have contacts in faraway places! Before returning, or whilst attempting to hail more taxis in order to do so, we embarked upon an obligatory, unreasonably long and aimless walk of the city’s streets led by Mr B: no history trip is complete without one. Sally’s translation skills proved popular with local police, and we took advantage of her bilingualism to aid our quest to return to the hotel – her explanation for her exasperated state when she arrived was that her “sense of danger was alerted” at a slight overpricing! After the long day, it was a relief to be in our rooms, where signs addressed us as “my dear guests” and provided “a gentle reminder” of safety in the bathroom.
Day 2 – getting to North Korea
After spending a considerable amount of time in awe of Max’s obsessively neat packing, we left for the airport bereft of our mobile phones (they are not permitted in North Korea) and started in the longest and most stressful check-in experience ever encountered. “For the first and last time” we were encouraged to buy cigarettes by the box to give the guides and troops as presents. The flight was surreal and terrifying; a loud bleeping that went off periodically was mildly disconcerting for some, whilst some thought the in-flight entertainment – a video of a concert featuring grand, nationalist music and opera strangely in a Western style - was cause for more concern. The magazines handed to us included articles praising the socialist systems in place in North Korea, and described the “imperialist US” and the “puppet warmonger South Koreans” – it was blatant and shocking propaganda; the pictures of the vast military parades were both impressive and intimidating.
Upon landing we were immediately greeted by a vast portrait of Kim Il Sung that towered over the airport building. The building itself was only one large room, with one side for departures and the other for arrivals, where we nervously progressed through customs and had our hold baggage scanned and searched (leaving Max distraught at his callously ruined packing). Cameras were scrutinised and gadgets confiscated, including Mr Hay’s SLR camera which featured “GPS” lettering – we speculated that it could have been used as a suspicious tracking device if left in the country. Everyone seemed nervous as they were taken into cubicles and searched, but we emerged successfully to find our three guides waiting.
Without delay we were briefed on the importance of the leaders and tourist etiquette: asking permission to take photographs; not disturbing the military; showing sufficient respect to the leaders as well as the public... It was strict common sense with serious consequences. On the drive to the hotel (reserved for foreigners and described as the “Alcatraz of fun” in a guidebook), the whole group was struck by the bleak absence of western advertising, the only splash of colour in the city of Pyongyang coming from the immense nationalist murals and mosaics which showed artistic finesse and incredible workmanship as well as national pride.
Dinner was spent discussing, during the powercut, whether the revolving sky-bar on the 47th floor we were eating in was, in fact, revolving. With Miss Kaye’s permission (“beer is cheap – drink up!”), we explored the bar and casino before swiftly retiring to bed in preparation for our 6am wakeup call.
Day 3 – General Tour of Pyongyang
Horrendously early start, made more unbearable due to the incredible thunderstorm that my roommate Harriet and I stayed up to watch at 4.30am, and the very questionable breakfast. The guides inspected and approved our formal dress (even Mr Hay was in a normal, non-tweed, black, cheap, ultra-static suit from Asda!) and general appearance before heading into the capital.
First, we were escorted to the beautiful main square. This was clearly the DPRK at its best: beautiful white sculptures and water features stood opposite architectural marvels, which the guides took great pleasure in highlighting.
Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum brought home the scale to which he was revered both during and after his time. Presentation was of the utmost importance: standing in rows of four on the escalators and conveyor belts, we were briefed on appropriate etiquette. These conveyor belts, which stretched out into long, bare corridors, were not so much for the convenience of the tourist; rather, they were there to regulate the pace of the visitors and to instil an appropriately sombre and reflective mood for contemplating the life of the deceased leader.
Amongst many armed guards and parading soldiers we were led through a grand marble building where we came to a large white statue of the man in a vast hall amid vivid sunset colours and triumphant music – there we had to line up, bow, and pause to contemplate his life and works. Alongside was another marble clad room containing his portrait and carvings of the revolution on the sides; here we were handed an MP3 player each so that a dramatically-voiced narrator could tell us about how Kim Il Sung was “sent from God” as the “people’s saviour” etc - I was stunned at the frantic urgency of the man’s voice as well as the content.
The room where Kim Il Sung lay was dimly lit and absolutely silent. We processed in after watching the guards, and bowed (as instructed) three times in unison at every side of the body, apart from at his head. After, we were escorted to the “medal room” – a shrine to his achievements - where he owned medals, plaques, degrees and doctorates, citizenship and gifts from hundreds of countries. In other rooms we were shown the train and car he travelled in as well as other personal items. The most fascinating object here was the large world map that showed countries he had visited: it would seem he called at every continent and virtually every country in them; however, both North and South America were chillingly absent.
After leaving the mausoleum we were taken to a book shop where there were publications of speeches and laws from both the leaders, published in many languages, as well as North Korean posters, music, and tapestries. The guides were consistently keen to dispel their perception of western reports about the leaders and their way of life; they were firm, but not arrogant, and wanting to show that the DPRK was not as they thought we had heard.
Although the trip to the local metro made for crass comparisons to the London Tube, its beauty rivalled even the metro stations of Moscow. We alighted to see the Arc of Triumph which commemorated the war effort, the curiously closed sports stadium and more grand mosaics, the dimensions of which were directly related to dates and numbers associated with the leaders (for example, 19.94 metres that it measured were so because Kim Il Sung died in 1994).
During the long and uphill walk of the park we came across some locals who where there “every day” for joyous and spontaneous dancing, even though “mingling with the locals” suspiciously appeared on the itinerary for the day. Great disappointment was harboured by all when Mr B refused to dance, but teaching the locals “The James Kelly” dance en masse brought smiles to the locals’ faces once more. On the way back, Mr B and I discussed (quietly) the general misery and lack of colour or social lives of the passers by – in direct comparison to the strategically placed locals – which was indicative of the real quality of life had by the people.
The evening was spent carefully crafting neutral content suitable for writing on postcards to send home – to avoid them getting “lost in the post”. Some sent multiple cards with differing degrees of detail to discover how high or low the threshold of content was, with only the most impartial material making the cut.
Day 4 – DMZ and Kaesong City
Another 6.30am start for the long coach journey to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), broken up by a very welcome but sugary cup of tea where most of us engaged in making fun of Max’s white skinny jeans and suede boots (not shoes, boots).
The drive down told us more than the guides would about the true nature of the DPRK. North Korea is, naturally, a truly beautiful country: the mountains, lakes, and collective farms made for a picturesque setting – photos, though, were still limited. The roads, though mostly dual or multiple carriageway, remained empty (Mr Hay counted 7 cars), and there was little natural wildlife (Mr Hay counted 3 birds). We passed several small farming villages, but our attention was diverted from the abject poverty by the guides, who attempted to distract us by emphasising the beauty of the hills on the other side of the coach. On the journey, there were several military checkpoints where the driver and guides were inspected and paperwork was handed over, and all the gates were emblazoned with a Communist Star.
The guides were adamant that all Koreans covet unification – one country, language, and culture, but with two ideologies – and that the only wedge between the dream and the reality are the Americans, who started the Korean War and are continuing to disrupt the mutually desired peace by occupying South Korea. In fact, the guides consistently corrected us when we referred to the country as “North Korea” instead of “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (DPRK): apparently this name implies that there is a split between North and South, when in their view, there is not such a definitive separation between the two countries.
However, at the DMZ we were greeted with the most striking representation of this split between North and South Korea: the image of each of their flags flying on either side of the border. They seemed so close, and yet worlds apart. The only places you could cross the border freely were in the meeting huts, some of which belonged to South Korea/USA and some to the North Korea. So, when we went inside, after “straddling the border”, the tour party could also proudly proclaim that we also went to South Korea on this trip, albeit to only 2 metres of it!
Leaving the meeting huts, we marvelled at the guides’ ability to walk so far in high heels – our next port of call was a watch tower where we looked through telescopes to see the cement wall that separated the two parts of Korea. We were told that the South Koreans deny its existence because grass has grown over it; it was yet another example of the North Koreans speaking on behalf of the South and drawing conclusions that did not seem to be founded on solid evidence. In the museum itself were the original copies of the armistice in English and Korean, and the UN flag, as well as pictures and documents from the war itself pinned on the walls.
The Higher Education Centre failed to grasp the interest of many, but there were some notable similarities between early Korean schooling to early Chinese schooling. A large group of children were also visiting the same place, and were in tight formation. Upon seeing us they were instructed to applaud and cheer for us as a sign of hospitality – they did not cease until every member of our tour party had left the area they were hoping to visit, which was both impressive and a little bizarre.
Our journey to our final port of call for the day before arriving at the authentic Korean hotel (where one was to eat and sleep like locals – on the floor!) was interrupted by our coach falling into a ditch. Our driver had attempted to avoid getting stuck in the sandbanks in the road, and had misjudged the width of the coach. We evacuated the coach, but were instructed not to help the situation: it may have undermined the strength and teamwork of the DPRK. Indeed, teamwork was important as locals from the fields (who appeared from nowhere) rushed to our aid, and moved the sand with their bare hands. Furthermore, the guides quickly advised that these inconvenient situations are often incorporated into the trips purposefully to aid a sense of adventure. Before night fell, we decided to walk to our original destination so we could leave the locals to fish out the coach. The Ancient King’s Tomb was a place of serenity, spirituality and great natural beauty, and the guides regaled us with tales of the Feng Shui Master’s death and of the king himself.
The hotel, when we finally arrived, was home to the second sighting of a cameraman who had been nonchalantly filming us from behind a door, possibly for a fly-on-the-wall type documentary or for evidence for the authorities. It was here that we were reminded that we had to be careful what we said, and to whom: there had been English teachers in the country for seven years, and you did not know who could speak English and translate what we had to say.
Day 5 – Leaving Kaesong City for Pyongyang
On the way back to the capital, we stopped at the Collective Farm Museum. Here was an example of the homage paid to the leaders: the sheaf of rice which had been touched by the Dear Leader during his Field Guidance had been encased in glass and preserved, and was proudly exhibited and highlighted during our tour. The museum showed us that primitive machinery was still in use and considered highly technological; manual labour and use of beasts of burden was still at large, akin to the methods used in Russia 50 years ago. The museum was a modern showcase of what we had learned about Russia’s farming techniques in IB history - it was fascinating to see it in practice, and more so to see the pride that was instilled in the locals about this methodology, despite is evidential shortcomings and inefficiencies. I had never seen Mr Hay more excited for the next destination – we were to visit the largest Collective Farm in the DPRK, as it had been visited by the Great and Dear Leaders many times. He rightly claimed that it was a thrilling prospect to see and therefore understand better a topic that he had been teaching throughout his career – to properly see history in the flesh, as it were. He was not disappointed; there are no words to describe the sheer scale of the area, and its unremittingly precise rows of crops ready to be collected. We were also taken to the “model” house of the “model” farm – all the workers of the farm have housing provided – which Kim Il Sung described as fit for a landlord. In truth, it was small, poorly equipped and maintained, and left a lot to be desired. The only commodity guaranteed were the portraits of the leaders, mounted slightly off the wall, in the living room where they could overlook family life, similar to the Lenin shrines of Russia.
We noticed on our return to Pyongyang that all the roads are named liberation, reunification, revolution, and other nationalist names. The Reunification Statue was, predictably, on Reunification Road – a grand arch over the wide road which symbolised the desire for a unified Korea – and we were told that people will only drive underneath it when they are formally united once more. This explains why there were so few vehicles on the road, but only for this road. We were also taken to a department store which sold very little of worth – everyone noticed a lack of colour and western merchandise or advertising.
After the presentation of DPRK agriculture and commerce, came a presentation DPRK production– we were taken to the Mineral Water Plant. It would appear that it had only been started up for us: there was no storage space for empty bottles (which were noticeably recycled beer bottles), very few workers, and the water they were producing had not been in any of the shops we had bought water from. Additionally, we shared this stop with another group of tourists who we kept meeting at various sites – they seemed to be doing the reverse of our tour around North Korea.
But, finally, to Mr B’s utter delight, it was bath time. The hotel that we were booked into that evening, split into different houses, had large spa-baths in every room with certain minerals in it which was supposed to be of great benefit to the skin. Dinner passed in a post-bath-time languid haze, but we soon caught second wind as we prepared for Olivia’s surprise midnight 18th Birthday Celebration.
Sneaking out of our house and into the next for the celebration was a terrifying experience. Radio played from the bushes, presumably addresses from the leaders in their native language, in a subtle manner that was to indoctrinate those passing by; we thought we could hear rifles cracking (there were guards all around the complex to keep people both in and out), and dogs barking. Midnight struck, and we toasted Olivia with foul Korean champagne and western chocolate from the airport, before hastily making our escape back to the rooms. A unique birthday, if anything
Day 6 – In Pyongyang again
We left for the Grand People’s Study House – a cross between a large library and a university – and were given a tour of the lecture theatres and “question and answer rooms”. The Music Appreciation Room held hundreds of 1980s style radio, where we were played The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”, of all things! Our guide, who had visited Germany twice, was the only person who did not appear to be totally blinkered by the regime; he hinted at the differences in rule (as well as the differences in beer!). The view from the top of the building was breathtaking; despite the poverty we had witnessed in the countryside, the more densely populated areas such as Pyongyang were impressive, clean and vast in size and stature.
The Art Gallery we were escorted to next showed similarities to the National Museum of China: there was ancient art and revolutionary art, with little to nothing in between those two periods, and then an abundance of art dedicated to the leaders. The ancient art was similar to Chinese art in its style because Korean culture was originally lifted from Chinese culture. The portraits of the leaders were not much different to the murals and billboards that decorated the streets – the leaders were depicted with members of the army, women and children, and often featured crops, flags, military weapons, and musical instruments. All the vibrantly coloured artworks depicted their power as well as their compassion for the people, often against spectacular natural backdrops. Interestingly, their faces were always painted with photographic detail, but other aspects of the painting were much less accurate, such as the perspective or details of other people.
The Kim Il Sung University was similar to the Grand People’s Study House in that it had rooms and libraries dedicated to studying the life and works of the leaders, and was full of the “latest technology”. Although there was no internet to speak of, there was a high speed intranet, and all of the teachers complained that their interactive whiteboards at KWC were primitive by comparison. The swimming pools were immense and had waterslides as well as massage jets and diving boards – something for the bursar to consider, we all agreed. It was strange being at the university with no students around – we were told that it had completely closed for renovation, but this means a whole year without producing intellectuals, doctors, and civil servants; we could not see the logic.
Before dinner, we were taken bowling. It was a great social event and our guides joined in with gusto - “Dr Neaux”, the third guide, showed off his skills to the brashly competitive Mr Hay and Mr B (whose tactic of bowling with both hands proved a little more unpredictable than he had hoped).
Hilarity was on the menu for the night’s dinner. The waitresses sang karaoke in their distinctive vocal style and one-by-one we were invited to dance – the tango, performed by a bewildered Max and convincing leader Mr B, was ultimately the highlight of the solo spots, before we were all pulled onto our feet for the hokey-cokey and a conga line. We were given a break as Mr B was dragged to his feet, despite declaring assertively that he would categorically not do any karaoke on the trip. His splendid contribution to the evening included adding “bom-boms” at cadences and the odd slide; after his sublime performance he was heard asking “did you hear my tiddly-poms?” – yes, Mr B, we did.
Olivia’s birthday celebration did not stop at the restaurant – at the hotel, the guides surprised her with a layered cake (complete with kiwi and cherry tomatoes, a Korean specialty) and a card from the rest of us. An 18th birthday to rival many, I’m sure!
Day 7 – Squeezing everything we had not seen into the penultimate day
The Flower Emporium we were taken to showed very few flowers; that is, it showed mainly the Kim Il Sunglia and the Kim Jong Ilia – the national flowers of the DPRK, which all too closely resembled purple orchids and red roses respectively. In Mr Hay’s words, they were “very Marx and Sparks”...!
The Monument of the Workers’ Party was magnificent – composed of a hammer, a writing brush and a Korean sickle (to represent the workers, intellectuals and peasants respectively), with bronze artworks depicting the revolution on the inside, it signified strength and unity. Here we also saw locals on a tour to see it – dressed in dark Kim Jong Il suits, and stood in formation, it was interesting to see how they acted in public.
From the sublime to the strange, we were taken next to a film set. Film is apparently an incredibly lucrative industry in the DPRK, and was loved by Kim Il Sung in particular. Here, there were streets made up to be streets from different countries and periods, and we saw a fight-scene being filmed – I am sure several of us ended up in the frame more than once.
The Sports Village, consisting of 10 stadiums for as many different sports, was a most peculiar place: although we were not allowed to go into the stadiums (allowing us to suspect that there was not anything in them), there was a lot of grain being dried on the ground. Although the guides sold this to us as space being well used, it led us to think that there was not sufficient space to dry the grain in more suitable or designated spaces, and that there were some serious faults in their food production methodology. It also highlighted the fact that we were not allowed to walk anywhere on our own as a tour party for any great distance – the coach would drop us off, we would meet it again, and then we would drive to the next destination even if it was only several minutes away. Indeed, this was the same case in our first hotel in Pyongyang – wanting to stretch our legs, some of us took the stairs, but we were escorted back to the lifts. Presumably, this is because the stairs were the only way to access the floors that were suspiciously missing in the lift.
However, we were then allowed to go for a long walk up Dragon Mountain. At the top we were met with panoramic views of the DPRK from Pyongyang and beyond into the mountainous countryside. Upon our late descent, due to gawping at the view and relishing the freedom from the coach for a little too long, the guides seemed extremely angry that we had scuppered their schedule by a mere half hour; for this, we were not shown some parts of the Grand School Children’s Palace after seeing Kim Il Sung’s birthplace (which was not as holy or as touristic as we had previously expected), and escorted straight to the showcase prepared for us by the children.
The showcase, where we were treated in the same way as diplomats, was outstanding. The musical etiquette was beyond any professional ensemble I had ever seen, and technically the children’s music was impeccable. The presentation was almost intimidating in its precision – it was meticulous to the point of the children wearing shoes with different height platforms so that they were all the same height on one row. The coordination, symmetry, and synchronicity were representative of life in the whole country, where perfection in the name of the leader is always the ultimate goal.
Day 8 – Final day in North Korea
It was the morning of the night before. The previous evening, I had a unique experience in itself – a trip to the hospital. After a fall where I managed to cut my lip very badly, I had to have three stitches! The upside of the inconvenience of the hospital trip was that it enabled us to see how emergencies were dealt with: after waiting for what seemed like hours to see if there was a doctor in the hotel (which there was not) I was taken in the coach with all the guides and Miss Kaye to the “Friendship Hospital” on the Embassy District which is reserved entirely for foreigners. It was clad in marble and predictably still showed a large mural of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in its entrance hall. The hygiene was second to none, and I am told that because the operation was executed so well that the scar may disappear in time.
Still a little foggy from the anaesthetic, I departed with the rest of the group to go to the British Embassy, which has been in place since 1979. We left the guides on Korean soil and set foot on British soil once more: It was refreshing to both be in contact with someone who was not as naive as the locals about the political situation in North Korea, and to have some longed-for English tea. We were explained the nature of diplomacy in the DPRK – that one has to wait until the DPRK asks for help, such as food aid from the UN, instead of addressing problems directly. We were told that the British Embassy was “aware” of the internment camps, and of the starvation rife in the countryside, but that progress was slow because of their government’s inflexibility. His choice of language was careful; we had to deduce whether he was concealing information, or whether he lacked information. The importance of 2012 was also a fascinating topic – the idea that the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, and therefore their current ideology, would bring great prosperity and wealth into the country. It has since been interesting to track their progress in this year, because we knew that under the economic climate and political restraints there would not be as much growth as anticipated, compounded by the death of Kim Jong Il being announced to the devastation of the public in December 2011.
After photographs, we left for the Korean War museum. Here we were shown a video explaining the origins of the Korean War which left us, as historians, in fits of giggles at the facts given. We were not told mere inaccuracies, but false information which we know to be wrong. For example, they conveyed that the Great Depression of the 1930s did not happen; rather, it was a result of the end of WWII. Additionally, they told us that the reason the war started was because the USA wanted to start up a successful war economy once more, and as a result they picked a country, almost at random, to start a war with. The exhibits of collected weapons and destroyed aeroplanes were to convey what the Americans did to their country, blaming them for all the destruction, as well as an attempt to convey their own military power. It gave a captivating insight into how they perceive and portray national and modern history to their people.
We were then ushered to four more museums, one for technology, energy, machinery and a planetarium. Each of the museums was large in size and each had a guide who made a valiant attempt to persuade us that the DPRK was a modern state which rivalled western counterparts.
The June 5th Secondary School was the penultimate port of call of our trip. The school, like all the buildings, had portraits of the leaders and murals of them with children on all walls. The murals, despite being in a school, still included an alarming amount of weapons and military figures. After viewing the science laboratories (which featured real animals in jars, as well as taxidermy) and the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il rooms, we were given another showcase. Though smaller in scale than the showcase given to us at the Grand School Children’s Palace, it was not much different in standard, and this time there was audience participation – we all got up for a dance.
The final stop in North Korea was the USS Pueblo – an American ship captured and kept by the North Koreans in its original condition which sat in the harbour. We were given a tour and showed the bullet holes in the metal. As the sun was setting, several of us posed against the machine gun poised at the front of the ship, and then there was time for the last group sightseeing photo before our final dinner in North Korea.
Day 9 – Back to Beijing
After heartfelt goodbyes from our guides, we headed through security to leave North Korea. Although our baggage was scrutinised on our entry, we were not searched at all when leaving the country and so customs was much less stressful. Confiscated items were returned to us, and many of us could not wait to be reunited with our mobile phones only hours later at the hotel in Beijing. On the flight, the same video that was shown on the inbound flight was shown, and we were given the Pyongyang Times newspaper which exaggerated about the leaders and the on-the-spot-guidance of Kim Jong Il – our last taste of the DPRK before returning to relative normality.
We landed, met our guide Lily, and went straight to the Great Wall of China at Badaling. The pollution really is an extensive problem, and was the cause of great disappointment for the budding photographers of the group as the murky fog obscured what may have been dramatic photographs. Most of us power-walked in the humidity to the less tourist-infested areas, but some were content to amble along the wall and contemplate its size in leisure.
The evening allowed us, for the first time in a long time, to ignore the itinerary. We walked through the busy streets of the Wangfujing shopping district of Beijing and eventually landed at a restaurant, where our tour party ate copious amounts of duck and innumerable pancakes – a feast for hungry eyes and stomachs after we had tired of unvarying Korean food. Afterwards, we meandered to a piano bar, where we ordered Singapore Slings and finally had a chance to discuss freely what we had seen in North Korea – freedom of speech has rarely been so appreciated! We presented the teachers with gifts, and toasted the trip, giving special thanks that despite the vast cultural differences we encountered, no one had been deported.
History Trips have always been legendary within the walls of King William’s College, but the legacy of this one rightly extended much further afield. Thanks must go to Mr B, Miss Kaye and Mr Hay for providing practical advice, historical perspective and priceless entertainment; however, without Mr Hay, we never would have thought this trip was possible, and so thanks must go especially to him simply for being bold enough to ask “what about North Korea?” and not looking back. The ten privileged students most definitely had the trip of a lifetime, in the most literal sense: we have seen the unseen, heard the words of dictators, and been bewildered by the manipulability of man under intense nationalistic and cultural pressure. Perhaps a reunion might be in order in 50 years – will anything have changed?