May First – a holiday for workers in many countries and the DPRK is no exception. May Day is a national holiday and possibly one of the few holidays in the DPRK with no social obligations for the citizens – it is simply a day off for them to do as they want. Parks are full of people out having picnics with family and friends, singing, dancing, playing games and so on. It is one of the best times of year for interaction with locals and each May Day we take tourists to the different parks in Pyongyang where they can take part in the celebrations – sometimes the tourists do this willingly, sometimes they need a little coercion – the Koreans are always enthusiastic for us to join in! As it is such a relaxed holiday we thought it would be the perfect day to do another Koryo First and so held the inaugural Koryo Tours Fun Run.
As ever at Koryo, we try to push the boundaries and develop new activities for tourists and try to open up new destinations. With football, volleyball, cricket, cycling and even Ultimate Frisbee under our belts, a run seemed like the next logical step. Pyongyang has an annual marathon so the DPRK is no stranger to competitive running, however, they had never heard of the Fun Run concept before and this would be the first one to take place.
The original route that was agreed on was to be a 5km run from the Ryanggang Hotel on the outskirts of the city, through Sports Street (a collection of stadiums built for the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students) and along Kwangbok Street, past the circus and finishing up opposite the huge Kwangbok Street supermarket (incidentally, one of the last places to be visited by the North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il before his death). When I was on a tour there last November, I actually got a chance to test out the route with two of our Korean guides.
Arrangements were all in place and excitement was building for the run. Some tourists had written to say they were in training and we at Koryo were worried about letting the side down so we scheduled in some last minute training in Beijing with HeyRunning! A few days before the run, however, our partners discovered that a huge renovation project of the Sports Street had just started and, regardless of the fact that we thought it sounded like an adventure, according to the Koreans, a group of tourists running through Army Construction Workers’ Barracks was not going to happen!
So the route was duly changed and at 7am on a bright and sunny May Day morning, a group approximately 50 tourists assembled at the old site of the US Spyship Pueblo ready to start the run along the Taedong River. We were over the moon about this new route as it is a much more central location and passes some iconic spots in Pyongyang such as the Juche Tower.
There was a nice mix of those who ran seriously – completing the run in just over 20 minutes – and those who preferred to take a more leisurely pace, walking along the riverside, relishing in the relative freedom that this event afforded! Many locals were out at that time – some cyclists, some early morning exercisers, a few groups of labourers off to the construction site (you don’t get a holiday if you’re a builder it seems!) – all were rather bemused to see groups of foreigners running/walking at various different paces in the beautiful morning sunshine.
The end of the route was Kim Il Sung Square and once everybody had reached the finish line we did a group lap of honour around the Square. The event was a success and all – the participants and the organizers – were pleased with how it turned out and we hope to do more events like this in the future.
The Fun Run also had a fundraising aspect. Each participant was asked to donate EUR 20 and this will be used to buy powdered milk – a very precious and necessary commodity – for an orphanage in Nampo. Through the participants and some additional sponsorship from non-participating groups, the Fun Run has raised just over EUR 2000 which is an incredible sum. We, and the orphanage, are very grateful to all who contributed.