The King from the North and Land of the Winter Horse
“I was made governor of the seven home provinces of ancient Koryu. In Cho-sen seven is the magic number...The seven provinces constituted the northern march. Beyond lay what is now Manchuria, but which was known by us as the country of the Hong-du, or “Red Heads.” They were wild raiders, on occasion crossing the Yalu in great masses and overrunning northern Cho-sen like locusts. It was said that they were given to cannibal practices. I know of experience that they were terrible fighters, most difficult to convince of a beating.”- The Star Rover by Jack London.
Seven provinces struggling for power, seven provinces on the brink of civil war, as red-headed barbarians amass beyond the frontier, the son of a northern lord prepares to turn his armies south to unseat a corrupted dynasty. No, this isn’t Westeros of Game of Thrones; it’s Korea in 1388, the twilight years of the Koryo Dynasty and the rise of Ri Song Gye, the King from the North and founder of a new dynasty.
The Koryo-Ri dynastic transition was indeed a dramatic one and perhaps as full of betrayal, intrigues, and bloodshed as George R. R. Martin’s imagination. It’s a story we’ll come back to time and time again in relation to places in northern Korea where many of these events came to pass. For now, as they say in Westeros, winter is coming and this may be a long one. The next season of Game of Thrones isn’t scheduled to come out till next August. In the mean time, why not come see the north (and beyond) for yourself?
Here is a preview of some of what is coming up this winter season:
From time to time, a photo appears on the internet of Pyongyang’s streets without a creature in sight. The biting winds of Manchuria and Mongolia from beyond the Yalu River may have something to do with it. Despite a calm, quiet atmosphere with relatively few foreign visitors, the winter is quite a happening time in Korea.
In December, Korean work units and companies wrap up their accounts for the past year and make plans for the next. This year has been particularly busy , having seen back to back 70 and 200 Day [Work] Campaigns (일전투 – 日戰鬪) in which citizens have worked extra hours in the evening and weekends. The latter of the two ends mid-month, perhaps providing some additional time for relaxation during the country’s festive winter months.
Although Christmas is far from a celebrated holiday among the majority of Korea’s mostly atheist population, plastic Christmas trees, reindeer, and Santa Claus(es) often find their way into restaurants and stores – adding another layer of kitsch to their already flashy decor. Street-side colored lights and signs, ubiquitous in the capital and more and more common in Korea’s small and mid-sized cities, add to the atmosphere.
The real holiday is New Year’s Day and the capital brings it in with a fireworks display on banks of the Taedong River. The Pyongyang Ice Sculpture Festival will take place from December 31-January 2. Our New Year’s Eve Tour (December 29-January 3) will see both.
New Year’s Day is the time when the DPRK’s annual New Year’s Editorial (or speech) is announced. This traditionally sets the wider political, economic, and policy agenda for the coming year. In the day and weeks following its publications, one often sees Koreans studying and discussing the contents. Foreign observers will be doing the same, reading and rereading the text in minute details. Those on our January Tour (January 10-14) will no doubt hear directly about the most important points for the year to come.
Saturday January 7 is Christmas for foreigners of the Eastern Orthodox faith living in Pyongyang, who will hold a midnight vigil from the wee hours of the morning at the Holy Trinity Church.
Although not a holiday in itself (yet), January 8, is the birthday of the current leader Marshal Kim Jong Un. The likely resignation of South Korean president Pak Geun Hye and the inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20, will make for a new dynamic in the international political arena in 2017.
If one New Year celebration isn’t enough for you, Koreans also celebrate the traditional Lunar New Year, on January 28 next year, albeit much more calmly than their Chinese neighbours. This year there is a children’s festival planned for the holiday on Kim Il Sung Square that will feature folk games, kites, and dancing. Join us for our Lunar New Year Tour from Beijing (January 26-31) or the Lunar New Year from Shanghai (January 27-29).
February 16 is “The Day of the Shinning Star”, one of the DPRK’s largest holidays. Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the birth of Leader Kim Jong Il and will be marked by a series of events: the Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia Flower Exhibition, where organisations from across society compete to put on the best floral display, the Paekdusan International Figure Skating Competition, and a Synchronised Swimming Performance. Both our Kim Jong Il Birthday Short Tour (February 14-18) and Kim Jong Il Birthday Long Tour (February 14-21) will have a chance to see these events.
Travellers on any winter tour can also opt to stay on a few extra days for skiing with our Masik Pass Ski Resort Extension. The resort has nine runs and two beginners' slopes, which despite being on the easy side for experienced skiers, offer ample opportunity to show of one's skill and impress the locals.
And for those seeking adventure beyond the Yalu, our Mongolia - Land of the Winter Horse (February 19-24) can be combined with the Kim Jong Il Birthday Short Tour above. See three countries in two weeks! Fly from Pyongyang to Beijing on Saturday and on to Ulan Bator on Sunday night. We’ll see the world’s coldest capital, and then travel across the winter landscape of Mongolia, riding horses, dog-sleds, and Russian-made 4-wheel drives. The tour will visit local nomadic families and round-up, catch, and ride horses among their bounding herds.
The Koryo Courier is a monthly posting with the latest news from Koryo Tours.