No.1 of the Eight Scenes of Pyongyang
Take me to the river. – Al Green
Today we start our tour of the ‘Eight Scenes of Pyongyang' with one of the oldest activities in the list: boating on the Taedong. Given the river’s prominent role in the city’s development through the ages, boating in Pyongyang no doubt predates any written records.
Until the construction of modern bridges over the Taedong in 1905 AD, the only way to reach the Pyongyang proper from the south was to use a ferry*. This meant that any visitor traveling overland from the Korean capitals of Kaesong and Seoul – government inspectors, merchants, soldiers, travelers - would likely take a boat to reach the city. British traveller Isabella Bird described one of these ferries as it was in 1897 AD:
Crossing the clear flashing waters of the Tai-dong with our ponies in a crowded ferry-boat, we found ourselves in the slush of the dark Water Gate, at all hours of the day crowded with water-carriers. There are no wells in the city, the reason assigned for the deficiency being that the walls enclose a boat-shaped area, and the digging of wells would ace the boat to sink! (Bird, 1897:112).
An example of one of these old ferries can be seen today at the Monument to the United Front in Pyongyang.
However, in his poem 'Eight Scenes of Pyongyang', So Ko Jong wrote of pleasure boating rather than a crowded, animal carrying barge. Specifically he wrote of boating at Pyongyang city’s southern gate, the Ko-pi Gate. The section of the poem called 'Boating at Ko(-Pi) Gate' (거문범추-車門泛舟) recounts taking a boat on the Taedong as a youth visiting Pyongyang and the scenery on the river surpassing that of Suzhou and Hangzhou in China. This comparison is more than complimentary for since the Song Dynasty ruled China (960-1279 AD) it had been said throughout East Asia:
In heaven above there is paradise, on earth below Suzhou and Hangzhou.
He wrote of a morning on the river with a beautiful woman (itself a common accompanying theme in the lore of Pyongyang boating), sailing about and listening to the sound of the waves against the gunwale, wishing to be as intrepid and stalwart as the birds above. The former location of the Ko-pi Gate is today in modern Pyongyang’s Pyongchon District, facing Ssuk Islet and the newly built Science and Technology Complex. (Ssuk means ‘mugwort’ , which once grew on the island’s marginal lands and said to have weak hallucinogenic properties. Watermelons also grow well there. Perhaps this explains some of So’s pleasant youthful experience). There is now a bridge in the area crossing the river to South Pyongyang’s Tongil Street, but one can still see a small dock for pleasure boaters. Pyongyang’s oldest hometown hobby has not been forgotten.
Modern boaters in Pyongyang have a wide array of options for taking oneself to the river. Row boat rental has been an option for family, friends, and couples since at least since the early post-war DPRK era (see Claude Lanzmann’s The Patagonian Hare). One can find rowboat docks at numerous locations along the river: near Kim Il Sung Square, on the east side of Okryu Bridge, and the above mentioned Pyongchon location. Kayaking is also possible and those looking for more range on the river can kayak all the way to the Chollima District of Nampo, approximately 25 km.
For those not wishing to exert themselves, Pyongyang has a few generations of sightseeing boats moored along the river. Until recently the classic riverboat Pyongyang No.1 and a small Turtle Ship-inspired boat were the main sightseeing options until the introduction of the Rainbow in 2015. The Rainbow is a mid-sized double-ended river cruiser whose realm exists between Taedong and Okryu Bridges. Some have speculated that its profile is too high to pass under either bridge, but a combination of low-water and perhaps some ballasting may give it further range, if needed. Last November a new flotilla of small solar-powered boats, the Okryu 1 thru Okryu 3, also made an appearance. A relatively recent fad is for wedding parties to rent motor boats to take commemorative wedding photos and video out on the river (also see here).
And, of course, the river view can be enjoyed by other means. Lovers (see Lanzmann again) and elderly men share a particular fondness for the riverbank. Here a rough translation of some 1980’s North Korean love poetry:
Holding hands we walk fondly / Above our heads the stars exchange whispers / As the light wind of the river cools our cheeks / How nice, the riverbank! / This willow covered path we follow.
Oh, the romantic boardwalk!
And to the same boardwalk, year in year out, rain or shine, Pyongyang’s legions of retirees flock to engage in that timeless test of mettle that is fishing. Angling (and the associated activity of watching other people fish) ranks among the DPRK national’s pastimes along with football, volleyball, and table tennis. In winter, when the Taedong freezes over, the ever persistent Pyongyang anglers take to the ice, carving small circular holes to get at the fish below. In summer there is a country-wide angling competition on the river.
So it goes that the Taedong river keeps on flowing and the citizens of Pyongyang continue to enjoy the river as they have for millennia.
The Koryo Academy is a regular posting on Korean history, culture, and language.