Syria memories: grieving for a dictator

Syria
The death of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il has led to some very strange television–the Dear Leader lying in state, throngs of North Koreans weeping uncontrollably, even rumors of miracles such as grieving birds.

The images coming out of North Korea led to a discussion with some of my Facebook friends over whether or not the outpouring of grief was genuine or staged. I lean towards staged, since the only news we’re getting is from the state media, which has tried to raise Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung to the status of demigods. Then again, in the cloistered lives the North Koreans live, perhaps they do feel a sense of loss. Even the BBC discussed the issue and came to the conclusion that we can’t know for sure.

SyriaThe whole thing made me remember my trip to Syria back in 1994. Pictures of Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad and his family were everywhere–in shops, on the streets, in the front rooms of private homes–as you can see in this photo of what looks like a hotel lobby with portraits of Hafez and his son Bashar, courtesy flickr user Bombardier. Bashar now rules Syria (perhaps not for long) but it was his older brother Bassel who was supposed to take over. When I was there it was common to see photos of Bassel and Hafez side by side, and most Syrians assumed he’d rule Syria one day.

In Syria in those days, if you kept your nose clean the authorities generally left you alone. If you stood up against the government, they leveled your city. So Syrians toted the line in public. In private, however, many quietly told me how much they hated the regime. One admitted he’d never say such things to a fellow Syrian for fear that he may be a member of the secret police. In Syria, there are lots of secret police.

Then, on 22 January 1994, Bassel died in a car accident. I’ll never forget the grim military music that played on the state radio and television for several days afterwards, and the constant coverage the state media gave to his life and unexpected death. As soon as the news broke that first day I went out onto the streets of Damascus. Shops were closed and there were far more soldiers and police on the streets than usual. A rally was already forming in one of the main squares.The rally wasn’t very big, just a few dozen young men chanting slogans in support of the regime. There was no counter demonstration. Strangely, the cops seemed to be trying to calm the most vocal supporters. One young man got onto the shoulders of another to be more visible and started loudly chanting the praises of Hafez al-Assad. The cop made him get down and stop. It seemed that any outspoken statement, even one in support of the government, was viewed with suspicion.

The government declared several days of national mourning. All shops were to remain closed. I had befriended a shopkeeper near my hotel, a friendly fellow with good English who changed money at a black market rate for a steady stream of backpackers. Let’s call him Samir. I won’t tell you his real name or occupation for obvious reasons.

Samir lived frugally. I got the impression all that hard currency was going somewhere else. A nest egg? Support for extended family? I never asked. He was like many such people I’ve met in my travels in that he enjoyed talking to foreigners as much as he enjoyed making money off of them. I changed money with him only a few times, but every day we sat sipping sweet Arabic tea and having long conversations about everything except politics. Samir never discussed politics, not even on January 22.

In fact, all Syrians were silent with me on the subject of Bassel’s death. While they didn’t look choked up about it, they didn’t want to risk saying anything about the dead son of the dictator, not even to a foreigner. I saw no evidence of grief, not even at that rally. Those young men in the square only seemed to be doing some very public brown nosing. The rest of the people of Damascus just went about their day-to-day lives and kept quiet.

The days of mourning were declared over and Samir reopened his shop. I was just about to enter for our morning tea when a cop showed up. He told Samir that the mourning period was still on, and demanded to know why the shop was open. Samir cringed and pleaded that the radio said the mourning period was over. The cop told him that was wrong (it turned out they’d extended it at the last minute) and that he better close his store quick. Then the cop left. He could have hauled Samir before a judge, or demanded a bribe to keep him out of jail. Instead he just walked away. Perhaps he wasn’t fond of the al-Assad family either.

It was the least mournful period of national mourning I’ve ever seen.

So are the tears for Kim Jong-il genuine? If Syria is anything to judge by, they aren’t, but Syria and North Korea are two very different cultures and Syrians were never as cut off from the world as the North Koreans. So, as usual with the world’s most isolated country, we once again have to shrug our shoulders and say we don’t know.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Kim Jong-il’s death, besides the political instability, is that the passing that same week of Václav Havel has not received the attention it deserves. Havel was a dissident playwright in Communist Czechoslovakia who refused to stop making his art despite being repeatedly imprisoned by the government. In 1989, Communism fell and he became president, helping to lead his country’s transition to democracy. He did it with no bloodshed and a minimum of ill-will. And then he went back to his writing. Check out this obituary of Václav Havel to learn more about a leader whose death really does deserve tears.

Photos of Mangyongdae Funfair

The Mangyongdae Funfair is a North Korean amusement park known for its rusting rides and harnesses that don’t quite lock. For North Koreans, it’s an amusement park the same as Disney World is an amusement park for Americans. Being that there are only roughly 1,500 Western tourists that travel to North Korea each year (compounded by the fact that each traveler must have a guide with him or her at all times), few Western travelers ever experience the Mangyongdae Funfair, and so there are few photos of the rickety, but still-working amusement park surfacing online–at least within the online destinations I frequent. A recent post on Kuriositas.com, however, displayed some great photos of the park. After viewing the photos, I was moved to share that link, as well as a couple other good ones, with you.

And so, here they are, amuse yourselves with photos of this famed destination park.

http://www.kuriositas.com/2011/10/mangyongdae-last-funfair-in-north-korea.html

http://www.lindsayfincher.com/north-korea-cheating-death-at-the-mangyongdae-fun-fair-the-disneyland-of-pyongyang.html

http://www.flickr.com/search/?w=77015846@N00&q=fun%20fair

Vacation in North Korea

10 unusual foods from around the world

Fried Tarantula in CambodiaWho doesn’t love trying new and exotic foods when traveling? Maybe some spicy curries in India, a selection of savory tapas in Spain, or some authentic…Pig’s Blood Cake? Check out this list of 10 unusual foods from around the world and see if your perspective on trying international cuisine doesn’t change.

Fried Tarantulas, Cambodia

According to Victoria Brewood at Bootsnall, you can find this delicacy in the streets of Sukon, Cambodia, fried whole with their legs, fangs, and all. Apparently, they taste great pan-fried with a pinch of garlic and salt and have a crispy outside and a gooey inside.

Pig’s Blood Cake, Taiwan

This unique dish is prepared with sticky rice and hot pig’s blood. When the mixture becomes solid it is coated with peanut powder and cilantro then formed into a flat cake and sliced. This meal is usually dipped in various sauces such as chili sauce, hot sauce, or soy sauce.Pig's Blood Cake in TaiwanHaggis, Scotland

This Scottish dish contains the internal organs of a sheep, including the liver, heart, and lungs. Mix this with some chopped onions, raw beef or mutton’s fat, salt, and spices. Once this is ready, you stuff it into a sheep intestine as sausage and simmer inside the animal’s stomach. Dinner will be ready in 3 hours!

Drunken Shrimp, China

When hearing the name of this dish, I had kind of hoped it was a cute play on words of some kind. In reality, the name should be taken very literally, as these are shrimp that are actually stunned with strong liquor and then consumed alive. Not shockingly, there have been some problems with this meal of uncooked seafood as there is the health risk of Paragonimiasis, a food-borne parasitic infection.

Live Octopus, Korea

I can’t help but think of Fear Factor as I write this entry. Sannakji, as it is known, is an octopus that is prepared and cut while still alive. It is served while still squirming, and should be chewed well as the suction of the tentacles can stick to the inside of your mouth and throat.

Silkworms, China

This insect is cultivated and bred in factories and sold in local markets for cooking. While you can prepare them anyway you like, popular silkworm dishes include Crispy Silkworms and Silkworm Kebabs.

Bear Claw Stew, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan

Soup made from the claws of bears is a delicacy in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and is literally sold for hundreds of dollars. The bear meat in the stew is actually believed to be a health and sexual-performance booster. According to nerdygaga.com as well as factsanddetails.com, environmentalists are protesting the practice of making bear claw stew, as bears are being tortured in front of diners before being cooked, as it is said to make the meat taste better.

Casu Marzu, Italy

This decomposing cheese made from sheep’s milk is, according to Alka Sharma of Environmental Graffiti, full of squirming white worms. Casu Marzu is made when the cheese fly lays its eggs, which is usually about 500 at one time, and the maggots that hatch eat their way through the cheese. Because the digestive system of the maggots breaks down the fat of the cheese, it gives it a very soft texture. The key to eating this unusual food is that it must be eaten while the maggots are still alive and wriggling, unless you want a bowl full of dead maggots (this, apparently, is considered unfit for consumption).

Ying Yang Fish, China

This fish is unlike most seafood delicacies, as it is half dead, half alive. While the top half of the fish is uncooked and moving, the bottom half is deep fried and covered in sweet and sour sauce.

Corn Fungus, Latin America

Also known as Corn Smut, this food, which looks very similar to grey brain matter, is a “pathogenic plant fungus that causes plant disease on maize (corn)” and is often used as filling for quesadillas. According to Martha Mendoza on MSNBC.com, Corn Smut is actually good for you, as it contains protein, minerals, and other nutritional values.

Ghostscrapers – Top ten post-apocalyptic abandoned skyscrapers

abandoned skyscrapers

When city plans exceed reality, or the money dries up, or people simply leave in a mass exodus, skyscrapers vacate and slowly decay. High winds thrash through broken windows. Rats live undisturbed amongst decades old rubble. Stairways lead to doors that may never open again. The ghost of ambition’s past arrives in the present like a howling specter, creating eyesores, dangerous conditions, and free housing for opportunistic urban survivalists.

These abandoned skyscrapers range from forsaken structures aborted long before their doors opened to icons from a bygone era. While a slumper like Detroit has its fair share of empty giants, even cities with tiger cub economic growth like Bangkok are not immune to the plague of creepy abandoned high-rises. South America brings vertical favelas to the list, and Poland has a tower named after a pop-culture villain. And even San Francisco, a city with a high recreational scooter to human ratio and droves of individuals who see the world just beyond the tip of their nose, has its very own abandoned skyscraper.

From North Korea to Venezuela, these structures differ in their stories and circumstance, but each is a fine glimpse at post-apocalyptic urban decay.


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abandoned skyscrapers

Michigan Central Station
Location: Detroit, USA
Stories: 18 floors
Story: The Central Station was finished during the advent of the automobile – 1913. The Beaux-Arts style of the classical building recalls a time when Detroit possessed the resources and momentum to rightfully emulate Parisian architecture. Its old school ambition is not lost on current Detroit residents but its function certainly is. It is a doorway into a forgotten world and a poster-boy for urban decay. The graffiti and dilapidation tells the story not just of Detroit’s acrimonious decline but also the abandonment of rail travel in the United States. At its peak during the 1940’s, 200 trains left this station daily. Today, none. While rail travel is receiving some political buzz in Washington, the fate of this gorgeous structure is uncertain. Many have flirted with re-purposing the old building, from the Detroit Police to casino developers, but for the moment it stands quietly on the outskirts of the modern world like an old ornate wrench that fits no bolt.
Abandoned since: 1988

abandoned skyscrapers

Ryugyong Hotel
Location: Pyongyang, North Korea
Stories: 105 floors
Story: This massive pyramidal structure (above, furthest left) is a 105 story symbol for the absurdist ambitions of Kim Jong Il and the hermit kingdom. It has been under construction (on and off) for decades. It has been called the world’s most hideous hotel. It is an unnecessary extravagance in a country that can barely feed its people. The project was abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union due to Soviet subsidies to North Korea coming to an end. The hollow shell stood vacant for decades, just towering above the city – a failure too large to ignore but too painful to acknowledge. The North Koreans spent years denying the structure’s existence, removing it from photographs and excluding it from maps of Pyongyang. Too much shame, it seems, in the very obvious failure. Construction on the structure resumed recently with Egyptian architectural firm Orascom leading the project. It is slated for completion in 2012, to sync with the 100th birthday of Eternal President Kim Il Sung, deceased since 1994.
Abandoned since: 1992, currently under construction

Tower of David
Location: Caracas, Venezuela
Stories: 45 floors
Story: The Tower of David, one of the tallest buildings in Latin America, is the quintessential slum-scraper. There is no government interference, just 2500 squatters carving up its 45 stories for purposes ranging from housing to business. The building includes apartments, home-brew PlayStation arcades, beauty salons, and perhaps the most suspicious dentistry operation in the new world. While the current occupants have yet to climb higher than the 30th floor, it is only a matter of time before the anarchic housing market pushes residences higher towards the dilapidated rooftop helipad – a symbol from Caracas’ forgotten banking boom.
Abandoned since: 1994, never completed

abandoned skyscrapers

Buffalo Central Terminal
Location: Buffalo, USA
Stories: 20
Story: The Buffalo Central terminal has been looted for artifacts, vandalized by bored delinquents, used for art exhibitions, explored by ghost hunters, and even sold for $1. It is a gorgeous old structure plagued by a series of humiliating footnotes, caught in a perpetual fall from grace. But it was not always so. At a time, the Buffalo Central Terminal was an important hub servicing hundreds of trains daily. Still an Art Deco architectural masterpiece, the structure possesses a prominent tower worthy of superlatives, and its halls are said to be haunted by ghostly apparitions waiting for trains that will never arrive. Last Halloween, the TV show Ghost Hunters filmed a 6 hour marathon in the creepy old building. It is possible to tour the structure and even get hitched in its lofty halls. Click here for more information.
Abandoned since: 1980

abandoned skyscrapers

Szkieletor (Skelator)
Location: Krakow, Poland
Stories: 20 floors
Story: The tallest building in Krakow is a a hulking skeleton of a structure unofficially named after the villain from He-man – a show extremely popular in Poland in the early 1980’s. Construction began in 1975, but the Pols ran into economic troubles. Today, the building is primarily a backdrop in which to drape massive advertisements. It is also a constant reminder of the decades old malfeasance of Skelator – an urban Castle Grayskull looming on the Polish horizon.
Abandoned since: 1981, never completed

PacBell Building
Location: San Francisco, USA
Stories: 26
Story: Once the tallest building in San Francisco, the PacBell building is a Neo-Gothic marvel abandoned last decade. Completed in 1925, the giant is capped with 13 foot tall art deco Eagles looking out over the great San Francisco expanse. While the building was purchased in 2007 for $118 million, it has since been left to decay quietly in its own upscale way. Unlike most abandoned skyscrapers though, this one still has some life in it. Security guards patrol the ground floor, and the tower is lit up at night. A couple of brave urban explorers over at Bearings snuck past the guard and explored the tower’s heights. Check out their first hand account of the abandoned skyscraper. The PacBell Building will likely be repurposed into condominiums in the coming years.
Abandoned since: 2005

abandoned skyscrapers

Edificio Sao Vito
Location: Sao Paolo, Brazil
Stories: 27 floors
Story: The original vertical favela arrived on the scene in the late fifties with the intention of providing housing to Sao Paolo’s middle class community and expats. Before long though, the building fell into disrepair and became an overpopulated den of urban plight – a favela that sprawled up. As basic services and utilities declined over the years, tenants began disposing their garbage out the window and obtaining illegal electricity. Many of the Edificio’s 624 apartment units were split into two – stressing the already shaky infrastructure of the building known as “Balança mas não Cai” (It shakes but does not fall). By the eighties, the tap water was polluted and only one of the three elevators partially worked – making its way halfway up the building. Edificio Sao Vito was formally evacuated in 2004, though crackheads and drug dealers have taken to the abandoned structure like moths to a flame. Allegedly, the Mayor of Sao Paolo tried to demolish the building because it obstructed his otherwise pleasant view. While this bit of urban lore may or may not be true, the building has been flirting with demolition for the last decade. At the time of reading its graffiti flecked concrete walls may simply be dust.
Abandoned since: 2004

abandoned skyscrapers

Book Tower
Location: Detroit, USA
Stories: 38 floors
Story: Construction began on the Book Tower in 1916, just a few years after Henry Ford transformed auto-making forever with assembly line production. It is the old style of high-rise – more a kin of masonry than a child of steel and glass. For years, the classic structure with an ornate copper roof stood for the old world extravagance of Detroit. Now, it has taken on an altogether different metaphorical role as a sad reminder of when the eminent address spoke for the industrialist success of one of America’s finest cities. The property has changed hands many times in the last decade and plans exist to drop hundreds of millions in restoring the old-school giant.
Abandoned since: 2009

abandoned skyscrapers

Sathorn Unique
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Stories: 49
Story: During the Thai tiger economy of the 1990’s, skyscrapers grew all over Bangkok in a display of Thailand’s new-found economic prominence. This one never completely grew up. Crows circle the pinnacle and rats call its lower levels home. Locals, convinced its hallways are haunted, stay out of the ghostscraper. Expat urban spelunkers have explored the building and returned to Khao San Road with stories from its upper reaches. The verdict: it is a dilapidated mess. The future of the Sathorn Unique remains unclear but perhaps someday it will be finished. For now, it looms on the Bangkok skyline with many other abandoned skeletal structures.
Abandoned since: 1997

abandoned skyscrapers

Sterick Building
Location: Memphis, USA
Stories: 29 floors
Story: Once the tallest building in the southern United States, the original “Queen of Memphis” is a ghostly skyscraper, boarded up and decaying from the inside. The late Gothic architectural marvel once shuttled around thousands of workers, from stockbrokers to barbers, in its eight high-speed elevators. It has been the domain of urban explorers and desperate vagrants ever since being completely abandoned in the late nineteen-eighties. While inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places preserves its era appropriate charms, the future of the towering structure is unclear. Perhaps a redevelopment boom in downtown Memphis will reignite a need for the large ghostscraper.
Abandoned since: 1980s

top flickr image via country_boy_shane

New North Korea tour company needs approval from the feds

Mount Kumgang, North KoreaA new company is trying to get into the North Korea tourism game. Korea Pyongyang Trading USA, based in New York, is looking to diversify out of its current business – importing Pyongyang Soju from North Korea. Founder Steve Park has his eye on Mount Kumgang, the site of a resort that involved a joint venture between South Korean companies and the North Korean government. It went sour when a South Korean tourist was shot there in 2008.

It seems like an interesting business opportunity, given how interesting the hard-to-reach company is too many travelers. And, since it’s so hard to do business with the regime, competition is unlikely to be stiff. The regulatory red tape, on the other hand, is a different story.

South Korea is saying that Korea Pyongyang Trading USA will need to get permission from the U.S. government in order to get the operation off the ground. The Dong-A Ilbo reports:

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A government source in Seoul said, “According to U.S. Executive Order 13570 (effectuated on April 19), all products, services and technologies brought into the U.S. require permission from the U.S. government,” adding, “If a company seeks to engage in the service business of Mount Kumgang tours with North Korea, it should win approval from the U.S. government.”

So far, the application hasn’t been submitted.

There’s a reason South Korea is weighing in on this. Inside Investor Relations explains:

This deal [with Steve Park] follows several years of difficulties over managing Mount Kumgang through an agreement with South Korea’s Hyundai Asan. The resort provided significant cash to North Korea, but the arrangement was terminated in 2008 when a North Korean soldier shot dead a tourist from Seoul. South Korean officials demanded an apology, and its northern neighbors say they will “deprive Hyundai of its exclusive right to the mountain tour project and seize all of its assets in the region.”

Is there an ownership or rights dispute in the works? According to The Dong-A Ilbo, officials in Seoul are struggling to accept that North Korea can yank Hyundai Asan’s “exclusive right to the tours.” Of course, there’s always a shot that the U.S. deal will fall apart (with North Korea, this is always a concern!). The Dong-A Ilbo continues, “The South Korean government understands that the North is taking steps to attract another foreign business other than the American company.”

The odds of this happening, however, seem low.

photo by yeowatzup via Flickr