Photo Of The Day: Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge

This Photo of the Day, titled “Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge,” comes from Gadling Flickr pool member Bernard-SD, captured with a Cannon EOS 5D Mark II.

Not exactly friendly, it is one of the few ways to enter or leave North Korea. The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge carries automobile and rail traffic but not people, as pedestrians are not allowed to cross it. Of the image, Bernard-SD says:

“The Sino-Korean Friendship bridge connecting Dandong, China to Sinùiju, North Korea. Despite having a population of over 350,000 people, Sinùiju was shrouded in the dark. “

Want to be featured? Upload your best shots to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr. Several times a week we choose our favorite images from the pool as a Photo of the Day.

Tips for being featured: add a caption describing the image and (better yet) your personal experience when capturing it, details of the photography gear used and any tips you might have for others wanting to emulate your work.

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[Photo Credits Flickr user Bernard-SD]

Why I Came To South Korea: An Introduction To ‘The Kimchi-ite’

South Korea is not an obvious travel destination, it has no true iconic landmarks and its only recent, distinct cultural exports are kimchi and an amazing horse riding song and dance. When I told people that I would be moving to Seoul, their first question was either “North Korea?” or “….where?” But Korea is a place rich with destinations: immense cities, ski resorts, popular beaches, as well as renowned film festivals and fashion events. It has a history spanning thousands of years, including warring kingdoms, Japanese colonization, ancient temples, rapid industrialization and funny hats.

The capital city of Seoul is a destination unto itself. Less than five decades ago, much of the city was barely even farmland. But today, it is a modern metropolis with cultural assets that rival Tokyo or Berlin. There are world-class restaurants with food from all over the world as well as cheap street food. Dozens of construction projects are underway that will make some of the world’s largest and most beautiful buildings. Seoul is also one of the few truly 24-hour cities in the world. When the nightlife in Tokyo has already died down, Seoul’s countless nightlife districts are just getting started.

As Korea has become prominent in the global conscience, the traveler and expat community has grown. Its central location in Asia makes it a great pit stop for those traveling deeper into the continent. Others stay longer, and often for work. I have met people from all over the world working in Korea as models, computer programmers, writers, actors, bartenders and, more often than not, English teachers.

Korea has an insatiable demand for English education. It is a big part of the college application process and with Korea’s growth in international business, it is often seen as a necessity. That demand, coupled with decent pay and a relatively cheap cost of living (especially compared to Europe, North America and Japan) leads many native English speakers with a penchant for travel to find themselves in Korea.

I also came to Korea to teach English, and like many, it wasn’t a direct route. After I graduated college, my love of traveling influenced me to look for work abroad. I ended up spending a year teaching English in Japan at the foot of Mt. Fuji. I surprised myself by falling in love with teaching, but I hated the monotony of the small town I lived in. Korea is my chance to get back to teaching while living in an energetic mega-city.

Ever since moving to South Korea almost a year ago, I have been amazed so much by everything around me. Its truly unique culture and ridiculously fast-paced lifestyle are like nothing else on the planet. Moving forward with this column, my journey will take you through the life of an expatriate, from the insane spicy foods on the streets of Seoul to deeply rooted Confucianism in everyday culture to journeys around the Asian continent. I hope you enjoy all of its facets as much as I do.

North Korean Airline Dubbed ‘World’s Worst’ Finally Gets On Board With Online Booking

Let’s take a poll: would you fly an airline rated the “world’s worst”? No? Now tell us, if that same airline was owned by North Korea would you consider it any more worthy of your ticket price? Probably not, you say?

The good news is that if you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, booking on Air Koryo just got a lot easier. The Skytrax one-star rated airline is selling its flights to China and Russia online for the first time.

Although we’re not sure that the website will add anything to the airline’s reputation. According to the Telegraph:

Early reports seems to suggest the website is unlikely to help the North Korean flag carrier shake its one-star rating, however. Users have already reported slow response speeds, with some searches not offering any availability for flights, while others result in an error message appearing on the screen.

What happens on a one-star airline? According to Startrax: “very poor quality performance … with poor, inconsistent standards of … service … in on-board and airport environments.”

At present, the airline utilizes a number of planes constructed in the former Soviet Union and is the only airline rated as one-star worldwide. That said, there are 29 airlines ranked just above this dubious distinction as two-star, which include names you may have flown, including Air Zimbabwe, Bulgaria Air and Ryanair.

[Photo credit: screenshot from Air Koryo]

Video: Sneaking Into North Korea

Most journalists tread carefully around the topic of North Korea. If a tourist in North Korea is found to be a journalist, that person can get into a lot of trouble. Whether or not the punishment for this crime is severe, the risk is too steep for most. But VICE sent a journalist to North Korea who made it out alive and well. This video documents the process of breaking into North Korea, so to speak. Watch, learn and enjoy. And by all means, if any of you have any personal stories you’d like to share about traveling to North Korea, tell us your story in the comment section below.

Syria memories: grieving for a dictator

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.

The 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.