Our last full day in Rason just so happened to be the birthday of my business partner Troy, with the Koreans in usual fashion getting the party started as early as possible by presenting him with a cake at lunch time. Koreans take birthdays pretty seriously, and from a customer service point of view go all out, with the cake being awesome. Alas they also did the very Korean thing of serving cake before lunch. Not ideal.
Following this was to be the real highlight, a trip legally to the Rason private market, the only place in the country where this is possible for tourists.
To give the background on private markets, basically in the early 90’s when things were shall we say not as plentiful as they had been during the Soviet days, there blossomed to some extent a private, or dare I say black market. Over time this grew with necessity, with the government taking various viewpoints quiet acceptance, to banning them, and finally to legislation, and moderation of them. Rason being not only a border town, but an SeZ, the market is not only tolerated, but fairly heavily regulated. There is talk of tourists being banned in the future from going, but for whatever reason we were able to secure it.
First point of call was the tobacco market, which for smokers is a bit of a gold mine, with mostly locally grown, but also imported loose tobacco over all descriptions, as well as packets of Korean cigarettes (at far cheaper than at the standard tourist prices), as well as imported brands from Russia, and China, as well as good old favourites like Marlboro, and Camel.
We followed this by going into the main indoor part, where basically you can buy any daily household necessity, or pretty much any consumer good that it is possible to import from China, although generally of a lower cost such as clothes and the like.
We finished at the food “part” where an amazing amount of fresh seafood, noodles, kimchee, whatever is produced locally is sold on the open market, something that obviously means that farmers are being given more freedom than in past times with regards to surplus and government quotas. Our group purchased some hairy crab, which is not actually any kind of euphemism, but actually a local delicacy that is so sought after in China that day traders will come along just to buy crabs and export as many as they can carry to China.
Its really hard to put how amazing the market is as an experience, but for those that have been to Pyongyang, it is frankly wonderful to have the freedom to stroll around and not only purchase goods, but also be able to haggle whilst watching the Koreans simply getting on with it and getting the things they need to survive. Alas pictures are not allowed…..
This was followed almost immediately by a performance at the Kindergarten. I will let the pictures show for themselves, but seeing kids as talented as these simply blows your mind, and whatever people say good, or bad about the DPRK, the fact that their kids learn these things rather than sit in front of a computer has to be a positive thing.
For our last night we decided on a change of hotel, we needed something how shall I put it, a little more on the classic Soviet side, so booked ourselves into the Nansam Hotel, originally built in the 1930’s by the Japanese, upheld in classic Soviet style, and situated slap bang in the middle of town, which as we knew of some secret little bars would work in our favour.
Rason by no means has the culinary choices of Pyongyang, but for our last evening I chose the generally accepted best restaurant in town a joint venture between the DPRK, and a Japanese Korean, that would be serving local food as well as our purchased crabs. They also sold 2 litre bottles of dodgy Russian beer which is always a treat.
After dinner we went to a local bar that usually closes at 9.30, but we kept open until 11.30 whilst they sung the birthday boys favourite songs on the Karaoke machine, we were even joined by some stereotypically drunk Russians, before carrying on the party back at the hotel until the early hours. 11 of us had multiple beers, 2 bottles of vodka and snacks for a grand total of 50 Euro. Not too bad.
As birthdays go, one in Rason is certainly memorable.
(original story courtesy of Gareth’s blog).