I’ve spent December 31st in Tokyo mega clubs, Laos jungles and the Australian bush, but nothing compares to spending New Years Eve surrounded by thousands of Koreans watching the fireworks over the Taedong River as my new favourite new years anthem, “May Snow Fall On New Years Day”, blares over the speakers in Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang.
Along with a ragtag group of fellow travelers from around the world, the night’s proceedings begin with drinks at the Mansugyo Bar in Pyongyang. One of my personal favourite watering holes in Pyongyang, Mansugyo’s downstairs area is split between two bars: a smaller standing bar and a very lush, larger drinking hall. While the vibe of the small standing bar is cosy and a little more intimate, it’s the drinking hall that most of the locals are choosing to drink in tonight. Mansugyo serves seven varieties of Taedonggang beers including a coffee stout, chocolate stout and rice lager. We’ve got a long night of drinking ahead, so I start conservatively choosing the lighter, but very smashable “number 2” made up of 70% barley and 30% rice.
The vibes are high and the banter is solid, but it’s time to move on. Second stop of the night is the Taedong Diplomatic Club AKA ‘the Diplo’ – an institution and the number 1 bar in our top 10 bars to visit before you die list. We gate crash a party of some diplomats, but after a friendly discussion with two Swedish and Russian embassy workers, are enthusiastically invited to join them for drinks in the bar. The Russian vodka starts to flow and before too long we’re belting out karaoke tracks; with one of our guides Mr. Pang creating what could very well be the first North Korean remix / mash-up of Pangapsumnida being sung to the melody of Yellow Submarine.
Midnight is fast approaching, so we depart the Diplo with a few cheeky Taedonggang long necks for the road and head off to Kim Il Sung Square. Our bus pulls up alongside more cars, buses and taxis I’ve ever seen in Kim Il Sung Square. It’s time to put our “single-minded unity” to the test as my tour leader / mother hen mentality kicks into full gear to ensure we don’t lose anyone as we move as a group through the masses of celebrating Pyongyangites. We receive a mixture of bemused looks, friendly smiles, and excited calls of “happy new year!” in response to our attempts at wishing people a happy new year in Korean to people on the street. We walk through an absolutely packed underground pedestrian crossing and pop back up in an even more packed-out Kim Il Sung Square. It’s difficult to imagine this place as the vast, empty space we visited early in the morning days before. Before too long the clock has struck midnight and the crowd cheers as fireworks explode over the Taedong River, with the red glow of the flame atop the Juche Tower burning bright. I’m desperate to film and document this for everyone to see back home until Håkan (a professional photographer from Sweden) taps me on the shoulder and reminds me to put the camera down and “enjoy the moment and take it all in.”
He’s right. The obsession to document these things is strong but I put my camera down and watch the fireworks, looking around at the smiling families and gob-smacked tourists. I reflect on 2016 – which let’s be honest – was a shit storm of a year – and the year that’s to come. I have a “how did I get here?!” moment and smile. Bring on 2017 and see you in Pyongyang.