Rush Hour In Pyongyang
The first thing you notice when you hit the streets of Pyongyang, especially after the crazy traffic of Beijing, is how quiet they are. Most people walk, ride bikes, or shunt around on slow-moving trolley buses that look like they’ve been going since the 50s.
Trolley bus on the streets of Pyongyang
It’s what forward-thinking western cities like Amsterdam might label as a “green city” – although the fact that Pyongyang has few cars on the roads is probably more due to the limited means of its citizens, than climate-change driven ideology.
The cars you do see are normally white or grey sedans and vans, of an indistinguishable vintage and make. There is also the odd tractor, and some hand-pulled wooden carts. Occasionally, a black armor-plated SUV will glide past – and you can imagine Kim Jong Un sitting behind the tinted windows, or perhaps one of his Generals.
Apart from these vehicles, Pyongyang’s roads are owned by the People. At twilight, just before the 7pm curfew (when normal vehicles are no longer allowed on the roads without permits and army trucks take over), there are so many pedestrians and cyclists around, that drivers have to beep to move them out of the way. This is probably the closest thing Pyongyang has to a rush hour. We found ourselves weaving through it most nights of the shoot, as our Driver thumped his horn and sped the van back to the hotel to beat the curfew.
The second thing you notice is that Pyongyang’s streets are also extremely clean. The air, the pavements, the trees all sparkle – thanks to hardly any exhaust fumes, and a legion of elderly ladies with long stick brooms, who move slowly up and down the sidewalks, sweeping the leafless pavements.
Not all the roads are paved, however. During our shoot, we drove all over Pyongyang, between film studios, cinemas, cultural centers and museums. Once you leave the sweeping boulevards around Kim Il Sung square, with their glorious Propaganda posters and magnificent monuments and immaculate public squares, the road system turns into a patchwork of bitumen, cracked concrete, and dirt.
The first day we made the thirty minute drive from the Yangakkdo Hotel to the Pyongyang Film Studios, I was surprised to see the landscape transform from an ordered, symmetrical city of neat square buildings and massive statues, to what looked like a rural village. We were still in Pyongyang: but the van was now driving along a raised cement track, surrounded by rice paddies. The track was full of Farmers, carrying sacks of wheat and corn, and slow moving cows.
This is what the drive to Pyongyang Film Studios, one of the most successful propaganda studios in the world, looks like: