We go back to the pedestrian street to look for Kollektionera Magazin, a store devoted to Soviet memorabilia. I have visions of finding old posters and pins. There’s a webpage from late 2011 recommending it, but it’s gone out of business: in the block where it should be, there’s a door with a narrow corridor, branching into rooms with a rock store (head shop), someone selling weightlifting formula, a guy behind a desk (no idea what he’s selling) – and outside, a white shuttered basement shop with For Rent on the outside. I’m bitterly disappointed, but it was started by a navy vet over 20 years ago – maybe he wanted to retire.
For dinner that night we go to Pyongyang Cafe. There’s an epic voyage to find it: the Lonely Planet says to take a bus south from the train station, but the bus goes north. I foolishly disregard M.’s warnings and think it might turn round after a while, so we get on. But it doesn’t turn round, so we get off and retrace our steps up and down the hills. All the roads are one-way, so we see that it doesn’t go back along the same road. We finally get on going south and see that it leaves near the train station, but around a corner – something Lonely Planet neglects to mention. Those distinctions matter if you don’t know the city.
After disembarking and some more walking, we find it – a green awning on the ground floor with some warriors parked outside. The inside looks nothing like a labour camp: there are wooden booths, tastefully decorated, and our waitress is kitted out in a hanbok, one of those giant, polyester, colourful dresses I only see in North Korean movies. That’s because Pyongyang Cafe is run by middlemen on behalf of the DPRK: there’s a network of restaurants that funnel hard currency to the regime.
I’m so excited by the prospect of spicy food that I don’t think about the political prisoners and manage to explain using Russian, Korean and English words that I’m vegetarian. I even manage to order bibimbap with tofu instead of beef. I have kimchi with tofu on the side, and our waitress is so concerned about something that says “Ostie, ostie, ostie”; not the Quebecois curse, I have no idea what she means. She brings someone else over. I keep telling her “Myesa (red meat) nee”, she nods, but then points to the kimchi and repeats ‘ostie’. Kimchi is cabbage, so I’m unclear what the problem is – and at this point I’d eat just about anything put in front of me. She’s more insistent – practically upset, she gets this sorrowful look – but we order it anyway, and not only is it amazing, but they’ve made it half with cabbage and half with meat and separated them out. I learn later it they normally come mixed together. She returns, sees that M. and I are both appreciative of food with some flavour, and we figure out that Ostie means spicy – she was deeply worried that it would be too hot for us. My guess is she’s never met a white person who doesn’t want everything drowned in mayonnaise.
I hear singing and guitar playing from the other room, go investigate and one of the waitresses is playing electric guitar! Very smoothly and new-agey – but how many Korean women in giant red polyester dresses and bright red lipstick do you see playing guitar, swaying gently and smiling widely? Later on another waitress sings, and then I see them watching North Korean TV programs of singers doing pretty much the same numbers. Who would’ve thought a regime like the DPRK could have quirky charm? Outside the labour camps, I mean.