International Friendship Exhibition, Myohyang

  - darkometer rating:  3 -  (but weirdness factor 10!)

An underground exhibition consisting of all the gifts that the Great and Dear Leaders of North Korea, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, were ever given on state visits or similar occasions. It's unique and one of the very craziest but at the same time most popular sites in the whole of the DPRK.  

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

More background info: It is of course customary that during state visits high-ranking politicians and leaders exchange gifts, but nowhere else in the world has the entire collection of such gifts received been amassed in one "museum" (of sorts) for the "public" to view. And the exhibition is truly vast. They claim that if you were to spend one minute on every single exhibit it would take a year and a half to get through it all. Even recalibrated to a more likely half a second per exhibit, it would still mean weeks of goggling at what must be the world’s largest collection of tack. Because, that's what it basically is. Every single gift the Great and Dear Leaders were given (or sent) had to go straight into the collection – and a large proportion of it isn't exactly a manifestation of good taste …
The exhibition has two sections, the older and larger part for the Great Leader Kim Il Sung's gifts, the other for his successor son, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. The exhibition is  said to contain over 70,000 gifts for the deceased Great Kim senior, and still over 40,000 for the Dear Kim the younger, now also deceased ... whether there will be a third section for Kim III, i.e. Kim Jong Un, who succeeded his ill dad Il after his sudden death in 2011, remains to be seen. Probably not.  
The gifts are housed in thousands of glass display cases in a seemingly endless network of underground halls and corridors – caves blasted into the Myohyang mountainside (the North Koreans are infamously good at such underground constructions).
For North Koreans it's a pilgrimage site, and of course it's of immense propagandistic value (to the tune of: "See? – That's how much our Great and Dear Leaders are loved all over the world!"). For foreign tourists it's often the pinnacle of the bizarreness of the whole DPRK experience.
What there is to see: The gates to this holy site are impressive alone: underneath quasi-traditional Korean, temple-like structures, giant bronze-coloured doors (allegedly weighing four tons) are guarded by motionless soldiers with polished silver-plated machine guns! This all plays a part in making you feel full of awe on entering the interior.
Once the visiting group is ready to go into the exhibition proper (namely after depositing their cameras in the cloakroom and putting on the protective felt overshoes provided), a local guide in traditional Korean dress leads you through the maze of corridors.
Given the size of the complex, you are shown only a "selection" of the allegedly 100 rooms in the Kim Il Sung section alone. Doors to each room on the tour are opened solemnly and lights switched on. In fact, the lights are only switched on for the room the group is currently being guided into – behind they go out again (and remember that this is practically a cave, so not a ray of daylight can get in). That way, you cannot linger or straggle behind.
The objects you get to see on this procession-like tour are ordered by country of origin. And that is precisely why this exhibition is also an attraction for the dark tourist: there are gifts from practically every deceased autocratic socialist leader there ever was. There are gifts from Mao, from Stalin, Ceausescu, Tito, Enver Hoxha, etc., etc. – they're all represented here! Practically the entire communist pantheon! Plus other former "villains", such as Syria's former ruler Hafez Assad, or Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. I desperately tried to spot something from Saddam Hussein but couldn't – that was very much the exception, though.
The quality of the gifts varies enormously. Some of the artefacts from the Arab world are really beautiful, such as stunningly opulent pieces of mother-of-pearl-inlay furniture. From countless African countries there are lots of elaborate arts-and-crafty stuff, much of it made of ivory – so that it would be illegal as a souvenir these days and would get confiscated by customs.
The star piece, it is almost universally agreed, in this whole gallery of challenged taste has to be the stuffed crocodile holding a wooden drinks tray – presented to the Great Leader by the Sandinista of Nicaragua. Although the croc would probably have disagreed …
Other gifts, esp. in the European section, are pretty uninspired, such as decidedly tacky decorative plates, e.g. the ones given to Kim by the GDR's long-standing leader Erich Honecker.
Gifts from Western countries are less numerous, of course, and for the most part hardly any better. More plates from Austria, yet more plates from France … and then there are the gifts from the USA – rekindling a spark of interest in the Western visitor. Yes, there are indeed also gifts from the "imperialist Yankee aggressors", the arch-enemy of the glorious DPRK: a basketball signed by Michael Jordan presented to Kim Jong Il by then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on her state visit to Pyongyang in 2000 … and an ashtray from former US President Jimmy Carter. The latter is probably the bluntest indication of something less than true admiration. But all gifts, no matter what they are and who they're from, are all treated with the utmost (socialist) equality here. 
Special rooms contain the biggest gifts of them all, by size at least: the armoured limos that Stalin gave the Great Leader and the special train carriage Kim Il Sung used to travel up and down the country in (unlike his recluse son).
And just when you think it couldn’t possibly get any more bizarre it does just that. In a particularly solemn manner our group was instructed to enter the next room in rows of four again, and bow before the Great Leader – like at the Kim Mausoleum. Only this time it isn't a Kim-filled glass coffin, nor a bronze or marble statue, but: a life-size wax figure, in a suit, looking like something straight out of Madame Tussauds, surrounded by the most kitschy artificial scenery …
After having completed the tour of gift-halls to Great Kim the First, there's another leg to go through: the counterpart built for Dear Kim the Second. Overall it is a similar experience, but with a noticeable difference: here there is less useless tack and more "practical" stuff, such as cameras or huge plasma TVs (esp. South Korean models, dating from a time when relations between the two halves relaxed a bit). These electronic gifts would never have been used, though – every single gift has always gone straight into the collection, no matter what it is. Absurd.
You have to wonder what the poor North Korean visitors make of these displays of riches, which they themselves can hardly even dream of, just being dumped here …
At the end of the tour, groups are ushered onto a huge pagoda-ed balcony, where you can have a coffee and enjoy the view – which is of indeed beautiful mountain scenery. Myohyang is also considered to be one of North Korea's best hiking areas … and sometimes tours include a bit of that as well.
Location: about 100 miles (160 km) north of Pyongyang, North Korea.
Google maps locator:[40.009,126.227]
Access and costs: see North Korea – if you're taken here, note that rules are strict at this holy shrine to the Greatness of the DPRK's Leaders. No photography, no hats, and you have to put felt covers over your shoes (which are provided at the entrance) so as not to soil the floors of the holy caverns. Try to be on your best behaviour – for the North Koreans, this is serious, no matter how hard it may be to believe. This was probably the place where I personally found it hardest to keep a straight face … but, as elsewhere in North Korea, bursting out into laughter wouldn't go down well at all …
Time required: depends on what you are allowed to see and the speed with which the local guide rushes you through. The exhibition itself can take well over an hour, even two or more. Plus you have to add on time for getting there and back, of course. (Usually, foreign tourist excursions to Myohyang from Pyongyang involve an overnight stop at the nearby Hyangsan Hotel).
Combinations with other dark destinations: see North Korea.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see North Korea.

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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