Mongolia loves its Korean food – its the spicy Kimchee they especially enjoy, apparently – and you can find plenty of Korean eateries on the streets of Ulaanbaatar. However, in among all these, tucked away on an upper storey of a building that appears to be a supermarket and no more, is a North Korean restaurant.
Yes, that’s right, a North Korean restaurant.
As someone who has no immediate plan to go to North Korea (as I write this a man best described as an unhinged narcissist is threatening to bomb the country, and another man also best described as an unhinged narcissist is threatening to return the favour), and yet is hugely fascinated by the utter uniqueness of this most secretive and single-minded of countries, a meal here was the ideal way to get a glimpse in to the psyche of the nation. A manufactured and stage-managed one, yes, but couldn’t the same be said of all those who actually visit the country?
Secretive is the watchword, really, as the restaurant is notoriously difficult to find. Volunteering in Mongolia as I was, I figured the staff of the company I was volunteering with would have the local knowledge about it but, nope, no dice. Same with the host family I was staying with. And when I tried the official tourism office in the State Department Store, they had no idea either, instead resorting to Googling it, which is kind of what I’d tried already.
I went with several of my fellow volunteers and we found it quite by chance, and not at the first attempt either – we had tried several days previously. We decided to just go in to a building, in the area we had deduced it would be in from various lines of enquiry. Trip Advisor reviews had said it was on an upper level of a building with several stories. We asked the guy in the mini supermarket on the ground floor of said building. Luckily for us he spoke decent English, or was used to fielding questions from curious tourists about the place, and duly showed us the way.
So what’s the first impression when you walk in? A decidedly odd one. The restaurant was completely customer-free, and several attractive waitresses in matching outfits stood smiling like porcelain dolls as they welcomed us in. The decor was an odd mix of formal banquet hall and yuppy bar, with Christmas tree lighting strewn across the ceiling for added effect.
To complete the ambience, North Korean karaoke was playing on the suitably fuzzy TV screens and piped through the sound system, and a nighttime image of Pyongyang dominated one wall. The well-lit skyscrapers do their best to pass it off as a buzzing metropolis, but this is belied by the rather empty roads below, a telling image of the imposed curfew in the city.
As what I assume was the supervisor of the place (another woman – no men here!) sat at the table behind us, rather jarringly eating a box of takeaway KFC, we all felt a little uneasy. Yes, we knew we weren’t in North Korea, but a wrong placed word here, or a inappropriate photo there, and we might have invited a situation that made us feel like we may as well be. Initial conversation was decidedly nervous. And needless to say, we were decidedly cautious about taking photos.
But as the food arrived and I had my first taste of, oh yes, North Korean beer, our mood relaxed. The food, whilst pricey, is delicious, and as nighttime fell on Ulaanbaatar behind the veil of net curtains that stretched across the windows around us, we began to feel at ease. Although, admittedly, we still watched what we said in a way we wouldn’t have elsewhere in Mongolia.
I was sure to nab an English language DPRK newsletter from the leaflet stand near the entrance before we left. Needless to say, this was the morbidly fascinating propaganda piece you would expect, with a bullish front cover of a rocket launch to demonstrate North Korea’s “Might as a Space Power”, hyperbolic headlines such as “Colossus of Pedagogical Science”, and it even takes the chance to revel in a disagreement between Japan and South Korea, as a not so subtle means of proclaiming their moral superiority to their near neighbours.
We left the restaurant shortly after 9pm, ushered out closely by a waitress, who bade us a pleasant enough goodbye before immediately locking the door behind us as we crossed the threshold. I don’t know about you, but that’s what I call symbolism.