A night at the Ryugyong…

…is not something you’re likely to get anytime soon.

I’ve written about strange places before, but few places on the planet are quite as strange (or so it would seem, from what little we, on the outside, know about it) as North Korea. And there are few places in North Korea as strange as its capital, Pyongyang. And… perhaps the strangest place in Pyongyang is the one that does not exist (or so I’m guessing the official line goes by now): the Ryugyong Hotel.

I’ll leave it to you to research all the details, but suffice to say it would have been something of a monstrosity, even if it hadn’t been a complete architectural disaster… or had at least been finished. As it is, it remains little more than a sagging, eerie pyramid towering over the city’s horizon. (It’s said to be visible from anywhere in the city.)

Damn Interesting has some… damn interesting things to say about it. Someone has even registered the domain name on the pretense of creating an official site. (Don’t bother clicking the ad on the page for reservations.) There is an intriguing picture on the bottom of the page though, showing what appears to be a sign on the construction site with a picture of what the hotel will/would look like when completed. If its concrete bulk were in fact concealed behind a seamless façade of mirrored glass as shown, it might actually look kind of cool. But still a bit… weird? creepy? ominous? You decide.

Another of my favorite blogs, The Shape of Days, has also covered the subject in detail. Ultimately though, I think you just need to see it for yourself:

I think the most interesting aspect of the video above is something I’d never been able to glimpse in any of the photos I’ve seen before: the large numbers painted on the side of the building, indicating the floors.

Of course, maybe we’ve all misunderstood the real purpose of the hotel. This CGI video would seem to suggest that Kim Jong Il is going to perhaps load up all of the party faithful in the hotel’s copious accommodations, and blast the entire population of the country off into space in search of a new home planet. (Of course, such a venture, even in a Communist country, would require considerable funding via international corporate sponsorship.)

Despite my insatiable curiosity about places like this, there is just about no possible way I would ever want to actually visit North Korea, so I’ll happily settle for doing so vicariously via a bolder soul’s travelogue. It’s a fascinating and detailed account (which I’ve just spent the last two hours reading) of a rare, brief (and yet, in the moment, seemingly interminable) American tourist’s visit to the strangest country on the planet.

What the bell…?

OK, I had several ideas for the title of this entry, all of them lame. The one I chose was no more or less lame than the others. Anyway…

We spent last night at a hotel in Baltimore. A convention happened to be going on at the hotel. A convention the likes of which I had never even imagined could exist.

It was Bells Galore in Baltimore! This was the 2006 convention of the American Bell Association. Yes, bells. These people collect bells. They talk about bells. They dream about bells. And they most certainly ring bells. Throughout the afternoon and evening, the sound of ringing bells could occasionally be heard wafting through the halls.

Now, the range of ages in attendance spanned from teenagers upward, but I would have to guess that the median was somewhere around 83. And it just so happens that the East Coast has been hammered for the past several days with heavy rains from a stalled front. Last night the rain was particularly heavy, and around 10 PM the power in the hotel went out. It was rather odd, since all of the adjacent buildings, including a large mall across the street, still had power. Luckily, it was late enough that we just decided to go to bed, but around a half hour later, the fire alarms started going off. Disturbingly, the hotel had no emergency lights, so the hallways were completely dark. Several of us illumated our own path with our cell phones. (Ah, the wonders of the modern age.)

Well, halfway down the stairs we were met by the hotel manager, who informed us that there was not an emergency and we did not need to evacuate; the alarms were simply malfunctioning due to the power outage. Of course, the hotel was filled with octagenarians; not the best time for such a fandango. So a while later the fire department arrived (formalities), and they had to go door to door knocking and asking if anyone needed medical assistance.

Fortunately we didn’t, although the fire alarms continued to sound about every 10 minutes for the next half hour or so, spaced out just perfectly to wake up our 3-month-old daughter each time just as she was falling asleep.