One of the trip’s most “what the f***” moments was visiting a bowling alley. We visited Pyongyang Gold Lane, a full multiple-lane bowling alley that was (according to our guides) one of North Korea’s most popular weekend spots. What we saw was almost like a scene taken out of a 1970s American film: couples laughing, cuddling and kissing between turns, and in general being way too good looking and way too good at bowling to be for real.
It was surreal: everyone acted as if we weren’t there, but as far as I could tell everything was just a show put on for us. There were the arcade machines that powered up when we approached them, at the expense of the slot machines on the other side of the room. There were the North Koreans who tried their utmost to look like they were having the time of their lives, but there were also the more sinister men with earpieces in their ears, watching each of us to make sure no North Korean tried to make contact.
A few things caught my attention: a group of about ten teenage boys near the entrance who spoke Chinese with a Northern accent, possibly the children of Chinese businessmen. There was also the toilet stall that read “ONLY FOREIGNERS”. Curious, I asked my tour guide whether this bowling alley was only for tourists. He stopped in his tracks, paused, turned to me and said sternly: “this bowling alley is for EVERYBODY”. He then stalked off, unwilling to continue the conversation any further.
Postscript: It was not lost on me the irony of Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”, a little side joke that I enjoyed with a fellow tour member who was pursuing a political science PhD.