Huanren: A night in a castle

Road Trip

After finishing our DPRK tour, we decided to go on a road trip along the border. We decided to go to Huanren, Linjiang, Ji’an and then come back to Dandong for a beer festival.

We had breakfast in Dandong and sorted ourselves out with a driver. Our tour guide friend had contacts here so he was able to get a good deal for us. After breakfast, we grabbed some beers for the road and went to meet our driver. First stop: Huanren.

The drive to Huanren was uneventful. We spent this first leg of the journey on a highway so there wasn’t much to see. Especially after the sun set.

We arrived in Huanren after dark and the town was lit up like Las Vegas. We weren’t here to stay in the town though; our friend knew of a castle-like hotel. It was a little outside of town and we could stay there for a decent price. The only problem was he couldn’t remember where it is.

Lit up like Vegas
Lit up like Vegas

We made some calls to try to figure out where the place was. As we drove back and forth through Huanren our driver got more and more frustrated. In the end our combined efforts managed to figure out where we needed to drive. We got to the outskirts and spotted a lit up castle atop a dark mountain.

We made our way towards it, having to drive up a thin and twisted road to the castle. This was beginning to feel a little like a Bond movie.

Checking In

We had arrived late in the evening. The lobby was empty except for the doorman and a woman at reception. Our driver left to find a cheaper hotel while we negotiated a room for the night. We managed to get a decent discount on our room. Sometimes it pays to be friends with a travel agent.

Our rooms were the finest I’ve ever seen. This was a five-star quality hotel. We were staying in luxury. My girlfriend decided to chill out in the room while Gareth and I went to explore.

We went outside for a walk. The hotel was lit up by floodlights which attracted giant moths. They were huge. Big enough to eat your face off. I might have an irrational fear of moths.

There was a fountain here that wasn’t running and an empty car park. I’m pretty sure we were the only ones staying here. Apart from that there was nothing else to see in the dark. We went back inside to find the bar.

It was around 9 in the evening. The staff had been looking at us all night, confused looks on their faces. They told us we should go back to our rooms. We asked about food and drink and they told us we should order room service.

They brought us a wine list and I spotted they had ice wine. I’d had this once before in Moldova, and fell in love with the stuff. We ordered this, a couple more wines and some food.

We headed back to our rooms and theorised on why this place was here and how it managed to fund itself. We were pretty sure it was some kind of front for a money laundering operation. Like I said, James Bond.

Checking Out

The next morning my girlfriend and I decided to get breakfast. We woke Gareth but he wanted to lie in for a bit longer. He warned us that the breakfast here was terrible anyway. At least there would be coffee.

I’ve seen some bad breakfasts in Chinese hotels. It’s usually bad Chinese food. If you’re lucky there’s some bad Western food. You can usually find something edible so it’s never that bad. And there’s always coffee.

This hotel had the worst bad Chinese breakfast I have ever seen. I couldn’t find anything I could stomach. There was no coffee machine so I asked one of the staff. No coffee. Not even that. I watched Yi eat some food while my stomach grumbled.

Yi asked if we could see the wine cellar. One of the staff went to fetch the key and took us to it. The cellar is built into the rock behind the hotel. The layout was perfect for hosting high-class wine tasting events. You go into a cave and see several wine barrels. A larger cave houses a huge table laid out waiting for guests. This must be the bad guy’s lair where he makes all his evil plans. I wondered where James Bond would be held prisoner.

Afterwards we went for a walk outside. We could see more in the daytime and the moths were gone so it was safe now. The fountain was running again. From the hotel’s position on top of a hill we could see the valley below us.

And there lay the truth of this place: a large vineyard and wine factory. I figured this place must be here to sell wine to distributors. Set them up in a nice hotel, give them a tasting and show them around the vineyard. The hotel itself doesn’t need to make money. The real money is made selling wine.

Gareth woke up. Our driver arrived. We checked ourselves out. On to our next stop: Linjiang.

Category Pages

I wanted to split up my content in a neat and tidy way. I realised the easiest way to do this would be to split up my content by category. After trying a few plugins to create pages that displayed a list of posts in a category I realised that I needed to approach this another way.

As it turns out you can do this in WordPress easily by using Menus and Widgets. You don’t need plugins and you don’t even need to write a line of code!

The first step is to create a new menu. Under Appearance->Menus you can create a new menu. Call it whatever you want – the name doesn’t appear anywhere on your site. You can add pages, custom links or categories to the new menu. The latter is what I was after so I added a bunch of categories to my new menu.

Creating custom menus
Creating custom menus

Under Appearance->Widgets you can add new menus, search boxes, and other things to your sidebar. What I needed was a Custom Menu. Here you can give it a name that will actually appear on your site.

Attaching the custom menu widget
Attaching the custom menu widget

And that was it. I now have a new fancy menu that splits up my content in my sidebar. Now when visitors check out the site they should be able to see the kind of content that is available.

The final menu in all its glory!
The final menu in all its glory!

There was one last thing to do before I was completely done. Up until now I had been treating categories like tags, adding 3 or 4 categories to each post. I decided this would work better if I kept my categories a little tighter. So I went through all my old posts and assigned them to no more than one category each. I didn’t have much content on my site so this was a quick job for me.

Dandong and the Chinese People’s War Museum

The train from Pyongyang took us back to Dandong. The first order of business was to find a hotel.

Settling In

We ended up staying at the last true Communist hotel in China. The staff ran it as a commune, with no one staff member being the manager.

While checking in the North Korean train staff wandered in. We seemed to have picked the same hotel they were staying at! We said hello and shook hands, and given our lack of Korean we just left it at that.

The rooms felt old school and Soviet. They had that style of cheap wooden furniture that was popular in the seventies.

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When Plugins Collide

When making a new post one day I came across a bug in my website. I created a new post, attached a featured image, and hit preview. I got a messed up page that had two copies of my featured image above the page content.

As panic set in I went through and checked everything. My site still looked fine. Already published posts seemed okay. Checking previews of already scheduled posts showed that they were fine. I tested different images to see if they were the cause. No luck there either.

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Ukraine versus THE Ukraine

Why do we English speaking folk insist on calling it THE Ukraine instead of just saying Ukraine. We don’t call it the France, so why does this happen?

What You Want: Ukraine

Ukraine is a country in Eastern Europe. It is the largest country contained entirely within Europe. It borders Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Moldova and Romania.

Ukraine is where the Chernobyl incident occurred, and you can find the abandoned city of Pripyat nearby. It is also has the missile base that launched the missiles that caused the Cuban Missile Crisis. These are both places that are worth checking out if you are into European history.

The important thing for this article is that Ukraine is a country’s name, a proper noun. It is not just a plain old noun.

What You Said: The Ukraine

Being a proper noun, saying ‘the’ Ukraine is incorrect. You don’t say ‘the’ France, or ‘the’ Germany, so you shouldn’t say ‘the’ Ukraine either.

Why It Happens

So why do we do this? Even I found writing that first section a bit weird. Simply saying ‘Ukraine’ instead of ‘the Ukraine’ just doesn’t feel right.

The answer to me seems pretty obvious. There are country names that begin with ‘U’ that contain nouns. The USA is the United States of America. The UAB is the United Arab Emirates. Back in the old days the USSR was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. And the most important one: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That last one is often shorted to ‘the UK’. We say ‘the UK’ so often that when we refer to Ukraine it just feels so natural to say ‘the Ukraine’ instead.

I also think it just sounds odd not to put ‘the’ in front of it. ‘I’m going to France’ sounds fine, but ‘I’m going to Ukraine’ sounds a little weird in English. That -oo -yoo sound in ‘to U-kraine’ feels a little like saying ‘a apple’ instead of ‘an apple’. So although grammatically it’s more correct to say Ukraine, it feels more natural to say ‘the Ukraine’.

A Solution…?

Unfortunately this can be a touchy subject to some people. People from Ukraine can get offended when we say ‘the Ukraine’ because it’s not technically correct. But to English speakers it’s just a more natural way of saying the word.

A little more understanding from both sides may help. English speakers can just be more aware that Ukrainians may not like the way we say it. Ukrainians can be more aware that it’s not meant in an offensive way. It’s just one of those many peculiarities of language that leads us to say things in an odd way.

Dog Soup

After leaving the DMZ our guides took us to Kaesong to have lunch. On our way their our guide explained how the culture of side dishes worked in the DPRK.

If you’ve ever eaten in a restaurant in South Korea you’ll know they fill your table with side dishes before you’ve even ordered. In North Korea the number of dishes shows how important of a guest you are. 11 dishes means you are the most important guests in the building.

As we were entering the restaurant I bumped into an old friend I met on the train into the DPRK. We shook hands and shared pleasantries. Unfortunately once inside they seated our tour in our own private room. I guess they wanted to cater to Chinese and Westerners in different ways.

We sat down and counted the number of side dishes. Eleven.

Then our guides asked us how many of us wanted to try dog soup. Our Vietnamese friend was first to say yes. Most people wanted to try it. I wasn’t so sure.

I grew up with a dog. He was my best friend and when he died I cried like I’d lost a close family member. You either understand this or you don’t. To me eating dog was akin to cannibalism.

But my curiosity got the better of me. I reminded myself that dogs were a farmed animal here and that it was a particular species they ate. It wasn’t like they were dragging people’s pets off the street.

We decided to order 3 and share them between us. I managed to try a single spoonful. It tasted like soft spicy beef. And guilt.

Dog Soup.
Dog Soup.

Optimising WordPress

I spent the better part of last week improving my blog, and I figured I would write about my experiences. WordPress is a great platform and I’m having fun working with it. But, like any piece of software, it needs some fine-tuning before it can work the way you want it to.


My first major problem was the site’s speed. I’d always noticed that it was slow, but I never realised by how much. I discovered GTmetrix, a site that scans web pages and determines how you can improve them to make them faster. When I scanned my home page: 27+ seconds!

I needed to fix this.
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Panmunjom: Demilitarised Zone

On our second day in North Korea we travelled to Panmunjom, the heart of the Demilitarised Zone. This would be the second time that I’d been here, the last time being from the South.

Road to Panmunjom

We had to set off early to get to Panmunjom. One of the tunnels on the road down were under repair meaning we would have to take a detour.

We had drank quite a bit the night before, so I dragged myself out of bed with barely enough time for breakfast. I still managed to get some food in Restaurant Number One before we had to catch the bus.

Once we hit the road I noticed something about the North Korean countryside. There were a lot of dragonflies. I have a minor obsession with them. Growing up in the UK there were always dragonflies around, but they have been dying out in recent years. Except for some areas of the UK they are pretty rare now.

After some time travelling we stopped at what seemed like a North Korean service station. Hot tea, noodles and various other snacks were for sale on the side of the road. I got talking to an old Chinese lady who had North Korean heritage. She was here to reconnect with her heritage. There were many other Chinese tourists on this road with us. Tours in North Korea are pretty popular with the Chinese – many of their families have history with the Korean War.

We went back on the road and continued going through mountain tunnels. There are two main things they don’t want you to take pictures of: farmers and military activity. So it was a shame that we couldn’t take any photos of the countryside during our detour around the damaged tunnel.

The countryside was beautiful, with rice farms stretching out to great mountains in the distance. Every home we were close enough to see had a vegetable garden out the back. I didn’t see any livestock farmers – the only cows I saw were beasts of burden rather than food.

There was also a fair amount of military activity out here. At one point we drove past a soldier carrying a rocket launcher and our guide jokingly told us it was a ‘toy’.

Our guide had mentioned earlier during the tour that the DPRK was focusing on miitary build up for two main reasons. The first being that the military could help construct new facilities all over the country. The second was so the country could protect itself from outside invasion.

We got back to the main road and there were only a few more tunnels before we reached the checkpoint. There was a shop here selling Panmunjom souvenirs. There were several Chinese tourists here waiting for their turn to go through. I only saw one or two other Western tourists. I decided to buy a T-Shirt with the DPRK flag on it and the words Panmunjom. Later I would wear this to work, failing to take into account that my boss was South Korean. That was an awkward situation.

Eventually it was our turn to go through the checkpoint and our tour guides gathered us up. Our guides told us to line up and gave instructions on how to cross the checkpoint in single file. Once through we would be in the Demilitarised Zone.

North Korea Peace Museum

Our first stop in the DMZ was the North Korea Peace Museum. There are two buildings here. The first building was constructed to house the signing of the Armistice Agreement between the North and the South. This was an agreement to cease all hostilities, but not a peace treaty. This means that the Korean War has technically never ended.

When we entered this building we could see the table where they signed the treaty. The guides directed the Chinese tourists to one side of this table and the Western tourists to the other side. They explained, first in Chinese, that the US and South Koreans were on our side and the Chinese and North Koreans were on the other side. Separating us was to add to this effect.

After taking some pictures shaking hands with our fellow Chinese tourists across the table we moved on.

The next building was more of a museum. It housed a copy of the Armistice Agreement amongst many other war relics and photos. There wasn’t that much to see here, but there were some interesting historical moments captured on film.


Our next stop was Panmunjom itself. This is the spiritual center of the DMZ, the place where the North and the South watch each other like hawks. On the road down I spotted the giant DPRK flag staring across at the South Korean flag. Last time I was here our US tour guide told us that there was a competition to see who could build the biggest flag. I think the DPRK is still winning this one.

On our way to Panmunjom they briefly mentioned the axe incident. We were given a much more complete story in the South. It makes sense that they wouldn’t talk too much about it here though. The story isn’t too flattering to the DPRK. It was still surprising for me to hear them mention it at all.

When we arrived we met the General who would show us the area. He led us to a commemorative plaque that had Kim Il-Sung’s signature carved into it.

He then led us around the corner and as I spotted the blue buildings I realised where I was. I was looking forward to seeing the South Korean soldiers again.

But the south side was completely empty. No soldiers, no people, nothing. If there was anyone watching the area they were well hidden.

My first time here there were Soldiers everywhere. Standing guard, watching the North, protecting the South. Now I started to feel that it was a show they put on for tourists.

We went down to the blue buildings. These buildings are placed across the border. Their purpose is to facilitate meetings between the two sides. Inside these buildings is the only place you can safely cross the border in the DMZ.

We entered the building to the left (this would be on the right from the South). Inside a couple of soldiers stood guard and the flags of the various nations involved in the war hung on their respective sides. Then we all went to South Korea. Technically.

We left the blue building and headed back up the steps towards Panmungak. This three storey building had an extra floor added to it so that it was taller than South Korea’s Freedom House. The UN forces decided not to extend their building any more because they didn’t want two empty sky scrapers in the middle of nowhere.

We went into Panmungak and straight up to the balcony so we could get some good pictures of the area. We also went for a group photo with the General himself.

The surprising thing for me during this trip was how relaxed everything was during the tour.

When we visited from the South we were constantly reminded that we were in a warzone. If we didn’t follow orders then they would shut down the tour and send us all home. They told us stories of people who crossed the border illegally and got shot by North Korean soldiers. We were only allowed to take pictures facing North. I remember feeling nervous. I felt like anything could kick off at any time (even though I knew it wouldn’t).

None of that here. It felt a lot less intense. Everything was calm. It was just a normal tour. You still wouldn’t do anything stupid, but there was almost no pressure put on us. In a strange way I actually felt safer here than I did on the South.

I guess propaganda always comes from both sides in a war.