Dec 19, 2008

Travel - Taste of North Korea in Beijing

Lara Day

Wangjing, a sprawling residential district in northeast Beijing, is known locally as Little Korea. The nickname makes sense: it's where 100,000 Koreans live, work and play. Naturally, they all need to eat, and while excellent barbecue and bibimbap joints abound, it's the North Korean eateries that are really worth a visit. If you have yet to set foot in the D.P.R.K., Wangjing will give you your very own taste, minus the visa hassle.

Take Daeseong Sanguang, which can translate as "greatly successful senior official." Part café, part bar lounge, this venue, tel: (86-10) 8471 3331, caters mainly to South Koreans hungry for Northern staples such as naengmyeon (cold noodles) and soondae (various kinds of sausage). Stepping inside is like entering a surreal parallel universe where the D.P.R.K. graduates from finishing school and decides that its sole purpose is to charm you into submission: sultry black-and-white propaganda-film stills adorn the walls, pretty North Korean waitresses push carts of liquor to your orange-suede banquette, and your drinks menu boasts slow-sipping cocktails with names like Tong Il (Unification), U Li Neun Hana (We Are One) and Namnam Buknyeo (Southern Man, Northern Woman). (See 10 things to do in Beijing.)

The main draw, however, is a nightly cabaret show staged by the uniformed waitstaff, who take to the mic while executing perfectly timed formation dance moves; meantime, their colleagues provide musical accompaniment on Yamaha keyboard, semi-acoustic guitar and fiddle. The result finds its closest sonic equivalent in the bleeping score of the 1980s video game Tetris, while a flashing LED screen provides a mesmerizing bonus feature in the background.

If you're lucky, all this will be capped off with a magic trick, which may or may not involve two drinking glasses being lifted with a chopstick. O.K., so it might not be an accurate reflection of the real Pyongyang — but it's probably a lot more fun.

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