It’s 5.45am on an icy winter’s morning and I am jogging through the pitch-black, potholed streets of one of the strangest and most sinister cities in the world. I’m shivering but I can’t tell if it’s from cold or fear. Or both.
This is Pyongyang, North Korea, where foreign visitors are banned from going out alone. I’m in my running gear, a dark woolly hat down over my head to hide my features, and I’ve just escaped a comfortable but heavily guarded tourist hotel nicknamed Alcatraz. Dawn is still an hour off.
Mercifully for me, there are no street lights here. Thin people in drab, dark clothes plod along – some of them carrying large sacks of coal or wood on their backs. Even in the wealthiest part of North Korea, it seems, people forage for fuel.
Others cycle past and then disappear into the enveloping blackness.
Now, 30 tense minutes after setting off, a huge pyramid is looming out of the darkness. It is the same shape and size as the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the first shards of sunrise bouncing off the peak of its vast mirrored surface.
This is the behemoth I have come to see – a colossal monument to the insanity of North Korea.
The 1,082ft-high Ryugyong Hotel is due to open next summer, an astonishing 24 years behind schedule. I was determined to be the first foreign visitor to set foot inside.
Work actually began in 1987 under the regime of Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, and was meant to open two years later as a calculated snub to neighbouring South Korea. As Seoul hosted the 1988 Olympics, North Korea would open what would then have been the world’s tallest hotel.
The structure of the mighty pyramid was quickly completed, but work came to a shuddering halt in 1992 after the collapse of Pyongyang’s benefactor, the Soviet Union. It was an economic disaster for North Korea and provoked a devastating famine that killed up to 3.5 million people.
So what was supposed to have been a towering symbol of the country’s technical mastery instead became an idle hulk of blackness on the skyline, a mocking reminder of North Korea’s shambolic failings.
The longer it stood empty, the more international ridicule it attracted. An inspection by a European delegation in the Nineties concluded that the shell was irreparable and it should be torn down because of its poor-quality concrete and crooked elevator shafts.
Esquire magazine described it as ‘the worst building in the history of mankind’. Others labelled it the Hotel of Doom. The name has stuck.
Then in 2008, after 16 years of inactivity and to the astonishment of Western observers, work suddenly resumed. Last year, its concrete was strengthened and its exterior coated in £111 million worth of glass, which lights up with furnace-like brilliance when it catches the sun.
Its fortunes have been revived by the deep-pocketed Egyptian Orascom Group which took over as developer in 2008 after reportedly signing a $400 million deal to establish a mobile phone network in North Korea. Orascom installed the dazzling glass panels along with telecom antennae ( via dailymail.co.uk ).