It’s been reported that Beijing is applying for United Nations UNESCO World Heritage status for 22 sites around the city. Among them is Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, where the man’s preserved body is displayed for the reverent and morbidly curious to gawk at. This continues a communist tradition started by Stalin when he had Lenin’s body put out permanently for Soviets to fawn over. It enshrines atheistic one-party systems with a godlike father figure that lends a kind of everlasting divine legitimacy.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit two of the four monuments like this in existence: Those of Mao Zedong in Beijing and Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang. Since photography of any kind is barred at both, I thought I’d try to re-create the experience of each and then let you decide which is more deserving of UNESCO status.
Situated in the middle of Tiananmen Square, Mao’s Mausoleum has been called a rip-off of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s surrounded by picture-snapping tourists from all over the country at any given time. They line up in their t-shirts, mini-skirts, skull caps or whatever they happen to be wearing at the time.
When you first enter the building there’s a statue of Mao sitting. Many people buy flowers to put at the foot of this statue and some rural tourists even bow down to it.
Next the line splits in two directions to walk around either side of the viewing room. Mao’s body lies draped in the Communist Party flag in a glass coffin surrounded by a few PLA guards. Outside of them are another set of glass walls that tourists stay behind – keeping you a good 30 feet away from the man himself. Between the distance, the dozens of people crammed in around you, and the speed with which guards shuffle you through, you can’t quite decide if that waxy little face sticking out is real or a Madame Tussauds recreation.
Just as quickly as you came in, you sift out, disappointed with the ratio of time spent in line to the time you were allowed comprehend that that guy killed tens of millions of people.
From the outside, Kim’s marble palace mausoleum (which actually was Kim’s mansion while he was alive) makes Mao’s look like a peasant’s hut. When you go inside, it’s even more impressive. But you’re not getting in looking like some punk kid or loose capitalist floozy. No sir, you best look like a respectable gentleman:
Ties, pants and shoes are required for the gents; something elegant and not too leggy for the gals. If you’re Korean, you dress like this:
You enter the building and go on a seemingly endless maze of moving sidewalks; passing Koreans on their way out. In my case this included a group of army guys who looked about 14. Finally, you get to a room with Kim’s statue. Unlike with Mao’s statue, bowing is obligatory and it’s accompanied by appropriately solemn music.
Next you proceed to the mourning room, which tops any Disney haunted house or Universal Studios experience in terms of over the top drama. If you’re foreign, you’re given a headset to listen to and directed to some statues depicting North Koreans weeping as they heard Kim had died.
“Look at them,” a voice reminiscent of Vincent Price comes on to say, stretching out every syllable for chilling effect. “Inconsolable with the loss of the Great Leader that was sent to us from heaven. The whole world mourned when Kim Il Sung died in 1994.”
You’re directed to an area where little glass shards have been embedded into the floor. “How piercing hot their tears must have been that they burned here into the ground forever,” Vincent Price continues. “The people wouldn’t let him go. So our dear Kim Jong Il built this hall of mourning so that the people could always cling to the bosom of their Great Leader.”
If you’re fortunate enough to speak Korean, there’s a woman who will give that narration live. She makes South Korean soap opera stars look subdued in their weepy melodrama by comparison.
Finally, you enter the body viewing room. You walk through a doorway of about 20 turbo air jets to blow away any gunk on you that might soil the Great Leader’s resting chamber. His glass coffin sits in the middle of the room with nothing but a velvet rope between it and you.
Four at a time approach the head of the coffin and bow down in unison. You walk around and do the same at the other three sides. You’re almost close enough to touch the glass and you can easily make out Kim’s facial features. It almost sinks in that you’re looking at a man regarded as God to 23 million people.
When you walk out you’re treated to a museum of portraits with Kim and a who’s who of world leaders including Muammar Gaddaffi, Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat. In the middle sits the train car that Kim jetted around in during his reign.
As you head back out, you see the scores of Koreans dressed in their Sunday best. They’re waiting to complete their pilgrimage to meeting the Great Leader who merely killed people by the single digit millions.
This was a year ago. If you go now, you have the chance to see not one, but TWO pickled Communist dictators for the price of one.
Now you tell me…who should really be applying for UNESCO World Heritage status?