Friday 6th April 2018
On Friday morning I travelled back to Beijing airport. Although the flight wasn’t due to leave until noon we had been asked to turn up by 9:30. After picking up some instant coffee and other supplies for the trip I headed to the check-in counter for Air Koryo to meet the others.
Our Koryo group leader was waiting for us there and she helped us with the check in process and then handed out DPRK visas.
The visas were folded pieces of paper with our photograph inside them. Nothing had been or would be stamped in our passport.
Now I finally met some of the other people who were to be in my group and started chatting with them. Together we walked through security and towards the gate. I stopped off to buy some duty free Marlborough Cigarettes as an extra gift for the tour guides or for anyone else I came across.
When we got to the gate we saw that the aircraft, a relatively modern Russian-built TU 204, was already sitting out on the tarmac waiting for us.
After about a 90 minute wait the flight was called at 11:30. As we queued to board it became clear that the majority of the passengers would be foreigners. There were the two groups from Koryo, more tourists from other travel agencies and some professional marathon runners from Africa. There were probably about 100 of us in all.
As we entered the aircraft we got our first little taste of North Korea. My first impression was that the flight attendants looked quite serious and that the aircraft was very clean. I sat next to a lad from Canada who was participating in a tour organised by one of Koryo’s rivals. He was doing the full marathon. We were handed one of the in-flight magazines to share. It contained some great photos of the North Korean countryside and lots of propaganda-style articles, including one very anti-Japanese one that I almost found amusing.
Without any announcement from the pilots we taxied out and took off. We got a fantastic view of Beijing as we climbed up and then, when we had levelled out, the flight attendants came around with “the hamburger”.
The Air Koryo hamburger has been the source of much discussion on internet forums. Some people find it disgusting and claim it is one of the reasons Koryo often gets a 1 star rating and is sometimes called the world’s worst airline.
I, and quite a few of the people around me, found it quite tasty. It was impossible to identify what sort of meat it was made from though.
After less than two hours in the air we descended quickly and landed at Pyongyang Airport. We were asked to put our watches forward 30 minutes*.
*The DPRK was on a different time zone from South Korea at that time but has since adopted the same time as a sign of reconciliation. The DPRK also has its own system for counting years: “Juche” Year 1 is 1912 (the year Kim Il-sung was born) and the current year (2018) is 107.
Looking out of the windows you could see that there were lots of ancient Soviet-era Air Koryo jets laid up on the apron out of use. Air Koryo has cut its route network back to just a few routes now and on the day we landed there were only 2 other arrivals and 3 departures on the information board.
We disembarked. The first surprise was that the airport terminal was brand new. It was spacious and well lit and it wouldn’t have looked out of place in a small provincial city in Japan.
We all made our way to the immigration desk. The checks were carried out by officials in full military uniforms. It was a little intimidating. The official who interviewed me didn’t look particularly friendly. Nevertheless, he asked me no questions and quickly stamped my paper visa (not my passport) and waived me on.
I went over to retrieve my bag from the carousel and then queued again for the customs check. This, I knew from the briefing, would be a different experience. When it was my turn I approached the three customs officials standing next to the desk and handed one of them my customs form. On the form I had listed all my electronic items (iPhone, iPad, headphones and camera) and all my reading material (a novel, the Air Koryo in-flight magazine and a railway magazine).
One of the officials asked for my iPhone and he registered it by writing down the serial number before handing it back to me. I knew that the iPhone was now actually worthless as a means of communication anyway as there would be no suitable signal in the country. For the next 3 days it would serve me only as a camera and an alarm clock.
Whilst the iPhone was being checked the second official asked me to provide him with all my books and magazines. I gave him all my reading material and he took it everything away with him. The third official then began a more rigorous check of my luggage. Amazingly there are no restrictions on duty free and you could bring as much food into the country as you want. After looking through my bag thoroughly the official was finally satisfied and directed me towards the exit.
As I was walking out of the customs area I remembered the books. I asked a lady in uniform and she directed me back to another area where several officials were standing at tables checking piles of books and magazines.
I knew that they were checking for any content that criticised the DPRK. Guide books of the country were not permitted, nor were any publications that featured South Korea or anything at all written in the Korean language. They were also looking for religious texts (Bibles etc.) as proselytizing is strictly forbidden in the DPRK. I pointed to my own books piled on another desk and I was told I could take them.
Now I emerged into the arrivals lounge. I was one of the first through so I had a bit of a wait until everyone else turned up. As each person came through they talked about their own customs experiences. Most people got out with no problems but one guy had had his GPS running watch confiscated and someone else had a seemingly innocent novel taken.
Finally after a good 30 minute wait everyone had come through. Our Koryo group leader counted us and then briefly introduced us to 3 Korean guides who began to lead us out of the airport building towards the place where the bus was parked.
There were 18 of us in our group. There were 7 from the UK, 2 from the Republic of Ireland, 3 from France, and then 1 each from Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Singapore, Romania and Canada. There were 16 males and 3 females with an age range from early twenties to late fifties.
For the next 3 days we travelled around together, ate together and discussed what we had experienced as we drank together. Thankfully we all got on really well. It came as no surprise to me that my fellow travellers had some fascinating travel experiences of their own and they included people who had taken part in the North Pole Marathon and completed a marathon on every continent including Antarctica.
Interestingly the Canadian was originally from South Korea and had only lived in Canada for a few years. One of the biggest surprises for me was the way the North Koreans treated him and how friendly they all were towards him. This included not just the guides but the people we met out and about. The clear impression was that they regarded South Koreans as brothers and their desire for reunification seemed to override everything else.
I could not have wished for better group of interesting people to share North Korea with.
We now were led from the airport terminal out to a large bus. This was a nice surprise. I had had visions of us all having to squeeze into a smaller vehicle for some reason, but with 50 plus seats we could really spread out.
Now our Korean guides introduced themselves properly. There were three of them. They all worked for the state-owned KITC* and they all spoke impeccable English.
*Although KITC is a state owned company, it is actually one of several tourism companies that operate in the DPRK and report into the government tourism authority (NTA). There are seven similar tourism companies in Pyongyang all competing for the small number of tourists that visit.
A middle aged lady was the main guide and she told us she had been a tour guide for many years with just a bit of time off to have her children. Then there was a middle-aged man who welcomed us by bowing deeply to us and then finally there was an older man who bowed even deeper.
The pattern over the next three days was that the main lady guide would explain things using her microphone on the bus. She was sometimes assisted in this by our own Koryo group leader. The two men would normally sit at the back of the bus but they would always accompany us when we got off the bus. They were always on hand to answer questions but probably there to make sure we didn’t stray off anywhere or take the wrong photographs. All three guides proved to very competent. They were quite serious but they were certainly not unfriendly.
Our guide began her introduction by stressing that we could take photographs of almost anything we liked. The drive from the airport was through open country and most of us immediately put her words to the test as we busily photographed almost everything we could see out of the window of the bus. Whilst we did this she explained some of the background to the country, including the fact that North Korea had more landmass than the South and that everyone desired reunification.
We made it into Pyongyang in less than an hour. I had expected very little traffic, but although there was slightly more traffic than I had imagined, in the main the vehicles we saw were slightly more modern than I thought they would be. There were a lot of people walking around, on bicycles and I noticed there were a lot of people waiting at the bus stops.
We soon pulled up at our first stop on the tour; the Korean version of the Arc de Triomphe.
When we got off the bus I realised that it was a lot colder than I had expected. The temperature was down to about 7 or 8 degrees.
Our guide gave us a little explanation about the monument telling us that it was built to commemorate Korean resistance to Japan (1925 to 1945) and was the second largest such arch in the world (second to the Revolution memorial in Mexico City) and was 10 metres higher than the Parisian version on which it was modelled.
We then got a chance to take photographs. We spent quite a bit of time on this but as it wasn’t getting any warmer it was quite a relief when we were asked to get back on the bus.
As we were getting back on the guides pointed to the stadium where the marathon would be held across the road from the Arch.
Back on the bus….
From the arch we drove around the corner, past the parliament building and then soon got off again to admire the fountain that stands in front of the impressive traditional Korean-style National Archives Building.
After a few photographs in front of the fountain, our attention turned to the large numbers of people attending to the gardens in front of us. Our guide explained that they were volunteers made up of local workers and school children and they all gave up their Friday afternoons to come and help keep the place tidy.
As we were standing there another group were marched past us and we started to wonder what exactly the word “volunteering” meant. During the weekend I saw more and more of this kind of thing. There were a lot of people tidying up and engaged in other little tasks.
Back on the bus….
We drove for a few more minutes until we reached Mansu Hill. The hill is host to two large statues of the first two leaders of the the DPRK; Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il. All foreign tourists are brought here and, in keeping with the local custom, they are asked to bow as a sign of respect.
Originally there was only a single statue built for Kim Il-sung’s 60th birthday in 1972. Kim Jong-il’s statue was added in 2011 after his own death. The statues are 20 metres tall and are flanked by memorials on both sides incorporating DPRK flags and symbols.
The position of these two leaders in DPRK society cannot be overstated. Photos of the two of them stand side by side all over the country and most citizens wear small lapel pins with the pictures featuring on them.
The guide bought flowers, one of our party placed the flowers at the foot of the statues and then we all formed a line and bowed. We then withdrew and started to take our own photographs of the statues being careful to make sure we had the whole statue in the shot. Finally, we had a group picture of all of us standing together.
Back on the bus….
Now we headed for our hotel.
The Yanggakdo International Hotel is about a mile south of the centre and it sits on an island in the Taedong river. As one of our French group members soon confirmed, the hotel was built (in 1986) by a French Company. Apparently even the phones in the rooms are French.
It is the largest operating hotel in North Korea and also the seventh tallest buiding. It has 1000 rooms and a revolving restaurant on the top.
We spent some time checking in. The guides took our passports and visas away from us and promised us we would get them back on the day of departure. This was expected but nonetheless a little disconcerting.
I then went up to my own room on the 12th floor. It wasn’t bad at all. The shower light didn’t work at first and it was difficult to get the right amount of water through the taps some of the time, but otherwise it was comfortable enough. I have slept in a lot worse places.
After an hour to shower and change we met up again down in the lobby and got back on the bus to head for the restaurant.
Back on the bus….
It was dark now and it was quite a shock was just how dark the city was. There were few street lamps and a lot of buildings were in total darkness.
As we drove around in the dark our guide explained how the apartments in Pyongyang were allocated to the citizens on merit. Basically the system worked on the principle that the more useful you were to the state the better your living quarters would be. One of the group tried to ask about the level of local salaries but it was soon obvious that we were not going to get any proper answers on the subject.
After a ten minute drive we arrived at a restaurant in another part of the city. The restaurant was lavishly decorated but we seemed to be the only people in there on a Friday night.
The food was plentiful and the taste was not bad at all. Whilst it may not have been to quite the standard of the same sort of thing you encounter in the South, it was certainly recognisable and perfectly acceptable. I knew from what I had read that it was certainly not typical of what the locals ate most of the time. It was obvious that few locals made it to the restaurant that we were dining in either.
A bigger surprise than the food was the quality of the beer. Most of the beer I encountered on the trip was delicious. The hotel even had its own microbrewery and its products were absolutely excellent.
During the meal one member of our group happened to mention that he was celebrating his birthday. He was immediately treated to the traditional Pyongyang specialty of cold “long noodles”. He struggled to finish them and he wasn’t at all perturbed when we all offered to help him polish them off.
After dinner we returned to the hotel and our guides said good night to us. Some of us went up to the revolving restaurant on the top of the hotel to have a few more drinks and discuss our first impressions of Pyongyang.