Jul 282015
 

The flight from Chennai to Frankfurt leaves very late at night / early in the morning, so after a full day of worked headed back to the hotel to pack, have some dinner, and generally take it easy. The one thing I definitely didn’t want to do is fall asleep. Generally, I have really good luck sleeping on westbound redeyes, and I hoped this would continue. Since they leave late at night you’re tired enough to fall asleep, and then assuming the flight is long enough, when you wake up even though it might be 5-7am local time, it’s afternoon for your body clock, so you’re well-rested. I hoped to get lucky again!

Before heading to the airport around 11pm, I did one last check of the seatmaps online and discovered two cool things. There were still about six to eight seats open on my first flight, so I decided to switch to the fifth row in hopes of keeping an empty seat next to me. More importantly, on the second flight, they had substituted an aircraft with the old configuration…meaning the old first class seats upstairs were available as business class! It let me select one, and I hoped it would hold!

Check-in was remarkably easy, and the lines for immigration and security were reasonably short as well. Security wasn’t quite sure how to deal with my arm being in a sling, so decided to do the typical Indian thing and make it as much of an absolute bureaucratic nightmare as it could be. Go through metal detector, get metal detected again by hand. Have the sling swabbed for explosives. Write the details of my passport in three separate ledgers along with the time and details, etc etc, but finally I was free to try and find the lounge.

The lounge tonight was the Travel Club Lounge, which is also a Priority Pass lounge. I wondered why Lufthansa didn’t use the Air India lounge since they’re both Star Alliance, but one peek inside it looked pretty grim. The Travel Club Lounge was absolutely packed to the point it was hard to find a seat (and impossible to find an outlet) but it was cool enough. The Malaysia Airlines flight began boarding soon after I arrived, so that helped the lounge empty out just enough to be reasonable.

There was a buffet that everyone seemed to be avoiding, but the bar was quite popular. Most everyone was drinking scotch on the rocks, and going back for serving upon serving, but the strangest thing was the lounge had absolutely no wine at all – sparkling or non. I settled for a few last bottles of Kingfisher, before heading to the gate. Fifteen minutes before scheduled boarding it was already approaching chaos in the gate area, so I decided to use the sling to my advantage and fight for priority boarding. Unfortunately, I had more than a little competition tonight:

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After being told by one agent that I was “not disabled enough” another agent very kindly escorted me to the front of the boarding zone, and let me board first. Points to her! …well, not exactly first, but somewhere in the middle of the 50+ wheelchair scrum:

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The agent who had checked me in greeted me at the door to the plane, and with a big smile said “you look like you need to be comfortable, I managed to reserve the seat next to you” – wow, this was going to be a good flight…I hoped!

Lufthansa flight 759
Chennai, India (MAA) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 01:50, Arrive 8:30, Flight Time: 10:10
Airbus A340-300, Registration D-AIGY, Manufactured 2000, Seat 5D

Flight attendants were great, and hurried right over when they saw the shoulder, and were more than happy to help lift my bags into the overhead for me…and bring me a glass of wine!

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Two seats to myself, it promised to be a good flight…

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With a very late night departure I was curious what the menu would be, and as I suspected it was a snack followed by breakfast before arrival…it didn’t look too appetizing once again, and I suspected Lufthansa has contracted catering out to either IAMS or Purina lately…

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…but hey, I had two seats, and the wine and cashews arrived moments after takeoff. This crew was clearly going to let us get as much sleep as possible:

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The Fancy Feast chicken and Linguini tasted about as good as it looked, and I ate the chicken and peppers and that was all. Oh, and the dessert of course…and the poor pretzel roll which didn’t even get its own plate:

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…at least the sleep-aid was in plentiful refill:

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Fell asleep shortly after dinner, and managed to sleep almost eight straight hours. I will continue to love westbound redeyes, it was fantastic!

…which is more than I can say for the breakfast. The fruit was dry and sad, and I could only manage a couple of bites of the egg. At least the muesli was pretty tasty.

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So overall, the seat was below average, but I’ll give it above average because I had two. The crew was great and helpful, and very friendly, and the food was some of the worst I’ve ever had on Lufthansa. But, at the end of the day, on a flight like this I want somewhere comfortable to sleep and don’t expect a flying restaurant, so give me cool, quiet, and comfortable with adequate space and wine, and I’m pretty darn happy. Overall, it was a good flight.

Landed, through immigration, and off to Starbucks for my usual triple iced espresso. But, then back through immigration, to the lounge for a shower, and some breakfast. Hey, it’s afternoon somewhere!

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Wasn’t a long layover, but fortunately the gate was only two down from the lounge, so managed to linger a bit longer. The boarding area was just as chaotic as the flight from India, mainly because all of the Africa and India flights connect to this one…and I think half of Africa and India was on this plane. Again, I used the sling to push my way to the front, and was soon on board. It took me several years of travel in the developing world to get used to doing it, but I’m finally comfortable doing as everyone else does and pushing to make sure that I don’t get trampled and taken advantage of.

Lufthansa flight 758
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 13:25, Flight Time: 8:40
Boeing 747-400, Registration D-ABVM, Manufactured 1998, Seat 83H

Got upstairs, and SCORE! It was the old configuration, and I’d scored a first class seat. Even better, only four people were smart enough to move upstairs, so the cabin was only half full!

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…business class service, but hey, with one flight attendant for four people it was a pretty sweet deal!

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I wasn’t going to complain at all!

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…even the menu looked almost promising!

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More bubbles after takeoff, and the now-familiar cashews in a bag:

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The duck starter was actually pretty tasty, despite the tiny portion:

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But oh dear, the tenderloin of beef and braised beef cheek. Catering by Purina strikes again, and I ended up sending it back mostly uneaten. I think this is the last time I give Lufthansa a chance to cook beef in business class. It just doesn’t work.

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The cheese and dessert more than made up for it, however, and I might have had two servings of cheese ūüėČ

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…and after a few glasses of wine crawled out of the seat, and onto the adjoining bed, and crashed for several very comfortable hours.

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The pre-arrival chicken stew and salad was kinda odd, but it came with pretzel and riesling, so wasn’t all bad. I have to say, on previous trips I’ve been very happy with Lufthansa catering, but this trip was one hot mess after another. To the point I’ll probably eat before flying Lufthansa business next time, and just enjoy some cheese and dessert along with a bit of wine.

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Landed just slightly behind schedule at Washington Dulles, and the trip was over. No checked baggage, so into an Uber and home barely 30 minutes after landing thanks to Global Entry. Despite the disappointing food the amount of space I had on both flights was amazing, and it was a great flight experience thanks to the crews!


Jul 272015
 

I was in India for a total of 12 days, but between work, recovering from jetlag, etc, I really only had two days to do any sightseeing. I spent one afternoon going around Chennai seeing temples and such, and the other I just relaxed around the hotel, being absolutely exhausted from long work days. A few sites/thoughts from the time not spent at the client site…

Decided the easiest way to see a fair number of sites in a short time was to give Uber a try. Was a piece of cake and worked flawlessly, and the driver ended up waiting at each site since it was easier than driving around looking for more fares. Our first stop was the Parthasarathy Temple. Parthasarathy is an eighth century temple dedicated to Krishna and the name Parthasarathy, in Sanskrit¬†means the ‘charioteer of Arjuna’¬†referring to Krishna’s role as a charioteer to Arjuna in the epic story Mahabaratha. The coolest part of the temple are all the orante and colourful carvings that made up the structure:

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…and we ran into our first random cow at the temple, just hanging out.

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Small temple in a moat next to the main temple:

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Our Uber was still waiting for us, and we set off next for Kapaleeswarar Temple.¬†Kapaleeswarar is a temple to the Hindu god Shiva, and was built in the seventh century, although the current buildings are thought to date to the 1600s or so. According to Wikipedia “The temple has numerous shrines, with those of Kapaleeshwarar and Karpagambal being the most prominent…The temple’s name is derived from the words kapalam (head) and eeshwarar an alias of Shiva. According to the Puranas, during the meeting of Brahma and Shiva at top of Mount Kailash Brahma failed to show the due respect to Shiva. Due to this, Shiva plucked of one of Brahma’s heads (kapalams). In an act of penance, Brahma came down to the site of Mylapore and installed a Lingam to please Shiva.”

The 120 foot gopuram (entrance gate) was built around 1906, so many parts of the structure are actually quite a bit newer:

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Near the temple were all kinds of shops selling fruits, silver, gold, and trinkets:

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…as well as another small temple in a moat

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We wandered the streets near the temples a bit longer, before we couldn’t take the 105F heat any longer and headed back to the hotel. Some other random sites from the two weeks. Random reminder in a restroom:

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…I couldn’t tell if a “red dot sale” was a clever play on words, or…

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Who doesn’t want to shop at Jesus Fine Arts?

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…or for that matter, perhaps you’re Hindu and prefer Ganesh Electronics?

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…the mix of old and new, ancient and modern, is one of the things that makes India so fascinating, combined with the chaotic pace of things.

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…when you only have one helmet…and forget about seatbelts…

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Unfortunately, I didn’t get all that many pictures. It was pretty much nonstop work, and when it wasn’t work it was preparing from work, being exhausted from work, or being exhausted from being only four weeks post-rotator cuff surgery. All things considered, the trip went quite well, and had it been my first trip to India I might have made more of an effort to get out and explore a bit more, but it was my seventh trip and second to Chennai, so being injured the motivation was a bit less.

Next up, and finally, the flight back to DC on Lufthansa.


Jul 242015
 

I was in Chennai a total of 12 nights, and because I was getting a bit behind on requalifying for Starwood Platinum status this year, I figured I’d use the opportunity (especially weekends) to do a bit of hotel hopping. I usually end up with a few throwaway stays at local DC properties every year to requalify, and at around $75 each it adds up. So, I figured I’d deal with a bit of inconvenience in Chennai in order to save myself that cash.

There are five SPG properties in Chennai, and the closest to my client was the Aloft. Now, I read that it’s perfectly nice, clean, etc, but it would only save me about 20 minutes on the drive and I’d really prefer a full service option. I knew the ITC Grand Chola was the nicest of the options, and it was a tossup between the Le Meridien and the Westin. I probably should have tried all three, but ended up doing just the ITC and the Westin. The stay pattern was 1 night Westin, 4 nights ITC, 1 night Westin, 1 night ITC, 1 night Westin, 4 nights ITC. I did it this way because the first night was a weekend, so changing mid-day was easy. Then, I gave myself four days to settle in, before a few mid-week and weekend changes and finally the last several at the ITC so I could do any needed laundry/etc.

Three of the changes were on weekends, so were very easy to do, but three were on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings. My pattern was to get up early, grab a quick breakfast, change hotels (they’re a 10 minute drive apart), check in if possible, then head to the client. Big credit to both hotels, all three mornings they let me check in approximately 7/7:15am for the day. They were absolutely fantastic on this front.

I’ll compare the two properties on six metrics: room, transportation, lounge, restaurants/food, service, platinum benefits, and finally value for price.

Room: all three times I stayed at the Westin I was given a room on the executive floor. They were standard sized rooms, and as far as I could tell the amenities weren’t upgraded. The air conditioning worked well, the rooms were all very clean, and they had everything that was needed and expected. Additionally, they always stopped by a few times a day offering more bottles of water, as well as turn-down service.

At the ITC Grand Chola, my first two stays I was upgraded to a Towers room. The room was huge, probably about 550 square feet total. It had a huge washroom, with separate shower and toilet cubicles. There was also a standalone tub, as well as drawers and changing area. The AC actually got frigid, and perhaps the coolest part was that everything from lights to AC to TV was controlled by an in-room iPad. On my third stay, I asked about a suite upgrade. They said it would likely be possible, but I would have to pay the rather significant difference in the luxury tax. Luxury tax is assessed on the rack rate of the room, and because of this they usually don’t do suite upgrades. After reminding them that my corporate rate had luxury tax waived they agreed and upgraded me to a rather huge suite. I’ll let the pics do the talking, but I’d estimate it was 800-900 square feet minimum. It made for a very comfortable four nights!

Clear edge in room goes to the ITC Grand Chola.

View from the executive floor at the Westin:

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Suite at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Transportation: I only used transportation from the ITC Grand Chola twice, and that was the hotel car to the Westin and later to the airport. It was slightly overpriced, but plenty comfortable. The nice thing about the Westin was that my corporate rate had free airport transfers included. The pick up at the airport on my arrival was perfect, and they had cold towels and water waiting in the car which was much appreciated in the Chennai humidity. For my later stays, they arranged to pick me up at the ITC Grand Chola instead, and at the end of the stay transfer me to the ITC Grand Chola. Quite nice of them considering the rate specifies airport transfers and not just “transfers”. Other than that, I had a driver to my client, and used Uber for personal transit which also worked equally well from both hotels.

Clear edge on transportation to the Westin.

Lounge: So, my complaint on the lounges isn’t the fault of the hotels. Tamil Nadu state where Chennai is located was in the middle of local elections, and thus declared a number of “dry days” where alcohol couldn’t be served. At one point, it was three days in a row. To the credit of the lounges, they still offered snacks and non-alcoholic drinks.

The Westin had a proper lounge on the executive floor that was open from 1830-2130 every day, and the drinks flowed freely. Very freely. Many of the residents were in the hotel for weeks at a time, and had bonded, and it was expat drinking hour every night in the lounge. Mixed drinks, wine, beer, you name it, and plentiful snacks to the point you could easily make a meal out of them….and if you stayed until 2130 you probably would!

The lounge at the ITC was located in the lobby of the hotel, and available to all Towers and ITC One guests. Not sure what ITC One is, but being in the towers I got to use it. They had four hot snacks and a few cold snacks which rotated (seemed to be the same menu every monday, same every tuesday, etc), as well as plenty of free-flowing drinks and super friendly staff. The happy hour was shorter – only 1800-2000, but they got really generous the last 15 minutes and I ended up with 2-3 drinks sitting around several times.

I would have to declare the lounges a tie – both had plentiful snacks and drinks as well as super friendly staff.

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Restaurants/Food: At the Westin I had breakfast every day, as well as room service dinner one night. The breakfast was plentiful, with lots of breads and danishes, some fruit and other options, as well as eggs, pancakes, etc cooked to order. There was also proper American bacon, which they would cook well done and crispy upon request. There were also several warm Indian options as well. The coffee was also good, with espresso drinks also on offer. I had a sandwich from room service one night which was good and reasonably-priced, and delivered quickly and warm. One nice thing to note, the Westin is also a short walk to the Phoenix Marketcity Mall, which has several good food options including Nandos, California Pizza Kitchen, Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts should you get sick of hotel fare.

The breakfast at the ITC Grand Chola was simply amazing. Eggs made to order, tons of breads, pastries, etc, and an amazing assortment of fresh fruit every day. There was also a full Indian options hot bar, etc. By my second day they had my coffee preferences down, and I didn’t even have to ask and a double espresso would show up within two minutes of sitting down. There were also six to seven restaurants, but most evenings I was too tired to bother. Plus, they were a bit high priced, although delicious. I had dinner one night at their north Indian restaurant Peshwari, and it was a set menu for one and absolutely delicious. Pics below. I also ate in their cafe several times, which had really good sandwiches for both breakfast and lunch. It was also slightly overpriced, but made an easier light meal than the sitdown restaurants.

Slight edge goes to the ITC for a slightly better breakfast, and tons of great restaurant options.

Westin Breakfast:

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Breakfast/buffet restaurant from above at the ITC:

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Dinner at Peshwari at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Amazing fruit for breakfast at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Service/Common Areas: Can’t say enough here about both properties, because service was uniformly fantastic. Staff would remember you after one interaction, and upon returning after hotel hopping I was warming welcome back. I was doing PT for the shoulder surgery throughout the stay, and requested an umbrella from the concierge to help with exercises. Both hotels remembered, and brought me one on my second stay without asking. People genuinely seemed to love their jobs and care that you enjoyed your stay.

Both hotels win here in a big way.

Lobby in the Grand Chola:

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Group of eye surgeons having a conference at the hotel taking a group pic, lol:

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Poolside at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Platinum benefits: At the Westin, got an upgrade to the executive floor, lounge access, happy hour, and a coupon for a free drink (beer or wine) via either room service or in the restaurants and bars. I chose a glass of wine sent to my room both stays, and the third there was no love because it was a “dry day.” At the ITC, I was upgraded to a Towers Room twice, and the third time to a huge suite. This included lounge access.

Slightly edge in this category to the ITC, only because I was consistently upgraded to a larger room.

Welcome flowers and sweets in the suite at the ITC Grand Chola:

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Value for Price: Both hotels were the exact same price with my corporate rate. Since I rated the ITC Grand Chola higher in most categories, I’d consider it an excellent value for price. For the Westin, I’d still call it a very good value for price.

Hope these are helpful!


Jul 222015
 

This will be largely a photo report, as Lufthansa has been pretty extensively reviewed around the internet. Main things I want to share on this trip report is the challenges of traveling shortly after surgery, while confined in a shoulder/arm sling, and perhaps impart a bit of advice about Lufthansa’s service to India as well as Starwood hotels in Chennai. Unlike my normal reports, there won’t be a lot of destination information here, as it was a work trip and that occupied the vast majority of my time. That said, hope there’s some helpful tips in her!

Got to Dulles about 2.5 hours before my flight after a short Uber ride with a driver who actually happened to be from Chennai. What are the odds! He informed me his sister still lived there, and she was single, and “perhaps I would like a tour guide since you seem a successful man.” Uhhhh, yeeeahhhhh….about that ūüėČ

Check-in was quick, no TSA Pre-Check since I was on Lufthansa, but I have to say TSA was pretty good about the sling. Fortunately, I got directed to a line that was a regular metal detector, so no need to “opt-out” on the nude-o-scope since raising my arm above my head is an impossibility. I was given two choices: wear the sling through the metal detector and have it swabbed for explosives, or take it off and send it through the metal detector. Since removing it was pretty time consuming and challenging at this stage (about three weeks post surgery) I opted to leave it on and get swabbed. No drama, and soon I was in the Lufthansa Senator Lounge.

The lounge was the most packed I’ve ever seen it. At this hour, flights from SAS, Lufthansa, Austrian, COPA, Air China, as well as Avianca were using it. It was standing room only, but fortunately I looked disabled enough that someone cleared a seat for me at the counter. Also, it was the first time I’ve seen the bar area in this lounge staffed. Usually you have to flag someone down and ask them to go get a drink for you. (Un)fortunately, that meant refills on the bubbly were quite easy:

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After a short stay in the lounge it was time to board our plane through the jetway which was directly connected to the lounge.

Lufthansa flight 419
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 18:05, Arrive 8:00, Flight Time: 7:55
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYF, Manufactured 2012, Seat 8D

This flight was completely full in business class, and I chose 8D for a couple reasons. Mainly, we only booked a week before the flight, so seat choices were pretty limited. My main concern was to get in the middle section, since the plane has a 2-2-2 configuration in business class, and I hate having to step over someone or get stepped over. Plus, with the sling, I didn’t want anyone bumping it, so I wanted a D seat so it would be on the inside. Overall, it was a great choice. The cabin view from my seat:

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Pre-flight bubbles:

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Tonight’s menu:

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When I asked for red wine, the flight attendant insisted I try both offerings. I think that’s a first in business class. I went with the Italian red, which was pretty decent, while snacking on sad packaged cashews (which were at least whole) and watching some bad movie I’ve already forgotten:

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The charcuterie appetizer, it was actually surprisingly tasty!

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The seared beef filet main, which was absolutely awful. The meat was shoe leather, and I think I ate one bite, the carrots and asparagus, and sent the rest back in exchange for more wine.

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Cheese AND ice cream for dessert along with vintage Lufthansa chocolates. I can forgive the beef for this.

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Then, I absolutely passed out, for nearly six hours, waking up just 15 minutes off the ground. I actually took the sling off to sleep, and it was the first time since surgery I’d done that. The crew was great, lifting my rather heavy rollerboard into the overhead for me, getting me extra pillows to put under my elbow to rest the shoulder in a good position, and of course providing plenty of liquid painkillers to aid with the flight.

As a side note, I was also given Lovenox injections to take before the flight. They’re a pretty hard-core blood thinner, and the idea was just in case there were any post-surgical clots hanging around we wanted to thin the blood since it would be very long flights. Unfortunately, this also makes bruising super easy, and I ended up post flight with some pretty epic bruises on my legs. I must have been a bit restless with them in flight!

We arrived in the B gates in Frankfurt a little early, and I decided to enter Germany so I could do my usual between flight routine. Quad iced espresso at Starbucks, walk around a bit in the terminal, and then make the long flight over to the C Terminal for our departing flight. Very few Lufthansa flights leave from C, and I can never determine the logic. It seems to be Johannesburg, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and India, along with a random few others. Maybe it’s longhaul eastbound flights, but I don’t know the logic behind it. Anyone want to chime in?

The lounge had nice showers, however, which despite the 15 minute or so wait felt amazing:

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More water to fight off the post-flight dehydration, another double iced espresso, and my morning lounge usual – a brown roll with tomato, cucumber, salami, and cheese. I couldn’t resist trying their new offering this time of some sort of curried pineapple spread…which was just as awful as you’d expect.

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Our flight was right next to the lounge, and boarded right on time.

Lufthansa flight 758
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Chennai, India (MAA)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 23:50, Flight Time: 9:30
Airbus A340-300, Registration D-AIGV, Manufactured 2000, Seat 3D

Despite having the “new” business class seats installed which went completely flat, this plane felt really ratty. Plus, as this pre-departure bubbles picture shows the centre armrest is tiny, and my seatmate was a bit of a ¬†footsy player:

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The menu looked to be one of the least appetizing I’ve ever seen on Lufthansa, and generally I love Indian food!

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The same Italian red wine was offered with lunch, and the same sad bagged cashews. I know it’s not a big deal that they’re in a bag, but it takes absolutely zero cost or effort to offer them in a bowl. I’m just curious why Lufthansa which generally tries to be rather classy just doesn’t even make this little effort.

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The murgh salad / spicy poulard salad appetizer. It looked like cat vomit, and didn’t taste a whole lot better. I left it mostly untouched.

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The lamb main course, aka flag of India entree. It was ok, but again, meals that are pretty much 100% shades of brown just aren’t very appetizing to me. It just didn’t have much flavour or spice to it, and for Indian food was seriously underwhelming as a business class main.

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Even the cheese was pretty sad, but the dessert was a bit better.

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I spent the next several hours doing work and watching a little bit of tv, and soon we were about 90 minutes out and it was time for the “dinner” course. I decided to do something I never do, and enjoy it with a bit of German white wine. The riesling was pretty nice actually. I decided to go with the potato gratin main, and it was ok, but again, for business class it was a SERIOUSLY underwhelming meal.

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Now, a few more thoughts on this flight. The crew was good, the seats were well below what I expect in business class, being seriously narrow and feeing really packed in. I know this part is beyond Lufthansa’s control, but of the 30 seats in business class 12 were occupied with children aged approximately 8-15, traveling with their families. As kids do, they get antsy, and they were running up and down the aisles during the flight, talking loudly, and in generally not making it a very “business” class experience. I don’t usually work in flight, but this time I needed to, and it was the one time fellow passengers made it very difficult. I tried asking the crew to intervene, but was told “this is just how flights to India are, you need to adapt.”

Oh, and one of the kids decided to sleep on the floor in the aisle, and I accidentally stepped on it and got yelled at by the parent, hahahah…it wasn’t exactly the best of flights! But hey, there are a LOT worse ways to make a 20 hour trip than this! Despite all the little complaints here, it was still an excellent experience.


Jul 122015
 

As I mentioned in the last post, after a long day of touring around Pyongyang we were taken to the Number 1 Duck Restaurant, which was promised to be a big treat. Contemplating dinner…and North Korean beer:

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Final evening chat with the variety of interesting characters on the trip:

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After dinner, it was back to the glamourous Koryo Hotel to crash. It was honestly reasonably comfortable, completely clean, even though the mattresses seriously felt like they were filled with straw:

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The uninspired hallways…if you would knock on the walls there were clearly lots of hollow spots in them…we decided there must be secret compartments and one-way mirrors…

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Final breakfast at the Koryo Hotel. What the food made up for in quality and quantity, they certainly tried their hardest with presentation…and bowtied waiters:

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Koryo Hotel lobby…note all the marble. Like old Soviet hotels, it was everywhere. I can’t remember if the pink flowers are Kimilsungia or Kimjongilia:

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Goodbye Koryo Hotel…waiting for the bus to the airport:

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Busy city streets of downtown Pyongyang at 7am:

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One last shot of the two towers of the Koryo Hotel:

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Shot with our “tour guide” by the bus before heading to the airport:

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Unauthorized secret photography on the way to the airport. Lots more people “risking” pictures at this point because, hey, what would they do, deport us?

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Goodbye from the Eternal Leader:

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Very busy day at Pyongyang International, with four flights arriving, including the two charters to take the visiting South Koreans home;

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Waiting area, including a V.I.P. Lounge…unfortunately, they don’t accept Priority Pass…yes I asked…

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Waiting hall…all flights wait in the same room:

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Inspirational reading on the walls while you wait for your flight. I wonder if Kim Il Sung would approve of the Kindle:

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Sympathy might not be the word they wanted:

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Our plane being prepared on the tarmac:

dprk-2101-air koryo P561

Walking down the stairs to the bus to take us to our plane:

dprk-2113-B-air koryo bus

So long Pyongyang!

dprk-2231-B-pyongyang airport

Boarding…was fun to get a different plane than the first flight!

dprk-2237-B-air koryo 561 Jason

Air Koryo flight 221
Pyongyang, Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (FNJ) to Beijing, China (PEK)
Depart 9:30, Arrive 10:00, Flight Time: 90 minutes
Tupolev TU-154B, Registration P-561, Manufactured 1983, Seat 26D

The Air Koryo crew continued to photobomb my pics!

dprk-2279-air koryo jason

No doors on the overhead bins this time, just put your bags up and pray!

dprk-2297-B-air koryo luggage racks

On the takeoff roll. You can see all the bags in the overhead, and the flight attendant standing in the aisle and bracing herself by holding onto two seats!

dprk-2336-air koryo P561 cabin

The Air Koryo burger, and some kind of juice I think. The burger was actually surprisingly edible, but I have absolutely no idea what it contained!

dprk-2348-B-air koryo burger

Final shot of our plane from the gate in Beijing:

dprk-2360-B-air koryo P561

We had a few hours to wait for our connecting flight to Newark, and got some Starbucks in the airport and then just hung out in the lounge. Back then you needed a visa to even transit China, so might as well leave the sterile area of the airport and get some Starbucks while waiting!

Continental Airlines flight 88
Beijing, China (PEK) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 15:45, Arrive 17:25 Flight Time: 13:45
Boeing 777-200, Registration: ???, Manufactured ????, Seat 9A

Was absolutely and completely exhausted by this flight, and ended up sleeping a lot of it. So tired I didn’t even think to take any pics of the meal or anything unfortunately.

Continental Airlines flight 1153
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 19:00, Arrive 20:15 Flight Time: 1:15
Boeing 737-500, Registration: ???, Manufactured ????, Seat 5E

Speaking of exhaustion, this is when it hit. Flew economy on the domestic segments because buying first on those would have been hundreds extra, and it wasn’t worth it for such short flights when you could get the bulkhead. Remember the days when Continental flew 737s 10 times a day from DC to Newark?

All in all, it was an amazing trip, and a fantastic opportunity to be part of the first group of Americans to be allowed into North Korea. We got to see a slightly less-polished propaganda machine that wasn’t quite certain what to do with us. I look forward to going back for a much longer trip so I am not so severely jetlagged for most of it, and we can see more sights. Especially would love to take the aviation tour!


Jul 112015
 

Heading back to Pyongyang from Kaesong and the DMZ, we stopped at the Arch of Reunification for photos. It was built in 2001, and has two women (one representing North Korea, one South Korea) unifying in the middle of the aptly named Reunification Highway:

dprk-1209-B-reunni monument

dprk-1233-B-reunni monument

Our next stop was the Juche Tower. Juche is the name given to the ideology promoted by Kim Il-Sung of self-reliance. It’s considered by many North Koreans to be Kim Il-Sung’s great contribution to international philosophy…so of course it needs its own tower to commemorate it! It contains 25,550 blocks, one for each day of Kim Il-Sung’s life. Did I mention yet that the North Koreans kind of hit you over the head with symbolism? Standing 560 feet tall, the Juche Tower is also (coincidentally? NOT!) just a couple of feet taller than the Washington Monument, which it was supposedly modeled on. You can also see the Workers’ Party Monument near the base:

dprk-1236-B-juche tower

We were allowed to go up the tower to the observation deck, just below the flame. Hazy view of Pyongyang:

dprk-1239-B-pyongyang skyline

Juche Tower and the Workers’ Party Monument:

dprk-1266-B-juche tower

The Juche Tower and Workers Party Monument Рthree figures, one with a hammer (representing a worker), one with a writing brush (representing the working class intellectual), and one with a sickle (representing the peasant/farmer):

dprk-1281-A-juche tower

The next morning began to the Monument to Party founding. Again, the hammer, sickle, and writing brush:

dprk-1287-B-party founding mon

Nearby propaganda to the Great Leader:

dprk-1302-B-kim il sung

Next up was Mansudae, featuring a 20 meter high statue of Kim Il Sung. Notice the flowers at the base. You are not required, but it is expected, that you buy flowers from a nearby vendor and place them at the base and bow deeply in respect. Also worth nothing, all photos of the statue must contain the entire statue. No cutting off the head or body…and yes, your guides will check. Guess they haven’t heard about photoshop later on! It’s important to note that after Kim Jong-Il died in 2011, a statue of him was placed next to his father, but back when I visited in 2005 only Kim Il-Sung was hanging out:

dprk-1323-B-mansudae hill

Nearby is the Socialist Revolution Monument. It’s over 60 feet high, and the figures are nearly 15 feet each:

dprk-1326-B-mansudae hill

dprk-1332-B-mansudae hill

Next stop was the Korean War Museum. Our guides actually seemed a bit nervous about this, because it was the first time they would be taking Americans through the museum. They quickly warmed up, however, and took great delight in telling us all the ways they had defeated America. The museum’s tour guide pointing something out to us:

dprk-1347-B-war museum

Describing all the great victories of North Korea:

dprk-1350-war museum

Yak-18 aircraft from the war, with a new and improved museum-worthy paintjob:

dprk-1356-B-war museum yak

Painting of the great General Kim Il Sung directing the war:

dprk-1365-B-war museum

Outside the window of the museum was able to get this shot of the Ryugyong Hotel. We were strictly told no pictures were allowed of it, probably because it was started and never completed…supposedly because they found major architectural mistakes that made it unsafe to inhabit. Rumour is it could collapse at any time…other rumours say they just ran out of money. In 2008 construction actually started up again, and in 2011 they finally finished the exterior, but it still isn’t open. In 2012 the international Kempinski chain announced the hotel would finally open, but it never did…

dprk-1380-B-pyramid

At the entrance to the North Korean Film Studios…notice the movie camera next to the Great Leader:

dprk-1386-B-film studio

Supposedly it was a great honour that I got to pose with this famous actor making a film about China:

dprk-1401-B-jason actor

Next up was a ride on the Pyongyang Metro. Surprisingly, we weren’t too restricted with photos, but we were only allowed to ride from one station to the next station a stop away. A map of the system:

dprk-1404-metro sign

Entering the station and headed down the escalator:

dprk-1410-B-metro

Entering the platform area, where the train was conveniently waiting for us, but no passengers really were, except for a few which had been creatively staged:

dprk-1434-B-metro

Mural in the station:

dprk-1443-metro

Station attendant, to escort us onto our train:

dprk-1446-B-metro

Our group (the only people in the station) standing around taking photos, while our train conveniently waited for us:

dprk-1455-metro

Inside the train car, with the Dear Leader and Great Leader watching over us:

dprk-1461-metro

Our exit station, one stop away, which actually had many more North Koreans in it…guess they hadn’t had time to completely stage this one or something:

dprk-1482-B-metro

Exit from the metro station:

dprk-1485-B-metro

Next stop was the USS Pueblo, a US Navy ship captured by North Korea in 1968, which they now proudly show off to tourists. A member of the North Korean navy was our guide:

dprk-1491-B-uss pueblo

Entering the ship:

dprk-1503-uss pueblo

Communications room:

dprk-1509-B-uss pueblo

dprk-1515-B-uss pueblo

Bullet hole in the ship:

dprk-1527-B-uss pueblo

On the way to the birthplace of Kim Il Sung we stopped, and I made a point to be inspired by local propaganda:

dprk-1536-B-propaganda jason

Next up was the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, significantly upgraded and now a museum. There were actually many “real” North Koreans visiting, as well as school groups. None dared get anywhere near us, however:

dprk-1542-B-birthplace

Final stop of the afternoon was the Pyongyang Childrens’ Palace. Every city more or less has a childrens’ palace, but the one in Pyongyang is the showcase for the nation:

dprk-1548-B-childrens palace

Children in a dance class, watched over by their leaders:

dprk-1557-B-childrens palace

Surprisingly impressive aquatic centre:

dprk-1560-B-childrens palace

Accordion class?

dprk-1563-childrens palace

Drawing/painting class:

dprk-1569-childrens palace

Embroidery class:

dprk-1575-childrens palace

Traditional Korean instruments. Based on the uniforms, this was clearly a performance for the tourists:

dprk-1584-B-childrens palace

Lastly, we were taken to a karate class:

dprk-1587-B-childrens palace

Unfortunately, this was all the pics I got because the rest were lost on the deleted memory card. We were taken to a childrens’ orchestra performance that seemed to go on forever, and finally to a last night celebration dinner at a duck restaurant. I remember our guides being super excited about this, because it was known to be one of the best restaurants in North Korea. Unfortunately, I found it barely edible because the duck was almost all skin and fat, and almost no meat. I can understand this being a big deal in a society where meat of any sort was rare, but by this point in the trip we were largely living on beer and bread. It raised the question of if this was the “best” North Korea had to offer to the first American tourists, you had to wonder just how hard the average citizen had it.

After dinner, we were taken to the Yanggakdo Hotel, which is bigger than our hotel and sits on an island in the middle of a river…so they can put the drawbridge up at night and strand you on the island. Quite surprising this wasn’t chosen for the Americans. It had a casino, nail salon, and supposedly bowling alley, but we weren’t allowed to use any of them. Instead, we were allowed to sit in the cafe in the lobby and drink imported Heinekens. Hah!

Eventually off to bed, just in time to fly out the next morning. It had been a whirlwind trip, but still amazed how much we were allowed to see!


Jul 062015
 

Up waaaaaay to early for the long ride down to the DMZ. The Koryo hotel treated us to white toast with what passed for some scary local butter, and some pre-packaged cold cuts which were equally suspicious looking. There was also coffee, but it looked pretty much like a few instant coffee grounds in water, so wasn’t much help. There was a small store in the hotel selling western goods, and it was actually possible to get Coke and Diet Coke for a reasonable price…but there was no telling what currency you might get change in. We were told to bring Euros, but they were also more than happy to accept US notes, Japanese, or Chinese currency.

After that, we loaded into the bus for the long ride down to the DMZ. ¬†Tried my best to stay awake for most of it, but the jetlag was seriously hurting today. Not to worry, however, because if I did manage to fall asleep for a bit I’d be woken up by the minder shouting at someone from the back of the bus to put their camera away. There wasn’t too much to see, or surprising, but it was a huge highway down to the border, and you hardly ever saw a single car along it.

View from the bus:

dprk-0812-countryside

Rural life:

dprk-0842-B-countryside-pak

Standing in the middle of the “highway” at a rest stop:

dprk-0851-B-rest stop jason

Busy superhighway:

dprk-0863-B-rest stop

North Korean agriculture from the bus:

dprk-0890-rest stop

We stopped short of the DMZ area, and waited for our guides to sort some things out. There was as small presentation of pictures and articles, including the Dear Leader inspecting the museum and giving his famous “on the spot advice:”

dprk-0917-B-panmunjom

Sign near the entrance, again using the theme of lost relatives soon to be reunited:

dprk-0920-B-panmunjom

Posing, and waiting, outside the museum:

dprk-0932-B-dmz entry jason

Getting a short lesson on a map about the great North Korean victories in the war:

dprk-0936-dmz map

dprk-0939-B-dmz map

The Eternal and Dear Leaders were everywhere, looking youthful as ever:

dprk-0945-dmz pictures

Entrance to the museum on the North Korean side of the DMZ:

dprk-0960-B-armistice hut

Posing with the North Korean military guy who was our guide:

dprk-0975-B-dprk major jason

I believe this was commemorating the opening of the museum:

dprk-0993-B-kim il sung monument

Looking at the huts along the armistice line, including the two blue UN huts. You can see the South Korean museum in the background, and solders standing between the huts marking the border:

dprk-1005-demarcation line

Look carefully at the mid-point of the huts, and the border line marked clearly on the ground:

dprk-1014-B-demarcation line

Always expected in order to “do” every country I’d be taking this pic on the other side, saying “look, North Korea in the distance!” Instead it was “look, South Korea in the distance!” The funny part about this was at this point, I hadn’t even been to South Korea yet!

dprk-1020-demarcation line jason

Better view of the border line crossing through the huts from the balcony of the museum:

dprk-1080-B-demarcation line

We were eventually allowed into the huts, but due to “recent sensitivities” were not allowed to cross to the other side of the hut “technically” into South Korea, or even take any pics while in the hut. Bummer. So I couldn’t count South Korea, even technically, yet!

After the tour we piled back into the bus for the short drive out of the DMZ into Kaesong. The DMZ is fascinating because since there have been no people really living there for decades, wildlife has really flourished…except of course the occasional animals that get blown up by the still plentiful landmines!

Traditional lunch in Kaesong:

dprk-1092-B-lunch jason matt

Rather empty street in Kaesong:

dprk-1113-B-kaesong

We toured a couple of local folk museums, but unfortunately my pictures were deleted. While trying to sort them on my camera, I ended up losing dozens of pictures from the trip, including many from the Childrens Palace. Extremely unfortunate luck. The drive back to Pyongyang was long, and I think I ended up sleeping for a good majority of it. Still another full evening to come in Pyongyang, and one more full day of touring the city!


Jul 052015
 

When our bus pulled up to the Rungrado May Day Stadium, we could see thousands of North Koreans milling around outside, but when we got out of the bus they all looked away, and were clearly uncomfortable seeing us there. We were escorted in by our guides, and seated together in one big block. No telling what might have actually happened had some of us chosen the upgraded seating, but that’s how it was.

We were maybe 15-20 rows off the infield of the stadium, which was absolutely massive. The stadium is said to seat up to 150,000 people, and it looked like absolutely every seat was packed this evening. The Arirang Mass Games aka the Arirang Festival began in 2002 and has its roots in an old Korean folk story about lovers who were torn apart. A little bit of Romeo and Juliet, complete with the tragedy, but a LOT of analogy about the two Koreans being torn apart. A big theme of the performance was to build up to the eventual and inevitable reunification of lost lovers.

The guide said they announced that there was a group of Americans visiting, but based on the complete lack of reaction from the crowd I doubt it was really announced. Based on propaganda that is spewed by the government, I’m not sure that would have been a safe thing to do anyways. However, there was a group of around 100 South Koreans sitting behind us, all in identical grey jumpsuits, there to be reunited with family as a gesture of friendship between the warring countries. Our guide claimed the jumpsuits were because they did not want to flaunt their western lifestyles in front of their relatives, but another guy staying in our hotel who’d been living in the country for a few years later told us it was so they would be easier to tell apart from North Koreans should they escape and roam the city. Americans blending in? Not so much…but it would be possible for a South Korean possibly.

The event lasted several hours, and was an amazing spectacle of choreography that would seem impossible in the west. Unfortunately we were totally jetlegged and probably didn’t fully appreciate it, but several pictures from the event with a little commentary.

The picture in the background is 30,000+ schoolchildren ¬†who would frequently “snap” posterboards to change the background picture. This is on top of the thousands of performers.

dprk-0592-B-mass games

Identically-dressed South Koreans entering the stadium and taking their seats behind us:

dprk-0784-B-mass games south koreans

Thousands and thousands of performers dressed in red, to signify the working classes of the world:

dprk-0768-A-mass games

Remember the “picture” in the background is 30,000 people holding up coloured posterboards. North Korea views its independence as 1945, the independence from Japan, not the time since the Korean War, thus this was in their eyes the 60th anniversary of the nation as well:

dprk-0756-B-mass games

Another scene:

dprk-0724-B-mass games

Another scene representing the isolation and separation of the two countries…

dprk-0720-B-mass games

Thousands of performers with mock rifles in mock military uniforms, representing mother Korea defending her children:

dprk-0688-B-mass games

Military might:

dprk-0684-mass games

Military martial arts display:

dprk-0680-mass games

North Korea, land of science and technology. After all, as Kim Jong Un recently said, they’ve cured HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and a multitude of other horrible diseases!

dprk-0656-B-mass games

In celebration of North Korea’s peaceful rocket and military program…again, remember these are thousands of individual posterboards:

dprk-0652-B-mass games

dprk-0648-mass games

Don’t remember this one, but think it had something to do with the national agricultural bounty:

dprk-0644-mass games

The bizarre rabbit and chicken act….

dprk-0640-mass games

Complete with dancing chickens and eggs…it was like something out of a bad acid trip…

dprk-0636-B-mass games

…and here come the bunnies to join the parade!

dprk-0628-A-mass games

…and a mass dance number to close out the show, celebrating the eventual reunification. As I mentioned, I’m sure there was tons of symbolism that was lost on us, because if you looked back at the South Koreans behind us there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. It was actually super moving to see, and really gave us a real human insight into the country on our first day there.

dprk-0608-mass games

 

So was North Korea a paradise that’s just misunderstood? Well, the choreography was super impressed, but there’s also been plenty of rumours of performers being executed for screwing up during performances over the years. Yes, the precision was out of this world and unlike anything I’ve ever seen, but such things are much easier to achieve in a totalitarian state where the state controls propaganda and the average citizen has some level of fear.

To this day, it was definitely most unique performance I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world, and I can’t imagine anything else remotely like it. Imagine training 50,000 or more performers to do a show, night after night, running for weeks on end, every year. Many people perform in the show for years and years, and although the event hasn’t been held the last three years, there’s no telling if it will ever come back.

We were hurried into the bus, and drove back to our hotel through the pitch black night where I promptly passed out the minute my head hit the pillow.


Jul 052015
 

After walking around the city for a bit, caught an early morning cab to Beijing airport, where the monitors advertised it was true. Our 11:30 flight really existed, and it seemed we were really going to North Korea!

dprk-0097-B-PEK departures board

Found our group from Koryo Tours clustered around the Air Koryo check-in area, and did quick introductions all around. There were about 25-30 of us, all Americans, since this was a first-time 72 hour tour just for Americans. Check it was reasonably quick, boarding passes in hand, and we set off to explore duty free. But first, we stopped at left luggage to drop off a backpack containing our laptops and cell phones. We were told these wouldn’t be allowed in North Korea, and that we would have to check them at the Pyongyang Airport upon arrival. Rather than subject them to inevitable scrutiny during our visit by North Korean security services, we decided to just check the at Beijing Airport for a few days.

We’d been told it was customary to buy gifts for our tour guides to stay on their good side, and we were told the best gifts to buy were cigarettes, ladies moisturizer, and hand cream. Picked up one of each, included the first and only time I’ve ever bought a carton of cigarettes, and duty free gave us one of those “you may be a winner” scratch off tickets…and figures just when I don’t need to win anything I do…a Ferrari suitcase, lol.

dprk-0106-jason red bag

Cheap plastic, probably worth five dollars, but there was absolutely no way they were going to let me leave without taking it. So, instead, I decided to just haul it with, filled with my duty free stash. A few days later, it would be abandoned in the Pyongyang hotel room.

Got to the gate, where for some reason it had the wrong time for the flight. Note the 07:50 departure time, but the clock reading 11:28. It wasn’t delayed, it was just…a time warp…like everything in North Korea would soon be:

dprk-0112-A-JS222 departure sign

After a short bus ride, there she was, the aircraft that would take us to North Korea. I was a little shy about taking pictures, but there was no need. Nobody seemed to care:

dprk-0121-air koryo P881

dprk-0142-B-air koryo P881

Boarded through stairs, and the adventure was set to begin!

Air Koryo flight 222
Beijing, China (PEK) to Pyongyang, Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (FNJ)
Depart 11:30, Arrive 14:00, Flight Time: 90 minutes
Ilyushin IL-62M, Registration P-881, Manufactured 1986, Seat 19B

One of the many flight attendants, checking boarding passes and directing people to their seats. One strange part was the 4-5 bulkheads in the plane, dividing it into many identical mini-cabins:

dprk-0145-air koryo stewardess

Waiting to find my seat with fellow American tourists…and photobombed by a very stunned looking flight attendant. Yes, I had 19B. Until this year was probably the last time I’d sat in a middle seat for nearly 10 years:

dprk-0154-air koryo jason

Not sure what’s in all those containers, but a rather huge galley area. Clearly reducing weight was no priority when building this plane:

dprk-0160-B-air koryo galley

You sit here:

dprk-0166-B-air koryo stewardess

Getting suspicious looks for taking so many pics during boarding:

dprk-0172-air koryo stewardess

In-flight, a pic of the main cabin from the washrooms in the back:

dprk-0178-B-air koryo cabin

Here comes lunch! Despite being only about 75 minutes in the air, a full lunch was served:

dprk-0184-B-air koryo stewardesses

Quite huge and impressive portions of foodstuffs of dubious origins. The pain was a sweet and sour chicken with pineapple in it, which was pretty good. I don’t remember if the drink was white wine or sparkling wine, but either way quite impressive how much they served. I didn’t want to risk serious intestinal distress in North Korea, so just nibbled at the cake and wine:

dprk-0190-B-air koryo lunch

All in all the flight was pretty uneventful, and the Ilyushin-62M was a fascinating experience. Pretty sure I’d been on one previously with Aeroflot in the late 1980s, but don’t have any records from that trip to prove it. The service by Air Koryo was polite and efficient, and considering they were dealing with Americans for probably the first time ever they were all still quite refined and not at all nervous looking.

Immigration was a pretty quick affair, and no passport stamps were offered. Our visa was several sheets of paper with everyones’ pictures and passport details on them, and it was pretty much one large group visa. Several people tried to get passport stamps, but there was no way to do it.

After arrival, milling around outside the airport waiting for our bus…and I still have the Ferrari bag:

dprk-0211-FNJ parking lot jason

Poster outside the airport advertising the Arirang Mass Games, the event we had all been invited to witness:

dprk-0214-B-arirang mass games poster

On the way to the hotel in our tour bus, we met our guides Mr Lee and Miss Yang. There was another “guide” who constantly sat in the back of the bus and never spoke to us, and we were told he didn’t speak English. He was, however, quite fond of getting upset and yelling at us frantically in Korean whenever he caught people taking pictures of things we weren’t permitted to photograph. Lee seemed to be quite a nice guy, and was fond of cracking really poor jokes, often related to building nuclear bombs and “America going to go BOOM hah hah” whenever anyone asked him a vaguely military-related question.

First stop on the way to the hotel was the Arch of Triumph, built to honour the Korean resistance to Japanese occupation from 1925-1945. One thing that was hammered into us over and over is no matter how much the North Koreans distrust America (and are going to invade and conquer it) they distrust and dislike Japan a hundred times more. The Arch looks suspiciously like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and is much larger…supposedly the biggest arch in the world:

dprk-0280-B-arch

dprk-0301-B-arch

Finally, we headed to our hotel, the Koryo Hotel. We had been told to expect the Yanggakdo Hotel, because it’s located on an island and at night they can close the bridge off to prevent you from getting off the island. However, we ended up at the Koryo Hotel instead. Rumour was because the rooms were better…connected…and was better able to monitor suspicious foreign guests. From the outside, it was a rather impressive structure:

dprk-0310-B-pyongyang hotel

We were given a bit of time to freshen up, before being taken out to dinner. It was described as hotpot, and we were given a plate of raw meet, noodles, and vegetables to cook in the hotpot. This came with several large bottles of North Korea beer, which was actually mildly decent. Never once did I get anything resembling food poisoning on this trip, so the hygiene standards must have been reasonably good:

dprk-0322-B-hotpot

After dinner, we were herded back into the bus, jetlagged all to hell since we’d just flown into Beijing the night before, and hurried off to the Arirang Mass Games. We were explained that for tourists there were three types of seats. Standard seats, which if I remember right were like 70 or 80 Euro, better seats right next to the field which were like 250 Euro, and VIP seats which were like 500. Since our guide couldn’t explain what make the VIP seats better, we all went with standard seats. If 500 would have gotten me a photo-op with Kim Jong Il I would have paid it in a heartbeat, but alas. Then, it was time for the main event!


Jun 252015
 

As I mentioned in my previous post, booking two days before the trip I didn’t have a lot of choice on getting to Beijing. I was finding economy fares that were super high, and looked like a middle seat was the best we would do, or we could do business for about twice the price. It remains the single most expensive round-trip ticket I’ve ever purchased for personal use, but like I said I felt like this might be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Plus, being in North Korea for less than 72 hours I wanted to be as rested as possible to try and maximize the experience.

Unfortunately, I don’t really remember the details on the flight in great detail, but thanks to my notes I can at least reproduce some of it. Plus, this will be a bit of nostalgia for the good old days before Jeff’s cost-cutting.

Continental Airlines flight 1104
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart ??:??, Arrive ??:?? Flight Time: Approximately 1 hour
Boeing 737-500, Registration: ???, Manufactured ????, Seat 2F

Unfortunately, don’t remember much about this flight. It was a morning flight, so can pretty much guarantee I enjoyed a diet coke and not much else. I remember when Continental used to run 737s from DCA to EWR…and they were always packed. What happened?!

Enjoyed the Presidents Club in Newark, and soon it was time to board our flight to Beijing. I remember at the time thinking Continental BusinessFirst was a really big deal, and remember it being something like a six or seven course experience. Those days, well, they’re long gone!

Continental Airlines flight 89
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Beijing, China (PEK)
Depart ??:??, Arrive ??:?? Flight Time: ??
Boeing 777-200, Registration: ???, Manufactured ????, Seat 10A

I remember this flight being about 80% full in business, but the back mini cabin (I think there used to be five rows in the front cabin, and rows 8-10 were in a separate mini cabin) was less than half full. We had plenty of room to stretch out in our old-school barcaloungers.

For some reason, I didn’t take a pic of the soup, appetizer, salad, or any of the starters, but these were the days service in BusinessFirst was better than anything Jeff gives us in “First” on United these days.

Apparently, I had some chicken and veg for a main, and this reminds me how Continental used to plate the veg and starch from the trolly. Potatoes? Rice? They had multiple options, and you can fully customize the meal. Not sure what’s in the small bowl at the top, but I remember the Ch√Ęteau le Gordon being much better than recent vintage Ch√Ęteau le Jeff!

dprk-0002-continental lunch

Good to know I didn’t miss the ice cream sundae, though I’m not too sure why there’s Kahlua in the pic since I can’t remember ever going through a Kahlua phase. I’m glad to see four cherries though, I’d be disappointed if there weren’t multiples!

dprk-0003-continental sundae

Then I slept. I remember it being a pretty good amount, probably 4-6 hours. Cabin shot here with me enjoying the view out the window. You can see just how empty the back two rows of business were:

dprk-0015-continental jason

Landed, immigration was a piece of cake, and even getting a taxi to our hotel, the Grand Hyatt Beijing, was a piece of cake. We checked in mid-afternoon, and decided to use the little time we had to do a bit of exploring since we hadn’t been to Beijing before and would only have one evening before the flight to North Korea.

Looking jetlagged in front of the Forbidden Palace:

dprk-0027-forbidden city jason

Changing of the guard ceremony:

dprk-0033-forbidden city

Forbidden Palace all lit up at dusk:

dprk-0067-A-forbidden city gate

For dinner, we walked to the Quanjude duck restaurant. Don’t know how we found it, but they had a counter that indicated they’d served more than 15 million ducks since they opened:

dprk-0070-B-quanjude counter

Our duck, being hygienically carved up table-side…it was absolutely delicious with all the sides, and the waiter showed us how to plate it up and eat it all together.

dprk-0077-quanjude carving jason

Promptly crashed for at least eight hours, and was up way too early. Found Starbucks (do you doubt my abilities to find them, even back them?) and wandered the city just a little longer. Found a countdown to the Beijing Olympics, which were still three years away at that point:

dprk-0094-B-olympic clock jason

The Grand Hyatt:

dprk-0096-B-hyatt beijing

Then, it was time to taxi to the airport and meet up with our group from Koryo Tours for the flight to Pyongyang!