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 Château le Gordon being much better than recent vintage Château 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!

Jun 252015

A reader posted out that I’d never posted this, and realized this trip happened way before I had a blog. I was sitting at home one night back in 2005, after I’d already decided I wanted to visit every country, and had decided that North Korea was going to be by far the most difficult because they simply didn’t allow American Tourists. Period.

I was reading CNN online that evening, and there was an interview with a British guy in Beijing who said he’d received permission to do the first ever tour of Americans to Pyongyang. Thinking it was a joke, I emailed him. Yes, it was for real, and they were leaving from Beijing. This didn’t seem real. At this point, I didn’t see any other way I’d ever get to North Korea, because for all we knew they’d shut the door again after this one trip.

That hasn’t really happened, however, but it still makes a great story to be part of the first group to go there in decades. I understand a scattered individual here and there had been allowed in prior, but never a group. North Korea would be my 34th country visited (seems so long ago) and it’s funny that even way back then I was worried about how I’d check off the “difficult countries.”

Tickets purchased, and literally 48 hours later we were off to North Korea. I’ll do my best to clear the cobwebs off my dusty memory, and tell as much of the story as I remember 10 years later. I have tons of pictures, however, and about 130 of them are worth posting I think. For that reason, I’ll split this into six parts:

I.  Washington DC to Beijing on Continental Airlines, 1 night in Beijing
II. Beijing to Pyongyang on Air Koryo, arrival in Pyongyang
III. Arirang Mass Games
IV. Trip to DMZ and Kaesong, return to Pyongyang
V. War Museum, Movie Studio, Pyongyang Metro, USS Pueblo, Childrens’ Palace
VI. Evening in Pyongyang, and Pyongyang to DC

Even though a trip to North Korea isn’t quite so unusual anymore, I hope you’ll enjoy!

Jun 122015

It’s been nearly a month since I returned from Eritrea, Qatar, and Finland, and almost that long since I’ve updated here. Part of that is due to no travel in the meantime, which is largely a result of having rotator cuff surgery two weeks ago. I thought I might be away from here longer, but only two weeks in (and still in a sling) it’s surprisingly not too awful to type…and I can even use both hands but not all fingers…so this will be short 😉

One good thing about the downtime away from work is it enabled lots of planning – both work and personal trips. I have the majority of my 2015 travel planned and booked now, pending more surprises especially on the work front. It’s shaping up to be:

Late June into July: 18 day trip to Chennai, India for work. Nothing fancy or special about this trip. It’s a Lufthansa business ticket, and the only “new” experience for me will be the two-class Lufthansa A340 – never been on one of their longhaul planes without first class. Supposedly it has the new lie-flat seats, so that’ll be nice. On the way back, I’m on a 747-400 from Frankfurt to Dulles, and got the “Captain’s Seat” 4D. Still need to find a way to talk myself into an old first class seat on the upper deck. Suggestions?

Early July: After getting back from Chennai I have a four day weekend with comp days from the missed holiday, so will be enjoying the pleasures of nonrev travel, likely to Minneapolis to visit family, with possibly a day in Detroit to visit a friend and go to Cedar Point. I was debating taking United down to Belize and getting country #179, but with the rotator cuff only six weeks post-surgery at that point going to Belize (which will mean wanting to scuba) probably isn’t wise. So, Minneapolis wins!

Mid July: Busy weekend. I redeemed Avios for a bargain flight on US/AA to Pittsburgh for a tattoo appointment (still too soon post-surgery for such a long drive), and then I’ll spend the night and party like a rockstar with my artist. It’ll be our “nearly done” session, and we’ve been wanting to go beer-ing for a while, so that’ll be fun! Then, Saturday, I fly to Hartford for a post-“we got married really quickly” reception for some good hockey friends, and for something called a “clambake.” Yay new cultural experiences! There’s also no easy way to get from Pittsburgh to Hartford on a Saturday morning. Ended up booking United via Newark with a one hour connection…and they offered me an upgrade on the first segment for $59, so hey, not too bad! Then, we’ll all fly back to DC together on Sunday on JetBlue…which will also be a new experience for me!

Early September: The next crazy country collecting trip with my friend Ian, who I went to Israel with last year. We’re flying into Cameroon, then on to Central African Republic, Chad, and finally Ethiopia. Details still very much TBD. From there he’ll head home, and I’ll head on to Dubai to meet my friend Daniel (who I met up with in Bali last year) and we’ll head to Turkmenistan for four days before I head home. Oh, I might be making a sidetrip from Dubai…but we’ll see. For now, shhhh 😉 This should get me to 182 countries, with 14 to go.

Mid November: Off to Spain, where I’ll make a side trip to Algeria for a couple nights. Any suggestions on 48 hour itineraries from Algiers? Then, I’ll board a Cubana Ilyushin-96 and fly Madrid to Havana for a few days in Cuba. Very excited! Then, it’s off to Nassau, Bahamas via Grand Cayman using a combo of Avios and paid tickets. First time on British Airways (Grand Cayman to Nassau) in business class on a 767 with less than 10,000 Avios. This should get me to 185 countries, with 11 to go!

December: To Minnesota to spend Christmas with the family, before heading off on my last epic New Years trip for a while. Plan is to do (in some undetermined order) Mali, Mauritania, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Those seven will bring me to 192, with only four to go. Tentative plans:


So what’s left?

Belize diving trip, probably early winter 2016.

Tuvalu and Mongolia – to be done in June/July 2016 for the Naadam Festival in Mongolia. Hopefully this time I’ll get Tuvalu on the first try, but I’m leaving two weeks for it. If I finish early I can make side trips from Fiji to other places, maybe Melbourne or Wallis and Futuna.

Then, the grand finale, Iceland in September 2016…that’ll make all 196 countries!

I’m sure 2015 will contain a few added surprises, maybe work trips, maybe some fun trips to LA, Ottawa, Montreal, and Vancouver to make some long overdue trips to visit friends – but that’s all up in the air for now. Should be an exciting next six months!