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!
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
Not sure what’s in all those containers, but a rather huge galley area. Clearly reducing weight was no priority when building this plane:
You sit here:
Getting suspicious looks for taking so many pics during boarding:
In-flight, a pic of the main cabin from the washrooms in the back:
Here comes lunch! Despite being only about 75 minutes in the air, a full lunch was served:
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:
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:
Poster outside the airport advertising the Arirang Mass Games, the event we had all been invited to witness:
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:
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:
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:
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!