Thursday, April 12, 2007 Korea (North) North Korea

Flight to Pyongyang

Air Koryo to Pyongyang [Enlarge]

We met in the Koryo office at 11:15 with most of the 37 other travellers and Simon from Koryo Tours. Koryo had laid on a coach to Beijing airport for anyone who wanted it—the others would meet us there. On the coach there was an air of excitement, tension and anticipation. We imagine that everyone else was thinking the same as us—just how weird is the DPRK going to be? What are we going to think of it? How will we cope with being prisoners for the next seven days, unable to escape from the prescribed itinerary, constantly bombarded by critical anti-west messages?

We were flying with North Korea's only airline, Air Koryo. Despite having a perfect accident record until a minor mishap on a wet runway in August 2006, they have been banned from operating in the European Union due to serious safety deficiencies, and we had been warned that the flight was going to be an experience. The check-in desk was a regular Air China desk using Air China staff. Check-in was slow, but according to Simon it was the fastest and smoothest he had ever known. We were sharing the plane with quite a few North Koreans, noticeable by their very smart appearance and the mandatory Kim Il-sung pin badges on their lapels. Presumably these ones were senior party members or trusted businessmen.

We passed through security and were half way to the departure gate when we realised that neither of us was carrying Isla's rucksack (which we were taking on as carry-on). After those few seconds of heart-stopping panic that you get at times like this, Glenn realised that he had not picked it up after putting it through the x-ray machine. He ran back to security, where he found the bag being safely looked after by the security people. Of all the times to lose half our stuff, this would not have been a good one. Our minds had obviously been even more distracted than we thought.

Our flight was called more or less on time, and our group was seated together at the back of the plane. The flight, one of only a few per week, was full. We were in an Iluyshin Il-62M: pure cold war Soviet-era hardware designed in the sixties. Apparently pilots love it because it's fully manually actuated, and responsive! Our plane, tail number P-885, is the oldest of Air Koryo's four Il-62Ms, but was manufactured as recently as 1979. The overhead luggage compartments were open shelves, more like a bus than a plane. There was no safety briefing. The stewardesses did not check that we had fastened our seat belts. The class divider curtains remained closed throughout taxi and take-off. Several times a member of staff walked past us to the back of the plane for a crafty smoke. There was no evidence overhead of those little flaps from which oxygen masks will drop if the cabin decompresses.

Shortly after take-off the stewardesses distributed the sole in-flight entertainment in the form of that week's English language Pyongyang Times. From cover to cover it documented: the latest exploits of the Kims; the various devotions to the Kims by their loyal subjects; good news about ever increasing productivity in the DPRK; and bad news about the latest crimes being committed by America. Isla noticed that every time the names Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il appeared (which was a lot), they were printed half a point larger than the surrounding text. Not a big enough difference to be noticeable (unless you're Isla), but enough to subliminally reinforce the leaders' greatness.

The in-flight catering was pretty good, with a choice of North Korean beer or cider and a large sandwich of spam, fried egg, gherkin and cheese, all wrapped in delicious flaky pastry and baked until the pastry was just cooked. Is there a name for a sandwich baked in a pie? If not, there should be. We suggest calling it a Sungwich.

The four engines on the Il-62M are mounted on the tail, so at the back of the plane we had a noisy 90-minute flight. During the flight Simon was interviewed by a Hong Kong television crew who were making a documentary in the DPRK. He told the reporter about some of the weird things people have brought into DPRK—for example a Big Mac, so that they can have a photo of them eating one in Pyongyang. In case you're in any doubt, there is no McDonalds in Pyongyang.

For the last few minutes of the flight the pilot was throttling up the engines—this only added to our slightly frayed mental state about what exactly we were getting ourselves into. The closer we got to the ground, the harder he was revving and we seemed to be speeding up. Were we too low? Was he making a desperate attempt to pull up? We now know that the Il-62M has some sort of in-flight reverse thrust mechanism to slow the plane on final approach, so presumably that's what it was. But we didn't know that at the time!

We touched down at what felt like an incredible speed, and then braked heavily. As we taxied to the terminal there was an immense sense of relief at the back of the plane.

Landing at Pyongyang [Enlarge]

When we stepped out of the door onto the stairs, everything was grey. The sky, the tarmac, the terminal building, the plane, the people. And it was drizzling. This was a perfect introduction to the DPRK, and just what we had imagined. The airport was shrouded in an air of austerity—a few fluorescent lights were on inside the terminal, but that was all. We were the only active plane at the airport. The rest of Air Koryo's fleet was there, but was tied down and partially shrouded in canvas tarpaulins. On top of the terminal building a giant portrait of Kim Il-sung was visible, beaming down at us, benevolently welcoming us to his country. There was an eerie silence.

Landing at Pyongyang [Enlarge]

We had parked about a hundred metres from the terminal, but we were not going to be walking to it. We needed to take the shuttle bus. Whether this was to stop us from running away; or to impress us that this airport is big and important enough to have a fleet of shuttle buses; or both, we're not sure. After five minutes of waiting for the bus to fill up, followed up by a twenty-second ride to the terminal, we found ourselves in a queue for passport control. The inside of the building was cold and dark, and there were military everywhere. Simon rounded up all the mobile phone owners and put their phones in a big bag. He handed it to someone from security. Mobile phones are not allowed in the DPRK. They were secured in a sealed bag and their owners will get them back at the end of our trip. We were not sorry that we left our phone in Beijing.

We were travelling on a group visa, which meant that we all had to go through the same passport gate. The visa was basically just a printout of everyone's photos, plus names and dates of birth. We already knew that we were not going to get any form of stamp in our passport to prove that we had been to the DPRK, and sure enough we didn't. This is a little disappointing as it would have been a great souvenir.

A few metres further on was Pyongyang Airport's single luggage carousel. It must be the slowest carousel in the world, and we wondered if maybe a poor North Korean was pedalling furiously behind the scenes to make it revolve. There were three members of staff employed to make sure that the bags didn't jam as they were deposited on the carousel. They were constantly busy. When our bag appeared it was looking very sorry for itself. It was soaked, and had clearly spent some time in a puddle.

Immigration and customs was a painless experience, and while the officials were not on the Bangkok end of the 'airport staff smileyness' scale, they were not the draconian monsters we had feared encountering. Past security we caught a glimpse of the arrivals board. We were one of only three flights arriving at the DPRK's main airport today.

The reality began to sink in—after four years of thinking about it, we were officially in North Korea!

Map of Day 139

Day 139
Beijing to Pyongyang

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

This is an amazing entry! I am going to continue reading your blog. I'd love to visit Pyongyang. Thank you for posting.