Saturday September 8, 2012 – To North Korea
|We had hoped to get to the airport in Beijing a few minutes before another large group that was also traveling to North Korea, so as to be ahead of them rather than behind them in the check-in line, but upon arrival, it seemed they had similarly wished to beat us, so we had to wait in a fairly long line to check in.
No-one likes waiting in line to check in at any airport, and while the check in process for Air Koryo was slow, for what it is worth, I had to wait an hour in line to check in for my Delta flight back to Seattle a week later, which was appreciably worse than the Air Koryo experience.
Normally Air Koryo operates one of its nearly new Tupolev Tu-204 jets for flights between Beijing and Pyongyang, but apparently that jet had been commandeered for some other official travel purposes and instead we had a substitute plane – an Ilyushin IL-62. This excited some of us who were airplane enthusiasts, because there are not many places in the world to fly IL-62 planes these days.
The flight to Pyongyang is fairly short (about 90 minutes in the air), and the IL-62 was reminiscent of an early model 737 or 707, although it has four old style low-bypass and noisy jet engines mounted to the rear of the fuselage rather than two or four on the wings. Seating was three seats on either side of a single aisle.
The plane that took us to Pyongyang didn’t have a business class section (although the plane that flew us back to Beijing did), but it did have something that was akin to a premium economy section – coach class seats, but with a lengthier seat pitch, at the front of the plane.
At one point on the otherwise ordinary flight, part of the ceiling panels half dropped down, but this was not a structural part of the plane and the flight proceeded the rest of the way with no more events and an ordinary landing. A lunch was served on board, of comparable quality to most other airline meals – and at least it was free rather than charged for.
And so, all of a sudden, there we were. Trooping off the plane, down airstairs, and then via a shuttle bus and to the airport terminal in Pyongyang. We welcomed ourselves to North Korea.Going through the airport was a fairly normal process. Instead of visas in our passports, we were given a group visa with multiple pages of visa information for each of the people in our group, and rather than getting stamps in our passports, these visa pages were stamped, with the net result that none of us left North Korea with anything in our passports to show we’d ever been there.
The Immigration officers were surprisingly lackadaisical at matching the visas to the people in the group – many of the visa photos bore little resemblance to the people and their passport photos (hair length and color, beards, etc, all being different between photos and the present reality) and with the visas all being only in Korean, including our names, the only exact way to match visas to passports was by checking dates of birth and passport numbers – too much hassle for the immigration officers much of the time. I sailed through Immigration without anything more than waving my passport and saying ‘I’m the group leader’.
It was also easy to get the North Korean visas prior to our travel. There was only the briefest of forms to fill out, and no-one was refused a visa. Getting to North Korea and into the country was much easier than any of us had expected.
Due to cell phones being banned in North Korea, I’d collected the phones from everyone who was traveling with one, and handed them in a laundry bag I’d appropriated from our Beijing hotel to a Customs Bond office at the airport when we arrived. We were assured they would be returned to us when we left Pyongyang.
All our bags arrived without damage, and it didn’t take long to get through Immigration and Customs. The Customs procedure was unusually strict, with not only our luggage being screened but ourselves, too – luggage was X-rayed and we had to go through a metal detector. Many of us had to open our bags to show what was inside, but the Customs inspectors didn’t seize anything, merely asking repeatedly if anything was a mobile phone, which seemed to be their only point of concern. People brought in large cameras and lenses and multiple computers and iPads/tablets, including many with built-in GPS capabilities (GPS units being banned in the country).
The mobile phone ban is a strange one which we don’t understand – particularly because western mobile phones are generally incompatible with the mobile phone network that does operate in North Korea, so it wasn’t as though we could use them, even if we did have them with us. We are also told that we could even buy local cell phones in Pyongyang, which makes the ban all the more inexplicable. Some North Korea watchers suggest it is an artifact from an earlier more paranoid time that the government has simply not gotten around to abolishing.
The same might be said for the ban on GPS units too, with the perception being that this is a ban which is increasingly being ignored by Customs officials, particularly due to the integration of GPS capabilities into so many other devices. Perhaps, some long time ago, it was true that GPS devices could be used to accurately get position fixes on strategic targets which could be used to guide cruise missiles and the like to them in the event of a future war, but any such GPS fixing as surely been already completed by now, and buildings don’t move. Plus, go have a look at the satellite imagery publicly available (eg on Google Earth) then adjust from the public imagery to the massively better imagery the military surely have, and you’ll quickly realize that the exact location of anything and everything we might get to see in the country is already known by the military to within a few inches.
Back to cell phones – we believe that these days there are two million mobile phones in use in North Korea, and certainly our guides were all the time on their phones, and if not making phone calls, regularly texting, just the same as people do in the west.
Sure, 2 million phones is not many in a country with a population of 25 million, but it is a lot more than zero, which is the impression some people would seek to convey when they describe North Korea as a backward country bereft of modern technologies and communications. We also noted that the cell service extends to give good coverage almost everywhere we were – not just in Pyongyang, but also on the drives out of town to the DMZ and to Nampo; even in what seemed to be ‘the middle of nowhere’ when we detoured way off the main roads to the Tomb of King Kongmin.
The guides said the cost to them of using their mobile phones is very low, although what is very low for a well paid (or, to be more specific, a well-tipped) guide is probably one or two orders of magnitude different to what is ‘very low’ for a worker in the countryside. Although the government provides accommodation and food to all citizens, our sense is that beyond this type of social benefit floor standard for all citizens, there are then huge differences in life style and affluence between different groups in the country and its social structure.
When we were all through processing, we boarded our two coaches to go in to the city from the airport.
There were 35 people in our group, and while it would have been possible to put us all on one single coach (the coaches could seat about 45 people) I decided to split us into two groups for two reasons, one obvious and one subtle.
The obvious reason was that 18 people on a 45 seater coach was a much nicer experience than 35 – everyone could have a double seat to themselves and there would be plenty more free seats too, enabling everyone to get a good double seat. And with only 18 people getting on and off at each stop, this process would be much quicker.
The more subtle reason hinted at some of the strange approaches to things that are adopted by North Korea. If we were on two coaches, we’d be assigned four guides (two per coach). But if we were all on one coach, we’d only have two guides. Now you (and I) might think that by saving a second coach and driver, the North Koreans would be only too happy to give us four (or more) guides on a single coach, but ‘rules are rules’ and if we wanted to have four guides, we also had to have two coaches and two drivers. Oh well, that wasn’t exactly a sacrifice on our part at all, and with it costing no more to double up on coaches, drivers, and guides (another strange but happy thing) it was an easy choice to make.
We had to provide lists of who would be on each coach prior to traveling, and so that sort of forced us into two sub-groups, albeit with plenty of overlaps when we’d both be at stops together, and during leisure time in the evenings and such like, and during the pre-tour options in Beijing and Seoul we’d already formed a good relationship among ourselves. I’d expected the two coaches would more or less convoy around the place together, but that was not always the case, although the divergence in itineraries was partly my own fault.
My fault? Let me explain. Repeatedly I would ask the head guide (on my coach) if we could vary our itinerary to add or change things, and she would almost always agree to do this (happily disproving the notion that North Korean tours are notoriously inflexible in nature). But while she was great at changing things to meet the wishes of the people on our coach, she wasn’t so great at coordinating this with the other coach and its guides, and it also seemed the other coach’s guides were less experienced and so couldn’t ‘work the system’ as well as our guide could.
All the key things were the same, but sometimes we did things on different days (eg the Mass Games, which my coach went to on Saturday but the other coach went to on Sunday due to their guide being too slow to arrange tickets for Saturday). What follows in the diary is generally based on my own coach group’s touring itinerary.
The coaches themselves were modern and comfortable King Long brand coaches, built in China. They would have been even better if they had restrooms on board, but we were told that none of the coaches in North Korea have restrooms. Fortunately we were never more than an hour, maximum, between restrooms on our touring, so this wasn’t really a big issue at all.
As we drove in from the airport, our guide immediately volunteered that we could take pictures of anything and everything we liked, apart from soldiers and military installations. The only other proviso was that pictures of statues of the country’s previous two leaders (the current leader, Kim Jong Un, has no statues yet) should show the complete image of the person, rather than cutting it off ‘disrespectfully’.
This was a much more liberal photo policy than some of us had anticipated, again based on what we’d read on the internet.
Talking about internet information about North Korea in general, which generally seems to portray a more negative experience than what we enjoyed in person, perhaps this is simply because the country is slowly but steadily liberalizing, and of course, internet articles are necessarily based on experiences at some time in the past, rather than on current day realities.
Later in the week the photo taking policy was amended to also request us not to take pictures that would embarrass the country – a concept which had different meanings at different times. On one occasion (possibly two) the other coach had issues with people allegedly taking pictures inappropriately, and on one occasion the person accused of doing so allowed the guide to search through his stored photos, with the guide happily confirming that indeed no inappropriate photos had been taken.
We drove on a wide multi-lane road past ordinary seeming multi-story apartment buildings, and while traffic was light, there definitely were other vehicles on the road. Many of us had seen pictures of huge wide roads that were totally empty – those pictures would either have been very carefully timed for rare minutes when there indeed were no vehicles, or perhaps were older pictures that didn’t reflect modern realities.
Cars were a mixture of Chinese, Japanese and western luxury cars, as well as some locally made North Korean cars too. We rarely but occasionally saw an American car, but never saw a South Korean car (interestingly, in China, we noticed a vast preponderance of South Korean cars which seemed to outweigh the number of Japanese cars – and also, alas, only a very few Amerian cars).
We stopped at the Triumphal Arch – an enormous structure some 200 ft high and larger than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. This was built in 1982, and celebrates the role of President Kim Il Sung in Korea’s resistance to its Japanese occupiers between 1925 – 1945.
One source says it has 25,500 blocks of granite within its structure, each representing one day of his life up to his 70th birthday in 1982, the date on which the structure was formally completed. It might also have elevators up to viewing areas near the top, but at least during our visit, the guides admitted to no way we could go inside or up the structure.
We then traveled on to our hotel for the next five nights. It seems there are two main hotels for foreigners in Pyongyang – the Koryo and Yanggakdo hotels. The two alternate on TripAdvisor for the accolade of being the city’s best hotel, and after some debate, we selected the Yanggakdo for our group, largely due to it having slightly more facilities and also allowing guests to freely walk around its extensive grounds.
A comment about the TripAdvisor ratings. We suggest that particularly in North Korea, TripAdvisor’s ratings are close to useless, due to two things – first, an obvious lack of universally accepted reference points on which to rate the hotels, and secondly, the fact that almost no-one who is rating any hotel in Pyongyang has stayed in other Pyongyang hotels so as to be able to truly compare the local hotels with reference to each other. This is probably why the Yanggakdo and Koryo hotels regularly swap places as the ‘best’ hotel in the city.
Checking in was made slightly more difficult because – just like our visas – the hotel’s rooming list had everyone’s names transliterated into Korean, and whereas it was fine for us if the Immigration officials didn’t worry too much about who we all were, it was more important that we matched up names and room types accurately at the hotel.
With a bit of patience and care, we managed to match all their names with our people and soon everyone was up to their rooms of the appropriate types as had been requested. The rooms were generally on upper floors between about level 30 and level 40 (the hotel has 47 floors, the top floor being the revolving restaurant).
Rooms were moderate in size – not large, but certainly not tiny either, and the bathrooms were reasonably spacious. The rooms were reasonably well furnished and equipped, even having fridges in them, and the bathrooms had toiletries and amenities. While the carpet was far from new, overall the rooms were perfectly fine and the beds were comfortable although perhaps slightly firmer than some.
Several people reported their in-room safes didn’t work (presumably due to dead batteries that had not been replaced). But the consensus quickly evolved that there was no need to put anything in the room safes anyway, with the staff being totally honest and in-room thefts almost entirely unheard of.
Being on upper floors, we all had great views out over the Taedong river that our hotel was located on an island within, and to the city on both sides.
The only glitch was that for the (surprisingly few) couples in our group, we were only given one electronic key card per room. People had varying results in requesting a second key card, with some people getting them immediately upon requesting them at reception, and others having to wait several days for a second key.
The hotel had a business center which would send faxes and also allowed you to send emails. One of our group researched the email sending service and reports
A comment about our group’s members. Many were traveling without their spouses, due to their spouse not wanting to travel with them to North Korea. Perhaps the larger than normal number of single travelers helped to make our group a very inclusionary group where everyone was generally friendly with everyone else.
Our first meal in North Korea followed not long after we’d checked in to the hotel. This was a buffet style dinner at the hotel, and was much better than we’d feared. The food was a somewhat bland and somewhat westernized version of Korean/Asian type foods, and while not a gourmet meal, was perfectly edible – a description which applied to almost all the meals we had.
None of the meals were brilliantly good (with the possible exception of the Duck barbeque restaurant which the other coach sub-group went to on Tuesday evening while our group was at the Pizza restaurant), but happily, none were disappointingly bad, with most being somewhere between ‘okay’ and ‘surprisingly better than expected’.
After dinner, we jumped straight in to what for all of us would be the outstanding highlight of our entire time in North Korea – the Mass Games.
The Mass Games are described in the next section. For now, suffice it to say we went back to the hotel overwhelmed and more than ready for a good night’s sleep.
Day One was a great welcome to North Korea – an easy entry into the country after a simple flight from Beijing, an acceptably decent hotel and dinner, and an extraordinary experience at the Mass Games.
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