Thursday September 13, 2012 – Back to Beijing
|And so, at a time that was probably neither too soon nor too distant, we found ourselves leaving North Korea and returning back to Beijing.
Our flight departure time had been brought forward, so the hotel graciously agreed to open the breakfast room for us half an hour early to give us time for breakfast.
A rather chaotic checkout at the hotel threatened to take way too long to conclude due to a miscellany of arguments between the hotel staff over allegedly unpaid room charges and our group members who variously claimed to have paid the charges or to have no knowledge of what the charges were. It seemed that several hotel staff had neglected to make any sort of formal entry in the hotel’s bookkeeping system to record the receipt of various payments from various tour members.With time passing, and the amounts in question trivially small, I eventually simply paid all the disputed charges so we could leave and head off to the airport.
Upon arrival at the airport, a problem arose. One of our group had misunderstood the arrangement for getting her bags to the coach, with the result they were still back at the hotel rather than on the coach. Ooops.
Time didn’t allow for the bags to somehow be found and transported to the airport in time for our flight, but happily there was a second flight due to depart a mere 40 minutes after our flight, and we made arrangements for her two bags to be taken to the airport in time for that flight, and she agreed to simply wait the 40 minutes at Beijing Airport and to retrieve her bags when they arrived on the subsequent flight (which happily they did, exactly as hoped for).
There was one other small problem that came to light on the coach as we drove to the airport, and one which I’d been keeping quietly to myself. I’d stupidly lost the receipt for the cell phones that I’d been issued when handing them all in upon arrival. Fortunately, the combination of our resourceful guide, and a small cash ‘fine’ to the Customs officer, saw them handed back to me without much fuss at all – I was not really worried about this other than as to the extent of the ‘fine’ that would need to be paid, because I suspected I was far from the first person to lose their receipt. All the phones were present, and all were happily re-united with their owners, although none of them would work until our landing in Beijing in a few hours time.
The airport building is a single large room that doubles for both arrival and departure processing. In a mirror image reversal, this time we first went through security, then checked in, then went through Emigration, and then to the plane and back to Beijing.
Security for us boarding the flight was, if anything, much less detailed than when we arrived in the country. Both our to-be-checked and our carry-on luggage all went through the same X-ray machine and then was handed back to us, and we then went on to the check-in counters, allowing us plenty of opportunity to switch things between the checked and carry-on items if we were of evil intent.
We again were on an IL-62, although it was a different one to the plane we flew on to Pyongyang. This plane had an improved business class section, much to the delight of those in our group who had booked business class, but it seemed the seat pitch on the coach class seats was less than the earlier flight. My knees were jammed hard up against the seat back in front for the flight.
This plane had overhead ‘parcel racks’ rather than overhead bins with closable doors. The racks were small, and those of us with aisle seats looked up at the stuff in the racks above our heads and wondered what would happen if the plane encountered some strong turbulence.
As it was, the flight was smooth all the way. A ‘mystery meat’ type hamburger was offered on the flight, but few of us chose to eat it.
Our landing in Beijing was enlivened by a last-minute aborted landing and a go-around to repeat the exercise. We’ve no idea what caused the aborted landing, but the real landing five minutes later was uneventful, and so there we were, back in Beijing. I mean no disrespect to either Beijing or Pyongyang when I say that the latter was able to make our return to the former seem like a return to a familiar western environment – something that Beijing had definitely not seemed to us, just a week earlier.
Our group rapidly splintered at baggage claim, and our lives again started to move in differing directions, both literally and figuratively.
Some of the group took advantage of a post-tour night back at the same hotel we’d been staying at prior to heading to North Korea. This not only gave us a buffer night in case of flight challenges, but it also gave us a chance to leave unneeded luggage in Beijing.
Those of us who stayed the extra night in Beijing got together for a dinner and drinks session that evening, which we did at a restaurant just around the corner and had a most enjoyable meal and time together. Oh – the restaurant we ate at? It was a Korean barbecue restaurant!
As I write this, already North Korea is seeming a far away place again, rather than somewhere that I intensely experienced (and, yes, definitely enjoyed) during our wide-ranging five days of touring.
Unlike most in the group (one group member has already expressed interest in returning with me next year), I can at least look forward to returning in September 2013, and it will be very interesting to see North Korea again and to contrast what was in 2012 with what will be in 2013.
Will the Ryugyong Hotel now be open? Probably not! But will Pyongyang have become slightly more westernized, and slightly more filled with automobiles and western goods? Almost certainly yes.
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