A Travellerspoint blog

To Pyongyang!

DPRK (and Beijing) Day four

View DPRK 2019 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Flying to Pyongyang

At Beijing Capital Airport

Today was the big day! We were up promptly and after breakfast again in the nearby Pacific Coffee Shop we checked out of the Grand Hyatt hotel and caught a taxi to Dongzhimen station, having decided that we really didn’t fancy tackling the Beijing subway again with our suitcases. And as it only cost about £2.50 it was a good decision. We then caught the Airport Express to Terminal 2 to check in for our Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang.

We met Carl, our tour leader, and some others from our group in the check-in queue, and once through all the formalities the rest gradually gathered at the gate. There was a bit of a delay (unexplained) but eventually we were allowed to board.

Boarding the flight to Pyongyang

Our plane was a Tupolev Tu-204 and reasonably modern, and the cabin crew were welcoming. The first sign that we were going somewhere a bit different was the pin badges of the Great Leaders that they all wore. The second was the copy of the Pyongyang Times that was handed out for in-flight reading. The main headline was about a rocket launcher test and the story included the memorable comment that: ‘Kim Jong Un together with his dear comrades-in-arms recollected the unforgettable days when he was braving manifold trials to develop strategic weapon systems.’ Stories inside covered Youth Day celebrations, a meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly, high levels of production at the Pyongyang Wheat Flour Processing Factory, the health benefits of eating rabbit and surprising (to me at least) coverage of a UN report on threats to flora and fauna - although interestingly none of the specific examples cited were relevant to the DPRK, with the possible exception of bees. When we had finished reading we were very careful to fold it without creasing the image of Kim Jong Un, as to do so would show a lack of respect. And respect for the Leaders is a paramount requirement for travelling to North Korea.

Copy of the Pyongyang Times

Lunch on board

We were served a pack of sandwiches - cheese, spam and cucumber with cream cheese. All quite edible if unexciting. We were also given the various forms we needed for landing - entry form, customs declaration and health. The middle of these was the most challenging to complete as we had to list all the currency we were bringing into the country, plus mobile phones and other electronics. Counting our money (I hadn’t thought to do it previously) and filling in all the other details took up much of the flight, interspersed with looking out of the window.

First views of North Korea from the air

Pyongyang Airport

Arrival in Pyongyang

We landed in Pyongyang a bit later than scheduled, having been held up at Beijing queuing to take off. The airport was modern and seemed well organised - we were quickly through immigration, where we were welcomed with a smile; our baggage appeared promptly; and although there were checks at customs they were not onerous. Nevertheless it took quite a while before all 17 of us (16 tour group members plus Carl) were through. We were greeted by our Korean guides – the main one was clearly well known to Carl, as he greeted her warmly, while her male colleague was a young guy, just 21, still studying for his qualifications in guiding, so this would be his first tour.

Incidentally, it may seem odd that I don’t mention the guides’ names, as of course they both introduced themselves to us all, and in the course of the next couple of weeks we were to get to know them pretty well. But this is North Korea, and careful as I plan to be in choosing my words and describing my experiences, it is possible that I could say something here that would not be 100% popular there, and that this could reflect poorly on the guides who, it might be thought, should have taught me more carefully about what is considered acceptable. So let us call our wonderful lead guide, Guide A, and our enthusiastic young student guide, Guide B.

First impressions

We boarded our bus and set off on the 30 minute ride to the city centre, at first through quite a rural area with paddy fields and maize growing beside the road. I wasn’t sure, after some things I had read about the country, whether taking photos from the bus would be permitted, but our guide was quick to tell us that it was, even before any of us had asked. So I snapped away and got a few decent shots.

From the road into Pyongyang

The low concrete and metal barrier in the foreground of some of my shots was, I realised, intended to separate bicycle traffic from motor vehicles – a good idea, although given the relatively low amount of traffic here, it is maybe one which would benefit other countries more than North Korea!


Driving into Pyongyang

The road was lined with the cosmos flowers which were to become such a visual feature of the trip for me. One of the country’s patriotic slogans is ‘Let the cosmos flowers bloom all along the roads and railways!’ Every citizen here has a responsibility to contribute to keeping their local area looking the best it can – clearing litter, cutting the grass (with scissors!), planting these flowers and even mopping up puddles, as we were to see later in the trip! I have also read, although our guide didn’t mention it, that the cosmos flowers are planted by the people every year, along all the roadsides and railways, so that Kim Jong Un’s travels around the country will be brightened by them – a sign of gratitude for the ‘field guidance’ he offers on these visits, working untiringly for his people, as did his father and grandfather before him.

As we approached the city, I started to spot buildings and monuments I recognised from descriptions or photos, and took a few pictures of these too, even though I knew we would almost certainly get better opportunities later in the trip - just in case.

The planetarium

The first of many Kim mosaics we would see!
~ this one has the city of Pyongyang in the background, with happy citizens and the flags of the Workers' Party and of the DPRK in the foreground, surrounded by flowers

As we rode Guide A told us a bit about the country, mostly background info about size, population etc. She touched on the fact that they see Korea as one country, with a common language and culture, and talked briefly about some bits of history - the Japanese colonisation, liberation, bombing during the Korean War. I was sure we would hear much more detail over the next couple of weeks, and she didn’t mention anything that I didn’t already know, but it was interesting to get some context for the tour right from the start.

The Kim il Sung Stadium

By Moranbong Park

An evening in Pyongyang

Carl explained that as we had arrived a bit late we wouldn’t go to the hotel just yet to check in, as had been planned, but would instead have a welcome drink in a bar and then go straight on to dinner. The bus dropped us off at a convenient spot and we walked for about ten minutes along a wide avenue, Sungri Street, lined with modern apartments and other buildings. We were told we were free to take any photos we wanted, so we did!

On Sungri Street

Mansudae People's Theatre

The Supreme People's Assembly and Ryugyong Hotel

We did ask specifically about photographing the trolleybus and the small shop, and permission was granted for both. I was pleasantly surprised, and appreciative.

Trolleybus on Sungri Street

Shop on Sungri Street

There were a lot of people out on the streets - a couple of them walking dogs, some families out together, little children playing, older children in their school uniforms (white shirt, red tie) presumably on their way home after various extra-curricular activities. I got the impression of a settled, organised, fairly purposeful but not dull community of residents.

Walking along also gave us a chance to chat a little bit to our guides and to others in the group. Everyone seemed well-travelled and up for this adventure!

At the bar we were ushered into a room which I at first thought was a private one for our group, but a few locals did later take the remaining small tables. We were struck by the cigarette smoking that is clearly permitted here, having got so used to smoke-free drinking at home, but the smell wasn’t strong, thankfully.

First beer in Pyongyang

The bar I think was attached to a local microbrewery and really only served beer, and only one kind - not a lager as I had anticipated but a darker beer which was OK but rather sweet for my taste. The non-beer drinkers had to make do with water! This was a good early opportunity to get to know some of the others in the group, swap some travellers’ tales of course and talk about what we were expecting of this trip.

After our drinks we walked back to the bus. It had got dark while we were in the bar, so we had the chance of some night shots of Pyongyang.

Sungri Street at night

The Supreme People's Assembly and Ryugyong Hotel by night

I was particularly excited to get a good look at the lights on the Ryugyong Hotel, as it has become something of an iconic building here, albeit not for the right reason! It is 330 metres high (105 stories) and was intended to be the world's tallest hotel – a real statement about the ambition of North Korea. They started work on it in 1987 but stopped in 1992 due to the dire state of the economy (in part caused by the break-up of the Soviet Union, the country’s main international trading partner and source of support). By then it had reached its planned height but was windowless, a concrete shell. Work restarted in 2008 and the exterior was completed in 2011. The plan was to open in the following year, to mark the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth (the North Koreans like to mark significant anniversaries with the construction of major Pyongyang landmarks) but nothing happened. Several international hotel chains are said to have shown interest, including Kempinski, and in recent years there have been some signs of activity at the site, including the installation of these animated LED displays, but it remains unopened – in fact it has the dubious honour of being the world's tallest unoccupied building!

Our dinner was served in a private room in a restaurant and was both delicious and plentiful. The plates of food just kept coming, even when the entire surface of the table was covered! I loved my first taste of kimchi, enjoyed some little pierogi-like dumplings, as well as cold noodles, several salads, sweet and sour fish and a slightly spicy vegetable cake (a bit like a tortilla). There was also chicken, tofu, pork, beef tartare Korean style … The beer here was lager style and more to my taste, but we could also have pear juice, and a few people paid for some wine. Just as we felt we couldn’t eat any more, the rice appeared. It too was very tasty, but I couldn’t manage more than a couple of mouthfuls.

First dinner in Pyongyang

By now I think several of us were wilting a bit and I for one was glad when Carl proposed leaving for the hotel. On the bus journey Guide A told us about some rules relating to photography. There was nothing I hadn’t expected, and in fact it seemed much more relaxed than I had feared. We were asked always to photograph images of the Leaders in full, never cutting part off, out of respect, and for the same reason not to make silly poses in front of them (imitating their stance, for instance). We mustn’t take photos at military checkpoints (but of course that is true the world over) and should ask permission before taking photos of people because, as she explained, the Korean people tend to be quite shy.

The Pyongyang Grand Theatre at night

She also said that because we didn’t know anything about Korean culture or language we should not got for a walk on our own, but that if we wanted a walk one of the guides would always be willing to come with us so we should simply ask. Again, I had expected this ‘rule’, although my understanding is that it is in place to limit our opportunities to have any unwanted influence on locals or go anywhere we should not, rather than for our own safety. But you don’t, or at least certainly shouldn’t, come to the DPRK if you have a problem with following their rules (as our guide said, ‘do as the Romans do’) and no one in the group, for now at least, seemed to have any issue with her relatively few restrictions. We later learned from Carl that she is one of the most relaxed and flexible of Korean guides, so we struck lucky when she was allocated to our tour group!

The Koryo Hotel

The lobby of the Koryo Hotel

We were staying in the Koryo Hotel, one of the better hotels in the city and huge, with 495 rooms spread over 45 floors in two linked tower blocks. We waited in the impressive lobby while our room keys were sorted. Chris and I had a room - actually more of a suite - on the 17th floor. The décor was reminiscent of my very early childhood in late 1950s Britain - flowery patterned carpet and shiny bedspreads on the very hard beds. But on the plus side we had plenty of room to spread out (including a completely separate sitting room with TV) and a good view over Pyongyang. I later learned from Carl that our whole group had been upgraded from standard ‘3rd class’ rooms to these ‘2nd class’ ones!

Our 'suite' and bathroom at the Koryo Hotel


There was time to sort our bags a little, look through the day’s photos and in my case jot down some notes about the day. We also found that we had access to BBC World News on our TV so could catch up on the news from home during this fascinating and hugely significant period of British history, as the question of Brexit came to a head.

Despite that distraction we decided not to stay up too late as tomorrow would be a very full day indeed, it seemed.

I travelled to North Korea with Regent Holidays on their Pioneering Group tour, which takes visitors to the parts that most other tours don’t reach!

Note: when you visit North Korea you do so at the invitation of the DPRK government, and the itinerary you follow is approved by them, as are the sights you see and the information you are given. That information often differs from that disseminated outside the country - there are, as always, two (or more) sides to every story.

This blog should not be seen as a fully balanced picture of the country as it will focus primarily on what I personally saw and heard while there. I will do my best to reflect the experiences I had as presented to me by our Korean guides, although I may touch from time to time on other perspectives. In writing it I hope always to remain respectful of my hosts, and to tempt my readers not to take my word for anything, but to visit and make up their minds for themselves.

Having said that, all views expressed above and in the following entries are my own, and I alone am responsible for the content.

Posted by ToonSarah 05:53 Archived in North Korea Tagged people night food streets architecture beer restaurant hotel flight city tour north_korea photography customs dprk pyongyang street_photography

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents


Hello, Sarah! Thanks for publishing your DPRK discovery blog! It makes a good reading, and the photographs are amazing!

by Vic_IV

Wow that was quick! Thanks Victor :)

by ToonSarah

I don't really know what I had expected from your first day in North Korea but it certainly was not what you had posted. The lady in the picture of the road and fields appears to be in a traditional costume - I would have expected that to only be worn on special occasions. The rounded exterior of so many buildings looks so modern and not at all what I expected (thinking more of Russian style concrete edifices). Excitedly awaiting to see what tomorrow will bring.

by Yvonne Dumsday

Thanks Yvonne. Yes, that is the national dress. The lady was probably there in some official capacity (we saw similarly dressed women elsewhere who were responsible for checking that everything on the streets was running smoothly) or may have been returning from work - the guides at most of the tourist sights dress like this :)

And if you follow my blog throughout the trip you'll see that Pyongyang city architecture isn't typical of the rest of the country ;)

by ToonSarah

Sarah--just read through your blog and I was beyond fascinated!!!! You make me want to get on a plane tomorrow and go! So much was unexpected and you give such a great accounting of everything (loved the comparison of the carpet to your childhood carpet!) Just curious--what did they sell at that little store? Also, did you get any souvenirs at the DMZ? I guess you'll probably write about all of this in future posts but I'm not sure I can wait, lol! So incredibly interesting!!! Thank you so much for posting!

by Courtney

Hi Courtney. So pleased you liked it. We didn't actually visit the shop, which was on the other side of the road - tourists aren't allowed to buy from regular shops, with one exception, which I'll come to in due course. And I'll also come to the DMZ but not for a while. You will have to be patient ;)

by ToonSarah

Another well written and very interesting account of your first impressions. Looking forward to more.

by Natalie

I really enjoyed "our" first day in North Korea. As usual I feel like I am there with you.

by Bob Brink

Great that you got a relaxed and flexible guide. I look forward to reading about the rest of your visit.

by Nemorino

I am completely fascinated already. I can't wait to read the next entry.

by littlesam1

Fantastic start Sarah but OMG you didn't get to sample the infamous Air Koryo burger on your flight! It was interesting to see that the BBC was back on the TVs. In 2014 we had it but in 2018 they had been banned for some reason. I very recently read that windows on the Koryo overlooking some part of the city had been blacked out and photography was banned from the Juche Tower due to some new construction work but this was after your trip and I havent looked into how true the claim was.

by Wabat

Thank you everyone for all the nice comments :) The new entry will follow early next week I hope!

Albert, you're right, no Koryo burger, and not on the journey home either, when we got the same sandwiches. I wonder if they've dropped them? Not all of us had BBC News, and although we stayed in the same room on our three separate stays at the Koryo, on the middle stay we didn't have it for some reason. I also heard they had blocked some of the windows from that hotel, at the front (we were at the back) and yes, also the Juche Tower. From what I read there's speculation that it's linked to major construction work in the 'forbidden' part of the city which they don't want visitors to examine too closely through zoom lenses or to photograph - but that could all be nonsense of course!

by ToonSarah

I enjoyed very much reading about your first day Sarah.
I am looking forward to the next chapter .

by Josephine Hill

Thanks so much Josephine - watch this space

by ToonSarah

Sarah, this is just brilliant! Not only great memories but completely accurate as far as I’m concerned. Nothing I disagree with ... so far! Beautifully written too and, of course, wonderful photos. It was such an amazing trip and you’re describing it perfectly. Can’t wait for the next entry.

by Jane Ralston

Looks much greener than I would have expected. Also more developed. Looking forward to the next installment.

by irenevt

Thanks so much Jane :) It was a real pleasure travelling with you so I'm especially pleased you enjoyed this! If it is accurate I have Carl to thank in part, as he 'vetted' it before publication

And Irene, yes, Pyongyang is very modern-looking and has some lovely parks and green spaces, but it isn't really typical of DPRK cities

by ToonSarah

Great read & interesting photos Sarah! And even a trolleybus ;)

by yumyum

Thanks Sonja - yes, indeed a trolleybus!

by ToonSarah

I loved the absolute lack of traffic. Haven't seen that since the 1950s. Everything looked so clean!

by Beausoleil

Hi Sally :) If you think there isn't much traffic here in Pyongyang wait till you see some of my photos of the more rural areas and smaller cities! And yes, it's definitely clean - people 'volunteer' some time each week to looking after their local patch, including sweeping the street and pavement, planting flowers, cutting the grass (with scissors!) etc.

by ToonSarah

Not only in North Korea Sarah but here in the East Yorkshire village of Swanland, residents have a twice-yearly full litter pick of the whole village and, every week, a different family takes responsibility for cleaning the central area of the village around the pond, the Village Hall, the Church.

by Yvonne Dumsday

I know that happens in many UK communities but it isn't on the scale of the North Korea involvement, which actually is mandatory despite being described as volunteering!

by ToonSarah

I have been eagerly anticipating this blog, and I was not disappointed. It seems things have eased up a little since we were there 11 years ago, at least as far as photography and electronics go. We were not even allowed to bring mobile phones or video cameras in.

by Grete Howard

Thanks Grete :) I thought you might spot some changes since your visit! I think the authorities there are doing all they can, within the limitations of their own rules, to make tourists feel welcome and to make it easier to visit.

by ToonSarah

Definitely worth waiting for, really interesting reading and nothing like I thought it would be! :)

by hennaonthetrek

Thank you Henna - I think a number of people have been surprised to see what Pyongyang looks like, and this is just a taster ;)

by ToonSarah

Very much enjoyed reading about the beginning of your visit to North Korea and seeing these excellent photos. I knew that Pyongyang was a modern-looking city from documentaries I've seen (Michael Palin's to name one). I am curious about the rest of the country as seen through your eyes and look forward to reading your next blog!!

by starship VT

Thanks for taking the time to read this Sylvia - I know you must be busy sorting through your own photos and notes from Morocco :) Looking forward to reading all about that trip in due course!

by ToonSarah

Such an interesting read Sarah! Thank you so much for sharing! And I am looking forward on following you on your journey, although I am lagging a bit behind in the reading :-)I never thought to associate the Cosmos flower with the DPRK. As you probably know I do love my garden, and I have quite a few of them in my own garden here.

by sim1travels

Thanks again Simone - and you’re not much further behind than I am with my writing

by ToonSarah

Cosmos is planted in the median of the roads in Virginia. I couldn't tell from your photo of the trolley bus - is it a wheeled vehicle that runs on overhead electric wires? Like a trolley but with no tracks? We call them "trackless trolleys"

I've been so busy writing that I am just now catching up.

by greatgrandmaR

Hi Rosalie. Yes, in Europe we call a bus that gets power from overhead cables, but doesn't run on a track, a trolley bus, whereas a tram does run on tracks. The North Koreans seem to use the same terms, perhaps because most of the English speaking guides learned to do so in Europe. Our guide had done an English course in Sweden, oddly.

by ToonSarah

Slowly catching up with your North Korea trip Sarah. Already it seems that the country is opening up from Albert's first trip, and you've already got some good shots, even though your feet have hardly touched the ground.

by Easymalc

Thanks Malcolm! I'm not sure my feet touched the ground the whole trip - it was all so full-on and fascinating :)

by ToonSarah

So "we" finally arrived in DPRK. I use the plural because, like others above, I genuinely feel like I am there when you write about a location, it is a gift.

That hotel looks swish enough and if those are the second class rooms, the first class ones must be pretty flash. Is it purely for foreigners or are there Korean guests as well?

I am surprised you had never had kimchi before, I thought you might have "test-driven" some Korean food here in UK before you went. I can recommend a cracking Korean restaurant in Staines of all places! Speaking of food, what is so "infamous about that burger? It must be pretty dire to provoke such reaction. It is hardly haute cuisine but a spam sandwich is never to be sniffed at. Or perhaps it is!

by planxty

Hi Fergy - yes, we've arrived! I think the Koryo must have Korean guests too as we were told that the BBC World Service was only available in rooms where foreigners were staying, which implies that some rooms had locals. And it was a pretty good hotel by DPRK standards - not the best we stayed in (those will come later) but miles above the worst (ditto!)

We have a good Korean restaurant here in Ealing but we've never been - we planned to go before this trip but never got around to it! And the Koryo burger has been much talked about by many before me, including Albert - I believe it's pretty appalling and usually served cold ;)

by ToonSarah

Thanks for sharing.

by sulicheng

You are welcome, sulicheng :)

by ToonSarah

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.