DPRK (and Beijing) Day four
03.09.2019 - 03.09.2019
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
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.
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 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.