Flying to North Korea

I attended a ninety-minute tour briefing at the Koryo Tours office in Peking the day before we left for the DPRK. The briefing room was crowded with close to sixty people. Up until then I had no idea how many people had booked this tour. We were split into three groups, and I was in the smallest group of fifteen travellers. My group was comprised of two other Canadians, one Frenchman, two Britons, two Australians, one Swede and six Americans. The two Koryo Tours reps restated in explicit detail the rules and protocols for visiting the DPRK, and they answered our questions afterward.

Up until the briefing I had no idea that some cameras were outfitted with GPS technology. Such cameras would be confiscated at DPRK customs, as well as any laptops with GPS. Travellers were advised to cover up or scratch off any GPS indicators, or at the very least remove the batteries so the camera or laptop wouldn’t turn on. Laptops, at the present time, were permitted in the DPRK. We were told that those of us with cellphones would have them collected and stored in a sealed bag the following morning on the way to the airport.

On Saturday, September 3 the travel groups departed in two buses for the Beijing Capital International Airport. I had decided to dress up in shirt and tie since I regarded travel to the DPRK as a special occasion and I wanted to create a favorable impression with customs authorities. The Koryo Tours reps gave me my DPRK visa while on the bus. Since I knew that the visa would be removed from my passport upon the conclusion of the trip, I photographed it front and back when I got to the airport. My name had been transliterated into Korean (see the first line under my photo).

When I got to the airport I was siphoned off into another area while all my fellow travellers continued on their way. I immediately thought there was a problem. I realized I was in a waiting area with flight attendants. Apparently a BCIA employee mistook me for a flight attendant or member of the cockpit crew based on my formal apparel, and when I looked at my slacks and patterned tie, I saw that I was wearing nearly identical clothing to the flight crew members around me. The airport guy who misdirected me to this waiting area asked me in English if I was part of this team and I, as well as the flight crew, all laughed and nodded no, and then I made my way to the check-in desk.

When I arrived at the Air Koryo check-in counter I was shocked to see so many people lined up. Really? Line-ups to get into North Korea? The line-ups weren’t your typical tourists however. Most of those in line were taekwondo athletes in competitive uniform or in track suits emblazoned with their country of origin. Apparently the seventeenth International Taekwon-Do Federation World Championships were being held in Pyongyang from September 6 to 12. I saw athletes from Australia, United Kingdom, East Timor, Russia and South Africa. When my turn came at the check-in counter I asked how many flights were going to Pyongyang that day, since it was obvious from the number of people in line that we weren’t all going to fit into one plane. The ticket agent told me that there were four flights to Pyongyang. There’s usually only one a day.

Once I checked my bag I passed through security, and there was no restriction on bringing bottled water or other liquids as carry-on at this airport. It surprised me to see that people were bringing glass bottles of beer onto the plane, and this was before we even got to duty-free.

While in the departures lounge I took a photo of the plane waiting outside. It was an Ilyushin IL-62M. I also took a photo of the screen when it announced that the flight to Pyongyang was now boarding. The Air Koryo plane was cooled by misters which cast hazy dry-ice clouds throughout the aircraft. You could not see the ceiling of the plane when you walked down the centre aisle. I found my row (19) yet not my seat (D), since there were no seat assignments at each row. There were three seats on each side of the plane and by the time I found row 19 there were only two vacant seats. I unfortunately chose the wrong seat and had to move across the aisle. Other passengers, including the gentleman who politely informed me that I was in his seat, informed me that the seats were indeed marked but try as I might I never spotted any indication of seat assignments on the overhead storage bins, on the walls by the windows, or even on the backs of the seats. Where was Air Koryo hiding them?

As the plane took off there was a rainstorm–inside the aircraft. The condensation from the cooling mist clouds flowed down the overhead bins and spilled onto unfortunate passengers. The entire aircraft was laughing as passengers, including me, were drenched by gushing streams of cold water. Air Koryo received the worst rating ever from Skytrax: it is the world’s only one-star airline in operation, and the indoor shower made me see why.

Although the flight from Peking to Pyongyang is only two hours, the airline serves what is most certainly the biggest meal for any international flight, regardless of flight length. While many airlines won’t even pass the peanuts for a flight so brief, Air Koryo brought out a tray stuffed with five bowls filled with salad, mushrooms, sausage, fruit, and rice with chicken. I had coffee with my meal. The DPRK most definitely wanted to make an impression that despite what you may have heard, there are no food shortages in this country. We can stuff you to the gills and only for a two-hour flight! Photographs were prohibited on the plane, so I obeyed the orders, however during my three internal flights, as well as during my flight from Pyongyang back to Peking, I chanced a few shots and will post those later.

What would surprise most passengers is that the overhead bins had no covers, lids or even net barriers. They were open to disaster should turbulence or any more serious condition surface. Glass bottles of alcohol were visible, sloshing about overhead.

The airline’s barf bags are prized possessions and I certainly took mine as a souvenir. I took them from each of my five Air Koryo flights, and also kept my wet-nap towelettes and my packages of sugar and milk powder. During my entire stay in North Korea, I never saw any dairy products. My coffee was instant and my milk was powder.


In the next post I will share my experience landing at Sunan International Airport, and of passing through DPRK passport and visa clearance, and then through the hours-long baggage inspection process.

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