Pyongyang is served by Sunan International Airport, the International Air Transport Association airport code for which is FNJ. I will be flying in and out of North Korea on its national airline, Air Koryo. This airline has the blood-chilling distinction of being the world’s only one-star airline according to Skytrax, an air transport research firm. Pray that my planes don’t fall apart after takeoff. In spite of this ranking, the airline has a great safety record, and its lowest-of-the-low ranking is based more on the airline’s level of customer service and on-board comforts. However, on-line photos by passengers of their meals give me the impression that Air Koryo must certainly serve the largest and most sumptuous meals in inverse proportion to the length of its flights. Two hours from Peking to Pyongyang and the in-flight meal dwarfs any size meal seen in any airline’s first class. With the North’s severe food shortages, the country definitely wants to make the impression to visitors that it has more than enough food to spare.
Currently only one other airline flies into Pyongyang: Air China. Air Koryo also flies to Vladivostok, a city I would rather visit than Peking, however I have to pick up my North Korean visa in Peking. I will spend a few days in the Chinese capital acclimatizing to the time change. Air Koryo does make domestic flights however these are rare and practically off-limits to foreigners. I am thus excited that I will be taking three such domestic flights. My tour lives up to its hype: it is indeed the most extensive tour of the country ever offered to western tourists. In my daydreams of one day travelling to the North, I never thought a domestic flight would be possible. I would never have dreamed that I would be taking three of them.
Travellers have to be extremely careful about what they bring into North Korea. What I might wish to bring over on the trans-Pacific flight as reading material might be confiscated by North Korean customs. I will fill my suitcase instead with “disposable reading”, my term for magazines and newspapers that, once read, can be left behind. Apparently the customs officers go through everything, leaving no pocket or corner of your suitcase untouched. It is less of a treasure hunt when one leaves North Korea, since there isn’t anything you can get inside the country that you weren’t supposed to have in the first place. At the time of this posting I have not yet purchased my airfare to Peking, but I will pay more to fly there nonstop from Toronto than to get a cheaper flight with a stopover. Irony of ironies is that I could fly to Peking via Seoul, and thus spend time in both Korean capitals’ airports. Unfortunately anything I might buy in the Seoul airport, be it a Korean phrasebook or a postcard, will certainly be confiscated by North Korean authorities.
Cellphones of tourists are banned and must be surrendered at the Peking airport before boarding. I understand that even if a tourist was able to bypass airport security and sneak one in, it still wouldn’t work since the network is set up for North Korean cells to dial internally only. Laptops are iffy, as I have read conflicting reports in recent on-line travel blogs whether or not you can take one in. Koryo Tours, the travel company I am using to book this trip, strongly recommends that you do not bring one as it will likely have to be left behind. Since there is no access to the Internet anyway in North Korea, you won’t find people sitting outside Starbucks using their free WiFi. On second thought, you won’t find any Starbucks either. On third thought, you won’t even find any coffee. I will have to bring my own instant coffee to satisfy my morning caffeine fix.
Thus during my entire eighteen-day stay in North Korea, I, like the country itself, will be shut off from the rest of the world. No Internet, no telephone, no access to any media except that of the DPRK. I will come home wondering what went on in the world over the last three weeks. Without any Internet access, this will be my first trip where I will not be able to send out any travelogue posts. I will have to save all the news for when I get back.