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12th May 2012 - DPRK Trip - day 1 - Arrival in Pyongyang

I was alerted to a trip to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) via a newsgroup posting which promised the opportunity to fly on a variety of Soviet aircraft including the Il-62 and the Il-18. After doing a little research and talking to the tour organiser, David Thompson of Juche Travel Services (JTS) in London, I decided to take the plunge. Other operators have attempted aviation centric tours in the past, but photography of the aircraft involved had been almost impossible, so the chance of flights plus photo opportunities was a big pull for me.

All visits to the DPRK must be coordinated via the Korean International Tourism Company (KITC) which is a state run company that provides transport and guides, as you are still not allowed to travel inside the country independently.

The majority of visitors arrive via China, as only a handful of countries have flights to the DPRK, and Air Koryo has a small fleet with restricted routes due to sanctions and bans. Our tour would depart Beijing Capital Airport, and this is the major hub for such flights, with multiple sectors operating on some days. Other destinations served include Shenyang in China, Vladivostok in Russia and Bangkok in Thailand.

It would be remiss to not mention the long and complex changes that have happened to this country over the last century to put the current political climate into some kind of perspective. Japan annexed Korea from 1910 until the end of World War II, when Japan surrendered, and the country was divided at the 38th parallel by the United Nations, with the Soviet Union administering the North and the United States the South. Both Korean governments wanted to control the whole of the Korean peninsular, and border conflicts escalated over the years until a full-scale civil war broke out in 1950, the infamous Korean War.

This could also be described as the first armed conflict of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States and created the idea of a proxy war, where the superpowers would fight in a remote country. The North managed to push almost all the way to the far south before eventually being forced back northwards. An armistice was signed in 1953 where the original border set in 1945 was re-established. Part of the deal was that Soviet and American forces were to leave the peninsular, but only the Soviets left in the end, leaving a large US presence in South Korea to this day.

After making our way to Beijing the adventure started. No one really knew how the access in the DPRK would pan out or if we'd even be allowed to take photos. My reason for going was two fold. Firstly I wanted to fly on two aircraft that I'd assumed were now long dead as passenger aircraft: the Il-62M, of which Air Koryo is now the last commercial passenger operator in the world, and the Il-18, which is only also operated in passenger configuration in Africa. Secondly I'm always fascinated by travelling to places off the beaten track, or a place that people simply don't visit. With only around 3000 Western visitors per year - the majority of tourists being from China - I wasn't sure if I'd see the country as it really was, or if we would be granted just get a small window on to this little known society.

The evening before the tour began I'd bumped into two people I already knew at our pre-tour dinner in Beijing where we would collect our visas, and I had already met up with Steve Kinder earlier in the day. There were also a few other familiar names that I knew from mail groups, and in all there were 30 of us taking this inaugural aviation trip organised by JTS.

I won't revisit what I've already written about the aviation side of the trip as that's covered in detail here. I'll post a links to the aviation side when appropriate in the story.

We arrived in Pyongyang on the afternoon of 12 May 2012, and after immigration formalities, we were split into two groups and led to a couple of busses that were waiting for us outside the new terminal building.

There we met our KITC tour guides who would be designated to each group for the rest of our stay here.

We could easily have all fitted into a single bus, as there was only 30 of us, but by having a pair of busses it ensured that everybody had a window seat whenever we were traveling.

Before we went to the hotel we were given an abbreviated tour of the Pyongyang city centre including a stop at the imposing Arch of Triumph, which stands at 60m high and straddles a four-lane road.

After the obligatory photos were being taken we saw school kids walking and being transported in busses. As all kids worldwide do when confronted by people that look foreign to them, many waved or simply giggled and ran away to hide their shyness. We weren't told to not photograph the kids, which came as a surprise after all the photo restriction stories we had heard.

We were then bussed to the People's Palace of Culture and allowed to stroll around the city pretty much unrestricted, although of course in a group. Most groups are only allowed to walk a couple of hundred meters in tighter and smaller numbers, but we walked for over an hour and were very strung out and not together by any means. We walked past Hakgangdol Fountain Park, the ice rink, alongside the Taedong River and to the Mansudae apartment blocks. This is a huge change from past trips, we were told.

We saw people going about their everyday business and were never told about what was off-limits for photography, so we just snapped away.

Then back to the waiting busses for the drive to the hotel. I asked about taking photos from the moving bus and we were told "no problem". As long as we didn't shoot military personnel or their equipment all seemed to be fair game.

In the past we were told there would be a minder on every other row on the bus, and photography from the bus was strictly forbidden, but not for us. Again another sign that the country is slowly opening up.

A note about the public busses and trams. We saw many with stars painted along the length of the bus. Some with a few and some with many. We were told that each star represented 50,000 kms driven. In the slideshow in the link the green bus has 46 stars (2,300,000 kms or 1,429,153 miles) and the white bus had 53 stars (2,650,000 kms or 1,646,633 miles). Staggering.

We arrived at the Yangakkdo Hotel, which we were told wasn't the first choice of accommodation. The preferred Koryo Hotel was fully booked due to the yearly Spring Trade Fare, but the Yangakkdo was fine by anyones standards and had two plusses. It had a great view of the river from the upper floors, and its own microbrewery with very drinkable beer.

Our local barman spoke almost no English, but we managed to communicate and even persuaded him to let us see the brewery behind the bar, with some western cigarettes as a bargaining chip, which he then proudly displayed alongside the Korean fare on offer.

This was a great start on an unknown adventure with many surprises that had quite frankly took us completely off-guard in a good way.

photos from Pyongyang