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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
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13th May 2012 - DPRK Trip - day 2 - Kaesong, DMZ and the Hyonjongrung Royal Tomb

Our first full day in the DPRK was a non-aviation day, and it was to be an early morning start, as we had to drive the long distance to the De-Militarised Zone (DMZ).

We drove along miles and miles of dual carriageway, and saw very few other vehicles. The road was rough in places and every few miles there was what looked like half built bridges alongside the road. The main supports were there but nothing else had been built. Asking what these were for in the bar later, we were informed that they were actually tank traps. The large concrete blocks that looked like bridge supports could be blown-up to block the road in the event of an invasion. Damn. I never did take a photo of one.

At about the half way point we stopped for a pee break at a large lay-by, where you could buy drinks and fruit.

The large monument that straddles the 4-lane highway is called the Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification, and expresses the shared yearning felt by both north and south to unify.

The journey was very rural and it showed how almost every inch of the land is given up to agriculture in order to sustain the people. We saw many people travelling to work in the fields, either walking or riding the state issued bicycles. People either work for the state on the land or are part of a co-operative. They are paid with rice and food and sometimes travel many miles to work in the designated field of the day. There are large portable red banners that tell them which field is the important one to work on that particular day. Their houses are also provided by the state, as you would expect.

We finally reached the town of Kaesong and then continued to the entrance to the DMZ proper. We had to stay in the coach as our guides disembarked to perform the necessary paperwork. We were then led off the coaches and taken into a room where a military guide took us through the history or the DMZ. We were not allowed to take photos of the guards at the gate however.

Then it was back onto the coaches where we drove single file through a sentry post and via a single lane road towards the DMZ, past more tank-traps, this time slabs of concrete along the high wall held in place with wires, ready to be slid down a slope and onto the road if required.

Half way to the DMZ we stopped at a building that had many old photos showing a pictorial history of the conflict, including framed snippets of the Armistice Agreement and the flag used at the signing.

Then it was to the DMZ proper and we found ourselves standing on the very building that is seen on every tourist photo from the south side! It was very surreal but very relaxing. Our military guide posed for photos before leading us down to the blue huts that straddle the demarcation line itself, and there were no photo restrictions at all.

The North and South Koreans share the use of the huts and while inside we could actually step into South Korea, albeit inside the building. The centre hut, which we were in, is used to stage negotiations between the two sides, when required.

click for photos from the DMZ

One of the members of our group had been on a trip to the DMZ from the South Korean side in the past, and he remarked that the security and protocol was much more stressful and ridged on the South side, which was an interesting titbit. We certainly never felt threatened and whole experience was very relaxing and informative. I never really felt that they were pushing any kind of agenda or rhetoric when they were explaining things here, although that would change at other places.

We then went for lunch at the Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel where we sat cross-legged on the floor to eat in traditional Royal Court style. All the food was served in small gold coloured dishes, each with an interesting food surprise inside, and all very nice.

photos from the Kaesong Folk Custom Hotel

Our next stop, after a short cross-country drive, was the Tomb of King Kongmin, also known as the Hyonjongrung Royal Tomb, which is located in Haeson-ri and is a 14th century mausoleum from the Koryo Dynasty.

Buried here is Kongmin, the 31st king of the Koryo Dynasty, and his wife Queen Noguk who was a Mongolian princess. This is one of the best-preserved royal tombs in the DPRK and has been nominated as a World Heritage site. There are a further 15 royal tombs in the DPRK, but this was the only one we saw.

photos of the Hyonjongrung Royal Tomb

Then the longish drive back to Pyongyang with an evening meal at the Taedonggang Diplomatic Club where the beer and wine flowed freely.
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14th May 2012 - DPRK Trip - day 3 - Samjiyon, Mt Paektu and Pebaeggong Hotel

Today was to be one of the most anticipated parts of the trip. A flight on an active Il-18! You can read, see and hear about that part of the journey on the aviation page.

Il-18 flight and sounds

Our flight was from Pyongyang to Samjiyon, which is to the north of the country close to the Chinese border. This is close to Mount Paektu, which translates as 'white-topped mountain' as it's covered by snow year round, as we were to find out later.

The first order of the day was a packed lunch airside of the old terminal building to the sound of MiG-15UTIs being run up - most surreal.

The busses here were much smaller affairs, not the large executive coaches seen around Pyongyang, but tiny commuter types that had certainly seen better days. We were told to take our pick and split up into three groups, and of course a bunch of us chose the most beaten up one available, to add to the adventure of course. One of the other drivers had also remarked that the driver of this bus was a madman and drove fast. Sold!

True to form we were first away from the airport, leaving a cloud of dust behind as we drove along the dirt road that exited the airport. The other two busses followed at a comfortable distance, allowing the dust to settle in front of them. Charles, an Aussie who lives in England, christened our bus 'Cuthbert' and the name stuck for the rest of the trip.

Our goal today was to traverse Mount Paektu but as we climbed Cuthbert started to overheat and the driver stopped and poured some new water into the radiator. Off again and a few minutes later we stopped again and were asked if we had any water on us. Luckily we were given water bottles during the packed lunch and so all these were emptied into the poor jalopy. Poor old Cuthbert!

A little later the climb was abandoned as a bus coming the other way had told our drivers that the road was impassable due to heavy snow. So a hair-raising three point turn was executed in rather quick fashion that freaked a few of our passengers out, as the drop to one side wasn't anything to be sniffed at.

At least the journey back would be downhill, which would help with Cuthbert's water consumption. Err, no it didn't actually, only ten minutes later we pulled over whereupon the driver jumped out with a bucket and proceeded to fill it from a puddle at the roadside. Brilliant!

On the way back we visited the secret camp of Mount Paektu, where Kim Jong Il was born, hence the mosaic mural. I would have taken more photos, but our tour was curtailed with a pretty hard downpour overpowering us. Also, close by, were some revolutionary signs placed into the rock. How they got those heavy inscriptions up there, who knows!

photos from Mount Paektu and the secret camp

We finally arrived at the Pebaeggong Hotel, which I assume was the only hotel for miles around. We were told there were set times that hot water would be available and when we arrived the electricity was completely off. The pillows were harder than the beds, but this was only one night so no big deal, although there were grumbles from some of the group as per usual. Hey it's all part of the adventure! The literal English translation for the hotel name is "Be Gae Bong Hotel" which raised a few laughs.

We could have traditional BBQ before main dinner, we were told, and would cost four Euros if we decided to take part. Most of us did, as there wasn't much else we could do. Wandering out to the grass at the front of the hotel, it was now raining, and we found the BBQ was simply a fire with a bunch of potatoes in it. They simply plucked the charred vegetable out of the fire, and you ate it as was. Ok not the most original snack, but it was tasty enough, although the price tag was a little suspicious.

What to do before dinner? How about a drink? Nope, the bar in the hotel was firmly shut, so the souvenir shop was commandeered and the local firewater bought. A very rough drink, most likely made from potatoes, and extremely strong.

At last it was time for dinner. Pleasant enough, except 90% of the ingredients were potatoes. I guess this is the main staple in this area, and I expect the local population eats much the same food, so no grumbles here. When visiting a foreign country it's always good to see how the locals live and eat. This was probably the closest we would come to the eating side on this trip.

The end of the day came, and with little else to do it was time to put your head down on the rock on the bed. And have a kip Goodnight.
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15th May 2012 - DPRK Trip - day 4 - Rimyongsu Falls, Samjiyon Grand Monument, Pyongyang and USS Pueblo

The next morning we again drove along dirt roads in order to get to a place called Rimyongsu Falls. Here is a very picturesque waterfall that freezes in the winter. The view from the platform at the top gives a nice overview of the village of Rimyongsu below, perfectly neat and perfectly clean.

Near the base of the falls is a hut that contains a generator that supplied electricity to the village, and the man whose job it is to maintain the pump smiles proudly as we poke around, neither of us speaking the others language. This was one of the times that our guides were nowhere close, and it just seemed so strange to be in a remote part of this country alone with a local.

Most of the roads in this northern part of the country are dirt, and the industrial revolution has yet to reach these parts. I noticed no billboards, very little propaganda and no industry. All around were people living simple lives, seemingly cut-off from the rest of the country.

views of the Rimyongsu Falls area

The next stop on today's agenda was the impressive Samjiyon Grand Monument on the shores of Lake Samji. Here you can find the largest collection of statues in the country at the site where the young Kim Il sung gathered his guerrilla army to launch their attack in the occupying Japanese Army in 1939. This site was constructed in 1979.

The statues are an impressive size and have great detail, although the light that day made photography particularly difficult.

photos from the Samjiyon Grand Monument

The last photo in the set is the view from the Revolutionary Regional Museum, which include displays that celebrate victories against Japan and the USA. Outside are some vivid models of Siberian tigers, which are the traditional symbols of a unified Korea.

A unified Korea is something that we heard about almost every day, so the direct opposites of the DMZ, North Korea and South Korea, against the wish for a unified country was quite hard to comprehend at times.

We then when back to the airport to catch our Il-18 flight back to Pyongyang,

Il-18 flight and sounds

All our drives through Pyongyang gave an opportunity to see some interesting sights as usual, before our planned stop in the city.

Pyongyang photos

We arrived at the USS Pueblo, which acts as a floating museum on the Taedong River.

Although originally built as a light cargo ship, the US Navy converted it to an intelligence gathering vessel in in 1967.

This was a ship captured by the Korean Navy in 1968 after allegedly straying into DPRK waters, and caused an international showdown with the USA. The differences in what the US deem Korean waters and the distance the Koreans patrol differs, but you would assume the US already knew these limits. The Korean's have always maintained a 50 nautical mile boundary, while the US maintains a distance of 12 nautical miles. Clearly something would give in the end.

The US reacted to the capture in a variety of ways, including a response by one member of government that a nuclear attack should be considered, while cooler heads ultimately decided that more information should be gathered.

The US had assumed that the capture was ordered by the Soviet Union, but only in recent years has it emerged that the DPRK acted alone, and that the Soviet Union wasn't too pleased about the incident at all.

The 82 crew members were held for 11 months before being released after an official written apology by the US, that included the statement that the US wouldn't spy in the future, which was verbally retracted later.

USS Pueblo photos on the Pyongyang page

Interestingly the USS Pueblo is still commissioned by the US Navy, and is the second oldest vessel in the fleet, and is the only US ship still being held captive. There seem to have been a few attempts by the DPRK to offer to repatriate the ship in exchange for high ranking talks between the two nations, but this has never been confirmed by the US, and seems unlikely to happen, considering the current stance from a US point of view.

The tour around the ship was interesting and informative with a healthy dose of the expected propaganda in the film we were shown.

Our last stop for the day was the impressive building belonging to the Mangyongdae Children's Palace. Here kids can do extracurricular activity, paid for by the state of course, in the arts and music.

We were allowed to enter a few classes where the children would put on a display of the class they were taking. The whole experience was a little uncomfortable and staged for my liking, almost like looking around a zoo.

The kids were all very talented, and of course this would be a way for many parents to give their children who show talent for something a fighting chance to progress to something other than menial work in their future. So from that point of view it's a good thing. I just don't see the need for tourists to gate-crash the classrooms.

We then had a chance to see some other sites around Pyongyang as the light got nice and the sun began to set. This included the Monument to the Korean Workers Party, which has a hammer and sickle, the traditional communist symbols, plus the addition of a paint brush, which symbolizes the importance of education for the Korean people. It represents the worker, the peasant and the intellectual, and stands 50 meters high.

Pyongyang views
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16th May 2012 - DPRK Trip - day 5 - Pyongyang, Mansudae Grand Monument, Mangyongdae Native House and Korean War Museum

Day five of our trip was to be spent around the Pyongyang area, and the sun did actually come out for a few hours.

views around Pyongyang

Our first tour stop for the day was the Mansudae Grand Monument that, until the death of Kim Jong Il, was a single huge bronze statue of Kim Il Sung. Not long before our visit a new statue had been created and placed next to the original.

This is a place that the people come to pay their respects by leaving flowers at the foot of the memorial. We saw lots of soldiers plus ordinary people, and each group was given time to pay their respects alone in their own time. We felt a little out of place here, but the importance of the site wasn't lost on us.

Our second port-of-call was the Mangyongdae Native House on the outskirts of Pyongyang. This is where Kim Il Sung is said to have been born and grown up around. It's considered a holy site by the Koreans and people come from far and wide to visit.

On the day we visited there were thousands of people around, from soldiers, to normal citizens to schoolchildren, all dressed in their Sunday best. I asked if today was a special day to visit due to the sheer numbers, but we were told it was like this on most days.

We witnessed a bunch of kids riding in the back of a large truck, and were told that they had come from the countryside and were using whatever transport was available. I'm not the best street photographer but I did manage a few snaps of the kids waiting in line.

There was a long line to filter into the house itself, and we were ushered straight to the front, bypassing all the kids, which personally made me feel uncomfortable, especially considering the heat and the length of the line. The fact that tourists get priority to something that means more to the population never sits well with me.

Our final destination for the morning was the impressive Korean War Museum. Here you can find all sorts of interesting artefacts, but in the basement there are aircraft on display, including downed US Air Force aircraft. Photography was difficult due to the low lighting.

Afterwards we had the opportunity to listen to a Korean War veteran talk about his experiences during that dark time. Very humbling.

Korean War Museum

Time was ticking by and we drove back to the airport where we went on a chartered An-24 flight.

An-24 flight and sounds

A quick note about some of the photos around Pyongyang: The vans you see with the speakers on the roof are, or were, used for various functions. In years gone by, when tourists were taken to a place in Pyongyang, these vans would go ahead of the coach and clear the local population from the area, so that nobody could interact with them. We saw no evidence of that practice on this trip, and we were told it no longer happens, another sign of the country slowly opening up. They also use them to lay patriotic music to wake-up to, or generally during the day.

photos around Pyongyang

The immaculately dressed young ladies who direct the traffic perform all their moves in ordered and quick military style, much like the moves a soldier makes with his gun during a ceremony. Even shift changeovers are done with military precision. Quite why they are needed when there is so little traffic is a mystery, but it does provide more jobs I guess. We dubbed them "Miss Whiplash" as we sped around the city.

Then it was back to the hotel as the sun went down, concluding another interesting day in the DPRK.
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17th May 2012 - DPRK Trip - day 6 - Hamhung

Day six of our adventure involved an early start to fly on a Tu-134 to the city of Hamhung on the eastern side of the country.

views of Pyongyang

It was a fast 25-minute ride on the 'pocket rocket' and we landed at the airfield with upwards of 50 An-2 military aircraft lining the runway, plus another four performing circuits.

Tu-134 flight and sounds

The drive to the city was very agricultural, and at one point our pair of busses were seemingly driving directly at workers on bikes!

The rural landscape gave way to the city with was very industrial. During the Korean War the city was heavily destroyed and was built up again with the help of East Germany as an industrial city, and to this day is the main centre for chemical manufacturing in the DPRK.

views around Hamhung

We saw trains for the fist time on this trip, and also trucks that had been converted to burn wood, due to the fuel shortages.

After a brief tour of the city we checked into the Kumagangsan Hotel, where hot water was premium. We found our baths full of cold water and huge bucket full of hot water. Not knowing quite what to do with this, we retired to the bar!

We also visited the Mount Kumgang Resort, where four of our group had decided to stay, and the resort seemed very out of place here. Huge walls cut this complex off from the outside world and the plush hotel had its own private beach with golden sand.

I went for a walk along the beach outside our hotel later in the day and found that you could only walk so far before spying a soldier guarding the perimeter. They are probably there as much to keep you in, as well as to keep the riff-raff out!

For me this was a wasted afternoon of relaxation, as I'd much rather see more of the city. We consoled ourselves by drinking the local bottled beer, which had a distinct metal taste to it.
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18th May 2012 - DPRK Trip - day 7 - Hamhung, Hungnam and Pyongyang

After a strange nights sleep and waking early, I took an early stroll along the deserted beach before breakfast was served in the bar. I can't remember what we had to eat, but I do remember the coffee was very good and I had three cups!

Our first stop of the day was the Hungnam Fertiliser Factory in the heart of this industrialised city. Hungnam butts up to Hamhung and sits on the coastline of the Sea of Japan, whereas Hamhung sits on the Songchon River that flows into the Sea.

With various pieces of equipment garishly painted yellow and green, and pipes and gauges all over, this looked like something from the industrial revolution back in the UK way back. It's fair to say that the DPRK is probably going through its own industrial revolution right now, due to the sanctions and restrictions placed upon it from the rest of the world. This is the largest fertiliser factory in the DPRK.

While we toured the factory the smell of ammonia in the air filled every part of our lungs and mouth, and a few people had a little issue with breathing in the fumes. This was only apparent outside, and once inside the factory itself all we had to contend with was noise and heat.

I stumbled across a video taken here in April 2012 which gives you some idea of the noise inside.

Factory on You Tube

These types of factories are needed because the land has been farmed so extensively, that the only way crops can now grow is to feed it with lots of fertilizer. I seem to remember that a figure of five tonnes of fertiliser is needed to grow one tonne of rice, but that might be incorrect, it might have been more fertiliser.

For me this was one of the highlights of the trip so far. No safety equipment required and very open with their industry, which is obviously still very basic. This was one of those occasions that you really felt there was no agenda or anything being hidden.

According to the Internet this complex is thought to manufacture chemical weapons, although if this were the case I'd doubt they'd allow tours to take place, for fear of being found out. Of course I'm in no position to say either way.

Our next stop was in stark contrast to the factory tour, The Hamhung Bongung, or the Old House of Hamhung. This restored traditional palace is where Ri Song Gye, who was the King of the Ri dynasty, spent his last days. The Ri dynasty ruled the country between 1392 and 1910.

Hamhung photos

We then took lunch at the Sinhyungsan Hotel in Hamhung. A couple of us had asked about eating dog since arriving n the country. Our guides had been trying to source a meal for the last few days without success, but finally this hotel could deliver the goods, so to speak. Dog isn't as widely eaten as folklore would have you believe, which is why it took so long to find any.

Tradition and superstition dictates that dog is eaten on the three hottest days of the year to bring you good luck. In our case a chili dog soup was served for around ten of our party. The chili did mask the real taste, but the texture was something like a cross between rabbit and shredded beef.

Asking what king of dog this came from, we were told it was a derivative of a collie, or 'Lassie' type dog. I joked that as this was chilli a lassi with my Lassie would go down well right now.

We then departed Hamhung on the trusty Tu-134 back to Pyongyang.

Tu-134 flight and sounds

Our next stop was to take a ride on the Pyongyang Metro. Usually the form is to alight at one station and get off at the next. David, our tour guy from the UK, was determined to see more of the metro, so when he was negotiating the tour he joked that the west assumed the DPRK only had two stations, as that's all that was allowed in the past. He managed to allow us to ride five stations on this trip. It's one of the deepest metros in the world and is approximately 100 meters (360 feet) deep.

We were briefed that we could take photos inside the station, catch a train, and get off at the next to take photos, get the next train etc until we had ridden five stations. The stations are very ornate, with murals and impressive roofs in some instances. The staff wear military style uniforms and we took our ride at the height of the rush hour. Who said that locals and foreigners couldn't mix?

Each carriage was jam-packed with people going home from work and students, some very young, travelling home from school.

We started at Puhung station, which is on the Chollima Line, and when to the next stop which was Yonggwang. Here we snapped away for 10 minutes or so before being told we would board the next train. It was even more crowded than the first train and we squeezed in amongst the locals. We trundled to the next stop at Ponghwa and as the doors opened I jumped out to allow others to get on. I looked around and saw that none of our party had got off, and one of our guides was motioning me to get back on. I just managed to squeeze in before the doors closed and we departed. Phew!

Apparently the plan had changed and we were supposed to stay onboard until the fifth stop! Who knows, maybe I was the first westerner to step foot on the Ponghwa platform?

We departed the metro at Kaeson station where our busses were already waiting.

Pyongyang photos

After a drive around Pyongyang we ended the day with an opportunity to go to the viewing deck on top of the Tower of the Juche Idea, the one that you've previously seen photos of at night.

This tower dominates the skyline of Pyongyang and stands at 150 meters (490 feet) high. It's actually the second tallest monumental column in the world, after the San Jacinto Monument in Texas.

You ascend the tower via a lift to a viewing platform that is just below the metal torch at the top. The views from the top are excellent, and provide an interesting overview of the city.

Near the base of the tower is the Monument to the Korean Workers Party, which is my favourite monument in Pyongyang. The monument symbolizes the worker, the peasant and the intellectual and stands 50 meters high.

This topped off probably the most interesting day we had in the DPRK.
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19th May 2012 - DPRK Trip - day 8 - Pyongyang

The final day of an epic adventure, and we had a final look around Pyongyang whilst being driven to the airport to catch our flight back to China.

Pyongyang views

Yet again the staff at the airport saw us off, and with knowing looks, bode us farewell with rolled eyes as we naturally started shooting the aircraft we would fly in on the ramp. I'm sure they'd never seen the like before.

The flight on a Tu-154 was yet another great experience

I was going to write further thoughts on the trip, but it's a mixture of confusion and not really knowing the real country. All the people we met were curious and polite, and we saw and were allowed to photograph many things previously banned on past trips.

I'm hopeful that the country will continue to open up and people will visit, and thereby quash the rhetoric from both sides and make their own minds up.

It's a place I'd certainly think about visiting again and it was a great insight, albeit a small window, into this rarely visited and neutrally talked about country.

If you get a chance to go, do it.
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