Day 1: Arriving in Pyongyang
Like most travelers to North Korea, my journey started in Beijing where I picked up my tourist visa card. It's really just a plain and flimsy piece of paper containing lots of Korean characters and of course my mugshot that I sent to Uri Tours.
A Uri Tours travel agency representative met me at my hotel the day before my flight to deliver that card to me and told me to go directly to the Air Koryo counter in Terminal 2 in the Beijing Capital International Airport at least 3 hours before departure. She flipped through my passport, briefly went over what to bring and what not to bring, common etiquettes in North Korea, and was on her way.
I woke up early the next day to catch the flight. Local transportation in Beijing is hell so the safest bet is to take the Airport Express Line which took about an hour from the city center with a transfer. The train stops at Terminal 3 first and Terminal 2 is about an additional 10 minutes.
I picked up some extra cash at a nearby ATM and headed over to the airport counter. The Air Koryo counter was staffed by Air China employees with a North Korean supervisor watching. The supervisor was wearing a pin with the DPRK flag and Kim Jong Il.
I got two checked bags for free! We don't even get that in America. At the time, I was on an extended trip in China and had a backpack and a duffle with everything from Summer clothes for Southern China to Winter clothes for Tibet. There were some people with carts full of boxes to bring back. The official limit was 22kg per person regardless of the number of items.
With my boarding pass in hand, I walked through immigration and got my China exit stamp.
At this point, I definitely started feeling a little uneasy. In the waiting area, there was a very large group of people, all wearing white shirts, dark suits, and DPRK flag pins standing in rows chanting things in Korean. They had a leader whose pin had 2 faces and their pins were only the flag.
As we boarded the plane, I took one last look at freedom with the Soviet-era plane before picking up a copy of the Pyongyang Times at the gate. That newspaper, more like a propaganda pamphlet, served as my inflight entertainment for the next hour and half.
The plane itself is actually pretty decent. Lots of overhead bin storage, clean pleather seats, and a good amount of leg room as well. I'd estimate it at probably 34" since it felt a bit more than the usual 32" on American carriers but a little less than the Comfort+ seats I'm used to on Delta. I would fly them over Spirit Airlines any day.
We watched an extremely boring safety video and were on our way. Our departure was on time to the exact minute. That lady in the safety video? She was actually our flight attendant. Only in North Korea.
The inflight entertainment options were less than stellar though. They played a showing of some performance where a lady was singing in her screeching opera voice to the tunes of military marching music. It was driving me crazy to the point that I read their equally insane newspaper from the front to the back. Their translator's English is impeccable. Topic of the week - Kim Jong Un looking at things.
Shortly after we reached cruising altitude, the flight attendants served us lunch with a side of customs forms. It shouldn't really be considered food but I guess they try to make us foreigners happy. The chicken sandwich was extremely dry and had a strange, almost teriyaki-like sauce, with a slice of lettuce and cheese. Their drink choices included purple drink, orange drink, white drink, and water. I was told they were grape juice, orange juice, and yogurt drink. I chose water.
The customs form gave me a huge headache too. They asked me to list every single piece of electronic device I had and I was told to report every single one - laptop, camera, phone, Fitbit, battery pack, etc. I felt like I wanted to go home already. The young lady sitting next to me also seemed a bit distressed. She told me she lives in Japan but her family was originally from the North side before the war. She wanted to meet her grandparents.
We prepared for our decent shortly after and landed in Pyongyang.
As we landed and taxied to our gate, the ground crew marched out to the tarmac. We were the only ones at the airport and the airport itself is surprisingly modern and gorgeous. They had all the usual airport equipments too - the luggage trolly, the mobile conveyer belt, and even the elevated food service truck.
As we scurried off the plane, I took one last look at the plane that brought me here, unsure of if I made the right choice to travel here. I was told we couldn't take pictures anymore. There wasn't anything else unusual except for the number of uniformed military personnel standing guard at every corner. Welcome to North Korea indeed.
From the immigration point on, I was escorted every step of the way by a uniformed official. I noticed that the other Chinese tourists didn't get this special treatment. At the immigration check, the official looked at my tourist visa card and flipped through my passport. He then directed me to the luggage carousel where I was to pick up my bags. I saw two other Westerns there, both of whom worked for NGO's.
After getting my bags on the carousel in what seemed like ages, I went through customs. The officer looked at the list of items I reported and instructed me to show him every piece of electronic equipment I brought. Those were removed and passed to another officer who attempted to turn everything on and check them. Luckily, my Macbook had a password and he didn't bother asking me to unlock it. I also had to register every piece of memory card and USB drive. I was asked if I had any printed materials such as books, pamphlets, flyers, etc. I didn't except the Pyongyang times. I was told to not trash the newspaper because it has a picture of their dear leader on it. I was going to keep it as a souvenir but sure whatever.
My tour guides met me in the waiting area of the airport. I was surprised to find out that I was the only one on the tour since that wasn't communicated with me prior to the trip. That meant I had 2 private tour guides, a private driver, and a private SUV all for myself. If I wasn't feeling scared, now I definitely was.
I had two tour guides, a guy surnamed Kim and a girl surnamed Park. They were around the same age as me, mid 20's. They seemed very friendly and relaxed when they found out I was their age and was of Chinese decent and spoke fluent Mandarin. To them and everyone else I interacted with on the trip, I was Chinese. Chinese people are friends. American people are enemies.
The airport was about 20 minutes away from the town by car. As we left the countryside, more of these neon colored buildings started showing up. The blocky cement architecture really reminded me of the neighborhood I lived in in Shanghai during elementary school - a few floors of residential atop a storefront.
As I took these shots in the car, the guide went over some rules for photography: No pictures of unfinished buildings, no pictures of peasants, and no pictures of military and police personnel. I was to ask for permission to take pictures if I wasn't given any already.
First stop, Arch of Triumph. It's really like they copied the one in Paris and made it communist. The arch was built to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japanese rule from 1925 to 1945. That tower on the left is the Pyongyang TV tower and there were lots of government buildings surrounding the arch.
Next stop, a walk around the downtown area. We parked at the Taedonggang River Promenade where I was taught the Juche idea that the great leader promoted. At night, there's supposedly a musical fountain show.
We walk over the the main square where the Grand People's Study House faces the river and the Juche Tower. The dots on the ground are for marking positions during the military parades that take place here. What a strange place to be.
In front of these displays of communism, there were taxis carrying people to and from work and women wearing heels donning fashionable purses. A lot of people were walking around staring at their phone. Obviously this isn't New York City, but signs of Westernization and elitism were everywhere.
We walked a few more steps where people left and right was staring at me. I guess I'm the only one around with a giant camera around my neck.
We stopped at a foreign language book store first where books about North Korea and the Kim family were available, translated to English, Chinese, and Russian. I didn't have much interest in them as the books seemed a bit expensive - $10-20 for a flimsy paperback book to be exact.
I'm pretty sure these people aren't actors. I could be wrong, but it seems like people still lead a normal life. Couples hang out at the park after work. Kids playing in the park and climbing on things after school. I had one of those red Young Pioneer scarfs the little boy was wearing when I was in elementary school in China too. It's basically the precursor to joining the communist party and getting one of those pins with the great leader's face on it.
I asked my tour guides about their dating life and how that works in the city. They said that they were free to choose whoever, but a lot of times parents would help them make a decision as well. Most of their peers meet through school, work, or mutual friends. A typical date would be to go to a restaurant to eat and drink beer. Since sleeping together is strictly forbidden before marriage, a lot of couples hang out past midnight walking around town. Park joked that sometimes she would give her number out and get calls and messages late at night. If only they had Tinder, right?
Next stop, the Mansudae Grand Monument. After a short drive up a hill, we arrive at two gigantic statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. ¥50 CNY gets a bouquet of flowers to give to the great leaders and it's almost mandatory that I do so. No poses when taking pictures with the great leaders. Pictures must include their entire bodies. My guides and I walk to the statues in a line, shoulder to shoulder, bow three times, and present the flowers at the base of the statues.
The surrounding monuments have lots of symbolism that the guides recited to me. They basically commemorate the fighters during the Korean War and represent progress.
See that monument with the horse? That's not Pegasus but it is a flying horse. The horse is called Chollima that can move 10x faster than a regular horse. North Korea aims to do everything at Chollima speed, which is 10x regular speed. (Does this remind you of Animal Farm yet?)
This concludes the tour portion of my day. We stop by the stamp and post card shop outside the hotel where I bought 10 or so post cards to send home to family and friends. They were about $4 each including postage to the United States. (My friends and family received it about two months later so don't get too upset if they didn't receive anything when you get back from your trip.)
I checked into my hotel. Actually, the guide checked in for me and took my passport for safekeeping.
This hotel is about the most tacky hotel I've ever stayed at. This feels more like a cheap hotel from rural Asia more than anything else. There was colored LED lights and flashing signs everywhere. At least it's dinner time!
This is the start of a few very lonely meals I will have in North Korea. It seems like the guides do attempt to isolate travelers and assign time slots to each group. I'm usually the only one at the restaurant. My first dinner in North Korea is at the top of the hotel in their revolving restaurant. I was told not to take any pictures, but since I was the only person in the restaurant aside from the waitress, it was easy to sneak one in. There's not much to see out the window.
The meal isn't half bad, except it's what I'd expect if someone never had Western food and tried to make it from a cookbook. The salad was quite good actually, reminds me a little bit of Japanese salads from bento boxes. I had a pumpkin soup with stale croutons, grilled potatoes with strange spices, a delicious egg omelette, tuna wrapped in foil, and an overcooked lamb steak with rice. It was definitely a lot of food, but really the only thing amazing was the rice. There's a Chinese saying that the best rice from Northern China. I think this is what they meant.
I met a group of travelers from Hong Kong on my way out. They were some very affluent and adventurous travelers who told stories of going to Greenland and Antarctica, relaxing on Sir Branson's private island resort, and staying at a giraffe mansion in Kenya. I was curious what they were having since it looked different than mine and they invited me to sit down and eat more with them. Instead of a lamb steak, they got stir fried lamb. Instead of salad, they got pickled cucumbers. I definitely preferred the slightly more Asian variety so I made a request to my guides the next day to give me more Korean food.
I walked around the hotel and found a convenient store and picked up some some small water for the next day. It was only $1 for 3 bottles. While the locally produced things like crackers, soda, alcohol, and water were cheap, imports weren't. A 1L bottle of Sapporo amounted to $10.