Day 4: Hotel to the Airport
As much as I enjoy basking in the fictitious glories of communism, I really miss freedom and having personal space. It's definitely been an angsty trip for me. My flight was at 9:30AM in the morning so this is another early morning for me. Breakfast at 8AM, car ride to the airport at 8:30AM, arrive at the airport 9AM, and get to the gate at 9:15AM.
I managed to take a quick walkthrough video of the hotel before I left.
As I left for the airport, we drove through the city one last time and witnessed the early morning routine of the North Korean people. School kids were on their way to class and workers in different uniforms were hurrying to work. There was a lot of marching bands playing in the public squares in the morning and the guides explained that it's some sort of spirit week and the music is there to encourage people to work harder. I can't believe people here actually live the Orwellian Animal Farm life.
Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the airport terminal. I browsed the duty free shop quickly and bought some ginseng liquor and sea cucumber liquor for my parents. A small bottle of sea cucumber infused liquor was about $10 USD and a high quality ginseng liquor was about $25. There's also a VSOP version of the ginseng liquor for $50.
I hopped on the plane and sneaked a video of the take off with the airport and other planes. There was free newspaper and magazines available on a counter next to the gate. It was mostly the same communist propaganda but at least they make interesting souvenirs.
My Air Koryo flight JS152 departed on time and we were off to Beijing.
I was fortunate enough to sit next to a Chinese businessman and a North Korean student studying abroad in Beijing on my way back and was able to learn a bit more about the daily lives of the North Koreans.
During my conversation in Chinese with the student, he mentioned that both his parents are scientists and they live in one of the buildings on Future Science Street. This parents each make the equivalent of about $200 USD a month, very low compared to our standards, but actually more than enough in North Korea.
Housing is owned by the state and leased to individuals and families for free. He currently lives with his parents but plan to request housing and move out once he graduates. The government takes care of all healthcare, education, utilities, and more. The only things people need to worry about are food, entertainment, and transportation.
He told me that a taxi ride would normally cost about $2-5, sometimes $10 from the far side of town to the other. A meal at a restaurant would be about $10-20 a person and a massage would be about $10. Those all seem like luxuries that few people in North Korea get to enjoy.
His study abroad is paid for by the government of North Korea at a local university in Beijing for his bachelor in economics. I asked why economics is important and his response was that a communist society sometimes need to deal with capitalism to trade and he wants to help his country gain an upper hand in the understanding. On top of paid tuition and dormitory fees, he gets a stipend of ¥2000 CNY, or about $250 USD for living expenses.
I really admire his loyalty. It sounded like he actually loved his country and thought the Chinese way of capitalism was disgusting. I would have to agree with his points on the huge income inequality that exists in China and the distasteful culture of putting wealth on display. When asked what he does in his leisure time in China, he says he studies and reads as much as he can abroad so he could bring the knowledge back home. He doesn't watch foreign films or read world news because he claimed that they are all lies.
I noticed that he was wearing a Daniel Wellington watch and asked what he thought about it. Strange enough, he told me that it's supposed to be viral on social media in China and that it was a very popular brand to buy. He mentioned that he would get requests to bring clothing and accessories back for his friends and family. The North Koreans really love their western stuff despite their hatred for western countries. He showed me his wallet, his passport, and gave me a 5000 KPW note as a gift.
The businessman provided a bit more of the commercial aspect of the life in Pyongyang. He was an importer and deals with all sorts of trade ranging from computers and electronics to cosmetics and fashion. Most of the products he sells is on the grey market and bought with foreign currency by the locals in North Korea. The black market exchange rate is about $1 USD : 8000 KPW although the official rate is pegged at $1 USD : 900 KPW. The cost of produce are in the double digits and a subway ride costs 5 KPW. No wonder the student is loving life and gave me 5000 KPW for free.
Anyway, the businessman gave a pretty positive view of life in North Korea as well. He said that the living situation for the people in the city is improving and that there are more restaurants, entertainment options, and better amenities in the city. There's already two amusement parks, a few western restaurants opened by expats among many Korean restaurants, a circus, and even a dolphinarium in the city now. As for his business, it's doing relatively well recently because of the increase in tourism and the foreign money that flows into North Korea from it. There are more demands for luxury goods and cosmetics, especially for higher end products from South Korea or Japan.
He used an iPhone while he was in North Korea and he mentioned that KoryoLink was their national carrier. 3G was available throughout Pyongyang and a special SIM card for the foreigners even allows unfiltered internet access. Theft and scamming was almost nonexistent and there weren't any issues with fake or counterfeit products either. There's about a 25-50% markup between what North Koreans pay and how much the product costs in China. Cosmetics and other luxury products are double the price in China compared to the U.S. so I can't imagine what prices they pay in North Korea.
Towards the end of our conversation, the crew started preparing for landing. We got back safely to the Beijing Capital International Airport. I said bye to my two seat mates and was on my way to catch my flight to Shanghai. It was such a relief to turn on my phone again and be able to access the internet and call my parents to let them know I got back safely.