2013 – North Korea

As reference for the places named in this trip report, please see the map below.

 

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Pre-tour meeting
It was back in January 2013 when I was asked by a friend if I wanted to come along on the Aviation Tour in the DPRK (North Korea) in September later that year. I knew some people who went last year, saw their photos and read stories, all which made me decide to give an enthusiastic ‘YES’ as a reply to the question whether I wanted to go.

Fast forward a couple months. It was time to prepare for the trip and before I knew it, it was time to fly out to Beijing. The capital of China was the starting point of our trip, with a pre-tour dinner the evening before we would set off to North Korea.

During the day, we visited the Datangshan aviation museum, which was very impressive. The ideal thing about doing this organized (with members of our tour only) is that we could already get to know some people, aswell as being dropped off at the restaurant afterwards. The dinner was hosted in the Haedanghwa restaurant in Beijing. It was here where we received our DPRK Visa and once the group was complete, David (tour leader and owner of the travel company) said a few words and gave us several heads-ups as to what we could expect.

After his introduction, it was time to find a seat in one of the two dining rooms. The rooms were very impressive and featured a large round table that had a spinning plate in the middle. This way, the food would come within reach for everyone at some point. The food was typically North Korean, paired with some local Korean beers.

After the main course, the entertainment arrived in the form of live performances in various disciplines, such as violin, drums, saxophone and singing. Most people left for their hotel afterwards, as it was time to call it a night and prepare for tomorrow; we were finally going to the North Korea!


 

 

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Day 1
We had to be at the airport relatively early, at 10:00. This way, we would be able to have the window seats that most people wanted and just in case something unexpected popped up. And it did; during the queue for the check-in desk, someone became ill and had to go to the hospital for a checkup. Luckily it wasn’t anything serious, but unfortunately it did mean his end of the tour, before the trip even started.

We had about 1,5h to spare after we went through customs/security and we decided to go to one end of the terminal, where we had a good view of the runway/taxiway. More people had the same idea, as it wasn’t before long until we were there with about 10 people. Watching the aircraft go by and occasionally photographing them or writing down the registrations.

I think we spent about 45 minutes there, before we had to go to our gate. It was only a short walk from our vantage point to the gate, so we had time to grab a sandwich before boarding. The flight itself wasn’t that spectacular, but for a Westerner, flying a Tupolev 204 is something unusual. The flight was fine, but the in-flight entertainment was something to remember; they had put on a DVD with a Korean concert on it, and they turned up the volume to the point where listening to your own music had become useless. Our snack was a burger, which didn’t have real meat, but I have no clue what it was. It was alright though.

After about 2 hours of flying, we arrived at Pyongyang airport. A concrete runway, taxiway and apron reminded me of Soviet scenery. The taxi was a bit long, but a lot of classic aircraft could be seen during the taxi, which made up for a lot. . After a few minutes we got to our parking stand. No air bridges, just stairs; the way it should be.

We went through customs (sadly no stamps in our passports), collected our luggage and went outside to wait for the rest of the group. Once we were complete, there were 3 buses waiting for us, for each group there was a bus (the night before, our group of 45 people was divided into 3 groups of 15 people; our group consisted of people from The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany and Hungary).

On the bus, we were introduced to our guides, Ms. Choi and Mr. Han, with our driver being Mr. Song. These 3 people would be our guides/driver for the week. We were off for a 30 minute drive to the city of Pyongyang and everyone was looking outside for their first impressions of the country.

Before we went to the hotel, we made a stop on a square near the Grand People’s Study House, and on the square, there were 2 portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. After spending a few minutes here, we went to the Mansudae Grand Monument, where 2 big bronze statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are located. The guides told us that initially there was only a statue of Kim Il-Sung, but after Kim Jong-Il passed away, the people asked for a statue of him aswell, and so there are now 2 statues on that location.

By now it was time to head to the Koryo Hotel, our main “base of operations” for the trip. A huge hotel, as was evident by our room on the 30th floor. I didn’t mind of course, as a great overview of the city was had. It did seem a bit empty, but as it turned out, we weren’t the only tourists staying there. Also, North Koreans do stay here, but on different floors than the tourists. We didn’t get a lot of opportunities to talk to the locals, but even if you could, it was quite useless: they don’t speak English.

We had some time to freshen up, and after that it was time to head to the restaurant next door. We were treated to the Korean cuisine again, which we would see every day on this trip. After dinner, we went to the shop in the hotel to get some water for the next day (we would be visiting Kaesong and the DMZ). Much to my surprise, 1 bottle of water was less than 20 cents.

 

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Day 2
Today we would visit the industrial city of Kaesong, near the border with South Korea. It has been in the news a lot, since the complex was shut down as North Korea and South Korea had issues with each other. We were there a day before it would re-open, but we only visited the city, not the industrial complex. A visit to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) was also planned.

Weather was quite foggy, and since it was an early morning departure (by bus that is), we were all still a bit sleepy. Nevertheless, Ms. Choi already had some interesting facts about the country for us. She told us how all housing is free and paid for by the government. You only have to pay the gas/water/electricity. Also, their work week consist of six day, Monday to Saturday. The country also features almost no ads. Where we would see an overload of billboards next to the roads, in the DPRK there are 5 of those in the whole country.

It would take us about 2,5 hours to get to the DMZ, and I spent most of my time looking outside and talking to the guides. At a certain point, we were told not to take any more photos, since we were now in a military area. We could continue when we got to the DMZ area. First we went into the souvenir shop and next to it, there was a room that had the lay-out of the DMZ on the wall. A soldier explained how it all worked and what we would see, which was translated into English by one of the guides.

Then a short walk to the bus, and we arrived at the first stop; the place where the armistice agreement was signed between North Korea and the USA. It was then time to proceed to the actual border, where both Koreas guard the line. A couple of barracks could be seen, aswell as some building. A weird thought that at that point, we were actually in/so close to South Korea. We had some time to take photos here and the guides took some group photos of us aswell.

After visiting the area ,we set off to the city of Kaesong, where we visited a museum (very nice traditional buildings) and a local guide told us a bit about the history of Korea. A visit to the gift shop was made, where many of us bought postcards with very nice drawings on it, and some anti-U.S. propaganda aswell. Very unique souvenirs for sure!

Many were getting a bit hungry at this point, so it was a good thing that lunch was next on the agenda. We went to this complex, I’m not sure if it was a hotel or something, but its looked pretty big. We were directed to a few rooms, where our lunch was waiting, in a very traditional Asian style. We had the option to have dog soup here, but I didn’t take it.

After an hour or so, it was time to head back to Pyongyang. The weather was beautiful, sunny and blue skies and the bus ride was quite nice. It was a good way to see the countryside of the DPRK. Upon entering the city, we stopped at the reunification monument, a symbol for the future reunification of the 2 Koreas.

When we got into the city itself, we went to the Monument to Party Foundation, a 50m high monument to celebrate the 50th birthday of the workers party. It consists of a hammer (workers), sickle (farmers) and writing brush (intellectual element). A very impressive sight.

To end our sightseeing day, we visited the Juche tower. At first I thought we would just walk around it and stay on the ground, but instead we went up! The tower is 170m high, so you can imagine the views we had! As weather couldn’t be more perfect, I happily snapped away at the city’s skyline. I remember Andy (one of the British guides) saying that he had rarely (if ever) seen it this clear. Lucky us! :)

For dinner, we went to a hot pot restaurant, where you would get a “pot” of your own and a plate with some food and you can make your own dinner. This wasn’t too bad, although it did cause me trouble for the rest of the week (more about that later). After dinner, there was an optional visit to a beer bar, which I went to. The beer was pretty good, but it was only a handful of people who went. Nevertheless a nice end to the day.

 

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Day 3
Today we set out to visit the Northern part of the country. We would be doing so in style, namely in a vintage Il-18 from 1968. The main purpose of the visit up North would be to see Mt. Paektu and its famous crater lake. We would also stay the night over there, so we had to pack some stuff, mainly warm clothing, since it was slightly freezing up there and it would be windy.

We woke up very early, at 06:00 we got our wake-up call, but usually we were already awake by the time they called us. I got my camera bag, grabbed the overnight bag that I had prepared the night before and headed to the breakfast room. By taking everything with me, I could take a bit longer eating, since I wouldn’t have to get back to the room before. After half an hour, I proceeded towards the lobby, and we quickly got onto the buses and drove off to the airport.

At the airport, we went through security and waited for a bit at the departure area. Our aircraft could be seen from inside the terminal, so everyone snapped away. After receiving our boarding passes, we walked a few meters to the bus that would take us to the aircraft and I managed to get a nice head on shot of this beauty being loaded, with the sun at a good angle.

I was fortunate enough to be one of the first passengers on board, so I quickly secured the prime window seat together with another Dutch guy. We had a great view of the engines and the weather remained good all the way to Samjiyon. The aircraft was full, not only with our group, but also about 20 Belgians from another tour were on board.

The flight was pretty good, uneventful and we had lots of people stopping by who wanted to take photos out of our window, which was of course no problem! The landing was very smooth and soon we found ourselves on the apron at Samjiyon airport, a military airport that also has MiG fighter jets based there (we weren’t allowed to photograph them of course).

That was fine though, we were able to photograph ‘our’ Il-18 from all angles in perfect light. Soon the stairs were removed and we could get clean and unobstructed photos. We also gave the guides all our cameras so that they could take a group photo with the aircraft in the background. Then it was the crew’s turn to pose in front of the aircraft and afterwards we all went inside for a Q&A with the crew.

After we finished firing our questions at the crew, we got into another 3 buses and started our 1,5h drive to Mt. Paektu. It was a bumpy but very nice road. We were far North and the scenery was beautiful. After about an hour, we got to the point where there weren’t any trees anymore and we could see the mountains in the distance. When we got to the base of the mountain, we got into a sort of cable car that would slowly but surely bring us to the top. And the forecast was pretty accurate; despite the blue sky and sun, it was freezing. The wind made it far worse, with (I estimate) at least 30kts/55kmh gusts. I quickly took the photos I wanted to take and got back inside, where the car was. At least we were sheltered from the winds there and it was slightly warmer.

As we arrived back down, my stomach now started to play up pretty bad. It had been bothering me since we got off the aircraft. There was a lunch and beer, but I didn’t have any because of my stomach ache. I just wanted to go to the hotel as soon as possible, but we had 2 more stops to make. One was the birthplace of the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung. This was in the woods and there were mosaic images everywhere. We also visited the cabin where he was born (so it was told). However, I didn’t bother taking any photos, since as it this point I felt horrible. On the way down the mountain, we also stopped at an observation area, where we could actually see the border with China.

Finally we got to the hotel and it was just in time! My stomach cramps had gotten much worse and without going into too much detail; I had a bad stomach bug. Once I felt slightly better, I joined the others outside for the BBQ potato. It was pretty much a camp fire with potatoes between the coal. We ate it with some salt and it actually tasted quite good, despite the fact that I couldn’t eat much.

After the potatoes were consumed, we went inside for our dinner. I was feeling very tired and weak at this point and I was told I looked very pale. I just decided to head to bed. However, the rooms were insanely warm (easily 26 degrees or more) and sleeping was very hard. It was tough to cool down the rooms, also because the windows were screwed shut. Some people were lucky enough to be able to get the screws out, but our window wouldn’t budge.

The hotel also suffers from occasional power outages and warm water is only available for 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the evening. Besides all of this, the hotel looked very grand (especially from the outside), but at the same time very empty.

 

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Day 4
The next morning, I felt so much better, which was a huge relief for me. It promised to be another beautiful day and I felt like shooting some photos of our hotel in the nice morning light. After breakfast (I decided not to eat anything for the next 1,5 days, to try and get rid of that stomach bug) we got onto the bus again for a drive to the Rimyongsu waterfall which was close by.

Combined with the early morning light, the waterfall looked great and we could actually walk up to the top, which most of us did. It was also a good moment to try out some low shutter speeds on the camera, to try and get nice streams of water. With success!

After about a 30 minute stay, we went back to the hotel for lunch and to get our stuff. Within the hour, we were back on the bus and on our way to the airport, which was a 40 minute drive away. The Il-18 with which we arrived the previous day was still there and would take us back to Pyongyang.

We had to wait for a bit until they were ready, but soon enough it was time to board and I opted for a set nearer to the wing. It seemed like a very late rotation and my guess is that we used up all the available runway length, in typical Russian style. I thought we were pretty heavy, as the climb was pretty shallow.

After we arrived in Pyongyang, the group split up. Some people were taking the optional Antonov 148 pleasure flight, but I didn’t. The original plan was to go to the Pyongyang ostrich farm, but that plan had changed, due to bird flu at the farm (or so I heard). Instead, we would now go to the Arc of Triumph, a souvenir shop and the foreign language book shop.

First stop; Arc of Triumph. It is located on one of the main roads into Pyongyang and is actually 10m higher than the French version. Light was again good, with a low watery sun shining on it. However, to get a better angle of the Arc, we would have to cross the road to the other side. I decided to ask our guide if it was possible and in turn she asked the local guide. A minute later, we were heading for the other side and some ventured onto the road for a few seconds to get the building in perfect symmetry.

Next up was the souvenir shop. They had quite a lot, but not what I was hunting for. For the last days, I’ve been trying to find fridge magnets, but so far I came up empty every time. This shop was no exception, and after exploring the store to see what they had to offer, I settled on the couch near the entrance. My example was quickly follow by the 3 female guides. There was a TV in the corner which had a Russian movie playing. The guides/locals seemed to love it! I haven’t been able to find the name yet, but it was about a guy who tries to get his friend a girlfriend. It seemed to be a classic and when I asked the guides about it, they said they all saw at least a few times. The rest of the group also gathered around the couch at this time and when I think back about it, it was probably a very amusing sight.

Unfortunately we couldn’t stay to watch the end of the movie, as we had a schedule to keep to. We went on our way to the foreign language book store, where we could again stock up on souvenirs. There were of course books, but also posters and other small souvenirs (again no fridge magnets!). I didn’t buy anything, but a sort of newspaper caught my interest. It featured an article with the headline “US and South Korea warned to behave themselves”. This as a total opposite as to what we read in the news over here.

For dinner, we would go to a duck restaurant. But since I hadn’t eaten all day, I wanted to try something. I figured it was best to stay in the hotel to have the bathroom near in case it went wrong. It turned out to be a good call. I spent the evening reading the book that I brought along, but never got around to until that point.

 

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Day 5
Time to go flying again! The next classic aircraft on the agenda was the Tu-134, which we would fly from Pyongyang to Sondok, near the coastal village of Hamhung. It was again the same routine in the morning; wake-up call, breakfast, head to the airport. Going through security, receive our boarding passes and head to the bus that will take us to the aircraft.

People who had reserved a specific seat for this flight were allowed to board first and soon I found myself in my seat, next to the wing with a good window. The air conditioning was on and you could see the ‘smoke’ coming out of the overhead blowers, all adding to the nostalgic feeling of flying a 30 year old Russian aircraft.

It seemed to rocked out of Pyongyang airport and 25 minutes later, we found ourselves on the apron at Sondok, another military airport which hosted many Antonov 2’s. Of course photographing them was off-limits, but the Tu-134 was parked nicely in regard to the sun and there would also be 2 Antonov 24’s arriving very soon! They were flying a couple minutes behind us and were already on approach.

The plan was that we would fly in on the Tu-134 and fly out on both of the An-24’s, with the group being divided into 2 smaller groups, so everyone could have a good seat on the An-24. After arriving on the Tu-134, we had a few minutes to assemble on the apron to be able to shoot the arrival of the An-24’s and so we did.

I was standing right behind the marshaller when the first Antonov arrived, which proved to be a good choice of position. Got some nice shots as the aircraft arrived and soon enough #2 was about to touch down. Once all 3 aircraft were on the ground, we still had plenty of time to photograph all the aircraft, incl. a group photo in front of the Tupolev.

After a while, it was time to head into the city of Hamhung. We drove over small roads which were very crowded and the horn of the bus was working overtime. In North Korea, you sound the horn to let people know you’re coming and drivers usually don’t break until the very last moment. At times, we passed by pedestrians by only a meter… Pedestrian crossings seemed quite useless, since the cars would honk and just take the right of way. And that was Pyongyang, now imagine a smaller road and way busier.

When we got to the city, the first thing we did was visit another monument of the Great Leaders. It was pretty uneventful, since it was more of the same. Lunch was served afterwards, although I still didn’t want to eat anything. We spent about an hour there, before heading to the Hamhung fertilizer factory for a quick tour. The manager tried to tell us about the factory, but the sounds of the machines were so loud that he just gave up and we could walk around freely in one of the buildings.

After this very fast tour, it was time to head back to the airport. We had to wait on the apron a bit before we could walk to the aircraft. The Tupolev was going to depart first, so we all lined up on the side as it started up and taxied out. Then we walked towards the runway, where we could see it depart. Paired with loud noises, the Tupolev took off, quite a sight.

We then walked to the AN-24 waiting for us and we boarded for the flight back to Pyongyang. We would be having dinner in the diplomatic building, which was pretty cool. The food was more or less the same as we’ve been having for the past few days, but the building was pretty nice and we actually overlooked a big indoor swimming pool from the restaurant.

When we finished dinner, it was time for THE event; the Arirang Mass Games. It was already pretty crowded when we got there and the stadium was BIG. On the opposite side, there were thousands of people who had this book, and every page would have a different color of some sort and they were making a lot of noise. All in all a very impressive entrance. And the show hadn’t even started yet!

During the next 1,5h, it became obvious how huge this show is. So many people, so very well synchronized, such an impressive event. We were told on the bus to the stadium that these performers practice for 6 months for such a show; it paid off!

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Day 6
This was the today that we flew a lot, or atleast most people did. It started off with the Il-62 flight in the morning. This was an optional flight, but I didn’t want to leave the chance to fly on this nowadays super rare aircraft.

I had reserved seat 28A, which was the very last row. I did my research for this one, as I knew I would be sitting right next to the 2 left hand engines. What I didn’t know however was that this row had an incredibly small seat pitch, but with a view like mine, it was quickly forgotten. Soon we set off for the 30 minute flight and I had a lot of people coming to my row to take the photo with the engine and wings. I had gotten used to this already on the Il-18 and it didn’t bother me too much.

After the flight, we could take a few cockpit shots again, but we had to rush to get out. We were pretty much in a rush every time, but its no wonder when you have 43 people who all want to take photos of the cokpit. Since I was seated in the last row, I got off the plane as one of the very last and the other tour members were already busy walking under the aircraft to photograph it.

Some of them also noticed a puddle of water on the apron, and I only realized after the group photo that a unique photo could be taken there. So here I was, together with several others, lying on the concrete apron, next to a puddle of water. The Il-62 reflected nicely in it, which was the objective for the moment.

Soon after, we all had to take a step back as the aircraft was towed to another position and the next aircraft became fully visible; P-913, an Il-76! Out of all aircraft that we flew on this trip, this one has to be the most rare one to fly on as passenger. It’s designed to be a cargo aircraft and there are still many flying around world, especially in Russia and Africa.

Group members rushed to the aircraft, but I stayed back a bit to make some photos of this beautiful beast. To board, you have to actually climb a small stepladder, which was only adding to the awesomeness. Once we were on board, we took our seat and it’s like sitting in any military cargo transporter. Foldable seats, back against the side, facing each other. In the front, there was the loadmaster, who was actually seated in the cargo area. There were 4 small round windows at the front and back of the cargo hold and once we were airborne, people queued up for those.

After about 20 minutes, it was time to take our seats again, as we were descending. It’s a very weird feeling to not be able to see where you are in relation to the ground and what is happening. Some people filming the approach and looking out of the window at times, to see where we were. In the end, what gave our imminent landing away was the sound of the engines going idle and and feeling that the aircraft was flaring over the runway. The touchdown was actually pretty good, just like the whole aviation experience in North Korea so far.

We only had 1 minute for the cockpit shots and had to double-time to the terminal though, because we had to eat lunch fast before we would board for the next flight. Lunch was served at the airport restaurant and we only had 30 minutes to make the most of it.

Before we knew it, time was up and our Tupolev 154 was waiting for to fly us to Hamhung again. The plan had changed a little bit in the mean time; we were supposed to stay at a 5* hotel near the beach in Hamhung, but a delegation had booked the entire hotel and thus we had been kicked out. In stead, we would now make a cruise over the Taedong river in Pyongyang.

I didn’t take any photos on the way to Hamhung, as one of the guides of the other group (Ms. Chae), sat down next to me and it was the perfect moment to ask about the country and life in the DPRK. She was pretty talkative, how she was brought up etc., all in all it was a very nice and interesting conversation. When we got to the airport at Sondok (Hamhung), it was the familiar recipe; cockpit shots, shots outside, shots from the stairs and a group photo.

The return flight was pretty uneventful and after landing, we walked around for a little bit before heading to the buses again. We noticed howthe landing gear of the Tupolev 154 had its brakes cooled down by a guy hosing it down with water. Upon asking, it seemed to be standard protocol for all the aircraft.

Then we got our cue, walked to the bus and were brought to the pier where the boat was waiting for our cruise. We all had some beers, chatted, some made photos, etc. It was a really nice relaxing trip. After the boat ride, we went to the hotel to freshen up. After a short while, we went to a pizza restaurant, which the guides seemed to like very much as well. And they were right! The pizzas were very good, although it went a bit different than what you would be used to here. In stead of getting a pizza per person, we got several pizza’s per table. In the end, you’d eat an entire pizza anyway, so it was all good.

Once we were full and ready to go, we had about 45 minutes left until 22:00. At that time, the nice lights in the city would go out and we had asked for some night photography, which we would do tonight. We drove to several sights, including the Kim Il-Sung square, Juche Tower and the Pyongyang train station. It really surprised me how well the city is lit at night and for sure not something you’d see around here.

 

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Day 7
This morning was a little bit of a lazy morning. Yesterday evening we were asked whether we wanted to go to the National Gift Hall, which seemed optional. What we would get to see were the gifts that other countries sent to North Korea. The other option would be to have a bit more free time, to maybe pack, relax, sleep in, etc.

Since we had a lot of early mornings up until now, we decided to just stay in and join for the second excursion. Out of the 15 people in our group B, only 4 chose to go to the museum in the morning. It didn’t mean much sleeping in, as breakfast was still ending at 09:00. However, between 9 and 11, we would be able to relax, we packed our bags a bit, since this was our last day.

At 11:00, we gather in the lobby of the Koryo for our trip on the Pyongyang subway, something that a lot of people looked forward to. Mingling with the locals seemed to be on everyone’s mind. The subway system was very impressive, with some really nice stations. The locals would stare at us at times, but we also found some North Koreans to be pretty curious, which was evident by this one Korean guy who was looking at the movies that one of the group members had made. He seemed fascinated by what he saw.

After the subway ride (we made 3 stops before getting off), we exited at the Arc of Triumph. The people who didn’t visit this before were now taking photos of this, but I didn’t bother, since I already had the photos I wanted. We got onto the buses that were waiting for us and drove off to the newly restored war museum.

The war museum looked very impressive and ‘clean’. A local guide took us for a tour of the outside exhibits first, which featured US tanks, helicopter, aircraft and more military hardware. On the other side, the Korean military equipment was displayed, which featured aircraft, tanks and various other stuff.

One of the main attractions of the museum is the USS Pueblo, a US spy ship that the North Koreans captured in 1968. According to the story, the ship strayed into Korean territorial waters, was boarded and seized. The Koreans are very proud of this, because it is the only US ship that was captured by an enemy. We went on board, got a tour inside the ship and were shown an old video with footage of a document signing related to the ship.

After our visit to the Pueblo, we went to the building for the inside part of the museum. We were told that we could not take any photos, but I don’t understand why. When the doors opened, we were in awe about what we saw; such a grand entrance, statue, the place was HUGE! The exhibitions were amazing and it really looked like money had not been an issue during the remodeling. We also met one of Korea’s hero’s from the war. He was barely able to stand, but we had a short Q&A with him, with one of the local guides as a translator for him. Whether he really wanted to be there or if he had to do this, we don’t know. At the end of the Q&A, he was treated by applause from our side.

Once we were done with the museum tour, we were brought back to the hotel. We had some time to freshen up, pack a bit more and get ready for our last night in the country. Dinner was served at the Paradise restaurant, which was pretty nice. The restaurant looked good and for the first time, we were served French fries! Everyone had been craving them for the whole week and the Dutchies/Belgians were sitting together and the plates of fries just kept coming. We were also shown the DVD that was made. The whole week, we had a videographer with us who filmed everything. However, there was archive footage in the DVD, combined with footage from our group.

By the time we were done, we were brought back to the hotel and we wanted a bit of an early night, since we would be up at 05:00 for an 8AM departure to Beijing.

The next morning was pretty uneventful, checked out and got onto the bus to go to the airport. It was the same procedure as all the other times that we flew, so everything went smooth. Unfortunately we didn’t get the shorter Tu-204-300, but instead flew on the longer -100 series again. The flight itself was uneventful aswell and before we knew it, we were in Beijing again. There I spent 2 more days sightseeing before going home.

 

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My thoughts about the trip and the DPRK

First of all, Juche Travel did a fantastic job organizing the whole thing. David (the owner) did a great job in making things happen and is very quick in answering any questions you might have. The guides that were selected for the tour were friendly, had a lot to tell and spoke good English. They were in for a joke, but you could also have a good conversation with them.

The tour members were in general very friendly and easy going. As we were put in the same group, it was only a matter of time before the Dutchies and Belgians found each other. We all had a great time, had a lot of laughs and talked a lot of aviation and other things.

Then the country. It was for sure a very interesting trip and there are so many differences to the Western world. Pyongyang looked very nice, some of the buildings looked very modern and so was our hotel. It did feel a bit empty at times, but we had good rooms, good service and a great view.

There aren’t a lot of cars in the country, although eventually we did see decent traffic in Pyongyang. However, on the countryside, particularly in Samjiyon and Hamhung, you won’t see a lot of cars. People will walk alongside and on the road and ride their bikes. They seem to do a lot of walking cycling and we saw loads of people in the middle of nowhere and I remember thinking “where the heck are all the people going” or “where did they come from”.

The country seemed to rely less on automation and technology, but at the same time I saw things that you wouldn’t see here. One example is at night, when a lot of building are beautifully lit. Many of the buildings reminded me of the Soviet era. Lots of concrete flats, but also modern looking buildings.

Something I also noticed was how clean the country is. the only time I saw a little bit of litter was in the mountains near Chong Bong. All other places, including the entire city of Pyongyang, looked immaculate. I also felt very safe, everywhere we went. Crime rates must be (close to) 0.

The people seemed to be reacting different everywhere. Sometimes we would get stared at. Other times they would wave at us, and I did my best to wave back every time. No-one except for the guides and some shopkeepers seemed to speak English. This means that trying to talk to locals is quite useless, but non-verbal communication will take you a long way.

Food was decent as well and there was always something that you’d like. You would get a lot of the same during breakfast, lunch and dinner, but at breakfast there was also bread, jam, egg and coffee.

All in all, I would gladly go back in a couple of years to see how the country has changed (if it changed!). My thanks go out to David, Andy, our guides, fellow tour members and everyone behind the scenes, who all made this trip a wonderful experience!

 
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Tips & Tricks

  • You can pay with Euro’s and US Dollars in the DPRK! However, it’s better not to take large bills, since there won’t be any change. I once saw a fellow tour member trying to pay with a €20 bill and the cashier just looked at him with a look in her eyes like “what are you doing”. I made sure I had €50 in €5 bills and €50 in €1 and €2 coins with me. Things turned out to be pretty cheap in North Korea, with a bottle of water for €0,20 and 0,5l of beer for €0,50. Souvenirs are often €1 or €2, sometimes going up to €5-€15 for posters and some other things. I didn’t buy that much souvenirs and not a lot of beer either, I ended up spending about €30 in pocket money for the entire 7 days in the DPRK.
  • There are no fridge magnets in North Korea.
  • If your itinerary says that you’re going to Mt. Peaktu, make sure you pack WARM. During my 10-15 minutes on the top, my hands already became numb from the cold and wind. Pack a hoodie/sweater and a jacket. Gloves and a hat would have also been welcome. Basically, just treat it as if it’s winter.
  • In regard to photos; you are now allowed to bring your phone, but don’t expect any network signal. We did get reception shortly when we were at the airport in Samjiyon, which was close to the Chinese border and pretty high up. Bringing a DSLR was no problem at all and they seem used to it by now. “Officially”, we could bring up to 150mm, but several people brought their 100-400mm with them, which was no issue at all. The guides were with us at all times though, walking around by yourself is a big no-no. Listen to them and you’ll be fine (and you won’t get the guide into trouble). We could make a lot of photos, but sometimes they will tell you “no photos”. When they say don’t take photos, just don’t take photos. Usually this would happen near military checkpoints or areas where military is present.



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If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at info@kasvanzonneveld.com and I will be happy to answer them!