Note - This will form part of a larger trip report on North Korea - however being a bit short of time I thought I would crank this out, and get down to the big bit next week!
Photos now available here (including a little teaser of Pyongyang) - Username Swanhunter, Password flyertalk and choose the Air Koryo album.
Flight JS152 - PEK - FNJ
Depart 11.40 - Arrive 13.55
Seat 5A, Y class
Plane - Il-62
I like going to off beat places. And I have always been interested in the communist world - being only 15 when the Berlin Wall came down meant I missed out on travelling in the Warsaw Pact countries and the Soviet Union to experience a different political, social and economic system. By the time I had my travelling boots firmly on, the only remaining country that really fitted the bill was the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea - better known as the DPRK or North Korea. After a couple of abortive attempts to travel there, I finally made firm plans to visit in 2005. And that is how I came to be standing outside Door 6 of Beijing Capital Airport in late April…
The hustle and bustle of a busy Asian airport is flowing around me with the big wave of European arrivals spilling out of the terminal building. Instead of heading to another of my Asian haunts, I am about to embark on a very different experience. Along with 13 others, I have just been handed my passport, DPRK visa and Air Koryo plane ticket. Finally it is going to happen - a feeling that most of my tour companions are sharing.
Already we have seen the signs that a slightly different flight is going out today. Half a dozen gentlemen dressed in almost identical black suits, sporting red badges (pins in US-speak) and toting vast amounts of luggage have just walked past. They turn out to be staff from the DPRK embassy in Beijing going back to Pyongyang.
Check in and other airport formalities
Two huge queues snaked across from D concourse. This was the check in line for JS152, and none of the shiny bits of plastic in my pocket were going to help me skip the queue. So there we stood, taking in our fellow travellers - an exotic mix of Western tour groups, the aforementioned embassy staff, a group of Japanese -Koreans wearing badges, assorted Chinese businessmen and 5 spectacularly be-medalled officers of the DPRK army. It took us about 45 mins. to get to the front of the queue, where check in was handled by Air China agents, with 2 members of Air Koryo staff dealing with the huge amounts of excess baggage, customers with un-confirmed reservations etc.
Sadly the boarding pass was printed on regular Air China stock - no flashy Air Koryo logo. By some miracle I had scored 5A - window seat on the front row of economy - several others were not pleased with their middle seats in the last row! I had enquired about getting an upgrade to Business (by paying of course), but the flight was totally full. Immigration took an age and security was exceptionally picky leaving us just enough time to grab the mandatory 200 cigarettes and box of chocolates (presents for the guides we would be meeting in Pyongyang).
The long schlep to Gate 16 was rewarded with a great view of the parked Air Koryo Ilyushin-62. It looked rather incongruous flanked by the usual airliner selection - the KA A330 that went past in the background dwarfed the Russian plane. I am not a plane spotter, but the Il-62 has a certain something about it . There is the air of the ‘60’s plus a certain grace in its lines that modern lumps like the 777 lack.
So, here we go - down the air bridge.
On board and take off
Stooping slightly at the doorway (shades of Concorde there) I was greeted by 2 immaculate attired Air Koryo stewardess. These were most certainly stewardesses rather than F/A‘s - their uniforms again smacked of the lost Golden Age of Jet aviation. Sadly I couldn’t get a photo directly - one of the key pointers about visiting the DPRK is that being allowed to take photos is the exception, not the rule. And I was too shy to ask anyhow.
Departure preparations took an age, giving me plenty of chance to take in the surroundings. There were 4 rows of Business class, arranged in a 2-2 formation at the front. I won’t ponder on the ideological implications of having 2 classes in an egalitarian society. But I will note that the seats were set out at a 38” pitch and - 60’s theme coming up again - resembled photos I have seen of First class cabins on 707’s and DC-8’s. Plenty of wood on offer, but the recline looked minimal. Economy was 3-3 and a fair bit tighter at 32” or so with a nice green fabric covering the seats and very smart lace anti-macassars. No overhead lockers in the cabin, just a straightforward shelf which was sufficiently small that a standard roll onboard case wouldn’t fit. One nice touch was every seat having individual air vents, something that seems to falling out of favour on more modern planes. Our bulkhead row was pretty generously endowed with space, but the table was one long bench, similar to a bassinet rest.
On board announcements were delivered in both Korean and English, and the safety demo was accomplished very crisply. A cart was brought around with reading materials - a choice of the Pyongyang Times or a gloss magazine entitled DPRK that chronicled the many remarkable achievements of the country under the wise guidance of the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. More of this in the detailed trip report. About 20 minutes we pushed back and commenced a pretty fast taxi to the further runway. We lined up and commenced the take off roll. Roll was about the right world - this was a stately stroll down the runway despite the 4 engines aft. After an age we rotated and climbed slowly, slowly into the sky. There wasn’t that much engine noise up front (though more than on most rear engined planes) but those at the back reported a VERY LARGE amount of noise!
The curtain was pulled to keep us out of the forward cabin before the service began. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but was pretty impressed with what we got. A round of drinks - no Coke unsurprisingly but Sprite was on offer along with Taedonggang lager, bubble gum flavoured cider, water tea and coffee. Then lunch arrived - wow!
One big tray with an assortment of cold dishes on it - two different types of salad, some ham, fruit, a cake and a bread roll. This was followed up with a hot dish of curried chicken and rice. Pretty impressive (especially against the standards of the US Imperialist aggressor airlines) and mostly edible. Another drinks run brought the service to a conclusion. Judging from what went through the curtain to Business, they got an enhanced version of our meal, served on china rather than plastic trays with drinks in proper glasses. Oh, and they got peanuts too!
After this, I decided to explore the plane a little. After Row 10 in the forward cabin is located a rather large galley area and an emergency exit. My attempts to sneak a photo were not well received, but I did manage to grab a couple of cabin shots which I will get loaded up soon. The lavatory was simply vast in size, and fitted out with classic metal fixtures - no airbus plastic here.
We droned on across North Eastern China and then over the border into the DPRK. Heavy cloud prevented any views of the scenery not that this stopped the aforementioned army officers in row 6 from peering out the window in hope of seeing something. I had hoped to snatch a photo of their hats - all lined up with red stars to the fore - in the racks but decided that might have been a bit proactive. No less than 3 immigration, customs and health forms were enough to keep us occupied for a good 10 minutes.
We began a gradual curving descent into Pyongyang. No circling as were one of only 2 flights expected that day, the other being a Tu-134 from Shenyang scheduled to arrive an hour after us. The cloud began to break revealing the rather bleak landscape, lots of hills and fields but all a uniformed yellowy-brown country. The views attracted much attention from the DPRK citizens on board who were jostling to look at the window at their country.
Touchdown was smooth with a long roll out, notable only for someone getting out of their seat and walking down the plane immediately after the rear wheels had hit the runway! This was followed by an even longer taxi to the terminal building, giving us a chance to observe people hard at work in the fields around the airport. The ramp was littered with Air Koryo planes - a bunch of An-24 (or -26’s I can never remember) a brace of Il-76 and one each of Tu-134, Tu-154 and Il-62. Star of the show must have been the Il-18 basking in the sun.
No airbridges at Pyongyang Sunan airport. We were met by a gaggle of DPRK officials in a selection of uniforms, all with characteristic dinner plate hates. Anyone who has travelled to Russia will know exactly what I mean. After the health forms had been collected we were allowed off the plane and on to a bus for the short drive to the terminal building, all under the scrutiny of the many be-hatted officials.
Immigration was pretty swift for those at the front, less than 5 minutes for me. Sadly no passport stamp, only the paper visa insert being stamped instead. Baggage reclaim took an age, largely because of the huge amount of luggage coming off the plane. By the time the last of the tour had cleared immigration, at least 90 minutes had elapsed. Customs inspection consisted of x-raying ever bag, searching alternate bags plus a wanding of every person. The DPRK government is keen to keep out things like lap-tops and mobile phones which are strictly prohibited from import.
And here we were, in the DPRK.
[i]To be continued……I]