In early May, I spent an uneasy week, calming nerves and struggling to not stress-eat my way through the pantry, when my husband — Jamie Baker — joined a tourist group created especially for airline
geeks enthusiasts traveling to Pyongyang, North Korea. The group’s mission was to view and participate in several flights from the Air Koryo fleet that are no longer in use in other parts of the world, as well as to explore (as much as allowed) this country that few westerners will ever visit. I’m extremely happy — make that ecstatic! — to report that he is back home, safe and sound, and seems even more larger than life. Please read on for Jamie’s story…
I wasn’t ever expecting to visit North Korea. That is, until I received the invitation of a lifetime. As a bona fide lover of all things related to aviation – an “aerosexual, if you will – I long to experience as much whilst airborne that I possibly can. So you can imagine my immediate enthusiasm when a former colleague from Northwest Airlines sent me an invitation to visit the DPRK and fly vintage Soviet-era airliners belonging to Air Koryo – probably one of the world’s most obscure commercial airlines. The fact that my friends and colleagues thought I was nuts – an opinion shared by the U.S. State Department (see warning here) – only solidified my conviction. I would join 75 of my global brethren for what would be, thus far, the most exciting aviation event of my life (rivaled perhaps only by Concorde).
Visiting North Korea is simpler than it sounds. Given the U.S. doesn’t formally recognize the DPRK, there’s no paperwork that one needs to go through on the American side. In the case of my trip, Juche Travel made all the arrangements, including the North Korean visa as well as regularly scheduled flights on Air Koryo.
The only requirement was getting oneself to Beijing. In my case, I opted to go the long way around – Lufthansa First Class from Newark to Frankfurt, a relaxing nap-inclusive 10 hour layover, and on to Beijing on Lufthansa’s impressive A380 – the only airline in the world to opt for a First Class urinal. And Lufthansa also serves seconds on caviar.
After a stress-inducing taxi from PEK to the city center (making use of medians to pass slower drivers), I settled into the Ambassador Suite of the St Regis, ideally located within walking distance of Tiannamen Square and the night market. Friends opted for the Grand Hyatt – an even more central location – but given my Starwood status and how inexpensive Beijing cabs are, I didn’t mind being a few minutes further out if it meant an upgrade to a suite and free breakfast (this blog’s full-time author laments that I only tend to eat breakfast while in Asia, despite her formidable culinary efforts at home).
Alas, after passing on fried tarantulas at the night market, the first official event of our North Korean journey was upon us. We made our way to the Jiangnanfu restaurant for our Sunday briefing, where we meet our tour leader, collected our DPRK-issued visas, met most of the other 75 tour members, enjoyed some food and beer, and got our first taste of “civilization” – North Korean performers. I must say, the lip-syncing saxophone player was my favourite. Video HERE.
Finally, the big day arrived. Too nervous to eat, I taxied from the St Regis to Beijing’s dilapidated Terminal 2, arriving WAY too early for our Air Koryo flight. After killing two hours walking around in the largely unairconditioned terminal, I passed into the check-in area and made my way to the Air Koryo desks. Probably half our tour was waiting already, and our tour leader soon handed out our boarding passes. For those of us that had incurred the 400 euro round-trip upgrade to Business, we made our way to the Air China lounge. Nothing special.
About 25 minutes prior to departure we made our way over to the gate. And our Tu-204 was waiting for us! For those less familiar with Russian aircraft, the Tu-204 was designed to compete with the ubiquitous Boeing 757. Boarding was swift, and I took my seat in 3F. This was really going to happen!
Air Koryo service was entirely competent. Entertainment was limited to propaganda videos, and English copies of the Pyongyang Times were available. Wine was, well, red (about as kind as I can be), though several cabin-mates enjoyed full pours of North Korean beer. No choices for food – some cole slaw, rice, sweet and sour shrimp – entirely edible though thoroughly forgettable. Except that out the window, I was looking down at North Korea. Video of the inflight propaganda.
Once we landed, I quickly realized this was no ordinary adventure. After declaring my electronics, I was asked to log into my iPad. Upon handing it to the immigration agent, he immediately went to videos. I had none. He then checked books. I had none. He then went into Safari and checked my history. I had none. Thankfully our tour leader had instructed us to wipe our history/cookies (they were looking for pornography) as well as books/movies (they were looking for anything critical of the DPRK).
After our 75-person strong group filtered out post-customs, we broke into smaller groups and boarded buses to Pyongyang, about a 30 minute drive from the airport. However, we weren’t in a rush. We stopped in the city to observe several monuments of North Korea’s leaders, where we were required to purchase flowers (a few euros), lay them at the statues’ feet, and bow. We then toured a new neighborhood not far from out hotel, where one building was designed to look like an atom when viewed from above. This is a nation that takes its nuclear ambitions pretty damned seriously.
We finally made it to our destination – the famed Koryo Hotel. Again, Juche Travel had everything sorted out. Our passports were collected for the duration of the trip (gulp), and we were given our room keys. 1-21-22 for me, which corresponded to tower one, twenty first floor, and room twenty two
I’m not quite sure what to compare the hotel to, as I’ve been blessed to travel towards the high end of luxury in recent years. Maybe a rundown Hampton Inn? The room was basic but clean, there were hangers in the closet, a non-functional TV, and bath towels that rivaled the size of the hand towels at the Beijing St Regis. Most impressive was the window. I like the sound of a city and a cool breeze when relaxing in my hotel room. Wow Suite at the W Lakeshore in Chicago? Yeah, the windows opens about an inch. Well, welcome to the Koryo Hotel. Not only is the window aptly sized to maneuver a small car through, but it fully opened! If properly motivated, I could have thrown out both single beds, the furniture, the TV and myself – ALL AT THE SAME TIME. I’ve seen garage doors smaller than this window. Video of the hotel room.
Several of us gathered in the bar to enjoy some local craft beer (yellow or black, according to the hostess) and meet Anna Fifield, who interviewed us for the Washington Post (you can read her article HERE). After that, we headed upstairs for our first dinner. I’ve been asked to describe the food in North Korea, which certainly wasn’t bad. I’d liken it to the way many of us cooked when first getting out of college. It wasn’t challenging, it wasn’t gourmet, and none of us went hungry. Only later in life did we learn to actually cook, right? Rice, kimchee, bread (sometimes accompanied by butter) some grilled beef, some fried fish, cole slaw, maybe some meat balls…this was lunch and dinner every day. Again, no challenge, quite filling, and consistently washed down with North Korean beer (first bottle free, follow-ups a euro or two each).
After a good night’s sleep, I was awakened by the sound of city-wide piped in music – the 5 a.m. propaganda wake up call. Click here for video of the creepy morning wake-up call. The time to fly had finally come! After a basic breakfast (cole slaw, cold fish, but an omelette station, something I’m guessing most citizens don’t see too often) we piled into our coaches for a ride that would become very familiar over the course of our stay – to the airport.
The tour itself cost around 2,000 euros to start, which included flights to/from Beijing, the North Korean visa, meals, hotel, etc. What was NOT included was the price of our joyrides, which averaged around 200 euros each.
On the first day, I flew the Il-62 to Wonsan and back (a transcon flight!), and filmed the impressive An-24 cargo plane. I passed on the Il-18 (props do nothing for me) and the Tu-134 (which I regret, it’s possibly the most gorgeous plane ever). The next day I flew the Tu-154, also a beauty and a lifelong dream. There were others that I could have enjoyed, but at this point I was growing less interested in flying and much more interested in North Korea.
As for the flights themselves, it was truly stepping back in time. Overhead bins? Nope, think hat racks. These were aircraft built in the 1970s (our Tu-154 circa 1974 is the oldest flying example on the planet). They were loud. You could smell oil and jet fuel in the cabin. There were 5 crew members in the cockpit. But, having been built for abuse – unpaved runways and harsh Russian winters – the aircraft all felt more “solid” than the A320s or B737s that make up my normal curriculum. One interesting thing – the planes are remarkably aerodynamic but VERY heavy. Accordingly, they drop the landing gear well in advance of landing, to help slow down. Normally, the gear on Western aircraft drops at a point where you can pick out individual cars below. On Soviet-era aircraft, you’re still above the clouds. Here’s a video of one of my landings.
So, as joke goes, you know your date with a pilot is over when he or she says, “enough about me, let’s talk about flying.” So let’s discuss North Korea. The one experience that truly rivaled any flight was the Pyongyang subway. About 8 of us broke away from the aviation crowd (accompanied by our minders, of course), headed to the city, and proceeded to enter the subway. The escalator is immensely long. Apparently, the subway tunnels also double as bomb shelters against American imperialists, though our minder explained it was only because the tunnel had to pass under the river (you know, the river which is about 20 feet deep).
Having never been to Moscow, I trust my friends that said Pyongyang’s system was reminiscent. Immense (garish?) chandeliers, murals on the wall, not a speck of pollution. We rode a total of six stops, surrounded by a smattering of locals, and absolutely loved it. Interesting fact – the subway cars are ex-East German. Their manufacturer plates were removed upon import, allowing the DPRK to claim they were locally built. But they could do nothing about the German “scratchiti” on the windows. So the local population is left to ponder, “who are these German-speaking North Korean vandals that keep defacing the windows on our subway?” Actually, they probably don’t bother to think this, as it would distract them from listening to the propaganda that is piped into the subway cars. Not kidding. I couldn’t make any of it out, but I’m suspecting it was a combination of pro-Leader/anti-imperialist rhetoric. It never stopped.
The next amazing trip was an overnight to the Hyangsan Hotel. We were scheduled to fly helicopters, but with the North Korean Congress underway, the military (which was leasing us the helicopters, as opposed to Air Koryo) nixed that plan. So it was a lengthy three hour ride in our lav-less coach.
It was fascinating to get out of Pyongyang. We passed through a tremendous amount of agricultural effort as we headed to the mountains, though little of it seemed to yield much substance. Lots of muddy fields, antiquated equipment, people standing around not doing much. And another manifestation of the regime’s goal to keep everyone working: there was a guard rail along most of the highway, but under the rail were white-painted stones, perfectly spaced about 4 inches apart, extending for MILES. These stones served no safety-related or aesthetic purpose, expect that it required people to paint rocks and plant them along the road. Similarly, the woman we saw cutting a large swatch of grass with scissors had a full day of work ahead of her – which is the point.
We arrived at the Hyangsan Hotel which was notably nicer than the Koryo Hotel. Functioning air conditioning, Shangri-la branded toiletries (counterfeit?) working fridges, and reasonably-sized bath towels. This was also the night (our third in country) that people started to let their hair down. Bad wine for 25 euros a bottle? Keep ’em coming. Alas, bonds were formed that night, but you know the saying – what happens in Hyangsan, stays in Hyangsan. Except for the fact that our rooms were likely bugged and monitored in Pyongyang, but I digress.
On our next-to-last-day, we toured the area around Hyangsan and visited the International Friendship Exhibition – basically a depository for gifts the regime has received from foreign countries. As you’d expect, lots of gifts from China and Russia. But a few from the U.S. as well. A Dennis Rodman-autographed basketball (I was asked if I disliked him because he’s “one of your blacks”) and a gift from President Jimmy Carter (who apparently described Kim Il Sung as a “greater leader than Thomas Jefferson”). Needless to say, I held my tongue.
We then headed back to Pyongyang for our final night. But what trip to the DPRK is complete without seeing the Victorious War Museum? You know, the one that celebrates how America started the war and North Korea won it. We were shown immaculate Korean propeller aircraft that shot down “hundreds of the jets flown by American imperialists.” And we were shown a sufficiently gruesome movie extolling American torture techniques. But I knew going in this was what I signed up for, so I just let it roll off my back. Decades of cultural indoctrination are not going to be undone by some smug American that has the benefit of a Western education and an Internet connection. Despite my growing enthusiasm to head back home, this part of the trip was both sobering and downright sad.
The next morning – and for the first time ever in my travel career – I woke thinking “Finally! It’s time to leave Asia!” Truthfully, this was the most nerve-wracking part. Apparently, when Westerners have strayed to the point of detention, this is where they nab you – after you have boarded your flight! Think about it. Your minders were left behind at immigration. Your tour group isn’t going to make a fuss in your defense. You aren’t likely to make a run for it, as you might from the Koryo Hotel. Indeed, the gentlemen detained for inflammatory statements about the war was actually on a Juche tour. They called him to the front of the plane, whisked him off, closed the door, and the aircraft proceeded to Beijing. Efficient. Potentially lethal. This was actually the point of the trip where I took the fewest pictures. I simply wanted out.
After a lifetime of travel to some rather exotic destinations, I did in fact consider kissing the ground in Beijing. Alas, I resisted.
From that point I re-entered the “real world”, opting for Korean Air First Class (via Seoul, the other capital on the peninsula) back to JFK. Food? Excellent. Service? Not at the level of polish as Cathay or JAL. But at this point, any flight aimed towards home would do.
Visiting the DPRK does make one a bit of a celebrity. Colleagues can’t get enough of it. Friends want to visit me for cocktails and a slide show. But it’s not a trip that’s easily summarized. Most glaring to me was the absolute lack of any visual Western references. Fine, I didn’ expect (nor want) a Starbucks. I’ve stood on corners in Tokyo where one can glimpse 4 separate McDonald’s. I’ll admit to taking a Whopper in Istanbul. But I’ve never been to a place without Coke. Where pasta bolognese doesn’t appear on a single menu (the best is in Mexico, according to my son that’s been to Italy 3 times). Not a single car in Pyongyang was of a recognizable brand. No English subtitles to street signs, unlike Beijing and most of Japan. No earbuds. Wide avenues devoid of cars. A metropolis that goes dark when the sun sets. No grocery stores (that we saw). The absolute lack of visual reminders as to my ordinary life was perhaps the most jarring point.
Will it change? This is a tough subject to ponder. The indoctrination runs so deep. In a way, I’m sympathetic to the regime. How does one begin to undo this much damage? East Germany at least knew, broadly speaking, what was going on the West. Not so, North Korea. Imagine for a moment raising children to be afraid of thunder. Every time it rained, you herd them into the basement. You huddle in hopes that the thunder passes, sparing you in the process. Thunder is the enemy, and every non-fatal experience is a blessing to be celebrated.
Now imagine growing up, meeting somebody when you’re 50 who suggests, “let’s go dance in the rain!” How insane would that be? How could you even consider reversing such a life of training? These are bigger concepts than I cannot successfully grasp, but nowhere in the world other than North Korea has forced me to ponder such challenges. Kids waved. People smiled. There’s beer. There’s laughter. The undercurrents of humanity most certainly exist in the DPRK. When those undercurrents eventually get tapped in a way that bring the nation closer to the rest of the world, I’ll be relieved. I offer no suggestions as to when or how this might be accomplished. But I’m grateful that a handful of North Koreans have shaken hands with an American eager to see just such an outcome. I wish the nation luck.
Story and most photos by Jamie Baker
**Special thanks to Rebekah Michaels and Andrea Ciasullo for use of some photos and videos!