Pyongyang | Entering the Hermit Kingdom

There is something surreal about standing in the check-in line for an Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang. Your mind fully furnished with largely sensationalist headlines in the media, you somehow expect it to be different. But it’s not. It’s just as mundanely boring as checking in to any other flight. You wait in line, and present the lady at the desk with your ticket and your passport. She tags your bag and gives you a standard boarding pass. And that’s it. You proceed as usual through passport control and airport security, and as you’re settling down with your coffee and breakfast panini in Starbucks you jokingly chat with your travel companions about it being your last taste of capitalism. But you know it won’t be. There is still time to kill before the gate is called, so you wander around the airport, check out the duty free shops, buy some items, for no good reason other than it is duty free. You find a bench, sit down and read, connect to the free airport wifi and check your mail, so that by the time your gate is called you have lulled yourself in to a false sense of calm and security. But then, as you approach the gate, you see the plane.

Air Koryo, Ilyusjin 62M, Sunan International Airport, Pyongynag, North Korea

Air Koryo, Ilyusjin 62M, Sunan International Airport, Pyongynag, North Korea
Photo: Christian Nilsen

It’s a thoroughly chilling sight, invariably provoking some form of jaw dropping and eyebrow raising reaction from all passengers as they stop mid sentence in their conversations, and on reflex get their cameras out to secure photographic evidence of what is assumed to be an imminent near death experience. The plane is a rusty old Soviet contraption (Ilyushin 62M), banned from European air space, with twin engines attached to either side of the tale fin, and with a red stripe guiding your gaze from the back to the cockpit at the front where, to most people’s horror, the many windows are open. Chaos reigns supreme throughout the boarding process as no one, in defiance with perceived strict North Korean obedience, seems to honour the seat allocation, not that it matters, since the seats appear not to be securely fixed to the floor. From my place in 27C I have a worryingly good view as entire row 25, seats A – F are ripped up to make room for massively bulging suitcases, far exceeding what in the rest of the world is considered a carry-on. Even more worryingly is the fact that the crew shows no immediate safety concern and happily helps stow the luggage in a display of spatial efficiency that would make IKEA look like amateurs. However, when the seats won’t click back in to place and the fierce looking flight attendant gives up and shrugs her shoulder and screams authoritatively at the rest of us that photos are not allowed, the passengers in row 25 are left contorted with knees at their chins and leaning forward in a 45 degree angle for what turns out to be the duration of the flight. I share a few panicked glances with my fellow uninitiated, and we silently try to comfort each other by biting our lower lips in unison, almost to the point of bleeding.

As the drama subsides, and the plane starts to taxi from the gangway, there is time to reflect not only on the faded 1970s marbled avocado bathroom suite décor, but also on the insanely high-pitched and loud noise the engines make and the complete and utter lack of any safety instructions, no seat belt demonstration or two-finger pointing to emergency exits, not that many pay attention to them anyway, but their absence suddenly creates an unsettling void, made even more unsettling as what looks like could be the captain (at the very least some kind of officer) leisurely walks past with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth as we are taxiing to the runway, disappearing in to a room at the back, only to hastily return mere seconds before take off. Admittedly, once we were airborne, the two hour flight is blissfully smooth, but after casting one glance at the rancid in-flight catering (partly warmed aquatic creature in translucent jelly) I am secretly hoping, assuming I survive, this is not representative of culinary things to come.

Disembarking the plane is equally chaotic as boarding, once again seats are dislocated and relocated to retrieve an assortment of luggage, but eventually we all emerge from the death trap and set foot on North Korean soil in glorious afternoon sunshine at Sunan International Airport. And here I use the term ‘airport’ loosely. At best it’s a large hangar that functions as departures in the morning and arrivals in the afternoon, passport control at one end, customs at the other, the two switching sides according to needs. Space is limited, so we have to cue up on the tarmac before passing through the stern looking officers at passport control, but just as check-in, this is pretty standard. Once through, another round of chaos awaits to raise my pulse and heart rate considerably. Having been prepped the night before at a debriefing dinner organized by my travel agency (who I cannot recommend warmly enough), I am aware that my passport and my iPhone will be taken from me and kept safe for the duration of my stay, so when a middle aged man comes up to me as I am cueing at customs asking for my passport and instructing me switch off my phone and throw it in a plastic bag full of other identical mobile phones, I willingly do as instructed, not knowing if I will ever see either again. The middle aged man turns out to be the thoroughly agreeable Mr. Pak, who along with Miss Kim will be my guide for my week in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and as some members of my tour groups undergo a full search, he takes me by the arm and kindly escorts me through customs to an assembly point outside the terminal building and tells me to wait there. As I stand there I observe a fleet of immaculately turned out Korean guides trying to identify and assemble their allocated Westerners, shepherding them one by one on to their respective tour buses while nervously emphasizing no one is to walk off on their own. People I recognize from the travel agency’s debriefing dinner the night before in Beijing are starting to join around me, and soon all 12 are gathered in a bus we will all become attached to over the coming week.

The first thing that strikes me on our evening drive in to Pyongyang is the complete lack of any form of advertising, instead the roads are lined with monstrous statues of Kim Il Sung, commemorative mosaics of the Kims and menacing looking revolutionary propaganda posters. The closer we get to the town, the absence of cars and traffic becomes very noticeable, giving the impression the city is entirely soulless and without any life. Perhaps sensing the tense atmosphere in the tour group after dispensing some restrictive, yet fully expected, rules regarding our stay in North Korea (we are never leave the hotel unescorted or wander off on our own, and we are not to talk to locals), our guides drop us off at Kim Il Sung Square for a sunset stroll along the Taedong River.

Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang, North Korea

Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang, North Korea
Photo: Christian Nilsen

As we stretch our tense legs it’s impossible to not to see the beauty of this square that only enters the Western media stream as the venue for perfectly and frighteningly choreographed military parades, and mass public obedience and devotion awarded the leadership. This evening we are practically alone on the square, with only a handful of locals walking around in front of the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il as the sun sets behind the Grand People’s Study House, giving the city a calming orange glow.

Juche Tower, Pyongyang, North Korea

Juche Tower, Pyongyang, North Korea
Photo: Christian Nilsen

On the opposite side of the river, the imposing Juche Tower looms. As we walk along the river, we are given a chance to get to know our travel companions and our guides. Leading the troupe at the front is Mr Pak, a jolly man in his 50s, friendly and open to answer any and all questions, and at the back and making sure no one lags behind is the ever watchful Ms Kim. It’s a warm evening, and many locals are out walking, fishing in the river (the water looks remarkably clean), some give us a wave or a smile, others do their best not to look at us. However, when a group of young boys out playing actively try to engage us in their game, Mr Pak quietly guides us along. By the time we get to the end of the promenade, we’re all relaxed and the stress from the journey and airport long forgotten.

We board the bus again and drive another five minutes to our hotel. We check in, and I am given to key to my single room on the 34th floor. My single room turns out to be palatial. There is a large hallway leading to a seating area with panoramic views across the city, a generous sized three piece bathroom and a very large bedroom with two double beds, a seating area, plenty of storage space and a TV that astonishingly enough offers BBC World! The interior design is very much in the same style as the plane. A psychedelically patterned orange and brown carpet, and brown paneled walls.

After a short rest and a shower, it’s time for dinner at the revolving restaurant at the top of the Koryo Hotel. The hotel has two towers, only one tower is open to foreigners, as in spectacularly lack of foresight and planning, one of the towers has direct views over the North Korean leadership’s secret compound. As luck would have it, the empty, closed and dark tower successfully obscures this view from our tower lit up like a Christmas tree. Dinner turns out to be a delicious Korean banquet, and my fellow travellers are a really fun bunch of people, and we all seem to get on really well, so we gather in the hotel bar for a few drinks, but as we’re all tired from an eventful and unusual day, we retire relatively early. I watch TV for a few minutes, but feel my eyelids getting heavier by the minute, and as I drift off to sleep, I conclude that my first impressions of Pyongyang are, much to my pleasant surprise, very positive, and not at all how I had imagined.

However, two hours later just before midnight, I am suddenly woken up by some thoroughly creepy music. It takes me a while to realize it’s coming from outside. I walk over to the window to see if I can open it – which much to my horror it turns out that I can. There I suddenly find myself, standing in a window on the 34th floor, with my only protection being a paper thin wall reaching me half way up my leg. Health Safety rules have yet to make their mark in North Korea. I kneel down and lean out my window. To my left the moon is shining down on the flood lit Juche Tower, the flame on top radiating and waving mimicking a real fire and the lights shine from Kim Il Sung Square, but apart from that there are hardly any lights. There are no people in the street below and not a single car can be heard, but from speakers placed across town, the creepiest melody imaginable (not out of place in a David Lynch film) is playing out in to the night. Getting back to sleep is impossible as the weirdness of the situation and place I find myself in becomes all too apparent. Welcome to North Korea.

(September 2012)

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