Getting There and Getting Around

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North Korea

Getting There and Getting Around Reviews

wabat wabat
160 reviews
Getting into the DPRK – By Air Apr 15, 2014
Two airlines fly into North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), the national airline, Air Koryo and Air China. Invariably you will fly in from Beijing to Pyongyang though a few tourists enter from Vladivostok and there are on again off again flights from Shanghai. The airline also has a small number of other international routes (not currently available to tourists).

Citizens of all countries with the exception of South Korea can fly into North Korea so long as they are on an official tour and in possession of a passport and tourist card.

We flew from Beijing on Air Koryo (which is the one I really wanted to use and the one I recommend you aim for). Its fleet consists of a number of aging Russian planes. As neither Air Koryo nor Air China has a daily service the one you will use will depend on the day you enter North Korea. As tickets are booked and paid for by tour companies I have no idea how much flights cost – you can’t just rock up and buy a ticket.

Air Koryo, in most airline surveys, ranks as one of the world’s worst airlines. It is the only airline in the world deemed bad enough to earn a 1-star rating from airline reviewer SkyTrax. I believe this ranking is totally unjustified and could list multiple worse airlines. While the food was disgusting everything else was top notch.

As our visit coincided with the Pyongyang Marathon and the 102nd Birthday celebrations of Kim Il-sung, the deceased but eternal president of the country, extra flights were laid on and we departed at 8am – some 5hrs earlier than the regular departure time for the short (less than 2 hours) flight to Pyongyang. The flight was full and apart from a few accompanying guides I imagine 99% of the passengers had never been to North Korea before. One could sense a distinct air of excitement coupled with an equally strong sense of apprehension on this trip into one of the last unknowns and most certainly the most secretive and misunderstood country on earth. Were we all mad?

As soon as you step off the air-bridge you are immediately thrust into North Korea right there on the tarmac in Beijing. For me, the whole experience brought back memories of travelling via Aeroflot from Dublin to Moscow some thirty years ago.

Air hostesses and stewards welcome you in uniforms adorned with the obligatory pin/badge commemorating leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and patriotic, revolutionary, state approved, marching music wafts in the aisles prior to take-off and again on landing. I found the crew to be genuinely friendly and helpful and a world removed from the jaded trolley-dollies with fake smiles I have become accustomed to on Qantas and most other western airlines.

Reflecting back on the flight, I think the plane was the only confined place I was in throughout my ten day trip which did not have pictures of the Leaders hanging up as if keeping and eye on proceedings or providing inspiration for the assembled comrades. We did, of course, have our own individual pictures of the current leader Kim Jung-un courtesy of the complementary English language weekly Pyongyang Times (which he, perhaps not surprisingly, adorns on a weekly basis) in addition to other approved and wholesome reading material extolling the virtues of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.

Food was eagerly anticipated, not because anyone was hungry as we had all (with the benefit of advance knowledge) breakfasted in Beijing, but rather because we wanted to see if it really was a hamburger and if it really did taste as bad as we anticipated. It was indeed a burger wrapped in greaseproof paper akin to that used by McDonalds on its cheeseburgers though that I assume was coincidental unless, of course, McDonalds stole the idea from Air Koryo! Goodness knows what the pattie contained. It could have been anything but it certainly was not beef. A few people persevered and ate the whole thing washed down by equally interesting tasting cider. I, like the majority of passengers, got about half-way though the thing before admitting defeat.

All in all, a wonderful flight and a great insight into what the next ten days had in store. If eligible to do so, I do recommend you leave North Korea by train for another great experience. See my separate entry – Getting out of the DPRK by Train - at the end of this blog.

On arrival in Pyongyang we alighted via steps and were bused to the terminal building but not before having ample time to photograph the plane and surroundings, an opportunity that almost everyone availed of. It’s not everyday you fly Air Koryo. As fair is fair, we were filmed and photographed alighting the plane by hidden, but not terribly well hidden, officials.

The airport terminal, undergoing a major upgrade when we visited, was basic though entirely functional as were the immigration and customs procedures and officers.

The first of many photography warnings issued to members of our group was delivered in the customs area – photography within this part of the terminal building is “forbidden” – a word we would all become very familiar with over the next ten days.

Already we knew this would be a fantastic and memorable trip.
Air Koryo at Pyongyang Airport
Air Koryo - In flight
World Famous Air Koryo Hamburger
Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner as Appl…
2 / 2 TravBuddies found this review helpful/trustworthy
wabat says:
Thank you Holger
Posted on: Feb 12, 2017
Good to know that they don't have a photo of the leader in their planes. Fabulous review here.
Posted on: Feb 12, 2017
wabat says:
I would not be dog Jo as that is more expensive than most meat. We were offered dog (at additional cost) for one meal - I declined thinking of my own dogs and also because I had tried it before, in Vietnam. I suggested to the rest of the group that they just order a couple of portions but they declined my sagely advise and ordered numerous dishes most of which went back untouched when they chickened out of actually eating it.
Posted on: Feb 11, 2017
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wabat wabat
160 reviews
Getting around the DPRK and On-board Entertainment Apr 15, 2014
While in Pyongyang you will invariably have the opportunity to take a ride on the metro and you might even get to experience a short ride on a trolley bus. Such trips are very much provided as ‘things to do’ as opposed to being a way to get to somewhere. I have prepared separate entries on both as things to do in Pyongyang. That said, our metro ride was longer than the normal two – three station experience. We actually travelled five stops with the specific purpose of getting to the Arch of Triumph and Kim Il-sung Stadium, in addition to admiring and experiencing the metro system itself.

Unless you are on a special train tour, your mode of transport will be a tour bus. This tour bus will pick you up at the airport and drive you everywhere until it drops you at the airport or train station for your departure from North Korea.

Our bus, of Chinese origin, was spacious, clean and well maintained. We had a forty plus seater for around 20 people including guides, meaning that everyone had two seats.

Thankfully and perhaps surprisingly, given the Authorities propensity to sell North Korea and its Leaders at every opportunity possible, there was no television on the bus. It was equipped with an excellent audio broadcast cum karaoke system. Our guides turned out to be excellent singers and entertained us with a number songs throughout the trip including a beautiful rendition of “Arirang” a traditional Korean folk song lamenting the departure of dear friends (over the mountain pass).

When we were not admiring the sights outside, sleeping or singing songs various of our group took up archery within and without the bus. The archery set was acquired at a souvenir shop outside Pyongyang.

Initially frowned upon by the guides, it wasn’t long until they were in on the fun too.

Not only are chartered buses used to move foreign tourists around they are also used to move North Korean delegations and other groups around. Its rather different to see hotel “car” parks full of buses instead of cars. I understand they have a special fleet of buses with darkened windows to transport members of the Supreme People’s Assembly (Parliament) around when they are in Pyongyang.

Hmmm I wonder where that koala hanging in the front of our bus came from ?
Our Tour Bus
Archery Practice
Archery Practice - Guide Joins In
Hotel Car (Bus) Park
2 / 2 TravBuddies found this review helpful/trustworthy
Getting There and Getting Around Map