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 used by 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 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 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 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.
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 your 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, is 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.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries providing general and background information on The Rambling Wombat’s trip to, and travelling in, North Korea which I recommend you read in a particular order. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Getting around the DPRK and on-board entertainment. If necessary, go to my North Korea introduction entry – And now for something completely different – to start this loop at the beginning.