Nampo, Pyongyang and Air Koryo

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Asia » North Korea
October 7th 2018
Published: October 31st 2018
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7th Oct: I'd had a fairly decent night's sleep in my heated bed. I was looking forward to soaking in the bath as the water was pumped in from the Oncheon (hot spring), well I was out of luck as the water was freezing and didn't seem to be heating up at all. Nevermind, I'm sure I still got some of the benefit from the cold water. It must come from the sea as there was a slight salty taste to it. Walking round to the main building for breakfast felt so much better than the night before. It was a lovely, sunny day and I couldn't feel the oppressive atmosphere that I had felt the previous evening. In the dining room, I was surprised to see some Koreans. When talking to the others, a group of Koreans had rocked up about 1 am. We left the resort around 10 am and headed to the West Sea barrage. We drove along the barrage to the visitors centre, where we met a local guide. First, we headed up to the roof of the visitors centre so that we could see the dam and take in the views. The dam is huge and it must have been a real feat to build it. The dam system is eight kilometres long and consists of three lock chambers and 36 sluices. It closes the Taedong River off from the Yellow Sea. The views were gorgeous and I wished that we could have headed down to the beach, but since it was now off season it was closed. We headed into the visitors centre and were shown into a room with comfy armchairs and were asked if we would like (to buy) tea or coffee to drink as we watched the video about the barrage's construction. It was all very civilised. The video was interesting and detailed how the dam was built. It was a massive project that ran from 1981 to 1986 and the whole country's resources were redirected to the dam's construction. The different gates allow for different size ships to pass through, however now that there are many sanctions imposed on the DPRK, trade has dried up and the area is not as busy as it could be. The dam also prevented sea water from mixing with fresh water that affected the water supply.

Back in the city, we headed to a restaurant for lunch. We went to a nice place that served hotpot. We each had an individual burner and pot to cook our hotpot in. We were each given a plate with all the ingredients on and the pot was filled with water. The staff helped us cook it so that we didn't mess it up. The food was nice, but China has conditioned me so that all hotpot I eat is super spicy and this one wasn't spicy so I felt it was lacking a little in taste. We also got a tonne of other dishes on the table to. After lunch, we headed to Munsu Waterpark to spend the afternoon there. The area around the waterpark was buzzing with people. I feel like we finally found all the people in Pyongyang. As we entered there was a waxwork of Kim Jong Il, which we had to be respectful of, and were not allowed to take any photos of. Then we were given a guided tour of the water park. It was a very impressive place. Everything looked very new and was extremely clean. The hair salon and barber shop were very retro. I wasn't in the mood for a swim so I headed to the cafe to curl up with my book for a bit. Then when the others had finished in the pool, we had some beers. One weird thing that occurred was when I was trying to find the bathoom, I went out to the main hallway and the bloke that was loitering there, proper started to follow me. However, when I turned off down a corridor, he stopped. I think his purpose was to make sure that no one got to close to the statue of Kim Jong Il.

After the waterpark, we headed to the gun place. I'm sure that there is a correct term for the place but it escapes me. Shooting guns is not something I am into, so those of us not participating just watched the others. Then we headed to a restaurant for dinner. This place was really busy with other tour groups. I can't really remember a lot about the meal, so it wasn't an epic final dinner. However, after dinner we did get to go to the pub. I had been looking forward to it and had been gutted that we hadn't had time to fit it in earlier in the week. The pub was on the second or third floor of this random building and was just a large room. It was very different to what I think of as a pub. It did remind me of a pub I used to go to in the South, in one of the towns I lived in. It had a European feel to it. The pub was pretty busy with locals and I was surprised to see quite a few children in there. Going to the pub is obviously a family pastime in North Korea. The pub brewed quite a few of its own beers. Since I had aleready put away a few pints today and was feeling quite full, I really wasn't in the mood for trying one of their exotic beers, so I just stuck to one of their regular ones, which was good. After a couple of pints, we headed back to the hotel. First, we headed down to the ping pong room so that some of the group could have a few games. It was fun to watch. The woman who runs the place is a total pro. I think she beat everyone. When we walked in their was one guy playing in his underwear, long white pants and a vest. I just thought it was his normal get up, but he put his suit back on as he was leaving. I never knew you could work up such a sweat playing ping pong. After an hour or so, we headed up to the revolving restaurant on the top floor. We had been wanting to go there all week and now finally we got the chance. It was totally deserted when got up there and to our dismay it wasn't revolving either. That problem was soon rectified as the staff pulled a switch and the floor juddered into action. We sat and had a few more beers. I think it would have been better to come to the revolving restaurant in daytime as it was too dark now and the light inside was causing reflections on the glass. Eventually it was time to call it a night.

8th Oct: Well it's not often I devote more than a few lines to the flights I take when travelling, but then not every flight I take is on Air Koryo and they deserve a special mention. I was up very early as we were leaving for the airport at 6 am. I got my passport back after passing the 'test' given by one of our guides. I love their sense of humour, they're so funny. I was sad to say goodbye to the Korean guides as they were genuinely lovely people and getting us to say bye to me at 6 am was way more than I would ever expect from any tour guide. My western guide was accompanying me to the airport along with two other Korean guides, who had accompanied the other people on the bus. Once again, I didn't expect my Western guide to come either as he would be taking the train out. I have a huge amount of respect for all the guides on this trip. The journey to the airport took about 40 minutes and I ate the breakfast that the hotel had prepared on the way. It was cool to see the pilots walking to the airport, they must be based very close by. Inside the airport was very clean and modern. We filled in the forms required for leaving and then had some time to kill as our flight wouldn't open for check-in until the flight to Vladivostok was finished. It was interesting to see that there were so many North Korean people travelling abroad. And when I say North Korean people I mean males. I saw plenty of females coming to wave off their male relatives but none went through to the airside.

The check-in process was very smooth and quick as we were some of the first in the queue. The immigration section is right next to the check-in counters, we were about to head through when we were made to wait so that some foreign bloke could be first. He was obviously a VIP of some sort, but it annoyed me that we had to wait for him to be finished before we could go through. The immigration process was actually pretty comical. I ended up going to the booth which had two soldiers in it and they decided to ask me a few questions. It started off pretty well as they asked if I had arrived by train, which I had. Then they wanted to know more of my address as there wasn't enough room to write the whole thing on the form so all I'd written was the name of my apartment complex and the city I lived in in China. Poor guys didn't really speak much English, so they couldn't understand what I was saying, it probably didn't help that I was a Westerner mangling the Chinese names of places. Eventually they had enough information and waved me through. Throughout the whole process the guides had been watching, I wonder if it was normal for them to see that. Anyway I gave them a big thumbs up, a wave and a smile as I headed to the departure lounge. It was pretty quiet in there as the other flight had already boarded and there were only the people waiting for my flight to board. I spent the time taking photo of my plane and the plane bound for Vladivostock, which was pretty old, apparantly. I got to see that one take off, which was cool.

After a short wait, it was time for board. There weren't too many people in the departure lounge and I thought that the flight was going to be pretty empty. However, the plane soon filed up. I was quite surprised to see a lot of South Koreans and Gyopos (overseas Koreans) on the plane. It felt weird being in North Korea but being surrounded by South Koreans since they cannot travel there. This group were part of some sort of official delegation. The flight took off smoothly and soon we were up in the air. The air stewardesses came around handing out newspapers and magazines, not that they had enough for everyone. Not too long after take--off one of the attendants came over the intercom to tell us we were flying over something related to one of the Kims, maybe a birthplace or something, but the sound quality was bad, so I couldn't make out what we were flying over. You would think that with how advanced technology is nowadays that PA systems would be able to give clear, flawless announcements. Our inflight entertainment was 'The Ten Shocking Developments of Juche 105' or something along those lines. With a title like that I got myself comfortable, ready to hear all the anti-Imperialist rhetoric. I was sadly disappointed as there had been a mistranslation and the term 'shocking' should have been translated as 'astounding' or 'amazing' instead. The video instead chronicled the DPRK's achievements that year.

While we were at cruising altitude, I saw one of the pilots, at least I presume he was a pilot as he was dressed like one, walk through the cabin and he was proper scanning everyone in every row, like the flight attendants do before take off to make sure everyone is complying with the safety regulations. I thought it was a bit weird as we weren't taking off or landing, but put it out my mind until later. A couple of rows up across the aisle from me, I saw that the pilot had made an old South Korean guy get out of his seat and was talking to him. By the look on the pilot's face it was not a friendly little chatter. He had that whole quiet, angry and menacing vibe going on. I think a few other people had cottoned on that something was going on, as we were all watching. The pilot made the guy get his passport put and was writing stuff down from it. The guy next to me confirmed that the man was in 'big trouble'. His crime? He had insulted Kim Jong Un by folding the newspaper wrongly over his face. I remember that we had been told this was a big no-no on the trip, but to see an official get angry about this oversight was not something I had expected. I bet the bloke is in no hurry to return to the DPRK after that fiasco. What was really funny to watch was the ripple effect that it had on others in the cabin, nobody wanted to have the newspapers anymore in case they messed up and got into trouble. All the old Korean guys were trying to hand them back to the air stewardesses, but the stewardesses were deflecting them and making them keep the newspapers. It was pretty surreal to watch. It also made me wonder about the 'pilot' was he a real pilot or just a government agent employed to watch us on the flight.

I had been looking forward to the meal on Air Koryo as the burger they serve is quite infamous. Nobody know what the meat in it is. Needless to say I was gutted, when I saw that the air hostesses were handing out sandwiches instead. While, it wasn't mystery meat inside, it was that dodgy super pink ham that you can get in China and is obviously processed to within an inch of its life. The sandwich was fine, but it looks like I will have to fly Air Koryo again so that I can try the mystery burger. Air Koryo has a pretty bad reputation throughout the world. It is a one star rated airline, which didn't fill me with confidence as I am a nervous flyer at the best of times, but knowing that flying Air Koryo would probably be a once in a lifetime opportunity I knew I had to do it. When I was reading up on this rating, it seemed to be due to the lack of facilities the airline offers as opposed to its safety record. The airline had previously been banned from the EU due to safety and maintenance concerns, but this ban has been lifted on certain aircraft that the airline owns. I have to say the flight was really good, very comfortable and smooth. It was better than my Air China flight. The flight took about two hours and I was a bit sad when we landed in Beijing. My DPRK adventure was over.

Additional photos below
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Air Koryo

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