The Grand Aviation Tour of North Korea (Part 1/2)
When the aviation tour of North Korea was announced in the early 2012, I wasn’t moved simply because I have flown on most Soviet Jet types already except IL-18. I always prefer to fly on aircraft that is on commercial service instead of on charter flights. It took me a long while seeing groups after groups have done the North Korea tour to be convinced that is worth to be going. Much to my delight, IL-76 flights were added to the itinerary and a few friends were also booked on my tour in October 2012. I am very curious to see North Korea, the final frontier of socialism and known to be a secretive state. With the growing interest to re-kindle with Soviet plane types and travel to a completely new and isolated country, the trip was born!
Does Air Koryo really deserve the Skytrax one star rating? Are people in the North Korea really brainwashed? So many mysteries behind…..Follow me on the tour, we shall reveal one by one here!
The October 2012 Aviation Tour of North Korea schedule:
19 October 2012 Meet and greet in North Korean Restaurant in Beijing.
20 October 2012 Fly from Beijing to Pyongyang on Air Koryo IL-62. Follow by city walk of Pyongyang.
21 October 2012 Visit DMZ, border with South Korea and Kaesong city.
22 October 2012 Fly from Pyongyang to Orang (Mt Chilbo), visit Kyongsong revolutionary site and back to Pyongyang on Air Koryo IL-18
23 October 2012 Pyongyang city tour.
24 October 2012 Fly from Pyongyang to Sondok (Hamhung) and back on IL-76 and An-24.
25 October 2012 Fly from Pyongyang to Sondok (Hamhung) on Tu-134. Overnight in Majon Deluxe Hotel on the seaside of Majon.
26 October 2012 Fly from Sondok (Hamhung) to Pyongyang on Tu-134. Pyongyang city tour in afternoon.
27 October 2012 Fly from Pyongyang back to Beijing on Air Koryo Tu-204. (Some tour members chose to fly to Shenyang with Tu-154)
Flying Route Map
19 October 2012 – Dinner meet up
As would all other tours to North Korea, 40 members of our group met up in Beijing the night before in a state owned North Korean restaurant with North Korean waitress serving food and drinks plus a fantastic musical and dance show for the night entertainment.
I collected the visa (Tourist Card) to North Korea in the restaurant and meet up with the rest of the group members.
We were welcomed by a very lively musical and vocal performance by North Korean ladies working inside the restaurant. Some say they are also spy, which I don’t know but I know they’re certainly very talented! The show lasted about 30 minutes and like nothing I’ve seen before. The show was excellent, there are too few places doing a show with dinner these days. I left for an early night before tomorrow’s start to Pyongyang. See the video of performances.
20 October 2012 – Day 1
Today, we are flying Air Koryo flight JS152 from Beijing to Pyongyang. Operated by their famous IL-62M, Registration P-881. In a rare first time fashion, seat assignment was allocated and reserved, I have the luck to sit in the last row window seat 28F looking over the the Soloviev engines!
The local Beijing aviation enthusiasts told me Air Koryo IL-62 is now a rare sight in Beijing, more often the Tu-204 and Tu-134 came to Beijing than the quad engine IL-62 jet. There was a strong rumour that Air Koryo will not fly the IL-62 on international schedule flight from 2013. We shall see if that’s true.
2 Flights to Pyongyang that day leaving with 30 minutes of each other.
Charles Kennedy, ambassador of Juche Travel Services, stand in front of Air Koryo check-in counter at Terminal 2 of Beijing Capital Airport.
At boarding, you can see the IL-62 through the unobstructed glass. The tour members like a pack of worms, spreading out taking photos like mad, created quite a sight for the other passengers to be held.
The plane was spotless outside. Delivered in 1986, it was quite a young IL-62!
Beijing to Pyongyang
Flight time 1hr30mins
Travelling Air Koryo means your holiday starts as soon as you get on the plane – the red uniformed Air Koryo hostesses, the in-flight DPRK magazines, the packed lunch and the North Korean history announcement are not to be missed!
A first glimpse into DPRK, welcome onboard by Air Koryo Hostesses.
Most Air Koryo aircraft carries a silver registration plate at the entrance.
Walking past the business class section. Nice embodied pillow with a white seat and head cover.
The middle galley on IL-62.
Exit row in Economy Class
Flight attendant approach me “No photos please!”. I smiled and obliged for a while. They were actually quite nice, very softly spoken instead of shouting at you like in Russia or Middle East.
Rear view of the cabin after all boarded.
Toilet of IL-62
At 1:05pm sharp, we started our pushback. The 4 engines came into life one after another. It was music to the ears at my seat on the last row! Please see my video for the full sound enjoyment.
The reading light and individual nozzle on IL-62. All well maintained and working.
My other seatmates didn’t seem to be as excited as I do!
On push back and ready to taxi to Runway 36R for takeoff to Pyongyang.
Airborne from Runway 36R. Heading NE direction.
The cabin before in-flight service started shortly. Flight attendants hanged out magazine and newspaper in English and Korean languages include Pyongyang times and Chosun magazine.
The flight attendants did 2 rounds of service, one for food and one for drinks.
A very decent offering for a 1.5 hour flight from Beijing to Pyongyang.
The meal consists of Curry rice, cold chicken schnitzel, cold cuts and fruits. All taste quite good. Air Koryo catering certainly don’t deserve the only 1 star on Skytrax.
After lunch, I swapped seat with another enthusiast, now I am seating at the last row 28A.
The sunlight spell through the Soloviev Engines. Lovely Sights.
We started descend about 20 minutes before landing into Pyongyang. There were some clouds in the vicinity.
Landed and taxiing into the ramp with the control tower and a temporary terminal building in this picture. Note the original terminal with the famous Kim Il Sung portrait and “Pyongyang” sign was demolished just a few months ago.
Air Koryo were kind enough to allow us a rare visit of the cockpit of IL-62M. It was really well maintained, with bright green panel. It is a 5 men cockpit!
The imposing view of IL-62 when you step out the cabin onto the stairways. With my quick imagination, I fancied myself arriving during the Soviet cold war era!
Me and IL-62 in Pyongyang!
A custom lady at the airport guiding us.
One last look of our plane took us from Beijing.
The IL-62 and some of our tour members’ reflection.
One great hall has immigration, baggage claim and custom together.
Immigration was swift and there is only one baggage carousal. The custom was known to be notorious in DPRK, all luggages have to be X-rayed and some hand searched. Luckily I didn’t encounter any issues. All mobile phones were taken away at the airport and will be given back to you on the last day. Cameras with GPS features are also not allowed to bringing into the country.
A quick look at the arrival board revealed there were 4 planes arrival that day including a Business Jet VP-BRT from Tokyo! The 2nd Air Koryo flight from Beijing is a Tu-204-100.
After arriving, we went straight to some sightseeing and a city walk before to our hotel for dinner.
The Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang, heavily inspired by the one in Paris.
Me and my new book in Pyongyang. Note the front cover features a South Korean Airline, Korean Air 🙂
Trolley bus! A common sight in Communist and Socialist countries.
We walked around the Kim Il Sung square with various Soviet style buildings lit up in the evening.
Crossing the pedistrean tunnel in darkness was quite an experience; only one or two light bulb was lit inside.
After the city-walk, we head straight to our hotel accomodation of the next 7 days and nights, Koryo Hotel.
Standard twin room in Koryo Hotel (4 star). Lovely carpet designs aren’t they! The room and bathroom is well functioned and with strong water pressure. You also get satellite TV like BBC and other international channels. Of course no CNN!
Night view of Pyongyang from our hotel room window.
A very nice 5 courses dinner welcomes our group. Our first meal in the DPRK was well exceeded my imagination. We were fed chicken, fish, pasta, rice and of course Korean Kimchi and pickels!
After dinner, a quick glimpse at the gift shop in our hotel. I suspect this shop is only open to foreigners; it has more sparkling wine/champagne that I could ever imagine!
The exchange rate was about 100 North Korean Won to 1 USD. However to get 1 USD, a North Korean citizen pays much more that the official rate in black market.
21 October 2012 – Day 2
Good morning Pyongyang. Today we are visiting the DMZ and the ancient Kaesong city.
The drives to DMZ took more than 2 hours southward from Pyongyang. We have a break in the middle. Here I am photographed with the 2 very nice KITC (Korean International Travel Company) guides, Ms Peng (left) and Ms Hong (Right) along with David from Juche Travel Service.
Selling Stamp book collections and other DPRK style gift at the tea-stop along the way.
Finally, we arrived at the border and saw various re-unification inspired posters. This says “United for the future of our young generations!”
This poster says it all, “Korea is ONE!”
Miss Hong guiding the DMZ to our group.
Sitting on the historic negotiation table between North and South.
More display of the history of the war from North Korea’s perspective.
Captured US soldier pictures everywhere!
Captured aircraft part and belongings.
After visiting the display, we headed to the border line. You can see South Korea in the background, only separated by those blue houses.
We are sitting inside the blue houses, with a group of Chinese tourists across the table.
This is North Korea side overlooking to the South.
After the visit to the DMZ, we returned to Kaesong City for lunch and sightseeing. Kaesong City is located few miles from the DMZ.
A peek into normal folks home in Kaesong city, I snap this one out of routine without the supervision of our guides. The people were caught by surprise.
“Shogun” poster in Kaesong city.
Royal lunch at Kaesong Tourist hotel.
All delicate items were served cold. With a hot soup.
Charlie buying a canvas painting from a talented artist at 20 Euro cost.
Visit to Kim Il Sung statue in Kaesong
Views of the ancient city.
We also visited Koryo Museum in Kaesong where we saw some wedding celebration there. The groom usually dress in black western suite and the bride dress in traditional Korean dress.
The Autumn is in its full swing in Kaesong. Beautiful colours.
After a 2 hours long drive back north to Pyongyang city, we pass the “Re-unitfication” monument/gate. This statue is located in the Southern entrance of Pyongyang. 2 Korean lady represent both North and South were joined together here. A very nice statue in my opinion.
In the evening, our group were treated to Moranbong Chicken Restaurant which serves North Korean style KFC fried chicken. (original and BBQ flavoured)
Video of Day 1 and 2:
22 October 2012 – Day 3
Today, we are back to aviation, flying the much anticipated Ilyushin Il-18 to Orang (Mount Chilbo) and return. It was my first ride on the IL-18, a huge propeller plane with 4 x Ivchenko AI-20M turboprop engines.
We were back to Pyongyang Sunan Airport in the mid morning and found 2 flights on the departures screen that day.
Boarding passes were given with no names. Although there were seat assignments on the boarding passes, it was a generally free seating flight. So the “first in first served” rule applied!
A cold and wet day to fly, typical when especially it is an aviation day!
Sweeping view of Air Koryo fleet parked on the ramp.
View of the distinctive IL-18 engines while climbing onto the stairs. Feeling Nostalgic and travel back in time? Yes!
An Air Koryo hostie greet us personally.
The middle (main) cabin of IL-18 in a 2-3 abreast seating arrangement. The forward cabin has 4 rows was mainly occupied by Air Koryo staff and security personnels.
The rear cabin of IL-18 has also 4 rows of seats.
There are gauges showing the speed and altitude of IL-18 in the rear cabin. Nice to see underneath to monitor it! This is the equivalent to the modern day in-flight airmap display!
Fasten your belts indeed, we are about to takeoff! Please watch my video of Day 3 and 4 for the amazing sound of IL-18!
Take off run was shorter than most expected, airborne within 30 seconds with a nice general climb. Although a low pressure and lot of low clouds were around; the plane was very sturdy flying past the bad weather. No turbulence were encountered!
The in-flight entertainment includes reading the Pyongyang Times (English newspaper, published weekly!) or listen to the Symphony of the drumming sounds of four Ivchenko AI-20M engines turning. Aviation Enthusiasts in heaven!
After the seat belts sign came off, I moved around the cabin to sit at the exit row and observing the ambience onboard.
On our 1 hour flight, the 2 Air Koryo FA came with a round of drinks service include Coffee/Tea/Water/Beer/Cider! All made in North Korea!
Enjoying the North Korea Cider drink with the sounds of IL-18 onboard, a pure pleasure!
The re-modeled bathroom onboard IL-18.
The rest of the flight was non-eventful but very enjoyable by just soaking up the nostalgic ambience of onboard IL-18. After all, it is not your everyday flight! We started descend not long after, with a very smooth landing into Orang Airport. We were allowed to visit the cockpit and look around.
An opportunity to wear the oversized pilot’s hat.
IL-18 cockpit, well maintained considers it was 46+ years old!
The condition was much better than the Somaliland based Daallo Airlines IL-18, told by my friend Ian and Charlie.
Those 4 giant propeller Ivchenko engines.
The weather was about the same as Pyongyang, cold and wet. Luckily the rain stopped allows us to walk around the apron to take as many photos as we could.
Posing in front of the IL-18 freely. How’s that!
Flight crew photo.
A group photo, later on this became a tradition after every flight.
The local airport authority were very accommodative to our request, they re-positioned the stairway truck so you can take a great shot with the mountain scenery behind like the one below!
After leaving the airport, our group went to the terminal building and has a Q & A session with the IL-18 crew.
Natuarlly the question with “How long can the IL-18 fly until” was asked, the crew responded us the IL-18 has 10 more years of airworthy ahead; this was met with a huge round of applause!
I met up with the captain and he kindly filled my log book with interpretation from radio controller. Typically, Air Koryo captains do not speak English, they relies on the radio controller to interpret. The radio controller speaks almost flawless English!
After the meeting, we were taken to a local tourist hotel in Kyongsong city for lunch. The road was very bumpy with pot holes and took almost an hour from the airport to the hotel. See my video for more sights from the ride.
A seafood lunch. Definitely the best on offer!
Not many dare to eat the crabs, although one seafood lover ate 10 of them on another table!
The waitresses in traditional korean dress.
After the lunch, we re-boarded the bus and went to a revolutionary site where leader Kim Il Sung started the revolution from this seaside fisherman village. It was our first sight of the East Korean sea.
A beautiful site, there were no other tourist apart from our group.
Our buses were best available there.
After the visit, we were back to the airport and were given this colourful boarding pass for our flight back to Pyongyang.
Orang to Pyongyang
Flight time 1 hour
Weather seems to be clearing up on our way from Orang flying South to Pyongyang.
The giant prop engines!
This time, we were able to visit the front cabin to take pictures of the front engine views from the window.
I was lucky to be able to sit together with the lovely Ms Peng , one of our tour guide, with our feets up!
Very shortly we landed back to Pyongyang, I didn’t take anymore photo because I was feeling so satisfied and enjoying the moments immensely. Could not really care about another photo or video, it was just a great, great ride!
After getting back in Pyongyang, there was an Air Koryo official meeting with us on the bus. I took the opportunity to present him my latest book but with South Korean flag carrier, Korean Air on the book cover, hope he dosen’t mind and share the true aviation spirit.
We ending the night in a great Kebab restaurant, everyone is smiling! The food was great and plenty to eat there!
24 October 2012 – Day 4
Good morning Pyongyang! A sunny and clear day awaits us to explore the city today.
Views from my hotel room window.
Recently finished Ryugyong Hotel. The Ryugyong is a 105-story pyramid-shaped skyscraper under construction in Pyongyang, North Korea. Its name (“capital of willows”) is also one of the historical names for Pyongyang. Construction began in 1987 but was halted in 1992 as North Korea entered a period of economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union.
From Koryo hotel, we are only a block away from the train station so we can see and hear the trains all day and night long. We can see some derelict locomotives from our room.
More square block apartments in Pyongyang.
We drove past the Pyongyang Train station.
Korean people in traditional dress walking on the streets.
With Ms Hong, another tour guide.
Visiting a statue and fountain in the morning.
Old and new building in Pyongyang.
Pyongyang residents walking around.
Our next stop is to visit Mansu Hill Mausoleum. On Mansu Hill there is the bombastic Grand Monument. An enormous bronze statue of Kim Il Sung was erected here in 1972, to honor his 60th birthday. The statue of his son, Kim Jong Il, is now standing next to him since April 2012.
It is customary to show respect by leaving flowers (natural or artificial). Foreign travelers are expected to do this too. You can buy a bouquet which will cost you about € 3-5.
The monument is much visited, mostly by groups of people, groups like school classes, or members of the youth shock brigade, a paramilitary youth organization resembling scouting.
The Famous Chollima Statue (Thousand Mile Horse)
This statue, made in 1961 on the occasion of the 49th birthday of the Great Leader, stands a little bit north of the Grand Monument, at the foot of Moran Hill. On a 46 meters high granite basement is the 14 meters high bronze Pegasus (the winged horse from Greek antiquity), symbolizing the fast socialist development of North Korea.
This is also my favourite monument and symbol of DPRK!
A building with Mount Paktau décor on top. Dear leader Kim Jong Il was born in Mount Paktau, hence it was a special site for North Korea.
Some typical propaganda art display on the streets
Trams on the Boulevards of Pyongyang.
After Mansu Hill, we visited the International Friendship Exhibiton Hall. No photo inside was allowed but it is definitely worth looking at the gifts presented to the dear leaders.
Next, we visited the birth place of Kim Il Sung, Mangyongdae.
Kim Il Sung was born on April 15, 1912, and raised. This `cradle of revolution’ now has become an ideological place of pilgrimage, where schools and other groups of people, including foreign tour groups come. It is located in a very nice and remarkably green park, which attracts visitors.
Our group with a newly married couple stands in front of the birthplace of Kim Il Sung.
A queue of “seems” like workers to visit the site.
After the visit, we went for lunch in “Turtle” restaurant which is on a boat floating on the Taedong River.
Some recently completed apartment on the bank of Taedong River, this becomes a showcase of Pyongyang to the general public.
On the eastern shore of Taedong River, opposite the Kim Il Sung Square, is the 170 meters high Tower of Juche Idea. The white tower itself is 150 meters high. On top of it is the 20 meters high gold-colored torch. The torch is lightened at night and flickers like a real flame. The tower was built in 1982, on occasion of the 70th birthday of Kim Il Sung.
A Salute to the Juche Ideology.
Pyongyang residents playing shooting , look at who they’re aiming at!
In the afternoon, we were taken for an extensive 5 stop ride on the Pyongyang metro.
The most pleasant surprise in all of Pyongyang is undoubtedly the city’s phenomenal Traffic Girls. Dolled up in crisp, blue and white uniforms, the immaculately coifed women work the middle of intersections throughout Pyongyang. Every Traffic Girl is beautiful, young, shapely, and sexy in a uniform-wearing sort of way.
The Pyongyang metro is an easy way of transportation within the city. Pyongyang has two underground lines with a total length of 24 km. There are 17 stations, some of them deep under the surface. A visit can certainly be recommended. The stations have been, like the Russian example it seems, exuberantly decorated with reliefs and revolutionary paintings.
The long grim and dark tunnel leading to the metro platform. I was told these moving walkways are one of the longest in the world.
You can select any stations that you want to go to, the guided light will illuminate and show you the direction here!
Beautiful mosaic painting glorifies the nation.
Photo with a train conductor/ticket officer.
Trying to hand out some chocolate when I got a chance to meet with some locals at the metro station.
We were told that this is one of the few occasions when a western tourist is in such close proximity to North Koreans, who are normally isolated from outsiders. For years, rumors have persisted that it’s almost impossible to interact with North Korean locals, and few people have ever done it.
Many of these people may have never seen westerners before. They are told from birth that Americans (or Imperialists) are the source of their woes, and the government discourages locals who are not authorized to greet foreigners. However, it’s easy to bring North Koreans out of this initial apprehension through being a bit enthusiastic and fun. If you are willing to smile and be courteous you will receive a very positive response. It is one of the last places in the world where there are very few visitors and you can have a big impact on whom you meet.
After the metro ride, we saw a over crowded trolley bus on the road.
Another old trolley bus well past its time, but fascinating for our group of spotters to see.
We rounded up our evening in the Karaoke Bar at the Koryo Hotel!
Please see the video (North Korea Aviation Tour Part 2) for the Karaoke evening! No words can describe the singing. It was that great and hilarious! Not to be missed!
Video from Day 3 and 4 (not to be missed!)