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North Korea Trip-0

Diary of the North Korea trip

19 – 26 October 2013
All photos: Andre van Loon

Last year myself and good friends Andre van loon travelled for the first time to North Korea and took part in the October 2012 Aviation Enthusiast Tour. That was the last tour for 2012 and was a big hit amongst the group of 40 excited aviation photographers. Andre decided he would again take part in the last tour of 2013 and provided me with pictures and a update. With the success of the DPRK aviation tours Juche Travel Service have already published the 2014 dates. Air Koryo also committed to have all its fleet available for aviation charters.
For more information check out the Juche website:

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Friday night 18th:
Myself and Gareth met up with our tour leader, Charley, in the Starbucks opposite our hotel for some coffee and banter. After that we arranged a cab to go to the North Korean restaurant Haedanghwa, to do the remaining payments, receive our visa and meet up with the other travelers. After a general round of introductions we tucked into some tasty NK dishes, some utterly strange, unusual and requiring an acquired taste to say the least. (A sign of things to come) Halfway through dinner the local female band of musicians started doing their thing.

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Day 1 - Saturday 19th:
Originally we were scheduled to fly out on the Air Koryo TU-204, however the day before; this was changed to an additional (earlier) flight on an AN-148. Apparently the Tupolev now carried a large Chinese delegation of some sort and we got bumped.
We took a cab to the airport with Charley and met up again with the rest of the group. We smoothly went through all the formalities of checking in, security and immigration. We took a stroll through the terminal finally ending up at the end from where some reasonable shots could be obtained of taxiing aircraft. Soon, on the opposite side of the runway the strange looking shape of the AN-148 appeared. It was to take another 30 minutes or so before she could cross the active runway, taxiing behind a South Korean 77W…..clearly indicating the difference in development and prosperity of the 2 nations, divided.
Onboard the little Antonov, the cabin was fully occupied and although the overhead bins are a lot bigger than on the comparable BAE146, still with the size and number of bags every passenger took onboard, it was necessary to pile up baggage in front of the aft emergency exit. Needless to say the crew was not exactly happy when some of the group tried to photograph this lax approach to safety standards. We taxied out, strangely enough, again behind the same South Korean Boeing. Finally it was out turn, and acceleration was brisk on runway 36R. It is clear the little Antonov is actually a good performer and quiet too. During the flight we got offered the usual "Air Koryo burger". Nobody knows what the ingredients are, or if there is actually any meat in them, or of what origin, but they are surprisingly tasty. It was washed away with a glass or 2 of lukewarm beer. Landing at FNJ was on the usual runway 19 and was followed by a lengthy and speedy taxiing. After all other passengers disembarked we had the plane to ourselves for some photo shoots. Going through immigration and customs was just a formality and soon we were in-country. This year, as opposed to last year, it was possible to keep hold of your mobile phone, although nobody bothered to get the local sim cards for 50Euro. Still it would prove handy for the obvious reason (alarm clock). We met up with Mr. Chew and the lovely Miss Kim and we drove towards the city center. We parked at the enormous Kim-Il-Sung Square, in the heart of the governmental area of the city, and here we started our walking tour of the area, which ended near the Pyongyang Grand Theatre / Opera house. After that we checked into the Koryo hotel. We had room 2 – 24 – 07 (tower-2, floor 24, room 07) and then walked next-door for dinner and our first proper intro to the dubious delights of the North Korea cuisine.

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Day 2 - Sunday 20th:
Early wake up followed by a nice breakfast am mixture of Asian and western style things. We then started our drive through the city (along pre-approved roads) to head towards the south and our destination of the DMZ near Kaesong. The weather was nice and sunny, which gave beautiful views of the countryside. It was apparent how poor the countryside is, as compared to the city. We also saw our first glimpse of what we would then call a "wood burning truck". These produced tons of smoke and are limited to a very slow pace and while passing them, the bus cabin would fill up with the beautiful smells of burning wood. After around 3 hours, with a stop in the middle for some refreshments, we reached the DMZ where we had a short look at a map, with some explanations. Not much time was available for questions though. This time I did notice the concrete blocks strategically placed, that could easily block the road against tanks. I had not noticed that the year before. We then had a short look in the 2 barracks where the 1950s armistice talks were held, accompanied by a lot of information that was of course very one-sided, and in many cases just completely wrong. Mention of the great "defeat" of the US and how the South had attacked the North first, nearly caused me to fall of my chair in laughter. But I behaved. The visit to the actual border area was different than last year because on the South Korean side there was a group of tourists. They were looking at us and we at them. (Strange). Some people in our group managed to briefly get a mobile phone signal from here.
After that, we drove the 10km back to Kaesong where we went for lunch in the Folk Custom hotel. Here some of the group tried the dog soup, but this was very fatty, and very disappointing compared to the previous year tour. The royal banquet otherwise was very nice although some things didn't bear any resemblance to anything I have ever seen or eaten before. We then visited the Janam Hill, which overlooks the city, and the Nam Gate, from where the old town can be seen. Kaesong was part of South Korea when the US and Soviet Union divided the country in 1945. It was the royal city hundreds of years earlier and somehow both sides refrained from bombing this historical place during the fighting in the 50s. The North did manage to occupy the city and keep it after 1953. We then had a tour of the Koryo history museum and the souvenir shop, where of course I didn't buy anything. Gareth bought some old currency. The drive back to PY was uneventful and we then were able to photograph the Reunification monument. One Dutch member of the group was told off for walking across some grass. The 2 buses then set course for the Juche tower. Unfortunately this was a week where a lot of military parades happened. This meant that our route was blocked and we could not reach the tower. It did give the opportunity to drive over non pre-approved roads and to view the "real" PY, which looks a lot less presentable, some would say, rundown, worn out and badly in need of tlc. Dinner this evening was in the Hot Pot restaurant, which meant we had to cook/boil our own food in a little pot. Without instructions this proved confusing and weird things happened.

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Day 3 - Monday 21st
We went to the airport for our chartered flight to the airport of Orang, near Chongjin. After a short photo-session, the IL18 took off and set a northerly course. After around 45 minutes, and still at a high altitude, the gear was lowered, followed by a long period of high power settings. This turned out to be the standard way of operating these old Russian aircraft in the DPRK. We executed a straight in visual approach on the northerly concrete runway, which was very rough, had no runway markings and no lights whatsoever. In fact all regional airfields we visited seemed to be just a slab of concrete in a field, devoid of any markings/lights. Immediately after touch-down the resident MIG-15s came into sight, with no less than 6 in excellent shape, parked close to our IL-18, and dozens more parked further away. I could not see any of the MIG-17s that are supposed to be also based here. The customary cockpit visit and outside photo-sessions and group-photo happened, following which we went inside for a question and answer session with the captain. This proved difficult, even with a translator. This was of little value, although we found out that they fly around 150hours per year only, that the captain always lands the plane, and that there are pilots who do not come from the military. We then boarded the 2 buses and started our long dusty and bouncy drive over dirt-roads through endless agricultural fields, to the mountains of Mt. Chilbo. This again showed the real DPRK, which is a very rural and agricultural society with dusty villages aplenty. We came across several wood burning trucks, but again no photos were allowed. The tour guides also did not like it when we photographed villages or people. It seemed they were somehow ashamed at the state of the country-side, even though for us on the tour, it was just interesting to experience. Slowly but surely the mountains came into view. It was to be another 45 minutes through mountain roads before we reached the hotel, right in the middle of a small valley. The Outer-Chilbo hotel consisted of a main building (reception, bar, restaurant) and 4 out-buildings. No hot water in the rooms. Instead this would be ordered and delivered at a set time in buckets, and put outside the room door. After check-in and freshen-up, we boarded the buses again, for a drive to 2 viewpoints, from where we could see the beautiful red, brown and yellow autumn shades of the trees. We also came across the Kaeson Buddhist temple and Sungson Pavilion. After returning to the hotel we came to the main building for dinner. It had become quite cold, and none of the rooms had heating. We had to warm ourselves on a big metal pipe that ran through the restaurant. It was a jolly evening with plenty of food, and even more alcoholic drink. The tour-guides performed some karaoke songs. It seems all of them could have a signing career, they were that good. A lot of people left the room after mid-night in a drunken state. Charley took out his portable gramophone and was playing traditional North Korean music. At that time we did not realize it yet, but seeds for disaster had been sown……..half of the group had food poisoning and spent the night and next morning in the toilet.

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Day 4 - Tuesday 22nd:
For the one's that were not overcome, a drive to various vantage points was on the agenda. This provided amazing views of the Dok Valley and surrounding mountains. Lunch, back at the hotel was light, just to be safe. I actually just had dry bread and water, not wanting to risk anything. We then went on our 4 hour drive, back to Orang airport and our waiting trusty Ilyushin for our return to PY. I won't mention how pleasant a bouncy ride was for the people still very much ill….. Even Charley was walking around in his Air China pyjamas. The IL-18 flight was very quiet. Most people were happy to just sit back and relax in their seats. Back in PY, dinner was in the Pizza restaurant, where Charley entertained the troops with some piano music, although I and Christiaan (-I am not into Asian women-) van Heijst, had more eyes for the female singer there. Again massive troop movements were taking place in PY city. I counted more than 100 trucks, each carrying 35 troops. Lot of people were waving at the troops who were also waving back. This was a great "sport" while we sat waiting in the traffic jam.
Day 5 - Wednesday 23rd:
Breakfast was a small affair, as for some reason there were suddenly no eggs. First up was a visit to the Grand Monument to buy and lay down flowers. The 20m high statues are made of bronze. Originally, the first statue (President Kim Il-Sung) was gold plated. However when the Chinese president visited in the 70s, it was suggested something more under-stated would be more appropriate. We then went to the airport and took the TU134 to Hamhung which took around 25 minutes. As usual we parked close by a row of AN-2s, some with bomb racks. After the cockpit tour was over, we then went outside to wait for the oldest plane in the Air Koryo fleet, the AN-24B, to arrive. We then had what was called a picnic lunch in the little terminal building (if you can call it that). We then witnessed the startup and takeoff of the 134, before settling into the AN24 for our flight back. On the way back we flew right over an airbase with several Migs visible. This turned out to be PUKCHANG AFB. Back in PY, we visited the Juche tower, which we could not see the first time (amazing views), as well as the international bookstore (didn't buy any stuff there), where some were trying to photograph the traffic lady. Another new item on the agenda was a visit to the Railway museum. Apart from a few locomotives of historical significance, the highlight was a huge and stunningly done 3D style panorama of a railway bridge being made. In reality this bridge is somewhere in the North West of the country. Dinner was at the Bar-B-Q restaurant. Fry, burn, or cremate your own meat, drink plenty, and dance a little with the local chicks.

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Day 6 - Thursday 24th:
First thing, after arriving at the airport was a pleasure flight on the IL62. Most of the group opted for seats in the back to really sample and experience the big Jet. The departures board in the terminal showed "Pukchang". I found out afterwards that this is an Airbase. Around that point the turn back is made to FNJ. We then had the cockpit visit, the outside photo-session and group-photo. Next up was the IL-76. I managed to secure one of the 2 window seats for take-off. Flying on the IL-76 was of course very amazing, as always. It was over too soon as we slowed down on runway 19, amid incredible noise from the 4 thrust reversers of the Soloviev D30 engines. A true attack on the eardrums, typical Ilyushin style. Another photo tour and then we retired to the airport restaurant for lunch and coffee. There we also had the presentation by the Air Koryo representative discussing current operations and the future. It was then time for our 3rd flight of the day, and we boarded the TU-154B2. This is most likely the last one of its kind in the world. The engine start of the old Tupolev is unlike anything you have ever heard. The howling sound of the start-up of the B-model is very unique. The flight was uneventful, but the landing was something different indeed. Normally landing at Hamhung is on runway 01. This time, however, there were very strong winds in the area, which meant we came in from the north, necessitating a visual approach right over the city. This would have been an awesome sight from the ground as the Tupolev, with flaps and gears down, needs plenty of thrust, with lots of smoke and noise as a result. We slammed down on the deck and the left wing-tip came close to touching the ground. It was certainly memorable. Overnight our 2nd bus had been driven from PY to Hamhung (6 hours) and we took this bus now to drive to the city center of Hamhung. There we parked for a while next to the Grand theatre. Lot of children were about who seemed to be amazed at seeing their own photo on the camera. We then went to the Bongung old house. An ancient king lived there with his wives and concubines. The (in) famous 7-star (rumors or gossips were it was up rated to 8-stars) Majon-Deluxe was waiting for us. First I enjoyed a Clam bake meal with a small group of tour members. After that was dinner and we retired to the bar, bowling alley. Here one incident took place. One of the German members went to his room, only to find a women going through his suitcase. When he disturbed her, she just continued and told him to "wait". He claimed it was 1 of the waitresses that doubled up as "spy". The rooms were very hot. No less than 28 degrees in my room. It was necessary to open the window wide, all-night.

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Day 7 - Friday 25th:
Before breakfast I went to the top of the little rock for some fresh air and views. The weather was still very nice, although the wind was cold. After breakfast a tour of the famous fertilizer factory was on the agenda. It started with a look at the control-room. This was a small room with 4 big TV screens, displaying lot of data and diagrams. There were also a number of phones and 3 operators. Quite what they operated or controlled was not clear, as there were no switches of any kind here. This means nothing can really be actively controlled from here. After the speech one of the Dutch members went back to this room and found that all screens had been turned off and the 3 operators were packing up. Obviously everything had been for show. All fake. Where else in the world can you experience something like this. Fantastic. The smell in the factory was pure Ammonia, and not very pleasant.
Flight back to FNJ per 154 was a short 25 minutes. After landing we went to the Turtle restaurant in the Taedong River. The water level was too low for the boat to actually leave the quay. We then went on the PY metro. It was apparent that the only places we visited were the stations with beautiful murals and lights and statues. After that we came above ground again near the big Arch of Triumph, which, they proudly mentioned, is higher than the one in Paris. Some people tried to get their hands on a PY traffic lady doll….but they were sold out. We then went to the war museum. This is newly opened and is truly a huge museum. One could easily spend a whole day there. The USS Pueblo, that famous "fishing trawler" has also been moved here and has been nicely restored. Outside were the remains of US war machinery, including some aircraft (Skyraider, Corsair, Invader, Sabre). On the other side were North Korean MIG-15s, a Yak-9 and a La-9. (All in great shape). Inside the museum huge panoramas display battle-scenes. (All very nicely done).
Dinner and quiz (which I won) were in the Paradise restaurant. The trip was properly finished in the bar of the Koryo hotel.

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Day 8 - Saturday 26th:
It was an early start to check-out the hotel and go to the airport for our TU-204 back to civilization (well almost anyway).

Special thanks to: Juche Travel Services (JTS) for organizing this historic aviation tour and especially Charley for being our fearless tour-leader. I can thoroughly recommend a visit to the DPRK. It truly is a unique place.

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