With visa, passport and tickets in hand, the four in our group headed to Beijing airport ready for departure. Given the scarcity of flights on Koryo Air, the national airline of DPRK, KA uses the check-in facilities of Air China. Typical of all international flights, we went through the check in procedure, dealt with the painfully slow Chinese bureaucracy to have our passports stamped, and headed for the departure lounge. There was just a tad of excitement to be had out of staring up at the information board for our flight, and seeing the destination as Pyongyang. You can't help but have a feeling of superiority over the other departure-lounge dwellers when you stare up at the sign - whilst other travellers were bound for Osaka or Bangkok or Seoul, we were heading through a portal to another universe... well, Pyongyang at least.
Despite the bad weather that day, our flight was running to schedule and we were soon called to board the plane. As us eager passangers were queuing up to get on board, we were all subtlely eyeing each other, curious to know who else would have a reason to travel to the same destination. Most of the travellers were professional types, suited up men and women who were travelling for business rather than leisure. Mostly European in appearance, they all seemed to be fairly seasoned visitors to North Korea. A few NKorean people were mixed in, looking well dressed and confident, sporting their KIS badge over their heart. Amongst the crowd was a handful of more suspicious looking people with a slightly Soviet look - sun glasses just a tad too dark, hair just a tad too greasy, suit just a couple of sizes too small - presumably heading to DPRK to, ah, do some business.
Soon we were aboard the Air Koryo flight. Super keen air hostesses greeted us and made us feel as welcome as possible, each of them sporting the identical international look of air hostesses, with just a tad too much make up, tight bun of hair at the back, impeccable uniforms, and a fixed smile that just won't budge - these were our North Korean Trolley Dollies (NKTD). What set the NKTDs apart from their colleagues around the world was the presence of the Kim Il Sung badges, no doubt an integral part of the uniform. The plane was a small, cramped vehicle that lacked some of the creature comforts of modern aircraft. My six-foot-three frame struggled to stand upright inside the plane, and was instead forced into an uncomfortable hunch whenever I need to stand. The seating was the standard three-on-either-side-of-the-aisle (a technical aviation term), with the usual tray tables but sadly no screen. The safety demonstration proceeded with the usual complete lack of interest from those of us on board, although given the past record of flights in North Korea, perhaps we should have been taking notes. Alas, smoking on Air Koryo is forbidden, suggesting there are some aspects of international law that the DPRK will respect.
Early in the flight we were offered some reading material by our NKTD. To describe it as a 'selection' would be a tad generous, but the offerings consisted of a glossy NK propaganda magazine extolling the virtues of the DPRK is three different languages, as well as the latest copy of The Pyongyang Times. (For more of my take on media in DPRK head to this post.) Given the rather dreary offerings, conversation became a tempting proposition. After a few introductions, we found we were amongst some interesting characters - nearby was a staff member from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, one of the largest embassies in the capital. Another fellow traveller was a European making a film with the DPRK government, and had been to the country many times before. Upon telling these travellers that we were heading to North Korea as tourists, we were given a hearty laugh in response. When the laugh subsided, they turned and said "No, really, why are you going into North Korea?" If we didn't know it already, tourists were clearly a rarity.
The way out of Pyongyang was a touch more adventurous than the trip in. After our five days in the Hermit Kingdom, we headed to Pyongyang central train station, a surpisingly busy place in a central part of the city. Entrance to the station required the flashing of the travel tickets, a mechanism no doubt to prevent the huddled masses from entering the confines of the station. After a quick visit to the snack store to stock up on surprisingly decent Chinese instant noodles prior to the long trip, we headed to the train platform. At this point, there were some almost-tearful farewells as we said goodbye to our two guides, who by this point in the trip had become friends. This was one of the most definative farewells that you can ever make - the chances of us ever getting in touch with Mr Ri or Miss Pak were about as slim as chances of anything could ever possibly be.
The train trip from Pyongyang to Beijing is essentially two train trips - firstly, a trip from Pyongyang to the border, at which point our two train carriages were connected to a Chinese train heading from the Chinese border town of Dandong to take us all the way to the capital.
The conditions on the train trip from Pyongyang to the border were quite decent. Like the aeroplane, the train seemed to have a strong Soviet feel to it, and would have no doubt done many Vladivostok-to-Moscow trips before it was sent by the Politburo to the desperados in Pyongyang. The four in our tour group snugly filled a cabin on the train, which consisted of two bunks facing each other, in a design that is a fair bit more user-friendly than the six-to-a-cabin design of the Chinese trains. At our feet was a sliding door, whilst at our head was a decent-sized window, allowing us to take in endless quantities of bland country-side. For the next six hours, we travelled with the door shut and mentally unpacked everything that had happened in the past five days. There was a lot to unpack.
A quarter hour before we reached the border we passed by a series of bright green public housing style buildings looking ridiculously out of place in the barrenness of NK rural life. We had been told to look out for this very site by an experienced NK visitor. Welcome to Ryongchon, home of not very much except for a massive explosion on 22 April 2004, when a train carrying explosive chemicals and oils had contact with electrical wires and completely destroyed everyone's day. There is plenty of conjecture amongst NK watchers as to whether it was an attempted assasination of KJI or whether it genuinely was an accident - for more on that debate, head to this excellent site. Less than 12 months on, and the site looks remarkably clean and developed, and the signs of devastation have been completely erased.
Finally, we reached the border and the train was at an indefinate halt. After an attempt to get off the train to wander around the station was quashed by a surly security guard, we waited on board for the DPRK immigration folks. Finally they reached our cabin, and inspected our passport and visa cards (which, much to our disappointment, they took from us, leaving us with no printed record of our trip) as well as the usual international arrival/exit form that are frequently filled in, and just as frequently ignored. Then the fun part started, as our friendly border security inspector went through each of our bags one by one, requesting they be opened so that that he could have a closer look. After seeing an long procession of underwear-and-socks-and-t-shirts-with-strange-coloured-stains, the security guard had satisfied his professional curiousity, and he moved on to the next cabin. It was not clear quite what we would be likely to be sneaking out of the country - given that there was no problem with videos and cameras, it surely couldn't be negative portrayals of the country. Drugs, nuclear material and pornography were all unlikely to be on our list of holiday souveniers, so the answer was not immediately clear.
Having been assured that there was a while to go until our train headed across the bridge for China, we headed off the train and checked out the bar we had been told was at the station on the NK side. True, in name there was a bar, but any notion of a cosy, friendly, inviting place for us to sample our final Taedonggang beer before departing was soon dispelled. The cold, desolate place looked like the bar at the end of the universe, and in many ways it was. After downing a quick pint, out of pity for the chain-smoking bartender rather than a genuine thirst to quench, we headed back for the train. This was done with the aid of a couple of security guards who warned us (in Korean) that the train was about to depart and we should get a move on. We entered the train just as it headed for Dandong. The prospect of being stuck in this border town for three days until the next train was not a tempting one, regardless of just how curious I was about the DPRK.
After crossing the giant bridge that links to two countries, we found ourselves in the relative glitz and glamour of Dandong. Though it is a fairly generic city, its bright lights and lively streets provided a stark contrast to the previous five days. Scary to say, but it was exciting to be in Dandong. An hour passed as we went through the formalities at Chinese immigration, and then the train headed onward to Beijing. On the way, we were approached by a cheerful man selling an odd collection of DPRK stamps, with an seemingly random selection of images of Kim Il Sung, Princess Diana, an echidna and the 1974 soccer World Cup. Speaking in Chinese to the one member of our tour group who spoke a smattering of the language, he explained that the previous night there had been a shooting at the border, with Chinese army security shooting dead seven North Koreans who were attempting to enter China illegally. At least that's what we thought he said, although couldn't verify it. A chilling thought if it's true.