With Backpack

One World in One Lifetime

Off to Pyongyang

Posted by Heliocentrism on July 4, 2014

April 30, 2013

All Pictures

My North Korean visa

Air Koryo

The flight to North Korea was the thing that worried me the most about the whole trip. I knew that their fleet was mostly made up of old Soviet planes and that they were banned from European air space. But, I’m American and Americans are not allowed to take the train to Pyongyang. I had to fly.

Everyone on the tour was split into 3 groups, those on the train, those on flight 1, and those on flight 2.Vera and I were scheduled to take the second flight to Pyongyang from Beijing that day. Everyone in the group checked in and showed their Korean visas which were not put in the passports, but on a loose sheet of paper.

Once past the security check the people on the first flight left. Everyone else ran to Starbucks to fill up on coffee and sweets. No one was expecting the food to be any good once we left China.

Leather seats? Nice.

The plane itself wasn’t too bad. There was no safety demonstration, but I had expected this. Air Koryo prides itself as being the only airline in the world to not do any safety demonstrations. They give you the freedom to figure out where the exits and life rafts are during any emergency.

I was a bit worried that the plane might have been too heavy. The plane had three pilots and they all kept coming to the passenger area to stuff boxes of cigarettes and other goods into the overhead compartments. I thought that this behavior was beneath a pilot. Surely other airline pilots have underlings who could put their swag on the plane before the passengers show up.

Oh, hamburger! I love hamburgers.

This was my first North Korean meal. It was served to me on the flight. I was in awe. I had never had a hamburger as an in-flight meal before. This was great! Until I opened the wrapper.

What the hell is that!?

I took 2 bites of my “hamburger” and I was not hungry any more. It was dry. The bun was too sweet. The ham had a faint newspaper taste. It’s not really North Korea’s fault. Asia in general has never had a good handle on how to make a decent sandwich. (Though, North Korea is the only place I’ve seen where no one has a clue as to what a hamburger is. I thought Kim Jong-Il invented it way back in 2002…)

I can’t tell you how many times I stood at one of those toastie (toasted sandwich) street venders in South Korea and watched some lady lovingly make me a toasted sandwich. She would gently toast the bread, grill some ham, and fry some eggs. Then she would put them all together with a slice of cheese that would melt just so.  I would look down to get my money out of my wallet to pay her. As I pick my head back up getting ready to hand her my cash, I would see her adding the finishing sprinkles of kiwi sauce on my once delicious sandwich.

I’m not even going to go into the horrible things done to sandwiches in Japan, but it involves whipped cream and strawberries or sometimes noodles.

My worries about the food in North Korea did not stay with me for too long though. There was an unnerving amount of turbulence during the flight and that kept me preoccupied. The plane shook like we were driving on a bumpy road. “Seriously,” I ask one of the Russian guys sitting next to me, “are the wings of the plane supposed to flap?” He looked out the window and gave me a nervous look.

“I’m going to die in North Korean airspace after the worst meal of my life!”

After 2 hours of non-stop shaking, we landed in Pyongyang. As we taxied I looked out the window and saw a plane with its nose removed and smoke coming out of it. It looked like it should be park in some redneck’s driveway. “That’s going to be our flight out,” one of the Russians joked.

Take your time. Make sure you get a good shot. We’ve got allll day.

We then got out of the plane and stood about on the tarmac. Everyone started taking photos and posing in front of the plane. No one seemed to care what we did or how long it took us to do it. After 10 minutes our Western tour guides called us to move towards the airport. But the Russians took their time.

In the photo above you will see a guy in a pink shirt. That’s Pinky. He, and the other Russians, were not in our tour group, but we kept bumping into him. Pinky seemed determined to stay in North Korea as an honored guest of one of its prisons.

Once inside the airport we were at passport control. The actual airport was being repaired so the building we went to was a one-room everything-included type of thing. As we stood in line to go through immigration, we could see the luggage carousel, and the loved ones waiting at the other end of the building.

Pinky stood in the passport line and decided that this would be a great time to take a photo. No country allows you to take photos at passport control, and North Korea is no exception. A swarm of uniformed women encircled him. “Please, no photos.” They were very polite.

But Pinky was a bit thick and continued taking pictures. The whole room/airport became quiet. We could all hear his camera click, click, clicking. “NO PHOTOS,” came a man’s voice then something in Russian. There was one more click. Then Pinky put down his camera.

The uniformed ladies stood around him. I assumed they were deleting his photos. I leaned over to Vera and whispered, “We need to watch out for that guy. Wherever he is, that’s where we need to not be.”

Luckily for us, Pinky wore his pink shirt everyday so we could easily spot and avoid him. Throughout our trip whenever there was a disagreement with some North Korean handlers, there was Pinky.

There’s Pinky, the last one off the tarmac.

Once we were officially given permission to enter the DPRK we stood over by the carousel and waited for our luggage. All sorts of amazing goodies came in to the country via our plane. There were boxes of food stuffs, cigarettes, cribs, and diapers galore.

Everyone stood in admiration as a giant flat screen TV came through the carousel curtains. We wanted to know who it belonged to. Our eyes were fixed on the box when it turn a corner and fell to the ground with a loud crash. It made that sound large expensive electronics make when they fall out of windows.

“Well, that’s that…” someone said sadly. Our hearts went out to the poor soul who spent a lot of money for a now-broken TV. We all looked away. We didn’t want to add shame to this person’s grief.

As we were waiting for our bags to come down the carousel, another plane landed. “There were 3 flights to Pyongyang today?” someone asked the guide. “No, that’s the first flight. Apparently they were delayed.”

I later asked someone on that flight what happen. She told me that they got on the plane and sat there for 4 hours with no explanation why. “Did they at least give you 2 ‘hamburgers’ while you waited?” I asked.

When I got my backpack there was still one more security check before I could leave the airport. It was similar to the procedure most countries have when entering the departure gates of an airport.

I had one blue backpacking backpack and a smaller green backpack like what you use for school. Both bags were placed on a conveyor belt and went through a machine to be scanned. I then walked through a metal detector and was wanded by a guard. My bags were then turned over to an official who went through my stuff. Seeing that my bigger bag was filled only with clothes, the officer had no interest in it.

He opened the smaller green bag and hit the electronics jack-pot. He took out my Acer tablet, a device whose GPS capability meant that it was not allowed into the DPRK. “What is this?” he asked in Korean.

“Uhmm… That’s my tablet.”

He looked me dead in the eyes with no expression. He did not know what that meant. “What is this?” he asked again in Korean.

“…It’s like a small comput…”

“Camera?” he asked. “Uhmm… Yes. Yes. That is my camera,” I said. He put the tablet in the things-you-can-bring-into-the-DPRK tray. Then he found my cannon. “Camera?” he asked again. “Yup. Another camera.” He pulled at a strap which was connected to my waterproof Kodak. “Camera!?” He was starting to get annoyed.

He held out some more things for me to identify. “That is an mp3 player, that is a battery charger, that is another mp3 player, and that is a flash light.” He seemed a little puzzled by the mp3 players. “Music,” I said putting on pretend earbuds and dancing. “Okay,” he mumbled and put the players in the tray with the other stuff.

“Phone where?” he asked in English. “I don’t have a phone,” I answered.

“No phone!?”


Is that what he was looking for?

He then waved me off. I walked on over to the others in the tour group. We stood outside the airport watching people come and go. I saw a couple UN SUVs and wondered who was inside them. I wanted to talk with the UN workers but they drove off.

Cars parked at the Pyongyang Railway station. Notice the Jeep and the Mercedes?

We got on a very nice tour bus (It looked brand new) and headed to the railway station. There we were to pick up the group that took the train. On the ride into town the guides introduced themselves. For some reason I can’t remember any of their names, so I will call them Mr. Park, Ms. Lee, Camera Man Choi, Bus Driver Woo, and Intern Kim. (Park, Lee, and Kim being the most common Korean names. Choi and Woo, because… Why not?)

Ms. Lee greeted us and asked if we knew how to say hello in Korean. She did most of the speaking during the trip.

“Annyeonghaseyo!” we replied.

“Oh my,” she said in mock surprise. “You all sound like South Koreans! We’ll have to fix that and give you all good North Korean accents before you leave.” She laughed as she said this. I liked her instantly.

“Here in North Korea we say ‘Annyeong Hashimnikka’.” I was surprised. In South Korea, that’s how to say hello to your boss’s boss or the president. “We are very polite here in the DPRK.” She tried to get us to repeat the greeting, but most of us could not remember all those extra syllables. So she sang us a song to help us remember.

When we got to the train station the rest of the group was not there. The train was late, so we went on to the hotel.

The guides: Mr. Park in the gray suit, Ms. Lee in the cream suit, and Intern Kim carrying someone’s luggage

We sat in the hotel lobby for what seemed like hours. I don’t know what we were waiting for. We roamed the first floor of the hotel. There were many shops but there was not much to buy.

One shop sold hanboks and snacks. Another sold old communist books and pins. A third had toiletries and cold drinks. There was a bar, but it was closed. No one dared to venture to other floors without permission.

In the Yanggakdo Hotel lobby

About a half hour after the train travelers showed up, we were put into 2 groups, paired up, and given key cards. There was only one key card per room. It didn’t really matter. It was a group tour and we would always be together.

Before we headed off to our rooms, we handed over our passports. They were taken for safety reasons, or to check our visas, or… I don’t remember what reason we were given. I’m sure nothing good came of it.

Did you find any bugs?

We put our stuff in our room. The first thing Vera and I did was search through the draws and look under things. We weren’t really expecting to find anything, but I had hoped to find a bugging device. We didn’t find any.

I turned on the TV. There were a couple Korean and Chinese channels and BBC World. But who cares about the news when you’re in North Korea!? We got the gifts we brought and went back to the lobby.

Death Trap

If you ever stay at the Yanggakdo hotel, be aware that the elevator doors will try to kill you. They snap shut. They closed on me once and it hurt. Unlike most elevator doors that sense when a person is in the way and stay open, these seem to close harder.

The elevators themselves also to have a roguish attitude. Once I pressed the button for the 35th floor only to have the elevator breeze pass the 35th floor and stop at 37. There was no light on the 37th floor. I stuck my head out the elevator to see an official standing there in the dark shaking his head at me and indicating that I was not allowed to get out the elevator.

The glass elevator

Most of the time we had the elevators to ourselves. But every once in a while one would stop at the 14th or 15th floor and herds of stern looking people with green uniforms would get in. We tried to be friendly and say, “annyeong hashimnikka,” but that would not get any reaction from anyone.

Once I did manage to get on one of the dark floors. I pressed the button for my floor and was taken somewhere else. I stepped off and before I realized that something was wrong, the elevator door slammed shut behind me. I stood there in the dark wondering what to do. I was only a couple floors away from my floor so I decided to take the stairs, but the door was locked.

dividing up the goodies

At the Bar

Vera and I made our way to the bar in the lobby that was now open. We sat with our sub-group, group A. Some people ordered beer and everyone got to know each other. We put our goodies on the table and someone divided the stuff into 5 bags; one for each guide, the driver, and camera man.

The camera man’s job was the film our trip then make a DVD. He sold this to whomever wanted to buy it. Vera opted out, thinking that the money might go towards propaganda or something. I figured just by coming to North Korea I have given money to propaganda, I might as well get the DVD of my trip.

The rotating restaurant at the top of the Yanggakdo hotel

We were then given a tour of the hotel. We first went to the basement and saw the casinos, restaurants, pool, and bowling alley. There was also supposed to be a barber shop but we didn’t bother to look for it. Then they took us outside and told us that we were free to walk the grounds as long as we stayed on the island.

Vera and I wanted to explore the island during our trip, but we always left so early in the morning and we returned so late at night. We were just too tired to explore the island.

After the hotel tour Vera and I went to see the fancy restaurant on the top floor. There was a wait staff there, but no customers. After this Vera and I went back to our room.

One of the casinos

Locked Out

The key card didn’t work. We could not get into our room. We went to the lobby to ask the receptionist to reset our key card. He did and we went back to our room, but the door still did not open.

We headed back down to the lobby again. This time we asked for a new card. The receptionist offered to open the door for us. We tried to explain that what we wanted was to be able to open the door ourselves. That way, we would not have to bother him every time we wanted to get back into the room. He didn’t understand.

He called some maids and told us to go upstairs to meet them at our door. “They will open the door for you.” We went back upstairs. We were tired and thought we could just sort this out in the morning. We found the maids standing by our door just like the receptionist said.

One of them opened an adjacent room and motioned us to follow her. The other one picked up the phone and spoke into it in Korean. They couldn’t get the door open either. They patted the bed to indicate that we should sit down. They told us that a locksmith was called to open the door.

The maids spoke no English and the little Korean I learned from 2 years in Seoul was washed away by the little Japanese I learned living in Japan. “So,  how long have you guys worked here?” I tried to make small talk, but I had no idea what to say. Add to this the fact that we could not speak a common language and relied heavily on gestures and the random Korean words I could remember.

One said that she had worked at the hotel for 4 years and the other 6. “Do you enjoy it?” I asked because I couldn’t think of anything else. “Yes,” they said. Of course, what else could they say? “No, it’s a horrible job, but it keeps our families out the gulags.” The conversation was pretty one-sided.

They didn’t seem that interested in us other than to know we were generally happy with our hotel room. “Other than not being able to get into it, the room is fine,” we explained. I tried willing the locksmith to arrive quickly. There’s only so much awkward conversation I can take.

The hotel’s bowling alley

When someone did come, he turned out not to be a locksmith. He was just a guy with some tools. He removed the hinges and took down the door. Then he handed Vera a new key card for a new room. It was a mirror image of the first room. We moved our stuff into our new room and went to bed.

“Should we check this room for bugs too?” I asked Vera.

All Pictures


North Korea
(Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk) 

How to get there:

The laws about who can get a visa to the DPRK change often. At the time of our trip, the Japanese were allowed in, but the Chinese were not. But, South Koreans are never allowed in. Korean-Americans, however, are welcomed, if they use their US passport for entry.


You won’t get to use the phone. But if you need to know, the emergency numbers are 112 and 119.




If you can read Korean: Kingdom of Kim (There is no English version of this book yet. I would love to find one.)


NEVER NEVER NEVER bring a bible to North Korea!

The Yanggakdo International Hotel
(Yanggakdo gookchea hotel)

How to get there:

  • 38°59’57.3″N 125°45’05.9″E

Don’t you worry about directions here or any other place in North Korea. Someone will also be around to show you where to go.


Yanggakdo International Hotel
Pyongyang, North Korea


There are phones in the hotel, but I never used it. So, I don’t know whom you can call.



You can send emails from the lobby of the hotel. You can also mail letters.


Your tour will take care of this.


  • Breakfast starts at 7:00



  • The Yanggakdo Hotel is not the only hotel in town. Neither is it the only functioning hotel in town. But it is the one in which any tourist in Pyongyang will most likely be staying.
  • This hotel is where many American prisoners get to talk to the Swedish ambassador. Some have actually been held prisoner here.
  • You cannot go to the 5th floor!
  • You cannot go to any floor where the lights are turned off. If you try to, an official will escort you back to the elevator.
  • You can walk around the grounds but you cannot leave Yanggakdo (Yanggak island) on your own.
  • Be careful when using the elevators. The doors will slam shut even when you are in the way.



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