Air Koryo Flight Report
Shenyang - Pyongyang

North Korea appears to be the ultimate destination of mystery. You will not likely come across anyone around your social circle who wants to go, or has returned to tell the story. Being desensitized by the typical Japan, Europe, and Australia itineraries, I decided to see for myself how true the BBC and CNN have been in their reporting.

Tours organized by Western companies advertise departures from Beijing, while tours organized by Chinese companies fly out from Shenyang. I wanted to do one way by plane and the other by overnight train, but it seems all the itineraries available had flights for both ways. At least I get to fly Air Koryo, a seemingly despised airline in international rankings. Are they really that bad, or are they part of the North Korea / Communist bias that the West broadcasts?

Since I had to fly out of Shenyang, I enjoyed half a day of sightseeing in the morning. Shenyang held an important role in the Manchu people's history. The Manchus were a tribe in the barbaric lands outside the Great Wall. They established their capital here in the 17th century and eventually went on to conquer imperial China. Today, their miniature version of the Forbidden City is a major tourist attraction.

A well-manicured highway leads to the airport, which is also sparkling new. China has got the hardware right, but they really need to work with the military to ease their grip on airspace, and the unexplained delays that result when it is suddenly shut down.

Our guide on the Chinese side explained some things we could not do in North Korea, which didn't seem so draconian. She remarked fruits are difficult to get so each person got a little bag of pears and oranges to bring in. I thought importing fruits would be a no-no?

There was a huge crowd at the Air Koryo check-in desks. People were carrying massive amounts of baggage, boxes, and the like. There didn't seem to be limits being enforced. The North Koreans each had a red pin affixed to their clothes, so were easily identifiable. They were well-dressed, as the rags and riches classes probably can't leave the country anyway.

There wasn't any memorabilia to take - not even an Air Koryo luggage tag or a logo on the check-in sign.

We had another briefing where we got our visas and filled-out entry forms before dropping off our bags. The North Koreans had pretty much checked in by then so the wait was not long.

Immigration and security took a bit of time with only 2 sets of X-rays open, and boarding was being called already. Unlike your other typical flights elsewhere in the world, there was a lot of explanation and paperwork time. But I was happy to soon set foot onto Air Koryo and then Pyongyang!

The international side of the terminal didn't have much flights at this hour, so after all the formalities were done, the rest of the terminal looked quite empty.

Today's Air Koryo Tupolev was parked at the edge of the terminal, and positioned in such a way that it was impossible to get a decent side shot. I wonder if they did this on purpose? The gate agents were calling for boarding but didn't stop our group of curious tourists from taking photos of the aircraft.

All the flight attendants were tall young ladies who smiled and greeted in Mandarin. My first impression was quite good and the plane was fairly new. As boarding continued and they turned their attention to others, I happily took photos of the back cabin. There was a very small Business Class up front and behind it are 2 cabins of Economy Class.

I helped myself to some literature at the gate on the way in, but I should have been more aggressive and grabbed every kind, not just 1.

There was ample cabin baggage storage since the North Koreans checked all their boxes. Some curious tourists tried to take photos of the flight attendants, but they had good vision and came by to ask to check your photos and request the offenders to delete them. This would continue throughout the flight.

Throughout the boarding process, revolutionary music played and there were no commercials whatsoever. I tried to head back to an empty row of seats to secure a window seat but the relief crew behind it denied my access. The cockpit crew did not make announcements although we pushed back on time. We roared into a sunny Shenyang. A few steep turns later, I started feeling a bit sick even though I am a seasoned flier. I guess the pilots originally flew military jets and could make these slick manoeuvres, but I was a bit rattled and hoped the 40-minute flight would go quickly.

Feeling unwell from the forces of physics, I wanted a drink to calm my nerves down. You don't get Coke, Pepsi, or their friends here. I tried their local interpretation of soft drinks, which tasted very plastic-like. All this was served with a modest smile and the flight attendants asked you softly in Mandarin. The service was not bad at all - most certainly not a 1-star carrier.

Throughout the journey, I noticed the land seemed quite fertile with plenty of vegetation. I doubt they could have staged all this along the flight path to impress visitors flying in. The North Korean guide later explained 2015 has been a bumper harvest for them, and that the starvation in the 1990's are a thing of the past.

Pyongyang was also sunny today, and I was very excited to see so many Air Koryo planes around and the new international terminal!

The new terminal is clean and bright. Immigration was much quicker than in St. Petersburg, and officials processed my passport without asking a question. The stamp went onto the paper visa instead of inside my passport. It took a while for the luggage to come out though. The real test was customs. We had to declare all our electronics from our music players, phones, and cameras to our pad devices. I was sample checked by a customs agent, who asked what was on my pad in Mandarin. I had cleansed the South Korean photos on my camera beforehand so I confidently answered and was soon sent off. Next to me on his inspection table were some Hong Kong tabloid magazines, which he showed little concern and returned to their rightful owners.

Mobile phones are allowed into the country although there was no roaming reception. Locals did use mobile phones but there was no way we could get onto their network.

And with that fairly painless process, I stepped onto Pyongyang. Air Koryo is a decent airline and deserves much more praise than the misinformed ranking "specialists" out there.

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Pyongyang Photo Gallery