I arrived in Pyongyang on August 12th, but the story really begins a bit before that.
It begins really with Air Koryo, one of the only ways to enter the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The DPRK has only one major rail artery, which crosses into China at Sinuiju/Dandong, and few road crossings along the borders with China and Russia. By air, however, the only links are provided by Air Koryo and Air China. Air Koryo, which flies the most routes and is the DPRK’s state airline, internationally flies on a regular basis to Beijing and Vladivostok, but also occaisionally flies routes to Kuwait City, Kuala Lumpur, Shenyang, Shanghai, and Yanji.
Internationally known only as a subject of mockery – not the least bearing the reputation of Skytrax’s only one-star airline – Air Koryo still flies solely Russian and Soviet aircraft.
Nowadays, however, due to modernization efforts in recent years, the old Tupolevs 154s and Ilyushins have been replaced by brand new Tupolev 204s, bought from Russia only recently.
Flying on Air Koryo is a quite an experience in and of itself. Stepping onto the aircraft, you are greeted by stewardesses dressed and made up like Aeroflot stewardesses from the 1970s. Already revolutionary music is playing out of the speakers: in-flight “entertainment” is continously and far from optional. Several periodicals are provided as you board the plane: The Pyongyang Times, an English daily, Korea, a monthly pictorial published in a variety of languages, and Rodong Sinmun: one of the major newspapers available across the DPRK.
After a rocky take off, they spare no time at all in serving in-flight refreshments and the “meal”. For a flight lasting merely one hour and fifty minutes, most travellers would be surprised that an in-flight meal is provided. After your beverage choice is served (among the options of water, Taedonggang Beer, and apple juice), you receive your “meal”: the infamous Air Koryo burger.
The burger is said to vary in content, but be consistent in presentation. Wrapped in a very generic, yet visually distinct wax paper, sandwiched between two unmemorable sandwich buns, is a patty with a taste unique to itself. Served cold, the patty incorporates plenty of “flavour” and vegetables, with visible shredded carrot. Overall, a taste experience to be enjoyed sparingly.
Quickly after the meal service ended, the plane began its descent. Suddenly, the PA came online: “Dear Comrades, Visitors, and Guests, we are now crossing the border into our sovereign, Songun (military first) Korea” blasted in the entire cabin.
Welcome to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.