In Part One of Flying Colors from North Korea: A Unique Aviation Adventure we booked, traveled, and arrived to Pyongyang, North Korea.
In Part Two, we flew all of Air Koryo’s Ilyushins, Antonovs and Tupolevs back and forth between Pyongyang and the port city of Wonsan.
Now, on the third and last installment, we travel to the northern city of Hyangsan, where we encounter the untouched North Korean forests and arrive at a luxurious hotel and visit the country’s International Friendship Exhibition. We also get a more legit view of North Korea’s culture, life style and staggering isolation.
An afflicting visit to wonderful Hyangsan
Once all the flights had ended, a group of us were supposed to take a pre-booked, round-trip flight to the northern city of Hyangsan on a Mi-17 VIP helicopter, used by DPRK officials to move about the country.
Unfortunately, our tour was held during the country’s congress, and the helicopter was assigned to the air force show that Master Kim Jong Un loves to put on.
So we were forced to take a long, three-hour ride through rural North Korea, allowing us to witness the vast, muddy fields, where poverty and hard labor are the norm.
Agriculture is practiced without machinery. Highways are paved by hand. We weren’t allowed to take pictures of any of this—a testament to the DPRK’s isolation credo.
We then arrived at the Hyangsan Hotel, stunningly built in the midst of the Myohyang-san mountain range. The functioning air conditioning and odd Shangri-la branded toiletries provided an immense contrast to our unpretentious Pyongyang Koryo Hotel.
One could breathe the mountain’s fresh air and enjoy the best hotel in the DPRK, which boasts a luxurious spa, several restaurants, top-notch coffee machines (which produced a €7 Espresso), and gadgets that do not fit in with the hotel’s surroundings.
Even more contradictory was the nearby International Friendship Exhibition, a large museum complex in which North Korea displays over 200,000 gifts received from foreign countries.
China and Russia occupied several rooms, while those dedicated to ‘enemy countries’ like the U.S. featured gifts from Dennis Rodman, Jimmy Carter and Madeleine Albright.
It is said that this museum acts as propaganda to both North Koreans and foreign visitors, showing “the endless love and respect toward the Great Leaders,” as our tour guide explained.
The stunningly rich trappings, where marble, gold, and utterly expensive items were displayed, contrasted with the sad and humiliating poverty that lay a few feet from its doors, the malnourished people carrying heavy bags on their backs, with burnt skin and clear signs of exhaustion. It was both shocking and eye-opening to see such disparity in the same place.
Riding the North Korean Underground Museum
Back in Pyongyang, after another lengthy ride, we were taken to one of the most spectacular activities of the tour, a ride on the city’s subway.
As we entered the Puhung Station, we hopped on an incredibly deep escalator which took us down almost 320 feet to levels allegedly capable of withstanding nuclear blasts.
Our long ride into Pyongyang’s underground was accompanied by repetitive and deafening patriotic anthems, played through hundreds of old-fashioned speakers.
When we reached the bottom level, a gorgeous mosaic-rich décor with eccentric, firework-like chandeliers and a bronze statue of Kim Il Sung turned the structure into a live museum. I must say it was the most amazing and beautiful subway station I have ever encountered.
According to our tour guide Charles Kennedy, the metro uses former East Berlin underground cars, which the DPRK, however, claims were built in Pyongyang.
“But they could do nothing about the German ‘scratchiti’ on the windows,” Jamie Baker noted after our fun ride. German words could be seen throughout the vintage cars, which are fitted with two photos of the great leaders in every unit.
What we could not escape was the loud, propaganda song being constantly, repeatedly played at every subway station.
“People probably don’t bother to think of anything other than their nation’s grandiosity.”
Some tour members commented that with such a numbing sound, people probably don’t bother to think of anything other than their nation’s grandiosity. It felt like a brainwashing technique.
Some of that brainwashing got to us. We were constantly being watched. We weren’t allowed to be alone, or to stand too far away from the group. Tour guides would mingle and pay close attention to our conversations. Who knows why? Maybe curiosity? Or perhaps they were acting as government agents? We’ll never know.
What I know is that my iPhone was searched three additional times by our minders. I was asked numerous times why I live in the United States and why I had brought US dollars instead of euros, although the latter are more welcome in the DPRK.
An unforgettable experience
After such an exhausting trip—during which we had seen, eaten, smelled and felt things we’d never experienced before—it’s practically impossible to properly convey my emotions.
Truth is, this was one of the most physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging trips I’ve ever been on. The strong feelings of excitement, frustration, intrigue, anger, perplexity, and disbelief were palpable, most of the times all together.
“To witness a country untouched by globalization, largely devoid of what we deem as normal and essential, was tough,” said Jamie Baker. And I couldn’t agree more.
Seeing people walk in the middle of highways in the middle of nowhere; hundreds of others kneeling, paving the roads with burning asphalt using their bare hands, without machinery; others cultivating rice and vegetables and tending to the grass with scissors and hand tools, next to an awe-inspiring and pristine mosaic of North Korea’s leaders, was heart-breaking.
Even more disturbing was to see an extravagant museum in the middle of the mountains, heavily guarded by the military, while the surroundings were filled with hunger and poverty; a deep unfairness that was hard to understand.
Being forced to bow in front of North Korea’s leaders, whose ideals go against human nature, was another thing that really put me ill at ease. Not once, but seven times throughout the trip, we were asked to pay our respects to them. It seemed that the Koreans were trying to humiliate us Westerners by making us surrender to their idiosyncrasies.
Not once, but seven times throughout the trip, we were asked to pay our respects to them.
And as soon as my guides, the military, and even the bus driver learned that I was born in Venezuela, they immediately smiled and yelled ‘Hugo Chavez’, calling him Latin America’s hero. Although I’d vigorously wanted to protest my beliefs to the contrary, I had no other choice but to bite my tongue and oblige.
What got to me the most, perhaps, was seeing that my friendly tour guides were completely convinced that North Korea is the best country in the world, and that all others are in ruins.
I dared to show them photos of where I come from. Of my family and friends. Of my belongings. They were impressed, scared, amazed. Though their pre-programmed feelings immediately broke any bonds that I may have formed with them. I’m from America. “The country that dropped bombs and killed millions in Pyongyang,” as we were told—a complete fantasy— by an abrasive guide during the War Museum tour. We’re wrong. They’re right. Who are we to lecture them?
And after a silent, dark Pyongyang night, we’d be woken up by a loud 5am musical call. “The epitome of creepy,” as Baker very well described it.
There’s a general feeling of one’s mind being numbed by so much propaganda; so many pictures of the leaders portrayed as gods. The constant depiction of America as ‘the opposite’. The ongoing fear of being caught gazing at the prohibited. Or even the angst to speak one’s mind in a place where opinions aren’t welcome.
And, for Baker, the scariest part of the trip was being accused of stealing a mineral water. “Having your minder come on to the bus and greet you with, ‘We have a problem,’ is not the way to start one’s day in North Korea,” he said. Thankfully, the issue was rapidly resolved.
After so much to see and digest, our days ended in physical exhaustion. “This was the first time where I’d practically collapse each night from the mental exhaustion of trying to digest everything we saw and heard,” Baker said. “It’s the only experience I’ve had where I couldn’t even find music on my iPad to fit my mood—so I’d sit in my hotel in silence.”
“This was the first time where I’d practically collapse each night from the mental exhaustion”
Baker still asks himself why a nation so poorly regarded on human rights would entertain a group of 75 aviation enthusiasts. “I’m not entirely sure,” he admits. “But we were exposed to quite a bit of propaganda while there, and it occurred to me that, by treating us well and returning us safely to our homes, we might become ambassadors of a sort, helping spread the word as to how accommodating the North Koreans were.”
Charles Kennedy agrees. “North Koreans are kind, curious about the outside world,” he says. “It’s important to me to show my groups how much common humanity we share with them.” So one ponders what happened to all that hate and nuclear bravado stirred up by the Kim Jong Un regime? We didn’t see even a glimpse of it.
But after so much to see, most of the attendees felt eager to get back home. Verbrugge, on his third visit to the DPRK, admitted it had been an excruciating experience. “This time was a little scarier. Some of the guides acted like prison guards, looking at every step we made.”
Back to our reality
And yet, as we reached the airport to board our Air Koryo flight back to Beijing, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic. Even though our tour guides were stiff, I felt we had struck up some sort of friendship. I took pictures with them, and would have loved to have been able to send them copies but, when I asked for their e-mail addresses, they said that sadly that they didn’t have any. I felt an urge to hug them and wish them well.
With that, I was ready to leave North Korea. Part of me wanted to stay there. I felt responsible, ignorant, selfish. I was heading back to ‘the real world’, while they had to stay, eating low-calorie meals, and convinced that they weren’t allowed to drive cars because ‘Pyongyang is too polluted.’ I was heading back home, back to connectivity, where we take things for granted—things our guides don’t even know exist. Things that would make their lives so much easier. Things that would make them revolt.
But after I had passed customs and security control at Pyongyang, I felt relief. Most of the people who are apprehended for any wrongdoing are taken away as they exit the country. I was relieved when one of the guards smiled and said, “See you soon.”
When our An-148 climbed out into the skies, I looked down and said goodbye. Not with a smile on my face, but with utter sentimentalism. Will I return? I doubt it. Not unless the country opens up to the world and the fear of being kept there is nothing but a fantasy. But I have to say, flying those airplanes made every minute of this trip priceless.
In the end, I didn’t collect any frequent flyer miles, nor scored free hotel nights. I didn’t get upgraded or eat my favorite steak at a top-notch restaurant. I traveled in time to a place that’s like no other—a parallel world in which I flew planes that no longer exist, ate food that I can’t describe, and felt things that are hard to convey.
“I don’t expect many will truly understand the intensity of the experience,” Baker told me on the way out. And I think that there’s no better word than ‘intense’ to describe our experience in North Korea.
Make sure you, at some point, experience it just like we did. Just make sure you follow the rules and enjoy.