Thursday, April 4, 2013

[PYONGYANG] Pre Flight Jitters

With my bag all packed and ready to go, I logged onto Facebook one last time telling my mother and brother that I'd be going to Inner Mongolia for two days and that it would be unlikely for me to get some decent internet connection. Buying my white lie, she told me to take care, to which I replied, "Do not miss me too much, I will be back in Beijing by Saturday".

I slept late the night before, woke up two hours after my alarm clock went off the next day, and left the hostel at 10:40 after a quick shower. Being the obsessive compulsive note taker that I am, I knew that I would not make it to the rendezvous point by 11 AM, given how my notes from the previous day clearly stated that I needed 30 minutes to get to the Koryo Tours office. Tigris Café, where the meet up was supposed to happen, is just across the street from Koryo Tours. I was banking on luck that the free shuttle bus would be leaving late. As I pushed open the door of the café, the old guy manning the place greeted me with "你好" and a smile. The tour group was nowhere to be found.

I took the fast train from Tianjin to Beijing the day before, hoping to make it before noon so I could at least squeeze in a visit to the Summer Palace before the pre-tour briefing at four. Unfortunately, laziness will always hinder me from doing something according to plan. Alighting the train at Beijing South at around 1 PM, I only had an hour or two to rest for a bit at the hostel before attending the pre-tour orientation.

Fast forward to 4 PM, I found myself in a room at the Koryo Tours office where I joined around 20 other individuals of varying nationalities to get ready for our tour of two nights to North Korea the day after. The briefing clocked in at less than an hour and most of the issues discussed were among those already mentioned on the pre-tour do's and don'ts received via email. Excitement overcame fear as I surveyed the room and noticed the many faces beaming with curiosity and enthusiasm. We are doing this. We are actually going to fly to Pyongyang.

Planning for the trip began as early as the last quarter of 2012. Staring at my Been-There-Done-That map of Northeast Asia, North Korea was the only speck of white remaining in a predominantly red shaded region. Even Mongolia far north is already marked crimson. But how do you really plan a DIY trip to North Korea? Where does one even start when all the information you ever get are those coming from western media? Enter Koryo Tours, which has been sending tourists to North Korea for how many decades now.

Their record is pretty much spotless, with just one suspension in the 80's or 90's when a journalist posed as a tourist and applied to be on a tour with them. Even then, it was not really their fault. To answer your question, no, photographers and journalists are not allowed in, and insisting on doing so could lead to suspension which adversely affects Koryo Tours' business as well as another genuine tourist's chance of getting into the country.

One thing I really like about Koryo Tours is how straightforward they are. Their website is replete with most of the information that you would need. How much is a tour? How long? When exactly? What are included in the costs? What paperwork do you need before flying? Once you decide on which tour you would like to be part of, you contact them through the form on their website, after which they will be communicating with you through email for the rest of the planning process.

I had been contacting them since 2012 but only committed to a tour at the end of January, fresh from my Harbin Ice Festival/Cambodia trip. Raising the money was the primary reason. Let's admit it, these tours are not cheap, and because DIY travel is close to impossible in the DPRK, you really have no other choice. On the contrary, having everything taken care of for you could mean less stress on your part. I believe the setup is similar for Bhutan where DIY tours are not allowed either unless you are from India or Nepal. In the end, I sent them half of the tour fee and the payment for the visa via wire transfer as well as a scanned copy of a passport photo by email.

I hurried back to Line 10 and got off at Sanyuanqiao where I transferred to the Beijing Capital Airport Express. I was planning on doing that earlier but I wanted to try my luck catching the free shuttle bus. As mentioned, I was not able to catch it and that set me back 20 minutes, arriving at Terminal 2 at around 10 past 12, half an hour later than the meet-up time set up for those going straight to the airport, which was the option I chose when I submitted the journalist/photographer waiver form the day before. Looking back, I should have just opted for the free shuttle bus. Silly me.

The tour group was still nowhere to be found and the ground crew of Air Koryo would not check me in without seeing the group visa held by one of our two guides. I was advised to try and catch up with them at the immigration area, which I did, but came around five minutes too late. They were already crossing the x-ray section when I saw them, and I am just not the type to cause an airport scandal by calling their names out loud. I took it as a sign. Maybe it was a bad idea after all, given all the negative press the country has been getting lately. Worried, I went back to the check-in counter and tried to negotiate. I was so not letting 790 euros go down the drain without a fight.

7 creature(s) gave a damn:

Kat said...

Wow! 790 freaking Euros. I hope the whole trip was worth it.

ihcahieh said...

@Kat - I'd say it was. Depends on your objective for going there though. As for me, I am glad that I was able to go and see what is really happening there with my own two eyes. Daily life in Pyongyang is rarely featured in the news, and seeing it firsthand helped widen my perspective about the whole NoKor fiasco somehow. :)

Anonymous said...

does the 790 euros already include those costs that are NOT covered by Koryo Tours (e.g. 50 euro surcharge for the flight/train back to Beijing)?

ihcahieh said...

@Anonymous - Not included. The visa fee also costs 50 Euros, that is not included either. I did not pay any surcharge for the flight back to Beijing, though.

Jeric said...

Hi, great blog! I wish to visit North Korea someday. May I know what kind of Chinese visa did you apply for? And did you also tour around China (Beijing, etc) during the trip or your is stay in China simply a layover?


ihcahieh said...

@Jeric - Thanks. Double entry visa. It was my second time in Beijing so I'd say that Beijing was just a layover, but before and after that I did go around Tianjin, Shanxi (Datong) and Hebei (Qinhuangdao). I'd suggest you do the same to offset the cost of the trip somehow. From Beijing you could easily reach Shanxi, Hebei, and Shandong by train.

Jeric said...

@ihcahieh Thanks for the tips. :)

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