I took to the skies of Pyongyang on one of the first helicopter flights for tourists over the capital city of North Korea!
Pyongyang International Airport was completely deserted. There was no activity on the runway. No arrivals. No departures.
The airport is a strange beast. It’s completely modern, new, sparkling clean, spotless. Completely normal even in certain ways. But North Korea just doesn’t have enough air traffic to make this a normal airport. Especially considering it’s the nation’s primary international airport.
The departure board was blank. As was the arrival board.
I was here in the afternoon- to take a helicopter flight around Pyongyang- and the only two international flights that day had departed much earlier in the morning. Now it was simply empty…
This was to be one of the first flights around Pyongyang- the government allowed flights to begin only last year, in somewhat of a surprise move given the strictly controlled nature of tourism in the country. Ordinarily, a group of Westerner Imperialists flying around North Korean airspace would most likely be blasted out of the sky by targeted anti-aircraft fire and surface to air missiles. Not this trip though- I hoped- the only danger would be the aged machinery of the thirty year old Russian helicopter we were to be flying in.
The helicopter was being readied on the quiet runway. A few Air Koryo planes- the national airline of North Korea- stood idly by on the tarmac while the technicians and pilots checked over the Mi-17. Before we took to the skies though, our group of Western tourists were to be treated to the a pre-flight meal at the airport’s finest restaurant.
One of the most conflicting aspects of any trip to North Korea is the culinary experience. Throughout my 7 day tour of the country food was thrown at us all. There was always too much, from the classic Korean Kimchi to bountiful duck BBQ’s, always accompanied by endless glasses of locally brewed beer and the fiery Soju spirit. Knowing that each meal was more than the average local could hope to see in a week makes for a meal that can be hard to be swallow at times.
Today was no different. Exceptional even.
The food was lavished upon us. This was a first class flying experience with Koryo Air, who had organised the helicopter flight, and we were treated to the finest dishes to prepare us for the flight. After all, in a shaky Soviet helicopter, it might well be our last supper.
The appetiser, a sort of Russian Salad, was served first in a small glass bowl by stern faced and immaculately presented Air Koryo hostesses. Before I had time to finish this first course, the next course was out. A large tuna steak drowning in a mustard dressing.
The tuna steak was tough, the sauce was extra mustardy and the solitary piece of broccoli was either over or under boiled- I couldn’t quite tell. And this was just the start.
Once the tuna steak was disposed of, sizzling lamb kebabs were brought out. These were excellent, and more meat than a North Korean could ever dream of eating, but this was just some sort of intermediary course. Once these were devoured in all of their glory, the Spaghetti course arrived.
The North Koreans made a mean bolognese, and they even topped what was now the fourth dish of the meal with a healthy provision of Parmesan cheese. There was no rationing in Air Koryo’s restaurant, and the final course followed soon after. The dessert course was an extravagant slicing of chocolate cake garnished with a swirl of cream and a glazed cherry. If this was to be the last meal before a fiery death above Pyongyang, it was certainly an excellent one.
“Have you ever been hungry in Korea?” The director of the Korean International Tourism Company who was accompanying us on the flight asked with a smile as the fifth and final plates were cleared away by the hostesses. It was an over indulgent pre-flight meal, and I could but smile and nod…
With the strange meal of European style dishes consumed, it was time to check into the helicopter flight. From the International Terminal it was short stroll through the empty corridors of the airport and out to the neighbouring Domestic Terminal where we would board our flight.
Air Koryo provided the boarding passes, checked each of us in and then ushered us through security and onto a waiting bus.
With only 8 tourists on the flight, there was plenty of space to kick back on the bus for the one minute drive over to the waiting helicopter.
We crossed the runway, the bus pulled to a halt and we were welcomed by some official looking fellows in dark suits and dark glasses.
The boarding passes were ceremoniously inspected by an Air Koryo stewardess as we clambered aboard and up the short steels steps that reached down from the entrance way.
The pilots were readying in the cockpit for takeoff while I put on some big yellow ear defenders and sat back on the floral seating.
The helicopter was past its prime. Built in the 1980’s, its decor was decisively old school in character, yet it still retained the decadent aura of an aircraft that once flew high ranking officials and dignitaries around. The interior was carpeted in a vibrant green, again with a distinct floral pattern to accompany the garish shades of colour, while armchairs and tables provided ample seating space for the passengers.
As we settled in, cameras ready for a skyline flight over North Korea’s capital, the helicopter chugged into life, the blades spinning and slowly lifting us from the tarmac and into the sky.
The helicopter flew us over miles of countryside, fields and farm land on the way to the city itself.
The fields passed below, and then turned merged into the grey dark metropolis of Pyongyang.
The infamous Ryugyong Hotel was visible almost instantly on the horizon. At 330 metres high this megalomaniac hotel is the tallest structure in North Korea. Our guide had told us that it was due to be completed next year, but this was the same story every year. Construction originally began way back in 1987, but was continually halted and restarted over the following years. Now it is still remains an empty shell on the Pyongyang skyline.
The helicopter followed the course of the Taedong River, swooping around the city, over vast apartment blocks, concrete constructions and socialist monuments.
Our Korean minders were staring out of the cabin windows and gazing in awe at everything below, as transfixed as we tourists were by the sight of Pyongyang sprawled beneath us. Few people get to see such a secretive state from the inside, let alone from the skies above the capital, and it’s curious that the North Korean government even sanctioned such a flight in the first place.
We were airborne for 45 minutes before the helicopter took us back around to land at the airport again. The bus raced across the runway to meet us as we touched down.
The security was surprisingly liberal considering the location.
Rather than being whisked away we were allowed to photograph the helicopter and even the runway and airport.
The ever present dark suited North Koreans escorted us back on the bus, across the runway and into the airport after we’d filled our memory cards with photographs of the helicopter.
In arrivals we passed an empty baggage reclaim point and stacks of lonely looking trolleys before exiting into the desolate sterile shine of Pyongyang Airport.
And from the skies of Pyongyang, the next stop of the day was a North Korean ostrich farm…but more on that in a future article.
I travelled to DPRK with Young Pioneer Tours, an excellent company catering to budget tourists. They arrange tours to “destinations your mother would rather you stay away from!” You can find out more about their tours to North Korea and other insane travel destinations on their website, right HERE!