Sunday, April 23, 2017

How we travelled to North Korea (and returned back!) - #4

This is the fourth and the final post of the blog post series of our recent travel to Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) a.k.a North Korea. We traveled as a tourist family consisting of my wife, our 3 year old son and myself to this secluded country just to get an experience of what it feels like to be there.

Please note that my family and myself have a neutral political opinion about the country or the current situation there. This blog series does not indicate any kind of support/opposition towards their regime.

Click here for the first post. 
Click here for the second post.   
Click here for the third post.

The Day of the Long Wait

We packed our bags and left for the airport early morning. Air Koryo flight JS151 was scheduled to depart at 8:30 AM. We shook hands with our guides and left for immigration formalities. Immigration check was smooth, unlike the one that was done during the time of arrival. No bags were checked this time. The boarding was from gate 3, and we could see our plane all set for departure, its engines already running.

At around 7:30, an announcement was made indicating that all flights will be delayed due to bad weather. It was raining, but we've seen planes flying in worse conditions. Only three flights to depart from Pyongyang that day - but the boarding gates seemed empty. Around 20-30 folks were seen around. We thought maybe the others are yet to check-in - we were told by YPT earlier that flights were running full.

After about an hour, we did not see any increase in the count of passengers. No communication from the staff. Most of the other folks that were waiting with us were journalists and were into constant phone calls. We looked up and noticed our tour guides sitting in the waiting lounge. Perhaps they would leave only when the plane takes off with us in it. Or maybe they were monitoring us - not sure.

We noticed quite a lot of crowd before the immigration check counters. And that is when we realized that Air Koryo had stopped check-in of all the flights. No more boarding passes were issued. Immigration formalities were halted. And we were on the other side already.

The rains stopped. Weather was sunny again. The plane engines were shut off. The crew stood beneath the plane, chit-chatting and waiting for further orders. No communication on boarding. It was already 4 hours since the estimated departure.

A uniformed officer came in. Mentioned that the Beijing weather is bad. They are not allowing the planes to land. We might have to wait - he said. We were given some food. We wanted to fly. But this was not India, or any other country for that matter. We couldn't question, we didn't want to. The area was now being patrolled casually by the guards - not sure why.

The Air Koryo JS151 grounded due to 'bad weather'.
The TV offered something to watch. Musical concerts with socialist music, songs of patriotism and the parade of the Day of the Sun. And a film titled - 'The Nation I Know' that was all about loving the motherland and protecting its dignity and culture and people and talent. It also had a scene where a teacher justifies why DPRK needs nuclear weapons. We watched all this for the next 5 hours.

Something similar that kept being played on TV along with other programs. I was too anxious to get on the plane, so taking pictures was out of question. This one is a screen-shot from YouTube.
Around 9 hours later, a journalist - Chad O'Carroll came to us and spoke about the situation. He had access to Phone and Internet. He mentioned that the weather is clear in Beijing and all the other flights are landing normally. Things seemed weird. He proposed us that we use his phone and check with our Embassy on the situation. Chad, if you are reading this - it was very kind of you. Thank you so much!

Till this point we were OK, but the weather as a reason of delaying the flight looked very fishy. That is when all the bad thoughts started pouring in. Theories around air force drill, possible attacks, sanctions to ban Air Koryo to enter international airspace started creeping up. So, we placed a call to the Indian Embassy. And the rest of the story is here in this tweet:

The boarding of flight started 11 hours after the scheduled departure. The reason for delay was still 'bad weather'. All those theories that came into mind were tad rubbish.

As we sat on our seats - I felt the same joy that I had when I boarded an airplane for the first time in my life. In the next two hours, we were in Beijing - and not at all complaining of the long queue of the immigration check. It was a very sensational departure from DPRK. And we were glad that we were back.

The Days of Reflection

For the next two or three days - I had weird dreams where I was classifying music into Socialist and Capitalist genres. There was too much of DPRK that went in our head. And it was gradually seeping out.

Nevertheless, we had a great trip. It satisfied all our curiosities to the fullest. Yes, we saw only what was shown to us and clicked only where it was allowed. But eyes look beyond. The mind perceives. And that experience one gets only by visiting a place physically.

We had some interesting conversations. On the way to Pyongyang, we met Mr. Ri who was Deputy Director of Marketing at the National Tourism Administration, DPRK. A very pleasant personality, he mentioned his liking towards old Hindi films. He stressed that more Indians should visit DPRK and offered his help if any Indian tour companies would like to collaborate.

From right to left: Our tour guides Mr. Kim and Ms. Jong, Alankrit, Shyamakshi and Vivek
Mr. Park - a diplomat from DPRK who was also waiting with us for Flight JS151 kept checking with us from time to time if we were doing fine and apologized for the inconvenience we faced at the time of departing from DPRK.

Our guides - Ms. Jong and Mr. Kim were extremely helpful and ensured that we covered most of the stuff that was part of our original itinerary in such a less time. Our 3 year old son was never bored in their presence. Our conversations with the guides ranged from food to dating and marriages, social media, benefits to the DPRK citizens, education and choice of career, agriculture. They felt surprised and proud when I mentioned that Rodong Sinmun is available on Internet to the rest of the world.
If you are planning for a trip to DPRK and have several questions, drop me an email. I will be more than happy to help and suggest you with my limited exposure.

People would ask - What is truth? Who is right and who is wrong? What is freedom and what isn't? All these questions are nothing but mere philosophy decided by some human based on a few opinions.

A wise man once said - 'Do not search. That which is, is. Stop and see.'. I think that is possibly the best attitude to carry and visit the DPRK. You will really enjoy it.

Click here for the first post. 
Click here for the second post.   
Click here for the third post.