Outside Terminal 1 at Dubai Airport at 10pm, ready to begin my journey to North Korea.
And on the train to Concourse D after checking in and passing through security and immigration.
This was my third attempt to visit North Korea. I had planned a New Years trip two years ago but had to cancel because of work commitments. I had booked another trip the following year to see the Wonsan Air Festival but unfortunately the airshow was cancelled with mounting geopolitical tensions and downgrading of US and UK travel advisories to the country.
Determined to finally visit this very interesting and unique country I had booked a tour through Koryo Tours coinciding with the 70th Anniversary National Day of North Korea. A few weeks after I had booked it was announced that after a five year hiatus the Mass Games were returning and would coincide with my tour.
In the Marhaba lounge for some dinner.
My flights for the trip were:
Day 0: Flying Air China (CA) from Dubai to Beijing (DXB-PEK).
Day 2: Flying Air Koryo (JS) from Beijing to Pyongyang (PEK-FNJ).
Day 9: Flying Air China (CA) from Beijing to Dubai (PEK-DXB).
Although it was only an extra €50 for the flight, for the return from Pyongyang to Beijing I opted to take the train via Dandong.
The Air China A330 waiting at the gate. It was possible to also fly direct on Emirates but the timing of the Air China was better suited as I needed to be at Koryo Tours in Beijing at 2:30pm tomorrow for the obligatory pre-tour briefing.
Onboard ready for departure with the safety briefing now under way. North Korea was one of my last 'Don't tell Mum' countries so it was bittersweet to be finally going.
Drink and sandwich served soon after take-off. I then put on my eye shades and ear plugs to get a few winks.
Waking up somewhere over western China.
Hot coffee while watching the entertaining true-crime drama American Animals.
Chicken and noodles with apple juice for breakfast.
Disembarking at a surprisingly sunny Beijing Capital International Airport. Apparently due to a conference this week between Chinese and African leaders they had ordered factories surrounding the capital to be shut and hence the surprisingly lack of pollution.
Queueing up to have my finger prints scanned.
And through to collect my suitcase after being stamped into China. It was possible for me to apply for the 144 hour transit visa on arrival but as I was re-entering China from North Korea by train I needed to get a Chinese visa anyway so just opted to get a multi-entry.
Through to the Airport Train Station.
And on the Airport Express for the ride into the city.
After a short walk from Dongzhimen station I arrived at my hotel apartment for my one night stay in Dongcheng, Beijing.
It was 1.5 hours until the pre-tour briefing so I headed out for a bit of a walk.
At a local shopping district where I went in search of something for lunch.
I couldn't find anything local to eat so opted for a real hamburger (i.e. with ham steak) at Burger King.
At the Koryo Tours office where I paid for the remainder of tour and finally met James who I had been corresponding with about the trip. With the National Day Celebration and Mass Games there were alot of people who would be visiting Pyongyang and Koryo had six tour groups leaving tomorrow alone!
At 2:30pm our tour briefing began and where we were handed a tour handbook and brochure for other trips they run.
Simon, the Koryo GM, telling us the do's and don't for our upcoming trip. Most of it was not too surprising, especially after the fate of Otto Warmbier, e.g. don't break any rules or do anything stupid and you'll be fine. He gave an example of some fool who decided to do a handstand at the reverred Mansu Hill Grand Monument and how the North Korean guide was promptly sacked.
We were not to photograph the military or any construction sites. He explained how North Korea had one of the largest armys in the world, but with no war they had excess manpower and hence the military performs all construction work in the country.
Simon also gave us some insight into the psyche of North Korean people, and how they don't necessarily believe that Kim Jong-il scored eighteen hole-in-ones on his very first round of golf, and that those kind of stories are treated more as lore rather than truth.
He said that it was now possible to buy a local North Korean sim card to use, but it was $200 and came with only 50mb data and that you couldn't actually phone any local numbers with it.
He also said that whenever the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is out and about visiting a factory or watching a missile test etc., that the entire country's mobile phone network is switched off to thwart any coup or assassination attempts!
After the briefing I headed back to my apartment hotel and crashed out for a few hours.
In the evening I went for a walk in Dongcheng and managed to find a local restaurant for dinner.
And enjoyed the roast pork and rice with tofu noodles and plum juice at the end of day 1.
After packing my suitcase I enjoyed some snacks I had bought from a corner store for breakfast while enjoying some last few minutes of internet.
Making the short trek back to the Koryo Tours office to catch the bus they had organized to take us back to Beijing Capital International Airport.
With my DPRK tourist card and return train ticket from Dandong to Beijing. It was quite cool seeing my name written in Korean hangul.
Outside Terminal 2 at Beijing Capital International Airport. As it was a Saturday there was relatively little traffic and the ride from the city only took ~30 minutes.
Checking into our Koryo Air flight. With the high volume of tourists and VIP's travelling today there were morning, afternoon and evening flights to Pyongyang.
And airside after passing through security and immigration.
While I was looking forward to the famous Air Koryo burger it probably wouldn't be enough to last me until dinner so went to an airport restaurant for lunch.
The Air Koryo Tupolev Tu-204 waiting at the gate. A relatively young 2007 model, it wasn't one of the antique Soviet aircraft the airline used to fly.
My window seat, 16A. The aircraft felt surprisingly modern and well maintained.
The first time I have seen white gloves being worn by a flight attendant!
A Hainan Airlines A330 to the left.
This afternoon's flight to Pyongyang was completely full with no spare seats.
The gentleman next to me was wearing the obligatory badge to one (or often both) of the late Kim's.
Waving goodbye as we taxi to the runway.
A ballistic missile test on the overhead screens soon after take-off which made for interesting in-flight entertainment.
My filled out entry form, health questionaire and customs declaration. Luckily I didn't bring any exciter, poison or killing devices.
The flight attendants serving the mid-flight drink and snack.
And the famous Air Koryo burger. The mysterious meat pattie must have been a state secret as I was told off by one of the flight attendants for taking this photo!
Looking out the window to the Yalu River on the border of China and North Korea. Although a direct flight route between Beijing and Pyongyang would overfly the sea at Liaodong and Korea Bay, we instead took an inland route not flying over water.
Farms below as we begin the descent to Pyongyang International Airport.
Three Ilyushin Il-76's parked on a taxi-way.
An Air China 747 on the tarmac. Li Zhanshu, third in command of the Chinese government, was visiting as part of the National Day celebrations tomorrow.
A Mauritania Airlines 737.
After disembarking, passing through immigration and picking up my suitcase, I lined up for the customs check. The process was fairly simple with your bags first X-rayed and then a hand search. The lady in front of me had her binoculars taken off her so I was little nervous with my telephoto lens but luckily it was fine. They did want to count and note how many camera memory cards I had with me though.
Meeting with the other Koryo Tour travellers after surviving the customs check. There was quite a variety of other nationalities including from Canada, Australia, Italy, Poland, Finland, Serbia, Singapore, France and the Netherlands.
After everyone was through we wheeled out our luggage to our awaiting bus. We also had a cameraman with a video camera following us and carefully documenting our every move. I was a little paranoid that this was some kind of government surveliiance but it later turned out he was just here to make a trip video for us.
A Mercedes E-class in the parking lot for one of the VIP's.
Ms. Chang, our tour guide for the next five days, welcoming us to North Korea. Also with Ms. Chang was our minder Mr. Ju. Apparently they normally have two tour guides but as they were very busy with the many visitors for the National Day celebrations Mr. Ju was assisting Ms. Chang.
Some soldiers walking past as we begin the 30 minute drive into Pyongyang.
On the bus we had to hand over our passports and tourist cards for safe-keeping until the end of the trip. I was a little weary about this but figured we would never be able to exit the country independently if we wanted to anyway.
A monument to Kim Il-sung, the founding leader of North Korea and his son and heir, Kim Jong-il, the second Supreme Leader of North Korea as we enter Pyongyang. It was great to see in person the images of the late leaders and the cult of personality that I had seen in many documentaries, newshows and trip reports and the reverance to the Kim dynasty.
Four years after his death in 1994, a new constitution abolished the presidency and declared Kim Il-sung to be the "Eternal President". Likewise in 2012 after the death of Kim Jong-il, he was declared Eternal General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea and Eternal Chairman of the National Defence Commission.
Passing an array of skyscrapers in the recently opened Ryomyong New Town. I had come to Pyongyang expecting a shabby grey city but instead it looked very much like a boom town!
I had to remind myself though that the city has been described as a bubble within a bubble, and judging North Korea based solely on Pyongyang itself would be similar to assuming all of the USA was like Manhattan.
We had some time before we had to head to the hotel so stopped at the Pyongyang Arch of Triumph. Built in 1982 to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan from 1925 to 1945, it is the second largest triumphal arch in the world.
It was great to be outside of the bus and to be able to mingle, albeit on a very short leash, with the denizens of Pyongyang.
We then headed down into an underpass beneath the road to get a closer look at the Arch of Triumph.
The monument was built to honour President Kim Il-sung's military resistance against the Japanese and was inaugurated on his 70th birthday, with its ~25,500 bricks representing a day of his life up to that point.
Ms. Chang pointing out the Kim Il-sung Stadium across the road.
The stadium is the start and finishing point of the annual Pyongyang Marathon.
Two ladies wearing badges of the late Kim Jong-il.
Bicyclist. It was startling how there was almost zero advertising about and the only signs seemed to be patriotic government slogans. It was also spotlessly clean and very orderly.
The national flag of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea draped on a government building.
Two more Mercedes as we continued our bus ride around Pyongyang. Our Western guide later said that there seemed to be a higher than average number of them about with the National Day celebrations.
Looking out the the citizens of Pyongyang making their way home at the end of the day.
Another monument to the two late leaders, this time depicting them at Paektu Mountain.
Waiting for the bus.
Outside Pyongyang Station where we stopped to pick up people who had taken the 24 hour train trip from Beijing.
The beaming smiles of the two late leaders again.
Pyongyang Station is the main railway station in North Korea and connects most of the cities of the country.
Two soldiers on a motorbike with sidecar.
Some of the pastel coloured buildings of the city.
A traffic guard wagging his finger at an errant taxi driver.
Whe then drove onto the Mangyongdae District in southern Pyongyang to the Ryanggang Hotel, one of the fourteen hotels in the city where foreigners can stay.
A row of gleaming Chinese-made taxi's just outside.
And two lady greeters wearing the traditional Joseon-ot dress at the entrance.
Meeting our Western leader for our group, Zoe, who was from the UK but lived in Beijing and led tours to DPRK part-time.
My room for the next two nights. The beds were rock hard so I used the duvet from one of the beds to sleep under for a little bit of relief for my back.
The dated but very clean bathroom.
And the fading light of dusk from my balcony.
At 7pm we met up at the hotel restaurant for dinner. A framed photo on the wall of the late Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung with Kim Jong-il just behind on an inspection walkabout at the restaurant when the hotel first opened in 1989.
I was expecting alot worse but the food was actually semi-edible.
And a semi-fresh donut to finish for dessert.
I chatted with some of the other people on the tour and was interesting to hear why they had chosen to come to North Korea. I was expecting some of them to have travelled to other unusual countries too but surprisingly none of them had.
After an ok sleep in my super hard bed I walked out on to the balcony and noticed my neighbours blazing hairdrier! Apparently it had decided to self-combust after they had tried to dry their hair.
At the hotel restaurant for a bland but filling breakfast. They only had instant coffee so I just opted for tea.
Looking out over the Taedong River from the hotel. Our guide later told us that with the international sanctions the powerplants have to run on low-quality coal often resulting in significant air pollution in the city.
At about 8:30am we met up for our first day of sightseeing in the city. Ms. Chang and Zoe said that as it was National Day today our plan was likely to be very fluid depending on what we could and could not do. In the end we certainly weren't disappointed however and would never had thought they we would get to see the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un by the end of the day!
We then made the short bus ride to Mangyongdae, a neighbourhood within Mangyongdae District where purportedly Kim Il-sung was born and spent most of his childhood.
A mural of a young Kim setting off to fight the Japanese. Historians generally accept that while Kim's exploits are exaggerated by the personality cult that was built around him, he was a significant guerrilla leader against the Japanese occupation.
A local guide at a replica of the original family home. The house is considered a sacred site to North Koreans and an obligatory stop for tours to the city.
Portraits of the Eternal President's family on the wall.
And getting to drink some water from the family well.
We then headed off in the bus again.
Although we weren't sure exactly where to yet though.
Outside the Chang Gwang San Hotel where we stopped for a mid-morning break.
And to await for further instructions. The hotel was situated close to one of the main roads where in previous years the Military parade had passed through the city, so the hope was that it would be a good place to see again.
Although the main parade with the frog marching soldiers and convoys of tanks and rocket trucks would occur over on Kim Il-sung Square in front of the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and other VIP's, the parade normally continues throughout the city for the benefit of the rest of Pyongyang denizens.
A still from the official TV broadcast of the parade that was currently underway at Kim Il-sung Square.
While waiting on further word I went outside to get some fresh air.
Buses parked outside Pyongyang Badminton Hall, appropriately shaped like a giant shuttlecock!
Another of Pyongyang's traffic guards making sure none of us were knocked down by the occasional passing vehicle.
Simon, the GM of Koryo Tours, about to break the bad news to us that as a large group of tourists we were told by our North Korean minders that we were creating a 'security disturbance', and that we had to move on and would have to miss the military parade. We later found out that they didn't want us seeing the military vehicles that would soon be passing by.
I was a little disappointed but figured that these kind of things happen and were completely outside of our control.
Simon did have some good news for us however and that we were now able to see the opening of the Mass games this evening! As they were going to be attended by Kim Jong-un, these kinds of events are normally off limits to foreigners for security purposes, but apparently the Supreme Leader had decided that we were all now welcome!
We then continued onto our next stop of the day, the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs Cemetery.
The memorial was built to mark the 60th anniversary of victory in the Fatherland Liberation / Korean War.
Ms. Chang and a local guide walking towards the memorial tower of the People’s Army Martyrs, composed of a rifle, a bayonet, a national flag and a Republic Hero medal.
Zoe placing a bouquet of flowers at the memorial.
The cemetery contains the graves of over 500 fallen fighters with their headstones each inscribed with their photograph and adorned with a medal of Hero of the DPRK.
With the National Day military parade underway on the other side of the city we could see the aerobatic display up in the sky.
And the view over in Kim Il-sung Square (Photo credit: David Guttenfelder, NPR).
The historic Potongmun, the western gate of the inner complex of the original walled city of Pyongyang as we continue our morning sightseeing.
The Enternal Leaders again as we pass by a government building.
And outside our next stop, the Kwangbok Supermarket.
The supermarket was a four level department store offering various domestic and imported goods to the more well off residents of Pyongyang.
As foreigners we could actually buy stuff here, but had to change our foreign currency into local money first however.
A little girl gazing at the big bags of candy. Photography was prohibited in the store but I couldn't resist a few discrete shots with my iPhone.
A family stocking up on some groceries. It was quite intriguing to see the presence of a North Korean middle class with an appetite to buy.
Ms. Chang said that the government did not pay workers a salary and they only received food stamps. Hence the local people shopping today had access to local currency via other means.
I was surprised by the range of foreign food available, with everything from fruit from Thailand to Nescafé from Russia. The store is part-owned by a Chinese company so the goods are likely imported in via China.
A military officer shopping with his wife.
After meeting back up at the bus again Zoe had some good news; we would now be able to see the military parade after all!
A lady traffic guard as we head off in the bus again back to the Chang Gwang San Hotel.
People queueing up at a retail kiosk. Apparently these are relatively new to Pyongyang.
Looking over to the famous Ryugyong Hotel.
After arriving back at the Chang Gwang San Hotel we walked over to Chollima Street where the crowds were waiting for the parade.
Local ladies dressed in their traditional Joseon-ot.
People looking down from their apartment windows.
And after a few minutes the start of the parade came into view.
At the front was a Mercedes S-Class stretched limo carrying aloft a large portrait of the Eternal leader Kim Il-sung.
Followed by another equally large portrait of Kim Jong-il.
Members of the Air Force, Army and Navy under a large red and yellow flag of the Workers' Party of Korea, the founding and ruling political party of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea).
Although we had been advised not to take photographs of the military during the trip, an exception was made for the parade.
Commandos with camouflage makeup and night vision goggles.
Sharp bayonets on top of their assault rifles.
It was really fun to mingle with the crowd and be part of the celebrations for the National Day.
The female army soldiers coming next.
North Korea has universal conscription for males and selective conscription for females at a ratio of one female for every nine male conscripts.
A smiling medic.
Large red banners bearing patriotic slogans along the side of the trucks.
The fluttering flag of North Korea on the 70th anniversary of founding of the country.
Air Force Officers.
It was great to see the genuine excitement, cheer and respect for their countries armed forces.
A school band playing music.
More soldiers joining in on the excitement and adulation.
A female shoulder with a yellow aiguillette on her shoulder.
These bright and colourful balloons were an interesting contrast with the heavily armed commandos!
Local ladies cheering on the soldiers.
The energy of the crowd and of the soldiers certainly didn't diminish as the parade carried on.
I can now definitely see why President Trump wants a military parade of his own!
It was hard to not to get caught up in the excitement and celebration, despite being one of the 'enemy'.
And to take some memorable photos.
More colourful balloons.
After the very cool experience I managed to find Ms. Chang and the rest of the group again and we then headed back to the hotel for a late lunch at 2:30pm.
With my shirt and tie while wearing dress trousers and black polished shoes, all ready for the opening of the Mass games this evening at Rungrado 1st of May Stadium. Smart dress was required although the tie was optional. Zoe, our western tour guide, also dressed up in a traditional Korean Joseon-ot dress which looked really cool.
As part of the great honour of being in the presence of the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, we unfortunately could not take any cameras or phones with us this tonight. The following photos are hence from the official broadcast of the event.
After getting dressed up we met to take a bus ride to a meeting point in the city for a special security screening before proceeding to Rungrado 1st of May Stadium.
After arriving at a hall we chatted for a while with the other tours groups and then lined up for a quick pat down and metal detector sweep and then boarded the buses again for the drive to the stadium.
Rungrado 1st of May Stadium was quite impressive, both architectually and for its massive size. With a capacity for 114,000 people it is officially the biggest sports stadium in the world.
As it was the opening night the stadium was packed with a sea of military officers, VIP's and other government officials.
Just after 8pm Marshall Kim walked in with Chairman Li Zhanshu of China.
As expected the crowd erupted into raucous cheer and clapping as soon as they saw him! Although I guessed that some of the applause was obligatory, there was definitely a sense of genuine excitement in the air.
It was my first time seeing a leader of a country while visiting so it was a bit of a buzz, especially as most North Koreans will likely never get to see the Supreme Leader in person in their lifetime too. We were seated about 100 metres to his right and could definitely tell it wasn't just an impersonator. (Photo credit: David Guttenfelder, NPR)
The ~2 hour spectacle then soon began, first with a drone show and then the amazing extraordinary sight of watching literally thousands of performers. The human 'screen' backdrop is made up of 17,000 children each holding cards that each present a single 'pixel' of the large display.
Dancers in the colours of the flag of North Korea.
Eternal leader Kim Jong-il in a sea of red.
The show involves ~100,000 performers training continuously for over 6 months.
The Supreme Leader and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, looking on in approval.
Gearing up for the grand finale.
And with lots of fireworks to finish!
The Supreme Leader and the other VVIP's clapping their appreciation as the show came to a close.
A totally amazing spectacle and I couldn't wait to see it all again in two days time!
Back at the hotel just before midnight with my souvenir program and ticket. After a quick dinner I headed to bed to get some rest before our trip tomorrow to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).