For the first time ever on my world borders series, I’m writing about a flight. Probably the reason for this is that it was a hotly anticipated trip for me, and one which quite frankly, I’m not sure why it took me so long to go on. But alas, finally I was booked on a Beijing to Pyongyang flight. It’s slightly different to other flights in that you don’t just go onto Expedia or Destinia, type in your flights then book it. North Korea is a slightly trickier beast to negotiate even for the most experienced backpackers out there. Here’s an overview on my adventure flying from Beijing to Pyongyang.
Booking a Flight from Beijing to Pyongyang
OK well actually you could in theory you could just go onto Expedia or Skyscanner and book a flight between Beijing to Pyongyang. But don’t be doing that – it would be a crazy thing to do, and a waste of money and the likelihood is they may not even let you book it, never mind getting on the flight. If you look around for North Korea tour companies, there is only one company you should use: Young Pioneer Tours. They are quite simply the cheapest, the most helpful, the coolest and the easiest to work with. Head to their website, check out the tour you want, contact them and get it sorted. Young Pioneer Tours (YPT) will organise the whole thing for you, and it’s the best value North Korea tour you’ll get. Plus you get 5% off if you quote “Don’t Stop Living” when you book!! So they have your flights sorted, now onto the journey itself.
What Airlines Fly from Beijing to Pyongyang?
Air Koryo do it and have been doing it for years. They’re the North Korean airline. You’ll be flying with Air Koryo. I found it amusing that we saw the North and South Korea planes side by side at Beijing Airport…
Which Terminal and Gate from Beijing International Airport for Pyongyang?
Head to Terminal 2. Go on through passport and bag check on the entrance and look for what check in desk you are. We were check in desk C13, flying with Air Koryo. Our flight number was JS322. It’s a direct flight from Beijing to Pyongyang.
We met up with our tour leaders at the check in desk, simply checked in our bags, got our boarding pass and that was us ready. It is absolutely no different to any other aeroplane check in counter. They might ask if you have a visa to re-enter China (which you should have got anyway, in advance of this trip). The Gate itself will depend completely on the day, time and what’s happening in the airport the day you leave. We were gate 9. Once we had our boarding passes we headed for Chinese immigration.
Leaving China for Pyongyang, North Korea
On exiting China you’ll get the normal exit stamp at immigration. They will also check your North Korean Tourist Card, which is a foldable 4 page visa you get given the day before your trip. Every visitor to North Korea requires one of these Tourist Cards. Young Pioneer Tours will sort everything out for you. Get your stamp and you’re good to leave China for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (for the basis of my travel blog, I refer to the country as North Korea). No other reason except for the fact I’ve always called it that, some might call it DPRK, NK, Korea or whatever, but we’ll stick with North Korea on here.
Boarding a flight for Pyongyang, North Korea
After immigration and bag checks, I grabbed a beer for 6RMB (a can of Tsingtao – hardly my favourite beer, but it was from one of those drinks dispensers in the airport). If you can get a beer in an airport for 50 pence while waiting on a flight take it! I was sat beside three North Korean guys and they chatted to me for a bit.
They spoke no English and I spoke no Korean, yet we kind of understood each other. I shared my beer with the gentleman beside me – first time ever to share a beer with a North Korean! Our flight was scheduled for 8.30 am (having been rearranged from 12.55pm – original flight time).
There was a slight delay and we boarded just after 8.30 am. On boarding, as ever, everything was the same as any other flight. Again, anyone that tries to tell you otherwise is lying. Even the same as other airlines, on the way in you can pick up local newspapers and magazines on the Air Koryo flight. We were on board and by 9.10 am we were up in the air. Beijing was left behind and we were on route to Pyongyang!
Filling in your forms and documents for North Korea
You will be given everything you need for arrival in North Korea on the flight. The Air Koryo attendants will give the paperwork to you. You’ve read my blog loads of times, so you’ll know it’s essential to carry a pen. Here are the three forms you’ll need along with your passport and Tourist Card/Visa:
1. Custom’s Declaration in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
This form asks for your personal details (name, date of birth, nationality etc.) and then asks for what currencies you have on you and what possessions you have on you. This is straight forward stuff. Just put a bag of clothes, declare your electronic goods if you have them (for me it was laptop and 2 cameras). Also declare any books. Be as honest as you can. If they check and you didn’t declare something, this could become an issue and while I’ve never heard of that happening, just be safe.
2. Health and Quarantine Declaration Card
Again, experienced travellers will be used to this. Fill it in and sign. Not much to it.
3. Entry and Exit Card
You will need to know the details for the entry and exit card in advance. Notably “Name of delegation” (Young Pioneer Tours) and “Invited by” (KITC). Standard stuff the rest of it – ask your guide if you’re not sure about any of it.
The flight from Beijing to Pyongyang itself
It’s a fast flight – we left Beijing at 9.10 am and arrived in Pyongyang at 10.31 am. On board I updated my travel notes and read the North Korean magazines. All of which came with an English translation inside them. Whether they are for propaganda or not, I wasn’t bothered. I enjoyed reading them and was extremely excited to visit North Korea. The magazines were Korea Today, Foreign Trade and a Sports Magazine.
I had to curb a few of my curiosities however and so I got up to go to the toilet. The toilet on an Air Koryo flight, unsurprisingly is no different to any other toilet on any other aircraft. Except one thing – it plays constant North Korean music. I liked it.
After that it was food and drink time. Food came in the form of a tasty minced pork roll. It was good. You had the option of drinks with it. My girlfriend chose tea. I chose beer.
All the drinks are North Korean. Having tried North Korean blueberry wine back in 2011, this was actually my first taste of North Korean beer. It did the trick as we approached the city of Pyongyang.
Arrival in Pyongyang, North Korea
We pass my lots of fields on the descent and landing into Pyongyang International Airport is smooth and efficient. The flight time was around 1 hour 20 minutes. Put your watches forward one hour when you arrive in North Korea. I found a deep irony in doing this, given the fact that you’ll be literally going back about 50 years in time. At least. But that’s all down to opinion of course.
On arrival, it’s warm and sunny and we disembark the aircraft smoothly and efficiently. All the Air Koryo air hostesses say their farewells to us in English and they have been extremely friendly. We grab a few quick photos when we step off the flight. You’re allowed to do that. That’s one of the first things that strikes me as fab about North Korea! I’ve got off hundreds of planes before and tried to take photos and been told not to. But here, the photos are taken and we board a bus to the terminal.
Immigration in Pyongyang International Airport, North Korea
For a start turn off your cameras and video cameras and phones with those functions. Still nothing unusual here of course. This is NORMAL in ANY country in the world. You’ll have your Tourist Card stamped, your passport checked. No photos or fingerprints are taken (a bit more relaxed than my recent trips to Ethiopia and Tanzania then!). You don’t get a stamp on your actual passport here.
It’s a small queue in an old hall. It’s all a bit surreal and cool, to be honest. It all happened in one big room. The queue – the immigration, the baggage claim, the customs declaration and the Quarantine Declaration. The Health and Quarantine declaration was taken off us before immigration, and the customs declaration was the last thing to be taken off us, after baggage reclaim.
On the left hand side there is a small stall selling souvenirs! Pretty cool eh? And while it may be overpriced compared to the city shops, I immediately bought a map of Korea and one of Pyongyang. It’s just my thing, remember this post? I paid 20 RMB for them. Payment is accepted in RMB, US Dollars, Euros and North Korean Won. However as this is mainly for tourists, I can’t imagine EVER seeing anyone pay for something in North Korean Won here! They also sell badges, stamps, flags etc. Then we collected our bags. No problems at all. We had cigarettes on us that we brought as a gift for out guides. I had 3 cans of Guinness in my bag that remained untouched. I’d say it was one of the most efficient airport arrivals I’ve done in the last 5-6 years! You are still not meant to take photos here as you’re collecting bags in the same room as soldiers and immigration. However we asked and were allowed to take a photo of us each with the flight details in the background as long as it was done quickly and discreetly and of us, and not others.
The Customs Declaration
OK, so there are lots of staff working here and they are not rude, they are not unfriendly and they just want a smooth entrance for you into North Korea. Hand in your customs declaration and they’ll check it and get back to you. These days, Lonely Planet books are fine, as are cameras, iPods and laptops. Any device with GPS on it has to be declared and written down. It’s up to you though. You should declare any mobile phones you have. They’ll look at it and give you it back. Be honest and be friendly with the soldiers. They’re nice people. Your bags will also go through security and you will be searched with a sensor. The same as any normal airport sensor and arrival. Ladies might have their breasts squeezed by a female soldier, but in most cases not. It’s all standard stuff. Once you’re through that – that’s you – you are in North Korea!!
By the way, I made the decision to fly in and get the train out. I just wanted to see both experiences. Some people get the train into North Korea and the train out and this is the cheaper option, though I was really curious about the flight and the arrival at the airport so I flew in. I’ll be writing about my train journey out of North Korea soon. If you are from the USA you won’t have that option – you have to fly in and fly out.
Welcome to Pyongyang International Airport. Hang around, wait for your guides and be ready for an amazing experience. You’ll love North Korea.
Here are some of my videos from crossing the border from China to North Korea by flight:
Flying from Beijing to Pyongyang Part 1:
Flying from Beijing to Pyongyang Part 2:
Flying from Beijing to Pyongyang Part 3:
Flying from Beijing to Pyongyang Part 4:
Flying from Beijing to Pyongyang Part 5:
Flying from Beijing to Pyongyang Part 6:
Arrival in Pyongyang: