15 February 2019

Pyongyang: The First 24 Hours!

Arriving in Pyongyang felt downright berserk, it had been a city that I had wanted to visit since I knew a life in China was on the radar. Stamped into the country it was time to begin my tour of the city with Young Pioneer Tours, for a person who doesn't do group tours I rubbished that mindset! Ryomyong Street was our nighttime destination, those power cuts though PY! 

Taking that overnight train to Pyongyang from Beijing? No, thank you very much darling! Touching down into Pyongyang Sunan Airport kickstarted my DPRK Chinese Spring Festival experience, I wanted to make use of my Shunyi address being only 20 mins or so to Beijing Capital International Airport. I would be taking the night train back from Dandong soon enough, my time would come through eventually. Clearing through immigration was something else, I work in China but I'm originally from England so that gave the immigration officer some questions, the uniform put the fear in me! Baggage reclaim at Sunan Airport was done properly, no scanners before the carousel because I caught a glimpse of a sizeable German Shepherd, was that canine worker a sniffer dog? Leaving the majority of my electronics at home made the final screening so much easier, but where was my boarding stub? Who was that lady? Yes, So Yon!

Reunited with my fellow Pioneers, it was time for us to be escorted to our coach that would transport us for the duration of our Pyongyang City and DMZ experience. Introducing themselves, our guides Jeong So Yon and Jeong Kwang Gwong welcomed us to the city and to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea on behalf of their KITC brand. Moving closer to Pyongyang City centre gave us some immense views, I had watched about one trillion documentaries about North Korea, most feature on the showcase capital, I was getting all kinds of North Korean City sights! I stared out of the coach windows with utter bewilderment! Nearing Ryomyong Street we were shown a series of Pyongyang City sights before we had even made it to Kim Il Sung Square, the Arch of Triumph was giving all kinds of Parisian vibes in the heart of the DPRK's provincial city! In that moment I was looking forward to a lengthy break from social media, the sights and sounds of Pyongyang would entertain me! 

Stepping down from the coach as the afternoon turned into dusk we were fronted by the flaming icon of Pyongyang, being the Juche Tower I wandered away slightly but with Kwang Gwong's presence nearby. I was going to play by the rules so took my photos of the impressive Kim Il Sung Square with consideration and caution. I got my snaps! Yes, those white marks on the ground symbolised the places people would stand as they marched in the processions, we weren't going to see anything of the sort but it was amazing to see the Grand People's Study House with the two leaders in clear view, on the right I caught a supersize DPRK flag above the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. The rest of the group had retreated to a nearby coffeeshop, I followed not long after but I needed to soak in some of the Pyongyang feeling in the heart of Kim Il Sung Square. Keeping all of my photos looking O.K I joined the other Pioneers. 

Stepping into the Ryongwang Coffeeshop gave me all kinds of flashbacks from Michael Palin's recent DPRK investigative documentary, the very same coffeeshop had featured in that Channel5 programme. Taking a seat for a little while it gave us flight takers the chance to take stock of the flight and the first few hours in Pyongyang. We had all travelled from different places to make that YPT DPRK trip, it was a meeting of nationalities with Mexico, Australia, England and Scotland all at the table with North Korea in close quarters. Enjoying our hot and cold beverages it was out of nowhere when the power completely shutdown, I was aware that power outages can be a normal thing in Pyongyang but we as a group weren't expecting to experience one, being fresh off the plane too! Our guides found it quite amusing to see and hear our reactions to the sudden loss of light, they used their phones torches for us to see. Paying for our drinks, we headed for the train station. 

A series of blinding lights and traffic fronted us at Pyongyang's hectic railway station, I had only visited Seoul Station through the metro interchange so I had nothing to compare PY's rail terminus with its southern neighbour. Anyway, we paid 1 RMB to access the platform to greet the incoming K27 train that had travelled all the way from Beijing Railway Station via Dandong and Sinuiju Stations, stopping for the immigration checks after crossing the Sino Friendship Bridge in Dandong. We had guessed the train takers would be in a merry state, they had a lot of time on the platform to give them the perfect excuse to drink their poisons! Do I regret not taking the train from Beijing? Absolutely, not! I loved the contrast between Air Koryo's inflight experience compared to their southern sister, Korean Air. The train journey sounded long, my add-ons to Sinuiju and Dandong took care of the train business! Yes, yes PY!

Now, let me break this down! Some of those DPRK brothers were looking fine! Keeping my nasty side in check, I appreciated the view discreetly because I certainly behaved like a saint from then on during my North Korea trip. Seoul had offered me many midnight and morning delights of a certain kind but It was an absolute no-go within the DPRK! Even my mom warned me to remember my location, it was not going to be Korean sojourn like Seoul! Remembering my location, we were ushered to the platform to greet the incoming Beijing train to meet the rest of the Pioneers! Pulling in on time, it took a few moments for the train to make a complete stop, allowing our YPT guide Nicolas Platt and the rest of the gang to join the flight takers and our Korean guides. With the business of 'hello' and 'where are you from?' done and dusted it was time for us to head for dinner. Now, I like a drink but credit to the train goers, they had done a good job by the sounds of it! Well, what a station P!

For the flight takers, we were about to revisit one of the sights that had passed us on the way we took from the airport. Clocking the futurist towers of Pyongyang's Ryomyong New Town gave me a sense of Futurama for a few moments. The day had been long but a good bit of food was in order for us all, that questionable hamburger had worn off well and truly at that point in the day! Learning how to get used to stairs, we found ourselves in this sparkly new looking restaurant with two perfectly laid tables that already had our food waiting for us! Get me a drink, please! Toasting to the holiday I enjoyed a lovely teatime chat with Tori, a fellow foreigner from Beijing. Like a few of us in the group, both me and Tori worked in the English teaching/education game! It was a pleasant introduction to our first evening in Pyongyang, DPRK. We had all been on the move for a long time at that point but the night was still YPT young! 

Checking into our hotel, we found ourselves at the Nangang Hotel. Word on the street was that other Pyongyang hotels had seen their day and if truth be told the first impressions of our residence for the week were good. Getting those bags set down in the room it was down to the bar for a night cap or five! I had downed a fair few grapefruit flavoured Soju's in sizzling Seoul but Pyongyang's own Soju required some mixing, enter Tori she found the perfect mix between the local brew as she added some ice and lychee juice! Claiming that drink 'the Tori' for the duration of the trip it was quite an interesting first night. People were feeling the day, returning to their rooms before midnight it wasn't quite bed for me! I shouldn't be allowed anywhere near bar because things get down right unpredictable! The following days long drive to the DMZ allowed us to have a few more drinks before calling it a night! All in all, the first 24 hours in Pyongyang proved to be fruitful indeed! Oh, Lychee! 

Go Pioneers! 

Joseph Harrison 

13 February 2019

Flying High... Air Koryo!

Air Koryo is the airline that represents the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, I had the opportunity to fly with DPRK's airline from Beijing Capital Airport to Pyongyang Sunan Airport on the 5th of February 2019. Compared with its South Korea counterpart, Korean Air and Air Koryo shared a brief moment that morning as both airlines prepared for their Korean flights. 

Reporting at the check-in for Air Koryo flight JS152 felt like a very different flight compared with by Korean Air flight to Seoul a few months previous to that February moment. Suited and booted in my best clothes, it felt like the right thing to, I didn't want to look scruffy after touching down at Pyongyang's Sunan Airport. Things progressed after three Air China passenger service agents brought the screens to light at Terminal 2's international check-in at Beijing Capital. A mountain of boxes stood next to the second check in counter, I wondered how much cargo would be checked in during that check-in period? Identifying a certain business dress and pin depicting a certain DPRK leader, it was apparent this flight operation was going to be very well managed. Meeting a representative from Young Pioneer Tours confirmed I wasn't the only person on the flight before the check-in started! Other YPT tour members needed their visas! 

Boarding card in hand, I passed through China Customs without any hitches. As time progressed it was quite apparent to see the buying power of the passengers who were also destined for Pyongyang that morning, it was evident to see the tills at the duty-free shops had been ringing with much enthusiasm! After meeting up with two of the YPT tour members at the gate, it was such a relief to see familiar faces from the previous days briefing. Before we knew it was time to board this direct flight to the DPRK, planning such a trip and getting the funds together had taken several months, in that moment it finally clicked that I was on my way to North Korea! Would we be flying on a Antonov A148? We were bound for Pyongyang using a Tupolev Tu-204, that newer looking twin-jet engine gave me some faith for the flight. Hearing some Seoul Gimpo announcements it was revealed to us that Korean Air and Air Koryo were sharing neighbouring gates! But, did the pilots give each other a wave? 

After the epic time it took us to taxi from the gate to the runway we finally took to the skies, it was a really polluted day so seeing anything out from my window wasn't going to be. Did I see a 'manual safety demonstration?' Yes, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Air Koryo crew perform one before take off, its not something cabin crew perform nowadays, its now all videos and the occasional pointing to the nearest exits. I must admit that I had watched so many reviews and video reports on YouTube about the airline of the DPRK, well I casually took my photo of the cabin that featured the main cabin area and its surroundings. I had to pinch myself that I was actually on my way to Pyongyang, DPRK with Air Koryo! I was expecting a different order of cabin services compared with Korean Air's offerings but I was open to their differences. Our in-flight entertainment started with footage from the Wonsan Air Festival. 

I was set next a DPRK mother and son, they were sitting in the middle and aisle seats, we exchanged several glances and smiles but for the life of me I couldn't catch their Northern tones compared to the softer Southern accent that I heard during my visit to Seoul. Back to the crew, our all female cabin crew represented their national airline proudly with their stylish black fitted uniforms, their hairstyles were modest with tight buns rather than the usual doughnut style many other international airlines have. I was impressed with their appearance standards, every crew member wore just enough make up because lets be honest there's some airlines that have clowns serving drinks and snacks at 33,000 ft. Their uniforms were the parallel to Korean Air's soft pastel coral blue uniforms, that gives me all kinds of flashbacks to that dreamy looking male crew on KE852! Leaving Beijing's smoggy skies behind, it was going be interesting to see what kind of views would be served to us!

Keeping this kosher for many reasons it's no secret that Air Koryo serves a certain burger for its main meal onboard their international flights to and from the DPRK. Personally, I was quite intrigued to try that dubiously sounding snack! Served through the cabin along with a light refreshment, I chose to drink some Cola. If truth be told the offerings weren't bad, being a short flight there wasn't much need for a full service meal for our Beijing-Pyongyang flight. The interesting tasting Cola reminded me of Lidl's own interpretation of the famous American soft drink. I am trying not to mention any branded drinks! People make a lot of noise, to be fair it was a memorable snack as my Tupolev Tu-204 made its way closer to DPRK's Pyongyang Sunan Airport. Thankfully, I had had a small Starbucks breakfast before boarding the Pyongyang bound flight, it was a good idea because the burger itself was small and being hungry, it was suitable JS!

No glossy airline published in-flight magazines were found in the seat-pocket that was in from of me, I had a copy of the Pyongyang Times to read for that short-haul sector. Printed in English with some really interesting articles and photos, I was happy to learn more about the recent news from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The current leader and his elegant wife had recently made a state visit to Beijing to meet the President and the First Lady, the colour photo that I found on the front page told me all I needed to know about one of DPRK's recent successful visits to China. Several articles promoted the triumphs of local businesses and the efforts of local people who had made an impact within their contribution to their country. I never read newspapers but during that once-in-a-lifetime surreal flight I was more than willing to find something to spill the beans about the DPRK. Judging by the change in the landscape below our Air Koryo aircraft, Pyongyang grew closer!

Now, I usually go for an aisle seat because I can have the monopoly when I need to go to the toilet, to pass by the galley to speak with crew or to get extra snacks, not during my Air Koryo flight! Choosing the window seat proved to be an absolute winner, the terrain changed quite a lot as we started to make the descent over the DPRK ready for our arrival into Pyongyang's Sunan Airport. The descent into Seoul was all about getting lost in the collection of K-Pop anthems from the IFE, but my flying experience north of the Korean border saw me appreciate the view compared to being distracted with the sounds of IKON and their 'Love Scenario'. Had it been snowing near Pyongyang? Mostly likely yes, saying that the terrain looked pretty mountainous with patches of green vegetation, well from what I caught as our Tu-204 retracted its flaps ready for landing at FNJ. Before we knew it, our flight had landed safely!

Pyongyang's Sunan Airport looked brand new, shinning in the dreary afternoons skies it was time for me and my fellow Pioneers to take a look and obviously enter the country to begin our tour. With the jet-bridge connected we were allowed to disembark, but was there a DPRK-pop star onboard? A beautiful Korean women was ushered down the aisle before anyone else was aloud to move, now I was intrigued! Presenting my passport, entry/exit papers, customs form & visitors visa card to the guard put the fear into me! My working location and nationality caused a question but that was all innocent and I was granted access onto DPRK soil. Grabbing my luggage once it made an appearance on the carousel and clearing customs concluded by Air Koryo experience. It was a very interesting flight to a new side of Korea, no ads for double eye-lid lifts were present in the terminal though! Meeting our Korean guides it was time to make our way into the city, leaving PY's new FNJ airport behind us.

Koryo Done!

Joseph Harrison 

30 January 2019

Flying High... Hainan Airlines!

Concluding my Christmas holiday, I boarded my Hainan Airlines direct flight from Manchester to Beijing on the 28th December 2018. Having flown with China Southern on the outbound leg of my journey to Delhi, I was excited to see how Hainan's hospitality would rival its Chinese airline cousin. Of course, more direct routes need to be opened between China and the UK!

During this second part of my Beijing living I am on the flight path next to Beijing Capital International Airport, being so close I see Hainan Airlines fly their beautiful white, red and yellow liveries across my Shunyi community. Flying back to Beijing, China without having to change planes was a welcome change! Unlike Cathay Pacific Airways' flight to Hong Kong being at their own covered jet-bridge, that freezing December morning saw us being bussed out to a remote stand for boarding, why? Nevertheless, it was like any other boarding for a Chinese airline with a predominately Chinese clientele. How were these people sending WeChat voice messages in England? I need to get myself another SIM card for those trips home! Our Airbus A330-300 stood ready, I had been waiting for quite a while to fly directly between England and China without needing to entertain one of the London airports! Birmingham, step it up at once!

Hainan leads the Chinese aviation market alongside Air China, China Eastern and Southern, but I had faith in Hainan. Relaxing into that familiar red airline seat reminded me of my domestic flight I took with Hainan from Beijing to Shenzhen during China's 2018 Spring Festival holiday. My second time in the skies with Hainan Airlines would be from an international stance, I was looking forward to seeing the difference between the two services this famous Chinese airline rolled out. Announcements were predominately in Chinese, some were in English and unlike China Southern it was great to see a non-Chinese crew-member in the cabin as the pre-flight checks were being carried out. I much preferred the two-four-two seating configuration and with mine being an aisle it was going to be a nice 9 hours back to Beijing Capital. The flight time had been slashed by 30 minutes, I am guessing the winds were good? Regardless, I was going back to China after my holiday with a good flight ahead.

Leaving the British Isles behind us, flight HU7904 soared higher during its direct course to China's capital. Refreshments were being served by the beautiful female Hainan crew members, the male crew members were very handsome indeed! Mine was a red wine, the crew asked their passengers in Chinese mostly but their English language skills seemed better than their other Chinese airline competitors. I was fortunate enough to keep the conversation in Chinese, they appreciated that very much. Lunch/Dinner was served soon after we had taken off from Manchester, menus were passed around the cabin to us passengers, I decided the pork with potato cakes and vegetables was the one for me to choose. The selection was very good, with the menu presenting all options in Chinese and English, it was a truly bi-lingual experience. Needless to say it was a stress free flying experience so early on! 谢谢 H!

I chose to watch Mamma Mia 2, it was one of the international Hollywood movie options that appealed to me the most. I had watched a Chinese title on the way to Delhi, I had already paid my Chinese film watching dues for that holiday. Sipping my wine, enjoying my food and with the hits of ABBA showcased in 'Mamma Mia 2', it was a whole round relaxed flying and dining experience at once. Hainan Airlines was impressing me effortlessly with its warm Chinese hospitality as we swooped through the skies, it was going to be an on-time arrival back into the capital so I had no qualms. It was easy enough to get a refill, the crew refilled my wine during the first part of the flight before I switched to water or juice. Not long after the main meal was served, the cabin lights had been dimmed as the majority of the passengers slept soundly as most Chinese people do. No negatives, every penny spent was proving to be well spent judging by the service and friendly nature of the 海南 cabin crew.

海南 impressed me with its simple but personal flight amenity kit for its economy class passengers. I personally don't use eye patches but they were a nice touch, in actual fact I find it very difficult to sleep during long flights, especially in economy class. The detail on the eye patch was practical and in both spoken languages by our onboard crew. It's not common for a Chinese airline to supply such simple yet effective free amenity to their passengers, that addition to the flight was appreciated. Need I be so careless to not mention, Hainan's rear galley served snacks throughout the flight, I enjoyed some for sure! Before making our descent it was time for breakfast, I chose the western option. Served with a choice of hot drinks it was just enough before our flight made its descent into Beijing Capital. Throughout the flight the atmosphere in the cabin was calm, that's extremely rare to find on a Chinese airline. Yes H!

If truth be told I didn't want the flight to land because everything had been so good, but all flights have their destinations. It felt natural for me to allow the bustle of the cabin to pass me. The Chinese passengers thought the flight was going to push back once more from Beijing, as usual they jumped up before the seatbelt sign disappeared to frantically grab their personal belongings, the crew seemed well versed with this behaviour and beforehand advised the passengers to remain seated for a few moments longer. I live a very short distance from the airport and in real life terms a few more moments waiting to collect my hand luggage wasn't going to cause the world to end! Hainan Airlines showed me a Chinese airline can offer international service with a bilingual speaking cabin crew that communicated well with their guests. Without question I would travel with Hainan Airlines again in the near future, with their direct connection to Tel Aviv I will plan my holiday to fly with them! OK H?

Hooray For Hainan!

Joseph Harrison 

26 January 2019

Flying High... Air India!

Air India, a flight that almost didn't take off to its final destination due to a breakdown with ATC one Central Asian country. With its original departure pushed forwards twenty-four little hours compared to the original date, it felt like one almighty miracle to finally touch down at Birmingham Airport. Bollywood movies, curried stews and chilled crew! It was an experience!

After spending seven days in India it was time to board my flight that would take me to my home airport, Birmingham doesn't have many direct flights so this connection had to be made to make a surprise Christmas. Catching the stomach bug known to all other stomach bugs I donned by best Indian suit from Chandni Chowk. I wasn't playing when I was told to get flight confirmation from the Air India desk because my Chinese phone had no signal to allow me access to the terminal building at New Delhi Airport, not the fault of the airline but with the way I was feeling it wasn't something I wanted to deal with in that moment. Having previously worked for a British airline that served a lot of New Delhi connectors, I was hopeful that my slightly overweight suitcase would be accepted without any issues. With my passport and boarding card in-hand, I was stamped out of the country as my luggage was on its way!

Rewinding back the clock two months previous things were in a different place regarding my travel plans with Air India. Without any explanation my departure date was pushed forwards to the next day and the once direct routing to Birmingham saw my new confirmation detail a brief stop in Amritsar before proceeding onwards to BHX. I had booked that Air India flight along with my outbound flight from China with a third party operator, both flights had changes that altered my schedule. The outbound connection to Delhi from China didn't change my plans but I needed that Air India flight to land before Christmas Eve to surprise my Grandparents, it wasn't good what went down but in the same breath the extra day in Delhi gave me the chance to see the Ganges River during my visit to Garhmuktesar. Do great things happen in strange ways? At the time the alterations happened I was feeling some kind of way but because all went smoothly after making it home I wasn't so bitter AI.

Our Amritsar flight was slightly behind schedule but with the short-hop to India's City famed for its Golden Temple, I wasn't stressed about that! I liked the small snack box and the orange juice carton that was served to the cabin by the friendly and smiling crew members. Flying high towards our first calling point of the day, I was more looking forward to the Bollywood movies and red wine on offer before I would be reunited with my family for the Christmas period, it was going to get slightly eventful. Touching down into Amritsar was fine, it was planned for passengers to disembark and for other to join our Dreamliner onto Birmingham, passports were checked without any issues, cabin bags identified it seemed like that was all that needed to be done? Really? The jet-bridge pulled away from the aircraft, for the bulk of the passengers it was a sign we were finally on our way after being slightly delayed. No AI, it got real!

Being the weekend Uzbekistan airspace had closed their zones and weren't responding to ATC at Amritsar, being on a very sensitive border with several Middle Eastern countries the mapping for the route to Birmingham took considerably longer to be cleared. The Indian passengers were chilled out considering the time we spent sat on the plane at Amritsar Airport grew longer, I was getting considered that Birmingham's airspace would be closed by the time our flight was projected to land. The pilots and ATC were still deliberating and creating a viable flight plan it decided the main meal would be served before takeoff. I had watched part of a Bollywood film about a typical love story, the twist was that the bride to be had ambitions to work and be successful rather than just a hen-pecked housewife. Lunch was nice, I went for the curried stew that served with rice and some Indian sweets. The crew remained calm and the majority of the passengers complied as well. Was it home time?

The eventual departure time for the Birmingham sector had to be pushed back, so the actual moment the doors closed for the final time felt great! Finally departing made me feel tremendously relieved to be on the way home to Birmingham Airport! Enjoying a few red wines helped me relax into the long flight from to Birmingham, the whole experience to that point had been seriously eventful and quite interesting in the same breath. I had chosen Air India to fly on their Boeing 787 Dreamliner, taking away from the delay and rerouting it was great to experience the quieter engines compared to other Boeing aircrafts operating before the Dreamliner was put into business. The B787 Dreamliner had a more relaxed feel with the mood lighting that the crew changed throughout the flight, it was something new for me to witness during a long-haul flight. So all in all, the service was very good once we were on our way! 

Yes, If I truth be told I didn't watch as many films during the flight, but the stomach bug knew that it needed to wait during that flight. No, literally! The food tasted good, the crew served enough drinks and were helpful when passengers including myself went to the galley for extra drinks and snacks. The extra two to three hours added to the flight really made the journey from New Delhi seemed a lot longer than it was scheduled. Having my flight changed and having to stay in Delhi for the extra night worked out for the best. Arriving into Birmingham Airport before the airports curfew felt amazing, I really felt that the pilot and the first officer worked really hard to make the new route work out for us to reach our destination without any harm being caused. The crew did their best, considering the situation resolving itself with the hardworking nature of the flight team I would choose Air India again. I managed to spend Christmas with my family and see my Niece's first Christmas! 

Oh, Birmingham!  

Joseph Harrison