North Korea 2015

North Korea 2015


North Korea is not the first country that springs to mind as a travel destination for most people.  Apart from the Chinese visitors who comprise 90% of North Korea’s annual tourism intake, foreign visitors to North Korea number just 2,500 to 4,000 per year (the figure varies according to the source of the estimate).  Foreign visitors to North Korea tend to be well travelled individuals who are very curious about this little known and poorly understood country.  Such were the 12 people who comprised the enthusiastic group I led into North Korea on this Geographical Society study tour.  For me personally, this was to be my ninth trip into North Korea.

Geographical Society study tours aim to attract travellers as opposed to tourists - people who want to understand the places they are visiting.  Preparations for this study tour had begun months in advance, and by the time the group met for their pre-tour briefing in Beijing yesterday afternoon, I was confident that they were as well prepared as any group could be.

Today’s journey was a comparatively simple first step on our travels, although it was not without its complications.  Rather than flying straight into North Korea, our group was going first to explore Chinese-Korean interactions by visiting Dandong, China’s frontier city with North Korea.  We had originally planned to travel from Beijing to Dandong on an overnight train, but when all the trains in North-east China were commandeered by the military in preparation for a major parade in Beijing on 3rd September, our plans were adjusted and we flew to Dandong instead.

Beijing’s skies were grey and drizzling with rain when the group met in the foyer of our hotel to take a bus to Beijing Airport’s Terminal 3 for the one hour and forty minute Air China flight to Dandong.  We were glad that we had decided to hire a bus for the journey to the airport rather than getting a fleet of taxis, as we had plenty of space and it kept the group together.

Beijing Airport’s Terminal 3 is gigantic in scale; it must surely rank among the largest airport terminals in the world.  It was also surprisingly efficient, and after calm and orderly security checks we proceeded to Gate C12 to board our Air China Boeing 737.  Boarding commenced ten minutes early, and we were all comfortably seated when the aircraft pushed back from the terminal, right on time.

Our flight was smooth and pleasant, and after landing in Dandong three minutes early, we were delighted to find that the weather was far better than the rain we had left behind us in Beijing.  Luggage was delivered quickly, and as we exited the secure area of the airport, we met David, our local guide in Dandong.

David immediately impressed us with his fluency in English, and he gave us an excellent introduction to Dandong and its relationship with North Korea during the half hour bus trip into central Dandong.  Our accommodation, the Zhong Lian Hotel, was superbly located facing the Yalu River that marks the border between China and North Korea.  Everyone in the group was given a room on the 7th floor with stunning views overlooking the river and the one and a half bridges that span the river to join China with North Korea.  Interestingly, a pair of binoculars was provided in each room so we could sit and gaze across the river into North Korea - surely better entertainment for us than the television channels in the room, all of which were in Chinese.

This evening was free time for the group, so while some us dined together in a nearby Chinese restaurant, others walked and began exploring the city of Dandong.  For all of us, there was a sense of anticipation as the real explorations the following day drew near.

Day 1 - Beijing to Dandong (China)


31 August 2015