This article was last updated on: October 2018
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Another place I visited outside Pyongyang was Samjiyon. It isn’t a city per-se, that rather, it’s the name of a county with a small village.
It has its own Airport because it was going to serve a ski resort that some businessmen from the south were going to build in the 80s.
In the end, this didn’t happen.
The place is pretty close to Mount Paektu. It’s a sacred mountain in Korea in general, and it lies close to what they say was the birthplace of Kim Jong-Il.
The counterpart says he was born in a camp close to Khabarovsk, in what was back then the Soviet Union.
This was interesting for me of course. But more than that, I was interested in the flight from Pyongyang. This time around it wasn’t going to be a King Long bus!
The flight was going to be on an Ilyushin Il-18, no less! The Il-18 is a soviet four-engined turboprop that had its first flight in 1957.
Back in the day it many airlines and air forces operated it. Mostly from the Soviet Union and akin countries.
Airlines such as Aeroflot, TAROM, Cubana and Malev, among others.
Interflug flew some too. Erich Honecker, East Germany’s leader, would fly on one from time to time.
By the moment I was able to take such a delicious flight, the only operating ones belonged to Air Koryo, a modified one used by the Russian navy, and one used by an airline in Somalia called Daallo (hmmm Somalia… I must eventually go).
Daallo still exists at the time of writing this, but they don’t fly the Ilyushin Il-18 any more.
Aviation-wise my main goal was the Ilyushin Il-62 in which I had arrived from Beijing. But every new Airplane I could fly in there was marvellous, and that Il-18 made me veeery happy.
It was a very particular Airplane, and in Air Koryo they knew it. So much so that before departure we had a meeting with some officers from the Airline and the Pilots, just to talk about the Airplane and make questions.
At least 85% of the people in the group had some kind of relationship and appreciation for Aviation somehow.
And at Air Koryo, they delivered for us.
Among other things, they said they had the logistics in place to keep the Airplane flying for at least another 10 years.
Obviously, we applauded and almost cried when we heard this. Except for the few present people who had no awareness of the crown jewel we were talking about and were kind of lost. Perhaps, they were also kind of scared in light of the Airplane’s age.
Not everyone knows about Aviation and the good stuff in life, and there’s no problem with that.
Politics didn’t matter at that moment. No one really screwed it with trick questions or a bad attitude, so the people at Air Koryo relaxed even more, and they even started cracking jokes.
In the end, people are the same regardless of politics and geography. *Goes running to hug a tree* .
Other foreigners that I hadn’t seen before joined that flight.
I clearly remember some senior ladies from the United States and the United Kingdom. They spoke nonsense all the flight, but nonsense that made me laugh a lot.
Other uniformed crew, different from the crew in charge of the flight joined the flight. I never knew whether they were taking advantage of the flight to reposition or just to “take care” of us.
Thing is, the Airplane was immaculate, and I was very happy.
And so, one rainy and cold morning, we departed Pyongyang for Samjiyon.
The taxi to the runway was taking so long that one of the ladies said:
-“Very smooth flight!”.
She was believing we had already taken off. The other ladies that were with her told her that wasn’t the case, and mocked her, and I laughed even more.
The Airplane climbed slowly, and in a tremendously graceful fashion. Meanwhile, I was recounting Chariots of Fire in my head, as I saw whatever little I could see between clouds.
The interior configuration was not typical.
It had passenger seats forward, a galley separated from the passengers in the middle (and some jump-seats), and more passenger seats aft.
So in seat 5A you were forward of the propellers, but if you were in 6A, you were almost in line with the engines’ exhaust.
We reached Samjiyon and the Airplane remained there. We were going to be back the next day, to fly back to Pyongyang.
There’s an important military presence in that Airport. Many old Mikoyan-Gurevich (Mig-15 I think).
They weren’t very visible nor operative when we arrived, even though they could be heard behind the bushes doing engine runs.
We entered Samjiyon’s Airport terminal. It was a building with two rooms, a big one that doubled as a waiting room and a smaller one with a classic Czechoslovakian scale to weight luggage.
It wasn’t Czech, it wasn’t Slovakian. It was Czechoslovakian!
Granted, I preferred not to search for what was not lost at that moment.
From there, we departed through a dirt road in a much better state of repair than any eastern Antioquia trail (but still a dirt road).
We were on our way to some hotel that didn’t have electricity. In theory, it had the connections and even old school Chinese TV sets, but electricity itself was gone.
Several people walking could be seen on the road, and one or two motorbikes. Who knows where they were going!
There was no electricity at the moment in the hotel. But it had a VERY nice traditional Korean heating system called Ondol.
Basically, it’s heating the thick floor with wood-fire smoke.
To put my feet there in that damned cold was delicious.
I just sat on a bed and put my feet there while I contemplated where my life was going to, the cosmos, and all that.
It didn’t matter that there was no electricity, and I never imagined I would ever write such a sentence.
We didn’t stay there long anyway. We arrived, had a little rest, and that was it. Then we left on the same bus, over the same dirt road, toward Mount Paektu.
The landscape was very nice along the road, and it was still cold as hell.
The mountain is located right in the border between North Korea and China. Literally, a chunk on each country.
It’s venerated by all Koreans. So South Koreans go from China with aaaall due cautions, so as to not stray to the north, and begin yet another diplomatic problem.
That wouldn’t be that easy anyway. Being a border, it’s full of military and control posts.
There was already an incident at the Kumgang Mountain Resort, on the border with the south. There, a South Korean tourist kind of got lost or something, and a North Korean soldier shot at and killed her.
So, I guess they take serious caution measures in Mount Paektu when people visit from China.
Mount Paektu is so important in North Korea, that it even appears in the coat of arms and all.
On the top of the mountain there is a beautiful lake called Heaven Lake.
But I’ve only seen it on photos. There was much snow, and the road was getting harder to travel the more we went up on one hand, and, on the other hand, the bus stalled. Ja!
In the beginning, the bus just overheated a little, and we stopped for some minutes. Then, the driver poured some water he had in a bottle into the engine, and we carried on.
But as we kept going, the bus would overheat even more, until we had to stop altogether.
What was I going to do with a stalled bus in North Korea close to Paektu mountain, and dead cold?
Well, nothing. Just wait for the driver and his helper to gather more water from a nearby puddle with a bucket they had, and crazy pour it in the engine. Then laugh about the situation, and wait some more.
And it worked because the bus started easily just like that, but we decided against continuing the climb.
They started that bus by joining some cables with a battery I had right in front. I thought it was great.
I would have liked to see the lake. In fact, I still do, but the adventure and the way it was solved in the end was worth it.
Later, I ended up in Kim Jong-Il’s birthplace according to North Korea.
They say he was born somewhere close to Mount Paektu on a military camp of anti-Japanese resistance. They also say a star was formed when he was born, a double rainbow appeared, and that it changed from winter to spring, among other things.
It’s a veeeeery crazy tale mate, but well, they believe that there. Here in Colombia corrupt people march, allegedly, against corruption.
I think that’s just as crazy.
The military woman who was telling the story to us seemed to be quite convinced about it.
The counterpart says that Kim Kong-Il was indeed born on a military camp. But in a Soviet Union camp on a village called Vyatskoye, not too far from Khabarovsk.
While there, they say Kim Il-Sung was in charge of a group of Chinese and Korean people inside the red army. They say they used to call him “Yura” (so very Russian).
I don’t know what the truth is about that. But when I was born in Medellin downtown I am sure they were mugging at least eight people in an area three blocks from the hospital.
While on a block it was beach sunny, and the century thunderstorm was falling right on the other block… but it wasn’t because of me being born.
Medellin downtown is like that, all the way since those times. There was no double rainbow or anything.
I am quite the commoner, you hear?!
From there, we went to the Rimyongsu Cataracts.
They say that they flow on underground rivers until they surface right in the point we went to visit.
A very beautiful place, truth be told.
When we were on our way, we came across an army lorry. The expression in the faces of the driver and the guides was to die for, they definitely weren’t expecting to see it there.
They immediately told us:
-“Put down your cameras and don’t take any photos!”
As if their own lives depended on it. Maybe that wasn’t that far from the truth, I think.
When the lorry was left behind and out of sight, they regained their normal skin tone.
From there we went to the Great Samjiyon Monument.
Yet another statue to Kim Il-Sung and the battles. It could easily be the biggest one outside Pyongyang.
They say it was made to commemorate Pochonbo’s Battle. Allegedly, it was the moment when Kim Il-Sung’s forces decided to leave guerrilla warfare tactics, and go all out to war.
There’s also a small replica of the Tower of the Juche Idea.
The military woman guide talked to us about those monuments’ history with passion.
As convinced as the one that talked to us about Kim Jong-Il’s birth close to Mount Paektu.
We returned to the village to rest, it had been a nice and eventful day. Some photos of the monument and Samjiyon village right below.
There was an Ilyushin Il-18 to take the next day to Pyongyang.
A new day arrived, and we made our way to the Airport to return to Pyongyang.
We arrived in the Airport, and the bus got us all the way to the apron, without going inside the terminal.
We had lunch right there in the platform. And the only security check was a hand-held metal detector they waved at us just in case, nothing else.
It’s very hard to think of something like that happening at this point in most countries I think. But things were like that up there.
All in all, it was the only flight of the day. And it was the same group of crazy people who had arrived the day before right in the same Airplane.
The weather was so much better that day, and I even saw an air force Mig-15 on an engine run. I think it could be heard all the way to China, delicious!
But no photo… They could screw me for that!
Flight attendants arrived from who knows where.
As soon as we arrived the day before, they left, and we saw nothing of them again until that moment.
They probably were not authorised to interact with us more than what’s strictly necessary, and appropriate with their role.
There was the Ilyushin Il-18 in the place we had left it the day before.
The Airport lunch was over. Then some tractor with some baggage for the cargo hold appeared, and soon enough we started boarding.
Onboard P-835 once again, we started our return to Pyongyang.
Yet another delicious flight full of grace. Chariots of Fire was again in my head, and we hadn’t the slightest bit of turbulence.
We lined up and waited on the active runway, and remained there some three minutes while the engines were being tested. It was a smooth take-off afterwards.
This time around, I sat one seat aft than I had before. To the other side of the galley that was located in the middle of the fuselage. Right before the entrance looking from the empennage to the nose.
My knees didn’t fit in that seat, but when one has had a healthy dose of Medellin urban Coonatra bus it doesn’t matter as much.
That flight wasn’t about comfort! It wasn’t that bad anyway…
The flight continued normally, and we had a smooth approach and landing in Sunan.
More photos of the flight between Samjiyon and Pyongyang in the gallery below.
There was a surprise there. An Ilyushin Il-14!
The Ilyushin Il-14 is an Airplane derived from the Ilyushin Il-12, designed in the 50s. The 12 flew for the first time in 1945.
Its main role was as a replacement of the always well-thought-out Douglas DC-3, which was built in the Soviet Union under licence with the name Lisunov Li-2.
They wanted something more modern and totally their own. They were a world power now, and it didn’t look quite right to use Airplanes from the rancid capitalist oligarchy.
It turned out to be quite a good Airplane.
It was appreciated for operations in ill-prepared runways. Something common with soviet Airplanes of the moment.
They built more than 1000, but now there’s none flying.
It’s my understanding that there’s at least one that’s still airworthy in Russia at the moment of writing this. It’s cared for by a conservation group.
They told me the one in Pyongyang was not legally airworthy since the late 80s. But what’s true is that it was VERY well conserved.
Roughly speaking, I don’t think it would have needed too much work for it to fly again.
I say that without going into technical stuff that I couldn’t know by that simple view I had, though.
The Airplane had the registry number 535. It had colours like those of Air Koryo, but it wasn’t on their fleet officially.
They told us that Kim Il-Sung had used that Airplane at some point. But just a little, since he was afraid to fly like Kim Jong-Il. They used trains to go as far as Europe, as I mentioned at some point.
Kim Jong-Un is not afraid of flying though. He even has a “presidential” Ilyushin Il-62. It can be seen in the video below from minutes 0 to 3, and from minute 18 onward.
I understand the Airplane is nowadays in another location in Pyongyang. I have read important efforts are made toward its conservation, gladly.
So, I got off after flying on such a tremendous crown jewel of an Airplane, just to be able to see firsthand another one that wasn’t even on the schedule.
And since we were “the people of the Airplanes” they weren’t being annoying with the photos and that.
The trip was turning out wonderfully!