Korea du North fifth part

Another place I visited outside Pyongyang was Samjiyon, which isn’t a city per-se but that rather the name of a county with a small village, that has its own airport that was going to serve a ski resort that some businessmen from the south were going to build in the 80s, but that in the end didn’t.


The place is pretty close to mount Paektu, that is a sacred mountain in Korea in general, and 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 on 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 was operated by many airlines and air forces from the Soviet Union and akin countries, such as Aeroflot, TAROM, Interflug (Erich Honecker, East Germany’s leader, would fly on one from time to time), Cubana and Malev, among others.

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 anymore.

Aviation-wise my main goal was the Ilyushin Il-62 in which I had arrived from Beijing, but every new Airplane I could fly there was marvelous, 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 in 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 if things went according to plan, and obviously, we applauded and almost cried when we heard this, except the few present people who had no awareness of the crown jewel we were talking about and were kind of lost, and perhaps, 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 in that moment, and 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 is 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 that spoke nonsense all the flight, but nonsense that made me laugh a lot.

Other uniformed crews also joined the flight (different from the crew in charge of the flight), and 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!” believing we had already taken off, and 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, while I was recounting Chariots of Fire in my head as I saw whatever little could be seen between clouds.


The interior configuration was not typical, with passenger seats forward, a galley separated from the passengers in the middle (and some jumpseats) 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 stayed 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), but 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 (it wasn’t czech, it wasn’t slovakian, it was czechoslovakian!) to weight luggage.


Granted, I preferred not to search for what was not lost in that moment.

From there we departed through a dirt road in much better state of repair than any eastern Antioquia trail (but still a dirt road) 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 in the road and one or two motorbikes, who knows where they were going.

There was no electricity in the moment in the hotel, but it had a VERY nice traditional korean heating system called Ondol, that basically is heating the thick floor with wood-fire smoke.

To put my feet there in that fucked up 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 just arrived, had a little rest, and that was it. Then we left on the same bus, over the same dirt road, toward Paektu mountain. The landscape was very nice along the road, and it was still cold as fuck.


The mountain is located right in the border between North Korea and China (literally a chunk on each country), and 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 another shitfest.

That wouldn’t be that easy anyway, being a border, it’s full of military and control posts, but there was already an incident at the Kumgang mountain resort, in the border with the south, in which a south korean tourist kind of got lost or something, and a north korean soldier shot at her and killed her, so I guess serious caution measures are taken there in Paektu mountain when people visit from China.

It’s so important in North Korea that it even appears in the coat of arms and all. The same importance that almost all colombians give to the cornucopias in our coat of arms (nah, they do seem to care there, even if it is due to the “wrong” reasons).

On the top of the mountain there is a beautiful lake called Heaven Lake, but I’ve only seen it on photos because 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 to 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?  Nothing, wait for the driver and his helper to gather more water from a nearby puddle with a bucket they had, then crazy pour it in the engine, laugh about the situation, and wait for a while.

And it worked because the bus started easily just like that, but we decided against continuing the climb. They started that bus joining some cables with a battery I had just 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.


All good!

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, and they say a star was formed when he was born and a double rainbow appeared, and that it changed from winter to spring.

It’s a veeeeery crazy tale mate, but well, they believe that there, and here in Colombia corrupt people march allegedly against corruption, and I think that’s equally 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 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 on 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 just 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, that 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 going there we met an army truck and the face the guides and driver had was to die for, they definitely weren’t expecting that.

They told us at once “put down the cameras and don’t take photos!” as if their lives depended on that, something that wasn’t so far from reality somehow, I think. When the army was out of sight they regained their skin colour.

From there we went to the Great Samjiyon Monument.  Yet another statue to Kim Il-Sung and the battles, that could easily be the biggest outside Pyongyang.


They say it was made to commemorate Pochombo’s battle, that basically is the moment when Kim Il-Sung’s forces decided to leave guerrilla warfare tactics and just 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 as convinced as the one that talked to us about Kim Jong-Il’s birth close to Paektu mountain.


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.

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… I could be screwed for that!


Flight attendants arrived from who knows where. As soon as we arrived the day before, they left, and we saw them again just in 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.


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 while Chariots of Fire was in my head, without a bit of turbulence.


We lined up and waited on the active runway, and remained there some three minutes while the engines were being tested, I think. It was a smooth takeoff afterward.

This time around I sat one seat aft than I had before, right 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 its healthy dose of Medellin urban 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 as well (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 as the 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, and it was appreciated for operations in ill-prepared runways (something common with soviet Airplanes of the moment).

More than 1000 were built, but now there’s none flying, even though it’s my understanding that there’s at least one that’s still airworthy in Russia at the moment of writing this, cared for by a conservation group.


I was told the one in Pyongyang was not legally airworthy since the late 80s, but what’s true is that it was VERY well conserved. I don’t think it would have needed too much work for it to fly again roughly speaking, and without going into technical stuff that I couldn’t know by that simple view.


The Airplane, with the registry number 535, had colours like those of Air Koryo but it wasn’t on their fleet really.


We were told 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 even to Europe as I mentioned at some point).

Kim Jong-Un is not afraid of flying and he even has a “presidential” Ilyushin Il-62, seen in the video below from minutes 0 to 3 and from the 18 onward).

I understand the Airplane is nowadays on another location in Pyongyang and important efforts are made toward its conservation.

So I got off after flying on such a tremendous crown jewel of an Airplane, just to be able to see first hand 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!

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