So! Here is how the actual travel part worked for me, how I went about it etc., but of course it was by no means perfect😉 Feel free to take it as inspiration though and improve on that… or if you have better recommendations, let me know in the comments, so I can improve on my next trip to Beijing and further!🙂
I managed to find a direct flight from Berlin to Beijing and back with Hainan airlines (they also have a fairly affordable rebooking option which I even had to use for reasons unrelated to the trip). They are actually quite good! I feared a little that there would be very little leg room, but even I had solid legroom to make use of🙂 The service was also pretty nice, but they didn’t have any USB ports on either flight😦 I kind of got used to them on my flights to the USA… meh. I really enjoyed the coconut juice though!
I did one minor mistake in picking my travel dates though: I went almost just before the lunar new year, so the plane was packed! As were the check-in counter and security check! I checked in online before, so I would not be subject to luck in terms of the seat choice😀
Immigration and visa
Before you land, you are handed an immigration card that you fill in with your name, address, passport number and flight number. Like I mentioned in my article on booking the trip to the DPRK, you can get a 72 hour transfer visa without many issues after arriving at the airport.
Here is how it works: Print out all your flight itineraries for this trip that show when you enter and exit China, as well as the booking confirmation for your hotel which contains its address. Along with your passport and the immigration card that you fill in either on the plane or at the airport itself, you hand in those documents to the immigration officer. You might want to recheck eligible countries though😉
They may or may not ask you about the purpose of the trip or the connection, but the process is quite fast. Then you get your temporary visa which allows you to stay until your connecting flight (but for no longer than 72 hours).
Afterwards I left and headed to the hotel close to the airport, which in itself came with some challenges…
According to the booking portal, the hotel offered a free airport shuttle service, but in this case it didn’t run a regular service – instead it had to be arranged for. I called them before my departure and they told me to call another number, which I did… only to find out that they didn’t speak any other language but Chinese.
A couple of lessons I learned:
Lesson number 1: if a (taxi) driver approaches you and talks to you in English, the prices apparently are a rip-off. I fell for that trap the first time around, because it felt like I had no other options.
Lesson number 2: you don’t need a hotel close to the airport. There is a train running from the airport to the city, so why not book yourself into a hotel close to the Sanlitun area? (which I did not. I went to an airport hotel… and regretted it). From there it is not overly far to, for example, Tiananmen Square and the forbidden city. And chances are that people even speak English😉
Lesson number 3: the train services are fairly cheap. An angel that I met on my way back from Pyongyang gave me this travel card that was partly topped up (which was lucky – on my first two attempts, they didn’t want to top up the card). The trip from China International Exhibition Center to Tiananmen Square took about an hour and cost me 6 CNY, which equals about one Euro. You might want to try and avoid rush hours though🙂
Lesson number 4: You will probably know this already, but a number of websites and services don’t work in chinese networks, such as Facebook, Google (including Google translate! And gmail), Youtube… however, WhatsApp, Hotmail, and of all things, Tinder work. I am a bit uncertain about why the latter would work there, given that you need a facebook account to sign up in the first place, but … oh well. On the other hand, roaming is not that bad, 50 MB cost me 2,95 EUR with the Deutsche Telekom, and it gives you unrestricted internet access. Just don’t use youtube or instagram like crazy, because pictures and videos tend to use up that data volume rather quickly.
…. This is all nice and well but we’re not in Pyongyang yet!😀
Flying to Pyongyang
My flight to Pyongyang left on 12:55 pm the day after and, this being an international flight and all, I wanted to be at Beijing International Capital Airport (PEK) early enough, just in case; the hotel shuttle left at 9 AM and arrived at Terminal 2 at 9:15 … Check-in wasn’t even open yet😀 You can go in and out of this particular security zone, so I decided to wait until about 11 AM in a little café just outside the international Check-in area (…there is nothing in there. No café, nothing, and I hadn’t eaten…). Do yourself a favour, and don’t arrive 3 or rather even 2 hours before the flight, but be aware of potential traffic.
Back at the check-in counter – this time the counters were open – I was surprised just how much luggage some people bring onto the flights. The queues weren’t long when I joined, but it took ages to get to the front and it seemed like anyone just walked up to the desk regardless of whether they were waiting in line. I mean, Germans haven’t perfected queueing as much as other folks have, but deary me, where’s the order😀
After several further security and immigration checks I entered the waiting zone. In case you forgot to bring a little guest gift you have the opportunity to buy stuff here… Alcohol, cigarettes, food … Lots of things. And a Starbucks, for your sort of western food needs (no carrot cake when I was there)😀
On the plane things were quite simple, you had a concert you could watch throughout the flight (Moranbong playing) and occasionally the stewardesses would explain some landscape related things and their cultural meanings.
Before your arrival, you will get three sheets of paper that you will have to fill in for your immigration:
- A health and quarantine form, trying to make sure that you’re not carrying any dangerous illnesses
- A (standard) immigration form
- A customs declaration form.
One thing that puzzled me a bit about the immigration form was that it not only asked for your citizenship, but also for your race. … What? =)
About the customs: in my case, they wanted me to show them the electronic devices (camera, kindle, tablet, solar powered battery) as well as the books that I have named. For the devices, they only wanted to have a quick look at the tablet, checking some folders for files, and the publications were also quickly looked at and checked by the team. This was all super fast though and I was given back every single item, including both cell phones, the kindle, tablet … And the books (which were all about learning Swedish). I have met another tourist who brought a travel guide for North Korea with him and he had to leave that at the customs office.
Getting out again
For me it was fast and easy, afterwards there were no issues. On the way back, even more surprisingly, I wasn’t checked by customs at all; I have read before that your photos will be given a quick glance, but nothing like that happened! Instead, the process was fast and easy.
One small word of advice: on the Air Koryo flights you might be offered to choose one of three types of drinks: water, beer or some coloured (blue? Purple) lemonade kind of thing. Do yourself a favour and don’t even try that “lemonade”, unless you’re really into sodas that have this very artificial taste. I tried and next time I will pick water.🙂
I arrived back in Beijing quite early, around 10 am, so I used the day to visit the Forbidden City… But more about that later! =)