Flying to North Korea

Flying to North Korea

When most people think of North Korea they imagine a dictatorship closed to all outsiders. Surprisingly, it’s actually quite easy to visit. The hardest part is applying for a Chinese visa, as you have to go through China (or Russia) first. Here’s what it’s like to fly from Beijing to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

Air Koryo is the national (and only) airline of North Korea. They used to fly to a surprising number of places like East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and all over Russia but most of these flights have been cancelled due to the fall of communism and the airline being banned in the EU. Now a quick direct fight from Beijing is the easiest way to go.

The check-in and boarding was all handled by Air China employees, even though Air China runs its own competing flight.

I was very surprised to see a rather modern large plane waiting on the tarmac. On my first visit to North Korea seven years ago, we flew an ancient Russian plane with big plush seats and tons of legroom.

That old Russian plane had additional seats that fold down into the aisle, so they can completely fill the plane, passengers all the way across.

Despite all those seats, Sil (who visited even earlier than me – 5 years earlier) said that one of the passengers on her flight was confused when he realized that the seat on his boarding pass didn’t exist. The rows just didn’t go that high. After some discussion among the Koreans, the tourist was given another seat and a Korean man moved to the toilet. That actually worked out pretty well for the Korean – he didn’t even need to leave his “seat” to smoke!

Well, things have changed. No one was without a seat this time and, shockingly, the plane didn’t fill up with cigarette smoke.

I don’t recall having to fill out many (any?) forms last time but now they want lots of information.

They’re most concerned about books that might be illegal and images that might embarrass the leadership. Bibles are strictly prohibited and distributing religious material is a serious crime.

Amazingly, you’re now allowed to bring a mobile phone into the country. Seven years ago I handed over my phone when I arrived at the airport and didn’t see it again until I left the country.

My phone was returned beautifully gift wrapped

The flight is only a little over an hour but the stewardesses were wonderful, treating everyone to the famous Koryo Burger.

Yummm…

Flying over fields of rice and little villages, we soon landed in Pyongyang.

Seven years ago the airport felt like a military base. In 2015 a brand new terminal was built. It feels positively modern, a sign of things to come on my journey through the Hermit Kingdom.

Cat Cafes of Beijing

Cat Cafes of Beijing

This is the second time I’ve visited China in the past year. Last autumn I enjoyed snuggling the affectionate kitties at Chengdu’s Peekaboo Cat Cafe, so I decided to see what Beijing has to offer too.

L’infusion

It’s a little tricky to find cat cafes in China as they love cat pictures and Hello Kitty, even when it has nothing to do with the business inside. Fortunately, L’infusion is pretty easy to find.

This French-themed cafe is relaxing and has a wide selection of coffee (I still prefer tea).

There were three cats when I arrived and all were content to indulge in an afternoon nap.

Some people judge a cat cafe by how many cats there are but I actually think three is just about right for this intimate space. Luckily, I had them all to myself, as I was the only customer for the two hours I stayed.

In places like Asia (and, I suppose, everywhere really) you want to know that the cafe owners actually care for the cats and aren’t just using them to draw in gullible feline lovers. I was a bit concerned that one of the kitties had matted fur and seemed to be drooling. He did seem happy still but I think he could use some grooming and a vet check up. I’d like to have asked but English is pretty limited here.

Upstairs is a cozy, bright space that would be nice for passing the evening while reading a book or playing a bit of guitar. And snuggling kitties, of course.

I really enjoyed my time at L’infusion. It’s a charming space with nice relaxing music and sleepy, cuddly cats. I do hope they make sure the cats are all healthy.

How to find it

Area: Dongcheng
Metro Station: Lama Temple
Address: 53 Wudaoying Hutong
(Note that Google Maps thinks the name of the cafe is “Muming”. Google is very unreliable in China).
This is just a few doors east of a restaurant called “Veggie Table” and north of the Confucius Temple.

Confucius Temple

Speaking of the Confucius Temple, it makes a great cultural visit after cuddling some cats. I visited the more famous Lama Temple on my last visit to Beijing, so this quieter place of learning and reflection seemed a good choice.

Confucius philosophy, in a nutshell, teaches respect and loyalty to parents, elders, and authority figures. It still has a deep influence on Chinese and Korean culture (more on that soon!).

Maoxiaoyuan Cat Yard

There are a number of cat cafes in the area, all easily within walking distance, so I decided to see if I could find them all. When I got to Maoxiaoyuan Cat Yard, I wasn’t entirely sure it was actually a cat cafe.

Inside, there definitely are cats – lots of them.

Compared to L’infusion, Cat Yard is pretty busy. It feels more like a Chinese restaurant with cats.

All the cats are unfixed males, which seems like a bad idea to me.

With so many to choose from, it was pretty easy to find a cuddle buddy.

Upstairs is a bright, cheery room with lots of windows.

There’s even an outdoor catio for some fresh air and a taste of freedom.

One particularly spunky young cat invited me to a game of kill-the-string. I thought he might get his claws out but he was very gentle.

I’m not sure the vibe of Cat Yard suites my tastes but the cats all seem healthy and happy, if a bit crowded.

How to find it

Address: 14 Beixiawazi Hutong
This is a short walk from L’infusion and the Confucius Temple.

Wudaoying Hutong

Since I was in the area, I decided to stroll through the Hutongs, with their fun shops and restaurants. On my last visit to Beijing seven years ago, the Hutongs were twisting, mysterious alleys, often filled with drying laundry and offensive odors. Now, they’ve been cleaned up. Some are even tourist attractions.

Love Happiness Cat Cafe

Love Happiness Cat Cafe is right on the main street and you’ll recognize it by all the people gathered at the window, taking selfies with the cute cats inside. I had to wait 5 minutes to get this photo with no people in it.

Inside is a clean, crisp space with comfy chairs, although you may need to share yours with a cat.

I found a few willing snuggle partners, all happy just to have some attention as they snoozed.

I was happy to see the cats getting some grooming too. I felt as if the owners really care about their cats, even if ear cleaning day didn’t seem like a favourite among the feline population.

There’s a good range of food and drinks on offer. I had a tasty berry salad and a lemonade. One precocious cat also thought he would have some lemonade.

I wish I could have stayed longer and one particular cat tried to make me by holding my backpack hostage.

This is mine now – don’t touch!

Address: Gulou East just east of the north end of Luogu South Hutong

There are, reportedly, many more cat cafes in Beijing but I think there’s a pretty high turnover rate. Of the above three, I’d most recommended L’infusion for its relaxing atmosphere and Love Happiness for its plethora of well looked after cuddly cats.

Happy 70th Birthday, China

Happy 70th Birthday, China

China has an ancient history but the country is technically quite young. After a brutal occupation by Japan up until the end of WWII and a civil war that forced the losing side out to Taiwan, Mao Zedong and his Communist Party formed The People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Seventy years later, I just happen to be in Beijing. What better place to join in the celebrations.It seems like everyone is in Tiananmen Square. This massive space has seen its fair share of trouble but today it’s full of celebration and happy people.The kids especially seem to enjoy it.There are even synchronized dancers putting on a show for everyone who walks by.I’m not the only one taking photos. It’s a selfie paradise.Happy Birthday, China! 生日快乐 !I wish you peace and prosperity. Tomorrow is a brand new day.

The Real Brooklyn

The Real Brooklyn

Day 9 – Utrecht to Hilversum – 36 km

After visiting the vibrant collage town of Utrecht, we join a cycling path along the Dutch Water Line. Now a peaceful greenway, this series of sluices, dikes, and forts was constructed beginning in the 1620s as a military defense against the Spanish, French, and English. It took until 1815 to complete! When you live in such a low country, flooding low-lying areas to keep attackers out is a brilliant idea.

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