An empty flight, a deserted airport, a scary balcony, and a digital detox: ex-A-League striker Harry Sawyer gives FTBL the inside story to an eye-opening three days in Pyongyang for an AFC Cup playoff.
Last Wednesday night, the 22-year-old former Roar and Jets forward played for his Hong Kong club Tai Po in an AFC Cup playoff first leg against North Korean outfit Ryomyong (who had defeated a Mongolian club to reach this playoff).
It meant from Monday to Thursday last week, the big Queenslander was based in Pyongyang.
The squad flew from Hong Kong to Beijing on Sunday, stayed overnight before flying 90 minutes to the North Korean capital on Monday ahead of the midweek first leg.
Here, the talented striker tells his story of those few days in the Hermit Kingdom.
Beijing to Pyongyang: room to stretch out
No-one really knew what to expect. Before we even went we had a meeting and we had some rules set up for us.
We weren't allowed to call it North Korea - it had to be DPR Korea - because the people there find it offensive if you say North Korea.
On the plan,e it was just us and the AFC match officials from Iran. That's it, no one else on the 90 minute flight with Air China from Beijing.
Our flight was the only flight landing at their Pyongyang airport on the day.
We flew in at around 4pm from Beijing. You could hear a coin drop in that airport when we landed. Just us, the match officials and their security staff - these were the only people in the airport.
Even though it was just us at the airport it still took about 45 minutes to an hour to get through. It seemed a long process. They checked our bags our phones and checked any publishing that we had.
I took David Beckham's book and they had a good check of that to see there was no propaganda in it. They were very thorough. If we had anything from America or any sensitive information, it would not have got through.
I wouldn't say it was a good experience at the airport, but it was different.
We walked out of an empty airport and onto our bus which was the only vehicle at the airport car park.
“Don’t speak to the driver"
We had a North Korean driver but we were told not to talk to him. He didn't speak English at all anyway.
We were told not to speak to the people too much, but we didn't really get a chance anyway.
Pyongyang is meant to be the capital city but it's a very old looking place. From the airport to the hotel I saw a lot of long landscapes with nothing really there.
A few old buildings along the way and then when we got to the city there were more structured buildings, but a lot of them had on them large portraits of North Korean leaders.
When we were driving in it was starting to get quite dark, and there weren't many people around.
A lot of the males were sort of wearing similar types of clothing a kind of olive coloured jacket. Like an army jacket. It was very quiet.
It felt like a long time getting to the hotel.
Welcome to the Hotel Sosan: world’s scariest balcony?
It was quite big the hotel. Like an old version of the Marriott. We saw a few people from China in the hotel but that was about it. The only North Koreans we saw worked at the hotel.
We had double rooms and we were on the 27th floor. So we were quite high up but the problem was the balcony.
The railing only went up to about my knee level, so it was very very dangerous when you stood out on the balcony that high up.
When I woke up in the morning, because it was cold, it just looked like a white wall of fog from what I could see. You couldn't see a railing because it was so low. I remember looking out and thinking how crazy it was. For safety reasons in Australia you would never have a balcony like that where you could fall off so easily. Everyone was shocked at the balconies. We couldn't believe it and we were so high up.
After we arrived at the hotel we took another bus trip to a smaller stadium. It was an artificial surface. A very old looking stadium and there was nothing around the stadium. It's sort of sat between two farm looking areas. The seats were just cement.
I tried to take a photo but I was told not to take one. “No photos”. We had minders with us.
We stuck to the rules. Sort of.
Match day minus one
We had a familiarity session before the game, so during the day, we didn't really do anything. There was no internet.
We just had to stay in the hotel and occupy ourselves. We trained at the stadium at 2pm and the North Korean side trained after us. We had one hour at the stadium in preparation for our 4pm kickoff the following day.
No internet that's a killer, a lot of the younger boys weren't themselves without the internet! I could tell some of the younger lads were struggling without their phones.
Luckily they didn't confiscate my David Beckham book so I read that. And I downloaded some Netflix episodes - Vikings was what I watched to kill time. I made sure I didn't have any Donald Trump documentaries!
Monday Tuesday Wednesday and Thursday without the internet…I felt at one with nature!!
Match day: samba and synchronised warm ups
After breakfast, we went for a team walk down to the end of the road where our hotel was, then back into the hotel where we had to occupy ourselves before going to the stadium. I ended up playing pool with the Brazilian boys. Lunch then off to the stadium.
They had more big portraits of North Korean leaders hanging in and around the stadium.
Once we got off the bus we could see it was a big venue, and there was security and army uniforms escorting us to the dressing rooms.
The dressing rooms were quite nice, the Brazilian boys had downloaded some of their music to play. So there we were in this cold, soulless stadium in North Korea getting pumped up by this loud Samba music!
With that happy, vibes music it was like a change of scenery for us.
I think we needed that.
No goals in Pyongyang stalemate
Ryomyong was basically the U23 national team.
They warmed up in a very unusual manner. All very synchronised with warm up kicks and the like - well structured warm ups. They were very well drilled and disciplined, fast and hard.
Their buildup play was very structured they would play in wide areas with overlapping fullbacks. They played a 4-4-2.
They basically played the same way as their national team. We noticed that from our video analysis before we left Hong Kong. They were almost robotic.
Funnily, during the game every time they would go for a header or try to kick the ball they would grunt loudly. Every time a ball came in it sounded like the Aussie Open tennis with these big grunts!
I wanted to talk to some of their players after the game but we hurried off the pitch pretty quickly. It was 0-0 so a decent result for us away from home with the return leg in a week.
With a 4pm kick off on a Wednesday, which was a bit weird, I didn't think anybody would be there.
The fans it seemed to me we're an organised crowd. By that I mean it was like a crowd who were told to go see the game, they sat in a formation that made up the DPR Korea flag - blue and red shirts that when sat in a formation correctly, displayed the North Korean flag.
The rest of their fans it looked like they were from the army. At random points in the match, they would chant together but it seemed to have no relation to what was happening on the pitch.
It was a bit odd and definitely a different type of experience. [Ed: Sawyer was subbed off after 81 minutes, and he picked up a yellow card].
A swift exit
There was no banter with the opposition after the game, it was more case of let's get out of here and get back to the hotel. Back at the hotel, we had a Korean style BBQ waiting for us.
See you later, Pyongyang
We stayed one more night at the hotel and then we flew off the next morning.
We had to declare we had anything but it wasn't as full on as when we arrived. We flew back to Beijing at 9.30am on the only flight out that day and again it was just us and the match officials on the Air China flight. We then flew on to Hong Kong.
Trip Advisor review: nice but won't be going back.
With no contact with the outside world for a few days, I was glad to be getting out of there, to be honest.
It was good to be heading back home to Hong Kong. We had an important League game on the weekend and then the return leg this Wednesday, so it is a busy time for us.
But it was a sense of relief when we got back to Hong Kong late Thursday night.
Having a few days in Pyongyang is definitely something to tell the grandkids in years to come.
It's something you would never think of doing what football gives you the ability to see the world including places like Pyongyang.
In saying that I wouldn't be keen to be a tourist visiting there.