The landscape is pristine as we fly closer and closer to Pyongyang. Rice paddies dot the mountainous terrain. The sun is offensively bright as we step onto the tarmac, a sharp contrast from the mega pollution of Beijing. As my feet touch soil (ok, it’s concrete) in North Korea for the first time, I’ve never been so curious or intrigued by a country. The Hermit Kingdom. Here we go.
There are only four people from our tour on the plane. Unfortunately American passport holders are sanctioned from the overnight train journey, so we’re picked up by our local North Korean tour guides and taken to our hotel…
I should probably back up. I try to keep my words fairly un-political, but with a place like North Korea, that is entirely unavoidable. Some people were upset with me for going, and others would have been upset if they had known in the first place. Some worried about my safety and others thought I would spend the next 20 years in some horrific hellhole much worse than the Bangkok Hilton. There is no doubt that North Korea has massive and unavoidable problems on every single level imaginable. The United States Department of State defines the country as a highly regimented, repressive Communist state. They follow by strongly recommending against all travel to the country with warnings of possible lengthy detentions and little in the way of ambassadorship. I do not debate at all that the people of both North and South Korea have been severely damaged by the schism of the two countries. It is an absolute certainty that the people of North Korea are highly oppressed, lied to, and burdened with an unimaginable way of life. It’s true that they are kept intentionally ignorant of the happenings of the greater world. It is true that they work hard and long for little. But what isn’t true at all is your expectation. People sometimes ask me what place surprised me the most. I used to answer Sri Lanka or Southern Colorado. I don’t know if my new answer will ever change from North Korea. This was, without a doubt, one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life.
It’s tempting to stop right here and just encourage you to go. The right words don’t exist. They aren’t coming easy. I’m frustrating myself beyond reason trying to come up with something tangible and meaningful to tell you about the most ridiculous place on the planet. It’s the poster child of absolute absurdity. It turned me right upside down and shook me out. Is that the cheap way out? Can I just not write well enough to put it on paper?
The goal of this whole thing is to encourage you to travel too. So maybe stopping here is good enough for now. I’ll write more for my memoirs. So let’s just say that I played on both the first and second pool table ever invented, AND I saw the first piece of metal ever invented. I drank a beer at a shooting range and rode one of the better roller coasters that i've been on. I bowled the best game of my life and I met some incredible people.
And maybe the single most important aspect of the whole trip. I got to spend time with one of the best friends I could ever imagine. I got to pull him out of his comfort zone and open some doors for him. I planted the travel bug in his head and potentially ruined his life. That’s success enough for me.