My National Geographic Moment with North Korea

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(at the time of writing this, I’ve managed to come back safe and sound from North Korea.)

It all started with a wish. I was standing by the DMZ in South Korea and looking into its estranged neighbor,  North Korea. I saw the bleak barren landscape, the empty gray Soviet Union blocks, the highest flagpole in the world and my mind was set.

I had to go there.

There is this fascination of going to a country unlike any other. After traveling to many nations, you start to see the same pattern again and again. Tourist shops, annoying peddlers shoving their stuff at you, scams, hopping from one hostel to another, being surrounded by drunk or stoned backpackers who just want to find out when the next full moon party’s going to be. After years of that, you long for something different.

Enter North Korea.

Yes, it’s not exactly the best place for a tourist destination but if you want something so radically different and totally out of the box, it’s offers the complete package. It gives you the feeling of being fully thrust into what’s it like living in the Matrix, of being completely isolated from the outside world where the claws of internet bytes and mobile sound waves cannot reach you. You disappear behind the Iron Curtain and there is a big chance you’ll come out completely changed once you step out again, assuming you can also come back.

I didn’t go there for the landscape. Certainly not for the food. Or the politics. I went there for the experience. What is it like living in a country that is completely sealed off from the rest of the world and what are the people like?North Korea certainly did not disappoint. The minute I got off the train from China and into Pyongyang was like stepping back in time in World War II. NK was like an enormous Universal Studio Soviet Union theme park except it’s real, it’s the whole country. And no, they’ve never heard of Universal Studio.

My journey started with a 30 hour train ride with three friends from Guangzhou in Guangdong Province,China all the way to Shenyang City, Liaoning Provice. It’s summer but it was bitter cold at night in Shenyang. It’s a huge city that used to be the capital of China back when the Manchus ruled it.

Then we took a 3 hour bus ride from Shenyang to Dandong City-the border town and gateway to North Korea. Dandong was not that bad actually. It was a small city and didn’t have the usual chaos, trash and hordes of noisy people that characterize every city I went to in China. There were parts that were really clean and eerily quiet and streets chock full of delicious Korean food. I suspect that some were probably owned by North Korean defectors who smuggled their way into China.

North Korea and China are divided by this river that would probably take 10 minutes to cross by boat. On this river we saw the bridge between China and North Koreathat was cut in half by the Chinese to prevent the Americans from crossing over to China during the Korean War. We peered into the North Korea from the bridge and you couldn’t see any larger disparity among the countries.

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One one side you see the bustling skyscrapers of China towering arrogantly over its neighbor and see people laughing about and eating ice cream by the wharf. On the other side you see nothing but trees and some dumpy green landscape and an abandoned Ferris wheel with a Korean flag and a few morose painfully skinny North Koreans squatting down and looking at China.

What was probably in the minds of those North Koreans at the border staring into bright lively China everyday? Wouldn’t it be torture seeing them eat hot dogs, tofu, barbeque, snapping photos with their digital cameras while you go home, pull out a bunch of grass and make a thin gruel made from them and some bits of corn? The government must have done some major brainwashing for those people for them to stay there and not jump and swim across the river.

We’ve decided to get a taste of North Korea before getting thrust deep into her the next day. We took a tourist boat ride that took us to the desolate border of the HermitState. Seriously, there is little gap between China and North Korean borders in terms of geography but in everything else, the gap is as huge as the Pacific Ocean. We saw abandoned machinery, military barracks where soldiers glared at us while they were having their hair shaved, crumbling gray state houses, miserable looking tiny people trudging with heavy loads on their backs (as a result of malnutrition the average North Korean is skinnier and shorter than its South Korean counterpart).

Up ahead we saw a curious sight of a boat full of Chinese tourists with their bright orange lifejackets pushing a boat full of North Koreans towards the shore. The NK boat was dilapidated and barely holding itself up. Its means of motion was merely a North Korean soldier rowing the boat with a wooden oar. Upon seeing us foreigners, the Chinese tourists smiled and waved at us while the North Koreans glared at us with hostility. I’ve never received this kind of treatment as a tourist in any other country.

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The Chinese boat left when they successfully pushed the NK boat to shore. The people with their shabby clothes got off the boat. Their bodies bending down at the heavy weight of the boxes on their backs, they slowly made their way back into the island. That left us, our Chinese boat tour guide and a hostile North Korean soldier glaring at us and fingering the AK 47 on his back.

I held my breath. It was like a National Geographic moment. It felt like every fiber of my being was alive and buzzing. There was a pause pregnant with tense anticipation and meaning. I’ve never felt so aware of being alive till that very moment. Looking at those people and the soldier, I felt we were getting the rare glimpse of something behind the Iron Curtain. One thing for sure this would definitely not be offered to us in our strict tour in Pyongyang.

“Relax!” our Chinese tour guide shouted at the soldier in Korean.

The soldier shouted something back in Korean. He hefted his gun.

I looked around, scared. What were we waiting for? We were just sitting here, staring at each other. Two distinct cultures who could never afford a chance to meet except now.

The Chinese guide gunned our boat and throwing the soldier a cheeky grin, sped off. The soldier relaxed his stance and walked off.

That was the real North Korea. The next day we would be off to Pyongyang.

Read the first North Korean post

The Strangest Phone Call Ever 

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