Travel True Rotating Header Image

My Day in North Korea

One nation bleeding into two

Giving experiences instead of stuff is one of the most fun philosophies to live by. Instead of giving someone something else they have to maintain, you give them an amazing event and memories that last forever. It also means you get to be much more creative with what you give people, as you can’t fall back on crappy souvenirs.

With this line of thinking, my girlfriend’s birthday recently passed and I got her something very unique. An all-expenses-paid trip to North Korea. It’s a country not many people have visited (or even want to), but I knew it would be an amazing experience. Even with my expectations, it still managed to amaze both of us.

The trip was never guaranteed. North and South Korea have been in a state of declared war for decades now, and even the “demilitarized zone” is heavily militarized, with armed soldiers staring each other down all day, every day. Every now and then a battle flares up and they shut down the DMZ entirely, meaning any tours are cancelled with little to no notice. This happened both the day before and the day after our trip, and somehow we slid under the radar by luckily picking the perfect day. And just in case you were going to suggest going ahead without the tour, it is strictly illegal to be in North Korea without strict supervision by tour guides at all times.

Our trip started off innocuously enough, gathering with a handful of other people at a hotel in downtown Seoul, filing onto a bus, and driving thorough the beautiful Korean countryside. Our tour guide told us intense stories about the war, pointing out guard towers along the border where the easiest spots to swim across would be and telling us about the things we would see during the day.

The empty train that goes to North Korea

The first stop was a train station. There is a large, rusted out locomotive that towers over you as it slowly decays, a relic from the days when the tracks were less for show. We scrambled up to a rooftop viewing tower, where we could watch a train pass by. There is only one train that goes down these tracks, and it makes its journey completely empty every day across the border. It is merely a symbol of things that could be, potential unity between the Koreas, and they pay to ship it back and forth just to keep hope alive. There is a chain link fence nearby that has become a shrine for people to put their wishes for a unified Korea on display, and it has slowly become covered in flags, banners, and hand-written notes.

The hopes and dreams of the South Koreans who want unification

We herded back into our bus and started heading closer to the border, past the first set of armed checkpoints where they checked everyone’s passport for validity as the tour guide told us in detail about why she wants her daughter to marry one of these prestigious guards. Once we were all cleared, we were led into a large museum showing what life is like in North Korea. We watched a short movie showing how literally hundreds of thousands of North Koreans starve to death each year on the streets, while the government throws massive hedonistic parties the citizens don’t know about. North Korea is the largest single purchaser of Hennesy in the world, spending around $800,000 per year for 10 years running, all for these parties.

There are no cel phones, no computers, and no internet citizens are allowed to use. They are taught an alternate world history where their leaders have revolutionized everything and the heathens in other countries keep falling all over themselves as the causes for all evil in the world. The police state is so all-consuming that nobody ever talks bad about the government, as the reward for turning in traitors is good enough that nobody can be trusted.

A reenactment of escaping from North Korea

One of the worst things that happens fairly regularly is when people smuggle across South Korean soap operas on VHS tapes. To prevent this, the police occasionally cuts power to an entire block, then goes house to house checking if anyone has these contraband videos stuck in their powerless VCRs. If they do, the criminals then disappear, likely never to be seen again. These tactics all add up to an effective cutting off of the country from the rest of the world, with no communication ever made, and no other countries trusted. Imagine how hard it would be to get a DVD player into the country, much less a computer.

This also means that around 2/3 of the people in North Korea are satisfied with life, getting enough small perks from the government throughout life that it seems things are going as well as could be expected. From our perspective, though, any country with 1/3 of the population starving while the government throws lavish parties is horrific. Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do.

There is a North Korean refugee who lives in South Korea now who sends aid every month back to people in his homeland. To get around the border control, he sends over care packages attached to massive weather balloons when the wind is right. What is in the packages, however, is very tricky. You could send food, but the military has caught on to that. They poison the food, then leave it where it was. When people get sick from eating it, they say it’s just another trick from the evil outsiders. You can’t send money, as trying to exchange foreign currency in the country would have you immediately thrown in jail. The same applies for any foreign goods, as almost nothing is imported. So he sends boxes of socks. It’s one of the few goods North Korea imports, so it won’t seem suspicious, and the finders can sell it in the market freely.

The rest of the stories in the movie were sad tales of life in North Korea, such as one of a homeless woman in the market with a sign saying her daughter was for sale for approximately 8¢. Once someone finally took up her offer, she took the money and immediately ran inside the market to buy bread, then ran back out to share it with her daughter one last time. Many other stories were shared about the horrors of daily life there, but I’ll just suffice to say they were all equally waterworks-inducing and get on with the story.

Our North Korean survivor

A barren living room showcasing a 12” TV and a small table surrounded us when we got to the part of the tour I had been looking forward to the most, getting to talk to someone who escaped from North Korea and ask them anything we want. She was small and meek, having lived through the great famine of the 1990s that left an entire generation of North Koreans smaller and shorter than their friends and relatives. She had been relatively well-off in North Korea. She had gone to university, like her younger brothers were at the time, and she spent years in the military. Her father was even trusted enough that he was allowed to make the occasional business trip to China, which is very rare.

Unfortunately, this was also the cause of all of her trouble. During one of these business trips, her father had a heart attack and died. The government decided this was all a ploy, that he was escaping from North Korea, and demanded that the family produce the body to prove his innocence. As it is impossible to ship a body to North Korea from China, especially when you don’t know anybody in China, he was deemed guilty and the entire family was punished. She lost her job and wasn’t allowed to get another, her brothers were kicked out of university, and her mother lost the family home. North Korea had abandoned her over nothing she had done, and everything she had built her entire life toward was now gone.

With nothing left for her, she went to the border with all of her money and waited. And waited. For days. Eventually, someone walked by who offered to smuggle her over the border at night for a large fee. She accepted, and that night the man took her and another woman with a baby through the muddy valleys, barbed wire fences, and large open areas, all while being chased by barking dogs. At one point while they were wading as fast as they could across a river, the other woman dropped her child, and knew they couldn’t slow down to save it, so they kept running.

Once they arrived in China, she was sold off to an awkward Chinese man as his wife. This was essentially slavery, as at any point in time he could turn her into the authorities and have her deported back to North Korea, where she would be immediately executed. She lived this life for about 2 years, mothering two children for the husband who bought her. Then one night she escaped at night once again, this time slowly working through a series of countries including Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. This was about 2 years of constantly being on the run and chased by various governments. Out of the initial 17 people in her group, only 8 survived to the end, and she attributed her lengthy military training to her survival.

Having finally arrived in South Korea, she was given a small stipend by the government, which she immediately handed over to the people who had gotten her there. She was given a brief 6 month re-education where she learned how the rest of the world remembers history, how to use a computer and a cell phone, and a crash course in modern language, as she was the equivalent of someone from 1800s England being dropped in modern America without understanding all the ways language had changed.

After this brief learning spree, she was free to do whatever she wanted. Unfortunately, her life hadn’t given her any experience that made her hireable, so she had been working as a tour guide for the last few months, as it was the only profession where her experience in North Korea gave her an edge over everyone else.

A typical North Korean house

My mind now fully blown, we wandered back to the bus without this tour guide for the most dangerous part, actually crossing into North Korea. We had to go through even more military checkpoints before watching a film about all the times groups of people had been killed right where we were, whenever North Korea saw an opportunity to get away with it. We had full military coverage surrounding us as we marched single file toward the border, which had armed military from both sides facing each other about 15 feet apart, waiting in readied martial arts defensive stances.

We filed into a conference room that was exactly on the border, half in South Korea and half in North. We cautiously walked toward the large table in the middle that marked the exact border, and bravely stepped into North Korea. It wasn’t an immersive cultural experience, but it was very tense and an amazing experience. We could see the physical border marked on the ground outside through the windows and take pictures with the soldier guarding the single door that lead into North Korea proper. My girlfriend took my picture, then as she walked toward him for hers, she got a little too close to the door and he barked and stomped at her to get her to stop and she squealed and jumped backward. I then took her picture with her shaken expression next to the emotionless guard, and she took mine.

Standing under guard at the border of North Korea

Now that we had reached the pinnacle of our tour, we went to the North Korean gift shop, where they had all kinds of goods made in North Korea, as well as cheesy replicas of military outfits and weapons. After looking through the items, I decided a bottle of North Korean wine made from wild grapes couldn’t be passed up, and we got it to share with the friends hosting us that night in Seoul. It was… questionable-tasting at best, but completely worth the experience.

All told, it was an amazing trip where I learned about a culture I only had cursory knowledge of, and my eyes were opened to how different and horrific life can be in some parts of the world. It would be interesting to take a full immersion trip to the country sometime, even though I know I would only be allowed to see certain curated parts at specific times. Tensions with the country have been running high lately, with the newest heir to the throne wanting to make a name for himself, and I’m not sure how much longer it will be possible. If you get the chance to make the trip, I highly recommend it. If you get the chance to get the trip as a gift for someone else, it’s even better.

How to Survive at 42 Below Zero

Don't cross the streams!

That bundle of puffiness up there doing a great impression of the StayPuft Marshmallow Man is me, getting ready to head out into ridiculously cold weather. How cold? −40°, and sometimes colder. I didn’t specify Celsius or Fahrenheit because that is the magical temperature at which they meet. It’s so cold it doesn’t matter.

Just to give you an idea of what it’s like walking around at these temperatures, if you threw a pot of boiling water into the air, it would turn to snow instantly. It’s typically a better idea to put things on the windowsill to cool them down quickly, as it’s more freezing than the freezer. The water vapor in your mouth freezes when you inhale, so your first breath after stepping outside is typically followed by a massive coughing fit while your lungs try to figure out how you managed to breathe ice.

I think you get the idea of how incomprehensibly cold that is, yet it’s just another winter here in Mongolia. Each day, if you decide you want to step outside to, I don’t know, get food, you are facing spending a lot of time out in this consciousness-freezing weather. If you are taking public transportation, you will be waiting out in the cold for an infrequent and unscheduled bus. When it finally comes, there will be a thick coating of ice on the inside of the bus, due to the condensation building up and freezing when it touches the window. So, good luck figuring out which stop is yours, as they don’t announce it.

All the deels are all lined up.

The way Mongolians survive is by wearing a “deel” (pronounced “dell”). A deel is a massive, thick robe lined with sheep hides, all of the wool facing you with its soft, cuddly warmth. It’s essentially a bright colorful tent where you are constantly being hugged by a herd of sheep, and it is very, very warm. Regardless of how beautiful they are, they are expensive, big, and fairly useless outside of Mongolia, which means they’re out of the question for me.

I’d always assumed scientists living in Antarctica just stayed indoors all the time, but the fact that there are outdoor markets here year-round meant it was possible to survive in this weather, and perhaps even thrive. Piece by piece I figured out how to not get hypothermia while using what I had with some local materials, despite the completely anti-minimalism stance. I decided I liked breathing more than not having this stuff.

Step 1: Baselayers

As I’ve written about before, most of my clothes are merino wool already, which comes in very useful here. Wool underwear, wool leggings, a wool t-shirt, and wool socks make up my first layer. So far, nothing new.

Step 2: Midlayers

On top of the existing warmth, I wear another pair of leggings, these made from local yak’s wool, two more pairs of thick yak’s wool socks, and a couple of long-sleeve shirts, sometimes also wool. Then I put on my double-thick cashmere hat, a long cashmere scarf, and my gloves, which are essentially 3 very thick pairs of gloves crammed into one pair. I also wear my fleece coat on top of all of this. That should be enough, right?

Step 3: Outerlayers

No. On top of all of this I wear jeans, a pair of hiking boots rated to −30° (ridiculously warm most of the time but here it’s not enough), and a knee-length down coat with a hood and a zipper cover to keep wind from sneaking in and icing it shut. I pull the scarf up over my face to allow me to breathe, and the only part of me left exposed is my eyes. As a result, the hot air coming out of my scarf rises up and freezes onto my eyelashes, frequently freezing my eyes shut. But I’m warm.

Now that I’ve described everything needed just to step outside for a second, imagine how long it takes to put all of this on in the morning before you even get to step outside. About 20 minutes every single time. Now cut to 3 hours later and imagine you just braved the icy outside world to finally get back to your nice, toasty home. You are suddenly sweltering inside your wool furnace, and are facing the same 20 minutes while you drench everything in sweat. Whee! It’s a good thing merino wool never stinks.

Now I have a huge collection of very warm clothes that have even gotten me through spending a winter night outside sleeping in a yurt. Every single day I’m thankful for each and every item, especially the cashmere. It’s a luxury in the rest of the world, but a staple fabric here (the only thing both warm and soft enough to rub against your face for long periods), available cheaply on most street corners.

So, how does this all fit into my minimalist lifestyle where everything fits in one small backpack?

It doesn’t.

I may keep a piece or two that prove themselves to be amazing, like the cashmere hat, but once I leave for warmer climates this stuff is gone. There’s no point trying to keep this stuff as souvenirs or “just in case”, as I doubt I will ever be anywhere this cold again. I am essentially renting all of this stuff for a while, and once I leave Mongolia, I’m leaving these ridiculously warm clothes as well to return to the minimalist lifestyle I know and love.

Sneaking up behind you like a monster

Cloudy, faded skies

This. This is a feeling I know well. That weird metallic taste in the back of my throat similar to when I accidentally stay up all night, engrossed in something new. The delayed reaction time to everything, sometimes hearing things only a while after they were said, sometimes after I’ve already responded and forgotten what I said. The feeling that I don’t want to move or do anything, but knowing that I need to keep moving or it will get much worse.

This is jetlag.

There are many theories on jetlag, and most people are happy to offer theirs. It’s easier traveling west than east. Adjust your schedule before you go. Adjust your eating schedule and your sleep schedule will follow. I try different things all the time, but I’ve discovered that it’s just powering through that always works. There are no shortcuts, so just acknowledge that day 2 is always going to suck and push forward like the first snowplow called in after a blizzard, paving the way for the others to follow.

Sometimes I’m affected more than others. There have been times I arrived and slept 36 of the first 48 hours, and there have been times I walked directly off the airplane into nonstop action for a week straight without thinking about it. I have yet to find any rhyme or reason for these, so I just accept them as natural aberrations and allot time accordingly, letting people know when I’m having it rough.

The times it doesn’t affect me, people are amazed by my abilities as a professional traveler and ask me the secret. Well, there is no secret, just work. Suck it up, recognize that you are spending some time at less than your full capability, and put one foot in front of the other.

This is one of the rough times. I went west, not east, and it still hit me like a semi truck made of sand, sliding all around me and embracing me, trying to lull me into sleep until tomorrow. Everything will be better tomorrow, right?

Probably, but there are things that need to be done today. Decisions to be made, places to go.

So I walk, and I talk through things with my friends. They laugh, they identify, and I put one more foot in front of the other on the path toward earned sleep. It will feel so good to sleep. Just not now. Now is the time for ignoring clocks and not thinking about how much more time is left. Now is the time for talking, for reading, for doing everything I can to keep moving forward.

Maybe I’ve switched to talking about everyday life right now, but it certainly feels like the jetlag.