“I don’t really have a permanent address.”
At 26, Tracy Liu has seen a lot of the world. Her nomad status -- she really does not have a permanent address -- forces her to be constantly moving. Born in China and raised in suburban Michigan, she was on track to live out the immigrant parent's dream of getting a Western education and exchanging the prefix of “Ms.” for one that read “Dr.” That changed in 2010, when she picked up and moved to Portugal, and never really put her stuff back down. Three years and several countries later, Tracy was headed for North Korea.
I saw Tracy for the first time in Beijing, outside the offices of Koryo Tours, the travel company that organizes exclusively visits to North Korea, on the day of our departure for Pyongyang. She caught my eye because, like me, she was one of only a handful of single female travelers on our trip. She also looked like a seasoned traveler, sporting a towering hiking pack that dwarfed her small frame. We formally met on our first night in North Korea at a souvenir stand outside of May Day Stadium after seeing the stunning Arirang Mass Games performance, an impressively precise showing of grand-scale acrobatics and synchronized movements.
I asked her name, trying to break the ice.
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“Tracy,” she answered.
“Where are you from?”
“Where do you live?”
At that point, things got a little complicated.
Tracy explained that her job in international business development for a Chinese medical technology company allowed her to work from pretty much anywhere with an Internet connection, so that’s what she did. “I have some stuff in Portugal still, some with my parents in Michigan and some with my grandmother in China,” she told me. Other than that, she essentially lived out of her hiker's backpack. For the next five months at least, Liu will be found in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, working remotely while planning her next adventure.
At 22, I was the youngest in our group -- and one of the least traveled. Having been born in the Philippines and raised in China, with brief stints in the United States growing up, I've gotten used to being pegged as the foreigner with the exotic and interesting life experiences. Among this tour group, however, I was the boring one.
The kind of person willing to spend precious vacation days, and dollars, in the “hermit kingdom” is bound to be a pretty distinct traveler. Sure, unlike Tracy, most had permanent addresses, but that didn't mean we were your average tour group. Among the 20 of us were adventurers, wanderers and just plain curious people. We also looked like a miniature United Nations, with people from all over the world and of a wide range of ages and backgrounds, gathered because of our mutual interest in one thing: The Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Travel to North Korea is not for everyone, and it's especially difficult for Americans. As you might imagine, it's not a lazy beach vacation, either. It's more a heavily guided, culturally weird sensory-overload experience, and for some it could even be a little dangerous.
“The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens about travel to North Korea,” the State Department website says. “The North Korean government will detain, prosecute and sentence anyone who enters the DPRK without first having received explicit, official permission and an entry visa from its government.”
That’s a little intimidating.
Among those who ignored the warnings and news headlines about Kim Jung Un, the volatile, inexperienced North Korean leader, and his threats to wage nuclear war on the West were Anthony Keogh, 30, an erstwhile bassist for a metal band, now a gas drilling worker, and his radiation therapist girlfriend, Hannah Melnyk, 27. While traveling through Morocco last year, Ant and Hannah crossed paths at a desert camp where they stayed for two days.
Though the two found they had a lot in common (both originally hailing from small towns in Australia, which instilled in them a thirst to see the world), Hannah was based in the U.K. while Ant was living in Canada. They kept in touch from their respective continents through the year, and made plans for what would be only their fourth time seeing each other in person. “Ideas were floated,” Keogh told me.
“I was thinking somewhere chilled out, relaxing, maybe a bit romantic. Lay on the beach, get-a-tan kind of a place,” Melnyk added.
Keogh said the Maldives was one possibility, but then he settled on a place that was quite the contrary. “Then I thought, no, what’s something really weird, totally left field, bats**t crazy?” he continued. “That’s when I remembered about hearing of the Mass Games in North Korea, and my mind was set!”
The Mass Games is a main draw for many tourists. Unlike most sporting events, where the spirit of competition and the concepts of winning and losing are present, the Arirang Mass Games are distinctly North Korean. With more than 100,000 people participating in each 90-minute performance of gymnastics, dance, drama and singing talents, the point of the Games is to highlight the nation’s Juche (self-reliance) ideals, opting to prominently showcase the talents of the entire group, as opposed to the individual.
While Melnyk was keen on seeing it herself, she and her family had some reservations about the trip at first, due to the nuclear threats coming out of the North at the time. Then the news coverage slowed and Melnyk and Keogh were able to go, and were just happy to be able to be in the same country and time zone.
They are now both based in Australia, though in different areas, still keeping a somewhat more feasible long-distance relationship. “Ant and I are just so excited to be able to see each other every four weeks now instead of four months,” Melnyk said. “Our friends think that’s ages between seeing each other, but for us it’s a pretty good deal!” As the couple counts down the days until they are reunited, the adventure-hungry duo is already in hatching plans for their next trip, where they'll pack up and head to South and Central America for six months next February.
Other colorful personalities on the trip included a Vietnam War veteran, a British engineer currently working on an oil rig off the Pacific coast of Russia and a motley crew of Hong Kong-based former co-workers escaping finance jobs to kick back for a week in, where else, North Korea. I was in good company.
The group came to North Korea with a variety of expectations for what the experience would be like, most of us thinking our five days would be a serious, strict and often solemn experience. On the last night, our group sat down to watch a few minutes of a tour video that was made by our Korean guides that was available for purchase. During the 10-minute preview, many of us were wiping away laugh-induced tears as we watched our fumbling group of tourists maneuver through North Korea. “I didn’t think ‘fun’ would be a word I could use to describe the trip, but it turned out to be incredibly fun, often hilarious and usually relaxed,” Liu wrote on her post-tour blog.
And seeing that bizarre nation with them is what made the experience so memorable -- like experiencing North Korea’s National Day on Sept. 9 while standing on a Pyongyang street watching a parade dedicated mostly to the military, alongside a Singaporean who had completed his country's two-year mandatory military service. Juxtaposing the military commitments of the North Koreans compared to my travel companion's helped explain that dedication and obligation put on citizens that brings out a certain level of mutual understanding, even if you are on different sides of a conflict. Or listening to the college experiences of an Australian who studied in Seoul while visiting the schools and Pyongyang library, which provided a comparison between the Communist, desperately poor North and the rich, capitalist South.
As fascinating as North Korea was to me, the stories of the reclusive nation were often rivaled by the life stories of my fellow travelers. I can’t say that I fell in love with North Korea. But I certainly loved the time I spent there, and that's thanks to the personalities who were willing to take a chance on adventure in a country that even in today's digitized small world few people have seen.