Monty Anderson got word that the trip was on two weeks after rushing home to California from Ukraine for emergency open-heart surgery. He didn’t ask his doctor if it was OK to take another trip so soon. He told him he was going.
Eighty-year-old Joan Youmans heard about it when she picked up her phone messages after a trip to Indonesia. She canceled a few doctors’ appointments and booked immediately.
When Joe Walker learned the trip was a go, he said he “just gave them my credit card number and told them to fill in the amount.” Cost him seven grand, he figures.
Such is the allure of North Korea to the “extreme traveler.”
Opportunities for American tourists to visit the secretive state that makes no secret of its loathing for the U.S. are mighty tough to come by. A North Korean visa for an American is like round-the-clock electricity here in the North Korean capital: not impossible, but rare enough to be appreciated when it unexpectedly arrives.
“It’s the hardest place to get to,” said Bill Altaffer, who should know. Altaffer is the world’s most traveled man, according to the mosttraveledman.com website -- “others look it up, we’ve been there,” says the recorded message on his home phone. The website doesn’t just rank by number of countries visited. It counts territories, autonomous regions, enclaves and provinces too, from Abkhazia to Zhejiang. Altaffer, a retired schoolteacher, has hit more of them than anyone.
But not North Korea. It was the only place on the globe that had thwarted his attempts to visit -- “except for Wake Island, maybe,” he said, referring to the U.S. Pacific territory that is a restricted military installation. “But I can live without Wake Island. North Korea was the big one.”
Like the other Americans, Altaffer had a standing order with the Santa Monica-based Travelers’ Century Club to go should the chance ever arise. So this fall, when the North Korean regime decided to issue a handful of visas to Americans for reasons it typically never bothered to explain, Altaffer, Anderson, Youmans, Walker and globe-trotter Don Parrish found themselves on a rare adventure for Americans.
North Korea is not everyone’s idea of a holiday destination. But these are not your stereotypical Americans abroad, looking for the nearest McDonald’s. They long ago gave up bringing home souvenirs. Nor are they interested in just touching a toe to an airport tarmac to tick a destination off the list.
They want to experience the place. They’re the travelers who show up in Afghanistan with war still smoldering, who can tell you where Tuva is (the dead center of Asia) or who would buy a personalized license plate that says “Socotra,” in honor of once landing on the tiny archipelago of islands off Somalia that is Yemeni territory.
They’ve visited places you’ve probably never heard of, and covered far more miles than Magellan or Cook ever did.
That desire to poke their noses into unusual spots drove them to board an Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang, buckling up on a creaky, Soviet-made Ilyushin 62 for the 90-minute trip. The airliner has averaged a crash every two years since coming into service in the early 1960s, a safety record that may explain the exclamation mark on the glowing red “Fasten Your Belts!” light above the seats.
“I saw my first communist country in 1965 -- East Germany -- so it’s taken me 40 years to get to the last,” Parrish said just before boarding. The Chicago-area native began racking up air miles while making 80 trips between the U.S. and Japan in the 1990s as a communications consultant, and he has since visited more than 100 countries.
Parrish is modest about his travels, deferring to those he describes as real pros, like Altaffer. “Tell Bill where you’re from,” Parrish urged a fellow passenger. “He’ll have been there.”
Yet none of the five were showing any “been there, done that” nonchalance about finally getting a peek behind North Korea’s curtains. Nor did they appear concerned about visiting a dictatorship that is a sworn enemy and demonstrates an almost pathological paranoia about Americans.
“Totalitarian governments take care of you,” said Altaffer, who lives in Mammoth Lakes when he’s not traveling. “People are always asking me: ‘Aren’t you scared when you travel?’ And I say: ‘Yeah, when I land at LAX.’ ”
Being the visiting “imperialists” in town was the least of their worries. Walker was sick for three days after eating something that fought back, though the food reviews were generally good. (There was grumbling that they were limited to one drink each at lunch). But the biggest problem, all five later agreed, was the inability to go anywhere without being shadowed by their government-appointed minder. “I knew it would be regimented, but I had no idea just how much,” Parrish said, reflecting on the trip after returning home.
They were treated to the standard North Korean greatest hits package tour. They saw monuments to Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North Korean republic and still officially its leader despite his death in 1994. They went to a model school and to the war museum, where “evidence” of American war atrocities is displayed. There was a bus excursion to the North Korean side of the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, and another to the Pueblo, the American naval vessel captured by the North Koreans in 1968.
All of which forced the Americans to confront a moral choice: In such a sensitive environment, where your minders warn you they can put you on the next plane out of the country at a whim or confiscate your film at the airport, do you challenge the prevailing local version of history? Or do you let the representation of America as a dangerous rogue state pass without comment?
The first stop on the tour, for example, was the towering statue of Kim that overlooks this city. Every visitor was lined up at the base and was expected to bow in homage.
All five Americans bowed.
Walker felt uncomfortable, he said, paying even perfunctory homage to the man who created the police state and cult of personality that are widely blamed -- outside North Korea, at least -- for the country’s poverty, hunger and international isolation.
“It felt a bit like being a Jew visiting Hitler’s Germany,” Walker recalled as he headed back to his home in San Diego.
“But I think it’s your obligation as a visitor, and as an American, to leave a good impression,” Walker added. “You have to try to do everything you can to not come across as the Ugly American.”
It is a syndrome he sees frequently in his travels.
“I used to think it was the bad 10% of Americans who ruined it for the other 90%,” Walker said with a rueful smile. “But now I think it’s the bad 50% ruining it for the other 50%.”
Anderson says he sees himself as a diplomat when he travels, trying to win people over one at a time. But trying to strike up a candid conversation with North Korean officials about their lives was frustrating. “We’d buy them drinks at night, and I’m pretty good at being charming,” he said. “But this is the first country I’ve been to -- and I’ve been to 125 -- where I couldn’t get past the official statements. Nothing worked.”
Only Youmans appeared unperturbed by the relentless propaganda. North Korean officials called her “Grandma,” and when the group was told to line up by age to walk to the edge of the DMZ, she was at the head of the line. Youmans found the North Korean attitude at the border to be fairly casual and said she loved the “orderliness” of Pyongyang. People were “well dressed and healthy,” she said, adding that she believed North Korea could become a “real power one day.”
Youmans, who lives in Glendale, describes herself as a late starter in life. She didn’t make a real commitment to traveling until she was 68, after her husband died. She had worked all her adult life. Raised three kids. Started college at 40. Got a doctorate in law at 54.
Six weeks after his death, she left on a trip, alone, to 12 countries. “My kids think I’m crazy,” she said. “But my grandkids tell me to go for it.” She has now been to 172 of the 193 member countries of the United Nations but worries she hasn’t seen enough of Africa.
Her only anxiety during the North Korean visit came when the possibility arose that the group might have to spend an extra day in Pyongyang to get seats on a flight out. Youmans had connections to make. She was going to Algeria.
Five days were enough for Anderson too. “Any more would have been painful,” he said back home. The postcard he had mailed himself from Pyongyang had arrived that day, and he was happy for any evidence that he had been there. North Korean immigration officials had refused -- to the Americans’ great frustration -- to stamp their passports.
Altaffer wants to go back.
“This is definitely the weirdest trip I’ve been on,” he said as the Ilyushin headed back to Beijing. “I would love to go back for another five days. I want to get into the mausoleum to see Kim’s body.
“Everything else is anticlimactic after North Korea,” he said with a sigh.
Perhaps only people as widely traveled can understand the appeal of a city as austere and superficially joyless as Pyongyang. Each of the five understands the instinct to see something different in a world that keeps shaving the edges off its differences and variations.
“These are the only people that really understand me,” Altaffer said of the other travelers. “You get home and you can’t talk to your friends about Pyongyang. They don’t know, they don’t understand, and they don’t care.”
Of course the world of elite travel is not without its snobbery, its own hierarchy of achievement. Those who call themselves “adventure travelers” -- a separate breed from this North Korea crew -- prefer trips offering a greater physical challenge. Flying in an Ilyushin does not count. For an adventure traveler, it’s not a trip unless it involves sweat, scratches and the possibility of rare diseases.
Anderson says a true adventure traveler would dismiss him as a “plastic explorer,” because he reaches his destinations by credit card instead of his wits.
He makes no apologies.
“I like first-class travel and I like adventure travel,” Anderson said. “It would be nice to take three months to float across the ocean and then climb to the top of the mountain to meet with the headhunters, but I want to explore the world. And there are so many places to go.”
Meanwhile, Anderson encourages people he has met on his trips to visit him at his Napa Valley home, one of the most beautiful places he’s ever seen, he said.
“I tell everyone to visit, they’re all welcome,” he said. “As long as they know I probably won’t be in town.”