Posted in essay, travel

Is it Safe or Ethical to Visit North Korea?

Recently you might have seen my posts about a trip to North Korea that I took last summer. If not, then I’m sure you’ve heard about the American kid who was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor there earlier this year. And if you’ve not heard about that, then I’m sure you know a few things about the world’s most secretive – and possibly the most oppressive – state.

There are then two questions you might want to ask before following in my footsteps and visiting the country. Those are:

  • Is it safe?
  • Is it ethical?

My answer to both questions is a resounding YES and I’ll explain why below.

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Is it safe to visit North Korea?

Given the recent news about Otto Warmbier, you’d be forgiven for thinking that travel to North Korea was unsafe right now. Why risk being sentenced to hard labor in a country where no one will ever be able to come visit you, right?

But remember that what Warmbier did was incredibly risky and foolish. Don’t get me wrong – I feel for the kid and his family – however, that doesn’t take away from the fact that he took an astonishing risk in a place where the punishments are well-known. Before you go to North Korea, you are warned to be respectful. Every environment has its risk factors. If you climb a mountain and jump around next to a ledge with no safety gear, you might die. If you screw around underwater on a scuba trip, you might die. Go on safari and mess with a lion? You’re going to die.

Warmbier made a mistake and was punished. It happens every day when people walk out in front of cars and it’s very sad, but we shouldn’t let that convince us that the experience of going to North Korea is somehow unsafe.

In fact, if you are polite and respectful, it is actually phenomenally safe there. There are no criminals targeting foreigners. People go to Thailand, Mexico, and Italy every day and don’t think of them as especially dangerous places, yet crime against tourists is pretty common – from petty theft to more serious stuff. In North Korea the only danger is yourself.

Having said that, if you are injured, North Korea doesn’t exactly have an abundance of quality hospitals. In order to get into the country you need pretty comprehensive medical insurance, and if something were to go wrong, you’d be glad of it. For anything major, you’d need to be medivacked to Beijing. My guides told me that in their many, many years of operation, nobody had been arrested or put in any danger, but one man had gotten sick and needed an emergency flight to a hospital in China.

People worry about war, too. Although the situation between North Korea and South Korea (or, indeed, most of the rest of the world) seems more tense than usual, it is still not an imminent threat to security. In the South, people don’t worry – Seoul is only a few miles from the DMZ, and North Korea’s artillery could do untold damage in the event of war, yet no one blinks an eye. No one is afraid of travelling to Seoul.

Last summer I was in Pyongyang when the two countries reached a huge escalation of tensions and began shelling one another as the world thought the Korean War was back on… Yet in the streets of Pyongyang, as in Seoul, life went on as normal. I sat and watched a football game between teams from North Korea and South Korea and the players even shook hands.

Humans are notoriously bad at risk assessment, and we perceive the oddest things to be dangerous. Travel to North Korea is statistically very safe, so don’t let that put you off.

 

Is it Ethical to Visit North Korea?

This is perhaps the greater question, and the one with a less clear answer. The primary argument against travel to North Korea goes like this: “The North Korean government is an evil, repressive organization that is a threat to world peace and its own citizens, and all travel money goes towards funding that organization.” There is also the claim that foreigners are playing into the hands of the North Korean propaganda machine by visiting the country, and that our presence there gives de facto support to the government.

The first point seems quite convincing, and indeed is a stated reason for many people who refuse to go, or chastise those of us who do. Yet I find it wholly unconvincing. For a start, the world is full of “evil, repressive” governments. I work in China, where the government has done myriad awful things to its people over its short history. It is arguably worse than North Korea, and yet the governments and companies of the world are eager to partner up with the Chinese government in order to make money of their own. We trade with China and visit China on holiday, and a chunk of this money goes to fund their repression of Tibet and Xinjiang, their censorship of the internet, their violation of human rights, and their absurd territorial claims in the South China Sea.

I pay taxes on books sold in the United States, and have given the US government money when living there or visiting as a tourist, and that money is party used to fund vicious wars and coups around the world, or turn their police force into a minority-murdered military unit. My point is that we cannot entirely rule out travel to North Korea on the premise that it funds their government unless we restrict travel to countries with particularly open, peaceful governments – and those countries are few and far between.

Moreover, while some money does directly go to the government, much money spent by tourists in North Korea is in foreign currencies and completely off the record. We pay our tour guides, for example, in tips that are never recorded. We buy food at stalls by the roadside that are unplanned stops, and no receipts are given. This money trickles down, not up. It goes to improve the lives of the people in North Korea, and not to fill the coffers of the government.

On that same line, I’d like to point out that the policy of isolation that the world (led by the United States) has taken against North Korea nearly since the end of the Korean War is largely what has caused its horrendous modern position. It was never allowed to function freely and to succeed, whereas South Korea was propped up and supported at all stages. We are partly responsible for the plight of the North Korean people and yet we continue to use them as a political tool – keeping them locked out of the rest of the world, hoping that they will starve sufficiently that they rise up and overthrow their government, whereupon we can replace the Kim dynasty with something pro-Western.

It is a despicable policy and I’m proud to have contributed to tourism in North Korea in a small way, as it helps the people there – something in which the rest of the world seems entirely disinterested.

As to the second point, regarding the appearance of foreigners in the country, I disagree that we are merely playing into the hands of government propaganda. Foreigners are widely demonized in North Korean history books, and our appearance in the country gives us a chance to show our human side. We can interact minimally with people and show ourselves as decent. When I was there, people responded shyly but positively to a foreign presence. It was much like being in rural China. Indeed, if tourists to North Korea act in a reasonable manner, we can effectively counteract government propaganda. Think of it as the diplomacy that otherwise doesn’t occur in North Korea.

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Conclusion

I see no good reason to avoid travelling to North Korea, if it is a place that interests you. I hesitated for a long time before going last year, but after thinking it all through I took a chance and went. It was one of the great experiences of my life, and I have no regrets. Obviously, it is not for everyone. Whilst there you do have to show respect to their leaders and listen to their perverse versions of history. If you’re not comfortable bowing at a statue of Kim Jong-il, I don’t blame you, but don’t go. However, I think it is important to be exposed to things which are outside our comfort zone. Sure, you can go to Thailand and get drunk on the beach… but some places in the world really open your eyes, and for me, North Korea was one of them.

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Posted in Photography, travel

Zimbabwe pt 2 – Lions and Crocs

After seeing Victoria Falls, there were various activities on offer in the surrounding area. Everything was pretty expensive, unfortunately, but I was keen to see some more wildlife and try some new things.

Everywhere I went, people kept trying to sell me tours, but as I was enjoying my stay at Shoestring Backpackers, I decided to book through their in-house travel agent. They set me up with a canoe trip on the Zambezi River and a Lion Walk – which is, as the name suggests, a walk with lions.

I didn’t know what to expect from the Lion Walk. Its premise was pretty simple, yet utterly unbelievable – walking with lions. It cost $150, and I didn’t know whether my money was going towards looking after lions or exploiting them. In any case, out of curiosity, and with the assurances of the travel agent (whatever that’s worth) I went along one afternoon to find out.

Fortunately for me, as with other parts of my trip around Africa, there weren’t many people on my tour. There were only three of us, in fact. We arrived at a little hut in a National Park and were given a run-down of rules. These included not touching the animals’ heads, not standing in front of them, and not wearing anything that dangles. There were actually a lot of rules and I struggled to remember, but assumed that rather than have a tourist eaten by their lions, the guides would remind me from time-to-time.

Alarmingly soon, we were on our way into the lions’ den. There were no fences – the guide informed us that there was a stream that more or less marked the lions’ territory. There was a man with a gun ahead of us, whom we were told was there to shoot any buffalo or other (non-endangered) big game which might wander into our surrounding area. After only a few minutes we came upon two lions.

It should probably go without saying that walking through a forest and meeting a lion is breath-taking, even when you expect it. They were babies, at only 22 months old, but nonetheless massive and majestic animals. They lay sleepily in the shade, on cool grass. We were told their names (one of them was called Belezulu and I don’t remember the other) and that they were siblings.

Soon the lions were on their feet and we walked them around a well-trodden path. The three tourists took our turns walking beside the lions as they wandered hither and thither, pouncing on dragonflies and chasing guinea fowl. The guide gave strict and constant instructions of where to stand and what to do in order to not get eaten.

It was a wonderful and surreal experience. At the end we were again given information about the cause and allowed to ask questions. It seems the lions are taken in as babies and raised by rangers. They are exposed to humans until 24 months, after which time they have absolutely no contact with people. They are, however, monitored for about three years, before going truly into the wild.

Next up was a canoe trip on the Zambezi River, run through a company called Wild Horizons. This began early morning with a game drive through Zambezi National Park. We spotted plenty bird life and some big game, but nothing spectacular. I didn’t mind because I’d had some great safari tours so far on the trip, and was looking forward to the canoeing.

When we arrived at the river there was a crocodile immediately in our path. It was just a little one, but it was right beside where we intended to launch the canoes. Our guide informed us that the crocodiles weren’t a big problem. He said crocodiles aren’t particularly dangerous when canoeing and that we really needed to worry about hippos, which are bad tempered and could flip or destroy a canoe with ease.

After being given a lot of guidance in how to react during the rather likely event of a hippo attack, we set out onto the river and it was surprising how slow the current moved. We very gently let the current carry us along. I was in one canoe with the guide while the two other tourists were in another canoe behind us.

From the canoe we saw numerous impressive birds and dozens of hippos. We stayed clear of the hippos as much as possible, but now and then they’d just appear from nowhere.

After two hours were went through a small rapids and emerged almost on top of three large hippos. My guide, who was steering from behind, banked hard right and we paddled for an alternate route, away from the giant animals. Soon we slowed right down and let the current take us once again.

After a few seconds, however, my guide, who had been unflappably calm throughout the whole trip, flipped out when there was a sudden bump underneath us, and he started shouting: “A big croc! A big croc! Go! Go! Go!” I thought it was some sort of joke and paddled towards the shore; however, when we got there and turned to look back, there was indeed a massive crocodile where we had just come from. The old English couple behind us paddled unwittingly past the croc to the bank and got out.

I stood and watched the crocodile, listening to the guide as he calmed down. He’d hit the crocodile accidentally with his paddle and it had come up under our boat and hit us. It was hardly a “croc attack” but it was a nice exciting story to take away from another otherwise relaxing and pleasant trip down one of the world’s great rivers.

The next morning, having spent altogether far too much money, I hitched a ride to the border with Botswana – the start of a long, long hitch-hiking journey throughout Zimbabwe’s neighbor to the west.

Posted in Photography, travel

Northern North Korea

This is part three of a short series of blog posts about North Korea. Part one is here and Part two is here. In part one I complained about people selling their photos of North Korea as “illegal”… In the photos you’ll see below, there are lots of soldiers. Many of these photos would be considered illegal. But there isn’t nothing sensational about it… Beware what you read and how it is presented. You’ll also see pictures of normal people doing normal things. How often do you see that in mainstream news? Never, because it’s not as interesting as a single picture of a man in uniform. Yet I find North Korea’s true face – its human face – far more interesting.

Although I’d always been curious about North Korea, it was the opportunity to run a half-marathon there that finally drew me in. At the beginning of 2015 I’d made running my New Year’s resolution, and after a few months I was within sight of being able to run a half-marathon. I can’t even remember how I found out about it, but when I thought about running a half-marathon in North Korea it all just made sense.

On day two of the trip we got to run around Pyongyang a little bit for a warm up, and on day three we took a short flight up to Mount Paekdu, at the border with China. Mount Paekdu is a sacred place for Koreans. It is supposedly the birthplace of the Korean nation, and their mythical founder, King Tangun. To North Koreans it is particularly important, as Kim Il-sung based himself here during the fight against the Japanese, and it is also said – perhaps falsely – that Kim Jong-il was born here.

The flight was quite fun, although the plane came in too early on the runway and was bouncing over the tops of trees. When we came to a stop on the  tiny runway there was no airport – it was just a forest with a runway in the middle. It was also freezing, which I hadn’t expected.

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We were driven up the mountain, along winding little roads, but the top was completely shrouded in fog. Apparently the views over Lake Chon – the highest crater lake in the world, at the top of Mount Paekdu – are stunning, but we could barely see the lake. At the top it was unbearably cold and the air was hard to breathe, too. We kept losing people from the tour in the mist, and it felt genuinely dangerous.

Yet it was more or less from here that we started our half-marathon. We were running downhill, which helped. After fifteen minutes the runners were all spaced out along the road and we were all just running alone through North Korea – no guides, no police, no way of stopping us seeing the country freely. There weren’t many people around but every now and then we’d see farmers and old women come out from fields and forests to say hello, or pass a marching troop of soldiers. People stopped and waved or spoke to us, or offered us water, and one group of old women sang and danced as we run past. It felt good to interact with people without any supervision.

I finished the marathon in 1 hour 44 minutes, coming in 5th place.

After this we took a bus to Paekdusan Secret Camp, where the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army was based during their fight against the Japanese. The scenery here was absolutely stunning, and the history quite interesting, and there were students on school trips and old people visiting, but we were all too sore and tired to appreciate it.

We spent the night at Pegaebang Hotel, where there was infrequent electricity and cold water. The food, too, was awful. However, there was… Werner Herzog! The world renowned director was filming a movie at Mount Paekdu and was staying at the hotel, also musing over the single baked potato on offer at mealtime. How… Herzogian.

The next morning we visited the stunningly beautiful Rimyongsu Waterfalls, where we had some wonderful encounters with old people who’d come to visit. My friend and I tried to take a photo together in front of the falls, and some old North Korean tourists seized the opportunity to dart over and join us, and then their friends came… and then more and more… It was like being in China with all the people wanting photos taken with the foreigners. Except for some reason you don’t expect that in North Korea. In fact, you don’t really imagine people in North Korea ever having fun, but that was one of the eye-opening parts of the trip.

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Later we saw more giant statues of Kim Il-sung in more beautiful country, and more groups of children and adults and elderly people visiting to learn about the country’s history. Many of them had walked or bused over days or weeks to get here, and this was considered a reward for some sort of good behavior. A few of the students spoke English and seemed shy but still somewhat keen to interact.

Finally, we flew back to Pyongyang for the football game. The process of getting on the plane was bizarre – everyone had to dump their bags on a tractor, and then stand on the tarmac as a man with an AK-47 stood in front of us. “Who gets the first class seats?” someone asked. “Whoever runs fastest!” someone else confirmed. And then the rains broke… the skies exploded and we were drenched and everyone ran, leaving the man with the AK-47 helpless. Indeed, those who ran first got business- and first class. I guess that’s how communism works.

Posted in Photography, travel

Victoria Falls

After posting two stories from last year’s trip to North Korea, I’m back to blog about this year’s trip to Africa. 

After visiting Matopo National Park in the middle of Zimbabwe, I took the train north to Victoria Falls, on the border with Zambia. The train ride was fairly pleasant and I awoke at dawn to watch the sunrise over Hwange National Park.

The train eventually rolled into Victoria Falls and I walked to Shoestring Backpackers. On the way I was accosted by a number of hawkers selling tours, t-shirts, crappy souvenirs, and bank notes for trillions of Zimbabwean dollars. It was annoying and would only get more annoying as the days went on.

I checked into the hostel and walked around town, making my way through the packs of hawkers to the Falls. Zimbabwe had proven very expensive so far and I wanted something cheap to do, so I was disappointed that to even see the Falls cost $30. What a rip-off… or so I thought.

When I got inside and actually had my first look one of the Seven Wonders of the World, I no longer regretted paying the money. It was well worth every penny. I spent the next three hours wandering around the park, looking at the Falls from every angle.

It’s known as the “Smoke that Thunders” because the sound of water is deafening and the mist rises way into the air like smoke. While I was there, there actually was thunder and it the water was too loud to hear it at first, but then the lightning came and I made for cover. I grabbed a beer at the cafe and the rain poured down. I hadn’t noticed the rain because the mist was so thick.

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Posted in Photography, travel

Watching Football in North Korea

This is part two in a short series of blog posts about a visit I made to North Korea last summer. Part one is here.

Before getting into this post proper, I’ll address something in the news. A few days ago, when I posted my first story about North Korea, I addressed the spate of ridiculous news articles and photoblogs that we’re seeing online from people who have done tours like mine. They go into North Korea, take some photos, and then misrepresent them to the outside world, furthering the ignorance that surrounds the country.

Today, the news broke that Otto Warmbier, an American student who was arrested in North Korea, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. This is an awful punishment, and I feel for the guy and his family. He’s only 21 years old, and while it’s easy to say, “What an idiot!” I can’t help but feel that a 21 year old version of me would’ve been much smarter. 

People often say you shouldn’t travel to North Korea. Indeed, this sort of thing is a risk. Yet, as sad as it is to see something like this happen, the guy committed a stupid crime in North Korea and was punished in a fairly predictable way. If you choose to go there, please act respectfully, accept that you’re in North Korea, and you will be fine. Don’t be an idiot, and don’t give them reason to arrest you. It’s not that hard. 

I assume that North Korea took the action they did in order to secure some sort of trade with the West, who otherwise keep them cut off in the hopes of starving the country into a regime change. However it works out, I hope Mr Warmbier is returned home unscathed and hopefully a little less foolish.

*

Now, back to summer 2015.

On July 21st, I’d returned to Pyongyang after running a half-marathon at Mount Paekdu and was surprised to have a new addition to the itinerary. North Korea and South Korea were playing each other in a football (soccer) game at the world’s largest seated stadium – right in the middle of Pyongyang!

I love football so this was an exciting opportunity for me, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing live games. To watch a game in North Korea was beyond my expectations… especially when it was between North and South Korea – probably one of the most intense rivalries on earth, albeit not usually in a sporting sense.

On the bus from the airport to the stadium our guide informed us of some rather surprising news – the two countries were now at war. That’s right, North and South Korea had begun shelling each other and the news was reporting it as an actual outbreak of war! Later, back at the hotel we’d get to see news reports on the TVs in our rooms.

I lived in South Korea for three years so I was quite accustomed to skirmishes between the two countries. I simply looked the guide in the eyes, and then looked out the window at the streets and determined that this incident was no worse than any other. The US and South Korea weren’t about to bomb Pyongyang any time soon. This was business as usual.

When we got to the Rungrado (릉라도) stadium I found that the game was actually between a North Korean side, Daedonggang (대동강), and a South Korean side, Gyeonggido (경기도). Still, I didn’t know the two countries would ever allow their teams to compete like this.

The stadium itself was incredible to behold. Its 150,000 capacity, however, was not exactly tested, as perhaps less than a quarter of the stadium was filled. It was impeccably clean (like all of Pyongyang) and the people watching the game were very well-dressed. The stewardesses, as you will have seen above, were dressed beautifully in hanbok.

As shells fell over the DMZ and the world media speculated that the Korean War was back on (even in South Korea people were now worried), I sat in a stadium in North Korea, watching representatives from either country shake hands and play a good-natured game of football. There was no booing, no heckling, no hacking, no cheating… It was just good honest sport.

In the end, the North Korean side won 3-0, for which we were all thankful. Everyone was happy and peaceful leaving the stadium. I didn’t sense any ill-will but I didn’t want to find out what it looked like when a South Korean side won a game in Pyongyang.

After the game we went out for samgyeopsal and soju. North Korean soju is vile compared to its South Korean counterpart, and would give me one hell of a headache the next morning, as we prepared to head back to China.

Posted in essay, Photography, travel

Photos From Inside North Korea Pt.1

This is the first in a series of posts in which I show photos and tell stories about North Korea. The material comes from a trip I took last summer with Koryo Tours. I haven’t posted anything about the trip publicly until now because I didn’t feel right profiting from it. In North Korea, I saw and met a lot of wonderful people who are suffering because of the actions of both their government and others – particularly the United States. However, I keep seeing salacious stories on Facebook and elsewhere taken by people on similar tours which sell themselves as “illegal” and were “smuggled out” of the country. Some of them are good photos but generally I find them to be misrepresentations and exaggerations for the purpose of journalism. The way they are presented, whilst not outright lies, is intended to make the author/photographer appear more daring, and the country to appear darker and more terrifying. What I saw was the human face of the people – a side of the country we genuinely never see. It may not be as appealing as photos of soldiers or the lies behind “Floor 5 at the Yanggakdo Hotel,” but sometimes the truth lacks that cutting edge. I will be posting these photos over the coming days and weeks, and I hope that they act as a counterweight to the more sensationalist ones you’ll find in more mainstream publications. 

North Korea is famously a hermit state – an absolute pariah of the modern world. It barely trades with or communicates with the outside world, and its citizens can only leave under the strictest conditions, or by escaping illegally across one of its borders.

As such, we know very little about North Korea except what can be learned through satellite monitoring. Their propaganda is laughable, and any semblance of truth is hidden behind an impressive veil of secrecy.

Yet reporting on North Korea is big business. News agencies around the world regularly tell us what is happening in Pyongyang and elsewhere. They tell us who’s vying for power and who’s been recently executed. The only problem is, this is mere conjecture posing as fact. It is in some cases our best guess, and in many cases complete fabrication. Right-wing and left-wing publications are equally guilty. It seems that when it comes to North Korea, press standards go out the window – and that almost seems reasonable, given that North Korea itself has an entire lack of press freedom, and a comical propaganda machine.

Some information, though, does slip out. What’s more, one can actually get into the country and see for oneself what North Korea is like. Of course, journalists are banned… but the average person can, for a fee, visit North Korea and see what is hidden to most of the rest of the world.

Whether or not that’s ethical is up for debate. I danced with this issue for years before deciding for definite to go. On the one hand we’re funding the country’s repressive government, but on the other hand we’re giving money to an impoverished people. On the one hand we’re tools in their propaganda, but on the other hand we’re showing that foreigners are human beings just the same as them. Moreover, we’re seeing a side of North Korea that normally remains hidden to the world, dehumanizing its people and allowing our governments to use North Koreans as pawns in their war with the Kim Dynasty.

Last summer I went to North Korea for the half marathon on Mount Paekdu with Koryo Tours. I flew from Beijing to Pyongyang and toured the city for a few days. We flew up to Mount Paekdu and saw some of the sights there, ran the half marathon, and then returned to Pyongyang before taking a train back up through the country and into China.

Cynics say that in North Korea you’ll never see the *real* country. Those cynics haven’t actually been to North Korea, of course… so they don’t know. The truth is that of course you’re going to see what the government wants you to see, and you’re never going to get a tour of a North Korean prison labour camp. That idea is absurd. The guides on any tour to North Korea will show you what the government wants you to see – impressive statues and artwork, museums and restaurants, etc. But you do get to see more than that. You’re driving around the country, seeing life as it is. You see regular people doing regular things – old men playing chess, children picking their noses and playing games with each other, men and women going to work. It’s easy to forget… North Koreans are humans, too. Their government may be evil and life may be tough, but they are just like we are.

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Most people there are very shy around foreigners, and it’s easy to see why. They are told awful things about us that make them fearful. Yet some of them are curious. I speak a bit of Korean, having lived in South Korea for several years. Sometimes the guides would disappear and leave us in the middle of Pyongyang, surrounded by thousands of people going about their lives, and I would talk to people. They wouldn’t say much, of course, but it was fascinating. It’s an experience I never thought I would have, and that may cynics deny is even possible.

A lot of people, too, suggest that everything you see is staged. That may well be true in certain, limited cases, but for the most part you are viewing real life as it goes on regardless of the proximity of foreigners. For example, my room way up high in the Yanggakdo Hotel overlooked Pyongyang, and through my camera’s long lens I could see parts of the city that clearly were never intended for foreigners to view. Life goes on there as it does elsewhere. On the subway, even, you see people going about their daily life, and they’re shocked and fascinated by foreigners much the same as people in rural China. In the north of the country, where we did the half marathon, we saw people working in fields and walking along country roads. They looked thin, over-worked, and deeply impoverished. None of this was hidden. Sometimes we’d see something the guides deemed “embarrassing” to the country, and we’d be told not to take photos – like soldiers being moved around in carts pulled by donkeys.

At the end of the trip, upon leaving the country, guards come onto the train and check every passenger’s luggage by hand, and investigate cameras for illicit photos – ie pictures of soldiers, construction sites, etc. When the guard came to my cabin he was, like almost all North Koreans I encountered, military or otherwise, very friendly. He asked what I had in my bag and I said, “Just clothes.” He accepted that. When going through our phones and cameras he laughed and looked at pictures from back home instead, asking about our wives and families and pets. He didn’t care about the pictures we had that broke the rules. (The featured photo at the top of this page is an example of a “banned photo.” It features the statues of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung without including the entirety of their bodies. This is the sort of photo other photographers sell as “illegal” and suggest is dangerous to take.)

North Korea is different from what you think. I’m not defending their government or its actions in any way. But this is a country of human beings – of bright and friendly and warm human beings – and we group them together as “North Korea.” We talk about going to war with them and being able to destroy them easily. In that scenario, who suffers? I’ll tell you: the same people who’ve been suffering for the past sixty-plus years.

 

Posted in Photography, travel

Matopo National Park

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After leaving St. Lucia, I took a mini-bus to Durban in the hopes of doing some cage diving with the sharks at nearby Aliwal Shoal. While there I stayed at Banana Backpackers, which is hands-down the worst hostel I’ve ever encountered. If you’re a fan of rats and cockroaches, by all means check it out. Otherwise, stay clear. Unfortunately for me, the currents were strong and visibility was down to nil, so the diving was cancelled.

I was not wildly impressed by Durban, mostly because I’m not a city person, so, after only one night I took a Greyhound bus to Johannesburg, and on to Zimbabwe. Mercifully I was only in Jo’burg for a few hours as I waited for a bus transfer. It seemed like hell on earth. In the short journey through the city on the bus, I saw numerous people being arrested, and countless others should should’ve been arrested. At the station I was constantly being approached by scam-artists – many of them who actually worked for bus companies.

Needless to say, I was glad to be on my way to Zimbabwe. However, at the border we encountered a delay. We arrived at 5am and it took until 7am for me to get my passport stamped. What was the cause of the delay? Oh, nothing. There’s just no rush in Zimbabwe… I was furious and thought that I’d miss my bus, but when I returned it was still waiting. “That’s lucky,” I thought.

I took my seat and waited… and waited… and waited.

When eventually we took off from the border and headed towards Bulawayo it was almost three o’clock! That’s more than nine hours waiting at the border!

Although the scenery on the way to Bulawayo was quite pleasing, I was too annoyed to enjoy it. Yet as we pulled into Bulawayo I couldn’t help but feel my heart lighten a little. It really is a charming little town. Bizarrely, it is reminiscent of both old Britain and old America. Trees everywhere, wide boulevards, old manor houses… It is an odd place, but very pleasant.

When we stopped, I got out and followed my iPhone’s directions to the nearest hostel. It was about two kilometers. A few taxi drivers tried to get me to ride with them but I said no. Amazingly, they politely accepted my refusal. What a nice change.

I walked to the hostel and got a reasonably priced bed for the night. The hostel had obviously fallen on hard times, and had a sign outside reassuring me that it was, in fact, open. I went in and the nice lady in charge seemed desperate, offering me a rate that was much cheaper than advertised, as well as an instant room upgrade. I went outside to find food and got a steak in an American steakhouse for $18. Given that my daily food budget had been about $3 until this point, it was quite a splurge.

The next day I book a daytrip to Matopo National Park, famous for its balancing boulders. Whereas in South Africa the parks had all been surprisingly cheap, here it seemed things would be much more expensive. My daytrip ended up costing $100 and didn’t even include a guide – just a driver.

My driver soon showed up and took me to Matopo. On the way, we were repeatedly stopped by police. It seemed that they were stopping everyone, hoping for some excuse to impose a fine. In his case, the driver was simply unlicensed to be taking people to the park. He managed to talk his way through each stop, though.

At the park, we drove around, seeing the main attractions. My driver spoke good English and obviously remembered much of what the guide had said, so he acted as a guide for me. However, he had no idea what any of the animals were, and so when it came to wildlife, I was the guide. He was also super-Christian (like most Zimbabweans seemed to be) and didn’t really understand much about world history. So he’d ask me things like, “Why did God make those rocks like that?” and I’d have to gently explain the finer points of our planet’s history.

We first visited the grave of Cecil John Rhodes, who is now a very controversial figure, with his statues being removed in the West due to rejection of our colonial past. In Zimbabwe, however, he seems more fondly remembered. Politics aside, his gravesite was well-chosen. While there, my guide and I saw a leopard fighting a pack of baboons down below.

After that we continued to a number of caves, where we saw ancient cave paintings. These really impressed me. I’ve attached some photos below, but due to Chinese internet problems I can’t attach as many as I’d like.

After the park, my driver took me to the train station and I got the train back north to Victoria Falls. I shared a cabin with some railway staff who were travelling for free on their work pass. One of them told me that they hadn’t been paid since December, 2014! He cursed the Mugabe government for its corruption and failure to lead the country. They continue to go to work each day, hoping to get paid, while receiving food from their families to keep them alive.

Posted in update

Just China Things

I’d meant to put up a new post this week, but I haven’t been able to. First, I’m trying to keep a regular schedule of posting photos and stories from my Africa trip during January and February. The next installment is Zimbabwe. Then there’s last year’s North Korea trip, which I’d promised to put online. Whenever North Korea is in the news and people start pontificating on political matters, I’m tempted to post some of my photos from the country, where you actually see the people. I feel it helps us stay grounded and stop silly abstract talk of war.

Unfortunately, I live in China. That means I’m subject to mindless censorship. Personally, I think that censorship results in the strangulation of culture and the withering of creativity and intellect. All those things are visible in China right now and, quite frankly, I’m eyeing the exit. July, 2017 is marked in my calendar as the leaving date. I love my job but this country is grinding me down…

But I digress…

This week is the big Communist Party Congress in Beijing where the party members “vote” on various matters of policy. Perhaps not as ridiculous as the spectacle in the United States right now in the run-up to the shitshow election in November, it is still nonetheless a bizarre festival of all that’s wrong with politics.

But never mind the implications for the wider world – my primary concern is a lack of internet access. In order to circumvent the aforementioned censorship of the internet, I’m required to use a VPN. Usually it is an annoying struggle, but spending money on a decent VPN can save a lot of hassle, especially when one works online most days. During this time of political farce, however, the government exercises its powers to shutdown access to the truth. As we know – or used to think before the rise of Trump – truth is a grave threat to bullshit.

The most commonly used VPN in China seems to be Astrill, and that was hit hard and fast. My service, ExpressVPN, stayed largely in tact until yesterday, when it faltered badly. Today has been a royal pain in my ass. Accessing almost any foreign-based website without a VPN has been nearly impossible, too.

So, for those reasons and more (think: work) I haven’t yet posted to this blog.

As means of an apology, here are two photos I’ve taken over the past 24 hours, in a low enough resolution to upload via one of the few working VPN servers I can currently access. They are the very essence of life in the bizarre land we know as The Middle Kingdom:

Posted in Photography, travel

Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park

I left Swaziland after just a few days, and arrived at the border with South Africa at Lavumisa. Upon crossing the border, however, I encountered a pretty big problem… There was nothing there. I’d expected a few minibuses like I’d found at the other buses I’d crossed, but there was nothing at all.

I didn’t know what to do. Looking at maps.me I found nothing nearby that would indicate any sort of transport system. The nearest town I could find was more than 100km. It also seemed that I was pretty much in the middle of a game reserve, too… which meant that even if I could somehow walk 100km (and my feet were still badly blistered from hiking in Swaziland) I’d have to avoid being eaten or gored to death.

After a few minutes of pondering my lack of options, I decided that the only option was to hitch-hike. I’d hitch-hiked the United States back in 2007, and in South Korea a few years later. In all attempts I’d been pretty successful – ie I got a ride quickly and hadn’t been murdered.

This time I stuck my thumb out and waited all of two minutes. A car pulled up and a man asked where I was going. “St. Lucia,” I told him. I hadn’t booked anywhere but I figured St. Lucia was a good place to go. It shouldn’t be hard to find a place to sleep.

“Mtubatuba,” he said.

“St. Lucia,” I replied, not understanding.

“I can take you as far as Mtubatuba,” he explained.

I jumped in and looked at my map. Mtubatuba was only 25km from St. Lucia. I could surely get a combi or taxi from there.

On the road I spoke to the man very little. He wasn’t unfriendly but also wasn’t particularly forthcoming. At one point he said, “I’ve never been to St. Lucia but I hear it’s nice… White people get all the nice things.” From there one things were pretty uncomfortable.

Eventually, the man agreed to take me all the way to St. Lucia for the equivalent of about $15. It was well out of his way and saved me a lot of hassle, so I didn’t mind paying. Besides, he’d driven me a long way from an isolated border post.

In St. Lucia I found a nice “hostel” was which actually a collection of tents on a roof. The tents were pretty luxurious, and I was disappointed to be kicked out the next day due to overbooking.

In St. Lucia I hiked around and spent time photographing the crocodiles and hippos in the nearby river and estuary. Then I booked a tour to the Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park that offered a good chance of seeing the Big 5. I’d not seen a lion at Kruger so I was excited about my prospects.

The above photos show some of what I saw that day.

My guide around iMfolozi was an interesting old man. Whereas my guides to other parks had been very young, this guy was well into his sixties or seventies, with long silver hair. He’d grown up in Zimbabwe when it was known as Rhodesia, and worked then as a hunter. The irony that he know worked as a tour guide in a park protecting animals was not lost on him… although he did often talk about the importance of hunting in conservation.

We saw a lot of rhino that day and our guide, too, talked about the importance of legalizing the trade in rhino horn. In six years we’ll have no rhino left, and none of our efforts to stop poaching have proven successful. The only choice, he claimed, was to farm it. It was an interesting perspective with which I tend to agree.

Posted in update

The North Korea You Don’t See – Coming Soon

Once I’m done going through all these African photos I’ve been posting lately, I’m going to start working backwards and uploading older photos and travel stories. Next up is North Korea.

Last summer, I visited North Korea to run the Mt. Paekdu half-marathon. It was one of the most amazing and eye-opening trips of my life, and changed my attitudes towards politics and the world.

On that trip I got to see inside a country that few others ever have the chance of visiting, and saw into the lives of the people who lived there. You often see stories in the Guardian and elsewhere that sensationalize it, but these are filled with bullshit. People write stories and post misleading photos in order to make sell their article. I’m not trying to say my experience was more “authentic” or anything like that, but that these other photographers and journalists aren’t interested in the true face of humanity.

In North Korea I met real humans… That shouldn’t be remotely surprising, but it is for most people. When I posted my photos and stories on Facebook, the response from people – intelligent people – was one of total shock at how life goes on in North Korea. Of course, a tour will never take you into the gulags and ghettos, but you do see far, far more than you’d ever expect, and you do meet people from all walks of life in that forgotten country.

Every time I see North Korea come up in the news I feel sadness at how we treat them. There are so many countries in this world with terrible governments – so many who are worse than the Kim dynasty – and yet we single out North Korea for our own political reasons and we sanction them and isolate them. In the end, we want to use their people as a tool. We want enough people to starve and suffer that the population rises up and overthrows the government…

Then what?

Then we’ll have shown that they were always going to fail. That their way isn’t as good as our way. It’s artificial. It’s a contrived situation. I’m not a Kim apologist. I hope that one day he is overthrown and punished and that the people know some measure of happiness. But we are making them suffer through our actions and we call ourselves goddamn humanitarians for doing so.