Ten years ago today, I landed at Incheon airport. It was my first time in Asia and I had no idea what to expect. I knew nobody on this whole continent, but I had found a job online that promised me a somewhat decent salary, something that was impossible for me back in Scotland.
I spent a little less than three years in South Korea. Unfortunately, the job was pretty awful. I actually disliked the country for a lot of the time I was there, although now I look back with a more mature perspective and realize that it wasn’t so bad. In fact, there was a lot of beauty there and I had some amazing experiences.
In Korea, I spent most of my time working but on weekends I’d head out into the mountains to hike. That was the best thing about the country – it was all mountains. After a year or so, I bought a motorbike and I ventured further off to the coasts. It’s not a particularly large country, and by the time I left in 2010, I’d seen most of it.
In 2010, I left South Korea. On the way out of the country, my plane crashed. Thankfully, no one was badly hurt, and after a few days I continued on a journey that took me across the United States, through Europe, to Taiwan, Malaysia, and finally China. The twists and turns that brought me here, to China, were bizarre at best and culminated in me receiving an anonymous phone call to a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur asking, “Can you come to China tomorrow morning?”
China has been my home on and off since 2010, when I first arrived in a relatively unknown city called Hefei. At that time, the president was Hu Jintao, and he was pumping money into Hefei and the surrounding areas. Since then, the city has changed unrecognizably. It is massive, and has often been cited as the fast-growing urban area on earth. In 2010 I was living in the countryside outside the city, and had to take a bus for thirty-five minutes to reach the center. Nowadays the city has spread for miles beyond where I lived, and the center has changed to a completely new location. There’s an international airport, theme parks, and a host of giant hotels, train stations, malls, and whatnot. Most towns change less in a hundred years than Hefei has in eight.
After a few years in China, I took off for Cambodia, where I ran a bar/restaurant/hotel for a year. This was about 2013, and by that time I’d spent a lot of time exploring Southeast Asia, and felt like it would be a great place to live. It was, but in 2014, I returned to China, to a smaller city near Hefei, and resumed teaching. I have remained there ever since.
China is crazy. It’s the weirdest place in the universe. Going anywhere and doing anything can be exhausting and unpleasant. I remember when I invited a friend over here many years ago and he said: “Even the simplest things here are just… different. You want to go buy a carrot and it becomes this huge adventure. Nothing works like you’d expect it to.”
But I guess it’s alright because I’m still here. It certainly gives me opportunities I would have had back home. The same was true of Korea. Since arriving in Asia ten years ago, I’ve visited about thirty countries and had an impossible number of experiences that just would never have happened had I not ventured east. I’ve run marathons in North Korea, hiked Mount Fuji, swum with dozens of sharks, gotten close to blue whales off Sri Lanka, and so much more. What an incredible ten years it has been – full of extreme ups and downs – but never, never boring.
Way back in 2008, not long after I first arrived in Asia, I took a trip to the Philippines. At that time I was working for a crooked hagwon in Daegu, South Korea, and I was physically and mentally exhausted. I needed a break and so when a group of very new friends I met in a bar suggested all travelling to the Philippines together, I jumped at the opportunity.
Soon we were in Moalboal, a beautiful little village which is popular for scuba diving. I was too exhausted from work to bother with the diving, and so instead I sat on my balcony and watched the fish and sharks in the water below, sometimes tearing myself away from a bottle of rum long enough to join them.
Here are some photos from that trip. (Keep in mind I was a terrible photographer back then and using a terrible little point-and-shoot camera).
This year, I have some time off in the summer and I would like to get back to the Philippines. One of the reasons is that it costs less than $200 for me to fly almost anywhere there from China.
As I’ve not seen much more than Cebu (and even then I mostly sat on my balcony with a bottle of rum for a week), I would like to explore further.
My main concern is time. I will be travelling with my girlfriend and she only has 10 days off work. We can get to almost any of these places pretty quickly, but travelling around would be very limited. Instead, we need to find a place that would be good for a little over a week’s stay, and which would require very minimal travelling from the nearest airport.
Please type your suggestions below. Any advice is very much appreciated.
When I was living in South Korea, there used to be a joke which wasn’t really a joke – more of an astute observation offered as a lament of inevitability – about Western restaurants. People laughed through their frustration at the process whereby Western restaurants invariably declined in quality following a set pattern. It went something like this:
The quality would start out high as the owners maintained their ideals. Soon, foreigners would flock to get the good food and enjoy the unique atmosphere. This would cause the restaurant to be noticed by locals, who would see the international customer base and suddenly consider the restaurant as cool. Soon, the locals would begin to eat there partly out of curiosity and partly out of a desire to be hip themselves. It wouldn’t take long before they started to complain about the food because it didn’t suit their palette, and the quality would begin to decline pretty rapidly, eventually leading to an exodus of foreign customers, and all the items on the menu being replaced by local foods or pale imitations of the originals.
In China, and particularly in lower tier cities, this process has been sped up to an absurd degree. In fact, theoretical scientists would need to postulate new units of time to describe the speed with which the Chinese can ruin something nice. In Huainan, where I live, a few idealistic souls have attempted to introduce entirely alien concepts like cleanliness, ambiance, and taste, and these efforts have severely punished. I shall now present a case study of three such businesses.
The Italian Restaurant
We shall start our culinary tour of Huainan’s international side with the greatest restaurant ever to open its doors in this backwater town. Its owners were Chinese people who’d lived abroad and learned of the finer things in life. They opened a sprawling restaurant in the middle of Huainan, where they endeavoured to keep things authentic – genuine stone-baked pizzas, fine wines, beautifully-presented side dishes, the highest-quality imported ingredients, and impeccable service.
Alas, the denizens of Huainan are not wooed by such things. They would venture into the restaurant, complain that the food wasn’t Chinese enough, steal the silverware, let their children run riot, and act rudely towards the staff. Typical complaints include:
Can you make a pizza with durian and blueberry?
A real pizza should be thick like the ones I saw at Pizza Hut.
The pasta sauce doesn’t have enough sugar in it.
This steak isn’t charred to a crisp; how am I supposed to eat it?
The owners refused to lower their standards enough for the locals, and quickly went out of business.
The German Restaurant
The success of German beer throughout China in recent years has prompted the opening of a number of German restaurants throughout the land. They mostly sell a mix of inauthentic European cuisine and grossly-overpriced Chinese fare. This allows Chinese customers to visit an international restaurant without having to actually eat something unfamiliar.
Such a restaurant opened in Huainan, offering a very hit-and-miss menu. They had some genuinely impressive Western food and a range of exciting beers that could be found nowhere else in this tier 310 city. They even did very non-Chinese things like cleaning the bathrooms and providing soap at the sinks.
The owners were not as idealistic as those at the Italian restaurant, and happily compromised on quality by allowing for normal Chinese behavior:
Spitting on the floor
Putting feet on the table
Allowing tuhao customers let their kids and dogs run freely around the restaurant
Over time, the items on the menu became harder to order. The beer supply was seldom restocked, and only the items the Chinese wanted (fried rice, fried noodles, etc) were usually available. They would begin substituting important ingredients and switching cuts of meat, and eventually the service degenerated to the usual Chinese standard – the staff all playing on their phones and orders routinely forgotten.
After a little over a year, the German restaurant closed, and few people noticed or cared.
The Japanese Restaurant
I had the highest of hopes for the Japanese restaurant. It was, after all, part of a chain of restaurants, meaning that it would be forced to stick to a set menu rather than bow to local demands. Moreover, Japanese food is not so alien to Chinese palettes, and therefore less likely to offend the delicate sensibilities of the locals. Alas, it was to suffer a slow and steady decline.
This chain store provides a menu of mostly noodles, in a pretty peaceful, clean setting. As they serve Japanese food, a healthy dose of nationalist hatred keeps most of the locals away, and ensures mostly a younger, more open-minded crowd. However, it has never proven popular, and it is a mystery why the company even bothers funding this branch as it could clearly have never turned a profit.
As the months and years have passed, the staff has gotten lazier and the food blander. Getting served is only possible if you can shout really, really loudly – even when the restaurant is completely empty – and while the dishes are made to a strict formula, the quality of the ingredients has declined so severely that it’s like eating paper. Complaints are met with typical Chinese customer service skills: “So what?”
Perhaps it is absurd to expect nice things in a place where the government has had to put up signs that say, “No shitting in public.” After all, this is a town that is made fun of by even hicks from the most backwards burghs in the province.
Yet this process is a story that is true throughout the Middle Kingdom. People want to appear adventurous, but only within their own predefined boundaries; they want to walk outside their own comfort-zone, but only if they can act the same way as they do at home; they want to be international, but still thoroughly Chinese. And that’s fine. There is nothing wrong with importing an idea and adding local flavor (although I still maintain that putting durian and blueberry on pizza is among the vilest crimes of humanity). China long ago imported communism, calling their style of governance “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Now they are doing the same with the fancy things they import from abroad.
All across this country, expensive new buildings appear overnight, and foreign ideas are introduced every day. A few months ago, a big mall opened in Hefei and my friend reported that he walked in and saw dozens of brand new stores and restaurants selling expensive things, shiny decorations everywhere, and signs proclaiming how advanced and international the city had become because of this cosmopolitan, international mall.
“That sounds pretty fancy,” I said, over the phone.
“No,” he replied. “There’s an old woman helping a baby to shit on the floor.”
The mall will probably make billions of RMB, and as China grows richer, more malls like it will be built in every town in the country, but there will always be someone taking a shit on the floor right there in the middle of it all. In many ways, China is just developing too fast for the people who live there, and if you’re looking for something nice, the best you can really hope for is “Fanciness with Chinese Characteristics.”
In the bigger cities, where people have been exposed to a bit of culture and taste, things are improving, and will probably continue to improve for years to come. Yet out in the sticks, where public defecation is the norm and where social mores haven’t changed since iron was invented—despite the proliferation of iPhones and blunt government propaganda to “Be More Civilized”—it might take a while before people can be expected to sit down to food that doesn’t still have its head and feet, go two minutes without spitting on the floor, or leave the restaurant without swiping the cutlery, crockery, and a few rolls of toilet paper for good measure.
As the country grows wealthier, the Chinese look west and decide what they want based upon what we have… but they want it ontheir own terms. And that’s fine. It’s their country. They want flashy malls and bars and cafes and theme parks and high-speed rail, but they want the right to spit and piss and poop in public because that’s their culture. I just wish they just leave pizza alone.
In my previous posts about North Korea I’ve stayed away from the touristy parts and spoken about Paekdusan, watching a football game, and some of the hidden bits you don’t usually see. Today I’ll talk about one place that almost every visitor gets dragged to: The Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum.
When people talk about tourism in North Korea, one complaint is that you get dragged around to all the places the government wants you to see, which is largely true. You do get to see other stuff, of course, but you have to put up with doing the touristy bits. Thankfully, because it’s North Korea, even the touristy stuff is fascinating and weird.
One my second day in North Korea I woke up somewhat hungover from the local (rather delicious) beer, and went for a 5am run. If you want a unique view of North Korea, trying running around the city in the wee hours. But then again, Pyongyang’s always pretty unique.
After breakfast my group was taken to participate in the obligatory tour of the museum dedicated to the Korean war. The museum is stunning and the guides unfailingly friendly, although their rhetoric grows tiresome. The whole thing is almost parodic. At no point could our friendly guide (above) say, “Americans.” She would always refer to “the Imperialist dogs” and talk about “the evil Japs.”
Even worse were the pictures of dead US soldiers proudly hanging here and there. Evidently, it wasn’t enough to have a collection of downed US places and the entire seized USS Pueblo pored over by countless visitors – they needed to have the actual bodies of young American men on display.
Throughout the visit, we are told the history of the Korean War from the North Korean side, obviously. It is fascinating and, quite frankly, refreshing to here a different perspective on history. What amazed me was that their narrative differs only slightly from ours. Although this country is famous for its bizarre propaganda, they tell more or less the same story about the Korean War, only with emphasis in slightly different places. They completely omit the fact, for example, that the war with Japan came to an end because of their sworn enemies, the US.
We were made to watch several ludicrous videos and listen to lots of stories. It was all a bit silly, and often it seemed the guides were embarrassed by holes in their own plots. Interestingly, they never told us this was “the truth” or that what we in the West believe is wrong. All they said is, “This is what we believe and we want to present our side.”
The museum seems to be visited by a lot of North Korean citizens. It is hardly surprising, as a healthy dose of indoctrination helps keep the populace in line. It felt a bit awkward, though, walking around amidst all the North Korean people, who were at that moment being told of foreign devils who raped their lands and want to come back and do it again. We did wonder whether our presence sent another message: At every junction, when there were lots of people, all the North Koreans would be held back and the foreign tourists allowed to go first… Perhaps the museum is sending a message about rude foreigners… Or perhaps they’re showing these people that the foreign devil has come to learn of his peoples’ evil and repent. Who knows.
Altogether, as bizarre as it was, North Korea’s museum was enlightening and, like everywhere else in the country, as pleasant adventure.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
It pisses me off when I hear the hate espoused for North Korea. People seem to forget that the people are not their government. It should be obvious but when I see Facebook threads about yesterday’s H-bomb test, it invariably comes to comments like, “Let’s bomb them!” from even semi-rational people.
Even the most reasonable argue for sanctions because they forget that North Koreans are humans who suffer from these sanctions, and that it is because of sanctions and blockades that the government has developed its militaristic hardline in the first place.
I visited North Korea last year and let me tell you that the people are people just like anywhere else. The children are the same as children in any other country, yet we conveniently blot them from our minds when picturing the hermit kingdom.
Travel to North Korea may be controversial but for me it was eye opening, like travel anywhere. If you don’t want to go there then fine, but don’t forget that these are people just like anywhere else and that our approach to “dealing with” the DPRK causes their suffering.