Given rare permission as a travel writer to visit North Korea, Carole Cadwalladr gets a (strictly controlled) tour of the notorious state and finds a land of haywains and empty highways, unlit cities and undimmed love for the Great Leader.
The strangest of all the very strange things about the strangest place on earth, North Korea, is that it's surprisingly easy to go there. Or at least, not as hard as it somehow ought to be.
I'd always thought that it was only marginally less difficult than going to the moon, but my amazing revelation is this: type "North Korea" and "tourism" into Google, and you'll find Koryo Tours, a British-run, Beijing-based travel firm.
A couple of clicks and a certain amount of cash later, and you, too, could find yourself on a vintage Russian jetliner heading towards the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
It's impossibly exciting. And when Paul, the Australian sitting next to me, remarks casually that Air Koryo is considered unairworthy by the EU, it becomes, perhaps, just a little too exciting.
But then some rousing martial music strikes up over a crackling intercom, and air stewardesses wearing what looks like jet-age vintage - white gloves, natty hats, red lipstick - bring around the in-flight reading material: the Pyongyang Times.
The top story concerns a visit by Kim Jong Il to the new September 26 Breeding Pig Farm.
"The country's economy is growing remarkably through a series of big events in the flame of the new revolutionary upsurge," he notes.
But then the flame of revolutionary upsurge is burning strongly among us, too.
There are 21 of us, from all parts of the globe, most of us reasonably well-travelled, with the exception of Dan, a 20-something Canadian, who has selected North Korea for his first ever trip abroad. ("No, Dan," someone tells him. "In other countries, you are allowed to leave your hotel without being officially accompanied by a government guide.")
And we're all as excited as puppies. Because barely 1500 people a year visit North Korea.
Or, to put this in context, several thousand fewer than make it to the British Lawnmower Museum. Collectively, we know more about a strimmer once owned by Joe Pasquale than we do about the nation that last May announced it had carried out a second successful underground nuclear test.
And as we land on an empty runway, and walk into an empty terminal, it feels not unlike entering a fold in the space-time continuum. Not least because our mobile phones are immediately confiscated.
The investment bankers in the group (we have three, two of whom have recently been made redundant - there's obviously something about having experienced the disintegrating edge of capitalism that makes North Korea an attractive holiday option) look like they might cry.
And yet, for what the West calls a rogue state, and George Bush termed the most easterly point on the axis of evil, it doesn't seem very evil.
It takes a while to clear customs, not because our belongings are searched or we're interrogated about the purpose of our visit, but because, as becomes clear when we see the luggage carousel, we're the only passengers who've failed to pack at least two flat-screen TVs.
And when we finally meet our guides by the departures board (there are none until three days' time), they're smiling expansively: an older man, Mr Lee, and a pretty young woman in a fashionable coat, Miss Kim.
We trundle along empty roads towards Pyongyang, a "model" city of Soviet-style blocks and grandiose boulevards where only citizens with special permits can live or even visit. Miss Kim tells us the name means "flat land", and "the weather is neither too hot nor too cold, with adequate precipitation".
It's just getting dark when we reach our hotel, the 47-storey, 1001 room, Yanggakdo, built on an island in the middle of the Taedong river. There are perhaps three or four rooms with lights on. But then this is more than in most of the apartment blocks we pass because, of all the things that North Korea is short of, it's most short of electricity. There's a famous satellite shot of the Korean peninsula at night, a dark puddle in a sea of light.
Our hotel has electricity, but by 10pm, from the magnificent revolving restaurant, the city simply vanishes from view. Poof! Like a cheap trick in a pantomime. Now you see it, now you don't, although it's there again next morning, shimmering in the crisp winter light.
The upside of having no electricity is that because there's very little industry, there's very little pollution, and as we travel south out of Pyongyang, towards the Demilitarised Zone, almost no traffic. It's a four-lane highway, the key route south. With no cars.
We stop at a roadside service station and are mesmerised by the lack of traffic: a bicycle passes. And some time after that, a unit of soldiers marches past in what was meant to be the fast lane. Because if you want to go somewhere in the DPRK, you walk. Everywhere, criss-crossing the countryside, across fields and dirt roads, people are walking.
Who knows where they're going? We know almost as little about North Korea as the North Koreans know of us.
This state of affairs isn't helped by the fact that journalists are banned. The last two to enter the country illegally were imprisoned until Bill Clinton intervened and negotiated their release.
I have special, rare dispensation as a travel writer because Nick Bonner, the founder of Koryo Tours, believes the more the world engages with North Korea, the more North Korea will engage with the world. And because I've agreed in advance that I shan't write about North Korea's human rights record or in any way insult the Dear Leader. It's strongly impressed on all of us before we leave that if we misbehave, it's not us but our guides who'll bear the brunt of any "repercussions".
I've been allowed in as "a travel consultant" and in this capacity I'm happy to report that visiting North Korea is surely one of the greatest holidays on earth. You will see only what everyone else who goes to North Korea sees: which is what the North Korean Government wants you to see.
In this, it reminds me of Hello! magazine. I've always marvelled at how celebrities, given editorial control, choose to portray themselves. And so it is with North Korea. You may not get to see the "real" North Korea, but this "unreal" North Korea is a fascinating thing in and of itself. Because this is tourism at its most perfected.
It's like a cruise ship. Every minute of every day has been pre-formulated and it's beautifully worked out: from the €5 charge if you want to try the national speciality, dog soup, to the man with a video camera who follows our every move, and at the end of the tour produces a DVD of our visit set to martial victory music, and sells it back to us for €40 a pop.
What you get a sense of, most acutely, is the country's extreme isolation and paranoia, although after a few days in the country, it doesn't seem as paranoid as all that.
"After President Bush named us as the axis of evil, he attacked first Afghanistan, then Iraq. Are we next?"
The relationship with the US affects everything: it fuels juche, the ideology of self-reliance, and its strategy of songun, putting the military first, and explains everything from the lack of electricity to the "Arduous March", the famine in the late 90s when up to two million people died. It's not as bad as then, but the World Food Programme estimates a third of the population will go hungry this year without emergency aid. Our food, on the other hand, is plentiful and not bad. Even the dog soup is pretty good (half of us reckon it tastes like lamb; the other half, beef).
The highlight of the trip is a visit to Kim Il-sung's mausoleum, an encounter that must qualify as the greatest tourist experience on Earth. (The "International Friendship Exhibition" in Mt Myohyang-san runs a close second. It displays the 223,579 gifts given to Kim Il-sung, including a stuffed crocodile in bow tie and waistcoat serving drinks, presented by the Sandinista National Liberation Front of Nicaragua, and a Tolpuddle Martyrs plate from the British parliamentary Labour party.)
We're in our smartest clothes. Miss Kim lines us up in rows of four and we march solemnly through a security scanner and on to a travellator that spans an endless marble corridor until we reach the inner sanctum, where we form two perfect rows, take three steps forward on Miss Kim's command, and bow to a statue of Kim Il-sung, march down more marble corridors, through a wind tunnel (to shake the dust from our clothes), and into a darkened room holding the embalmed body of Kim Il-sung. We form six rows and step forward three steps at a time, to bow solemnly, not once, but three times, from three different directions.
Even then it's not over: in another marble chamber is an audio guide to the nation's reaction when the Great Leader died.
"All people were rending their hearts! And weeping scalding tears that as they hit the ground fossilised and became glittering pieces of stone! It was as if the earth itself had died!"
Outside afterwards, groups of Korean women line up to have their photographs taken in front of the palace, and we watch as more than one brushes tears from her eyes. Kim Il-sung was the father of the nation; in fact, he still is, described in the constitution as the "eternal president", and this emotion isn't faked.
The trouble with North Korea, says Hannah, one of our English guides, is that people tend to see what they want to see. The Chinese see China; the Russians, Russia; Ferenc, a Hungarian in our group, sees a little bit of Hungary - like the pupils in the June 9 Middle School we visit, he wore the red scarf of the Young Pioneers when he was a boy.
"My parents couldn't believe I was coming here," he says. "They were horrified."
Dan, the Canadian, sees "Abroad". (And it scares the shit out of him. I'm not sure he'll ever leave Winnipeg again.)
And Peter, the 74-year-old Australian in our group, sees a battleground. I'm standing next to him when he lifts his trouser leg to show Miss Kim his bullet wounds: "That's where you buggers tried to kill me," he says.
"Although, in fairness, I was trying to kill you lot at the time."
He's the first Korean War veteran from "the other side" that Miss Kim and Mr Lee have met, and it's genuinely touching what a fuss they make of him. They pay out of their own money to upgrade him on the train on the return trip so that he's more comfortable.
It's a remarkable journey: like travelling through a Constable painting. There are oxen pulling carts, farmers unloading a haywain, children playing with a wooden hoop. It's so strangely innocent: a landscape that could be from any time within the past three centuries.
It's four hours before I see the first car, and some time after that, we approach the border, where a charmless customs officer systematically goes through my camera and deletes half my photos.
Beyond the Yalu River we see the towers of Dandong, a small provincial Chinese city that looks like a crazy modern metropolis. How can buildings be so tall and shiny, I wonder.
But then if there's one thing that going to North Korea teaches you, it's that everything, all of life, is just perspective.
- OBSERVERBy Carole Cadwalladr