Shaun Archer goes deep into the Axis of Evil to discover a friendly and hospitable country, full of surprises.

"Shaun," our big Belgian tour guide said softly as he leaned towards me, "it really is a country that touches people. You'll love it."

There I was, in a grimy Starbucks at Beijing Airport, waiting for an Air Koryo flight to arguably the world's most secretive country, the DPRK, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or, as most people know it, North Korea.

The guide had realised just how nervous I was and was trying to put my mind at ease.


But in the lead-up to the trip, I had filled my head with visions of officious tour guides guarding us at all times and of being jeered at by Western-hating locals. After all, this is the unstable sibling of the two Koreas, the totalitarian state on the wrong side of the most heavily militarised border in the world, where three generations of leaders have been given a cult-like status while the outside world has been portrayed as some sort of devil-land.

I shouldn't have worried. My first experience, passing through Customs at Sunan International Airport, was routine to the point of being disappointing. But then the fun began.

We were met by our Korean guides and loaded into a lime green tour bus that took us from site to site at a frantic pace — straight from the airport to a European-style city park with fountains, to the Leaders at Mansudae Grand Monument, and then to the North Korean Arch of Triumph, a larger, somehow more austere version of the Paris monument of the same name.

That pace didn't let up for the entire trip. We visited museums and tombs, beaches and lakes, farms and factories, school camps and universities, theme parks and shooting ranges.

The biggest surprise for me, though, was the stunning natural beauty of the country.

After all the reports about food shortages and human rights issues, it was something I hadn't expected. From the pristine, empty beaches of the east coast to the breathtaking vistas of Mt Kumgang, the country was full of unspoiled natural beauty.

And then there were the inevitable moments of pure weirdness: the gorgeous coastline strung with electric fences and peppered with guard towers, endless military checkpoints, opening the door to a new hotel room to find nothing but a concrete shell beyond.

There were also moments that were utterly confronting: the adorable, unnaturally well behaved pre-schoolers holding hands and paying respect to the nation's leaders by bowing in perfect unison to a statue of Kim Il Sung.


And then there was the hospitality. At times it was overwhelming. I have a physical disability that, while only slight, is difficult to hide, particularly when walking long distances or over uneven terrain. I had a never-ending stream of people inquiring after my comfort. Our group's Korean cameraman made it his mission to make my trip as easy as possible. Many times I came to a steep set of stairs, to find him waiting with a wide smile and an arm out ready to help.

Schoolchildren visit the Mansudae Grand Leaders Monument. Picture / 123RF
Schoolchildren visit the Mansudae Grand Leaders Monument. Picture / 123RF

The Korean guides are extraordinarily proud of their country and work hard to show it off. When Brad, an American member of our group, showed genuine interest in seeing the new ski resort at Masikryong, the guides worked their magic to make it happen. The price for this unscheduled detour? A "pinkie" promise that Brad would come back to the DPRK with his family to ski.

Another surprise was our diverse group of fellow travellers. The oldest person was an 82-year-old euthanasia campaigner from California and the youngest an 18-year-old Australian student, both women, both travelling alone.

Bus trips were broken up with jokes and evenings were spent sampling excellent Korean beer and revisiting the day's activities.

I had wanted to visit North Korea ever since seeing a piece on it in a travel show. A quick Google search revealed that not only was travel to this mysterious place possible, but it was also relatively straightforward. It was a simple matter of picking one of the numerous tour companies operating there and signing a document declaring I wasn't a professional journalist. Easy.

I chose Koryo Tours, a company that has been operating tours in the DPRK since 1993, not only because of its reputation and great customer reviews but also because of its history of humanitarian work in the country. Projects it has been involved in include providing food to orphanages and rebuilding schools.

It provided a wealth of information prior to departure, covering everything from a suggested packing list (bring a torch) to Korean etiquette (keep it calm and polite). A thorough pre-departure briefing in Beijing greatly assisted us in preparing for what may well be the world's weirdest package holiday.

The big Belgian tour guide had told me not to worry. He was right.

Getting there
Air China and Air New Zealand fly direct from Auckland to Beijing. Koryo offers all-inclusive group tours, including return travel from Beijing to Pyongyang, transport, meals, accommodation and guides.