Adventures in Forbidden Lands: North Korea and Mongolia
She’s climbed Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro; survived the world’s toughest trek, the 99-kilometre Kokoda Trail in the moist, tropical jungles of Papua New Guinea; faced ghosts and ghouls in Kampot, Cambodia, famed for pot, and Killing Fields. Never mind her trips to Thailand, Egypt, Turkey, Bali, Kenya and many other countries.
So what’s left to explore for Anjaly Thomas, a single, Indian woman in her thirties who works for a radio station in Dubai? Well, North Korea; and, of course, Mongolia!
Instead of shopping In Dubai’s glitzy malls for trendy dresses and scarfs , smart handbags and shoes, glamorous jewellery and cosmetics, Anjaly hunts for trekking shoes, backpacks, safari hats and survival kits. Why? Because travel is her passion.
“Travel allows me to submit to the unfamiliar, to live out my desire for the unknown, to live the ‘paradise on earth’ fantasies, to test myself in unfamiliar circumstances, to prove that I can do anything that my heart desires.”
Getting into North Korea and then surviving for a week in this ‘god forsaken’ country tested her to her limits. Obtaining a visa took many months as a travel writer, so she became a school teacher to land in Beijing before flying by Air Koryo to Pyongyang, the capital. The phrase ‘god forsaken’ is apt as the gods in North Korea are the supreme leaders: the current ruler Kim Jong-Un and his late father, Kim Jong-il.
“If there is anything that will get you arrested or deported, it is damaging the pictures of the Great Leaders,” our guide warned us before we boarded the flight. Our party was escorted by guides throughout the tour all day until we went to bed.
“The city has only young, healthy people. We never saw an old or sick person; the streets have no commercial signboards, few people on the roads, no life, colour or traffic jams, no glass on windows, and no electric bulbs in drab apartment blocks – a strange unreality but it was real! They have created an entire city for impressing visitors.” Did you feel safe? “Safer than anywhere else in the world,” she replied. But Anjaly beat a hasty retreat when the guide invited her to address a class on a school visit. Phew!
After the first night, the party was moved to a hotel on an island so that they could not wander into the city at night by themselves. Travelling to the great monument for the Great Leader, the rural countryside was really beautiful but the strict protocol and the atmosphere of the massive structure was overpowering and repressive because the Great Leader replaces god in North Korea, she recalled. No wonder she titled her book, “There are No Gods in North Korea’ (Nyogi)
“To really stop complaining about lack of freedom, liberty, material and intellectual deprivation, I would strongly recommend a visit to North Korea at least once in your lifetime,” she advises.
After this intellectual suffocation, Anjaly moved on to Mongolia, to the vast open Steppes in the land of Genghis Khan. Motoring over the unlimited plains, sleeping in tents, gazing at the unending horizons of the Gobi desert, she was a free bird. “Trust me when I say that nothing in the world can cure you of your need for space as quickly and as effectively as Mongolia,” she enthuses.
“There is no way I can describe the open space, the limitless horizons, the clean air, the space, the beauty, the feeling of being the only person on earth. Of course, I was expecting space and endless horizons but still I was not prepared for so much space, so few people and so much livestock,” she remarks.
Anjaly keeps on going; from Mongolia to Kenya where she gets ‘married’ to a Masai chief, to Uganda where she dips in the Nile to Turkey where she meets many offbeat people.
Aren’t you afraid going alone? “Being a solo female traveller is nothing to fear,” she answers.
So where are you going next? She is quick, “To hug an anaconda in the Amazon!”
Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi