News__ Resolution #3

January 17, 2012 | By
RESOLUTION: "I Will Travel More"

EXPERTS: Alex Hoban & Brian Calvert, foreign correspondents

This year, you want to travel more but you don't know where you want to go. Backpacking Europe is so passé, the Caribbean is for amateurs, Southeast Asia is full of gap-year Australians and everyone with half a bible is building a house in South America. For the truly adventurous, it's time to head off the beaten path and into some of the world's nooks and crannies. North Korea, for example, would be an excellent getaway for anyone curious about totalitarian dictatorships and abysmal human rights. If you feel like playing willy nilly with your personal safety, perhaps Afghanistan is the place for you. It's no Gaza Strip but you'll look pretty hardcore in the Facebook photo album.

Alex Hoban and Brian Calvert are both foreign correspondents who've traveled in North Korea and Afghanistan, respectively. Alex writes for Vice, The Guardian, NME and The Japan Times. He's lived and worked in China, Japan and the UK. Brian has reported from Afghanistan, Cambodia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, among others. His credits include CBC Radio One, The National, Wall Street Journal Asia and New York Times Magazine. They both answered similar questions so we could compare and contrast for our next trip.

Read our Help with 12 Resolutions for 2012: I Will Travel more Q+A below.

Alex! How long were you in North Korea?

Officially, I've been to North Korea on two week-long trips, though if the embassy staff in Beijing hadn't taken my visa away it would have been three. I've also combed the border lands between North Korea and China, visiting Kim Jong Il's mythical birth place at Chang-bai Shan and the so-called 'Third Korea' in Yanji, North Eastern China.

Can you sum up your North Korean experience in a couple of sentences?

Bi-polar. Pyongyang is a city from the future envisaged as in the 70s, a Le Corbusian dream. As your guides ferry you from one over-the-top tourist attraction to another, at a purely aesthetic level, it's easy to get sucked into the weird socialist wonderland that they really do wish was real, and not just a corruption-funded pantomime to weakly cover the backs of a regime that's happy for 99% of the nation to live in abject poverty. When you remember this fact is makes you want to vomit.

Is it easy to go there as a tourist?

Relatively easy. You need money and patience, but mostly money.

How do they treat the single ladies?

On my second trip to the Northern port city of Raijin, our guide genuinely fell in love with my friend Emily. We got him drunk one night and he started telling her, "Emily, you are so beautiful, you are so beautiful. You sit there, so elegant, so silent. Like a good wife who does not speak, only obeys. Do you ever have the sexual feelings?"

What's the most delightful part of North Korea?

The bit where you're sat in a restaurant and they bring out a beautiful hotpot and loads of fresh veg and even some relatively succulent looking meat, and then just as you're about to tuck into this preservative free, additive free meal thinking "Hey, I guess the healthy diet is a silver lining," a Korean woman in a traditional, oversized tea-cozy shaped dress will come over with a plateful of monosodium glutamate and expect you to have your mind blown when she says, "Would Sir like some MSG?"

What's the find-a-rich-husband potential there?

Nah. Kim Jong Un is too busy playing with the tanks and downloading porn to look twice at your ugly mug.

If you only had 24 hours in North Korea, what would you recommend we do/visit/see?

You won't have much choice in what you see and do, so I'd say spend the time asking your guides as many non-threatening questions as possible about their lives, as this is the one chance you'll get to connect with people inside the world's most secretive regime. Sure, they'll probably bounce back to autopilot stories about how great their leader is etc. but charm hard enough and they'll let the mask slide.

How expensive is it to travel in there?

Very. Save yourself at least a couple of thousand bucks.

What's your favorite local delicacy?

Dog's dick soup.

What's the average temperature? How should we dress for North Korea?

It's cold in winter, hot in summer, and there's no air conditioning so layer up or wear nothing as appropriate . Or for lols, go dressed as an American cowboy with a massive stars and stripes sewn to your back/front/pants/shoes/bandana. See how the locals respond.

Key phrases in the local language to know?

"Jongmal Chollima Sokto Imnida!" = "Wow, that really was achieved with the speed and diligence of Chollima, the mythic North Korean horse of success."

Follow Alex on twitter @alex_hoban, check out his website and he's also putting together a book of his adventures.

Brian! How long were you in Afghanistan for?

Five months

Can you sum up your experience there in a couple of sentence?

I was training Afghan reporters in radio production, working on a radio mini-documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and reporting a longform story for Amazon's Kindle Singles label.

Is it easy to go to Afghanistan as a tourist?

The Afghan government readily issues tourist visas, but the cost of living is expensive and travel is very limited. So it's easy to go there, but not run amok.

How do they treat the single ladies?

A certain double standard exists for single (Western) ladies, who get a lot of attention, whether they want it or not -- from harsh glares to prolonged, uncomfortable gawking, to "I'm going to pretend to be asleep on your shoulder at this party while I surreptitiously rub your foot under the coffee table." You will not be ignored, even if you want to be.

What's the most delightful part of Afghanistan?

The exit visa. Just kidding. There's a certain grit to the Afghans, a fight in a country up for grabs that is interesting. It's very much at a crossroads, having gone through some wars, some communism, the Taliban extremism, and the "US-led intervention," but young Afghans, and there are many, have not had a chance to decide for themselves who they are just yet. So there's a feeling that the whole country is a fast-spinning top, that no one knows how it will finally settle at rest, but that everyone can influence some influence on the final result.

What's the find-a-rich-husband potential there?

Unless you want to take your chances with a corrupt warlord, not good.

If someone is visiting for 24 hours, what would you recommend they do/visit/see?

Friday Night Kites. Go to the top of the hill near the mausoleum of King Zahir Shah. This overlooks the city and you can watch hundreds of kites battle for the sky. Make friends with an Afghan, have some tea, hooka, beer, or hashish in a garden somewhere then find an expat party that goes all night (you have to ask around, they are roving and half-assed exclusive, though you can easily do that "that's my name on the guest list right there... Yusef" trick). Watch what you drink, rot-gut vodka at altitude can creep up on you. Dance 'til dawn, go back to the mausoleum of the king, wonder at the difference on the hill from the night before and this dawn, crawl home, sleep it off, or hit the Design Cafe, on the New City (Shar-e-Naw) for breakfast. Walk Chicken and Flower streets for some expensive carpets, leather vests, faux rifles, other trinkets.

How expensive is it to travel in Afghanistan?

Very. Public transportation is a no-no. Cars hire out at $150/day. You have to fly from city to city.

What's your favorite local delicacy?

Fresh kebabs right from the fire, washed down with Mountain Dew.

What's the average temperature? Any tips for surviving the heat?

Very hot in summer, very cold in winter. Bring your best zen attitude; don't overdo it.

Key phrases in the local language to know?

"Do you speak English?"

Follow Brian on Twitter @brcalvert and check out his website.

Read our past resolutions here--Resolution #1: "I Will Dress Myself Better" and Resolution #2 "I Will Learn More About Wine"

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