Monsoon - India Through Music

Sometimes, you're lucky enough to meet people along the way that have epic plans, ideas, minds and imagination. These pioneers inspire and encourage us at times we need it to push further, think bigger and simply make us want to see what they see, hear and create. 

Dan Smith is one of those individuals and has returned me to India 18 months after I last explored the country by sending me his upcoming album Monsoon. A culmination of two months spent recording organic sounds throughout India and transforming it into an album that even BBC Introducing has featured. Starting from the continents most southerly state Kerala and then meandering up along the west coast until eventually reaching the northern capital Delhi. Along the way he recorded kids, buskers, camels, mantras, monks, people, holy men, bird song, temple bells and everything else in between to created each of these romantic pieces. 

Monsoon brings us 8 exerts of music created from sounds recorded in the corners of India, with Dan saying music is everywhere to those who listen (pretty deep stuff!) After listening to each piece though, I'm fairly convinced that Dan could even turn that the poor child who cries during takeoff on flights into a melody. 

For those of you who haven't explored India's vast soil yet, this album will inspire you to visit. Within two months, Dan explored and recorded (in order) Trivandrum, Varkala, Kumarakom, Kochi, Goa, Hampi, Mumbai, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Pushkar, Jaipur, Agra, Varanasi, Rishikesh and Delhi. When asked which place was his favourite, it seemed pretty hard to pin one down! From the living streets of Mumbai, to the peace in Varanasi I can agree each part of India has it's own special energy that you can't define or box into better than another. However, with a little force I managed to convince him to share his best part:

If I had to nail a favourite though I would say Varanasi although closely followed by Rishikesh... I was actually stranded there due to a mishap with the trains & even ended up with food poisoning after a wild samosa.. But I just loved the noise, the medieval streets & the pure chaos that came from there, it was hands down the most surreal city I have ever been to.
— Dan Smith - Sight

Next up Dan tells me is Patagonia, which I can imagine would  be just something else after this one! Unfortunately we're all going to have to wait a little while as he's not aiming to get out there for another year or so. To keep you going though, you can check out more than just the track embedded above here, and Dan has been awesome enough to send me some information about how each track has been inspired & created. Between listening to his work, and reading musings, you really can tell that India stole his heart.

To find out more, check out Dan's website which will hopefully be filling up with more inspired work!

Track 1 - Snoring Babas

This track I intended to be the appendix of the record. Giving a little insight, the track has recordings taken from railway workers working on tracks, and recordings I have taken from all the train stations which I had visited all across the country. Its title, Snoring Babas, stems from a recording I took whilst on a savagely long train from Varanasi to Rishikesh. As the sunset and the night grew longer the sounds of the railway and the rattling train became more pronounced. Then, more and more of the holy men starting getting on the train and filling the aisles and floors. Eventually the whole train was asleep - I woke the whole carriage had errupted in a chorus of snoring. For many who travel india the railway is the quintessential indian experience.


Track 2 - Bombay

The second track on the album is recorded from the sounds of the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai's hand washing slum and largest factuality of it's kind in the world. It's put together with vocals chopped from the slums inhabitants, washing sounds, tables and the cities metros. 


Track 3  - Rallying

This is one of my favourites from the album. The track's a blend of street noises such as bicycles, bat screeches & religious sounds. The ticking was a sample taken from one of the wheel & stick games some of the gypsy kids played within the Thar desert. At 1.26 you hear one of the Varanasi horns, sounded every evening in worship of the River Ganga - literally sounding them for around two minutes or so whilst incense burns and singing begins. Then, in the second part of the track, you hear drums I've recorded from a street wedding procession in Kerala with main vocal is from a preacher I found singing at a religious rally in the park in Udaipur. I guess this track is really a homage to the role that religion plays through out the country. 


Track 4 - Liquid Streets

This one really focuses on the theme of water and how I experienced it in the country. Ranging from the effects of the monsoon, which would send people running for their homes and flooding the streets on a weekly basis to the peace of the meandering waters. The opening ambience is a recording of the monsoon in a very wet Kerala with large, thick droplets pounding against the urban rubble outside our hostel in Varkala. The track highlights liquid in both its micro & macro sense, the weather being its macro form, then shifting towards a micro focus as water droplets recorded from the washing up slum mix with the all too familiar kettle whistle heard from the brewing chai.

The piano piece behind the track has been processed through a recording of children playing by the river in Hampi, you can hear faint children enjoying the river in the frequencies of the piano mix within the recording. 


Track 5 - Blackout

This track is namely about the electricity in India - or the lack of it! This one I did mess about with the samples a bunch, with the majority of the sounds here having been recorded from electronic outputs found around India. There are a lot of blown out speakers used throughout Varanasi, the glitchy vocal sounds are from recordings in the city. I wanted the hits to sound like electrical surges, thunder claps and power lines going down through out the track. I wanted that chaotic, slightly out of control vibe you get from being in india. This contains my favourite sample on the album too. I recorded a camel! During a 3 day trek in the Thar desert, sleeping under the stars I got to spend plenty of time with the grumpy animals.


Track 6 - Arteries 

Probably the most experimental track in the LP, it's a blend of railway sound, gongs & engines. The name comes from the idea that the rails are the arteries of india - I wanted to try and see if I could make a track that sounded like India's blood flow. This one is a little odd, but just think of it as a soundscape!


Track 7 - Heartbeats

Opening with one of the massive religious parade songs found in Varanasi, then ending with the lumber jack whom cuts the wood for the cremations. It's fairly dark and ominous, but I think India also has this feeling, just as a tourist I always felt we were hidden from it.


Track 8 - Sugarcane

The final track on the album.. This has alot of the recordings of the kids I met in the desert, with prayer bells in Rajasthan clashing & beach swells. The sound of the hi hats is a recording of the bells attached to the sugar cane machines found through the continent. I wanted to give the track a nostalgic feeling of innocence, like that of childhood.


10 Tips for Safe Solo Travel in India for Women

Travelling in India as a female seems to have some sort of taboo attached to it, but I can honestly say it shouldn't. Of course, my parents were slightly short of terrified when I announced my plan to spend a few weeks exploring some of this epic country, however I somehow convinced them that it would be 100% safe, and I was. Once there, India stole my heart; it’s a place like no other with diverse cultures and stunning scenery - I would encourage anyone to head out there as there really is an experience for everyone. So what 10 tips can I offer you to make sure you have the best time in India? Simply read on.

Image by Travel Buddy Lucinda Smith

Image by Travel Buddy Lucinda Smith

Don’t go out alone at night

It’s same as it is in any country around the world - if you’re in an area of town that can be considered slightly ‘dodgy’ then don’t go out alone at night. It’s very easy to grab yourself a taxi or tuk tuk home, especially considering how cheap they are here. It’s not like in the UK where you have to consider taking out a loan to cover a 20 minute journey home after a night out, it’ll cost you a few tuppence and you’re home safe to whichever hostel or hotel you’re staying at.

Cover up

In a world where the women dress conservatively, don’t wear your best hotpant shorts and crop top. I am a believer that every woman should be able to dress how they want without it saying, ‘I’m asking for it’, but unfortunately the world isn’t quite there yet. So just play it safe and cover up to your knees and preferably your shoulders. The local women of Delhi always look unbelievably stylish and graceful to me, yet they’re pretty much covered up completely and stay cool in the Indian sun.

Show respect

Again on the topic of clothing, when heading to the temples show respect by fully covering your arms and legs. You should also remember to take your shoes and socks off to enter, just follow in the locals footsteps as it’s a great way to ensure you follow the best temple etiquette!

In light of recent events I kinda feel I have to remind you all of the importance of showing full and complete respect to their gods. You don’t have to be religious to understand that the Gods worshipped by people all around the world can be as real as you and me to them. Take an interest in each religion you have a chance to immerse yourself in, the art and culture that has sparked from them is beautiful in so many ways. Just because religion can be the cause of war doesn’t mean it’s worship is hateful.

Be Confident

Confidence is key! If you can appear to know exactly where you’re going and exactly what you’re doing, it’ll make others nervous of taking advantage. You can convince people into thinking you’ll call them up on any trick in the book generally preventing them from trying even if you are 100% confused.com about where you are and what you’re doing. I’ve been shot at, abandoned in the middle of nowhere in Laos - the list could go on. The point? If you bluff it you should be ok.

Be Friendly

You’ll be surprised at how far a smile can go! If you’re friendly and just generally happy to chat you never know what kind of wonderful situations you’ll end up in. The local women love to chat about their lives and are desperate to learn about ours. In Delhi, there was a fascination with how much they want India to grow, the younger generation calling themselves the ‘new India’, yet they make sure to tell you that their culture is definitely going on the ride with it. By having the opportunity to chat away with them, I learnt a lot about what to look out for in certain areas and was able to see the country through their eyes - truly something money cannot buy.

Bottled Water Only / Watch what you Eat

The clue is in the title - while in India it is bottled water only and always. Make sure you check the seal as you never know if it’s been tampered with. You seriously do not want a case of Delhi Belly whenever you can prevent it. Remember not to have ice cubes too, as it’s generally made from tap water unless you are in one of the top hotels and will cause the same ramifications.

The same situation applies with food too - be careful about what you eat such as salads as they’ll have been washed in water too. Spicy curries are generally a safe bet if your stomach can take them as the spice (I’m told) will kill some bacteria! The food here is divine so you want to eat it - don’t be nervous simply play it safe and have fun. Perhaps stock a little imodium & rehydration sachets too as you don’t want to end up in an Indian hospital if you can help it...

Credit Card Payments

This is a simple no no. Paying anywhere other than a hotel with any electronic payment is foolish. Life can be tough in India, and when they see western tourists coming in with plenty, I can understand the temptation to take more money than agreed if not all of it. With this in mind, always settle an agreed rate before taking your money out to pay, unless it is to show that this really is ‘all you’ve got’. Please only play this card if it’s true though, if they see you’re lying they certainly will not back down.

Common Sense

This is the best tool in your arsenal in any situation. Common sense will generally guide the way, and you’ll figure out fast if this is something you can talk yourself out of, or if you’ll need to walk (or run!) your way out of.

Open Wounds

Do your best not to have accidents causing an open wound, but if they do occur ensure to keep it clean and covered until healed over enough that dirt won’t get in. I know you would do this everywhere but India’s idea of hygiene and cleanliness is different than ours, with sewage waste in the streets and water sources. DON’T let this put you off, it’s not bad just different! All you need to do is take extra care when problems arise, have a reasonably advanced first aid kit if heading off the beaten track, get the correct immunisations before you leave and use a nice amount of antibacterial gel!

Join a Group


If all else fails, just join a group! Either meet a few people in your hostel / hotel or find a tour group to hop on with. It’s not worth having a shit time to prove a point, some of the trips by companies such as G Adventures are absolutely incredible. You still travel via local transport and have an authentic experience, only with 8 - 12 other like minded individuals and a local expert who helps out if you run into any difficulties. Feel free to ask though if you need any advice with this though!

It's Not All Teriyaki Dreaming in Asia

If you’re about to eat your dinner or a tasty snack, put it down and come back to me when you’re done. That is unless you have a tough stomach, or just enjoy the delicious tastes of Asian dishes complete with bugs, live shellfish or fermented eggs. Asia is a large place, and so we can understand the variety but perhaps, what we can’t understand is - WHY WOULD WE WANT TO EAT BUGS?!

Having done my research - or rather been talked at for hours by a friend who is knowledgeable in these sorts of things, I have learned that it is predicted that we will all have to man up and eat the creepy crawlies of this world within the next hundred years. The reason? With our growing worldwide population it’s the only way we will be able to keep a sustainable source of protein and food for the human race - pretty grim right?

Well - it’s not SO bad and I’ve had my fair share of insects over the last few years while hopping through Asia. But, insects are not the only delights in store for you below as we know, it’s not all Teriyaki dreaming here...

Cambodian Tarantula

Cambodia went through a real life horror story called the Khmer Rouge between 1975 - 1979. During this period of terror, a lot of people went starving and so turned to any kind of food they could find; this included tarantula. When in Cambodia I was greeted by a young local girl who decided it would be absolutely hilarious to see the tourist eat one. So, she took me by the hand and led me over to her father's stand. Here he roasted me a fresh one, (because that will clearly make a difference to the taste…) and they both served it up to me so proudly I really could not say no.

Top tip if ever asked to try a tarantula - eat the legs not the body. Legs = crunchy and don’t really taste of anything so is a bonus. Body = gooey, gross and gross and just GROSS. Ignore people who tell you otherwise!

Cockroaches, Locusts & Crickets

You will find these all over South East Asia, and they’ll generally be fried in oil alive until they sizzle out… This is the point where they’re served up to you in a cup or on a stick. To be honest, they don’t taste of much and are fairly crunchy; once you get over the idea of it you could eat them as though you were a local! If you have nut allergies though, steer clear as they normally cooked in peanut oil.

Scorpion

Scorpion is another pretty 'delicacy' that is served on a stick all through Asia. You would think that this could be pretty deadly with the scorpions reputation for venomous, however I ate one and I was fine (well, only a stomach ache)! Lots of people say they taste like shellfish but I just thought they tasted a little like peanuts. Safe to say, it was an experience I won't relive willingly!

Drunken Shrimp

This not so disgusting but fairly cruel in my mind. The shrimp is put in a bowl and fill it with alcohol - sounds kind of delicious right? Add a little seafood sauce and bon appetit. Not quite; in reality the shrimp are actually alive and are drowning in alcohol. You then catch the half swimming drunk shrimp, take off the head and eat the still wriggling body. They’re not always alive as it depends on how you order them - many now serve drunken shrimp differently. Ethically, they’re not too different to how we eat oysters though I guess, as long as it’s quick!

Chicken Soup

Sounds harmless wouldn’t you agree? Maybe at home but perhaps not in China; when one orders chicken soup here it can be slightly different. A friend of mine told me that he did this. He was presented with a bowl full of water and a few spices, but the main event was a whole chicken boiled in the bowl from head to foot only missing the feathers! I don’t know if this was normal or just a ‘lucky’ one off, but in Asia they use do all of the chicken from the feet and the ‘male’ parts as a delicacy - so enjoy?

Balut

This is essentially a fertilised duck embryo and is boiled then eaten from it’s shell. It’s a dish commonly found in the Philippines, but can also be tried in South East Asia. It’s the sort of thing that you want to have a pint handy to down it with to clear the taste.  Regularly sold in street food markets, it’s now becoming rather popular to serve balut as appetisers in restaurants, or just to freak out tourists. However, if this is what the locals enjoy to eat we can't deny them that. To me though, it can only taste as bad as it sounds...

Kopi Luwak

Now Kopi Luwak is a personal favorite of mine because it actually tastes delicious. It’s the most expensive coffee you can buy in the world and I was lucky enough to taste a similar coffee which is harvested through the same process in Vietnam. The beans are grown and then eaten by Asian Palm Civet, a cat-like animal, and digested. The Civet will, essentially, shit the beans out and these will be collected, cleaned and ground into coffee for us to drink by monks!

Ant Egg Soup

Ant Egg Soup is literally what is says on the tin (not that it’s really served in a tin, but 'whatever'). The eggs taste like super soggy puffed rice and there were a few living ants included which aren’t too bad to be honest, just slightly sour I guess. Ants are not crunchy like other insects that are eaten in Asia, it’s just a really weird thought to be eating ant eggs; it's definitely not akin to caviar!

Habu Rice Wine

Anyone who’s been to South East Asia knows what rice wine is, and has probably tried it or even passed out from drinking it with villagers. It’s a very strong home-made spirit that is drunk by locals as they can’t afford much else. The difference between this strong, but rather fun drink is that habu rice wine will have a whole snake in the jar or bottle too. They say that the poison will add flavour and make your lips and tongue numb. I think I’ll stick with the basic version however, as there are stories of the snake still being alive when the jar is opened and biting the drinker!

Century Eggs
 

Our final addition to the list are eggs. Not your typical omelette worthy egg however. These really are quite  grim and one I couldn’t stomach. It’s known also as the preserved egg, the hundred year egg, the thousand year egg and so on. It’s normally a duck or chicken egg that’s been preserved for weeks to months in a mixture of clay, ash, salt and quicklime. As you can imagine, this smells quite vile and changes colour to green and finally to black. People say it’s jelly like in consistency and tastes rather salty - I hope to never find out! I don't have a picture of this one, but feel free to pop it into google images to see what comes up...

Two Minute Guide - India

Currency

The Indian Rupee

Language

Hindi

Capital City

Delhi

Top Attraction

Taj Mahal (Agra)

Trip Type

Cultural / Beach / Adventure

Religions

Hinduism, Islam, Jainism and Sikhism

FAMOUS FOR

Taj Mahal, Food, Colours, Religious Festivals

Local Dishes

Curry based, regularly vegetarian or with chicken & local breads.

Injections

Hepatitis A; Tetanus; Typhoid; Rabies; Diphtheria; Hepatitis B;Japanese Encephalitis; Yellow Fever

First Aid Kit

Heavy Duty as listed here

Visas

Required - total cost in the UK £92.20 inc. handling fee

Top Destinations

Agra, Delhi, Varanasi, Udaipur, Mumbai, Goa, Kerala, Jaipur, Kolkata, Kochi, Darjeeling, Amritsar  

Tipping

50rps/bag in hotels

Tour Leaders an av. 500rps

Waiters at 10% of the bill.

Easiest Way To Travel

Bus / Train

Suitable Solo

Yes (But PLEASE read up on advice of solo travel before going as it isn’t a western country! It’s safe as long as you follow practical precautions)

When to go

November to March

Weather

Hot with monsoon season April through October

Clothing

Light and cool to cover up! Light layers for evenings with arms and legs covered.

How to Greet

A namaste is used to greet. With a namaste, bring your hands together with palms touching in front of your chest.

Don’t take offence

If turned away from temples for not dressing conservatively enough.

Cheers

Ciyarsa (चियर्स)

Events & Dates

Diwali (Nov), Pushkar Camel Fest (Nov), Holi (March)

Taboos

To injury a cow as they are sacred in India

National Animals

Cow, Tigers, Asian Lion, Elephant, Monkeys

Photo Credit to Travel Buddy Lucinda Smith

 

North Korea - Told By A Traveller

Chances are, if you’ve ever vocalised to someone else “I’m thinking of going to North Korea”, you’ve faced a barrage of “why the hell would you want to go there?” or “you’ll get kidnapped by Kim-Jong-Un!” and so on.  You can hardly blame people for this – what little we do know about North Korea from western media portrays the country as a scary, brutal and forbidden place.  My reason to go was quite simple – my degree is Japanese and Korean, and I was about to start my year abroad – first with a semester in Seoul, then a year in Tokyo.  I had about a month of free time kicking around, so I thought I’d use that and some of my savings to travel both North and South Korea, and do both countries justice – after all, I study “Korean”, not just “South Korean.”

There’s a couple of things you have to bear in mind if you’re thinking of going.  Firstly, you cannot travel independently in North Korea.  Whilst it’s fun to book flight tickets and “just go” somewhere, you have to sign up to a group tour (or book your own private individual tour) a couple of months in advance.  Contrary to popular belief, this can be done by practically anyone and very quickly and easily, online, over the phone, even at some travel agents.  I used Koryo Tours – I’d like to give them a shout out as they were absolutely brilliant, and I’d thoroughly recommend them.  

The cost for a 7 day trip, including Korean visa, return flights to Beijing, all accommodation and food was about €1300.  You do have to transit in Beijing for at least a day, which you have to pay for yourself – so whilst it’s not going to cost you your soul slaving away at that sales assistant job you hate for years on end, you may need to save up a bit of money beforehand!  Our group was about 20 people, split into two buses – which felt like just the right number, and I’m still in touch with most of them a year on as we all made fast friends with each other.

(Mural Inside an Underground Station, Pyongyang)

(Mural Inside an Underground Station, Pyongyang)

It's a little odd in the fact that you also can’t just “go for a walk”.  If you want to visit somewhere, then you must go with your guides.  Our guides were pretty relaxed and let us wander off in huge squares, just as long as we didn’t leave the squares.  Your photography will also be restricted – again, our guides were really quite chilled and politely asked us to delete anything very sensitive like military checkpoints, but otherwise we were given a lot more freedom than I thought we’d be allowed.  Finally, you must monitor your speech.  Contrary to what I thought, we spent the evenings chatting with our guides about their kids and their hobbies rather than what the Kims have done for Korea, but under no circumstance must you criticise the Kim dynasty or attempt to assert that “your political system is better.”  Not only is this insensitive to the guides (who are there to show you the country, not give you a politics class), but it could also get yourself and your group in some very deep trouble.

After flying “the world’s only one star airline”, Koryo Air (who, by the way, had far more professional service and cleaner planes than most of the international bigwigs that I’ve flown with before), we landed in Pyongyang.  Our tour started here and criss-crossed throughout the country, so we kept going back to Pyongyang to do different bits and pieces of it, but the other places we visited were Kaesong (South Korean border city), Hamhung (industrial town), Wonsan (port town) and Keumgangsan (literally ‘The Diamond Mountains’).

(Grand People’s Study House, Pyongyang)

(Grand People’s Study House, Pyongyang)

Pyongyang is the most bizarre and fascinating city I’ve ever visited.  If, like me, you prefer things like architecture and monuments to having friends and a social life, then Pyongyang has quite a unique charm to it.  On the one hand, statues and pictures of the Kim dynasty are adorned all over the city (you have to pay homage to the big Mansudae monument as soon as you start your trip), but then on the other, there’s the 100m deep subway with awesome (in the original sense of the word) Soviet mosaics, a huge replica of the Arch de Triomphe, and plenty of colourful street scenes which can be viewed at ground level or atop the Juche Tower.

(Pyongyang Station - Party Foundation Monument - Pyongyang Cityscape from the Juche Tower)

Kaesong was the only major city to change hands as a result of the Korean War, changing hands from the South to the North.  Now, it functions as a border town between the two cities.  Very occasionally, crossings do happen between the North and the South.  A joint North/South archaeological team, for example, recently crossed into the North to conduct research, and there are some South Korean enterprises here which employ North Korean workers, but otherwise, the border remains closed for everyone else.  

I’ve visited the border from both sides, and interestingly, the North is far more relaxed about picture taking, questions and general freedom of movement at the border.  There is also a sense of yearning for reunification at both border points.  Whilst this is seemingly unlikely for the foreseeable future (people write PhDs on this topic so I won’t digress), I thought it might be more of a hostile approach before I went.  Take for example, this poster:

North Korean and South Korean are technically the same language, but North Korean is far more formal and archaic than South Korean (and my Korean is only intermediate!), so my translation of this probably isn’t 100% accurate, but it says “let’s give our children a united Korean country”.  I spoke in Korean to a couple of shopkeepers around this area on some fairly basic topics (hobbies, study, hometown etc).  We understood each other with a bit of difficulty, but they were so amazed that an outsider was learning Korean, and I think it gave us an opportunity that neither party would normally be able to have.  

(Looking into South Korea, Kaesong)

(Looking into South Korea, Kaesong)

After Kaesong, we went back to Pyongyang for a bit, and then continued our onward journey to Hamhung.  Hamhung is, despite being one of North Korea’s biggest cities, very rarely visited, so it was a really good chance for us to get out of the glitz of Pyongyang for a bit.  We visited a chemical factory, an agricultural university and a communal farm – none of which I was able to take very good pictures of unfortunately, but we got to hear a lot of carefully-worded talks about communal life in North Korea in these places. I'm not sure that I’m about to give it all up and move to a North Korean farm, but it was interesting nonetheless.  We also stopped off on the way to have a picnic at a waterfall, where we got lamented by the North Korean military for disrespecting a sacred site for the Kims.  Luckily, our tour guide knew how not to mince her words, and basically told him to do one – how we weren’t in trouble for that I don’t know!  We also made a campfire on the beach that night which was pretty magical, which helped to distract from the fact that our hotel had no running water and we all were in urgent need of a shower!

We then headed off in the direction of Wonsan, which has only been open to tourism for about 2 years.  It used to have a ferry service to Niigata, Japan, before diplomatic relations broke down between the two countries.  Wonsan is a port city, so there was plenty of beaches, seaside and seafood – it was very pretty, but again I wasn’t allowed to get many good pictures here because it’s quite a sensitive area.  I’d write more about it, but I think its biggest merit is its natural beauty, which comes off far better in photos – so apologies about that, but I guess you’ll just have to go and see for yourselves!

(Scenery on Route to Hamhung - Wonsan Square - Views Out Over the Keumgang Mountains from My Balcony - Deserted Beach on the Way to Pyongyang)

The final place we visited was the Keumgang Mountains (which also are accessible from the Southern side – or used to be!).  As a Brit I’m used to crap weather spoiling everything – which is exactly what happened to our proposed hike when the heavens opened.  Instead of that however, we had some lunch in what clearly used to be a Family Mart convenience store (South Korea used to have some developments in this area but were ejected a few years ago), went to a sauna which was quite literally 100°C (I didn’t last too long!) and stayed in the most amazing mountain resort.  When I say “most amazing”, it was probably a Western 3.5* hotel, but the fact that it had a working toilet and a bed which wasn’t a wooden board with a sheet over it made it sheer luxury to us!

We headed back to Pyongyang for our final night, and more emotional goodbyes than I ever imagined possible after just a week.  The next day was a weird one for me – eating breakfast in Pyongyang, lunch in Beijing and dinner in Busan was certainly not how I spend most of my Saturdays, but it was a pretty unique experience anyway.

It was a very educational week to say the least.  I refer to North Korea as “the best international trip that I’ve ever made” not for the photos or the food, but for shattering all of my preconceptions about what to expect.  Firstly, instead of being a bland, grey, Soviet wasteland of a country, there was an incredible amount of diversity in everything we did and saw.  Cities, forests, mountains, beaches – they all exist here, and due to the underdevelopment of the tourism sector, a lot of it is in pristine condition, not spoiled by selfie sticks and litter.  We did an immense range of activities, which ranged from having lectures in the Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum, to getting drunk in a local bar and going bowling.  

What really made me happy that I did this trip was the opportunity to meet North Korean people.  Our tour guides were absolutely wonderful; they were knowledgeable, courteous, and forward thinking.  I remember having one conversation about my homosexuality with one of my guides, and she said although it’s illegal to be gay in North Korea, she has never thought of it as problematic and invited me and my (future!) boyfriend to go and stay with her and her parents the next time I’m in North Korea.  I miss her, and if I do end up going back, I’ll make every effort I can to meet up with her.  

I think the chance for North Koreans and foreigners to interact is also very limited, so just by showing our faces and even doing something as simple as greeting people, it was an opportunity to prove that we’re human beings one and the same and there’s no need to fear one another.  The group that I travelled with were also wonderful.  None of us knew each other beforehand, but I think we all got on so well because we all had the connection of actually choosing to visit North Korea, which takes someone who’s, how can I put this diplomatically…a little bit ‘interesting’?!

(The House of Kim-Il Sung, just outside Pyongyang)

(The House of Kim-Il Sung, just outside Pyongyang)

So there’s just one more thing I’d like to say about North Korea.  I’m not here to tell you whether it’s right or wrong to go, but I will say that it’s a perfectly safe country to visit.  It’s not for everyone – the food and accommodation is, on the most part, survival only, and there is absolutely no internet, news from the outside world or any other mod-cons you might need.  If you can’t go a week without checking Facebook, or you want a loo that flushes, then don’t go to North Korea, you’ll absolutely hate it (and indeed, some people in my group did end up hating it for those exact reasons).  

If you can accept that your speech, actions, even thoughts, will be limited, and that you’ll be in what is to most a very odd country, and you have a curiosity to find out for yourself what North Korea is like rather than relying on media reports, I think that there’s the potential that you’ll really relish the trip.  I’d love to go back again one day on a more specialist architectural tour, as I found that part particularly fascinating, but in the meanwhile, I hope North Korea continues to develop its tourism sector as part of its modernisation process.

(Arc of Triumph, Pyongyang)

(Arc of Triumph, Pyongyang)