Holidays in Hell

Holidays in Hell

Surrealism supplanted reality the moment I landed in Pyongyang, North Korea. In front of the airport terminal, beneath an enormous painting of Kim Il-Sung, a long line of women in traditional dress chanted “Welcome Pyongyang!” as they pumped their fists in the air.

At the airport I was paired with an “escort” who wouldn’t leave my side the entire time I was in the country (I swear he even slept outside my hotel room). He took possession of my passport and began a nonstop barrage of propaganda the moment we got in the car: “Scientific socialism is alive and well in North Korea. The Great Leader said the socialist countries of Eastern Europe failed because they forgot to factor in the crucial ingredient of love.” Etc, etc, ad nauseum (add nausea).

Pyongyang is a city of ten-lane streets, marble monuments and grand public buildings. Murals of Kim Il-Sung adorn every corner. It’s a Potemkin village on an enormous scale, built to dazzle the few foreign guests and delegations permitted to visit. It feels like a stage set, or like walking through an engineer’s conceptual model. There’s a sense of barely maintained illusion, of a collective effort at make believe. The grandeur is faked, and history is rewritten to suit the message of the day.

Pyongyang has the highest living standards in the country, though among everyone except the tiny elite these standards aren’t very high. In the countryside is starvation. Soldiers are everywhere. Both men and women are in uniform. For many, enlistment is the only way to ensure regular meals. In North Korea the military is fed first and is first to benefit from foreign aid.

Only those most loyal to the regime are permitted to live in the capital. Old people, cripples, and the extremely ugly are banished to the countryside. Even the female traffic control police are said to be chosen for beauty rather than ability. It wouldn’t matter anyway; there isn’t any traffic.

From a distance the facade is impressive. The public buildings are incredible examples of the Communist Realist style. The many apartment complexes appear well organized and comfortable in their neat little rows. But closer inspection reveals drab grey concrete structures that seem about to collapse from sheer depression and lethargy. Many lack window glass. Thanks to chronic electricity shortages most of them lack heat during the harsh winter, as well as elevators and running water. At night they’re lit by a single bare bulb, and through each window the regulation framed pictures of the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il are visible on every wall.

A trip to North Korea will give you an unbeatable trump card in the game of traveler’s tales. The Hermit Kingdom is the most difficult country in the world to visit, and nothing comes close to the dislocation of stepping into its alternate reality.

But a journey there goes beyond travel coups and dumb escapes. Places like North Korea need to be visited, and as travelers who have been there, we’re responsible for talking about what we’ve seen. The stories of their people must get out and the world must take notice on a human level if there’s to be any sort of lasting change.

Ryan Murdock’s pursuit of travel literature has taken him to some of the world’s most unforgiving places, including Mongolia, Tibet, Nicaragua, and North Korea, by Russian jeep, motorcycle, dugout canoe, horse and camel. Please visit to learn more about his adventures and to follow his Road Wisdom blog.

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Holiday From Hell

Holiday From Hell

It was a Thanksgiving Day many years ago, I was still married to my kid’s Dad. We had the tradition of going over to his family for Thanksgiving dinner. This is the story about what was thankfully, my last Thanksgiving with my husband and his family.

I walked slowly up my sister-in-law’s driveway. I was holding a huge banana pudding, the only dessert my then mother-in-law trusted me enough to make. My mind was racing with excuses. Should I fake a fall in the driveway? Or a stomach ache after dinner started ?

I followed my husband and our two kids through the back door and into the kitchen. The smell of overcooked turkey and neglected cat box immediately hit me. I placed my banana pudding on the washing machine next to my sister in law’s annual gelatinous mystery that no one would eat. The house was very small. And that day, the house is filled to the walls with my in-laws. Everyone was there, the ones I saw regularly and the ones that only seemed to show up when there is food involved. I edged myself sideways through the cramped dining room searching for my husband and kids. I only stopped occasionally to answer the usual questions, “Yes, we’re both still working”, “No we don’t plan on any more kids”, “I haven’t seen him since he got out of jail”, and so on.

I found my husband in a very animated conversation with is brother, who lived in Detroit. His brother’s girlfriend was drunk already and starting to hug people. I thought to myself that this has to be a record; she usually waits until after she has words with my mother-in-law. His last girlfriend would just scream at you when she got drunk this one is affectionate instead. I decide I don’t want a hug and made my way back to the kitchen where my mother in law was chewing out my sister in law because she’s eaten all the skin off the turkey. Just when I had decided to get a stomach ache, my mother in law shouted “Come and get it.”

I found myself shoved aside into the refrigerator by my step-brother in law’s pregnant girlfriend. She announced that both she and the baby are starving. I stood back and watched the relatives descend on the kitchen counter like a pack of wild animals. I suddenly saw husband jockeying for a place in the food line. He got a plate for each of our children. I had yet, and would never learn enough survival skills to hold my own at the buffet line with my in laws. I wait until both the kids have finished eating and announce to my husband that I feel a severe headache coming on. (Which by that time, is no lie).

As I searched for our coats on my sister in law’s bed, I saw my stepbrother in law sitting at the dining room table with his leg raised over his head and a cigarette lighter held to his rear end. He announced proudly that everyone should look because he’s getting ready to “Light One!”. I rushed out of my sister in law’s bedroom with the kid’s coats in my hand. Grabbing each child’s arm in each of my hands I said good bye to all the relatives between the bedroom door and the back door. I lied to my mother in law what fun I had and make a break for the car. On the ride home, I thought of how thankful I am that it is over. And through the magic of divorce and my ex’s affection for other women, I now look forward to the holidays. Secure in the knowledge that when the craziness starts, from now on, I’m the ringleader.

Lifelong writer finally turning pro. I write articles, short stories, essays, blogs, you name it. I love research and finding out things I didn’t know before. I’m straight forward, often humorous, always on point.