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The World | COLUMN ONE

Bizarre Trip of a Lifetime

A small, seasoned group of American travelers gets a peek inside North Korea. Once there, they must make a moral choice.

November 11, 2005|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

PYONGYANG, North Korea — Monty Anderson got word that the trip was on two weeks after rushing home to California from Ukraine for emergency open-heart surgery. He didn't ask his doctor if it was OK to take another trip so soon. He told him he was going.

Eighty-year-old Joan Youmans heard about it when she picked up her phone messages after a trip to Indonesia. She canceled a few doctors' appointments and booked immediately.

When Joe Walker learned the trip was a go, he said he "just gave them my credit card number and told them to fill in the amount." Cost him seven grand, he figures.

Such is the allure of North Korea to the "extreme traveler."

Opportunities for American tourists to visit the secretive state that makes no secret of its loathing for the U.S. are mighty tough to come by. A North Korean visa for an American is like round-the-clock electricity here in the North Korean capital: not impossible, but rare enough to be appreciated when it unexpectedly arrives.

"It's the hardest place to get to," said Bill Altaffer, who should know. Altaffer is the world's most traveled man, according to the website -- "others look it up, we've been there," says the recorded message on his home phone. The website doesn't just rank by number of countries visited. It counts territories, autonomous regions, enclaves and provinces too, from Abkhazia to Zhejiang. Altaffer, a retired schoolteacher, has hit more of them than anyone.

But not North Korea. It was the only place on the globe that had thwarted his attempts to visit -- "except for Wake Island, maybe," he said, referring to the U.S. Pacific territory that is a restricted military installation. "But I can live without Wake Island. North Korea was the big one."

Like the other Americans, Altaffer had a standing order with the Santa Monica-based Travelers' Century Club to go should the chance ever arise. So this fall, when the North Korean regime decided to issue a handful of visas to Americans for reasons it typically never bothered to explain, Altaffer, Anderson, Youmans, Walker and globe-trotter Don Parrish found themselves on a rare adventure for Americans.

North Korea is not everyone's idea of a holiday destination. But these are not your stereotypical Americans abroad, looking for the nearest McDonald's. They long ago gave up bringing home souvenirs. Nor are they interested in just touching a toe to an airport tarmac to tick a destination off the list.

They want to experience the place. They're the travelers who show up in Afghanistan with war still smoldering, who can tell you where Tuva is (the dead center of Asia) or who would buy a personalized license plate that says "Socotra," in honor of once landing on the tiny archipelago of islands off Somalia that is Yemeni territory.

They've visited places you've probably never heard of, and covered far more miles than Magellan or Cook ever did.

That desire to poke their noses into unusual spots drove them to board an Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang, buckling up on a creaky, Soviet-made Ilyushin 62 for the 90-minute trip. The airliner has averaged a crash every two years since coming into service in the early 1960s, a safety record that may explain the exclamation mark on the glowing red "Fasten Your Belts!" light above the seats.

"I saw my first communist country in 1965 -- East Germany -- so it's taken me 40 years to get to the last," Parrish said just before boarding. The Chicago-area native began racking up air miles while making 80 trips between the U.S. and Japan in the 1990s as a communications consultant, and he has since visited more than 100 countries.

Parrish is modest about his travels, deferring to those he describes as real pros, like Altaffer. "Tell Bill where you're from," Parrish urged a fellow passenger. "He'll have been there."

Yet none of the five were showing any "been there, done that" nonchalance about finally getting a peek behind North Korea's curtains. Nor did they appear concerned about visiting a dictatorship that is a sworn enemy and demonstrates an almost pathological paranoia about Americans.

"Totalitarian governments take care of you," said Altaffer, who lives in Mammoth Lakes when he's not traveling. "People are always asking me: 'Aren't you scared when you travel?' And I say: 'Yeah, when I land at LAX.' "

Being the visiting "imperialists" in town was the least of their worries. Walker was sick for three days after eating something that fought back, though the food reviews were generally good. (There was grumbling that they were limited to one drink each at lunch). But the biggest problem, all five later agreed, was the inability to go anywhere without being shadowed by their government-appointed minder. "I knew it would be regimented, but I had no idea just how much," Parrish said, reflecting on the trip after returning home.

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