With a sudden spurt of travel blogs, websites and travel groups in the last decade or so; travelling has become one of the latest fads where one must travel ‘solo’ to gain wisdom or to come out of a shell. In a tug of war between bloggers/ websites to gain more traffic on their pages and earn an easy buck; travel writing has become a flamboyant display of exotic locales, shots of colourful landscapes, description of different cuisines rather than about the experience itself.
However, Anjaly Thomas, the author of There Are No Gods In North Korea is a different sort of a traveller; she travels because she loves to travel; because she has to be somewhere else; she travels one destination a time “to understand the world a little better”.
A solo traveller, a backpacker who visits “out-of-the-way towns instead of heading to exotic locales”; Anjaly’s travellers’ curiosity takes her to The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or North Korea. However, what strikes the readers’ is Anjaly’s unconventional or rather novel choice when it comes to travel –“only five people had positive things to say”. Driven by a travellers’ ardour, Anjaly ventures to explore a country which has been christened as a “rogue nation” by the West. She enters the forbidden kingdom as a kindergarten teacher with a long list of dos and don’ts. More don’ts than dos – “bowing at statues”, not “folding or damaging a newspaper containing pictures of the ruler”, “no exposing the shoulders”, “no laughing or shouting”.
Travelling from Pyongyang to DMZ to the grave of Kim Jong – II’s mother to the Mausoleum, Anjaly realises how a history is constantly rewritten in North Korea to reinforce the idea of the Great Leader’s prominence and influence. From a necessity to undertake the holy pilgrimage to the mausoleum of Kim Jong – II, as a part of the work duty to the grandeur to Kim-II Sung statues to the noticeability of the slightest change in expression; North Korea, indeed turns to be a land of absurdity and contradictions and “definitely not a great place to live in.” Though the book is not just about DPRK’s opulence; it is also about the reality of Korea; about “dilapidated buildings and rutted roads”; about the factory women in multi-coloured uniforms; humming of machines; the labour of women for food coupons or a meagre salary.
From “endless fields of rice”, perfect scenery to the people-less city to inadequate food to silent schools; the author effortlessly captures the diverse aspects of North Korea’s reality where exterior looks rather the same but the life inside is lived in a constant fear.
Though only the one-fourth of the book is about North Korea, the author’s vivid descriptions leave a lasting impression in the readers’ minds. From North Korea, Anjaly embarks on a journey to Mongolia to Uganda to Turkey to China to Nairobi. As the landscape changes, so does the spirit of Anjaly; from stifling limitedness of Korea to the limitlessness of the Mongolia’s countryside; the author takes the readers through their fashion scene to fresh dairy to food.
Anjaly’s travelogue is filled with interesting journeys: from a dip in the Nile in Uganda to an 1800-year-old Sumela Monastery to a Cave of Hair to the Great Wall in China to the Great Rift Valley; interesting people: from Sandy to Stella to Safak Deniz to Debbie. This travelogue of hers is not about visiting places or eating new cuisines although it is also about these things; Anjaly’s travelogue like Elizabeth Gilbert’s is also about a search for something: “to feel a connection, to understand, to live in the moment that makes life so much more meaningful” and maybe that’s what turn her into a “relief traveller” from a mere backpacker.
There Are No Gods In North Korea is not a tourist guidebook that lays out the specific places to visit or to eat; it is about the author’s experiences, fears, raw emotions and that’s what makes this travelogue a great read.
Personal and honest, her travels are not merely about geography but how they shape her perception of the world, about “gathering stories”, experiencing “a changing pattern of colours, smells, sights and sounds” and what her book lacks in pictures makes up in narration.
P.S: A review copy of the book had been sent by the publisher in return of an honest and unbiased review