North Korea doesn't land high on most (non-Dennis Rodman) people's bucket lists. But it should. As far as countries go, the Hermit Kingdom is one of the most perplexing on Earth.
Lost in the shuffle of bad news, of course, is that North Korea is actually beautiful. A country roughly the size of Pennsylvania, with more residents than all of Australia, it offers a diverse landscape and plenty of curiosities.
Travel writer and photographer Bjørn Christian Tørrissen visited North Korea recently and documented his travels through a series of arresting images.
"One of the things you just have to do, whether you like it or not, is to bow to show your respect to their eternal leaders".
Tributes to former leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il loom over almost every aspect of life. The Arch of Triumph, pictured up top, celebrates the "triumph" of Kim Il-Sung, and towers 197 feet into the air, comprising 25,500 granite blocks.
And their smiling faces look out in the capital, Pyongyang. But almost no one outside will ever see any of this.
Just look at how empty the roads are.
And outside Pyongyang, there's little to see. Fields are exhausted from constant farming.
While grand in scale, the massive sculptures and monuments littering the capital have few visitors. Take the Arch of Reunification, for example. Again, where are the cars?
Or the Grand Monument on Mansu Hill. The gigantic sculptures dwarf actual humans. And it's indicative of life in North Korea. As Tørrissen says, if you visit North Korea, "one of the things you just have to do, whether you like it or not, is to bow to show your respect to their eternal leaders".
He likened the experience to removing shoes in a mosque or a hat in a church; it's simply a part of the culture.
Much thought goes into the aesthetics of the monuments. This one intentionally uses the reflection in the water to create a double image.
And there's plenty of beautiful simplicity in the countryside, as well.
In fact, North Korea is something of an undiscovered gem for skiing
and snowboarding. Tørrissen noted how he was alone on the slopes during his stay.
He said for $50 per day, he was able to rent clothes, helmets, masks, skis, poles, and lift passes.
But getting there is another story. Just pray your car doesn't break down on the way to the slopes, as there's no such thing as DPRK AAA.
Even Chinese tourists look at North Korea in wonder. This broken-down bridge in China has been converted into a lookout point to peer across the river into the mysterious neighbor.
In the end, North Korea comes off as a strange, mixed bag. For all its natural beauty and ornate monuments, the country can't escape its regime's politics. After all, this is a communist nation with a "dire" record when it comes to human rights.
And based on the photos, that's a shame.
Ryan Craggs is Thrillist's travel editor, who desperately misses jamón everything in Madrid and flan in all its incarnations. Follow him @ryanrcraggs.