(CNN) — Ryan Carlson was in the middle of a backpacking trip in New Zealand when he got the email: North Korea was opening its borders to American tourists.
It was September 2005. Carlson, 25, worked in finance as an independent futures trader in Chicago, a job that afforded him a lot of flexibility for travel.
The email, from Beijing-based company Koryo Tours, confirmed trips for US residents would be offered again for the next four weekends only.
Carlson abandoned his New Zealand adventure, flew back to Chicago, organized his visa, then hopped on a plane to Beijing to meet the Koryo Tours group.
Meanwhile, 30-year-old Shauna Cheng was flicking through an English-language magazine published in Beijing when she happened upon an advert for Koryo Tours’ North Korea journeys.
Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, Cheng had temporarily moved to China for work, keen to experience life in Beijing and learn Mandarin along the way.
A trip to North Korea seemed like an unusual and intriguing travel opportunity.
“Why not?” Cheng thought, and booked a place on the trip.
A plane to Pyongyang
Cheng and Carlson visited North Korea on an organized tour in 2005. They returned in 2008, when they took this photo.
Courtesy Ryan Carlson and Shauna Cheng Carlson
On October 8, 2005, the American tourists gathered in Beijing, made their introductions and boarded a plane to Pyongyang, buzzing with energy and anticipation.
“There was a lot of excitement. We’re taking off on this adventure. We don’t know what it’s going to be and it’s nothing we’ve ever seen before,” Carlson recalls.
Cheng and Carlson sat next to each other on the bus from Pyongyang airport to the hotel.
“Ryan seemed like a nice guy with good energy,” recalls Cheng.
The two chatted a bit about Singapore — Cheng’s parents were from there and Carlson had recently visited — but most of the conversation was about what might await them in North Korea.
“I’m not like some smooth operator,” says Carlson. “It was just kind of sharing that excitement together — and it wasn’t just between us, it was just the whole entire group was really happy.”
Cheng and Carlson were the two youngest among the American travelers.
“Everyone had a unique story,” says Carlson of the group, among whom he recalls a Soviet dissident who was interested in seeing another communist country.
The focus of the trip was watching the Arirang Mass Games, described by Koryo Tours on its website as a spectacle of “100,000 dancers, gymnasts and musicians working in perfect synchronization.”
Carlson calls the event “absolutely breathtaking.”
For Cheng, the highlight was seeing the north side of the border at Panmunjom, which divides North and South Korea.
“It was so interesting how the spaces between buildings had South Korean soldiers standing in between and also I could see the American military advisers in the building watching us through their binoculars,” she recalls.
Tourism in North Korea is strictly controlled by the government