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.
North Korea had been on Carlson’s to-visit list for a while, but the notoriously secretive, isolated nation hadn’t allowed US tourists to enter since 2002.
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
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 – visitors in North Korea have to stay with their guide and there’s no freedom to explore independently.
The Americans’ cell phones were also confiscated upon arrival in Pyongyang, as was the policy at the time.
“There were no distractions, no internet, and we knew that it was a short trip. So we had just really all the elements to live in the present,” says Carlson, who adds that he felt safe throughout the trip because he was confident in the Koryo Tours leaders.
“Although I felt very safe with Koryo Tours, as an American citizen I didn’t have any diplomatic representation in case a problem arose so it was more just about respecting the guides and following their lead,” says Cheng.
The American government does not currently advise travel to North Korea, due to “the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. nationals” – as well as, right now, the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since September 2017, following the arrest and death of US tourist Otto Warmbier, Americans have been unable to travel to North Korea, aside from in very limited circumstances. US citizens currently need special validation to enter the country.
Over the three-day trip back in 2005, Carlson shared a hotel room with an older guy, Ken, from New York. Ken kept encouraging his new friend to spend more time with Cheng.
Carlson was keen to get to know her better, and the thought of romance had crossed his mind.
“I’m 25 and single, and she’s a beautiful woman and she’s single. So, of course, we’re going to have that potential,” says Carlson.
But he didn’t know how Cheng felt – and the last thing he wanted was to make her uncomfortable by trying to force interactions.
Still, Cheng and Carlson realized over the course of the trip that they held a similar worldview – they both loved to travel and learn about other cultures through experience.
The tour concluded and the group flew back to Beijing, where Cheng and Carlson went to see a show together before Carlson flew back to Chicago.
It was just as friends, they explain – they were also joined by Ken, the guy Carlson had roomed with in Pyongyang.
Before Carlson flew back home, he and Cheng exchanged email addresses, hoping they might be able to meet up back in the US.
Cheng’s time in Beijing was set to come to an end that December, after which she’d be back living in California.
Coincidentally, Carlson’s sister was studying at the University of California at Berkeley at the time, so he spent quite a bit of time visiting the San Francisco Bay Area.
Over the next few months, Cheng and Carlson kept in touch via email and the occasional phone call.
Carlson says he’s thankful for the limitations of early noughties internet communication – it meant they had to make an active effort to stay in touch.
“You really had to work to make it happen,” Carlson says. “Like a lot of good things, the more you put into something, the more you get out of it.”
An American reunion
Just before Christmas 2005, Cheng moved back to California. A few months later, Carlson flew out to visit his sister, and met up with Cheng while he was there.
“We went out to dinner with his sister and a good friend of his and I didn’t expect much,” says Cheng.
“But afterwards, as we went out for drinks in San Francisco, we kissed for the first time at the top of Nob Hill.”
A relationship slowly started to build. Carlson had to return to Chicago, but the two started planning their next meet-up.
“It was very incremental,” says Carlson. “It wasn’t one moment.”
It was around Carlson’s third trip to San Francisco that the two first spoke candidly about how they felt about one another, realizing they both wanted to make a cross-country connection work.
Over the next several months, Cheng and Carlson flew back and forth between Chicago and California to visit one another.
“I had only been to Chicago once before so it was good to see more of the city with Ryan and he really liked coming to California so it worked perfectly with our wanderlust,” says Cheng.
Cheng was also training for the San Diego Marathon around this time, and Carlson flew out and surprised her at the finishing line.
On another occasion, they drove up the California coast and spent the weekend in picturesque Monterey Bay.
“Travel is always exciting but traveling for a budding relationship is as exciting as it gets,” says Carlson.
“The anticipation of seeing someone you love and only getting to be with them for a fixed amount of time before leaving again, makes for a unique energy that doesn’t come from anything else in life.”
Whenever a trip came to an end and they went their separate ways, Cheng would always send Carlson a note through the post.
“She’d mail a card afterwards on which she’d spray her perfume on,” Carlson recalls.
In summer 2006, Carlson accompanied Cheng on a family trip to Maui, in Hawaii – the first time he’d spent a significant period of time with her relatives.
He quickly bonded with them, realizing Cheng’s parents had passed on a thirst for adventure and independence not dissimilar to the traits he’d inherited from his parents.
“Both of Shauna’s parents are from Singapore, my mom’s from the Philippines, and then my dad, he was the only one in his family to leave a farm and go to university,” says Carlson. “All that shaped us to do something on our own.”
The couple’s first romantic trip abroad together was to Paris, with Carlson organizing the weekend away as a surprise for Cheng’s birthday.
“She had been to Paris as a kid with her family, and I had been to Paris as a backpacker, staying in hostels and stuff. So it was nice to do the Paris trip everybody dreams of as a young couple,” he says.
As the relationship became more serious, both Cheng and Carlson started to think beyond their next weekend trip and towards the future.
For both of them, marriage seemed like the next step.
“A good measure of a relationship is how people feel when they’re apart from each other and we missed each other a lot, so getting engaged was a way to commit to stay together throughout life,” says Carlson.
Carlson proposed to Cheng on July 4, 2007, as the couple watched the Independence Day fireworks over the rooftops of Chicago.
“I’ve always loved the Fourth of July as a first generation American, so I was looking forward to watching the celebration and drinking some Champagne,” recalls Cheng.
She wasn’t expecting the proposal that evening, but she was overjoyed.
The couple were married the following year at the historic Merchants Exchange Building in downtown San Francisco.
“[It] survived the 1906 earthquake, so it’s a good analogy to stand strong through anything,” says Cheng.
After the wedding, Cheng and Carlson embarked on a months-long, around-the-world honeymoon, which included a return trip to North Korea with Koryo Tours, as well as a sojourn in Beijing to watch the 2008 Summer Olympics.
In the years since, the couple have continued to travel extensively, from Turkmenistan to South Africa.
In August 2014, they welcomed a daughter, Céline, who now joins them on all their adventures.
“We’ve taken her across six continents and a lot of the US already,” says Carlson.
Naturally, the Covid-19 pandemic put a stop to many of their plans, but the family did enjoy a trip to French Polynesia in summer 2020 and recently spent time in Maui.
Cheng and Carlson are currently busy planning upcoming adventures – they’re excited to show their daughter more of the world as some countries reopen.
“We’re such a family unit with our daughter Céline,” says Carlson. “Becoming a parent is the greatest joy I’ve ever experienced and couldn’t even begin to explain it to my 25-year-old self, although it can sometimes include the greatest frustrations also.
“Time moves so much quicker now with a child and the best way that we can find to slow it down and capture it, is to travel together.”