Nobody goes to North Korea expecting it to be a normal place. But nothing had prepared me for a twilight zone of a country, where the unofficial state religion is worship of a family that functions like the mafia - only with considerably less honour.
It is just 250 miles (400km) from the Chinese border town of Dandong to the North Korea capital of Pyongyang. But the train I caught took 12 hours, crawling through villages that looked as miserable and drawn as the faces of their inhabitants.
Photos are banned, customs guards are infamous for stealing anything they like the look of in passengers' luggage, and the dining carriage staff grumpily charge you $100 for a meal of salted meat and rice for three.
It is an obvious metaphor for the North Korean state - secretive, ground down by poverty and hunger and run by a gang of vicious kleptomaniacs.
Foreign visitors must be accompanied at all times by North Korean guides and the first - state-enforced - stop for all guests is a glittering statue of Kim Il-sung that towers over Pyongyang.
North Koreans dress up in their best and lay flowers at the feet of the man who is still - 17 years after his death - the "eternal president" of their country.
It is a perfect introduction to the bizarre cult that surrounds the Kim family. Pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the rosy-cheeked founder of the North Korean state, and his pugnacious-looking son, seem to hang in every room.
Their portraits keep an eye over a people who are not permitted to watch foreign television, listen to foreign radio or surf the internet.
What they are allowed to do is celebrate the glorious Kim family. If you like military parades, mass rallies during which attendees are expected to weep hysterically with joy, and excursions to dubious "historical sites" associated with the Kims, then North Korea is the place for you.
And if you have grown up with North Korean propaganda then that worship must seem natural enough. At a library in Pyongyang, a tour guide showed me a book case full of hundreds of tomes. "All written by the dear leader," she said proudly.
No matter that it would have been a physical impossibility for Kim Jong-il to write that many books. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is not the kind of 'democracy' where questioning officials propaganda is a good idea. You might end up in a gulag with the tens of thousands of other North Koreans who have run foul of the regime.
And, after all, this is a man whose birth was predicted by swallows and then greeted by a magical rainbow and a new star in the night skies. If he can manage that, a few hundred books is a cinch.
After much begging, we were finally allowed to visit the sprawling Pyongyang Film Studio, where - under the personal guidance of Kim Jong-il, so the guides said - they had built sprawling sets that represent the North Korean view of the world.
"South Korea town" features lots of brothels and STD clinics - a warning in case anyone is tempted to abandon the Kim family's socialist paradise.
Strangely enough, though, Kim's puritanical ideology did not seem to hinder his own enjoyment of the opposite sex. He had a series of mistresses and was also said to enjoy the delights of a hand-picked harem of young women.
Despite the grim warnings about the outside world, thousands of North Koreans still flee their country every year, mostly across the border to China. I have interviewed them there - emaciated, wide-eyed, and constantly looking over their shoulder.
Obviously North Korean cinematic masterpieces are not a match for a full stomach.
At an underground museum outside Pyongyang every state gift ever given to the Kim dynasty has been displayed behind glass. The exhibits are jaw-dropping - anyone for a smiling stuffed alligator carrying a drinks tray? - and the gift givers a roll call of notorious dictators. Tito, Castro and Ceaucescu all cozied up to the Kim family at some point.
At the end of the museum tour, visitors are taken to a room where the only exhibit is a life-size wax statue of Kim Il-sung. Guests must line up and bow deeply before the grandfatherly figure who started the Korean War, a conflict that killed three million people.
As we left the room I remarked to our guide that it was my birthday. Tears - apparently genuine - began to run down her face. "How lucky you are to meet the Great Leader on your birthday," she sobbed.
What do you say to someone who has grown up in a violent cult, and has no hope of ever escaping it? I just smiled and kept my silence.