This picture taken on August 31, 2011 sh
Chinese tourists make their way from the cruise ship Mangyongbong after docking at Mount Kumgang port in the first-ever cruise from Rason in North Korea on Aug. 30, 2011  Goh Chai— AFP/Getty Images

Welcome to Asia’s Latest Organic Retreat: North Korea

New Yorkers flock to ashrams in the Appalachian Mountains, Europeans to refurbished hermitages in the Umbrian countryside, but where do Asians go to get away from it all? Sure, there are Balinese yoga retreats and meditation centers run by Nepali beekeepers. But for a growing number of Chinese, the ultimate escape is the ultimate in oppression: North Korea.

To be clear, North Korea isn’t suddenly a land of milk-and-honey baths, and woe betide anyone who requests a chemical peel at a Pyongyang hotel. But a corollary of being the most isolated place on earth is utter sequestration from modern banes. And ever more Chinese visitors are making the short hop across the Yalu River out of curiosity, but coming back for the peace of mind they find.

“Without cell phone, computer or any modern communications, the feeling of isolation lets me find peace,” history teacher Bai Xuejiao, 28, tells TIME. “You can totally relax about the food safety there. North Korean food has no additives — even if they want to, they don't have the technology to make them.”

Of course, Orwellian societal controls don’t lend themselves to a relaxing vacay, and the totalitarian regime of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un isn’t known for its laissez-faire attitude even to holiday snaps — which, if taken of founding father Kim Il Sung’s statue, must be front on and well-framed. There are also serious ethical questions about funneling cash to what’s considered the world’s most repressive regime, under which 25 million people live under the imminent threat of “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence,” according to a 2014 U.N. report.

Read More: Tyranny Tourism Is Thriving on North Korea’s Bizarre Border With China

As such, organizing tours to North Korea remains a somewhat secretive industry, and none of the dozen Chinese tour operators contacted by TIME agreed to comment for this article. However, travel advertisements increasingly hone in on the nation’s natural splendor. “The sea by North Korea is 100% clean, you won’t see any garbage,” claims an advert for Yan Bian Century tourism agency. “The whole of Rason City [on the Sea of Japan in North Korea’s northeast] is an organic place. Beautiful, gentle and shy North Korean girls will give you the memory of a lifetime.”

Tourism dollars have taken on new significance for the Kim regime since March’s ramped up U.N. sanctions, which have made traditional methods of acquiring foreign capital — generally exporting coal and minerals — far trickier. From earlier this month, Chinese nationals can enjoy visa and passport-free half-day tours from China’s border city of Dandong to North Korea's city of Sinuiju, which sits opposite the frontier. Already, 85% of all Chinese tourists to North Korea use this route. North Korea also has a plush ski resort at Masik Pass, boasting nine pistes, a luxury hotel, several well-heeled restaurants and a rental shop stocked with high-end gear — an attraction that only the country's elites can afford.

70% of the nearly 30,000 North Korean refugees who have made it to South Korea are women. Kyoung-ok arrived in Seoul as a 13 year old in 2009 after escaping North Korea, hiding in a cave in China as authorities rounded North Korean refugees up to send them home during the 2008 Olympic Games, and being smuggled through Vietnam and Cambodia. When asked to describe herself, Kyoung-ok said "I am a tiger. I like to think I can adapt to anything, and that maybe I can be a bit scary too." / The tiger has been a symbol in Korean culture for centuries—in traditional art, it is portrayed as the entire peninsula. Not the DPRK and the ROK, but Korea. This project was made possible with the support of the IU School of Journalism's Ross Hazeltine Scholarship.----Kyong-ok is exhausted as she rides the bus home from school at 7:30 p.m. on March 4, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. Students in South Korea often have late school nights, with many studying for up to 16 hours a day. The competitive college preparation environment is overwhelming for Kyong-ok. Instead of looking forward to applying to a university, she attends extra classes for hair and nail design in hopes of working in the beauty field and earning money immediately.Caitlin O'Hara
North Korean refugee Kim Kyoung-ok arrived in Seoul as a 13 year old in 2009. Here, she rides the bus home from school at 7:30 p.m. on March 4, 2015, in Seoul.Caitlin O'Hara
70% of the nearly 30,000 North Korean refugees who have made it to South Korea are women. Kyoung-ok arrived in Seoul as a 13 year old in 2009 after escaping North Korea, hiding in a cave in China as authorities rounded North Korean refugees up to send them home during the 2008 Olympic Games, and being smuggled through Vietnam and Cambodia. When asked to describe herself, Kyoung-ok said "I am a tiger. I like to think I can adapt to anything, and that maybe I can be a bit scary too." / The tiger has been a symbol in Korean culture for centuries—in traditional art, it is portrayed as the entire peninsula. Not the DPRK and the ROK, but Korea. This project was made possible with the support of the IU School of Journalism's Ross Hazeltine Scholarship.----Kyong-ok is exhausted as she rides the bus home from school at 7:30 p.m. on March 4, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. Students in South Korea often have late school nights, with many studying for up to 16 hours a day. The competitive college preparation environment is overwhelming for Kyong-ok. Instead of looking forward to applying to a university, she attends extra classes for hair and nail design in hopes of working in the beauty field and earning money immediately.Caitlin O'Hara
Kyong-ok shows photographs she brought with her on the 10-month journey from North Korea through China, Vietnam and Cambodia on Feb. 1, 2015 in a room cafe in Mia, Seoul, South Korea. They show two of her three sisters, her grandfather in full DPRK military regalia, herself as a child in a North Korean elementary school, among other scenes. For contrast, she also shows glamour shots taken in South Korea. Other than a backpack full of food and a few clothes, these pictures were all that she and her mother brought with them when they left the DPRK. Before they left, one of Kyong-ok's older sisters made her a doll from old clothes, but she wasn't able to bring it with her to make room for more food. Caitlin O'Hara
Donning matching shoes, North Korean refugees Kim Kyong-ok, 19 (Lunar age), and Sarah (English name used in order to protect source), 22, walk arm-in-arm on their way to a Christian church service on Feb. 21, 2015 near Hapjeong, Seoul, South Korea. The women met shortly after they each arrived separately in South Korea at a resettlement camp for refugees. While adjusting to life after North Korea has been challenging, their friendship is a source of strength and solidarity. Caitlin O'Hara
Kyong-ok and Sarah spend time on their phones after sharing takeout for dinner at Kyong-ok's apartment on Feb. 28, 2015 in Mia, Seoul, South Korea. Caitlin O'Hara
Kyoung-ok receives news that a close friend and fellow young North Korean refugee is pregnant on March 10, 2015 in her apartment in Mia, Seoul, South Korea. Abortion is illegal and single motherhood is highly stigmatized in South Korean culture. It can be a cause to lose a job or support from one's family and support system. The friend, who chose not to be identified for her safety, struggles with her mental health and has had a difficult time adjusting to life in South Korea. Caitlin O'Hara
Kyoung-ok and Sarah spend time at a norebang (singing room) on Feb. 4, 2015 near Yangjae, Seoul, South Korea. When Kyong-ok first arrived in the South, it was difficult to make friends. Her fifth-grade classmates were suspicious of her, asking her whether she was a communist or a spy. South Koreans believe that North Koreans are confrontational, violent and untrustworthy. In order to make friends, Kyong-ok went to her neighborhood norebang and knocked on the doors of rooms with fellow kids, making friends boldy and quickly. Her mother is a music teacher in Changwon, South Korea (and was, too, in North Korea), and she has a confident, strong singing voice. Caitlin O'Hara
Kyoung-ok smokes on her balcony on Feb. 28, 2015 in Mia, Seoul, South Korea. Now in her third year of high school, she began smoking almost immediately after she arrived in South Korea when she was 13. Feeling alienated as a refugee, she wanted to fit in with her 5th-grade classmates who smoked. Smoking is common among South Korean students due to competitiveness and stress due to long school days and high performance expectations. Students in South Korea often go to school for twelve hours a day.Caitlin O'Hara
Kyoung-ok looks at herself after her aunt cuts and styles her hair in her salon in Seoul, South Korea. She is training to be a hair and nail designer and helps her aunt out when she can. In North Korea, there is little room for self-expression in hair styles, where acceptable styles are sanctioned, but Seoul has quickly become a beauty and style world-capital.Caitlin O'Hara
Kyoung-ok plays pool with Christian King of Liberia, left, and Jerry Alexander of Canada, right, at Club Zion, a Jamaican bar, on March 19 in Itaewon, Seoul, South Korea. After not meeting many foreigners as a child, Kyong-ok loves to visit Itaewon, which is a foreigner-heavy neighborhood close to the United States Army Garrison, to meet people from different places and try foreign food ("But it's so sweet and salty with no spicy flavor"). She especially loves spaghetti, gyros and American breakfast.Caitlin O'Hara
Kyong-ok zips up Sarah's jacket, which she borrowed from her brother, during a night out Feb. 4, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. The community of North Korean refugees is growing smaller and more tight knit with the help of social networks and human rights groups. Caitlin O'Hara
North Korean refugee Kim Kyoung-ok arrived in Seoul as a 13 year old in 2009. Here, she rides the bus home from school a
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Though it seems luxury is the opposite of what most visitors to North Korea are seeking. “I planned to make my son experience some hardship, but our North Korea trip gave me a new perspective,” posted one Chinese travel blogger. “Without wi-fi, we saw their simple lives and it eased our minds. We climbed the mountains and watched a waterfall. We are amazed by nature’s craftsmanship. It was truly natural and pollution-free.”

Other than pollution, food safety consistently ranks as a top concern among Chinese today, as an antiquated agriculture system struggles to feed 1.3 billion hungry mouths by adding more fertilizer to fields and cramming more hormone-pumped cattle into cages. This has led to a raft of food-safety scandals, and one of the greatest draws for Chinese visitors to North Korea is the perception that what they eat is chemical and additive-free.

“I trust food safety in North Korea as it is all organic,” says one Dandong-based Chinese trader who regularly travels all over North Korea. “I can feel the organic taste from potatoes and beans in North Korea, but in China you rarely get food like that. I find it cozy to occasionally live in North Korea for 10-15 days. The isolation makes me feel relaxed.”

Read More: What It’s Like to Be a Western Tourist in North Korea

To some extent, the North Korean government is even embracing the organic tag. In the existential quarrel with the South over which is the legitimate Korea, the Kim regime has traditionally gone toe-to-toe with Seoul regarding development, portraying itself as smog-clad industrial powerhouse of steel mills and whirring factories. However, with the growing dissemination of TVs, computers and DVD players, South Korean K-pop videos and soap operas have become popular (though still verboten) entertainment for North Koreans. Ever more are waking up to the fact that their socialist "utopia" lags far behind their southern brethren in the development stakes. Therefore, the regime has tweaked its propaganda tactics — instead portraying the North as a pure and natural alternative of the South’s quisling bubble economy.

For the Chinese, though, much of North Korea's allure is its resemblance to a simpler China, harking back to a time before mass industrialization and commercialization, even if society shares much of the negative aspects of Mao Zedong’s much-maligned Cultural Revolution. “The idyllic scenery in North Korea is beautiful,” posted one user to China’ Twitter-like microblog Weibo. “When I saw the uniformed people riding bicycles, it feels like I travel through time and go back to the China just after liberation.”

Moreover, when compared with weekends in bustling Tokyo or Seoul, for Chinese, trips to North Korea offer a relatively inexpensive getaway. “Spending less money and feeling superrelaxed, for me North Korea is a good choice for a vacation,” says student He Zhengyu, 24. “I would encourage my friends to go there for a unique experience. It’s like time-traveling back to China’s past.”

— With reporting by Zhang Chi / Dandong and Beijing

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