"I really want to go to North Korea!" my friend T said the other day over dinner. "Not I," replied his wife. "You can go if you like, but I won't."

"But think about being in a place with no cars!" I pleaded.

No cars … no cars …

Suddenly I felt myself transported back to my first day in Beijing, in 1988, at that time I had also been wanting to see a place with no cars (I had planned to leave after a week but stayed for four months and am still hovering nearby).

Anyway, as part of the Trans-Siberian train tour I had signed up for, me and some other Norwegians were picked up at Beijing Railway Station and taken to some hastily constructed new hotel, far out of the city.

Straight away, I borrowed a bicycle from one of the waiters and went exploring. I let the bike take me where it wanted and, as the roads were completely flat and ruler straight, I flew along despite one wonky pedal.

When I reached Tiananmen Square and thundered past the Forbidden City it was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. Me and thousands of Chinese keeping the same rhythm, breathing in a world without cars; I floated forward, one blond head in a river of black ones.

After a few hours of exploring and being stared at by a satisfying number of people, I started heading back to the hotel. I knew the way; past Mao Zedong's picture and straight on. Mile after mile, I cycled. It was afternoon and I had to give the bicycle back before 5pm.

Now I was in the countryside, but where was the hotel? In fact, what was the name of the hotel? Nothing looked familiar, but then I hadn't really looked around before, having been drunk on the euphoria of cycling through Beijing on my own. Being part of a tour group, I hadn't even checked in. I'd just thrown my luggage in the room and rushed out.

Getting a little worried, I turned around and cycled all the way back to Tiananmen. Surely there must be English speakers there? At the Beijing Hotel, I said, "Help, I don't know where I live. Could you find out?"

The kind receptionist started calling around Beijing's international hotels, and at only the fourth try: bingo! The laughing hotel staff put the bicycle and me in a shuttle bus and took me to … the end of a country lane a two-minute pedal from where I had turned around.

That's the kind of thing I'm hoping to experience in North Korea.

Or, at least … no cars.