Chol-ryong (pass) North Korea

Kangwon-do, Kosan-gun, DPRK, October 2011
Into the back-blocks

If you look at a map of the Korean Peninsula that outlines the course of the Baekdu Daegan you will see near its halfway mark a distinctive south running elbow. Earlier in the year when I visited the Kim IL Sung University in Pyongyang to meet two Geography professors, they had suggested that somewhere in this region could be the exact halfway mark of the entire Baekdu Dae San Julgi 백두대산줄기 (the name used in DPRK to describe the Great Ridge). They added that a rumour said that the occupying Japanese forces of that time had tried to chisel out this halfway mark as it was only five or six hundred meters above sea level. They believe this would have be done in an attempt to cut the energy of the Baekdu Daegan in half, therefore extinguishing any connection the Koreans had with this mountain system and their identity. This story can be related to the other past rumours that the Japanese impaled iron spikes into the Baekdu Daegan all over Korea in an attempt to snuff out the mountain energy of the Korean people. It could have possibly been a mix up between geographical exploration and mythological sabotage, but then again, the Korean people had every reason to not trust the motives of the occupying Japanese. As a result of their field studies the Japanese had recognized the Baekdu Daegan as being part of the cultural DNA of the Korean people. To exorcise the Korean spirit from the mountains would have been the ultimate victory for the Japanese. The professors named this halfway area Chol-ryeong 철령. It was not marked on the Sin San Gyeong Pyo 신산경표 map we were using, but I had imagined it to be at the very crux of the elbow located near Saepo-gun 세포군 in Gangwondo.

For all the guys in my team on this expedition, everything was a mystery. None of us had been to these regions before, even our cheerful driver Mr. Han had to admit that driving to the mountains of the Baekdu Daegan was a first for him. As grandeur as Kumgang-san had been, we were now departing into the wild unknowns of the Baekdu Daegan looking for its severed halfway mark, how more bizarre does it get than that!

Wonsan 원산 is a port city on the east coast of North Korea. It is similar in appearance to the other cities of this land. Its asphalted streets are buckled and broken, yet clean. Its buildings are a mixture of faded pastels with neat rows of colourful pot plants that sit brightly outside the front of shuttered windows. Its roundabouts are many, and in typical communist fashion each has a large concrete artboard promoting the socialist and revolutionary policies of the Dear Leaders. Sometimes the roundabouts will be marshalled by a sexy traffic maiden dressed in a navy blue uniform. The accommodation facility that we were leaving early this morning was a ten-storied building painted in a green that best resembled spinach in colour. It overlooked the tranquil Yeongheung-man bay. Moored to its pier, old clunky boats with soot stained funnels swung on the tide. The waterfront was defined with large Ginkgo trees that were turning an autumn yellow. Beneath them white bollards lined the pavement. Recreational fisherman, sometimes with their children, hung their fishing poles over the calm water. As poor as this country was, there was  a greed-less Art to it. Leaving Wonsan, the surrounding fields were shaved short from the rice harvest and its leftovers were stacked in six feet high bales against an horizon of dark mountains and heavy rain clouds.

Our first small town before finding Chol-ryeong was to be Kosan, located about thirty kilometers southwest of Wonsan. Only the main street was asphalted. We turned off onto a dusty side road, which must have, like all roads in North Korea, been a quagmire in the heavy monsoon season of midsummer. We stopped outside a local council building where Hwang Sung Chol went inside and sometime later came out with one of the local officials whom would show us the way to Chol-ryeong. He was one of the smallest men I had ever seen. A very quiet humble man, unfortunately, I didn’t get his name, and because of his diminutive size, we slotted him up front with Hwang Chol Young.

As we ascended up to the Baekdu Daegan the twisting dirt road switched back and forth. I began to realize that the myth of cutting through this Great Ridge here, was unlikely. The elevation seemed higher than the mentioned five to six hundred meters, and although the road we weaved on hovered over a distinctively sharp and deep valley of which I’m sure a tunnel could have easily been bored through, there was no way that the Japanese would have been able to cut an incision through this eighty years ago. Sitting in the vehicle with my North Korean friends, I wondered about that era of Korea’s history under Japanese rule and how true the rumours may have been? Certainly a lot of that information had been lost in time.  Because they had attempted to extinguish their culture and language, those that knew most about Korea’s mountain reverence had died with that knowledge, being unable, due to fear, to freely pass it on from one generation to the next. Korea’s division and subsequent drastic changes in their respective political ideologies had seen what little mountain culture to survive trickle further away. However, my work on the Baekdu Daegan had discovered a revival in Korea’s predilection with mountains, especially in South Korea where recreational hiking and cultural freedom are more prominent. Now here in North Korea, through the cooperation of this project, I was rediscovering the symbolic urge they have with their mountains and that it was the Baekdu Daegan that was forming the network of that resurgence.

Eventually we arrived at the pass that is Chol-ryeong. At its crest the dusty road was manned by a military checkpoint. The soldiers were relaxed with our presence and we were able to roam about freely, but I couldn’t take photos of them. Trucks loaded with people and more soldiers stopped each time they came over the pass. Some people had made the effort to walk up to Chol-ryeong from either side. Dressed in their brown and olive outfits they looked tired and withdrawn from their long wanderings. To one side of the pass was a car park with a white concrete artboard. On it was red Korean script. There was nothing on it to indicate that this had once been a site where the Japanese had tried to cut the energy of the Baekdu Daegan, instead it talked about the heavy casualties suffered here during the Korean War and how the Dear Leaders had visited this place to pay their respects. We all sat under a shady tree and ate a hefty lunch of bulgogi, kimchi, and rice, washed down with Pyongyang soju and the delicious Daedonggang beer. After lunch we set on foot east up the Baekdu Daegan ridge in the direction of Jangsu-bong 1053m. The entrance to the old trail was next to a small set of pine trees with a rest area. We passed a model tiger and bear and then walked up an unimpressive track along the Baekdu Daegan of Korea. It was my first step along the Baekdu Daegan ridge in North Korea.

About thirty minutes later we arrived at a small vegetable garden that had been used during the warmer summer months to feed the occupant of the small hut used to man the TV mast. From here, the 360˚views were good enough for me to take some photos of the ridge, including Chol-ryeong pass itself. Our local guide is knowledgeable enough to point out some of the landmarks of the Baekdu Daegan. About two kilometers to the east he identifies Pungryu-san 풍류산 1058m, which is the eastern top corner of the forty-kilometer V shaped elbow that stretches south all the way to the plateau town of Saepo. As it’s a clear day, he indicates further east to point out another prominent peak called Chuae-san 추애산 1528m. This is the western top corner of the elbow and only fifteen kilometers from our position. To my south we are looking across a terrain that forms the waters of the Bukhan-river 북한강, which eventually joins the Han-river 한강 that flows through the city of Seoul. Quite remarkable I thought to be standing here looking at such a source. I could even see the distant sharp edges of Kumgangsan some seventy kilometers to the southeast. We stayed on the ridge for about another hour, enjoying the warm sun and the long views. After that we walked back down to Chol-ryeong, took some team photos of us in front of the war memorial, and then got into our vehicle and began the winding ride back down towards Gosan. This time we stopped at most bends and I got out and tried to capture some of the bright autumn colours that draped the hillsides of the Baekdu Daegan. At one stage a noisy motorbike with a small trailer attached behind it came trundling around the corner. In the back of the trailer were about four persons. They looked elated. This ride for them was their roller coaster. With their big beaming smiles I waved out to them and they waved enthusiastically back.

Chol-ryongTeam Chol-ryongChol-ryong tigerChol-ryongSeokwang-sa

As there were still some hours left in our day, the team decided that we should do a detour. Hwang Sung Chol knew that I had an interest in Buddhist culture, and our local guide had informed us that there was a large old temple site located near a small village called Guryong-ri 구룡리. So we drove there. Sometime later we arrived at the front gates to the temple. The temple was called Seokwang-sa 석왕사. The drive into the temple grounds was similar to those in South Korea, a peaceful lane lined with tall trees. We parked our car in the empty car park. To one side, a group of men and women were having a small party. Music of North Korean origin tried to pump from a large music cassette player , the kind that we once called a ghetto blaster. The music was distorted. Sometimes the cassette would lose its speed and the music would slow down. This didn’t stop the dancing efforts of the party revellers though.

We walked through the first gate to the temple grounds and stood under a very large Nuti-tree 느티나무 that was full yellow in colour. The information board underneath stated it was planted in 1336 the same time the temple was ordained. It is designated as Korea’s 208th natural monument. The impressive tree stood twenty-five meters high with a circumference of almost nine meters. It could possibly be one of Korea’s largest I thought? The grounds of Seokwang-sa were now only an old site (사지). The only original buildings that remained were the first gate built in 1394, the bell tower, and a reconstructed Sacheonwang-mun 사천왕문 that contained no guardian deities. Stone foundations indicated where the Prayer Halls and Shrines once were. I decided to take as many photos as I could in the hope that someone in the South might be interested in researching or documenting this site. As we left the temple grounds we met a local lady who was also the temple guide. As we stopped to talk to her, the dancing party behind her was still in full swing. She told us that that the temples most famous monk was a man called Muhak-sunim 무학수님 and that the temple once accommodated 300 monks and 200 nuns with as much as nine halls filling the grounds. It had been razed to the ground by American bombing during the Korean War and was never rebuilt. However, the grounds had been protected as a national treasure by Kim IL Sung. I wondered how many old Buddhist temple sites were waiting to be rediscovered in North Korea and pondered if that should be my next line of work in this country after the completion of the Baekdu Daegan book?

It was almost dark by the time we got back to the spinach green hotel in Wonsan. Such long drives back gave me time to contemplate the day. It was my first step on the Baekdu Daegan outside Kumgangsan, and it had felt like access to a rare part of the world. Although unspectacular in a topographical sense, I was still attracted to the overall sensation of travelling through these unknown parts of North Korea. By keeping an open mind, perhaps I could harness some kind of spirit of the Korean people here. Who are they, what makes them tick, not quite the superficial observations, but the deep grainy stuff that forms characteristics, mannerism’s, DNA, and all through my investigation of the Baekdu Daegan, the object that binds the peninsula and the energy of the Korean people. Was I dreaming? I hoped that such privileges would continue throughout the remainder of my time here, in fact I hoped that my relationship with the people of the North would be a long one for years to come. Such was my own deep feeling so far.