My trail began in the town of Bukchang [북창], Pyhongannamdo, a place cloaked in the slag color of Stalinism. A large thermal electric power plant cools itself from the waters of the nearby Daedong River, driving past it in the smoky fingers of pre dawn light, it looked like a hunched grey monster wading its feet on the river’s edge. This huge beast is coal fed, and because of that, the entire town is covered in working class soot that settles in the ruts of all its roads, alleyways, and drains, even forming iridescent slicks on the murky puddles of water that fill its potholed streets. It is shovelled onto the roadsides, and manhandled by charcoaled gangs of workers that look like faded figures from an old roll of negative film. The polished reds of the workers pin badges, and the passing school children’s neck bandannas, along with the emboldened immortalizations of Kim IL Sung forge tiny facets of distinctive luster into this painting of communistic hope.
Now, some hours later, my trail had turned into a haze of open air countryside that sucked us back to the bosom of the Baekdu Daegan, towards a mountain called Cholongsan [철옹산] 1093m. Our road took us through the small town of Maengsan [맹산], where we picked up two locals named Lee Hyeong Seon and Seok In Song. From there we ascended west over the mighty ridge arriving in our vehicle at a small village called Jungheungri – where for the third time on this expedition we were amused to find the area a plateau. None of us had expected this. The discovery of these new plateaus had become an area of fascination for me. I began to envision what the mysterious deeper regions of the Baekdu Daegan must look like in the jutted northern province of Ryanggangdo [량강도] where the famous Gaema Gowon plateau is. I had first heard of this region in South Korea, where the very word would make Korean climbers glaze a distant stare. No one knew what it looked like anymore – I knew it must be great place. So far on this journey, the closest I had got to Gaema Gowon was through my experienced and excellent driver, the hard drinking and humorous Mr. Han Myeong Soo, whom described the highland plateau as being simply endless.
The mountain plateau village of Jungheung-ri is located in a west-east elbow of the Baekdu Daegan, in the county of Yeodeokgun [요덕군], in the province of Hamgyongnamdo. This is unique, as the Baekdu Daegan normally runs north-south, but here it veered sharply west for about ten kilometers before tightly switching back in an easterly direction, leaving a gap of five kilometers of trapped land, which had over time filled up and become a plateau. According to the mountain heights on my 신산경표 map, the plateau area might be about six hundred meters above sea level.
In Jungheung-ri, we stopped to take it all in. The flat unsealed road was flanked with spent fields of sun beaten maize, intermittently framed by thin wooden power poles. These poles didn’t share the same burden of their cable choked counterparts in the South; here they looked unstressed, only a single strand of cable lightly dipping between each one, pulsating an easy charm through the landscape. I began to get a sense for the plateau, I felt slightly lofty. Two blades of mountain that were the Baekdu Daegan stood on both sides of us, the still air was warm and void of aircraft, machinery, and vehicles, all that spun was the static buzz that fills the universe. As if to make the moment more angelic, a distant chorus of singing school children tickled the air, looking in the direction of the sweet tones, I saw a green stack of pine (비버숲) that marked the village center. Cholong-san mountain filled the background and I admit it was a little surreal. Driving through the scene we pulled up to the end of the dirt road on the outer fringe of the village, where I was surprised to see a crèche with some children, whom looked at me with a quizzing blankness that margined disbelief or desolate emptiness. With its school, creche, tiny medical clinic, and ramshackle of farm houses, this far flung hamlet was trying hard to be a village. I admired the place. Way out here, I imagined they had very little support, and had to be completely self-reliant. Clearly they were a village that tried to take care of its children, and their warehouses were full of recently harvested maize and the wood tiled roofs of the labourers were painted yellow with blankets of drying corn. Their homes were fenced with planks of timber that I assumed helped keep wild pigs out. Their backyards were contrastingly green with rows of cabbage planted for their winter [김장] Kimchi. It was a tough, healthy little village.
It was time to hit the mountain. From the bottom Cholong-san, didn’t look that prominent because of our altitude. Mr. Lee claimed to have to spoken to a village local and knew the best way up the mountain, so we started walking up an old cart trail that cut the faded maize. To my side, I saw a farmer aged I estimated in his forties hand tilling the land. His skin was thick and brown and he was dressed in the modest socialist olive garb [인민북] that the Koreans in the north so pragmatically. With him was his teenage son. He was smiling, happy to be with his father working the land. His skin was still fresh, unaffected by pollution. Like his father he was wearing a Inmin-bok 인민북 that fitted him well. He was driving his family’s ox-art 달구지 proudly working the animal and its iron clad wheels up the shallow rise behind their herd of free ranging goats. As I passed him I gave him a wave and smile, instead he dropped his head unsure how to respond. Then with one eye on his ox and the other on me, he returned a healthy smile.
From here, Cholong-san looked hard to determine. It was unspectacular with a steep face scattered with messy shoulder high shrub and thin snappy trees. Above that, there looked to be a rocky cliff, but I was sure there would be a way around that. Other than a ridge approach, there was no obvious trail that I could see, and soon we were fighting our way through the huge tangled mass of late autumn jungle – right up the darn face of the mountain. Sometimes our local guides weren’t very experienced with ridge climbing. I guess they thought ridges were the long way up a mountain, but I never felt like I was in a position to suggest otherwise, so instead followed, enjoying the adventure of it all. The thicket was strangling our progress, and soon members Hwang Sung Chol and Hwang Chol Young, (like they had done on Duryu-san) cunningly dropped off out of sight. Up ahead, I could hear the older Mr. Lee and Mr. Seok, smashing a path, while I cursed my way through the mess with my bulky camera pack, and tripod in tow. Sometimes the tree clutter combined with the steepness and loose footing would infuriate me, and I felt myself becoming angrier. I bit my tongue, knowing it would all be worth it once we got there. About an hour later I broke from the thick mess and met Mr. Lee and Mr. Seok on a ledge beneath a flimsy looking ten-meter high cliff face. There was clearly no way around this, but up. I never liked free climbing much, and the fact that I was in the middle of North Korea, miles from help, with no insurance or telecommunications, didn’t further any attraction I might have. The rock that formed the skin of the cliff face was loose and crumbly, held together in places by clumps of grass and the roots of small trees. These would serve to be our holds. After a couple of slippery failures, our new strategy was to porter my camera pack with tripod up between my two colleagues and me. Mr. Lee, being the lighter took the lead and I would pass the pack up to him, then join him, before he pushed on and I would pass it up again. Mr. Seok took the end, and it was his job to grab the pack if it tumbled from our grip, hopefully not falling with it and killing himself at the same time. The climbing was a nerve wracking [I admit] and although ten meters isn’t much height, for me, it feels a lot when you’re vertically up it. However, I also couldn’t help but think of how exhilarating it was to be climbing this tricky mountain with two willing North Koreans. Working as a team, we got up that part, where we met another ledge. Above that a smaller five-meter cliff remained, which we scurried up without much issue. By now I hadn’t heard from the two Hwang’s below and hoped the two of them would get pass this obstacle without incident. Breaking through the bush line at the top of our last cliff we edged up to the ridge and with the summit some way to our left, we peered over the other side, to get a funny shock.
Beneath us was a valley. At the bottom of the valley we could see a thin line of exposed earth that marked a trail. Following the trail down you could see that it eventually ended up in the direction of the village. I pointed at the trail and in my best Korean, with a laughing voice, said, “Look, there’s a trail up this mountain”. Looking down at the trail, the other two nodded and smirked with agreement. I couldn’t believe it, we had come the hard way to get here, but we weren’t there yet. We decided to wait for the other two to arrive. When they got to us, they couldn’t believe it, and we all managed to laugh heartily together at the fact that we had all risked unnecessary injury to get here opposed to a valley trail that looked like an hour’s walk from the bottom to the top. I asked Hwang Sung Chol if what we had done was a little stupid? “No, it was character building stuff and part of our team adventure”, was his earnest reply.
The summit area was dense with wiry trees. Its dehydrated foliage lay wrinkled and brown on the mountains earth, and rustled with our every movement. Relieved, the men were all happy to be here, and we sat down to start a jovial rendition about our endearing climb to the top. I wandered off to find a hole in the tree line where I could hopefully get some good angles for photography. The light wasn’t easy, and the sun swept low and bright across the southern sky, burning the air intensely. However, the views were still tremendous and I got a good view of the plateau area. If I had a sense of loftiness back in the village, then from up here I was truly floating. Beneath me the flat golden plateau braided its way west around knobbly hills that protruded from it like islands. The landscape was endless, perhaps a miniature version of a Gaema Gowon that Mr. Han spoke highly of? I don’t know? Behind me I could hear my colleagues laughing and bantering away, from what I could make out they were talking about the best way to catch and kill a wild pig. I looked back out over my horizon and smiled at the thought that no one ever talked about politics when they were in the mountains of Korea, not here, or in the South either. I wished it could always be like that.