Conversations in Pyongyang – Paektu-san Four Seasons and more.

“Look comrade Roger, I think you might be on television,” Hwang exclaimed. I looked to see the Korean tiger in the form of the peninsula 호랑이 반도 지도 emblazoned on the large outdoor monitor in front of Pyongyang station. I had used the same image on my exhibition pamphlet, so maybe there was a connection?

“Ah, I think it is just some academic debate on the origins of the tiger map,” Hwang then said.

“Hey, that looks like the same image I brought here on our 2012 expedition.”

Still peering out the coach window, Hwang took a good look and responded, “Yes, I’m sure it is.”

“Then the origin of the image is from Roger Shepherd!” I joked.

“Ha ha, no I don’t think so…as we know Choi Nam Sun is the originator of that tiger image,” Hwang corrected me.

In the 2012 Baekdu Daegan expedition, I had carried some cotton patches of the tiger peninsula as gifts. That had sparked some interest from the North Koreans who wanted to know more about its background, and so later on when I got back to South Korea, I had emailed back the best jpeg file I could find along with some history about it. There wasn’t much, but its history explained that its origins took place during the Japanese occupation of Korea. In 1903 a Japanese geologist, Koto Bunjiro, had published a “Complete Map of the Korean Peninsula”, in the form of a passive Hare. So, in November 1908 the Korean scholar Choi Nam Sun, began Korea’s first monthly magazine called “Soneon”(少年) or ‘Boy’. On the front cover of its first edition, a black and white illustration of the Korean peninsula in the animated shape of a lunging tiger, featured. This of course drew widespread applause from the Korean people. Recognizing the magazines popularity, the Japanese managed to close it down in May 1911.

“So, then that is the same jpeg file I sent you?”

“Yes, it is. I gave the information you sent me to some professors at Kim IL Sung University.”

This seemed like a good time to talk more.

“Let’s have that meeting we’ve been talking about back at the hotel tonight, aye?” I asked.

The supposed first depiction of the Hanban-do tiger.금강산 생 맥주.대동강 평양.시원한 막걸리.

“Two draft beers (생 맥주 두 전 조보서),” I said in my best Jolla-do accent. The pretty girl dressed in red with the bob style haircut smiled promiscuously at me and went to get the beers. They arrived back in frosted pint handles; an inch of thick white froth clung to the top of the amber liquid.

“Cheers!” We clanked our glasses together, and took a big sip each. It had been a long day, the beer tasted delicious. I watched as guests started to fill the bar.

“ You know, we are still very interested in making that Paektu-san Four Seasons documentary,” Hwang started.

It was a despondent topic for me to start on, “Yes, thanks, I’m aware of that.”

In 2014 I had travelled to Pyongyang to get a co-production agreement signed that would allow me to coordinate a project between relevant authorities in North Korea and Kyongsansnam-do MBC in South Korea. Our idea was to produce a world-class nature-wildlife documentary on the four seasons of Paektu-san for both a Korean and international audience. The signed document was then taken back South to my MBC buddy Sim Gil Bo who made the popular 2013년 ‘최초공개 북한의 백두대간’. He then presented it as part of his proposal for funding from the Korea Communications Agency (한국방송통신전파진홍원). Despite making the short-list we missed out on budgeting. It was disappointing.

I drummed my fingers on my pint glass, “Yes, we’re still very interested Hwang, but Sim Gil Bo told me management at MBC Kyongsangnam-do has changed, and it now seems unlikely.”

My mind wandered to Paektu-san. The idea had been to take a film crew into North Korea, and over a period of two years, record the seasonal changes of Paektu-san, including story-telling, wildlife, and even local life. We wanted to make it for the Korean people, and have it broadcasted in both North and South Korea.

It was a big call, but I thought I’d ask, “ Ideally I’d like to see a South Korean production crew working with a North Korean crew on this,” I said.

“You know under this current climate, that’ll be difficult to arrange,” Hwang firmly replied, “ A foreign film crew would be easier to allow.”

Personally, I didn’t want a foreign film crew. I looked around the bar. A large fish tank was located at one end. A long sturgeon patrolled the glassy interior. I wondered how such an ugly fish was supposed to taste so good.

“So, you think it’ll be politically easier to use a foreign film crew to collect the data?”

Hwang nodded back at me. I decided to change tact a little.

With a cocky grin I said, “Do you think you could live in Samji-yon and the Paektu-plateau for two to three months at a time Hwang?”

“Yes, why not? We have lived there before,” he was referring to our previous work in that region.

“But what about the winter months? It’ll be a killer? We’d need skis to get around. Do you know how to ski Hwang?”

“No,” he said, smiling and laughing at the same time.

“Nor, do I,” laughing back at him, “We could end up breaking our legs or dying there,” I quipped, “if we’re still alive, it’ll be a long painful drive back to a hospital.”

The logistics of winter filming in such a frozen and windswept place was both scary and pioneering.

“Some of our work can be done on snowmobiles too, “ Hwang mentioned.

Which made me think of Han Myeong Soo, our vehicle driver on previous expeditions.

“Hey, how is Han Myeong Soo these days?” I queried.

“Oh, he’s fine. Actually I talked to him today, he is driving in Paektu-san now.”

“Really, he’s one lucky bastard isn’t he?” I thought of him in the mountains, with his cheeky grin and ubiquitous cigarette.

“He sends his regards to you, and says he looks forward to more adventures.”

“Next time you speak to him, tell him he can fly the helicopter for us on the Paektu-san Four Seasons documentary.”

Chuckling, his beer is sloshing up and down in his glass, his large white teeth flashing.

“You remember how he bullshitted that he could drive anything, even fly a helicopter,” I laughed.

“Well he did serve in the air force, so who knows,” was Hwang’s response.

I smirked. Yeah, wouldn’t surprise me either I thought. I leaned forward and took another sip of my beer. Its froth tasted good on my upper lip. I sat back and licked it off. I stretched my arms out across the top of the bright orange vinyl couch I was seated on. It was a weird color I noticed. I made an evaluation on Paektu-san Four Seasons. I had the permissions and support from the North. But, I still had to find a sponsor, a big sponsor; it would cost a lot of money and time to make it.

평양.Bar waitresses in pyongyang.Paektu-gowon with Paektu Daegan in background.Soup house in Samji-yon 국수집 삼지연 량강도.Paektu-plateau 백두고원 2012년06월.

“You’re Paektu-san, Halla-san stamp collection idea is a good one too,” Hwang said. The light shone at 45°angles from the hanging lamp above us. It defined Hwang’s features. Blue smoke whiled away in the air.

The idea had arisen from a visit to the stamp shop in Pyongyang. We could use my photo collection and turn them into postage stamps.

“Yeah, do you think it could be done jointly with the South,” I said, “So it is just one set for all of Korea?”

“I don’t know,” was Hwang’s reply. Hwang and I really had no power to make those decisions, only the ability to create them, “But I can start by asking the stamp people here in Pyongyang what they think?” He concluded.

“When I get back South, I’ll look into it too.” I thought about some of the immediate issues of a joint collection, like the Won currency, and its differing rates.

“Another beer mate?” It was easy to drink this beer. It was called Kumgang-san draft beer, made here at the Yanggak-do hotel from an old British brewery recipe.

“If I come back to DPRK next year to photograph more mountains of the Baekdu Daegan, do you think you’d find time in your busy schedule to help me do that?”

“Sure, I’d like that. It’d be good to get out of the office and back into the mountains,” he replied.

“Are you sure?” I laughed, “I remember you city boys were bitching a lot when getting up those mountains.”

“Ha, yes, but I got to see a lot my own country, it was very enjoyable and rewarding and it also sent a proper message of the homogenous nature of Korea through mountains.”

I took a sip and nodded. That had been our coined term for our work. It was a sincere motto of ours.

The chatter of people filled the bar.

“Okay, so remember, I sent you a list of thirty more mountains to explore?” I looked at Hwang, “I reckon it’ll best be done over two separate six-week expeditions,” I paused a little to allow him to think about what I had just said, “Covering the spring and autumn months so to add variety to the photo collection,” I then added.

Hwang knew what I was talking about, so I said more, “Of course these’d be exhibited to the public in both North and South, and another edition of the photo-art book made.”

Somehow it all sounded repetitive, I thought?

“Of course I don’t have any notable winter images of Paektu-san yet either, that includes a sunrise, sunset, and even a full moon rise.”

Our first attempt at a sunrise shot had been a humorous half drunken failure. We drove up the mountain in a blizzard and then after waiting for the sunrise in the howling wind and rain, turned back with nothing.

After taking a sip, Hwang put down his glass, flicks some ash, and then looks at me in a way I had seen before. It’s normally when I start to get ahead of myself. He then raises an eyebrow and stares at me slightly sideways. It’s a dubious look.

“What, do you mean by moon-rise?” He says.

I get excited, put my cigarette in the ashtray, straighten my back, and expand both my arms out, illustrating the large crater of Paektu-san. The bartender watches on.

“You know!” I exclaimed. “A full moon rising over the icy edges of Paektu-san on a frozen Chonji,” and both my extended arms rise as if I’m about to make a religious statement. The bartender cast his eyes to the tips of both my extended hands, looking for something.

“Okkkayyy,” he slowly replies, before taking a long sip of his beer.

Before he can answer, a group of foreigners have started singing very loudly. Hwang and I stop to listen. They are singing in English.

So comrades, come rally

And the last fight let us face.

The Internationale

Unites the Human Race.

I learn that it is the international song of revolution with its roots evolving from the French revolution.

Over the serenading, Hwang shouts, “Hey, there’s a mass dance in Kim IL Sung square, let’s go check it out.”

We drink up and head out…we’ll finish this chat another time.

04_mass dance in pyongyang

Roger Shepherd©2015

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