To get to Daeroeun mountain you drive east from the escarpment town of Samji-yeon for 50km across the vast Paektu plateau into the county of Daeheung-dan in the far northern province of Ryanggang-do in North Korea. Although the roads are unsealed it is a great drive over flat volcanic soils flanked by deep Larch pine forests, occasionally cut by fire breaks so long their ends simply disappear. Where forests rarely are not, there will instead be cultivated land. Due to the altitude of this escarpment region, rice production does not exist. Instead the local people sustain themselves on potatoes.
Along the way we made one stop at Mansu-dae. Now, I’m no expert on the history of Korea in these northern regions of the peninsula, and that’s because it’s nigh impossible to find any English information about the anti-Japanese campaigns in the northern part of the peninsula, but I do know that Mansu-dae also happens to be the name of the sacred site in Pyongyang where enormous bronze statues of the two late leaders of North Korea can be seen. The same figurines that are shown on foreign television channels, whenever DPRK makes the news. But what I wasn’t aware of was that Mansu-dae was actually the name of the location where Kim IL Sung led his first battle against the occupying Japanese. The area is now a memorial site. The story goes that the anti-Japanese revolutionary forces lured a pursuing police force of one or two hundred men into this kill zone, ambushing and killing most of them.
Being in this massive plateau reveals to the eye its ideal terrain for killing. Its geography is close to Manchuria. On the Manchu side of the mighty Tumen-river that severs Korea from China west all the way to the East Sea, its dark forests provide ideal terrain for wooded alleyways of insurgency. I noted that our mountain Daeroeun-san stood rather impressively behind the mammoth statue of Kim IL Sung. It was here too that I was to meet our local guide for the day who was going to escort us up Daeroeun mountain, which on my Sinsangyeong-pyo map read at 1489m in altitude. Our guide Mr. Kim Sang Soo was a friendly looking man with a good smile. He reminded me of a jovial farmer from Gyeongsangbuk province in South Korea, where the Kim family name is from.
We drove onwards for another thirty minutes until we arrived in a serene little village located on the southern side of Daeroeun mountain. It was a beautiful day and the sun shone brightly and warmly on the high altitude plateau. White puffy clouds billowed in the fresh blue sky. Rain didn’t look imminent, but it was mid June so we could never be sure in this high part of the world. I think the name of the village was Sinsa-dong as that was the name written on the log cabin style eatery where we parked our vehicle. A small stream danced its way up to the brim of grassy pastures that ran flat into a bright green forest. Its waters ran under a low bridge that belonged to the unsealed road we had just arrived on. While packing my bag for the hike up the mountain, I could feel the aura of quiet peacefulness that the area emitted. A young girl wearing a daffodil colored dress that radiated like candy in the clear air, pried around me with a harmless curiosity as I went about organizing my camera pack. One of the elders came along and gently ushered her away from me, maybe not as an act of xenophobia but more so that she didn’t get in my way, and bother me. Because I spent a lot of my time minding my own business, it was always hard to tell the difference, however I never felt unwanted by the North Korean people.
Four of us were to walk up the mountain. Myself, Mr. Kim Sang Soo, Hwang Sung Chol and Samjiyeon guide Bang Ryeong. I had been working with Bang Ryeong now for about four days and was starting to like him more. He had a boyish like face and was a very obliging individual who worked hard and never complained. He was always willing to carry my camera pack for me, which I always politely refused to let him do. I liked to have my gear on me, that way I could decide for myself whether to stop, drop the pack, and pull out a camera, lens, or whatever. It disturbed my concentration to consider beckoning a porter to ‘stand-by’, in the event that I may need some gear. It was good exercise to carry the bag too.
On this fine start to our day, our walk began in high spirits as we passed through the green veld of the sunlit pine forest of which some of its floor was covered with puddles of overnight rain. The forest broke briefly and opened up into a small village community of farmhouses. The homes were made from a mixture of clay and milled timber. Most of the roofs were covered with clay tiles. Surrounding the homes were fertile plots growing potatoes, lettuce, and barley. On the fringes of the plots, thin vertical poles had been inserted into the ground to support future stalks of beans and peas. Not many people were about, other than one of two old ladies working the land. Birds sang gleefully filling the air with song.
Without stopping we passed the village and reentered the next forest. This was more native in appearance and lacked the previous pine. Without great knowledge, I gathered the forest was a mixture white birch, chestnut and acorn species. At a lower level were shrubs containing the pink hues of native Amur rose and beneath that on the forest floor was an impossible mixture of all sorts of ferns, mushrooms, grasses, herbs, and small white flowers. I took photos of all these flora species for my sponsor the Korea Green Promotion Agency and hoped it may be of value for them. It wasn’t until half way up the mountain that we stumbled on the most memorable of all these wild plant species. The trail had disappeared long ago, and for the last hour we had been slogging steeply up the thick forest. The heat and humidity was starting to take its toll as we wrestled through the thick undergrowth and vibrant insect life. Mr. Kim was always well ahead and often disappeared out of site, leaving us to anticipate his direction. We would call out to each other to make sure we were all going the same way, occasionally regrouping and taking a rest. It was at one of these stops that Mr. Kim introduced us to a plant that he called Pyeong-pum 평품. None of us had heard or seen it before, but it looked like a giant lily leaf supported by a thin two-foot stem. But, what was most appealing about this plant was its taste. You could chew the stem, squeezing its juices out. The juices tasted like a bitter lemon soft drink and I imagined that it would go well with a shot of vodka and a slice of lemon. Bang Ryeong also emphasized another useful point about the Pyeong-pum by jokingly placing the big fronded leaf on his head making it look like a 삿갔 peasant rain hat. While we were laughing at his new look, he suddenly stood to his feet, let out a yelp, and turned the rain hat quickly into a fly swat flattening a large gnat like fly from his forearm. I don’t know what type of flies these creatures were but they reminded me of the African Tsetse fly with its scissor shaped wings and sharp piercing bite. They were about 2cm in length and enjoyed our bleeding scratches and wounds which were a daily hazard for us in these thick forests.
Some forty minutes later I could sense I was near the top. Mr. Kim was probably already at the summit, and Hwang Sung Chol and Bang Ryeong were a short way behind me. The steepness disappeared and the ground flattened, but the forest remained. I was concerned that I might not get a decent view from the summit for a photo shoot, when suddenly the forest fell behind and a small clear rocky opening appeared. Mr. Kim was standing on the summit, smiling broadly, and as I neared him he shook my hand and welcomed me to Daeroeun mountain, at the same time beckoning outward with his other arm where my gaze met an expansive plateau.
From this new summit, the views were immense and stretched over the flat horizon. A haze shimmered over the plateau removing any clarity, but in the far distant south a wicked assembly of black thunderous clouds boiled away. It was the roof of Korea. Once everyone had arrived at the summit, we got stuck into some snacks. After that, I went about exploring the summit area, looking for photos. We could see Mansu-dae miniaturized to our west, and across the plateau was a matrix of larch pine forests and potato plots.
A short time later we noticed that the band of black cloud to our south was moving quickly closer. Underneath it we could see sheets of heavy rain tormenting the land. It was like watching a giant tidal wave advancing on us. The guys were getting a little anxious and understandably wanted to leave, but I insisted we stay for as long as we can, as the scene was quite spectacular for photography. They reluctantly stayed on with me. The storm was only minutes away when the wind picked up and the first beads of rain began to fall. We moved off the summit, but as I turned to look back over my shoulder one more time, I saw one more photo to take, got my camera out, and went back to take the shot. Mr. Kim thought this quite funny and seemed to enjoy my enthusiasm. Quickly after that we tucked back into the forest and began our rapid descent down. We followed Mr. Kim who took us back a different direction on what looked like a trail. This made it easier for us to move. By now the rain was heavy and thick. Thunder and lightning rattled the heavens above us, wind gusted through the forest, sending trees swaying. I stopped frequently to make sure my rain cover was protecting my gear, sometimes falling over on the slippery downward trail as I did so. Within thirty minutes the storm had lessened and the rain was softer. We got to a small clearing and Mr. Kim had to stop as the cold had cramped his thigh muscles. I massaged his thighs to get some circulation back into them. We continued down the slippery trail, and about an hour later we arrived at the bottom of the mountain, near an old road, but nowhere near where we had started. It was a funny. We got lost in the dash.
Hwang Sung Chol got his mobile phone out to see if he could get coverage, and was surprised to see he could. He called our driver Han Myeong Soo, meanwhile with a stick, Mr. Kim drew a map of the mountain in the ground and pointed out to Hwang where we were which was then relayed to Mr. Han. We had exited onto the north-eastern side of the mountain, the opposite of where we started. There weren’t too many farmhouses here, but we took shelter under the overhang of a disused cabin that was part of another anti-Japanese memorial site. These sites seemed everywhere in North Korea. The guys were wet to the bone. In order to keep warm, we decided to walk in the direction that the vehicle was expected to arrive from, and about thirty minutes later we met it coming to rescue us. Despite the damp conditions we were all in high spirits as hikers often are after getting off a mountain. Hungry and thirsty we headed back to Sinsa-dong where a small local restaurant awaited us.
The concrete interior of the restaurant was simple with round wooden tables and white painted walls. At one of the tables two young men in fatigues were getting cheerfully drunk and invited me to join them in a glass. I obliged and discovered the drink was the famous Daeheung-dan potato soju.
We got ourselves a table and the kind kitchen staff made us a delicious meal of rameon, mul-kimchi, and other snacks, to go with our main course of steam pork that they proudly claimed was bred organically. In North Korea, well away from the brutal mass commercialization of food I had no reason to believe it wasn’t, in fact the irony of North Korea, is that due to its sanctioned isolation, most of their food production was already organic. While feasting, we got stuck into the hearty potato soju and the first bottle went down very quickly. It had a taste that was smooth, and the after effects of each sip was surging. We ordered another. Potatoes are a great part of my home country New Zealand’s food culture, and it was a pleasure to be quickly getting intoxicated on them. At one stage the chef, an elderly women wearing a tall paper chef hat, came out and asked why were stupidly seated at that cold table. She walked over to a sun streaked wall and with the guise of my grandmother, touched it with the flat of her long hand and told us that we would be warmer over there, but we replied saying we were already warm and cherry on her fine cuisine and potato soju. Everyone chuckled. Even the heating in North Korea is organic too. Another bottle of potato soju came out, and we drank more. The atmosphere was electric. We recalled our stories of the mountain, insects, edible plants, rainstorms, and getting lost. Mr. Kim Sang Soo was a great host.
It was time to leave, and before that happened, Mr. Kim went to the kitchen and returned with another bottle of potato soju. He told me to take it as a souvenir. I gladly accepted, and said that if it survived the rest of my journey, I would drink it with my Korean mountain friends back in the South. Driving back to our hotel in Samji-yeon, our high mood continued. With flushed faces and steaming bodies from the mountain rains we knew it had been a great day. The enjoyment we had together climbing a mountain was no different from what it would have been like in the South. Mountains seemed to bring out the real identity of the Korean people.