As we stood there in awe, looking up at its dark brooding menace, I said, “tomorrow we are going to climb this mountain”. The mountain was Duryu-san, 1323m. An important feature located at the node of Haeseo-jeongmaek on the Baekdu Daegan in between the three different provinces of Kangwon-do, Hamgyongnam-do and Phyongannam-do. My North Korean team members sensed a slight hint of madness in me. My suggestion naturally augmented itself, rather nervously, with the question of ‘bears’. Not the drinking kind, but the four-legged scary kind.
To ensure confidence, I suggested that I would handle any bear contacts myself. I would throw the beast a jar of honey to distract it from us. My comrade friends laughed at me, knowing I was mad. I laughed back, implying that if my plan didn’t work, then I just had to make sure I wasn’t the slowest one off the mountain, I glanced momentarily at our most roundish member. My awkward comment had ushered into the group a ponderous silence of cultural ambiguity…the kind that leaves men thinking voicelessly, gawking at a spot on the ground, hands in their pockets, as if a response will appear from the earth. For a sequence the moment permeated the North Korean mountain air like a lofted feather before one of the men plucked the nuance away and boldly suggested that I get up on the roof of a nearby pavilion for some good photo shots. The pavilion was constructed of concrete and painted white, it looked sturdy. Its two main pillars were shaped like the front halves of an AK47 rifle, bayonet fixed, giving it a relentless confidence. Its strong roof sloped downwards 60˚. Its bottom edge hung over a 200 meter bluff deeply filled with the vibrant colours of autumn. I clambered up to the edge and swung myself up over its lip onto a dusty grip-less surface. But that was as far as I got. Still lying flat, gravity was stopping me from standing up, and its force began to want me towards the roof edge. A sinking feeling overcome me and I yelled out at the guys below to grab my dangling feet before I slid off. Like something out of a lampoon I pictured myself sliding off the roof into the autumn abyss leaving on the dusty white roof, finger width scratches of desperation that to a circling vulture would have lead to dead prey. Adrenalin made me think how strangely appropriate, yet weird, this place would be to end my life, on the Baekdu Daegan in North Korea. From below, the whole act seemed less serious. All I could hear was bales of laughter, my dangling legs looking helpless. I shouted out again…a little more seriously this time, and with that, whilst still shaking with fits of laughter, they managed to grab my legs and assist me back down to solid ground. Breathing heavily, I was covered head to toe with old white paint, puffs of it would pop off me as I caught my breath again. We all laughed wildly together in the empty hills of North Korea, our most roundish member laughing the hardest, at me I jest.
The next morning we rose at 4.30am. The countryside was cavern black and the air cosmically silent. As I sat squashed in the back of the vehicle I rolled a small jar of mountain honey in the palm of my hand. The Land Cruiser’s cassette player bopped out accordion notes of revolution and anguish. The vehicle jostled its way over the lunar mountain road and as the morning light neared we arrived at a small country house. The home was guarded by a chained dog big enough to buckle a saddle on its back. It groaned at us like a grizzly bear. There we picked up our guide from yesterday, Mr. Song.
As the pale orange light advanced we hiked the mountain side wandering past old farmhouses that slept in ridge shadows. In the isolation of it all, my mind wandered in one of the most isolated countries in the world. I took the lead and as I headed up to a shallow rise, I saw for a moment a young soldier making his way towards me from the other side. Our eyes met with surprise, and startled, shocked, whatever the young boy was thinking, he quickly acted, and like a cat, sprung into the growth, disappearing. The sight of a white man with what looked like a cannon in the shape of a tripod protruding from the outside of his slate grey pack, was enough evidence for him to make the escape. My reaction – not so active – was to cowardly slip back behind my team who remained unaware of the incident. I said nothing of it. Expecting an ambush at any moment, we soon passed a country house that contained a section size of soldiers. They stood outside their earthen abode, weapons cached out of sight. They were for now relaxed, and upon seeing Koreans with me, they made no effort to contact us. All was good.
We continued onwards, meeting a narrow stream valley where we began our ascent. As it became narrower and steeper we struggled our way up. Two of the team members, of which there were five of us in total, began tiring, and with that came the ubiquitous hardship of frustration and complaining that begins to govern tired minds. In an effort to install momentum into the tail party, one of the tail enders was bestowed the title of san-shin yong, meaning mountain spirit King in hope that it might enliven him somewhat. It also humorously helped break the tension and summoned him to use his new powers. We were now about two and a half hours into our ‘one hour climb’ and the ridge was nowhere in sight. We continued turning our frustrations into humour bestowing name titles to each other. Our nimble and light guide (who was much older than us) earned the name Mr. Han Shigan, which means Mr. One Hour. The time frame he had told us it would take to climb this wretched mountain.
Finally we got to the ridge, and a sense of excitement and nostalgia swept through me. For my colleagues the moment was met with relief. I was on the the Baekdu Daegan. At this October altitude, the ridge was an eery and lonely place. Chilled zephyrs rattled their way through the leafless branches of the early winter trees. I stood and watched its tendrils whisk through the forest floor, lifting dead leaves off the ground into spiralling coils that sent pagan tunes through the woods. The surreal scene was interrupted by a sharp crack that shot through the forest and we all turned quickly towards its direction. Team member, san-shin yong, had been leaning his tiring bear sized frame on a tree, when it suddenly snapped and almost sent him 500 meters down the dark sunless side of the Great Ridge. The windswept ridge was forced into eruptions of foreign laughter, foreign because this was a sound that this ridge had likely not heard for a while.
We began making our way up the ridge, liberated from the valley’s gruelling steepness. On the Baekdu Daegan a thin track made from wild pigs, bears, deer, and whatever else lurked in these isolated mountains, shimmied its way up to the summit. About another hour later we came across a small clearing and took time to stop and admire the breathtaking views out over the Korean mountain-scape. The horizon was endless. Blue ridge lines swam in an ocean of mountain. Overhead, the banshee winds wailed the ridge on a sharp blue sky.
One more hour later, five hours after we had left our vehicle back on the high mountain road pass, we reached the small summit area of Duryu-san mountain. The wind suddenly dropped and the sky north of us became a touchable void of shiny blue, thinly dressed with ribbons of soft cloud. To our south the winter sun shone warmly on our dusty sweat stained faces, and squinting through its furious glare, we could see endless layers of mountain hues. It flet like we could fly from here. Finally pausing, we had time to reflect as militant foes and political opponents, that we were peacefully drawn together by mountains.