May 27, 2017.
It was a hot, windless Saturday in late May when we turned off the sealed road, about halfway between Tong-cheon and Kosong in the province of Kangwon-do. Thick dust swirled from under the vehicle as it shuddered west on a stony road that glared brightly under a blue cloudless sky. Ahead in the distance, I could see the green spurs of the Baekdu Daegan as it stood boldly over the flat treeless interior. The streams trickled from their gasping beds. It was a grim arid landscape. This region, just north of the sparkling Diamond Mountains, was on the brink of a drought.
This was the beginning of my first expedition for 2017. I was travelling with the same crew from 2011 and 2012. The young intelligent and calm-headed Hwang Sung-cheol was our team’s main man and chief organizer. The older Han Myeong-soo was our reliable and humorous driver. By now his vehicle had clocked over 350,000km but was still in excellent working order. The new member of our team, Kim Yu-cheol, was a thin spotty faced lad with a polite demeanour. I figured he would be our lackey. In North Korea, we always travelled with a provincial officer. For Kangwon-do we had picked up Mr Pak Seong-ho in Wonsan this morning. He seemed a chatty and funny guy.
Mid-morning, we stopped on the barren roadside near a village called Sinnam-ri. Waiting for us was the local headman Mr Lee Yeong-buk. I guessed he was about 50 years old, and like most North Koreans, trim and fit.
Studying the same maps I had used in 2011 and 2012, Mr Lee pointed out a route that would take us to our target peak of Mae-san 1231m, tucked over the horizon somewhere. Jostling over more dehydrated stream beds, we drove deeper towards the Baekdu Daegan that passed through stone-walled villages with modest farmhouses made from white-painted clay-packed walls wrapped around wood-framed streaky windows and loose-hanging rickety doors. The roofs were layered with wood or slate tiles. At the narrower ends of the houses, smokeless, bundle-clamped wooden chimney’s protruded from the skyline.
Soon, the road petered out to grassy plains in an area known as Neungdong-ri. We stopped the vehicle, packed up, and dispatched ourselves to the mountains. Our plan was to return to Mr Han and his vehicle.
We made our way up a spur on bush-fringed foot tracks that were deeply rutted by ox driven skids used to haul timber out of the mountains. As we got higher, we started to get views of the East Sea. It was a couple more hours before we were able to escape the oppressive heat and find shade in the forests of the Baekdu Daegan, where it was forbidden to cut timber. Taking a rest, we drank water, snacked on sweet bread, smoked cigs, and sipped on acorn soju.
I could tell that today wasn’t going to be a photographic smorgasbord, this being a fairly dull area, so instead, I took the opportunity to ask Mr Lee some questions. He had some good stories.
Pointing back over the plain beneath us, he told us how about five years ago, a female bear with two cubs had come down from the mountains into the village and nestled in a grove of trees near a spring. She managed to stay in the area for over a year without hassling the locals before disappearing back to the hills.
“Were animals a problem?” I asked. Mr Lee said about fifteen years ago, the village often had problems with marauding wild animals, but these days it was just wild pigs. I asked him how the village people had handled the animals back then? He said that his uncle was the designated governmental hunter for the village and it was his job to shoo them away or kill them.
“Is he still around,” I asked. No, Mr Lee replied. He was killed by a bear many years ago and never replaced.
I almost choked on my soju. Clearing my throat, I spat out the obvious words, “What…a bear…how the hell did that happen?” Before Mr Lee could delve into the story, Hwang, who was also amused, suggested we continue this later. We had to move on, as we were still a long way from Mae-san. Reluctantly I agreed.
The stifling heat made the climb hard. It was some hours more before we achieved a decent altitude, just over 1000m, which justified another shady rest stop. I prompted Mr Lee to continue his story.
His uncle had been in the mountains for some days and his family was concerned, so some volunteers went out to search for him. They found him dead and mangled on a trail, not far from where we now sat conversing. They ascertained that he had been killed by a bear, not eaten, just mauled to death. No one was sure how or why this happened, but Mr Lee explained that it was the tactic of the Asiatic bear, if they felt they were being pursued, to circle back and ambush their pursuer.
We all sat silent for a short time to ponder that.
“Are there still bears here?” I asked. Mr Lee believed there were. Some people, he added, even believed that tigers still existed.
We got up and kept walking, arriving at a wide, sloped area that appeared to be a summit. In the shady recess of the chestnut trees, I could see the outline of old leaf-filled fighting trenches. It wasn’t the first time I had seen these in Korea.
“Where are we?” I queried. Satgat-bong, Mr Lee replied.
We all sat down and took another rest. On the map, Satgat-bong 1143m was ‘still’ a long way from Mae-san. “What about these trenches?” I asked. Mr Lee came up with another telling story.
The Chinese PLA dug them during the Korean War, Mr Lee told us. He pointed to what had been their command post, not far from us, now just an overgrown heap of hand shifted stone. But the story got better. Not long after the Korean War, Mr Lee told me, some South Korean soldiers were found up here. As I listened to the North Koreans talk, I heard them refer to these South Koreans as bi-jeok, which might translate to southern commandoes. These bi-jeok had holed up nearby and gained a reputation for being a nuisance to the local populace, as they would sneak down to the village and steal food. Apparently, this continued for some years, Mr Lee said. Searches failed until one day they were found hiding in a cave. A total of ten frail and hungry bi-jeok came out and surrendered.
“Were they then killed?” I inquired.
Mr Lee wasn’t quite sure what to say and perhaps didn’t know the answer to my question. As he was about to say something, Mr Pak, the provincial officer, jumped in, perhaps in an attempt to hide the gruesome news. They weren’t killed, he said, but became prisoners and would have, after some time, been given the choice to become North Koreans or be repatriated back South. His answer put a cloud on the timing of this incident because if it had happened after the war, they would have been interrogated and killed as insurgents, not dragged off as POW’s.
We got up and walked southwest along the tree-clad ridge. Between the gaps in the trees, I could make out the Baekdu Daegan ahead, but it was still far off. I knew we weren’t going to make it there in time, so I started looking for a viewpoint that might allow me to take some decent photos. There weren’t any. So, I found a suitable chestnut tree and climbed up it. From its spongy limbs, I could make out Mae-san and farther to the south the ominous peak of Piro-bong 1639m, in Kumgang-san (Diamond mountains) that border with South Korea.
By the time we got back to the vehicle, it was near dark. Mr Han had spent the afternoon setting up a campfire and preparing dinner. We set up our two four-man Sahale tents and then ate our delicious dinner chased down with wild mountain berry flavoured soju that Mr Han had picked that day. After dinner, I looked up at the star-filled night and reflected on how today’s scenery had lacked, but the tales hadn’t. I wondered if there were plenty more stories out there? No one volunteered for the bear watch though.