It was the morning of October 29, 2011, and this was the last day in the field. Any previous doubts I had made back in Seoul some three weeks ago, about travelling in the DPRK had left me very early in this expedition. They were now distant thoughts thrown to the mountain winds. I was safe here. I liked it here. There was a lot to learn.
We were still traveling in the area of Maengsan county in the province of Pyhongannam-do. The day before we had visited the impressive small plateau region of Cholongsan located in the village of Junghung-ri, Yodeok county on the eastern side of the Baekdu Daegan in the province of Hamgyeongnam-do. It had been the second plateau region we found on this journey, the previous being at Saepo in the province of Kangwon-do. Our last mountain was to be the smallest at only 672m. It wasn’t located exactly on the Baekdu Daegan but a fraction north of it on a tiny spur that overlooked the Matan-river – which flowed southwest into the Daedong-river that would then pass through the capital city Pyongyang and out to the West Sea of Korea. Back in Seoul, I had chosen Munpil-bong from a mountain map because it looked like it might offer unique viewpoints of the Baekdu Daegan. The mountains name was also charming in that it was named after the soft haired brushes that calligraphers used.
The team to hike Munpil-bong was almost the same as Cholongsan. Mr. Lee Hyong Seon from Maengsan was still with us, but now a new face Mr. Lim Hee Chol who worked with the local forestry had joined us from his nearby village. He was to be our guide. With Hwang Sung Chol and Hwang Chol Young we were a five strong team. We approached Munpil-bong 672m from the north. Behind us, the clear waters of the Matan river rippled. I expected to see trout it was so clean. Overhead, the sun shone through a sky that billowed pink-white bundles of late autumn cloud that hinted snow hidden somewhere inside them, a mild wind whispered potential rain. All around us, the countryside spread its harvested fields, parched autumn gold. Amongst it all, we stood as specks on a dusty white road that thread like a thin serpent through a thimble scape of forlorn mountains. It was beautiful in a lost and awkward way.
Unlike previous mountains, our hike to Munpil-bong began comfortably on a mountain path that the locals used to access their farming patches of maize that they cultivated on the steep hillsides. The trail was well used and scarred by deep ruts scribed from the skids ox drawn carts [달구지]. After all the battles we had getting up these remote mountains, it was funny to think that we were now on what seemed an easy path. However, the problem with mountains in North Korea is that the tops are rarely accessed by the locals, as there is no recreational or pragmatic reason to do so. These mountain trails either end where the land can no longer be farmed, or instead whisk over a saddle and down to the village on the other side of a saddle. So our comfortable walk came to an abrupt end, and soon we were scrambling steeply up the soft crest of a spur that cut through dry stands of thicket and low trees. Myself, Mr. Lee and Mr. Lim pushed on, and once again the two Hwang’s fell back out of earshot. A while later, we left the crest and started contouring away from an overhanging bluff that threatened our ascent. I wondered if this was the best move? Our contour took us to the base of another bluff, and suddenly it looked like we were going to be facing the same dilemma we had on Cholong-san the day before, where we had to clamber up two sections of loose vertical rock, without ropes or travel insurance. However, this section didn’t look as challenging and perhaps because of that, I approached this obstacle with a bit more confidence. There was a narrow chimney that looked climbable. I started shimming up it but the rock became more and more less stable, and with the burden of my camera pack I began to lose my nerve. Apprehension started chiseling away at my self-confidence. Mr. Lee and Mr. Lim had seemed okay with this approach, but noticing I wasn’t, they too then opted out and looked for another way up this small mountain. Various attempts at other sections, left me momentarily stuck on brittle but not so high cliff faces, and sometimes I began to wonder (as I had on Cholong-san) that if by some strange chance I slipped off this mountain (our last and smallest) then would I foolishly die here, or at least badly injure myself, receiving brave local treatment that I couldn’t pay for. It was an embarrassing yet amusing thought.
Finally, we found another approach, and as we had on Cholong-san, we began passing my camera pack within arms length of each other as we clawed our way up the flaky face. To aid our weight, we clutched with great serendipity thick stems of dry grass and finger sized chunks of stringy shrubs. Nearer the top the going got better and healthy strong trees started to appear offering greater grip. Mr. Lee and Mr. Lim ascended first and before I could reach them I heard the joyful banter of others? The voices sounded familiar. Gripping onto an arm sized tree trunk, I hoisted myself up onto the top of what looked like the same crest we had left earlier, and to my great surprise and mirth, standing in front of me was Hwang Sung Chol and Hwang Chol Young. They looked at me with broad beaming grins that weren’t far away from breaking into fits of laughter, aimed (I’m quite sure) at me. Looking dusted and beat I said, ” Where the hell did you guys come from”? Their reply was an exhalation of loud laughter. Mr. Lee and Mr. Lim shrugged a little upon realizing that the Hwang’s had found their way up the mountain by staying effortlessly on the small crest. Such funny moments only made us all stronger.
With the two Hwang’s feeling proud of themselves, we all walked towards the top that we could see was marked by a small outcrop of granite rock bulging from the copper beaten autumn forest. The top was windy and cold. There wasn’t much space to sit and after taking in the views the Koreans found a crevice in the rocks that sheltered them from the wind. In their nook they chatted away. Meanwhile, I stayed on the blustery peak taking photos. From here I could see the Baekdu Daegan and Cholong-san to the near south. The views were majestic. The Matan river squirmed its way up a bleak valley. On its banks I could see bright yellow cobs of maize drying out on the roofs of rickety farmers homes. Sharp peaks, rolling ridges, jettisoned for as far as the eye could see.
We spent about thirty minutes on the peak of Munpil-bong then headed down to the vehicle. We travelled the same way we came up, but without the cliff face, and some moments later we came crashing out of the thicket onto the mountain path. As we strolled down the pathway, I reflected on my overall journey here in North Korea. Despite any apprehensions I might of had before I arrived, they were now gone. Despite the fact that all of these mountains I had visited had been plucked off a map back in Seoul without any visual knowledge of them – they had all been successfully visited. Other than Kumgang-san, they were all extremely remote locations that had required hours and hours of driving to get to. I silently commended my colleagues for their hard work.
Back at the car we met up with our driver Han Myeong Soo. He had spent his time servicing and cleaning the vehicle, and upon our return was always pleased to hear about our antics and folly on the mountain. We drove a short distance down the road before making a turn that took us between cropped fields of maize, and then down to the banks of the Matan-river. There we set up our late afternoon lunch, a mixture of kimchi, rice, and bulgogi. We washed the well-deserved food down with Pyongyang soju and delicious Daedong-gang beer, again. This was our last picnic before heading back to Pyongyang, and I took the time to take one last look (for now) at where I was.
To the north, in front of us, a wall of rock on the other side of the Matan-river formed the base of a mountain called Sogirae-bong 961m [소기래봉] which extended south from the Doeun-jimaek [더운지맥] that formed the main ridge between the Daedong-river, and us. If I looked to my right and then behind me I could see the wall of the Baekdu Daegan looming to the east and south with the pointed Munpil-bong filling the foreground. To my left the Matangang river trickled west. With me were five men; three of them had travelled with me all the way over the last sixteen days. Of those days, thirteen had been spent visiting ten mountains of the Baekdu Daegan in three provinces. We were tired but excited. Our voices and growing friendships proved that. We had grown to know each other better – through adventure and mountain. But these were no ordinary mountains for the Koreans; these were the mountains of the Baekdu Daegan. They belonged to a terrain where political indifferences didn’t exist, but homogeneity did. On this journey, the Baekdu Daegan had proven to be undivided.