North Korea: Baekdu Daegan Sasu-san, Hyeongno-bong, Baek-san in Hamkyongnam-do.

Photo Blog: 20170825-28

I returned to North Korea in mid-August for the second part of my expedition on the Baekdu Daegan for 2017. North Korea had experienced a late deluge of monsoon rain during the early part of August that had caused some flooding in the outer regions. We aren’t sure if we’ll have unobstructed access to the mountains of the Baekdu Daegan in the northern provinces of Hamkyongnam-do, and Ryanggang-do, where I will be spending the next six weeks. Traveling with me are the same North Korean men from my earlier May, June visit.

August 25: Our first real crack at anything is two peaks located west of Hamju in Hamkyongnam-do. We drive to the small village of Pungsong-ri and meet Mr Kim Cheol, a small bespectacled man with an ambitious drive about him. He will be our guide for this area. The vehicle crawls slowly on a rocky track that runs alongside the swollen Geumcheon-gang (river). The scenery is tranquil. When the vehicle can go no further we stop and find a place to set up camp. It’s mid-afternoon and we aren’t going anywhere, so we discuss how to climb Sasu-san 1746m, and Baek-san 1835m. Later that night around the campfire, Mr Kim Cheol and a local who Kim Cheol seconded from a logging truck, or more like ordered, talk of a tiger that lives on Baek-san. A young fit fella, Choi Yong-ho, seems excited to be with us

August 26, 0500hr: Good weather. We decide to climb Sasu-san first. We can hear the ‘chuff chuff’ of an oncoming logging truck as it grinds its way up the rocky tracks. As it passes us, we jump on the back. It crosses the Geumcheon-gang before stopping at its logging camp. From here we start our slog to Sasu-san. The forest is green and sparkles in the fresh air. These remote parts of North Korea are very pure. What few people live out here, live in clay walled and timber-framed homes, with veggie patches and beehives. I wonder if they are away from all the politics.

We have underestimated the difficulty to climb Sasu-san. When we finally get to the ridge, the trail disappears. We follow the bushy ridge south, spending most of our time fighting and slashing through the thorny thicket. It’s the kind of terrain, where you’d expect a leopard to spring out any time. Despite that the men keep motivated. By 1pm we get to the peak of Hyeongno-bong 1598m, where I get my first glimpse of Sasu-san and the East Sea.

Despite being low on time, we push on for Sasu-san. However, exhausted, and with no plan to sleep in the mountains, we can’t reach there. So about 3pm, after ten hours of walking, we turn back. A couple of hours into our return, we run out of water. Dehydrated, scratched up, and tired, I sense mood swings in the men, including myself. It’s dark by the time we get to a stream at the bottom of the mountain, where we refresh and let our feelings calm down. Some hours later we arrive back at the Geumcheon river. There’s no truck to take us over it this time. In the dark of night, the river sounds big and fast. We remove our boots and, armed only with our headlamps, shuffle over the submerged rocks. I make the mistake of lifting my foot too high, and the swift current catches me, knocking me off balance. Little Kim Cheol who is next to me, tries to catch me, but I’m too big for him, and I stumble into the cold waters. I pull myself up from the rocks and water and try to laugh it off. Perhaps to make me feel better, Kim Cheol, laughs with me, patting me on the shoulder, asking if I’m okay. Wet all over and feeling slightly shamed, like a miserable cat I mope across to the other side. Everyone else makes it across without falling in, and are excited by their effort. We dry our feet, put our footwear back on, and smoke. In my fall, I managed to dent my right shin on a rock, and now have a limp. I’m ready for a good ol’ ribbing, but the North Koreans don’t bring up what happened to me. Instead we march on, at pace, into the night.

2330hr: At camp, we warm our feet around the fire and eat rice, ramen, and a delicious denjang-guk with local Songi mushroom.

August 27, 0500hr: A bright sunny day. If Sasu-san had been hard, Baek-san at 1835m must surely be harder! This time Hwang Sung-chol and Mr Baek sit it out. Still aching from yesterday, Kim Cheol, Choi Yong-ho, Kim Yu-chol and I set off. Some local folk walk with us a short distance. One, a man, is carrying his child on his back. The smiling baby boy is holding wild flowers in each hand.

Mr 김철 and Mr 최용호

We pass the logging camp, staying on the north side of that treacherous  Geumcheon river. As we walk up a north-facing valley, we have to ford three times a rapid mountain stream. Some old village remnants catch my eye. There’s only stone walls left, but I can see the flat areas where homes once were. It’s a beautiful spot to live, under these tall trees, next to a freshwater steam. I wonder who lived here?

Once again, it’s another tough effort on these trackless hills of the north. As we climb up, we get diverted many times by rocky bluffs that keep pushing us sideways. It’s 2pm by the time we get to what Kim Cheol calls Sobaek-san (소백산), a small rocky knob. From here, I can see, to the south, yesterday’s peaks of Hyeongno-bong and Sasu-san on the Baekdu Daegan. To the northwest, and just above us, I can see the open peak of Baek-san. One of the rocks on it has the silhouette shape of a waiting tiger. Is that the legendary tiger of Baek-san, I wonder? As we eat a simple lunch, Kim Cheol tells me that this will be the last and only time he will eat lunch with a foreigner on a mountain. I think this is a warm thing for him to say, and thank him, but it’s also a little sad. I hope one day North Koreans can experience this more often with foreigners.

Hyeongno-bong and Sasu-san can be seen on left side of the ridge

With a long way to get back, we start heading down. Funnily, we find a better trail, follow it to a pass, then turn right and take it directly down the valley we came up. By the time we get to the last stream crossing, it is near dark. Remembering that with my big wide boots, it had been a little clumsy for me to cross over those thin logs, the men then set up a new bridge with extra logs that allows us to get over the raging current safely.

I am finding it hard to walk. My feet are wet and are breaking up. Then to make matters worse, it starts to spit. So we stop under a big tree, where Kim Cheol and I share our last cigarette. Fortunately, it doesn’t rain. We get back to camp by 9pm and eat another delicious hot dinner. I drink four large cups of soju, get a buzz, and sleep well.

August 28, 0800hr: It’s time to leave this area. We pack up camp, and I take a team photo with my Polaroid, giving the members a copy each. They really dig that. I guess it’s a lifetime memory for them, that they can share with family members too. On our way out we drop Kim Cheol off at Pungsong-ri . A tongue watering aroma wafts from the local restaurant. Mr. Han whips inside it and grabs some fresh spuds. I hear the sound of boots, and turn to see files of soldiers marching down the road, at least 200 of them, all armed. I politely acknowledge their commander, and he smiles back. No one seems to mind my presence, or gives me evil looks, in fact, most of the soldiers are chuffed when they see me. But I take no photos. The moment reminds us that all is not as peaceful as the mountains.

Then, Kim Cheol points out an odd rain cloud formation. It has an eerie shape, like a mushroom. It hovers over the Baekdu Daegan where we had spent the last two nights. We hop back in the vehicle and head north towards Yeonggwang town . More mountains await us.


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