North Korea: Chail-bong 2505m, the highest we have ever climbed in Korea!

Photo Blog: 20170828-31일, Pujon-gun ,Hamkyongnam-do.

August 28: We make a brief stop in Yeonggwang town to restock and buy more booze, but Mr Han comes out of the store shaking his head. “Marshall Kim Jong Un has imposed a national decree on the prohibition of alcohol sales,” he tells us.

“What for?” I ask.

The men have a discussion among themselves. “It’s to ensure that the nation is ready to fight, should war erupt with the Americans. Everyone’s got to be sober,” Hwang informs me.

Like a spoilt child, I lurch back in my seat and cross my arms. “That liquor ban shouldn’t include me!” I bitch.

“Ha ha, no problem Roger-ssi, we’ll find some for you, ” Mr Han says.

We drive northwest to a village called Sinchang-ri and manage to score some homebrew. In better spirits, we drive up towards the Baekdu Daegan and spend a night camped near a pass called Sodadae-ryong at 1935m. I feel autumn approaching.

Camped out on a roadside just under the Baekdu Daegan.

August 29, 0400hr: The plan is to get some sunrise photos, but it’s a mediocre sunrise. We drive southeast, back down to Sinchang-ri, and then take a spectacular course north, back to the ridge towards the county of Jangjin-gun.

It’s a big valley we are contouring up, with mind-blowing views beneath. Big mountains of the Baekdu Daegan, all covered in forest, stand above a tributary of the Seongcheon river that empties at Hamheung. I can see a railroad track that criss-crosses the unnamed tributary. The rail track follows us up the mountain road, appearing now and then from a tunnel or over a bridge in the most unexpected places. Huge elevated pylon cables run down from the top of the valley, extensions of the hydro dam at Jangjin reservoir on the other side of the Baekdu Daegan where we are heading. They supply energy to Hamheung. I spot a massive cannon that overlooks the valley. I am under strict instructions not to take photos in this area. Hwang tells me, we aren’t even supposed to be here. Sometimes I have no idea what work these fellas do to get me to these places.

At the top, we cross over the Baekdu Daegan onto the plateau. But as we drive north towards Jangjin we come across a hitch. The upper reaches of the Jangjin river before it becomes a dam is still in flood and the stone bridge that once crossed it still awash. The only things crossing the riverbed, are large trucks, ox and cart, and waist deep in water pedestrians, pushing their bicycles, which they duly rub down and clean once out of the water. If the river water is muddy and deep, and he can’t see the bottom, Mr Han won’t drive through it. It’s a fair call. We can’t really go making detours in this restricted area, there’s barely a decent road network for that anyway, and it’s likely other bridges are awash too, so we have to turn around and go back the way we came. We decide to go all the way to Hamheung.

The Jangjin river awash.

August 30, 0700hr: We leave Hamheung and are now on our way back to the plateau via Pujon-gun. We drive north through Sinheung county and over the Baekdu Daegan at Pujon-ryong.

Pujon township

1000hrs: On the plateau we continue north and just before the Pujon dam make a right turn where we pick up our forest service guide at a village called Wongol. Mr Han Yeong-beom is probably in his forties. Like a lot of these forest service men, he has a humble demeanour, is light yet strong in stature, and sports a tanned weathered face. From here, we continue northeast heading towards a peak named Chail-bong 2505m. It’s not on the Baekdu Daegan and had been a random selection I made back in Gurye.

1200hrs: Despite having passed through many, for the first time, we are now stuck at a checkpoint outside the small village town of Chail-ri . A man has disappeared with our paperwork and hasn’t been back for a while. There is an edginess to this CP. The hours tick away. I stay put in the vehicle so not to attract attention. Outside, a horrid cold wind sweeps across the plateau, rattling the vehicle, and spraying sheets of dust everywhere. It’s a drab place. The only colour I can see is the bending cosmos flowers, and the odd bright shawl wrapped around a woman’s head. A lot of trade appears to be going on. Laden ox carts shipping all sorts of boxed goods, pass through the CP unchecked. I notice that cyclists dismount when passing through the CP, but are never challenged. It’s only the vehicles the armed guards are concerned about. Chail village is a gold mining area, and we are outsiders riding an iron horse. Who comes here to climb a mountain? Who really is the white fella? Are they smugglers? Cowboys of the Baekdu Daegan? Things that must be crossing the guard’s minds.

1530hrs:  We finally get permission to pass. As we drive on the dirt road that is the narrow main street, I see on my left, women washing the family clothes in a grey icy stream. Grey from what I don’t know? Perhaps mining? All the homes are made from long thin planks of timber. People sell small wares on the side of the road. Kids suck on ice blocks. At the town centre, there is a roundabout, and the market is full of colourful quilts. This town is like something from the old American mid-west, dodgy and bleak.

We drive northwest until the adjacent stream runs clean again. Ahead we can now see 차일봉,  so we set up camp on a grassy paddock next to a small herd of cows and their friendly stockman. I check my watch. We’re at 1500m and as the sun droops behind the ridge, I can feel the cold creeping out from the bush.

 August 31, 0600hrs: I open my eyes and the first thing I see is small icicles hanging from the bottom inner seam of the tent where it joins the floor. I touch them to check that it’s not a dream. I step outside and admire a chilling frost under a blue sky. Mr Han, our driver, is up and has started the fire. Together we drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and thaw. The stockman is up and releases his cows from the pen. His wee daughter, half the size of the cows, jibes them, “yom yom,“ she shouts. Whipping the dull ones with a thin stick, she rounds them up into a bunch and then throws down salt licks for them. When everyone is up, we eat a hot breakfast of rice and ramen and head for the hills.

The beautiful treed valley is flat most of the way. We pass by a few friendly woodsmen and their small family huts. I also get to see the marker for what was once a slogan tree. They are sacred relics of the anti-Japanese period. These trees are permanently marked with a patriotic slogan made by a revolutionary fighter from that period. On discovery, they get transplanted and preserved in an arboretum. We are walking in the footsteps of the partisans.

Slogan tree marker

The valley ends and we slip out from the tree line and look up at a gruelling climb. It’s an incredibly steep slope of loose boulders we have to take. We start. It might be the altitude, and the legs feel fine, but my lungs can’t cope with more than ten paces. Other than Mr Han, our forest guide, we are all struggling like that. The large chunks of loose rock are knitted together with low lying Nunjat, a low lying native pine, that grows like a shrub. We keep pushing and after a couple of hours, the top is deceptively near. Excited we keep going, anticipating great views once we get there.

A final burst and I get to the top, punching both fists in the air as I arrive. Mr Han and Mr Baek are already there. I look down and see Hwang and Yu-chol are still coming. The peak is flat and a sharp wind cuts over it. It is covered in wild grass. Short stems of rhododendron, Edelweiss, and other wildflowers, dance amongst the fluttering grass blades. It’s like a sanctuary. The views are 360°. At 2500m above sea level, it’s an amazing place.

I wander around and explore the vast horizons. Chail-bong is on the border of the provinces of Hamkyongnam-do and Ryanggang-do. To the south, I can easily see forty kilometres all the way to Pujon town, and the pass on the Baekdu Daegan at Pujon-ryong. I follow the Baekdu Daegan southwest and can even see some eighty kilometres from here the peaks of Baek-san and Sasu-san that I was on three days ago. I am standing on one of the highest mountains in all of Korea. The views are expansive.

After taking photos I go and sit with the men, who have taken shelter from the wind under the southern edge of the peak. None of us is in a hurry to leave, this place is too good. A raptor glides freely above us. Hwang shouts out, “I think it’s a goshawk, the national bird of North Korea.” This excites the guys, and I manage to get a good photo of it, showing them. They marvel at its predatory nature. (Alas, on researching this back in the south, it was just a Common Kestrel. But we’ll always remember it as a goshawk!!)

We stay on the blustery peak almost two hours before leaving. Coming down the same way, we pass by the friendly woodsmen again. One of them is on the narrow path chopping away at logs with a super sharp hand axe. He’s not aware that I’m there yet, but soon realises, so stands up, looks at me, nods and smiles. I smile back, then he steps aside, and casts his axe to one side. It’s a strange gesture, but I guess it’s his way of saying, you’re alright, I won’t axe you. You’re not our enemy here. His toddler daughter is with him. Silently, she looks up at me quizzically.

We arrive back at camp by 5.30pm and settle into a meal of rice, ramen, and canned pork. Mr Han, tries to tell me it’s mutton, as he knows I’m dying to try some famous Kaema-gowon lamb. Funny guy.

Later as it gets dark, cold steam starts to roll from our mouths, and the frost catches on. We stoke up the fire some more, its sparks spitting into the inky air. Above us, a  bold half-moon appears in the brilliant night sky. Mr Han tells us a funny story about the half moon, which I’ll explain to you in the next story.

Across the stream, an owl hoots from a hidden tree. Nearby, from inside their hut, I can hear a glowing banter from the stockman’s family. It’s not even a house, no TV, no radio, nothing, and although poor, they sound very happy and close together.

Polaroid SNAP

 

 

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