North Korea: Climbing Hills, eating mutton, Moon tales.

Photo Blog: 20170901 to 04

 September 1st: A sunny morning. We leave Chail-peak, this time driving unchallenged through the gold smuggling checkpoints at Chail village.

Looking back on the guards, I joke, “Hell, we could’ve swiped a big pile of gold.”

We drop our forest service guide, Mr Han, off at his workplace. This is where we’ll leave him, but before that he comes running back out with an iron hot plate.

“What’s this for?” I ask.

“You’ll see,” Hwang says with a grin.

A short time later we get to the small town of Pujon-eup and make a stop outside a roadside store. Hwang speaks to the owner, and soon some other women arrive, and then in separate directions, they scoot off. Some minutes later one of them returns with a yellow plastic bag containing a football-size chunk of meat. Everyone jumps back into the vehicle. Hwang turns to me and says, “We’re eating Kaema-gowon mutton today, Roger.”

Excited, we drive over Pujon-ryong pass and snake our way down the massive gorge towards the east coast. When we get to the bottom, we find a place next to a pine-fringed stream and set up the hot plate on a fire. Kim Yu-chol lets the meat ‘thump’ out of the bag onto a plastic board.

“Fuck, how much meat is there?”  I exclaim.

“Three kilos for $15,” Hwang answers. With a machete, Kim Yu-chol whacks the mutton into chunks and throws them on the sizzling hot plate. Mr Han our driver, takes care of the frying. Soon the chunks are smelling divine.

Mr Han Myeong Soo, is a special member of our team. I have worked with him on all my Baekdu Daegan expeditions since 2011. As a driver, he doesn’t have to cook, but he always prepared a meal for us on our return from a long day in the mountains. He’s a bloody good man in my opinion. Always chipper.

Eating the sumptuous portions with Soy sauce, I have to tell my hosts, it is simply delicious, as good as any from New Zealand. The five of us eat all 3 kilos! Our bellies are now bulging so we take a lie-down in the grass, the sound of the stream entrancing us to sleep. After that, we continue east to Hamheung.

September 2nd, Hamheung: Everyone’s got sore bellies this morning. We ate far too much mutton. We spend the morning restocking the vehicle, and the afternoon on the beach at Majeon resort.

September 3rd, 0800hr: We’re on the road again. Our target mountain is Sam-bong 1985m, north of Deokseong in Hamkyongnam-do.

At Deokseong we turn left and drive northwest for twenty kilometres to the village of Cheolsan-ri, pick up a couple of local guides, then continue for about 5km more to Sang-ri village, where we cut northeast towards the Baekdu Daegan. We drive through hamlets, and up a valley until the vehicle can pass no longer.

We pitch up our tents on short green grass, next to a pristine Baekdu Daegan stream. We’re at 596m. Our guides, a young fit man named Jang Jeong-seon and the slightly elder, but fit and tough looking Bang Yeong-heuk reckon it’s about a 3-hour hike to Sam-bong. Ahead the mountains look ominous and deep. We’ve done this enough times to know that their timing is unlikely. “Let’s just call it a full day’s hiking,” I say. It’s now late in the day, and as usual, the villagers are starting to bring their cows and goats back down from the mountains. It’s another beautiful place.

September 4th, 0515hr: Looks like it’s going to be another fine day, the village below peaceful in the early light. We eat a breakfast of denjang soup and rice, followed with a cup of soju. We drink a cup of soju every morning, some times two.

I know this is going to be another huge day muscling our way up these unexplored peaks of the Baekdu Daegan in North Korea. Mr Jang Jeong-seon and Mr Bang Yeong-heuk return from the village. Now they say it’ll take at least six hours to get to Sam-bong, and that its peak is covered in tall trees. This will make it harder for me to get decent shots.

The stream valley we are tracing is extremely long. We pass numerous waterfalls and there are trees everywhere. Slowly we gain some altitude. By 11 am we reach a makeshift hut at 1200m. It’s warm, 25°C. Still, in construction, the hut is used by woodsmen and foragers. It even has an ondol system. We leave the valley and head straight up the steep side of the mountain.

It’s a killer alright! Just a wall of rocks and trees, no trail. The forest is thick with fir, larch, maple, and sometimes a flash of red Magamok berries. Some two hours later we get to a big scree of angular boulders. We look diminutive as we slowly clamber up and over the giant rocks.

We enter more forest, still climbing. Then another rock scree! We push over it and before it departs into the next forest we stop for another rest. We’re at 1750m. I look out over the scenery. It is quite fantastic! Big wild land.

1400hr: The men get this plan in their head, that if we push over the next spur, and down into its gully, then climb up another rocky spur, I might get better photos of  Sam-bong. It will also offer us a quicker route out. We all agree.

After climbing up, down, and up again, we get to the top of the other spur. Now we’re beat. The rocks are sapping us.

I’ve got enough photos, so we decide to head down, but before that, I offer to take some Polaroid team shots. On the steep slope, I set up the tripod above us. I need to produce four copies. Even with the 10-second timer, I barely have enough time to scramble down over the rocks to get myself in the picture. By the time the fourth capture is due, I’m exhausted from the running up and down to the camera. The men find this funny. And when I return to wait for the fourth capture to print out from the camera, it doesn’t come out, because the device has run out of paper! This makes the men laugh even harder. They take struggle in good humour, do the North Koreans. So I load more paper and do it one more time. They all appreciate it. Young, Kim Yu-chol, who’s been with me since the May expedition, now has quite the collection of Polaroid prints. He studies them like baseball cards.

Polaroid SNAP

1930hrs: We arrive back at camp. Only an eleven-hour walk today we joke. Nothing for us. But we are bushed. On the log fire is the iron hot plate. Something on it is cooking under river sand and pebbles. I wonder what could be steaming under the pebbles and sand? Fish? It’s potatoes, the ones Mr Han purchased back in Pungsong-ri. They’re delicious and we eat them with rice, ramon, pickled radish, and green peppers. We wash the food down with Mushroom soju. It’s another top meal prepared by Mr Han.

It’s now dark, and a full moon is rising, flickering through the clouds that rumble thunder in the far distance. Noticing my gaze on the moon, Mr Han asks me, “Mr Roger, what kind of moon is your favourite?”

This has to be a trick question, I think. Why? Because some nights before when we were seated around the campfire under a half moon (ban-dal), I had mentioned how incredible it looked. Mr Han, perked up, put his finger on his lip, and with a playful grin on his face, whispered to me, “Be careful how you say ‘ban-dal’ around here.”

“Why’s that?” I had whispered back.

Mr Han whispered, “Because that was the code word for a bunch of South Korean commandos in a famous North Korean movie.”

“Ohhhh!” I said quietly. “I get it.” The group around the campfire snickered.

“Yeah, someone in the bushes might be listening,” Mr Han said. “They might think you’re a spy.” And he started making crackling radio noises from behind his cupped hand, “ban-dal, ban-dal, crrrkkk, crrrkk, come in, over.” Everyone had laughed loudly.

So this time, I thought a bit more about his new question. “Hmmm, it’d have to be the full moon, I think, Mr Han.”

Han Myeong Soo

Mr Han shuffles on his haunches, as if my answer was poor, then looks me in the eye, and wagging his finger at me (he always wags his finger at people), says, “Roger-ssi, what moon do you think women prefer then?”

Oh more trickery, I thought. Now I’ve got to think again. I pause a moment.

“I don’t honestly know. I would have thought the full moon, too, Mr Han,” I cautiously reply.

The other men around the fire are silent. Only the wood crackles.

Mr Han takes a drag of his cigarette, and a smile forms on his face. “It’s the crescent moon!” he says in a matter of fact way.

Looking at each other for a response, no one says anything.

Mr Han continues, “Because on a crescent moon, a woman can sneak out of her home at night with just enough moonlight to see where she’s going and meet her lover without anyone seeing who she is.”

The men crack up around the campfire, their faces glowing in the light. I join in the laughter. I can picture it. Under a crescent moon, a young Yi dynasty maiden, with a shawl clutched over her lowered head, scurries through the faintly lit alleyways of her stone-walled village, meeting her lover on the outside, under the big willow next to the stream.

I think I’ll never look at a crescent moon the same again.

I look at Hwang who’s still laughing and ask him if he’s heard this before? He just shrugs his shoulders, shakes his head, and smiles back at me.

It must be a Mr Han theory then.

We finish up, and Mr Jang and Mr Bang excuse themselves. They’ve been great guides. I watch them start their walk back to their village. It will be a good hour before they get there. But it’s a beautiful night for a stroll home.

With the bright full moon, there will be no secret maidens for them tonight, I guess.

I stand up, cup both hands around my mouth, and in a big voice shout out, “BAN-DAL, BAN-DAL!” It booms down the valley, probably as far as the village. They both freeze, and look back, a little startled. The men back here burst into laughter, a surprised Mr Han the loudest. From his haunches, and still laughing, he looks up at me, his gold teeth flashing in the moonlight. With a fag in one hand, he gives me a big thumbs up with the other hand.

“Good one, Roger-ssi. Good one. You got ’em good!” He laughs.






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