North Korea: Kaema-gowon (plateau) and Bear tales.

Photo Blog: Sep 07 to 08, 2017

Sep 7th, 2017: A sunny day again. We rise early and drive through the rolling hills of Kaema-gowon (plateau), heading north from Huchi-ryong in Pungsan-gun to the township of Kapsan. It’s a pleasant drive on a flat unsealed road that follows high, flowing streams lined with buttercup-filled grassy banks. Roped cows graze under hanging willows and white birches. Green paddocks surround picturesque hamlets that grow potatoes, maize, and sometimes rice. Autumn is on its way in these high northern regions, a coat of mustard spreading through the forests and rice fields.

A horse grazing on the Kaema gowon

We stop in Kapsan to get one of our punctured tire tubes patched. In its main street, goalpost barriers stop trucks from barreling up it, kicking dust onto pastel walled shops and into the lungs of meandering pedestrians.

Farmhouse on the Kaema gowon

On the northern edge of town, we turn right and head east alongside the Jin-dong stream towards the Baekdu Daegan. We take a coiling road that climbs and climbs until we get to the pass, located at about 1800m, on the Baekdu Daegan. We stop there and relax on some short grass. I go for a stroll and am taken again by the beauty and lofty sensation of this area.

The northern plateau region is unlike any other part of Korea. I am standing eye level with 2000m plus peaks.

In the distance I can see a bullish peak, standing like a Lord on the eastern horizon. It’s shape looks familiar to me, but why? I rack my head. My God, it’s Duryu-san 2309m, which I climbed in 2012. Surrounding it are miles and miles of spikey forests.

By mid-afternoon, our forest service guide arrives on the back of a motorbike. He is another Mr Han. His deep tanned brown face blends naturally with his pine-green tunic, colours of the woods.

Our issue up here is water. We find a couple of small pools of groundwater that look suitable for cooking but not drinking. We still have enough bottled water in the vehicle for ourselves, so we set up camp in the best spot we can find.

Sep 8th, 2017: I know this is a good area for a sunrise shot. Moonlight had filtered through the tent most of the night, masking any early morning sun rays that would normally be my alarm clock. But at 4:45am, I get up and see that the lilac hues are already composing on the eastern horizon. I walk about one hundred meters to a lip that overlooks the eastern plateau. I set up my tripod and tune into nature.

It’s that magic time of the day. Not a breath of wind and dead quiet. In the dim foreground, I can make out the bristled shapes of the treetops. Beyond that, I can see waves of purple ridges cascading across the plateau that rise up to the shadowed hulk of Duryu-san. Iridescent ribbons of morning mist saunter in the valleys between the ridges. Like a python, a band of cloud is being sucked over the Baekdu Daegan just north of Duryu-san. Behind the silhouetted edges of the Great Ridge, a soft orange washes the horizon and expands into a charming turquoise as it meets the upper eastern sky. Directly above me, some small stars still twinkle in the fading night blue. The moon sits on the far west, glowing white.

Duryusan 2309m

After our usual rice and ramen breakfast, we head off on what should be a short walk on easy ground to the summit of Dongjeomryong-san. We shuffle through dew in knee-high grass and gently ascend into the mysterious jagged shadows of the sleepy forest. In places sunlight, streams through the treetops lighting up the moss-covered forest floor. It’s a Pixieland.

Our guide, Mr Han, loses the trail and tells us to sit and wait, while he wanders off. Some time passes, so Mr Choi, our Ryanggang-do provincial officer, goes to look for him. About twenty minutes later, I hear Mr Choi hollering for Mr Han. In an opposite direction, I can barely hear Mr Han hollering back. I doubt Mr Choi can hear him from where he is. So, I holler too. Mr Choi hollers back in my direction. He is quite far away by now, but not as far as Mr Han. Mr Choi hollers again, and I holler back again. He thinks I’m Mr Han. Time for a trick. We continue the hollering. As he gets closer, I lower my pitch trying to sound far away. Hwang Sung Chol and Kim Yu Chol are sitting in the dewy grass smiling up at me. The hollering festival continues. Minutes later Mr Choi appears from the black lines of the forest. Hwang and Yu Chol laugh at him. I stand there smiling, then let out another holler. Mr Choi, realizes he’s been tricked, smiles, laughs, then squints at me with menace. He raises his machete above his head with a killer expression, and with a shrieking, “Ahhhhh,” brings it down, slashing a thin branch from a tree. This is followed by some mild cursing. We both have a good laugh then sit down for a cigarette.

Some moments later, we hear Mr Han hollering above us, so we get up and find him. About an hour later, we break out onto a stony peak with magnificent views to the north. We can see forever.

Amongst the maze of rock are some remnants of the Korean War. Semi-circle shaped walls of stone that once acted as gun-posts for infantrymen form pockets around an old underground stone bunker. They blend into the terrain so well that they are hard to spot at first, and must be impossible to detect from the road that stretches over the pass, some ten kilometres north of us.

We stay on the peak for a couple more hours. Just taking in the views, relaxing, smoking and chatting. It’s so serene.

By the time we return to our campsite there is still plenty of time left in that day, but we aren’t going anywhere. In high spirits from the hike, we decide that there’s not much to do except have a few drinks. Our guide Mr Han has trucked with him a 5-litre flagon of maize soju. So under the hot sun, we start sampling it. The soju is extremely strong, 45% proof, and tastes like gasoline.

As the afternoon passes the stories get more interesting. Mr Han describes to us an episode with a bear.

“One day I was in the village, when a local came running up to me, telling me there was a bear in the maize crops. I go and took a look, and to my amazement, there is this bear walking merrily on its hind legs through the stalks.” Mr Han puts his cup of soju down, stands up, removes his tunic, revealing a muscular chest and arms under his singlet. He continues his story.

“This bear then starts stealing ears of maize. With one of his paws, he would pluck an ear, and stick it under his armpit.” Mr Han imitates the act to us by grabbing a piece of sweet bread and sticking it under his arm.

“Then it would grab another ear of maize and stick it under his other armpit.” Mr Han grabs another sweetbread and does as he said. We are getting amused.

“I watch this bear with wonder. It was like it was shopping but without a bag. How could it be so smart? Then he reaches out with his paw and grabs a third ear and rams it in his mouth. ‘Wow,’ I thought. But then I noticed that one of the ears had dropped out from under his armpit.” Mr Han re-enacts this quite well, sticking a sweetbread in his mouth, and at the same time letting one slip from his armpit, causing his tipsy audience to laugh heavily.

“But now I can see that the greedy bear knows this too, and has to replace the fallen ear, so he plucks another one, sticking it under his empty armpit. But all this does is cause the ear to fall out from the other armpit. I watch as the silly bear just keeps moving down the lines of maize, trying to replace each new empty armpit with a new piece of plucked maize, over and over. Meanwhile, the one in its mouth is still there. It was like watching someone try to fill up a shopping basket with a hole in it.” Mr Han is strutting around the campsite flapping his crocked arms with a piece of sweetbread in his mouth, picking up sweetbread from the ground, shoving them one at a time under his armpits as the opposite one falls out. You can imagine it’s a hilarious scene if you’ve been drinking maize soju.

“So what happened in the end?” I shout above the laughter. Mr Han stops, removes the piece of sweetbread from his mouth and looks at me. He’s still got one sweetbread stuck under his right armpit.

“Well, the bear was making a mess of the crops, plucking all these ears that were falling to the ground, getting nowhere with its dumb play, so I had to shoo it out of the crop.” He extends his right arm in a shooing gesture, and the piece of sweetbread falls out from his armpit onto the ground. Of course, the sight of this causes us to fall on our backs with more laughter.

“When it saw me it got such a fright, like a kid being caught stealing apples,” Mr Han laughed.

“But it was a determined bear because it still made off with the maize. On seeing me, the bear put one more under his armpit, grabbed one with its other paw, and with one still in its mouth, ran out of the maize patch on its hind legs, before disappearing into the forest.” Mr Han imitates the bear stumbling off into the forest. We are still laughing loudly unaware of what’s going on around us when a girl’s voice rings out.

“Uncle, what are you doing?”

Mr Han swivels on his heels and turns to see his niece. He’s still got a piece of sweetbread in his mouth, one piece under his armpit, and another in his right hand. We shuffle on our rocks and look to see a young girl in a purple coat with tied back hair, standing there, looking at us with her hands on her hips, and a slight look of astonishment on her pretty face.

“Niece, what are you doing here?” Mr Han says as his sweetbread drops to the ground from his mouth.

She just looks at him and smiles at his ridiculousness. Perhaps because of the good-natured laughter, she doesn’t seem concerned about me. We ask her to join us, which she does. She is too young to drink, so just sits on the edge of our group listening to the funny stories. We give her some biscuits and a dry block of ramen, which she crunches on slowly by delicately pulling off one string at a time.

It’s late afternoon before Mr Han and his niece decide it’s time to head down to the village. Before that, I take several Polaroid snaps of our group which I give all the copies to Mr Han’s niece, and one to Yu Chol to go with his growing collection. She looks at the snaps in marvel. Feeling generous, I give her the remainder of my first aid kit, mainly bandages, antiseptic creams, and band-aids. I watch them walk off. Mr Han’s niece has her left arm inside his right elbow. He’s got a bit of a wobble on. That maize soju is pretty strong stuff.
























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