North Korea: Once upon a time when tigers smoked long pipes

The story title comes from how the Koreans start old tales. As in English, we would say, ‘Once upon a time, a long time ago, when…’ This story is about tigers though, so read on.

2017.06.01 성재산(1,102m).

It was the first day of June when we arrived in the small Baekdu Daegan village of Ryeonjo-ri located just north of the Masik-ryong ski resort in Kangwon-do. Over his smart phone, Hwang had managed to haul a disgruntled forest guide away from his friend’s wedding ceremony. Kim Cheol-wang came stomping down the village track, a young tough looking fella. When he removed his pine-green forest service jacket, the sleeves of his shirt were ripped off at the shoulders. He had a sturdy body with big upper arms and chest. Maybe he was still upset at us, as his eyes displayed a wildness about them. With his thin barely visible moustache that sat above a stern upper lip, he had the demeanour of a Chinese street criminal. But a good joke quickly brought a broad smile across his face, making him appear (to me at least) Korean again. Married with a daughter, Kim Cheol-wang claimed he drank three litres of soju a day. Like all the men in the North, he liked to smoke.

It was mid-afternoon, under a dark rumbling sky, when we found a suitable campsite at the top of the village, next to a stream in a valley. It was from this spot that we would plan to climb to Seongjae-san 1102m the next day. We set up the two Sahale tents and got a fire going to keep warm. It had become surprisingly cold as a thick mist seeped down from the ridge, casting a ghostly shroud around us.

Sitting on rocks, huddled around the fire, we cracked open the 5litre flagon of acorn soju and snacked on peanuts, sweet bread, rice, and a locally fermented mountain leaf called Gom-chwi. Some locals made their way down from the mountain with their goats. The conversation moved to tigers, and the jovial Pak Seong-ho told us how he had been eating wild pig meat in a Kangwon-do village and asked his host if he could acquire some tiger pooh for medicinal means. The man replied he could, but that it would take a couple of days.

I asked Mr Pak if he ever got the pooh, and he told me he never returned to find out.

“That is no evidence of tiger, then!” I stated.

But Mr Pak replied that if the host said he could find the pooh, then that means there must be tigers!

That’s when Kim Cheol-wang chipped in and told us a story. He’d heard that a forager near where we sat had once slept overnight in a cave when a tiger tried to enter. Terrified and trapped, he didn’t know what to do, so he threw his clothes on the fire, causing it to blaze, and the tiger left. The man then fled the cave naked in the night, stating the tiger couldn’t follow him, as his scent was still on his now burned clothes in the cave.

“So he got away then?” I asked.

“Not quite,” Kim Cheol-wang replied, “The man couldn’t shake the memory of the tiger and died still in shock one month later.”

Hmm, another tall tale, I thought. But it would be inappropriate of me to suggest that. Mocking the dead is dangerous. But if true, then there was something bewitching about this death.

The drinks kept flowing around the glowing campfire. A biting wind blew.

Pak Seong-ho asked me if I knew how a Korean tiger would kill a human?

Shrugging my shoulders, I suspected this was a trick question.

“A Korean tiger won’t kill a human on the spot it finds you. Instead, with its burning eyes, it will hypnotise you, and lure you deep into the forest. You will follow the tiger, and when it is satisfied with a location, it will kill you and eat you there.”

Loud chuckles with a hint of wariness echoed around the campfire.

“Really? So what would you do then if you met a ‘Korean’ tiger?” I asked.

“Ah!” Mr Pak took another sip, straightened his back, and raised his finger. “The best way to stop a tiger is spin around from its stare, drop your pants, bend over, and show him your butthole.”

The campfire suddenly burst into uncontrollable laughter and knee-slapping.

“Shut up, shut up, let me finish,” he insisted. “Then you run bent over away from the tiger, so the tiger becomes confused.”

One of the men managed to catch his breath and asked how that was confusing?

“Well, it can no longer see your arms or head, just a butthole, so it now doesn’t know what you have suddenly become!”

Mr Han fell off his rock with laughter. The rest of us curled with hysteria, almost rolling into the fire. When we all finally stopped laughing, I wiped the tears from my eyes, “Yes, no creature would have seen anything like that before…you’re right!” I clutched my stomach in pain from laughter. “If I see a tiger tomorrow, I’ll be sure to do that then.”

We prepared our dinner of ramen, rice, and more Gom-chwi. But before we could eat, a hard icy rain and lashing wind joined us, so we quickly moved everything into the tent. Why was it so cold? Kim Cheol-wang told us about a rare local weather phenomenon that local dialect called ‘do-sae’. Even though this valley was only 600m above sea level, he said how in mid-summer a brief dumping of snow could happen. He explained that ‘do’ meant province, and ‘sae’ meant bird. When a cold northern wind from another province carried clouds over the Baekdu Daegan to here, it could cause a dramatic drop in temperature.

After dinner, night was on us. The rain ceased, so we returned to the fire again for some chatting. We were pretty drunk. The wind picked up again, firing down the valley like a jet, quickly followed by another belt of pelting rain, which scattered us into our tents like startled cats. We sat shivering from the blast as the tent vibrated violently around us. Then came this incredible noise. It sounded like a sheet of dust was slashing our tent all at once. We stared in shock at each other. “It’s the do-sae, the do-sae!” yelled Pak Seong-ho.

We looked out the tent flap and to our amazement, we saw pea-sized hailstones shelling the ground, like machine gun fire everywhere. It was early summer, June 1st!

By the morning it was all over. Some small piles of hail, now snow, clung to the bottom of our tents. The rain had washed the rest away. It was a crystal clear yet chilly morning. Time to hit the mountains!

We walked down to the village. I saw a woman standing outside her front door, hands on hips, looking zen like into the distance. The low morning sun beamed on her smiling face. Everything around us was in dew and glistened magically in the new light. Small puffs of purple cloud floated over the ridge against an infinity of blue sky. It was a tranquil scene.

And there calmly on a rock above us, sat an old man. His grey hair was cut short and spiky like a marine’s. He smiled confidently down at us. A coil of blue smoke toiled from his rolled-up cigarette. He was Choi Su-nam. Our guide to climb Seongjae-san.

Mr Choi was aged in his late 60’s and walked at a comfortable pace. It took us about three hours to get to a ridge, that would take us east to the Baekdu Daegan. A thick green forest canopy wrapped over us. As we climbed, the men conversed in awe with Mr Choi. He had lived here all his life.

Kim Cheol-wang and Kim Su-nam

A final steep burst took us to the partially open summit of Seongjae-san at 1102 meters. There we made a remarkable discovery. Strewn on its northern side were hundreds of rectangularly shaped rocks. Mr Choi informed us that a very large bongsu-dae (fire signal-tower) had once stood here. It had been from the Koryo period (over 1000 years). While the men took a rest, I explored as much of the peak area I could. On the eastern side, a large five-meter high section of the bongsu-dae remained intact. (I will delve into this fascinating subject in a later story. It wasn’t the only one we found on our journey’s.)

As I stood on the stone remnants, I took what good photos I could of the views from here. I could easily see the now summer green ski slopes of Masik-ryong. After that, I sat down to eat and drink acorn soju with the men. Following on from last night’s tiger tales, the sagely Mr Choi then told us this remarkable story.

Sometime in the late 1960s, a man was driving his car on the road that connects Pyongyang to Wonsan (there must’ve been even fewer cars back then) when he saw something he’ll never forget. A lone woman was in the middle of the road, frantically dancing, a bit like a shaman, as if in a trance. He stopped and got out to check on her. She was unresponsive to his presence, as if he didn’t exist. The man, looked around for some clues to this bizarre situation, and following her gaze, saw a giant tiger crouched on a boulder above the road. The tiger’s big round eyes glared directly back at the woman. Concerned, he grabbed the woman and tussled her into the car.

The tiger moved with speed down from the rock, onto the road, and just as he was making his getaway, attacked the car. The terrified man, drove his car as fast as he could, losing the tiger, and went for safety in the village of Ryeongjo-ri. As a young boy, Mr Choi says he remembered how the car, the trembling man, and the betwixt woman arrived, causing an alarming scene amongst the gathering villagers.

I asked Mr Choi what happened to the woman.

“I remember she hadn’t been from our village and no one knew of her.” He replied. “The driver said he wanted nothing more of it, so some authorities turned up and took her away.”

Mr Choi took a tug on his cigarette and after exhaling the smoke, added “I heard that she never recovered her sanity.”

I looked at the men. Mr Pak and Mr Kim were dumbfounded. If they ever had a shred of doubt about even their own stories from last night, now they didn’t. It was all true! The Korean tiger had magic powers! It could hypnotise its victims!

Views south from Seongjae-san1102m on the Baekdu Daegan, Beopdong-gun, Kangwon-do, North Korea.

As we climbed back down the mountain, I had plenty of time to think about this.

Before the Japanese occupation of Korea and its subsequent division, old tiger tales from the Silla, Koryo and Yi dynasties were no doubt common in mountain villages all over the peninsula. These days it would be hard to keep these tales alive. Harder again in the North under a communist doctrine, where superstitious practices and thought have become outlawed. But also in the South too where modernization has exposed the (extinct) tiger simply for what it was: a large striped cat, with no magical powers at all. Only in folk legend.

But with these villages in the North being so far from modernization and global impact, it’s possible that, the villagers still saw, or thought they saw, the occasional tiger, catching a glimpse of its dashing stripes, keeping its legend alive around family dinners inside their homes at night. And how might they react to these sightings? Well, maybe in the same way tiger encounters had been narrated in Korean folklore for hundreds of years. Although easily fooled by smaller animals, the magical beast can with its entrancing gaze, and ability to change form, trick humans to their fate.

And even if you shed your clothes and burn them on fire, or a motorist whips you to safety, you would still never recover, and eventually die from its curse. That is, unless you do what Mr Pak said, about-turn from its stare, show it your butthole, and with your pants around your knees, make good your escape.

Hwang Sung-chol, Kim Cheol-wang, Kim Yu-chol, Kim Su-nam, Roger Shepherd, Pak Seong-ho



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