From Pyongyang, it had taken two days to drive to the Paektusan region. We had stayed one night in Hamheung, then driven up the coast to the small seaside town of Sinpo where we then cut west inland through the county of Deoksong-gun. Leaving the east coast, we burrowed up towards the Baekdu Daegan that formed the edge of a great escarpment. Swooning on bends and curves we arrived at the pass of Huchi-ryong on the Baekdu Daegan. This is where we entered the area known to the Korean people as Kaema-gowon, the roof of Korea. This impressive region is about 1500m above sea level. It passes through rolling hills of potato farmlands, rustic hamlets, and massive forests of Larch pine.
It was mid June, and the weather was unpredictable up here. Bundles of black cloud hovered overhead, which sporadically dumped torrents of rain on us. This was followed with beams of hot sunlight that glared in the clean air on the wet landscape. We swayed through the escarpment watching the people till the land, shepherds pasture goats and sheep, kids playing dare with the car, women carrying loads on their push bikes, and men sleeping in their homeward bound ox carts. I was beginning a six-week expedition of the northern reaches of North Korea, to photograph mountains of the Baekdu Daegan. Most of them never touched or visited by a foreigner. By the end of this trip I would’ve spent a quarter of my last year traveling mountains of the Baekdu Daegan in North Korea.
We stayed at the Paegae-bong hotel named after the nearby peak located in the quaint town of Samjiyon, which serviced this region know as the Paektu-gowon at the foot of Korea’s biggest and most holiest mountain, Paektu-san. It is located in the middle of extensive Larch pine forests that may house wolves, leopards, tigers, bears, hermits, who knows, so dark and deep they are. Up to a certain altitude this whole area is thick with primal forest that hid Korea’s independence fighters during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early part of the last century. I was here to see Paektu mountain, the mountain of sacred revolution for the people of the North, but the weather had put any visit on hold. Although conditions were sunny in the town area of Samjiyon, Paektu mountain could not be seen as it was cloaked in heavy cloud. I was told it would be a waste of time to go there until it cleared. This was to test my patience, but instead left me disgruntled.
The men I was travelling with (the same ones I had travelled with in 2011 – could now almost be deemed as friends of mine), sensed my disappointment with having to wait around. At dinner on the fourth day of waiting we were drinking a bit more than usual. Our preferred beverage was an acorn soju that we had been carrying in the back of our vehicle in the shape of two 40ℓ plastic bladders all the way from Pyongyang.
Our driver Mr. Han’s pre dinner toast of “길열기, 입막기” (star with a beer, then soju) was well under way. We started talking. On my previous visit to North Korea he had promised me that we would see the sun rise together over Paektusan. Now that we were in the area, after four days of waiting he was more than eager to fulfill his pledge. Mr. Han liked to talk a lot. He had a way of making everyone around him laugh. We also trusted him as a driver, and respected his travel knowledge of his country. With everyone at the table, and spurred on by the magical acorn whisky, Mr. Han started telling us that we should leave the hotel at 1am tomorrow morning and drive to the summit. Everyone went silent for a moment. This gave the howling wind and pounding rain outside a chance to make itself heard. Our local guide Mr. Bang Ryong strongly objected to this crazy and dangerous idea. To stop despair settling into the troops, I stood up, raised my glass and shouted “Hamheung Cha-sa”! It was an expression I had picked up in the town of Hamheung on our way here. It means to attempt a futile and somewhat suicidal task. This roused the men. We all laughed, reached over the table, clinked our glasses together and chanted ‘Hamheung Cha-sa’ again. For that moment, the sound of the terrible storm, drowned in our bravado.
After four hours sleep, we rose at 1am, feeling fuzzy from the drink, but excited by the madness of it all. As we loaded the vehicle, I looked up at the night sky and couldn’t see the stars that riddle space in the North. However, there was no wind or rain, only the cold drizzle of the dank forest air. Maybe the weather will break, I thought? In the headlights the sturdy forest road was dark brown from the wet. The vehicle ran smoothly over it. On the roads edge the forest reached out jade green and then beyond the car’s beam disappeared into inky blackness. We drove through the damp infinite night, the only vehicle here in this massive void of darkness, our headlights scouring the night like a tiny rodent. I expected a great hairy man to cross the road in our lights, so beautifully desolate was this place. The boys smoked cigarettes, the strong Paektu-san blend. Music played on the tape cassette, the same we had been playing all along. As the vehicle climbed, the weather worsened and we heard the sharp pins of wind hacking at the car. I had no idea where we were; it was impossible to make anything out. I was in one of the darkest spots on the planet, we drove on. The forest fell behind us, we were now on the volcanic plateau. A couple of hours later we saw the dim lights of a lone house. Hearing our vehicle rolling across the dark, a soldier had come out to meet us. I wondered what on earth he thought a vehicle might be doing all the way out here in the middle of the night? We wound down our window to address him, and we felt the power of the wind. It shrieked horribly. The soldier was not suspicious of us for being here, after all there is nothing up here, he only thought we were crazy to be going to Paektusan in this storm, but rather than stand outside and argue with us, he let us through, so he could return to his waxen abode.
The road up Paektusan coils backwards and forwards like a snake. The cloud, mist, and fog made it hard to see where each bend in the road was, so progress was slow. The wind howled noisily, adding tension to the situation. The higher we went the worse the weather got, it was a mountain. Sometimes the cloud was so thick the beam of the vehicles headlights bounced back on us, causing white out. On the side of the road we could make out patches of storm-strewn ice, dark rock, snow grasses and rhododendron flowers trembling in the wind. I stopped to think how tough flowers are. The diesel vehicle groaned up the mountain, switching back and forth, making sure not to miss the bend and send us tumbling down the mountain to die a certain death. Eventually, Mr. Bang Ryong told us to stop. We had arrived at the summit area. I was relieved that he had the canny ability to recognize this, for after the top there is only a crater’s edge to drive over. Mr. Han turned off the engine. The rain rattled against the side of the vehicle and the wind screeched like a thousand shamans. It shook the vehicle. It was a surreal place and seemed haunted. It was still very black out there and I couldn’t see where to go even if I got out of the vehicle. We got out to piss on the leeward side of the vehicle, none of us having the balls to venture far from there. It would have been stupid to do so, because other than Mr. Han and Bang Ryong, none of us had been here before, and in this darkness, wind, and rain, we didn’t even know where to go without risking a fall off the mountain and death. Not even Mr. Han and Bang Ryong were willing, so we crawled back into the protection of our metal case, turned on the engine, heat, smoked cigarettes, drank some soju, snacked on dry bread, and laughed at how pathetic we were. It was great. We huddled up to each other, some of the guys started to nod off. We waited for that old sun to come up. It was still a couple of hours away. Around 5.00am the stormy clouds started to reveal themselves as the distant sun rose. I decided to get out and try to take a walk, but the visibility was still minimal, and with the wind blowing so hard it didn’t make it any easier. Rain flew sideways across the summit. By 8am the only thing to have changed was the level of light. We had been on this summit for almost six hours, the boys were tired and ruffled, and our brilliant idea was now a dud. It was time to leave. Mr. Han and I may not have seen the sun rise over Paektu-san together, but we had certainly been there for it.
Once we dropped out of the cloud cover and reentered the escarpment, we spent the rest of the day exploring the banks of the Amnok river and the Samjiyon area. We anticipated when the weather might give us another crack at Paektu mountain.