“What’s inside the bottles?”
“Um, it’s alcohol,” I replied.
“Please open the case, I need to check.”
Clearly they had decided to pay attention to the glassware inside my case. The customs officer rummaged through finding the bottles still in their boxes. He didn’t say anything else, just looked at me and nodded with satisfaction. I breathed a sigh of relief, and that’s when I realized he wasn’t concerned about the undeclared excess quantity, but curious that the liquid in my case wasn’t hazardous.
I liked that about the Korean Sun-an and Incheon airports. I had managed to bring undeclared excessive amounts of alcohol out and in respectively over the years without incident. I like to share it with my South Korean friends when I get back. Perhaps now that I have been stupid enough to write about this, then I may not be so lucky another time?
“Thank you, Hanguk alcohol is delicious (한국 술 만히 맜서요).”
He looked back at me with some absence.
“Ah, I meant Joseon-guk alcohol is delicious (조선국 술 만히 맜어요),” I grabbed the case and quickly walked off.
In the first instance, I had referred the tasty alcohol in the southern dialect. I had to quickly correct myself to the northern tongue, so not to offend.
Everyone is seated in the aircraft. I am near the back. Before take off, one of the stewardesses makes friends with me. Perhaps it was just an opportunity for her to practice her English, but when she asked why I had been to Pyongyang, I replied that I had exhibited photos of mountains of the Baekdu Daegan there.
“Ah, yes I heard about that,” she says.
Thinking she’ll say no, I ask her, “Have you been to Paektusan before?”
“Yes, of course,” her pretty face smiles.
Okay I bet she hasn’t been to Chilbosan, I think?
“How about Chilbo-san then?”
“Yes, I have been there too. I have been to all the sacred mountains of my country except Kuwol-san.”
I was a little astonished! A Koryo Air stewardess knew something about sacred mountains. I had understood through previous travels and conversations with Hwang Sung Chol that the North Koreans recognized six sacred mountains for varying reasons, and now I had an opportunity to test whether this theory was widespread or not.
“So, you’ve been to Kumgang-san, and Myohyang-san too?” I check with her.
“Yes,” she smiles again.
“And how many sacred mountains are there then?” I query.
“We have six,” she reports.
“So, other than Kuwol-san, there is one more you have not been too, correct?”
“Ah, that is Jiri-san in the south.”
I pull out my iPhone, “would you like to see some photos of Jiri-san?”
She smiles and nods, and kneels down for a lower look.
The pilot is calling for his staff to be seated, and before returning to her crew seat, she says, “Is Pyongyang a beautiful city?”
“Of course,” I kindly agree.
And in a way it is, because when you walk down the tree lined wide streets you can admire the Stalinist architecture. There are no hordes of bright distasteful signage hanging from the edges, or shabbily run cables strangling the air.
From the back seat I can see Bradley and his driver watching the news on the monitor in the car. We’re driving towards Kaesong Industrial Complex. The day before that (Aug 20) whilst I was sitting in Beijing airport and unknowing to me, the North had decided to stick a missile straight up the loudspeakers jacksy, and the South understandably reacted by sending a bigger barrage of arsenal north.
Here we go again, more border drama, I thought.
But, once we arrive in Kaesong, things seem normal.
Looking concerned the general manger asks, “Will the frames turn up today?”
“Yes, if that’s what Hwang arranged, then that’s what will happen,” I reply.
And sure enough only moments after saying that, the Red Cross truck swings through the front gates, and then with the North Korean staff we unpack the frames from the truck.
After the border conflict had been resolved, the Ministry of Unification offered to do an exhibition with the same picture frames in Seoul. I was very pleased to hear that.
The venue was to be the MBC Dream Center Building in Ilsan Gyeonggi-do.
Various officials, some supporters and friends, including my ambassador Clare Fearnley attended the opening.
Saturday October 31st: The exhibition has been running for the past three days and I am now hastily writing this from my hotel room in Seoul. I wish to try and get some last minute thanks out to all my friends and supporters whom I have had the pleasure to meet at the exhibition, before this draft goes to my patient translator (나무 동무), who as usual will have little time to get it ready for posting by Monday the 2nd of November.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting you all at the exhibition, and know that some of you have gone to great lengths to get there.”
“You have all come from varying backgrounds, students, mothers, fathers, religious people, business people, actors, musicians, activists, climbers, writers, and more, and when I watch you looking at the hard granite edges of the mountains I only see a softness from you, that is the great thing about mountains.
“It had never been my plan to use mountains as some kind of platform for inter-Korean relations (there beauty was enough) and the fact that there are so many peaks and valleys here, and that it might take many lifetime’s to explore them, such as famous Koreans like Kim Jeong Ho, Kim Sat Gat, Wonhyo Daesa, Doseon Guksa, and many more have done in the past, it is your motivation for my work that inspires me to do more. I only hope I can somehow return that favor.”
At the exhibition, I was telling one visiting group of high school students who plan to trek the Baekdu Daegan next year that all the mountains of Korea are all interconnected to each other.
“They all lead back to the grandfather peak of Paektusan, and are kept together at the bottom by the grandmother peak of Hallasan. If you are to view the wooden tablets of Kim Jeong Ho you can see first-hand that intricate biomorphic pattern he saw that helped him make the great map of Daedong-yojido (대동여지도), and that if you see this as some kind of human like form, then you can understand that in the past the Korean people had a strong relationship with their mountains. The Baekdu Daegan formed the backbone of their spirit. All the subsidiary ridges and lesser ridges formed the skeletal foundation of their body. The Pungsu-jiri energies (풍수지리) that ran through those ridges formed their nervous system, and that all the water those ridges generated, is their blood. This mesmerizing fractal design was protected by their indigenous mountain spirit (산신), and that in a simple way if the people didn’t protect this unique system, then they too would fall ill. It is an ancient form of ecology,” I iterate.
For those high school students, I think that was the first time they had heard their geography explained like that.
“Make it fun,” I said, “If you want to travel, write, photograph and explore, then academically romanticize the mountains, as those others of the past once did.”
“What are you going to do next?” They said.
“After this exhibition I am going to grab my pack, and go wander.”
“Where will you go?” They laugh.
“I will go out my front door in Gurye and walk across Jollanam-do to Jin-do.”
“Will you join us on our Baekdu Daegan trek next year?”
“Of course,” I kindly agreed.
Endnote: “For the supporters of this small series of stories, I thank you again. For the critics, I thank you too for making me think about what I write. I hope you will all continue to give me the opportunity to learn more by photographing and writing about your country through mountains, from both North and South.”
“And like a Great Ridge that needs to be trekked, I hope that my work in North and South can help create a cultural bridge for the Korean people to trek and explore too.