Photo blog: Sep 13-14, 2017
The township of Samjiyon lies on a forested plateau just south of Paektusan. To the east, a pair of two-thousand meter-plus peaks watch over the township. They are Bukpotae and Nampotae-san. Their sharp witch hats and dark steep sides have always caught my imagination. When asked, local folk would look over their shoulder as if the peaks were always watching them, and tell us no one ever went there. They said it was a place of tigers, leopards, bears, and wolves. I have always wanted to go there.
Now, I am.
Sep 13th, 2017: A crisp clear morning. It’s 7am and in our individual packs are chocolate bars, rolls of pork polony, bread, a sleeping bag each, cigs, apricot soju, and water. I’m also carrying a camera body, two lenses, batteries, polaroid, small Nikon, and tripod. Into the unknown, we go.
We stop to pick up our two guides in the town center. The young and mischievous looking Eom Hak-cheon and an elder man named Kim Kyong-seon, who with his glasses and intelligent features has the demeanour of a teacher. Only he has been up the mountain before, some twenty years ago.
There is a lot of construction going on in Samjiyon. They are remodelling it for tourism. Our adventure begins by dropping into a construction pit on the eastern edge of town, which we cross in single file. With our laden packs, we manage to turn a few heads from the pits workers, before ascending into the forest.
An hour later we meet a sealed road. It’s in good condition, and I suspect goes somewhere important. By the way we scurried over it, I guess it is the leaders’ Paektu-san residence.
The forest is surreal with an ancient feel about it, a mixture of tall larch pine, white birch, and maple. We follow a mossy trail for the next three hours as it shimmies through the trunks.
Then we start our climb on a thin trail soon eaten by the forest, where the trees and undergrowth feast on us.
It’s two hours more before we escape. Straightening our backs and legs, we walk east up a spur, still heavy in pine but without the hungry undergrowth. On our left is a steep drop-off, and beyond the next valley we can see the dorsal fin shape of Bukpotae-san.
One hour later we break out onto open ground. Waist high golden grass sweeps the bottom of our packs. Clusters of green rhododendrons and low lying pine cover stony breaks in the grass. We turn back to look and can see Paektu-san between the leafless branches of the white birches.
We admire Paektu-san. It’s different for a Korean. When they look at this peak, you can see it shimmering in their eyes. You see their chests rise as they take a breath. A wind, as if it came direct from the peak itself, ruffles their hair. You can tell they are communicating with each other, like a thousand ancestors all talking at once.
We take a break in the long stalky grass. The polony doesn’t taste bad with bread. And better still when washed down with apricot flavored soju. The soju has a rather sweet taste, almost like chocolate.
To the north is a distinctive knob, that Kim Kyong-seon calls Dol-bong. That’s exactly what it looks like. A giant round stone. It sits between us and Bukpotae-san. But to get there we first have to descend into a deep gully.
It’s more hours of anguish before we climb back onto a spur.
The sun is getting lower as we finally see Dol-bong ahead of us. It still looks far away, but it’s not. It’s just that we are so tiny on this beast. We shuffle up its rocky face, grabbing tufts of grass, wedging boots into loose rock. A fresh wind gusts across our brows, and we can feel the icy night catching up with us as the wind licks between our fingers.
It might be an apparition, but on my left shoulder, at the base of Dol-dong, I can see amongst all the fallen rock, what looks like a stone shrine, a small semi-circle platform with a broken wall, facing Paektu-san. The kind you’d see a shaman using in the South. At its back is a smooth one-meter-high face of moss-covered rock that is part of Dol-bong. “Na,” I say to myself. The stones are playing tricks on you. I grab another tuft of grass, determine my next foothold, and look at the rock again. “No,” I say and I keep moving. A little voice in my head says, “But it’s a perfect place for one, isn’t it?”
“No,” I answer back. “There’s no water here. Who would come all this way, just for that?”
“You don’t know for sure,” the voice says back.
I kick it out of my head because I’m too tired to investigate. It’s laziness.
We’re at the top of Dol-bong. Most of it is flat. The gold winter grass up here is shorter, and there are some smaller white birch and more low lying pine. The views are 360°. This is a remarkable place. We’re at 2050m.
I set up and take photos. To my west is the Paektu plateau. Larch pine forests undulate for miles, all the way into China. Cabbage-sized clouds roll on the horizon. Dust glitters in the sun’s rays above Samji-yon. To the northwest, Paektu-san is talking to the clouds.
On my north, on the other side of another deep valley, is Bukpotae-san. It looks like a calloused knuckle. Hard. Rock walls scar its southern side, like the wrinkles of old fishermen. Battered grasses cling to its western face, like the smelly coat of an old dog. On its north side, a tiered ridge runs away from us, like a lizard’s tail.
In North Korea, people don’t really name a mountain by its peak alone. In this case, the locals have never heard of a Buk or Nampotae-san, they just knew the whole cluster as Potae-san. Now looking east, I see what they mean. A chaos of peaks pop up from ribbons of valleys. They stretch for at least thirty kilometers. This is when Korea starts to feel big, untapped, awaiting.
It’s 6pm. The men are getting cold, so they move down the southeastern face, out of the wind, to find somewhere to set up a bivouac. I stay on, catching the sunset.
It gets dark quick. Kim Yu-chol and I are moving down to find the men. We smell the smoke fire, and shortly see its orange light dancing on the white birch trees like a horror movie.
Mr Choi, Eom Hak-cheon, and Kim Kyong-seon, are chopping white birch for what will be a long night. They use home-made hand axes. The wooden handle is about twelve inches long, and a five-inch hunk of steel forms the hatchet head. The beard of the head is honed down to a shiny three-inch blade, shaped like a cock’s comb. It’s a dangerous weapon in the right hands. With their little hand axes, they cut these big trees down with fiery accuracy. Bark chips fly from the tree like popcorn from the roaster. It’s a mixture of skill, aggression, and that thing that men get when they have an axe in their hand. The power to maim or kill.
The fire is made next to a large rock. Our faces glow with the grass in the firelight. We get as close as we can without burning.
As we warm up, so to our spirits. We eat some more bread and polony. The men heat up the soju next to the fire and we bounce a bottle. We crawl into our thin sleeping bags. It’s a case of finding a good piece of flat ground to sleep on that isn’t too far from the fire to freeze, and not so close as to go up in flames. Of course, there’s no such ground.
It’s as cold as an ice fridge.
Not even a ‘boo,’ during the night. It’s like we all died waiting for the sun to save us.
Sep 14th 0500am: I’ve been up an hour already, trying to get warm next to the fire, stoking it up for the men. Several of us have taken turns during the sub-zero night to keep it alive so we don’t die.
I move back up to Dol-bong to get my sunrise shots. It’s good to be moving. I can feel warm blood throbbing in me, but my iced boots and frozen feet are taking their time as they scrunch over a skin of thick frost. At the top I watch the sun, bit by bit, claw over the dark peaks. The frost lights up like icing on a cake. Those first rays radiate life back into me.
I’m hoping for some good light on Paektu-san. Like a judge, a white wig of cloud sits over its head and the air over the plateau is chalky. It’s not great.
Without using water, the men put the fire out rather expertly, I thought. They let it burn down, knocking the coals off the big logs. Then with their hand axes they dig a small trench around the edge of the fire, using the dirt to cover the embers. Smoke still steams from under the tomb-sized mound when we leave, but the wind won’t catch the fire.
We laugh with each other, that if we burnt this mountain down, Roger-ssi might be here a while too.
It takes us another whole day to get out of Potae-san. We arrive at the same secretive road we crossed yesterday. This time, as we sit in the roadside’s tree shadows, I get up, glance left then right, and sprint across the road in big dramatized lunges, before slipping back into the forest, and doing a clumsy roll. I then get up and make numerous silly hand signals from the other side back to the men, followed by a poor sounding whistle, which is meant to be a bird call. I can see their teeth beaming in their nodding heads from the hilarity of my action. They sprint across too.
We get to the construction site, and the summoned vehicle arrives. Our aching but live bodies turn and look back where we came from. Potae-san, and the round billard of Dol-bong shine on the upper far horizon.
Only we know we’ve been there. A tried looking Hwang turns and says to me, “You are the first and hopefully only foreigner that I ever have to take to that mean mountain ever again.”
“Not the first time you’ve said that to me,” I say smiling back.