This is part three of a short series of blog posts about North Korea. Part one is here and Part two is here. In part one I complained about people selling their photos of North Korea as “illegal”… In the photos you’ll see below, there are lots of soldiers. Many of these photos would be considered illegal. But there isn’t nothing sensational about it… Beware what you read and how it is presented. You’ll also see pictures of normal people doing normal things. How often do you see that in mainstream news? Never, because it’s not as interesting as a single picture of a man in uniform. Yet I find North Korea’s true face – its human face – far more interesting.
Although I’d always been curious about North Korea, it was the opportunity to run a half-marathon there that finally drew me in. At the beginning of 2015 I’d made running my New Year’s resolution, and after a few months I was within sight of being able to run a half-marathon. I can’t even remember how I found out about it, but when I thought about running a half-marathon in North Korea it all just made sense.
On day two of the trip we got to run around Pyongyang a little bit for a warm up, and on day three we took a short flight up to Mount Paekdu, at the border with China. Mount Paekdu is a sacred place for Koreans. It is supposedly the birthplace of the Korean nation, and their mythical founder, King Tangun. To North Koreans it is particularly important, as Kim Il-sung based himself here during the fight against the Japanese, and it is also said – perhaps falsely – that Kim Jong-il was born here.
The flight was quite fun, although the plane came in too early on the runway and was bouncing over the tops of trees. When we came to a stop on the tiny runway there was no airport – it was just a forest with a runway in the middle. It was also freezing, which I hadn’t expected.
We were driven up the mountain, along winding little roads, but the top was completely shrouded in fog. Apparently the views over Lake Chon – the highest crater lake in the world, at the top of Mount Paekdu – are stunning, but we could barely see the lake. At the top it was unbearably cold and the air was hard to breathe, too. We kept losing people from the tour in the mist, and it felt genuinely dangerous.
Yet it was more or less from here that we started our half-marathon. We were running downhill, which helped. After fifteen minutes the runners were all spaced out along the road and we were all just running alone through North Korea – no guides, no police, no way of stopping us seeing the country freely. There weren’t many people around but every now and then we’d see farmers and old women come out from fields and forests to say hello, or pass a marching troop of soldiers. People stopped and waved or spoke to us, or offered us water, and one group of old women sang and danced as we run past. It felt good to interact with people without any supervision.
I finished the marathon in 1 hour 44 minutes, coming in 5th place.
After this we took a bus to Paekdusan Secret Camp, where the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army was based during their fight against the Japanese. The scenery here was absolutely stunning, and the history quite interesting, and there were students on school trips and old people visiting, but we were all too sore and tired to appreciate it.
We spent the night at Pegaebang Hotel, where there was infrequent electricity and cold water. The food, too, was awful. However, there was… Werner Herzog! The world renowned director was filming a movie at Mount Paekdu and was staying at the hotel, also musing over the single baked potato on offer at mealtime. How… Herzogian.
The next morning we visited the stunningly beautiful Rimyongsu Waterfalls, where we had some wonderful encounters with old people who’d come to visit. My friend and I tried to take a photo together in front of the falls, and some old North Korean tourists seized the opportunity to dart over and join us, and then their friends came… and then more and more… It was like being in China with all the people wanting photos taken with the foreigners. Except for some reason you don’t expect that in North Korea. In fact, you don’t really imagine people in North Korea ever having fun, but that was one of the eye-opening parts of the trip.
Later we saw more giant statues of Kim Il-sung in more beautiful country, and more groups of children and adults and elderly people visiting to learn about the country’s history. Many of them had walked or bused over days or weeks to get here, and this was considered a reward for some sort of good behavior. A few of the students spoke English and seemed shy but still somewhat keen to interact.
Finally, we flew back to Pyongyang for the football game. The process of getting on the plane was bizarre – everyone had to dump their bags on a tractor, and then stand on the tarmac as a man with an AK-47 stood in front of us. “Who gets the first class seats?” someone asked. “Whoever runs fastest!” someone else confirmed. And then the rains broke… the skies exploded and we were drenched and everyone ran, leaving the man with the AK-47 helpless. Indeed, those who ran first got business- and first class. I guess that’s how communism works.