Last year I visited North Korea to run a half marathon on Mount Paekdu, in the remote north of the country. Most people correctly think of North Korea itself as a “remote” destination, so just imagine how far into the middle of nowhere you are in the north of the country, miles from Pyongyang.
To get to Mount Paekdu required a flight from Pyongyang’s wonderful new airport to the less impressive Samjiyon airport, which was an airstrip with a shed beside it. The tiny, ancient airplane made a very bumpy landing, barely skipping over the tree tops of the endless forest around us.
Then came a long, bumpy drive through the mountains to Paekdusan. The roads in North Korea, it probably won’t surprise you, are far from smooth. They are in awful disrepair, and driving along we could feel every pothole.
At Mount Paedku we were unfortunately not able to see the spectacular views due to being in the clouds. It was freezing, too. I hadn’t anticipated the cold and wore only shorts and t-shirt, as in Pyongyang it was very hot and humid. The altitude was causing problems, and people – myself included – struggled to breathe.
After a heavy lunch (not well-prepared considering we were about to run 21km), we drove down to 2,000 meters and began the half marathon. I was caught off guard and didn’t realize the race was about to start, and sprinted the first 500 meters to get near the front. After 1km I was in 6th place, and stayed there for the next 20km. I finished well behind the 5th place runner and well ahead of the 7th.
What amazed me about this race – my first ever half marathon – was that I was totally alone in North Korea. There were no guides, no observers, no police. Just the runners, and even they were too far ahead or behind me. I was free to enjoy the clean air, the beautiful countryside, and the amazingly friendly locals waving from fields. I passed a troop of soldiers who all said “hello” and groups of farmers who cheers and shouted friendly greetings. I even danced with some old ladies. I was glad to be doing the marathon, but I would have loved to stop and spend longer with these people. It is so incredibly rare to spend time with normal North Korean people.
After the race we were taken to Kim Jong-il’s supposed birthplace, Paekdusan Secret Camp, which was beautiful, but no one was in the mood for tourist stuff. We were all nursing blisters and aching muscles. Here, we met kids on school trips, and other random people from around North Korea who’d made the pilgrimage – a real privilege in their eyes – to such an important historic location.
Then we went to the Pegaebang Hotel. We’d been warned in advance to bring flashlights and expect little in the way of water or electricity, and indeed, when we arrived, there was neither. The electricity would come on periodically throughout the evening, but mostly we were in darkness.
Dinner was less than impressive, but who can complain about quality of food in a country where people routinely starve to death? The locals I’d seen from the road and from the bus were painfully thin. We drank North Korean beer (excellent) and soju (not so excellent). The night ended very drunkenly with one of our tour guides. When drunk, they spoke candidly – one moreso than the other – and I won’t repeat facts that I learned here in case they could be traced back and the guides punished.
In the morning, breakfast was as unappetizing as the previous night’s dinner. In fact, it was a potato. As I sat looking over my sad, lonely potato, prodding it and wondering if it was even possible to eat such a depressing-looking thing, I noticed another man at the opposite side of the room. His face was familiar, but that didn’t strike me as unusual. In North Korea, there are few tourists and few tour companies, and we are all taken to several of the most important locations, so you start recognizing people, even if you never speak to them.
Still, though, he looked more than familiar… He, too, was sitting alone, staring at a boiled potato, rolling it around his plate. He seemed melancholy.
I left my potato on the plate and checked out, had a walk around the hotel, and then our tour bus took us to Rimyongsu Waterfalls. They were spectacularly beautiful. Not spectacular like the Victoria Falls, but in subtle, gentle, way. Again, we met more North Korean people travelling around their country on special permission from the government. They were so happy and playful, and seemed amazed that there were foreigners here. When my friend and I took a photo together, a large group ran over to get in the photo with us. Just as in rural China, everyone wanted a photo with the foreigners. One man, sadly, broke my toe as he jumped enthusiastically into the shot.
Passing the through the countryside, we saw the real beauty of this country, but also the deprivation. People looked very emaciated. The homes and businesses were simple, yet looked comfortable. All the trees had calculus written on them so that children could study as they walked to school (or, perhaps, went to work in the fields).
We saw a few more tourist spots and met lots more North Korean tour groups, then flew back to Pyongyang to watch a football game. On the way to the “airport” at Samjiyon, our English tour group leader, who was usually off with other groups, said, “This is been a great day. I got to meet one of my heroes.” We asked who, and he said, “Didn’t you see him in the restaurant this morning? It was Werner Herzog.”
Werner Herzog! Of course! I was furious with myself. I’ve always loved his movies and actually spent two years trying to get an interview with him for Beatdom. I couldn’t believe I’d sat and watched the man muse over his breakfast potato, knowing his face was familiar, and not realized.
The guide showed me an hilarious selfie he’d taken with Herzog. “He was so nice! He told me he’s here shooting a film about the volcano nearby.”
I’d had a great trip to Mount Paekdu and the surrounding regions, but I was heartbroken to realize that I hadn’t gotten a chance to speak with one of my heroes. If I’d been anywhere else in the world I would’ve canceled the flight back and stayed another few days to hopefully run into the man and speak with him about his movies (apparently he’d been incredibly friendly and spoke at length about his movies). Alas, this was North Korea, and you did what you were told.