Posted in travel

Breakfast with Werner Herzog on a Volcano in North Korea

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.

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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.

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Posted in Photography, travel

Northern North Korea

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.

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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.

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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.

Posted in Photography, travel

Watching Football in North Korea

This is part two in a short series of blog posts about a visit I made to North Korea last summer. Part one is here.

Before getting into this post proper, I’ll address something in the news. A few days ago, when I posted my first story about North Korea, I addressed the spate of ridiculous news articles and photoblogs that we’re seeing online from people who have done tours like mine. They go into North Korea, take some photos, and then misrepresent them to the outside world, furthering the ignorance that surrounds the country.

Today, the news broke that Otto Warmbier, an American student who was arrested in North Korea, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. This is an awful punishment, and I feel for the guy and his family. He’s only 21 years old, and while it’s easy to say, “What an idiot!” I can’t help but feel that a 21 year old version of me would’ve been much smarter. 

People often say you shouldn’t travel to North Korea. Indeed, this sort of thing is a risk. Yet, as sad as it is to see something like this happen, the guy committed a stupid crime in North Korea and was punished in a fairly predictable way. If you choose to go there, please act respectfully, accept that you’re in North Korea, and you will be fine. Don’t be an idiot, and don’t give them reason to arrest you. It’s not that hard. 

I assume that North Korea took the action they did in order to secure some sort of trade with the West, who otherwise keep them cut off in the hopes of starving the country into a regime change. However it works out, I hope Mr Warmbier is returned home unscathed and hopefully a little less foolish.

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Now, back to summer 2015.

On July 21st, I’d returned to Pyongyang after running a half-marathon at Mount Paekdu and was surprised to have a new addition to the itinerary. North Korea and South Korea were playing each other in a football (soccer) game at the world’s largest seated stadium – right in the middle of Pyongyang!

I love football so this was an exciting opportunity for me, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing live games. To watch a game in North Korea was beyond my expectations… especially when it was between North and South Korea – probably one of the most intense rivalries on earth, albeit not usually in a sporting sense.

On the bus from the airport to the stadium our guide informed us of some rather surprising news – the two countries were now at war. That’s right, North and South Korea had begun shelling each other and the news was reporting it as an actual outbreak of war! Later, back at the hotel we’d get to see news reports on the TVs in our rooms.

I lived in South Korea for three years so I was quite accustomed to skirmishes between the two countries. I simply looked the guide in the eyes, and then looked out the window at the streets and determined that this incident was no worse than any other. The US and South Korea weren’t about to bomb Pyongyang any time soon. This was business as usual.

When we got to the Rungrado (릉라도) stadium I found that the game was actually between a North Korean side, Daedonggang (대동강), and a South Korean side, Gyeonggido (경기도). Still, I didn’t know the two countries would ever allow their teams to compete like this.

The stadium itself was incredible to behold. Its 150,000 capacity, however, was not exactly tested, as perhaps less than a quarter of the stadium was filled. It was impeccably clean (like all of Pyongyang) and the people watching the game were very well-dressed. The stewardesses, as you will have seen above, were dressed beautifully in hanbok.

As shells fell over the DMZ and the world media speculated that the Korean War was back on (even in South Korea people were now worried), I sat in a stadium in North Korea, watching representatives from either country shake hands and play a good-natured game of football. There was no booing, no heckling, no hacking, no cheating… It was just good honest sport.

In the end, the North Korean side won 3-0, for which we were all thankful. Everyone was happy and peaceful leaving the stadium. I didn’t sense any ill-will but I didn’t want to find out what it looked like when a South Korean side won a game in Pyongyang.

After the game we went out for samgyeopsal and soju. North Korean soju is vile compared to its South Korean counterpart, and would give me one hell of a headache the next morning, as we prepared to head back to China.

Posted in essay, Photography, travel

Photos From Inside North Korea Pt.1

This is the first in a series of posts in which I show photos and tell stories about North Korea. The material comes from a trip I took last summer with Koryo Tours. I haven’t posted anything about the trip publicly until now because I didn’t feel right profiting from it. In North Korea, I saw and met a lot of wonderful people who are suffering because of the actions of both their government and others – particularly the United States. However, I keep seeing salacious stories on Facebook and elsewhere taken by people on similar tours which sell themselves as “illegal” and were “smuggled out” of the country. Some of them are good photos but generally I find them to be misrepresentations and exaggerations for the purpose of journalism. The way they are presented, whilst not outright lies, is intended to make the author/photographer appear more daring, and the country to appear darker and more terrifying. What I saw was the human face of the people – a side of the country we genuinely never see. It may not be as appealing as photos of soldiers or the lies behind “Floor 5 at the Yanggakdo Hotel,” but sometimes the truth lacks that cutting edge. I will be posting these photos over the coming days and weeks, and I hope that they act as a counterweight to the more sensationalist ones you’ll find in more mainstream publications. 

North Korea is famously a hermit state – an absolute pariah of the modern world. It barely trades with or communicates with the outside world, and its citizens can only leave under the strictest conditions, or by escaping illegally across one of its borders.

As such, we know very little about North Korea except what can be learned through satellite monitoring. Their propaganda is laughable, and any semblance of truth is hidden behind an impressive veil of secrecy.

Yet reporting on North Korea is big business. News agencies around the world regularly tell us what is happening in Pyongyang and elsewhere. They tell us who’s vying for power and who’s been recently executed. The only problem is, this is mere conjecture posing as fact. It is in some cases our best guess, and in many cases complete fabrication. Right-wing and left-wing publications are equally guilty. It seems that when it comes to North Korea, press standards go out the window – and that almost seems reasonable, given that North Korea itself has an entire lack of press freedom, and a comical propaganda machine.

Some information, though, does slip out. What’s more, one can actually get into the country and see for oneself what North Korea is like. Of course, journalists are banned… but the average person can, for a fee, visit North Korea and see what is hidden to most of the rest of the world.

Whether or not that’s ethical is up for debate. I danced with this issue for years before deciding for definite to go. On the one hand we’re funding the country’s repressive government, but on the other hand we’re giving money to an impoverished people. On the one hand we’re tools in their propaganda, but on the other hand we’re showing that foreigners are human beings just the same as them. Moreover, we’re seeing a side of North Korea that normally remains hidden to the world, dehumanizing its people and allowing our governments to use North Koreans as pawns in their war with the Kim Dynasty.

Last summer I went to North Korea for the half marathon on Mount Paekdu with Koryo Tours. I flew from Beijing to Pyongyang and toured the city for a few days. We flew up to Mount Paekdu and saw some of the sights there, ran the half marathon, and then returned to Pyongyang before taking a train back up through the country and into China.

Cynics say that in North Korea you’ll never see the *real* country. Those cynics haven’t actually been to North Korea, of course… so they don’t know. The truth is that of course you’re going to see what the government wants you to see, and you’re never going to get a tour of a North Korean prison labour camp. That idea is absurd. The guides on any tour to North Korea will show you what the government wants you to see – impressive statues and artwork, museums and restaurants, etc. But you do get to see more than that. You’re driving around the country, seeing life as it is. You see regular people doing regular things – old men playing chess, children picking their noses and playing games with each other, men and women going to work. It’s easy to forget… North Koreans are humans, too. Their government may be evil and life may be tough, but they are just like we are.

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Most people there are very shy around foreigners, and it’s easy to see why. They are told awful things about us that make them fearful. Yet some of them are curious. I speak a bit of Korean, having lived in South Korea for several years. Sometimes the guides would disappear and leave us in the middle of Pyongyang, surrounded by thousands of people going about their lives, and I would talk to people. They wouldn’t say much, of course, but it was fascinating. It’s an experience I never thought I would have, and that may cynics deny is even possible.

A lot of people, too, suggest that everything you see is staged. That may well be true in certain, limited cases, but for the most part you are viewing real life as it goes on regardless of the proximity of foreigners. For example, my room way up high in the Yanggakdo Hotel overlooked Pyongyang, and through my camera’s long lens I could see parts of the city that clearly were never intended for foreigners to view. Life goes on there as it does elsewhere. On the subway, even, you see people going about their daily life, and they’re shocked and fascinated by foreigners much the same as people in rural China. In the north of the country, where we did the half marathon, we saw people working in fields and walking along country roads. They looked thin, over-worked, and deeply impoverished. None of this was hidden. Sometimes we’d see something the guides deemed “embarrassing” to the country, and we’d be told not to take photos – like soldiers being moved around in carts pulled by donkeys.

At the end of the trip, upon leaving the country, guards come onto the train and check every passenger’s luggage by hand, and investigate cameras for illicit photos – ie pictures of soldiers, construction sites, etc. When the guard came to my cabin he was, like almost all North Koreans I encountered, military or otherwise, very friendly. He asked what I had in my bag and I said, “Just clothes.” He accepted that. When going through our phones and cameras he laughed and looked at pictures from back home instead, asking about our wives and families and pets. He didn’t care about the pictures we had that broke the rules. (The featured photo at the top of this page is an example of a “banned photo.” It features the statues of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung without including the entirety of their bodies. This is the sort of photo other photographers sell as “illegal” and suggest is dangerous to take.)

North Korea is different from what you think. I’m not defending their government or its actions in any way. But this is a country of human beings – of bright and friendly and warm human beings – and we group them together as “North Korea.” We talk about going to war with them and being able to destroy them easily. In that scenario, who suffers? I’ll tell you: the same people who’ve been suffering for the past sixty-plus years.