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Completely Clueless in North Korea

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She’s holding a microphone, big eyes staring straight into mine. “Would you like to sing with me?” She asks, not accepting no for an answer. I follow her across the mountain top café to a screen and awkwardly try to retrieve my hand from hers to grasp the microphone. The music starts crackling from the speakers and as the words fly across the screen, I know I am utterly fucked. 

Sam Smoothy Will Lascelles North Korea adventure

SAM SMOOTHY:

I like skiing for many irrelevant reasons, but in some corner of me I like skiing because it connects me with that internal fight or flight survival mechanism, and generally people wont judge me for it. Maybe this is an extension of that, a way to cheat disaster one more time, but in an entirely new format, exchanging the risk of avalanche for a potential firing squad.  

Home safe in NZ months before, Will, the producer from CoLab Creative, and I had scoured the globe looking for the weirdest place to ski. After contacting Koryo Tours, one of the few companies bringing tourists into the country, we had a rough plan of attack. Days away from flying East and starting to regret this bold plan I call Will, who had set up the logistics.

Sam Smoothy sightseeing Not Korea

WILL LASCELLES:

“Are we going to come home from this trip?” Sam nervously asks. “It seems I have grown somewhat fond of my life.”  

I sit quietly at my desk contemplating Sam’s anxiety, which stems from news of an American student being sentenced to 15 years hard labor in a North Korean camp for crimes against the state. And the country’s leader, Kim Jong-Un, has been shooting off rockets left, right, and just off centre in a show of power. Eeek. 

I assure Sam with the utmost confidence. Internally, I’m not so poised but that’s what Sam needed to hear. We arrive in China on the first night of Chinese New Year. At Koryo Tours, we are given “The Talk”. A two hour long list of what not to do, served with a side of full body chill, with the cheery footnote that if we played by the rules, we would be in the safest country on earth. 

Customs. We get the feeling they know who we are, why we are there. Searching bags thoroughly, they open our computers and ask us to show them our movies folder. They find a bunch of POV GoPro shots, everything else we’d deleted earlier. Except Sam, who cleverly only moved his incriminating items to the trash. They allow us to enter. 

We are greeted by a smiling Reewa, one of two guides assigned to chaperone us. Outside, waits our second ‘minder,’ Chay. We pile into a van—the girls most amused by the massive size of our ski bags—and drive toward the city. Both gals are super friendly and eager to begin telling us about the accomplishments of the Republic. We arrive to find the most American past time, a bowling alley in the bottom floor of our hotel; unexpected. Billiards, karaoke; plenty there to distract the mind from the outside world.

SAM:

Constant lingering trepidation is offset by the peculiar situation and Will’s twisted humour; it’s strangely, darkly hilarious. Here we are, two idiots who’s much relied upon charm is rendered useless by stony faced incomprehension—but damn they’re nice hosts. Put up in the biggest mainly empty hotel of my life, comfortably sipping beers in a rotating penthouse restaurant staring out at the Pyongyang night lights we had thought non existent—we sat stumped. I had tried to come with an open mind, but DPRK makes this quasi impossible. How can you not feel, not have an opinion about a place that is so frequently in the news for the wrong reasons?

Clasping a wreath, I approach the benevolent un-dead, the imposing golden statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. Timidly surrendering the wreath to their feet, I snatch my hands back, make a curt bow and awkwardly slink away. Surrounded by on guard military while my jetlag, general state of confusion, and Reewa’s incredibly fast English bring about my first and not so insignificant mistake. “Why is he called Little Kim Jon Il? It seems a little unfair. I mean he is little, but then most of you are kinda little, comparatively.”  

“Its LEADER Kim Jong Il, not LITTLE!! You can’t call him little he hates that!” Fucksticks. Day One in the Democratic Peoples Republic of North Korea and I’m seriously questioning my ability to not get myself shot. What. Are. We. Doing. Here? 

We are taken to a Pyongyang supermarket and are surprised by the masses of Korean Kims buying beer and crisps. We’d heard about empty stores but this was packed. How could this many shoppers be staged? Surely this was impossible. Perhaps Kim’s only job was to buy beer and chips when instructed. Our reasoning fell apart and left us clueless. How could you even attempt to understand a place that totally eludes your grip. How do we know what is real and what is paranoia? 

 

After a few days of Pyongyang sightseeing we’re eager to head to the ski resort Masikryong, open for the first time to outsiders. The skiing is almost a side note to why we are here, but it is also the only time we are alone. Expected home by lunch we are finally set free, something that didn’t seem like a big deal until we realise that we can finally talk freely and go wherever we please. Even here in DPRK the mountains are free. Somewhat.  

My efforts to join the local synchronised ski team do not go so well, probably due to my inability to hold precise carve lines while balanced on my inside ski. Decked out in something akin to janitor’s uniforms, they tear down the piste in groups of four or five, in tight formation, leaving one set of perfect train tracks down the hill. They look on in mild muted curiosity as I look for little hits and rolls to play with, it feels like the butter 360s and little side hit airs impress them little. But we share the slope and everyone seems to be having a damn good time. 

Foggy conditions North Korea trip Sam Smoothy

Heading up the modern gondola to the top of the mountain feels like crossing an international border. Up here we are the only skiers, roaming the piste and snaking through the trees cloaked in clawing fog. Densely quiet and still, it feels like lift accessed backcountry skiing, but groomed. We savour the unique atmosphere. A rounded mountain, with large pistes cascading down the ridges that are perfect for high speed runs, with fat roll overs to send, the terrain is somewhat similar to East Coast America, just with kimchi instead of hotdogs. 

Sam Smoothy North Korea

Sitting at the bottom station we meet the head ski instructor and learn that he and a few other lucky ones have been skiing for 30 years, starting up in the North of the country on Mt Paektu, the spiritual birthplace of socialist DPRK. It was here that the father of DPRK, President Kim Il-Sung, was said to have been born and developed Juche Ideology; North Korea’s founding philosophy of self-reliance and strength. We hoped to ski Mt Paektu but, upon arrival, are firmly told this would not be impossible due to snow blocking the roads.  

We try ingratiating ourselves further with the ski resort hierarchy, so we meet and greet with the management and ski instructors. We give them a few pointers on improving the resort, tell them how much we enjoy seeing Koreans having fun skiing—things are off to a relatively jovial start. Trying to explain what we do I show them a video segment from Legs of Steel, of me skiing Alaska. With the laptop fired up, the helicopter on the screen, the music building; freeride ski porn at its best. But something is off, the room is icy cold and most of the instructors abruptly get up and storm out in the first minute. I glance around, nerves building, trying to understand, but there is no sign of help. Muted yet rapid fire Korean is the only sound, terse mutters from the ski area manager and the head instructor. It is time for us to go. 

We sit in our room as the rocket goes subsonic; solemnly following TV newsreader’s condemnation. Alarmingly, DPRK tested another rocket just days before we arrived. Holed up in Masikyong is not the most reassuring place to witness an inflammatory news report. We fire up the camera to film us watching the TV report but as soon as the camera powers up, all power is cut, leaving us wide eyed in the dark. Surely not; surely that’s just a coincident, right? Paranoia aside, I am certain our room is bugged. Every time we leave the room, after the maids have tidied up, we lace a shirt over a laptop or camera just so, and take a photo from a particular tile on the floor. Upon our return it is never quite in the same position. What were they looking for? 

Excitement builds as snow manically whips around outside and we hope a decent amount will pile up—so it’s off to bed early. We head high on the mountain with joyous hopes to plunder some of the sweetly pitched and spaced tree runs on the upper mountain. But like almost everything on this trip, our expectations are upended. We find a completely rain saturated snow pack that feels like skiing through three day old vegetable soup.  

But ski it we do and it’s still loads of silly fun. Regardless of where you go in the world, the conditions are still up to Mother Nature, and if you cant have fun skiing shit snow in such an exotic location, then maybe you’ve been a tiny bit spoilt. So we value every goopy turn and love the normalcy of being alone on a mountain, darting through the trees, slashing out slushy sprays—we could be skiing anywhere in the world. A feeling that quickly disappears once we retreat back to our Korean reality.  

Sam Smoothy treerun North Korea

WILL:
After the weirdest snowstorm we have ever experienced, we head back to Pyongyang. The ladies want to show us Kim Il-Sung’s modest childhood house. We enter what looks like a deserted amusement park, complete with frozen water fountains and a sky train. We are told this is a hot spot for the Korean people in the summer months. It’s hard to imagine. As we drive around, a large animal in a cage catches my eye. I glimpse what looks like a bear with a platypus face! “What was that?” I demand. “What was in that cage?” 

I explain what I saw. The ladies seemed to not comprehend despite their excellent English and the driver picks up speed. I look to Sam. We both agree this is one of those topics that you drop. On the way out, there isn’t anything in the cage. Did I hallucinate? Has paranoia fully taken over? 

 

Sam is due in Japan on the eve of late Kim Jung-Il’s birthday. There would be celebrations on the streets so I decide to stick around. We take Sam to the airport early in the morning. After a big hug, he tells me to stay safe. I wave him goodbye. It dawns on me that I am alone. I no longer have my confidante with me. My stomach begins to turn. 

The mission for the day is to visit Kim Jung-Il on his deathbed. I am told to dress accordingly—don a freshly pressed shirt, slacks, and a horrible tie. When we park the van near the Kamsusan Memorial Palace, I reach for the door to jump out but Reewa grabs me, instructing me to remain inside the van. Soon after, a cavalry of diplomatic vehicles rumbles up sporting flags from Russia, Pakistan, Syria and Nigeria. I feel very out of place.  

pictures of leader Sam Smoothy North Korea

Once the diplomats exit their vehicles, I am invited to join the procession. I am reminded that my hands must remain at my sides at all times, not held together in front or behind me, but rigidly to the side. After being frisked for any kind of recording device, I enter the building. There’s no way in hell I am going to risk that. No way.  

Pictures and awards adorn the walls from top to bottom; diplomas from dodgy universities, doctorates from others. Eventually, we end up in the room hosting the man himself. It is dark; the walls blackened by thick curtains of dark velvet drapes. In the centre is Kim Jung-Il himself. Lying rigid in a glass box with his body covered by a red silk sheet. His face, glossy with an overdose of embalming fluid, lays motionless atop a rounded pillow. It is hard to imagine him as the internationally abhorred leader he once was. 

I move with the crowd as they take turns bowing once to his feet, then to his side, around his head and once more his other side. I hear young girls, some of which weren’t even alive before the leaders passing, sobbing uncontrollably. It’s surreal. I can’t wait to get out of here. 

And finally, mentally exhausted, I am out, feeling a dizzying onset of brainwashing flooding over me. 

In the evening we arrive downtown where thousands of men and women are standing idly in front of portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Un. The women wear brightly colored dresses straight out of 1950’s America; music starts and makes me laugh on the inside, while concentrating on remaining neutral on the outside. It sounds like a refined version of the chicken dance. The people swirl in circles, like a giant colorful organism expanding and contracting.  

Shortly into the proceedings, I’m asked to join. The people seem friendly enough and it’s almost fun; except I am super weirded out. I change partner after partner. No words are exchanged, only simple looks that leave me wondering: “Where the hell am I?”

Watch the full movie of their experience called 'The (North) Korean Chronicle'

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backcountry, culture, FWD