Mt. Kumgang North Korea – Part 6
Mt. Kumgang North Korea.
26 June 2017.
* (For the previous part, click here: A Visit to the North Korea DMZ – Part 5)
Kim, my North Korea guide, could not wait to see me this morning to ask me what happened with Jo, the Chinese girl, last night. Nothing happened, but I enjoyed his effort to be nosy so much that I remained silent and decided not to tell him anything…
After breakfast at the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, we loaded onto a bus and headed for Mt. Kumgang North Korea, which is in the south-east corner of DPRK, right next to the South Korea border.
I was told that Kumgang North Korea is the most beautiful mountain of the entire Korean peninsula.
According to my itinerary, ‘It is a world-wide celebrated mountain.’ I have never known anyone to celebrate it and I have a lot of international friends, but I was initially excited to see it!
…Had I known that the trip was going to be an eight-hour drive across the country to get to Kumgang, North Korea, on even rougher roads than the ones to the DMZ yesterday, I would have taken a pass and asked for an altered itinerary. If you are in the mood for a bus ride where you wear your seat-belt, not for safety, but because you are tired of being bounced off and out of your seat, then this is the trip for you.
It felt like I was a patient in a psych ward who had to be tied down.
At the same time, a North Korean girl was on the microphone nearly yelling in Chinese about South and North Korea relations for three hours of the journey. A psych ward may have been a more serene option because those three hours of her on the microphone while I was being tossed around in my seat nearly pushed me over the edge. I was not a happy traveler. I could not help my mood. It really fell apart. An hour into the trip, I realized I had seven more to go and wished the drive would end already. It will be eight hours back again tomorrow. I still had 15 more hours of a road trying to shake the fillings out of my teeth…
Sometimes it is not easy to smile.
A 16 hour round-trip road-trip on a bus from Pyongyang to Mt. Kumgang North Korea is one of those times…
We stopped at the Monument of the Three Charters for National Reunification to take photos along the way. I was standing in the middle of the road on the empty highway to get the perfect snap-shop. My guide Kim gave me heck for being on the road and told me what I was doing was dangerous. There was not even the sound of a car coming on the horizon… I really made me think about how interesting it would be to bring Kim to somewhere like Bangkok or Rio je Janeiro where six lanes of traffic squeeze into four lanes, and somehow you have to figure out how to cross that street by foot…
There is no internet in North Korea, but Kim had a smartphone. The phone was brand called ‘Pyongyang’ which he told me is the biggest phone company in DPRK. On his phone, Kim could browse something called Intronet. The server is DPRK regulated and allows the North Koreans to see what the government wants them to see. Kim was reading out the news headlines he translated for me:
‘3.4 Million Nigerians Have Aids.’
‘Ukraine is a Mess.’
‘Millions of People in Peru Have No Water.’
‘ Trump Overrules Agreement with Cuba.’
‘Antarctica is Melting.’
It sounds safer to just stay in DPRK and be taken care of with all of the madness out there in the world… When I asked him about it, he told me that he thinks the media in North Korea is good.
With Intronet, Kim is able to look at maps, but only maps of North Korea. As well, he could use his phone to listen to different types of local music (including North Korean rock!), and he could use something similar to Facetime to see and speak with his friends. There is no such thing as an E-mail address and there is no access to other media outlets other than the ones the government provides. There are five television channels in North Korea, and Kim is also able to watch any programs from any of these channels on his phone.
Of the males that I would regularly see in DPRK as we traveled through the countryside, it seemed to be that they were either soldiers or they were farmers. Some of the soldier faces were very young. The oldest faces were those of farmers who were bent over when they walked to the point that their backs were nearly horizontal and they required walking sticks. Planting and harvesting by hand for a lifetime appears to be very hard on a body. Kim told me that office workers have work schedules of six days on and one day off, where farmers have a schedule of 10 days on and one day off.
At a store at a rest area driving to Kumgang North Korea, I purchased a bottle of Bem Sul, which translates to ‘Snake Liquor.’ The Bem Sul bottle cost me $7.80. It is 60% alcohol, and there is a snake inside of the bottle in the alcohol. I am not sure if I will be able to get it back to my country, but it is worth a $7.80 try. At times on the drive from Pyongyang to Kumgang, I wondered if I should just drink it to combat my ill feelings to the rough road and the yelling in Chinese.
Eventually, eight (non)-short hours later, we arrived at our destination in the Kuryongyon District and headed to Lagoon Samil. The Lagoon is known as one of the ‘Eight Scenic Wonders of East Korea.’ I love how places here have dramatic lists for pocket areas. Lagoon Samil is famous for its beauty and a legend that comes with it; an emperor once visited the lagoon with intentions of have a rest there for a day. Enthralled by the beauty of the lagoon, he ended up staying for three days.
Lagoon Samil translates to ‘Lagoon Three’ which is in reference to ‘Three Day Stay.’
Our hotel and dinner was in Kumgang, North Korea, a town that was built-up by Hyundai and the South Koreans in 2002 when the relationship between North and South Korea was better. For five years, South Koreans were allowed to visit North Korea to see Mt. Kumgang and have the opportunity to see separated family members. In 2007, relations between the two nations soured again, South Korea was kicked out, and the town Kumgang essentially became abandoned.
As a result, Kumgang is a beautiful and freshly dilapidated ghost town only frequented by Chinese tourists and occasional North Koreans on holiday (who stay in the elaborate hotels for approximately $20/night). There is a giant concert hall that is empty, a discarded bank, closed down restaurants, a deserted duty-free store, and only two of the five hotels in the village are still working. The Oekumgang Hotel we were staying in had no more than 20 guests in the 10 storey building.
As we were checked in, I asked for a pre-arranged wake-up call and was told that the phones were not working. Apparently the South Koreans set up the phone system in the hotel, and when they were expelled from the country, they removed whatever access was needed to run the hotel telephones.
For dinner, we went as a group to a restaurant together. The Chinese finished their meal early and went back to the hotel with their guide, but Kim was still eating so I stayed with him. He told me that I was not allowed to walk the 200 meters back to the hotel alone as a foreigner because of the danger of an outbreak of war. It is partly a control excuse, but imagine living your entire life thinking that a war might break out at any given moment…
Back at the hotel I went to the gift shop and had a great time teaching the cute local Kumgang woman how to high-five. She had never done that before and it was really sweet to watch her try to get it down.
I kept on returning to the shop to smile at her and high-five her as it would make her giggle so much. The innocence in locals is quite a treat to come across. They may be the most innocent civilians I have ever met in my life.
I brought a bag of Chinese candy with me, but it has been hard to give sweets away as the North Koreans are too polite to allow themselves to take gifts. So, I would let them watch me leave pieces of candy on desks and tables for them to collect later.
In the evening I took Kim with me for a beer in our hotel, but gave him my Chinese money (it is illegal for me to have local North Korean currency) to pay for our drinks. I suggested that with him paying, he could probably get a better price than I would. This tactic initially confused him. He must have known the ‘foreigner’ beer price because he nearly peed in his pants with delight when the bartender told him such a low price that he had to pay for our beer, and then the price was lowered again for him because he is a tour guide. He loved it and said to me beaming, “I think you are a much more clever man than me!”
Kim will remember that move for the rest of his life.
At the bar, Kim and I were talking about different Korean women in the vicinity. We were discussing which girls he thought were pretty and which ones I thought were pretty. We had very different opinions. I asked him if he is a very pursuable man in North Korea. He told me that a man that a woman desires in North Korea is a man who has: a) done military service, b) supports the Worker’s Party of Korea, and c) has studied in university.
He reiterated, “Girls like it more if a man has done military service. It is an honour to do it, and I have not done mine yet. They think that if you have not done military service, you’re not a man. You’re a boy.”