“If I were to die the day after seeing Goryeo (Korea) Geumgangsan, I would have no regrets,”
Su Dong-Po, Song Dynasty (960 - 1277).
Su Dong-Po, Song Dynasty (960 - 1277).
On March 9th of last year, we started our long over-night journey to the last Stalinist regime still standing. The Democratic people's Republic of Korea, more commonly known as North Korea, is a measly 40 Km north of our home in Seoul. The trip itself took 5 hours as we had to snake east across the peninsula and cross customs of both Korea's.
Upon arriving at our hotel, we dropped our baggage in the lobby, sprinted back across the parking lot (battling the ferocious winds) and settled into our bus seats for a roller coaster ride up the side of the mountain which boasted 77 switch backs over a 10 Km one-lane road.
After our stomachs calmed down, we were able to enjoy the first hike. It was truly spectacular. Hiking in and around the 12,000 pinnacles offered us an amazing view of the marvelous rock formations, valleys, and waterfalls below. This breathtakingly scenic spot was one of a kind and is considered the most beautiful mountain range on the Korean peninsula and some say in the world.
Very shortly after we finished our mountain expedition, we bused back down to the tourist zone and were able to take a leisurely stroll around a teal mountain lake. Here we viewed the many inscriptions on the rock faces. The massive boulders bracketing the lake were inscribed with traces of short verses from the communist celebrities of olden days. Communist propaganda slogans in red paint were also a common sight. The carvings were pro-socialist quotations. Most of them deriving from Kim Jung Il or Kim Il Sung and all of them thought of as scripture in North Korea. One of the longer inscriptions we came across was a song which stated sentiments of war and annexation towards South Korea.
Yet, seeing these rock inscriptions and dying pagodas made me wonder once again how much the government causes us to see and just how much this all-controlling government allows us to see. As one author wrote, "Knowing that virtually every encounter is choreographed in advance creates a strange mind-warp"(CNN, J. Dougherty). We were defiantly feeling the full effects of this ‘mind-warp’.
We ate dinner at our hotel. The restaurant was called the Sky Lounge and rightly so as it was positioned at the top of the hotel and overlooked the valley to the south, the mountain pass to the north and the small North Korean village that was quietly sitting across the high tourist fence and the clear mountain river. As the sun faded into the west we sat overlooking the tourist belt (a small well lit rest area which included a few restaurants and a sports dome where the Pyongyang acrobatics show takes place) and the contrastingly drab North Korean village. On our side, there was indulgence and laughter and lights to shine into the darkness of the communist night. On the other side a village sat quite, still, almost eerily in silence, not a single light flickered in the small time beaten, perfectly symmetrically, dwellings. We were told that as the result of power shortages all electricity, to North Korean homes, is shut off after the hour of six. The real question is when is it turned back on again? Needless to say, it was hard for us to sit in our posh four star hotel and choke down our steak and baked spaghetti.
*The tourist fence mentioned above was to keep us in as much as to keep them out. One female tourist recently (July 08) crossed this fence on an early morning walk and was shot dead.
On the way back from the mountain we stopped in at a reincarnation of an ancient Buddhist temple. There was one monk who lived on site and he oversaw volunteer work completed by trainees who sometimes come up from South Korea. He too was a South Korean and lucky for us he spoke English as well. He was able to fill us in on what this rare temple was and how it was able to survive in a country that worships its leaders as gods.
He also answered one of my burning questions... and, yes, it takes about four months of solid work to paint the distinctly Korean designs on the underside of a temple roof. Wow, talk about perseverance!
As our trip was coming to a close and as we headed to the heavily fortified border once again, we looked around trying to capture the scenery. We wanted to etch it in our minds as pictures of these rare scenes were not permitted. Oxen carts and plows, people laboring in the fields and soldiers standing at attention at regular intervals along the road, red flags in hand, were memories we would take with us. We peered closely at the hills straining to detect any of the slight movements in amongst the rocks. But it was really those ‘slight movements’ who were watching us so closely. The tanks and missile launchers on the hills bid us a hearty goodbye and as we crossed the boarder. As we pulled away from the North Korean customs and entered the DMZ we felt five rounds of three shots each booming in our chests and echoing off of the badlands surrounding our myriad of buses.
We were happy to be heading home. We had so much to think about and so much to digest. North Korea, the polished part of it that we were able to see, is a hurting nation. We were left with this question, what can we as outsiders do to help?
Point of Interest - The mountainscape changes so distinctly as each season rolls in and out that the Geumgangsan region has long been called by different names in different seasons. At sunrise in the spring, the spiky granite peaks sparkle in the morning dew like crystal diamonds, so in spring they call the Geumgangsan Mountains, the Diamond Mountains. In summer when the forest is thick and green, they are called Bongnaesan, the Verdant Mountains. When leaves blaze with a crimson tint, they are called Pungaksan, the Autumnal Foliage Mountains. In winter when the rocks are bare, they are Gaegolsan, the Skeleton Mountains.