North Korea

My body hates me. First, I torture myself with a week of vegetables and fruit. And then this last weekend I tortured it with fresh air, sunshine, and exercise.
Last Friday I met Stefanie after work and we made our way to the Express Bus Terminal.  The bus for North Korea did not leave until midnight, which is sort of balls. I understand that the idea is that we would sleep on the way, but I never do that.  Apparently, neither does Stefanie. I was worried that we would try to out-grump each other over the weekend, but we were mostly ridiculous instead.
In the wee hours of the morning, we stopped at a rest stop about 10 minutes away from customs. We had to make sure that we were all on the right bus (either A or B). This was a fiasco that I won’t go into. They also had to take away people’s cell phones, MP3 players, and the like. We finally moved on to the South Korean customs. Once through, we had to all get on a different set of buses. Then we drove through the DMZ to the North Korean customs. Back off the bus.  Through customs. Back on the bus. Each time, with a long-ass (and boring) waiting period. Then through to the mountain.  That’s right. After travelling on a bus all night, without sleep, without breakfast, and crankier than imaginable, we had to go straight from the bus on the first hike. FUN! No. 
Our first hike was a three-hour shitter up the Kuryongyon Course.  This is what my brochure has to say about it:
Kuryongyon Course is the most beautiful one at Oekumgang (Outer Mt. Kumgang).  A safe path is provided for tourists, and the view is the best at Mt. Kumgang. It is so fantastic that tourists often exclaim at it as they walk around. Round trip 7 ~ 8 km.
It really was beautiful, even though I was pretty tired. The air was so unbelievably fresh and clean!  So was the water… we could even drink straight from one of the streams. It really was lovely and reminded me a lot of home.  It was quite an invigorating hike. And although my brochure doesn’t give this information, Stef said that she checked out the marker at the upper most point of the hike and it said we were at 3900 metres.
After the hike, we were taken to our hotel, the Hotel Oekumgang, which was very nice.  We were then given a choice. We could throw our bags into our rooms and haul ass back to the bus to hike the Samilpo – Haekumgang Course (around the sea and a lake) without putting our feet up or eating lunch; of resting and then going to an acrobat show (much like the one Stef and I already saw in China); or of resting and pissing around doing whatever we felt like. Stef and I opted for number three. We hunted around for something to eat… the restaurants there were mostly closed and the ones that were opened didn’t have the food we wanted. We found something that was mostly edible. Then back to the hotel for our spa gear. We spent the next hour or so resting in the spa baths and saunas, and then got a foot massage. While we were there, a torrential rain storm started. We went back to the hotel and vowed not to leave again. After a quick shower, we went for dinner at the "Sky Lounge" in the hotel (more frustration trying to find something on the menu that they had in stock) and then drank some beers and played cards.
Incidently, I’m the currently ranking "Spit Card Game Champion of the DPRK". Sweet!
We went to bed at 10:00 and were out cold by 10:30. Good thing, because we had to be up at 6:30 to eat the worst breakfast in history, check out, and get our tired and sore asses back up a mountain.
FOR THE LOVE. I am not meant to do this much activity in a 48 hour time period.
The bus ride up was fun. There were 77 switch-backs in the road. It was like being on a carnival ride.  And then we hiked the Manmulsang Course.  Here’s the brochure’s description:
The Manmulsang Area has hundreds of different rocky peaks, each of which has its own legend. There are also waterfalls and ponds between the strangely shaped rocks and stones, which give a magnificant view of the mountain. Round trip 5 ~6 km.
This was a hard hike! Not only were we wiped out from the day before, but it was very steep and really long. The trails there were really weird – they were rocky and semi-paved. It was like walking up a steep cobble-stone street after an earthquake. My ankles hate me. The top of the mountain was extremely windy.  Strangely, while we were at the top we distinctly heard three loud noises from the distance that initially sounded like thunder. But there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Of course, this lead to tasteless comments like, "The irony… we go to North Korea to hike on the day they decide to bomb Seoul" and "There goes Japan".  Terrible, I know. But funny at the time.
After we survived that hike, we headed back into the main area.  Stef and I had a coffee, poked around the gift shops, and then settled in outside the Family Mart for some convenience store lunch and a beer. I got pretty sunburned. It was grand.
Then back on the bus to do everything in reverse.  Fortunately, we weren’t too late getting home… and I was dead asleep within 10 minutes of walking in the door. That was glorious.
I can’t tell you much about the real North Korea. It was pretty surreal having to go through back-to-back immigration and through the DMZ (which has armed sentries).  But the area we were in is like a resort, so you don’t really get a feel for what the people there must be going through. The only "Oh gosh… right. A big war." moment I had was when we were driving from the North Korean immigration/customs building to the resort area. The landscape is very unique in that area. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it was so strange until the tour guide said, "Some of you might be wondering why there are no trees in this area. It is because it was so heavily bombed during the war." There weren’t any trees for miles. Or homes. Or… anything.  Just grass and small bushes and a whole lot of rocks. It was a good reminder that the war was so recent that not even the forests have regrown yet.
I had a really great time on the trip. I am happy that Stefanie was with me – it was great to have someone along to be grumpy and silly (often simultaneously) with.  Also, she’s a better person than I am and she remember shite I should be grown-up enough to remember (although I’m not)… like bus snacks and toothpaste and sunscreen. But hey! I’m the one who remembered the deck of cards.
Finally, the trip is hard to put into words… I will post the pictures on Flickr ASAP. They will tell the stories better than I could with words.

One response to “North Korea

  1. great account of our weekend! this weekend- i vote no exercise! 😉

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