Hiking In The Hermit Kingdom

Trip Start Jul 29, 2006
Trip End Sep 03, 2006

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Flag of Korea Dem Peoples Rep  , Gangwon,
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Arriving at the Kumgangsan Tourist Area, it seemed we had returned to South Korea. The plush, towering hotel and numerous restaurant areas had a familiar feel, all the way down to the friendly neighbourhood Family Mart, that mainstay of South Korean convenience stores. Even the traffic signs were South Korean in origin.

Developed by South Korea's Hyundai Corporation and opened in 1998, more than one million tourists have visited from the south. On a peninsula so long divided, North and South Korean tour guides and hotel employees work side by side and share the gossip of their day-to-day lives. The only distinguishing feature between the two is the pin, worn by North Koreans, of the late Kim Il Sung, the "Eternal Leader" of North Korea.

We may well have been in North Korea, but this was nothing like visiting the capital, Pyongyang, where foreign visitors can experience the full paranoid experience, constantly accompanied as they are by "guides" and minders. No, this was North Korea Lite, a tiny enclave of relative freedom and enterprise within an expanse of soaring mountains and fascinating strangeness.

Here we were free to wander, albeit within the confines of the Tourist Area. We were even free to walk down to the nearby village inhabited by the North Korean workers and local peasants, though we were warned that the soldiers might not appreciate our curiosity.

Looking at the faces of North Korean guides, hotel workers and soldiers, it's difficult to discern what they make of the southerners in their high-tech hiking gear, or foreigners with shorts and sandals and penchants for drinking to excess. "They think of making money," says a South Korean tour guide. "And they want to show this beautiful place to foreigners."

Money is a mighty incentive for such an isolated and impoverished country. While there is limited foreign investment in North Korea, Hyundai's Kumgangsan tourist region is one of Pyongyang's highest currency generators. Despite North Korea's devout anti-American sentiment, the US dollar rules in Kumgangsan.

Whisked from the hotel compound and onto a shuttle bus for the first of three hikes, we passed through dense, untouched woodlands, on a switchback road banked by a steep gully that dropped down into a gorge carved by millennia of water and erosion. Several peaks make up the Kumgangsan mountain range, and the highest, Birobang (1,638 metres) is over three times the height of the CN Tower. Leaving the bus midway up Kwanpokjung, the hike to the Kuryong Falls was a moderate climb over a path of rocks set into mortar and bordered by unspoiled forest and bubbling streams.

Along the gorge, like a highway up the mountainside, larger boulders were carved in hangul, the Korean script, bearing messages about the Dear Leader, Kim Il Sung. "Here is where the greatest general Kim Il Sung gave his commandments to carry out the historical assignment to reunify the Korean peninsula on August 19, 1973," reads on monument. Another, a cliff-face inscribed after his death, is an exhortation: "North Korea, be proud that we had the greatest general in the history of Korea, Kim Il Sung, and served him."

Propaganda aside, the surrounding rock, forest and bright blue sky invoked a feeling of both tranquility and awe. In places the path passed gushing waterfalls and great pools of water jade green, turquoise blue and clear as glass under an achingly beautiful sunny sky.

At the waterfall, some 1000 metres above sea level, a stream poured over the mountainside and down into a pool, like a chalice, worn deep and smooth and inviting, before questing once more over the edge and down into another pool and further on down the mountain. But it was that middle pool, that cup of heartbreaking natural beauty that held one's wonder. How the body ached to plunge into its depth, to hear the roars above and to surface against the spray of the falls.

But the path had lead us to the opposite side of the gorge, a safe and respectful distance away, and our guide assured us that to venture into the water, here or at any point on Kumgangsan, would result in a heft fine of at least $100US. And though the penalty seemed small change beside the urge to do so none of us dared, even if, for some of us at least, the water and blue sky brought back that moment, on those long-ago days, when we could take a plunge off the end of the dock of some southern Ontario cottage.

But as any tour goes, the end came not from an urge to leave but by the prodding of our tour guide, and we made our way down the mountain, stopping to fill our water bottles where we were permitted, from streams sweet and cool and nourishing. Near the bottom we stopped, as many did ahead of us, at a small compound selling food, souvenirs and a dark, hoppy beer that brought many to a luscious standstill.

That pint was but a taste of the night to come, when we foreigners were to show what were we infamous for, and for some of us at least, to experience what can happen when naive west meets repressive east.
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