2/11/16

Mount Kumgang Tourist Region: North Korea

After a bit of a bus ride from Seoul, North Korea was a mere 4 kilometers away (2.5 miles). This was the second time I'd been this close. Today however was different. For the first time, I was going to cross over that stretch for no mans land and into the most isolated country in the world.

Visiting North Korea was the reason I moved to South Korea. While it is not the same today (2016). Back in 2008 there were two tours anyone could easily take from Seoul into the North. A trip like this was the reason I lived overseas; the chance to see something others never would.

A quick customs check by the South and then the North. I was now going to be in North Korea for a full 24 hours. After dropping off my bags in the hotel room we all met outside for the first hike of the trip.
Mt. Kumgang holds deep meaning for Korean's on both sides of the DMZ. The entire area is beautiful and North Korea has done an amazing job of preserving that beauty.

Through the thick fog I made my pilgrimage with around 100 South Koreans to the summit. All the while our North Korea guides kept a careful eye over us. Telling us where we could take pictures and what things we could and could not touch or get near.
At the summit there is a monument with a Korean poem inscribed on it. One interesting thing about North Korea is that poems are usually either placed on monuments or carved into the rock in places of natural beauty.

After climbing back down we were taken back into the tourist hotel area of Mt. Kumgang. Like all tours of North Korea, you are cut off from the local population. Whether its just across the street or the river, the locals are never out of sight, merely out of reach.

Having traveled alone, I went to dinner at one of the many restaurants by myself. While looking over the menu I notice the shop was selling mushroom wine. Knowing it would make a good intro to making dinner friends, I ordered an entire bottle.

Before long I was sharing the bottle with new friends; to this day I am still great friends with one. The rest of the evening my new found friends and I consumed every type of beer, soju, wine and bottled poison North Korea had to offer.
I awoke the following morning to a clear sky and a stiff hangover. After a large breakfast and lots of water it was time for the hike up to Kuryong Waterfall. 

It was a unique time to be in the area. The next day the North and South were going to have a friendship meeting. So all along the path there were North Koreans setting up bleachers for the ceremony. It was here for the first and last time in my life I saw true animosity in another mans eyes.

He must have only been in his late 30's, but his face bore the wrinkles of a 60-year old man. Like most people in the North he was wearing a drab communist shirt and pants with a North Korean pin in his shirt. As I walked past him we met eyes. It was the first time I looked into the eyes of another person who truly wanted me dead. It was like the dead eyes of a shark I was to look into years later deep in the ocean alone in Kosrae programmed with a lifetime of propaganda. It was beautiful, haunting, and the reason I travel. 

My hungover body had finally drug itself to Kuryong Waterfall. Say what you will about the North, but its lack of infrastructure leaves the water cleaner than anywhere else I have seen in the world. 
My time in the North was coming to a close. With the bus leaving in three hours, so I walked around the area.
It was forbidden to take pictures there, but on one of the bridges you could look into the area where the workers lived. The silent gray concrete buildings and I stared back at one another. It was a feeling that neither words nor pictures can convey.

Like all trips, this one came to a close. While things are different now. Then as I left three flags blew in the wind; all of a unified Korea. 
North Korea

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