“YOU HAVE ALL THE USA'S NUKES POINTED AT YOU AND YOU’RE WORRIED ABOUT A COUPLE OF SERPENTS?” quips Tom Bodkin. It wasn’t the expected answer when asking about pit vipers, but Tom has eyes on the bigger picture.
We’re mountain biking in North Korea – possibly the biggest bulls-eye on the planet – so snakes should be the least of my worries. And they are. The snakes keep to themselves, as they usually do. Instead, I’m woken by Harald Philipp. His teeth are chattering.
“I need to get the stove lit,” he stutters. Last night we’d unrolled our mattresses in the lee of a cliff to escape the wind. Beneath this apology for a shelter, we played human Tetris, trying to squeeze seven people onto a tiny ribbon of dry ground, and Harald didn’t fit. He woke in a rain-drenched sleeping bag and now he needs hot tea. We all do. It took 10 hours of Herculean effort to reach our bivouac and a cold night in the rain wasn’t our plan.
Yesterday was spent tailing a local guide, Kim In-guk, up an impossibly steep mountainside. Kim’s pace defied both his 70 years of age and his baggy shellsuit, as we heaved our bikes over boulders and thrust them through knotted undergrowth. Wielding a sturdy stick, Kim bounded ahead with his Yoda- like cowboy gait to wait for us at clearings. With a roll-up smouldering between his fingers, he’d give us a thumbs-up in recognition of our sweaty, stubborn ambitions. Then push on.
Mountain biking in North Korea was never going to be anything other than ambitious. Isolated by an ideological regime, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) sits way off the tourism radar. But as the last bastion of communism, I wanted to see inside this intriguing country.
Even with Tom Bodkin’s guiding company, Secret Compass, organising logistics, our plan faced a lot of uncertainties in a country that’s defined by unknowns. North Korea is like climbing Everest – few people know much about it, but everyone has an opinion. Many doubted we’d get there; some doubted we’d return.
“You can take photos of anything, except the military,” said Pak Song Gun, pre-empting the question that was on my lips. Pak and his colleague, Om Jin Song, were our official, immaculately dressed tour guides and this welcome speech came as our minibus sped us away from Pyongyang airport and into an unfamiliar world. We skimmed along vast, tranquil avenues awash with electric bikes and trams – the dreamscape that Milton Keynes’ planners likely had in mind.
Then we bumped through the countryside along roads as wide as airport runways, past vibrant green paddy fields. It took three hours to reach our first riding destination, the UNESCO reserve of Mount Myohyang, but we saw only a dozen other vehicles and one advertising billboard – for a modern family car, produced by the state-run Peace vehicle factory.
Myohyang’s maple forests were dark and cool – a shady respite from the fierce sunshine that drenched us in sweat as we built our bikes outside our hotel earlier that morning. With the smell of decaying leaves and earthy soil in the air, we pedalled and pushed alongside a series of tumbling waterfalls, realising that we’d become as much of a spectacle as our surroundings.
As our two pro riders, Max Schumann and Harald, rode down a bedrock outcrop, a crowd of North Korean day-hikers in street shoes and collared shirts smiled and gasped. Most reached for smartphones – video clips destined never to see YouTube or Instagram.
North Korea has no access to the internet or international phone signals. Nor do we, during our stay. On arrival we surrendered that privilege and our safety into the hands of our tour guides – a leap of faith that was underlined when it became clear that Pak and Om were more familiar with the museums and statues of Pyongyang than wilderness.
When, at our rain-soaked bivouac near the top of Mount Myohyang, Om confessed he’d never camped before, he shivered the words from beneath a thin polythene raincoat. He’ll never camp again, I thought.
This bivouac on the summit ridge of Mount Myohyang proves an exercise in optimism. Instead of the deep, dry loam that tail-ended our first ride two days earlier, ongoing rain renders our 1,600 vertical metres of descent so slick we can hardly stand up on it. Climbing down vertical rock faces and through tangled undergrowth, I curse Kim’s guiding skills. But then I remember that he has no context for understanding our ride aspirations. He hasn’t seen mountain bikers before.
Neither have the group of Sunday partiers we find sheltering under a concrete bridge when we finally emerge from Myohyang’s glistening roots. Enveloped in a damp funk of barbecue smoke and sodden clothes, they swig beer and take turns on a booming karaoke machine. As they beckon us over, we take the rare opportunity to snatch a hard-earned beer and a glimpse of North Korean downtime.
When we pedal away, we leave a waving, cheering crowd. Language and cultural barriers are easily broken down when extraordinary experiences become shared. The challenges of our bivouac cemented bonds with our guides, at least enough for Pak to grab his own bike when we get back to Pyongyang. He checks it in alongside our EVOC bike bags on the domestic flight to Samjiyong, cheerily announcing that he’ll ride with us on the sacred Mount Paektu the next day.
Pak’s bike –a 26in-wheeled Giant with suspension fork, luggage rack and street tyres – doesn’t leave the bus at Paektu. Nor do we. We’d hoped that our ride on this dramatic volcano would underpin our photo story, as well as give us an understanding of the resilience of the North Korean people.
To Koreans, Paektu is a spiritual place and the birthplace of the 1948 revolution that founded the DPRK. This iconic mountain – at 2,744m, the highest point on the Korean peninsula – and the fierce winter blizzards that ravage its slopes embody the brave, revolutionary spirit of the DPRK. From its depiction on a lot of DPRK propaganda, Paektu looks to be a spectacular place, but we arrive to a mountain shrouded in fog.
For six hours we huddle inside our bus at the foot of this active volcano, peering through windows streaked with rain, while outside a succession of smoke-belching tipper trucks arrive. I stare at the trucks and a sea of wet faces stare back – dozens of people are crammed into each.
“They’re local workers on their day off, coming to see Paektu,” explains Pak. We watch as the trucks disgorge their polythene-caped contents and, led by a person thrusting a red flag into the gale, they march defiantly into the maelstrom.
Perhaps we lack the fortitude of the North Korean people, but Paektu dampens our spirits. It’s taken serious effort to reach this remote corner of a hard-to-reach country and we have only two nights here. Flights to Samjiyong are infrequent – ours was a once-a-year charter flight on a 49-year-old, ex-Soviet, four-propeller plane.
We return to our hotel to sink North Korean beer and puzzle what life is like in this frontier town. In winter, temperatures drop to -40°C, we’re told. Beyond our hotel windows, Samjiyong’s roads are muddy with the chaos of a building a new model town, perhaps to cater for growing tourism to Paektu or maybe to increase the North Korean presence in this strategic location – after all, the Chinese border is just a few kilometres away.
Bizarrely, and in contrast to the new houses, our hotel oozes old-school charm. Its corridors are dotted with 1960s retro armchairs that would spark a bidding frenzy on eBay, and its lobby is musky with the smell of fish and pork fat.
We share a ‘banquet hall’ with perhaps 70 other Western tourists, most of whom arrived on the same anxious Air Koryo flight. A group of Chinese came south by train. All have come to see Paektu – most won’t, but we do.
MACHINE GUNS AND MOUNTAIN BIKES
In another major deviation from our pre-approved itinerary, at 4.30am we drive the two hours of washboard road back to Paektu under a star-filled sky. As the birch forest around us becomes tinged gold by the sunrise, we pull up at the army checkpoint at the base of Paektu.
A tumble of fur-trimmed parkas and machine guns squeeze between us and our bikes as three soldiers grab a free uplift to their summit post. One plays a video game on his phone for the 10-minute ride. All three look like they’re about 17 years old.
Our bus grinds past workers toiling to maintain the cobblestone road up the sacred mountain, before wheezing to a stop at the edge of the volcano’s crater. Amid a ramshackle array of workers’ huts, tents and an idle funicular railway station, we set off along the rim. A line of smiling workers in matching red hard hats eagerly absorb the spectacle – no one has mountain biked Paektu before.
Snatching short lengths of singletrack to the summit, I try to absorb the immensity of the landscape around me. Spotless white granite monuments and enormous red, concrete letters – Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s signature and declaration that Mount Paektu is a sacred place – stand incongruously in the barren, rocky desert. It makes for an imposing scene.
And then, buffeted by a howling wind, we ride from the summit of Korea. It’s just a short descent that’ll see us rejoin Pak and Om, and an itinerary that’s been challenging beyond our expectations – and theirs. We’ve bent the rules and been granted freedoms we never imagined, from snapping photos to escaping the managed security of a hotel for an unlikely bivouac. The next few days will be filled with family homestays, microbreweries and military parades – countless more experiences that help shape our understanding of this little-known country.
But for now our focus is on a loose stretch of windblown singletrack bathed in early morning light. It’s perhaps the most unique stretch of trail I’ve ever ridden – not because riding it is pioneering, but merely because many people doubted we could do so.