Adventure in Korea

As we pull away, detached from the cleats positioned appropriately to hold our cruise vessel, the Pungak, I try to recapture my four-day adventure into the Kangwon Province of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a communist regime:

Day 1: September 8th, 2000: Chusok – Korean Thanksgiving Holiday

Craig and I, both instructors in Ulsan, arrived at the Busan Dadae Port at 12:30 and were immediately met by Hyundai staff who ushered us to the debriefing desk. Here, we acquainted ourselves with our tour guide, and received nametags and boarding passes. We were shown the way to the Pungak, original known as the Island Princess, where the smiling cruise staff gave us a huge warm welcome: Russian dancers in feathers swayed back and forth, the Filipino band played a toe tapping tune, and the crew of admirals shook our hands. Along the way to our sea view quarters we were met with smiles and welcomes. Fruit awaited in the cabin. We soon realized as our arrival was announced over the walkie-talkies and officers came to great us, that we were the VIP’s on the guest list. And, after realizing that Craig and I are not married and just co-workers, a second cabin key to a complimentary cabin was produced by the Room’s Manager. What a bonus!

We had 2 hours to wonder the boat and unpack before the ship set sail so exploring we did: all seven decks had something to offer: sauna, massage, library, sundeck, shuttle board, golf, movie room, karaoke, photo shop, gift shop, and countless lounges. We opted for the exercise room to get our legs in gear for the next few days of mountain climbing followed with a pinacolada by the pool. Ah, memories of a kiss from my boyfriend, 19 years ago, when this same ship, used in the TV series “The Love Boat was in the Vancouver port and the North Vancouver Youth band, of which I was a 1st clarinetist, was used as the wedding band for one of the episodes. Boy it’s a small world. The theme song to the TV series kicked in as we pulled away from the Korean peninsula.

Dinner was served at 6:30. Holy Cow! Well no, there wasn’t beef on the menu, but everything else: smoked salmon with capers was my favorite, followed by sushi, hot Chinese food, and famous Korean dishes. The desserts were Craig’s; “The chocolate fudge brownies are to die for.” I loaded up on fruit to wash my double helping down. Early to bed after watching a song and dance show with a comedian and members of the welcoming party whom we saw earlier.

Day 2: Rain, rain and cloudy skies

We crossed over the Korean demilitarized zone sometime in the early morning and arrived in Kosong port at 7:00am just as we were sitting down for bacon and scrambled eggs, pancakes, kimchi, seaweed soup, more smoked salmon and Korean side dishes with fruit and chocolate filled mini croissants, hmmm. Had a quick look outside to feel the rain and faintly see the cloud covered peaks of Kamgang and decided to change into my Gortex jacket and bring an extra long sleeve shirt. All 300 passengers met in the Carousal Lounge for a strict briefing and camera check. I couldn’t bring my new powerful binoculars, nor could I take pictures of the active militarized port from the boat or of the village scenes from the bus, and, I couldn’t get lowered down in one of the life rafts and go snorkeling.

By 10:00am our group of 26 was on a mini bus to the custom’s building, which was just walking distance away. My first glance of the North Korean people: look the same, but no smiles (at least not from those in their brown pressed uniforms with the “Holy Almighty Leader: Kim Jeong-il” pins. I was immediately questioned as to my nationality: “Oh, a Canadian, nice to meet you. Have a good trip.” I felt a strange feeling of being in another country but not actually leaving the country. Lots of excitement from my fellow companions.

We boarded a second Hyundai bus ‘on the other side’ driven by a Chinese man. Hyundai can only use Chinese/North Koreans as their workers (we did however met North Korean employees later on the trails). We drove through the abandoned looking village built below the 12,000 peaks of Kamgang Mountain. I looked beyond the barbed-wired, armed-guarded fence and saw a few people dressed in solid dark colors walking along dirt paths to their white with green-trimmed two storied apartments and single houses with broken windows and fallen roof tiles. There were no cars, no paved roads, one brown bus, no stores or places of entertainment, no churches or temples. Furthermore, there was nothing resembling electricity. All in all, it looked very bleak and dreary. We waved to the stiff soldiers but received only blank looks. Some pedestrians waved back as our new, shiny, blue and silver, Hyundai busses, eight altogether, joyfully paraded past. What an intrusion, what an impression, what next I thought.

Dawned with plastic rainwear, Gortex jackets and umbrellas, we sauntered slowly up the stone pathway along a raging river: an amazing sound, a breathtaking sight, a calming peace. Twice I held back tears of emotion. Feeling is intense here. Mist filtered up and down the valleys and in and out of the Manmulsong (jutting stones pointing up to the skies known as the “Rocks of Ten Thousand Features”. As I passed a Piguni (a female monk) I saw high up in the cliffs, propaganda slogans carved deep into the rock. Old ancestral names of those gone by, lay carved in the rocks being washed by the waters. Above, roared one of Korea’s most famous ‘pok-po’ waterfall), the 100 meter high Kuryong Falls. According to my souvenir pamphlet, “The water cascading down the cliff, combined with its spray, creates an image of a dragon soaring to the skies? And, according to a legend, “Nine dragons once lived there, defending Mt. Kamgang.”

Everything was clean, very clean and fresh. Unlike the trails in South Korea, I couldn’t see one speck of garbage or cigarette butt laying astray (apparently it’s a $1000US fine for tossing trash). It’s hard to describe the view, feelings and spirit of this magical place. It’s possession, fought over by the North and South during the Korean War, shedding many tears and blood, so I was told. Now, miraculously, it’s beauty, shared by both.

The elderly on this trip, some in their late seventies, astounded and challenged me with their stride. Others needed a bit of assistance up the uneven, cut-rock stairs, and I produced my elbow for support. Thank you from them, memories of Grandma for me. I was soaked to the bone and loving every step.

With the mist and wind bellowing against our rainwear, we climbed the final summit, on a 70-degree angle, to look down onto Sangpal Pools, which is said to resemble “A string of eight green beads.” That it did. “The beauty of the pools was so inspiring and the water so clear that fairies descended there by rainbow to bathe and then returned to heaven” according to another folk tale. Here, I discreetly extended my hand to shake a North Korean’s. I was met with a warm shake and many questions that were interpreted by our guide such as: “How do these mountains compare with Canada’s? Why are you here in North Korea and how do you feel? What do you think of the Korean War? Will Canada support North Korea?” Phew, heavy-duty questions. I hoped my answers, unbiased as much as I could, give this man in his twenties, a truthful picture of the world out side his limited territory.

Back through the puddles, down we pranced, onto the bus heading towards the Hyundai Foreigner’s Compound to fill our starved bellies with ‘bi-bim-bop’ a dish consisting of vegetables, wild mushrooms and ferns, ground beef, rice and ‘gochujang’ (chilli sauce) mixed together in a bowl.

The compound consisted of a restaurant, ‘mugyotong’ (hot spa), souvenir stores, and a circus tent. Here, we were separated from the rest of North Korea by a tall solid wooden picket fence with soldiers watching us from outside. I know this because I was sharply whistled at as I peered over to take a look at the village – careful Suzan!

With 2 hours of free time, my friend and I introduced the only other foreigners, an elderly French couple who are stationed in South Korea and who are supervising the construction of the DJV, a French designed new rapid rail system, to a soak in the segregated, nude, indoor/outdoor spa. Ahhhto sooth the weary muscles and soften the skin. Some of the Korean women were amazed to see us and warned us that the waters were hot and not good for foreign skins. I assured one lady that I’m an expert in this and carried on with my hot – cold dips in the various herbal baths. The mud sauna was super and I was given room amongst the laying naked bodies. After drying off and adorning my rain-drenched pants, I met the others for a chocolate ice cream and headed back to the awaiting busses with a bag full of souvenirs (honey, thread tapestry and a pair of straw shoes).

I was given a bit of a rough time by the North Korean customs officer for having a wet passport (a $20 fine) and was questioned as to my work history here in Korea, but I did get through with no charges and stamped. Back on the mini bus to the cruise ship where we were once again met with warm welcomes from the staff positioned along the corridors and staircases. A scrumptious buffet dinner followed by a singing contest – a bit much and loud for me. But, oh what a marvelous rainy day.

Day 3: Sun, Sun and clear blue skies

What a treat. The mountains from my berth porthole look so inviting as the sun rose up from behind. I stripped down to my summer hiking wear, met the others in the Corral dining room and filled myself with a somewhat wholesome breakfast.

Once finished the border procedure, we were bound for ‘Inner Kamgang’ where the tallest peak rises 1,639 meters above sea level. By bus, we ascended 600 meters up the narrow windy road to the trail entrance. From here, we climbed another 450 meters to the various viewpoints. On top of the peak to the right, we could see the shoreline with it’s hexagon-formed, stone islands and sandy crescent shaped beaches (very similar to Cheju Island in the South of Korea). Inviting indeed – next trip. On the left, we peered into the valleys below and behind onto the rugged jutting backdrop, the scene Mt. Kamgang is most famous for. I enjoyed watching the smiling faces of glee from my fellow passengers as the mist rose up from the sea and waffled through the numerous peaks. It was truly a remarkable scene.

Back down and into the compound, we ate ox-tail soup and kimchi. Then, for $25US, we entered the circus tent to watch the famous North Korean Acrobatic troop swing and perform before and above us. The finale thrilled the audience and brought them to their feet. I guess they felt that they were not unlike those people on stage. They strive for excellence and laughed at mishaps. I enjoyed the feelings of togetherness, a harmony shared by equals. Sadness arose as we left behind, the separated ‘North Korean people’

Later, back on board, the vessel revved its diesel engine the tugboats shoved us out into the rough seas. I began my good-byes to the friendly staff and my fellow hikers. I really wanted to stay on for another adventure. I spent my last night sitting in the darkness on the top upper deck. Out in the distance, lights soon appeared. South Korean fishing boats scattered the horizon shining their bright halogen lights attracting squid. On the shore, the power of electricity brought my mind back to where I began.

Day 4: Cloudy, rainy, and rough seas

We easily traveled through the high waves and reached Dadae Port by 10:00am. Our ‘VIP’ bags were checked and we, the four foreigners, were guided to the front of the line to be the first passengers off the Pungak. After the customs check, and a final goodbye to staff and friends, we jumped into a waiting cab and began our land journey back to Ulsan.

After thoughts:

Now that my trip has come to an end, I feel that what I experienced was not just a good hiking expedition, but also a unique rare opportunity. A chance to be involved with a culture split into two separate identities, during a delicate changing period. North and South Korea now are embracing together their civilians through this tour and media productions, and their politicians through national and international peace talks. I hope, for the sake of the people who were family 50 years ago, and for the tourists, such as myself, who would love to explore this magnificent northern region further, unification comes easily and quickly. There is no reason why, in my mind, that there should be such a segregated race and area in this world.

Thanks for the Magic of Kumgang-san