Mountain Biking in North Korea

14 Feb

Photo Gallery: Mountain Biking in North Korea

Schumann and Philipp ride from the summit of the 9002 ft high dormant volcano of Mount Paektu. Located in the far North-East corner of North Korea, Paektu is the highest point on the entire Korean peninsular and is considered sacred by the Korean people. Paektu’s dominance, both geographically and within North Korean ideology and politics, made this a must-ride destination for the team, despite its remote and hard-to-reach location.
On a little-trodden trail, Philipp and Schumann descend alongside Paektu’s crater rim towards a gleaming white granite monument. North Korea’s supreme leaders have historically made speeches to the nation from Paektu, underpinning the mountain’s importance in North Korean politics and propaganda. Two weeks after riding Paektu, Kim Jong-Un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in would raise clasped hands at this monument.
A wall of propaganda slogans looms out of the mist as Max Schumann carries his bike up a steep trail on Mount Myohyang. While we expected to be greeted by political propaganda among Pyongyang’s city streets, such propaganda, hand-chiselled in rock faces, came as a surprise as we explored the forest trails of Mount Myohyang.
Spectated by a line of North Korean day-hikers, Schumann and Philipp descend a bedrock outcrop on Mount Myohyang. The novelty of seeing mountain bikers sharing their trails drove most North Korean hikers to reach for their North Korean branded smartphones to snap photos or video of the us. While such images and video could then be shared on North Korea’s own intranet, North Korean citizens have no connection to the World Wide Web.
The two 66 ft high statues of former leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il look on from across the city as Max Schumann rides Pyongyang’s skate park. Riding the skate park was never in our original tour itinerary, but after spotting it from our tour bus as we drove through Pyongyang we asked to ride it and our tour guides were happy to make arrangements to make it happen.
Following a 5300 ft ascent the day before, we woke to a cold, rainy morning after an overnight bivouac under a rock slab on Mount Myohyang. The bivouac experience highlighted the willingness of our North Korean guides to be flexible in how they catered for our adventure aspirations, as well as helping cement bonds throughout the team. This was the first ever camping experience for one of our guides.
Pouring over a hand-scrawled map, drawn and annotated in Korean by local guide Kim In-guk, we set about planning our ascent of Mount Myohyang. As a UNESCO biosphere reserve, Myohyang is a popular place for North Korean hikers and boasts many trails. To find our way around these trails, our Pyongyang based tour guides partnered up with 70-year old In-guk.
Amidst swirling clouds of a clearing storm, Harald Philipp pauses at the Paektu monument. Bad weather foiled our first attempt to ride on Paektu a day earlier, but a 3:45 a.m. start this day rewarded us with summit success during our short, 48-hour stop over in the north of the country. Few North Koreans get the opportunity to visit Paektu, a sacred mountain, renowned for sudden storms and winter temperatures that drop to -50F.
Tourism is a fledgling but growing industry in North Korea, with much of it centered on Pyongyang. During our 12-day trip we stayed in various accommodations, including 4-star skyscrapers in Pyongyang complete with curiously decorated telephones, as well as a tired, aged rustic hotel in Samjiyong and a night at a family homestay at Chilbo, on the East coast.
Led by a red flag, a team of workers enjoying their one rest day per week begin a hike up Mount Paektu. While rain and gale force winds dissuaded us from trying to ride Paektu on our first attempt, North Koreans were not so easily deterred. We watched their progress from the chilly but dry interior of our bus.
A group of North Koreans enjoy a Sunday BBQ and karaoke session under a bridge at the base of Mount Myohyang. We stumbled across this party as we emerged from a rain-soaked trail on Myohyang following our overnight bivouac. Although unable to converse with the group, we were immediately welcomed into their gathering and given beers to drink.
While many of the hotels we stayed in boasted modern facilities such as fitness rooms, saunas, bars and gleaming dining rooms—such as this one at Mount Myohyang—we rarely shared them with many other people.
Citizens seek escape from the hot midday sun in the shade of the Juche statue on the banks of the Taedong River, Pyongyang. The clean lines and hard edges of Pyongyang’s statues and monuments struck a stark contrast to the leafy trails of Myohyang’s maple forests and presented us with two very distinct sides to our experience of North Korea.
Our third chosen mountain bike location was Chilbosan, an area of rocky outcrops on North Korea’s east coast. Served by the nearby town of Chilbo, with a rail connection to China, this area is seeing increasing numbers of Chinese tourists, and remains one of the only places in North Korea where you can be accommodated in a family homestay.
Catering for the first mountain bikers in North Korea, our tour guides were sometimes confused as to how best to accommodate our bike-focussed aspirations. This rustic pavilion half way up the ascent of Myhohyang was intended to provide our overnight shelter, but instead it provided us with shaded place to discuss alternatives. In the end the pavilion was abandoned in favour of a bivouac on the top of the mountain instead.
Challenged by economic embargoes and a risk-averse bike industry, our trip was unable to source funding from many of the usual industry sponsors that would finance such trips. Faced by a funding shortfall we turned to crowdfunding and offered postcards sent from North Korea as one of the rewards. The postcards we found in Pyongyang ranged from fiery propaganda posters to images of architecture and conference centre scenes.
With little intel to pull on beforehand, mountain biking North Korea was always going to be an exercise in optimism. Two of the locations we visited offered great singletrack but came with caveats of either arduous sessions of bike-carrying or wild, unpredictable weather. Chilbosan’s more mellow hiking trails, provided the greatest potential for future client-based mountain bike tourism, should it ever be developed.