Harald Philipp’s pioneering MTB trip to North Korea
In September 2018 Endura rider Harald Philipp joined photographer Dan Milner, second rider Max Schumann and guide Tom Bodkin for a pioneering mountain bike trip to North Korea. Working on an itinerary planned in advance with a state-run tourism company and accompanied by two guides for the duration, they explored trails in three different areas of this little-known country. None of the group really knew what to expect, but they came back with a rich set of experiences, having found warm welcomes everywhere.
THE MONUMENT TO PARTY FOUNDING
HARALD: What to expect from a trip into the most closed off and unfree country of the world? I had no idea. Family and friends were more afraid than on any other trip I have done before. "Don’t steal propaganda-posters“ - they kept on telling me. Turns out you can simply buy them.
DAN: As a photographer I wasn’t really sure how much freedom I’d have to work in North Korea but it proved to be pretty relaxed. That said, although photographing our antics on the trails was easy, it soon started to prove quite hard to get bikes and any DPRK party propaganda in the same shot — usually we only saw such political posters and structures while walking in Pyongyang or from the window of our tour bus. But our guides wanted to please us so when we asked if we could ride the bikes among some of the most iconic political monuments like this one — the Monument to Party Founding — they obliged, and I snapped away. It’s probably one of the most unique mountain bike shots ever taken!
HARALD: Chilbo has some impressive sandstone formations and ancient trails. Since it’s still a place where hardly any tourists go, we had a very restrictive guide. I would have loved to stay longer and explore some more, but after bending borders of what’s allowed for tourists on the other mountain-trips, we all were OK with sticking to the rules this time.
DAN: Planning a bike trip to North Korea took an enormous leap of faith. We had little idea of what the trails would be like and after visiting two of the three planned locations we were discovering that any riding here was hard won with enormous hike-a-bike sessions and steep, slippery descents. We only had one day in Chilbo on the east coast, and didn’t know if we’d even have time to ride that day. But travelling with, and riding bikes during the previous week had already helped us build very strong bonds with our two main guides so by now they knew the schedule: arrive, unpack, ride. Despite the nervousness of a local guide who still had as yet to understand where we were coming from, we spent an afternoon exploring and shooting photos on these short hiking trails around Chilbo’s odd rock formations. The trails proved totally different to the other two locations we’d already ridden.
HARALD: North Korea or Iceland? The volcanic landscapes on top of Mt. Paektu absolutely blew my mind. This mountain is a magic place for the North Koreans, often used as a backdrop for pictures of the great leaders. Surprisingly, mountain biking is not restricted on any trails in the DPRK. So seen from a biker’s perspective, it’s freer than Austria.
DAN: At 2744m high, the old volcanic peak of Mt Paektu is the highest point on the Korean peninsula. Googling it before hand threw up a dozen stunning pictures of an incredible landscape meaning it soon became the one location that I felt would underpin the trip visually. In the end, hampered by a gale, rain, fog and a very tight schedule based on a once-per-year charter flight into its local airport, we very nearly didn't even get to see the peak, let alone shoot pictures on it. Chancing a quick early morning return to Paektu next day, we lucked out. The sun broke through the clouds and I barked orders to my riders through the howling wind, sending them scurrying across a magnificent mountain to zigzag along its raw trails as I shot the photos I needed. It was a rare and precious moment, watched and shared by dozens of local workers for whom this mountain is the very birth place of the North Korean revolution.
HARALD: Waking up cold and wet on top of Mt. Myohyang after one of my worst nights ever. Our guides had never even been camping before. I wonder if they will ever do it again… Even if the riding was absolutely useless (carrying 10 hours up to sleep in the rain and carrying 6 hours down the next day), we got to know our local guides on a very personal level on this trip.
DAN: As if going to North Korea doesn’t sound like enough of a challenge, then adding mountain biking and an overnight bivouac to the plan just sounds like madness. But to reach Mt. Myohyang’s summit ridge and the trails that fed off it, a night out was needed. It amazes me that our guides not only let us veer off their pre-arranged itinerary (that would have us otherwise housed safely in a hotel), but they also seemed to embrace the idea of camping out. None of us expected rain though, and it turned a fun night into a bigger challenge, especially for Harald who had the misfortune of unrolling his sleeping bag where there was little protection from the rain. He woke cold and wet, but at least he’d had an air mattress to sleep on; our local guide, Kim Il-Guk (pictured at back right) slept straight on a bare rock shelf. The night proved an eye-opening experience for everyone involved. We were ready for our hotel afterwards.
'THE MOST BEAUTIFUL MOUNTAIN OF THE WORLD'
HARALD: Propaganda everywhere. This one says, that to Kim Il Sung Mt. Myohyang is the most beautiful mountain of the world. Everything seems to be political in this country, and masses of North Korean tourists make a pilgrimage here to celebrate their country’s beauty and greatness. Fascinating and scary at the same time.
DAN: We’d seen powerful, stirring propaganda and political posters and billboards aplenty in Pyongyang but thought we’d leave that behind as we immersed ourselves in the mountains. But even climbing the trails on Myohyang we came across enormous slogans hand-carved in the rock faces. They were strangely beautiful and stopped us in our tracks. We pondered how long it took to carve them, how many people it took to make these and joked about what you’d do if you made a spelling mistake half way through. To us these slogans seemed almost crass, but fitting them into the overall North Korean picture, with its fragile system and the unity it needs to survive, they made total sense, even here, sitting alongside a hiking trail, half way up a mountain.FOOTNOTES Words by Dan Milner and Harald Philipp, Photos by Dan Milner North Korea
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