Posted : 2011-05-31 19:33
Updated : 2011-05-31 19:33

Kiwi expedition to capture NK mountains

Roger Shepherd, founder of Hike Korea, walks along Mt. Sobaek near Yeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, in this file photo. The author and mountaineer has his sights set on a new challenge: photographing the mountains of North Korea.
/ Courtesy of Hike Korea

By Kim Young-jin

When author and mountaineer Roger Shepherd mentioned to a publisher friend over dinner earlier this year his idea to publish a pictorial-essay book on South Korea’s mountains, the response was underwhelming.

The friend told the Kiwi known for his love of the local mountains that publishers wouldn’t touch such a book ― shelves were already lined with them. A moment later, however, he offered an idea that Shepherd would make a personal mission.

“He said that if I was able to get access into North Korea and take photos of mountains there, then that would be a different story,” Shepherd, founder of local company Hike Korea, said in an email.

The concept appears to have come to fruition: On a trip to the North earlier this month, Shepherd reached an agreement with representatives of the New Zealand-Korean Friendship Society to photograph the northern portion of the Baekdu-Daegan mountain range.

Shepherd said it was the first request for an expedition on the North’s half of the range, which stretches nearly the entire length of the peninsula. The resulting English-language book, he hopes, will illuminate the special relationship Koreans on both sides of the border hold with their mountains.

“I want this book to be an opportunity for international readers to see the Korean peninsula from a new angle and to understand better the history of the Korean people through their historical and cultural connection with mountains,” he said.

Commonly referred to as “the spine of Korea”, the 1,600-kilometer chain of undulating ridges begins at Mt. Baekdu on the North’s border with China, snakes south down the west coast and across the heavily-fortified demilitarized zone before ending in Jirisan National Park.

Depicted in countless artworks, the mountain range still holds religious, shamanistic and historical significance for both sides. The forthcoming book will provide a rare glimpse of the North Korean side and its place in history.

“It may be the first time in a long time that some of these mountains have been exposed to the outside world through lens,” he said. “Apart from the images, I also hope to be able to find attached local legends and folk tales of these mountains.”

Shepherd expects to travel to the North at least six times over the next year for the project.

His first stint is slated for October, when he will visit Gangwon Province and the famous Geumgang Mountains. He also hopes to visit Mt. Duryu, the source of the Imjin River.

He said that in meetings with geography professors at Kim Il-sung University he set up other potential stops, but hoped he’d be able to explore the landscape in a slightly more whimsical fashion.

“Despite our planning from within our office environs, most of the real decision making will likely be done on the ground, feeding off the advice of the locals we hope to be led to many other spots once we’re out there,” he said.

Shepherd expected to travel with a driver as well as up to two members of the friendship society. The team will drive to the sites and then “hit the mountain to explore,” searching for locals willing to help. Some camping is possible as a means to capture early morning light.

For the Kiwi, the project holds deep personal significance. Long a world-traveller, he first visited the range in 2006 and was immediately hooked by its connection to Korean culture.

The following year he walked its length and later published the first-ever English-language book on the subject. The experience prompted him to establish Hike Korea, which researches and helps promote the country’s mountain culture.

His work has earned him the distinction of being an Honorary Ambassador of Tourism for South Korea. If the book has the impact he expects it to, it too could become an ambassador of sorts on the peninsula.

“I recognize this expedition and project as being a moment where the two Korea’s come together in one book connected by mountain,” he said, adding that he is seeking involvement from South Koreans in the form of financing and equipment.

“What I’m looking for is the homogenous traits that the Koreans share through mountains, despite their current daily opposing views. I hope I can give pleasure to people in both the North and the South by showing them the forgotten mountains of their country.”

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