Kiwi expedition captures N. Korean mountains
By Kim Young-jin
An author-mountaineer from New Zealand has successfully completed a 2,300-kilometer journey along North Korea’s portion of the Baekdu-Daegan mountain range, documenting the trip for an upcoming book that will offer a rare glimpse of stunning scenery.
Roger Shepherd, founder of local company Hike Korea, along with three North Korean companions, hiked 10 mountains in the southern half of the country in late October under an agreement with the New Zealand-Korean Friendship Society. He will return in May for a second expedition further north.
It was an unprecedented opportunity for an outsider to gain such access to the northern portion of the range that stretches nearly the entire length of the peninsula. The English-language photo-essay book will highlight the system on both sides of the border and is hoped will provide insight into the Korean people through their connection with mountains.
“When I was on top of these (mountains) it was hard for me to appreciate what I was doing, but instead of falling into uncontrollable bliss, I would focus on trying to get the best possible photos in whatever conditions had been presented to me,” Shepherd said in an interview.
“Overall, the mountains of North Korea looked more animated, meaner and more constricted” than those in the South, he added.
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.
Bumping along back roads in a Toyota Land Cruiser, Shepherd managed to shoot some 2,000 photos as the group journeyed through Gangwon, South Hamgyeong and North and South Pyeongan Provinces. Together, they hiked such mountains as Mt. Duryu, the source of the Imjin River.
“Unlike in the South, parts of the Baekdu-Daegan that I visited in North Korea seemed higher in general altitude, creating plateau regions within villages,” he said. The group consulted with local experts, usually forestry workers, at each of their stops along the range. At night, they slept in nearby hotels or camped out.
Shepherd, who has published a book on his experience hiking the southern half of the range, noted that the mountains were used during the Japanese occupation of the peninsula (1905-1945) as hideouts during anti-imperialist campaigns, which were closely tied to guerilla activities of the North’s founder Kim Il-sung. That is “something that will need to be identified in an unbiased manner in the book,” he said.
The mountaineer, whose group researches and helps promote mountain culture, said aside from a quick hello to some children or passers-by, interaction was limited mostly within his team, especially in the mountains, where they had the serene trails to themselves.
And, as he often notes, mountains have a good way of bringing people together in the spirit of hiking. “When up in the mountains with my team it really just felt like I was in Korea, not North Korea, not South Korea, just Korea,” he said.
Shepherd, who is working to secure funding for his next trip to the North, is available to give virtual presentations of his recent journey using mapping software, Google maps and photographs. For more information on his work, visit www.hikekorea.com.