The idea came about just a few months before when professional snowboarder Jamie Barrow contacted me. He had found out that the country had recently opened a shiny new ski resort in honour of Marshall Kim Jong-Un. There was little information available about it and my curiosity was peaked. I had seen some documentaries about the country but they never felt like they were telling the whole story, so the opportunity to find out more for myself was unmissable. Furthermore, it's nearly impossible to get in as a journalist and all media access is tightly controlled. All groups entering the country must do so on a supervised tour and no one is allowed anywhere on their own.
Two days after one of North Korea's infamous missile tests, we find ourselves in Beijing airport, ready to board our Air Koryo flight to the DPRK. There are only two flights a week and it's on a small old Russian made passenger plane with a mysterious cold in-flight burger. We were also given lots of North Korean newspapers and magazines showing Kim Jong-Un on various site visits to the working people.
We arrive in Pyongyang, the capital of the democratic people's Republic of Korea. The airport is modern and void of any other passengers. At airport security, every item had to be documented and inspected. I got the impression they had never seen most of the camera and audio equipment i'd brought with me because it all sparked several heated discussions in North Korean. Books or films with any religious or political agenda are not allowed and we heard a previous passenger had his laptop confiscated because he had the film Salt, with Angelia Jolie, featuring a brief mention of North Korea.
Once on the other side we were met by our two guides and driver who would accompany us for the whole 8 days. With three of them and two of us we felt pretty well looked after. We’re taken to the only operating tourist hotel in the city, set on an island so that we can’t wonder off on our own. We meet up with an official looking man at the hotel that evening to receive my press pass. Sat round a table in the restaurant drinking home brewed beer, he both welcomed and scared us, reminding us of the gravity of the situation. To add to the effect, there was a power cut and the whole place went dark; a fairly regular occurrence in the DPRK.
That evening we visited the two great bronze statues of the late leaders Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sun. Hundreds of citizens lined up with flowers to show their respects and Jamie was told to buy a bouquet to do the same. A North Korean cameraman followed us closely as Jamie put down his flowers and walked away looking unsettled. That evening set a precedent for the rest of the week as we were whisked around the city to see all the sights.
Pyongyang is a stark contrast of beautifully maintained marble monuments and soviet style tower blocks that are in need of refurbishment. In the morning loud music singing the leaders praise rings through the streets to motivate the workers. Large screens play propaganda films in busy areas and groups gather in the squares to rehearse for mass dancing and military parades. Highlights of our city tour include The Arc of Triumph, with remarkable resemblance to Paris, and the Mausoleum, where the bodies of the late leaders lie in state.
Travelling through the countryside was a very different story to the city. Our first road trip was around 160km south to the de militarised zone. We saw very few other cars and when we did, they were usually lorries changing wheels due to the bumpy roads. This long straight road was over 5 cars wide and hadn't been repaired since it was finished in the 90's. The pot holes were like craters and we occasionally got sent into the air. We were worried Jamie wasn't going to be able to snowboard with on going back problems. Despite this, the long straight empty rolling roads with the mountains in the distance were stunning. Too bad we weren't allowed to film. Approaching the DMZ involved several military checkpoints and once we were there we were on best behaviour as we were taken on a tour by one of the generals. During one of our awkward conversations, he asked us what we thought of the recent missile tests. This made us very uncomfortable but it was clear they wanted to understand how the outside world viewed their hermit kingdom. One thing they always liked to make clear was how quickly they made their buildings, usually ranging from 5 days to 6 months. I wanted to suggest they took a little longer and added some insulation.
Our second road trip was about 4 hours east to the Marisyong ski resort. More bumpy roads followed by mind blowing views past lakes and through mountains. The resort itself is majestic and like everything else, was built by the military in record time and finished just 3 years previously. Everything was decorated in a very cosy European ski chalet style, and weirdly we felt right at home. The time at the resort was very different to the rest of the trip. It was easy at times to forget where we were, except for the food. Five to nine courses was the usual format, brought out one at a time as small dishes. They ranged from chicken thighs to soups, to rice and potato chips. We grew very accustomed to Kimchi, their national dish of fermented spicy cabbage. It was available for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
We made our way up the mountain in an Austrian made gondolier and we were met with incredible views all the way out to the sea. The resort had 10 slopes, only 3 of which were pisted. It quickly became apparent this was because we were pretty much the only people on the top half of the mountain. The few other skiers there were sticking to the slopes lower down. We presumed that with the resort being so new, for many North Koreans this was their first time. This was great for us as it meant we were making fresh tracks nearly all day long. Despite a fairly slow gondolier, the overall quality of the slopes was much like anywhere else we'd been. Two and a half kilometres of well maintained slopes and no one watching over us. Over the following days we met a variety of people, both locals and tourists. The majority of skiers were North Koreans. Supposedly some were ski instructors and some were on vacation. We were told that top performers from each area were awarded time at the resort for doing well at their jobs. They all wore matching outfits, and although i'm no skier myself, I have to say the standard of snow ploughs and face plants was outstanding.
During our week we met a number of tourists, from swedes and Germans to Canadians and Americans. We enjoyed occasionally being able to sit down to dinner with them and share experiences and insights. Each had their own reasons for visiting. For some it was pure curiosity, others wanted to be able to tell their friends they had been, and some just wanted to get first hand experience of the country so they could make their mind up for themselves. Everyone knew that they were being shown a very small piece of a much bigger picture, but it was the occasional glimpse through the cracks that everyone was there to see.
In a country we know so little about, the opportunity to experience it first hand without edits or filters, was really eye opening.
More on filming
guide to blogging.