North Korea

Powder to the People

Words James Scullin

Photos Astrelok / Shutterstock

January 2016 from issue 45

Tags: chill thrill, confessions, skiing, unusual experience

Powder to the People

A rare guest in North Korea, James Scullin found himself touring the country’s first-ever ski resort – off-piste but far from off the propaganda trail.

I had been leading tours in North Korea for a year when I was invited to visit the newly built Masikryong Ski Resort.

Making our way up the mountain in the dead of winter, the usual propaganda signage of party progress adorned the snow-covered hills as we passed old-world farming villages in sub-zero temperatures.

The inaugural North Korean ski season was met with scepticism in the West, partly because sanctions prohibited a Swiss manufacturer from exporting ski lifts to the rogue state. But within North Korea, the ski resort reflected the advances the country was making under its new leader, with Masikryong becoming synonymous with progress and national pride.

In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea achievement is often measured by how ahead of schedule projects are completed. Throughout our tour of the resort, local guides proudly boasted that the entire place was constructed in just 10 months. Inside the hotel you could still smell the plaster setting – the army likely worked overtime to have the resort built at what has been dubbed ‘Masikryong speed’.

At the pool and sauna we were presented with baby-blue speedos to wear in the steam rooms alongside perplexed elderly Korean women. Symbolic of the centralised production of clothing, every swimmer wore one of two styles of swimsuit. The hotel also had a rare resource – internet, available in the business centre if you don’t mind someone beside you taking notes of your searches. North Korea has the lowest internet connectivity in the world, but the bandwidth on the isolated mountain was surprisingly reliable.

After squeezing my feet into snowboard bindings two sizes too small, I hit the slopes. Masikryong is an ambitious attempt to attract overseas tourists, but the only foreigner I encountered was an Austrian ski instructor. Granted, he spoke highly of the overall standard of the nine ski runs. The West has portrayed Masikryong as a plaything of the country’s elite, built at the expense of the broader, impoverished population. Yet, from what I saw on the mountain, the rookie Korean skiers falling over each other were all with work units, most likely granted the trip as a reward for achieving production targets.

Music looms large in North Korean society. In Pyongyang, revolutionary tunes blast from street speakers and mobile vans, waking workers through a centralised alarm clock. Across Masikryong, the same music can be heard, reminding an emerging generation of skiers to think of the Workers’ Party of Korea and its leader while having fun on the mountain.

The placement of music along each ski run is precise and strategic. Only as our chairlift started climbing the mountain did the triumphant patriotic hymns begin to fade, but the reprieve was short lived. Once over the hill, speakers stuck to every few towers ensured the glorious revolutionary anthems kept us company for the entire 45-minute journey to the summit.

During the ascent, I learnt that the lifts dangling precariously from the slopes were acquired second-hand from China, bypassing trade sanctions. As we neared the summit, the view faded to white and I began to wonder whether safety standards had been compromised for the sake of Masikryong speed. Fortunately, a local bottle of alcoholic ginseng tonic shared with our Korean friends eased my anxiety.

At night the hotel was deserted until we chanced upon a room full of young soldiers, belting out revolutionary hits on a karaoke machine. Their mood was festive and they warmly insisted we drink with them. One of the soldiers was fluent in English and spoke sincerely of his gratitude for Kim Jong-un who, in his eyes, had worked tirelessly to gift Masikryong to the Korean people.

As the beer and soju flowed, the soldiers urged us to sing, dance and form a conga line with them. They pushed us onto the stage and demanded we sing an English song for them. With no English songs available, I was forced to eke out an a cappella rendition of ‘Moon River’, which was met with the raised eyebrows it deserved.

Suddenly, the soldiers marched out as one and we were left in the bar with a female singing troupe who turned out to be members of the Moranbong Band (North Korea’s first all-girl super group hand-picked by Kim Jong-un). Also at the bar was a casually dressed fellow who must have been someone significant, given he was permitted to drink with us. My assumptions were confirmed by the presence of a figure sitting across the room, watching us and smoking in the shadows as we chatted about life in the DPRK and toasted its new ski resort.

The following day as we departed Masikryong, we encountered dozens of farmers on the road using hand tools to uncrack the frozen highway. In the other direction a Mercedes Benz beeped its horn for the road workers to disperse as it ascended the mountain at Masikryong speed.