EXPLORING NORTH KOREA. //
Co-founder James' adventures have taken him all over the world and and have put him in some pretty strange situations. We asked him to share his latest challenge: the North Korean Pyongyang Marathon. Over to James...
Aged 19 I became the first British tourist to enter Afghanistan after war broke out between the US coalition and Taliban forces. A couple years later I ran from the Dead Sea to the Red sea with a team of friends in Jordan, getting stopped by the military when we went tyre surfing in the desert (tyre surfing involved taking an inner of a truck tyre and tying it to the back of our Humvee and charging over the sand dunes). I was a reluctant bystander to a machete fight in Liberia, capsized a raft in crocodile infested waters of the Nile in Uganda and have been stalked by bears in the Kosovo jungle. I’ve played the only cricket match at the South Pole, and have the record for the highest game of golf in the world at Everest Base Camp...
But I’ll save those stories for another time, as in this post I want to try to convince you to enter the world's most obscure running race – The North Korean, Pyongyang Marathon.
North Korea is one of the most secretive states in the world, with strict controls on who enters the country and even stricter controls on who exits it. It has been on my bucket list to visit for a number of years. However like many media driven myths, you only need a few Google searches to discover that visiting the hermit kingdom is relatively easy. For the last 16 years a company called Kyoro Tours have been taking tourists into North Korea. But making sure you get out ok can be the tricky bit. Just one week before we arrived the American student Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years' hard labour for attempting to steal a propaganda poster.
We were in Pyongyang for 4 days in total. We had our tour guide and a government official travelling with us at all times. I had read reports of visiting North Korea like being in a low budget version of the Truman Show – everything designed to give the impression of a country that was free from poverty and human rights abuse. But this simply wasn’t the experience I had. Our guides did not want us straying from the group, but they justified this controlling measure by suggesting that it was so that we didn’t unknowingly break one of the many rules that could land us in trouble. For example, every state newspaper carries on its front page an image of the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-Un. To fold the newspaper and crease his image is punishable with prison or hard labor – an easy mistake to make if you are not aware of the punishment. This didn’t prevent us from mixing with the locals. On one trip we were able to travel on the metro and sit next to locals exchanging smiles and ‘hellos’.
Our guide was a young lady who spoke fantastic English. In North Korea you have essentially 3 career options; Military, Party or Science & Education. As a Party official she had the greatest chance of an education and higher standard of living. On one of the streets there were beautifully designed high-rise apartments that were free housing for university professors and scientists. Government stores issue food rations, and a limited amount of commerce on the high street allows you to top this up with imported goods. Despite the trade embargos we could still drink imported beers in our hotel. The lack of cars on the road was distinctly noticeable, as was the lack of colours or variation in North Korean fashion, with most people opting to mimic the clothing of the Supreme Leader.
Whilst we were under the watchful eye of our guides during our tours of the many monuments and propaganda posts, the marathon gave us an opportunity to run through the streets of Pyongyang in relative freedom. This was the second marathon open to foreigners with a total of 600 runners from all around the world. The elite runners included athletes flown in from around the world with runners from China, Russia, Ethiopia to name a few. The marathon was the talk of the city with posters up telling locals to join in the May Day Stadium to watch the start and finish, and to line the streets to give support to the runners.
We entered the May Day stadium in the morning. This is the largest stadium in the world with a capacity of 150,000 people. Every seat was taken. We had North Korean bands playing traditional music, and kiosks selling ice creams and soft drinks. When the marathon was set to start the foreign runners were asked to parade around the running track and to join the elite athletes in the center of the pitch for an opening ceremony. The atmosphere was like nothing I have ever experienced with 150,000 people singing and chanting.
When the marathon started it was clear to me that this was an opportunity to run through one of the most unique cities in the world with my head held high, taking in every sight and sound I could. This was not going to be a race for a personal best.
All the horror stories of prison camps seemed an alien concept today as families lined the streets, laughing and joking. Every now and then runners would stretch out their hands to high-five groups of kids – possibly their first ever interactions with Westerners. The streets of Pyongyang are lined with monuments and government buildings with murals of Kim Jong-Un giving you something to look at on every corner and straight. But without doubt the highlight was the smiling faces of the children, seemingly unaware of being held hostage in the hermit kingdom.
Despite the reputation of North Korea for human rights abuses and a military regime controlling its citizens, our interactions with locals were some of the nicest I’ve had anywhere. There was a genuine interest to hear about our lives back in London. Getting the same information on their lives was not as easy and I left with more questions than I had when I arrived. One thing for sure was that this event helped bridge the vast cultural divide between North Korea and foreign nations that has existed for far too long. As we approached the stadium finishing line we were led back inside for a celebratory football match and medals. The crowds were cheering our achievement and we were able to celebrate with beers in the stadium. I will never forget how normal everything seemed for that moment, even though what we had just done and where we had done it was far from normal.
Later that night we sang karaoke with our guides whilst drinking copious amounts of imported beer and sharing stories. The next day our guide gave us a tearful goodbye with hugs and kisses knowing she would never see us again and is unlikely to ever visit any of the countries she had heard so much about.
You never really know anything about a country until you visit it. Some would challenge you on a visit to North Korea suggesting you are propping up an evil regime by giving it your tourism dollars. But if ignorance and prejudice are a disease then why spread and embed those feelings when there is an alternative?
My view will always be to go, explore, discover, and share your experiences. In today's world building bridges seems far more sensible than building walls.