My first impressions of North Korea’s capital and biggest city, Pyongyang, while we toured around looking at statues and monuments of the Kim family dynasty was that it’s big—almost three million people—and there are big apartment buildings that crowd the skyline. There is no traffic because there are almost no cars. Regular people don’t have cars, only government workers, delivery trucks, city buses and military trucks cruise the empty streets, and we heard about an athlete who was awarded one after winning something big. There are also no advertisements, no signs on the buses, no billboards, shopping centers, used car lots, cafés or bars. Most of the buildings are painted different colors and honestly, it looks good; no branding and nice and clean. The other notable difference between this city and any other that I’ve visited is that people are walking on the sidewalks with their heads up. It’s surprising how apparent it is to see individuals walking with their head up rather than looking down at their phone, infrequently glancing up to look where they are going, because there are no cell phones and there is no internet. Nothing to Google, no maps, no Pokemon Go; every part of our life is intertwined with the internet and in North Korea, it is non-existent and unknown. Rather than shopping online, watching Netflix or reading North Korean facts on Wikipedia, people are scavenging for wood due to the extreme cold. All the lakes and rivers are frozen over and there isn’t a single twig, branch or stick on the ground because they have all been harvested for heat.
We had a six-hour drive through the countryside to Masikryong Ski Resort. The flat, vast valleys were utilized as farmland, dotted by small farming villages yet surrounded by steep mountains. As we pulled into the ski resort, it looked fancy, and we were greeted by a series of manmade waterfalls as you wind up the long, curving driveway. There were probably fifty people cleaning the snow off the driveway with wooden broomsticks like the ones from Harry Potter. They were also building perfectly manicured sidewalks out of the snow. It seemed to be a bit overkill and unnecessary but everyone works for the state so essentially they have twenty million employees that they need to keep busy. They claimed that the ski resort was built in ten months and every big building we saw seemed to have a story about how fast it was built (usually in six months) and how much longer it would take with western methods. There were photos from the build of the ski resort with eighty men pushing and pulling tractors up muddy hills and just going ballistic.
They built the ski resort in 2014 to look and feel like any other ski resort in the world, fully equipped with an ice skating rink and a pool and spa to attempt to boost winter tourism. The resort was way more impressive than I had imagined, though. Three different chairlifts, a rope tow, magic carpets and even a gondola taking you up almost 2,000 feet. Unfortunately, the conditions were icy and wind-scoured, but we could see some potential for fun groomer runs on the ten different trails that snaked down the mountain. Some were groomed, some were not, but you are limited to the runs. No tree skiing or ducking ropes or building side hits. It is well known in the western world that snowboarders have innately rebellious roots, but Masikryong is not the place to tap into that, unless you want to become a permanent resident.
The iconic Field Of Dreams line, “If you build it they will come” does not seem to apply to Masikryong Ski Resort, as we had the place to ourselves. Apart from a few Chinese tourists who were there on business and tons of little kids that were learning to ski on the bunny hill (I’m still not sure where the kids came from every day), everyone skied with the exception of two snowboard instructors who we saw each day that we were up there. We took some runs with them but they didn’t speak English. However, Wang Lei pretty much introduced snowboarding to China and was hyped on the opportunity to teach them. They were amping, even though all we could show them were flatground tricks, butters, 360s, nollies and low-impact tricks of that nature, but it was the first time they had ever seen it. These two dudes were basically inventing snowboarding in North Korea with no magazines or movies to learn from or to see what’s possible. All they know is what’s in front of them, which is kind of weird to think about but also kinda cool.