Nitro in North Korea

NITRO SNOWBOARDS IN NORTH KOREA


On January 2nd, 2016 an American tourist was detained in North Korea for unknown reasons. On January 6th, against international law, North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb, while on January 12th, they announced that it was successful and they have the capability to “wipe out the whole territory of the US all at once.” My flight to Pyongyang, North Korea was on January 27th.


words: Austin Smith

photos: Markus Rohrbacher

Nitro in North Korea

Markus Keller

Obviously, Markus Keller isn’t afraid to be a little edgy in North Korea.

Nitro in North Korea

Nils Arvidsson.

Going into North Korea, I knew close to nothing about it. I still haven’t even seen the VICE series upon which I’ve found most people base their North Korea expertise on, but I did see The Interview so I felt prepared. One fact I found interesting prior to entering is that only 2,600 tourists visited North Korea last year. Some quick math tells me that’s seven tourists per day in North Korea and we were a party of six, so if you include the detained American student we were likely to be the only tourists in the country during our trip. A country of 25 million, mind you, and we were possibly the only people there by choice, and myself being the only American, apart from my fellow detainee.

A day before our departure from China to North Korea I panicked and tried to change my flight. All of the people telling me I shouldn’t go and the fact that another trip of pro snowboarders that were planning on going had recently backed out made me reconsider. I called Delta to see what flights to Oregon they had for me. They didn’t have one until three days later and I had already spent one sleepless night in the Beijing airport two weeks prior so I boarded the Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang alongside photographer Markus Rohrbacher, filmer Pirmin and riders Markus Keller, Nils Arvidsson, and Chinese Nitro rider Wang Lei. Air Koryo is the only North Korean airline and it runs one flight three times per week on an extremely “vintage” plane. That was another indication of how few people go to North Korea: one plane, every few days, in and out of the country. No one goes to North Korea, but now, you can, as they just opened it up to American tourists a few years ago and all you need is a plane ticket and a visa—which isn’t anymore difficult than a visa to China or Russia.


We landed in Pyongyang, got our bags and were all a bit nervous for the security checkpoint. Markus and Pirmin had read about what cameras you can and can’t bring in. We were also told you should be conscious of what movies or content is on your phone or computer because it is all subject to search. Security turned out to be a cake walk, though. I get hassled more going into Canada. A few days later, however, Nils noticed that he had The Dictator on his computer, which is probably not the best movie to bring into North Korea.

Once we were past the security checkpoint we met our two handlers, Wang and Rose. For a week straight, Wang dominated us at ping pong. We were lucky if we got one or two points per game and Markus is extremely competitive and proud of his ping pong skills. They said to think of them as “mommy and daddy;” they would always be with us and we were supposed to ask them before we did anything like take photos, walk outside, et cetera. There is no such thing as wandering the streets of Pyongyang or a spontaneous decision to roam about. It’s basically one big field trip and these were our guides. The only time we were away from them was on the mountain, because they couldn’t snowboard or ski, but on one of the days, we had someone else follow us, and he would always stay five or six chairs back as if we wouldn’t notice him. Maybe we wouldn’t have if we weren’t the only people on the mountain. We became friends with our handlers during the trip, however, which I wasn’t sure was going to happen, given the fact that just fifteen minutes after meeting us at the airport, Wang announced that he liked people, he just didn’t like Americans.

Nils Arvidsson, Markus Keller and Austin Smith

To think that some simple, fun turns must’ve felt so weird. Nils Arvidsson, Markus Keller and Austin Smith.


Nitro in North Korea

Nitro in North Korea

Nitro in North Korea

Nitro in North Korea


Nitro in North Korea

Nitro in North Korea


Nitro in North Korea


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.

Nitro in North Korea

Nils Arvidsson

Nils Arvidsson lays one out at Masikyrong Ski Resort.


Wang Lei

Wang Lei officially has the first North Korea pow slash ever documented in SNOWBOARDER Magazine.

Nitro in North Korea

Nitro in North Korea

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.


Nitro in North Korea


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.

Austin Smith

Austin Smith, doing what we’re sure many North Koreans do: wondering what lies far off in the distance.


Nitro in North Korea

Nitro in North Korea

Nitro in North Korea


Nitro in North Korea

I read about some people that also offer surf trips to North Korea so I asked if we could go to the beach and reluctantly, they changed the schedule and we headed to the coast for a day. During our drive it felt like we got a moment to see between the cracks. All the roads were overbuilt—four or five lanes wide—but if you have free labor and need to keep people busy, you might as well put them to work. We were one of the only cars on the road and there were a couple inches of compacted snow and ice on it. At one point we came around a bend and we could see hundreds of people in the road as we slowly drove through them and saw that they were chipping up the ice with sticks, bagging it up in burlap sacks and putting it in the back of trucks. This continued for 15 miles as we drove past thousands of men, old ladies and children cleaning the roads. We were told not to take photos during this part of the drive. I had promised that if we went to the ocean I would jump in, but where we went also happened to be where they were dumping all the burlap bags of snow and where I had promised to jump in was more of a slushy consistency rather than water and I chickened out. Maybe next time.

Austin Smith

Austin and a North Korea friend.

Wang Lei

Wang Lei.

When we got back to our forty-seven story hotel in Pyongyang, it appeared that we were the only guests, plus one lady from China who was on a tour by herself. That night in the revolving restaurant on the top floor of our hotel we had a couple beers, which we were told won a U.S. competition for being the 2nd best beer. Odd. Meanwhile, we watched the waitress who would walk out of the kitchen with a full plate of food, around the restaurant as if there were other people in there, and then dip into the backdoor of the kitchen still carrying the full plate of food. She did this probably a dozen times with different plates. It felt like The Truman Show, where you’re constantly trying to see what’s real and what isn’t. On another night of our tour, we walked into a theater for the circus and every single person in the audience turned around and stared at us and then the circus started moments after our arrival. Was the whole show for us? Would a restaurant that we went to even be a restaurant that night if we weren’t there? Were the hundreds of people at the waterpark that we went to there on their own accord? They seemed to be having fun and everyone was smiling, but they also insisted that we walk to the front of the very long lines for all the waterslides.
What was real was the lack of energy. All the buildings were cold, power outages were a daily occurrence and everything was dark at night, except the lit statues of the Kims. And meanwhile, they were just finishing the world’s largest hotel that looks like a giant shiny spaceship, a building that is completely unnecessary and weird because our hotel was empty. But traveling to North Korea isn’t scary. Instead, it is scripted, and you’re just along for the ride. Everyone that we encountered seemed well-fed and happy, especially the kids. But you do see oppression even without witnessing the labor camps and there is a lot you do not see. If you choose to go snowboarding in North Korea, don’t expect great riding. North Korea didn’t provide the greatest snowboarding adventure or any type of adventure because it’s such a controlled and scripted trip. It also didn’t provide the type of intrigue that warranted the fears I had heard from so many people. Instead, it was an interesting peek into a world very few westerners get to see. I’m lucky to be one of those few to come away with numerous stories to tell. I can’t say I have any plans for a return visit, though.
While we sat at the gate waiting for our flight there was one other flight scheduled to depart that day. And after spending a week in the most censored and oppressed country we had to wonder if that flight was real or if it was just put on the reader board to seem normal. And if that was the case, after our flight took off did the airport close and everyone go home? The show was over.