Home Story The World’s First Mountain Biking Expedition to North Korea
Feature type Story
Read time 3 min read
Published Feb 19, 2020
Author Dan Milner
Photographer Dan Milner
Many were surprised we could go at all, and some said we wouldn’t come back. It was an understandable response to announcing you’re going to North Korea, given the mystery and air of deep suspicion that hangs over the world’s ultimate hermit kingdom. Adding a mountain biking focus to an already edgy trip might appear ambitious at best, or stupid at worst, but there was reason to this two-wheeled madness. We had trails in our sights, but also wanted to see beyond the popular perception of this secretive, virtually unknown country, to look beyond the posturing and sabre-rattling of world leaders and the hyperbole of the press.
Mountain bikes, we hoped, would become the catalyst for experiencing the real North Korea; they might break down barriers and open up conversations with locals, just as they have done in so many other remote places I’ve ridden, from Nepal to Afghanistan. Teaming up with Secret Compass’ logistics guru Tom Bodkin, and pro-riders Harald Philipp and Max Schumann, we considered possibilities and followed leads on trail locations. After a year of caffeine-fuelled evenings spent deciphering Google Earth’s simplistic depiction of North Korea’s steep, rugged volcanic mountains, we finally landed in Pyongyang — with four mountain bikes in tow.
We had trails in our sights, but we also wanted to see beyond the popular perception of this secretive, virtually unknown country
After eight days of feeling dehydrated and overheated, I’ve been craving a river like this so strongly that I’m genuinely worried it may be a mirage
The Berber people live in the Atlas as a result of a difficult, ancient history. Their ancestors were forced to flee into the mountains when the first Mohammedan Arabs arrived in the 7th Century AD, led by the warrior General Uqba ibn Nafi during the Arab conquest of the Mahgreb region.rnrnIt seems that the Berbers haven’t learned to love these mountains yet, seeing only inhospitable terrain where I see the potential for running and freedom. Soon, though, I’m filled with the joy of pure isolation. Being a woman travelling alone in North Africa can be an exhausting and, at times, frightening experience. I’m grateful for the silence and emptiness of the mountains.rnrnWith little chance of seeing anyone else, I can take my long-sleeved shirt off and run a little cooler for a while. In all honesty, I wouldn’t be seen running in my sports bra even in a Western country. The mountains don’t care if you’re male or female, religious or an atheist, dressed in the latest gear or not dressed at all. Yet it saddens me that the people living below this particular mountain have yet to experience the freedom I am relishing.rnrnFrom the top of the pass, I can take in the view in all directions. With no decent maps of this wild terrain, I am often navigating the old-fashioned way by simply looking at the landscape ahead of me and picking the best line. The Atlas lend themselves easily to this practice. There are seemingly endless clear skies, and the dry, red, rocky hills allow their hidden goat tracks to be easily seen from a higher elevation. I’m almost not bothering to look at the GPS, and instead stay on a compass bearing heading west, simply following the trails that I spot from the top of each climb.
North Koreans are generally quite reserved, but Ri Un-Hyo descended into fits of laughter during our guided tour of the birthplace of Kim Jong-Il, the second Supreme Leader of North Korea
This article first appeared in BASE issue #01, read the full issue online here. Be sure to subscribe for every issue delivered direct to your inbox for free.
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