When asked if I would like to join…
──Vol. 1 : The Hermit Kingdom – Skateboarding in North Korea.
When asked if I would like to join a trip to a totalitarian nuclear state, dubbed by George W Bush as ‘the axis of evil', still governed by a dead dictator and been completely closed off to the rest of the planet since the 1950s, I obviously jumped at the chance. For a country famous for its isolation, famine, lowest ranking of human rights, prison camps and heavy militarisation, little is known about everyday life there, making it one of the most interesting places in the world.
The Hungarian videographer and good friend Patrik Wallner first hatched the plan and invited the international Russian playboy Kirill Korobkov (donning brown corduroy dungarees for the whole trip) and myself. I doubt that anyone else would have wanted to go… Our mission was to go on a three-day tour of the capital city, Pyongyang to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the great leader and ‘eternal president’, Kim Il-Sung and try to ride our skateboards.
The only way you can enter the country is on a guided tour, following a rigorous schedule alongside a group mainly composed of middle aged, middle class adventure tourists. Doctors, investment bankers and salesmen of weapon accessories, cracking jokes about being sent to the gulag prison camps and discussing the merits of the light switches in the Sheraton, Singapore. Alongside an eccentric African-American UPS pilot that always wore two hats, ate astronaut food and took photos of his baseball bat at famous monuments around the world, we stuck out like a sore thumb.
My first stroke of luck was to sit next to a North Korean man ‘Kim’ on the flight from Beijing. As the welcome messages praising the eternal leader appeared on the screens blaring out the ‘pangapsumnida’ (glad to meet you) song, I realised that this might actually be my only opportunity to have a full conversation with a North Korean. The flight was only 40 minutes so I tried to squeeze as much information out of him as I could. With his pigeon English and a pen and paper, I discovered that he has three jobs – importing fuel, doing magic shows and giving guided tours. He has been to several countries including Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Germany and France. He had the opportunity to travel to study magic as various circuses. When I asked about Cuba, he said “sex” with a twinkle in his eye. While in France he said he saw 007 Goldeneye on television and was impressed with Bond’s chest hair. I showed him my hairy arms and he laughed. He was very interested in my age, height, occupation and salary and subtly wanted me to know that his watch cost $1,200. The whole experience was so surreal that it left me wondering if our encounter was authentic or not.
On arrival, we were promptly packed into tour busses and carted off around the city on a non-stop tourist circuit to see memorials, parades, statues and shows before going back to the hotel to get drunk, sing karaoke and sleep for a few hours. Our sole chance to skate came when we were taken to a dilapidated fun-park to see a crew of acrobatic infants do circus tricks. It was the only place we could actually sneak away from our chaperones and we had a full 90 minutes to wander around, the only hitch being that our boards were all locked in the bus that seemed to have abandoned us.
Having already found a restaurant wall to jump over and a small handrail we were desperate to try and get a photo. After an hour, we eventually found the bus but without the driver. The next twenty minutes were spent franticly searching for the driver until Kirill lost it completely and pulled a lever under the bus, giving off a loud hiss as the front door flopped open, revealing the keys for the storage compartment left in the ignition. A group of locals stare open-mouthed as we pull our boards out from under the bus and push to the first spot. After three tries ollying the wall, I have a hysterical woman waving her arms in my face, a police officer telling us to leave and a half-broken board. With only five minutes left, we make one last attempt to get a photo on a small rusty handrail, no wax, with a waitress trying to shoo us away. Somehow the photo came out.
Was the trip worth it? Who knows. Would I go again? Probably not. Why do we spend all our time, money and energy going to strange and dangerous places to ride a four-wheeled plank of plywood? I have no idea. Maybe our guide, Miss Kim, who had never seen a skateboard before was right when she described our activities – “That is nonsense”.