Uncharted Backpacker

Learning to Surf in North Korea

Pyongyang, North Korea

North Korea the next big surfing destination! No, these are not headlines you are likely to hear anytime soon. But the fact is, there is Surfing in North Korea. Not just for those privileged to make their way into the hermit nation of Asia. North Korean’s themselves are beginning to take notice of this sport. Something unheard of in the past. Not only surfing but stand up paddleboards as well! There is so much more to this mysterious country than meets the eye. After two weeks gallivanting around the country, I can finally say tell you that the Uncharted Backpacker surfed for the very first time… In North Korea!

North Korea’s Capital, Pyongyang

From my hotel window, I awoke to the sounds of the eerie morning wake up call. Gazing from the window the sun rises over the fog covered colorful structures that line the city streets of Pyongyang. Locals sporting styles from the 50’s and military workers begin to fill the streets on their way to work.

Learning to Surf in North Korea

Pyongyang’s Ryugyong Hotel from Juche Tower

This is the North Korea most travelers will experience. Seeing life unfold from your hotel or bus window. This is not the North Korea I am about to embark on, however.  Being one of the lucky travelers that will scout out the Northern coastline with a few others on a mission with Uri Tours. That mission is to find surfing and water sport culture in North Korea.

Before we head off to North Korea’s remote Northern coastline we will be shown around the capital city, Pyongyang. Leaving the hotel we drive past some of North Korea’s most recognizable landmarks the Arch of Triumph, Ryugyong Hotel and the Tower of Juche before stopping at the Mansudae Grand Monument to pay our respects to the founding fathers of North Korea. I laid flowers at the feet of the leaders not because I have been brainwashed or follow politics here. But in respect for the North Korean people around me.

Learning to Surf in North Korea

Laying flowers at the Mansudae Grand Monument

In the afternoon we took the Pyongyang subway, dubbed the deepest underground subway in the world. With the subway, we made our way to Kim Il Sung Square and the Foreign Languages Bookshop nearby to pick up some fantastic North Korean propaganda souvenirs, including flags, posters, and books. We finished our first day with some Korean BBQ and North Korean craft beer… and I must say, it was pretty amazing!

Learning to Surf in North Korea

North Korean craft beer is amazing!


Bicycle Trip through Pyongyang

The next morning we drove to the edge of “Science Street”, and hopped on a bicycle with my guide. We rode through the streets passing more of the amazing landmarks. Unfortunately, many times I was told not to photograph or take videos during this trip. On route, we stopped by the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, and seen the USS Pueblo American “Spy” ship.

Learning to Surf in North Korea

Riding bikes past Kim Il Sung Square

The afternoon we climbed the Tower of Juche to see the entire skyline of Pyongyang. Although my photography was censored at times, for the most part, I was allowed to photograph whatever I wanted. Military and bridges were the main objects of taboo.

Later we stopped by the Kwangbok Supermarket to pick up some snacks for the journey ahead. Here is a great place to pick up North Korean Ginseng whiskey!

The Nam River and Ulim Waterfall

This day is when the adventure finally began! The day where we leave the “touristy” parts of North Korea. From Pyongyang, we set off North East on the highway that cuts right across the country connecting the two coastlines.

Learning to Surf in North Korea

Highway that connects North Korea’s two coasts

Taking photos from the bus was allowed, with some exceptions. For example, I started getting trigger happy and accidentally photographed a military base without knowing. My guide was not too fond of this and instructed that I delete the photos.

The further we ventured from Pyongyang, the more remote and authentic the country began to feel. Vibrant green rice fields with ox plows, farmers wearing military gear and rice hats, and stark limestone peaks covered in picturesque clouds, this was the real North Korea that we were all in search of.

Our first stop was the Sinpyong Tea House which is located right beside the dam on the Nam River. Here we got our first SUP (Stand up Paddleboard), session. Locals quickly jaunt to the riverside to see such a spectacle, although they were very shy seeing us foreigners here.

From the Nam River, we drove high into the mountains to the Ulim Waterfall. Getting here you cross some very remote villages on rough roads giving you a very off the beaten track feel. The waterfall is reached by a 15-minute walk through the forest. It’s truly a wonderful sight to see in this remote corner of the world.

Learning to Surf in North Korea

Ulim Waterfall, North Korea

Wonsan and Surfing in North Korea

Another three-hour drive brought us to Wonsan, a small port city in between Majon and Sajon. Here we had a seafood dinner before exploring the streets of this interesting city. There isn’t much for sights here, but it’s fascinating to mingle with the locals.  I actually had a Military officer ride by me on a bicycle wielding an AK-47 yelling “Welcome to North Korea! Are you not scared?”

Learning to Surf in North Korea

Surfing in North Korea

We drove another hour along the coast towards South Korea to a resort located on the lake right beside Sajon Beach. Here we downed a few bottles of Soju and reminisced about the crazy day we had.

The morning here was beautiful, the soft shades of light over the rolling green hills surrounding the lake were stunning. We took in another SUP session along the shores of the lake. Local fishermen were very surprised to see a foreigner paddling along the waters beside them!

Learning to Surf in North Korea

Next stop was Sajon Beach, a long white strip of white sand with a small hotel that clearly doesn’t see too many guests. The turquoise blue water, distant green islands, and old rusting fishing boats on the beach made this a special place to learn how to surf.

Nick our Italian surf ambassador taught me here for two days the ways of the waves. Now the surf wasn’t spectacular, but the fact that I was learning in such a unique place made it pretty extraordinary.

Learning to Surf in North Korea

Surf ambassador Nick and I

Surfing Majon Beach

From Sajon Beach, we drove three hours north to Majon following the coastline. We passed by the cities of Wonsan and Hamhung. There were plenty of awesome photo opportunities of propaganda and remote communities on this road!

Majon is, in fact, a beach resort town. Although our resort, which was massive and lavish was indeed deserted. The rooms were spotless and mimicked a resort in any other holiday destination in the world, but there were no tourists to be found.

Learning to Surf in North Korea

Nick riding the waves in Majon Beach, North Korea

The private beach was also quite the scene. Being located right beside a military observation tower meant that if you are to take a photo, you had better steer your camera in the appropriate direction, or you could upset the wrong authorities.

Here, the waves were much larger and more enticing to surf. Majon is also the first place where many North Koreans joined us in the watersport fun. This day we finally got some superb surfing action!

The next day I helped Nick train many of the hotel staff on how to Surf and SUP. It was fun to interact with the Majon residents, and they were very keen on learning as well. We spent the whole day surfing with them before having a beach BBQ including Soju with our new friends for supper. On the menu, giant clams cooked with petrol. A local specialty here in Majon!

Learning to Surf in North Korea

Our Guide Park and Surf Ambassador Nick

Day trip to the Stone River and Hamhung

To take a break from surfing we decided to venture into the mountains again to the “Stone River”. This journey takes almost six hours each way! On the way there, we passed by some very far-flung and inaccessible communities. Out here cars are replaced by bicycles and cow carts, and the houses are made of wood in order to better insulate from the frigid temperatures they receive here.

Learning to Surf in North Korea

North Korean countryside on our way to the Stone River

The stone river is exactly what comes to mind when you hear it. It’s a large river that has been completely littered with grey boulders due to a landslide that happened quite some years ago. There happens to be a North Korean Military base located beside the river, so you must take an appointed military guide to show you around, but pictures were not an issue. The river is quite the phenomenon, but to be honest the journey here was much more fascinating as we got a great insight into the parts unknown of North Korea.

Before returning back to Majon, we made a quick detour to Hamhung which is located only a few kilometers from Majon resort. This bustling city has a few quirky sights to see including the Tonghungsan Revolutionary Site, Hamhung Grand Theatre, and Hamhung Old Royal Palace. Like other places in North Korea, the really fascinating thing is just being there watching life unfold, and finding yourself in a place that most will call impossible to visit.

Learning to Surf in North Korea

Our military guide at the Stone River

Why I Enjoyed Visiting North Korea

As you can see, this post is not about politics. If you want to know more about politics than you can Google North Korea and I am almost certain you will find what you’re looking for. This post is to show that behind all the media and propaganda there is a country full of regular people. People who want to live normal lives. People who are just like they are everywhere else in the world.

Instead of focusing on the obvious issues here, I’d like to tell you why I loved traveling North Korea. Firstly, travel here is unique. There is few other places on the planet where people are so curious to see a foreigner.

Learning to Surf in North Korea

Secondly, traveling even just slightly off the beaten track here rewards you with the possibility of being in places that not a single traveler or foreigner has ever seen! Doing this, however, takes a lot of planning and money.

Lastly, are the people. The people of North Korea put on somewhat of an act when you first meet them but if you spend any time with them they will open up and show their true selves. These people are educated, funny, and will surely become good friends of yours.

Travel to North Korea is about breaking boundaries, about showing the world that borders, politics, and people’s views should not separate us. In the end, when you dig past all of the problems you will see that travel can bring us together and end the conflict!

Learning to Surf in North Korea

Uri Tours

Travel to North Korea is unique. To come here you must have a tour agency. You are probably wondering why I chose Uri Tours? Dig through all the North Korean Travel agencies and you will see they offer tours, the same trail, the same sights. Uri on the other hand is looking to promote North Korean Tourism from a different view. Their vision is to come to North Korea for experiences first! experiences like, Surfing, Skiing/Snowboarding, Marathons, and festivals.  For this truly different outlook on the conventional tourism idea I chose them. Thanks Uri, North Korea was incredible! If your interested in Surfing in North Korea check out one of their upcoming tours here!

North Korea Useful Information

Tour Company: Uri Tours

Guide Book: North Korea Bradt

 

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Stephen Gollan

Stephen Gollan

Uncharted Backpacker is a glimpse at the past eleven years of globetrotting I have done. Now at over ninety countries I share my travel knowledge for you so you too can travel the world and see what wonders it has to offer.

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