A guest blog by Michael Wix on skateboarding in North Korea
Last April, Michael Wix from New Zealand and Niklas Olsson from Sweden visited the DPRK on a private tour to run the Pyongyang Marathon for the third time and skateboard wherever they could. He shares his guest blog about his experiences below.
As tensions continue to rise on the Korean peninsula, it's easy to forget that the people of North Korea are just like us.
After visiting North Korea to run the Pyongyang Marathon the last two years, this year Niklas and I visited Pyongyang, Donglim, and Sinuiju with skateboards in hand, determined to share our passion for skateboarding with anyone in the DPRK willing to give it a try.
We arrived in Pyongyang’s brand new international airport expecting our tour guides to at least know about skateboarding — but encountered exactly the opposite. Our surprised but curious guides had no idea what a skateboard was or how it worked, and focused instead on sightseeing and the Pyongyang International Marathon, which we were running for our third time.
Niklas and I sat quietly as the guides briefed us on the itinerary, waiting for the details about where we would skate. When the guides finished briefing us and asked if we had questions we looked at one another and said: ‘When do we skate?’
After explaining again to our guides that skating is a healthy sport, means of transport in the West, and a passion for millions of people worldwide, we were politely asked to wait while a flurry of calls was made. When the senior guide — a confident woman in her thirties with hundreds of tours with foreigners under her belt — returned, she told us that she had arranged for us to visit a skatepark the next day.
The Pyongyang Skatepark was opened in November 2012, but the general lack of access to skateboards in the isolated country means it's rarely used (inline skates were once quite popular but not so much anymore). We turned up and found a magnificent skatepark, that kids in Sweden or New Zealand would love, empty except for two ladies repainting sides of the ramps. I think they were extremely surprised to see two beaming, enormous foreigners skating on their ramps. We were hoping to meet other skaters and share our passion for the sport with them, but it became apparent that if there were skaters in Pyongyang, they weren’t skating at the skatepark that day.
Later two kids turned up with inline skates. Their parents watched and laughed as we chased them around the park hoping to convince them to give skateboarding a try. Because we can't speak very much Korean, it became a fun game of cat and mouse as they worked together to avoid us. We did manage to convince our guides and driver to give skating a try. It was sensational fun. The laughs and the curiosity combined with surprising amounts of courage left us all feeling great — especially since Niklas and I had long dreamed of longboarding in North Korea.
The next day we ran the Pyongyang International Marathon. It was our third consecutive year running, and we plan to continue this tradition as long as we can. Pyongyang is a gorgeous city in the spring with blossom everywhere, brightly painted buildings, and welcoming locals cheering you on. I always say that the Pyongyang Marathon is a marathon powered by high-fives. There are more roadside high-fives in the Pyongyang Marathon than anywhere else I’ve run. And although we felt disconnected from the world there in every way, we simultaneously felt free from the stress of our connected 24-7 lives back home. It’s a strange irony.
After the marathon, we requested to go for a short recovery run along the river. The guides were hesitant about the idea to go off plan, but having seen us run in the marathon that morning, I think they both felt a little bit inspired to run with us — to try running for fun and to enjoy the gorgeous Pyongyang spring. For me, sharing that run with them was even more fun than the marathon. Afterward, assuming we were exhausted from the marathon, they asked what we wanted to do next, to which our answer was ‘Skate! Of course!’
We then convinced our guides to allow us to skate freely along the same riverside boardwalk that we had just run with them. Like many great cities, Pyongyang also has a river at its heart — the beautiful Taedong River. That peaceful two or three kilometer stretch of riverside pavement that was just perfect for skating was the most satisfying longboarding sesh I’ve had in my life. To me, skating is freedom — so skating freely among Koreans out for their afternoon stroll, with the Taedong River and the Juche Tower as our background, was simply magic.
On the way back to the inner city Pyongyang Hotel, we encountered a group of kids playing games on the sidewalk. They were probably around ten years old and incredibly curious. With our guides looking on, a translator wasn't necessary as the kids waited patiently to each have a go on the skateboards while Niklas and I helped them keep their balance an skate to the corner and back.
The next day, after an emotional goodbye to our Pyongyang guides, we boarded a slow train to Dongrim, a remote rural area of the country’s Northwest. There we were shown a brand new resort surrounded by an ancient wall that looked similar to sections of the Chinese Great Wall that I’ve seen in remote parts of China. These walls were part of a series of fortifications designed to defend Korea's northwest against foreign invasion. We were not allowed to visit the wall or even take photos of it, and unfortunately, skating was not allowed either.
The next morning, I awoke to screams of laughter and delight outside. I looked out from my balcony and saw that our driver had taken my longboard out of the van, and the hotel staff and our guides were taking turns falling off it. At first, I was annoyed as they hadn’t asked me, but the curiosity was infectious, so I went down and started showing them how not to fall off, and not crash into stuff. I hadn’t got to showing them how to brake and stop when one of the Korean hotel staff grabbed the board and rushed off up a mountain road with it. I was sure he would end up with some scraps and bruises, but he pulled his first downhill off beautifully to great applause from us all.
My Sector 9 bamboo longboard is my prize possession, and in less than an hour, they had trashed it, cracking both ends completely. Yet I couldn't do anything other than smile because of the fun and the friendship it had bought us.
Not long after leaving Dongrim on the bumpy dirt roads, we noticed smooth paved roads off to the side that could only be described as ‘the perfect downhill longboard sesh’. Again our guide — more out of habit than anything — told us the road was off limits for foreigners. North Korea is so skateable, but it’s not allowed. It reminded Niklas of how Sweden banned skateboarding when he was a kid. We are more similar than we realize.Arriving in Sinuiju, the city closest to China, Korean protocol dictates that the first port of call is a visit to giant mosaics and monuments. In another country you might see several kids practicing their skateboarding on the large paved squares in front of monuments, but not in North Korea. Skating anywhere near an image of the leaders is deemed disrespectful.
We didn't manage to convince our guide in Sinuiju to allow us to skate but visited a music kindergarten instead. There’s so much talent in this country it’s amazing. The kids there were brilliant.
It’s easy to forget that there are real people in North Korea who are just like us. They laugh, they smile, they like to have fun, they like to have new experiences and learn new things, just like we do. Skateboarding was just our way of showing ordinary North Koreans that we are no different to them and that we are friendly. It's a kind of person-to-person engagement that we need more of today. It's Skateboarding Engagement!
If you, like Michael, would like to contribute a guest blog as well, please contact us at info [at] koryogroup.com. If running marathons is more your cup of tea, you can join the 2018 Pyongyang Marathon by joining one of our tours here.
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