Pyongyang Review of Books:
Sten Bergman's 'In Korean
Wilds and Villages'

A short review of the 1938 travel account of a Swedish zoologist in northern Korea

A guest post from a friend of Koryo.

Ingrid Bergman, you're so perty
You'd make any mountain quiver
You'd make fire fly from the crater
Ingrid Bergman
- Wilco, Ingrid Bergman

Twice a year Koryo Tours charters a flight to get to the highest point and most sacred place in Korea – Mt. Paekdu. (Fact: the highest peak of Mt. Paektu is 2,744 meters tall - it used to be much taller before the giant eruption that formed its crater lake). How though did anyone get there before Air Koryo, let alone the DPRK, were founded?

Well… find out by reading In Korean Wilds and Villages, a 1938 travel account by Swedish zoologist Sten Bergman, who went on an expedition through northern Korea. While his primary aim was the study of local wildlife and collecting specimen for Swedish natural history museums, his book offers much more than information on Korea’s flora and fauna. Providing a #rareglimpse into pre-war travels through the country, Bergman describes the local people, life, culture and traditions he encounters, as well as, and specifically, the experience of travelling across vast parts of the country. The book gives a lot of insight into matters such as Korean everyday- and work life, wedding customs, food and local living conditions. You'll learn why a Korean man's 61st birthday is the most important and why frustrated daughter-in-laws eat washing powder.

Bergman travels all the way from Keijo (the Japanese name for Seoul), up to Mt. Paekdu – spending time in remote villages across the way, mainly in today’s North Hamgyong Province. It becomes very obvious that the natural and infrastructural conditions of the times demand for even more (!) endurance on the traveller’s side than they do today. As reader however you will also find yourself challenged keeping up with Bergman’s whereabouts, unless you know what towns and villages were named during Japanese annexation. If not, don’t despair and flip to the back of the book - What will you’ll find there? It’s a Map! (Yes, this is a Dora The Explorer reference but Bergman was, after all, an explorer.)

Fact: Bergman travelled with Japanese taxidermist Kenji Fujimoto, a name which you might recognize as someone else’s namesake. Otherwise, go Google it!

You can download the pdf of Bergman's book here: IN KOREAN WILDS AND VILLAGES. Translated by Frederic Whyte. London: Travel Book Club, 1938. 232 pages, including photos and a MAP.

And below a song about another Bergman and another volcano by Wilco.

Koryo Tours' Liberation Day Long Tour (August 14-23/4; from 2,390 EUR), National Day Mega Tour (September 1-22/23; from 4,590 EUR), and Unseen Korea Tour (September 11-11/23; from 2,890 EUR) all visit Mt. Paekdu. The latter two also visit North Hamgyong province through which Bergman did much of his travelling.

The Pyongyang Review of Books (PYRB) is a modest literary review of books from the DPRK and Korea related topics. Regular visitors and browsers of Pyongyang’s bookstores.

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