In the second of our strange skiing series, Tim Neville reports from the propaganda-lined pistes of Masikryong, North Korea’s best (and only) ski resort.
So these four guys and I walk into a bar, but it isn’t just any bar. We’re deep inside North Korea. It’s winter, cold and well after dark.
The place is empty except for two Korean guys in dark suits eating dried mackerel. They’re wearing red “loyalty” pins over their hearts, marking them as regime favourites. Outside a giant screen flickers with images of swaying flowers, crashing waves and re-enactments of the People’s Army blowing things up.
This is how the après-ski scene starts at Masikryong, North Korea’s premier (and only) luxury ski resort.
Located in the dense forested mountains of the Ryongjo Workers District, about 160km (100 miles) east of Pyongyang, the resort opened in 2014 under the command of the country’s enigmatic leader, Kim Jong-un. The army, which builds everything in North Korea, needed just 18 months to transform a 1,360m (4,460ft) peak into a resort with 10 intermediate to advanced pistes.
Its two modern hotels feature shiny tiles and elegant woodwork. There are swimming pools and restaurants serving fresh fish. Of all the things to spend $100 million on, at least they included some food.
On my arrival from Beijing, the whole country was celebrating the birthday of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s late father.
Thousands danced in sync to revolutionary songs on a huge public square; blooms of giant Kimjongilia (genetically engineered begonias) were arranged around fake machine guns and missiles.
Still, the streets felt empty, with long blocks of joyless buildings. Only 30 of our hotel’s 1,000 rooms were occupied and few had bought the bear cub paws from the gift shop.
After day four of the Birthday Tour, a small group of us – Americans and Europeans – headed into the mountains to ski. The landscape was harsh and lonely, but eerily beautiful too; a pastel-orange sunset glowed over stark stands of bare fruit trees.
Soldiers shovelled gravel and dried rice; they rode bicycles with baskets. We presented papers at checkpoints and passed lorries that ran on wood.
Until now, we’d been forbidden from even leaving the hotel without a guide, but at the resort we could roam on our own.
We rented new skis, and spent 43 painfully slow minutes on rickety lifts to reach the summit. Opera blared from tower-mounted speakers. At the top, the maître d’ of an empty mountainside restaurant wanted to take my picture next to its giant, unfilled fish tank.
“Do you like to ski?” I asked.
“Yes, yes!” he said. “Ski! Ski!” and he crouched into a tuck.
I raced down un-groomed slopes, the powder welling up around my thighs. North Korean ski instructors in bright yellow and orange did showy drills in view of the hotels. I tried to follow them but got a stern “No!” from the captain.
Of the 200 or so North Koreans here, some tried the beginner slopes but many didn’t bother with skis at all. They just rode the lifts around and around.
After skiing, we headed to an airy and sterile bar with few tables and a really clean dancefloor. The pin-wearing Koreans put down their fish and left, but the barmaids seemed to like us.
“Be careful, fellas,” joked one of the Londoners, “the punishment for premarital sex here is re-education.”
“Soju?” asked a bartender, handing me a bottle of rice wine and some glasses.
We clinked drinks, posed for pictures, and suddenly the disco lights were flashing. The barmaids began singing for a party of five and the weirdness all felt rather normal.
NEED TO KNOW
Leisure tourists will only be granted access to North Korea if entering as part of an official organised tour. Uri Tours (tel: +1 201 588 3874; www.uritours.com) run an eight-day tour of the country that includes a visit to Masikryong ski resort, starting at £1,750 (not including flights).
Most tour operators require passengers to book their own flights to Beijing. Turkish Airlines return flights from London to Beijing start at £359 return.
Masik lift pass and equipment rental: approximately £25 per day.
Where to stay
Hotels are organised by the tour group.
Planning your own ski adventure?
Check out our ski hub: updated for the 2015/16 season, it provides insightful information on over 100 popular ski resorts, including details on accommodation, nightlife and skiing facilities – giant propaganda screens optional.