HUFFINGTON POST

40 Photos From An Epic Road Trip Through North Korea

LAKE CHON, North Korea (AP) — When North Korea opens its doors, it does so for a reason. So it was when the authoritarian government granted permission for a road trip so extensive that few North Koreans — let alone a pair of American journalists — could imagine taking it.

We drove 2,150 kilometers (1,336 miles) in a country that has barely 25,000 kilometers of road, and only 724 kilometers of those paved. By the time we returned to the capital a week later, our Chinese-made Great Wall SUV had a few new scratches and one less hubcap.

Our official destination was majestic Mount Paektu, with its jagged peaks surrounding a crystal-blue crater lake. North Korea is pursuing a plan to create dozens of special foreign investment and tourism zones, and this is one of the places it most wants to promote.

The easiest way to get there is to fly, but we had been granted permission to drive. This, we were told, would mean traveling through places that no foreign journalists had been allowed to see before.

Still, the trip was on North Korea's terms.

hamgyong In this June 20, 2014 photo, young North Korean schoolchildren help to fix pot holes in a rural road in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

Even on the loneliest of lonely highways, we would never be without a "minder," whose job was to monitor and supervise our activities. We were not to take photographs of any checkpoints or military installations, or talk to people we happened to see along the way. For the most part, we were not to detour from our pre-approved route, which, to no one's surprise, didn't include nuclear facilities or prison camps.

Though we would not get to know the people along the way, the country itself had a great deal to say. And no place is more symbolic of the North Korean psyche than Mount Paektu.

North Koreans venerate it for its natural beauty, but more importantly because it is considered the home of the North Korean revolution. It is dotted by reconstructions of "secret camps," where guides dressed in period costume recount the legends of Kim Il Sung's battles against Japanese imperialists.

hamgyong In this June 20, 2014 photo, North Korean residents walk on a road along a river in the town of Kimchaek, in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

Before we left Pyongyang, the capital, we were warned, half-jokingly, not to get lost. Mount Paektu straddles North Korea's border with China.

"If you wander off into China," we were told, "you will be shot."

Something similar had, in fact, happened many years ago. No borders were involved, but a South Korean housewife who strayed off the accepted path at a tourist site was fatally shot in the back by a North Korean guard.

north korea children In this June 15, 2014 photo, North Korean school children walk on the beach next to the sea in the east coast city of Wonsan in North Korea's Kangwon province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

Nothing so dramatic had happened as we made our way across the country to the mountain.

Wrested out of our beds for our ascent up to the summit after four days on the road, we fumbled without lights to pack our equipment, made our way down our hotel's candlelit staircase and climbed into our car in the pouring-down rain. With no signs to guide him, our driver steered silently into the night.

Many people have been amazed by nighttime satellite images that show North Korea as dark as the ocean, set against a northeast Asia brimming with light. There is nothing in the world like experiencing that darkness on the ground over long stretches of the North Korean back country. Possibly more than any other populated place on the globe, North Korea is terra incognita.

ryanggang In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, North Korean men rest along the roadside north of Samsu, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

As we drove toward the dawn, two armed soldiers emerged from the darkness, signaled for us to stop and for our minder to get out. The rain was coming down harder as they stood in the blurry pool of our headlights.

One peered in at us through the rain-dotted window. There was a good deal of gesticulating. Then some head nodding. Our minder got back in the car.

We had gotten lost, but we weren't in China. We were going the wrong way down a one-lane, one-way road.

The soldiers waved us on. With North Korean tourism still in its infancy, we were safe. We wouldn't see another car until we reached the snowy, wind-whipped parking lot below the crater, where two small vans full of shivering Chinese waited for a guard to wake up and lead them to Lake Chon.

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Follow Talmadge on Twitter at twitter.com/EricTalmadge and Instagram @erictalmadge

ryanggang In this Wednesday, June 18, 2014 photo, clouds float over the peak of Mt. Paektu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

  • In this June 20, 2014 photo, a North Korean man stands in front of a row of homes in the town of Kimchaek, in North Korea's N
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 20, 2014 photo, a North Korean man stands in front of a row of homes in the town of Kimchaek, in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 20, 2014 photo, an exclamation point punctuates a long propaganda slogan in a field in North Korea's North Hamgy
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 20, 2014 photo, an exclamation point punctuates a long propaganda slogan in a field in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 19, 2014 photo, residents of a small roadside town walk towards the main road in North Korea's North Hamgyong. (
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 19, 2014 photo, residents of a small roadside town walk towards the main road in North Korea's North Hamgyong. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 19, 2014 photo, a North Korean man pushes his bicycle to a village in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 19, 2014 photo, a North Korean man pushes his bicycle to a village in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, North Korean men ride in a farmer's wagon in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, North Korean men ride in a farmer's wagon in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 20, 2014 photo, North Korean people rest next to the railroad tracks in a town in North Korea's North Hamgyong p
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 20, 2014 photo, North Korean people rest next to the railroad tracks in a town in North Korea's North Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this Saturday, June 21, 2014 photo North Koreans walk in front of an apartment building in North Korea's South Hamgyong pr
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this Saturday, June 21, 2014 photo North Koreans walk in front of an apartment building in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 21, 2014 photo a monument of a fist holding a bayonetted Kalashnikov rifle stands on a roadside in North Korea's
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 21, 2014 photo a monument of a fist holding a bayonetted Kalashnikov rifle stands on a roadside in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 20, 2014 photo, exhaust fumes, like fog, spills out of the long Hamgwan Tunnel near Hamhung in North Korea's Sou
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 20, 2014 photo, exhaust fumes, like fog, spills out of the long Hamgwan Tunnel near Hamhung in North Korea's South Hamgyong province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 15, 2014 photo, an apartment block stands behind hotel room curtains on the main street in Hamhung, North Korea.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 15, 2014 photo, an apartment block stands behind hotel room curtains on the main street in Hamhung, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 15, 2014 photo, the remains of lunch sits on a restaurant table in the city of Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/Da
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 15, 2014 photo, the remains of lunch sits on a restaurant table in the city of Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 14, 2014 photo, portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are illuminated on a buil
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 14, 2014 photo, portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are illuminated on a building side as the sun rises over Pyongyang. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 16, 2014 photo, statues of animals playing musical instruments stand along the roadside south of Samsu, North Ko
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 16, 2014 photo, statues of animals playing musical instruments stand along the roadside south of Samsu, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, walks with a pink umbrella along the roadside south of Samsu, North Korea in Ryanggang p
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this Monday, June 16, 2014 photo, walks with a pink umbrella along the roadside south of Samsu, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 16, 2014 photo, farmers walk in a rainstorm with their cattle near the town of Hyesan, North Korea in Ryanggang
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 16, 2014 photo, farmers walk in a rainstorm with their cattle near the town of Hyesan, North Korea in Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 16, 2014 photo, boys play soccer in the town of Hyesan in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Gutt
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 16, 2014 photo, boys play soccer in the town of Hyesan in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 16, 2014 photo, North Korean men share a picnic lunch and North Korean-brewed and bottled Taedonggang beer along
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 16, 2014 photo, North Korean men share a picnic lunch and North Korean-brewed and bottled Taedonggang beer along the road in North Korea's North Hwanghae province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 16, 2014 photo, a fishing boat crosses the Samsu reservoir near the town of Samsu in North Korea's Ryanggang pro
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 16, 2014 photo, a fishing boat crosses the Samsu reservoir near the town of Samsu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 17, 2014 photo, a deer's hoof used as a door handle, hangs from the front door of the home where North Koreans s
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a deer's hoof used as a door handle, hangs from the front door of the home where North Koreans say the late leader Kim Jong Il was born around Mount Paektu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man holds a hand drawn map of the areas around Mt. Paektu as he and colleagues dr
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man holds a hand drawn map of the areas around Mt. Paektu as he and colleagues drive in Samjiyon in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man sits by a cooking fire he built to roast potatoes and chicken in the town of
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man sits by a cooking fire he built to roast potatoes and chicken in the town of Samjiyon, in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man takes shelter in the rain next to long propaganda billboards in the town of S
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 17, 2014 photo, a North Korean man takes shelter in the rain next to long propaganda billboards in the town of Samjiyon in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 18, 2014 photo, the Associated Press vehicle climbs the slopes of Mount Paektu in North Korea's in North Korea's
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 18, 2014 photo, the Associated Press vehicle climbs the slopes of Mount Paektu in North Korea's in North Korea's Ryanggang province. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In June 18, 2014 photo, a boulder lies on a path near the peak of Mount Paektu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. North Kor
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In June 18, 2014 photo, a boulder lies on a path near the peak of Mount Paektu in North Korea's Ryanggang province. North Koreans venerate Mount Paektu for its natural beauty, but more importantly because it is considered the home of the North Korean revolution. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 19, 2014 photo, smoke stacks of a factories stand behind a compound wall along a street in the city of Chongjin,
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 19, 2014 photo, smoke stacks of a factories stand behind a compound wall along a street in the city of Chongjin, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this Thursday, June 19, 2014 photo, North Korean women sit in their small food stalls in front of apartment blocks on the
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this Thursday, June 19, 2014 photo, North Korean women sit in their small food stalls in front of apartment blocks on the outskirts of Chongjin, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 19, 2014 photo, a hotel employee walks in the lobby of a hotel that accommodates foreign visitors in Chongjin, N
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 19, 2014 photo, a hotel employee walks in the lobby of a hotel that accommodates foreign visitors in Chongjin, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 21, 2014 photo, a row of bicycles are parked next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 21, 2014 photo, a row of bicycles are parked next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 21, 2014 photo, a group of young North Koreans enjoys a picnic on the beach in Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/Da
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 21, 2014 photo, a group of young North Koreans enjoys a picnic on the beach in Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
  • In this June 21, 2014 photo, a man works on his car as others sit next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea.  (AP Photo/David Gutte
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In this June 21, 2014 photo, a man works on his car as others sit next to the sea Wonsan, North Korea. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
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