“Fun Run” is an oxymoron, at least to me. I hated running at school, I hate running to catch the last train (and if it isn’t the last I usually don’t run and wait for the next one…) and I especially hate running during *urban exploration*, after all the main topic of this blog. So when I read in the itinerary of my trip to North Korea that one of the (optional) items on the agenda would be a fun run I completely ignored it. It wasn’t until after I booked the tour, actually until after applications for the tour closed, that I started considering joining the fun run. It would be a new experience, it would be for a good cause (minimum donation: 20 Euros) and let’s be honest, when do you get the opportunity to go running in Pyongyang?
The 2013 Pyongyang Fun Run actually was a world premiere. There is a regular Pyongyang marathon, but this event was the first charity run in North Korea. Originally it was planned to have a 5k version and 10k version, leading from the Ryanggang Hotel through Pyongyang’s “sports district” (where most of the competition venues are) to Kwangbok Street. But things didn’t go according to plan and when the organizers found out that a renovation project in the sports district was starting just before the event (and a group of tourists running through a camp of army construction workers wasn’t an option…) the 10k version was axed and a new route was found: along Taedong river, from the former site of the American spy ship USS Pueblo past the *Yanggakdo Hotel* to the city center at Kim Il-sung Square. (*Click here for the exact route on GoogleMaps.*)
Since the Fun Run was optional and we had a tight schedule for the day (May 1st, one of the most important national holidays in North Korea – guess why…) all participants got an early wake-up call – 6 a.m.! A blessing in disguise as I was able to take one of my favorite shots from the window of my hotel room, sunrise in Pyonyang… beautiful!
Originally I intended to run the whole distance with a couple of brief stops for a photo here and there, but after I found out that some people would rather do a Fun Walk I decided to join that relaxed group and take it easy – a smart decision as I woke up slightly sick. Instead of my usual DSLR I brought a pocket camera. Less weight, less “threatening” – photography is treated differently in the DPRK as you know by now.
Although my fellow group member Juliette and I usually were at the rear end of the runner field I never had the feeling that we were under supervision. Every once in a while I saw a Korean guide standing around to show us the track (we started running / walking on top of a small dam along Taedong River, but to avoid bridges and roads sometimes we had to go down to the road north of it or to the waterside promenade to the south). It was early in the morning on a national holiday, so the streets weren’t exactly crowded, but I passed pedestrians or got passed by cyclists on a regular basis – it felt like a genuine morning stroll in a country that is nicknamed “hermit kingdom”. I guess I should have tried to “escape” to find out how tight supervision really was, but I didn’t feel supervised at all – and if I would have been able to speak Korean it would have been easy to make contact with locals. I took a small video with the pocket camera, too – maybe you will be able to demask all the secret service agents I wasn’t able to see; probably because I was too busy enjoying the experience as the weather was great and the atmosphere was tranquil.
Now you might ask: What’s the point of a Fun Run that hardly anybody sees and that had only about 50 participants, none of which were regular locals?
Well, first of all: Those 50 people (and non-participating donors) raised about 2000 Euros to buy milk powder for an orphanage in Nampo – that alone would be reason enough to organize an event like that. But I don’t think it was the main reason why Koryo Tours did it. I think they organized the Fun Run to once more push the boundaries. Some people took the run very seriously, others (like myself) basically went for a stroll, so by the time the winner reached the goal the starting field must have stretched over two or three kilometers – too much to supervise with a dozen helpers or two. Since the track wasn’t closed off the runners and local people mixed, a first in the DPRK. North Koreans don’t see many foreigners – let alone see them running through the city, feeling the wind of change in their hair. Okay, let’s not overestimate the importance of this event. It still was just a fun run. But many events in history started with only some dozen people. Maybe next year there will be 100 people running, the following year employees of the Yanggakdo Hotel might be allowed to join and one day regular locals – you never know…
And even if not, it still was a great experience for all participants. It was just nice to walk around, to see locals interact with each other, to take photos from a different perspective other than from a bus or from a building. To hear the wind in the willow trees, to swallow a couple of bugs that were swarming everywhere along the river, to see locals spread herbs to dry in the warm spring sun, to have a moment for yourself without seeing any guides or fellow travelers. To pay attention to details – even though I had spent three full days in Pyongyang I never noticed the solar powered street lights, because on a group tour there is almost always somebody talking, there is almost always something to see. Yet I missed the solar panels. Nothing worth mentioning in most countries, but if anybody would have told me “Pyongyang has solar powered street lights!” I probably wouldn’t have believed him. But see for yourself, they are visible on quite a few photos I took that morning.
When I first found out about the Fun Run I completely ignored it – luckily I changed my mind and took part, as it was one of the highlights of my trip. If you ever go to North Korea and have the opportunity to join… do it! You’ll make memories for life!
(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)