'WEAR good hiking shoes," the guides had told us. "You might be climbing through snow."
I had momentarily toyed with the idea of borrowing a friend's pair of oversized sneakers for the early spring climb up Mount Paekdu, the Korean peninsula's sacred ancestral mountain perched on the border of China and North Korea.
Then, bravado got the better of me, and I decided to stick with my sensible leather flats. Mount Paekdu couldn't be that tough. Plus, there was a cable car to fall back on if the trek got too bad.
I knew I was wrong as our bus climbed the narrow road mounting Paekdu's snowy slopes. It was springtime but the mountain, Korea's highest at 8,200 feet, was still deep in drifts. The paved track had been plowed out from under icy mounds that towered cavernously on either side.
From the parking lot, the peak of the now-extinct volcano, our goal, shown in the late afternoon sun. Crowning the summit is Lake Chon, a crater lake 9 miles around and in places more than 1,000 feet deep, spanning the Chinese-North Korean frontier. Koreans, North and South, revere the mountain as the cradle of their culture and a mythic landmark. Tangun, a semi-deity believed to have founded Korea 4,000 years ago, is said to have first set foot on earth at Mount Paekdu.
The Korean god-king also chose his bride on the sacred mountain. Two candidates, a tiger and a bear, were required to live in a cave on Mount Paekdu for 10 days with little to eat and drink. The bear endured and became Tangun's consort.
Eager to claim legitimacy over its South Korean rival, the North Korean regime of the late Kim Il Sung has assumed the symbolic mountain for its own propaganda. Despite historical evidence otherwise, Pyongyang claims the late North Korean leader waged his guerrilla struggle against the Japanese from headquarters in the shadow of Paekdu. His son and heir, Kim Jong Il, was born here in a log cabin, the government says.
Folklore aside, our group of foreign journalists and an enthusiastic corps of Korean-American tourists (during a highly unusual opportunity to enter North Korea) soon found that Mount Paekdu would be no easy jaunt. For one thing, the cable car had not yet been opened for the summer. And the winter snows were only beginning to recede in an icy retreat.
Plowing through sometimes knee-high snow in my sensible leather flats, I soon noticed one of our North Korean guides, a pretty young woman with a warm smile, striding ahead in skirt, stockings and two-inch high heels. She soon left me and a few others in the dust, so to speak.
Most of us slowly ascended the mountain, inching up the slick wooden plank running alongside the cable car track, sometimes gripping the railing with frozen fingers, sometimes on hands and knees.
At one point, several colleagues turned back, refusing to claw their way to the top only to have to descend that treacherously icy slope. I too almost gave in. Then I thought of that young woman in the high heels high above me, and, in my sensible leather flats, was shamed into pressing on.
At one point, I did overtake one trekker, an elderly Korean American who had stopped to rest. The overseas Korean tourists, many whom were being allowed into the isolated north for the first time, had been treated badly by the authorities.
Refused permission to meet with relatives and friends long separated by decades of war and cold-war standoff, many were angry. The overseas Koreans were also miffed that the North's regime had usurped their sacred place and transformed it into a monument to the hated ruling Kims.
"This is the first time the Commies have let us in," he raged on that snowy mountainside as the afternoon sun began to dip closer to the summit. "But these Commies are so suspicious of us. They have no humanity."
Still, for the Korean tourists, visiting Mount Paekdu had both practical and evocative sides. With the North courting foreign financing, some of the group were looking to the day when South Koreans can freely visit the North and eye investment in hotels and other tourist infrastructure. Emotional ties would make the ancestral mountain a popular tourist spot, they said.
"Despite all this Communist fakery, Koreans still come here because of their strong emotions," said one visitor.
"Korean Americans will invest here in the near future. They want to do business, but they also think this is the way to change the country," said another. "If they see Korean Americans and what they are doing, this will influence the people."
After two hours' struggle, the summit was at last in sight. With frozen hands and soaking wet feet, I pushed myself the last stretch to the top and gazed down upon Lake Chon, glistening in the waning sunlight. A single sentry stood guard at this border outpost.
We had a group picture taken and then I noticed the young woman in heels. She was standing nearby, smiling, relaxed, obviously no worse for wear. "Aren't you tired? Aren't you wet? How could you climb in those shoes?" I sputtered.
"It doesn't bother me," she shrugged. "I've already done it twice this week."