North Korea ski destinations: Kiwi skier Sam Smoothy hits the slopes

Kiwi freeskier Sam Smoothy is used to going off-piste - but when it comes to strange ski destinations, North Korea is right up there.

The Wanaka-based athlete spent 10 days in the isolated nation in February, hitting the slopes at Kim Jong-un's Masikryong Ski Resort.

In a video posted on YouTube this week, Smoothy can be seen staying in a luxury lodge, and eating skewers of delicious barbecue lamb. He sings karaoke with resort staff, before heading up the near-empty mountain.

It appears to have all the amenities of any other world-class ski destination - except, of course, it's not. It's a country that Human Rights Watch says is "without parallel in the contemporary world" when it comes to human rights abuses.

"I think the weirdest bit about skiing here is you can't forget where you are," Smoothy tells the camera at one point.

"You're just like, skiing around, goofing off like normal, having fun. Then you're just like, we're in DPRK. Every now and then a little thing just kind of reminds you and you're like, this is pretty out there."

Will Lascelles, the producer and director of the film, said the pair had been looking to shoot a film in a location that was "a little bit off the beaten path".

They did some research, and came across the Masikryong Ski Resort - a pet project of the North Korean leader which opened in 2014, with the aim of attracting tourists to the isolated nation.

Six months later they were on a plane to Beijing, having arranged their visit with the travel company Koryo Tours.

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Lascelles said the trip was not in any way sponsored by the North Korean government, though they were assigned minders to accompany them for the duration of their visit, which included time in Pyongyang.

There were also rules about what they could and could not film. They weren't allowed to show the military. Any statues of leaders had to be shown in full, from head to toe.

Earlier this year, British YouTuber Louis Cole came under fire for his rose-tinted portrayal of North Korea in a series of travel videos.

Cole said he wanted to "focus on positive things in the country", but others accused him of filming propaganda for the government.

Lascelles said it was not their intention to promote North Korea, or appear sympathetic to the regime. 

"We went there without any agenda whatsoever," Lascelles said.

"We weren't political journalists, we had no mindset going in. The idea wasn't to show it in any particular light. We just wanted to show exactly what we saw."

"You never felt like you were on solid ground. When you thought you understood the situation better, it would just wriggle away and elude you. You never really got comfortable or really understood what was going on. It constantly messed with you in little ways."

Some things he had heard about North Korea - like Pyongyang being pitch black at night because of electricity shortages - turned out not to be true, at least while he was there.

"You felt like you were being lied to from all sides, and it just made things really confusing."

Smoothy said he found it hard to shake that sense of paranoia. They would cover their laptops in the hotel room with clothes before heading out for the day, and come back to find they had been moved ever so slightly. 

One night, they were watching a rocket launcher being tested on the TV news, and thought it would make for some interesting footage.

"We got the camera out to film me watching it, and all the power went out. We were just like, that's kind of a weird coincidence."

As for the slopes at North Korea's first and only ski resort?

"It was really eerie, the emptiness. There was all this fog, all the trees were quite foreboding… it was a very atmospheric and intense place," Smoothy said.

"But it's definitely got some fun terrain."

Stuff.co.nz

See also: How to visit the world's most secretive country

See also: No, those Aussies did not 'trick' their way into a North Korean golf tournament

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