From the deck of the restaurant at the peak of Mount Taehwabong, which forms the highest point of North Korea’s first ski resort, it is possible to see the city of Wonsan, some 768m below on the coast of the Sea of Japan. The Masikryong resort itself is obscured by a swell of hillside, with little indication of the area’s new identity beyond a chairlift crawling up the side. This makes it easier to imagine Masikryong as it was ten months ago: a mountainside of lime tree woods. In late September, when journalists were allowed to visit, they reported the hotels were little more than shells. Foundations were still being dug for secondary buildings.
When Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s youthful leader, toured the resort in early January all was complete. Masikryong is the latest in a line of pet projects – others include a sprawling water park and an equestrian centre in Pyongyang, the country’s capital. Though Kim is reportedly fond of skiing after his two-year tenure in Switzerland as a teenager, his principal aim with luxuries like Masikryong is to place North Korea on a more equal footing with developed countries. According to the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s state-run media service, Kim called the construction of the resort ‘a gigantic patriotic work’. The speed at which conscripted soldier-builders have erected the resort is a point of national pride. North Koreans joke about completing tasks with ‘Masikryong speed’, or unparalleled efficiency, just as state media and colourful socialist-realist propaganda posters repeat the message as a means to promote vigorous ‘economic construction’ throughout the country.
The road to Masikryong, which is a three-hour, 178km drive from Pyongyang, is potholed. Out of the window of our tourist bus we see villages of ‘harmonica houses’, or two-storey dwellings separated into single-room family units common to the North Korean countryside. Women swaddled in headscarves carry bundles of firewood on their backs. It’s below freezing and the rivers are solid. Children muck around on small squares of wood with blades affixed to the bottom to form makeshift sleds.
In an initial business plan, the construction of the 1,400-hectare resort was estimated to cost 35 million USD (the eventual cost has not been released). The setting is dominated by the Masikryong Hotel, which is composed of two buildings of 120 rooms resembling peach pyramids with their tops lopped off. Designed by the Pyongyang Architecture Institute, the general aesthetic is best described as European-style chalet infused with retro sci-fi elements. Entering the cavernous lobby with its pillars, mood lighting and faux fireplaces, it is difficult to believe you are in a country governed by one of the world’s most oppressive regimes and that, two decades ago, a horrific famine estimated to have killed between 900,000 and 2.4 million people swept the nation.
Authorities hope the resort will attract 5,000 people a day. But lofty pricing means it won’t be populated with regular North Koreans. A ski lift pass is around 40USD per day and equipment hire is 16USD per day – though locals will not pay the same rates as foreigners. With a swimming pool and sauna facilities (13USD entry), massage room, beauty parlour, billiards room, posh restaurants and an ice skating rink, it is one of the most luxurious hotels in the country. Rooms, which cost 108USD per night, are wood paneled and almost too cosy due to the underfloor heating. Towels are white and fluffy and the bathrobes come with a Masikryong Hotel monogram. Locals playfully give it seven stars; by international standards it perhaps deserves four.
On our visit, the number of adept skiers swooshing down the slopes strikes us. This is, after all, the first ski resort in the country, and a winter sojourn in St Moritz is hardly de rigueur in North Korea. In the evening, high-ranking officials dressed in ubiquitous grey North Korean suits with Kim Il Sung badges pinned to their breast pockets crowd the billiards tables, chain smoking. Where did they learn to ski? A casual conversation with a North Korean ski instructor reveals that he learned in Harbin, located in northeastern China.
While the Masikryong Hotel dazzles, the 11 slopes themselves disappoint. In the French Alps it’s common for snow cannons to supplement the pistes with fresh powder during dry spells. But at Masikryong they are obligatory. (The cannons themselves have been subject to controversy. Pictures from Kim Jong Un’s visit to Masikryong revealed them to be the Swedish brand Areco, while the Ski-Doo snowmobiles are Canadian and the snow ploughs Italian and German. The presence of such luxury goods in the country is an apparent breach of UN sanctions.) In the middle of our coast down the longest slope on offer – a steady decline from the summit of Mount Taehwabong to the hotel at the bottom that is the equivalent of a European blue rating – we happen upon a group of 15 workers in sludge-coloured snow suits and black fur hats. Some are hastily flattening snow over patches of earth in the middle of the piste. Others remove rocks.
Such issues may well be smoothed over as the resort settles into activity. But as our bus trundles away, we are left with the impression that most visitors will not come to Masikryong for the quality of the skiing or the free lilac bath salts. For an insight into the lives of the Hermit Kingdom’s rich and powerful, there’s probably nowhere more suitable.
Koryo Tours offers trips to Masikryong as an add-on to several upcoming North Korea tours. For more information and to book, see www.koryogroup.com.