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Active Travels: North Korea with Richard Bangs & Mountain Travel Sobek

by Steve Jermanok

It doesn’t surprise me that Richard Bangs is leading the first adventure tour of North Korea, September 21-29, 2012. After all, it was Bangs who led the first tour to the People’s Republic of China back in 1977. He was also the man behind the first American tour to Libya in 2004. Best known as co-founder of Sobek Expeditions, Bangs almost single handedly put the sport of white water rafting on the map. Sobek was the first outfitter to descend Chile’s Bio Bio River and Zimbabwe’s Zambezi River, now considered classics. In 1991, Sobek merged with Mountain Travel to form one of the premier adventure travel companies in the world.

Bangs will co-lead the upcoming trip with his long-time friend, C. J. Wheeler, one of the very few people who have traveled in North Korea before. With a special permit, MTS has been awarded exclusive space for 24 travelers to participate in this intriguing jaunt.  Once in Pyongyang, you’ll travel by private charter to Mount Baekdu, a stunning volcano near the Chinese border that few westerners have seen. Then it’s on to Mount Chilbo, one of North Korea’s most remote and scenic areas, and Kaesim Buddhist Temple, built in 826. For a finale, you’ll witness the Arirang Mass Games at May Day Stadium. The London Guardian calls the Mass Games “the greatest, strangest, most awe-inspiring political spectacle on earth.” 100,000 performers in every color of the rainbow move in perfectly choreographed unison.
While we’re on the subject of Richard Bangs, you should check out his five-part series on western Ireland, complete with video, at Huffington Post.

  Steve Jermanok As a columnist for National Geographic Adventure, adventure travel expert at Budget Travel, and regular contributor on outdoor recreation for Outside, Men’s Journal, Health, and Sierra, Steve Jermanok has written more than 1,000 articles on the outdoors.He’s also authored or co-authored 11 books, including Outside Magazine’s Adventure Guide to New England and Men’s Journal’s The Great Life. His latest book is Go Now! Put Your Life on Pause and See the World. He’s currently an adventure travel expert at Away.com and blogs daily at Active Travels.


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  1. February 23, 2012 at 4:09 pm — Reply

    Dear Steve,

    I don’t mean to belittle Mr. Bangs accomplishments, but I believe you will find that some of your facts are not correct. FYI I first visited China in a group in 1975, again in 1976, and twice in 1977. I have been to China almost 100 times so far. My company, Asia Pacific Travel, Ltd., began arranging commercial tours (as opposed to “educational study trips”) to the PRC in 1978, dealing directly with CITS in Beijing, after they decided to begin allowing “commercial” tours. I would be pretty sure that Sobek arranged their 1977 tour through Ethiopian Airlines, probably not CITS, as the Chinese had to provide the airlines blocks of visas so they could have passengers on their flights to China.

    This may seem a technicality, but I am pretty sure that MTS’s DPRK tour is also through another travel company, not directly with KITC in Pyongyang. We have been organizing tours to the DPRK since April 1995 (I have been to the DPRK 28 times to date) when they first allowed American tourists to visit, and we deal directly with KITC (the Korea International Travel Company), and to our knowledge we are the only American company to do so. (I am also the Conde Nast Traveler magazine’s “Travel Specialist” for both North and South Korea.) Certainly any travel agent or tour operator can wholesale a tour to the DPRK through us or another tour operator, but I don’t think it is fair or accurate to then give them credit for something that the primary tour operator has arranged. In the case of these charter flights to Mt. Paekdu, Mt. Chilbo, etc., they have been operating sporadically for several years now. This year KITC has arranged to have 7 regularly scheduled charter flight tours from June to early September that we, or any of their authorized tour operators, can book clients on. The last scheduled departure is scheduled for Sept. 4, meaning that the MTS departure is presumably a “private charter,” but, I would note, getting a little late in the season to be visiting these mountains (Mt. Paekdu is the highest mountain in Korea and northeast China at over 9,000 ft.) although certainly September is a good month to visit the rest of Korea.

    Regarding the number of visitors to the DPRK, the Chinese are the champions, with tens of thousands each year (just as we are the champions in travel to Canada). According to our KITC colleagues there are between 300-500 Americans who visit the DPRK each year, certainly a very small number, particularly when compared to the 2 million who visit China each year now.

    It certainly is good that Mr. Wheeler has been to the DPRK before, but I’ll match my 28 visits to his one visit any day. I should also mention that I am a member of The Korea Society (New York), the National Committee on North Korea (Washington), the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch (Seoul), the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (New York), Chatham House (London), and the Pacific Asia Travel Association (Bangkok) and am on their Industry Council, as well as other relevant organizations.

    Regarding the idea of a “special permit,” in my experience I would be pretty sure that that just means the MTS is willing to take the risk in chartering the flight for their exclusive use.

    Regarding geography, Mt. Paekdu is not “near the Chinese border,” it is on the border with China. The line cuts right through the mountain and crater lake.

    Regarding the “mass games,” this is not the correct name. The official name is the “Arirang Mass Artistic and Gymnastic Performance.” It is not a game; there are no teams, no winners, no losers. As far as I can tell this incorrect term originated in British usage but is not an accurate or appropriate name. I would agree with the “London Guardian”
    regarding their assessment of a performance. It is certainly a highlight of any visit the the DPRK, if one is lucky enough to be there “in season,” i.e., August to September.

    Walter L. Keats, CTC, CMP
    Asia Pacific Travel, Ltd.

  2. February 26, 2012 at 10:43 am — Reply

    Thanks for the additional insight, Walter. If I ever head to North Korea, I know who to call!

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