Once Upon a Time When Tigers Smoked Long Pipes
Campfire tales from the north country. Non-fiction.
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It was the first day of June (2017) when we arrived in the small Baekdu Daegan village of Ryongjo-ri located west of the port city of Wonsan in the province of Kangwon-do, North Korea. Over his smartphone, Hwang had managed to haul a disgruntled forest guide away from his friend’s wedding ceremony. Kim Chol-wang came stomping down the village track, a young tough looking fella. When he removed his pine-green forest service jacket, the sleeves of his shirt were ripped off at the shoulders. He had a sturdy body with big upper arms and chest. Maybe he was still upset at us as his eyes displayed a wildness about them. With his thin barely visible moustache that sat above a stern upper lip, he had the demeanour of a Chinese street criminal. But a good joke quickly brought a broad smile across his face, making him appear (to me at least) Korean again. Married with a daughter, he claimed to drink three litres of soju a day. Like all the men in the North, he enjoyed a smoke.
It was mid-afternoon, under a dark rumbling sky, when we found a suitable campsite at the top of the village, next to a stream in a valley. It was from this spot that we would plan to climb to Seongjae-san, 1102m the next day. By then, it had become surprisingly cold as a thick mist seeped down from the ridge, casting a ghostly shroud around us. We set up our two Sahale tents and got a fire going to keep warm.
Sitting on rocks, huddled around the fire, we cracked open the 5litre flagon of acorn soju and snacked on peanuts, sweet bread, rice, and locally fermented Gom-chwi, a common ragwort plant. Locals made their way down from the mountain with their goats. The conversation moved to tigers, and the jovial Pak Song-ho told us how when he had been eating wild pig meat in a Kangwon-do village and asked his host if he could acquire some tiger pooh for medicinal means. The man replied he could, but that it would take a couple of days.
I asked Mr Pak if he ever got the pooh, and he told me he never returned to find out.
“That is no evidence of a tiger, then!” I stated.
But Mr Pak replied that if the host said he could find the pooh, then that means there must be tigers!
That’s when Kim Chol-wang chipped in and told us a story. He’d heard that a forager near here had once slept overnight in a cave when a tiger tried to enter. Terrified and trapped, he didn’t know what to do, so he threw his clothes on the fire, causing it to blaze, and the tiger left. The man then fled the cave naked in the night, stating the tiger couldn’t follow him, as his scent was still on his now burned clothes in the cave.
“So he got away then?” I asked.
“Not quite,” Kim replied, “The man couldn’t shake the memory of the tiger and died still in shock one month later.”
Hmm, another tall tale, I thought. But if true, then there was something bewitching about this death.
The drinks kept flowing around the glowing campfire. A biting wind blew.
Pak asked me if I knew how a Korean tiger would kill a human? Shrugging my shoulders, I suspected this was a trick question.
“A Korean tiger won’t kill a human on the spot it finds you. Instead, with its burning eyes, it will hypnotise you, and lure you deep into the forest. You will follow the tiger, and when it is satisfied with a location, it will kill you and eat you there.”
The campfire echoed with wary chuckles.
“Really? So what to do if you meet a ‘Korean’ tiger?” I asked.
“Ah!” Pak took another sip, straightened his back, and raised his finger. “The best way to stop a tiger is spin around from its stare, drop your pants, bend over, and show him your butthole.”
The campfire burst into hoarse laughter and knee-slapping.
“Shut up, shut up, let me finish,” he insisted. “Then you run bent over away from the tiger, so the tiger becomes confused.”
Catching his breath, one of the men asked how that was confusing?
“Well, it can no longer see your arms or head, just a butthole, so it now doesn’t know what you have suddenly become!”
Hearing that, our driver Han, fell sideways off his rock with laughter. The rest of us curled forward with hysteria, almost tipping into the fire. When we finally stopped laughing, I wiped the tears from my eyes and said, “Yes, no creature would have seen anything like that before…you’re right!” Pausing for a breath, “If I see a tiger tomorrow, I’ll be sure to do that then.”
We prepared our dinner of ramen, rice, and more Gom-chwi. But before we could eat, a hard icy rain and lashing wind joined us, so we quickly moved everything into the tent. It’s June! Why’s it so cold? Kim told us about a rare local weather phenomenon that local dialect called doe-sae. Even though this valley was only 600m above sea level, even in mid-summer a brief dumping of snow could happen. He explained that doe meant province, and sae meant bird. When a cold northern wind from another province carried clouds over the Baekdu Daegan to here, it could cause a dramatic drop in temperature.
After dinner, night was on us. The rain ceased, so we returned to the fire again. We were pretty drunk. The wind picked up again, firing down the valley like a jet, quickly followed by another belt of pelting rain, which scattered us like startled cats again into our tents. Shivering from the blast, the tent shook violently around us. Then came this incredible noise. It sounded like a storm of dust was rasping meanly at our tent. We stared in shock at each other.
We looked out the tent flap, and to our amazement, we saw pea-sized hailstones shelling the ground, like machine gun fire. “It’s the doe-sae, the doe-sae!” Yelled Pak. And he wasn’t wrong.
By the morning it was all over. Some small piles of hail, now snow, clung to the bottom of our tents. The rain had washed the rest away. But it was now a crystal clear chilly morning, quite stunning, and time to hit the mountains!
We walked down to the village. I saw a woman standing outside her front door, hands on hips, looking Zen-like into the distance. The low morning sun beamed on her smiling face. Everything around us was in dew and glistened magically in the new light. Small puffs of purple cloud floated over the ridge against an infinity of blue sky. It was a tranquil scene.
And there calmly on a rock above us, sat an old man. His grey hair was cut short and spiky like a marine’s. He smiled sagely down at us. A coil of blue smoke toiled from his rolled-up cigarette. He was Choi Su-nam. Our local guide.
Choi was aged in his late 60s and walked at a comfortable pace. It took us about three hours to get to a ridge. A thick green forest canopy wrapped over us. As we climbed, the men conversed with elder Choi. They seemed in awe of his knowledge. He had lived here all his life.
A final steep burst took us to a small patch of open summit on Seongjae-san, where we made a remarkable discovery. Strewn on its northern side were hundreds of rectangularly shaped rocks. Choi informed us that a very large bongsu-dae had once stood here. This is a stone fire tower. Built in the Koryo period some thousand years ago, they were used all over Korea, emitting smoke in the day, and fire at night, they acted as warning beacons for the locals against foreign invaders. The towers could relay signals all the way back to the main centres. On the eastern side, I found the best section, a large intact five-metre high section of the stone fire tower.
As I stood on the stone remnants, I took what good photos I could of the views from here. After that, I joined the men to eat and drink acorn soju. Following on from last night’s tiger tales, Choi added his own fascinating story.
Sometime in the late 1960s, a man was driving his car on the barely used road that connected Pyongyang to Wonsan when he saw something he’ll never forget. A lone woman was in the middle of the road, frantically dancing, a bit like a shaman, as if in a trance. He stopped and got out to check on her. She was unresponsive as if he didn’t exist. The man looked around for some clues to this bizarre situation, and following her gaze, saw a giant tiger crouched on a boulder above the road. The tiger’s big round eyes locked on the woman. Concerned, he grabbed the woman and tussled her into the car.
The tiger moved with speed down from the rock, onto the road, and just as he was making his getaway, attacked the car. The terrified man, drove his car as fast as he could, losing the tiger, and went for safety in the village of Ryongjo-ri. As a young boy, Choi says he remembered how the car, the trembling man, and the betwixt woman arrived, causing an alarming scene amongst the gathering villagers.
I asked Choi what happened to the woman.
“I remember she hadn’t been from our village and no one knew of her.” He replied. “The driver said he wanted nothing more of it, so some officials turned up and took her away.”
Choi took a tug on his cigarette and after exhaling the smoke, “I heard that she never recovered her sanity.”
I looked at the men. Pak and Kim were blank. If they ever had a shred of doubt about their own stories, now they didn’t. It was all true! The Korean tiger had magic powers! It could hypnotise its victims!
As we climbed back down the mountain, I had plenty of time to think about this.
Before the Japanese occupation of Korea and its subsequent division, old tiger tales from the Silla, Koryo and Yi dynasties were no doubt common in mountain villages all over the peninsula. In these modern days, it would be hard for these tales to stay alive. Harder again in the North under a communist doctrine where superstitious practices and thought have become outlawed. But also in the South too where modernization has exposed the (extinct) tiger simply for what it was: a large striped cat, with no magical powers at all. Only still in folk legend.
But with these villages in the North being so far from modernization and a global network of information, it’s possible that the villagers still saw, or thought they saw, the occasional tiger, catching a glimpse of its coat as it dashed through the bush. Then around a heeding family dinner they would digest its legend. And how might members react to these sightings? Well, maybe they just continue with what they know already passed down from hundreds of years of folklore. Although easily fooled by smaller animals, the magical beast can with its entrancing gaze, and ability to change form, trick humans to their fate.
And even if you shed your clothes and burn them on fire, or a motorist whips you to safety, you will still never recover, and eventually die from its curse. That is unless you do what Pak said, about-turn from its stare, show it your butthole, and with your pants around your knees, make good your escape.
Roger Shepherd is a guide, photographer, and writer, specializing in the Baekdu Daegan, Korea’s mountain spine that runs the length of the peninsula. He lives in South Korea and has traveled extensively in North Korea. Visit him at hikekorea.com.
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