10 Unexpected Things I Encountered While Running Through North Korea

Some things you do are truly once in a lifetime -- in that you will probably never get to experience them again. Participating in this month’s Pyongyang Marathon was exactly that. Once. In. A. Lifetime.

Though in its 27th iteration, this year’s race marked the first time foreign amateurs were allowed to try the course.

With some confusion around logistics like permission of snacks, use of camera and time restrictions (3:15 to finish allegedly), it was evident that this inaugural international chapter brought great stress upon our fearful tour guide, leading a group of expats, mostly from China.

When we marched into the stadium, 50,000 Pyongyang citizens clapping in unison, it dawned on me that this run was for so much more than personal PBs and results. These are the 10 things I didn't expect when running through North Korea:

The locals are friends, not foes

Whether it’s cheering children, yelling “Hello!” or “How are you?” along the run, or high-fiving, giggling teenagers -- Pyongyang was more welcoming than I could have ever imagined.

You read news stories and assume that North Koreans detest Western values and the lifestyle that comes with them -- and while that may be true to a limited extent, my encounters with the locals all proved them to be kind, curious and, at times, sarcastic and funny!

When walking through a park on their national holiday celebrating Kim Il Sung’s birthday, they did not hesitate to pull me into their dance circles. Their innocence shone through their friendliness.

Drunk man dancing

It's an oddly beautiful city

Pyongyang, by definition, means “flat land” or “land of peace” depending on how you see it. Driving through the city, you find ironically standout architecture punctuating the city’s otherwise fairly flat landscape.

This includes its own version of the Arc de Triomphe commemorating the Korean War; the world’s (allegedly) tallest stone tower, Juche Tower, championing self-reliance at 170m tall; countless monuments; statues and flower-adorned parks.

What struck me as most surprising was nearly every balcony had at least a pot of beautifully colored flowers, marking the presence of their leaders in people’s everyday lives.

They run fast

Out of the 1,000 runners, about 80 percent were North Koreans, who were noticeably different because they were generally shorter (half of me!).

When the gun fired to start the race, the Koreans rushed full speed up the hill outside of the stadium; I couldn’t have even kept up if I had sprinted at full speed.

When you run for something, or run away from something, you have a purpose that fuels you with fire and determination.

It’s all about the arts

Art was evident at the turn of every corner during our trip. I caught myself mesmerized, admiring young girls dancing in their traditional gowns so gracefully, and the Pyongyang Philharmonic playing through a marching piece with evident passion and precision.

Walking through the capital’s central, Moran Park, I kept stumbling into mass dance groups, pondering painters, and young adults singing the latest tunes from their propaganda radio channels.

For a nation that is painted so grey on the outside, it was filled with nothing short of color, music and dance on the inside.

The food tasted better than fast food, but not amazing

That’s an understatement; in fact, the food was more flavorful than I had prepared for. Granted, we were probably treated like queens and kings through every meal, and those meals are not representative of the locals’ diet.

However, it really was a unique gastronomic adventure. The barbecued duck paired with spicy plum sauce was a stand-out, followed closely by a traditional 11-dish appetizer sets, bimbimbap (stone-bowl fried rice) and kimchi.

The Korean diet also heavily includes fried food like chicken and potatoes, too. I visited a few microbreweries that had smooth and light beers on tap that tasted much more refreshing than the North American comparison. The Korean champagne, however, was far too acidic for the unacquainted taste.

The people speak many languages

For a city of roughly 2.5 million people, the capital Pyongyang houses 36 universities, and thousands of students came out for the mass dance on Kim Il Sung’s birthday.

When we visited the People’s Grand Study Hall (their equivalent of a central library), we walked by rooms of people reciting English pages on "How Astronauts Travel," stereos playing The Beatles’ "Yellow Submarine," and students copying books in high-level mathematics and foreign languages.

While those may be interpreted as staged studious display, the tour guides we came across spoke impeccable English, Chinese, Japanese, German and French -- just to name a few.

These folks in the capital are more learned than I assumed. I was told that as of last month, the government started offering free 12-year education for children.

Soldiering On

While it is true that we were not allowed to take pictures freely, particularly of military officials, the capital saw quite a bit of soldier presence.

In the countryside, you see these men waving their handguns off at children crowded around us curious for candy or a smile.

These soldiers, though, are still human beings, and seeing them engaged and clapping along the roadside of the marathon gave me confidence that they, too, were getting connected to the outside world through the run itself.

The people truly love their neighbors

April is the equivalent of spring-cleaning month sweeping across the nation. I saw groups of women kneeling in front of their compounds picking out weed grass by hand.

What’s important is that they genuinely live for the wellbeing of others – that includes their supreme leaders, their families, their neighbors and their fellow citizens.

It awes me that their complete devotion to the system of supporting their peers ultimately came across as so peaceful and simple. What would it take to inspire our local communities to truly live a selfless life? What about your community?

Its resemblance to China

Looking back at all the footage, it almost looked as if I went time-traveling to China in the 1950s, with the communist suits, leaders’ chest pins and haircuts.

This visual time warp also reminded me just how remarkable it is that China has since seen unprecedented growth and economic development, and we are so blessed to have a home in Shanghai as a brand, to inspire more people to pursue a meaningful lifestyle.

To think just 70 years ago, China would have looked like the streets I just ran on in North Korea, surely puts things into imprinted perspective.

They don’t know what they don’t know

At Lululemon, we often make the distinction that we know less of the world than we've yet to realize that we don't know. That cannot be more accurate in the context of my Pyongyang Marathon experience.

Even if international press paints North Korea in a certain light, ultimately it is a country in which there are no banks (not one!), and its citizens live rent- and tax-free with rations allocated by the government for food, healthcare and even theme-park admission.

To liberate an isolated state is to create genuine human connections on an individual basis -- and you can do that by traveling in, creating your own conversations, and making your own interpretations from the interactions.

That could be one smile, one high-five, one hello, one snapshot or one heck of a trip.

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