Youth Hero Highway

These weird looking, yet oddly beautiful trees caught my attention while driving the length of The Youth Hero Highway from Pyongyang to Nampo. Both of my handlers had dozed off, and I had my headphones plugged into my phone, meaning I could sneak a few photos through the window without making a sound. 

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According to my handler, “The Youth Hero Highway was built from 2000 to 2002, and is 260 Ri long.” 260 Ri, she explained, “being equal to 88 km” (buzzer says — incorrect (!) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Li_(unit)), and was intentionally built to be 260 Ri long because “2/60 is the birth of our great leader.”

According to Wikipedia, The Youth Hero Highway was built from 1998 to 2000, and is 46.3 km long.

The famous, nay infamous (you say tomato, I say tomahto), Youth Hero Highway, my handler eagerly explained, is so called because it was built by “youths” — men under the age of 30 who heroically built the highway in service to their party and great leader. And…”many, many youths,” she added, “went blind.” Ahh. Wait, what?

When I asked her why so many youths went blind building the highway, she replied impatiently, and through gritted teeth…“Because of the dynamite.” Right…my bad.

Actually, by now, this was my bad, as such a truth should have been self-evident. I personally saw no modern tools or equipment, save for a crane or two, but I digress (this is a huge topic).

Persevering, my handler pressed on, recounting how upon completion of the highway, the great leader had visited, decreeing the highway’s name be changed from whatever it was to “The Youth Hero Highway,” causing young women to want to marry the blind heroes (!), and — win! win! — offering more unequivocal proof that if a great leader can stand next to it, he can make it better.

The Youth Hero Highway, my handler said, is Korea’s “crowning achievement.” I would say it was for sure better than an unpaved road.

It’s 10-12 lanes wide (only no lanes), an uneven, pothole-ridden, asphalt blacktop (reminiscent of every elementary school playground, circa 1974-1979) that has, of course, no cars.

To be fair, there are a few cars, but from what I could see, and it was not like I missed seeing ONE car, cars contained either other tourists (but usually in vans or buses), or military (people in uniform). Otherwise, the highway was empty, in both directions, both ways.

When I asked why there were no cars on the highway, she smiled.

Maybeeeee…abject lack of freedom of movement, checkpoints at either end of the highway and one in between to enforce said lack of freedom of movement (at each, guards scrutinized credentials that my guides and driver were asked to provide, which my guide told me proved they were allowed to travel), and for the win, no one is allowed to own cars?

And that’s not even the fucked-up part.

For nearly all 46.3 km (I’m going with Wiki’s take), on either side (both sides), right along the side of the road, were thousands (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands??) of men, in (military) uniform or dressed in clothing styles circa the 1940s, 50s, 60s (because they live there still), cutting down trees, by hand.

And by hand, I mean they used things like small saws and axes, and saws where one guy holds one end, and another other guy holds the other end, and picks that look like those rubber sticks doctors use to test your reflexes…to cut down trees. Not electric saws, or machines that are large and automatic. Because they don’t have any. Because it’s 1950 there…

So there are thousands and thousands of men, using just their might, to cut down 46.3 km times two worth(!) of trees right onto the center of the highway! Because it’s so wide! And there are no cars!

And as many men as there were cutting down trees, I saw twice/three times as many men lying on their backs. Maybe the great leader had come and stood next to them and declared more naps on the job would make it suck less! Or maybe knowing no matter how hard they work, how much they accomplish, or how hard they try, their low class has banished them to tree-cutter status for life, so why the fuck not take a little nap? But what do I know?

Many trees looked recently planted. Confused, I asked my handler if such trees were being planted or cut down. “Cut down,” she said, smiling. “Why are they cutting down so many thousands of trees,” I asked, having seen the exact same thing — trees being cut down by the shit ton — on a different highway the day before. She smiled.

Postscript: When I returned home I went online to find the length of the highway. I was happy to see when you google “Youth Hero Highway” there are a bunch of photos and videos. I swear my one handler was a real tight ass about photos…anyway, one blog that says “some claim that the almost totally empty highway was built to be able to double as an aircraft runway in the event of war.”