the dan milner photography blog: tales of an adventuring photo chimp

May 15, 2015

From Afghanistan to London without passing ‘Go’

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — danmilner @ 5:59 am

It’s a weird thing being an ‘adventurer’. Expeditions to remote, far-flung places can take months or more of planning but too often once I’m home again, washed my filthy clothes and (just about) got my digestive system back on track my attention turns to planning the next, without giving enough time to reflect on what we just achieved or on the experiences of what just happened. It’s like pulling a “Go straight to next adventure, and do not pass go, and certainly do not collect £200” card in Monopoly. Often I only revisit those experiences when I edit my images from a trip, or am invited to deliver a slideshow or talk on my adventures. This latter is one of the most enjoyable sides to my niche job – getting the chance to really share the experiences of pushing bikes over snowy 5000m passes or huddling in a tent through days of Alaskan blizzards, and doing it in the luxurious comfort of a warm auditorium.

Next week I’ll be one of the 4 adventurers sitting on a unique Q&A panel at a London screening of the mighty best of Kendal Mountain Film Festival. You can get tickets here, and the money goes to charity.

The kids of Robot settlement, Afghanistan try riding bikes, for the first time. Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/2500, f3.5

The kids of Robot settlement, Afghanistan try riding bikes, for the first time. Nikon D600, 50/1.4 @ 1/2500, f3.5

Last November I was back at the Kendal Mountain festival, to introduce Anthill’s new film edit from our Afghanistan MTB expedition at the festival’s dedicated Bike night, and then next day to do a 45 minute slideshow talk on the same trip at the KMFF Adventure and Exploration session. My talk balanced nicely with one from ‘micro-adventurer’ Al Humphreys, who will be chairing the Q&A next week.

New experiences are what drives me to head to new places. Adventure is just a tag to the experiences that arise. Of course I know that my kind of adventures sit off the radar for most people, but public speaking events like these are a real way to give people a vicarious taste of what is involved in hauling bikes through places that have never been touched by a bike tyre before, in that first person way that magazine articles and films can’t. Hearing about tough trips is compelling, but I also like to add a little ‘really, you could do this too’ empowerment and aspiration for the audience.

So come and ask awkward questions about photographing awkwardly ambitious bike trips in awkward places to travel and do it from a comfortable, warm seat with a low-fat soy chai latte in your hand. London May 21st.

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September 1, 2014

I went mountain biking in Afghanistan and all you got was this lousy video

Filed under: bike, video — Tags: , , , , , — danmilner @ 12:47 pm

Here’s my moving image take on the Bikemag trip I photographed.  For your enjoyment. Or maybe mine. Click on image to watch on EpicTV.

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December 5, 2013

Story behind – Afghanistan #4

Filed under: bike, photography, story telling — Tags: , , , , — danmilner @ 7:15 am
Nikon D600, 50mm 1.4, 1/800, f5.6

Nikon D600, 50mm 1.4, 1/800, f5.6

 

Altitude sickness, fatigue, cold and sunburn are the kind of things we calculated for on our recent pioneering Wakhan mountain bike expedition. But the many river crossings passed us by. Not for a minute did we think these would be so formidable. It’s arid Afghanistan after all right?However, the thundering torrents of brown meltwater became the great leveler among our group, with their distant sound causing the hairs to stand up on the backs of all our necks as we rode our trail towards another inevitable shoe-dunking. June is full meltwater season, and the many glaciers and snow-covered peaks around us teamed up with the steep, ravine-streaked terrain to remind us of this this at every opportunity.

Dark, churning icy waters gave no indication of depth and the roar of meltwater was kept in rhythm by a metronome clatter of rocks being rolled along the riverbed. Wading became a game of human 10-pin bowling, carrying our bikes across a very real game of chance. Some were steep and narrow, others a good 50m wide, but all were swift and cold. One slip from numb feet and a bike could be lost, or worse. Add the shouts and wild gesturing of our anxious Afghan support team to which we tried to pass bikes and you have a recipe for chaos. The above shot was our third river crossing on day one. We would have more than a dozen more during our 12 day expedition. Only two of them would have bridges.

Catch my full feature in MBUK, Bike Germany, Revolution Australia, Friflyt Scandinavia and online on Italy’s MTB-forum.com later this month.

 

November 28, 2013

Afghanistan by bike – from the horses mouth

Filed under: bike, photography, story telling — Tags: , — danmilner @ 6:30 pm

If you’re anywhere near Chamonix on Sat 7th December and want to appreciate the pain of our June Afghanistan bike trip first hand, then drop by the Vert Hotel bar at 8.30 pm for the next of the now-legendary (and free) Milner slide/film shows. Expect the usual abuse and heckling (from me) while being bombarded with plenty of pics that will instigate “ooohs” (from you) and a couple of pics that will make you glad you weren’t on the trip.

afghan poster

October 5, 2013

Story behind – The Bikemag Afghanistan cover shot

Filed under: bike, photography — Tags: , , , , , — danmilner @ 2:05 pm

Matt Hunter, Afghanistan

If you haven’t caught it yet, the Nov issue of Bike is out now, with the full 16 page Afghanistan story and cover shot. Here’s the backstory behind my image that graces the cover.

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14 hours is a long time to cover a mere 150Km, especially in an old Toyota Hiace with 4 bald tyres. But that’s what it took to travel the last day along a rough Afghan road to our ride starting point, Sarhad. And that came after 3 other days on the road. So you can imagine how good it felt to finally be out on the bikes. A lot of people think that as a photographer you’ll come back from expeditions with hundreds of cover-possibilites, after all the opportunities must arise each and every half hour. But the truth is that on trips like this, with distances to cover, rivers to ford, passes to climb each day, making the call on whether to stop and set up a shot is a gamble. It interrupts the flow, and sucks up time. Stop every time a possible shot comes up, and you don’t make it to camp and end up sleeping with the goats on a remote hillside with no supper (but at least you have a sheep to keep you warm). With absolutely no idea what scenery or what kind of trail or action potential you’re going to happen on later in the trip, you start out eyeing every corner, every backdrop, every rock as a possible shot. But inevitably, you have to (begrudgingly) pass some by.

So it’s kind of funny that the shot that is gracing Bikemag’s cover this month was the first action shot of our whole 3 week, 12 day ride trip to Afghanistan. Riding out of Sarhad village (down on the valley floor in the background) we climbed 600m/2000ft straight up to this first pass, wheezing in the thin air, and knowing this was just a taste of what lay ahead. And in this one scene, with its braided river and snowy peaks, its dusty trail and steep rocky pass, summed up the landscape we were to live in for 12 days. And not an AK47 to be seen.

September 28, 2013

Story Behind -Afghanistan #2

Filed under: bike, photography — Tags: , , , , , — danmilner @ 8:52 am

No.2 Hey, Nobody said it would be easy.

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Matt Hunter starts the long walk into the unknown. Again. Nikon D600, Zeiss 18/3.5

Yaks are the ultimate 4×4 in a place like Afghanistan. They go through anything. Unfortunately we had horses and donkeys instead to carry our expedition camping gear for our 12 day haul. And after 3 days of alternating blizzards and sunny spells, they just couldn’t make it over second 16,000 ft pass we climbed on day 6, the snow was too deep. Our choice was either to try to swap our horses for yaks and re-attempt the pass next day, or go the long way round, a 30 mile down valley and up the next route that was too exposed and technical for horses. At least that’s what we’d been told by the local Afghan horsemen not wishing to lose their earnings to yak-herders, as the reason why we attempted the pass.

Beaten back by deep snow, we took the alternative route, one that proved just as hard as the 16,000ft pass we’d retreated from the day before. A morning of flowing, fun riding ended at this deep canyon, and along with it any resemblance of ridable trail. Steep, loose and bottoming out in a raging snow-melt  river we had no option but to descend into the abyss, wade the river and shoulder our bikes, again. It took us another 7 hours of soaking wet, freezing cold bike pushing through more blizzards to reach our final destination that day, a camp spot at 14,000 ft perched beneath a mighty glacier. Arriving a mere half hour before nightfall, no-one had the energy left to appreciate our surroundings, but we’d found a way round. And still had the horses in tow. Afghans are a resourceful people.

August 22, 2013

The Story Behind- Afghanistan #1

A photo is worth a thousand words. Apparently. But sometimes there’s more behind an image than can be seen. An image conveys its own story, conjures up a feeling, stirs an emotion. But what of the story behind shooting it?  Over the next couple of months I’ll endeavour to bring you a few of the images that are currently showcased on bikemag.com from the recent Afghanistan mountain bike trip I shot in June with Anthill films and pro rider Matt Hunter. It’ll tied you over until the print stories come out in the mags through October and November.

No. 1: Nearly missing dinner.

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The story: Half way through our 12 day loop and we still hadn’t a clue what to expect. It’s hard to know how much energy and time to exert shooting when you have no idea what’s coming up later, what scenes will offer themselves up, or how far it is still to go before catching up with our horsemen and overnight gear. An  early start and a long day in the saddle didn’t stop us working a dusty ridge top until the sun was low, giving us the golden hour of perfect light to shoot. After all, the Kyrgyz herders’ yurt village was in view, or almost, just over the ridge, down towards the river. We shot, and shot, and shot more, Hunter doing his thing and delivering  A-roll material without fail.

And then we began the descent and realised we hadn’t a clue where we were heading. In the distance was not one, but several different plumes of fire smoke, each representing a different Kyrgyz yurt settlement. Our Afghan support and our gear could have been at any. We had no idea and darkness was 20 minutes away, and with it freezing temperatures.  I rode off towards the river valley, towards one smoke plume, the others veered left towards another distant settlement, each of us scouring the landscape for any evidence of our support team. And that’s when this pic happened., Matt and Brice silhouetted against the glow of the mountains we’d just descended. Chance favours a prepared mind. All I had to do was work out if stopping for the shot would mean getting left behind, to bivi out the night alone clad only in my riding gear. I took the risk. Nikon D600. 40-200 f4.

August 9, 2013

Shooting Afghanistan without war

Superlatives are easy. But sometimes they are justified. Finally, the dust has settled on our June mountain bike expedition to Afghanistan, and the first glimpse at some of my shots in a 50 page online Flipbook magazine along with Anthill’s first incredible film from the trip are online now. You can see both here, at Bikemag.

First day, last descent. Off camber, loose and 600m of vertical into a raging river doesn't mean we're not going to ride it. Tough day. Great finish.

First day, last descent. Off camber, loose and 600m of vertical into a raging river doesn’t mean we’re not going to ride it. Tough day. Great finish.

In reality it has taken this long for the dust to settle, for my mind to process what we have achieved. Superlatives or not, this did prove to be the most ‘out there’ MTB trip I have ever undertaken, and shot. And those that know me, know that I am not shy of having tucked more than a few ‘out there’ MTB trips under my belt before. This one, the first ever MTB traverse of the Little and Big Pamirs of Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, was ambitious to say the least. I knew it was before we went, and I knew it was when, after 5 days of rough and scary travelling, we reached our ride-start point and our guide pointed out a series of geographical features on the map, each of which could spell a retreat: raging glacial rivers swollen by snowmelt, 5000m passes buried under snow too deep to traverse.

Bikes are nothing here, but it doesn't stop everyone wanting a go on one.

Bikes are nothing here, but it doesn’t stop everyone wanting a go on one.

Our 12 day ride-hike-camp was punctuated by challenges -including one retreat- and proved physically and mentally taxing at every stage. There is nothing easy about Afghanistan it seems. It’s perhaps what makes the people so incredibly tough. And without them we would have got nowhere. Away from the ugly war that tears the country apart only a few hours to the south, the people in the Wakhan were the most friendly, helpful and welcoming I have ever met. And the beauty of digital photography is being able to share the photo experience with subjects like this, right there and then.

Afghanistan: possibly the toughest place on earth?

Afghanistan: possibly the toughest place on earth?

But being immersed in such trips with their incessant demands on energy reserves sometimes means not quite realising what you are doing, while you are doing it. And that’s what I mean about the dust settling. Sometimes such expeditions are such a sensory overload that it’s only later, when the film and images start to emerge, and you can stand back and look again, that you realise what you have achieved. As a photographer, a mountain biker and as a regular person with a piqued desire to see parts of the world that are deemed ‘off limits’ and engage with the people there, fills me with immense pride. I’ve had the same experience shooting snow expeditions in Deeper and Further with Jeremy Jones/TGR.

Of course, it won’t be long before the niggling urge to kick up the dust once more grows into a nagging compulsion to travel again But in the meantime, if the flipbook images on bikemag.com spike your intertest, then look out for the complete print story, with fresh photos, out in several mags October onwards.

Matt Hunter engages with a local Kyrgyz kid. Wheels are nto seen here. Yaks and horses are the means of transport for everything.

Matt Hunter engages with a local Kyrgyz kid. Wheels are not seen here. Yaks and horses are the means of transport for everything.

Choosing the right kit for trips like this can be testing. For the gear geeks, I used the Nikon D600 (very portable and did well in the dusty/cold/snowy/hot environment) with Nikon 70-200 f4, Nikon 50 f1.4 and Zeiss 18 f3.5 glass for the action, and my Leica M9 with Zeiss 18, 28, 50 and 90 glass for the travel. Lifeventure drybags kept my mind at ease during the many raging river crossings. Osprey Escapist 30 carried it all on my back. Mountain Equipment outerwear kept me dry and warm in the blizzards, and Mavic ride clothing kept me comfy and dealt with the odours of 12 days out without a bath. Mavic Alpine XL shoes are my go-to shoe for hike-a-bike missions. My Yeti 575 was the perfect bike. Again.

4900m up and there is only one way ahead: down.

4900m up and there is only one way ahead: down.

January 5, 2019

Courting Controversy- why we went to North Korea, your questions answered

Filed under: bike, life, story telling, Uncategorized — Tags: , — danmilner @ 2:43 pm
mbuk nk opener

MBUK magazine, January 2019, opening spread.

My feature from our September mountain bike trip to North Korea is starting to turn heads in the press. Some commentators don’t see the merits of a trip to North Korea quite like my team does.

North Korea was always likely to be a contentious destination in some people’s eyes — we knew that when we decided to go. Some people thought us naive, some (largely ignorant) people thought we wouldn’t return. And now we have come back, some want to point out the ‘error of our ways’ in going there, no doubt based on their own received knowledge of this country rather than direct experiences. I expect that, whatever our intentions, there will be other criticism to come and that will play off against the enormous interest in and praise for our efforts, as well as the benefits of the debate and discussion it has created.

So given that this is a contentious trip in some people’s eyes, here are some answers to common questions about why we went, and I hope to provide some insight into my views on the ethical and/or political debate that no doubt exists with some people around our decisions.

Many of the questions below are quoted from the one Instagram critic’s comments and accusations.

Q. “North Korea? There is no glory in that, only shame.”

A. We were not seeking glory and we do not feel shame for going — far from it. I have spent 3 decades of my 52 years of life going to different countries to better understand different people, customs and politics. I travelled through Chile while Pinochet was still dictator and in Nicaragua when the post-revolution Sandinistas held power (first time round, 1989). I’ve met ex-Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and faced a Hezbollah checkpoint in Lebanon. I’ve spent time in Russia and Kashmir and Pakistan. The world is awash with potentially contentious places to visit, but my agenda is to try to find a common humanity, to break down barriers and build bridges, however small, between different people (us and them) otherwise divided by political systems. I approached our trip to North Korea with the same hopes and ambitions.

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Q. “You are just supporting a country that tortures and murders innocent people.”

A. I believe that far from supporting regimes, the benefits of these trips (achieved through the subsequent sharing of our direct and honest experiences) do more to better the world than further harm it. I travel to places to tell the story as I see and experience it, to see places for myself, rather than absorb and regurgitate whatever an agenda-driven press or a government tell us. I don’t doubt there are serious issues in NK, but this was a journalism trip. The reason behind going was not to produce an advert for the North Korean tourist board, nor did we set out to promote or defend its ideology or system, but to obtain a rare glimpse inside the country. From that opportunity we can tell our story of a visit to North Korea  —which may challenge or confirm other people’s preconceptions/opinions : after all we didn’t know what stories and experiences we would come away with.

Q. By going to NK you are just giving credibility to a regime.

A. I think as a traveller to such places it is your responsibility to be aware of its political and social issues. Travel is about broadening the mind, and seeing a place through open eyes and having intentions to learn about the issues surrounding it is part of that. I agree that to travel to NK without any intention to embrace or interpret these issues would be acting irresponsibly as a human. I do not think we did that. Tourists, anywhere, have much more responsibility than they think.

Q. “There is absolutely no way you saw life in North Korea as it is.”

A. I accept that NK wants to show tourists a presentable side of its country and is keen to improve its image —that’s a given (after all every tourist board across the planet has the same objectives). But I believe that during our 12 days spent in 4 very different areas of the country, we saw a fair bit of ‘normal’ life. We were not driven about in a bus with blacked out windows and then herded in and out of only places ‘they’ wanted us to see. The countless sights we saw across the country from our bus windows (during the 20+ hours we drove across parts of the country), or walking the streets in Pyongyang and hiking and riding in the hills and rural areas, were not set up or enacted for us – that would be impossible and ludicrous. I accept that on a trip like this we were not privileged to see ‘behind the scenes’ of many places I’d have liked to – factories, schools (although we did meet another tour group who had visited a school), farms etc, even prisons, and I accept that our own experience is limited for sure, but it was not acutely curated, sculpted and censored as many thought it would be.

Q. “Were you free to roam the streets?

A. Every foreigner is accompanied by 2 guides (or ‘minders’/’fixers’, depending on how you want to look at them). We had our same 2 guides for our group of 4 tourists. We worked hard to plan our own trip and the destinations we wanted to visit/ride and had their tour company organise the logistics to enable us to do it, with mountain biking as our focus. No we were not ‘free to roam’ the streets as such —you cannot go anywhere in public without your guides— but we could walk the streets, and did, and we could suggest where we went, and most of those suggestions were accommodated. The guides showed a surprising flexibility in where we went and what we saw, even finding a way for us to session the Pyongyang skate park on our whim.

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Pyongyang skate park

Q. “I’d even be surprised if you met any real citizens.”

A. Our guides were ‘real citizens’. We spent 3 days in Pyongyang and walked through parks and along streets and traveled on its underground alongside everyday regular citizens on their way to or from work and during the 70thanniversary celebrations. We rode paths in the mountains and met groups of day-hikers, who laughed and cheered our endeavours. We drunk beer in a microbrew alongside suited men, shared a swimming pool with teenage lads who were just messing about instead of honing their swimming techniques, we cheered on a volleyball game on a beach and were invited to join in a beer and karaoke party under a bridge. And we saw workers toiling by hand on roads, in public gardens, fields and in construction. If by ‘real citizens’ you mean the general public then we mingled with them, but it is hard to “meet” people in NK unless they are in the service industry — guides, waiting staff, hotel clerks etc. After all you don’t usually ‘meet real citizens’ much anywhere else you travel, unless in a bar. The North Koreans are reserved and there is a very real language barrier – we don’t speak Korean, they don’t speak English. But we had many encounters and we were not prevented from trying to talk with them when we did.

 

Q: “You certainly did not get to ‘see for yourself’ any of the realities these people endure. Did you see any starving people?”

A. I don’t know if any of the people we saw were ‘starving.’ I have seen starving people in other parts f the world. We saw many thin people, and no fat people at all. But it’s worth noting that I wouldn’t usually see the realities people endure in poor parts of the U.K. or the USA either, unless they invite me into their houses or places of work, but it seems acceptable for me to report from there without attracting criticism.

Q. “Did you see any work camps or torture chambers?”

A. No we didn’t. However I don’t usually see prisons on any of my mountain bike trips, thankfully. I would love to travel to NK to photograph a more in-depth study of some deeper issues, but our trip was spearheaded by looking for mountain biking opportunities and photographing them. That’s not to say we were blinkered, only to put our trip in context. There are plenty of other photographers recording the social political realities of NK. Try Carl de Keyzer.

Q. “How could you say this is journalism? You most certainly were chaperoned by military personnel”

A. The story we came back with is an honest and factual representation of our experiences, albeit shaped by mountain biking. We were not chaperoned by military personnel, but by civilian guides employed by a state-run tour company. The itinerary we followed was requested and directed by us, with an amazing (and surprising) amount of flexibility shown by our guides, including an overnight bivouac up a mountain a long way from any spying eyes. Some gaps in our proposed timeline were filled in by our guides’ ideas of places that might be of cultural interest —monuments etc, (that also helped them tick their role of educating us on ‘their’ history of NK.)

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A Sunday BBQ and karaoke party we stumbled across under a bridge in the rain, and were immediately invited to join.

Q. “You were only allowed to take approved photos (which was probably only mountains and trees)”

A. Actually I was allowed to take photos of anything I wished, but not military personnel — a sensitivity I think you’d find in most countries. The only other time I was asked not to take a photo was of an old ice-cream vending machine, as this was considered ‘old and ugly’. The North Koreans, like many South-East Asians, are very aware and proud of their appearance and how it is perceived by others. I did take pictures of mountains and trees too, and usually they had bikes in them. One local guide was more sensitive and was not so keen on us photographing some everyday sights that “could be used as negative propaganda against the DPRK”, for example people working on the roads in basic conditions, people driving oxen – in fact the sort of scenes that are everyday sights across much of Asia.

milner_northkorea018_0013

Tourists want selfies, everywhere nowadays.

Q. “Did you take any pictures of propaganda posters?

A. Yes I took many pictures of many propaganda posters. They are fascinating and are a must-snap romantic subject matter for any western photographer whether they appreciate the message contained within them or not. By comparison, over 12 days I only saw 1 product advertising billboard (for a state made family car). Some would argue this absence of marketing reflects poor material wealth and a deprivation of freedoms of choice etc, but that depends on your background, wealth, the system you live under and what choices are on offer. What this propaganda poster vs billboard disparity did drive home is an appreciation that their political system is completely different from ours. While their leading ideology (called Juche) relies heavily on ‘unity’, all-for-one-and one-for all symbiosis, and the ‘common good’, our western ideology is largely unified by consumerism and the desire to better ourselves in spite of, and often to the detriment of others. I have not been brainwashed, that’s just the basics of  socialism versus capitalism.

milner_northkoreabillboards

Q. “Ask any questions about how the government treats its people?”

A. The honest answer is ‘no’ at least if you are asking if we queried their human rights record. While interested in such topics, we avoided such direct questions because: 1. We believe that we would have received subjective, party-line answers concurrent with our status as visiting tourists rather than as UN inspectors (so why bother asking?), and 2. Our trip was shaped as an MTB trip and so our initial priorities lay in building trust with our guides to enable our mountain biking to happen how, where and when we wanted it to (a large ask, considering that they had never catered for mountain bikers before and didn’t know what to expect). Asking such weighed questions would not garner trust.

We did ask plenty of other questions about civilian life and got explanations about: housing (its free), work (everyone works for the state, 6 days per week), farming (many are collectives), healthcare (its free), schools (free), marriage (its arranged), money (it exists and people get a basic salary for their work), beer (they like it), universities (free), holidays (they get annual holidays), internet (no internet, they have their own DPRK intranet). We also discussed with our guides the topics of freedom of speech, elected officials, relationships and meeting girls, the Trump-Kim Jong Un summit (our guide praised Trump for helping make that happen), consumerism, tourism and more.

Q. “..and the people you may have spoken to were undoubtedly under the watchful eye and ear of the state.”

A. While I am sure the state keeps an eye on its citizens for many reasons there were quite a few moments when we did interact freely with strangers, especially out on the hiking trails. Perhaps this was because here they were away from the ‘eyes and ears’ of the state, or perhaps it was because they are just human and the novelty of seeing 4 mountain bikers was surreal and entertaining as it is in many places devoid of mountain bikers.

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Q. “Did you have an independent translator interpret any newspapers, TV, or radio transmissions?”

A. We did not have an ‘independent’ translator. Out guides were our translators. We had to trust the honesty of our guides and work out for ourselves if anything they were telling us was curated in any way towards propaganda. I think I have the experience to spot this. Building up a good rapport with the guides helps to open up honest dialogue. We did try to watch North Korean T.V. in our hotel rooms and we saw and had the headlines of newspapers translated.

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Reading the newspapers in the Pyongyang metro

Q. “Meet any citizens that could even afford a bike?”

A. One of our guides had his own mountain bike — a Giant hardtail with city tyres and a pannier rack fitted. I accept that as an official tour guide this guy probably had a decent income by NK standards, but we saw hundreds of other people on bikes in the city and in rural places too (bikes are much more common than privately owned cars, which are rare in NK). We saw plenty of electric city bikes.

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Q. “What you may have experienced, besides the adrenaline rush, is a farce and now you [and the media who run your story] are another propaganda tool for the deep dark state of North Korea.”

A. We do not believe the story we are telling is in any way propaganda. It is up to you how you interpret that story, and I am sure whatever we publish will be interpreted in different ways by people who already have their own political stances, stand-fast views and agendas. I am not naive to think that NK is not without its human rights issues, but those same or similar issues exist in countless other countries that most people, perhaps yourself included, would willingly travel to, from Iran to Israel. Read Amnesty International’s annual reports on China and Saudi Arabia and you’ll see overlap with their take on NK, but we support these countries by doggedly continuing to travel to, and trade with, them as they (presently at least) serve our western consumerist needs. How much of our consumerist goods come from China, how much oil from Saudi Arabia?. And what about our arms trade with dozens of countries with atrocious human rights records, because our current model of economics demands it?

Q. “That’s why we have sanctions now, to prevent countries like North Korea from getting into the global market. And then people like you and the clueless media skirt those sanctions by swapping your western cash to Chinese currency and giving it directly to a very well documented oppressive regime.”

A. While sanctions can encourage or force change through a national or trade level, I do not believe that our visit there contravened any of the ambitions of sanctions. Yes, some people (including the US government) argue that all money spent in North Korea helps prop up its regime, and that is a consideration, in the same way as our own taxes could be seen as paying for either schools or bombs without any input into that decision, aside from voting for party X or Y. It is illegal for any US company to engage in any activity that spends money in North Korea and the USA has banned its own citizens from visiting NK (and ironically in my view, in so doing enacted its own censorship). However the E.U. does not have the same sanctions and travel exclusions in place and as an E.U. citizens we did not contravene any of its laws.

Q. “What a cop out… please tell me about human rights abuses in the western world comparable to NK, China, Saudia Arabia etc? Our home countries are indeed much less oppressive and the best example of fairness this world has right now so don’t even think about shitting on it. And this socialist ideology would be more noble of it wasn’t forced through brainwashing, starvation, fear, and violence.”

A. While I agree that ‘Western’ countries enjoy a much cleaner human rights situation (nowadays, not historically) than many countries, we are not totally isolated from human rights abuses. The Black Lives Matter campaign is real, as is War on Want’s anti slavery campaign that highlights sweatshops in the U.K. as much as those in India. And I believe many of our own countries human rights abuses happen abroad, enacted in our names in countries that we are “policing”. This is obviously drifting off topic, but adds context. The ‘West’ is happy to police and act as a self-appointed jury of global standards, morals and rights, based on our own (ie, western) interpretations of good and evil, whether that be regarding religion or political doctrines or economic models. Yes, our countries might be the “best examples of fairness” but I am not “shitting on” them by believing they are not above criticism of some of their domestic and foreign policies. I know NK is an authoritarian state, but I also believe it remains demonised not because of its defensive/offensive military posturing, but largely because of its adherence to a socialist ideology — and that demonisation would disappear if it embraced capitalism and housed our cheap factories. I do not then its human rights record would not even a talking point.

Q. “The point is, you still dont have a direct and honest experience to share with us. You were not exposed to the truth and therefore cannot speak of it. The only thing you did was give thousands of western currency to a murderous regime in return for false propaganda to take back home to share. You’re not a humanitarian, just a peddler of an authoritarian agenda.”

A. I do not pretend to be an expert on North Korea, only my own experiences, impressions and reflections. I would love to chat to ex-pat North Koreans who have left the country, and I’d love to chat more and in greater depth with North Koreans still inside the country who support the system. I have a very real and honest experience to share. The truth is that I saw a country with a fragile system so alien to many of us that few of us can comprehend it. Their system has definite positives for sure, but at what price? Yes I admire the root aspirations and the communal benefits of their socialism, and its longevity against all odds, but I am also acutely aware of the authoritarianism that goes with it.

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Q. “Letting you all know the MTB world is appalled by your funding of North Korea’s murderous government. Please explained how you skirted sanctions, how you transferred western currency to Korea?”

A. I’m sorry you feel that, but I am sure you do not speak for the ‘MTB world’. As E.U. citizens we did not ‘skirt sanctions’, but acted entirely within the law and within any UN and E.U. trade restrictions in place, and exercised our rights to travel to NK. We were quoted for and paid our tour company for the trip they organised for us — our tour bus, hotels, food and guiding.

Q. “If you don’t know Otto Wambier, you should look him up and send his mother an apology.”

A. Tragic as that event was, I certainly don’t feel I owe Otto’s mother, or anyone else an apology. Otto’s trip had nothing to do with my own, but I am curious to know the reason why Otto visited NK.

Diatribes apart, I hope this helps you understand what has driven me to make trips to places like North Korea, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Lebanon and more. Every person seeing media output from our trip will no doubt already have their own political background and allegiances and will interpret both the story and the above Q+A in their own way. One friend believes that our visits to such places are  “imperial vanguardism”, that we leave in our wake countless detrimental changes to often fragile systems  —be they by introducing desire for consumerism in what is the last remnant of socialism, or encouraging commercial tourism to trample the rainforests of Borneo. But that’s another (worthy) discussion.

I’d argue that we have one world and that we are all interconnected. One person’s pollution is another’s bad drinking water. One country’s defence policy is another one’s threat. I don’t doubt that there are places and people that would be better left alone to exist as they have always done, without our interference (and inevitably the sicknesses, both physical, mental and spiritual that usually accompanies it). But there are also plenty of places that are demonised and feared and form part of the jigsaw of our unstable world. I believe fear and insecurities start with misunderstanding and suspicion. I believe the best way to avoid that is to connect with people, wherever they are, and find common ground as a starting block to break down the barriers with which our world is sadly and detrimentally saddled, not build more.

Catch the full story in Bike Magazin Germany, MBUK, Vojomag, MTB-mag.com, Solo Bici, Spoke NZ, Outside Online, Velo CZ.. and others.

 

 

June 11, 2018

What’s that you said? You want to Mountain bike in North Korea?

Filed under: Uncategorized — danmilner @ 5:07 pm

While talks are on the cards, I doubt North Korea is likely to make Conde Nast’s vacation bucket list, but it’s on mine. Okay, not a holiday, but to shoot a mountain bike story there. A pioneering one. Nobody seems to have tried it before, so given my reputation, why not, right? And to help make it happen I’ve launched a crowdfunder here:

https://gogetfunding.com/opening-minds-in-north-korea/

 

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Hands up who likes to see people carrying bikes up big hills? Lesotho, Africa, 2017.

The idea is to look inside this intriguing country and come back with an amazing story to share with you all. Yeah nothing new there, so why crowdfunding? The problem is that North Korea has an “image problem” in the eyes of many of the usual western sponsors that would back these kind of ‘out there’ mountain bike trips. Or to be exact they are either a little risk averse when it comes to a potential marketing backlash spearheaded by customers with blinkered minds, or have their hands tied due to US economic sanctions. So, falling short of their usual financial support, I’ve turned to crowdfunding the story instead. It’s an original approach to funding adventure assignments, and maybe one that represents a populist answer to ailing press budgets.

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Cultural exchange, Afghanistan, 2013.

I’ve spent 3 decades riding mountain bikes and they have been my excuse to see some of the world’s varied cultures and extraordinary places, from Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor and the Lebanon Mountain Trail to Lesotho’s horse trails and Ethiopia’s Simien mountains. Again and again the bike has been a tool to break down barriers of culture, wealth and language, and to bridge the gap between different peoples. I think it will be no different in North Korea.

Please check out the campaign and help make this story happen. Thanks!.  #bikeNorthKorea #MTBnorthkorea

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The universal power of the bike. Chitwan, Nepal, 2015.

 

 

 

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