Legendary photographer Dan Milner has launched a Crowdfund for a planned riding trip to seek out new trails in North Korea.
North Korea will certainly not be on the top of anyone’s riding trip list, but it is definitely the main focus for legendary photographer Dan Milner.
After riding in Afghanistan, Lesotho and Lebanon, amongst many others, North Korea is just another place to explore. We chat the complexities of visiting the hot topic country as far as our mainstream press is concerned, and why the Crowdfund route.
Photos by Dan Milner.
Who is Dan Milner?
He’s that bloke who takes arty photos of unusual bike adventures in some quite unusual places. Well that’s simplifying it. I’ve been a professional photographer for 20 years and a mountain biker for 30+ so I combine the two to shoot some of the sport’s more ‘out there’, head-turning adventures.
How did North Korea come to the top of the list?
Hey, we did Afghanistan already and rode a trail in Lebanon 50 miles from the Syrian border, so North Korea seemed to be the next obvious right?
I’m always looking for fresh locations to ride bikes and shoot features and I try to look for places with a backstory to them. I started discussing North Korea with the guide, Tom Bodkin from SecretCompass a year or so ago and we pulled out maps and looked at its mountains. We were both keen to go there to see for ourselves what the place is about.
So few westerners go, but everyone seems to know all about it, thanks to the western press. It was just chance that Trump and Kim Jong have just sat down together. We’ve got a couple of open-minded riders Harald Philipp and Max Schumann joining us.
What’s involved in getting to North Korea that isn’t involved in getting somewhere else?
To be honest we don’t really know, that’s part of the adventure (for want of a better term). Certainly you don’t just reach for Expedia.
Tom’s guiding company has already hosted a couple of trekking trips there so although he hasn’t been himself, he has a good idea of the logistics and visa process (which isn’t as tricky as you think), but no-one has tried to do a mountain bike trip there. We have to work through a state tourism company for all our needs in the country, and we will have a couple of ‘guides’ with us at all times so we don’t really know how that will work once we are on the bikes. Maybe they will just be good at running fast.
Whatever, it will be an interesting experience, and part of the story to tell. I had a similar experience on a snowboard trip to Kashmir around 2004, when the tourist board gave us a minder for our safety, but he wouldn’t climb the mountain with us. He just sat at the bottom all day while we hiked and rode powder. He had no idea what we were doing or where we were.
Why a Crowdfund?
I don’t want to come back broke. Some trips are quite expensive. This is costing about £15,000 for the 4 of us. Normally with such head-turning assignments we’d pull most of this cost in from a couple of sponsors that want the exposure (e.g. we expect maybe 100 pages from this one). But North Korea has an image problem, not least with respect to the marketing potential of images from the trip.
So, many usual sponsors wont go near it for fear of negative marketing implications, while other US brands have their hands tied by US sanctions. It’s kind of ironic as bike trips are great for breaking down exactly these kind of social and political barriers, the reason we’ve called our Crowdfunder “Opening Minds in North Korea”. But this trip is work, not a holiday.
We will shoot a banger of a story there, but it is taking a lot of our time to organise and go do. The pay-outs from the story afterwards will hardly cover the costs of the trip for one, so I launched a crowdfunder to try to bridge the shortfall between some great contributions from Evoc and Magura and the total cost we face to make it happen.
I’ve never done a crowdfunder before so had no idea if it will work to fund an ‘adventure’ trip, and maybe it isn’t, it’s proving a slow start. That’s kind of frustrating when so many people want to live our bike adventures vicariously, but don’t click through and cough up just a fiver to help make it happen.
Everyone is sharing the link, but even those that share are not dipping in. We’ve even added rewards like sending postcards from North Korea, who wouldn’t want that kind of collectors piece, especially in this day and age when only months ago Trump came close to reducing the place to ash and now its becoming his best mate.
To be honest, we realise that not everyone is ‘into’ North Korea as a political system, but our aim is to look inside the country and get a better picture and tell the story of our experience, whatever it is.
What’s the plan if you do get the go-ahead?
The plan is to go whatever happens, we’ll find a way. We’re hitting three areas where we know there are trails. One in the mountains a few hours drive from Pyongyang, the next in the North East on the highest peak in the peninsular (and famed birth place of Kim Jong) and finally onto some craggy coast mountains. We come back to Pyongyang to be immersed in the 70th birthday celebrations of the DPRK, that should be some eye opening pomp. Everything in between is a big unknown.
How does this fit into the bigger Dan Milner adventure picture?
North Korea is another stop on my way through life. I like looking into places less travelled. It’s a learning curve we should all engage more with.
Where next for you?
Before we get to North Korea, I’m shooting a 9-day ride through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, finishing at the foot of its second highest mountain, Lenin Peak. And I already have a couple of plans forming for 2019. Let’s just say they are in places that are quite off the beaten track.
Help get Dan, Max, Tom and Harald explore unridden trails by donating and sharing their Crowdfunder here.