A journey to the secret corners of North Korea

From volcanic peaks to secret beaches, Hilary Bradt scratches beneath the surface on her trip to this famously elusive country.

Hilary Bradt
04 June 2017

The Majon Hotel catered to our every comfort. The bathroom had a generous collection of toiletries, all labelled Sheraton – no affiliation, of course, they must have purchased a job lot. On the desk in the bedroom was a little box containing a pair of scissors, a small pot of glue, a metal ruler, bulldog clips and a stapler. And in the wardrobe… a gas mask.

This hotel also had one more surprise up its sleeve. Gazing out to sea, I saw a sweep of ochre sand curve away under steep, pleated cliffs to reveal a private beach. Beyond that lay an island reached via a raised concrete walkway, its path edged with pink daisies that attracted fluttering swallowtail butterflies and leading to a viewpoint that looked out over distant headlands and hidden coves.

When we returned to the beach, its parasols and recliners lay undisturbed. There was no need to stake our claim with towels: our small group were the only guests. The east coast of North Korea was not what I expected, but then not much of what I saw and experienced here was. Who would have thought that people would smile and return our waves from the bus? That the food would be so plentiful and tasty, or that Pyongyang would have its own – and brand-new – beer festival?

Even a short stay in the capital promised much, but I had chosen to escape the city. My journey would take me to parts of the country seldom visited by outsiders, travelling to the far north and deep south by charter plane and bus. It promised the opportunity to hike distant peaks and see unofficial rural life up close on our long journeys. And most of all, I was simply curious about the people that lived here, away from the bright lights and grand statues of the capital.

No one goes to North Korea (or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [DRPK], to give its full title) oblivious of the politics or the unique way that tourists are expected to behave. So I was somewhat disarmed at the airport to meet our smiling, joking North Korean guide (known here as Guide 1), who would accompany our English leader, Carl. Guide 1 quietly reassured us that, although you can get into trouble in North Korea, it only happens to those who seek it out.

Part of the Korean guide’s job was to ensure that visitors were treated as – and behaved as – honoured guests. And it was our job to endure the sometimes tedious visits to factories and leader-rich sites as much as to enjoy the genuine delights. Our initial excursion outside the capital took us some 150km north of Pyongyang to Mount Myohyang.

This historic peak has long held sacred significance for Koreans, from when it was better known for its ancient Buddhist temple and not the two enormous caves that were later burrowed into its side to house a collection of gifts presented to the country’s communist leaders.

We had also chosen to arrive in style. Rather than face the long bus journey endured by most ‘We climbed a jagged circle of lava pyramids to Mount Paektu’s blue crater lake; reached by 2,160 steps – a tacit reference to the date of Kim Jong-il’s birthday’ visitors, we flew there in a white, Russian-built helicopter fitted out with floral carpets, flock wallpaper, a desk, sofas, and armchairs with lace head-rest cloths.

It deposited us what seemed a world away from the skyscrapers of the big city, with views of forested hills cut by a meandering river. The relatively modest entrance to Myohyang’s museum came as a surprise after the heroic buildings of the capital. It was then that I noticed its soldier guards were carrying silver-plated Kalashnikovs – normal service duly resumed.

Inside, over 150 rooms stored some 71,000 gifts, ranging from an exquisitely carved mammoth tusk from Siberia to a defiant rhino horn courtesy of Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, to delicate porcelain and intricately carved jade from China. Items of outrageous kitsch gifted by minor dictators mixed with more practical stuff, like binoculars, computers, guns and even an entire aeroplane.

And the pièce de résistance: a plate commemorating the 10th anniversary of the miners’ strike from the Socialist Labour Party of Great Britain The DPRK is roughly the size of England, and from the air my curiosity was drawn to its pristine-looking roads: empty dual carriageways crossing rivers atop beautifully engineered bridges. But where were the cars?

We were able to stand in the middle of the main freeway into Pyongyang with no danger from oncoming traffic. There was plenty of man-power to build roads and bridges – including the Youth Highway, constructed by teenagers who reportedly had a wonderful time with the dynamite – but there was almost no private car ownership. That’s North Korea for you.

Our circuit of the country’s northern region by charter plane and bus began with a stop at Mount Paektu, the peninsula’s highest point and one of the DPRK’s most revered sites. The roads, which looked so smooth from the air, were actually full of potholes, so our bus journey was slow, which suited me fine. Oxcarts ambled past us, laden with sand for (temporarily) filling in the road, bicycles were heaped with seemingly impossible numbers of sacks, and my overriding memory was the colour orange.

It was the time of the maize harvest, and every roof of the neat workers’ cottages we passed provided space for hardening the cobs, while side roads and pavements were carpeted with grain drying in the sun. North Koreans come to Mount Paektu on organised trips to see where their story began. It was here that history tells them that guerrilla fighters, under the leadership of the DPRK’s founding father, Kim Il-sung, took the fight to Japan’s occupying forces, and where Kim Jong-il, his son and future leader, was born.

The mountain is also an active volcano, though its last eruption was around 1,000 years ago. We climbed a jagged circle of eroded lava pyramids and spikes to the impossibly blue crater lake, Chon. At 2,190m, this is one of the world’s highest lakes, and can be reached by a long flight of 2,160 steps – a tacit reference to the date of former leader Kim Jong-il’s birthday (16 Feb) – or more comfortably by cable car.

Some of us hiked through the chill wind to the highest point, Janggun Peak (2,750m), which is crowned by a concrete slab daubed with Korean lettering. “No, don’t sit!” shrieked our guide when someone tried to clamber on top for a photo. It was easy in the DPRK to unwittingly cause offence; we soon realised that every inscription was some reference to one of the Dear Leaders.

The following day, we started our journey to the country’s far north, first flying to Orang, a military airport on the eastern coast where we spotted a row of MiG fighter jets lined up on the runway. Then we took a long bus ride north to Chongjin, an industrial port due east of Mount Paektu. It was not a natural tourist destination, and I had the feeling that the authorities were rather desperately looking for ways to entertain their few visitors, though in the DPRK even boredom is interesting and has its moments of serendipity.

In the Susongchon Combined Foodstuff Factory we spent an inordinate amount of time admiring a ground plan of the Great Leader’s route during his visit, before watching some biscuits make their way apathetically along a conveyer belt. It was then that we were suddenly ushered into a hall, to be entertained by an exuberant performance of patriotic songs led by the manager himself.

A visit to the Chongjin Foreign Language Institute promised to be more interesting, but after arriving in the early evening I found my mind turning to thoughts of dinner, my attention numbed by endless photos and inscriptions of outstanding students. Everyone had apparently gone home.

Nevertheless, we climbed some dark stairs by torchlight and opened a door to lights and laughter. The classroom was full of girls, all longing to talk to us in English. They drew their pets for us and told us stories, as others joined in from neighbouring desks, and the relaxed jollity made it one of the most memorable moments of the trip.

The next day, it was a relief to leave the factories and industry of Chongjin for the four-hour drive through beguilin countryside to Rajin, DPRK’s most northeasterly town, and then on to the lookout point over the Chinese and Russian borders. There was nothing really to see here, but we spent some time enjoying its emptiness anyway while Guide 1 took a series of selfies, and it wasn’t long before we were headed for the market, the only one in the country that visitors are allowed to visit.

The Rajin-Sonbong Free Trade Zone was set up in the 1990s as a hub for international investment and functions almost autonomously. Very few travellers make it this far, so we felt privileged to see the market, even if we weren’t allowed to take photos. It was huge, selling everything from Chinese electrical goods to jeans and hosepipes. The food section was heaped with fresh fruit and vegetables of all descriptions. Wriggling eels, creeping crabs, big fish and tiny little fish filled one side of the covered area, while out in the open were geese and hens. And puppies.

After flying and bussing the length of the country, we spent our final days around Wonsan in the south-east, a region justly popular with North Korean tourists. It could have been anywhere in the world, as I enjoyed a pre-breakfast swim in the sea at Majon and a wander to the sea coves, before driving south to the place I’d looked forward to the most – albeit now in torrential rain.

Koreans (both sides of the divide) are rightly proud of Mount Kumgang. Its forested peaks, lakes, rivers and waterfalls compete with any in Europe, and its position, near the border with South Korea, encouraged authorities in more peaceful times to develop it for South Korean and foreign tourists on package border tours across the DMZ. Alas, as tension between the two Koreas increased, the plan was abandoned and its South Korean managers kicked out, leaving behind empty hotels and the odd bit of mild vandalism.

Today, the region is open to general tourism from within the country, and after the less plush north, it was refreshing to find hotels with hot water, 24-hour electricity and other comforts. As I started up the stone-paved path of Kuryong Waterfall, I met a steady flow of Korean hikers coming down.

Higher up, the flow of hikers merged with the stream of a water finding its way down the path and over the top of my boots. I did my best to appreciate the mist obscured scenery and imagine the magnificent granite peaks I’d seen in photos, and I couldn’t fail to appreciate how well the trail was designed, with little bridges and lookout points.

The vigorous waterfall at the top was no less impressive, and very different from the elegant ribbon of water depicted on most postcards. By this point, I felt I’d earned lunch, and the warm, steamy café at the bottom of the mountain, where our meat was cooked on hot stones, was sublime.

It was a sparklingly sunny day as we left for Wonsan the following morning and, after yesterday’s rain, I taught our Korean guide a new phrase in English: ‘sod’s law’. Carl had suggested we make a brief stop before journeying back to Pyongyang to walk along a causeway to Jandok Islet.

Locals were out in large numbers to enjoy themselves after several days of wind and rain, and our two guides were chatting freely at the back. We had been asked not to take photos of the people, so instead I practised my Korean on the family groups that were cooking the fish they’d just caught. They returned the greetings, sitting in laughing circles on the rocks, eating their fried catch with kimchi. Every flat rock had its array of little silver fish, arranged in neat patterns and drying in the sun.

Two drunk soldiers wobbled towards me.“Ruski?” they asked. I shook my head and corrected them. “English! English good!” they replied with broad smiles. “Bye bye.” I reflected how refreshing it was not to be thinking about that perfect photo, but just to enjoy interacting with the people – something many visitors don’t realise is possible on trips here.

North Korea sometimes lives up to expectations, but much more often than not it confounds them. The country is changing. Every year, more of its impressive landscape is opened up to tourism, but one thing’s for certain: a trip there is utterly, memorably unique, and not many countries can genuinely make that claim.

Note that independent travel within North Korea is not allowed. The author travelled with Regent Holidays on their 18-day Pioneering North Korea trip. The 2017 itinerary includes a few days in Pyongyang before taking charter flights around the country. Return flights from Beijing to Pyongyang and all domestic air travel is included.

Main image: The Arch of Reunification in Pyongyang, North Korea (Dreamstime)

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