A Travellerspoint blog

Up into the mountains

DPRK (and Beijing) Day fifteen

View DPRK 2019 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Majon Beach

Beach at the Majon Tourist Hotel

The bed that had seemed passably soft the night before proved to be less comfortable than I had hoped, so I slept rather badly, and woke early. It was lovely however to be able to hear the waves crashing on the shore.

The water had clearly come back on in the night, as when Chris went into the bathroom the bath tap was running (the staff must have left it open) and the tub about to overflow and flood the room - he caught it just in time! But there was nothing coming out of the washbasin taps so we heated up the supply left for us in the red tub with the slightly unnerving immersion heater and managed the best we could. Never mind, a better hotel was promised us for tonight!

The Majon Tourist Hotel

In the grounds of the hotel

Plan of the hotel
We were in villa 2 ~ note the erratic numbering

We had a later start today so had time before breakfast to take a few photos around the hotel grounds and have a quick look at the beach, but the weather wasn’t great for photography and certainly not good enough to tempt me into the sea!

View of the coast from the beach

Hamhung Bongung

After breakfast (toast and omelette, not bad) we drove the short distance to Hamhung Bongung on the outskirts of the city. This was the royal palace of Yi Song Gye, the founder of the Choson (Yi) Dynasty.

Approaching Hamhung Bongung

We were all, I think, expecting something like the royal palace we had seen in Kaesong, just lines of stones in the grass indicating where buildings once stood, but this is a very different affair and far more appealing to the photographer in me!

Main entrance from outside and looking back from within

Main gate detail

Our guide to the palace told us that it was built by Song Gye in the late 13th century and he came here to live in 1400 after he abdicated the throne at the age of seventy, fed up with the arguments between his sons about who should succeed him. Leaving them to fight it out, I assume, he settled here and led an active life - not least in the pavilion just inside the gate, overlooking the pool, where he was entertained by his concubines. The steep stairs to the upper floor enabled him to enjoy the view as the girls in their traditional dresses ascended the steps ahead of him - or so we were told!

Pool in the gardens

Pavilion by the pool, and 'lucky' tree

Outside we saw a 400 year old tree. Apparently locals believe that if you have your photo taken by it you will live to be 100 but having been already granted a long life by the turtles in Kaesong, when we rubbed their noses, we all passed on this opportunity.

After Song Gye died the palace became a shrine, where his family was honoured over four generations. The palace was burned down by the Japanese in the late 16th century and restored in the 17th century. The inner gate was destroyed again in the Korean War and rebuilt in the 1970s but the other buildings all date back around 400 years.


Inner courtyard entrance


The king’s bedroom is richly decorated with a stunning ceiling. Our guide pointed out the wooden cupboards which are replicas of those which would have held the tablets of the king’s ancestors. Display cabinets hold a few original items such as robes, kitchen knives and ceramics.

Above the entrance to the king's bedroom

Entrance to the bedroom, and its ornate ceiling


Wooden cupboard in the king’s bedroom, with detail of carving

On the road

We drove out of Hamhung on the road south towards Wonsan, retracing yesterday’s drive.

Leaving Hamhung

The scenery was lovely - lime green paddy fields, wooded hills, the cosmos flowers lining the road. I had quite a few attempts at capturing the views, only a few of them successful because of the speed of the bus. We were not given any photo restrictions here apart from the usual - no military, no construction sites, no close-ups of people or anything that might portray the country in a bad light.



On the road from Hamhung

I was wishing that the bus might slow enough for me to get better pictures of the cosmos flowers when it did - and then came to a halt. Our driver got out and went to look at something on the side, then the guides joined him. It was clear something was wrong, but no one said what for a while. I got my desired flower close-ups through the bus window while we waited.

Cosmos flowers with bee

Cosmos flowers with dragonfly

It was getting very hot in the bus, with sun shining through the glass and no air-con on as the engine was off. At first we were told we weren’t allowed to get off, as it was a dangerous road - there was a lot of traffic by Korean standards and no pavement, but I suspect the rule was a more general one relating to the movement of tourists. Later the guides relented and let us disembark and wait in the shade of the bus by the road, on the condition we didn’t bring our cameras, as we weren’t really supposed to be there. Luckily I had also managed to get some decent landscape shots before getting off.

Taken from the broken down bus

Finally we were told that a replacement bus was coming from Hamhung but it was smaller, so we would leave our luggage to follow later when this one could be fixed and continue the day’s itinerary in the replacement. It would take about 30 minutes for that to arrive. But before that bus could get to us our driver managed to repair ours and so we were on our way again with only around an hour lost, driving through a small town and up into the mountains.

In a town on the way to Ullim Falls
~ if you look carefully you an see our bus reflected in the mirror on the left!

On the road to Ullim Falls


Up into the mountains

Ullim Falls

Despite that loss of an hour we managed to fit in everything that had been planned for the day. We stopped at Ullim Falls, a beautiful waterfall that was only discovered around the turn of this century when soldiers were building a road in this area. The new discovery was visited by Kim Jong Il in 2001 and the date is carved on the rocks near the top of the cascade to commemorate this visit.

From the road up to the falls

Before visiting the falls we ate the picnic lunch (provided by the Majon Tourist Hotel), rather bizarrely, at a restaurant a short distance along the path, which had a waitress who brought us plastic cups for our beer and cleared away after us, but no chef and no food! Again, only in North Korea perhaps?

Picnic at Ullim Falls


We walked along the path to the falls, a distance of just under one kilometre, being careful (as instructed) not to follow the parallel road reserved for what our guide called ‘VIP visitors’ nor to go anywhere near their special viewing pavilion, which was built to mark the spot from which Kim Jong Il viewed the falls. In any case, in my opinion, those VIPs are missing out, because the plebs’ footpath takes you much closer to the base of the falls, where you can stand on a raised path in the river and feel the spray.

On the path to Ullim Falls

The falls are an impressive 60 metres high and make quite a roar. Indeed the name ‘Ullim’ comes from the Korean word for echo or vibration, and it was this echo that first alerted the soldiers building the nearby road to the presence of the falls. They followed the sound, and it must have been quite something for them to discover this lovely spot at the end of their investigations!

The path to the falls, and the falls themselves
~ you can see the date of discovery carved on the cliff to the right

Some of our group at the falls, for scale

Masikryong Ski Resort

From the falls we continued for about another 30 minutes to our base for the next two nights, the Masikryong Ski Resort. Yes, you read that correctly – North Korea has a ski resort! It was built in 2013, apparently after Kim Jong Un decided that the country needed a modern ski resort. It is generally supposed that it was no coincidence that South Korea had recently been chosen as the host nation for the 2018 Winter Olympics! It was built by the Korean People’s Army in just ten months, as a result of which a new phrase was coined, ‘Masikryong speed’ – although whether that is faster or slower than Chollima speed or Mallima speed (see https://toonsarah.travellerspoint.com/376/) I have no idea!

Hotel lobby, Masikryong Ski Resort

View from the hotel grounds

A new resort meant a new hotel, and after the privations of the last few nights, in basic hotels with little or no running water and very rough and ready décor, it was almost a shock to arrive at this super shiny modern one. We had a fairly spacious room with ‘all mod cons’ - shower with hot water, plenty of space to put luggage, facilities to make coffee or tea, and the best bath towels we’d had on the entire trip!


Our bedroom

View from our room

But there wasn’t a lot of time in which to enjoy the room, for now at least. We had arranged to join some of the group and our guides in a trip up the mountain, Taehwa Peak, which is 1,363 metres above sea level. On a clear day you can see the coast from here, but this was no longer a clear day. But although the earlier sunshine had turned to low cloud, we still thought the ride would be fun. The original plan had been to ride the succession of three chairlifts rather than the gondola, but with some reluctance (on my part at least) we had to settle for the faster route because of the time lost in the bus breakdown. In any case, the poor visibility would have meant that we would have spent much of the ride in the clouds.

The cable cars

In the cable car

We paid the €5 fare and the gondolas were, after a short delay, spurred into action by the staff who had perhaps not expected any customers on this rather dull summer day (the resort is still getting used to the idea that people might visit outside the skiing season, it seems). We climbed in, four to a cabin – Chris and I shared with Jane and the ‘other’ Chris, and we made sure we each got photos of the others as we rode. I also took a few of the view down into the valley, before the clouds enveloped us.

Looking down at the hotel

View from the cable car

The gondola took us up into the clouds where we enjoyed a ‘chocolate rum’ cocktail in the glitzy café at the top, and took just a handful of photos, given the poor conditions. Despite the weather we were still glad we had gone along as it was a fun outing and a change from our other activities.


The glitzy bar

'View' at the top

Looking down

Descending from the mountain

In the evening we had dinner in the hotel restaurant with some of the usual items but also, bizarrely, a Western style piece of meat (lamb?) with peas and potatoes. Personally, I would rather have stuck to Korean food!

Hotel décor outside the restaurant


We rounded off the evening with a final beer in the bar on the top floor before retiring to enjoy our ‘proper hotel bedroom ‘.

I travelled to North Korea with Regent Holidays on their Pioneering Group tour, which takes visitors to the parts that most other tours don’t reach!

Note: when you visit North Korea you do so at the invitation of the DPRK government, and the itinerary you follow is approved by them, as are the sights you see and the information you are given. That information often differs from that disseminated outside the country - there are, as always, two (or more) sides to every story.

This blog should not be seen as a fully balanced picture of the country as it will focus primarily on what I personally saw and heard while there. I will do my best to reflect the experiences I had as presented to me by our Korean guides, although I may touch from time to time on other perspectives. In writing it I hope always to remain respectful of my hosts, and to tempt my readers not to take my word for anything, but to visit and make up their minds for themselves.

Having said that, all views expressed above and in the following entries are my own, and I alone am responsible for the content.

Posted by ToonSarah 04:22 Archived in North Korea Tagged landscapes waterfalls mountains food architecture flowers coast beach history views hotel bus palace roads weather north_korea cable_car dprk

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Taking photos from a moving vehicle requires a different type of photography which I unfortunately have had lots of practice at. My father gave me some tips as he took very good photos from places like trains in Switzerland.

by greatgrandmaR

I watched one of those food travelling programs that was in China and the host made a comment about never eat the Western Style breakfast in Asia, the underlying message being that it will usually be inferior to the local food. In saying that perhaps the meat and two veg is a typical way of serving food in that part of the country, a local speciality maybe? I wonder how popular skiing is as a sport in North Korea.

by Teoni

Fascinating as always. And good to learn that adequate accommodation can be found outside Pyongyang. As for your bus story, I - as usual! - have one too. Our group was travelling along a minor provincial road when we came to a stream where the bridge had recently collapsed. The driver got out for a look and decided that the stream was fordable. While he bumped the bus down the bank and through the water, our guide and minder were patrolling the aisle in panic to ensure that nobody took a photo.

by CliffClaven

Thank you all, as always :) Teoni, no - we understood that the food was served on our behalf, it's not something they would normally eat. Luckily the second night's meal while staying here was much better, as you will see!

And Michael, I can just picture the guides panicking that photos of the broken bridge could find their way to the outside world

by ToonSarah

Fantastic post and really excellent photos. Very good read.

by Ruth Sheffer

Thank you Ruth :)

by ToonSarah

Yet another great read, Sarah, and it was fascinating to hear some of your stories first hand yesterday evening. I am fascinated by the varying standards of hotels you had. I would have thought that with their obsession with presenting the country in a positive light that outsiders would have been assured the best of everything.

It is a shame about the weather at the top in the ski resort. If the images from the cable car are anything to go by there must have been some spectacular vistas from up there.

P.S. I didn't know penguins could ski!

by planxty

Yes, great to see you last night Fergy :) The hotels were stayed were on the whole the best that each place had to offer, apart from the unexplained sudden closure of the Majon one we should have stayed in. I guess it's possible they had some sort of problem with the building but I think maybe it could also be that some government VIP was in town and it was therefore off limits to foreigners - who knows! One thing you learn on a trip to N Korea is that plans shift around you and you just have to accept it!

by ToonSarah

I wouldn't have guessed that the cosmos flower photos have been taken through a window! Amazing :)
We had one foggy gondola drive in Norway but ours wasn't nearly as foggy as yours!

by hennaonthetrek

Thanks Henna - luckily the window was clean and the bus was stationery for so long that I had plenty of time to find the best shots :)

by ToonSarah

Who would have guessed that NK had a ski resort? A shame that it wasn't a bit clearer for you that day, but the scenery looks as though it could have been a bit special in the right conditions. Another interesting account and some more great pictures to add to the album.

by Easymalc

Hi Malcolm :) Thanks for stopping by! There's more to North Korea than most people would imagine!

by ToonSarah

you make excellent pictures through the bus. I noticed that before. I have a bit more trouble with it, no steady hands! :)

by Ils1976

Well, with the roads so poor the bus moved relatively slowly Ils, which helped, and of course I had many photos which didn't work and ended up being discarded!

by ToonSarah

As you would be aware the palace of Yi Song Gye was one of the few things not destroyed in American blanket bombing of Hamhung in the early stages of the Korean War. I will add further on this in an upcoming review.

Having now seen your luch pack at the Ullim Falls I will concede that it was superior to our Air Koryo fare!

‘Masikryong speed’ - I love it. We had an enjoyable lunch at the ski resort but unlike you pushed on to Pyongyang in the same day. As such we didn't have time to go up the mountain .. the cafe up there looks rather posh but then again it would have a well heeled clientele in season (not suggesting that your group was not well heeled lol).

And not to be left out - like you and Cliff, I have bus stories too and yes it did break down -- on a couple of days.

by Wabat

Thanks Albert - yes, as I mentioned, we learned that only one gate had been destroyed by the bombing, amazingly. I look forward to reading more about that in your own blog :)

Masikryong was a bit of a treat, although we didn't have long there. Only about half the group chose to go up the mountain - I think the others wanted to make the most of our brief stay in luxury! But we enjoyed the outing, both for the views (limited as they were) and the cocktails ;)

by ToonSarah

I would have opted to go up the mountain too.

by Wabat

Of course you would Albert :) I think we both appreciate that in NK more perhaps than anywhere else you shouldn't say no to any opportunity to see something extra! Although as you'll read in a future entry, there was one outing I had to pass on :(

by ToonSarah

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