DPRK (and Beijing) Day fifteen
14.09.2019 - 14.09.2019
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
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.
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
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!
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
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.