DPRK (and Beijing) Day thirteen
12.09.2019 - 12.09.2019
A tourist bus arriving at the Pegaebong Hotel
I slept better than I had expected to in my rather hard bed - maybe I was adjusting to the Korean style? But I was still quite happy to be up early for our drive to Mount Paektu, especially as it was a lovely crisp autumn morning – the higher altitude here meant that we had none of the heat we had experienced in Pyongyang.
Our group outside the hotel
We left the hotel around seven in our rather cramped and elderly bus for the bone-rattling drive up the mountain. The land either side of the road was forested for much of the journey - proper forests, looking just as if they could be home to Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel! These were not the commercially planted rows of uniform trees we see so often at home.
Driving to Mount Paektu
Eventually we got up above the tree line and our guide pointed out Mount Paektu ahead of us. The name, Paektusan in Korean, means ‘white head mountain’ and it was easy to see how it got its name – the pale bare rock at its peak stood out clearly against today’s blue sky.
First sight of Mount Paektu
This is the highest mountain on the Korean peninsula, and in all of Manchuria, at 2,750 metres above sea level. It straddles the border between North Korea and China and is a still-active volcano – the last eruption was in 1903 and scientists consider that another one could be imminent, based on a trend of eruptions roughly 100 years apart. The crater lake, Lake Chon (‘Heaven Lake’) was formed in the 946 AD eruption.
The mountain is of great significance to all Koreans, North and South, as according to their ancient mythology it was the birthplace of Tangun Wanggeom, the founder of the first Korean dynasty, Gojoseon (2333–108 BC). His parents were said to be Hwanung, the Son of Heaven, and Ungnyeo, a bear who had been transformed into a woman. The peoples of all subsequent Korean kingdoms continued to worship the mountain.
During the revolutionary struggle against the Japanese the dense forests of this region provided the perfect environment for guerrilla activity, as we would see later in the day. Kim Il Sung was based here and a whole new set of Mount Paektu legends / historical events (depending on your perspective) were formed.
The mountain remains a symbol of national identity and patriotism for the country. You see the image of a deep blue Lake Chon as the setting for numerous portraits of the Great Leaders and in Pyongyang its outline forms the backdrop to the statues of the Mansudae Grand Monument as well as appearing on the Arch of Triumph.
When the South Korean President Moon Jae-in made a historic visit to North Korea in September 2018, he and Kim Jung Un visited the mountain together and posed for photos beside Lake Chon. It is also a place of pilgrimage for ordinary North Koreans, and groups of workers, students and army cadets visit in their thousands.
Ascending the mountain
Looking back the way we had come
We reached the parking lot a little below the summit and paused for a bathroom break for those who needed it and a photo session for the rest of us. We could see the track we had just driven, with another tourist bus heading towards us, and beyond and below that low cloud lying in the valleys.
View from the parking area
Michael capturing the view
And what a view!
Above us was the mountain, with the funicular railway leading up it from a red-roofed station. At the top was an inscription in giant white Korean characters. This was erected in 1992 to mark the 80th birthday of Kim Il Sung – the enormous metal letters read ‘Holy mountain of the revolution’.
Mount Paektu with funicular
Several times in the last few days we had speculated whether we would all get to see the crater lake, as the funicular doesn’t always work here and some of us were unsure we could manage the one hour walk uphill. But Carl had assured us that he had never yet had to leave anyone at the bottom and that although not strictly allowed the bus driver would probably be willing, for a small payment to drive us up and the army guards to turn a blind eye. And so it proved, and up we went, along a brick-laid track with stunning views of the mountains all around, layered with low-lying clouds.
On Mount Paektu
First view of Lake Chon
At the top we all hurried over to the white painted wall which marks the perimeter of the permitted area, and were rewarded with a stunning view of Lake Chon. We really couldn’t have asked for better weather here - blue sky, just a scattering of white clouds, and not really cold at all. Several of us discarded some of the thick layers we had been wearing following warnings about possible weather conditions up here. Carl mentioned that when he visited with a group on the same tour a year ago the weather was so dreadful that they couldn’t see much at all and only stayed for a few minutes. We however had a perfect view, in perfect conditions. The lake was almost completely still and the reflections in it really clear.
A perfect view
From this point we had the choice of resting here or walking up to the summit - either on quite a steep scree-covered path or up a less steep but longer jeep track. A couple stayed below but I joined those making the attempt up the stony path.
We arrived at a memorial stone where a local guide gave us a short talk about the mountain. If she told us what the inscription on the stone says, I’m afraid I didn’t catch it, being too eager to get back to those views!
The memorial stone
Some of our group climbing Mount Paektu
Roughly half of the group, including Chris, decided to carry on up to the top but I could see the path was going to get a lot steeper so I settled down with some others, sitting on the white concrete barrier to enjoy the view from this spot and take far too many photos of the wonderful reflections.
Lake Chon panorama
~ the climbing group on the left, some of my companions on the right
The view from our perch
Reflections in Lake Chon
I also zoomed in on the building on the far side of the crater rim, in China, to see the far larger number of tourists visiting from that side of the border.
Looking into China
The Chinese lake shore
Later I made it just a little further up the steep path, to get yet another different angle on the lake below.
This is as high as I got!
When Chris came back he told me about the various viewpoints and reaching the very top, Janggun Peak, the highest point in the DPRK. He of course took some photos and I have his permission to share them here.
At the top of Mount Paektu (taken by Chris)
We walked down to the parking area where gradually all the group assembled apart from one. He had tackled the summit quickly and alone, descended and continued on down to the edge of the lake, over 2,000 steps below. Most of us didn’t feel up to tackling those in a hurry (or at least the return climb!) and the cable car wasn’t working, so we had no choice but to wait for his return before we could head off to our next stop. Luckily there can be few more scenic spots in which to have to wait for someone! The wind had got up a little - not enough to make us cold but enough to cause the lake to ripple just a little, blurring the reflections.
Ripples on Lake Chon
View from Mount Paektu
But perhaps it won’t surprise those of you following our adventures in North Korea to learn that this was the same companion who had caused the upset in Kaesong when challenging our guide about the protocols for photographing the Great Leaders’ statues, and, we suspected, the same one who had been less than subtle in his photography from the trolley bus in Chongjin. So we were perhaps less patient about the need to wait than we would have been had anyone else from the group been the cause!
I was surprised to find such a pretty flower growing in such a harsh environment
On the border with China
Eventually our companion was back, and we headed down the mountain, taking a route more to the west. As we drove Carl pointed out that we were very close to the border with China which was just one hill away on the far side of the Amnok river.
We stopped for a picnic lunch in a scenic spot. The large boxes provided by our hotel contained a bit of a mixed bag, but I enjoyed the hard-boiled egg, cucumber salad and tiny fried fish. The meal was washed down with a choice of beer or water, as usual.
Our Mount Paektu picnic spot
By the side of the road where we stopped
Afterwards our Korean guide proposed a short walk along a new path on the opposite side of the road, which she thought led to a pool (although she had not yet even explored it herself). It proved to be a rather longer walk than she had thought, so I and some others dropped out and instead sat on benches enjoying the peaceful woodland scene.
Wooded slopes of Mount Paektu
Chris came back with photos of a double waterfall, Hyeongje Falls, so the walk had proved worthwhile. Hyeongje means 'brother' or 'sibling' and it's easy to see how the falls got their name.
(taken by Chris)
Paektu Secret Camp
Our main afternoon stop was at the Paektu Secret Camp, another place where the mythology that has grown up around the Kim dynasty in North Korea clashes at times with Western historical accounts. I will try my best to steer a respectful path between the two.
As I have already mentioned, the forested slopes of Mount Paektu offered ideal cover to the guerrilla groups fighting against the Japanese occupation during the 1930s – on that everyone is agreed. A number of ‘secret camps’ were established here as bases for these groups, one of which was led by Kim Il Sung. Where DPRK accounts diverge from those elsewhere is on the scale of the latter’s contribution to the war. Here in North Korea he is seen as the hero who led the guerrilla troops to victory, whereas elsewhere he is regarded as more of a bit player in a fight largely directed by the Soviet Red Army.
The other key point on which accounts differ is on the date and place of birth of his son, Kim Jong Il. Non-DPRK history records that he was born on 16 February 1941 while his parents were in exile in Russia, North Korean mythology around the Kim dynasty demands that he was born on Korean soil. Thus it record his birth as taking place exactly a year later, here on the slopes of Mount Paektu in Secret Camp 1 where his parents were living and battling the Japanese. For the duration of a visit here it is best that you too acknowledge that ‘truth’. His official biography notes that:
‘For the Korean people his birth was a great occasion and heralded as the happiest and proudest event. His childhood was replete with ordeals. The Secret Camp of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army in the primeval forest was his home, and ammunition belts and magazines were his playthings. The raging blizzards and ceaseless gunshots were the first sounds to which he became accustomed.’
Kim Jong Il In His Young Days
We were greeted at the entrance to the camp by a young guide, in pseudo military uniform, which according to the Bradt guidebook is a copy of that worn by the guerrilla fighters. She started by pointing out Kim Jong Il Peak and the poem written by Kim Il Sung about his son, the ‘Shining Star of Mount Paektu’.
Kim Jong Il Peak (with the slogan) and poem on the stone
We saw the huge mosaic depicting the Kim family at the camp in winter – Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Suk and a young Kim Jong Il.
Mosaic at Mount Paektu Secret Camp
Our guide then took us to various reconstructed buildings such as barracks and the camp’s HQ. At the barracks we were told about the slogan on the wall which says that knowledge is worth more than gold. Apparently one or more of the Kims has visited and been very taken with this aphorism.
Slogan in the barracks
(taken through a rather grubby window)
At the HQ we learned that Kim Jong Il’s mother, Kim Jong Suk, had personally chosen the positions of the windows and door. Our guide pointed out the door handle - made somewhat gruesomely from a deer’s hoof because unlike metal it won’t stick to the hand in the below freezing temperatures experienced here in the winter (no, I don’t know why they couldn’t have used wood either!)
Deer's hoof door handle, and our guide by a window
And when we came to the actual cabin where Kim Jong Il was ‘born’, we were shown cooking pots etc used by Kim Jong Suk and toys made for the little boy by the soldiers of the guerrilla army. These include a wooden pistol and a jigsaw puzzle of the Korean peninsula.
Cooking pots and toys
So does it matter, I pondered, that North Koreans believe Kim Jong Il was born at Paektu camp while the rest of the world thinks otherwise? In the end, maybe having somewhere to come to venerate him is what counts, both to regular Koreans and to the leadership, as it helps to maintain the cult of the dynasty.
Our route back to the bus took us along the bank of the Sobaek Stream where were shown the spot at which Kim Jong Suk collected water for cooking and for her son to drink. We were invited to drink from the same spring - the water was certainly cool and pleasant.
At the well by Sobaek Stream
The stream, and the 'other' Chris enjoying the fresh water
Back at the bus there was some delay before leaving, during which several of us commented on the superior nature of another bus parked alongside - newer, bigger, with more comfortable looking seats and curtains to shade the windows. To add insult to injury, the group of Germans travelling in it seemed to be fewer in number than we were!
Our group in our little bus
(taken by Pam on my camera)
Then the reason for the delay was explained by Carl. Most of the German group wanted to opt out of their final planned stop at Rimyongsu Falls and go straight back to the hotel (‘we have waterfalls in Germany’ they apparently proclaimed!) The upshot was that we were to add their few companions who did want to go to the falls to our group, as we were definitely all up for a visit there, but to accommodate them we needed to change to their larger bus - what joy! There was much teasing between the two groups as we swapped over but eventually we were on our way to the falls.
There was a painting of Rimyongsu Falls on the wall of the dining room at the hotel. Carl had warned us, correctly, that the real thing didn’t look quite the same, but it was still a very scenic spot. The Rimyongsu Valley was formed through the erosion of basalt which erupted from Mt. Paektu a million years ago. The water gushes out from crevices in this basalt rock in several spots, with nine main water courses and several smaller cascades, with an average height of six metres.
Rimyongsu Falls from the weir
Some of the smaller cascades
Travelling companion Val on the weir
A concrete pavilion in a traditional style provides a viewing platform at the top, although I was one of many in our group who opted to stay and enjoy the falls at their foot. They were really very pretty, surrounded by trees whose leaves were just starting to take on their autumn colours. The Germans, most of them, were missing a treat!
Evening at the hotel
After this we returned to the hotel to rest a bit before dinner. There was an option to go to a ‘potato barbecue’ on the front lawn, for a small fee, but we passed on that and spent some time relaxing and sorting photos. Dinner was no better than last night’s and was eaten entirely in semi-darkness, owing to a power cut. The same power cut meant that the bar was closed so we went back to our room to wait for the return of power and for the nightly 30 minutes of hot water, both of which arrived at about the same time, thankfully. Then it was time to sort our bags in preparation for tomorrow’s departure. The visit to Mount Paektu in today’s beautiful weather had been a real highlight of the trip but I wasn’t especially sorry to be soon leaving this rather bleak hotel behind.
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 all my entries are my own, and I alone am responsible for the content.