Tuesday, April 17, 2007 Korea (North) North Korea

Wintertime in Samjiyon

Pyongyang Airport duty free shop [Enlarge]

At 05:10 we were woken from an all too short sleep by Marie, one of our next door neighbours in the Yanggakdo Hotel, banging on the door. We asked her to do this, as our only alarm clock is the beeper on Glenn's cheap-and-dodgy Chinese watch, and we didn't have faith in its ability to wake us at such an hour.

Last night's laundry was just dry enough to put on. Dressed and packed, we reported for breakfast, still half asleep. Miraculously everyone made it on board the bus by 07:00 and we drove through the deserted streets of Pyongyang to the airport. Our tour group had chartered an Air Koryo flight to Samjiyon in the far north of the country—from where we would be going up to the top of Paekdusan (Mount Paekdu, also often transliterated from Hangul as Paektusan, Baekdusan or Baektusan). The mountain is a volcano, with the world's highest crater lake at the top. It is the most sacred place to all Koreans, from the North and the South, as it is regarded as the birthplace of the Korean nation and its people. On that the two Koreas agree. Where they differ is that the North has appropriated the region as the site of the legendary guerilla battles won by the victorious Great Leader Kim Il-sung during the anti-Japanese war, and as the birthplace of the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. More on that later.

Chaos greeted us at the airport. It was due to be a very busy day at North Korea's main airport: firstly our flight out at 08:00, then a scheduled flight to Beijing at 08:30, and three arrivals due in at some point during the day! Looking at the mayhem in the terminal we wondered if the staff would cope. We were told to fill in departure cards. We queried this, as we were not leaving the country. But no, the official said that people who are departing need to fill in departure cards; so we did. Of course when we got to customs, they weren't interested in taking them from us because we weren't leaving the country. Initiative is regarded as a counter-revolutionary trait here, and is strongly discouraged. At times like this, it shows.

When we had left the hotel, it was much emptier than it had been at the start of the week, as most guests who were here for the opening few nights of the Mass Games had now left. We will be away from Pyongyang for only one night, and when we return we will be back in the same rooms as before—the rooms will not be used in between, as we still have the keys. However the management wanted to charge us for leaving luggage in our rooms, so naturally almost everyone decided to bring all their luggage with them. The only problem was, when we got to the airport the staff wouldn't let us check in any luggage, so it was all going to have to come on to the plane with us.

We wondered why they weren't allowing any bags to be checked in. And then we caught sight of the plane out of the terminal windows. Its hold was being filled with North Korean cargo! The load appeared to include many sacks of food. Presumably at least some of the sacks are rice given as food aid from the US imperialist aggressors (which, incidentally, the North Korean people are told is not aid, but reparations for the Korean War, forced on the US by the victorious Kim Il-sung as part of the armistice terms). It was our plane, but the Koreans were not going to pass up on the opportunity to transport a free plane-load of freight up north. Of course if it really was food aid then we don't mind a bit.

We perused the wares in the duty free shop and tried out the bus-station-like seats. That took all of five minutes, and we felt very glad that we didn't have to spend more than half an hour waiting for our flight. We said goodbye to Simon, who was heading back to Beijing to man the Koryo Tours office.

Our transport for the short flight up to Paekdusan was a Tupolev Tu-134B, one of two owned by Air Koryo. It was small and quite smart, with large windows. It felt safer than the antiquated Ilyushin in which we had flown from Beijing to Pyongyang. Because we're travelling light we were unhampered by luggage, and so we were able to beat the crowd and nab the front seats in business class (yeah, baby!), with extra leg room. That was the only business class perk we would be getting on this flight however.

We got airborne without incident and soon the sunny Pyongyang morning was far behind us. We flew over bleak, pointy hills which started to get a sprinkling of snow as we flew north. We got another copy of the inimitable Pyongyang Times, and more of the uniquely tasting North Korean cider that you only seem to get on Air Koryo flights. The further north we flew, the whiter the hills became, and before long the snow was beginning to fill the valleys. For the first time we noticed that Mrs Lee was wearing a natty set of snow boots and a very warm looking coat. We had a niggling feeling that we were going to be badly under dressed for northern North Korea.

Road from the airport into Samjiyon [Enlarge]

When we landed, Samjiyon airport was surrounded by substantial snowdrifts. The best we could do was put on our jumpers and an extra pair of socks before the doors opened. Unlike in Pyongyang, there was no silly airport bus to take us the few metres to the terminal. Here we walked, and in the end we didn't even need to go into the terminal, which was just a small building with the control tower on top. First off the plane, we grabbed a seat on the minibus which had arrived with perfectly timed precision, and then assisted our comrades as they hoisted their suitcases into the small vehicle. When every seat was taken and every inch of aisle was crammed with baggage, half the group were still standing on the tarmac. Luckily there would be another minibus along in a minute. Our driver said something in Korean and Mrs Lee translated his words. He said that the road to and from the airport was narrow and there was no room to pass, so we couldn't leave until the other bus arrived.

The other bus was not far behind, and we soon set off. Initially the road was quite clear of snow, but as we got further from the airport it turned into a white skid pan. Our driver was used to these conditions, judging by his rally-driver-style method of taking corners on full opposite lock. The other bus behind us was struggling to match his pace. We stopped and waited for them to catch up a few times.

Samjiyon town, population 27,000, is typically strange. Many of the buildings are new and smart, with freshly painted walls and brightly coloured corrugated metal roofs. They look quite chalet-like, not the drab grey blocks we have got used to. At first glance, the town almost looks like a French ski-resort; but when you look behind the facade, the buildings have that unmistakeable North Korean appearance—cold and dark. There is plastic sheeting nailed across the inside of a lot of the windows, there are no lights on inside any of the houses, and there is no sign of smoke from any of the chimneys. We saw plenty of people hanging around the streets of Samjiyon, but even with their presence, the town doesn't feel lived in. It reminds us of Imber, the village on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire that was commandeered by the Ministry of Defence in World War 2, then never given back to its residents. Most of Imber's buildings have been destroyed and replaced by hollow shells for army street-combat practice. From a distance Imber could pass as the real thing, but up close all the houses look dead and uninhabited. Incidentally, it is opened up to the public a few days each year and we took the chance to go and see it in April 2006. Our photos are in a Flickr set here.

Lobby of the Pegaebong Hotel [Enlarge]

We are staying in Samjiyon's finest (only?) hotel, the Pegaebong Hotel. The lobby is typical North Korean style: simultaneously grand and austere, with no lights on and that usual all-pervading coldness. We were given a little time after check in to unpack and relax in our room while the guides arranged the first of the morning's activities. The rooms are all recently refurbished, and ours has two clean single beds, a nice warm Korean-style heated floor, a view onto the snowy hillside, a TV and a modern bathroom. But as with the hotel in Kaesong, there is a complete absence of running water. Glenn had the bright idea of filling the toilet cistern with water from the full bath, so that at least we could flush it properly. Unfortunately he soon discovered that the toilet wasn't even plumbed in, as the water ran straight out of the back of the toilet and onto the floor. It seems that there has never been running water in this hotel. We tried the TV. It worked, in that you could switch it on, but it displayed nothing but static. Preparing to go out again into the snow, we put on a few extra layers of T-shirts, along with our shirts, jumpers and coats. In the end, we were wearing all of our clothes. There was a knock at the door and a flask of hot water was delivered, so we made a coffee from the small supply of sachets we had brought with us.

Paekdusan Museum [Enlarge]

Now that everyone had taken their luggage into the hotel, there was a bit more room in the minibus. We drove the short distance to Paekdusan Museum. In this new and impressive building we were shown paintings and panoramas of Mount Paekdu. These are provided, in part, because the actual mountain, several tens of kilometres away, is hard to get to during the winter. In fact, the guide said, it is completely inaccessible from September to June! The itinerary provided by Koryo Tours (who have been taking people to the DPRK since 1993), clearly stated that we would be going up the mountain, but it now seems that we won't, and in fact we never had a chance of doing so. We felt pretty let down by Koryo. No wonder Simon went back to Beijing rather than accompanying us.

Back on the minibus Mr Lee confirmed what the museum staff had just said. Paekdu is impossible to get to at this time of year. He and Mrs Lee were as surprised as we were—we believe that they truly didn't know until this point. Mr Lee said that perhaps we could try later to see how far we could get, but for now we would be doing the other items on the itinerary. Amid rumbles that just giving up like this wasn't showing much revolutionary zeal, someone proposed that if we couldn't go up the mountain, maybe we could go up Samjiyon's ski-slope instead? The ski-slope towers above the town and has a chairlift all the way up. We could see that the chairlift wasn't running, but we felt that if anyone could make it work, Mr Lee could. The minibuses took us to a new building at the bottom of the ski-slope, and we walked to the chairlift.

Samjiyon chair lift [Enlarge]

Why is there a ski slope and chairlift in North Korea, where the citizens never take a holiday? We honestly don't know. It's a tiny slope compared to what you get at 'proper' ski resorts. Either this slope is a training facility for the DPRK Olympic team, or it's a plaything for high-up party officials, or they have visions of turning the tourist industry up a notch at some point. Who knows?

At the chairlift station we knocked at a door and a couple of men came out. They seemed to be in charge of the chairlift. [Hang on! Surreality time-out! They don't know we're coming (it was our idea), there's no electricity to make the chairlift work, and there are no skiers around who might want to use it anyway. And yet they have two men permanently based in the station?] One of the men said that we couldn't ride on the chairlift because there was no electricity. Mr Lee had a quiet word with him and he went to make a phone call. Apparently he was asking the electricity suppliers whether they could see their way to sending some power our way for a few minutes to let a bunch of tourists go up the hill. The answer, of course, was no.

Some of the group decided to walk up the hill anyway—partly in revolutionary zeal, partly just to have some time in relative freedom. All week we have not once strayed more than a few paces from the guides. We decided not to follow them—we've done enough skiing to know that a ski-slope at the end of the season, baked in the sun by day and sub-zero by night is going to be more icy than snowy. We were under dressed and unequipped. The last thing we wanted out here, in one of the less developed corners of a very underdeveloped country, was to get wet or slip over and break something. The folks who did try only got about half way up before turning back.

Group with snow comrades [Enlarge]

Confronted with a pristine field of snow, the Brits in our group did what all Brits do and began to make some snowmen. The snowman building instinct is so strong that it must have once had an evolutionary purpose! Some of the Aussies had never witnessed snowman construction before and were keen to join in. We made two finely crafted snow comrades decorated with stick arms raised in patriotic salutes, Australian five cent coins for buttons and pretty convincing pine-frond-comb-over hairstyles. When the climbers returned, Mr Lee took a photograph of the group with the two somewhat short and plump snow comrades.

Being snowbound for three-quarters of the year means that very little grows in the Samjiyon area. The one crop they have any success with seems to be potatoes, introduced here by Kim Jong-il after his father died, in a rare admission of the failure of the previous policy of planting rice everywhere, whether the ground could support it or not. Almost everything on our lunch menu was potato-based. Potato bread, fried potato, and potato jam, all washed down as ever by North Korean beer. The potato jam tasted just like honey. All in all, lunch wasn't too bad and we reconvened in the minibus reinvigorated and a little warmer than before.

Rimyongsu waterfall [Enlarge]

Mr Lee gave us two options for the afternoon. Option one was to attempt to get to Mount Paekdu. He said we almost certainly wouldn't get very far, but he was willing to try. Option two was to visit the originally planned sights of a waterfall and the secret camp where Kim Jong-il was born, and then to attempt Paekdu afterwards if we have time. The risk with option one was that we could spend all afternoon trying and failing to reach Paekdu, and end up not seeing anything. The only sensible choice was option two. Then Mr Lee went to group B's bus to put the same options to them. He was gone for a long time and seemed cross and rattled when he got back. Group B had evidently been less easily convinced than us, and several of them still really wanted to attempt to get to Mount Paekdu. We joked to Mr Lee that he shouldn't have bothered asking group B as they are just the workers and Group A are the intellectuals. Anyway, the decision had been made, and we drove off towards Rimyongsu waterfalls.

It was quite a long way along a flat, straight road. Once again our bus led the way and once again we had to wait for the B bus to catch up. When both buses finally made it to the destination we discovered that they had got stuck and had to push. Located on the edge of a village, the Rimyongsu falls are very pretty. Two camera-shy locals were building a dam across the outflow of a small lake to boost the water level—the lake is the village's only source of drinking water. Above the lake, up a winding wooden walkway, there was a pagoda-style viewing area.

Receiving the Great Leader's guidance [Enlarge]

When we came back down, a woman in KPA uniform was waiting for us. She had come to give us a talk about the area. We were so cold by now that we slunk away and sat in the bus with a few other slackers. We don't mind cold if we have the right clothes: a few years ago we did –24°C (–11°F) in northern Finland quite happily. But unprepared as we were, it was no fun. We're sorry to say that we missed the talk, which was apparently about the visit to this very spot many years ago by the Great Leader himself, and the on-the-spot guidance given by him to the grateful villagers. As we were getting ready to leave, a troupe of young locals marched past us, their leader carrying a huge red flag. They assembled next to a monument and stood to attention as a man came out to meet them and started reading from a book. Mrs Lee told us that the man was probably reading them some of Kim's guidance from that day, so that they could be inspired by it. We couldn't help noticing that they all seemed as badly dressed for the conditions as us, although in their case we're sure it wasn't caused by lack of preparation.

Stuck on a hill [Enlarge]

After the waterfall we drove a long way through the forests to visit the secret camp. According to current North Korean history books, this is the place where Kim Il-sung and his wife Kim Jong-suk commanded their guerilla army and defeated the Japanese. While they were here, Kim Jong-il was born, his birth being foretold by a swallow and signalled by the appearance of a double rainbow over the sacred Mount Paekdu and a new star in the sky [And they say religion is banned in North Korea?!]. Official birth records in Russia seem to suggest that in actual fact the young Kim was born in Vyatskoye, near Khabarovsk in Siberia, a year earlier than claimed. Western propaganda says that not only were the Kim family not in this area during the anti-Japanese war, but there wasn't any fighting here at all. Make up your own mind.

With Jong-il Peak in the background. [IMG_2680]
Walking to the Dear Leader's birthplace [Enlarge]

With group B's bus leading the way we were making reasonable progress up towards the camp when they ran into a spot of bother. Their bus couldn't make it up a snowy slope. A stream of group B 'workers' jumped out of the bus and pushed. They got it moving and it drove a little further, then stopped to let them back on. We backed up a bit to find some flat, less slippery ground so that we could get moving. A few hundred metres further on, the B bus got stuck again. This time their efforts to get it going were unsuccessful and it was decided that everyone should go the rest of the way to the mythical birthplace on foot. A true pilgrimage. As we walked past the B bus we had a look at its back tyres. They were as bald as racing slicks. No wonder it had been struggling to keep up with us all day—it was a miracle that it got as far as it did.

Allegedly. [IMG_2689]
The Dear Leader's birthplace [Enlarge]

It was a slippery but pleasant twenty minute walk up to the camp, where we viewed the pristine wooden huts, the Dear Leader's childhood toys, and the huge monument on top of the nearby mountain (Jong-il Peak). Having marvelled respectfully, we walked back down to where the buses were. We then spent about an hour reversing back down the narrow track. At least that meant our bus went first this time! We did okay for quite a while, with the driver looking in his mirrors to keep it between the metre-high snow banks. But then he got it wrong on a bend and buried the side of the bus deeply into the snow bank. He couldn't move forward or backwards to get out. He ordered us out to push, but the door was on the side of the bus which was buried, and it wouldn't open. He told us to climb out of the windows. No way! Of course there was a simple solution to those brought up in countries where initiative is not systematically squashed—we told the driver to get out, and then we exited by his door! It didn't take long to push the bus out of the snow bank and we got underway again, this time with the driver hanging out of his window for a better view.

In the time it had taken to get going again, group B had not caught up with us. We had previously stopped to wait for them to catch up, but after the third time of doing this, our driver seemed to get fed up, so this time he didn't wait for them.

We finally got back to the Pegaebong Hotel just after dark. Dinner was ready, so we went straight in to the dining room and got started. Half an hour later, we were well into our potato-based meal and group B still weren't back. We asked Mrs Lee if she had heard any word of them. She hadn't, and she was looking worried. There are no mobile phones in the DPRK, and no telephone boxes. There is no mountain rescue service. If you get into trouble, you've got to get yourself out of it. She asked our driver to go and look for them. He refused, saying that when he found them he would have to reverse all the way back in the dark! He had a point.

At least forty-five minutes after we returned, two people from group B walked into the dining room, to a round of applause. Their bus had run out of fuel! They all had to walk the last three or four kilometres in the pitch dark, with no idea where they were going. Over the next fifteen minutes or so more of the group drifted in, two-by-two.

The reality began to set in. If we had all tried to get to Mount Paekdu, their bus would have run out of fuel halfway up the mountain, miles out of town. Who knows how much fuel we had in reserve? It could have been serious. Later in the evening, in the bar, the folks in group B told the story of their daring walk through the wilds of North Korea. As the blueberry wine flowed (no evidence of blueberries in the taste, and 40% proof so not really wine), the tale got taller. The story had started out with someone's torch picking out one lone, slightly nervous looking, KPA soldier in amongst the trees; but after a while it had turned into a heavily armed garrison, trailing them through the forest. Some group A people said that they wished it had been our bus that ran out of fuel, so it could be their story of daring escape in the icy wilderness. Heck, by now it probably is! For us, there is quite enough North Korean surreality in our story with the snow comrade building, bus pushing and ten kilometre reversing. No exaggeration is necessary.

All our photos from today are here. You can see everywhere we go in Google Earth by going to our progress map, then clicking the Google Earth tab.

Map of Day 144

Day 144
Pyongyang to Samjiyon

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.