Monday, 7 October 2013


2nd Sep 2013

Mt. Paekdu and the volcanic Lake Chon

Up early(ish) and onto our bus up to the airport. Learnt a new Korean expression this morning; "chap sidaa!"; "lets go!"or better still "chap sidaa balli balli".

We were due to catch our 50 minute flight to Sanjiyon, with all our luggage, and not due back in Pyongyang for a week or so. Formalities were pleasantly brief and relaxed; nothing searched and no confiscation of lethal nail clippers, toothpicks or bottles containing more than 100ml of liquid. The N.Korean security guys take a rather pragmatic approach to tourists flying within the country and, sensibly, reckon that we are unlikely to have acquired any weapons, ammo or explosives on our guided tour with which to launch a revolution. Just a walk out onto the tarmac and onto the 'plane;

Which was a venerable old 44 seat Antonov 24 ( left ). These Russian built aircraft first flew in 1958, and out of over a thousand built, there are 880 still in service throughout the world. Air Koryo has eight of them. They may be old but they are rugged and reliable.
Procedures on board were refreshingly informal. You could sit where you liked ( C of G obviously not an issue ) and our party of 17 were the only passengers. There were two lady cabin crew, but as none of the crew could speak too much English there were, blessedly, no announcements or, for that matter, any tedious 'safety briefings'. They took the mature view that if by now you couldn't work out how to fasten and unfasten your seat belts then perhaps you shouldn't have got this far in life. There was a single dim 'fasten seat belts' sign over the flight-deck door, but nobody told us to or checked to see if we had. Indeed the cabin crew sat in a couple of the spare seats and never bothered at any point to fasten theirs! They must have confidence in their pilots to avoid bumpy weather and as to the possibility of crashing, well......'insha' Allah', or whatever the Arabs say.

After taxing at a very alarming speed to the end of the runway and with no delay we launched into a blue sky and set course, roughly NNE over the centre of the country towards Samjiyon. It was a smooth and pleasant 50 minute flight over, especially the latter part, beautiful fir covered hills, mountains and small rivers. The fir forests are very extensive up in the north. Then a graceful landing on a long military style runway at Samjiyon, a town near the north-eastern border with China.

Because the weather was fine and tomorrow's forecast was a bit iffy, it was decided to go straight on to Mount Paekdu about 40 miles north on the Chinese border. The roads up here are barely metalled and bone shakingly bumpy. The mountain is a dormant volcano, 9020ft ( 2750m ) high, in the crater, or caldera, of which is a large lake ( 14 kms? wide ) called Lake Chon. I believe it last erupted in 1903, but don't take my word for it. It is the highest peak on the Korean peninsular and a 'sacred' spot for Koreans, full of mythological stories, and also the place symbolic of many of Kim Il Sung's 'great' guerrilla victories against the hated Japanese colonialists prior to and during WW2. Looking at the photo at the top, the mountains on the far side are in Manchuria, China. Kim Il Sung fought his heroic guerrilla campaign against the Japs here and in Manchuria, as part of, and with the backing of, the Russians. He was accorded the rank of Major in the Russian army at the time.

On approach to the plateau below the peak, there is quite a strong military presence. It gets bitingly cold here in the winter; snow, ice and howling winds prevail. The soldiers were wearing very warm looking 'parkas' trimmed with thick dog hair. Rather smart in my opinion. Perhaps they should be called 'barkas'.

There is a funicular railway ( just visible in the photo, middle distance ) which ( sometimes ) takes passengers to the rim of the volcano, without which it is an hour's trek up. Today, and much to the delight and surprise of our lovely guide, Song Sim, it was working. She told us that this was the first time she had been here when this was the case. Our lucky day.

Left: On the right side of the funicular is a large inscription. I can't remember what it said. Possibly 'Kim Il Sung was 'ere'. The highest part of the rim is to the left of the photo.

The funicular was 'working', but couldn't start for an hour or more, so we had a picnic lunch and lots of beer in a sort of barrack hut near the station. It was a bit chilly, but all these Korean buildings seem magically to have underfloor heating.

It was noticeable that until we arrived there were Koreans trudging up the slope to the top. I hope they didn't start the funicular just for us.

On getting to the rim ( 10 mins by rail ), we looked down onto the lake. Very picturesque. To get down to the lake there were two options; a) walk down a beautifully constructed stairway consisting of 2160 steps, which takes over an hour ( see white line in photo ), or b)  a cable car which costs 5 Euros. We took the cable car. Fortunately it took us back up again. Going back up the steps, according to our English tour rep who has done it a few times, takes nearly two hours and is a very sweaty climb. We were told later that it is rare that the cable car operates. Our lucky day indeed.

Down by the lake there were several groups of Koreans, mostly soldiers, singing songs and generally enjoying their visit to this special place. Many of them were marching back up the steps.

Back on top we then walked up to the peak. The first 'peak' is a platform ( left ) on which Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il posed on one particular visit. The image of them standing here, back to the lake and smiling, arms outstretched, is portrayed on many pictures and mosaics around the country.

There is a further, and highest, small peak ( right ) Nothing much more than a big rock approached by scrabbling up over a short narrow rocky bridge, or 'arete' about a yard wide. Not difficult, but either side is a 1500ft sheer drop ( don't look down! ). Five of us decided to get there. One of whom, a very brave man, suffered from the incipient stages of MS. He was very wobbly on his pins at the best of times. He was determined to do it, unaided. We had our hearts in our mouths as he did, and even more so as he got back across the arete. Lots of cheers as he returned to safe ground. I think our tour 'leader' was remarkably brave in allowing this. One slip and it would have been a long free-fall and undoubtedly curtains for not only the faller but also the tour company and our Korean guides. Anyway, all's well that ends well.

Back down on the Funicular amongst a large group of over-cheerful Japanese/Korean students ( lots of North Koreans were sent to live in Japan after the war ). The funicular was now suffering some severe mechanical problems. It graunched and grinded and stopped and started. It took over an hour. It would have been considerably quicker to have walked. Suspect it would now be 'tech' for days. Reminded me of the London Underground.

Back on the bus and another bumpy hour's ride to the 'Secret HQ' of Kim Il Sung from 1936 to 1943. This was somewhere deep in the forests near Samjiyon, and another place of pilgrimage for North Koreans.

Left: A plaque with an engraved poem dedicated to Kim Il Sung and a patriotic message inscribed on the mountain face  beyond. Song Sim translated it for us.

His secret HQ, from where he planned his campaign and coordinated the activities of his guerrilla army, was a rather uninspiring collection of restored ( reconstructed ) wooden huts with original replicas of beds, desks and domestic appliances. I must have forgotten to take a photo. It was also here, according to North Korean records, that Kim Jong Il was born, in arduous and freezing cold conditions.  According to less 'correct' records, Kim Jong Il was born near the town of Khabarovsk, Russia in 1941.

Communications between this HQ and the outlying guerrilla forces was apparently by runner. They must have been very fit and good with the compass through this heavily wooded and mountainous area.

Right: A mosaic monument depicting Kim Il Sung, his ( first ) wife Kim Jong Suk, and their son standing outside the secret HQ log cabin.

Left: Another nearby statue of the Great Leader.

Right: Our local army guide and Song Sim. The local guides spoke Korean and Song Sim translated.

Left: Can't get enough of him. "Onwards lads, chap sidaa, balli balli"

Right: A few of the visiting pilgrims. I believe those wearing the blue jackets are construction and maintenance workers. Jobs for the girls.

Finally back to our hotel, the Begebong, in Samjiyon town. Quite a reasonable place which I think had some hot water. It definitely had a decent bar where we bumped up their profits considerably. They sold some quite drinkable red wine, and excellent German beer, brewed in China. Most of the wine seemed to come from places written in Cyrillic writing, but none of us ever managed to fine out where, exactly.

Another long and amusing day, and much, much more to follow...........

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