In April 2013 I was the first American tourist to cross the Namyang/Tumen border into North Korea’s North Hamgyong province. Young Pioneer Tour’s head guide Troy Collings led the trip and wrote the following report – photos are mine:
I was fortunate enough to be back in North Hamgyong leading the first Western tour group to cross the Tumen-Namyang border and see the cities of Hoeryong and Onsong, on April 24th-29th. There were 12 of us pioneering the way and we definitely had our fair share of crazy events. First we were followed everywhere in Tumen, China by guys from the PSB which is like internal security, and they kept warning us that it was dangerous for us to go outside in Tumen at night because the locals like to drink and fight a lot. They also had some trouble believing we were actually going to North Korea so they asked a lot of questions such as whether we were invited etc.
We also heard only a couple of days before that we wouldn’t be able to go from Chongjin to Rason on this trip as the Koreans had not been able to get the permission in time, so we had to make a few changes. In the end though our partners at Chilbosan Travel Company were amazing and made sure we were always entertained and had new sites to see.
In the end all was well and PSB showed up the next morning to watch us cross the border. Chinese customs took some time as they wanted all our names and nationalities, and took a lot of photos of us going through customs and walking onto the bridge. After walking the long bridge into DPRK our passports were checked by a soldier at the gate and we met our guides Mr So and Ri outside the customs building. Customs was a much easier affair than when I went in November 2012 as they had installed a scanner- so we had to simply declare all our electronics and then get our bags scanned.
View from the Tumen – Chinese side of the border.
Finally we hit the road and were a fair way along when we came across a broken truck that had made the road impassable. So we got out and threw a football around in a yard in the miner’s village we had stopped in. After a while we started throwing it to some of the local village children. Our guides seemed to have no problem with it so it carried on for nearly an hour playing with them – it was a really memorable experience. Finally they decided we had no choice but to take a detour, so we drove back around to Namyang then towards the East Sea before swinging back around to Hoeryong. So we were lucky enough to be the first tourists of any kind to take that road, even Chinese tourists haven’t yet, and our driver constantly had to ask for directions. They also went and brought some local street food for us as we were well past lunchtime by this point.
Troy getting a ride from fellow YPT guide Rowan Beard on a remote North Korean road – yes, Rowan is a giant.
Waiting for truck and road repairs in a remote village.
Trip member teaching local boys American football while waiting for truck repairs.
The downside of this of course was the time we lost- we ended up having to have dinner in Hoeryong at around 8.30 pm, and finally arrived in Chongjin at 11pm, where we went to the Seaman’s Club for a quick bath. Some of us stayed to enjoy the club while those who were too tired went to the hotel to sleep. Rowan made friends with the manager over his iPad, while Joe, Mark, Ri and I chatted with the waitresses and showed them some pictures etc. It was an interesting start to what would prove to be an extremely interesting trip.
Chongjin Seaman’s Club.
Rowan and the Chongjin Seaman’s Club boss.
We woke up at 8, though I had to get up earlier to meet Mr Koh, the manager of the Chilbosan travel company for a quick chat. After breakfast we headed out to see the statue of President Kim Il Sung in the central square , and the nearby E-Library. It was Military Foundation day, so all the kids had the day off and a mass of them followed us around the area giving us hi-fives and waves, it was such an amazing welcome and they were so happy to see us. Joseph took some amazing pictures and we all felt like genuine rock stars.
Posing with the Chongjin Kim Il Sung statue guide.
Chongjin Kim Il Sung statue.
Chongjin locals wait for us to move on before paying respects at the Chongjin Kim Il Sung statue.
After the E-Library we went to see the model plan for the future development of Chongjin – a scale model showing the intended renovations and new constructions to develop the city. It’s next door to the E-Library, so we got to see all the children again. It was almost impossible to squeeze through them and onto the bus, not that any one was in a rush to do so. After that we had to head down to Mt Chilbo (we returned to Chongjin later anyway). The drive to Chilbo was fairly uneventful but as always provided some amazing village views and we even saw a few local markets from the bus.
Chongjin development model.
Kids in Chongjin.
Troy and Rowan with kids in Chongjin.
We stopped at the mineral painting showing the area – the largest of it’s kind in the world apparently, and received an explanation of the area. This is also the only place where you can take photos from the bus while it’s moving which is nice. We then ate lunch at the Outer Chilbo hotel – the manager of which also cooks all the food himself and is a rather famous chef in the area. He was kind enough to take the time to meet me before we left the area.
DPRK guide Mr So showing us the Mt Chilbo mineral painting.
After lunch we took a tour of some scenic spots and walks in Inner Chilbo and the Kaesim Buddhist Temple, where we were told that Mt. Chilbo rewards those with good hearts by providing good weather, but for those with wicked hearts the weather will turn bad. We spent the night in the Outer Chilbo hotel where we had a long dinner and sang with the hotel’s waitresses, spending the night drinking and talking with them and the Korean guides.
Rowan and the lovely waitresses of the Outer Chilbo hotel.
Troy and the lovely waitresses of the Outer Chilbo hotel.
In the morning after breakfast we set off for a long 8.5 kilometer hike to Gangsonmun area – unfortunately the path was still covered in deep snow in places, and near the peak it began to rain and snow. It seems at least one of us had a wicked heart, so we were punished by the mountain had to go back, of course as soon as we went back a far enough distance it became sunny again.
Hike up a Mt. Chilbo peak.
After our hike we ate a riverside picnic lunch – spicy fish soup that the Koreans cooked up for us. After lunch it was time to visit the home stay village, which I had been restless for all day.
Mr. So cooks mountain soup.
We arrived at the village, had a look around, and played volleyball with the locals – we ended up with two teams of 3 foreigners and 3 Koreans with some rotating subs. Each team even had their own cheer groups which was awesome. After we had some snacks and drinks with the village chief, participated in traditional Korean wrestling, and had a bonfire party on the beach with the locals. That night the Americans in our group were driven back to the Outer Chilbo hotel where they had a small party and a great chat with Mr Ri. The rest of us went to our respective home stays and talked to the occupants, shared photo albums, and finally went to sleep.
Volleyball at the Mt. Chilbo Home Stay.
Troy prepares for traditional Korean wrestling.
We woke up early to do some light farming work, which turned out to be very light indeed. Rowan and I planted a few seeds in a very, very small area that they asked us to plow. Some people helped sweep the yard, and one guy weeded a strawberry patch for a short while. After we had a stroll around the village area and breakfast. When the US citizens returned from the Outer Chilbo hotel we went out for a boat ride along the coastline in some old wooden fishing boats.
After the boating it was time for another hike up to Manulsang to enjoy the view and a visit to the famous Ponji spring to sample the water. We had lunch at the hotel in Outer Chilbo before departing for Kyongsong, stopping at the Yongbun revolutionary site along the coastline on the way.
After our arrival in Gyongsong we went to see the local revolutionary site where Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Suk had stayed in the past. Originally owned by a winemaker, it was the largest home in the area at the time. Following that we went to a local spa house to bathe which was great after two nights without running hot water – though in Outer Chilbo the hotel did provide us with a bucket of hot water each. After the baths I saw some locals hitting badminton shuttle cocks back and forth so I asked if we could play with them and our guides said no problem. We joined and played for some time, which was another unexpected, yet pleasant surprise.
Gyongsong hot spa clinic.
Locals playing badminton.
We spent that night at the Gyongsong hotel, having dinner there, and a party with the waitresses of the hotel. I was also able to get the guides to send someone out to the local shops to get us Swallow Beer (another type of beer not found in tourist shops and restaurants) and Craven A cigarettes (also not usually available for tourists), so again I was surprised at how amenable our guides were.
Gyongsong Hotel party.
In the morning we went to the Jipsam Revolutionary Site while on the way to Chongjin, and finally returned to Chongjin, where we visited the Chonsam region kindergarten and enjoyed a children’s performance. We had lunch at the Seaman’s club, where I was joined by Manager Koh who had brought Paeksul for us. Paeksul is one of the DPRK’s top liquors (It’s 30% alcohol and is made only from Pears), so it was a very pleasant surprise. I had to leave the others to enjoy lunch while I ate with the Koreans and discussed business for a while. We had some very exciting discussions – the future for tourism up there looks very bright.
Chongjin kindergarten show.
Troy with the Chongjin kindergarten teachers.
Troy and Rowan in a kindergarten classroom.
After lunch we shopped in the seaman’s club shop and then drove by the port to have a look. It was finally time to leave Chongjin and we drove off to Hyeryong city, where we were the first group of Western Tourists ever. Upon our arrival we paid respects to Kim Jong Suk’s (revolutionary war hero and mother of Kim Jong Il) statue and took photos of the central square area. We then walked over the hill to see the house where she was born, and visited the Hyeryong Revolutionary Museum, before checking in at the hotel.
Chongjing Seaman’s Club cold noodle lunch.
Hyeryong Kim Jong Suk statue.
That night we sang and danced with the Hyeryong waitresses. Everyone had a good time (expect for Joe who was sick), and I think the Koreans really enjoyed the chance to get to know some foreigners too, as they had only met Chinese before (and me in November of course).
After breakfast we visited the Kim Ki Song (little brother of Kim Jong Suk) Middle School. We were the first tourists ever to visit, opening it according to my requests in November, it was very good to see them come through. We saw several classrooms of the school, but the highlight was having the opportunity to speak with the English class. Never having spoken with foreigners before the kids were quite nervous, and with unfamiliar accents etc, it was quite a challenge, but fun and rewarding none the less. Unfortunately the teacher’s college and maternity hospital have not yet decided to allow us or not – we will see in the future if those sites will be available.
Kim Ki Song Middle School.
Kim Ki Song Middle School.
View of Hyeryong town.
From Hyeryong we drove to Onsong County, another first for a Western tour group. We visited the Grand Monument at Wangjaesan, which is perhaps the most impressive monument I have ever seen in the country. After we toured the Wangjaesan revolutionary museum at the base of the hill.
A small section of the Grand Monument at Wangjaesan.
Lastly it was time for customs; we had a customs official travel on the bus with us to check photos and help speed up formalities. The border post still took a fair while, though the scanners really helped! We then said farewell to our guides and crossed the bridge to return to Tumen. Chinese customs all seemed very happy to see us, and our PSB police friend was there to meet us. Customs took a long time here too, but finally we left and headed by bus to Yanji.
It was a great trip and I see a lot of potential for continued tourism in this region. Our partners up there seem very committed to helping us to access as much as we can. For returners, or people who want to see a more representative area of the DPRK, I would definitely recommend it. As one of our group members said, the bus rides were almost a tour within a tour, as we could see a lot of authentic villages, markets etc up there. Of course photography off the bus is not allowed (except within Mt Chilbo region.) I’m definitely looking forward to the next one!