As some of you Young Pioneers out there may have already heard, on the 8th of November I was fortunate enough to have the chance to create some true DPRK history- by being the first Western Tourist to cross the bridge between Namyang and Tumen and visit the cities of Hyeryong and Onsong.
I was accompanied by Shan who unfortunately because of her Chinese Passport didn’t get to make history. We arrived at Tumen at 2.30pm after a quick stop at Yanji to grab my visa off the platform from the DPRK representative in Yanji, who was nice enough to come and give it to us there.
From Tumen train station we took a cab to the border- unfortunately we weren’t clear to the driver about the fact we were crossing so she dropped us a block away from customs at a riverside viewpoint. I guess she didn’t expect me to be actually traveling there! After walking the block to the border I was given quite a confused reception by the Chinese customs. They’d never seen the separate visa that foreigners are given so asked more than a few questions. After about 4 customs officials had thrown their 2 cents in (and satisfied their curiosity) they let me pass with no issues and couldn’t even be bothered scanning my bags. After that we stopped at duty free before heading for the bridge where two more guards checked my passport briefly before waiving me through.
Stepping onto the bridge was a great moment and I felt pretty excited especially as we crossed the marker line in the middle. At the other end of the bridge was a young soldier with a rifle standing at a post. I decided i’d better let him see my visa first so showed him that and my passport. He was pretty friendly and asked where I was from before waving us through. Fortunately our guide from the Chilbosan travel company and an official from the Foreign Affairs department in Chongjin were waiting for us and showed us where to go. This was when the most rigorous customs experience in my life began.
They showed us into a room, where we left our bags. Then we went to another official to get stamps in our passports and have our temperature read. We then went to another room for another document check before heading back to our bags. Our guide helped us fill out the customs forms (they are the same as Pyongyang but we still appreciated the help anyway and as we later found the detail required is different), then they began to go through our bags. All our books and electronics were taken to another room to undergo who knows what kinds of treatment but were all returned to us minus some postcards of Pyongyang and some photos I had taken with friends there. It seemed strange that these were the only things we couldn’t take in but there you go. They also discovered several USB’s and SD cards we hadn’t declared (The other borders never care but they sure did here). We were given a bit of a lecture about it, but the guy wasn’t too serious about it. Strangely the atmosphere was very relaxed despite the carefulness of it all and they let me wander around smoking and looking at things with no issues.
Finally we left customs at about 5pm to drive to Hyeryong city for dinner at the hotel, where we met the two managers of the Chilbosan travel company. It was dark by 5.30 and it was an interesting drive watching people heading home and soldiers by the roadside sitting around fires. Over dinner we drank some whiskey and got to know each other and despite being pressed for time stayed far longer than we should have before continuing on to Chongjin. We arrived at Chongjin after a 2.5 hour drive at 11pm and turned in for the night.
(As some of you may know Chongjin is the 3rd largest city in the DPRK. It has two reasonably sized ports and is also the largest centre of steel production. It’s currently undergoing a planned renovation which will include a new hotel and a gym for tourists, which will be a welcome development.)
We woke up at 7, had breakfast at 8 then left for Mt Chilbo. The drive to Mt Chilbo was pretty long (about 3 hours including a couple of stops along the way, the most interesting of which was the new hotel they are building between Orang and Gyongsong on the seaside. Planned as a 5 star hotel they’re hoping to attract Chinese investment, but plan to carry on and finish it regardless.
We stopped at the entry to Chilbo to hear about the planned developments in Mt Chilbo on the map. The most exciting of which are two ski sites one of which is located very close to a heliport. Heli-skiing in the DPRK anyone? We then carried on to Outer Chilbo hotel for Lunch. After Lunch we headed on to check out the local sites and then down to Sea Chilbo for some scenery and some boating on some pretty ancient wooden motor boats.
We then dropped into the homestay which is the only one in the country- unfortunately it’s only open from April to August so though we couldn’t stay the night we did enjoy some local snacks and drinks with a local family who’s curious 1 year old daughter was the star of the show and subject of many of Shan’s photos (which will all go on our facebook page soon!).
After that we drove back to the Outer Chilbo hotel for dinner where the manager of the travel company asked very politely if we wouldn’t mind if one of the waitresses and her best friend joined our meal as it was her birthday. This being my first local’s birthday party I couldn’t say yes fast enough! The manager had carried a beautiful cake all the way from Chongjin which we ate first as is the custom. (The slices were enromous though and being a sponge honey cake it pretty much took care of my appetite.) After copious Chukbei’s of Chinese Baijiu we all had to take turns singing. Shan and I sang Yue Liang Dai Biao Wo De Xin which of course I butchered. (I know the words ok, I just can’t sing). Then the manager explained that the waitress had to join the other girls in the kitchen for another party so I asked if I could come too. After a surprisingly brief moment’s hesitation (guests aren’t really supposed to be in the kitchen), the manager decided it was no problem as long as we didn’t take photos, so I headed into the kitchen to join the party. (The kitchen was spotlessly clean by the way.)
The foreign affairs guy at this point decided he was a bit peckish and talked me into shooting an entire raw egg with him. Apparently it’s like the North Hamgyong province version of a 2 am kebab. You poke two holes in the egg with a chopstick then suck it out. Fortunately the guide was a White Knight for Shan and after she tried a tiny bit he finished it off for her. After a bit more baijiu it was time for bed so I retired to sleep like a log.
Part 2 to come soon! Including Hyeryong and Onsong!