Mount Paektu may not sound familiar to the most of us but it’s other name, Changbai Mountain may be. Bordering China and the DPRK, this active volcano is a very significant mountain to the Korean people. Boasting at about 2500m high, it is the tallest mountain on the Korean peninsula. On the top of the volcano, lies an extremely huge crater lake called the Heaven Lake.
In order to get to Mount Paektu, we had to take a short 45 minutes flight from Pyongyang to get to Samjiyon County. It has its own airport and takes its name from three lakes in the county, which are known as the Samjiyŏn. Most flights only come here to see the fabled mountain. Samjiyŏn has been a holiday resort and destination for two presidents of North Korea. Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il have established palaces and compounds in the area, accessed by a specially developed and exclusive railway station for the presidential train. The road to the Paektu site was extremely bumpy as I didn’t get to see any decent roads. After half an hour of a butt cracking ride, we had to take this old-looking cable car up the mountain. From the looks of the old cable car, I can just assume that it’s a pretty durable device. On top of the mountain, it was freezing cold. I couldn’t move my hands much and it was really hard to open my mouth as the wind was so strong and it dried up my throat. I tried my best to get whatever shots I could and thankfully I made it back alive. There were also quite a bit of local tourists at the mountain, and they seemed pretty happy to see foreigners like us there.
The Koreans believe that Mount Paektu is the place of their ancestral origin and a sacred mountain. From the beginning of history through the Three Kingdoms period, to the Goryeo and Joseon Dynasties, Koreans have spiritually depended upon the “divine” mountain. In North Korea, the people believe that their president Kim Il-Sung organised his resistance against the Japanese forces in this area. Also, they believe that their Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il was born here during this time. We even got a chance to see the secret camp at Paektu, where all of these happened. The people had preserved the area like a museum and tourists can get to see how their leaders lived during that time. To me, it was a beautiful photo opportunity and seeing a cabin in the beautiful woods made me felt like I was somewhere in the countryside of the USA.
One of the most beautiful landscapes I saw near Paektu was the Rimyongsu Falls. I don’t have much details about the place because I was busy it was such a photogenic spot that I spent most of my time capturing. A funny thing also happened while I was here. There were groups of North Koreans having a great time at the falls, capturing group photos of themselves when suddenly they grabbed some of my tour members for a few group shots. Then Fann was laughing at them because it was so funny to see how happy the locals were taking photos of caucasians. Then suddenly they grabbed her for a shot, when I turned around, I too was grabbed into the photoshoot. I didn’t even have time to press my trigger for my shot and I spent almost 15 minutes taking photos with different groups of locals. They asked if I was from China because of my Asian looking face, I told them I was Malaysian and they cheered as even more locals came into the shot. I was almost suffocated to death but it was a really happy scene. Once I was ‘released’ from their shoot, I told Fann that I felt like a celebrity.
At night, we went back to Begaebong Hotel and there were no electricity. It was a good thing that we had our laptop and tablet with us to keep us busy through the really cold night. But, Fann and I had prepared a little something for our trip to Samjiyon. We have this little tradition whereby we would bring cup noodles to a really cold or a snowy place and eat it for supper. We just love how the warm and delicious noodles feels when it goes into our tummies when we’re in the cold. Also, we decided to walk out of the hotel to see if we could see any stars in the night. To our surprise the sky was filled with diamonds of stars. We tried to capture a few shots but it was too cold to stay out for too long. But one of the most amazing things we saw here, was the Milky Way. It was right there in front of our hotel and I tried my best to capture it before the clouds moved in. It was an unforgetable night and it was pretty awesome to see it with our naked eyes. Here are the snapshots for this series: