Travelling Through Regional North Korea

Posted by Crooked Compass

Most people who visit North Korea stick to Pyongyang for 4-5 days and that is pretty much their North Korean experience. For us, we wanted more. We wanted to get out, go through the country side, visit the beaches and also the mountains. I had too many questions that I needed answered to just stick to the restraints of the city. The cities are the more mind boggling part of the experience but the regional areas blew you away in a different way.

Ulim Waterfall. Photo Credit: Crooked Compass
Ulim Waterfall. Photo Credit: Crooked Compass

The country is spectacular. Yes, we visited in winter so it was stark and barren but it was still stunning. It was not hard at all to imagine how beautiful it would be in the spring - cherry blossoms trees were everywhere. Rice paddies and wheat fields dominate most of the land. We passed cotton plantations, pear farms, apricot farms - all waiting for the cold, harsh winter to pass so they could blossoms and bring colour and beauty to a country so dark.

North Korean countryside - winter. Photo credit: Crooked Compass
North Korean countryside - winter. Photo credit: Crooked Compass

Weeping willows lined rivers and city paths, pine forests and maple trees framed small farming villages. Rivers were like glass - clear and smooth. The ocean was like a mirror, waterfalls some of clearest I have ever seen. We had snow - the first of the season. We even visited the ski fields now open for tourists - I did a hotel inspection here and was blown away. I felt like I was in Austria. It was beautiful.

Masikryong Ski Resort. Photo credit: Crooked Compass
Masikryong Ski Resort. Photo credit: Crooked Compass

The people - well, this is where it became evident of back breaking labour. Walking for kilometres alongside cows pulling rickety carts, riding bicycles through the snow with no beanies, rural life is tough. Elders who should long be retired, were bent over plowing fields getting ready for the next season of harvest.

Hamhung Beach. Photo credit: Crooked Compass
Hamhung Beach. Photo credit: Crooked Compass

Fisherman were busy on their wooden boats trying to meet their quota set by the state. We visited a co-op farm where the workers are paid in rice and if they exceed their quota, they can choose to keep the extra rice they earn or sell it at farmers markets for cash. We were shown the tractor the leader had bought this farm. It had a flat tyre and could not be used.

The tractor donated by the leader to this co-op rice farm. Photo credit: Crooked Compass
The tractor donated by the leader to this co-op rice farm. Photo credit: Crooked Compass

There were more military in the countryside than the cities. We were even stopped on the side of the road for half an hour in the middle of nowhere because someone important was coming and so all roads were blocked. I secretly hoped it was the leader but sadly, it wasn’t. Whilst stopped, a little girl came and went to the toilet in the middle of the dormant rice field next to us... we were right next to a farm village. I asked our guide what those houses were like inside. Did they have toilets and running water? I already knew they didn’t have electricity. She said no toilet and no water. There would be a well where they obtained water. I asked if we could walk through the village (knowing what the answer would be) and all of a sudden I was ignored - as if I hadn’t said anything. I waited a few minutes and asked again but rephrased my question ‘can foreigners visit and walk through any farmers villages like this one?’ The answer was ‘only some’ - I said ‘can we walk through one?’ Again I was ignored. I decided to drop it.

Whilst life looked tough, we did not witness famine or people who looked like they were staving. Everyone we saw was ‘normal’. Well fed, dressed reasonably considering their work.

When we hit the mountains, this is the part that impressed me the most. I will let the photos do the talking.

Hiking in Mt Kumgang to Seven Dragons Waterfall. Photo credit: Crooked Compass
Hiking in Mt Kumgang to Seven Dragons Waterfall. Photo credit: Crooked Compass

Mt Kungang National Park. Photo credit: Crooked Compass
Mt Kungang National Park. Photo credit: Crooked Compass

Clear waters of Mt Kungang. Photo Credit: Crooked Compass
Clear waters of Mt Kungang. Photo Credit: Crooked Compass

Mt Kumgang frozen waterfall. Photo credit: Crooked Compass
Mt Kumgang frozen waterfall. Photo credit: Crooked Compass

More of that magical scenery and crystal turquoise water - in a country so confusing, being out in this raw nature, it brings a moment of clarity. Photo credit: Crooked Compass
More of that magical scenery and crystal turquoise water - in a country so confusing, being out in this raw nature, it brings a moment of clarity. Photo credit: Crooked Compass

No tourism in North Korea + locals being super proud of their country = untouched nature. This photo transports me straight back to the pristine mountains and takes my breath away. Photo credit: Crooked Compass
No tourism in North Korea + locals being super proud of their country = untouched nature. This photo transports me straight back to the pristine mountains and takes my breath away. Photo credit: Crooked Compass

The DMZ experience in the north is totally different from the south. I have been twice from the southern side - this was something else.

DMZ Panmunjom. Photo credit: Crooked Compass
DMZ Panmunjom. Photo credit: Crooked Compass

The biggest controversy of what we experienced herewas the wall. You know the wall that separates north and south? It’s 247km from coast to coast. 8m high and goes 2m under ground and can only be seen from the North Korean side. It took the US and South Korea 3.5yrs to build. Wait you haven’t hear of this either? Well I have seen it... through binoculars - several pairs of them, and am still not sure what I saw. There was certainly a wall of some sort for a small section I looked at, but you can make up your own mind.

Concrete Wall said to be separating North & South Korea. Photo credit: Crooked Compass
Concrete Wall said to be separating North & South Korea. Photo credit: Crooked Compass

For those who didn’t know, did you know both North and South Korea have put in a joint bid to hold the 2032 summer Olympics? If they won, the opening ceremony would likely be held in Pyongyang at the worlds largest stadium. How does that information make you feel and what does that make you think about the Korea situation? Everyone will have their own opinion on this. I certainly have mine.

The first university of North Korea. Photo credit: North Korea
The first university of North Korea. Photo credit: North Korea

What about the announcement a few weeks ago with both sides inspecting and confirming each others section of the DMZ and officially confirming that it is weapon free. Also that the train line between North and South is now reconnected. Things are changing and moving.

City of Hamhung (the second largest city). Photo credit: Crooked Compass
City of Hamhung (the second largest city). Photo credit: Crooked Compass

To wrap it all up, North Korea is the most fascinating country I have ever visited. I am confused, but more learned. I have had my eyes opened but still feel like I saw nothing. For someone curious like me, I am hooked. I have to go back. I feel I know what to look for a little more next time. Look for the detail... ask different questions.

Samil Lagoon. Photo credit: Crooked Compass
Samil Lagoon. Photo credit: Crooked Compass

The people we saw were ‘fine’ because they know no different but they need to be freed. Tourism can help open their world and make a difference. The more influence from the outside the world, this can only be a good thing to break down a dated political system.

It certainly is not a destination for everyone and I respect that. But being in a position to be able to take people into this country, if I can make a difference, then I will.

I appreciate not everyone agrees on supporting tourism in certain parts of the world, trust me, I talk to people questioning some of our destination choices every day, but that’s what Crooked Compass is all about. Educating travellers safely with first hand experience so they can make up their own minds.

Does travelling to North Korea interest you? Crooked Compass offers small group tours to the 'Hermit Nation'. Click here for more information.