After crossing the border into North Korea from Tumen, China, we were ready to go sightseeing. Today, we were to visit Namyang, Wangjaesan and Hoeryong city, in North Korea’s North Hamgyong Province. We met our two North Korean guides, Mr Lee and Mr Kim, at the border, and they both seemed very friendly. We drove for no more than two minutes after crossing the border before reaching the tourist restaurant and shop in Namyang town. The tourist restaurant appeared to be solely used for Chinese day-trippers and our Western tour group was a rare sight.
This was a basic view of the street scene in Namyang town. The town seemed very basic, and people seemed quite poor, with none of the streets paved. We saw a military personnel wandering about, none of them armed. The thing about North Korea is that the military is not simply for protection/fighting. The military does everything in the country! They work on constructing buildings, they build the roads, and all sorts. Some of the soldiers which we saw seemed very young, perhaps younger than 16.
Some of the travellers in our group had been to North Korea before, but instead travelled to Pyongyang by train via Dandong, and not to North Hamgyong. They told us that that entering via Namyang was much more like the stereotypical image of the country, as opposed to their first trip. It was much less developed, poorer, and more military then the Dandong crossing.
After a brief visit to a ‘revolutionary sight’, something which was soon to become regular, we headed on a dirt road to another revolutionary sight, Wangjaesan, which was the addition to our itinerary which wasn’t originally planned.
This image shows the route we took on the first day. After entering the DPRK in Namyang (1) from Tumen, China, we drove up to Wangjaesan revolutionary site (2), before driving on the same road back to Namyang, and down across the Chinese border area to Hoeryong city (3).
Wangjaesan revolutionary site was pretty much just a massive group of statues depicting the government’s version of history, and glorifying their leaders. The road leading to the sight was the first paved road we had encountered in the country, and the massive statues, situated on top of a hill, loomed over the nearby town of Onsong.
The photo above doesn’t really do the statues justice. In reality, they seemed much larger and intricate that that. Kim Jong Il visited this place upon completion, and we visited the place where he stood.
Interestingly, our Korean guides briefly spoke to us about controversy regarding some foreign tourists bowing to the statues, and told us that if we weren’t comfortable with this, we didn’t have to visit the sight.
I’ve read online that some people claim foreign tourist trips are propaganda trips, where the state tells North Korean citizens that these foreigners visit the statues in order to show their respect to their leaders, and locals can see proof of this by seeing foreigners bow to the statues. Maybe this could have been the case on some trips, but it can’t have been for ours… as there simply weren’t any locals near the statues to see us. This makes me doubt this particular theory.
After this, we took the border road beside the Tumen river to Hoeryong city, which took a few hours at least. On the way, we passed a beautiful mountain pass, with propaganda images and slogans along the road.
Such images were regular. We stopped the bus for a toilet break after about an hour, in a very rural area, and I remember seeing a young boy travelling on his bike past us. He was just bewildered by the sight of us, but soon continued his cycle down the hill.
We soon arrived in Hoeryong, a fairly small city of less than 200,000 people, located beside the Chinese border. This city was the birthplace of the ‘mother’ of Korea, or as the North Koreans call her, Mother Kim Jong Suk, who was a fighter against the Japanese occupation of Korea, as well as Kim Il Sung’s wife and Kim Jong Il’s mother. Perhaps that’s why the North Koreans say that Hoeryong is home to the most beautiful women in all of Korea.
We went to visit the main square of Hoeryong city, which is home to the statue of Kim Jong Suk, pictured above. Behind the statue is a beautiful park which we had visited, with a cycle/walking path going through it. We also visited Kim Jong Suk’s native home and Hoeryong museum, both nearby. The museum was fascinating, although of course they only report the North Korean official version of events.
Although this was completely kept quiet from us during the visit, there are several reports of Hoeryong having civil unrest in its recent history. There were supposed workers protests in the city, with one Kim Jong Il poster having been defaced. Being an outsider, it’s hard to know if these reports are true. Interestingly, throughout our time in and around the city, many of our tour members had access to phone signal and 3G from nearby China. This means is we could access it, so could the local Koreans, perhaps through smuggled technology etc.
This image shows the restaurant at which we ate at in Hoeryong, shown on the left, “Hoeryong restaurant”. It’s located right in the middle of the city, and I suppose some local Koreans go there too, but not the regular Korean (maybe party officials or more well off people).
I was fortunate enough to get friendly with the guides, and one of them agreed to walk with me to a local shop whilst everyone was eating. I bought some North Korean sweets and returned. Interestingly, I noticed local Koreans using Chinese Yuan in this shop, although the guides denied this (maybe I noticed something I shouldn’t have?).
We spent the night at Hoeryong hotel, where we had a lovely meal and a very entertaining singing and dancing performance by the Korean waitresses. The rooms were pretty basic, however, and the TV only had one channel. Perhaps all of North Korea only has one channel? Or maybe we weren’t allowed to see the others?