One of the most stunning sights on the Korean peninsula, Paekdusan (Mt Paekdu) straddles the Chinese–Korean border in the far northeastern tip of the DPRK. Apart from it being the highest mountain in the country at 2744m, and an amazing geological phenomenon (it’s an extinct volcano now containing a crater lake at its centre), it is also of huge mythical importance to the Korean people.
Paekdusan is not included on most tours, as it involves chartering an internal flight to Samjiyon and then travelling an hour and a half into the mountains from there. However, if you have the time and money to include a visit on your trip, you will not be disappointed. It’s also possible to approach Paekdusan from the Chinese side of the border on a ferry and bus tour from Sokcho in South Korea.
The natural beauty of the extinct volcano now containing one of the world’s deepest lakes is made all the more magical by the mythology that surrounds the lake, both ancient and modern. The legend runs that Hwanung, the Lord of Heaven, descended onto the mountain in 2333 BC, and from here formed the nation of Choson – ‘The Land of Morning Calm’, or ancient Korea. It therefore only seems right and proper that four millennia later Kim Jong-il was born nearby ‘and flying white horses were seen in the sky’ according to official sources. In all likelihood, Kim Jong-il was born in Khabarovsk, Russia, where his father was in exile at the time, but the all-important Kim myth supersedes such niggling facts.
Trips here are strictly organised as this is a sensitive border region and a military zone. Having arrived at the military station at the bottom of the mountain, you’ll be checked in and will take the funicular railway up the side of the mountain. From here it’s a 10-minute hike up to the mountain’s highest point, past some superb views down into the crater lake. You can either walk down to the shore of Lake Chon (an easy hike down, but somewhat tougher coming back up!) or take the cable car (€7 per person return) for the easy option. Bring warm clothing; it can be freezing at any time of year, with snow on the ground year round.
Much like Myohyangsan, an area of great natural beauty is further enhanced by revolutionary ‘sights’ such as Jong-il peak and the Secret Camp, the official birthplace of Kim Jong-il and from where Kim Il-sung supposedly directed some of the key battles during the anti-Japanese campaigns of WWII, despite the fact that no historians outside the DPRK have ever claimed that the area was a battle scene.
North Korea’s current history books also claim that he established his guerrilla headquarters at Paekdusan in the 1920s, from where he defeated the Japanese. To prove this, you’ll be shown declarations that the Great Leader and his comrades carved on the trees – some so well preserved you might think that they were carved yesterday. The North Korean book Kim Jong-il in His Young Days describes the Dear Leader’s difficult childhood during those days of ceaseless warfare at Paekdusan:
His childhood was replete with ordeals. The secret camp of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army in the primeval forest was his home, and ammunition belts and magazines were his playthings. The raging blizzards and ceaseless gunshots were the first sounds to which he became accustomed. Day in and day out fierce battles went on and, during the breaks, there were military and political trainings. On the battlefield, there was no quilt to warmly wrap the newborn child. So women guerrillas gallantly tore cotton out of their own uniforms and each contributed pieces of cloth to make a patchwork quilt for the infant.
The Dear Leader’s birthplace is a nondescript log cabin that you aren’t allowed to enter (though you can peer in through the windows), and it’s a bit of a let-down after a long drive. But with the revolutionary sites out of the way you can enjoy the real reason to come here, the glories of nature: vast tracts of virgin forest, abundant wildlife, lonely granite crags, fresh springs, gushing streams and dramatic waterfalls.