Tag Archives: North Korea

North Korea: The Paektu Highlands

Photo blog: Sep 15 to 18, 2017

The last days of my 2017 expeditions were spent in the Paektu-san region. I had the opportunity to explore some new parts of this area, including the upper reaches of the Amrok river and its waterfall source. It’s always amazing to see a river’s source, especially the Amrok, Korea’s longest, as it seep’s out from under the sides of Paektu-san to flow some 790km to the Yellow Sea.

It’s also fascinating to be standing only meters from an unguarded China. This is because, as Hwang explained to me, a lot of this region is shared as an autonomous zone. Although some kilometres later, where the river gets wider, you can sense a greater border patrol presence, there is no large fence, just forests and a few soldiers here and there.

The entire region south of Paektu-san is a large fascinating zone. Full of Larch pine forests, it stretches from the east to the west as far as the eye can see. The forests start to peter out once you get about 1500m in altitude. There the volcanic soils take over, and only hardy species of native pine exist, along with highland grasses, low lying rhododendrons, and wildflowers. It all opens up to expansive rolling plains that the locals call the Paektu-gowon.

I got the opportunity to explore some of the regions just north of the big forests on foot.

We climbed up to a peak called Soyeonji-bong 2114m. It might sound high, but in this region, you’re almost already there, so it only took us a couple of hours to cross the plateau from the roadside and clamber up the grassy knoll.

The top provided excellent views of the entire plateau, including a full-on view of Paektu-san. With its folding crests, it looked like a series of large waves. As in my previous episode on Bukpotae-san, Paektu-san had never been photographed from this angle before.

I mentioned to Hwang how special it would be to conduct overnight hikes in this region. A five-night six-day circuit. The trekkers could carry their own tents and food could be delivered to them at the end of each day. We could use the secret camps (anti-Japanese fighters) that are still kept as historical relics to camp in each night. Cook over a controlled fire with the guards at each camp, play accordions and guitars, sing songs, and listen to recited stories of the anti-Japanese struggle. The hikes could follow in the footsteps of the partisans. In the entire Paektu region, there are at least ten secret camp locations that one could do a circuit with.

Hwang didn’t disagree with me on this idea, and as I write this story, it seems there may be a chance for me to promote this concept.

We also managed to get to the summit area of Paektu-san a few times during the last days of the expedition. We included a lunch with the female guards and guides that live in a stone house on the southern lip of Paektu-san. One of them, the senior member, remembered me from previous visits. I made another entry into their log book.

Two Paektusan Guards.

On one morning we got up extra early and drove to the summit to get the sunrise. It was remarkable to be standing there watching the stars twinkle over the dark blue lake surrounded by black mountainsides. And then watch the dark change slowly to blue, mauve, crimson, then orange, as the sun slowly broke over the horizon, casting horn-shaped shadows over the inner caldera. The small crowds of North Koreans standing on Janggun-bong with me gasped as the sun’s rays flashed on our excited faces.

After that, we took the gondola down to Chonji. We were curious to see if the Chonji dog from our 2012 visit was still at the weather station. It wasn’t but had since been replaced by a female dog and its one puppy.

It was a beautiful clear day down by the lake edge, and we managed to score a quick spin in the zodiac that the researchers use to study the lake. I was told that the water area of Chonji is also autonomous, meaning if you are in a boat and either Chinese or North Korean, you can explore all the water surface. There is no border on the water. I wondered if this was still the case when it was iced up? I guess no one came down here during that period. You’d end up a popsicle.

Inside the caldera, I looked up at all the sharp peaks and pinnacles that make the crater lip of the caldera. Another brainstorm came to me. Imagine if one day we could all walk around the entire crater edge of the lake. Looking at it, I figured at least two nights and three days. It’s much bigger and tougher than you realize.

Because that idea is transnational, it would take some time to develop, I think. By the way, there is no fence on Paektu-san that divides China and North Korea. Just a concrete bollard and a cleared line in the sand. More autonomy.

Although I’ve been to the Paektu-san region a few times now, it never ceases to amaze me with its size and purity. There are barely any sealed roads up here and the population is small. It is untouched by any form of industrialization, other than what recent tourism development might be going on in Samji-yon. There is no mining, and the North Koreans consider this area to be sacred, the birthplace of the revolution.

There is still talk of wild animals passing through. Bears being sighted in the freshwater spring lakes of Samji-yon. Tigers that pass through on their migration from the Primorsky Krai region in Siberia to the forests of Paektu-san. The locals say this occurs rarely though, once every ten years, the life cycle of a tiger I guess. Maybe the Paektu tiger comes back here to die?

And also as I write this, I am making inquiries to go back this year with CCTV cameras and try and find evidence of these great cats. I think that would be a groundbreaking project for the North and South Koreans to work alongside each other for. Make the tiger the national symbol of ONE KOREA.

The locals don’t really go off the beaten track in these areas unless it’s to hunt or forage, and only a few would want to do that without permission. For the most part, foot traffic sticks to the roads, which are flatter and provide the chance of a lift. So the mountains, valleys, and forests of the Paektu region are basically untouched. It might be one of the last (small) unexplored regions left in the world. The Baekdu Daegan in North Korea probably is too.

In all my explorations of the Baekdu Daegan in North Korea, some fifty peaks at least, it has always been richly vegetated with natural forests and deep valleys full of gushing streams. Of course, there is some denuding of forests around the city centres in North Korea, but for the most part, the deeper regions of the country remain intact with wild, pristine, unmanaged forests. This is due to a smaller population, less industry, and an inferior road network with little traffic.

Although I’d like to see North Korea get a chance, and also give itself a chance to develop more as a nation, and provide better living standards and liberties for its people, I also hope it doesn’t lose the rural charm it has and the innocent and kind nature of its people.

I was always impressed by how the rural folk managed to live in an organized yet easy go lucky way with the land, including their knowledge of the bush and the terrain. This is their land, and weather permitting, they know how to use it to make food and survive. I also enjoyed their easy smiles and quickness for a joke. Their ability to share food and resources. Their willingness to get stuck into an idea and make it work. They all pitch in and get behind a cause, be whatever it may. There’s no shoddiness here. It’s a Korean predilection not to be idle.

I’ve travelled a lot all over Korea and these were the types of traits I’ve noticed that make the people of the North and the South the same to me. That’s why, when I’m in the mountains of the North I don’t really feel like I’m in another country. I don’t really pick up on the barriers. I know they’re there, but they won’t be there forever.

Polaroid SNAP

This is the last story in this series. I’d like to take the opportunity now to thank you for your support and for taking the time or read the episodes and view the photos.

I will be in touch soon to let all those that sponsored this project know what the outcome will be for the photo art book that I wish to make.

I think this type of book is an important asset for Korean history, as it features images of mountains, villages, and the people of the Baekdu Daegan from North and South Korea in the hope that one day we may not need to use that type of divisional language. That there’ll be no North or South, just a Korea, and that the Korean people can add their own collections to my works, and explore the Baekdu Daegan thoroughly and freely.

A special thanks to the series translator Kang Eui-goo who has worked tirelessly to have the stories done on time, and uploaded them for your viewing. I should also like to thank ZEROGRAM Korea for supplying me with tents, sleeping bags, and jackets for the 2017 expeditions; the guys in the North really appreciated that. They got to keep them as well, ha!

And once again, thank you all for supporting this project.

Roger Shepherd







Might be better to just translate it as 코리아.