The most surprising and shocking revelation of the third day was the electric fence along the coast of North Korea!
After breakfast at the Chongjin Hotel we drove south through the city, past the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex (guess who originally built it!), which is dominating the look and economy of Chonjin. It seems like the little town of Ranam is supposed to become the new city center of Chonjin, with its rather modern apartment buildings, shopping mall and university, but it looks like it’s still a long way – and of course we weren’t allowed to take photos. Even when we stopped outside of Ranam the three guardguides made sure that we only took photos of some strange rock formations, not back towards Ranam and Chongjin; despite the fact that both of them were out of sight anyway. Free photography would be allowed in the Chilbo area and at special stops on the way, but not from the bus, they told us.
Several kilometers outside of Chonjin we finally reached the Sea of Japan (a.k.a. East Sea in South Korea and East Sea of Korea in North Korea) near the town of Orang. The beautiful coast of North Korea to the left, all of a sudden half the bus had “What the f*ck?!” written all over their faces, but of course nobody said anything – there was a multi-layered electric fence on top of a wall separating the beach from the bumpy dirt road! My rather loud DSLR prohibited me from taking photos, and so did the rather fast driving bus and the tainted windows. (I took a photo without asking the next morning, when I was alone at the beach of the Homestay Village, but I still had a bad feeling about it, given that there was supposed to be a memory card check when leaving North Korea through Rason – which actually didn’t happen in the end.)
Shortly afterwards we made a quick stop at a rather new saltworks, consisting of dozens of evaporation ponds – they actually built a viewing point for tourists to have a look.
To our surprise the next stop was just a few minutes away, when we headed inland again and passed Lake Mugye. It didn’t look that special and the concrete foundation at the shore was crumbling away, but almost everybody was happy about every opportunity to take photos, so none of us complained. (I guess the real reason to stop was using nature as a restroom – which didn’t work out for all of us, since there is hardly any place in North Korea without locals. The country’s population density isn’t that high (#65 in the world), yet you see locals at the strangest places in the middle of nowhere… everywhere.)
Following the rather short ride along the beautiful coastline and the equally short inland excursion, we finally reached the Sea Chilbo area and with it gained permission to take photos whenever we wanted (well, except for locals, poverty, military, …). Mount Chilbo, the Seven Treasure Mountain, is one of the most famous mountains in all of North Korea and is divided into three areas: Sea Chilbo, Outer Chilbo, Inner Chilbo – more about that in the next article as we spent almost a whole day hiking and sightseeing in the stunning Chilbo area.
After a nice snack at the scenic Soryangwha Waterfalls we continued to follow the winding road until we reached a homestay village between two small fishing villages – not the one for foreigners, one for locals! We made a quick photography stop coming down a hill, but surprisingly there was little to none activity in the village. I vaguely remember Mr. Li telling us a story how one of the Kims visited the village (or heard about it?) and sent them refrigerators to make the stay there more pleasant. By then we were already back on the bus to and on our way to THE Homestay Village near Pochon, the only homestay village in all of North Korea where foreign tourists are allowed to stay – except for Americans and Japanese for whatever reason.
There are not a lot of accommodations in the area (the closest one is the Outer Chilbo Hotel, about 15 kilometers away, where Americans and Japanese have to stay the night till this very day), so when the local government planned a new hotel, Kim Jong-il himself intervened and ordered to build a homestay village instead, as he thought it was the way of the future and at the time North Korea was one of the few countries not to offer this option. So in 2006 20 houses were built, some western style with beds (4 or 6 of them), the rest Korean style, with guests sleeping on the heated floor; the village center being a building with a restaurant and a small gift shop selling a few local products like beer and snacks.
After we chose a house, a member of the host family (most of them not able to speak English), picked us up and showed us our rooms. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, so all of us met outside for a relaxing walk along the beach. With no clouds in the sky it was just wonderful to enjoy this part of the Korean coast only a few westerners have ever laid their eyes on.
Next on the program, after most men returned from their regular work: a volleyball match against the locals. To avoid any “us against them” feeling we opted for mixed teams and it looked like everybody enjoyed themselves tremendously, despite the language barrier. After a demonstration of Korean wrestling, Kent, one of two Americans on the tour, sacrificed himself bravely when our group was challenged – and the Texas Yankee gave his opponent quite a tough time, much to the joy of Mr. Li, three young boys and pretty much everybody else present.
To get an even deeper understanding of Korean culture, we were able to participate in rice cake and noodle making afterwards, both of which we sampled before a delicious seafood and veggie dinner. But the evening wasn’t over yet! After a night walk with two fellow travellers, there were still two more items on the itinerary – first we met with the locals on the beach for a bonfire, then we all gathered at one of the houses to talk to the residents. I guess on previous tours people went home with their host families directly to have a talk with them, which tended to fail due to the language barrier and general awkwardness. Thanks to the bigger group and guides being able to translate, the whole thing was much more relaxed. The male head of the household came home late and didn’t have dinner before meeting with us, which didn’t stop him from chugging whole bowls of soju, local liquor with 20 to 40% alcohol, when being challenged – at first it didn’t seem to affect him, but then it hit him hard and we all left out of politeness; up to that point it was highly entertaining though. We were sitting in the living room and his wife, who understood English, but didn’t speak it, sat about a meter away from him in the kitchen – seeing them interacting with each other was downright hilarious!
Downright cute was the maybe two-and-a-half-year-old daughter of the village boss and his wife. They were living right next to the main building and we went to their house for the cooking practice in the afternoon – and their daughter was the cutest, most fearless toddler I’ve ever seen. Japanese kids tend to be extremely shy and most German toddlers seem to have a basic form of stranger anxiety, too. To see a fearless little girl in a country where most adults are horrified by foreigners was just heart-warming. She even attended the bonfire in the evening, laughing and dancing, trying to sing along – I really hope change comes quickly enough so she can keep her attitude and live an open-minded and free life!
Of course the homestay village didn’t put us in an average house with average Koreans. You can bet that all inhabitants are privileged local party members and that their interior is way above the DPRK standard, given that they have radios, TVs, plenty of kitchenware, … Nevertheless we experienced several blackouts during our 18-hour-stay – and none of the houses had working running water, and that included the toilets!
Which brings me back to the electric fences. I expected those around the concentration camps and of course regular prisons, probably near factories and of course everything related to military installations. Electric fences along the coast? That’s just bizarre! Of course the fences were not everywhere. Most of the North Korean coast consists of cliffs, so there is no need for fences there. The same applies for beaches within villages, where everybody can have an eye on each other. But as soon as you left an area that could not be directly controlled or quickly reached, one of those fences popped up. The North Korean government can’t provide sufficient electricity even for the privileged, let alone the regular population… yet there are electric fences along the coast?
One of my fellow travellers actually made a good point – those fences most likely are not active, since barbed wire and electric fences are deep in people’s minds. Everybody knows what happens if you touch them, so nobody dares to do so.
On the next day somebody actually brought up the topic to one of the guardguides and the answer was something along the line of: “The fences are there to prevent children from running into the water and drowning.”
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