Looking down at still blue lake in a crater
DPRK,  Lens-Artists,  Mountains

Mount Paektu, the revolutionary mountain

Straddling the border between North Korea and China is a still-active volcano, Mount Paektu. Its last eruption was in 1903 and scientists consider that another one could be imminent, based on a trend of eruptions roughly 100 years apart. The crater lake, Lake Chon (‘Heaven Lake’) was formed in the 946 AD eruption.

This mountain is of great significance to all Koreans, North and South. According to their ancient mythology it was the birthplace of Tangun Wanggeom, the founder of the first Korean dynasty, Gojoseon (2333–108 BC). His parents were said to be Hwanung, the Son of Heaven, and Ungnyeo, a bear who had been transformed into a woman. The peoples of all subsequent Korean kingdoms continued to worship the mountain.

During the revolutionary struggle against the Japanese the dense forests of this region provided the perfect environment for guerrilla activity. Kim Il Sung was based here (as I described in a previous post) and a whole new set of Mount Paektu legends / historical events (depending on your perspective) were formed.

The mountain remains a symbol of national identity and patriotism for the country. You see the image of a deep blue Lake Chon as the setting for numerous portraits of the Great Leaders. And in Pyongyang its outline forms the backdrop to the statues of the Mansudae Grand Monument as well as appearing on the Arch of Triumph.

When the South Korean President Moon Jae-in made a historic visit to North Korea in September 2018, he and Kim Jung Un visited the mountain together and posed for photos beside Lake Chon. It is also a place of pilgrimage for ordinary North Koreans. Groups of workers, students and army cadets visit in their thousands.

Ascending the mountain

I want to take you along on our visit to the mountain top, for Amy’s ‘Mountains are calling’ Lens Artists challenge.

There are in theory three options for ascending the mountain, none of them perfect. You can walk (one hour uphill on a rough track), drive (not strictly permitted) or take the funicular (not always working).

Distant bus on a dusty track across barren landscape
Another bus on the way up the track

As our rickety bus passed above the tree line and approached the parking area we all hoped that the funicular would be working, as few of us fancied the climb. As it turned out it wasn’t. But our bus driver proved willing, for a small payment, to carry on to the top. And fortunately the army guards who should have prevented him turned a blind eye.

Before driving up however we paused for a break. We could see the track we had just driven up, with another tourist bus heading towards us, and beyond and below that low cloud lying in the valleys.

Blue mountains and mist with rocky foreground
Blue mountains and mist with rocky foreground
Blue mountains and mist
Views from Mount Paektu

Above us was the mountain, with the funicular railway leading up it from a red-roofed station. The name, Paektusan in Korean, means ‘white head mountain’ and it was easy to see how it got its name. The pale bare rock at its peak stood out clearly against the day’s blue sky.

Rocky mountain side with writing and railway tracks
The funicular railway

At the top is an inscription in giant white Korean characters. This was erected in 1992 to mark the 80th birthday of Kim Il Sung; the North Koreans are fond of ‘enhancing’ the landscape with slogans. Here, the enormous metal letters read ‘Holy mountain of the revolution’.

Large white Korean characters on a mountainside
‘Holy mountain of the revolution’

On top of Mount Paektu

From the top you can look down into Lake Chon. We really couldn’t have asked for better weather here; blue sky, with just a scattering of white clouds. The lake was almost completely still and the reflections in it really clear.

Looking down at still blue lake in a crater
Lake Chon

From this point we had the choice of resting here or walking up to the summit, either on quite a steep scree-covered path or up a less steep but longer jeep track. A couple stayed below but I joined those making the attempt up the stony path.

We arrived at a memorial stone where a local guide gave us a short talk about the mountain. If she told us what the inscription on the stone says, I’m afraid I didn’t catch it. I was perhaps too eager to get back to those views!

Large white stone slab with lines of writing
The memorial stone

Roughly half of the group, including Chris, decided to carry on up to the top but I could see the path was going to get a lot steeper.

People walking up a stony path with a white concrete fence
Some of our group on the walk up

So I settled down with some others, sitting on the white concrete barrier to enjoy the view from this spot and take far too many photos of the wonderful reflections.

Panorama of still blue lake in a crater and surrounding mountains
The (distorted) view from my perch; you can see my companions far right and the path up the mountain far left
Looking down at still blue lake in a crater
The view from my perch

I also zoomed in on the building on the far side of the crater rim, in China. I could see the far larger number of tourists visiting from that side of the border.

Jagged mountain with small buildings and distant group of people
The Chinese side; spot the visiting crowds far left

After my rest I climbed a little further up the path, although not to the top. I went just far enough to satisfy me that I was right not to attempt the full climb on such loose scree. My knees would not have forgiven me on the way down! But it was also enough to give me a slightly wider view of the land, China, beyond the mountain.

Looking down at still blue lake in a crater and misty view beyond
The view from the highest point I reached

Back at the parking area there was time for more photos while we waited for the stragglers. And there can be few more scenic spots in which to wait. The wind had got up a little by then. It wasn’t enough to make us cold but did cause the lake to ripple just a little, blurring the reflections. A reminder, had we needed it, of just how fortunate we’d been to see it earlier in those perfect conditions.

Looking down at rippled blue lake in a crater
Ripples blurring the reflections

Our guide Carl had told us that when he visited with a group on the same tour a year before the weather was so dreadful that they couldn’t see much at all and only stayed for a few minutes. How lucky we had been to visit the revolutionary sacred mountain on such a beautiful day!

Blue mountains and mist
A last look at the view

The mountains really are calling

I love mountains and in a couple of days I’m off to see the greatest of them all, in Nepal: Everest and the Annapurna range. No, I won’t be hiking or climbing, but I will be taking photos of course. I’ll try to stay in touch here and have scheduled a couple of posts. But apologies in advance if I’m quieter than usual and don’t get involved in challenges and in commenting on other blogs. Also, apologies if I’m slow to acknowledge any comments here or on my other posts. Rest assured, I’ll read them all whenever wifi and time permit!

I visited North Korea in 2019


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