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


  • Wetravelhappy

    Sarah this is surreal! Everything about it and with beautiful photos as well to capture these, I’d think, once-in-a-lifetime kind of adventure. These are great photos, may I know which camera you’re using? I’m thinking of changing mine soon but I still can’t decide on which one. Thank you.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much 😊 Yes, definitely an adventure and almost certainly just once-in-a-lifetime! I use a Panasonic Lumix bridge camera for the most part when travelling. I’ve updated since this trip but my current camera is pretty much the same as this one – it’s the FZ330 model. If I don’t feel like carrying that, and especially for city breaks, I use a different Lumix, more compact – the TZ70. I’m a big fan of this range – excellent lenses and with lots of flexibility if you want to play with settings, but also with good automatic modes if you’d rather point and shoot (I do a bit of each, depending on the subject mater and how much time I have to compose!)

      • Wetravelhappy

        Sarah, thank you SO much. I really appreciate. I’ll have a look at the FZ330 and TZ70. I’m always just using the point and shoot mode of my DSLR Nikon (something, I can’t remember the model) and I find it too heavy to bring nowadays.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          The FZ330 weighs enough for me, and sometimes even that’s too much, which is why I like having the TZ70 too. If you only ever use the point and shoot mode there’s no real reason to carry a DSLR. The FZ330 has an excellent Leica lens built in, with a good zoom 🙂

          • Wetravelhappy

            That’s what i thought. And the only reason why i use my DSLR is because i still print pictures 🙂 and sometimes I print big ones and frame them for the wall at home. Thank you Sarah: i hope I could find a new camera before our next holiday in Dec.

  • rkrontheroad

    Dreamy views from the top and the reflections in the crater lake. I also feel that I don’t need to get to the top of things these days… you have captured the essence of the journey.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      While my eyes and camera would always like to see the view from the top, I know my knees won’t thank me for attempting it. And when the views are as good as this a little lower, why try to go further?!

  • wetanddustyroads

    You have captured amazing views here Sarah! The photos of the lake (with the mountain reflecting in the water) is simply breathtaking! A very unusual mountain scene … which I thorougly enjoyed. I hope you are having a great time in Nepal – can’t wait to see THOSE mountain photos!

  • Leya

    Amazing images and reflection – must have been a great day! I envy you so going to Nepal…1986 is a long time ago. Looking forward to seeing your photos!

  • Wind Kisses

    You seem to be floating above the blue, layers hills on the drive up. Stellar views! Chon is heart shaped with the reflection, no wonder it is Heavens lake.

    Like the others, We will live vicariously through you on this one. Fascinating information, Sarah.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Donna 😊 It was absolutely gorgeous up there, I loved the views of those blue layers as much as I did those of the lake. Always happy to have you come along vicariously!

  • Tina Schell

    Your images are glorious and really make me appreciate an approach to nature which leaves it unadorned and unblemished. The set of options on getting to the top seemed sketchy at best!! I think you surely made the right choice and were rewarded with such beautiful, clear vistas! What an amazing journey you have in front of you though! Looking forward to seeing your images from your upcoming adventure!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, there’s no real commercialisation of sights in North Korea of course 😀 But that doesn’t stop them making their mark upon the natural landscape in other ways, such as those huge letters!

  • restlessjo

    My favourite shots are the misty mountain tops, Sarah, but the reflections of the lake are stunning too. Just sitting looking would be a pinch yourself experience, and I’m sure you’ll have more of those in Nepal. Have an amazing time!

  • leightontravels

    Stunning, stunning, stunning. Those lake reflections… that trail of smoke coming out from the bus… the stark contrast of blue and brown. Interesting to read what a special place this is in North Korea. Legends or history, it clearly means a lot to the people. That last shot is a cracker too, hope you have a great time in Nepal!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you so much Leighton 😊 I’m glad you enjoyed these photos and the stories behind and about this special place! That ‘smoke’ is actually dust from the track however.

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Wow on several levels. What an amazing and exciting place to have visited – some of those views must have been very very special. And, you’re off to Nepal, fantastic! Am so interested to see your posts from there, everything I’ve ever read or seen make it seem truly wonderful. Have a fabulous adventure!

  • JohnRH

    WOWWW. THERE’S a place where I venture none of the rest of our L-A group has ventured! GREAT reflection photos, as well as all the rest. I just read an essay extract by Kim Il Sung in my current Lapham’s Quarterly on Education. Mao-esque, of course.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much John 😊 Perhaps not many tourists visit North Korea but I’m really not unique – there was a steady number until Covid hit and I have two friends who have been, one of them twice! I’ve read a few things by Kim Il Sung so I can easily imagine the style of the piece you read.

  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    Magnificent, Sarah! The multitude of colors of the cone reflecting in the lake just creates a stunning scene, and you captured it beautifully. Thank you for sharing something we will never get to see. I cannot wait to see your posts about Nepal

  • Amy

    Amazing images of the Mount Paektu, great history behind it. All are very beautifully captured. The last image is breathtaking.
    Have a wonderful trip to Nepal, Sarah!

  • Alison

    Incredible Sarah! It still amazes me that you have been to North Korea and lived to tell the tale. Your photos are absolutely stunning. Have a fantastic time in Nepal and looking forward to seeing photos of this trip

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Alison 😊 But it really isn’t that surprising that I ‘lived to tell the tale’! I only know of one tourist who didn’t do so, and he was stupid or cocksure enough to break the rules. That doesn’t justify what happened to him but it really is an exception – North Korea is a totally safe country to visit, probably more so than many others as you are so well looked after / guarded 😉

      I’m super excited about Nepal and with for sure be sharing photos!

  • margaret21

    What a great experience – and now you’re off for another. Have a wonderful time. I won’t bother to ask you to take lots of photos to share. I know you’ll not be able to help yourself!

  • Nemorino

    I’m always fascinated by your posts about North Korea. Great that you managed to travel there before Corona started.

    • Annie Berger

      In my total ignorance, I had never realized North Korea had so many varied sights worth seeing. Thanks, again, for opening up our eyes to its beauty and gorgeous vistas.

      Glad you know your physical limits when hiking and do not take unnecessary chances.

      • Sarah Wilkie

        The landscape in parts of North Korea is gorgeous. If those mountains, waterfalls etc were in any other country it would be thronged with tourists enjoying hiking, winter sports, photography etc. 😀

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