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14th May 2012 - DPRK Trip - day 3 - Samjiyon, Mt Paektu and Pebaeggong Hotel

Today was to be one of the most anticipated parts of the trip. A flight on an active Il-18! You can read, see and hear about that part of the journey on the aviation page.

Il-18 flight and sounds

Our flight was from Pyongyang to Samjiyon, which is to the north of the country close to the Chinese border. This is close to Mount Paektu, which translates as 'white-topped mountain' as it's covered by snow year round, as we were to find out later.

The first order of the day was a packed lunch airside of the old terminal building to the sound of MiG-15UTIs being run up - most surreal.

The busses here were much smaller affairs, not the large executive coaches seen around Pyongyang, but tiny commuter types that had certainly seen better days. We were told to take our pick and split up into three groups, and of course a bunch of us chose the most beaten up one available, to add to the adventure of course. One of the other drivers had also remarked that the driver of this bus was a madman and drove fast. Sold!

True to form we were first away from the airport, leaving a cloud of dust behind as we drove along the dirt road that exited the airport. The other two busses followed at a comfortable distance, allowing the dust to settle in front of them. Charles, an Aussie who lives in England, christened our bus 'Cuthbert' and the name stuck for the rest of the trip.

Our goal today was to traverse Mount Paektu but as we climbed Cuthbert started to overheat and the driver stopped and poured some new water into the radiator. Off again and a few minutes later we stopped again and were asked if we had any water on us. Luckily we were given water bottles during the packed lunch and so all these were emptied into the poor jalopy. Poor old Cuthbert!

A little later the climb was abandoned as a bus coming the other way had told our drivers that the road was impassable due to heavy snow. So a hair-raising three point turn was executed in rather quick fashion that freaked a few of our passengers out, as the drop to one side wasn't anything to be sniffed at.

At least the journey back would be downhill, which would help with Cuthbert's water consumption. Err, no it didn't actually, only ten minutes later we pulled over whereupon the driver jumped out with a bucket and proceeded to fill it from a puddle at the roadside. Brilliant!

On the way back we visited the secret camp of Mount Paektu, where Kim Jong Il was born, hence the mosaic mural. I would have taken more photos, but our tour was curtailed with a pretty hard downpour overpowering us. Also, close by, were some revolutionary signs placed into the rock. How they got those heavy inscriptions up there, who knows!

photos from Mount Paektu and the secret camp

We finally arrived at the Pebaeggong Hotel, which I assume was the only hotel for miles around. We were told there were set times that hot water would be available and when we arrived the electricity was completely off. The pillows were harder than the beds, but this was only one night so no big deal, although there were grumbles from some of the group as per usual. Hey it's all part of the adventure! The literal English translation for the hotel name is "Be Gae Bong Hotel" which raised a few laughs.

We could have traditional BBQ before main dinner, we were told, and would cost four Euros if we decided to take part. Most of us did, as there wasn't much else we could do. Wandering out to the grass at the front of the hotel, it was now raining, and we found the BBQ was simply a fire with a bunch of potatoes in it. They simply plucked the charred vegetable out of the fire, and you ate it as was. Ok not the most original snack, but it was tasty enough, although the price tag was a little suspicious.

What to do before dinner? How about a drink? Nope, the bar in the hotel was firmly shut, so the souvenir shop was commandeered and the local firewater bought. A very rough drink, most likely made from potatoes, and extremely strong.

At last it was time for dinner. Pleasant enough, except 90% of the ingredients were potatoes. I guess this is the main staple in this area, and I expect the local population eats much the same food, so no grumbles here. When visiting a foreign country it's always good to see how the locals live and eat. This was probably the closest we would come to the eating side on this trip.

The end of the day came, and with little else to do it was time to put your head down on the rock on the bed. And have a kip Goodnight.