About the Author
Mark Robertson is an alias for an NK News correspondent based in northeast China.
In addition to having numerous options for visiting Mount Paektu from their own side of the border, each summer Chinese tourists (who call it Changbaishan) have the opportunity to approach the sacred North Korean mountain from the much less frequented DPRK side.
Beginning on 10 June this year, tour agencies based in Yanji, the main city in China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous prefecture, have once again been able to offer a three-day trip to the ‘eastern slope’ of Mt Paektu, an itinerary which is gradually growing in popularity, industry sources told NK News recently.
For the all-inclusive cost of 1,480 RMB (c. $220), tourists leave China through the Yanbian-DPRK border crossing at Guchengli, located south of the city of Helong and not far from the major North Korean mining town of Musan.
This price may have been increasing annually for the past few years (in 2012 it was 1,100 RMB), but this is still a far lower cost than that of any non-Chinese tour to the country.
Following an itinerary similar to that offered to non-Chinese tourists to the mountain, PRC travelers visit Samjiyon Grand Monument, Paektu secret camp – the mythical birthplace of Kim Jong Il – and the picturesque Rimyongsu waterfalls.
The attractions are determined by the DPRK side and are mostly viewed by Yanbian sources as propagandistic padding around the primary attraction, the azure-blue Heaven Lake in the crater at the mountain’s peak.
Among tourists the most commonly cited reason for ascending to the lake from the North Korean side of the border is the fact that, unlike on the Chinese side where there are three different possible approaches, numerous tourist facilities and hundreds of hotels, the east slope is devoid of much infrastructure beyond a rusty funicular railway which ascends the final stretch to the top.
As in other aspects of Chinese views of North Korea, including in Chinese consumers’ choices of DPRK products to buy, the land over the River Tumen is seen as an unspoiled and ecologically clean place.
For all the poverty and ‘backwardness’ of the DPRK criticized by tourists, fresh air and lack of crowds, as well as the frisson of international travel, draw visitors to make the cross-border excursion.
This search for terrain less “spoiled” than the Chinese side of the mountain is not without reason, and visitor figures for China’s Changbaishan Tourist Area paint a picture of the crowds and bustle they are escaping: 2016 saw the latest in many successive years of commercial growth for the area, with 468,000 tourists traveling there in the first half of the year and bringing in 6.5 million RMB in revenue, a 1.7% increase compared to the same period in 2015.
Although no comparable figures are published for Chinese tourism to the DPRK, it is certain that far fewer Chinese tourists travel to North Korea in an entire year than head to Changbaishan over a mere six months.
It is thus hardly surprising that, in addition to one-day trips to Namyang or two-day visits to Rason, the Mt. Paektu tour retains an appeal for those leaving from Yanbian.
A recent trip to the Chinese border area by NK News showed that, for tour agencies focused on bringing Chinese tourists to the “brother country”, business is booming – despite recent missile tests and the death of U.S. tourist Otto Warmbier.
Tourists from North Korea’s longtime economic patron, it seems, don’t connect the headlines with the place.
While only a few thousand western tourists visit North Korea every year, Chinese visitors have long been known to represent the bulk of foreign travelers to the DPRK. Representing some 80% of visitors on a yearly basis, South Korea estimated last year that some 100,000 people visited North Korea from the PRC in 2015.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News