By Jennifer Radakovitch
The experience of seeing North Korea was surreal. From the moment we got through customs, everything and everyone was overly happy.
A view of Mt. Kumgang in North Korea. North Korea has opened the area to tourists from around the world. /Courtesy of Jennifer Radakovitch
It was almost like being at Disneyland, but instead of hearing “It’s a Small World’’ over the loudspeakers, we were serenaded with the “Pangapsumnida” (Nice to Meet You) song. Instead of seeing Mickey Mouse, we were greeted by a strange dancing bear ? the mascot of the Kumgangsan Tour Company.
Every time we joined the mandatory bus caravan to see the next attraction, all the hotel and gift shop workers would line the streets with huge friendly smiles and over-zealous waves.
Last month. through Adventure Korea, I joined Hyundai Asan’s Mt. Kumgang tour to North Korea to hike in the Diamond Mountains. The tour was operated en masse from start to finish. About 1,200 people boarded 34 buses that traveled simultaneously through South and North Korean customs and to and from every attraction. The number of tour participants can reach 10,000 in the summer months.
It did not seem that things were that strict, but I never left the tourist zone, so I can’t vouch for life outside of it.
While there are advantages of entering North Korea with an organized tour group (such as having the appropriate documents for customs), the overorganization of the trip definitely compromised the experience. The main focus and highlight was hiking in what is by far the most majestic place I have ever seen. There simply are not words to describe it.
I was disappointed that I would be missing the colors of fall, but what the mountain had in store was much more spectacular than I could have ever imagined: steep, jutting rocks capped with snowy peaks and crystal clear, bright blue water running over the smooth rock beds.
I was astounded by the breathtaking beauty. Each turn revealed a sight even more amazing than the last. Experiencing the splendid beauty of the mountains was cut short, however, by a bus schedule that made our hikes unnecessarily rushed.
If you’re interested in hiking Mt. Kumgang, my advice is to take your time. Although the tour guides are well intentioned, there’s always another bus that will take you back to the town square.
And although you are presented with many rules and regulations up front, they are not set in stone.
Take the liberty of experiencing your tour the way you want and enjoy what Mt. Kumgang has to offer.
If you’re doing something wrong, someone will tell you. Remember, most attractions are within walking distance, and you don’t need to take the bus. The buses will wait.
You can also enjoy hiking at Samilpo Lake, watching a North Korean acrobatic show and relaxing in a natural hot spring (all for an additional cost) ㅡ but nothing beats the hike.