With the military and other celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s foundation, on the 9th of September, over it was time for us to head east for the first of two forays which would let us see a large part of this, much less frequently visited and scenically beautiful, side of the country. For this trip we started with a bus ride, 300 kms across the country giving us a wonderful introduction to this beautiful scenery and an insight into country life more generally. This review is a photo journal of my trip from Pyongyang to Hamhung, on the east coast of North Korea.

While the highway was paved (concrete) the whole way it was rough and rather ass numbing in parts – increasingly the latter as the hours passed. We had transferred from our larger luxurious coach, with two seats per person, to two smaller and rather cramped smaller buses which we would need on subsequent days, in even more hilly terrain with much poorer roads.

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The bumpy roads, the hilly terrain and a few stops (including one unscheduled one) en route meant that it took ten hours to travel the 300kms to Hamhung. Notwithstanding the welcome breaks en route everyone was rather relieved when we arrived into Hamhung a little before dusk.

As we left Pyongyang, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, we made a short stop at the Monument to the Three-Point Charter for National Reunification, more commonly referred to as the Reunification Arch or Monument. The arch sits on the main highway south which, had we continued there-on, would have taken us to the DMZ and the border with South Korea. The monument, about which you can read more HERE, expresses a hope that, one day soon, the Korean peninsula and people will once again be united as one.

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Reunification Arch

Shortly after passing under the arch we took a left turn and headed east along the Pyongyang – Wonsan Highway, though not before getting clearance to do so.

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Checkpoint on heading east from Pyongyang

While there are particular restrictions as to who can enter and reside in Pyongyang, people also cannot arbitrarily move around the country as they please so checkpoints are a common feature along all roads. Though tourists are not questioned, searched or otherwise interfered with, the identification of local people (i.e guides/drivers, etc) accompanying them is checked/ verified at these checkpoints. That said, the particular checkpoint pictured along side did seem a little different than the others (I wish I could read what it says on the top!) and may have been some form of highway/ traffic monitoring station as opposed to the more common military checks featuring, well, more military and road blocks. Photography at military checkpoints is, not surprisingly, prohibited.

Travelling east, initially the landscape was fairly flat with distant rolling hills all of a particularly pleasant, green pre-harvest hue, punctuated with the odd village here and there.

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Village along the Pyongyang – Wonsan Highway. Note the Eternal Life Monument, typical to all towns and villages in North Korea

After a couple of hours and having moved into somewhat hillier country we drew to an unscheduled stop to let our overheated engine cool down – whoops, I mean admire the flowers. Ours was not the only vehicle stopped along the road such that travellers could  admire the flowers: Flower gazing seemed to be a particularly popular indulgence along this hilly section of the highway!

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Our drivers wait while our overheated engine cools down – whoops, I mean while we admire the roadside flowers. Note the vehicle behind us was one of a number doing likewise.

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These flowers are found along roads and railway tracks throughout the country. Our guide informed us that the flowers are planted every year by loyal citizens as a summer-time treat and reward for Kim Jong-un as he travels around the country, working tirelessly for the people, as his father and grandfather did before him.

Outside thousands of roadside flowers the road was pretty deserted bar a few vehicles and highway workers/ cleaners here and there. This rather surprised my as I would have expected this to be a major supply route between the eastern industrial cities of Chongjin, Hamhung and Wonsan and Pyongyang. I can only assume that much of the freight would travel by train – slow and unpredictable though that process would be.

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Workmen collect stones and gravel for maintenance purposes while solitary workers mend and clean the Pyongyang-Wonsan Highway
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Public transport – and I thought our bus was uncomfortable. Hopefully these guys were not travelling as far as I was
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One of many patriotically decorated tunnels along the highway

Soon it was time for our morning tea stop, at the beautiful Sinpyong Lake Resort.

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Sinpyong Lake Resort

In addition to stretching my legs and admiring the picturesque lake, I was able to get a cup of rather unimpressive coffee though I reckon it was probably better than the snake wine option also available.

While it didn’t look as if anyone one was staying at the resort it seemed that it was a regular stop for overseas, Chinese and local tourist buses and accordingly it was quite busy. By way of explanation, Chinese tourists are separately identified (counted) in North Korea and while only a few thousand non-Chinese overseas people visit North Korea annually hundreds of thousands of Chinese visit and that number is growing.

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Sinpyong Lake Resort – a popular tourist bus stop
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Snake wine – an option to coffee or tea at the Sinpyong Lake Resort

As we moved further east the hills and gorgeous scenery continued unabated.

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Note – the last two pictures were taken on our return trip, a cloudy day

Our final stop and where we would have a rather late lunch, about eight kilometres of the highway along a twisting road hewn into the mountainside, was Ullim Falls.

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Heading in from the Highway to the Ullim Falls
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Downstream from the Ullim Falls

The falls, in this remote mountainous part of the country, were not discovered until the 1990s when soldiers stumbled across them. On hearing of the beauty of the falls, Kim Jong-il visited in 2001 and declared that the soldiers ‘had unfolded another fairyland in the Songun era.’ He decreed that soldier-builders should develop a resort and other tourist facilities here, as evidence of the Leader’s love for his people. Naturally, this was done though the observation building still looked somewhat unfinished in 2018.

To commemorate the Dear Leader’s visit the year of his visit ‘2001’, in a blown up copy of his handwriting, was engraved on the rocks to the right of the falls (visible in pictures below).

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Ullim Falls
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Ullim Falls

The falls have a total drop of 75m metres though this is split into two, approximately halfway down. When flowing somewhat stronger than when we visited the twin falls are said to make a thunderous echo sound, audible up to four kilometres away. This sound gave the waterfall its name,  ‘ Echo’ or ‘Ullim’ in Korean.

Having enjoyed the falls we moved downstream a hundred metres or so where we enjoyed a picnic lunch sitting by the river, soaking in the atmosphere and feeling the love that Kim Jong-il had for his people.

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Picnic lunch downstream from the Ullim Falls

Our lunch box was courtesy of Air Koryo catering and included a famous (or is it infamous?) Air Koryo hamburger – in its 2014 livery! If you are not familiar with this delicacy do have a look at my review on Getting to North Korea by Air.

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Air Koryo lunch box

After our late lunch we continued on to the industrial east coast city of Hamhung (via Wonsan, on which I will write more in seperate reviews) arriving there a couple of hours later. Like everyone else I hoped that, after our ten hour bus trip, we would call it a day and head for our hotel. That was not to be. We still had a fertilizer factory to visit and visit it we did!


My next North Korea 2018 – General Review  – HERE (coming soon!)

Return to the beginning of my North Korea 2018 – General Reviews HERE


 

45 thoughts on “Overland from Pyongyang to Hamhung via the Ullim Falls

  1. Wow your pictures of North Korea is so amazing! As a South Korean it makes me sad because I might never see those beautiful Ullim Falls or the Reunification Arch for real. By the way, the words from the checkpoint picture says “전자결제소” which means “electronic payment office.”

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    1. Thank you for visiting. I actually do not get many South Koreans looking in for some reason. I note you are a student… I am sure Korea will be one again in my lifetime and I am somewhat older than you. I feel confident and hopeful you can visit some day soon. Thank you for the translation….. If you don’t mind and have the internet/time I might get you to do a few more translations .. not many lol.

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  2. Hi Albert, I’m back from my sojourn and a break from blogging, and trying to catch up. There’s some pretty impressive scenery here, and your journey seems to have been interesting and varied! Those flowers may not have been the real reason for stopping, but they’re worth admiring anyway. Strange that they’re planted in so many places – and why. And Ullim Falls looks beautiful. 🙂

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    1. The only people banned by North Korea from entering are those seeking to do so on a South Korean Passport. Since 2016 the US has banned US passport holders from going there. US and SK citizens who have other passports can use them. Anyone else can easily go there – you must use one of a dozen or so tour agents most of which are based in Beijing and the UK. You can read more in the second half of this entry…..https://ramblingwombat.wordpress.com/2018/10/06/north-korea-an-encore-back-for-more-in-2018/#more-25617

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    1. Yes it is a fascinating place to travel in .. been there twice now. Agenda for tourism is to increase.. though not totally within their control. There has been a massive in Chinese tourism in just the past few years.. non Chinese is steady at a few thousand per year. Kim Jong-un has set ( unachievable) targets and while infrastructure incl hotels is getting better there is a long way to go. If you have questions re your study please ask.. can’t promise I can answer but can try-:)

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      1. I can imagine that the infrastructure is not developed enough to support big amounts of incoming tourists. Did you feel safe there? Was it clear what rules you need to obey and what might not be appropiate behaviour? Not talking about the obvious things here but as a person who haven’t visited, I have an image that the athmosphere is quite strict towards many things, what might be natural for us. For example, can you talk to just anyone or are you supposed to only stay in your travel group? Im not really studying about North Korea atm, just curious from professional point of view. Thanks for sharing your insights 🙂

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        1. Yes I felt extremely safe there. There is no crime against tourists in NK and your are accepted in as an honoured guest of the country . As long as you comply with a few simple rules – two most important of which are to not promote ANY religion and to not disrespect the Leadership you will be fine. The rules are made extremely clear – our operator gave us (prior to finalising our booking) a 25+ page booklet of rules. A lot of them relate to what you can/cannot bring into the country and photography. Outside the two I mentioned the rules are not really enforced. The last comment in the unoffical ‘rule book’ asks that if you feel you cannot comply with the rules you do not sign up for a tour… cannot be more fair then that. People worry most about photography … no-one (unless you don’t have a camera!) gets through NK without being told off for photographing something at some point – (it’s part of the fun!). Of course if you continually photography army checkpoints etc after being told not to you will get into trouble but then you deserve it. You would have to do something seriously bad for the guides to report you – it gets them in trouble too. There is no official ban against talking to local people. There are two practical issues – English/ other languages are not widely/well spoken and secondly tour are organised such that you do not come into contact with local people unless they want you too. I spoke to a few in a shopping centre who could speak English but talk was superficial and they would not engage in political comment for sure. You are absolutely required to stick within your travel group – in 2014 two from our group got lost in a busy park – the guides were in tears as they are personally responsible for their tourists and, in fact they will get in more trouble than you (unless you deliberately run away). The two missing people were quickly found but there was a short term panic. Overall the ‘rules’ actually make the holiday more interesting in a peculiar way and provide for good discussion in the bar at night.

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          1. Sorry – this is incorrect – “Outside the two I mentioned the rules are not really enforced. ” what I should have said was ” the other rules are enforced haphazardly with some guides being more strict than others”. Also most tour operators give you a pre-arrival briefing and the local guides will give additional briefings as necessary.

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  3. Like Don I recall as a child having to stop while the car cooled down, and at least you had some pretty flowers to admire while you waited 🙂 I’m curious as to how many of your photos from the bus were ‘accidents’? The check-point, obviously, but what about the man pushing his bike and the lorry-load of locals? The fields and villages I would assume are pretty much OK for photos? I’m also curious as to whether the Koryo burger and what look to be chips were served hot, out in the middle of nowhere, as I can’t imagine wanting to eat either cold!!!

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    1. General rule is that unless you are told otherwise ( and we were further north and on the south east border area) you can take photos from the bus. This is a reversal of the 2014 position when photography from the bus was not allowed without special permission, outside Pyongyang. Of course special permission was difficult to get as you would be 5km past what you want to photograph when you had permission!. The tricky bit is how this general permission to take photos works with other rules.. easy with not being allowed to take photos of military.. incidentally rules out most building sites as workers are what are referred to as soldier builders. The difficult one is that you are not to take photos of anything that might show the country or people in a bad light. Depending on interpretation and any commentary you ( or someone else republishing your photo) might put on photos they could all be classified as unacceptable. Our guide in the north east brought up the issue of how other people who had never visited the country used photos to discredit it.

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      1. Yes, I can see that the interpretation that others might put on your photos would be hard to control. I guess the best you can do is follow any specific instructions you are given, and use the photos you do take respectfully. I suspect my own tour company may be a bit more cautious about what I post than yours seems to be so I will be careful to respect their wishes as well as those of the DPRK 🙂

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    2. The lunch was brought from Pyongyang and was at room ( back of bus) temperature . You will find that food generally is served much colder than in the UK . This is typical of buffet food generally in Asia and not peculiar to NK. Smile and enjoy -:)

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    3. Personally I don’t seen the bike or truck photos as portraying NK in a bad light.. certainly not my intention to suggest that. But I can absolutely see how other people could use them in a negative way. This is the dilemma one faces in publishing anything about NK.

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    1. I can’t answer you fully. There was certainly a group there ( all men, so a work group) when we visited. When they travel they tend to travel with work units and the like but certainly families go out to local parks etc at weekends and holidays. The concept of going out like we might do for a coffee, to shop when we don’t actually want to buy anything, etc doesn’t exist outside Pyongyang. Also and importantly the lack of disposable income is an issue when it comes to travel. The state provides basics and wages are correspondingly minimal. That’s a big discussion topic in its own right.

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      1. I meant to add .. the permission thing while an issue for people outside the province/area would not be the biggest deterrent.. funds would. You are correct that permission or not would be linked to your status.

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      2. This all sounds more like a feudalistic system of medieval times and not like a socialist utopy. In the former German Democratic Republic this was really much different. My wife and her former friend did a hitchhiking tour thru the country when they were much younger in the 1970s although their visa was only valid for a certain district of the GFR. But police controlling them did not care about that wishing a happy travel. And accomodation always found on a private basis by asking simply the normal people in the diverse cities who were usually helpful. But in fact quite an adventure tour!

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  4. I can relate to this, particularly because my father used to have a 1936 Oldsmobile which was quite reliable except that it tended to boil over on hilly roads in Wisconsin. I’ve never visited a fertilizer factory, however.

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