After a full day’s drive from Pyongyang, topped off by a visit to the Hungnam Fertiliser Factory, I was relieved to arrive at our accommodation for the night – a ‘villa’ by the Korean East Sea (or the Sea of Japan to non-Koreans).
While Hamhung is the second largest city in North Korea with a population of around 800,000 there is only one hotel, the Sinhungsan, in the city open to western visitors though it is actually rarely used by visitors. The two accommodations mostly used are at Majon, about ten kilometres to the south-west of the city, by the sea. These are the undeniably more upmarket Majon (Delux) Hotel and the more basic, three star, Majon Beach Guesthouse (interchangeably referred to as the Majon Bathing House or the Majon Beach Resort). We stayed at the guesthouse which, while far from the best hotel on our trip, was more than adequate, especially given the limited about of time we spent here over our two days in the area.
We arrived here at about 7pm and were given keys to our rooms with instructions that we promptly return for dinner, having deposited our bags in our rooms.
The Guesthouse comprises a central block (as depicted above) which houses the reception area, a fairly large lobby with a shop, a bar, restaurants and the ubiquitous bookshop which only sells material on North Korea, a large portion of which is written by Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il or the current leader Kim Jong-un.
Given the size of this part of the building I assume it also has guest rooms, though with the then fairly recent experiences of the late Otto Warmbier (Google him and take the content of the entry with a pinch of salt) in my mind I didn’t go exploring!
Our rooms were in a series of villas, a short walk away, set back from the beach which was, at least in my case, obscured by trees and other vegetation. Looking like products of the 1950s, though built by Russians in the 1970s as a resort for compatriots seeking to holiday in North Korea, and starting to show their age the villas are blocks of self-contained (i.e. with en-suites) rooms – four to a villa, though layouts did seem to vary a bit.
Internally, my room was basic but spotless. It sported a couple of hard beds covered with one of the ever colourful North Korean bedspreads we had become familiar with, a small fridge, kettle (byo tea/coffee, etc as is standard throughout North Korea) and a rather antiquated television which I didn’t turn on knowing that, at best, I would have had a choice of one local station. In any event I had no time to watch television – even if I did miss out on something as edifying as a revolutionary opera.
My bathroom, off the room’s small entrance lobby, and so often the pièce de résistance in North Korean hotels, didn’t disappoint here. While there was a very grand looking water heating unit above the bath it didn’t work, not least because there was no flowing water.
Rather, the bath had been pre-filled with water as had a large pink bin-like tub beside it. On top of the later was a heating appliance which had to be inserted into the tub when electricity was available, such that hot water could be procured for washing or whatever else one might like to do with it.
As there was electricity available when I checked in (in fact, there was throughout our stay), I removed about half the water from the tub and gingerly inserted the heating contraption, and turned it on prior to going to dinner. This way I was able, with the assistance of a small blue basin, to have an adequate wash prior to retiring for the night. Early the following morning I heard a rustle as a staff member quietly sneaked in to ensure hot water would be available when I woke up, as it was on both mornings. You are warned not to put your hand into the tub while the heating element is on!
Dinner on both nights was of typical fare but somehow seemed rather bland and the experience was certainly more subdued than normal because, to be honest, everyone was tired both evenings after two particularly long, heavy sightseeing and travelling days.
After an early to bed first night, the next morning I got up at the crack of dawn for a walk along the beach at sunrise and what a delightful walk it was.
We had been given permission to walk along the beach without the need for guides though as a few of the group which chose to walk in a southern direction along the beach found out, when soldiers appeared from the bush, that there was a limit to how far this act of leniency could be indulged. After walking a few hundred metres they were asked to return to the hotel.
I chose to walk in a northerly direction and, while not thinking of limits nor intending to test them, I walked quite some distance before having to return for a ‘shower’ and breakfast. I will let a few pictures speak for themselves but this was certainly the highlight of our stay at the hotel. While the water looked tempting for a swim we were out of season so I resisted.
On the second evening a couple of us felt the urge for a glass of wine (of all things!) before dinner, so headed for the small bar.
En-route, we inspected the merchandise on offer in the well stocked lobby shop. In addition to the usual flags, booze, snacks and sundry souvenirs the shop had some very ‘fashionable’ ladies swimming attire on sale. My friend who was quite taken with what we would think of as 1960s style costumes couldn’t resist buying a couple of pieces.
On arriving in the bar, for some reason adorned with a number of toy bears (well why not?), we sought some wine. Unsurprisingly, this was not available by the glass and we could choose from two exorbitantly priced bottles – both reds, which luckily is what we wanted. Both bottles had the appearance of ‘Chateau Plonk’ but we persevered and decided on the more expensive Euro 30 bottle.
The lovely barmaid who had possibly never sold or opened a bottle of wine in her life, having eventually found a corkscrew, proceeded to try and open our chosen bottle. After about 10 minutes, by which time she was down on the floor with the bottle between her legs (I wasn’t game to take a photograph), she managed to pulverise the cork before asking us what she should do next – having turned down my early suggestion that I open the bottle. At this stage there was nothing that could be done other than push what remained of the cork into the bottle and hope for the best. This she did and the best didn’t result. Sadly, there was so much cork that even with our best intention not to complain we could not have drank it so we asked for another bottle.
Alas, the young lady’s English was not up to continuing our negotiations further so my friend went in search of our guide who could act as translator. She returned with three guides who seemed very concerned that bar staff were unable to get us a drink! After much negotiation and the involvement of a more senior staff member there was an agreement that we could have the only other bottle of wine which they had in the bar – the cheaper (Euro 25) bottle we had passed over earlier. It was also agreed that I would take responsibility for un-corking this bottle – a task which, given my undoubted greater experience in these things, I accomplished fairly easily.
My only worry in all of this was that the young barmaid would get in trouble for the discarded bottle or, worse still, would have to pay for it out of her paltry wages. We were assured by the senior staff member that this would not be the case.
My friend, the three guides who had come to our assistance and I quickly polished off the bottle, prior to heading for dinner. Suffice it to say I was glad of the additional assistance in drinking it, given the quality of the wine.
As luck would have it, my friend shared with me, over dinner, a bottle of fairly decent wine she had bought in the Kwangbok Department Store in Pyongyang, for a small fraction of the price I had paid for the Chateau Plonk here so all was not lost and I went to bed happy.
My next North Korea (2018) – Hamhung review– HERE
Start reading at the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Hamhung reviews – HERE