Sacred and Stunning Mountain, Baekdu

[imText1]The first item on today’s schedule was a visit to Mt. Baekdu, to be followed by the famous log cabin where, if official myths are to be believed, Kim Jong Il was born.

Mt. Baekdu and its surroundings seemed just as empty as the rest of the wooded area that we were in. The beautiful scenery around the mountain made the whole experience seem almost surreal; while it looked like a beautiful painting at times, there was an inexplicable atmosphere of something being wrong lying like a blanket over the place.

To be fair, today was an exception. It was the 6th of September – and 60 years since the founding of the state of North Korea. So we weren’t alone at the sacred, revolutionary Mt. Baekdu.

Upon arrival at the parking lot at the foot of the mountain, the first thing we spotted was a military truck with people in the back, freezing and shaking under shabby blankets. They seemed to be waiting to ascend the mountain as well.

At the top of the mountain, we got our usual share of propaganda. Our guides told us the story about why Mt. Baekdu was so sacred, and of course, both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were included in the picture.

Standing on the top of Mt. Baekdu, it was easy to understand why a country would want to make the place a cornerstone of its national folklore. The view was simply stunning. I thought to myself that the famous painting of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il posing on top of the mountain, in front of the lake, really wasn’t that far from the truth.

The ambitious part of our tourist group decided to go to the very top of the mountain on foot, but a few of us decided to stay down below. We drew the winning ticket. Just a few minutes after our guides had left us to go to the mountain top, a huge group of North Koreans, dressed in military-style dress, came walking towards us, led by a red flag and a propaganda banner. It seemed like they were coming to the mountain to celebrate the 60th anniversary – what better place to do that than Mt. Baekdu?

It was striking how much more talkative North Koreans in general were when there were no guides or other authority figures present. They wanted to look at our cameras, and seemed to be totally amazed. We took pictures together, and the few people in our group who spoke a little Korean tried to ask them a few questions, which they mostly answered, only with slight hesitation. They even tried saying a few phrases in English! Shortly after, as I was sitting by myself on a rock admiring the view, a solider approached to offer me a cigarette. It almost made me feel bad for not being a smoker, having to turn down such gesture. The short but amazing experience made it very clear that our guides had a deterrent effect on the regular North Koreans, and scared them away from us by their very presence.

After Mt. Baekdu, we drove to the other major attraction of the day: the log cabin where Kim Jong Il is said to have been born. However, most of the people in our group knew about the Dear Leader spending his first few years in the Soviet Union, along with his father and mother. This led us to ask ourselves if our guides and tour organizers were totally out of touch with reality; didn’t they know that we would read about what we were going to see before going there, and that a simple click on Wikipedia would reveal the truth to us? We knew that our guides probably believed the legend of Kim Jong Il being born near the sacred mountain – but what about the people a few levels above him? Surely, there must be many in North Korea’s upper classes who know that the myth of Kim Jong Il’s birthplace is nothing other than a myth?

Before actually walking to the log cabin, we stopped for a few minutes to look at a mural depicting the Kim family in front of the cabin during the revolutionary struggle. Everyone took pictures of the mural, but I figured, since the mural itself surely must be available online, that I would take a picture of the back of the mural instead. This was not appreciated by the minders. A few minutes after taking the picture, I was approached by one of our guides, who demanded to see the picture, and erased it. Apparently, someone from the North Korean staff had seen me sneaking behind the mural to take the picture, and alerted one of the guides. In North Korea, taking a picture of one of the Kim’s from behind is considered a highly blasphemous act.


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