金剛山/Mt. Geumgang (Kumgang)/금강산 – Getting there and first impressions
I just got back from Mt. Geumgang, sometimes written as Mt. Kumgang. It is in North Korea, on the eastern side of the Korean Peninsula. The drive there goes up the coast along the East Sea. Even though I left Seoul on the bus around 8am, I wasn’t actually at my hotel to drop things off until 4:30pm. It takes a lot of time to cross the peninsula and clear immigration.
There is an immigration checkpoint on the South Korean side – you get the normal Republic of Korea exit stamp along with another stamp noting that you are going to 금강산. The building is very modern. There were banners above for the Unification Ministry. That Ministry is to be scrapped by the new president in South Korea. This part was relatively fast – but then again, I am a foreigner here, and not many foreigners go. I did not need to wait to use the foreigner line. After that, my passport went into a plastic holder I had to wear everywhere I went in North Korea.
On the North Korean side, passing immigration took longer. All the buses going through the checkpoint (they all go through at set times of the day) have to go in order. Bus #1 would be first, then #2, etc. After getting off the bus, people have to take their bags and line up in a specific order. From that order people pass immigration. There is no separate line for foreigners. The North Korean official does not stamp the passport, he stamps one of the many pieces of information contained in the clear plastic holder I was required to wear at all times. This was given back when I left. I did, however, take a picture. It looks like this:
The bus on the North Korean side was not as fancy as the one used within South Korea to get to the South Korean immigration checkpoint, but it did not feel like North Korea to me.
Much as many people from South Korea only go to Korean hotels, restaurants, and places of interest abroad, I got a similar feeling in the Mt. Geumgang area. It almost felt like a moon base to me. A few reasons why:
- The TV in the hotel only had the major South Korean broadcast stations like KBS, CBS, MBC, etc. There were no North Korean stations.
- Many of the staff on the buses, on the tours to mountains, in the centre area, and in the hotel were from South Korean. They were not wearing pins of Kim Il Sung like North Koreans do.
- Speaking of transport, the roads did not have circles in the middle of intersection with a traffic lady directing non existent traffic. There were plenty of vehicles driving around in the special zone. Shuttle buses, North Korean army trucks, cars from South Korea (probably for South Korean workers in the area), etc.
- The currency in use was the US dollar. Kim Jong Il awhile back mandated the change to Euros for foreign travellers. People going to North Korea from China will only use Euros.
- Some of the shops accepted (South Korean) won.
- The centre of town had a Family Mart convenience store.
- The centre of town had many shops selling foreign brands of cosmetics (such as Neutrogena) and clothing (such as North Face). The area dedicated to North Korean products was maybe 1/20th of the floor area of the entire shopping district.
- While there were North Korean restaurants that you had to purchase meal tickets for, well in advance, there were also South Korean style restaurants that you could eat and pay afterward.
- While photo-taking was not allowed on the bus, photo taking and walking around was explicitly allowed within the green fences diving the tourist areas from DPRK citizen only areas.
Although the road system seemed closer to what I would see in South Korea, I found it interesting that many road signs took on the colour scheme of the DPRK flag rather than the standard red border with a white background and black lettering: