North Korean homestay offers unparalleled scenery, interaction with locals
BY SUSAN AHN
A state-owned “homestay” program on North Korea’s Chilbo Mountain invites foreigners to eat, sleep and experience the local lifestyle.
Chilbo Mountain is located in the nation’s northernmost North Hamgyong province. “Chilbo” translates into “seven buried treasures,” and this mountain hidden well north of the DMZ does have a beautiful landscape worthy of discovering.
“There are many beautiful sceneries in North Hamgyong province because it’s circled by the ocean,” North Korean founder Kim Il Sung was once quoted as saying in the Rodong Sinmun. “Above all, Chilbo Mountain’s scenery is the most beautiful.”
For tourists, two things set this mountain apart: Its well-preserved nature provides travelers with views of a volcanic ridge, valleys and peaks where they can enjoy sightseeing and hiking. Also, it is the only place in North Korea that allows foreigners to stay in local North Korean homes.
The homestay facilities were built in October 2006 with 20 blocks of Korean and European-styled “private dwelling houses” where visitors can stay with a North Korean family, according to a KCNA report from that year. The facility can accommodate around 40 to 100 tourists.
“I understand that Kim Jong Il proclaimed that other countries allowed homestays, (and) that is a good idea and the DPRK should have them also,” said Joseph Ferris, who works as a guide for Young Pioneer Tours and who blogs about his experiences in the North at Americaninnorthkorea.com.
The homes are upscale compared to typical North Korean houses with clean beds, digital TVs and neatly papered walls.
“The homes are nothing like the modest dwellings of the neighboring village,” Ferris told NK News. “But the people living at the homestay are real North Korean families and the interactions are genuine.
“These families work hard to host foreigners, mostly Chinese, and when the tourists depart they return to the fields and seas for farming and fishing like everybody else.”
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Ferris traveled to the area in spring 2013 with the Young Pioneer’s Tour through a partnership with the DPRK Chilbosan Tourism Company.
“The guides with Chilbosan feel very comfortable in this region and provide access that is impossible for Pyongyang-based Korea International Travel Company (KITC) to provide,” he said. “The company also arranged plenty of interesting leisure time and activities shared with the homestay residents.”
While the mountain is open for all foreigners, Americans and Japanese are not allowed to stay in the homestay village for the night. Instead, they have to stay at the Outer Chilbo hotel.
“Our two North Korean guides seemed genuinely embarrassed by this government requirement and felt it hurt our group spirit and camaraderie,” said Ferris.
“Considering that Americans were only allowed into the DPRK as tourists just a few years ago, it doesn’t surprise me that restrictions like being forbidden to stay overnight at the homestay are on the books. I believe Americans will eventually be allowed to stay there; it will just take time for those in charge to feel secure enough to allow such close interaction.”
North Korea lifted its restrictions on U.S. citizens visiting the country in 2010.
HOMESTAYS, NORTH AND SOUTH
In South Korea, homestay is arranged through websites such as Koreastay, a Korea Trade Organization-certified program for international visitors, or Korea-homestay.com, a homestay exchange company. Typically, there are two types of homestay arrangements: in homes with a modern design or in hanok, traditional Korean housing.
However, there are also expectations from the host families, with many offering deals to foreign visitors willing to tutor the host’s children.
Interactions during a homestay at Chilbo Mountain appear quite different.
“We spent an evening with a (North Korean) guide discussing DPRK nuclear policy over soju and beers, it was fascinating,” Ferris said of his experience.
“The non-American tourists who stay at the homestay spend their evenings talking with their host families. I was briefed on what had happened that night and understand conversations were non-political, with some of the most fascinating focusing on the telling of myths from the guest’s respective countries. (A tourist’s) story of a Maori god that traveled across the heavens had several of the North Koreans genuinely amazed, with them believing that New Zealanders actually thought this to be true. A bit of explanation was necessary to reassure them that it was understood to only be a myth.”
Other activities included volleyball, traditional wrestling with the locals, fishing boat rides on the sea, and an evening campfire and sing-along on the beach.
“There was even some early morning gardening for those non-Americans who spent the night,” Ferris said.
MORE TO COME?
North Korea has lately been increasing efforts to boost foreign tourism, and the region near Chilbo is among those impacted.
Recently, Park Sang-kwon, chairman of Pyeonghwa Motors Corp. – a joint venture operating in North Korea – visited the DPRK for the 60th anniversary of the armistice ending the Korean War, where he heard that the North will develop six special tourist zones, including at Chilbo Mountain, and will privatize three airports (including one near Chilbo Mountain), DongA News has reported.
What role the homestay facility will play in these recent development plans remains to be seen.
Pictures: J. Ferris