One of the most ubiquitous propaganda paintings in North Korea, hung in hotel lobbies, stretched across billboards, and plastered against pretty much every other available flat surface, depicts founding father Kim Il-Sung and son Kim Jung-il at the crater rim of Mount Baekdu, "Sacred Mountain of the Revolution," pointing sagely at the sun. The focal point of the image is supposed to be the wise eyes of the Hermit Kingdom's leaders, but veteran hikers can't help but be distracted by the striking landscape stretching into the background.
Mt. Baekdu is so revered in Pyongyang that it can seem like an abstraction. It isn't. The mountain, which straddles the Manchurian border, is an active volcano accessible to travelers eager to experience the upside of North Korea's abysmal economy: pristine wilderness. That a cloud of myth hovers over the peak only makes a visit more interesting.
Legend tells that Kim Il-Sung became a guerrilla fighter in the crags and forests around Baekdu at age 14 before rising to become a resistance leader at 20 and all but singlehandedly defeating the Japanese in 1945 at 33. As the story goes, Kim Jong-il was subsequently born in a log cabin in the near Baekdu, a birth heralded by the appearance of a double rainbow over the mountain. Fact is, Kim Jong-Il was born in the Soviet village of Vyatskoye – but mere historical reality has done nothing to reduce the import of Baekdu to followers of Kim Jong-Un, North Korea's latest autocrat.
The drive from Samjiyon airstrip, where chartered Antonov 24s drop Baekdu-bound pilgrims after a 90-minute flight from Pyongyang, to the base of the mountain is an ecologist's dream. The rice fields here are hand cultivated, the streams clear, and the forests thick with white birches that slowly thin as the road climbs. Greenery gives way to a moonscape of pockmarked igneous rocks.
From the caldera edge, travelers can see not only the beautiful blue crater lake stretching out below, but also the spot on the rim along the other side of the mountain where Chinese tourists happily wave at their southern neighbors. This is the spot where Kim Il-Sung and his son posed for that ubiquitous picture, but the folks on the other side of the mountain seem to be having all the fun.
From the lip, an oxidized funicular carries visitors down to Lake Chonji, a approximately $7 trip that spares travelers a 40-minute hike down to the frigid water. When Kim Jong-il died, the Korean Central News Agency reported the ice on the lake cracked "so loud, it seemed to shake the Heavens and the Earth."
During our trip, it was the funicular that seemed to crack and our group found itself briefly and rather frighteningly stranded for several minutes on our way back up to rim. The delay gave us another chance to take in the sweeping view, an improvement on the propaganda. At the top, we joined other foreign tourists posing in the manner of North Korea's Leaders, fingers tracing something unseen through the peaceful sky.
More Information: Depending on the state of North Korea's relationship with South Korea and the United States, a number of outfitters – notably Regent Holidays and Mountain Travel Sobek – offer trips to the Hermit Kingdom that include journeys to Mount Baekdu. Tourists in China can visit the mountain between May and September, though a large resort is being planned nearby.