The power had gone out.
I was lying on the floor in the pitch black, listening to waves crashing on the
beach outside, wondering whether the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had heard
similar sounds as he fell asleep here.
For two nights in 2006,
“Dear Leader” slept in the same bed I was lying in: just a traditional,
Korean-style mattress rolled out on the floor. Fortunately, kitchen stove
channels heated the wood from below, keeping it warm even when the electricity
failed – a regular occurrence given North Korea’s notoriously unstable power
Kim Jong-il’s visit marked the opening of
the Mt Chilbo Homestay – one of the few homestays in North Korea, if not the
only one, that is allowed to host foreigners. (All foreigners, that is, except
for Americans, who are allowed to visit during the day but cannot spend the
night.) While the owners are proud that Kim Jong-il was a guest, they do not
publicise which bed he slept in, or that visitors can stay there: doing so would
be seen as disrespectful to the late leader. I was able to pinpoint his room
only by befriending a guide, who let me in on the secret.
Billed by tour
operators as an opportunity to see how locals live, Mt Chilbo is located in North
Korea’s remote northeast – a forested region of stunning natural beauty. But as
one might expect, parts of the experience felt staged. The 20 houses, for
example, looked nothing like the average North Korean homes that we could see just
beyond the electric fence at the property’s entrance. The houses of the
neighbouring village – whose name we weren’t told and which we weren’t allowed
to photograph – looked dark and dank, with villagers washing their clothes in
the stream. The two-storey homestay accommodations, meanwhile, had running
water, an (admittedly erratic) electricity supply and televisions proudly
displayed in every living room.
But opting for a
homestay like Mt Chilbo does have its benefits. Not only do guests have the
unusual opportunity to mix with North Koreans who are not guides and minders, but
they also can wander around the homestay grounds – rare freedoms in a
country where visitors are always within sight of a tour bus and a guide is
never more than a few metres away.
Going beyond the perimeter fence, however,
is absolutely out of bounds. A guard checks the gate at sunrise to make sure no
one has tried to slip out.
Throughout Mt Chilbo
there were reminders of the dictator’s hold on the country. In House 16, where
I stayed, portraits of Kim Jong-il and his son Kim Jong-un hung side by side in
the living room, just as in every other home across the country. Here, however,
was another photograph of Kim Jung-il: wearing his trademark dark shades, he is
pictured walking up the paved pathway outside House 16, a party of officials
and military men following him. A family of four is lined up to greet him.
Now in their early
teens, the children in the picture easily remember Kim Jung-il’s visit; it was
a landmark event in their lives. With a few words of English and plenty of
excited gesticulating, they explained that he spent two nights in the guest
room upstairs, which hadn’t been redecorated since his stay. With a retro 1960s
feel that is common in North Korea (in many respects, the country has been
frozen in time since the Kim dynasty took power in 1948), the walls were neatly
wallpapered, as was the ceiling, and there were yellow polyester curtains and a
vase filled with plastic flowers. A lacy white cover enshrouded the electric
fan. I had to stoop to see myself in the full-length mirror – but that wouldn’t
have been a problem for the house’s most prestigious visitor; he was1.6 metres
After a filling lunch
of noodles, fried fish and plenty of kimchi, a game of volleyball – a favourite
among North Koreans – was quickly arranged. We briefly debated how to split the
teams – perhaps men against women? But the North Korean homestay owners had
already decided: they would take on the foreigners. And they were good. The
Australian who good-naturedly offered to even up the numbers on the foreigners’
team was quickly put to shame. The North Koreans played a fast, tight game.
As soon as the game finished,
a stocky North Korean with legs of solid muscle suggested a wrestling match; a
fit 40-something American was cajoled into it. The two men briefly bowed and reached
forward, taking hold of each other’s belts. They strained and grunted. Local children
pushed their way forward for a better view. There seemed to be more at stake
here than just a bit of fun: the North Koreans cheered on their man, we rooted
for the American. The contest was close until suddenly, the North Korean flipped
the American onto the sand.
Advised by our guides
that we should present our hosts with a small gift, we all dutifully bought items
such as snacks, cigarettes and soju, a potent local liquor traditionally made
of rice, wheat or barley. After a session of local folk songs around a campfire
on the beach, we piled back to one house for a nightcap.
Tired after a long day
of translating for us, our guide left us on our own. Without any Korean
speakers in the group, we relied on gestures and laughter to communicate with
our local hosts. The lady of the house welcomed us in and set the table,
putting out a rice bowl and a shot glass at each seat.
Her husband returned
home a few minutes later, looking surprised to see 12 tourists – who weren’t
North Korean or Chinese – in his living room. But when we produced the soju, he
cracked open the bottle and poured it into a rice bowl, lifting it to his lips
and downing it in one swallow. We cheered him on, so he knocked back another bowl.
And another. If the visit taught us one thing, it’s that the North Koreans know
how to put back a drink.
The shot glasses, we
realised, were not for the soju – they were for the water.
must arrange visits to the Mt Chilbo Homestay through a tour agency. Four tour
groups that offer trips to the region also include stays at the homestay: Young
Pioneer Tours, Bestway Tours and
Tours and Koryo
Tours. Those who want to stay in Kim Jong-il’s bed should ask for House 16.