Chilbosan - A view from our expert author

Rugged beaches along the coast of Chilbo, North Korea by Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.comThe rugged Chilbo coastline is spectacular for its rocky islands and outcrops © Eric Lafforgue,

Chongjin is the nearest city to the real jewels in the crown of north Hamgyong’s coast: Chilbosan, or the Chilbo Mountains. The name Chilbo means ‘seven buried treasures’, which must include the magma that made the area. It’s a volcanic area formed one million years ago from lava blasting out of the nearby Paektu and Hamgyong ranges, and such activity has been recorded as late as the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.

One of the least visited but most beautiful of all the DPRK’s sacred mountains.

Fairy chimneys, Chilbo mountains, North Korea by Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.comThe igneous rock that structures the area has been carved by wind and rain into the most fantastic peaks and valleys, with suspended rocks hanging over vertiginous hillsides, and these scars in the earth’s crust seep spa water but are healed with the greenery that the rich soil and diverse climate support. In a similar way to Mount Kumgang, Chilbo is divided into three districts, Inner, Outer and Sea, covering 250km² and lorded over by the 1,103m Sangmae Peak – although the peak securing the most attention is Chonbul Peak at 659m.

From Chongjin to Chilbosan is a long and dusty ride south, at least four hours, along a pot-holed road that snakes across river plains of paddies, then ascends into the hills, verges lined with purple cosmo flowers, pounding through orderly villages dominated by grand Party buildings and immortal towers, towns marked by murals and hillsides strapped with slogans. For all the familiarity of the décor, however, this is the North Korean outback, or that’s how the guides from Pyongyang sometimes see it.

(Photo: The fairy chimneys in the Chilbo mountains have been carved into fantastic shapes by wind and rain © Eric Lafforgue,

A stopping point some 2½ hours in comes at the brow of a hill where there is a concrete car ramp for fixing bust vehicles and a poster suggesting everyone should plant trees. Innumerable compact collections of cottages flit past until around three hours the road rises and you’re looking at rock face one side or across deep, heavily foliaged ravines the other, there being few enough people in these parts to have left the trees standing. Many increasingly tight turns and desperate feats of braking later, and you’re in the heart of Chilbosan, where the locals are notably friendly in this fabulously pristine environment.

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