For half a century the problem for many travelers with the most
beautiful mountain range on the Korean peninsula was that it lay in
unreachable North Korea. No longer. The Geumgangsan “Diamond”
Mountains are reachable via tours from South Korea that Americans
are welcome to join.
The tours take in stunning peaks, valleys, waterfalls and hot
springs and will be of interest to clients wanting to set eyes on
something few non-North Koreans have ever seen.
South-Korea-based Hyundai Asan began bringing visitors across
the border to the Diamond Mountains in 1998 after forging an
agreement with officials in communist North Korea.
The company has fallen onto hard times recently because of
financial scandals, but has vowed to continue the tours, even after
its chairman Chung Mong-hun, 55, committed suicide this summer,
apparently distraught over the scandals.
The Korea National Tourism Organization continues to promote the
Diamond Mountains tours and there is no indication that this
majestic area of 12,000 rock pinnacles, some reaching over 5,000
feet, will be closed to foreign visitors anytime soon.
According to the tourist organization, between 5 and 10 percent
of those who visit the Geumgangsan region are foreign tourists.
The trips to Geumgangsan all include two nights and three days
in North Korea. One tour takes visitors into North Korea by boat
and the other by motorcoach. Both versions begin in South Korea’s
Gangwon-do province, northeast of Seoul. There are optional add-ons
that include transport from Seoul.
The boat trip begins at Sokcho Harbor in Gangwon-do and carries
passengers on a 3½-hour cruise to Goseong Harbor in North Korea.
After passing through immigration, clients visit a hot spring open
for bathing. Throughout their visit, those clients who choose the
boat option will return nightly to the ship for accommodation.
The 1½-hour bus route passes through the Demilitarized Zone
(DMZ) and also includes a hot springs visit. Those who choose the
coach option stay at the Haegeumgang Hotel, an eight-story floating
hotel located at the same pier where the ship is anchored.
On day two, clients on both the sea and overland trips choose
between the same two hikes although a third option is available for
those who request it in advance. The standard choice is between the
Guryong Falls course and the Manmulsang course.
The Guryong Falls course is the most popular and involves a
picturesque hike that can take between two and four hours. It
follows the flow of the valley, passing clear pools of water,
unusual rock formations and cascading waterfalls.
The Manmulsang hike is slightly more challenging and involves
ascending some steep slopes that have stairs in them. The reward is
spectacular views of the mountains and countryside spread below.
This hike takes three to four hours and passes landmarks like
“Snowflake Rock” and the Mangyangdae Cliffs.
A more rarely visited area may be worth requesting in advance
for the right client. The adventurous and fit will want to tackle
the toughest hike available in the Diamond Mountains, the nine-hour
trek through the Sejongbong and Dongseokbong peaks district. This
is for those who want to venture along the mountain peaks and
really feel they are somewhere unique. Rarely seen springs, falls
and passes are all a part of the journey.
That night those not too worn out from the trekking attend an
On day three, cruise passengers check out of the boat and
everyone becomes a motorcoach traveler. The coaches stop at Samilpo
Lake, a pretty high-mountain body of water surrounded by peaks.
Then it’s back through North Korean customs and through the DMZ to
South Korean customs and South Korea.
The price for either the cruise or bus version of the trip is
between $225 and $310 depending on season. That includes
transportation and lodging, but not meals. Travel agents booking
the trip pay 10 percent less which seems to be the local way to pay
commission to agents.
Agents in the U.S. book the trip by working with South
Korea-based travel agents who then work with Hyundai Asan.
Visitors are required to pay for meals in North Korea in U.S.
dollars. Meals are usually $9 each, but the recommended more
gourmet restaurant near the accommodation costs $25 per person.
Guides who speak English are on hand throughout the trip and
there is no extra charge for their services.
While most visitors consider autumn the most picturesque time to
visit, the tours are offered year-round and many consider winter
even more beautiful.
Hyundai Asan offers extended itineraries that include
transportation to the tour start points from various airports.
This is the sort of opportunity that might not last forever, but
the memories for those who go will.