For reasons unknown to me (and many), I’m fascinated by North Korea. I think it’s the secrecy; the fact that it’s so difficult to see and to understand, which makes it a source of near-obsession for me.
When I showed people my new hometown of Dalian on a map, the first thing most commented on was the proximity to the border of North Korea; some with a sense of curiosity, but most with an underlying message of: “Erm…really, you’re going that close?”. In reality though, the closest border city of Dandong is a good 300 kilometres from Dalian which, for context, is not too dissimilar a distance as Manchester to London.
A gruelling first four whole weeks of work were rewarded with a week off for China’s national day and as my passport was still with the immigration bureau, my travel for the holidays was limited to domestic. Truth be told that was probably a blessing as the first month had been absolutely knackering, so a week of taking it easy was just what the doctor ordered.
That said, it wasn’t all just feet-up and Football Manager! Since being here I’ve been following a number of different groups on WeChat and when I saw that one – Local Ren – were running a day trip to Dandong, I couldn’t resist. For 385RMB (about 40 quid!), we got a return bus from directly outside my university, entrance into most of the sights in town and lunch too. I’m almost certain had I booked it myself there’s no way I’d have got it for anywhere close to that price.
The 5.30am pick-up (there are two 5.30s in a day, apparently) made perfect sense when we got on the motorway – it was absolutely rammed. I can certainly see why people avoid travelling during this week. A point of view that was only compounded when we had a toilet stop at a services about halfway through the trip.
Now, queues at the female toilets are an unfortunate fact of life, but when you see a massive crowd (queue? In China? Ha!) around the gents you know you’re in a busy place. Thankfully, the waiting was short-lived as a security guard helpfully informed us that there was a stream round the back of the services that we could piss in.
Near enough the entire crowd descended onto this stream and the collective sigh of relief was deafening. OK, I may have made that bit up. What I definitely didn’t make up, however, was the old geezer who jumped down into the stream itself, whipped down his keks and curled one out right in the middle of it. If you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go.
Upon arrival in Dandong a good-five-and-a-bit hours after setting off, the first item on the agenda was a cruise along the river separating China and North Korea. The contrast on both sides of the river was an eye-opener to say the least. On one side you had the tall, high-rise buildings and boardwalk of Dandong, while across the water it’s barbed wire, empty fields and a few, select people washing their clothes in the water.
It might not seem like such a big deal to some, but being so close to such an elusive country felt ever so slightly surreal and I did find myself wondering at one point where this falls in the ‘poverty tourism’ argument. I felt a little uncomfortable gawking at these people just getting on with their lives from my ivory tower, so to speak; the sight of a soldier walking up to a watchtower of sorts with a gun strapped to his back really put the shits up me, too.
Next on the to-do list was trying on traditional Korean clothes, which I believe is called a ‘hanbok’. I can categorically assure you that any pictures of me wearing this will never see the light of day, so you can Google that one and imagine me in a blue and pink one if you want a funny mental image.
Moving swiftly on, just along the front was the next stop: the Yalu River Broken Bridge. Built in the early 20th century, this bridge was originally destroyed during the Korean war; China rebuilt their side, North Korea did not. What you’re left with is essentially an extended jetty overlooking North Korea, oh, and the leftover US bombs that destroyed the bridge in the first place.
There’s very little to see on the other side of the river, but there’s an amusement park of sorts with a large ferris wheel and a slide which were, naturally, deserted. One wonders whether they’ve ever been used at all, or are simply for show.
It was here that I also realised that Dandong seemingly doesn’t get many foreign visitors. Unlike in Dalian and other, larger Chinese cities where you’re just left to crack on with your day, in Dandong I was greeted by seemingly every other person with a “Hello! How are you?”, and asked to pose for numerous pictures. Naturally, I asked them to return the favour.
I even left Dandong with an expanded Chinese vocabulary, as I learnt that ‘waiguoren’ is the term for ‘foreigner’. I wish more people would point and shout new Mandarin words at me – it really speeds up my learning!
A brief stop for lunch was next before heading slightly out of town to the Hushan (Tiger) Mountain section of the Great Wall. I’ve written in the past about the Great Wall being simply mind-blowing, so I was excited to get back to it and see another section.
What’s so impressive about this section of the wall is, once again, its proximity to North Korea. The hike starts out fairly easy, with some nice views looking back on Dandong. Once you reach a certain point, however, we had to make a decision whether to carry on to the top or turn back. A point of no return, so to speak.
There was only one choice for me and along with another lad from the group, I joined the
queue crowd of people trying to make their way to the steeper section of the hike.
Looking back, this section of the wall has nothing on the sprawling structure we saw in Beijing a few years back, but it’s when you get to the top that you really appreciate it. Climbing to the rooftop of the highest station you’re faced with a view of China on one side and North Korea on the other. Again, totally surreal.
As was the case with Mount Fuji a few years ago, the descent was actually tougher than the ascent in some ways. Although the terrain was much better this time round, bouncing down those stairs did very little for my almost-30-year-old knees and I was very grateful to see the bottom!
That said, similar to Mount Fuji there were numerous kids and old dears making it look like light work so I felt like I couldn’t complain!
Thankfully, once you get to the bottom of the stairs there’s the option of a shuttle bus back to the entrance for 10RMB (just over a quid) and I couldn’t have been happier to take this option. Despite the driver attempting to break the sound barrier on the winding roads down the side of the mountain, we made it back in one piece and set off on the slightly quicker journey back to Dalian as the sun was going down.
A long day drew to a close as we arrived back in Dalian just before 11pm. I’d say one day was probably enough for Dandong, as I’m not sure what else I’d have done the next day had I stayed the night. One thing is for sure: I’d have been saying ‘Hello’ and having pictures taken with a lot more people.
I wonder when the novelty would’ve worn off.