There are two ways to get close to the North Korean border. There’s South Korea’s demilitarised zone (DMZ) which is notorious for being heavily armed on both sides of the border. That, for me, is added stress in my travel plans. I don’t like the idea of walking between two hostile military forces.
Then there’s the more relaxed and not-so-armed border in China’s Dandong.
And that’s where I headed in July 2016.
The entire journey was to get as close as legally possible.
I wanted to see normal citizens of North Korea going through their daily lives. Not photographed celebrations and the country’s forces but people tending to live stock and working on construction.
A year later, I never stopped talking about my trip. It made me realise that the entire experience had a much bigger impact on me than I initially thought.
Memories will eventually fail though and I thought it will be safer to write as much as I remember of the 2 days I spent in Dandong. It’s been a year since I’ve been there and I’ve lost photos and descriptions of some places may be incorrect. If you catch some, let me know. I’d be happy to edit.
Getting to Dandong
It was summer in China then. The weather was as hot as Malaysia, soaring to 35’ Celsius. Summer in China is dry. Dry is an understatement, the solution in my contact lens casing actually evaporated.
I took a bus tour from Dalian to Dandong. It was a 2 to 3-hour bus ride through endless corn fields. It was the peak of summer. The crop was in full bloom and almost ready for harvest.
The first few hectares of corn were interesting but then I got bored and fell asleep for most of the journey. I woke up after an hour and looked out the window and guess what, we were STILL going through the corn fields!
I’ve never seen so much maize.
To be honest, I’m not enthusiastic about it because I didn’t like the corn I ate in China. It was squishy, mushy and tasteless. The corn I eat in Malaysia are sweet and crunchy. I wasn’t used to the switch. I had mild culture shock over corn.
Cruising along the Yalu River
The corn fields gradually disappeared and we were passing through undeveloped flat land by a river. The land on the other side was heavily fenced up. I thought it was private property and the owners were probably anal about keeping people out (okay, I was partly right about this.)
The bus driver announced something in Mandarin and everyone, except me the Mandarin failure, craned their necks or got off their seats for a better view.
Apparently, that land across the river was North Korea itself!
We were so close! It felt surreal! We could peek into Sinuiju, the North Korean town across the river.
At one point, we were only a stream away, divided by the narrowing Yalu River.
Tall buildings were clustered on China’s border. On the North Korean side, there were multiple bungalows with no windows. I’m not sure if the houses are occupied although the surroundings were neat and clean.
Before we got off the bus to explore Dandong, we were given very strict instructions to not try anything stupid near the border. It was mostly in Mandarin, but basically, the gist was “don’t do anything stupid”. We were warned that there were military forces on the other side keeping guard at the border.
By the river, there were peddlers cashing in on the North Korean attraction. For a fee, anyone can dress up in the Hanbok and pose with North Korea land in the background.
Almost like you’re on North Korean soil itself.
The very hot Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge
Connecting the two countries is a narrow one-lane bridge big enough to let only vehicles coming from one direction through.
And there’s the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge. This bridge extends from China towards North Korea but only halfway. It was destroyed during the Korean War and then rebuilt. I don’t remember why it’s only built on China’s side.
The tour guide might have mentioned it but she was speaking in Mandarin, and I suck at Mandarin. I guess I could Google it and let you know but then it would be like writing a travel guide. Google is already filled with tonnes of these articles.
Back to my inspiring thoughts…
The bridge was so hot, we had to squint through the bright afternoon sun.
Along the Yalu river, a ferry will bring you as close as possible to North Korea’s land. I’m not going to talk much about this because despite being so interesting, I shamelessly slept throughout the entire boat ride!
I was tired and the summer heat was sooo comforting.
Though, it was a good thing because I heard that annoyed construction workers will throw rocks at anyone gawking at them.
Seems fair enough since we stare at them like exhibition pieces while they toil under the hot sun.
Climbing the Hushan Great Wall
The Hushan Great Wall is part of the Great Wall of China and snakes into North Korean, although we don’t get to climb this part, duh. It was a much easier climb than Beijing’s Dandenong stretch.
However, I couldn’t make it to the highest fort because of the heat and slight laziness. But if you do get all the way up there, I hear there’s a spectacular view of North Korea landscape and it’s beautiful!
Already severely sunburnt, I decided to save whatever was left of my skin and hide out in a fort to hide from the summer heat.
I was about to sit on the ground when I saw it: dried human faeces. I know it’s from a human because I just made one as huge as that the same morning.
And, finally, food for thought…
The trip ended with a lot of North Korean food. I’m not going to lie and say I enjoyed the food. I suspect it has already been altered to suit the local’s palates. Also, I’m not sure if North Koreans eat Chinese dumplings.
There were so many plates of dumplings served.
I was sick of dumplings at this point in the trip and didn’t touch them.
But I drank beer imported directly from North Korea and that’s definitely worth a try.
I’d probably never visit again because of the hassle to get there but the trip made me reflect on a lot of things in life.
To see a country that you only hear through mainstream media, realise the effects of world politics and regulations being strictly enforced, is indescribable.
It made me feel a lot: appreciation, gratitude, happiness, satisfaction and contentment. It made me question what I wanted in life and what I was doing about it.
And I'm grateful for it.