China Stories and Tips

Week 20 - The Truman Show

With Harbin immensely enjoyed, it was on to the final destination of our little vacation, Dandong, before returning to teaching life.

I like to research a location before visiting and Dandong was no different. I knew there were good views to be had into North Korea and also a sparsely visited stretch of the Great Wall of China. I’d also read several accounts from other travellers who had found a very thin stretch of the Yalu River that separates the two countries and had waded across. Hearing of the recent trouble several American citizens had found themselves in when crossing illegally in to North Korea, I wasn’t so sure I’d be willing to risk wasting several months of my life in a North Korean prison just to put foot on this secretive country’s soil.

With a population of 750,00, Dandong is small in terms of Chinese cities. From the constant hustle and bustle on every street though, you wouldn’t realise this. For most people, Dandong is the closest they will get to entering North Korea. From the Dandong riverfront it’s easy to see across in to the North Korea border town of Sinuiju. The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, the only official entry point between the two countries remains virtually empty, allowing the Chinese border control officers to stare vacantly at the many tourists admiring the North Korean view.

In Dandong itself, apart from gazing across to the shores of North Korea, there isn’t that much on offer. Apart from a Mao statue, the only worthy attraction is the Broken Bridge. Accidentally bombed by American forces in 1950 during the Korean War, the North Koreans dismantled their half of the bridge shortly after. This has left nothing but a glorified pier that reaches halfway across the river. For those tourists who haven’t researched Dandong, reaching the end of the Broken Bridge is as close to ‘the forbidden land’ as they’ll get.

Just outside Dandong though is a recently restored part of the Great Wall of China: Tiger Mountain Great Wall. This runs adjacent to the North Korean border, giving fascinating views of rural life in a poverty stricken country. Tiger Mountain Great Wall might not be as old as other parts of the Great Wall found in the more popular tourist destination of Beijing, but after meeting only five other visitors during my visit, it felt like you were walking the Great Wall alone. The one negative aspect to sharing the wall with so few visitors, were the watching North Korean border guards posted at regular intervals. With few others around, our every move was scrutinized through long-range binoculars.

Ridiculously steep, with steps the size of an American basketball player, it didn’t take long before I was exhausted. While I contemplated the fact I was out of breath after less than two hundred steps and in May I’ll have to climb 5,200 steps plus run a marathon, I thought this would be the perfect location to sit down and have a picnic. I’ve enjoyed picnics in some interesting places before, but sitting on an empty stretch of the Great Wall, looking out at North Korean border guards looking at me, has to be one of the more bizarre. I was pretty disappointed that none of the border guards returned my frantic waves, cheesy smiles and offers of a free spam sandwich.

Next to Tiger Mountain Great Wall, the Yalu River is at its narrowest. One point of this slender Chinese - North Korean border is named ‘Yibukua’. Meaning ‘One Step Across’ in English, if people did want to risk crossing the border, this would be the easiest point. With winter still in fighting form, the river frozen and no other people around (other than the watching North Korean border guards two hundred metres away), I knew this was probably the best chance of entering North Korea. I decided it wasn't actually worth the risk.

In recent years a new border fence has been erected several metres inside North Korean territory at this stretch of the border, probably because so many other tourists foolishly try this act.

Opposite Dandong and the Tiger Mountain Great Wall are two North Korea towns. I’d read about pr*pag*nda villages and towns in North Korea when researching my trip, but I was highly sceptical that such places really existed. Such pr*pag*nda towns are supposed to give the notion of wealth, prosperity and good times. After watching both these towns from across the border, the behaviour of the town’s inhabitants was peculiar to say the least. It’s one of the best spots of people watching I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying!

Across the river from Dandong, bright painted buildings and a Ferris wheel are visible along the sparsely developed North Korean riverfront. One person at a time, dressed in civilian clothes walked at regular intervals, even waiting, it seemed, behind bushes to keep the distance between each walking ‘local’ the same. Near the Tiger Mountain Great Wall, inhabitants across the border walked from separate houses in to the surrounding fields to start farming. Farming the frozen ground in the middle of winter seems strange enough, but when none of the people working together communicated or acknowledged each other as they went about their communal tasks, it did feel as though I was watching Jim Carey in The Truman Show.

I could have sat and watched this strange behaviour all day long, but with temperatures below freezing, it was time to locate a bus back to Dandong before night set in. After eating at one of the cities many North Korean restaurants and enjoying delicacies including spicy, slightly fermenting cabbage, there was just enough time to take one last look across the glistening river in to North Korea. Whilst the Chinese side of the river was abound with lights, people and noise, the North Korean side was shrouded in nothing but darkness. Vangelis’s ‘Chariots of Fire’ blared out of the Chinese border controls loudspeakers across the river, but I doubted anyone was listening.

The following morning it was a jam-packed train back to Benxi, and back to the reality of being a full-time English teacher.

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