North Korea 2015

North Korea 2015


Until the 1950s, Dandong was known as Andong, which means “Eastern Peace”.  At the request of North Korea’s leader at the time, Kim Il Sung, China’s leader (Mao Zedong) agreed to re-name the city Dandong (which doesn’t really mean anything).  Apparently, Kim Il Sung felt that if the Chinese were claiming to have established “Eastern Peace”, it diminished his role in the region.  It was a testimony to the good relations between China and North Korea at the time that Kim Il Sung had his way and got what he wanted.

Spending the day in Dandong today has whetted our appetites for ‘the main event’ - our entry into North Korea tomorrow.  We have spent most of the day looking across into North Korea from various vantage points in Dandong, some of which have been truly spectacular and several of which have been surprisingly close to the border.

After a leisurely breakfast in the Zhong Lian Hotel, we set off at 9:30 am for the 15 kilometre drive northwards to Hu Shan (Tiger Mountain), the easternmost section of the Great Wall of China.  Built in the Ming Dynasty and restored in the 1990s, this beautiful section of the Great Wall snakes its way steeply across the hills before descending dramatically downwards and stopping at a small creek (or more correctly, anabranch) that marks the border between China and North Korea.  The climb upwards was steep towards the end, although mercifully shady, and the view from the top tower across the North Korean farmlands of corn, interspersed by some villages and military watchtowers, was stunning as the day was unusually clear.

The descent to the Yalu River anabranch that marks the border was even steeper than our ascent, but this time, gravity was our friend rather than our adversary.  The flat track that I expected to use along the creek had been closed since my previous visit, and overgrowth had made it impenetrable, necessitating a difficult walk along the cliff face.  Fortunately, there were railings to support us and ladders on some of the steeper sections, but it made the trek far more onerous than I had expected.  The difficulty was exacerbated because the boat trips that were available when I last visited have also stopped, making the return trek a slow and difficult walk.

We did make it, however, and our reward was seeing the “One Metre Jump”, an especially narrow section of the creek that marks the border.  It wasn’t quite as narrow as one metre, although I have seen it at that narrow width on a previous visit in February when the water level is lower and frozen.

Our trek had taken a little longer than expected, so we headed back into Dandong where we were able to relax over a sumptuous lunch of Chinese food and very welcome, very cold drinks.

Our first stop after lunch didn’t go quite as planned either, although it was no-one’s fault.  We were scheduled to visit the Museum of the Korean War in Dandong, or to give it its full title, The Memorial Museum of the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea.  This is a wonderful museum that tells the story of the Korean War from the Chinese perspective, highlighting the enormous contributions and sacrifices make by the million strong Chinese Peoples Volunteers, often using somewhat stilted and strident anti-US rhetoric.  We were told that the museum is currently closed for three years for renovations, but we were still hoping to visit the external yard that has weapons, aircraft and vehicles on display from the conflict.  With road access closed, we tried to ascend the stairs, but found them blocked also.  It was frustrating, but there was little we could do about it, so we headed back to the river for our next activity.

The Yalu River is neutral territory, which means that the entire river forms the boundary between China and North Korea.  In other words, the boundary does not run down the middle of the river.  A person who fell off a boat into the river would not be entering China or North Korea until setting foot on land.  This even applies to some sections of the river where anabranches have North Korean territory on both sides of the river.

Making use of this knowledge (in an academic sense, not because anyone was planning on diving into the river), we boarded a sightseeing vessel to begin a 40 minute cruise on the river to see North Korea at closer proximity.  The vessel, which had both an enclosed cabin with seats and an open-top deck, began its journey by cruising under the two bridges that span the Yalu River and join China with North Korea, before then turning around and travelling westwards quite close to the North Korean embankment.

It was immediately apparent that Sinuiju (the city on the North Korean bank) is less economically advanced than Dandong, whose brightly lit high rise buildings face it across the river.  Most of the areas seen on the board trip were shipping maintenance facilities, but it was apparent that the work being done was heavily labour intensive, with little evidence of modern technology.

Upon returning to the Dandong wharf, a short walk took us to our last spot for the day, the Broken Bridge.  This bridge was the first iron bridge built across the Yalu River, and was constructed by the Japanese administrators who controlled the area in 1911.  During the Korean War, only four of the twelve spans survived bombing by US warplanes in 1950.  The bridge has been preserved as a monument and makes quite a sight, as it leads off the Dandong embankment and ends abruptly in the middle of the Yalu River in a mass of twisted steel.  It also makes a great vantage point to look into North Korea, either through high powered binoculars that are available, or more simply with the naked eye.

We reconvened at 6 pm for a very special dinner experience.  Dandong has about ten restaurants that are run by the North Korean Government, serving Korean food and employing waitresses who are sent from Pyongyang for three year postings.  The waitresses are chosen for their good looks, their professionalism in serving, and their musical abilities as they also perform a floor show during dinner time.

Our restaurant, the Liujing Restaurant, was located just a minute’s walk from the hotel.  The food was superb (and almost certainly better than we will experience within North Korea itself), and the floor show was mesmerising, if somewhat loud and geared towards Chinese tastes in its style and choice of songs.

Interestingly, the waitresses commented that this was the first time they had ever seen or met Australians.  Hopefully we made as good an impression on them as they made on us.

Now we really feel we are prepared to make the leap into North Korea - which is just as well as we will check out from the hotel at 8 am tomorrow morning to go to Dandong Railway Station for precisely that purpose.

Day 2 - Dandong (China)


1 September 2015