Why I Love Dandong: The Gateway to North Korea
China’s top spot for the shameless voyeur!
Many people wish to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Nowadays, under the meticulous scrutiny of the nation’s hyper-lingual tour guides, many actually do. For the people watching, for the socio-political puzzle busting, or simply just to be somewhere you know you daren’t, for many, the mere thought of travelling to the DPRK is exciting.
So what’s stopping those who don’t take the plunge?
The expense? Valid — you’re looking at roughly $800AUD a day to eat poorly and experience censored nothingness. Of course for many, this façade is the attraction, but that is a lot of money.
Feeding the hungry granddaddy of corruption? Agreed, no one wants to see that $800 a day fingered by the hands of evil.
No safety guarantee? Absolutely, one carelessly mislaid bible or stolen flag and it’s goodnight to daylight.
Now, hands up – who’s heard of Dandong, China? I hadn’t either. Yet just 14 hours by train from Beijing or two by plane, Dandong is the next best thing to being in Pyongyang itself from the comfort of anything-goes China.
Dandong (丹东) is situated on the banks of the Ya Lv River (鸭绿江), which acts as North Korea’s 944-metre-wide north-western border with China. With some 8 per cent of its population (roughly 2.4 million) hailing from across the water, the influence is clearly visible on the street, where North Korean bars, restaurants and trinket stores hocking North Korean cigarettes and Kim Jong X pins are scattered the city over.
“They’re sent over for business,” offers a friendly cab driver, but warily. “Relations are good. I have a few North Korean friends, most of them speak pretty decent Chinese.”
Don’t be fooled: locals in Dandong know why you are there. Other than for a fairly unimpressive stretch of the Great Wall, tourists come exclusively for a dirty perve of China’s reclusive neighbor.
“You want to go to the river to look at North Korea, right?”
So sue me.
From the Chinese banks of the Ya Lv River, one can snoop an uninterrupted view of the North Korean town of Sinuiju, complete with rusty Ferris wheel and an angled tube that might just be a water slide. The contrast between the two sides of the river is stark, with the Chinese side boasting kilometres of brightly lit waterfront towers and attractions. From the Chinese bank, enterprising merchants flog expensive plastic binoculars, among other North Korean knick-knacks for the more tentative voyeur. For those who want a closer look, however, there are two options.
For 60元 and 80元 respectively, spectators can ride a 30-minute ferry or speed boat that putts along the North Korean bank within a kick of the shoreline. From here, passengers can closely ogle the day-to-day goings on of the world’s most mysterious nation. Patriots dressed in matching national uniforms are seen at work on the banks, shoveling, fishing, commuting, and quickly disappearing from view at the sight of the tourist charters. Misbehaving Chinese tourists have been known to have their selfies (自拍) disrupted by rocks and rubbish hurled from the bank, and rightfully so; the whole event is akin to the taunting of a bear in the Beijing zoo.
The second option is more physical. Running atop the Ya Lv River are two — well, one-and-a-half — “Sino-Korean Friendship Bridges”. The complete bridge acts as a pass servicing road and rail in and out of the DPRK. For years, this bridge has both symbolised and stimulated bilateral cooperation between the nations, and today almost 50 per cent of the DPRK’s international export travels over the friendship bridge and on through Dandong to the world.
Though politically fascinating, only precious few are here to wax historical, for at 30元, revelers may take a leisurely stroll over the remaining half of the second friendship bridge and peep ever harder. Repeatedly bomb pummeled by the Americans in 1950, the missing half is aptly compensated for by Mr Gong’s mounted binoculars – yours to hire at a competitive 5元 a turn at the end of the bridge.
From the safety of some 400m, spectators have the confidence to be more vocal, with shouts of both “Look at them work!” and “I want to see a North Korean babe!” audible to those eagerly queuing behind Mr Gong. The Chinese are many things, but shy is not one of them.
Outside its major attraction, Dandong in itself happens to be a fantastic city. Lively, low-pollution, very welcoming, temperate, affordable: all good reasons to visit. I legitimately love it here. The town seems to have almost been penned into existence by Tom Wait: a grungy, look-the-other-way lawlessness palpable throughout. Sad luck dames and giddy-quick fortunes type feel. But you can look into that on your own time.
If you’re a cultural pervert and you know it, clap your hands, for in Dandong, perving without permit is the name of the game.
Photos by the authr