By the river at the border

[Wanderlust Tips April 2018] Like other cities which get a lot of attention as they are located along China’ s border regions, Dandong, an industrial city by the Yalu river, is equally well-developed, but somewhat arouses curiosity because this city is adjacent to Sinuiju, a small town in North Korea.

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SUNSET ON THE YALU RIVER

The sun was setting slowly down the quiet Yalu River. A mysterious reddish or orange colour created strangely mottled streaks in the sky. Life on both sides of the river still went on as usual. On one side of the river, high rise buildings, close to each other began to light up, and the air was mixed with smoke, pollution and noise. On the other side, the atmosphere became silent and mysterious. The empty land stretched out gently and adorned with lush green grassland. Some houses scattered over the land, with chimneys releasing smoke that looked like clouds. Sinuiju city was so quiet like a peaceful countryside.

We arrived in Dandong City on the last day of March when the winter was slowly reaching its last days. Everywhere, trees were leafless with spindly branches reaching to the sky. Dandong is in the Northeast of China so the climate is quite cold and dry. Just a mild breeze made me shudder, while my two cheeks hurt because of chapped skin. The wind blowing from the river made us shiver and cough in the thick overcoat.

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It was in the afternoon so there were only a few groups of tourists gathering by the river, waiting for their turn to go on board. A local woman, about 40years old, ran to us and showed an album with advertising images on paper, then talked relentlessly about the price of boat tours along the border. I politely refused. One came after the other, they all committed competitive prices, cheaper than the previous ones. For half an hour, we had to constantly refuse.I travelled with Albert, an old friend and also a Spanish documentary photographer.

We teamed up for the same purpose: to discover the excitement of this special city. I cared about the life and culture of the border areas. So did Albert, but he told his stories with pictures. He had sharp eyes that could capture the most magical moments. And for me, being fluent in Chinese is also a significant advantage. Dandong is similar to other developing cities along the border of China. It has high-rise buildings, crowded supermarkets and all kinds of food, green parks which are always filled with the music of different groups of people gathering, singing and dancing. Tesco, a large British retailing brand, has its branch in the city centre, proving the effort of this city to integrate and develop as a distant northeastern city.

SINO-KOREAN FRIENDSHIP BRIDGE

Dandong seems to be unfamiliar for those who are keen on exploring famous destinations in the world. Dandong, however, is a major political and commercial city in northeastern China, because it borders Sinuiju, a city at the border of North Korea, and is also an important trading location of the two countries. The Friendship Bridge across the Yalu River enables trains to run from Pyongyang to Shenyang, Beijing or directly to Moscow, the capital city of Russia. The bridge was built by Japanese from April 1937 to May 1943 across the Yalu River, when they were ruling North Korea and Manchuria.

This is one of the few railroad bridges that connects North Korea with border countries. Regular trains run from Pyongyang to China twice daily. Located next to the Friendship Bridge is an older bridge built from May 1909 to October 1911. This is an iron truss bridge with 12 spans on stone pillars with a total length of 944.2metres. The fourth span can be detached and rotated 90 degrees horizontally to allow large ships to pass through. Both bridges were bombed by US aircrafts during the Korean War.

From November 1950 to February 1951, the United States used B29-and B17-Flying Fortress and F80-Shooting Star constantly attacking the bridges to cut off China’s aid for North Korea. The bridges were repaired several times. Then, the bridge built in 1911 was allowed to be demolished, only its four spans on the Chinese territory remained and was later named Duan Bridge (Broken bridge).

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Currently, Duan Bridge has become one of China’s famous tourist attractions. There is a stele which marks the vestiges of war. Tourists can take a stroll on the bridge and stand by its railing where cannons were placed as the evidence of the war in the past. We walked to the last span of the river, looked over the river, watched the last sunrays of the day falling over the ships that were floating on the river.

Because North Korea is a country that always arouses curiosity from the world and make people desire to explore, overcome difficulties and challenges to enter the land, people living in Dandong do not miss the chance to earn from tourism services. Travelling on the river by boat to admire the life on the other side for half an hour costs 100yuan is the most exciting activity. In addition, you can find North Korean restaurants, North Korean style BBQ restaurants, tea houses, cafés and hotels in every corner, serving mainly for tourists, some of which are places where North Korean businessmen often visit on their business trips to the Mainland.Travel agents providing tours from Beijing to Pyongyang have a lot of customers and do their business quite well. There are many tour packages at different prices for you to choose from. If you want to go to North Korea in the day, you will pay about VND10,000,000.

The price of a 5-day tour can be as much as USD2,000, and you will have to follow many rules such as not carrying a professional camera, recorder, mobile phone, or laptop. You must always go in a group and have a tour guide; your visa must be submitted one week in advance. Not all people can get a visa or a passport, depending on your background. For example, if you are a US citizen or a journalist, the chance for you is rare.

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As hard as it is, North Korea arouses curiosity and therefore more valuable experience which people crave to do. After having a look at tour packages, we decided not to go to the other side of the river; instead, we wandered around small stores selling souvenirs such as paper money, badges, and cigarettes. All of these goods somehow found their way here from the other side of the river. I asked a middle-aged man with wrinkled hands, constantly introducing us to small packages of cigarettes that he considered “genuine” how it was transported here. With a look in his eyes, he said near the Great Wall of China, there was a narrow river, which was the place where merchants like him often traded goods. Albert bought a package for a few dozen Yuan, and just after a few minutes, he disappeared into the group of people practicing dancing under the pavilion roof.

Every afternoon, we walked along the river, comfortably watching bustling yet peaceful daily activities of the people like flying kites, exercising, singing, and dancing. It seems that no matter how stressful the political situation between the two countries is, the citizens still live their lives.

However, strangely enough, when we admired the panoramic view of Dandong from the hill, the city looked prosperous and modern with countless skyscrapers, reflecting a typical wealthy city at the border. However, as we walked around the streets, we found out that many of these buildings were vacant or under construction and then abandoned. They looked like giant hollows and cold boxes.

ENJOY KOREAN FOOD CULTURE

At night, the atmosphere became cold and the wind blew heavily. The river water reflected street lights, which was so fanciful but lacked depth. While Dandong was so splendid with electric lights, the city on the other side of the river looked so lonely and quiet.Dandong is a city that is influenced the most by North Korea s culture. Hundreds of North Koreans live here and work as servers in restaurants, drivers and run small businesses. All the shops communicate in both Chinese and Korean languages from motorbike repairing shops to luxury hotels. In order to experience the North Korean culture without spending money to travel to this country, we decided to visit some of the famous North Korean restaurants in Dandong.

As this city was famous for the most authentic and delicious North Korean restaurants in China, we really wanted to try the dishes. It is said that all of the waitresses at the restaurant were highly selected and trained by the North Korean government; they were all beautiful and multi-talented. They could speak Korean, English, and Chinese, but of course, they would only speak in North Korean. Although they only spoke their language, once visitors entered the restaurant, all the conversations and gestures in the dining table would not be out of their observation. We chose a fairly large North Korean restaurant located right on the main riverside road.

Behind the glass door, there was a tall girl with white skin, monolids, black hair, wearing a gorgeous pink Hanbok. As we entered, the girl greeted and asked how many of us and politely guided us to a table for two people next to the wall, opposite the TV and near a very small stage which was just fit for an electric drum set and an electronic keyboard. A pretty girl in a black suit gently gave us a menu with a wooden cover and dozens of food with names in 3 languages and attractive illustration. Albert chose grilled bacon and I chose bibimbap, they were not much different from the Korean food I had eaten before. The whole wall in front of me was decorated with a giant menu with pictures of eye-catching dishes; the price was also relatively expensive.

The restaurant was quite large but only a few tables had guests, while there were up to 6 or 7 waitresses. All the girls were white, graceful and had typical North Korean charm. Their beauty was very natural without plastic surgery like some Korean actresses. Albert took the camera out to take pictures; the waitress in a suit immediately came and reminded us not to take photos, even by mobile phone. I picked up the phone and quickly took a photo of the girl in traditional Hanbok. Once again the girl came to remind us. I said sorry and put my phone away. We temporarily put the camera aside and enjoyed the dinner which had just been brought to us. The TV was showing a North Korean opera, the actors with 1980s-style hair wore military uniforms, sang and smiled happily. After a while, it changed to a program in which there was a glorious disciplined parade with flying flags and Kim Jong Un s photo frame at the centre.

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There was a Chinese delegation arriving, sitting at the biggest table of the restaurant, it seemed they had booked it in advance. The dishes filled the table, which was the eating style of Chinese people. People poured wine, praised and laughed noisily in the room. A young man brought a glass of wine to a waitress and invited her to drink with him. The girl refused and went back in, leaving another girl to replace her. People continued to enjoy the party, not noticing the action of the young man.

A moment later, all the waitresses went into the dressing room. Then a girl stepped out, dressed in red Hanbok embroidered with white flowers and had her hair tied and decorated with a pearl brooch. She was so beautiful that everyone stopped eating to admire her. The girl gently introduced the show. All the waitresses dressed in serious suits looked so pretty and different in their colorful Hanbok. The girls transformed magically, changing from Hanbok to long skirts and brocade dresses for the next performance. The girl serving at my table had just performed as a soloist but then continued to perform a traditional dance beautifully.

The most surprising was the last performance when I saw her on the stage, beating the drum fearlessly and gracefully, and her timidity seemed to disappear. I admired her and was astonished. There were about 8 people including the band and the singers taking turns so everyone could dance, sing, play the guitar, electronic keyboard or drums. Every performance was extremely excellent, making people so excited. The talent of these girls was as good as they say.When the performance was over, the waitress who looked so cool when playing the drum put on her old suit and came back to my table with a big smile. She was shy, blushed and said “thank you” to me in Chinese when I complimented her constantly.

That night, I was very impressed by the performance and the waitresses. I suddenly thought many of them may have wanted to get married and stay or move to another place. But that was impossible, if you wanted to escape from North Korea, the only way is to escape the country forever. When they crossed the Yalu River and set foot on the shores of Dandong, all of their activities were closely monitored until the expiration date of three-year employment when they returned home. Dandong is immersed in the dark, and tomorrow will be a new day. The river at the border since the end of the war until now has always been peaceful and quiet, but hidden in this flow are different lives like the underground waves.

W. TIPS:

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Transportation

You can fly to Beijing then travel by planes or trains to Dandong. Like other cities in China, the main public transport in Dandong is buses. You can easily catch taxis throughout the city.

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Currency

In Dandong, only RMB is used, 1RMB is equivalent to VND3,500.

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Climate

Dandong is in the northeast of China, so it is very cold and has a very long winter, the temperature in winter can be down to -10degrees Celsius. The temperature in cool summer is about 25degrees Celsius. If you you go to Dandong from October to February, you should bring lots of warm clothes.

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Attractions

In Dandong, there are not many recreational venues; the most popular activity here is sailing along the river. Besides the Friendship Bridge, you can visit the Museum of War to resist US aggression and Aid Korea, the park next to the museum with many birds, which is also an ideal place for wedding photography.

Or you can travel to Cam Giang Mountain to admire the panoramic view of the city at sunset. In addition, you can visit the Truong Thanh Ho Son which marks the first point of the eastern part of the Great Wall in the Ming Dynasty.

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Souvenirs

There are usually objects from the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea and items from North Korea such as badges, paper money, etc.

Ton Quynh Huong | Wanderlust Tips

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