Dandong: See North Korea Without Actually Going There
It’s not that often that you go to one place so you can have a look at another, but that’s what we did. I had been in China for two hectic months, trying to get the hang of my teaching job, demystify the culture and figure out how to cross the street. I had befriended a young American expat who had been in China for several years and was fluent in Mandarin. Our feet were itching for an expedition so we decided to travel from our city of Panjin to Dandong for the weekend.
The main reason a Westerner goes to Dandong is to look across the river…at North Korea.
Getting There –
It was late November and we were greeted by the first big snow storm of the year. Even though it had been a while since I had experienced the indignity of a real winter, I didn’t mind. In the dry air, the cold didn’t seem penetrate the way it does in my soggy homeland. And the lovely white powder seemed to have a much needed mellowing effect on the driving. The downside of this was that the bus trip took nine hours. Gee, I’m glad we decided to go somewhere close.
The Unique Experience of Dandong Dining –
After depositing our luggage in a hotel room, we headed for a restaurant- intending not only to fill the void, but also hoping to warm up after the chilly bus ride. Korean barbeque was perfect for this. Four of us (we had met up with some of my friend’s work colleagues) huddled into a booth. There was a hole in the middle of the table covered with a grill. Below was a metal box with glowing coals. This meant two things: we would be cooking most of our own dinner, and the space below the table was toasty warm (great for thawing my frozen feet).
Dinner the next night was more about the entertainment. Apparently, when visiting Dandong, one has to partake of the supposedly “traditional” Korean entertainment. It reminded me of cheesy Luau in a bad hotel in Hawaii. But I loved my spicy soup and the conversation was fascinating. The people working in the restaurant were North Korean with visas allowing them to come over to China to work every day. We were told that folks trying to escape North Korea are safe if they make it to Mongolia, but if they are caught in China they are sent back to North Korea and possibly executed.
A Bridge to Nowhere
Two bridges cross the Yalu River which forms the border between China and North Korea (or the DPRK – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as it’s known in these parts). One is literally a bridge to nowhere. It stops in the middle of the river, having been bombed during the war. The second, the Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge connects Dandong to the city Sinŭiju on the other side. Looking across, there was little to see, except for, of all things, a Ferris wheel.
A hydroelectric damn produces power which is shared by the two countries. However, North Korea sells its share of the electricity to China. At night, Dandong glows with neon like any other Chinese city. Looking across the river, however, one sees only eerie blackness. Even the Friendship Bridge is only halfway lit.
Dandong also has an interesting museum, the “Museum to the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea.” I know pathetically little about the Korean War. My father served in the Army at the time, but was stationed stateside. Most of what I know came from watching MASH. Now, I got a chance to look at the war from a different perspective – that of the Chinese government. The most memorable part of the museum was a 360° mural which covers the inside of the domed ceiling. It showed the landscape and the scared, tired faces of soldiers. Perhaps not the most artistic mural I’ve seen, but quite effective.
The weekend ended and we decided to go home via the provincial capital of Shenyang. “I really want western food,” my friend confessed, and since it was something that was not to be found our home city of Panjin, I acquiesced. We went to a buffet lunch, sort of reminiscent of an Izzy’s. As we ate, my friend overheard someone complain, “Western food is good, but you always feel hungry again a few hours later.”