We were seen off on our journey by Mr. Zhong and Yun-Tian, our faithful hosts. I was remarkably sad to leave. After only a few short days I felt as though I had settled into life in Dalian. It is amazing how the generosity of others has the power to make one feel at home, even on the other side of the world. The bus ride to Dandong was roughly three hours. On the way we were treated a disturbingly violent movie involving motorcycles and Kung Fu, blaring on the TV overhead. At one point I looked out the window in the gathering darkness to see the road coated in a solid sheet of ice, and our carefree bus driver flying around a police car.
Altogether it was a strange trip, and coupled with the sadness leaving our friends I arrived in Dandong feeling out of sorts. We found a decent hotel and got a room high up on the seventh floor. I’ll never forget looking out the window at that icy city, the statue of Chairman Mao illuminated in the darkness. Dandong, like most border cities has the feeling of being on the edge of the earth, in danger of slipping off the globe at any moment.
The reason most people come to Dandong is to get a glimpse of North Korea across the Yalu River. According to our Lonely Planet guidebook most people walk away from this experience disappointed. We certainly did not.
Our excursions that night were limited to walking across the street to buy some bottled water. The road and sidewalk was completely iced over. A group of boys was playing hackey sack near the giant Mao statue, policeman patrolled the square, and occasionally crowds poured out of the train station. Otherwise the town seemed deserted.
The concept of hostels is not widespread outside the major tourist centers of China. In the cheapest of all accommodation foreigners generally aren’t allowed. The least expensive options for the backpacker and budget traveler tend to be rather drab and sleazy establishments, full of “karaoke” and “massage” parlors. I remember, while on trips during my term of study abroad, prostitutes calling the room so frequently that we were forced to unplug the phone. On this particular night in Dandong we were only called once, which leads to a relatively positive review for the hotel.
The next day we wandered around the riverfront. There were a number of vendors selling North Korean merchandise-what they claimed to be official stamps, money, and figurines. Eventually we decided to hire a boat to go have a look at the forbidden shore. According to our guidebook there is nothing to see but shrubs and the occasional smokestack. We hired a small motorboat rather than a larger sightseeing ship that chugs down the center of the river.
Our driver handed us Russian binoculars and sped off for the opposite shore. The first thing I noticed was the large, immobile Ferris Wheel outlined against the sky. It was incredibly sobering, given the fact that thousands of people in North Korea routinely die of famine and disease, to see the empty carnival ride silhouetted against the barren landscape; a noticeably guise of prosperity for anyone gazing across the river.
Our driver cut amazingly close to the far shore. We saw large boats stacked in rows, with grimy windows and ice-covered decks, listing in the dark water. As we approached a cluster of boats our driver cut the engine and halted, not but ten feet away. Several North Koreans shoveling snow off their vessels stopped and shouted at us.
I became extremely nervous as I found myself in such close proximity to what has been labeled by the US government as part of the “axis of evil” and an “outpost of tyranny”. I began wondering if our boat would sink or we would be ransomed off as political prisoners (it’s happened before at other points along the border that a tourist has strayed too far into North Korean territory and wound up in prison). Suddenly, with no further desire to see what lay sprawling on the other side of the river, I yelled at the driver to take us back to the other side. After a few tense moments he revved the engine and pointed the bow towards the Chinese shore.
When I shakily exited the boat he asked, with a wry smile, if I was American. That obvious, huh? Ouch…
We spent the rest of the day wandering along the waterfront at a much safer distance and gazing at the far shore. According to a news article I read 39% of North Korea’s overall trade is done with China. Watching numerous trucks roll back and forth across the Friendship Bridge seemed to confirm the solid business relationship between the two countries. At the same time large radio towers protruded from buildings along the river, suggesting that China is still wary of its controversial neighbor.
North Korea, for myself and many others, remains shrouded in mystery…simply a blank spot on the map. Even the few countries that have maintained diplomatic relations are kept at arms length by the North Korean government, making it one of the most isolated societies on Earth. Aside from the videos of the wide, empty streets of Pyongyang and perhaps a glimpse of the far shore from the river most of us have never seen within its boundaries.
Human rights watchdogs slate North Korea as having one of (if not THE worst) records on the planet. Very little is known about the exact situation, and there is only a small trickle of reports from those who have managed to escape. It is certain, however, that not only have its citizens been stripped of almost every basic freedom, but that hundreds of thousands have been imprisoned and tortured while many more have perished from famine and disease.
It is hard to imagine what the future has in store for the rogue nation. Though prospects often appear bleak, the world remains in a constant state of change. Maybe someday even North Korea’s nearly sixty-year-old dictatorship will crumble and life will get better for its inhabitants. We can only hope.