Reconnaissance along the North Korea shore
One of the highlights of a visit to Dandong is taking a Chinese speedboat across the Yalu River to get a close-up view of North Korea.
Here is a photo I took after I asked the speedboat driver to get closer to this North Korean ship moored next to the shore at Sinuiji. The speedboats travel along a predetermined route west of the bridge. They will not stop at the North Korean shore but you do get close enough to take photos and they will slow the boat down as long as you don't taunt any North Korean dock workers who resent the daily harassment by tourists.
Gently Turning One's Existence Upside Down
"A War Revisited"
There's really nothing like turning your perspective upside down - sort of like a cleaning of one's system - to recapture some of the energy of youth.
Dandong woke up my nervous system and circulatory system in very positive ways. The pleasant feeling in my lungs seemed to represent this awakening. I came to see North Korea and all that Dandong has to offer which for me was plenty and more - there are many who figure Dandong to be just another city by a river - they should look elsewhere for their awakenings.
I was once again invigorated, as I was in Harbin, by the Dongbei peoples - what a difference a few miles makes. It was Beijing and occasionally in Shanghai or Nanning that I experienced most of the predictable, unnecessary and tedious "lao wai" snears and commentary (as if a beginning Mandarin student can't figure out what is being said about body parts or intellect - sigh - at least buy some creativity if it doesn't occur to one naturally) - Dandong and Harbin had multitudes of folk who were indeed curious and probably had something to say later, but most that I observed or encountered had a refreshing directness and hearty threshold for the impositions of tourists - always looking me in the eye instead of the usual glance away. I was everything they had been taught to despise and there yet here was this cheerful delivery of China's message by both cities to me: you may be lao wai, but you are now OUR lao wai and you will be a convert.
I think I am quite possibly a convert now - where's my Harbin or Dandong sports jerseys? I would wear them proudly.
Visiting the museum to commemorate China's Korean War perspective was almost like a guilty pleasure. I had longed for this part of my Dandong visit for months prior to taking off from the states, all the while mindful of my very American appearance and respect for America's initiative in giving breathing room to South Korea.
Increasingly attracted to China's richness in all areas, I was in a serious state of flux - I stole off to the museum with zeal and was not disappointed. I felt guilty for hungering so much to be received by the museum and have all of my sensibilities toppled about because of my emotional and political attachment to U.S. veterans who deserve my respect and gratitude.
This museum has a way of embracing you as the visiting American (the woman taking ticket purchases sat severely at her table and yet looked up at me and spoke with such gentle warmth upon my inquiry regarding the taking of photos that I was at once disarmed) to enter for an unpretentious education - no subtlety here and I like that. I enjoyed overhearing the ticket agent and a custodian chatting happily away about seeing an American lao wai get an education.
Photos are allowed inside which was for me a tremendous opportunity - I wasn't shy, though I won't post many here.
It's as if China with her strong culture, history and language takes her formidable arms and gathers you up, deposits you in this museum and declares you to be her student regardless of your origin, a student that is to experience far more than listening and learning - she compels you to experience the emotion of the moments being depicted such that you feel what China felt.
I can't honestly say my perspective of the Korean War has changed with respect to the U.S. involvement, though the faces of North Korea and China are certainly more real to me and give me pause.
"Clean Air And Exercise Are Good For The Soul"
If you are fortunate enough to have a hotel close to the Yalu River, you'll enjoy joining throngs of retirees and the like doing morning exercises in the river park. Dandong provided a suitable clearing of throat and lungs following our visit to Harbin, a city with a fairly thick feeling of dustiness hanging in the air (though to my senses not at all overbearing or uncomfortable).
I thoroughly enjoyed sidling up at the rear of one of the groups and watching as a smaller group gradually turned their attention to me, the lead gentleman enjoying a good laugh at my expense before turning his body around such that he could demonstrate all moves for me to imitate accurately - my expressions were met by his and he ensured I didn't miss a beat - he was gladdened I didn't retreat early and as usual, Dongbei folk took me in as their own and forgave me my foreigner ways.
"Badaling Has Nothing On Hu Shan"
A thoroughly pleasant and engaging afternoon with a taxi driver who charged a very fair price, a gorgeous day, equally warm tour hosts and clerks, appealing landscape, and the opportunity to set one's feet close to the border of a forbidden land - all of these were elements in a much anticipated visit to Hu Shan, perhaps 30-40 minutes north of Dandong by taxi and easily recognized by any taxi driver (I would think).
North Korean landscape is expansive and refreshing to view after all these years of wonderment on my part. Hu Shan itself is attractive enough with several photo opportunities of various angles. I was amused by the singular individual at the peak station resting behind his water stand - I wondered how on earth he didn't see more traffic - surely I saw hundreds of people during my ascent, didn't I(?) - oh yeah - I'm one of the few idiots that actually needs water upon completing my ascent.
Be prepared for some serious stair climbing with a vertical drop that challenges Badaling - only the South Korean middle school children were bounding up or down - the rest of us took plenty of pauses and water sips.
Dandong (Liaoning) and Yanji, Jilin province
"Northeast China's fascinating border towns"
Dandong is the most fascinating destination in Northeast China all year round. The Yalu River Park and Short Bridge will introduce you to the modern history of Dandong which is now celebrating the 50 year anniversary of what is properly translated as "the anti-American war to support North Korea"
For about 15 RMB you can take a small speedboat on the Yalu which will take you "a stone's throw" away from the North Korean shore.
The area around the bridge in downtown Dandong is an excellent place to meet and greet North Koreans as they arrive in China and shop in the nearby wholesale markets.
They start coming by trucks across the bridge around 10:30 in the morning and form a queue near the bridge after 15:30 for the return to Sinuiji. You can easily spot their trucks by the Korean license plates and identify the people walking around by the Kim Il Sung pins worn prominently on their chests. Those pins are available for sale at the Yalu River Park gift shop along with North Korean stamps and currency.
The Korean War Museum is a photogenic destination on a hill at the outskirts of the city. It's interesting to see the war's stories from the Chinese point of view.
A good place to stay is the Post and Telecommunications Hotel, a 3 star hotel with decent rooms going for less than 250 RMB. Across the street from this hotel and around the corner is an antique market where one can find bargains on North Korea military memorabilia and more currency and stamps.
The Sunday Market at nearby Langtou, south of Dandong, is a lively destination where you will likely be the only foreigner walking up and down the bustling street scene in this small town. It's certainly not as bizarre as the famous bazaar in Kashgar, but instead provides a glimpse of rural Chinese markets that you can not easily find in Beijing any more.
The highlight of your trip to Dandong will be north of the city at Tiger Mountain (Hu Shan). Here you will find a reconstructed section of the Great Wall overlooking the Yalu River and the border with North Korea. In fact, there is a geographic anomaly within walking distance of the Wall called "Yi Bu Kua" (One Step Across) where you can actually set foot on North Korean soil by simply leaping across a small narrow tributary which serves as the official international border.
From Dandong take a scenic long distance bus ride to Tonghua in Jilin province. Now you're really getting off the beaten path and seeing countryside rarely visited by tourists, both foreign and domestic. Your ultimate destination is Chang Bai Shan national park, another scenic spot close to North Korea. The natural mountain scenery here is the best in Northeast China with pine forests, waterfalls, hot springs as well. There was recently a monster sighting at Tianchi Lake.
From Changbaishan your final destination is the city of Yanji, where day trips to towns bordering North Korea as well as Russia are available. Yanji is where you will find the majority of China's Korean ethnic minority. At the small port town of Quanhe there are organized Chinese tours to the North Korean village of Luo Jing (that's the Chinese pronunciation) where you can visit a school and market. You can also go beyond Tumen to the town of Huichun where there are Chinese organized day trips across the border into Russia.
After this adventure you can ride in comfort on the soft sleeper train from Yanji back to Beijing. The 10:30 departure arrives in Beijing at noon the next day.