Dandong, China

“The bridge, what’s left of it a well preserved and a popular tourist attraction, ends abruptly in a mass of twisted metal about half way across the river, a abundance of Chinese flags, piped revolutionary music and a huge screen looping Korea War footage there to accompany you as you peer the rest of the way into the curiosity that is North Korea, the world’s very last Stalinist dictatorship.”


Image || The Broken Bridge spanning the Yala River as seen from the Chinese side of the China/North Korea border in Dandong, China. August 13, 2017.

Dandong, China (2017)

It was early. 07:30. I’d only been in Dandong a few minutes having just arrived off the overnight train from Beijing.

“Sinuiju” said the taxi driver pointing to his left, to the far, southern bank of the city’s Yalu River. I’d never heard the word before, but I understood its meaning – the city in North Korea that faces Dandong.

It was obvious. North Korea.

About a kilometre away. North Korea.

North Korea as seen from the banks of the Yalu River in Dandong, Liaoning province, China. August 13, 2017.

DANDONG || Dandong is the largest border town between North Korea and China, the latter the ostracised former’s only real ally. A substantial portion of North Korea’s international aid flows through the city and like most border towns it seemingly has something of an illicit underbelly, not that I’d know anything about that. It’s busy. Of course it is – it may be less than a kilometre from North Korea but this is still China. I took this picture by the banks of the river a few yards from my hotel and shortly after arriving in the city. Activity can be seen on the North Korean side, mainly the loading of minerals into boats, mineral exportation one of the few sources of revenue for North Korea, for now pending tighter sanctions. A portion of the North Korean town of Sinuiju as seen from the banks of the Yalu River in Dandong, Liaoning province, China. August 13, 2017.

A few minutes later we passed a dozen or so girls in a procession. Nothing unusual about that except for the fact that the taxi driver felt the need to bring the grouping to my attention. I’d no idea what he was saying, but again I understood. Having read pre-arrival that Dandong is a popular place for North Korean hostesses working in Korean restaurants, a much needed source of revenue for their impoverished homeland, I deduced that they were North Koreans.

“Anyong haseyo” I said in reply to the taxi driver, ‘hello, how are you?’ in Korean.

Immediately he laughed an appreciative laugh, understanding I understood him by him understanding me. No more words were said until we arrived at my hotel.

As seen from the Broken Bridge of the Yalu River in Dandong, Liaoning province, China. August 13, 2017.

As seen from the Broken Bridge of the Yalu River in Dandong, Liaoning province, China. August 13, 2017.

The Chinese flock here to Dandong for the uniqueness of the place – to be able to buy Korean things while still in China and to be able to gawk across into the Hermit Kingdom, either from the banks of the city’s Yalu River, from a tourist boats plying its waters or from the end of the so-called Broken Bridge, the city’s definite symbol and its biggest draw.

At the end of the Broken Bridge of the Yalu River in Dandong, Liaoning province, China. August 13, 2017.

BROKEN BRIDGE || Completed in 1911 by the Japanese, who held sway on the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945, this was the first iron bridge to span the Yalu River. Measuring 944 metres long and 11 metres wide, only 4 of the bridge’s original 12 arches survived American bombing in 1950 during the Korean War. Today the bridge, what’s left of it a well preserved and a popular tourist attraction, ends abruptly in a mass of twisted metal about half way across the river, a abundance of Chinese flags, piped revolutionary music and a huge screen looping Korea War footage there to accompany you as you peer the rest of the way into the curiosity that is North Korea, the world’s very last Stalinist dictatorship. At the end of the Broken Bridge of the Yalu River in Dandong, Liaoning province, China. August 13, 2017.

Korean soju for sale in a store in Dandong, Liaoning province, China. August 13, 2017.

It’s Korea in China. Korean soju for sale at CYN18 (€2.30), over twice the price it is in Seoul, in a store in Dandong, Liaoning province, China. August 13, 2017.

Posing in a traditional Korean hanbok by the edge of the Yalu River in Dandong, Liaoning province, China. August 13, 2017.

The Chinese love pretending to be Korean when here in Dandong. A young Chinese girl posing in a traditional Korean hanbok by the edge of the Yalu River. To the left is the Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge, the main road and rail bridge connecting the two countries and the means by which I will enter North Korea tomorrow (via rail). Dandong, Liaoning province, China. August 13, 2017.

A North Korean-registered tug boat plies the Yalu River with the Broken Bridge in the background as seen from Dandong, Liaoning province, China. August 13, 2017.

A North Korean-registered tug boat (spot the flag) plies the Yalu River with the Broken Bridge in the background as seen from Dandong, Liaoning province, China. August 13, 2017.

Going The Extra Kilometre
Most who come here to Dandong are happy to ogle at North Korea from a distance. Few, relatively speaking, take the next step and cross the river to enter the regressive totalitarian dictatorship itself, a niche adventure to say the least. Tomorrow I’ll do just that. But I can’t help but question my timing, something I don’t seem very good at with regard to North Korea. Two-and-a-half-years ago my trip to there was cancelled due to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, a geographical region nowhere near the Korean Peninsula. This time regional tensions are high – are they ever? – with young Kim Jong-un, determined to push forward with military modernisation, lobbing missiles around the region for fun of late. People are worried, the South Koreans & Japanese in particular, and outcomes remain uncertain. The Stalinist state is also a tad miffed right now with the UN decision to increase economic sanctions against it. Suffice to say it’s not the ideal time to be paying a visit to North Korea. That said, it – my visit to North Korea – will be brief, but with the US military seemingly “locked and loaded” and with Trump threatening less than a week ago to rain down “fire and fury” on Pyongyang, where I’ll spend the next few days, here’s hoping my timing isn’t that bad after all.

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