“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, an 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 (& Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge) spanning the Yala River as seen from the Chinese side of the China/North Korea border in Dandong, Liaoning Province, China. August 13, 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.
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, another 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.
Korea In China
Belying its relative remoteness, Dandong is a popular place, especially with South Koreans – It’s about as close to their northern neighbour as they can get, even closer than a visit to the DMZ. Needless to say the Chinese flock here too, both to see their own border and to experience the uniqueness of the city – being here affords them the opportunity, while remaining in China, to immerse themselves in all things Korea while gawking across into the Hermit Kingdom, the latter of which they can do from either from the banks of the city’s Yalu River, from tourist boats that ply its waters, or from the end of the so-called Broken Bridge, the city’s definite symbol and by some way its biggest draw.
A few other captures from today in Dangdong, a city I spent a whole lot of time walking around.
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 (and the majority that do are Chinese). Tomorrow I’ll do just that, crossing the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge via rail the short distance to Sinuiju train station where my North Korean odyssey will begin in earnest. 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 initial attempt to get to the DPRK ended in frustration & inconvenience, my trip cancelled at the eleventh hour 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 & pigheaded 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, irked by a recent increase in UN economic sanctions against it. Suffice to say it’s not the ideal time, if there is indeed an 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.