September 20, 2017

Border Line

A day trip to the Great Wall of China and the North Korean frontier.
Being in China, of course, I wanted to visit the wall. My initial plan was to see it near Beijing; however, that's the same idea of pretty much everyone who's visiting the Chinese capital. So, while the wall's sections there are reportedly scenic and well preserved, they are also packed as hell. A couple of my friends who went there spoke about massive queues and nightmare traffic, nothing to be keen to absolve. Thus, when I found out that the wall is also within reach from Shenyang, I went for it there.

A convenient way from Shenyang to the wall is to take a bullet train to Dandong - Chinese biggest border city, sitting on the Yalu River.

The first sight outside the Dandong station is similar to many other Chinese cities - a massive waving statue of Mao Zedong, and plenty of concrete housing and offices around. But when you approach the Yalu river, things change quickly. The embankment is patrolled by armed vehicles, as the water separates China from North Korea. There are fences with signs forbidding from using drones, throwing objects to the NK, and also prohibiting the use of any cameras. The last rule, however, is ignored by everyone. For many Chinese tourists, Dandong offers the first (and sometimes the only) chance to have a glimpse into a foreign country, and so it became a popular destination for picture taking. It is not just the element of the border which attracts photographers: the most popular point of interest of the city is also on the river: a duo of iron bridges:

The left is from 1943, "Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge"; right from 1911, "broken bridge".Of the two, only one connects the two shores. It's because the Korean side of both bridges was bombed during the Korean War to cut out the Chinese supplies, and only the newer bridge was reconstructed. The old one was left with the damage and now serves as a cultural relic with some propagandist materials.

On its end, behind the damaged part, it offers a view into North Korea.

the iron construction is ripped apart like if it would be paper.

While the view to the NK is better from the bridge than from the shore, all you can see on the NK side is a Ferris wheel and, some buildings, and a few smokestacks. That said, it's more interesting to look left at the newer bridge, where the continuous traffic adds to around seventy percent of all North Korea's trade...

..or to look on your right, at the Chinese riverfront with an array of high-rises.

"Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky.." More like, "Smog on the water, smog in the sky.."

The city was interesting from both its historical and present significance, but it left me with a somewhat bitter mood - I spoke with some locals, and many of them were quick to point out how "China bravely aided NK to resist American aggression," and "while the current NK program sucks, they are still better than the US." Oh, uh.

While there, I learned that while most of the river is already Korean territory, the two countries have an agreement that allows both sides to use the water equally - as long as they don't step on the other's soil. This lets fishermen and freight boats to do their job without conflicts. At the same time, it gives an opportunity to technically get into the NK without visas and such - this is big business for local tourist agencies, which provide boat tours to the NK. As I had the time, and the NK landscape had some hills which could look interesting from up closer, this seemed as a good option.

Once on the river, the boat went behind an NK island with a few watchtowers. The coastline had barbed fences, and views on vast rural landscapes. At the boat, a local tour guide was saying something in Chinese from a speaker, and the crowd laughed. I asked around what's he talking about and got surprised when it turned out to be a joke about starvation in the NK. This repeated a few times. Then, the first farmer on the North Korean land came in sight, and the crowd on our boat went crazy. Shouting, gesticulating frantically, and taking tons of pictures. It was like if on a safari where, after the first animal appears, people start screaming in the expectation that the poor animal will come closer; or, I don't know, perform a dance. The whole boat tour was a weird experience at best.

Eventually, the boat turned around and headed back to the port - and I was looking forward to checking out the main reason for this trip, the eastern tip of the Great Wall of China.

North Korean island in the foreground, Chinese Hushan mountain in the background. That's where the wall is.

The section of the Great Wall here at Hushan was built during the Ming Dynasty, and the accessible part is about a mile long.

Nevermind the smoggy, overcast skies, what an exciting thing!

The wall climbs steeply up the hill, which then reveals a pretty outlook on the surroundings:

At the end of the section, you can choose whether to return the same way or by a tad adventurous path following the water. I went for the second.

Once back in front of the entrance gate, it was time to return back to the railway station and Shenyang. The journey went quickly, I had a window seat, and the track offers some nice views on the local countryside...

...and abundant industrial facilities, notorious for northeast China as a contrast.


See my previous articles about China, and follow me on InstagramFacebook, or Twitter for the upcoming ones. Thanks for reading.

Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Stories

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