Although I am living in Japan for almost seven years by now I had never been to any other Asian country before this trip – mainly because you don’t get many paid vacation days and no sick days in Japan (i.e. if you get sick, you have to take paid vacation days), so I always went back home to Germany to visit family and friends. When I planned the trip to the DPRK I had to go through Beijing both ways – and when I saw that Koryo Tours offered a layover in Dandong I sacrificed another paid vacation day (sorry, family and friends!) that will shorten my summer trip this year even further. But 23 hours on a train didn’t sound too tempting and I guess I will never have another chance to go to Dandong, so I jumped on the opportunity… and it was a good decision!
While I basically hated every second in Beijing, my 24 hours in Dandong were really enjoyable. We were seven people from Koryo Tours staying there, Patrick and Juliette from my group, four from the other group. Fresh blood, new stories – and a culture shock!
Dandong and North Korea have pretty much nothing in common, that was clear upon arrival. We met our local guide and checked in at the hotel – free WiFi, yay! After more than a week without internet I quickly scanned through almost 200 e-mails (most of them blog related!) and sent a quick one to my sister to let her know that I was okay and had a great time in the DPRK. We only had 1.5 hours till dinner, so I hurried a bit and went across the street to the waterfront as our hotel was right next to the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge and the tourist attraction “Broken Bridge”. The Broken Bridge was already closed and the waterfront looked too big for the 30 minutes I had left, so I went back to the hotel to sort and read more e-mails.
When I met my fellow travelers in the lobby it turned out that I was the only one who had left the hotel so far – the others said they didn’t dare to do so without permission; and I am pretty sure hardly any of them was joking…
Dinner at the nearby restaurant was a feast. The food in the DPRK was really good, but even after a week it started to become a bit repetitive (no complaint, especially given the situation, I am just saying as it is!) – having Chinese for dinner was… surreal. The flavors were so different, so much more intense. (The Snickers I had for dessert must have been the sweetest food item I ever ate after being mostly off sugar for 8 days…) Also surreal was the amount of food they brought to the table. We were eight people in total, but I think you could have fed 30 with what was brought to us. A shame considering that people are malnourished just half a kilometer away!
It’s amazing how quickly you adapt to situations, which is another reason why I was happy to get off the train immediately after leaving the DPRK – because China hits you like a hammer after a week in North Korea. Not just the food and the freedom of movement. Everything! While in Korea everything seemed normal. The lack of cars, the low noise level, that it is mostly dark once the sun was gone, that we were told to stay in the hotel… friggin everything, you just adapt to embrace the culture you want to experience. 500 meters down the road – BOOM! A buzzing megacity; gluttony and profligacy everywhere! The strange part was: Dandong is pretty similar to big Japanese cities regarding traffic, noise, lights, food, consumerism, so I should have been used to that. But it really hit me like a hammer, an unexpected culture shock.
After dinner we had a walk along the waterfront, huge apartment buildings lit up like Christmas trees. I didn’t have a tripod and still was able to take decent pictures. Candy town. And on the other side of the Yalu river? Not a single sound, barely any lights, low buildings in the dark. The next day I took a photo from the middle of the river while on a boat tour – left China, right DPRK. The countries could have hardly looked more different.
The second day in Dandong was full of touristy stuff. First we went to a reconstructed part of the Chinese Wall, once upon a time continuing on the now Korean side of the Yalu river. Since I didn’t have time to visit the wall near Beijing this was actually a very nice treat – and a very surreal one, since that part of the wall was right next to the border. Not only were there tons of bilingual warning signs (Chinese and English, obviously), but I was also able to take pictures of the Chinese Wall and North Korea at the same time! I had no idea that it was possible…
Why were there no signs in Korean, you ask? Because, and this is a dirty little secret nobody wants to talk about, Koreans don’t dare to cross the border here; at least not permanently. The reason for that is the fact they would be easily spotted by Chinese doing so – and the Chinese government not only sends defectors back to the DPRK, they also pay their own people to rat out fugitives! Yes, while every North Korean who made it to South Korea or the States is celebrated, the same people are everything but welcome in China. To a point that average Chinese people have them deported for money, very aware that caught defectors won’t have an easy life back in the DPRK… Morality is luxury.
Next stop of the tour was the „Museum of War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea“ or just simply the Korean War Museum, one of the most interesting places I have ever been to. As you know, history is written by the victors – in this case you had two victors (or none…), and we all know what the Americans are telling us. So it was extremely interesting to hear the Chinese side, a side that was presented with a surprisingly high amount of signs in English; given that Dandong only has a small airport, it’s not exactly a destination for Western tourists. Most of the texts were biased obviously, resulting in sentences stating that the Chinese and Koreans “overcame all the difficulties with incomparable heroism and inexhaustible wisdom and smashed the “strangling warfare” by the U.S. Army”. Stuff like that sounds hilarious to western socialized people, often not realizing that lies can be easily hidden with the help of pretended objectivity. To me the most interesting aspect brought up by the communist side was the aspect of biological warfare. A small section of the museum is dedicated to those allegations brought up by China, the Soviet Union and the DPRK, while the whole topic is denounced by the US government and its allies. The shocking thing about those accusations is that they make sense! When I wrote about the *Rabbit Island Okunoshima* a while ago I mentioned one of the most despicable human beings that ever lived, a Japanese military surgeon named Shiro Ishii. Ishii was the head of Unit 731, a Japanese research group that developed biological weapons in top secret Chinese facilities during World War 2 – by testing them on humans, including vivisections of infected victims! (I mentioned them, because Unit 731 related people also tested poison gas produced on Okunoshima.) Instead of executing Ishii as a war criminal, the Americans granted him immunity in exchange for the data he gained during the human experimentation – MacArthur knew about that plan in 1947 and it was concluded in 1948. In addition to their own biological weapons program in Fort Detrick, Maryland, the Americans now had the Japanese material. But that’s not all! While Ishii’s daughter says that her father spent the rest of his natural life in Japan, Richard Drayton, a senior lecturer in history at Cambridge University, claims that Ishii actually „came to Maryland to advise on bio-weapons”. Just for your information: The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953, the allegations are from the year 1952… Ishii died a converted Christian in 1959.
(Another surprising realization I had at the museum is DPRK related. You know how Western media are making fun of Kim Jong-un being a bit chubby and having a terrible haircut? Well, I was walking around, looking at things, when I saw that really old photo on the wall – of a guy that looked like Kim Jong-un; slightly chubby, unconventional haircut. It was Kim Il-sung, his grandfather. Kim Jong-un looks like Kim Il-sung around the time of the Korean War! Now it all makes sense, because given the personal cult in the DPRK of course that’s not a coincidence…)
Last but not least we went back to the waterfront and did a little cruise on the Yalu river that separates China and the DPRK. A few western tourists are claiming that they’ve visited North Korea after taking that 45 minute long boat tour – according to our guide they haven’t as the river is actually considered no man’s land…
The boat tour started just south of the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge (constructed when the whole area was occupied by Japan) and the Broken Bridge (built between 1909 and 1911) and first gave a good look at the bridges while heading north. Both bridges were repeatedly attacked and damaged by the United States during the Korean War and at first both of them were repaired, but then the communist side focused on repairing the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, leaving the Broken Bridge first a ruin and now a historical tourist attraction. Today the Friendship Bridge is one of the few ways to enter the DPRK by automobile or train. After passing the bridges it was bizarre to see gigantic apartment buildings on the Chinese side… and basically nothing on the other. Then we turned around, passed the two bridges again and got closer to the Korean side; pretty close actually… There we could see how the low tide left some old, rusty Korean ships on the shore and how workers loaded coal via small cranes. While the people around us were all excited about getting a glimpse at North Korea I wasn’t able to share that excitement. I actually felt bad, knowing how much Pyongyang needed that coal, wondering if the appointed train would actually make it there to keep one of the two coal power stations running. None of us had goose-bumps looking at “the Evil Empire” as if it was a tiger at a zoo more than a century ago. We had seen more than the waterfront, we had talked to the people; it was surreal looking back, while the Chinese tourists probably were judging the whole country by what they saw there and then, talking about each other instead of with each other. I think all of us Westerners felt a bit desperate and frustrated while on that boat – having enjoyed eight days in the DPRK we finally realized how far away from the global community the country really is; not only ideologically, but also economically…
(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)