Saturday, April 21, 2007 China China

The Dandong extension

Dandong waterfront [Enlarge]

A good sleep and comfort food for breakfast yesterday (bacon sandwiches!) put us in a good mood that even the torrential rain couldn't dent. A couple of people were sick from the meal on the train the day before, and didn't join us. We're glad we gave the restaurant car a miss.

This was the beginning of our post North Korea rehabilitation and deprogramming. We met Brooklyn and the rest of our group at 09:30 and went outside to the bus. Just outside the hotel was a slightly shifty man. He should really have been wearing a grubby raincoat that he could open to reveal a selection of dodgy wares pinned inside. What was he touting? North Korean money. It is illegal to take any won out of North Korea. The customs checks had been pretty arbitrary so we would almost certainly have got away with taking some out, but since all transactions were done in hard currency, we never got a chance to get hold of any won. We've managed to keep a low denomination note from every country we've been to so far, so we wanted one or two from the DPRK if possible. This guy was asking 10 yuan for 150 won which was fairly close to the official exchange rate, but significantly below the black market rate, which is presumably where his profit margin is. That, or the notes are fake. If they are fake, they're certainly convincing, and given that the won is worth so little, it would surely be cheaper for him to buy the real thing than print his own? We shelled out for a clear plastic bag containing a one hundred won and a fifty.

North Korea on the right, China on the left. [IMG_2793]
The One Metre Hop [Enlarge]

About thirty minutes' drive out of town we visited the one metre hop, known in China as yi bu kua (the literal translation is 'one step across'). Here the Yalu River is so narrow that you can allegedly hop, step or jump across to North Korea. It looked a little too wide for that, but you could certainly wade quite easily. How far you would get after your paddle is debatable. For a start, you'd only find yourself on a North Korean island still in the middle of the river. Secondly, we could clearly see a couple of KPA soldiers hiding in the bushes. When we started pointing cameras at them they ran away. A few years ago apparently an Italian journalist jumped over and was immediately captured by the soldiers. He was interrogated for a day or two and then released.

Then we popped next door to the eastern end of the Great Wall, reconstructed from the ground up a few years ago. We climbed up to the highest point, but there was so much low cloud and drizzle that there wasn't much of a view. The worst of the rain had stopped by now though.

Although we had been to plenty of souvenir stops in the DPRK, we didn't get a chance to buy the most sought-after North Korean souvenir of all: a Kim Il-sung badge. These little pin badges are worn by almost every adult in the country. They are not for sale anywhere in the DPRK. People are 'given them' by the government. Replacements are not available. Someone in group B had asked their guide what happens if someone loses their badge. The predictable reply was, "They don't lose it". Simon from Koryo Tours had told us that the souvenir shop in Dandong is the place to get authentic Kim badges. Sadly, we weren't too impressed with them. They were clearly extremely low quality Chinese fakes, and didn't even have the same design as the real things. We decided to hang on and wait to see if there were any better ones on offer elsewhere.

An example of propaganda designed to demoralise the US troops. [IMG_2821]
Korean War museum [Enlarge]

Next we went to the Korean War Museum, or rather the museum of the "War to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea", which is the name of the war in China. At the height of the cold war it suited China to prop up communist North Korea, so that it could act as a buffer between China and South Korea.

After lunch we managed to find a working ATM, replenished our empty wallet and repaid our footballing debt. We had tried and failed to get cash last night from two ATMs, and we were seriously worried that maybe some North Korean anti capitalist pig jamming technology at the DMZ had fried our ATM card (yes, that's how we think now, in fact one member of our group is actually considering replacing his mobile phone in case the Koreans bugged it while it was in their possession). But rather boringly the problem turned out to be a minor network outage with the bank concerned.

We took a short cruise on the river. The contrast between the opposing waterfronts was incredible: on one side, the buzzing high-rise city of Dandong; on the other, a semi-rural scene of people washing in the river and fishing from the mud banks. The Koreans are not ignorant of the difference, and lots of them regularly cross the river—the price for the border guards not noticing them is as little as a packet of good-quality cigarettes. They can then work, sell produce or scavenge for food before returning to their own side again after dark. We also walked out to the end of the broken bridge, where we could look over to the other bridge by which we had left North Korea on the train. It doubles as a road bridge, and while we were there a reasonable flow of traffic was passing in both directions (almost all of it trucks and vans). Meanwhile on the broken bridge a woman was selling more souvenirs, including Kim badges. They were the same tat as we had seen before and it became clear that we are not going to find any authentic badges for sale. We got a good deal on one of the fakes.

Sinuiju river bank [Enlarge]

By early evening, it was time to board our final train back to Beijing, which arrived at 08:30 this morning. We have completely lost track of time this week, and so we both forgot that today is Glenn's birthday! We took a taxi back to Koryo's office to pick up all the stuff that was prohibited in the DPRK, checked in to our hotel and began a long rest. The week in North Korea has probably been the most memorable week of our lives, but it has been no relaxing holiday! Now we have to learn to think for ourselves again. In a few days we are heading to South Korea. We can't wait to see the other side of the world's last divided nation.

Map of Day 147

Day 147
Dandong to Beijing

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.