13th Apr 2012, Dandong, China
From the window of my 17th floor hotel room, I could see the giant bronze statue of Mao in the square below, his right hand raised to the sky. I was in Dandong, having reached there on the K27 train, and had just checked in. This was a luxury, compared to the digs that I have been staying in for the past few weeks. It also cost four times as much, so it was an indulgence. The telly, and the Internet later, confirmed that the DRPK had launched their surveillance satellite rocket this morning, much to consternation of the rest of the world who were convinced that the launch was just a veil for a missile capability test. The launch was part of the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Eternal President Kim Il Sung. Its epic failure and subsequent disintegration into pieces in the sea was also a cause of embarrassment for the hermit kingdom. What I thought of it? ‘Hey wait for me lah! Don’t start the celebrations without me!’
In the meantime, I have one day to while away here in Dandong. Early in the morning, I met up with the rest of the tour group, and passed my passport to our contact and guide in Dandong. He will sort out our North Korean visa. Disappointingly, there was to be no North Korean stamp on my passport. I ended up only with a Chinese exit and re-entry stamp. The visa itself was a separate document with our photos and personal information that was retained by the border customs.
There were a few interesting sights listed in my guidebook. Most of them took advantage of the proximity to DPRK à the broken bridge across the Yalu River leading linking North Korea and China, boat tours along the Yalu. The reclusive country was a mystery to many, and those who cannot go across the border will have to contend with a taste of North Korea from this bank of the Yalu. I had no desire to neither visit broken bridges nor take boat rides. Instead, the museum junkie in me led me to the Museum to Commemorate US Aggression, a fascinating take on the Korean War, in which the North Koreans faced off against the US led UN forces in 1950-1953. China’s role in the war? They supplied ‘volunteers’ who supported the North Korean military and probably helped turn the tide against the Americans, forcing the eventual stalemate that led to an armistice that still holds today.
The museum had photographs of Chinese heroes from the war, from the airforce to jungle guerrillas. it also had paraphernalia from the war; various cannons and firearms are exhibited. A spiral walkway led to a showcase at the top where a 360 degree domed display of a scene from a battle, complete with sound effects and modelled rocks and trees which allowed visitors to ‘experience’ the war. Some enterprising Chinese even had wartime uniforms for you to wear and pose for a picture.
Next up I headed for the Tiger Mountain Great Wall. Contrary to what everyone says, the Shanhaiguan Great Wall isn’t the easternmost section of the great wall. This chunk of the great wall, also built in the Ming Dynasty, located just outside of Dandong takes that accolade. The Tiger Mountain Great Wall, or Hushan Changcheng, gets it name from the two humps over the hill where strategic tower outposts are located, resembling the ears of a tiger.
The trip there was interesting, to say the least. I made my way from the long distance bus station, not really knowing when the stop to get off was. Also, it was 4pm when I set off from Dandong, because I lingered too long at the museum, I would like to tell you, but in truth it is because I lazed at the hotel all morning, under the pretext of checking mail. I made a mental note to stop sleeping in and spend more time outside. I overhead one guy asking the shifu when the Great Wall stop was, and I decided to tail him.
The guy ended up as the only other person headed for the wall. I learned he was from Sichuan, and was here on a business trip. Or something. The thing was that he spoke no English, but despite that was very talkative throughout the entire time we climbed up to the ramparts and trekked back down. He asked many questions and even showed the Merlion and KL Twin Towers photos from his camera from the time he was in Singapore and Malaysia last year. I think he was headed for “Chaoxian (North Korea)” but I cannot be sure. The conversations were largely him going on for 5 minutes while I muttered some random words to acknowledge, or just repeated what he said, a summary, to which he would reply “Dui, (that’s right!)” so he probably thought I knew more than I did. Actually by now, I had picked up enough to get by, and had even started getting the intonations right and recognising some of the common Chinese characters (ren comes to mind). To his credit, he didn’t dumb down the language for me despite knowing I was useless.
The bus back to Dandong was at 6.30pm, so we had around one and a half hours at the wall. This late in the afternoon, there was no one else at the wall. We were the only two, a stark contrast to scenes along the other sections of the wall near Beijing such as the Badaling and Jinshanling Great Wall, where there are throngs of people. I have a collection of these type of photographs, of places where there are normally crowds, but at the moment when I took the photo, either because it was too early or too near closing time, the tour groups were nowhere to be found.
From the topmost point of the wall, which was also one of the tiger’s ears, I could get a full view of the Yalu river just below and beyond that see North Korea. Oddly enough, this section of the wall sits at the Korean border, so I wonder what exactly the wall was protecting. The Jurchen of the north-east were certainly there, as well as the Mongol hordes, but on the other side of the wall was Korea , which existed as an entity of its own back then, and not a part of China. So was this section of the great wall an extension meant to protect their Korean neighbours? More likely it was that the Korean border was further south than where it is today.
Over at the North Korean side was farmland, though it was early spring, and the ground was still bare. We made our way down the wall, which led to a path that ran parallel to the river. The path was a trail, climbing over rocks and under cliffs, and at times running close to the North Korean fence that ran the perimeter. At one point, appropriately called Yibukua, or ‘one step across’, you could almost leap across a narrow point of the river into North Korea. Probably not advisable since a rifle-toting DPRK soldier might just appear. From the North Korean side, I could hear loudspeakers coming from somewhere, continuous but faint, though what exactly was being announced I could only wonder.
It was late when I got back to Dandong, and the drastic drop in temperature at night meant that my brief excursion out to dinner, and then a stroll along the riverside promenade to see the bridge linking both countries, did not last long. I retired, eagerly expecting what tomorrow would bring.