Margaret: 朝鲜 – Cháoxiǎn – North Korea

October 13, 2011

On Friday, September 30, I left Beijing with one backpack, a train ticket to the city of Shenyang, two people I had just met a mere week before, and virtually no plans schemed, reservations made, or even a return ticket purchased.  However, we did have one clear goal in mind: to get as close to North Korea, currently one of the world’s most “closed” countries, as possible.  Nine days later, I returned to Beijing renewed with about 500 photos, two new very good friends, a few new contacts in China and from around the world, and a bizarre collection of incredible experiences I will never forget.  And ten toes that stood in North Korea for about one second. 

Extremely brief history of North Korea: The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea declared independence in 1948, following the division of the Korean peninsula in 1945 during USSR and American occupation.  The Korean War between South Korea, supported by the United Nations (aka America), and North Korea, supported by the USSR and the People’s Republic of China, began in 1950.  Although an armistice was signed in 1953, the two countries are still officially at war.  North Korea is a single-party state, with a government developed by the country’s dead yet “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung, or the “Great Leader.”  North Korea is a totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship with a cult of personality revolving around the Kim family with one of the lowest human rights rankings in the world.  Despite being only the 99th largest county in the world with only 0.35% of the world’s population, North Korea holds the title of the world’s most militarized nation, with 9,495,000 active, reserve, and paramilitary personal.  Traveling there is extremely restricted, and those who have made it in describe their journey as a trip in a time machine, warping back fifty or sixty years to Communist China.  It’s a crazy place, and Ben, Ken, and I were eager to see what it was all about.

I met my travel companions in WuDaoKou, where we set off for the train station. GuoQingJie, officially October 1st, is a celebration of the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.  It marks one of China’s two “Golden Weeks,” the other being Spring Festival, during which most of China is on holiday for an entire week.  Most people return home or travel creating extreme competition for train tickets!  We pushed and shoved our way through the Beijing subway until finally we were seated on the Beijing-Tianjin Intercity Railway.  Tianjin, the 6th largest city in China with a population of around 13 million, is what I like to call Beijing’s “little brother,” a mere 73 miles away, and the first stop on our journey.  The bullet train, as it is known, had us there in 30 minutes, reaching a top speed of 205 miles per hour!  I had mistakenly believed the urban and suburban area spanned the entire 73 miles, and I was delighted to see agriculture on the way!  It seems corn follows me everywhere I go, but I was happy to see it this time as it was apparent I was finally out of the city for the first time since I arrived in China.

We excitedly exited the station in Tianjin and the backpacking commenced!  We asked around and found a youth hostel in a dodgy alleyway.  Upon walking in, a security guard immediately began yelling at us, “No no no no no NO NO NO NO!!!”  Initially I burst out laughing, but he didn’t stop which was weird.  As it turns out foreigners weren’t allowed there.  We brushed it off as racism, but we later discovered that hostels legally have to have some kind of registration to host foreigners.  We ran into this issue many times throughout the trip.

After three hours of searching with some Chinese students who were also traveling around that we met on the way, we finally settled on RuJia, or Home Inn, a Chinese chain of hotels similar to the AmericInn without the pool.  I was so happy to take my bag off as I could feel the muscles in my shoulders swelling and burning.  Because of the heavy travel period, Home Inn didn’t have rooms to accommodate the three of us, so we elected to rent a double room and push the two twin beds together!  Ahh the joys of backpacking!  I slept in the crack of the beds that night and the next in Shenyang.

Our train to Shenyang was the following day in the afternoon, allowing us some time to explore Tianjin.  The place sort of rubbed me the wrong way.  It was a massive city eerily devoid of people thanks to the holiday, and the ultra European architecture gave the city a fake identity.  Let’s just say I don’t think I’ll be returning to Tianjin anytime soon.  After a game of pool at an abandoned outdoor bar joined by a passerby local, a romp around the city, and a ride on the Eye of Tianjin, the world’s largest ferris wheel built on a bridge, it was time to leave, and I was pleased to get on our way.

The next train to Shenyang was still a high-speed line, but nowhere as fast as the bullet to Tianjin.  The journey to Shenyang took about five to six hours.  Shenyang has a population of 8.1 million, twenty times the size of Minneapolis.  The thing I love about Shenyang is that here is this enormous, over following city with a bazillion street corners, each with its own secrets and nooks and crannies to be explored, and yet nobody even knows about this place.  Even myself, having LIVED a mere five hours away for over a month now, hadn’t heard of it until we purchased the tickets.  There are no visible foreigners here, which made for a great amount of staring, but made me say to myself, “Finally I’m here, this is China.”  After two days, I didn’t want to leave as I felt as though I had merely scratched the surface.

Highlights of Shenyang included exploring futuristic buildings straight out of an anime, a night’s stay in what we were sure was a “love hotel” (it ended up being okay though), drinks with Ben’s Japanese friends from BeiDa whom we miraculously ran into on the street (my first experience sitting on the floor Japanese style while dining!), and stumbling upon what takes the cake for the most bizarre restaurant I’ve ever seen.  “Modern Toilet” was in a mall where we saw a movie one of the nights.  It is a bathroom-themed chain with locations in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China.  Showerheads adorn the walls, plungers hang from the ceiling, and the chairs are all non functioning toilets.   The food is served in urinal shaped dishes, and a cursory glance at the ice cream may leave you thinking you’ve ordered a turd.  Only in Asia…

One of Shenyang’s most well-known attractions is the “September 18th History Museum” honoring an incident in 1931 during which the Japanese used a small quantity of dynamite to destroy Japanese owned train lines near Shenyang.  The Japanese, accusing Chinese dissidents of the act, used this as an excuse to invade and occupy the area, killing many Chinese in the area and even conducting horrifying medical experiments on a much greater scale than those of Dr. Joseph Mengele of the Holocaust.  The Chinese hate the Japanese.  Most Chinese people will tell you they hate the Japanese.  Thus, the museum was chalk full of anti-Japanese propaganda and sentiment.  It was an interesting experience going to a museum in China.  There were some English captions, but I had to wonder how much of it was lost in blatantly poor translation and how much of it was exacerbated by poor translation.  Heavy, loaded words like “frenziedly plundered” and “plunging millions upon millions into misery and suffering” were everywhere.  The intense language and strong hatred of the Japanese made the museum and unique political and historical experience that made me think of my high school U.S. history teacher Mr. Cwodzinski.

The night before our train out of Shenyang, we were on our way home in a cab sitting in a red light when a car nearly smashed into my side!  It had spun around through the light Tokyo Drift style, and my life flashed before my eyes.  The cab driver muttered nonchalantly that the guy probably just fell asleep at the wheel.  Right when we got out of the cab, a man near us collapsed on the sidewalk, his head hanging off the curb onto the street.  I was really worried, but the boys told me not to go near.  We got the nearby news stand to call the authorities.  After these events, I couldn’t wait to get to the love hotel and lock the door.  It was the first time I really felt unsafe in China.

The train to Dandong was much older and slower than anything we had taken.  The seats were booths facing each other, giving us a perfect opportunity to chat with our fellow travelers.  We met some people from Inner Mongolia who could ride horses and shoot arrows, as well as a little girl who taught us Chinese tongue twisters.  Everything was in Chinese.  This is probably a good opportunity for me to talk about Ben.  Ben is a tall, lanky Aussie from Melbourne with an infectious, electric energy.  Despite only having studies Chinese for a year and a half (6 months less than me!), he is conversationally proficient and in one of the highest classes at BeiDa.  The wonderful thing about Ben is that, not only does he love chatting with locals of all ages, but he actually seeks out and sometimes creates opportunities to do so.  Every train ride, every cab ride, every meal, every destination, it was all Chinese all the time.  It was probably more Chinese than I’ve heard in Beijing put together, and it was especially good for me to listen to because he is a second-language learning and easy for me to understanding.  By the end of the week, I felt like I could understand anything.  That changed quickly when people spoke directly to me – it either went in one ear and out the other or sounded like Cantonese.  Someone even told me my Chinese was bad.  I wanted to cry.  However, when Chinese came spilling out of my mouth yesterday in class, I knew the trip had helped me more than anything I’d learned so far at BeiDa, and I owe it all to Ben.  He’s on a gap year before college in Australia, only 19, and yet so worldly.  Ben and Keen were both perfect travel companions – both are well traveled, up for anything, completely spontaneous (evident in our lack of plans), and eager to meet and chat with locals.  I couldn’t have asked for better strangers travel companions! 

Dandong is a tiny town of 2.4 million, directly across the Yalu River from the North Korea town of Sinŭiju.  The two towns are connected by the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, 100 meters downstream from an older bridge, bombed by Americans in the Korean War.  The intact portion of the older bridge is opened to tourists to walk on and get a closer look at North Korea.  At one point in Dandong, we met with a travel agent in attempts to get into North Korea.  It was very serious.  We sat down with here in a private office in the North Korea department of her agency.  She explained that all tourists can only enter if they buy into North Korean-run four-day tourist packages.  Because Ben is an Australian, he can enter by train over the bridge, touring with other Chinese.  Keen and I, both Americans, cannot take the train and must fly via Shenyang, having our own independent tour and guide because we’re from the U.S.  Oh, and it’s twice as much as Ben would have to pay, around $2000.  I was ready to do it immediately, but we simply didn’t have enough time.  Maybe next year…

It’s difficult to describe in words the scene along the river.  On the Chinese side, people are laughing and talking, striking silly poses in pictures, music is pumping from the speed boats taking tourists near the North Korean shore.  It’s literally like a party.  And yet, on the other side, there’s nothing.  It’s stark and barren.  There are no people save for the occasional military official or seaman.  This is a video of the shore from a speedboat that had seen one too many choppy waves.

When we passed within ten or so meters from a boat with North Korean seamen on it, the happy-go-lucky Ben decided to wave and yell a greeting to them.  One of the North Koreans spat a curse and waved his arm wildly.  The driver of our boat said it was because he thought Ben was American.  I felt immediately bad for having chartered the boat.  It felt like a safari.  I, a tourist with freedoms and wealth, was ogling up at these people, who are just people after, who have next to nothing.  There’s no way to describe the pit I felt in my stomach.

The next day we took a cab to the “Fake Wall of China” just outside Dandong.  I call it that because remains of the eastern end of the Great Wall were excavated near the site in 1989, and in 1992 China completed a “renovation” of the excavation open to tourists.  Basically they built a new section of the Great Wall in 1992.  You could definitely tell.  We paid to go in but never made it to the actual wall as we were distracted by an area called YiBuKua, or “One Leap Over.”  

The picture to the right depicts North Korea across a mere brook.  We spent quite a bit of time traversing the edge of the rock face on the China side of the brook before it began raining.  In this same area, we took another speedboat to the shore of North Korea, this time literally in North Korean waters.  The picture of the neighboring speedboat below is the last picture I snapped before being told to turn my camera off.

“One Leap Over” was complete with signage with restrictions for tourists.  One depicts a man throwing goods across the brook into North Korea, a major no-no.  The other says “Cherish a good life, abide by border regulations.  Sad…


In Dandong, we went to the “Museum to Commemorate Aiding Korea Against US Aggression.”  I was the only white American in the jam-packed museum.  Basically the museum focused on China’s entrance into the conflict between North Korea, aided by the USSR, and South Korea, aided by the United Nations, aka the U.S, during the Korean War.  China had really no reason to fight in this.  They had just established themselves as the People’s Republic and were still licking their wounds from fighting the KMT.  Mao believed that the United States intended to occupy all of Korea AND China, which most Chinese disagreed with.  Nevertheless, Chinese armies entered Korea.  The museum was filled with information on military victories and events, most of which didn’t even happen (biological warfare bacteria-baring crickets!?).  More loaded words and false information filled this place, making for an even crazier political experience.  Out back was a laser tag military base, where little kids learned how to destroy those bloody Americans, as well as an open field filled with old tanks, planes, and combat vehicles.  It was more or less a playground for children.  These experiences are why I came to China.

I didn’t want to leave Dandong.   A small town best visited on a summer night, its street corners becoming impromptu restaurants serving up juicy Korean BBQ, while old retires sit on the sidewalks playing serious games of checkers and others I don’t recognize.  By day, a subdued hustle and bustle brings the nooks and alleyways alive, and by night, the neon lights go out, metal doors pulled down over shop, and even the ladies dancing under the giant statue of Mao Zedong turn in for the night.  It was had an unkempt beauty, the kind I love and am always searching for in life, and I hope one day I get the chance to return.

An eighteen-hour train ride out of Dandong would have been terrible if not for Ben’s genius.  Seven hours into the trip, at around 9 pm, Ben got our seat tickets upgraded to hard sleepers!  We were so tired from traveling, and we all agreed the next day that that night was the most and best sleep we’d gotten thus far.  We arrived in the tiny town of Baihe, still larger than my hometown, at around 8 am, rearing and ready to get to the great mountain of ChangBaiShan.  ChangBaiShan holds the world record for the highest elevation volcanic lake.  The North Korean border splits the lake, about two-thirds of it in Chinese territory.  The mountain resides in a massive wildlife reserve that is mostly off limits to hikers, probably thanks to the Siberian tigers that live there!

An hour taxi ride later, we arrived the park.  It’s big bucks to go in, and after the fiasco of the next two days, I dropped about $100 USD there, which is a TON for China.  A bus took us up into the park, and all of a sudden, I looked out my window to a major surprise.  This is what we expected ChangBaiShan to look like:

This is what is actually looked like:

Never at any point did the three of us anticipate we’d encounter snow on our trip.  It was a raging blizzard, and the peak and the lake were closed to tourists!  It was the first snow of the season, sure enough.  The lady who owned the hostel we were staying at, who I began calling “mom,” nagged us all morning long to put more and more clothes on before we left.  I was wearing two pairs of pants, a tank, a shirt, a sweatshirt, a sweater, a jacket, and three pairs of socks, and I was still cold.  We didn’t last long and ended up soaking in the hot springs nearby.  It was a beautiful experience to be in this mysterious area of China, snow falling into the hot spring pool around me, the air frigid but the waters warm.  The hot springs were naked and thus divided by gender.  I was in the female one for about an hour by myself.

That night we had the local specialty: dog meat!  There were several restaurants in Baihe that served dog meat, dog tail, dog soup, dog eyes, etc.  I found out dogs are bred for this purpose, much like cows.  It was very tender but mostly tasteless.  It wasn’t bad but I never want to eat it again.  Even though it look liked this:

All I could think about while eating it was this:

The next morning at 6 am, mom was knocking on the door.  We were all still half asleep, yelling broken Chinese through a closed door.  She wouldn’t leave us alone even though we had decided not to go back to the park, figuring the weather would be too bad to go up to the peak.  Begrudgingly, we gave it a try because the skies were clear.  We showed up two hours later on the north side of the mountain.  Sure enough, the peak was closed.  We bummed around for a while with some Chinese guys we’d met on the way and two French guys (AGRONOMY MAJORS OMG OMG OMG HEART ATTACK!), before Ben decided to give a park ranger we had befriended the day before a call.  He said if we came to the other side of the mountain, he could take us up!  I was quite certain I’d lose my life on the SUV trip up the mountain thanks to some insane driving and icy, hairpin turns.  It was expensive to go up, but when I got to the top, I forgot all about money.  I never expected I’d ever get to heaven.

Heaven Lake is the most breathtaking sight I’ve ever seen and perhaps will ever see.  The skies were crystal clear, light reflecting off the electric blue waters of the lake far below.  The snowy peaks rose majestically above the clouds as the sun shined down eloquently on it all.  I couldn’t stop photographing it.

The beauty was of course not unscathed by politics.  The picture above with the chain depicts a poorly marked North Korean border.  We hopped over it and back quickly, resulting in one of the rangers hitting Ben.  He told us not to do it AGAIN.  Another ranger told Keen if we did it again, North Korean soldiers stationed in a building about a hundred meters away would shoot us with machine guns.  An act that we didn’t think was a big deal spurred activity at this building; a North Korean military vehicle pulled up and three soldiers got out.  Gotta love having white skin…

I’ll never forget ChangBaiShan.  Being there made me think back to the few weeks preceeding my arrival to China.  So many people would ask me, “Will you travel?” and “what will your classes be like?” and “who will your roommate be?” and many many more.  My answer, although difficult for me to say, was always the same: “I have no idea what’s going to happen.”  I had never seen or even heard of this place before.  Our trip was defined by spontaneity, and if an exact sequence of events hadn’t happened the way it did that day, I never would have made it to the peak.  This was something I never expected, yet it is the reason why I came here.

The trip home capped off my “China experience.”  We had hard seat tickets on a thirteen-hour train ride through the night to Shenyang.  I didn’t think it would be that bad, but the train was absolutely frigid.  My window was stuck open, and it took several hours in Shenyang before I could feel my feet again.  It was so cold that I couldn’t sleep, staying up all night long, using up an entire pen writing feverishly in my journal to keep my mind off the cold.  It was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life, which is saying something given my home state of Minnesota!  After five hours in Shenyang, we bordered a six-hour train to Beijing.  We had standing tickets.  Some people who had standing room tickets didn’t fit onto the train.  What does that mean?  I did not move my feet or legs for six hours.  I was smashed up against a wall, bodies on all sides of me.  We stood next to the train bathroom for six hours, every thirty or so seconds someone tripping over us to go take a dump in the squat toilet.  Smoking isn’t allowed in the car of the train, but it is outside the bathroom.  Throughout the entire six hours, I had a burning cigarette a foot from my face.  In effect I probably smoked a total of twenty cigarettes via secondhand smoke.  It was the worst thing I’ve ever done.  When I arrived in Beijing, I hadn’t slept in two days nor had a proper shower in four.

As awful as the train was, it was just an important and unforgettable of an experience to me as going to heaven.  Chatting with locals in Chinese about the intricacies of the dialect while cornfields tucked neatly between mountains roll by outside the train car window, roasting strips of raw meat on a coal fire Korean BBQ style on a street corner of Dandong, choking down rice wine baijiu at a dog meat restaurant in order to not offend my host in Baihe.  This is why I’m here.  This is why I came to China.


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