Parallels and Divisions: A Visit to the Yalu River

Parallels and Divisions: A Visit to the Yalu River

(Flickr:Tom Hazen)

If there are any remaining suggestions that the People’s Republic of China is a land governed by Communist ideology, Dandong is ready to smash them to pieces. This city, lying on the Yalu river, is dotted with Western fast-food restaurants such as KFC and MacDonalds. Affluent locals shop at Tesco, a British supermarket with several stores around town.  All over downtown, there are stores selling the latest smartphone handsets. Walking around town, North Korea, lying across the water, feels a world away.

This is, of course, due in some part to the way the “hermit kingdom” is presented in the Western press. Ruled by a despotic regime and inhabited by an apparently brainwashed populace, the typical presentation of North Korea would have it that this is ends of the earth stuff. A glance across from the banks of the Yalu river show clearly enough that North Korea is not the “Paradise on Earth” its government may claim it to be, but on at least a superficial level, things could be worse. From the end of the Broken Bridge, the screams and shouts of children playing in the adjacent water park drift across the river. Next to the the Broken Bridge, the Bridge of Friendship rumbles every few minutes as gleaming trucks and SUVs rolling into North Korea while dusty Chinese lorries rattle back into Dandong. Several hundred meters further downstream, a collection of freshly constructed cargo ships sit on the muddy bank, ready to be launched. Towards the mouth of the river, a magnificent suspension bridge is under construction. One day – apparently within the next two years – it will link the “new areas” of Dandong and Sinuiju respectively. Back upstream, even the cornfields upstream from the Bridge of Friendship appear to be holding a bountiful harvest. Is this the same North Korea that we read about in the papers back home?

When sunset turns to dusk, North Korea recedes from view as if hidden by the bright lights and disco tunes emanating from the restaurants lining the Dandong waterfront. Just as Mao Zedong, well-fed and happily-pampered in Beijing, was presented with bumper harvests and healthy citizens on his tours of the countryside during the disastrous and famine-stricken Great Leap Forward, it is not beyond imagination that the relative glitz, glam and prosperity of this little strip of North Korea is just an act of visual engineering.

If that is the case, then the people of Dandong make no complaint. Travel agencies are a dime a dozen here, and upon emerging from the railway station, passengers are surrounded with representatives hawking jaunts across the border. A one-day tour will set a Chinese tourist back around 700 RMB, while non-Chinese will have to fork out at least 300 euros for the minimum, three-day option. Walking along the riverbank, speedboats whiz right up alongside the far shore while larger vessels, constrained by their draught, must settle for a slightly more distant view of the mysterious country across the river. The tip of the Broken Bridge is equipped with telescopes, and for a few RMB, tourists can scour the North Korean shore for a soldier looking back at them. Back on the Dandong bank, restaurants lure in the clients with token North Korean waitresses. Dandong’s boom is down to far more than making North Korea into a curio, but people here, with a natural entrepreneurial spirit, know a business opportunity when they see it.

Just under an hour northeast from Dandong lies a branch of the Great Wall straddling what is known as “Tiger Mountain”. Astride the peak of Tiger Mountain is a former guard tower commanding an impressive view of the surrounding area as far as the eye can see. From this vantage point, it is a little more difficult to provide the polish that is applied across from Dandong. Staring through a telescope outside the guard tower, if voyeuristic, is revealing. A railway wagon sits idly on the tracks outside a similarly lifeless factory  while farmers nearby slowly pile hay onto a ox-drawn cart.  Relinquishing the telescope to the next voyeur-cum-analyst, the wall descends steeply before a footpath diverges to the left, towards the “One Step Across”. Here, the river separating China and North Korea narrows to five or maybe ten meters across, but the cornfields, here as before seemingly healthy, obscure the view rather completely. Where the path meets its end, Chinese soldiers chat idly with local stallholders, while cartooned signs remind everyone to be “good border people.” But, like in Dandong proper, people know a business opportunity when they see one. They wait, offering boat rides along a stretch of the river – itself shared by Chinese and North Korean vessels – which runs between a North Korean island and the mainland.

After setting of at a blistering pace, the boat soon throttles down and drifts up to the shore of the North Korean mainland, where the skipper asks his passengers to give anything they can spare to local children. Scrambling down a cliff face, the children’s faces are gaunt and their clothes faded. Whatever comes their way, they dive for it – biscuits, bottles of water or even boxes of cigarettes. Adults, some of them in military uniform, wait at the head of the cliff. Further along the river, a small naval harbor is empty. A soldier, keeping guard  on the adjacent pebble beach, is misery personified. Skinny, dressed in threadbare fatigues and porting an ancient assault rifle, his eyes appear to water when he finds out that all the cigarettes went to the children earlier on the route. As the boat turns back towards the small port it came from, it passes by a wooden oared ferry, transporting a soldier, his bicycle and a couple of farmers from the mainland to the island which separates Chinese territory from the Yalu River. The farmers ogle at the young South Korean women in another speedboat already on the scene. The skipper briefly brings his boat alongside the ferry and talks with the soldier, who asks if the skipper has any glasses for him. The skipper replies in the negative, but promises to bring some next time. With that, the boat accelerates once more, winding and weaving its way back to port. Soon, the hum of city life in Dandong is back. North Korea seems forty minutes and a world away.

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