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Published: September 1st 2010
To many travellers, visiting North Korea is a surreal and yet irresistible dream. However, to most people, visiting North Korea remains a dream because of the extremely high cost. (North Korea cannot be visited independently. All visitors must join a pricey tour and be accompanied by 2 guides throughout the tour.) For me, I decided to make my dream a reality while keeping the cost affordable, and the best way to do this was to join a tour in Dandong, China.
Dandong is a bustling city on the China-North Korea border and serves as the gateway between the world and the hermit nation. Starting my trip in Dandong not only allowed me to save a substantial amount of money (a 4-day tour costs 2400CNY for Chinese nationals or 3900CNY for foreigners like me), but also allowed me to have a more gradual and gentle introduction to the hermit nation. At least I could "preview" the hermit nation from the other side of the river and get to know some history of the hermit nation from Dandong's fabulous museums/monuments, before I properly stepped my foot into the hermit nation. This prepared me mentally for the trip and minimized any culture shock
that I would encounter during the trip.
I suddenly had the inspiration to visit North Korea when I was visiting the Shanghai World Expo in May. While in the North Korean Pavillion, I was mesmerized by the scenes of the Arirang Mass Games and I was very impressed with variety and designs of North Korean stamps at the philatelic counter. Back home (in Singapore), I began my "research" into North Korea, and found out that the Arirang Mass Games would be organized from August to October this year. I compared the various tour agencies and tour packages available, and found out that tours from Dandong (conducted in Mandarin) were the cheapest. (Knowing Mandarin is definitely a great advantage for me...) I contacted one of the tour agencies in Dandong, and I was told that all I needed to do was to send my personal information and a scanned copy of my passport to the agency 10 days before the tour departure date, and the agency would settle everything for me. One day before the tour departure date I needed to go to the agency personally to pay the fees and submit my actual passport and 2 passport-photos. I planned
Shenyang highway toll-gate
The shared-taxi waited here for one more passenger before going to Dandong
to join the tour on 18 August, so I sent my details to the agency on 8 August and arrived at Dandong on 17 August.
After a 9 hour flight from Singapore to Shenyang (with a stop-over in Guangzhou) and a 3 hour ride from Shenyang to Dandong on a shared-taxi, I reached Dandong on the night of 16 August. In the early morning of 17 August, I made my way to the riverfront of Yalu River (the river separating China and North Korea), hoping to catch a glimpse of the hermit nation, but there was a heavy mist and I couldn't see anything from the riverside. After breakfast, I went straight to the travel agency to pay the fees and submit my passport (The agency needed my passport to secure the North Korean visa). With 2 big burdens (the tour fee and my passport) settled, I made my way to the first attraction of Dandong - Memorial to Resist America and Aid Korea. The memorial, a white column surrounded by revolutionary sculptures, is situated on a hill-top and commemorates China's contribution in the Korean War. On the same hill is the excellent Museum Commemorating American Aggression, whose galleries
explained the development of the Korean War (from the Chinese/North Korean perspective) and China's involvement in the war. The finale of the museum visit was a rotunda housing a huge 360º panoramic painting (claimed to be the largest in China) showing the battle of Qingchuan River. The museum visit turned out to be very useful for my trip to North Korea, as the knowledge I acquired from the museum allowed me to understand what my guides were talking about in North Korea, and also why the North Koreans respect China and detest America so much...
In the afternoon I took a bus from Dandong's long distance bus station to Tiger Mountain Great Wall, which is claimed to be the eastern-most end of the Great Wall of China. This portion was built during the Ming Dynasty, so it's newer than the rest of the Great Wall (the earliest portions were built during the Qin Dynasty). The wall follows the shape of a small but steep hill, going up one side and going down the other side. On the highest point, one can catch a glimpse of North Korea, which is just across the Yalu River. The other end of the
North Korea is on the other side of the river but is not visible because of the thick mist
wall houses a small museum explaining the history of the Great Wall. From the museum, it was an uneasy walk (through ankle-deep mud along the riverside and up a steep flight of stairs with knee-high steps on a rock cliff) to a very narrow channel between China and North Korea, known as Yibukua (or One-Step Crossing). At the time of visit, the channel didn't look narrow enough to be crossed in one step, as the channel was still accessible to boats. But I heard that during the dry season, the channel can be so shallow that one can cross it by foot! (Of course it's not advisable to cross the border this way...)
In the late afternoon, I took a bus back to central Dandong, where I walked to the riverfront of Yalu River. The mist had cleared, so I could catch a proper glimpse of the hermit nation. However, there was nothing much to see, other than a few factory chimneys, several buildings and a stationary ferris wheel. I went up the old Yalu Bridge (also known as the Broken Bridge), a former bridge linking China and North Korea bombed by the Americans during the Korean War. On
the bridge I could see more clearly the contrast between the two countries. The Chinese riverfront was blazing with neon lights and huge advertisment billboards, and the riverfront park was bustling with human activities. On the other hand, the Korean riverfront was quiet, and seemed to be devoid of human activities other than the occasional appearances of several school-children or several labourers.
After the sun had set, I made my way to Tesco, a large supermarket where I bought myself some food and drinks for dinner as well as for my trip into North Korea (It would be hard to predict whether I can get decent food and drinks in North Korea). After a light dinner I decided to sleep early, as I would be going to North Korea on the next day! (It's gonna be exciting!)
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