You hear a lot of people complain of having the neighbours from hell, but there are few who put up with more than the people of Dandong, China. The city lies in the shadow of North Korea, meaning its inhabitants live with the slightly too real threat of nuclear war constantly looming and the knowledge of that an incomparable scale of human rights abuses are being committed right across the border.
But there is one upside to living next to a basket case: it makes for a surprisingly popular tourist attraction. And a few weeks ago, while on holiday in China, I decided to pay the city a visit. Because is it really a holiday if you’re not going to visit a geopolitical oddity?
The city is home to 2.45 million people and sits just across the Yalu River from the North Korean city of Sinuiju. According to the internet, the city is also inexplicably twinned with Doncaster. Annoyingly for storytelling purposes, it is incredibly easy to travel to; despite being sat on the border of an international pariah, you can catch one of China’s excellent bullet trains there in just 90 minutes from Shenyang, a metropolis of 8 million people that you’ve probably never heard of, or you can simply take the overnight train from Beijing.
I didn’t entirely know what to expect from Dandong, and to be honest, I was pretty nervous. I’d spent the prior two weeks in Beijing and Shanghai doing all the usual tourist things like visiting the Forbidden City and Thames Town, so I felt pretty acclimatised to China by this point. But surely Dandong would up the weirdness-ante a few extra echelons? Would it be swarming with soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, on alert in case in the troublesome regime to the south collapses and sends millions of refugees over the border? Would I immediately be accosted by the Chinese secret police, wanting to know what I – a westerner and a journalist to boot – was doing sniffing around this intrinsically sensitive place?
As it turns out, the most striking thing about Dandong was the way in which it was relentlessly… normal. Far from sensing the geopolitical precipice I was on, it felt like every other Chinese city I’d visited: complete with luxury shopping malls and KFC outlets identical to the ones found everywhere else in the world. And as far as I could tell from my brief visit, life functions pretty much the same in China as it does anywhere else.
The river – and thus the border – is only a short walk from Dandong’s enormous station. As you approach its banks, you can immediately see the famous Sino-Korean friendship bridge connecting the two countries, as well as a rather depressing tableau of concrete buildings on the other side. The view is a vivid reminder of the differing fortunes of the two countries, which remain nominal allies:
On the Chinese side are tall blocks of flats, cars and other signs of modernity. And on the other side lies a half-complete concrete block, a factory belching out plumes of black smoke and a small resort-style area, containing what my partner accurately described as the world’s saddest-looking Ferris wheel.
Parallel to the river on the Chinese side is a rather pleasant promenade full of tourists taking photos and street merchants selling souvenirs. Think Great Yarmouth, but slightly nicer. It’s almost enough to make you forget where you’re standing – until you see that some of the available gifts include surprisingly realistic toy guns and grenades, as well as North Korean banknotes and snacks.
You could even pay to get your photo taken in traditional North Korean clothing, although I decided doing so would have been a nightmare in terms of tone (is it poor etiquette to smile while sort of celebrating an evil regime?), let alone any worries about “cultural appropriation”.
Slightly to the west of the Friendship Bridge are the remains of the original Yalu River Bridge. The Chinese half remains, but the Korean side was blown up by the Americans in the Korean War. As a result, what’s left has become a significant tourist attraction. After paying an entrance fee, you can actually go up and walk along the bridge, passing a big statue of what I’m guessing is Mao leading his troops into battle.
This is the closest you can get to North Korea without actually visiting North Korea. It’s marked with a stone saying… something… about the border, and you can expect your phone to switch to Pyongyang time and start tagging photos as though you were over the border.
And frankly, as someone who is probably an intermediate-level tourist it was pretty damn surreal simply being there. I was just meters from a country that is so vilified, so closed off, so brutal. From my comfortable western perspective, it felt like being at the end of the Earth, and it was sobering to think that the figures I could see in the distance on the other side are permanently trapped in their challenging conditions, while at the same time I was only a short walk away from the best that capitalism has to offer. Simply because of the side of the river that we happened to be on.
It was at this point that my watch buzzed with a push alert that I had setup because I hate myself. President Trump had just tweeted. But mercifully this time it wasn’t the one that finally caused the bombs to start flying in North Korea.
James O’Malley is a freelance journalist and tweets as @Psythor.