A trip to Dandong: the Chinese tourist destination on the border with North Korea

Welcoming. All photos: James O'Malley.

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.


Forgive the fact that I’m standing in the photo - I didn’t expect to be writing this up!

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.

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.