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.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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