The city of Dandong in northeastern China sits well off the beaten tourist trail, often forgotten or simply ignored by foreign and Chinese travelers alike. With its ties to industry and bleak communist-style architecture, it’s a locale that doesn’t readily inspire visits. Yet what draws the intrepid traveler to this corner of China isn’t the sights to be seen, but rather the one that cannot: the closed country of North Korea.
Dandong hugs the banks of the Yalu River, its bustling waterfront gazing defiantly across at its enigmatic communist neighbor. Before the 1950s, a bridge spanned the waterway, allowing goods and people from both nations to pass easily from bank to bank. During the Korean War, the bridge was bombed by American fighter planes, leaving a twisted hulk of metal as a grim reminder of the conflict.
Today, travelers can visit the bridge’s restored section, which starts on the Chinese side and stops abruptly mid-river. The only visible remnants of the North Korean half are some forlorn concrete support beams rising out of the depths. From the Chinese end, telescopes allow tantalizing glimpses of the far bank, with its abandoned, ghost-town atmosphere. At night, it’s worth returning for a stroll along the waterfront to witness the strange dichotomy between brightly lit China and the blacked-out North Korean communities across the way.
For an even closer encounter with the infamous hermit kingdom, head north out of town to Tiger Mountain, the easternmost section of China’s Great Wall. On clear days (which, admittedly, are few and far between), the ramparts of this impeccably restored section of the wall afford sweeping views of the Yalu River and the plains of North Korea beyond.
It’s well worth the effort to make the short but steep climb, if only for the chance to stand atop this newly minted world wonder without the usual crowds. Unlike the more celebrated sections of the wall outside Beijing, Tiger Mountain sees few visitors, and only the occasional tour bus chugs into the parking lot.
On the far side of the mountain, where the wall tapers off into the distance, a small path leads through brush-covered terrain to a pagoda-shaped lookout with bird’s-eye views of North Korean cornfields. Barbed wire strung along the river’s edge lends an air of hostility to the otherwise pastoral scene; wait long enough and you’ll most likely witness a group of soldiers patrolling the banks on the opposite side.
At the end of the path, in the shadow of the wall, the Yalu narrows to a stream and North Korea is a mere frog-hop away. This location, known as “One Step Across” for the minimal width between the two borders, is the closest most foreigners will ever come to setting foot on North Korean soil. The site is marked by a monument and often peopled by small groups of visiting Chinese tourists. Don’t be fooled by the seeming lack of security, though: officials on both sides of the border react quite harshly to any visitors who attempt to cross the water.
If, after all that, you’re still hungry for a slice of the DPRK experience, dine out at one of Dandong’s popular North Korean eateries. Sponsored by Pyongyang and serviced by North Koreans on strictly monitored working visas, these restaurants give travelers a chance to chow down on grilled beef and cheap beer while chatting with waitresses from across the river. Though the opinions expressed will more than likely toe the party line, it’s a unique opportunity to learn a little bit more about the most isolated nation in the world.
JAL and China Southern Airlines run daily flights to Dalian from Narita (three hours one-way). From Dalian, it is a four-hour bus ride to Dandong. Tiger Mountain Great Wall and One Step Across are accessible by either taxi (50-60 RMB, 30 minutes) or bus (5 RMB, 45-60 minutes). Exploring the remains of Dandong’s original bridge to North Korea will set you back 20 RMB. Wander along the waterfront south of the bridge for the best selection of North Korean restaurants, identifiable by the DPRK flags outside. If you’d like to sleep within sight of the Hermit Kingdom, the Yalu River Hotel (+86 415-212-5901) has good rooms with views of the waterfront. In the center of town, the Dandong Holiday Sunshine Hotel offers well-appointed rooms with bathrooms the size of a Great Wall guardhouse (+86 415-288-3333). English information is thin on the ground, so pick up a guidebook before you go: Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and Frommers all include sections on Dandong.