Dandong – A Glimpse Inside North Korea From China

Visiting Dandong was both one of the best experiences I have had since I moved to China.

Not only was I able to cross one of the long-term items from my bucket list, seeing the Great Wall of China, but I also stepped foot inside of the most isolated places in the world: North Korea.




While looking for options for a weekend away from Changchun I stumbled upon the city of Dandong. Having never heard of it, a quick research validated why I would end up choosing to go to Dandong.

+5 degrees on the weekend (Changchun was to be -15°C……fuck that!)
The Great Wall of China on the outskirts of the city.
North-Korea is less than 1 Kilometer away and can be seen with the naked eye.

I have been curious about North Korea ever since I moved to Changchun, as its proximity has left me wanting to go there for whatever sick reason. Having already visited Changbaishan and Yanji, both cities very close to the North Korean border (Yanji even has its own bunkers in case shit hits the fan…), Dandong was the next obvious choice.

The Great Wall in Dandong

Dandong & North Korea

To be completely honest, visiting Dandong is mainly about North Korea, so if you’re not curious about it, there may be little reason to go all the way up here to visit it.

Dandong is one of the main entry points into North Korea, with some of the very few tour operators in the city even offering guided visits into this otherwise-closed country. Dandong also serves as one of the points where many North Koreans choose to defect into China, due to its proximity.

The city of Dandong is home to about 3000 North Koreans who work legally in China, mainly as waitresses and hostesses. It is not hard to find Korean-themed restaurants and shops, especially by the Yalu river near the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge. Many of the people are wary of foreigners, and will not allow for pictures to be taken of them or their merchandise.

There are 3 places in Dandong where the views of North-Korea are the clearest: The Sino-Korean Friendship BridgeMoon Island, and from The Great Wall of China. Also, you can hire a boat to take you inside North Korean waters.

China & North Korea, only kept apart by the Yalu River

Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge

As we arrived the first noticeable sight was what the cheekily named Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge. This bridge connecting the cities of Dandong (China) to Sinuiju (North Korea) serves as the main point of entry and exit to and from North-Korea. It is also the entry and exit point for much of the trade between the two countries (much of it illegal).

A few steps away from the Friendship Bridge is the Broken Bridge. This half-bridge is what remains of a bridge which was bombed by the Americans during the Korean war in an effort to cut off supplies between the China and North Korea. Tourists are allowed to walk across this bridge all the way until the end (halfway through the Yalu River) and get a closer look at the North Korean border and its non-functional Ferris wheel. Sunsets are also quite spectacular if caught on the right conditions. The entrance to this bridge is 30¥.

The bridges are far from impressive, even at night when they are fully illuminated. The one noticeable thing is the darkness that reigns on “the other side” of the bridge. Total darkness with only but a few lights can be seen on the other side of the Yalu river.

A glimpse of the North Korean border, as seen from the Broken Bridge

Dandong

Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge




Moon Island

Although not necessarily a sight to behold, Moon Island offers one of the best views of North Korea and the factories sitting on the border of NK’s Sinuiju province. Luxury condos high-rise on the island, many of them illuminated, are a contrast to the darkness reigning on the other side of Yalu river.

At night, the sight becomes eerier with only a few lights being seen on the other side. Amongst the darkness, the noise of a few search boats can be heard coming from the river. Lights of vehicles can be seen every few odd minutes as well.

Alone in the dark, I could not help but wonder what thoughts may go inside North Koreans’ heads as they see the lights of a progressive city illuminated just a few kilometers away.

North Korean factories, as seen from Moon Island.

The Great Wall of China

Dandong is home to the most eastern-part of the Great Wall of China. Around 600 meters of the Great Wall of China were excavated and reconstructed in the 1980s. This one section of the Wall is one of the least visited due to its location, however this is also a bonus as it also means that it is less crowded.

The highest section of the wall offers one of the clearest views you will find of the inside of North Korea, and one can easily see the contrast between the two countries.

On the one side, China, with its many commerces and roads, and on the other side, pure emptiness, only filled with a few homes for the military and a glimpse of sentry towers and a few farmers working the land.

The entrance to the Great Wall is about 40 minutes away by car (about 50¥ one way). You may ask for the Hushan Great Wall as the area is commonly known.

A Boat Ride Inside North Korea

About a 10-minute car ride from the Husan Great Wall entrance is a port called Yueyuan Wharf, where boats can be hired to take you inside North Korea.

A ferry boat will departs about every one hour, or once the boat is full, for a price of about 60¥ for about 1 hour. Otherwise, many touts hang round the area offering the same tours by speedboat for about 70¥.

As we entered North Korean waters, we were advised to not take pictures of people or houses. Once in NK, there are many boats on the waters with vendors looking to sell anything from Korean Ginseng, to North Korean money and other things.

Along the shore we could see farmers, people washing clothes, and lots of military (thus the reason of my limited number of pictures). The amount of poverty is very visible, even though the number of people and houses we could see was limited.

As I said at the start, Dandong’s main attractions revolve around North Korea. If you’re curious about this isolated country, visiting Dandong is definitely worth a 2 or 3 day visit. It is a very affordable city with more-than-friendly locals looking to help foreigners, while they are constantly reminded of what it is to live under a dictatorship regime just on the other side of the Yalu river.

Dandong was certainly offered an experience I will not soon forget. From it’s views to coming face-to-face with North Korea as close as I did, I certainly found the trip worth it. What are your thoughts?



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